It’s The Music, Stupid!
By Kirsty OUP-UK
This week I’m delighted to be able to bring you another post from Colin Larkin, editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Popular Music. In his last post for the OUP blog, Colin told us what he thought of Christmas records. This time around he explains why he really believes video killed the radio star. Do you agree with him? Let us know in the comments box below!
Ah the 60s. Catch a last lingering whiff of patchouli while the musical decade which changed the world slowly fades and the protagonists, movers and shakers retire or die.
Over the past forty years there have been more pivotal changes in music, and especially how we listen to music, than the previous 100 or so years. Our two ears have been educated and stretched beyond belief, and since the introduction of MTV in the 80s, our eyes have worked even harder.
My passion for music started just before rock ‘n’ roll in the days when the only way to hear broadcasted music was on the BBC Light Programme. I was lucky enough to have spent a lot of my first few years living on a travelling fair, where my parents did casual work at weekends and holidays to keep us fed. The music I listened to was not played on the BBC, it was played on distorted Tannoy speakers on a Waltzer or the Dodgems. It was dirty, loud, rude, and I loved it. I was also not aware of Radio Luxembourg or AFN until a few years later, and so I had this bizarre apprenticeship of what I listened to.
I had a choice; do I choose terrible white cornball pop on the BBC, sprinkled with the British Light Music of Eric Coates or the raucous, energetic, sexual noise that I listened to when wandering the fairground at the age of 5 or 6. Difficult dichotomy (not), but I preferred the latter. It was Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and Little Richard that set my pulse racing through my ears: I probably thought the rasping Ruth Brown was a man anyway. I had no idea that they were all black until a few years later. Not surprisingly, the BBC gave the brilliant and outrageous Little Richard a wide berth in the 50s. He was their worst nightmare, he was the devil, he was a musical terrorist; not only was he black, he was homosexual, and he wore make-up! Had there been an MTV generation then, he would have certainly been lynched. Mercifully, the most fantastic growth of music, and all its sub-genres happened before MTV. I already loved Ray Charles and Little Richard long before I saw their faces, but it was my ‘ears’ that worked overtime.
The transition from Vinyl to Cassette to CD between 1954 and 1984 was still primarily an aural delight, and one that I still believe is the only way to listen to recorded music (nothing of course will ever beat a live gig). By the time I was the music-loving teenager in 1967, I was probably living in the most colourful year of all-time. The fashion, the art and the music were highly charged by the culture of the day, especially in 1967. The only way to experience this ‘colour’ was to see the music live; yet most of the market listened to it on a radio or a simple Dansette record player with the argument that,- it did not spoil the experience. It was enough to use the imagination of the ears without an accompanying psychedelic music video to add the fantastic colour. Most archive film from 1967 is not only of poor quality but it is incredibly dull, and, if marketed to today’s MTV/YouTube teenagers, it would not stand a chance.
The music video arrived and started to make us lazy. Extraordinary videos came along in the shape of the pioneering monochrome ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, A-Ha’s graphic pencilling on ‘Take On Me’, Godley And Crème’s early face-morphing on ‘Cry’. They all won awards, but was it the music or the video that succeeded? Or, more to the point, was it the video that enhanced the song and triggered visual adrenalin to stimulate the ears? The only visual excitement for a home listener in the 60s and 70s was the album sleeve. This 12 inch art gallery gave us some of the defining images of the rock and pop age. The CD sleeve killed it; lousy size of image and impossible-to-read 4 point type.
Before MTV kidnapped our eyes, a British 1960s viewer had nothing; black and white forgettable Juke Box Jury, out of focus Dusty Springfield on Ready Steady Go or the Beatles miming on Top Of The Pops. A 70s UK home viewer had little to get excited about either; unless you enjoyed the phoney glamour of Showaddywaddy or Mud while waiting patiently for a rare glimpse of Bowie or Marc Bolan. Now, we are so far from the listening experience of music that it all seems such a waste of 40 years. YouTube’d our brains until they are numb with Johnny Anybody’s latest video to accompany his latest single which will not be available in the shops, but you can download it and, well, errrr…. listen to it. You can’t file it on your shelf, you can’t read it, you have nothing in fact but intangible unsatisfying sound.
The consumer of music before MTV hit our eyes had radio, a record player and a monochrome music paper (NME or Melody Maker), two ears and two eyes. The ears gave the consumer everything they wanted from the music; sound, imagination, and lyrics. The eyes gave only ‘information’ in the form of text and possibly a second rate black and white photograph.The consumer of the post MTV generation has all the above, plus colour magazines, video images (to either stimulate imagination or ruin it). The same two ears are listening to the music, but the eyes are further distracted or excited, and thus significantly influenced.
The argument for the post MTV generation is that video has enhanced the greatest cerebral experience (music) in such a way that it becomes ‘even better’, (and naturally bigger and more successful). The video image excites much more quickly and a good music video maker will make sure that the song hook (middle eight) is the punch of the visual experience in the same way that the songwriter did when writing the song as a commercial exercise. The music video has become almost as important as the song in delivering a commercial package, yet often negates the actual quality of the musicians.
The music industry, since it came of age in let’s say 1964, has reinvented the medium and fed it to us punters over and over again. The tree of Rock and Pop that sprouted Soul, Jazz, Country, Reggae, Blues and Folk has sub divided to sell us more; heavy metal, indie, dance, hip-hop and so many sub sub sub genres that I and any musicologist must despair. What is EmoMetal, Post-Rock, Reggaeton, Alternative Rap, Satanic Metal, Cowpunk or Rapcore? Is it so different from the wonderful Little Richard screaming ‘awopbopaloobopalopbamboom’ over 40 years ago? Presenting music to us punters now is the greatest con of all-time and yet it also demonstrates the genius of the marketeers in being able to do so. There are still only 12 notes in an octave, and even with electronic trickery, the human being still has the same vocal chords.
For the first time since the music boom of the early 60s the music industry is in total crisis and this multi-billion dollar market is now in decline. They have probably committed financial suicide by feeding the consumer with too much music video, too many movie soundtracks, an OD of YouTube, sickening availability of Limewire and so on. We will download ourselves out of our heads and end up with nothing tangible or pleasurable. We have lost our way in having the time to just sit and listen and do nothing else. The greed of the record business may ultimately be their absolute downfall. Songwriters will be cheated out of royalties and they will have to go back to earning a living by just performing live. Which is where it all started at the beginning of the last century.
I put forward the motion that not only did video kill the radio star it killed the entire music industry. It’s the music, stupid.