You’ve almost certainly heard the Bob Seger song “Old Time Rock and Roll.” It’s the song Tom Cruise listens to in that scene of Risky Business, and was parodied in the advertising for Guitar Hero; the one where Heidi Klum slides along the floor in her underwear playing a plastic guitar, despite the fact the music in the opening of “Old Time Rock And Roll” is clearly a piano. The song and the scene have become inextricably linked through the years and it’s been seen in everything from The Simpsons to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The reason I mention it is because it’s become apparent to me that the song is more relevant now than it’s ever been. Seger sings that old time rock and roll is, “the kind of music that just soothes the soul, I reminisce about the days of old,” while going on to note that, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul, as the old time rock and roll.” Apart from his cobbler like obsession with ‘souls’ the sentiment is not just as true as ever, but somehow more true. These days expressing a dislike for modern music has become irritatingly kitsch, while we’re all supposed to pretend to like Journey despite not even being able to name which album the only Journey song we can name, “Don’t Stop Believing” is on.
But this is what’s strange about “Old Time Rock and Roll;” it was written in 1978 and criticises the then-modern music of the time, the very music we now claim to like, and does this in a style that you could hardly describe as either “rock” or “roll.” In fact the song is pretty much typical of Seger’s middle-of-the-road stuff that was popular throughout the late-‘70s with REO Speedwagon all the way to the early-‘90s of Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open. It’s like if Morrisey turned to the Archbishop Rowan Williams and said, “Okay, enough with the preaching already.”
The only reason the song works at all is because of its lyrical legitimacy – an excuse that somehow lead to “Born In The USA” becoming one of the most popular songs of all time despite being absolute shite. It seems more than a little ironic then, that Seger’s entire career was built around mediocre music and great lyrics, while the music he pines for is, to make a generalisation, the complete opposite; old blues songs barely constitute a thought, let alone ‘art.’ “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “What’s Goin’ On” and “Goodmorning Little Schoolgirl” are little more than mindless repetitions of declarative statements.
So by this reckoning, music of this generation should be fantastic – the lyrics are shocking and no-one listens to them. Remember Razorlight? Yeah, they are still going. Frontman Johnny Burrell penned the 2006 hit “Somewhere Else” with possibly the most multi-faceted, deep and philosophical lyrics ever sung: “I met a girl/She asked me my name/I told her what it was.”
However these lyrics pale in comparison the latest tripe that Coldplay are claiming passes for music. How Chris Martin, a grown man with a beard and everything can speak the words, “Every teardrop is a waterfall” and not burst into laughter is beyond me. And how bad can things be; he’s married to Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s not exactly Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain.
That’s not to suggest I’m looking at lyrics through rose-tinted spectacles; my favourite song lyric of all-time comes from Thin Lizzy’s 1976 hit “Jailbreak” – “Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in the town.” I’ll give you a clue, Lynott, try checking the prison.
Truthfully speaking, how good a song’s lyrics are really isn’t a factor in how popular a song will be – The Beatles early songs were little more than glorified nursery rhymes, but they hit upon a zeitgeist. (Yes, I actually used the word ‘zeitgeist’). It’s no coincidence that there are a load of glasses-wearing bespectacled keyboardists at a time when there are already countless other bands just like that. It’s not just (bad) luck, they’re cottoning on to some big wheel of music-fashion that I believe Cow-El, the Kryptonian God of musical trends controls. For every Bruce Springsteen and Beatles you have half-a-dozen Johnny Mellencamp’s and Oasis’s out there that, as good as they are, once the zeitgeist changes disappear back into obscurity. What makes good music is something that transcends this, and we just happen to be living during a time where there are few artists who can do that; Madonna and U2 may well be the only two examples.
One band that certainly failed to fall into this category are The Eagles. While it’s hard not to admit that “Hotel California” isn’t a good song there’s something that, up until recently, was intangibly and elusively rotten about it to me. It wasn’t simply that it had suffered from overplay on the radio (remember those things?) as is the case for “Stairway To Heaven” and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, but it was something at a much more base level: it’s a cliché. From its lyrics to it’s sound the whole thing reeks of “can we have some money now, please?”
And this isn’t just another mindless, unproven accusation – the band had the balls to all-but admit to not just writing the song to make money, but becoming musicians in the first place for the sole purpose of money. Excuse me, but the reason you become a musician isn’t for money. It’s sex. The band rose to fame when they were spotted by Linda Ronstadt (Best known as the voice of the Plow King; “Mr. Plow is a loser/And I think he is a boozer/ So you better make that call to the Plow King!”) and the rest is, as they say, history. By the time the band broke up in the early ‘80s they’d amassed five #1 singles and their 1976 Best Of album went x29 Platinum. That makes it the highest selling album of all-time. It sold more copies than Thriller. More than Blaze Of Glory.
I f*****g hate The Eagles, man.
The furthest away you could possibly get from The Eagles is, arguably, Bob Dylan; an artist who, if he was in it for the money has been a huge failure, and much like Seger thrived on strong lyrics while his songs are entirely unsuitable for radio airplay. It will come as no surprise then to find that his 1969 double-album, Self Portrait was reviewed in Rolling Stone with the statement: “What is this sh*t?” According to Dylan, the entire album was a ploy to record deliberately poor music in an attempt to stop all those damn hippies crooning over him. Dylan famously tries to remain out of the spotlight, despite being labelled as a “prophet” by his fans – fans that he despises. His next move was another logical choice; pouring whisky on his head. He is quoted as saying, “If the common perception of me out there in the public eye was that either I was a drunk or a sicko or a Zionist or a Buddhist or a Catholic or a Mormon, all of this was better than ‘Archbishop of Anarchy.’
It didn’t work. Self Portrait reached #4 in the US album charts and #1 in the UK, and his first album following the above quote, Modern Times, was Dylan’s first US #1 since 1976. It just goes to show that people are morons: once they’ve made their minds up about an artist it will stick. Even if the entire shaping of music has changed before your eyes.
The way we consume music now is very different to how it was even five or ten years ago; the concept of album-oriented music is pretty much extinct, which means most songs are being written as singles (even if they are never released) and have the sole aim of being able to stick in people’s heads.
The biggest loser in the way music has changed is the saxophone. Saxophones, like violins (“Cherry Bomb,” “The Hurricane,” etc.) have no place in singles, as they aren’t about tune or beat, they are about chaos. Unlike other blues instruments the saxophone can’t be played with other instruments, it plays over instruments; which just doesn’t suit the single format. Take classic saxophone songs like “Baker Street,” “Jungleland,” “Jazzman;” what do they have in common? They’re the ones you with saxophones in them. You wouldn’t remember any other song by one instrument that’s in it. Unless it’s a bagpipe and AC/DC.
When I listen to the radio these days I find myself having to look up, “who sung this song?” because there is nothing distinguishing about it at all; you could tell a Black Sabbath song or a Steely Dan song just by its sound which seems obvious for music, but it’s something we appear to have lost through a forest of auto-tuning and electronics. When every band is the flawless, radio-friendly Eagles, suddenly you become trapped in a world where up is down and down is up; there are mirrors on the ceiling and pink-pop on ice on the radio. Meanwhile I was talking to someone not so long ago, and she recounted overhearing a conversation in which someone laughed in derision at someone’s ring tone and said, “you still listen to that? That’s so 2010!”
It makes you wonder if we’re listening to songs because they’re good, or just because they’re there.