Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Sunday, 7 June 2015

Rock is the new jazz ~or~ on the now-perceptible retreat and fossilisation of guitar music

Given its status nowadays as a decidedly niche musical preference (albeit with a large, passionate and dedicated following), it’s worth remembering that for decades it was the unrivalled popular music of choice. At the heart of western culture, it was the soundtrack to everything from dance floors to household chores, Sunday drives to happening dives, concert hall gigs to student digs, newsreel footage to dinner parties. No, that last one didn’t rhyme.

But as the century wore on, previously fringe and underground musical styles began to change and coalesce into something new, something burgeoning and breaking through, that all the kids were listening to... and one day it was just obvious: The tried and tested old stuff just wasn't the mainstream any more.

But enough about the decline of rock music.

Ha, ha, ha! Yes reader, and ha. You can see what I’ve done there, I’ve pretended I might be talking about jazz, but actually – imagine this! – I was talking about guitar rock! See?

Ok, everyone saw that coming (or were probably just confused) but my point stands – I actually, genuinely, think guitar rock is finally over as THE mainstream form of popular music. What slowly happened to jazz when rock came along - well, now it’s happening to rock.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

I’m aware it’s an old eye-roller of a joke – people have been saying this kind of thing ever since that bloke from Decca Records didn’t sign the Beatles because “guitar groups are on the way out”. The end-is-nigh for guitar music has been announced fairly regularly throughout my entire life – notably with the breakthrough of synth-heavy music in the early 80s, and then Acid House in the early 90s. But in the past couple of years, the “death of guitars” call is less the combative, iconoclastic battle cry of those who want to wash away the old, and more the sad, keening air of those who have begun to notice the lack of it and miss it. Which I think means it might actually be happening.

I stopped having my finger on the pulse somewhere around the early 2000s when the height of exclusive hip-dom was still the glitchy IDM (intelligent dance music) of WARP records, and whatever the hell Radiohead were doing post-Ok Computer. But though my interest in modern guitar bands may have waned, I was dimly aware there were various children ten years younger than myself with wild hair, yelping into microphones, banging on drums and – yes – hammering the guitar strings. Good for them, the wanky little urchins, I’d think.

Their disappearance has been so slow it has been almost imperceptible. I assumed the reason I nowadays only ever heard Cowell-or-Brit-stage-school-style pop produce, or banging beats, or in-tha-club hip hop, or electro r'n'b, or twee hipster folk, or faux-50s dinner-party crooning, was that I simply don’t look around any more; so of course I only ever come into contact with the most mainstream of mainstream. Which is almost certainly true – but, importantly, guitar rock used to be part of that. Now I’m not sure it is - unless it's 40 years old, in which case it's ever more everywhere, as Black Sabbath plays in your local tea room and The Sex Pistols in your supermarket.

Teenage Kicks

I recently happened to take a look at the schedules of a popular generic young persons’ radio station and it was a bit like taking the car in for a service assuming nothing much was up - and finding all kinds of shocking developments under the bonnet. The range of music played was as expected, but the focus wildly changed. All the little genre-specific dance, hip hop and urban shows, those wannabe-cool nods to credibility these stations like to throw in - once lodged in late night slots on a Thursday or summat – they now make up the bulk of the schedule. Meanwhile general guitar-based pop and rock music (and not just the niche stuff) – well that’s now lodged in late night slots on a Thursday or summat.

Mentioning this to a teacher friend of mine, he confirmed that da teenage kidz he teaches have slowly stopped dreaming of buying guitars and forming bands as the years have gone by. In his current year only one child does this, but rather than being seen as a too-cool-for-school rebel, he is seen as a bit odd and geeky for it. The rest, if musically inclined, would much rather get mixing software for their tablets or a synth plug-in that can make those sick WOB-WOB-WOB sounds.

This is really what clinched it in my head. I remember being that age, when there were various options for what genres of music to get into to assert your individuality – and then there would be that kid who was into jazz. Now, jazz would be so far off the teenage cool map that it didn’t even register. It wasn’t even something your classmates would have much of an opinion on – it wasn’t trendy, counter-trendy, hip or sad; it was just odd and unknown. Jazz was the kind of thing your mate’s more cultured dad, with his expensive hi-fi system and massive record collection, would sit with a glass of port and listen to. You knew it was once hellish cool, but a world away from the current teenage experience, in another time and place. Ok, so maybe we’re not there yet, but give it 20 years, maybe 25 – and that’s exactly what guitar rock will be.

It’s All Over Now

I'm NOT saying there won't always be people making guitar music and a wide audience for it - after all jazz is still alive and well - just that it is steadily losing its undisputed place at the centre of pop culture in more sustained way than we have previously seen.

No, guitar music is clearly not dead, not by a long shot – but what is happening is it is becoming ever more niche, and ever more like museum-piece music. It is fossilising. As with jazz, which underwent massive changes from the traditional swing of the inter-war years through hard-edged bebop and high-art free jazz to the funky Latin and fusion stuff of the 1970s, at some point hence the whole scene has just begun to shrink and retreat from the public imagination – and in the process has crystalised into primarily historical music.

As with jazz, rock no longer sounds NOW. It is past-times music, to be emulated as best as possible, y'know, like back in the days of the greats whose like we will never see again. Today it virtually always sounds like it’s heavily referencing something from at least 25 years ago – which means its glory days have very clearly long gone.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

This backwards referencing has been gaining ground for some time. Sure, every generation has its novelty throwbacks, but beyond that the rock music journalist’s default for cool has been stuck on post-punk English mod and/or New York rocker style since about 1979. Oh how they adored it when Blur started wearing tufty haircuts and parkas like they might be from Quadraphenia or summat. And oh, how they jazzed their pants over the "subway tan" of NY punk revivalists The Strokes. In the UK, Britpop was a new high for nostalgia in rock music – everyone at that time was constantly banging on about The Faces, The Kinks, The Who, and... um... Paul Weller (including Paul Weller), while others were posturing around in glittery brown and orange 70s attire and yelping like glam-period Bowie.

Ever since such retro-fetishism has become the norm, but it wasn't always thus - directly before that was the massive break-through in alternative rock music where all manner of previously undergrounds forms – thick sludgy grunge, psychedelic noise rock, wistful indie jangle, industrial synth goth, livid rap-metal hybridisation, strum and bass et al – began to get serious air play, and suddenly anything seemed possible and acceptable. Of course I’m biased because this happened to coincide with my teenage years, but that now seems like the last golden age of guitar rock. Genres still seemed to be rapidly developing, with fresh ideas, on a mass scale; as opposed nowadays, where you seem to get to the odd isolated individual experimenter beavering away somewhere while everyone else does genre-precise recreations or light-entertainment-showbiz takes on classic rock.

Ashes To Ashes

Why guitar rock appears to have finally fossilised is not just about age, but also about technology. One element is how cheaply, easily and authentically one can emulate the sounds of the past now – as digital modelling technology has made this accessible to all, so all have made retro-sounding records. Also, with all music, from the dawn of recording onwards, streamable and downloadable along with everything ever written about every artist, the whole history of guitar rock is now at everyone’s fingertips – and a crushing, paralysing history it is for anyone with pretensions of doing anything remotely original in the field, or trying not to be too influenced by the sheer weight of it.

Rock has gone through repeated phases of establishing a tradition, then modernising and breaking away from that, only to return later in a post-modern fashion. In fact the whole of the 2000s was pretty much one long post-modern period for guitar music as it regurgitated its own history in multifarious forms. But, as with all post-modernism, where do you go from there?

Thanks to communications today, everything is at once so interlinked that it threatens to become homogenous and so fragmented that it threatens to become too dispersed (which sounds like a contradiction, but really isn’t) and music is no different – I suspect the days are simply gone when unique, self-contained “scenes” could spring up in a city in isolation before breaking through into the wider world 18 months later. A muso kid in Seattle is as likely to be trading beats with someone in Paris as hanging out down their local live music bar.

But all the same, as a music fan and consumer it’s a massively exciting time to be alive – because you can get your hands on an artist’s entire career output in one swoop, and delve into any strand of musical history you like. It’s immersive. Which ironically explains why I’m not that bothered there’s not much in the way of new, vibrant, interesting guitar music coming through – as there is still plenty of old golden age stuff to discover which is still new to me - but then I’ll soon be of the expensive-hi-fi-massive-record-collection-and-glass-of-port-dad age, so I suppose that’s only right.