Where Has All The Music Gone? (An Uncle Zeke Essay)

I have listening to my iPod a lot, over the past few weeks, and spent the better part of 's the last week dedicated to my "70's Radio Hits" playlist. This particular playlist has over 350 tracks, and features a diverse group of songs. In listening to these songs, I really started reflecting on the state of music, now that we are nearly nine years into the 21st century. I don't like what I see...

First, let me go back in time. Let's go back 50 years. Rock and Roll was a recognized form of music, born from the clash of Blues music with R&B. Elvis was a huge star, The Beach Boys were climbing the charts, and in less than a month, it will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly. Music had taken on a new, and fairly radical sound. But, in my opinion, it was not until the mid 60's that Rock music really began to blossom into a true art form. In 1963, The Beatles took the world by storm, influencing an entirely new generation of musicians. Out of the British Explosion came several exciting new bands, with their own creative sounds. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, The Moody Blues... all bands that helped change the sound of Rock and Roll, and all bands that are still relevant in today's musical environment.

In my opinion, it was the work of a couple of music producers that really helped change music. Phil Spector was responsible for a lot of the exciting new music coming out of the USA, while George Martin's visionary approach to music really progressed the continually changing sounds. Where the 1950's included several creative musicians, as well as producers, the sounds were fairly similar. In the 1960's, we saw several different genres (in the realm of Rock music) take form. Psychedelic Rock took form, with bands like Pink Floyd, Love, The Grateful Dead and The Moody Blues creating their own original sounds. The album, "DAYS OF FUTURE PAST", by The Moody Blues (produced by Hugh Mendl) was an incredible example of how Rock music could merge with other genres, to create a fresh sound. In this case, the marriage of Rock and Classical (with the help of the London Festival Orchestra) gave birth to one of the greatest albums of all time.

Meanwhile, The Grateful Dead was leading a wave of experimental sounds, coming out of the United States. Their album, "ANTHEM OF THE SUN" was a bizarre convergence of studio recording, with live recordings. The end product was a Psychedelic masterpiece.

Towards the end of the 60's, a great wave of Progressive Rock bands began to emerge. Pushing traditional Rock music to an entirely new level, bands like Jethro Tull, ELP, King Crimson and Yes really focused their sound around technical expertise. The result was some of the finest music ever to grace the radio airwaves. The Progressive Rock era boasted some of the most talented musicians ever to record music. Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman are, to this day, considered to be two of the greatest keyboard/piano players, in the world.

The beauty of the 60's and 70's Rock music, is that there were so many DIFFERENT things happening. With artists like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, Fairport Convention and King Crimson, all kinds of musical barriers were being broken.

With people following the lead of The Beatles, and the experimental sounds that they created during the latter half of their career, the only thing consistent in the world of music, was the inconsistency. Unless you were talking about the chord changes of The Kinks... they were fairly consistent. Throughout the 70's, music continued to evolve. Soft Rock really took hold in the early 70's, thanks to bands like Bread and America. Heavy Metal began to take shape, led by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, among others. Glam-Rock was on the scene, with the creative works of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Slade and The New York Dolls really making an impact. It was an exciting time for music.

Towards the end of the 70's, the musically adventurous were tiring of the sounds that were coming from the radio airwaves. The Punk movement really began to burst on to the scene, full of artists that wanted to rebel against the establishment. Bands like The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Ramones, Pretenders, Devo and Talking Heads all doing their part to break away from the typical Rock music establishment.

Out of the ashes of Punk, came the New-Wave movement of the late 70's and early 80's. Although scoffed at by many Rock traditionalists, this new music STILL had a very creative sound, and featured some very lavish production. With artist/producers like Brian Eno, there was never a shortage of interesting sounds. Along with the adventurous production, there was a lot of talent to be found, in the New Wave genre.

Up until the mid 80's, talent was essential in the world of music. In August of 1981, MTV hit the airwaves, kicking off with a prophetic video, by The Buggles. "VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR" was the first video to air on the fledgling all music channel. One of my earliest blog posts was one entitled, Video Killed the Radio Star. I addressed how MTV, and the ever increasing "image related" artists and bands really began to replace the truly talented bands. Several bands were able to hold on for a few years, but the music industry continued to shift into very bleak waters. Towards the end of the 80's, Pop music had taken a very ugly turn. With neon outfits and big hair ruling the music videos, music became more about image, and less about the talent. One of the most disturbing things I ever encountered, was the album, "How To Be A Millionaire", by ABC. Now, let me preface this by saying, I really like the music on this album. What I didn't like, was the fact that the original band of REAL musicians had been reduced to Martin Fry (on vocals), Mark White (on guitar), and a short, bald guy, and an extremely tall woman. This latter two individuals were so insignificant on the album, that I am not even going to waste the energy to go find their names. In an interview with Martin Fry, he explained that they were members of ABC solely for the IMAGE. In fact, they didn't even play any instruments on the album. I lost a lot of respect for ABC, at that point.

Fast forward to 1991. Nirvana's "NEVERMIND" topped the charts, and ushered in another music revolution. The Grunge movement of the early 90's completely (once again) changed the sound of Rock, and in my opinion, ruined Rock as we knew it. Along with the "image", patterned after the name of the genre, the music was more about noise, and rebelling from traditional music production.

Throughout the 60's, 70's and 80's, production was a very important part of music. One of the more enigmatic things that I encountered, was the Alan Parsons Project. I make it a hapit to scour liner notes, and I was intrigued by the fact that most of the songwriting in the APP was credited to Eric Woolfson. Most of the singing was credited to Eric Woolfson. I asked myself, "Why isn't this the Eric Woolfson Project?"
Well, the more I learned about the role of producer and engineer, the more I realized that the band was very appropriately named. Alan Parsons was not only responsible for some of the best music of the 70's and 80's, but he also produced and engineered some of the best music of those decades. He was responsible for the flawless engineering of Pink Floyd's "DARK SIDE OF THE MOON". He produced Al Stewart's "YEAR OF THE CAT" and "TIME PASSAGES". He worked with Ambrosia, on their album "SOMEWHERE I'VE NEVER TRAVELLED"... and in an interesting turn, the members of Ambrosia also contributed to the first Alan Parsons Project album, "TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION: EDGAR ALLAN POE".

In the 90's, while production was still relevant (with people like Butch Vig and Rick Rubin being at the forefront of 90's Rock), it was definitely taking on a noisier approach, and much less about the beautiful orchestration, horn arrangements, and flawless sound of the earlier decades. It is rumored that Gary Katz, longtime producer of Steely Dan, would take upwards of a year to complete Steely Dan albums. Compare that to the one or two weeks that so many bands boast, nowadays.

I truly miss the great sounds that came from the earlier decades. What a treat it would be to get an album, and see that the "Tower of Power" horn section was playing on an album, or that Andrew Powell (or Michael Kamen, for that matter) was doing the orchestration on an album.

Probably the most disturbing trend in recent music, is that of the Indie Rock scene. Now, don't get me wrong. I enjoy a lot of Indie Rock. My complaint is that so much of it is completely void of beauty. So many younger people (Indie Rock fans) shun polished music. I have heard fans of Rilo Kiley (a band that burst onto the Indie scene, courtesy of Saddle Creek Records, the Omaha based Indie label, featuring the likes of Bright Eyes) complain about their most recent release, "UNDERNEATH THE BLACKLIGHT", which was released on Warner Bros. Records. They think the band "sold out". That album features some of the finest music that the band has ever recorded, drawing comparisons to Fleetwood Mac. The following is the song, "DREAMWORLD", which will validate those comparisons. BRILLIANT!

When I read comparisons of Conor Oberst to Bob Dylan, I am truly perplexed. Now, to give him credit, I listened to his Bright Eyes album, "CASSADAGA", earlier today (in preparation for this post) and I was impressed. But the reason why I was impressed, was because there was production... and he didn't whine all that much. Not to mention, the lyrics WERE intelligent. But, the first Bright Eyes album that I listened to, several years ago, was just that... whiney, sophomoric lyrics, and raw. And major music publications were comparing him to Dylan.

Another of my big concerns has to do with the lack of commercial radio exposure for the truly classic, established bands. I can't speak for big radio markets, but I live in Salt Lake City, a reasonably sized radio market. Our "rock station" shifted gears, about ten years ago, and switched over to a format which just plays the "classic" songs. Bands like Toto, Jethro Tull, Journey, etc... ALL bands that are continuing to record... and all they play are the old hits. If it weren't for the internet, and satellite radio stations, there would not be an outlet for these bands. Why are they ignored? Why doesn't these "Classic Rock" stations embrace the new music by these bands? It doesn't make any sense to me.

The truly enigmatic thing, for me, is that it seems to be nearly exclusive to America. I have a Toto concert, recorded a few years ago, in Amsterdam. The crowd is full of younger people. ALL SINGING ALONG, TO EVERY SONG! These younger people STILL listen to the great bands of yesteryear. In the United States, most of those bands are lost on today's youth. However, I do need to give the recent rage of GUITAR HERO and ROCK BAND for exposing younger folk to the great music that I grew up with. Hopefully it will serve productively, and sway the music back to the sounds that are truly memorable.

While so many of the bands that I grew up with will ALWAYS be household names (Led Zeppelin, Journey, U2, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.), I feel that there are very few bands to emerge in the last 20 years, that will be known for longer than a few short years.

In closing, I also want to mention another thing that truly impresses me. I have been posting on this blog for 13+ months, and the most viewed post I have written, was one announcing the recent solo album of Richard Barbieri, keyboardist of one of my favorite bands, PORCUPINE TREE. He was keyboardist of the 80's New Romantic band, JAPAN. Most of those hits came from Europe. All over Europe. Europeans seem to have a good sense of music. There are several great bands emerging from Europe, especially in the Neo-Prog movement. PURE REASON REVOLUTION (from the UK) and RIVERSIDE (out of Poland) are two that need to be heard. The folks in Germany continue to embrace North American Progressive bands, such as Saga. Why do we, as a whole, ignore these incredibly talented bands?

It is my hope, that we as music lovers, can continue to spread the word about, not only the great bands and artists of the past, but the (mostly) unheard bands of today. There is still so much good music out there, it just needs to be discovered. Yes, the mainstream music machine has forgotten about true talent. We are left in a slurry of Hip-Hop nonsense, which is ironic, considering the great music that is sampled time and time again, to create the soundtrack of their talentless rambling. Indie Rock can be good, but let's get away from the mentality that "less is best", and realize that personal, heartfelt music CAN be well produced, and can sound good.


Kate said…
I will have more to say later. For now, I would like to say *w00t* to Ambrosia and Alan Parsons. "Somewhere I've Never Travelled" is my fave song EVAR. I would also like to agree that for some reason, Europeans (esp. in the Netherlands) and Japanese have rad taste in music (i.e., like mine). I dunno why this is, but I find it fascinating.