A while back, I did a DJ set at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto ‘opening’ for the movie, A Poem Is A Naked Person. In my set, I played the Faces track, Stay With Me-probably their biggest hit. As always, I was amazed by the incredible energy of the track, it seemed to leap out of the speakers. To this day, it sounds as close to the essence of what I believe rock and roll is as I have ever heard.
Then I thought to myself, you never hear anything like this anymore. I’ve never heard a track with this much rock power in decades. And it made me kind of sad. I finished my set and sat down with a big bag of popcorn to watch the movie. The film was a documentary, mainly about Leon Russell who was a session musician, became part of Joe Cockers band and then became a headline performer himself. He released some pretty good records in the 70’s and had a hit single with a song called Tightrope. The film was directed by legendary documentarian, Les Blank. There was a quasi avant garde aspect to the movie as this was the ’70’s but, mostly, A Poem Is A Naked Person is live and studio footage of Leon Russell. The studio footage is the real prize here. In addition to Leon’s sessions, there is a great moment where the late, legendary country singer George Jones performs Tell Me with just a vocal and acoustic guitar. Beyond amazing.
The Leon Russell studio footage had a huge number of musicians all mic’d up and performing. The illusion, if it was an illusion, was that the entire track was going all at once, vocals and all. This may have been staged or it may have been just the bed tracks and many of the parts were going to be overdubbed later. But judging by the leakage that would have occurred from all the open mics, especially vocal mics, I’m inclined to think that maybe this was how it was going down. Which is to say, live in the studio.
When I left the movie, I thought about what I had played and what I had seen. Stay With Me. What an amazing track. It was clearly recorded live with probably few overdubs. The Leon Russell studio session seemed to imply a similar process. And, appraising both things, I thought, what am I doing with my life? The music I produce appears to be perfect, everything is perfectly in tune and in time. This is what modern recording has become in the digital age. This has its own value. Back in the day, many musicians didn’t play on their own recordings. Studio musicians who could actually play would be on the recordings and and the band would be in the photos and the live shows. So what we do, in a way, serves the musicians we work with.
But that’s not even my point, that’s just existential pondering. The point is, why don’t we have music like Stay With Me by The Faces anymore. But the real question should be, why would we even want that? Do I need to hear the same song over and over? If some band came out sounding like Bill Haley and The Comets would I think, that’s awesome? Probably not. Music progresses, it moves forward and unless we are willing to move with it, we will just be grumpy old men and women stuck in another era.
I think what I may be wondering is, why don’t we have music like Stay With Me in terms of its power and excitement and relevance to a large group of the listening public? The issue here is, what are we settling for? Liking music because it’s ‘new’ or ‘modern’ is meaningless. Those terms have no musical value. While it may be true that we don’t need to hear the same song over and over, we do need to hear a good song. We do need music that is vital, exciting, beautiful and evokes an emotional and intellectual response.
We also have to decide whether things like great songwriting, great musicianship and great singing matter anymore. Most new music forms are technologically based. You can create a complete album of tracks without every playing a single note on an instrument. This has been true for some time but seems more commonplace and acceptable today. Any kid with a computer can download a recording program from the internet and after a relatively short learning curve, start creating music, even if that music only involves dragging and dropping pre recorded and pre written, packaged music samples.
In the ’80’s both hip hop and post-disco dance music came of age. In some ways, the music forms were similar in that they were electronically based and introduced the idea of the DJ as producer. But it many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Hip hop continued the funk and R&B traditions of American music while dance music went the way of European ideas of music birthed in part by disco producers like Georgio Morodor. Hip hop was sample based, DJ’s would sample parts of records and combine them to form a track. This was often an extremely painstaking and creative process. House music and it’s progeny was more about sequencing synthesizers, programming drum machines and creating a danceable groove that usually followed the four on the floor beat that defined disco. Hip hop music was ultra reliant on great lyrical content as the lyrics were spoken. Those lyrics often explored the African American experience, political ideas or, especially in the case of someone like Ice Cube, extraordinary story telling. Musically, the tracks often had incredible grooves sampled from the greatest drum beats in the history of recorded music. When a producer programmed his or her own drum beats, they still reflected that sense of groove, again referencing ideas of funk and other American forms of music. Listen to the drum program in LL Cool J’s Kanday as a reference.
So while hip hop used technology to create an incredibly vital, meaningful and exciting art form, can we say the same for Electronic Dance Music? Is a form of music that is largely about the party and involves mostly computer science a lasting idea of music? This is a question, not a statement. The purpose of dance music has always, mainly, been about getting people to dance. That is the art of it so lyrics, vocal performance, creating emotional response are largely irrelevant. It’s almost completely hedonistic, which isn’t a bad thing. But does it have the indicators of great music that we are accustomed to? Having an intimate connection to the artist and the song, being moved or spoken to in a deep and lasting way so that the song becomes part of your personality-does dance music do this? If it doesn’t, does that matter? Have our priorities as a culture changed? Is EDM the perfect music for our disposable culture?
(It should be noted here that most popular music of the past wasn’t particularly deep. Even Stay With Me doesn’t have an extraordinarily meaningful lyrical message. Perhaps my attachment to it has more to do with my musical aesthetic? However, the conditions of most musical forms allow for more ponderous messages than we have seen in most post disco dance music. Maybe a revolution is coming?)
(It should also be noted that I am speaking, mainly, about current trends in EDM. House and techno music that originated in the late ’80’s in to the ’90’s had an extraordinary amount of creative energy attached to it. There was a purity about a music form that had almost no commercial potential in terms of the mainstream and was being created almost exclusively to get people to dance. However, is there a ‘song’ from that era that really stuck out and united the culture?)
This sounds like I’m dumping on EDM, which I don’t think I am. I am asking questions about the future of music and since EDM is a huge part of that future, how does it fit in with the traditional place music holds in our culture and, our souls? EDM currently dominates the commercial music world, with producers like Zedd, David Guretta, Avici, Calvin Harris all scoring top ten hits. Most of the other tracks you hear on hit radio have electronic or electronic dance music elements. So EDM’s relevance is undeniable, it is no longer a fringe music form.
So the new Faces is not The Sheepdogs or Monster Truck. Those bands, as great as they are, are retro bands, they invoke a time gone by. The new Faces are someone yet to be identified, at one time they were Public Enemy or NWA or maybe not. I’m not talking about the next big thing, like Nirvana. I’m talking about someone who releases a track that pretty much anyone who listens to popular music would find pretty awesome. Because, for an entire generation and the echoes of that generation, that’s what Stay With Me was.