End of the Road for the Rolling Stone: Is New Music No More?

In October last year, I ended up having one of those stay-up-all-night-getting-wasted-and-listening-to-music kind of nights. I’d been to see Queens of the Stone Age in Birmingham with some friends I don’t see nearly enough and, after getting on the wrong train and spending 2 hours getting crunked in an airport car park, had finally made it back to a mate’s living room armed with a jaundice-inducing amount of booze. Needless to say, much of that evening has been lost to the foggy part of my mind where I keep most of my memories of university life. But I do remember (somewhere between slow dancing with an incredibly well bearded man and an hour of Dexys Midnight Runners) a conversation I had with one of my similarly intoxicated companions. As often happens in these situations, we started discussing music. New bands, new releases, what planet Jedward are from, etc. Chances are if you’re reading this then you’ve had the very same experience. So why has this particular conversation stuck in my mind to the point where it niggles at me every time I write a review or hear a new album? Well, in a nutshell, it’s because at some point during this conversation we realised that there was no such thing as new music, and there may never be again. A bold statement indeed and one that could easily be swept to one side as the ramblings of an overdramatic, whiskey soaked mind, but indulge me for a second. Modern music happened fast. I mean really fucking supersonic. We couldn’t even record and reproduce music until Edison and his phonograph (1877) and now, less than 1.5 centuries later, we carry around millions of songs in our pocket. The march of technological progress was more of a sprint than anything: so fast that music raced ahead of itself as new audial worlds were being discovered (see “Russian Donk”, “Chiptune” and “Doomgaze”). The explosive spread of music meant that musicians were, for the first time, aware of what their genre peers were up to. It became much easier go a different way, to be entirely original. Things really started to get going halfway through the twentieth century. The fifties saw the emergence of a new take on blues with Elvis Presley and Ike Turner making music faster, louder and raunchier than had ever been heard before, ultimately kick-starting rock and roll. A decade later, Dylan blew the lid off American folk when he showed up at the Newport Folk Festival with a Stratocaster and an electric backing band. The rolling stone(s) gathered momentum and within thirty years we’d had Kraftwerk, The Beatles, Pantera, The Spice Girls and a genre whirlwind encompassing free love, punk, psychedelic, metal and rave. These are names we all know; because these are the pioneers, the trailblazers of their respective genres. Whether you’re a fan of what they did or not is irrelevant, the very fact that you know their names speaks volumes, it means that they changed something, that they left a mark. This is where the conversation started to get difficult. We’d reached the modern day and didn’t know where to go. Every band we mentioned could easily be linked to their influences. That’s not to say all new music is a rip off, it’s not. Yet all new music seemed to be a reworking of what had come before. Where was the giant leap forward? Where was the, “holy fuck have you heard what they’re doing?!” moment of our generation? Around 40,000 albums and EPs are released each year in America alone, surely something has to define us? Every generation that came before us has had a distinct musical character. Whether they like it or not, cheesy synth defined the 80s and rave defined the 90s. But yeezus, what defined the noughties? It’s sad to say but we started to think maybe the noughties was the first decade without a musical hero, that all the pioneers were dead. Musical innovation replaced by corporate robots (ahem Coldplay) or self-proclaimed false idols (sorry Kanye).Have we simply reached saturation point? Maybe we’ve used up all our inventions, done everything we can with them and are now folding back in on ourselves. Technology has slowed down without warning and left us with our moogs in our hands, hungry for more. Imagine what it was like when distortion was invented, or the wah pedal. Imagine how it must have felt to hear Hendrix for the first time and know that this was something that would change the course of music forever. Now compare that to hearing “I came in like a WREEECKING BAAAALL” for the gazillionth time. It just doesn’t equate, right? Now before you get all defensive about Miley, Kanye or the two headed demon Jedward, I’m not putting down any of the music you love and hold dear, not in the slightest (well except Jedward, fuck those guys). I crave new music and generally have at least one record on pre-order at any given moment. The thing is, none of it is really new and it can all be easily traced. Let’s play Deconstruct That Band, try to clear things up a bit. Tame Impala =A large chunk of the American psychedelic movement, combined with Abbey Road era Beatles, a dash of Frank Zappa and some fancy modern production techniques. Hot Chip = Talking Heads, The Cure, Flock of Seagulls and a whole heap of the aforementioned 80s cheese. The Brian Jonestown Massacre = Basically everyone who played at Woodstock, plus a smidge of Joy Division. Give it a go yourself (#deconstructthatband) Of course, entirely new music does exist, but only on the fringes. Musical experimentalism is as rife as ever in small, underground communities (seePeople Who Do Noise), but I’m not talking about a few crusty trip outs in Portland. I’m talking about the mass advancement of music. Audiences have settled into their grooves and are happy to accept whatever dribbles out of their radios (I’m looking at you, Mumford and Sons) and don’t give a second thought to where it’s all leading. After all, why should they? It’s easy to just take what we’re given and not demand any more. It ticks the boxes after all, gets the toes tapping and provides a soundtrack to our commuting/running/chat up attempts (“here’s my number, call me maybe?” wink wink, barf barf). But the old moniker of, “I know what I like and I like what I know” can’t be applied to music. You can’t know what you like until you’ve heard it after all. Are we destined to be offered what are essentially revival artists forever? Will we continue to fall victims to meaningless and generic lyrics that trick us into thinking that we’re actually feeling something? Who knows, perhaps now that we’ve started looking back on our musical history and revising old methods, we’ll start to branch off again. Perhaps the revival of former trends will start us on a path away from what appears to be a dead end. Old influences will become new influences, which will go on to form something that will blow our tiny little minds. A fresh start almost, as if we’ve gone a little bit out of the way and have collectively said, “Woah, back it up! We were supposed to turn left at Blur not right, how the hell have we ended up at Borrell 1?!” The only thing we can be certain of, with one lost decade behind us and nearly halfway through another, is that music will continue to be created and that people will try as hard as they might to create something new. Our role as the consumer, the listener, the fan is to discern the good from the bad, to demand not just yet another glammed up cover of “Hallelujah” or the same chorus repeated on every single (Oh, Mumford and Sons, you again) but an entirely new experience, a new viewpoint and a feeling of childlike curiosity at what might come next. In the meantime, I intend to keep my ear to the ground, there’s always something to be found after all.