The Speed of Pop

The movie American Grafitti, an ode to teenage life in 1962, was released in 1973 only 11 years after the year it is so nostalgic about. But even though it was such a short space of time it looked like a different world and sounded like it too, the gulf between Chuck Berry and David Bowie was just enormous — and you could say roughly the same about a movie made in 1983 about music in 1972. Today the equivalent would be a movie set in 2004 that got all misty-eyed about listening to “Hey Ya!” and “Milkshake” on an iPod Mini. While I’m sure there are people with reasons to be nostalgic for that time and those records, the musical gulf between then and now doesn’t seem nearly so wide. They certainly don’t sound over a decade old, a time-span which used to be an eternity in pop music years.

So is pop music not changing as fast as it used to, or am I just a clueless and out-of-touch old fart?

The 1960s were obviously a time of rapid upheaval, but the following 20-plus years didn’t exactly stand still either, giving us (off the top of my head) Prog, Metal, Reggae, Glam, Disco, Punk, Post-Punk, Hip-Hop, Synthpop, Shoegaze, Techno, and House. Pop used to change clothes as often as Cher playing a show in Vegas but I just don’t hear that quick turnover of ideas and styles anymore.

If I’m not imagining things and there is a notable down-shifting now, it could be due to music-biz economics and the internet. Downloading and streaming has destroyed the old business model and bands make more money from concerts than records now, so they spend longer on tour and try to milk an album as much as possible before moving on to the next one.

It used to be standard for an act to put out an album every year – or even two a year in some cases — but now two years is the minimum a major artist takes between long-players, often longer. Coldplay have made six albums in 15 years, if The Beatles had put them out at that rate Rubber Soul would have been released in 1978. The lifecycle of pop has gone from being like a Mayfly — cramming a lot into a very short time — to more like an elephant. 

I loves me some Charli, Taylor, and even Miley, so I don’t have a huge beef with modern mainstream pop. But I do want pop music to be constantly zooming forward and discarding old ideas the way it used to. Maybe I should just be grateful that Coldplay have only made six albums.

Download: We Live So Fast (Extended Mix) – Heaven 17 (mp3)

Commercial Break

Try telling kids today that once upon a time cash didn’t come out of a hole in the wall anytime you wanted it and they won’t believe you. In fact, they’ll probably say “What’s cash?” as they swipe their plastic card through the electronic reader or pay for their mocha latte with their phone or whatever it is they do these days.

The “How A Cheque Book Works” booklet mentioned in the ad can be seen here and it’s a beautifully-designed thing. When was the last time you wrote a cheque in a shop?

Download: Free Money – Penetration (mp3)

I wouldn’t say this was better than Patti Smith’s original but I do prefer Pauline Murray’s voice.

Kids Today

When you get older it’s common to start thinking that modern pop music is rubbish and the younger generation are more stupid, superficial, and self-absorbed than you were at their age.

I try to avoid doing that because I know every generation thinks the ones after it likes crap music and are a sign that the world is going to hell.

But has the thought ever crossed your mind that for once, maybe, it could be true?

Download: Blank Generation – Richard Hell & The Voidoids


One more from “Lost Worlds”:

“One of the great losses of the Information Age is texture. Consider the pre-computer desk: a litter of papers, large and small, handwritten, printed and typed, coarse and fine; letters in varying hands, envelopes of various sizes bearing stamps from all over the world. Here are books, annotated and bookmarked; here is a typewriter with its ribbon and its heavy steel frame. Here are photographs and drawings, coins and banknotes, documents bearing seals and counter-signatures, pristine originals and faded carbon copies, correction fluid marking the palimpest of human error, dog-ears distinguishing what has been well-thumbed from what has been largely ignored. Papers lie in piles, navigable vertically according to what has been most recently consulted; some are turned sideways-on to mark the stack. Boxes of note cards are neatly indexed; bundles of them, held with rubber bands, less neat but closer to hand; notes and memoranda are thumbtacked to the bulletin-board.
Now consider today’s equivalent. All is stored on the network and accessed via mouse-clicks on a clean glowing screen. Everything is the same: an image seen through glass. We touch nothing, mark nothing, smell nothing. In the new world of IT, it is not just the desktop that is a metaphor: everything is a metaphor, where nothing yellows with age and everything is clean and new. We have become creatures of sight alone, our whole attention focused on a hundred and fifty square inches of expensive glass.
We have lost something in the process. Not just texture. Something more. The computer makes everything retrievable but it doesn’t retrieve everything. Only the surface. Scratch that surface and — look! — more surface. The rest is lost.”

Download: Digital – Joy Division (mp3)

Resistance is Futile

A while ago I wrote that sitting on the bus surrounded by people with smartphones made me feel like I was living in the future. But after a while I’d also started to feel more like the last survivor at the end of a zombie movie; the one person still uninfected by a virus that had swept through humanity causing its victims to constantly stare at their phone and be unable to function when they weren’t connected to the collective.

Then the wife got me an iPhone for Christmas.

Not a big deal I know, millions of people have iPhones, but I’d been proudly and defiantly sticking with my old gas-powered cell in a fit of old-school, anti-modern world rebellion. But the phone was dying and, like an unreliable old friend who never returns your calls because he doesn’t hear them in the first place, it had to go.

Now my new phone sits there beside me with it’s perfect round corners and smooth surfaces, its siren voice urging me to swipe it’s screen, gently tap it’s buttons with my fingertips, and lose myself in the soothing, all-enveloping digital world. It even got me to join that Twitter thing — follow me here!. Soon I shall be a multi-platform brand.

Download: The Lonely Crowd – The Special AKA (mp3)

Collapsing New Buildings

There are few better illustrations of how the utopianism of post-war urban planning and architecture came crashing down than this photo of the Ronan Point tower block in East London which partially collapsed in 1968, killing four people. Though it was caused by a gas explosion, the fact that one whole side of the building fell down was blamed on shoddy design and cheap materials, and high-rise tower blocks soon stopped being seen as visionary modernist systems for living in the clouds, but instead dehumanizing and brutalist concrete boxes — usually with the attendant problems of drugs, crime, and lifts that stink of piss.

It wasn’t always like that, I remember my Gran telling me that when new tower blocks were built down the end of her road in the 1950s people couldn’t wait to move into them because they thought they were clean, bright, and modern compared to the dingy, back-to-back Victorian terraced houses they were living in.

The estate I grew up on was fairly human-sized — each building was only two levels and every flat had a garden or balcony — but when I was a kid we loved playing on the bigger estates and tower blocks with their walkways, ramps, endless stairwells, underground car parks, and playgrounds that were like abstract concrete and steel sculpture parks. Through our eyes they were futuristic places designed for adventure but to others they were Ballardian nightmares and a scary backdrop for pop records.

Download: Hatfield 1980 – Everything But The Girl (mp3)

Not what it used to be

With all the hand-wringing about how the internet is destroying our attention spans, I also wonder… oh look, cats that look like Hitler!… sorry, where was I? Oh yes… I also wonder if it will screw with our our memories too.

When all human knowledge and culture of the past — from the epochal to the hopelessly trivial — is catalogued for instant call-up at the click of a mouse button it’s almost impossible to forget anything. In the probable future when our brains are literally hard-wired into the web you won’t even need a mouse or keyboard, your subconscious will do a Google search so quickly you’ll “know” something a nanosecond before you’re even aware that you’d forgotten about it. In this world we’re all trivia experts and pub arguments end in the time it takes for someone to whip out their iPhone.

The internet makes it a lot easier to literally own the past too. It used to take a JR Hartley-esque effort to find but now everything that previously only existed in your foggy memory is there for instant purchase in a vast nostalgia marketplace. I know I’m not the only one who’s used eBay to buy lost items from my youth — records, magazines, Whizzer and Chips annuals — but I find the pleasure of winning an auction doesn’t match up to the thrill of accidentally coming across something in a second-hand record or charity shop because that feels like discovering buried treasure, not something you just Googled. Sadly, the reality rarely matches up to the romanticized image you had in your head either — that old copy of Look-In loses its mystical power the minute you hold it in your hands (or see that old TV show on YouTube) because you have to face the cold, hard truth that it was actually a bit rubbish. Some things are probably best left un-bought and unseen.

So while the internet has enabled nostalgia by allowing us to wallow in every trivial thing we ever enjoyed as kids (and write blogs about it), it’s also killed it a bit by taking away its mystique and that lovely, hazy quality things have when they’re only vaguely half-remembered. But I’m sure that if you’d described the internet to me thirty years ago I’d have said it sounds like the most wonderful thing ever invented.

Download: Memorabilia – Soft Cell (mp3)

Under Siege

I live in Watertown, Massachusetts which, as you may have heard, was the centre of a rather big story on Friday. It’s a nice town to live in, not as expensive as (and more working class than) neighbouring Cambridge and Belmont, but close enough to Boston to not feel too much like you’re out in the suburbs.

Very early Friday morning we were woken by the sound of sirens, gunfire, and explosions (actually, my wife was woken up and she woke me) and, putting the news on, realized that some serious shit was happening just a few blocks south of our road and that we weren’t getting back to sleep. Even if we’d wanted to, the helicopter flying overhead and the thought of a fugitive terrorist in the neighbourhood would’ve kept us awake.

By the time the sun came up we also knew that we weren’t going anywhere that day as we’d been told to stay indoors (“shelter in place” was the rather cozy phrase they used) while the police carried out a house-to-house search in a zone around where the second suspect escaped the gunfight.

Luckily we live on the outside edge of that zone so we never had the pleasure of an armoured, quasi-military SWAT team entering our house to search it, but we did see about half a dozen cops carrying assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests sweep our street — checking cars, back yards, and basement doors. It was very surreal to see something like that through your living room window, from my side of the glass the swiftly efficient way they split up around each house and then regrouped before moving on to the next one was like watching some silent, eerie modern ballet. Being a Brit I’m uneasy seeing a policeman with any sort of gun and to see these guys in our front yard carrying the kind of weaponry they had was entering I’m-in-a-Hollywood-movie territory. Though they were only a few feet away I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to find out how itchy their trigger fingers were.

I’d been down to our basement earlier in the day (armed with only a Maglite torch) to check if the fugitive was down there. It seemed highly unlikely, but a lot of things were highly unlikely that day so I thought it better to be safe than sorry no matter how nervous it made me.

The other tricky thing I had to do that day was tell my daughter what was going on. It was easy enough to bullshit her little brother, but there really isn’t a convincing lie when a 6-year-old keeps asking why she can’t go outside to play and why we keep telling her to get away from the windows. We stressed that the bad man was nowhere near us and she was perfectly safe and thankfully she took it in her stride so we didn’t have to deal with freaked-out kids on top of everything else — letting them watch cartoons all day helped a lot.

By early evening they still hadn’t caught him and the lifting of the stay-at-home order was an admission they didn’t think they were going to either. That’s when I started to feel a little anxious at the thought of putting the kids to bed and going to sleep myself knowing that this nutcase could still be out there somewhere. I also didn’t relish the idea of our streets being patrolled by heavily-armed police all weekend — this is Watertown, not Baghdad.

But then, happy at least to be allowed outside, we were on the street chatting with our neighbours when we heard a lot of sirens in the distance and the helicopter overhead getting lower and louder, making tighter and tighter circles. We guessed something was happening but didn’t know where so we told the kids to come back inside with us right away, that was the only time my daughter got a little panicky. Sure enough they’d found the guy and caught him — outside the search zone just like we were, guess it wasn’t that highly unlikely after all. We heard those gunshots too. “Yay! They got him!” my daughter said when we told her. Our very, very, very long day was over.

Friday had been a lovely sunny spring day and we couldn’t wait to take the kids to the playground after they’d spent the day cooped up inside. Typically it was pouring with bloody rain Saturday morning.

Download: Life During Wartime (Alternate Version) – Talking Heads (mp3)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com




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