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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

“Whenever you listen to musicians of a certain age, they’ll always tell you how much better and more real everything was in the old days. This is only natural – because that’s when they were younger, with more energy and more dexterous fingers and a greater vocal range than they can manage today. And it’s also because if there’s one thing that obsesses them above all else, it’s authenticity: a quality, of course, that was abundant in the days when they were playing to two men and a dog in toilet venues, but which no longer applies when you’re filling stadiums.”

James Delingpole.

Pretentiousness is one of the besetting sins of some music folk. I occasionally like to wind up my more earnest friends by pointing out that one of my favourite albums is Thriller, by Michael Jackson. This is particularly effective among more ostentatiously “conservative” types.  Just watch those paleocon jaws hit the floor.

29 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Surellin

    Musical authenticity – or at least the appearance of it. How many upper-middle-class art school habitues searched for authenticity in punk and came out as earnest working-class fellows with substantially different accents? It amuses.

  • AndrewWS

    Is this the same thinking as lies behind period instruments in early/baroque music?

  • Laird

    Not at all, AndrewWS. Using period instruments is an attempt to recreate the sounds our ancestors would actually have heard. That’s a worthwhile exercise.

    As to the main article, I don’t think it’s as much pretentiousness (although there is surely some of that, in some people) as it is the natural inclination to remember the past as being better than it actually was. It’s just a variant on the “good old days” syndrome, where people whitewash the bad and magnify the good. Perfectly normal human behavior. Methinks you (and Delingpole) are making too much of this.

  • robertbyron22

    Know why Michael Jackson called his seventh album “Bad”?

    He couldn’t spell “Appalling”!

  • Dom

    AndrewWS, somewhere on the web you can find the Moonlight Sonata played on a Beethoven-era piano. It has a much darker sound, apparently what Beethoven wanted. Handel’s Water Music is much nicer on period instruments. And I don’t know anyone would play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto (fifth?) on a piano instead of a Harpsichord.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Laird, I wasn’t going to press the point too far, but I am going to defend myself here and deny I am “making too much” of this. If you read the Delingpole article, and the views he cites, it is clear that there is a bit of a backlash by some folks against the kind of music that comes out of talent shows, etc. Delingpole himself admits that simple passing of time, of getting older, is part of what is going on. I think you are picking non-existent nits.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I think music was better in the past. In fact, my favourite musical eras are the decades before I was born.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case I don’t think it is either the “good old days” syndrome, or pretentiousness. In my case it is respect for people who actually are musicians in the classical sense. That is, they could play you are instrument or sing you a song for your amusement, and they could do this as well sitting across the room from you as in a stadium of 10,000 people. This is part of a long tradition going back 1000s of years. They are minstrels.

    Many modern musicians however do not fit this definition at all. Most of them are essentially actors, models, or in some cases strippers, whose function is to look good while a separately manufactured audio track is played. These tracks are composed in a way that is terrifying reminiscent of Orwell’s Versificator.

    Of course there are exceptions. The Monkees for example were an early example of a totally manufactured band way back in an otherwise rather good musical era. Conversely there are a number of modern musicians who can actually play live, and they do tend to be the sort of thing I like.

    And of course, the exception that proves the rule is I must confess a fondness for Mike Oldfield who is of course the quintessential studio-musician. But he, unlike manufactured pop stars, can actually play.

    I don’t see anything wrong with valuing that. Or am I missing the point?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Oh and I should add – Jonathan, you mentioned Michael Jackson. Say what you will about him, but he does fit my classical definition of a minstrel. He could sing you a song or dance you a dance, on demand, and it would be brilliant.

  • Mr Ed

    JV Mike Oldfield sometimes played every instrument on a track, and often chose not to sing his own songs, such as Crime of Passion, Moonlight Shadow or Man in the Rain (the latter songs having a female vocal, obviously), but he did sing on Heaven’s Open. He also sported around the time of that last song a world-class mullet worthy of a Munich taxi driver.

    Mr Oldfield can also compose music, a greater talent than performance.

    With Autotune and the like, and cultural decline, the MilliVanillisation of pop goes on. Having said that Boney M were great entertainers notwithstanding the dubbing.

    Although I have never managed to get round to buying Thriller, it is almost an album with no ‘album’ tracks, just great songs.

    And Pink Floyd? DSotM is not worth the dust in the grooves.

  • Steven Groeneveld

    This seems to me to be very much the same sort of issue as this post on art and self appointed adjudicators of what constitutes art. I know that I harbour some conceit myself as a amateur musician who tends to favour 70’s rock and view it as a golden age of innovation in music but I do have to check my instincts to discount everything happening more recently.(albeit that much of it is crass commercialism or expressioins of simple rebelious subcultures).

    Much as I dislike rap, for example, during the time I lived in Germany I was introduced to some of German rap which was interesting in a way that most American rap/hip hop isn’t. Developed by the likes of Falco and others there developed an art that had very clever use of language to make it intellecually appealing and quite interestingly the more staccato and fricative laden nature of the German language is, to me, actually better suited to rap. German heavy metal seems to be another genre that has also taken a direction quite radical and probably totally inaccessable to most in the anglosphere other than a few numbers from the less radical Rammstein.

  • Laird

    Johnathan, I will confess that I hadn’t read the entire article (only your quote from it) until you shamed me into it. Having now done so, though, I see that “pretentiousness” (or any variant thereof) is not a word Delingpole used; you did. And I don’t think it was his point, either. He was mildly chiding Sir Elton for viewing pop music history through “rose-tinted spectacles”. Which was my point entirely. So while my comment might indeed have been picking at a nit it wasn’t a “nonexistent” one. But I was wrong to ascribe that particular nit to Delingpole.

  • Thank you JP.

    As somebody born in 1972 I’m well and truly sick of the whole Baby Boomer thing of their cultural icons being the be-all and end-all, specifically (here in the US at least) the times and events between the assassination of John Kennedy and the resignation of Richard Nixon. That ethos also seems to go hand in hand with a view that the popular culture of the 1980s is self-evidently vastly inferior.

  • Sam Duncan

    I’ve always liked a quote by Liam Howlett of the Prodigy: “I’m not a musican. I make records.” It completely changed my attitude to all recorded music (to be fair, I’d been heading that way for some time).

    None of it is “authentic”; it’s all been massaged to fit a record in some way, especially since the rise of multi-track recording. Songs? Meh. A record is not a “song” in the same way that a film isn’t simply a camera plonked in front of a play. You can make a rubbish record of a good song, and – far, far more commonly – a great record out of a rubbish song. Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate a good song, or good musicianship, but it’s not necessary for a good record.

    Screw “authenticity”; enjoy the records.

    (The trouble with most of these talent show types is that they don’t even come out with good records. Ironically, they’re too busy trying to fake “authenticity”.)

    PS: Ted, you and me both.

  • I tell people that I’m into bluegrass, and they don’t know what to think. Most of them assume I’m joking.

  • Really, Tim? Even those who know what that is?…

  • A common plaint on classic rock or old country YouTube video comment threads is that music Back Then was so wonderful, and now it’s junk. Truth is, there was plenty of crap in the old days too, we just don’t listen to it or even remember it anymore. We didn’t decline from Cream to Justin Bieber. The demographic that listens to Bieber today would have been listening to The Archies or The Bay City Rollers back then.

  • Laird

    Agreed, Sanity Inspector. (And, FWIW Tim, I’m a fan of bluegrass, too.)

    From a purely technical perspective early rock and roll (late 50s and early 60s) was pretty poor: rudimentary chord progressions, uninspired arrangements, mediocre vocals, pedestrian instrumental solos, etc. That wasn’t true earlier, in the Big Band era (not that there wasn’t plenty of crud then, too), and it began to change in the late 60s with improving musicianship in the pop ranks (thanks largely, in my opinion, to the artistic evolution of the Beatles). It’s gone up and down since then, of course, as these things do, but in many respects I think today’s performers are of pretty high technical quality. That’s probably due to what happens in the studio, with autotune, really solid studio musicians and arrangers, etc., but the end product is generally pretty good. (There are exceptions, of course. I think Black Eyed Peas has to be the least talented popular group around, and their song “I Gotta Feeling” has to be the worst song in the history of mankind.)

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    There’s a point you’re all glossing over, which I touched on in my post.

    Even a bad band in the 60’s would have been able to sing and play their instruments, even if what they subsequently created with those abilities was poor. The phenomenon of “musicians” who lack even a modicum of musical talent is a fairly recent one, traceable to the advent of autotune in the 90s.

    It is not just a question of quality. It is to do with music shifting away from having anything to do with music.

    Put it this way – if no one ever saw her and her records were sold purely on the merit of their audio content, would someone like Rihanna sell anywhere near to what she sells now?

  • Of course she would, JV. Not as much as she does now, obviously, but quite near it I think. For one thing, she has a beautiful voice. For another, in no time in history that I am aware of were singers valued on the merits of their musical abilities alone – performance has always been a significant part of the whole package that is a popular singer.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Alisa, you need only watch her attempts at live performance to see that she most categorically does not have a beautiful voice. The voice you hear on her records is not hers.

  • Hmm, trying to post a link to a video, but it doesn’t show up…

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    I kinda like the “Leningrad Cowboys”: Delilah


  • Tedd

    It seems an obvious explanation that music from the 60s and early 70s has remained popular simply because of demographics. But I have my doubts. I’m smack in the fat part of the baby boom, but few people I know my age or older still listen to that music, to any significant degree. Yet there are multiple “classic rock” radio stations in my city. Near as I can tell, their audience is overwhelmingly people younger than me, many too young to even have been born when that music was fresh. Something other than demographics must be at work.

    I suspect that popular music lost an important quality with the advent of multi-track recording techniques (in the late 60s) that eventually removed the need for musicians to actually play together, as an ensemble, in the studio. I think many people react to the synergy between musicians playing together, and the more sophisticated recording techniques in use since multi-track don’t capture that synergy as well, if at all.

    That’s not a slight on later music, much of which I like. And, as others have commented, the musicianship in the 60s wasn’t always all that great, even by comparison to popular music of other eras. (Though the stuff with staying power seems to have above-average musicianship, for the era.) But pop music is often more about the culture of the time, or the personalities of the performers, than it is about musical sophistication.

  • marvo

    @Heinrichs, I had forgotten about the Leningrad Cowboys :p

    Performance is the thing though, be it live or the effect of a recording.
    Personally I like among other things (hard house, assorted rap, popular classical, trance) jazz music up until just after WWII, after that it mostly leaves me cold.

  • Midwesterner


    Thank Uncle Sam for that. The transition from Swing to Bebop was driven by the tax code. No kidding.

  • marvo

    Mid that is new to me and quite interesting. I suspect things would have changed anyhow, but where doesn’t the government and tax want to stick its paw in?
    Pubs in Westminster in London had to employ bouncers to stop people dancing to any music because that required a different and very expensive license. For a while standing while tapping your foot was not allowed because the council inspectors might see it.