These days I spend a lot of time listening to and working on music that was created in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s by giants of the music industry. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, The Band, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC…the list goes on and on. To me, to my generation and even to generations after me this music became iconic. It fueled a social movement in the ‘60s and eventually created an industry. These were artists and musicians who wrote their own music, played their own instruments, had control over how their music sounded and even how they looked. It was a Renaissance period in popular music. The advent of new technology in those days allowed this new music to be heard around the world for the first time. It exploded! It was huge and the numbers were staggering.
However just before these bands broke new ground there was a period between the rockers of the late ‘50s and the British Invasion of the mid ‘60s when popular music was an entirely different animal. This was the era when music producers and A & R men from record companies decided who recorded what songs and how they were to sound. This was music by committee. Pop stars were created from scratch, sometimes found working in diners or on the street. Phil Spector on the west coast, Mitch Miller in New York, Barry Gordy with Motown in Detroit, Ahmet Ertegan pretty well everywhere and Jerry Wexler in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These music producers, among others, would find singers, find songwriters, find studios, find musicians, find arrangers and create these stars. Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Bobby Goldsboro, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Patty Page, Jan & Dean…there were dozens of these artists on top of the charts. They sang songs about love, songs about breakups, songs about getting back together, songs about cheating and being cheated on and, for some odd reason, there were a lot of novelty songs like The Bird Song, Flying Purple People Eater and They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha, Ha. It was a weird time for music. Most of it was overproduced and very hollow. The rock & roll edginess of Elvis, Little Richard and The Killer Jerry Lee had given way to a sickly sweet, manufactured sound that was safe, straight and predictable. When the British Invasion got under way with The Beatles it was a breath of fresh air.
I see a lot of parallels to that time in the music industry today. As I listen and work on these classic songs I can’t help but wonder if there is anything out there today that will have a lasting effect on people the way these songs have. Will they stand the test of time? Will there be another Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon? These days it seems the chart positions and attention goes to artists like Justin Bieber, Niki Minage, Taylor Swift, the boy band One Direction, Shakira… These artists are packaged in much the same way as the overnight sensations of the early ‘60s were. To me, it has that same hollowness. This, again, is music by committee. Producers and record company suits once again rule the roost. It’s not healthy. Music should be played and performed by musicians. Today producers such as Kanye West, Dr. Dre, The Bomb Squad and Timbaland krank out, in my opinion, faceless hits filled with their own trademark sounds. Most of the music is created without the singer or writer even being present. An artist I know from Toronto got a deal with a producer in Miami. She sent her basement demos to him and six months later he sent her back a complete album he produced. Songs were rearranged, titles changed, strings and horns added, sometimes the tempo and feel of the songs were altered drastically. The only input she had was overdubbing the vocals after it was all done. Are there too many fingers in the pie? Have we lost the singer/songwriter/producer? Has the music ventured too far from the writer’s intentions?
Today’s music scene is very much like the way it was just before the music took over back in the ‘60s. The airwaves are saturated with manufactured artists singing simplistic lyrics. Who or what will save us from this banal soundscape? Has the internet cancelled the “next big thing!”? Is there an amazing talent just around the corner that will change the course of music the way Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix and Dylan did? For the sake of music let’s hope so.