Mat continues his blog commentary on all things music and art. Check it.
Songs Versus Music
Don’t confuse the song with the record and vice versa. They are two different things. Everyone’s always talking about songs songs songs. When it should be music music music.
Perhaps I should explain. I was an innocent victim. I accidently heard Michael Bolton’s version of The Beatles classic Yesterday. How on earth someone can so badly fuck up something so simple and beautiful is a real skill. If that was the original first recording of the song it would never be regarded as anything more than cheesy crap. Imagine a world where when you say: ” You know that song called Yesterday?”, the reply would be: ” Oh yeah, what a load of shit”.
This can also work in the other direction. Sometimes an artist or band has such an awesome and unique sound that their thing is recording a burst of energy, a vibe, more than a song. A lot of rock and dance music is like that. It’s all about capturing a moment, a feel. The song doesn’t even exist without the recording. An example of this is Van Halen’s Light Up The Sky. It doesn’t really have a melody, i’m not sure it has a key, but it’s one of my all time favourite recordings and although the sonics are dated, it still sound dangerous and exciting. I just wouldn’t really call it a song. Think will.i.am or David Guetta. They make great records but not songs.
The story goes that when George Martin first met and heard the Beatles he was asked by the record company to pick a lead singer for the band. He couldn’t decide. One guy was the better singer and one guy had more attitude. So he thought fuck it , let it be as is. That’s a great moment of production. Knowing when to push it and when to let it be is crucial.
It can be hard to see what your strong point is. It’s hard to have vision. Even experienced dudes get it wrong. Old Hippocrates got it right with his catchphrase: Ars longa, vita brevis. Sometimes your obsession with who you wanna be and what you wish for gets in the way of who you are and can be. By the time you’ve figured this out a chance may have passed.
One of my musical heroes, the drummer Tony Thompson, had a knack for grooving. When as a young man he joined Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to form Chic (and invent disco music in the process) he by his own admission was artistically all over the place. He wanted to be like his hero, the fusion jazz master Billy Cobham. The others in the band kept telling him he had his own thing and to stick with it. Luckily for music Rodgers and Edwards won the argument.
It’s probably safe to say that The Beatles would have with song writing like that been a success no matter who the singer was and that the members of Chic could probably just fart into microphones and still groove more than the competition. These are some of the greats of our business and not every band is gonna have that amount of natural feel for music. Not everyone will be lucky enough to be in the right place. with the right goods. seizing the opportunity. It’s the drive the greats have for quality and originality we’ve got to aspire to. Talent, if there is such a thing, will help you along, but only a little bit. If you love music and playing it then you have to do as Cheryl Cole says and fight for it. Push it forward. Not be satisfied with doing what others have done before, but taking your influences and going further. That should be the goal even though it almost always seems an impossibly hard task.
In a time when the making of a good sounding recordings is relatively affordable and easy, content is more important then ever. No one is blown away by sonic quality because it is available to most, and expected by everybody. Not too long ago it wasn’t, hence it impressed listeners. Even non musicians. To this day creating musical content however remains a specialist skill.
Once I asked a fellow musician for help on a technique I wasn’t getting right. First he showed me and then explained how he did it. After a while frustrated at my insistence for more detailed advice he just said: “It’s called knowing how to play”. Brilliant!
When starting out it it used to feel like people weren’t willing to give advice, point the way. Now that I’m no longer starting out, and those who are sometimes ask me for tips, I understand the reluctance. First of all how the fuck do I know? Anything I say I’m gonna contradict immediately and confuse everyone, myself included. Saying simple stuff like gotta work hard, gotta not give up blah blah blah doesn’t really feel like a pearl of wisdom. Truth is that when you haven’t even got your motor running there’s very little anyone can say. You have to get out there first and have something going for yourself before anyone from the outside can offer ways to better it.
Imagine a kid who only talks about wanting to play football but never really goes to practice or to play. How’s a scout or manager gonna make a judgement on someone like that? Another kid goes to training and games. Manager can try him out in different positions to see what works and give advice accordingly. Kid gets better, gets a chance to impress, takes that chance because he’s done the legwork. This is simplified to the max but the principle is correct. How can anyone say anything about a bands direction if they’ve only written a handful of songs or judge their live ability if they’ve done only a handful of gigs. You have to have a little bit of mileage first. You acquire that mileage by writing, recording and gigging. It’s like a holy trinity.
There is no x factor quick route to fame and fortune for musicians. You don’t become it just by announcing it. Being a musician is like any other trade. Only more precarious. You need practice and experience, you need to keep up with what’s current and you need to be a person who’s employable. If you come to a venue late, complain because you feel the promoter didn’t promote, play a shitty set, you are not giving yourself a chance. And word gets around. If you spend your time in the studio facebooking all day then you shouldn’t be surprised when there is no artistic or commercial growth.
On paper all of this is logical and easy. Put in the work and then you reap the rewards. Unfortunately it ain’t so. There are so many variables you can’t control. Bandmates let you down at the worst time. Hook up with the wrong people who are clueless. The public don’t like you. Turns out you’re not good enough, no matter how hard you try. The list is endless. That’s why the joke is that 10 out 10 bands fail and the ones that don’t are just a statistical error. It never is romantic to be starving and poor. Your old friends have real jobs and are starting to move forward in their lives. They can afford holidays. You can’t even afford breakfast. It can be emotionally draining. The dream’s not materializing. No light at the end of the tunnel. What the hell makes anyone go through that? Love of the art form?
I remember being broke and hungry and going to rehearsal. After a great jam it all seemed so worthwhile again. Frowns turned to smiles. Luckily evolution has fixed it so that we forget bad times and remember the good times. My old art teacher used to say that no one should ever be encouraged to become an artist. That should be a burning desire too strong to resist.