are bands forgetting how to play live
Does LIVE (I've) music still live (iv)? John Morrish debates.
Listen. That's the lesson for this month.
There's an old Chinese riddle which I have just invented. It says, "When three musicians get together, which one is the most important?" And the answer is, "The fourth." Now I interpret that to mean that music only exists where there is an audience.
Everything else is practice, or rehearsal, or composition. Even in the recording, there is an audience. It may consist of an engineer and a producer, or it may exist in the musicians' imaginations. But the music itself does not exist until those sounds are heard by another person.
Now this emphasis on the role of the listener, as so much more than simply a consumer, means that live performance should become the central ritual of the musical world. And I wonder, sometimes, about the health of live music.
My first intention when I approached this thorny question was to measure my forebodings of live music's decline against the size of Melody Maker's gig column.
But that tells us next to nothing. It is clear that the number of gigs listed (around 70 for Friday and Saturday nights in both August 1985 and August 1980) is purely a function of the amount of space Melody Maker allots to the column. In August 1975, only 16 gigs were listed for each of those nights. Does that mean we have seen a massive increase in the amount of live music being played? I doubt it.
And of course we have no way of knowing whether the gigs listed in 1980 represented the efforts of big pro touring bands or a mass of semi-pro local musicians. There is no way of discovering from those yellowing pages, filled with stuff about Yes and adverts for crushed velvet loon pants, whether or not things were better for the average player.
It throws us back on our own perceptions, recollections and experiences. So here's a little story.
Some months ago I went to see my friend Brian play in his Cab Calloway-cum-Louis Jordan swing band in a pub in Deptford, south London.
I mentioned Deptford because scholars tell us that it was the birthplace of Dire Straits, Squeeze and others. Anyway, there were about 20 people in this singularly ugly little pub, which featured both tudor beams (fibreglass) and a mirrored cocktail bar. Half the people stayed in the other bar away from the band.
The rest of the people (about 10 in all) steadfastly ignored the valiant efforts of Kit Packham and His Sudden Jump Band, except when they stopped between songs and three or four people applauded slightly. Meanwhile two men stood by the bar and complained loudly about the music being too loud, and indeed, about having to put up with it when going for a pint, etc, etc.
So, the band struggled against this discouraging ambience and put on a reasonable if subdued show. Then they stopped and the men at the bar thanked god for that. Then the barmaid put on the pub's disco machine. It was substantially louder than the band had been — and the two aficionados of peaceful drinking appeared delighted.
Of course, that's only an anecdote.
I don't have any intention of taking that anecdote and generalising it into a diatribe about the decline of the musical audience. But it does make you ponder.
I think there are two trends. One is that the places where live music happens are slowly closing down. It doesn't show up in the Melody Maker lists because most of these "venues" are too small, shambolic and informal to appear in the public print. Above pubs, behind pubs, below pubs, sometimes even in pubs, they are the sort of places you can play without an elaborate PA or a transit van. They have been replaced by a smaller number of big, well-equipped and formal clubs and surviving rock pubs where you need a substantial PA, stage lighting, stage clothes, an artic', dry ice, security people, a record contract and a high degree of professionalism. These are not the sort of places where a tax collector, a telephone engineer and a couple of students can get up and surprise, delight or horrify audiences of 15-20 people and still break even — as they could in recent times.
The other problem is that audiences' perceptions have been warped. They don't know what they want, but it has got to resemble something they saw on the box.
Clearly, my fears about live music's future are not illusory. The Musicians' Union shares them, for a start. Hence the slogan "Keep Music Live", which strikes me as the least persuasive line for selling something since "You're Never Alone With A Strand" (the worst flop in the flop-ridden history of advertising). It should be on a road sign, like "Keep Left". It's depressing, like "Save The Whale". Is live music really an endangered species that has to be kept alive by charitable efforts?
And then there's the undercurrent of craft-unionism, as in: "Keep professional musicians in work even if all they are going to be doing is providing backing for Robin Cousins and a gang of icedancers to slip and slide to."
I pass on, wondering why it is that the actors' union Equity doesn't campaign against films in the same way that the MU campaigns against recorded music. Could it be that Equity knows that people like both films and 'live' theatre, as separate and different experiences? Or is it because of the closed shop?
Anyway, this management/union slogging match will be fought out on the usual grounds. Costs and labour vs investment (in short, money). Aesthetics ain't in it.
Meanwhile, most young "rock" musicians (OK, suggest a better term) will go on playing in pubs, as long as that type of pub exists.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a pub landlord. You have a modest amount of money to spend and you want to bring in more customers, and customers who will drink your beer, at that. Would you put in live music?
Try a jukebox: cheap, cheerful, it doesn't distract people from drinking. The video jukebox: people stay in their seats with their eyes glued to the screens except when they are going to the bar. The full-scale disco: people shake themselves vigorously to help them develop a thirst. Muzak: it helps you send away customers you don't want, for instance young people, music lovers, real ale types.
There's lot more: tudor beams, a genuine gas log fire, comedians, dancing bears, dog-baiting, jazz, wet tee-shirts, glamorous grandparents, wally of the week contests, real ale, Latvian lager, and so on. Any of these would be a better than live music. Sorry, did I say jazz there? A slip of the pen.
If you persist with the live music idea, why not try a cabaret duo. One guy operates some massive keyboard with automatic bass notes, drum machine, arpeggiator, chord selector and probably tune-player, while the other "sings" "Yew-a area-a the-a sunshine of-a my-a life-a" and tells a series of vile, so-called jokes.
I saw one of those the other week (by accident, I hasten to add). Everyone ignored it, which was difficult as it was quite deafening. Since you couldn't converse, you drank. Bar traffic was brisk.
Let's admit it, live music is extremely bad for pubs. The stuff repels the average drinker more effectively than a Salvation Army recruiting drive. And pubs are bad for live music. Think of the two guys in that pub in Deptford.
In most sensible cultures they would not have behaved the way they did. Unfortunately, here in Britain everything and everybody is for sale. Especially music. Most other places in the world treat music as being a gesture, part of a ritual of social communication which says "this is music: we are part of a common culture."
Here we say, it's my record, I'll play it as loud as I like. It's my television, I'll put a brick through it if I like. It's my pub and I'll drown out the band in the corner if I like. After all, I can't turn them down...
So bands in pubs will get more and more audiences who are indifferent, hostile, sometimes embarrassed in their presence. Meanwhile, the big-name bands will tour around the country performing their videos on stage. Their audiences will venerate them because they are just like they are on the box.
And that will be the end of musical innovation. The poor bands won't be able to risk it. The rich bands could afford to, but their various "advisors" won't let them "disappoint" their fans.
The more difficult people find it to deal with events which are taking place not behind a toughened glass screen but in the real world in front of them, the more problems there will be for anyone interested in live music. And live music matters, because it acts (or has acted) as the crucible within which innovation takes place, even in rock music.
The most lively arts have always reflected the economic facts of their environment. The Beatles sounded the way they did because they had been playing non-stop for hours and hours and taking a lot of drugs to make it possible for them to do it. Renaissance painting flourished because there were plenty of people around with money to buy paintings.
Now, though, live music doesn't have much of a chance. All the economic action around live music is there for quite different reasons: to sell beer, at the semi-pro level; to sell albums and videos at the touring band stage.
Is it any wonder that there are people around who think that live music is something you have to put up with if you want to drink and eat pizza late at night? Or, conversely, that audiences are something you have to put up with when you want to try out a new line-up and you can't afford studio time? What I'd like to do is take away all the serious drinkers and pizza eaters and people who were there by mistake. Then we might get some idea of how many people are seriously interested in listening to live music. I suspect the audience would be smaller than we might expect.
So what. At least we'd all be engaged in an honest contract. They'd be there because they wanted to hear our music. Assured of their attention, we'd be able to make music that was challenging, surprising, moving, subtle and, of course, appreciated. And the audience would grow.
Which brings me back to the MU. They have their war to fight. Their tactics obviously suit them. But for the rest of us, musicians and listeners, there is only one way to fight our battle. And that is to say, live music is better. It's better because you don't get exactly what you know and expect and have heard a hundred times before. It's better because it depends on the presence of an audience if it's to work at all. It is an exercise in participation, and I don't mean clapping hands or singing choruses; even sitting quietly and listening is an act of participation. It's an assertion of what we share over what divides us.
Insist on the best: live music.
One Two Tactics
Feature by John Morrish
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