Curiosity Killed The Cat's producer Glenn Skinner gets a few things of his chest this month.
Redefining what we all mean by 'pop' is something that every generation has to do, argues producer Glenn Skinner. But does popular have to mean rubbish, or is there still scope for more class and less crass?
Everybody talk about Pop Music? Well, no actually - at least not in this country. It seems that for the youth of the UK today, interest in popular music falls well behind the antics of cartoon plumbers or getting out of your head in a field somewhere where the backing track is anonymous and therefore unimportant. Ah, but it wasn't always so... Growing up, I remember pop music as second only in significance to getting shagged. Often the two were inextricably linked. To be the first one to get so and so's album and to learn all the words and all the solos was imperative. It delivered many cred points, although it never seemed to help me with the other priority! But if the band that you had discovered and made your own was fortunate enough to get into the charts, well, that was something to die for.
With the exception of a handful of ultra-teenybop acts, this doesn't appear to be the case today, and the implications of this change in attitude are being felt throughout the music industry. The last five years have been unprecedented in the lack of new artists selling records around the world.
Certainly the likes of Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and U2 have achieved remarkable success, but these artists are from the '60s, '70s and early '80s. You'd be hard pushed to name more than a couple of acts that have emerged since, say, 1987 that have even approached their jurassic peers in terms of success - and even when they do come close, it seems to be a flash in the pan like Terence Trent d'Arby or EMF, rather than lengthy chart occupation.
Without international sales, major record companies are driven by domestic sales and are based on albums, as many countries don't even have a singles chart. But in this country, it's incredibly difficult to break an album without first having a hit single - and single equals Pop.
So maybe pop itself is the problem. Two things immediately spring to mind: until about 1979, pop meant popular. Although it was by nature ephemeral, it was not necessarily throwaway. Now pop means junk. Before there was Morecambe and Wise, the Beatles and newspapers. Now it's Newman and Baddiel, Bad Boys Inc and The Sun. This sounds like an "in my day we used to..." whinge, but although every generation must redefine what pop means to them, for a while now each new exposition has meant less class and more crass. If popular culture in general heads that way, what chance pop music, that most opportunist criminal in the cell block? And secondly, given the typically English trait of rubbishing success, who in heaven's name would want to be popular these days?
For these are the days of anti-pop. If you happen to point out a great-hook in an artist's song, often as not the only hook you need subsequently worry about is the one you hung your coat on. To make a mix radio friendly is to make yourself an artist's enemy. Certainly, the sampling and repeated use of a single phrase sung once can be catchy, but can 'techno, techno, techno' ever mean as much to anyone as 'you don't really love me, you just keep me hanging on'? And does the mindless chanting of a group's own name have anything like the impact of 'God save the queen, she ain't no human being'? Not likely.
The essential element that is missing here is that old chestnut, craft. You get the impression that Johnny Rotten and Eddie Holland actually worked a bit on what they were trying to say. Perhaps 2 Unlimited did too, but then I'd hate to hear one they'd just banged out.
I've read much in this magazine and elsewhere about the state of the industry - but it's no good bleating on about recording companies. They exist for one purpose: to sell records. They won't sign, and never have signed, artists on the basis of long term development. They sign what they think will sell. Witness the current rush to sign artists in the Tasmin Archer vein: there's no development there, they just think they might sell a few records.
The only people capable of making changes are, and always have been, the artists. Ironically, I've read quite a few articles on techno kids who talk about writing real songs, and using real instruments next time. Maybe if they waited a bit, learned a bit more and tried doing it this time, we might get somewhere. What we need right now is a return to the truly popular with universal themes that span time, not nail it to the ground. We need songs that deal with general currency, not ghetto-ised subcultures that mean nothing to non-initiates. Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, George Martin and Quincy Jones made popular records. They were also great. Even Pete Waterman, 2 Unlimited's boss, used to know a thing or two about good tunes. Come back Sonia, all is forgiven? Well, perhaps not, but we could do worse. In fact we have.
So maybe we could try to get London back' in line with New York, Paris, and Munich - and flatten that stupid Sonic at the same time.
Glenn Skinner has worked with such varied acts as Curiosity Killed the Cat, Waterfront, Killing Joke, Boy George, Helen Terry, Deborah Harry and Workshy. He also spent two years as an A&R man for Polydor.
Opinion by Sue Sillitoe
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