The first issue of Sounds featured Janis Joplin on the cover and a pullout Jimi Hendrix poster in the centre. In October 1970 their deaths were all too fresh in readers’ minds – two contemporary icons that would later be reimagined as the tragic human blueprints of our general expectation for rock and roll authenticity. And so a seminal magazine marked its beginning with two of music’s most enduring endings; a respectful nod to the thwarted hopes of the 60s before diving headfirst into the 70s and beyond.
But the great challenge isn’t finding the new talent, it’s filtering it
Now, relaunching a quarter of a century after its last issue, what is in store for Sounds? A music magazine known for its firsts (first feature about punk, first British interview of Nirvana, first recorded use of the term “Britpop”) joins a world obsessed with music’s past, with much of the industry still artificially frozen stiff in the pre-web era. The young bands establishing themselves at the close of Sounds’ first incarnation are the bands that are headlining our major festivals two decades later (the freshly renamed Radiohead signed with EMI in late 1991 and are rumoured to be headlining next year’s Glastonbury, which will be their third time topping the bill – add to that the seemingly unending reformations, heritage tours and victory laps from any old band that can still muster more than 50% of its original line-up and one could be forgiven for mistaking the rock and alternative sector as the musical equivalent of UK Gold).
But the great challenge isn’t finding the new talent, it’s filtering it. Between my work with Manchester label Debt Records and Tom Robinson’s Fresh On The Net, I listen to around two hundred new band submissions per week (though admittedly sometimes it’s only a few seconds of each track). This is a pretty small number next to what many bloggers and promoters have to consume, but it’s quite enough for me to process without completely derailing my sanity. Many people assume that demos are all about scratchy untapped potential but actually most of these tracks have better production standards than the classic releases one assumes inspired them. The technical quality is undeniable but the emotional intent is questionable. There is a disconcertingly academic feel to almost all of it. I am impressed but I am not moved. I do not know if this is a failing on the part of the creator or the listener – I suspect it is a combination of both, after all the relationship between artist and audience has always been a symbiotic one. Both have become more sophisticated, better versed in styles and movements. As we contemplate the formidable body of work that is the twentieth century, so too do we dismantle and distort it.
This development is only a problem, however, if we choose to see the history of popular music as a linear narrative in which one genre births another, a creative cycle wherein the children are expected to slay the parents with every turn of the wheel. This doctrine can only arrive at one conclusion – that in the twenty-first century the wheel has buckled. But popular music has always been at its most valuable when it reflects human events and emotions rather than itself. I do not believe that the music made in the 60s and 70s is better than the music of today, we have merely reached a point in which music as a social phenomenon (both in business terms and artistic) is worshipped more devoutly than the struggle and passion that is supposed to engender it. The 50s and 60s saw incredible developments in recording technology that allowed popular music to take the path(s) it did, but that technological revolution is a footnote compared to what was happening in post-war notions of identity, civil rights and the general status quo. It is the artistic response to shared experiences and ideologies that makes the 60s so important – never was the zeitgeist more tangible. In the 70s the music business became more efficient in its machinations, more aware of the nuances of the marketplace, more cynical. But the two most (arguably) influential genres seeded in that decade – punk and hip-hop – came about as a direct stance against those machinations, as well as providing a commentary on what was happening in the hearts and minds of real people dealing with actual struggle, personal and political.
measuring everything with a peculiar cultural barometer preoccupied with how things used to be
Today most reviews and articles I read are about current music trends versus past ones, measuring everything with a peculiar cultural barometer preoccupied with how things used to be, featuring supposed truths that are inarguable merely by virtue of how entrenched they are. Everything is post-this and post-that, as if the present can never be discussed in any other terms than that of the past. But in the 60s the present (at least in the music that has proved most evergreen) seemed to always be discussed in terms of the future. When did this shift take place? When did we start seeing our lives as an appendix to history rather than a continuation? There are more discussions in the music press about the benefits of vinyl over digital (and vice versa) than there are about the creative response to political events and the global economic shift that is clearly taking place. Many of the demos I receive are obviously made by immensely talented people who are utterly in thrall to a world they had no part in, while the world they actually live in teeters on the brink of so many possibilities – good, bad, worse and unthinkable. Today’s world has no shortage of things to be passionate about.
The sounds, the scales, the tempos, the production: this stuff can all sound familiar. Cosmetic originality has no intrinsic value beyond the self-satisfied combative reaction of a certain kind of critic. Forget that guy. We need to work together to dismantle our obsession with “things sounding like other things”. Attitude is important. Message is important. Awareness is important. Flexibility is important. Truth is important. Punk bears a ragged resemblance to early rock and roll, hip-hop used jazz and funk and disco samples. Things follow things. The component parts aren’t important, it’s the human experience that provides the crucial glue in all this. The music that comes from the heart and (often more importantly) the GUT is what tears through into the public consciousness, becoming an emergency hammer for whoever needs it most. Sometimes it feels as though we are living in a fallow time of creativity, other times like new beginnings are percolating below the surface – it doesn’t matter how our art depicts the times we live in, but how that art shapes those times and the times that follow.