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The Mediums of Music


When interviewing older musicians, the tables are frequently turned, and I find myself asked for my opinion on contemporary music – its merits, musical and otherwise, and to what extent it’s relevant to young people’s lives in the way it “used to be.” These conversations date back to when I was writing All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77, whereby almost every person I spoke to, regardless of their generation, insisted that their scene had been the best. Ever.

I often remind my inquirers that that’s the way it should be: we’re meant to look back on our youth with unmitigated fondness, and to believe that nobody else ever had it so good. For my own part, when writing Boy About Town I realized how damn fortunate I had been to witness the new wave/post-punk scene first-hand, and at a time when 7” vinyl was not just a medium, but a currency, a distinguishing mark of one’s personality. But who am I to say that having access to just about all the music ever made, in the palm of your hand, isn’t preferable? And is preference even relevant? For the “kids of today,” that accessibility is not necessarily a bonus or a hindrance to their love of music: it just is.

See, when my generation was kids, we formed bands – some of us – and we learned other people’s songs, and then we struggled to get gigs so that we could play those people’s songs in public, hopefully with some of our own songs that we no doubt hoped would one day be covered by other young bands going through the same rite of passage. The trouble for many of us is that we were genuinely were kids, and again as detailed in Boy About Town, that meant we couldn’t easily find places to play. And even when we could, there were guardians at the gate: club bookers who dictated what was good and bad, or rather, what they thought would go down well with their punters, or would simply bring the punters in to begin with. Making contact with one’s potential public was in many ways harder than winning them over.

What has been fascinating for me in recent years, is seeing how contemporary kids of all ages discover music they love not through gigs (which in America, with its drinking age of 21, has always been difficult for young people) but through YouTube – and how, when that love of music coincides with a love of playing music, they record cover versions and share them back out through the same medium. A few months ago, our younger son Noel, now 10, recorded a version of “Honeybee” by Steam Powered Giraffe, which he had been introduced to by his big brother, Campbell, now 19. When Noel put his version up on YouTube, I was somewhat amazed to find that it was but one of dozens of video interpretations of the song, performed on piano, ukulele, guitar and a capella, in bedrooms, schoolrooms, and on club stages. The song had clearly connected with a generation: it just wasn’t my generation.

Similarly with his latest video cover, just completed and shared below, a cover of the Portal video game theme “Still Alive” on which he played everything but the four-note guitar solo. (That was dad, who nailed it in one take.) Noel’s version now joins a litany of “Still Alive” covers that have been recorded on almost every instrument and at every tempo imaginable. (The version by a kids choir in Wisconsin is truly astonishing.) It’s a great song by the way: that semi-tone chord drop at the end of each verse is genius at its most simple. It’s been around for years – and I didn’t know of it until recently. I’m a geezer now, after all.

Are all these cover versions any good? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, but at least it’s a level playing field. And at the end of the day, surely there is no less work entailed in learning a song, recording it at home (solo or with friends), editing it and then making a video to accompany it, than there is in learning that same song and performing it in public. The primary difference for the musician, perhaps, is that the time spent hustling for a gig can now be spent in Garageband or iMovie in control of the final product, for which the potential audience, via YouTube, is arguably unlimited – whereas anyone who has ever hustled for a gig only for it to rain that night, and the buses to go on strike, and your band-mate come down with the flu, and so on, has learned the hard way that sometimes your potential audience is limited to you, the bartender, and that mate of yours who had nothing else to do that night.

As for how things “used to be,” well, I do think that the age of the “rock star” is behind us, but the rock star didn’t even exist when my own parents were teens. And I agree that there’s an incredible amount of vacuous fluff out there that can seem all-pervasive unless you know to listen and look elsewhere – but hasn’t that always been the case? And so, at a point in time where kids – literally, kids – can discover music, learn it, record it, and film it, and then share it back out with the rest of the world, who are we to say that we had it better? We had it different. So do they. And so will the next generation. Enjoy each moment. And appreciate every medium – because if history is any guide, it won’t be around for long.

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