When I trained as a teacher, I made some good friends amongst the classmates, particularly a trio of fellow musical obsessives. (No surprise, I know). The four of us would argue about musical trivia, like whether Paul McCartney or John Entwhistle was the superior bass player, which Pink Floyd lineup was the best (Barret or Waters?), whether rock music died in 1980 or 1992, which Led Zeppelin album was the best, and all that tedious/joyous music buff trivia. We’d savour minutiae like the first bass note in Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes”, the backing vocals in “A Quick One While He’s Away”, the syncopation in Slash’s magnificent guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” , Gilmour’s epic singing in “A Saucerful Of Secrets” (the live version, of course).
Though we tended to converge on classic rock, none of us were stale Mojo-reading types. Greg was more into the savagery of death, industrial and thrash; Andres, from Madrid, knew a great deal of Spanish music; Matt, the youngest of us, was the most interested in new music (somehow he was a big fan of The Libertines); and some of my own musical interests they despised, such as jazz, electronica, and much of punk. Classic rock was the arena we all agreed on, loving (for example) The Who, Led Zep, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Joy Division, Captain Beefheart, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Clash, Public Image Limited, and so on. You know the kind of stuff.
So, anyway, the four of us would entertain ourselves arguing ferociously about music: the argument about whether The Who or The Beatles were the greatest was endless, while we would amuse ourselves by saying, “If we were [band name], who would we be?” For example, if we were Queen, I would be John Deacon (a severely under-rated bass player), Andres would be Roger Taylor, Greg Brian May and Matthew Freddy Mercury. Fun times.
One evening, though, Andres put on a DVD of Cream, them live at the Albert Hall. The others expected me to lap it up, but I hated it. The music Cream were playing was so fucking stale, it was like listening to a fossil. Cream could sure play (like that means anything!), the songs were well-crafted, the sound quality was superb for a live show, and it was all well and good… but the blues’ primal howl had been utterly emasculated. All the rough edges had been sanded away; the pain and discord soothed. And while the Albert Hall may be a jolly nice venue, it is hardly conducive to rock n’ roll. The music, the whole fucking thing, seemed like a museum piece, a butterfly in glass, with a beautifully-maintained structure and absolutely zero life.
Afterwards, the others went someplace, and I went to Jungle Nation. I don’t know much about jungle music, couldn’t tell you any DJs or anything, but Jungle Nation is (was, more likely) a really popular and long-running club night which I always enjoyed going to. There, amidst the pounding rhythms, aggressive breakbeats and raw vocalising (can’t really call it “singing”) were all the qualities that Cream had lost: primal, dirty, instinctive, immediate, enthralling and utterly alive. The contrast was immediately obvious. Never mind all the classics – music, like any art form, only exists in the present tense. When it’s a museum piece, as sadly happened to jazz and is becoming the case with rock music (having bifurcated into banal mortgage rock/landfill indie and the still-thriving metal scene), it’s dead. Dead.