Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

*

To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

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One thought on “Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

  1. It’s interesting that comparatively few recording artists produce a really outstanding debut album. Where it does happen, it’s usually with people who’ve been quietly gigging away for a few years – solo singer-songwriters, particularly – before getting their ‘big break’.

    In cinema, I think we quite often find that a director’s debut film is utterly breathtaking, and perhaps never equalled or bettered in the rest of their career. Sometimes with writers, too, they only produce one major novel, or only one really good one – and it’s their first. These people know they may only get once chance in their lives to do something like this, and they spare no effort to make it the best it can possibly be.

    Producing a novel or a feature film is a rather more elaborate and protracted process than producing an album – at least in the preparation. That marvellous debut effort in film or fiction writing may have spent years in gestation; its creator is probably already at least in the mid or late twenties, quite possibly well into the thirties, or even older, and is likely to have served a long technical apprenticeship: for writers, producing journalism or advertising copy, honing their fiction skills on short stories; for film directors, shooting commercials or TV programmes, or making low budget shorts with their film school buddies. Musicians tend to get thrown into the midst of “the industry” very quickly, perhaps when they’re still in their teens or early twenties, when they are not yet intellectually or emotionally mature. And because of the crazy nature of the lifestyle of constant touring and intense media attention, attaining that maturity may then be indefinitely delayed for many of them.

    So, for many bands, the main “progression” is simply a case of getting better at what they do – as their musicianship and songwriting craft improve, and as their sense of musical identity becomes stronger. The first album or two may have an appealing rawness or naivety, but most bands don’t fully find their distinctive style or ‘voice’ and start producing their best stuff until the third or fourth album.

    Very often, we also have the sense that the career of a band or a musician is an unfolding drama being played out in the public spotlight; and their music may be an interesting reflection of this experience – something that their fans feel they are sharing as it happens. Though the stresses of wealth and fame tend to have mostly negative impacts – on personal relationships, health, mental well-being, and so on – this can constitute powerful subject matter for songs. So, the “progression” may depend on the personal journey of the band/musician as expressed in their music – with darker experiences tending to produce more powerful songs.

    In general, though, I’m rather sceptical of the idea of “progression”. Most musicians, I think, don’t get massively better at playing or writing songs; and most of them don’t write very insightfully about their lives in the pressure-cooker of stardom. As you say, the musical “progression” of many bands is simply a drift towards bland commercialism, reaching out to the lowest common denominator… or a diminution of youthful zeal and iconoclastic energy as they age.

    Even when “development” isn’t just about chasing sales, I don’t often welcome it. Popular music is terribly faddish. And musicians are just as vulnerable to these fads as anyone else. Too often – for me! – musical development in a band is just a case of experiment for experiment’s sake, moving away from the style that defines you and that you’re good at (perhaps subconsciously or deliberately an act of rebellion against oppressive fan expectations; or an eruption of artistic pretension; or simply an impulse born of boredom after living the same lifestyle and playing the same songs for too long) to dabble in weird novelties. In China, the rock star’s midlife crisis often seems to express itself in a reggae album. In the West, we’ve had far too many rock bands decide to dabble in rap or dance music. And we’ve had regrettable aberrations like Queen abandoning their decade-long manifesto of eschewing synthesisers. Don’t get me started on Radiohead’s dalliance with acid jazz, electronica, and noise!

    I think bands like The Stones who maintain a consistent style over many years are often unfairly criticized, even mocked, for what should in fact be seen as a virtue, a worthwhile achievement that very few bands have managed to pull off. If you can play a certain style of music for 50 years without going stale on it, and can still write good songs in that style without repeating yourself, what need of change or “development”? The great blues players are mostly happy to play in the same genre and the same style throughout their lives, without losing their freshness and enthusiasm for the music. And rock music is fundamentally blues-based. I love bands like AC/DC and ZZ Top who can keep their ‘sound’ unchanged for decades. I have no problem with “predictability”: for me, the style of the music doesn’t have to change, so long as its quality remains consistently high.

    The Beatles are a bit of a freak case: emerging in a time of musical ferment, when everyone was experimenting with new ideas and everyone was borrowing elements from each other’s music (in the 1960s, rock music was only just being born, had not yet been Balkanized into rigidly defined sub-genres); having a very brief but intense career (these days, most bands would only be on their third or fourth album after eight years!); and having all four members contribute songs to the band, while undergoing very difficult personal transformations under the stresses of fame.

    My feeling is that you quite often see bands improving musically and defining a style for themselves over their first two, three, four albums. But you hardly ever see a band that continues to change and grow – in a good way – throughout the entire course of their career.

    [The Beatles might be the sole example. Radiohead, I feel, started venturing up their own anus on OK Computer and completely concealed themselves there for the next few albums. Pink Floyd’s post-Waters work (and Waters’ post-Floyd work) is very much repeating the same ideas over and over again. Even as full-blown Floyd, The Final Cut (much as I like it) was just leftovers from The Wall, and The Wall (much as I like it) was a slight step down from the three albums that had preceded it. The Velvet Underground didn’t have that much of a recording career (only four or five albums?). And Kraftwerk I’m afraid I scarcely know. Amongst these bands you cite in your second category as achieving consistently interesting “development” throughout their careers, I think only The Beatles clearly live up to that claim.]

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