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MARTIN RYAN: Things Now Are As Good As They Used To Be!

Sounding Off
Published August 1997

Youth of today Martin Ryan puts the case for the defence of modern music — and argues that judgement should be reserved for the time being.

Whether it's a whinge about the latest batch of dance‑orientated synths or a complaint about the state of music today, the average Sounding Off could be summed up with the phrase "things ain't as good as they used to be. " What I intend to do in this article is provide the case for the defence.

According to Steven Robinson (SOS July '96) pop music died some time in the mid '70s, and the youth of today (myself included) have put up with "a monstrous amount of garbage passed off as music". The modern music scene is "sadly lacking" in real talent, consumed by a "brainwashed" public who apparently have no concept of what they like or dislike. A whole generation has grown up accepting whatever the marketing moguls of the record companies choose to throw at them. This assessment strikes me as just a little unfair.

The question of what constitutes talent is one that I really can't answer. I guess we all like to believe that the music we listen to is produced by talented people. Personally I find modern musicians such as Liam Howlett or Robert Miles every bit as talented as Lennon or McCartney. They have all pushed back the musical boundaries in some way, and to argue that one genre is superior to another is a dangerous game. For Mr Robinson, the '60s and '70s produced classic songs that are still remembered several decades later. However, for every song that becomes a classic, hundreds do not and are forgotten. Just as there is (in my opinion) some absolute dross in today's charts, so there was some absolute dross in the charts of the '60s and '70s. Does anyone remember the Piltdown Men? Or The Merseybeats? And it wasn't my generation who got Rolf Harris' 'Two Little Boys' to number one. Mr Robinson is also on safe ground to talk about '60s and '70s covers, using them to argue his case that those songs were much better than the songs of today. Obviously, though, it's not likely that we'll start seeing covers of such '90s songs as 'Don't look back in anger' for a good few years — not because they're no good, but because it's not yet time for them to be revisited.

Mr Robinson's diatribe against modern marketing methods is easier to attack. I agree that music today is heavily marketed and that image plays a part in the success of pop stars, but things have always been this way. Would Elvis have become such a phenomenon if he had been short, fat and devoid of sex appeal? Was the popularity of The Beatles due solely to their music? Even if marketing of pop music were a modern invention, this would not mean that consumers were incapable of making their own decisions. Consider one of the most marketed bands in recent history — Babylon Zoo. Their single, 'Spaceman', made number one on the strength of the Levi ads, and when people realised that they weren't some futuristic techno band, Babylon Zoo soon vanished from sight.

But it is not just the music that has come in for criticism in Sound On Sound: technology has taken a battering too. How often are we told that modern technology stifles creativity, that MIDI creates dull, sterile music, or even that using a sequencer is no substitute for learning to play a 'real' instrument (whatever that may be). Technology is a tool — nothing more, nothing less. If a person's music is dull and sterile it is not the fault of the equipment but the fault of the musician. A sequencer can record only what you play into it.

Technology cannot be blamed for a lack of innovation. Synth modules aimed at the dance market, such as Emu's Orbit, have been attacked for providing yet more of the same old dancey sounds, with no thought for experimentation. What seems to have been forgotten is that dance music is a style like any other style; it has certain characteristics and instrumentation, but these do not preclude experimentation. Would it be decided that a jazz band could not be experimental simply because it used a clarinet and a double‑bass, or that there is a fundamental problem with rock music because it always uses electric guitars? It's not the sounds that determine whether a piece of music is innovative but the ways in which those sounds are used. If dance music seems to be rigid and, to a certain extent, predictable, this is simply because that's what people want in a club. The 909s and 303s are used so often because they work, they get people dancing. Their seemingly ubiquitous presence is not a fault of dance music. It's the musicians, not the technology, who are important. Drum loops had been used before Goldie's 'Timeless', but he almost single‑handedly created a new form of music. Similarly, pianos had been used in house music long before Robert Miles' track 'Children', but it was still ground‑breaking.

If there's any message to be found in this article, it's best summed up by Pink Floyd: "Leave those kids alone". The music scene today is different from what it was in the '60s because the world is a different place. The music of today is no better or worse than that which has come before it — it is simply different. Modern technology does not mean that music need be restricted or stifled; it does not make music good or bad — the musician does that. Sure, I produce utter rubbish using Cubase, but then you haven't heard my guitar playing!