ROCK / Hey, what a concept: They're back, and this time they mean business. Lloyd Bradley witnesses the return of the musos

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The Independent Culture
SUDDENLY, people in the music industry are murmuring about a return to 'proper music'. By which they don't mean acts like 2 Unlimited, who are at the top of the singles chart this week with a thin slice of pop entitled 'No Limit'. They mean those other artists in the Top 40, like Sting, The Beloved, Go West, Heaven 17, or even the newly revitalised Duran Duran.

What separates these performers from 2 Unlimited and their kin - the Kylies, the Undercovers, and the KWS's? Some (the artists themselves, for instance) would probably say it had to do with things like 'depth' and 'more formidable musical intelligence'. Others would put it more simply: they're all musos.

What is a muso? The term is a mocking diminutive of 'musician' and is utterly without positive or complimentary associations. It denotes many things that are the antithesis of what rock music holds most dear. For instance, to qualify as a muso, you will need to be formally trained on your instrument, and aware that 'a diminished fifth' is a musical term and not a half-drunk bottle of bourbon.

But musical knowledge alone is not enough to qualify for muso-hood. You will also have to be dedicated to the use of that knowledge for utterly tedious ends. Musos are, figuratively speaking, rock stars in anoraks, the chart-topper as train-spotter. Where musos roam, what is played is less important than how it's played, to the exclusion of nearly all of rock's original virtues - energy, spontaneity, humour et cetera. Then, before you can say 'Rick Wakeman', people you thought were pop stars are talking about their 'craft'. In rock language, muso is a term of abuse way beyond 'boring'. In fact, being a muso is one of rock's few hanging offences. And we'd better look out, because apparently the muso is back in business.

As with so many changes of the wind in the music business, simple economics are involved. Albums are far more profitable for record companies than singles. But the market for albums is no longer a straightforward extension of singles sales. Richard Drummie, the instrumentalist half of the duo Go West, explains: 'So many of the current acts are singles acts. What they do is just one basic groove, which wouldn't work across an album. So record companies are having to look for more musically-based groups. But during the last few years, kids haven't been sitting down practising the guitar night after night; it's just as easy to go out and buy a sequencer and let the computer do the donkey work for you - so they stopped learning craft and now there's a gap. That's why the old bands are resurfacing. The only way record companies can have some musically capable acts immediately is to wheel the old gits out. I'm sure it's a case of 'Who's that band we've had on contract for ages? They can play a bit, can't they? Good - stick 'em on a sunbed for a bit and get 'em on to Top of the Pops.' '

The last time musos were present in such large numbers was the early Eighties, when the singles chart was clogged up with the likes of Jon & Vangelis, 10cc, Shakatak, Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones. (Go West themselves caught the end of this wave with a string of hits in 1985.) But these were by no means the first musos. It's still being argued whether Scotty Moore, Bert Weedon or Hank Marvin was rock's inaugural muso. But the term wasn't in official use back then, so none of them really got into trouble for it.

Once we reach the Sixties, the definition starts to focus. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were excused all manner of muso behaviour by their interesting personalities and fascinating drug habits. Pink Floyd, though, who suffered a certain character vacuum, never quite recovered from the smart-arse reputation they earned with Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

All of which was, in retrospect, merely an overture to the Seventies, the decade of unmitigated muso Utopia. In the Seventies, the humble organ metamorphosed into something called 'keyboards'. Meanwhile, studio technology was expanding and rock groups with too much money were in a position to capitalise on this. Some began to explore the notion that an LP might be more than just a collection of singles. Pomp rock, supergroups and concept albums, come on down. The end-product of music-making was to be appreciated rather than merely listened to.

And people appreciated in quantity. These muso ramblings were aimed at flower power's teenagers who, now adults, wanted something seemingly grown-up. Market penetration of home hi-fi played its part; what better as a test for your expensive new equipment than the classical allusions of progressive rock? The main offenders were Yes, ELP and King Crimson. Muso alumni included Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, and Robert Fripp. Heavy metal bands played with orchestras; people released three-sided double LPs; half-hour long tracks and 'interpretations' of books and paintings were widespread. Even the previously uncomplicated Motown sound wasn't immune. Norman Whitfield immersed The Temptations in his personal psychedelic visions; and after three albums of popularly acclaimed synthesiser compositions, Stevie Wonder showed an unsurprising muso side with the disastrously conceited three-LP set, The Secret Life of Plants.

But then came punk. Diametrically opposed to all things muso (although The Clash and The Damned were suspiciously melodic), punk seemed to have swept the board clean of musos. In the Eighties, however, a new breed emerged - the techno- literate and possibly more intense muso. Technology enables band situations to be created singlehandedly. The scope for self-indulgence is staggering; if Prince's overall demeanour wasn't so entertaining, he'd be banished for ever to muso hell - and this environment is best illustrated by the example of the hip hop exponent Mantronik, a muso for our times. Mantronik once explained that the hi-hat cymbal on one of his records was in fact a recording of his baby niece crying, treated digitally until it ended up sounding like the chosen cymbal. When asked 'wouldn't it be easier just to use a hi hat?' he replied: 'No, that would be a hi hat: my sound is like a hi hat.' It's in those kinds of distinction that muso-ness thrives.

Matt Johnson from the group The The sees a return of the muso as sadly inevitable. 'They never went away - there's always been Dire Straits, Genesis, the hierarchy, and as they seem to win so many awards, there will always be young bands that will aspire to be them. They're the problem: the bands that see themselves as craftsmen but don't know what to do with it; the dreadful bands that'll throw in an unexpected chord progression or a time signature change just to stop you tapping you feet. But every time the cycle turns and we get a revival of something, it's shallower than before, so there's probably not too much danger of things getting as bad as they were in the Seventies.'

Richard Drummie claims: 'After the first album, when you've had to play the part of the pop star, you over-react just to prove you're serious musicians. Because we had to wear those vests at the beginning, for the next album we wore big black coats buttoned right up and the music was deliberately dark. Nobody could get into it - even we found it an effort. Now, we know we don't need to prove anything. The older, less trendy-looking acts can get themselves across in the Sunday colour supplements and nobody's worried that they're not whacky or aren't pin-up material.'

If we really are at the second dawning of the muso's golden age, we can expect one key difference. Drummie explains: 'There won't be any drummers. Nobody bothers with them these days; it's perfectly acceptable to go out on tour with a drum machine. Which means no more drum solos. Every live show used to have one, and half of the time the rest of the band had no idea how long it would go on for. You'd just wander off stage, have a bit of a break and hope he wouldn't take too long . . . Maybe they weren't such a bad idea.'

How to spot a muso: we list the tell-tale signs

MUSOS can't drag themselves away from their 'project' long enough to think up a PROPER BAND NAME - Emerson Lake & Palmer, Climie Fisher, Santana, the Alan Parsons Project, Buggles and so on.

They're unnaturally interested in any NEWLY DEVELOPED MUSICAL INSTRUMENT; Stevie Wonder, the Moog synthesizer; Robert Fripp, the Chapman Stick; Jimmy Page, the twin-necked Gibson; Rolf Harris and the Stylophone doesn't count. Godley & Creme went so far as to invent and market the Gizmo, a synthesizer-like attachment for the electric guitar that allowed notes to be sustained ad infinitum. It was a commercial failure.

The THEMATIC, OR CONCEPT, ALBUM will occur: Dark Side of the Moon, The Secret Life of Plants, I Robot, Tales from Topographic Oceans . . .

A secondary career in FILM OR TELEVISION THEME MUSIC beckons - Paul Hardcastle, Mike Oldfield, Vangelis, Jan Hammer.

In an attempt at instant personality, it's common for acts to graft on some sort of TALKING POINT. Rick Wakeman had his capes, Nik Kershaw wore a snood (it's a type of scarf, but was good copy back in 1984), Jimmy Page dabbled with the devil and Howard Jones got Jed the mime artiste to perform with him on Top of the Pops.

Groups they were a part of COLLAPSED after they left. Nobody from Frankie Goes to Hollywood had any sustained success after Trevor Horn's lack of involvement. Bros didn't last too long after the other one (Craig Logan) left to pursue a successful writing and production career. And teen idols Curiosity Killed the Cat vanished for several years after they sacked Toby Anderson, the balding 31-year-old keyboard player who wrote their huge-selling first album. Right Said Fred ought to take out insurance on the one with the hair.

There's mileage in PRETENDING TO BE A MUSO. Witness Spandau Ballet's Kemp brothers, so overwhelmingly convincing when discussing their 'art' - the records they made, not the Picassos they owned; and Tears For Fears spending three years and over pounds 1m making Sowing the Seeds of Love. But you then have to deliver a pretty straightforward album otherwise you'll end up like Sting. He's spent years trying to convince the world he's a muso but, in spite of the haircuts, the jazz musicians and the pompous LP titles, his best-received work is his most simple.

They'll have an UNDERSTANDING BANK MANAGER. While expensively produced, less-than-successful albums are not unusual, muso self-indulgence can run as far as Rick Wakeman's live performance of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: it involved a 45-piece orchestra and a 50-strong choir and took place on ice.

(Photographs omitted)