the death of the grown-up
In the mixed-up Nineties, teenagers hallucinate to Hawkwind, dance music has its dinosaurs and John Peel is not the only old fogey who enjoys the febrile scratchings of the young. What's going on?
Sunday 04 February 1996
It's true that Keith Moon, the Who's loveable lunatic of a drummer, did die before he got old, thus entering a pop Valhalla of self-destructed heroes - from Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain - whose premature deaths remain emblematic of rock's glorious burnout. (Cue another famous line, by another famous non-dead rock star: "It's better to burn out than to fade away.") But the dilemma of rock's Sixties rebels reaching their fifties isn't one that's going to go away - or even fade away - quietly.
It's funny, isn't it, but you never do think you're going to "get old" - until you do, until one day you realise that you've turned a corner and that what you do looks awful c-cold to them, to the younger generation who are rising up to cut you down in what you thought was your prime. Who damn you if you do try to stay in touch ("Don't try to dig what we all s-say") and damn you if you don't ("Why don't you all f-fade away?").
Face it, you can't win: you're getting older and you're going to die. And the paradigm is unavoidable: Noise equals Youth, ergo Maturity equals Quiet (and ultimately, Silence). Call it ageist if you must, but consider just how desperate Mick "Dorian Gray" Jagger looks masquerading as a 20- year-old rock 'n' roll rebel in his fifties. It may be okay for Sinatra to be singing You Make Me Feel So Young at 80, but it's somehow not OK for Jagger to be singing Street Fighting Man at 52.
In any case, there is an argument to suggest that most of the rock greats were at their best in the early-to-middle years of their career. "When I was just starting out," says Randy Newman, 52 this year, "you'd hear quotes from people like, 'I'm not gonna be doin' this when I'm 35', and then no one's leaving the stage. But now people are getting forced to leave the stage. And I'm not convinced that it's not the kind of business where people don't do their best work at a young age. It's like physics or chess, where people, once they're past 32 or 33, it's sort of over. There are far more cases of people who do their best work and sort of decline than there are of people who're gettin' better and better. Maybe Neil Young's better than he was, but it's a difficult thing."
Take what cheer you can from some of the last words of Lester Bangs, champion of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and most of the other deviant insurrectionists coughed by rock (and dead at 33 in 1982): "All these people who say 'Teenage rock 'n' roll' as if that's the only thing it's about, celebrating your adolescence ... there are other things. You can bring rock 'n' roll into life. I think rock 'n' roll is better when it reaches out to those things. One reason I like the Velvet Underground is because it's real adult music." (Bangs would have been proud of his sometime sparring partner Lou Reed, whose new album Set the Twilight Reeling sets new standards in "adult" rock 'n' roll.) Take cheer, but don't delude yourself that it's not the young who rule, who are strong and beautiful and busy casting you aside. It's called evolution, old bean.
And yet maybe it's not quite that simple after all. Because actually, when you cast a glance over the pop landscape in the mid-Ninties, it becomes apparent that something rather peculiar is happening. Things are getting mixed up; different pop eras are overlapping with each other, being knitted together in revivals and pastiches and borrowings. Bands like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Small Faces mean as much as (and in some cases more than) they meant back in the Seventies; jazz-funk heroes of the Seventies are being rehabilitated by practitioners of acid jazz; the album accompanying David Toop's admirable book on ambient music Ocean of Sound brings together Miles Davis and Terry Riley with the Aphex Twin and My Bloody Valentine in a dazzling mix 'n' match soundtrack that answers so much more accurately to the real consumption of music than any narrow pigeonholing of genres and periods. There is, in fact, considerably less of a sense of That Was Then, This Is Now than there was when My Generation (or even Generation X) was the generation to belong to.
Don't get me wrong - terms such as "Dinosaur" and "Old Fart" have just as much currency in today's pop vernacular as they ever did. But even the bumfluffed, cooler-than-thou post-adolescents who use them are less vituperative than their forebears. The reason? Simply that they are the first generation raised by parents with cool record collections, the first generation to grow up listening to the Beatles and the Stones (and maybe even Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin). React against their parents' tastes they may initially have done, but now, in the age of Blur and Oasis, it's a little harder to dismiss the past as mouldy old dough. When the exuberant Supergrass displayed their favourite albums to Q magazine last year, the most recent they selected was made in 1976 (and that was J J Cale's Troubadour!) The recent and over-hyped return of Beatlemania - about to get a much-needed shot of credibility from the second instalment of Anthology - seemed to be of almost greater interest to young bands and their fans than it did to the Beatles' original followers.
Even in the futuristic subculture of dance music, in all its manifold and mutant strains, the old has become the new. Barely-twentysomethings bliss out to the sound of System 7, featuring ex-Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, or hallucinate to hoary old Hawkwind. Hardcore clubbers may regard rock as outmoded, its appeal predicated on a blokeish notion of songwriting "authenticity" - they may even see Blur and Oasis as fundamentally retro - but even dance culture has its hallowed dinosaurs, from Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder to Chic and Cerrone. The sampling revolution alone has radically shaken up the polarities of old and new.
Nor is John Peel is the only old fogey who genuinely enjoys the trancey loops and febrile scratchings of young folk. One of the contributors to the Guardian's recent mid-life angst-a-thon claimed that people like her were "not yet decrepit enough for Mantovani but too long in the tooth for Nirvana", but there are plenty of greying or balding types who've shaken a leg to Smells Like Teen Spirit, and even joined the nomadic tribes at the annual Glastonbury Festival. In any case, try telling Mike Flowers that Mantovani is uncool: the recent craze for Easy Listening that saw Mr Flowers' wonderful reworking of Oasis almost reach No 1 is a perfect case in point of the Old intersecting with the New.
I suppose all of this could be construed as mere wishful thinking on the part of a 36-year-old music writer getting a little nervous about his right to pontificate about Portishead and P J Harvey. (That's me, by the way.) Perhaps if I didn't write about music I would simply do what many thirtysomethings have done and drift away from pop culture. You know, buy the new Springsteen album or even the new Mary Chapin Carpenter album but otherwise get on with real life and stop caring so much about the minutiae of music. It's probably true to say that if I wasn't a music writer I wouldn't even know about techno star -Ziq (pronounced mu-sic) and therefore would never have heard his insanely wonderful album In Pine Effect. Probably I'd just stick with the old cult heroes: people like Lou Reed, who four years ago informed me that the magnificent Magic and Loss was "an album that an adult can listen to, so it helps if you have some life experience under your belt".
Last week, with a little more life experience under my belt, I sat in Lou Reed's New York office and heard him once again confront the old bogeyman of Age. "You're supposed to get better if you keep at something," he said, as if responding to Randy Newman's theory of natural pop decline.
"It's one thing for a short haul: most groups are around for a year to three years, and then they're gone. But if you're in it for the long haul, you want to make sure you're not just doing the same thing over and over again. With the Velvet Underground, I wanted to be able to listen to the songs later on. I wanted them to be about something that you could go back to 30 years later. And in fact you can: they're not trapped in the Sixties, they're not locked into that Zeitgeist."
Which, I guess, brings us full circle. Because whenever I listen to the Velvet Underground, I respond in the way I've always responded to great art, to sound that is at once astonishing and disturbing. And generation after generation, bands continue to be influenced by that extraordinary band's extraordinary records. If the Velvets - inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last week - have finally been embraced by the rock establishment, their music remains as anti-establishment as it ever did, and as profoundly contemporary. I'll never be too old for it. I hope I'll never be too old for -Ziq either.
THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY / MORI POP SURVEY
How sweet to know that Punks Not Dead. Not quite, anyway - 7 per cent of people still thrill to the Pistols et al. But in general, more middle- of-the road types of music fared best. 58 per cent of people enjoy chart pop (including 50 per cent of 35-54 year olds); this was the most popular category overall. Second came easy listening (appreciated by 38 per cent of people) and rock'n'roll (36 per cent) - both slightly more popular with older respondents. Indie rock / pop and reggae score well with younger people, both appealing to around one third of 16-34 year olds.
MORI interviewed a representative quota sample of 1,017 people aged 16- 54 at 73 sampling points throughout Great Britain. Interviews were conducted face-to-face, in the home, on 19-20 Dec 1995
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