Tom Hodgkinson: 'Pop music must be live if it is not to die'


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The Independent Online

When it comes to pop, my tastes are simple. I like The Beatles. The Beatles to me are like the Socrates or the Shakespeare of pop music. All subsequent groups have been more or less attempts to recreate or recapture what the Beatles did, in terms of excitement, freedom and money-making, but most have captured only one small fraction of their energy and creative range. Some have done bits very well, but none has ever done the whole thing. The Beatles were the beginning and the end of pop music.

My guru in matters concerning pop would be Bill Drummond, a man who has probably reflected and cogitated on the subject more than anyone else alive. Drummond had a very successful career in commercial pop music. He managed Echo & the Bunnymen and set up Zoo Records. He is perhaps best known for his rave outfit the KLF, which brought out numerous global dance hits in the 1990s, and had a number one with "Doctorin' the Tardis". He is also known for what the press would often call stunts or pranks, but what Bill would rather think of as art: he and partner Jimmy Cauty famously once threw £1,000,000 worth of £50 notes into a fire in a cottage in Scotland. After they performed at the Brit Awards in 1992, the pair dumped a dead sheep on the red carpet of the aftershow party.

Drummond now objects to pop music because pop is a product. In his new book 100, a collection of interviews, he says that the 20th century was the first time music became a commodity. Of course, there was great joy in this. Bill, too, is a Beatles fan. He says he bought his first record on 17 February 1967: "The record was 'Penny Lane'. But it was the B-side of the record, 'Strawberry Fields Forever', that was to have a lasting impact, an impact I continue to feel on a daily basis."

But now, Drummond feels, it is time to return music to the people. His project The17 is an experiment in this approach. Bill gets 17 people in a room and together they sing. The result is never recorded and no one outside the room will ever hear it. "I now have very little interest in recorded music," Drummond writes, "and see it as a dying art form left over from the 20th century." He also says: "I have very little interest in the state of Pop. Pop is at its most powerful when you are a teenager." This is very true: I listened to the new Arctic Monkeys album in the car the other day, in order to try to get with it. I have to say that while I did feel the very occasional goosebump of excitement, in the main I found the music repetitive and even boring.

I keep half an eye on the contemporary pop scene as my 12-year-old son likes Gorillaz and Rizzle Kicks – or the Twizzle Sticks, as I mistakenly called them. Getting the names of pop groups wrong, by the way, is surely the duty of the middle-aged dad. In fact, now that my son is listening to pop and playing "Smoke on the Water" on his bass in his bedroom, I feel that it is now time for me to move on to more grown-up music, although I do, I suppose, enjoy playing pop hits on the ukulele.

And the ukulele for me, far from being a nostalgic throwback, is the future, because it literally puts music in the hands of the people. No longer do we have to pay the experts to do music for us. Now we can make it for ourselves, so playing the ukulele, for example, is a political statement.

Making millions through record sales may well be defunct as a money-making enterprise. So, how are musicians supposed to make money, if no one buys their records any more? The answer is through live events and possibly patronage.

And, as guru Drummond predicts, "The young and creative music-makers of the next few years are not going to want to make music that anybody can download off the internet, listen to at any time while doing almost anything.

"They will want to make music that is about time, place, occasion. They will want you to invest something of yourself to hear the music. They will not want you to be a mere consumer, but for you to be part of it."

Young music-makers, let us hear your voices!

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'