Problems & Perspectives
The Past

By Beppe Colli
June 11, 2014

Though I'm fully aware that this could appear as being dangerously close to a stereotype, I have to admit that my frequent reading more than a few magazines and newspapers printed in the United Kingdom has worked as a confirmation in my belief that U.K. citizens have a strong predilection for the act of making all sorts of charts and lists: a national pastime which appears to offer endless possibilities, from "The ten most breath-taking scenes in James Bond movies" to "The ten most eye-catching landscapes located in Cornwall".

Let's not forget that the habit of writing lists is a recent addition to those music magazines based in the United States - a country where this occupation was previously unknown - and that this innovation runs parallel to the phenomenon of U.K. journalists being chosen as editors of large U.S. magazines, where they have brought this particular strain of "English disease".

So I was not puzzled when, a few years ago, I noticed that a massive audience - in my own estimate, more than a few hundred enthusiastic readers - were having great fun, giving their feedback to one of those questions asked by U.K. newspaper The Guardian. I have to admit I can't seem to remember the precise formulation, but in a nutshell it went like this: "Tell us the name(s) of any song(s) you remember that deal(s) with somebody's first love, or a very important love story that's now long past". I don't remember if this was asked for all/any decade(s), or if the attribution only occurred ex post.

After a close examination of the songs (hundreds of them), and the year they were originally released, I noticed that the distribution presented a clear pattern, with a lot of songs released in the fifties, even more songs released in the sixties, fewer songs released in the seventies, and from then on it was a steep slide, with not a lot of songs released in the eighties, practically none released in the nineties, and just a few released in the last decade - something which appears to be similar to the widely-known "dead cat bounce", and just as lively.

Sure, it doesn't appear as a great revelation. But the circumstance that a few hundred people sent their song titles offers a more satisfying list than what any single person, however "in the know", could ever produce. The picture that appeared was quite clear: the sorrow one feels over a love that's now in the past, as a song topic, becomes less frequent with each passing decade. Interpretation may vary, of course, but facts are facts.

(Songs that came to my mind? Well, one from the Sixties, from the time of the "British Invasion": The Hollies' Bus Stop; then, a "modern" song - on a "boomer" time scale: it's a song from thirty years ago - Don Henley's The Boys Of Summer.)

As many have noticed - this is not a very original observation on my part - nowadays it's widely accepted that in our age people appear to cultivate the present in an almost obsessive manner; however, the number of "objects" from the past one has at his/her own disposal is simply astonishing.

Those who for reasons of age are not able to remember "the way it was" will consider today's scenario as being the norm. But let's not forget that in the past it was only normal for objects to simply "disappear", this fact not even coming to one's attention except for special cases. Just a for instance: By the mid-seventies, finding a shop that had in stock albums by groups that just a few years earlier had dominated the charts all over the world such as The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Chicago, was not something that was to be taken for granted. The size and composition of the "catalogue" varied quite dramatically from nation to nation, so it was only thanks to personal friends, or trips to faraway countries that somehow resembled pilgrimages, that one was able to fill a few holes in one's record collection.

Paradoxes abounded. Sometimes finding albums by such "cult" artists as The Stooges, Tim Buckley, and The Velvet Underground - whose unloved records sat still, covered with dust - was easier than finding catalogue albums by such groups as The Doors and The Rolling Stones, which had sold out and had not been reprinted yet. And what was more bizarre than the concept of a re-release in a day and age when music appeared to change so fast?

Paradoxes still abound, also problems that appear quite difficult to solve - including topics related to compensation for all those involved. Sure, being able to watch the famous 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert by Creedence Clearwater Revival is fantastic - but it's precisely the fact that it is so easily available, in excellent visuals and sound, that makes it high unlikely for an official release to be produced and distributed through the normal channels. It's nice to be able to see and hear such legendary groups as Soft Machine and Henry Cow caught in the act at the top of their powers - however, one can't help but ask oneself if being able to access such undisputed highs from an age when "difficult", "experimental", "avant-garde" musical forms once filed under "rock" somehow managed to flourish won't make one devalue those weaker sparks that with such great difficult try to survive in this present age.

When talking about "objects" from the past it's practically impossible to avoid the question regarding the age of those who "consume" them. Here, heated arguments are the norm.

I'm fully aware that Forums such as the one moderated by Steve Hoffman are not in any way "representative" of the larger whole. However, I think the following for instance can offer useful information.

A few months ago, starting in a casual way that did not make one anticipate the avalanche that followed, somebody started a thread about The Rolling Stones - something which in a way could be said to be daring, given the fact that the Forum in question is widely considered to be a bastion of Beatlemania. Moderated by (what appears to be: in cases like this, one never really knows) a lawyer under thirty-five based in Chicago (and about to marry), the avalanche grew to thousand and thousand posts and hundred of thousand hits. Later divided in chapters, the discussion saw little participation from those who caught the Stones live in the mid-Sixties (the generation of Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches, and Greil Marcus), but sound and video files more than compensated. Starting with the albums - and tours - from the late Sixties, all exploded, with a great plurality of perspectives, also from those who were yet to be born at the time when Some Girls was released - or even later!

Threads like the one referred above - and such "virtual" communities - make it possible to create very rich "objects" which make those generic features that still appear on many monthlies completely redundant. Those in need of a "for instance" only have to take a look at those pages from Wikipedia (I'm talking about the one written in English) that deal with the single by The Beatles featuring the songs Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane.

It's at this point that somebody asks: "Where are the discussions, the threads, about Henry Cow and Soft Machine?". Which is a very stimulating question.

Sad but true, we have to consider the possibility that - while it was still a manageable proposition at the time when commerce was king - having articles about those groups has proved to be impossible nowadays that all creative work is to be done on a "voluntary" basis. Quite a paradox!

A quick calculation: assuming one active subject every one hundred thousand copies sold, when it comes to Led Zeppelin - one hundred million copies sold (as certified by RIAA for the United States, total worldwide being double or triple that) - will give us a figure of one thousand people.

But today the Web gives us the chance to have a coherent discussion among people located all over the world - which is only normal, given the minority status of all "difficult" music. (Let's not forget that Cluster are only remembered thanks to their recorded collaboration with Brian Eno, and that on a global scale Eno is a "cult" artist.)

So one has to ponder a very uncomfortable question: not "Where are the threads about Henry Cow?", but "How do I spend my spare time?".

I believe it can be said that nowadays the biggest names in commercial terms among those names from the past are The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd.

When it comes to Led Zeppelin I don't really know how many copies will be sold of their re-released (for the umpteenth time) albums - available in the usual formats: vinyl, CD, hi-res, single, double, and boxes.

At the moment of this writing, the aforementioned Steve Hoffman Forum has three different threads running at the same time, those discussing the CD and the vinyl currently sporting about one thousand posts and sixty thousand hits each, the thread about the hi-res files at about a third. It has to be noticed that this discussions are quite different than what was the norm in the past, with a lesser degree of subjectivism. Today's options when it comes to comparing digital files - and sampling and inverting them, to produce a "null" result, so showing that versions believed to be different are the same, and vice versa - give a more empirical basis to one's personal evaluation.

And while it's true that many just add a word or two, and that many appear for the most part quite intent to save a buck or two when it comes to matters of p&p, it's also true that many offer data and arguments of very good value.

Now it's time to go back to where we started: the Guardian's poll about our mourning a love from the past.

We could say that the great abundance of stimuli makes it quite unlikely for one to develop a sentimental attachment so strong as to make one still remember something after all those years. And I think it can be said that living "in the present" appears to be the typical state today.

Were I to choose an apocalyptic tone, I'd talk about an attitude of mild aversion to wasting one's time telling others about concerts or movies one has recently attended that I increasingly see around. It used to be that one's unwillingness to engage in such a conversation was due to one's lack of attention at the event - which could be defined as being "yesterday's problem".  While nowadays it's one's wasting one's time talking about something that already happened instead of devoting one's full attention to what's in front of us that's to be avoided at all costs - something which could be defined as "being completely in the moment", or "today's problem".

Is there an environment that nowadays appear to be at least partially immune to this attitude, one where memory and learning still count for something? Well, it appears there is. It's called - ta-da! - videogames. To be more precise, those categories of experience where our learning from past experiences increases our chances of being successful in the future.

Here I could mention the movie by Harold Ramis called Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, with its Zen flavour. Better yet, the recent Edge Of Tomorrow.

It goes without saying that a utilitarian pattern of behaviour doesn't appear to go well with the "disinterested" attitude that's typical of one's appreciation for music.

What's left to say?

Beppe Colli 2014 | June 11, 2014