28th Nov 2007

A musical complaint

I could probably be accused of taking music too seriously. I have found myself recently getting nostalgic for my late teens and early twenties, when music really mattered – it wasn’t just a matter of taste what kind of music you liked, it was closer to a matter of moral principle. I found myself right back in that mindset tonight.

Events conspired to have me attend, at short notice, a Crowded House concert. I was really there for the support act, Duke Special, but I thought it’d be only polite to stay for the main feature. Crowded House aren’t a band I’d go out of my way to listen to, but if they came on the radio I wouldn’t turn it off. Not especially exciting, but melodic, harmonic, goes down pretty easy. I thought that, even if it wouldn’t be the most exciting gig I’d ever been to, it would at least be pleasant. How wrong can you be.

Four or five songs in I wanted to shoot the bass player. Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum, every single beat of every single bar, always the root note, no variation, no harmony, no dynamics. The bass is a musical instrument, but it was being played like a pneumatic drill. I couldn’t take it. I had to leave.

It didn’t help that I was tired, confused by the last minute arrangement that had got me the ticket, the venue was a big barn with all the atmosphere of the moon, and while everybody I knew had seats, my ticket was for the standing area in front of the stage, so I was on my own in a densely packed crowd, and feeling lost in a crowd never does wonders for my equilibrium, so I was a bit irritable. But by god that bass player irritated me.

But not only am I reverting to a teenager, I’m simultaneously turning into my dad. He sings in a choir specialising in baroque and renaissance music, which is all a bit involved for my tastes, but we had a conversation last week where we agreed that so much of rock music has no concept of dynamics.The bass and drums are just a box to keep the song in, and the guitars chug or thrash away at a constant rate and volume. The fact that the voice is amplified means the singer doesn’t have to go for volume like an opera singer, and can instead exploit the more subtle, intimate, conversational qualities of the voice – like a film actor can use more subtle expressions than a theatre actor because the camera’s right up next to him and he doesn’t need to project his body language to the back of the hall – but they very rarely do.

We also agreed on that fantastically irritating tendency of adverts to cut out all the beats when nobody’s singing, like that horrendous AA advert where the rhythm and timing of James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend is cut to ribbons. It has often occurred to me that there are people who don’t “hear” music, they only hear the words. It always strikes me, listening to live albums, that when a song is played that has a very distinctive instrumental intro, there’s a cheer from the crowd when they recognise the intro, and then there’s another cheer when the first line is sung – all the people that love the song but can’t identify it from the intro.

But I’m rambling. Tonight I was both the dad and the kid in a rock and roll movie, getting annoyed because a bunch of experienced, successful, professional musicians just don’t know what they’re doing, dammit. Duke Special, by the way, was excellent as ever, despite being handicapped by playing in the aforementioned atmosphere-free barn. He didn’t do John Lennon Love, which is my favourite of his songs, but he did doBrixton Leaves, Everybody Wants a Little Something and Portrait, so I can hardly complain.

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