Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 2

At the risk of sounding like a PBS nostalgia-thon, there was a time when great music was pop music, and vice versa. And the time was the 1950s, when vocals and vocal-harmony based music ruled the charts. Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and other vocalists gave the world some of the most melodic, accessible songs ever. Groups like the Chordettes, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers ("Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"), The Diamonds and The Four Freshmen produced music with intricate harmonies that would thrill the masses and influence aspiring musicians like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Girl groups and Motown continued the tradition of producing records based on the thing people care about the most: the vocalist.

The Beatles, certainly the most significant band of the 1960s, sought inspiration from these acts. John Lennon, who covered Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and the Marvelettes' "Please Mister Postman" on the Beatles' second album, was also a big fan of Elvis and Mary Wells ("My Guy"). George Harrison was a fan of rockability artists such as Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues"). Paul McCartney and John Lennon's two-part harmonies were imitations of the Everly Brothers. Above all, they saw themselves as songwriters, as the "next Goffin and King," referring to the duo who wrote "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Up on the Roof," "The Loco-Motion," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and lots more timeless classics.

During the rise of indie pop in the mid- to late-nineties, many bands tried to bring back the Beatles by doing whimsical things to sound like psychedelic Beatles circa 1967, but many people don't realize that the Beatles' greatest contribution to music was before Revolver, when they would consistently throw around aug, dim, and maj7 chords while masterfully spinning singable melodies and lyrics around them. I don't want to say that no one realized what the Beatles were really about, though. Indie rockers Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith understood the true legacy of the Beatles, and that's why they became two of the greatest artists of our generation. Too bad they died young and spawned many lesser imitators.

Anyway, so now we're in 1966, and pop music is in relatively good shape. The Beatles are more popular than ever, Motown is enjoying success with the Supremes and the young Stevie Wonder, and somewhere along the way, independent record producer Phil Spector made a bunch of weird sounding hits. Burt Bacharach is cranking out hit after hit. The Beach Boys have just made a landmark album, Pet Sounds, and composer Leonard Bernstein went on television to hail the 23-year-old Brian Wilson as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. So what went wrong?

Around 1966, Jimi Hendrix picked up his guitar, turned up the distortion and stepped into the limelight. Instantly, he gave license to thousands of guitarists to step out of their role as accompanist and become the stars themselves. Never mind that most people cannot really hum along to power chords and ear-piercing guitar solos. But the raw power of the guitar, the rebel's instrument, fit in nicely with the anti-establishment movement of the time. As the Beach Boys soon found out, the young people rebelled against everything that had to do with the "old," established ways of thinking, including well-written songs and well-disciplined harmonies. Yes, the music industry still produced pop music, but most of the "hip" crowd (which inevitably included most of the burgeoning musical talents) turned their attention to the new, raw rock sound. Up-and-coming composers like Pete Townshend, whose early work consisted of short, blues-influenced, and tuneful songs (often with 3-part vocal harmonies), switched over to hard rock and seldom looked back. Led Zeppelin came on the scene and further consolidated the dominance of the distorted guitar. Then came proto-metal groups like Black Sabbath and heavy metal proper. Of course, there were also progressive bands like Pink Floyd, which was formed from the ashes of a promising pop band, and retained their pop sensibility throughout the 1970s. Unfortunately, they, too, gave plenty of lesser bands permission to create atmospheric space rock, which has limited appeal to the masses.

Songs were now written on the guitar. But worse, songs are now written by guitarists, vocals are wrapped around guitar-friendly chord progressions (instead of the other way around), and harmonies have become a thing of the past. Lengthy guitar solos are commonplace. Garage bands consist of young guitarists trying to learn the Hendrix licks instead of the three-part vocal harmonies by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The punk rock movement of the late 70s brought back the short-form song, but barbershop harmonies were never on their anti-establishment agenda, and guitars remained as loud as ever. The Smiths produced fine music in the 1980s, but even they were guilty of jam-like instrumentals and a singer who had to cope with wrapping his melodies around a preset chord progression.

At the end of the 1990s, Pixies and Nirvana made some worthwhile contributions to music, most notably, finding a balance between the distorted instrumentation and the singer by having the singer scream. Not surprisingly, both bands were fans of the Beatles, and they kept the Beatles spirit by writing songs that were hook-filled and melodically interesting. Unfortunately, their legacy was once again misinterpreted by garage band artists who decided that it was now okay to crank up the guitar as far as it will go, and scream or groan as their mood takes them.

Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, rock music stagnated. With a few exceptions (but almost none that airs on broadcast radio) rock and roll was guided by guitars, not voices. Belle and Sebastian are one of the exceptions, but are too obscure, and too cute. Elliott Smith wrote great music, but died young. Stereolab stayed almost completely unknown even to the hip. Coldplay are doomed by their unacceptably poor lyrics and conservative instrumentation, despite occasionally having great melodies. But no one is writing the vocally dominant songs like "I Get Around" or "I Want To Hold Your Hand anymore, with the possible exception of college a capella groups.

In the next installment of this essay, I will talk about the other half of the split that happened to the music industry in the mid-1960s: Top 40 pop music, also known as music for accountants, squares and old people. Or, as today's hipsters would call it, music for people who don't really care about music.

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