Heroes, Icons, and the Curse of Self Produced Music
We all have our most fond memories and our heroes. Usually someone had an enormous influence on you growing up, and it was as if they could do no wrong. Reality be damned; whether it's Santa, Frosty, David Bowie, Uncle What's-His-Face, Your Dad, That Actor, The Older School Patrol, A Favourite Teacher... when it clicks it clicks. Those memories can last a lifetime.
It makes us better people, I think, having those experiences. We want to emulate someone, to take that positive power and experience and duplicate it, or let it fuel our desire to rise to the greatness that we see in that person. I've now been on both sides, having had numerous heroes growing up, and now I have a little friend who thinks the world of me. It's quite the burden to carry, being able to do no wrong to someone.
And yet, everything changes. Whether it's time and age, perspective, cataclysm, learning, there's almost always an evening out that happens, and even a passing-of-the-torch that takes place. Our heroes fall. They die. They make mistakes. We see their flaws as we grow up. Did they fall from grace, or did we climb up to their heights on their inspiration?
No matter what, I'd like to give them their due: they captured my heart, pushed me to want to be greater, and added richness to my life that I could never repay. I'm driven to be like them, all their best qualities, to be the hero like they were to me.
The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who had a bunch of throwback moments to commemorate the long run of the show. Yet it remained new in its execution, still pushing forward and not giving in to the idea that the old stuff was any better than the new stuff. Which is completely fair. I want it to keep going and throwing out new ideas, sky's the limit! And then right at the end the oldest remaining actor to play the role shows up and says a few lines, and completely steals the show and captures my heart again. The old doesn't have to be better than the new, but our heroes will live forever in our hearts, and to see them rise up again, as in their prime!
Last year, Peter Gabriel released a new single, Courage, only it was actually a single from 30 years ago, right when he wrote Sledgehammer, his biggest hit. You have a 65 year old man throwing a single out from when he was 35 and taking over the world and kicking serious butt. Watching your heroes get older and slow down is never fun, but here we had him back in his prime, putting out new music that held its own with any current frenetic group, be it Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, or some youtube kid. I can't even begin to explain that feeling. Had Michael Jackson lived on to do his world tour, even that would still be a comparison to his younger days. Saving a single for 30 years and then throwing it out there? Well besides the fact that no one probably will remember you, that's powerful stuff.
Which lands us at maybe a lesson to be learned. I've been watching my hero decline for a good while now.
Growing up I was absolutely in love with Peter Gabriel's productions. They were unique, ambitious, innovative, and always pioneering. It was a schooling in production and putting passion into music at the same time. He discovered the gated snare drum reverb thing with Phil Collins before he made it famous, did one of the first all digital albums in 1982, then went back to tape machines and would sync (not always successfully) two together to get 48 tracks. Then try to edit both of them and still keep sync. Ha.
But a strange thing happened in the 10 years between his 1992 album and his 2002 album. Computers really became useful for music (yay!), and his music got worse. The sounds were still pretty cool and actually wildly innovative, but the songs and music took a serious hit, and I really don't find myself listening to that record much at all. When it does come on, I kinda get shy and embarrassed at what I consider the decline of my hero. Sure a song or two still sticks out, but there's just something about how that record was done that doesn't click with me.
Fast forward to a year or so after he does his surprise release from 30 years ago, and he's got another new single, I'm Amazing. Now, maybe he's secretly going for an ironic title... or not so secretly. It's 7 1/2 minutes long, has at least a few unremarkable keyboard solos, some slow sounding and uninspired vocal phrasing, a random bridge, some random growly synths throughout the song, and ends with a minute of indigenous vocals riffing over a loop. Oh and it's about Muhammed Ali, too. Kitchen sink, maybe?
On first listen, I was so excited for the first minute, after the first minute or so of practically dead air while the intro happens. Then by the middle of the song I just got embarrassed. There are so many arbitrary things happening, I can't quite tell the point of the song. I'm having trouble finding a point of listening to it again. After several listens, I just can't drum up any excitement about it. He's completely lost the magic, in my humble opinion.
I'd rather just hear him and a guitar for this song. Peter, what's the point of all that crap going on behind your voice? Fake cymbals. Yikes. And you know, I think I'm realizing what I don't like about his recent stuff: it's self-produced.
To you the reader: what was it like, the first time you made music on a computer? Lots of simple loops, I bet. Everything in 8 bar sections. Adding lots of tracks in different places to keep it interesting. Everything gridded and squared up. Does anything sound fluid, or organic, or are you even concentrating on the song and the emotion, or are you just clicking a mouse and surfing a menu?
For the first good while, you're not really making music, you're programming a computer. They even gave 'programming' credits for the first 20 years to people who worked the computer and made some sounds. Nowadays you just get a producer credit. Are computers bad things? Do I think we should all go back to pure analog recording? If you think that's what I mean, then you obviously don't know me. And you don't know the guy I'm kinda slagging right now, my hero, Peter.
Peter was a pioneer of everything technological about music. When they ran out of new technology for him to try out, he bought the company SSL. His synth work with Prophet 5's, CS-80s, CP70s, not to mention the emergence of the Fairlight Synclavier system is epic and legendary. He seriously knows his stuff, and all my favourite songs of his have all that technology all over it, it was integral to the sound.
So what went wrong? Well, I don't really have a problem with his keyboard sounds, they still rock, and I think he's great at it. My theory is he isn't great at running a computer and sequencing software. Why would I think that? Didn't he start on sequencers? Didn't he use Linn drums as soon as anyone else? Isn't he a drummer?
Well, yes. In that respect, nothing has changed. But I think 2 very important things: 1) too many things are surviving from his demo songwriting sequences to the final product, and it makes everything sound primitive and sludgy. And 2) he's doing too much songwriting at a computer in 8 bar sequence sections. All his writing sounds like square blocks of sections stuck together. He's letting things get in the way of having powerful and potent, listenable and not over-bloated songs. And nobody's calling him on it.
What's an engineer's job? Turn knobs, make things sound great, solve technical problems, and do as you're told. Who's job is it to creatively wrestle with the ego of the artist and surrender only at the right times to have a better recording than otherwise? A-ha.
He's notorious for not finishing songs before production starts, and always tinkering and tweaking things. Well, that sounds like most people who produce themselves on a laptop. What do you end up with, usually? A Grammy? Hand him a computer and a ton of equipment and sounds to play with, and have nobody force him to finish a song or challenge him, and you end up with some pretty self-indulgent arrangements. Or non potent ones. Definitely not minimal.
The whole team-element of feedback and input is completely lost when you have a dictatorship going on with your music. I am definitely not in the purist camp that anything and everything the artist intends in their heads should directly get to their audience. It sounds ideal, but I'm witnessing my heroes fall, and I work with clients and get to watch them every day make decisions I either think are in their best interest or are self-destructive.
You know what? A painter who's painting and can't get their paints to behave and react properly is going to struggle and overcome and might end up with something truly unique. Or that overnight deadline to get that jingle written. Or to finish everthing up for a tour. Or to let a drummer try to improve on the beat you made. Imposing constraints on the creativity you have when writing is usually extremely beneficial to the outcome of the music. And guess who said that? Yep, Peter Gabriel.
So, I'm not going to continue my crusade against what I think is a destructive practice he's indulging in, I'm just going to focus on everything I love about his (earlier) music and try to rise to the level of my hero. It's funny, him setting the bar that he can't reach these days. If only he grew up listening to himself... It's ok still, because I think he's a fantastic songwriter. Just put down the dang computer and go back to demoing songs how you did for the first 40 years of your career. Skrillex and gang are wiz's on a computer, they can keep using them to make music. For them, it's actually their songwriting that could use the input sometimes.
But you, aspiring producers and artists? What are you going to do to make sure you really have great productions or powerful songs? How are you going to incorporate input into your projects and overcome any shortcoming you may have in your talents, either running a computer or arranging? Or maybe you're the computer wiz, and songs and flow are where you feel like you want to improve. We do have to aspire to our heroes, after all....