Music fans: Have you ever stopped to consider just how good people had it in the 1960’s? I’m totally aware of the argument against nostalgia and the contention that the past is never as good as we imagine it to be, but seriously: Just think about it.
I was recently reading an article about The Who, and the author made a throwaway comment about how in the late 60’s the Beatles were singing about love and the Rolling Stones were singing about lust, but the Who were taking a decidedly darker tack, singing about things like gender confusion and sexual predators. And my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s pretty interesting.” But my second thought – one that really hadn’t occurred to me before in any real way – was, “Damn. The Beatles, the Stones, and the Who were all recording at the same time.”
Do we have anything comparable to that today? It’s nice that Springsteen, Dylan, and Leonard Cohen all released new music last year, but their 2012 iterations aren’t exactly the same as their 1970’s versions. And there’s just no way we can put Bieber, Swift, and Rihanna in the same category without vomiting.
The really bewildering thing is that the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who are really just the tip of the musical iceberg. Let’s take 1968 and 1969 as a test case. Consider the embarrassment of riches released in just those 24 months:
The Band – Music from Big Pink
The Beatles – The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Abbey Road
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Cream – Wheels of Fire
The Doors – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland
The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I and II
The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only in it for the Money
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed
Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends
Sly & The Family Stone – Dance to the Music, Life, and Stand!
Small Faces – Ogden’s Gone Nut Flake
The Stooges – Self-titled
The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
The Who – Tommy
Scott Walker – Scott 2, 3, and 4
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle
Even cherry-picking (and leaving out stuff I generally don’t care about, like the first Fleetwood Mac album, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Bowie’s largely crappy debut), this is an unbelievable list of albums. I count at least fifteen stone classics, a handful of highly influential albums that have grown in stature with time, and a number of lesser works by major artists. I mean, just stop and consider that The White Album, Astral Weeks, and The Village Green Preservation Society were all released in the same month.
There have certainly been other productive periods (the prime punk years of 1977-1978 would be a good comparison), but has there ever really been another concentration of indisputable classics like the one above? I’m casting about, but not coming up with much. And I admit this begrudgingly. I formed my music tastes as a teenager in the late 80’s, worshipping at the altar of R.E.M., U2, The Smiths, Joy Division, Pixies, and all the other usual suspects from that era. I still devour music voraciously, seeking out new bands that inspire and entertain. My three favorite albums from 2012 came from bands I didn’t know about last January. I hate hippies. But I’ve still got nothing.
And I wonder why this is. I’m reminded of Jimmy Fallon’s character in Almost Famous, prophesying the changing music industry. Is that it? It’s just a business now? Artists aren’t allowed to mature on their own anymore? They need the instant hit that allows for maximum merchandising, and an inability to replicate that gets them cast into obscurity?
Or is this just another version of the literary canon that gets taught in school? Are Sgt. Pepper, Exile on Main St., and Pet Sounds just the musical equivalent of Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, overshadowing other works of equal merit just because they were created first?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I’m certainly willing to listen to theories. As I write this I keep thinking about the word I used earlier: concentration. I absolutely think there’s still brilliant music being made (f’rinstance, I’d rate Elbow’s 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid as highly as just about anything on the above list), but it’s not happening in the same numbers, and there’s just no way to make the argument that we’ll be looking back on the music made in 2012 with the same regard as the music made in 1968 – and if any of you say Ke$ha, I’ll punch you in the throat.
There’s just something about that time period that we haven’t been able to replicate. But maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe the fault is mine in trying to turn it into a past vs. present cage match. Okay. I can live with that. But the fact remains: I’d trade 90% of what was released in 2012 for just a handful of albums that lived up to the quality of 1968.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Nocturama (2003)