The KLF’s Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (aka The Timelords) demonstrated their true genius when it emerged that other artists had been successful in utilising their almanac The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way) to break into the charts.
The anarchists’ project perfectly illustrated the flaws in the industry, showing how, with the right line of attack, really anyone could make it to the top spot, without money or musical skills. Their lab-rat was a horrendous self-proclaimed meaningless landmark of shite based on the Doctor Who theme tune, and it was as glorious as it was demoralising. Amongst their explicit instructions on how to approach the industry big wigs, lifestyle advice – “first you must be skint and on the dole” – and tools needed for the job, lie the “Golden Rules”. The Manual was written in 1988, but these still make for a fairly frustrating read:
“Firstly, it has to have a dance groove that will run all the way through the record and that the current 7” buying generation will find irresistible. Secondly, it must be no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds (just under 3’20” is preferable). If they are any longer Radio 1 daytime DJs will start fading early or talking over the end, when the chorus is finally being hammered home – the most important part of any record. Thirdly, it must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some, but not many.”
It’s 25 years old, but still pretty depressingly ‘on the money’, as it were. It showcases the naked truth of the lucrative pop song’s building blocks, viscerally geared towards the quantifiable success story. As a method it is not indicative of emotions or experience, instead it emphasises the feeding of our ears with a formula that has ‘worked’ for at least the past quarter of a century, if not since the advent of pop music. It is a sign of the perpetual cycle that means pop music is littered with the same ideas over and over again. The famed music journalist David Quantick touched on this idea, ultimately coining the phrase ‘pop will eat itself’, after which the group formerly known as Wild And Wandering renamed themselves. And we don’t have to look far to see examples. In Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant, (which can be found on YouTube) the comedian laments the repetitive cello line in Pachelbel’s Canon in D following him. It highlights the sheer number of pop songs based on that chord progression, something I’m not sure our mate Johann could have ever predicted back in the 1700s.
It’s not just ‘pop’ that is implicated: our western tonal system has been used for literally hundreds of years, and most ‘popular’ (that is, not classical) genres tend to showcase tracks under five minutes long that stick to one major or minor key. Are we not eventually going to run out of anything completely original? Have we already done so? Are we not just swallowing and regurgitating ideas like cows chewing the cud, coughing up the same mulch again and again, which we’ll eventually have to gulp down for good, leaving nothing but malnutrition and a bitter aftertaste? The cows will eventually move on to fresh pastures – and we must do the same. Who was the last artist to sound like no other before, and also have a profound effect on all who came after?
There isn’t a priority to sound like no other before. On the contrary, musicians are proud to list the artists who have influenced them. Taking inspiration external to the formula means that there is potential for an array of variations. One thing the Pachelbel rant does show is that, given four chords, different people will come up with vastly different ideas. Maybe not entirely original sounding, but different.
Perhaps a more aligned and less shoot-a-stake-through-my-heart-I-can’t-listen-to-this-crap-anymore example is the rich tradition of the blues – a whole genre based on the same or a similar chord progression, which yet has a plethora of emotion and real experience running through it.
“So why don’t all songs sound the same?” ask the KLF. “Why are some artists great, write dozens of classics that move you to tears, say it like it’s never been said before, make you laugh, dance, blow your mind, fall in love, take to the streets and riot? Well, it’s because although the chords, notes, harmonies, beats and words have all been used before, their own soul shines through; their personality demands attention.”
To an outsider, perhaps it does sound the same. But maybe that’s ok. I think the familiarity of popular music doesn’t detract from its value. I’m not saying when it comes to manufactured pop one should find meaning that isn’t there in what is usually a guilty pleasure. But instead, like the arse-coloured misery paste that is eventually served up to us in the form of Chicken McNuggets, perhaps some kind of originality lies in the experience of consumption. The elements of the composition are pretty much identical, but our experience is slightly different every time, depending on where we are in life, or even what else we have consumed that day. The product is serving a certain purpose and is serving it well. I love McNuggets, but not in the same way I love foie gras or, say, The National. And, as that tenuous analogy starts to lose its legs, within music that inspires us the quest for originality turns in on itself – what we’re actually listening out for is music that keeps us feeling, that speaks to us.
The likelihood is that we are always going to be subjected to what the Radio 1 Chart show can spit out, with the perpetrators gleaning little pieces of ‘sellable’ information each time. As we evolve, they will produce music that reacts well with the taste buds of the masses. They always have done.
Luckily, in our city and so many others, in community-run music venues, in garages, in warehouses, in bedrooms, or in my case in the shower, there are people pouring new experiences into the music they write, using the language of tonality to manifest their uniqueness. Unable to provide a phrasebook to everyone listening, writers leave their work open to the interpretation of the varied complicated lives of music lovers. And it’s happening with all genres, even the ones that come out sounding like pop.