ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash
Where Music Could Go When We Remove the Boundaries
I’LL admit from the off…
this is a bit of a vanity-piece (sorry!). I am going to put names and sounds together that would not usually share the same room, mind. I have been thinking about albums and what I would do were I provided limited (translation: affordable but ambitious) resources and permission. This is not a chance for me to open the toy-box and indulge myself: I wonder whether the reason we have not seen any biblically-good albums arrive in the past decade-or-so is (because) it is getting harder to indulge the imagination. Look at the progressive and paradigm-shifting records of the past – such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – and the way the studio was pushed to its limits. Those classic, endlessly fascinating albums have remained in the history books because of the quality and talented expended. One cannot claim the all-time-greatest records claim that position because of any tricky, pampering or trickery. I feel it is becoming harder and harder to break boundaries and ignite discovery because so much ground has already been covered. Consider music in the same vein as scientific discovery. Those world-changing finds and epiphanies occurred because nobody thought of them. That is axiomatic - but there was less pressure and fewer competing minds back then. The same could be said of the earliest musical breakthroughs. Whilst you could never claim The Beatles succeeded and changed music because they started out in the 1960s – and there was more ground to explore and room to manoeuvre.
Now, in 2018; we have seen all the genres unfurl and music has become packed and suffocated. Whilst there is never going to be anything as vital or shape-shifting as Punk, Grunge or Psychedelia: I feel there are ways modern music can expand minds and blow minds. I am not saying I can do that – as I do not write music and have not released material – but the developments will not come in the form of unexplored genres. I feel one reason music cannot leap forward is due to legalities, written consent and a lack of boldness. There are artists who throw everything into the mix and have the talent to hang it all together: most albums work within normal confines and do not break moulds. Maybe it is a matter of cost and concision; others are less willing to take commercial risks and depart from the normal. Music is primed for one of those albums that throws the dice against the wall, takes it trousers down and runs around the room with its todger out! Maybe the idea of a no-holds-barred album would be a psychic wank-storm that could be a huge commercial flop. The best albums of the past (however many) years have had monumental moments but there are few that take music in new directions and change the game.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
I am not saying I could do that but I wonder what could happen if fewer obstacles were in place; if artists tried something truly experimental and profound. Some of my favourite albums – 3 Feet High and Rising; Paul’s Boutique and Since I Left You – have dug through crates of vinyl and spliced samples together to create something transformative. Whether it is a samples-only creation like The Avalanches’ Since I Left You or a Hip-Hop-cum-samples delight like Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique – these are albums that have gained massive critical acclaim and been a labour of love. That might not sound appealing and, as I type this, realise the time it took to get clearance (regarding the samples) was back-breaking. Even though it was tricky getting clearance; it would be impossible to do that today. There are records that use samples but nothing to the extent of the best albums from the 1980s (2000 in the case of The Avalanches). If I were to suggest an album, and advise how to create something music-altering; it would be loosening the laws regarding copyright – or make it easier to forge an agreement between a song’s creator and those looking to use it on their record. Albums that employ samples, whilst injecting original voice, have stayed in my mind longest. Look at the greatest records from the 1960s-present and you have experimentation and social relevance at the heart.
There are flights-of-fancy and genre-splicing adventures; odd twists and fantastic little asides. To my mind, aside from Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead (In Rainbows (2007) and 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool) there have been few modern albums that have truly moved me – physically, emotionally and spiritually. My mind always goes back to music created before 2000 (most of it from the 1990s; lots of stuff from The Beatles; a healthy smattering of the 1980s’ gold). Maybe that is nostalgia and the comfort of childhood memories – music soundtracked important moments then; that was the last time I felt truly safe – but I feel there were fewer restrictions and greater mobility back then. Perhaps artists are not attacking and vocalising the tensions and fears we all face (some are but most aren’t) or music might be too busy to proffer and uncover albums that reach into the stratosphere. In my mind, the ‘perfect’ album would be a combination of my all-time-favourites and the best from the past couple of decades. If there were no boundaries and I could make any album I wanted (it would not be expensive!); it would unite the albums many of the artists I feature mark as their favourites; samples a-plenty (keeping it cost-effecting); some unique narration and a general concept.
I feel the modern world, and all its brutal scars, is the most compelling and divisive thing available to the musician. The political strife, terrorism and inequalities; the controversies, problems and anger that are circulating around the world are in all our hearts and seconds from being shot from the lips. It is hard for the average person to make sense of their fears and have their voice heard: musicians are in that privileged position where they can get their fears and thoughts out. My pitched album, Banquo, would be a state-of-the-world concept but have room for love and romance. Before certain songs, and during some others, there would be narration and spoken words from certain high-profile figures. Mavis Staples, and that whiskey-soaked, incredible voice, would be the perfect ‘Muse’ – the lead and guiding voice that acted as conscious/God/nature. She would appear in a singing capacity on one or two numbers but, mainly, she would narrate and provide clarity and exposition. In terms of other narration; I would have Charlie Brooker and Aisling Bea. The former would act as a commentator and spectator; a news reporter and observer who provides wit, sardonic cut and observations. There would be comedic input but, unlike Mavis Staples; Brooker would take a more political stance – against the voice of Staples; looking at religion, the environment and love.
IN THIS PHOTO: Mavis Staples/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Aisling Bea compels me for a number of reasons. Her voice is engaging, alluring and full of life. She would, in a sort of different-concept A Grand Don’t Come for Free, act as the voice of a love interest and heroine. Bea is a witty, acerbic and deeply intelligent talent who has huge dramatic and comedic pull – utilising her abilities and vocal nuances would add a lot to the album. I mention The Streets’ finest album because it is a concept album that succeeds and addresses modern life. Banquo’s narrative arc would address how the world is unfolding and what is occurring: environmental damage and political tyranny; terrorism and religious division; huge conflicts and issues in our country; controversies arising in the entrainment issue – with plenty to tip the balance. There would be moments of love and sexual allure; domestic dramas and realities (a northern version of A Grand Don’t Come for Free mixed with embers of modern Grime) with quirkier, fantasy moments. I have mentioned a few of the popular names I want to throw in – some great new and older musicians adding their voice; great musicians adding their voices to certain songs – but it would be the sampling/breadth of sounds incorporated that makes the difference! The same way Paul’s Boutique sourced from various decades/artists; Banquo would take from mega-big artists (The Beatles, Kate Bush; Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder among them); obscure rhymes and spoken samples (from T.V. and film).
IN THIS PHOTO: Aisling Bea/PHOTO CREDIT: Jillie Bushell Associates/Getty Images
The opening song would address the world and introduce what is to come; what the concept is and how things will progress. It would end in a battle between differences forces and influences – warring leaders and the environment; conflict and the growing plight of mental illness. It would be one of those trippy, head-fuc* endings that leaves the listener stunned and gasping (hopefully). It is, in a way, a similar narrative/progression as A Grand Don’t Come for Free but mix domestic/local observations with those worldwide concerns and issues. Samples would range from jam-packed (the closing number and a few others) to a well-chosen selection here and there; going through all genres and sounds from the 1940s to now (with some Classical and Blues thrown in). I have a great fondness for the 1980s (an underrated decade!) and would use, if I could, samples from Madonna, Talking Heads and Yes; Pixies, Tears for Fears and The Smiths. The 1990s would get a good look-in and would the classic acts from the 1960s and 1970s. A few titles are already in mind – The Oxford Coma; The Last of the Great Northern Lovers; Kintsugi and Antifreeze in Summer – and I have names (other than Staples, Brooker and Bea) that would be perfect. There would be no central bands/artist (like De La Soul or Beastie Boys) complimenting the samples and mixing their voice into the mix.
Musicians, new and established, would provide the vocals/instruments and, although there is no central gravity and voice; the collaborations and blend of voices would give the album a more unified and interesting vibe. Stories and songs would range from small-time love/flirtations to mass destruction; political, socially-aware protest and fired political statements. It all sounds like a rather expensive and time-consuming project to put together. Throw into the fray the fact I want to do something original and pioneering regarding promotion, release and recording…and it all sounds like it could run away. In terms of the promotion/release surprise; I am thinking something similar to Radiohead’s pay-as-you-like dynamic concerning In Rainbows – only something different and unexpected. In terms of format; there would be different options and, the same way King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard allowed people to copy and distribute one of their albums as they liked – I would want to do something as bold and inventive. Banquo would be available on all physical formats but even the way one listens to it would be unique. It may sound too complex and, yes, borderline-pretentious but it would not be. Everything would be worked out to ensure it was affordable, possible and not too ambitious. The work needed to pull it all together would be a slog but that is what needs to be done: plan an album that goes beyond the conventional and inspires other.
Getting clearance for samples would be the biggest challenge. Finding a way of bargaining with musicians – so I could use their material, ensure they are compensated and they had some say – is key but I feel it would be possible. The album would involve different collaborations and artists adding their voices from all over the world – recording in a variety of locations (from their home to odd locales and studios) – and record music in different formats (mono and stereo; bending sound and the way music is heard). It is a big ask but I feel modern music needs something that takes gambles whilst keeping its themes relevant and important. Nothing commercial and ordinary would arrive. That said; the record would not alienate anyone but, instead, appeal to as many people as possible. Of course; given the album’s allusion to Banquo; there would be elements of Macbeth and comparable story-strands. So much ground will be covered in the album – sexual identity and gender-equality; animal rights and race – and the musical spectrum would be bright and variegated. It might be a risky gamble but, as I consider pitching it on PledgeMusic/Kickstarter; I am excited by the possibility and what could come from it. I have a lot of ambitions regarding music I want to achieve: some might take a few months; others might take a few more years. Getting people together, celebrated figures and musicians, into a single project (double-album) would be a dream of mine. 2018 is a year to embrace the daring and take a chance so, with that in mind I shall…
GET to work!