The Emergent Miracle of 50

Were popular songs from 1918 played widely in 1968?

How about songs from 1928 in 1978?

Or songs from 1938 in 1988?

So how come songs from 1968 are still widely played in 2018?

Want to know why? Here are ten songs from the top of the charts in 1968, from the Billboard Hot 100 of that year:

“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (#1).

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream (#6).

“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (#9).

“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (#13).

“Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone (#20).

“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (#31).

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones (#50).

“Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano (#52).

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (#57).

“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Aretha Franklin (#93).

I don’t think I need to write any more words today. The point proves itself. We don’t need to know why. The songs speak for themselves. They sing for themselves. Our attachment is primal, mystical, enduring.

Given the fifty years between the 1960s and the 2010s, not a day goes by that we don’t celebrate the 50th anniversary of something, for many of us our own time on the earth.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This year it’s The White Album.

The Rolling Stones already have a 50 and Counting tour on their resume. Last year Fleetwood Mac hit 50 and headlined The Classic West and East stadium tours alongside iconic peers the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Paul McCartney will likely tour until he can no longer stand on the stage. Ringo is still regularly on the road with his All-Starr Band.  You’ll remember that The Beatles led The British Invasion shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Yes, “all those years ago!”

So what is the endurance factor of what we now call classic rock? Is it simply that the baby boomers who shepherded these bands in youthful acts of defiance are living a lot longer? There might be something to that, but it doesn’t explain why so many millennials are subscribing to the same Spotify channels as their parents.

Certainly improvements in studio and consumer technology have made it easier to preserve and share high-quality recordings of later eras, but the conduit of access is a mechanical bridge, not an emotional path to replay. Variety shows on television in the 1960s and 1970s harkened back to songs of prior times, but not with the same urgency, devotion, or pervasiveness. The sheer volume of fifty-year-old songs populating playlists across age groups today tells us that “something’s happening here.”

Walk into a downtown bar or hotel lounge and you might be as likely to hear a cover band playing “Suzie Q” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, #97 in 1968) as you are anything from Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I’m not suggesting every roadhouse on the highway basks in nostalgia, but when you walk into a live club and hear “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors, #14 in 1968) little about it seems dated or out of place. Of course there is an entire segment of the population who couldn’t care less about fifty-year-old relics, but the fans who forever revel in these not-so-ancient hits will stay up all night on the dance floor as long as the song list rolls.

It’s the music. It was good fifty years ago and it’s good today. For many who loved the music when it first hit the airways, this is the soundtrack of our lives. We love it, we love the memories that come with it, we love the way it makes us feel. We are silly enough to believe it keeps us young, and we want to share the beat with anyone who can’t sit still once the guitar licks begin pouring from the stage.

It doesn’t matter if that stage is a tiny corner platform in a pizza joint or a grand proscenium dragged into Dodger Stadium. We love the famous original acts when they are on the road, but we also love the young house bands who take the time to learn to play the hits well and then sneak in an original song of their own.

We love the occasional current star who braves an interpretation of a long-ago track (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” covered by Devlin with Ed Sheeran is mighty powerful material). We love the new beside the old. We feel those classic rock tunes as part of our being, whether live, broadcast, streamed, satellite transmitted, or silently resonant in our minds.

Surely there is context to consider in a half-century of resilience, the voices of youth and diversity fighting for equal footing with established authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet context doesn’t make a pop song last. Composition does. Performance does. Texture does. Maybe artists under contract just got better at the whole Tin Pan Alley game. Maybe they started to care as much about their legacy as their commercial acumen. Maybe connecting the generations came to mean more to them than the hunger for flowing cash. Well, maybe.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these songs most of my life, linking them to stories and plays, stitching their lyrics into the fabric of modern and historical philosophy. I’m never quite satisfied with the words I choose to explain why this music matters to me as much as it does. I suppose the songs are an organic whole without explanation. As so many of the young artists declared of their work when it was created, it was never meant to be analyzed. The songs were meant to be felt.

That doesn’t adequately address why this half-century is different, and why people like me believe so many of these songs are not likely to evaporate from the earth when we are no longer here to listen to them. The magic has emerged without anyone showing how the trick is done. That’s probably because the magicians don’t know how they did the trick.

It’s probably better that way. It keeps things authentic.

Keep listening. Keep embracing the beat. Feel young and stay young. You know I will—with any luck for another fifty years.

 

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Records So Good We Bought Them Again (and Again)

Fleetwood Mac - RumoursI guess for me this is turning into The Year of The List! Earlier this year, inspired by a Writers Guild initiative, I catalogued a suggested collection of the Funniest Screenplays of All Time. Right around that time, inspired by the Fleetwood Mac reunion tour, I found myself thinking about musical recordings so beloved I had purchased them multiple times on replacement platforms. While the records stayed largely the same (yes, I will keep calling them records as long as I am listening to them), a series of innovations in consumer technology offered us relatively inexpensive access to personal libraries of vinyl, 8-track tape, cassette, reel-to-reel, DAT, CD, DVD, and MP3-like digital hard drive storage along the lines of iTunes. Here I am considering what I would call three-buy and above purchases for personal use, which of course live alongside AM & FM radio broadcast, satellite play, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and any number of less legitimate ways to file-share.

While I was pondering all thatand readying myself to attend Fleetwood Mac’s current reunion tour at the recently refurbished concert-only Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles (remembering I had attended in 1990 what I believed was the final performance of the farewell Fleetwood Mac Word Tour)what should be playing in our living room but Rumours. Yep, at home in 5.1 Dolby Surround played an album so impossibly fantastic I had bought it at least five times with each subsequent technological improvement, including the remastered scratch tracks on the latest Expanded Edition, which chronicled the development of each song. I sat there listening again to this marvel, no regrets of any kind for the many dollars spent. I have extracted so much entertainment value from this record I would gladly purchase it again. And again.

Thus it occurred to me that Rumours was not alone, and that I was not alone in the three-buy, four-buy, and even five-buy serial record purchases. Rather than pencil out my own list, I went to my social network and asked friends where they had repeatedly dumped their dough buying the same thing over and over. Below you will see an unedited list of those records, some of which I also bought a bunch of times, others of which I have never heard but may sample now. Rather than allow this list to expire in the ephemeral Facebook news feed, I decided to recreate and share it here. I think it’s a cool list, one you should feel free to expand upon in broadening our spirit of sharing.

There is definitely a late Baby-Boomer Bias to these confessions of multiple repurchase, represented no doubt by my circle of social media friends, along with our age and taste. I think you will find the publishing dates stamped for the most part between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s, when the formative years of my contemporaries had disproportionate influence on our modest discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, in the “nifty fifty” albums reported here entirely unscientifically and in no particular order, multiple appearances are logged by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John.

If you’re looking for any connective tissue in all these, I think you’ll need more than the music to draw a speculative conclusion. Here is my one linking observation to the extent that I recognize most of the titles: they are in one way or another albums, curated collections or song cycles of various sorts that weave into and around themselves. Much has been written about the demise of the album in this day of pop streaming shuffles. For a while when we were younger, there was a wild notion that a record album could be something of its own as a form of, dare I say it, art.

I’m not sure I have the intellectual fortitude to plow through the art manifesto, but let me just say that when I play Abbey Road I don’t skip tracks, I play it through beginning to end. Okay, on The White Album I do skip “Revolution 9” most of the time, you got me there. But Dark Side is beginning to end, Hotel California is beginning to end, and Rumours is beginning to end. Remember, when these were vinyl, that meant getting up and switching to the flip side—yes, getting up physically to hear the rest!

There is a “something of substance” in these picks that a lot of us find missing in contemporary LP equivalents that don’t even try to compose, let alone somehow unite, a dozen or more flowing songs. I think that’s why a lot of us miss the days of AOR—album oriented rock—and why we’re willing to spend anew when landmark records with recurring motifs and thematic resonance repeatedly make their way back to the virtual shelves. These albums age well, a bit like fine wine, and seldom seem dated. Absent historical and social context, most of these carefully crafted works could just as well have been recorded today and simultaneously sound modern and classic. They were expertly written, performed, and engineered with creative courage that resulted in textured, lasting impact. Good is good, great is great, and unforgettable is, well, just what the word says.

So here is a compilation of fifty records my friends found so remarkable they bought them on three, four, or even more platforms (not to mention extended or remastered versions), and will probably continue to play until their last days on the planet in whatever form they may become available:

1) Abbey Road by The Beatles

2) Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

3) The Beatles (The White Album) by The Beatles

4) McCartney by Paul McCartney

5) Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings

6) All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

7) Imagine by John Lennon

8) Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

9) The Wall by Pink Floyd

10) Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

11) Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

12) Madman Across the Water by Elton John

13) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

14) Hotel California by Eagles

15) Quadrophenia by The Who

16) Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

17) Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

18) Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

19) What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

20) London Calling by The Clash

21) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie

22) The Joshua Tree by U2

23) Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin

24) Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin

25) Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen

26) Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs

27) The Point by Harry Nilsson

28) After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

29) John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic

30) Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show by Dr. Hook

31) Running on Empty by Jackson Browne

32) Cheap Trick at Budokan by Cheap Trick

33) Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath

34) Candide by Leonard Bernstein

35) The Lady and the Unicorn by John Renbourn

36) Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla

37) The Remains of Tom Lehrer by Tom Lehrer

38) The Doors by The Doors

39) Tapestry by Carole King

40) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

41) Berlin by Lou Reed

42) Wheels of Fire by Cream

43) 21 by Adele

44) Crime of the Century by Supertramp

45) Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

46) Graceland by Paul Simon

47) Dreamboat Annie by Heart

48) Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

49) Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren

50) Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Which “greatest albums of all time” did we miss? Probably a lot. Add your favorites in the comments below and if there is anything you discover new in the suggestions provided, let us know what it sounds like no matter the player you choose as a conduit.

Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.