Having completed the bulk of the work for Temporal Comet’s recent video shoot, guitarist MJ has tasked his idle brain cells in considering:
Who are we?
(Just a small task, then…) 🤔😀
Our lives exist within a complex series of connections, like the most beautiful cobweb or most populous constellation of stars. Lights brighten and dim, seemingly without reason. The softest breath of air can sever existing links, giving rise to the creation of new ones. The same can be said for our brains, as the concept of neuro-plasticity becomes more widely understood and appreciated.
We are a product of our experiences, both as characters, and as creators. The smallest exposure to a certain piece of music, a certain book or film, can have the most profound effects on us. From John Lennon’s appreciation of Roy Orbison, the first Beatles composition was born. “Please, Please Me” took elements of Orbison’s writing style while simultaneously breaking new ground to allow McCartney et al to combine and produce works that were clearly greater than the sum of their four parts.
And those creators who are most aware and curious of the potential inspiration in everyday life are those whose creativity shines brightest. Bowie began as a saxophonist, studied mime, decided to sing, practised painting and acted in blockbuster films.
The best designers can be struck with inspiration just from a cursory, but curious, glance across the street. The window boxes and pavements, when interpreted by the right mind or minds can garner amazing visual results.
We talk about being open-minded, but what does that really mean? All humans can be creators – from great artists, actors and musicians, to more everyday (but still as wondrous) outlets - as creators of relationships, opportunities, opinions, dreams…
Only when we shut-down, when we give in to our norms, and stop questioning ourselves, only then do we cease to participate in those creative experiences. When we have decided our views, our lives are indeed rendered simpler, at least until faced with a force that motivates us for some reason to see that reconsidering our views may be necessary. If an 80 year old man with negative views of homosexuality re-happens upon a once-close friend from 40 years ago, and finds out that in the time passed, his friend has come out as gay, the status quo is challenged. If the 80 year old homophobe wants to re-establish the friendship, he has created that motivation to reconsider his views.
In what seems like an increasingly unsafe and insecure world (despite quantitative research that suggests the contrary) it is ever easier for us to bury our heads in the proverbial sand. Our choices become safer, our routines more fixed and our opinions more concrete.
The same can be said in much of music, film and the arts in general. The safe bets are rolled out again and again, with the current prevalence of film-reboots (Alien: Covenant? REALLY?!) to the “millennial whoop” apparently found in the majority of chart-toppers in the last few years.
If you haven’t seen this video about why mainstream music is becoming safer, it’s a heck of an eye-opener, and should provide something for you to rally against as a creative entity (please).
It’s not that we are running out of ideas…. The chords to ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (A min./ G maj. / F maj.) can be found in a million other songs, and many of them were created even before Bob Dylan penned the song in November 1967 (covered by Hendrix in 1968).
Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven
Aerosmith – Dream On
Dire Straits - Sultans of Swing
Metallica - Nothing Else Matters
Nicki Minaj – Turn Me On
And you’ll find a million songs where this chord progression is hiding there somewhere. This sequence is expressed by the Nashville Numbers system as i / VII/ VI*
It’s all about what we do in the spaces between. It’s about the flavour, the atmosphere, the mood, the feeling we are trying to elicit… and there's still a lot that could be reinvented.
The difference is that nowadays, cynicism has reached fever pitch. The safe bet in the commercial world makes the most money, and this attitude has been included in the mainstream of commercial music, where about 10 guys write 90% of the “hits” we hear. And we hear them everywhere!
We are, at least in this area of music, way beyond the moral dilemma that is “stolen vs. plagiarised vs. borrowed”… Because, as attested by the video I shared before (here it is again, it’s seriously worth the twenty minutes’ attention), it’s a numbers game. The more you hear it, the more you’ll like it. It’s safe, and you know where you stand with it.
Dylan’s lines could even be re-imagined as the testimony of an ageing songwriter, seeing how the musical landscape has been plundered by the onslaught of contemporary hit-makers and popstars:
We don’t have to be products of, victims of (!) this system. Alternative movements spring up. The internet can help us to disseminate information about the other options to Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and so on. By all means consume them, as long as you know what else is out there. It might take you a bit longer to get into it, but it's all the more rewarding when you do. I often cite one of my favourite bands, Van der Graaf Generator as a shining example. The music seems inpenetrable at first; long, complicated melodies and rhythms and multi-syllabic lyrics about the future, Politics, the notion of having a soul, but WOW, when you get it, you've got it for life.
On a global, societal level, it’s no different. By all means believe your political credo, just don’t switch off from anything that may contradict it. Don’t let yourself be shut off from all the angles.
And so isn’t that the key, to producing (varied, imaginative and engaging) art (and of course music), to consuming it, even to being human in a complicated world? The only thing more important than free access to information is making informed choices.
Do you agree? Please leave us some comments so we can find out what You think!
*For musicians and nerds, I recommend a day spent getting lost in “Hook Theory”, an online database that you can use to identify songs with similar chord patterns, based on chord choices you make, as well as read a wealth of information on song comparison and analysis of popular chord progressions. The site is fascinating and a much-used resource for this musician! This link will show you the songs that match All Along The Watchtower, mentioned above.