Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Beatles, again

Actually, this post isn't about the Beatles as such, it just follows on from my earlier post about them - and the Moptops are probably a bit more grabbing as a prospect than the diffuse thought-piece that follows. 

It will be unusually brief, however.

I said before that anyone would agree that the development of the Beatles' music was extraordinary and unprecedented and the rest, whatever his or her opinion of its quality.

When I wrote that, I was skirting round a more ambitious proposal I had in mind, which is this: 

music isn't in itself well-suited to being remembered, but narratives of the development of music are.
So the most solidly canonical musicians are anchored in wider popular and cultural memory more by the overall story of how their music progressed, than by the form and content of the music itself.
Acts with long and varied careers are more likely to have a historical development in their music, and this is one reason why bands the canon is made up of bands like the Beatles.
Let me expand this a little bit more before you heave a weary sigh. 

First of all - music isn't suited to memory. A patently absurd statement, on first view, given the ease with which melodies stick in our minds. But there are many good reasons to argue that music has poor memetic qualities. It isn't very portable, in the sense that it can't easily be adduced in forms of discourse by means of paraphrase or quotation and the like. The only way to experience a song is to hear it, in its single, irreducible form - a hummed version isn't the 'same' as the original to any great extent, and excerpting is unsatisfactory.

However, five different people could come up with five completely different ways of saying 'mid-era Beatles used a range of instrumentation' and 'late-era Beatles made extensive use of arpeggios' but they would still be telling the same story, to a considerable extent.

Moreover they could do it in written or spoken form. Music is not paraphrasable, or retellable, whereas a story of music is. If a musical canon is something constructed by discussing music, then entry into the canon must be easier for music that is more easily resolved into the stuff of discourse (the stuff of discourse being e.g. narratives, arguments, etc.).

Music has relatively little value as a mnemonic - there are of course jingles ('Remember, remember, the fifth of November') but the mnemonic element here is rhyme and metre, not melody. And the same is true, it is said, for the beginnings of poetry itself - it was a way of coding important information into an easily remembered form.

Narrative is much more amenable to transmission and discussion because, I suppose, of its semantic content which transcends the particularities of form - it can be scrambled and revamped, but still mean the same thing. Because of this, then, the big beasts of the musical canon are guaranteed their place not just because their melodies etc. were memorable, but because the collective story they made up is even more memorable. Narrative and argument are the same stuff history is made of - melody and harmony are not.

I'm not saying that the stories of band members, and what they did or didn't do with groupies/TV sets/red snappers etc., is what grants canonical status - but even then, it cant hurt.

Some (really not very convincing) examples:

Beatles (see earlier post)
Rolling Stones - Blues band, then go poppy, then invent their quintessential sound during the
1968-72 purple patch.
James Brown - invents funk 1965; invents it again in 1971.
Fleetwood Mac - start off all bluesy, then become all grown-up.
Pink Floyd - all psychadelic, until Syd goes mental.
David Bowie - etc.
Is this a thing, or not? 

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