Can rock or pop ever ever be a democratic process?
That thought popped into my mind recently while interviewing Ian Broudie of Lightning Seeds for a piece in Mojo. It’s not a new thought, but it’s one that’s certainly worth kicking around every once in a while.
It came back to me because the charmingly mild-mannered, self-effacing Broudie summed up his career like so :
“The Lightning Seeds went through funny changes, because the first couple of records was me in me house, then I got a little studio in Liverpool and did Jollification, and then I started playing live and it felt like a group for several years and then it became less me on the last album. I let other people in a lot, which is a good thing probably, but I wanted it to go back to being just me, really”
That seems to be the trajectory for so many bands I’ve loved over the years. Before the sixties, the decade in which I was a teenager, it was widely accepted that great music was made by a combination of one or two shining creative lights (usually either a singer, a songwriter, an arranger, a band leader) leading a variable number of talented players whose job was to put the icing on the cake.
Somewhere in the sixties, probably for socio-political reasons that happened to coincide with the rise to fame of The Beatles, the idea of ‘the band as a single unit’ was born.
Communes were the newly evolving social model, and many bands reflected that, often stating in interviews that every member of the band was as important as every other, and crediting the songs on their albums jointly to everyone in the band.
Charming, democratic and laudable though this notion was, it was also bollocks.
I think of some of my favourite bands of the era – The Doors, Beach Boys, Byrds – and without exception, the more other members of the band took part in guiding the music, the less interesting those bands became.
This is not to detracts from the gifts of those other members. They were almost all superb players and sometimes (e.g. guitarist Robbie Krieger of the Doors) excellent songwriters.
The Byrds, in their early days, enjoyed a surfeit of prodigiously talented singers and songwriters (David Crosby, Gene Clarke, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman). Inevitably, though, they moved on to solo careers, leaving just McGuinn – their undisputed guiding light – to helm a Byrds brand identity backed by virtuoso players. As soon as McGuinn abdicated responsibility and allowed those players to contribute songs to the band, its identity evaporated.
The Beach Boys without Brian Wilson still sang like angels, but the spark was gone.
After Jim Morrison’s death, The Doors were efficient and competent but not much more.
I’m convinced that making rock and pop can never be a truly democratic process. The Police without Sting? Simply Red without Mick Hucknall? Oasis without Noel Gallagher? Let’s not kid ourselves.
Look too at the bands who successfully re-invented themselves after their initial guiding light went out. Pink Floyd (who did it twice), Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, Nirvana (via Foo Fighters) and a handful of others – it was done by acknowledging that a great rhythm section does not a band make. All of those bands had to find a new ‘leader’ to help them move forward.
The one musical area where democracy runs rampant is free jazz and I find it unlistenable. Maybe that’s just me, but it almost invariably sounds to me like four blokes in a street brawl, all trying to get in the killer punch. I well remember when Cream decided they were really a jazz band and started playing interminable solos. What had started so promisingly as a vehicle for Jack Bruce’s imaginative songs, became a sprawling, shapeless mess.
In a way, the current revival of manufactured pop a la Pop Idol acknowledges this. Find a decent looking young person who can also sing a bit, fit him/her/them up with a savvy producer, a craftsmanlike songwriter and a hot team of session players and away you go. The guiding light in this scenario becomes whichever Cowell-like manipulator is pulling the strings, but the heart and soul of the set-up is missing.
A real band – a group of individually talented and driven players headed by one (two at tops) creative sparks – will always sound more real and forge deeper, more lasting links with an audience than any manufactured pop star or band of noodling virtuosos.
But make no mistake, this is not democracy.