Wednesday, March 9, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no. 31

Pop music is an exhausted medium today insofar as inventiveness is concerned. This is probably true of art more generally. Everything refers to something else. I can only speak for myself, but I can’t really hear something new without thinking that it sounds like something I’ve already heard, can’t see a movie without thinking the director is borrowing his style from another director, can’t read a book without thinking it’s an attempt to parrot another author’s style. Jean Baudrillard talked about how in a media saturated society all culture would increasingly become a simulation, and then a simulation of a simulation, and then... And it's come to pass. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that new music is bad or tired, though it does suggest that it’s not realistic to expect much in the way of innovation anymore… Which brings me to my main point about music making in the 60s, at a time when it was still possible to do new and fresh things. What fascinates me is not just how sounds and styles changed so quickly from one year to the next, and even from one month to the next, but also the uneven way change occurred. Some artists transitioned from na├»ve teenybopper pop to headier drug influenced music as early as 1965, while others didn’t really catch up until 1969 or 1970, by which time the first few rounds of psychedelia were already being surpassed by pioneers who moved into harder FM radio rock with longer, more ‘serious’ songs.

Tommy James and the Shondells were among those who were late to the psychedelic party, and in retrospect that’s not a bad thing. During parts of 1968 and 1969 - when the Beatles were doing the white album and Abbey Road, and the Who were doing A Quick One and Tommy, and pieces of the Hollies, Buffalo Springfield, and the Byrds were breaking off and forming Crosby Stills and Nash - Tommy James was only just starting to move from bubble gum music to psychedelic pop. This resulted in some of his best singles, songs like Crimson and Clover, Sweet Cherry Wine, Ball of Fire, and tonight’s song, Sugar on Sunday. The brilliant thing about all these songs, though, is that Tommy James never abandoned pop for rock, never tried to get too heavy in any sense of the word. With the Shondells’ psychedelic pop singles, you hear harpsichord, and flanged guitars and vocals, and peace and love, but the songs remain light ‘n airy and have a naivety and enthusiasm about them that you rarely get from heavier rock with its more jaded and self-important approach to music. Even though James supposedly took umbrage with the bubble gum label, you can tell that the guy has always been in love with pop, and he held onto that side of himself even as his sound evolved. His music gives me a warm romantic feeling inside, perfect for the onset of spring. The days are getting a little longer, flowers are blooming, and the air is pregnant with possibility...

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