Jun 2009

The Sunday papers

I read the news today, oh boy…

So sang Neil Young during his Glastonbury encore. I rarely watch festival coverage on TV as it always falls so far short of the actual experience, that I usually end up annoyed rather than uplifted or entertained. Yesterday though, I got completely caught up by The Specials and wound up watching almost their entire set. Thanks to the wonders of modern television, the BBC offered me five screens to choose from. I lingered briefly on each screen (some recorded, some live) to get a flavour of the festival, and I’m clearly showing my age when I confess that The Specials were head and shoulders above the rest. Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, N.E.R.D. and Fleet Foxes all went up against them on the beeb’s interactive coverage. And all seemed somewhat lacking in energy by comparison. A bit lifeless really.

Don’t get me wrong, the crowd seemed to be having a good time at each of the performances, but musically there was just no comparison. Next to songs like Monkey Man, Concrete Jungle, Ghost Town (of course) and a blistering version of A Message to You, Rudy the others just fell flat.

Later, having sat down with a pizza and a DVD (OK, not the edgiest way to spend the Friday night of Glastonbury… I’m pacing myself) I flicked back on the Glastonbury coverage in time to catch the very end of Neil Young’s set. If the encore was in any way characteristic of the entire performance, then I suspect I just missed one of the great Glastonbury shows. Young radically reinterpreted the classic Beatles song, A Day in The Life, turning it into a feedback laden, bass-driven piece of grungey folk-rock. Or something. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on, what with Young having broken every string on his guitar by the time he’d reached about three quarters way through the song. Still he drove it on though, raking the broken strings across the pick-up, the amps, the mics, whatever he could find. All the while stamping on his effects pedals as though he could literally squeeze extra noise from them.

When he finally finished beating the hell out of his guitar with a mic-stand, he strode off stage in the manner of a man looking for a fight. I’d barely had time to utter the words, “Now that’s a real rock star!” before he reappeared to spend about twenty seconds gently tapping on a xylophone before disappearing for good. Incongruous to the end.

Farewell, Mr. Jackson

Of course, despite Glastonbury going on, the big music news of the moment is the death of Michael Jackson. I didn’t really “get into” music until my mid-teens, but Thriller was a huge thing even for me. The video, the songs, the moonwalk, that one white glove… it was more cultural event than album. Did you know that worldwide, Thriller has sold more than twice as many copies as the next highest selling album? It’s sold over 100 million copies. No other record has ever topped 50 million. The popularity of Thriller exists on a whole different level to other records.

And while I rarely play Jackson’s two truly classic records (Thriller and Off the Wall), and while I wouldn’t rate them among my personal favourites, I can nonetheless appreciate the greatness that lurks within. I may be doing the modern music industry a disservice here, but it seems to me that 83% of all records made today — from Beyonce to The Black-Eyed Peas — are faded copies of Thriller. But when Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and their crew entered the studio in 1982 they were inventing that sound. It was new and exciting, and you can hear that excitement on the record.

I listened to Thriller again yesterday for the first time in a good while. Within 30 seconds of the start of the first track (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’), it’s only a willful curmudgeon who isn’t having fun (Yeah! Yeah!)

The entire album glides effortlessly along on a series of glorious grooves. Criticisms that it’s “over-produced” or “too smooth” or “too 80s” are — in my view — missing the point entirely. The joy and energy of Thriller isn’t airbrushed out of existence by that highly polished production and arrangement, as happens with almost all of the imitators. Instead, it’s amplified and thrown into sharp relief. It’s celebrated.

And that’s how I intend to remember Michael Jackson. The rest of the stuff? The media circus? I’ll let that slide by.

Posted in: Opinion