By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
I was listening to Moby Grape’s great, first album from 1968 the other day and it made me think about popular music, then and now. Music has always been an important part of my life. I remember being on the playground of my grammar school in 1964 and asking about a strange song coming out of a friend’s tinny transistor radio.
“That’s ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by the Beatles,” my classmate offered. It’s not an understatement to say, from that moment on, my relationship to music was never quite the same. To this day, I’m a dedicated hobbyist on the guitar. One of my favorite pastimes is to sit at home and idly play scales or pick out the notes and chords of some favorite song. I don’t need much encouragement at a party to break out my guitar and entertain guests with my rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.”
I’m partial to the oldies, but at the same time, I try to keep up with music and its unending sonic trends. To that end, in recent years, I’ve checked out the indies and alternative and progressive rock offerings—from Franz Ferdinand to Wilco, from the Kings of Leon to My Morning Jacket, Porcupine Tree and Nickelback. After giving modern music its due, I’m of the opinion that bands of today aren’t as great as those of years past.
We all know the Beatles and Rolling Stones were special, but they were only part of a beautiful musical tapestry. There were bands that were not nearly as successful (the “indies” of their day) that produced music more interesting and energetically creative than is heard nowadays.
If you don’t believe me (and why should you?) check out Captain Beyond or Spirit or Moby Grape. Consider the songwriting and the themes; appreciate the musicianship. You may find, like I have, that the Arctic Monkeys pale in comparison. Is anyone out there making music like the band “Yes” did? Their song, “Siberian Khatru” (1972), is a classic favorite unsurpassed today. Porcupine Tree is perhaps just as experimental and ambitious with their music, but to my ears they fall short on verve.
Consider, if you will, Motown music and their great groups in comparison to the counterparts of today. Is Hip Hop as pleasurable to the ear (and soul) as the tunes of the Supremes or Temptations or Four Tops?
But on reflection, all this is understandable. First of all, greatness in the present day will always be compared to greatness in the past. “He’s no Lawrence Olivier,” someone might well state when talking about an actor. No one would think to say, “He’s no Robert Pattinson.” Further, I believe that young people aren’t as interested in the subjective quality of music as they are in music played by other young people who look and act like they do. Let’s face it—a 28-year-old does not relate to Mick Jagger’s geriatric prancing.
But no matter how often I place an mp3 file from the “new breed” in my music player, I invariably find myself distracted and unsatisfied. That’s when I listen to Moby Grape’s raucous “Omaha,” with its three guitar players in “cross talk” with one another.
Of course, musicians today have talent, but I daresay they are less inspired than those of days gone by. The intricacies of Spirit’s aural transitions have been replaced by the tameness of Nickelback’s generic chordal progressions.
But what does a hobbyist know? Finally, I guess what I need to determine is whether music has gotten stupider or I have.