The other day I woke up with an ear worm. To those unfamiliar with the term it is not, you may be glad to learn, a worm in the ear: it means a song, or usually a part thereof, that repeats in the brain over and over until it just decides to drift away into the ether. It can be quite annoying, a bit like hiccoughs, but in this case it was ‘Black Velvet Band’, a traditional song, and the chorus goes something like this:
Her eyes, they shone like diamonds; I thought her the queen of the land,
And her hair, it hung over her shoulders, tied up with a black velvet band.
As this song is not annoying to me, I found myself singing it out loud and, of course, annoyed everyone else.
Pick of the Pops
As I was pondering this and many other examples of popular music of the past, I wondered what has happened to the music that young ’uns are listening to today.
The young ’uns of my era would almost certainly be listening to a programme broadcast on Sunday evenings by the BBC light programme, which was meant to provide light music and entertainment. It became Radio One and Radio Two in 1967. The programme in question was called Pick of the Pops, hosted by Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman from 1961. Apparently, Freeman was given the nickname Fluff because of his liking for an old fluffy jumper. Mmm, not sure about that one but I have no other suggestion to offer.
He had a quick, up-beat delivery that appealed to us young ’uns at the time. He would start by using his catch phrase “Greetings, pop pickers” and then start a quick run-down of the top 20 pop songs of the ‘hit parade’ that week. He had a jingle going on in the background while he rattled out the titles of each song, starting at number 20, with a special build-up to number one.
What I thought was an iconic jingle used exclusively by Freeman on Pick of the Pops, as I had never heard it anywhere else,was in fact a song called ‘At the Sign of the Swingin’ Cymbal’, written by Brian Fahey and released in September 1960.
Recording the top 20
In 1964 I saved up and splashed out on a Ferguson 3202 four-track, two-speed, reel-to-reel tape recorder. This was the only way anyone could record something at home at the time, and I recorded the top 20 pop records every Sunday from Pick of the Pops. Unfortunately, I only had the equipment and/or knowhow to record with the microphone on the tape machine pointing towards the speaker of the radio in our lounge; therefore, I had to ensure that there were no outside noises interfering with the sound.
Dad thought it funny to ‘forget’ to keep quiet or to cough in the middle of a song. Possibly he thought it a waste of time, effort and electricity on this rubbish. I also had to be very quick after each record finished to pause the recording so as not to get Freeman speaking. Unfortunately, the BBC got wind that the popular records of the time were being recorded by us plebs, so the hosts would deliberately speak just before the record finished, miserable gits.
Encountering modern music
Modern technology makes it very easy to search and download all the pop songs from any particular era from our misspent youth. By way of comparison, I picked a week when I was 20 years old in June 1967 and listened with nostalgia to the Top 10. Then, by way of research, I listened to the equivalent top ten songs of today. At the end of this exercise, I could only describe it as having ‘taken one for the team’.
I found the modern songs noisy, repetitive drivel. The music seemed to have little to no melody, style or art, and all of the above was drowned out by this constant, repetitive rhythm. I assume that it was my age, of course. My parents thought my choice of music was awful, as did Moi and I when subjected to the music that Rachel favoured. But as I was convinced that this modern drivel was different from the drivel of the past, I carried out some further research.
The consensus from people who know much more than I is that modern pop music has changed significantly in the last 25 years. There were many suggestions given as to why this is the case, including the advances in technology that have allowed everyone to download and/or listen to millions of items of music at the flick of a switch, where once we had to physically go to a shop once a week or month to buy a disc, tape or CD (or, in some cases, cheekily record something on their Ferguson 3202 four-track, two-speed, reel-to-reel tape recorder. Readers may be surprised to learn that I was quite proud of that thing.).
Poor quality, mass quantity music
Apparently other, more scientific researchers into the subject of modern pop music have suggested that:
“‘music [is] becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularize music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills’. So music all starts simplifying and sounding similar.”
Which I think means something like: popular song writers are much more interested in popularity and/or money than the quality of their work and, as a result, we get heavy-handed music desperate for attention. Poor quality, mass quantity.
The modern pop music industry has relied on an overused chord progression – C, G, Am and F – and has swamped the market with repetition. As a result, the industry has lowered the quality of music so far, and we have allowed them to saturate the market to such an extent that new talent struggles to get noticed. But it is still out there: we just have to look deeper than the industry would appear to be shepherding us.
Search for the quality
There are musicians and writers who are more interested in the quality of their work than making a quick killing by pandering to the masses. It may take months or years to produce a piece of music that they eventually become happy with, but surely that is much more satisfying that writing something on the back of a fag packet and adding a heavy bass and a set of drums.
Having said that, many a song was written on the back of a fag packet in the 50s and 60s with the very same chord sequence that became very popular, but the song or melody could be heard above the rhythm section, and there were also other types of music to choose from.
Researching for this ramble was a nostalgic joy in the beginning but I couldn’t be paid enough to listen to the modern rubbish again.
Or is it really my age?