Monday, December 06, 2021

The Use of Popularity

In November 1968, the Beatles released their ninth studio album, known as the White Album. Alongside an assortment of different musical items and styles, it included a piece of musique concrète entitled Revolution 9, inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and largely put together by John Lennon, George Harrison and Yoko Ono.

Critics and fans have been divided on this track ever since. Many fans regard it as the worst track the Beatles ever made. Following a line of enquiry that can be traced back to a remark by George Martin himself, the vlogger David Bennett recently suggested pruning the White Album, dropping most of the more experimental tracks including Revolution 9, and retaining only the more aesthetically pleasing ones.

But what is the point of being the most popular band in the world, if you merely pander to conventional expectations and production values?

Fifteen years later, the Police released the Synchronicity album, containing another track that divided critics and fans - Mother, written and sung by Andy Summers. A range of critical opinions can be found on this archive page http://www.thepolice.com/discography/album/synchronicity-23441

  • quite out of context (Henry Everingham, Sidney Morning Herald)
  • revelation ... part-spoof, part-manic (Robin Denselow, The Guardian)
  • wild card (People)
  • foolish Psycho scenario set to obvious programmatic music (Richard Cook, NME)
  • Guitarist Andy Summers' corrosively funny 'Mother' inverts John Lennon's romantic maternal attachment into a grim dadaist joke (Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone)
  • spritely 7/4 timing (Adam Sweeting, Melody Maker)
  • novelty song (Richard C Walls, Creem)
  • blast of pure primal scream in 7/4 time, the sarcastic cut of his Freudian recitation intensified by a brute rhythm attack recalling Robert Fripp's experiments with spoken words and white rock noise on 'Exposure' (David Fricke, Musician)

 

Until the mid 1960s, pop albums were merely collections of songs from the same artist in a similar style, often including songs that were not good or commercial enough to be released as singles. Then some groups started to produce so-called concept albums: Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), Freak Out (Mothers of Invention) and Face to Face (Kinks) all appeared in 1966, and Sgt Pepper (Beatles) followed in 1967. Labelling something as a concept album implied that the album needed to be experienced and evaluated as a whole rather than as a random collection of songs. The best-known examples of concept albums are from groups that were already popular, which obviously helped to build an audience for something unexpected. And Revolution 9 was certainly that.

The ways that people consume music have changed several times since then. Once upon a time, people used to curate collections of their favourite songs onto cassette tapes, for themselves or their friends. Then other devices emerged, such as the iPod and its successors, allowing people to listen to their playlists in an apparently random sequence. Nowadays, most people consume music via downloads or streaming services such as iTunes or Spotify.

Perhaps tracks like Revolution 9 or Mother may not appear on many popular playlists. But that's not going to worry extremely popular bands like the Beatles or the Police. It's not just that they can afford to have a few unpopular tracks, it's that the demands of creativity and innovation produces tracks that their fans don't always love.

Hopefully it's not only these groups that can afford to take these creative risks, or to take a stand against what Adorno called Atomized Listening. Dorian Lynskey argues that the concept album is back. Threatened with redundancy in the digital era, albums have fought back by becoming more album-like. And as Adorno said in praise of Beethoven, serious music achieves excellence when its whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Meanwhile the curious thing about both Sgt Pepper and the White Album is that nobody was quite sure what the concepts were. Perhaps this is what enables David Bennett to apply his own concept?



Theodor Adorno, Political Protest and Popular Music (3sat 1968). Video available on archive.org and YouTube. See also commentary by Josh Jones, Theodor Adorno’s Radical Critique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Vietnam War Protest Movement (Open Culture, 3 December 2014)

Theodor Adorno and Peter von Haselberg, On the historical adequacy of consciousness (Akzente 1965, Telos 1983). See below for extract, taken from Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Polity 2005) p 420

Mark Athitakis, A Beatles Reflection: What the White Album says about us (HUMANITIES 34/5, September/October 2013)

David Bennett, Should The White Album have not been a double album? (YouTube, 25 November 2021)

Georgie Born, Listening, Mediation, Event (Journal of the Royal Musical Assocation, 135/1, 2010)

Dorian Lynskey, Why everyone from Beyonce to Daft Punk is releasing a concept album (GQ 13 July 2015)

Related post Shuffle (June 2005)