I regularly post links to some related BBC shows that touch on the material we cover on the module or material that we don’t always have time to go into enough depth with. Here we have a celebration of the like of Martin Luther King in the 50th anniversary year of his death from Radio 4’s Great Lives series.
Actor Clarke Peters narrates a special edition of Soul Music marking fifty years since the assassination of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King on April 4th 1968.
“If in doubt, pray and sing” an activist recalls how music was used as part of Dr King’s non-violent resistance movement.
This edition of Soul Music tells the stories of the songs behind the Civil Rights Movement including the spirituals and freedom songs that were integral to the struggle. In the 19th century, music became a tool for protest and resistance among the enslaved peoples of the American South. The programme hears the stories behind some of the most popular anthems and Freedom Songs that were later used as part of the civil resistance movement that eventually led to voting rights and desegregation. From Swing Low Sweet Chariot and We Shall Overcome to Amazing Grace, Strange Fruit and A Change Is Gonna Come, witnesses to and participants in the Civil Rights Movement recall how songs were such a vital part of the story.
Every now and then the BBC Great Lives series pushes out a musical cracker. Here we have Adrian Utley of trip-hop/electronica act, Portishead, explaining why Mr Davis is the one of the greatest jazz musicians to ever graced this planet.
Miles Davis – trumpeter, composer, bandleader – is championed by Adrian Utley of Portishead.
“He’s always been really important in my life, right from early on when my dad used to play him. It was part of the atmosphere of our house.”
From the early years with Charlie Parker and on via Kind of Blue to playing in front of 600,000 hippies on the Isle of Wight, Miles Davis was a musician who never stood still. “Always listen for what you can leave out,” he used to say, and Portishead’s seminal nineties album Dummy seems to have taken advice from the man. According to Adrian Utley, “The darkness and the sense of space is the thing that I have assimilated from Miles … he’s in my DNA.”
With Richard Williams, author of The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music,.
Presented by a sceptical Matthew Parris, and produced by an enthusiastic Miles Warde.
I’ve often found this BBC Radio 4 series to be a little bit hit or miss with regards to their episodes and their focus but there are some gems hidden away that you deserve to listen to. The episode below is from Series 25 and tackles the late Bob Marley classic ‘Redemption Song’ – one of the singer’s last (and finest) songs from the Uprising album. It features some heart-wrenching accounts of the song and its meanings that fans have attached
You can stream the show here and you can download the mp3 here.
“If you’ve never heard of Bob Marley then you must be living under a rock” – Neville Garrick, Bob Marley’s Art Director and friend.
At the time he wrote ‘Redemption Song’, circa 1979, Bob Marley had been diagnosed with the cancer in his toe that later took his life. It is considered one of his greatest works and continues to inspire generations of Marley fans across the world.
For Grammy Award Winning artist John Legend, it’s become an anthem for addressing the criminal justice system of America. ‘Musicians without Borders’ practitioner Ahmed al ‘Azzeh finds the song inspires him to work towards a better life in the Palestinian Territories. For Jamaican Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison, it is a reminder to continue Marley’s call to ‘sing these songs of freedom’ and for Bob Scott, it will forever be heard in memory of his nephew Dominick who lost his life during the 2004 Tsunami.
Featuring interviews with Neville Garrick and Wailers Guitarist Don Kinsley.
BBC 4 has a 3 part series on air at the time of writing that fits in with some of the content we look at in the first couple of weeks on the module. Psychoactive drug experiments by pioneering psychologists and starry-eyed kids combine to create a movement quite unlike anything that came before it.
Here’s the show notes for Episode 1:
The first episode looks at how ideas, music and lifestyles from Asia, Europe and the American Left became entwined in California. It traces the roots of the hippies back to a 19th-century German sect of wandering naturalists called Lebensreform who brought their freethinking ideas about nature to California after the Second World War. There they merged with a growing interest in Eastern mystical concepts of human nature imported to America by maverick British thinkers like Aleister Crowley and Aldous Huxley. Add to this mix a wonder drug first developed by the CIA called LSD and a wave of student activists and anti-war protestors agitating for revolution and you have the astonishing story how these forces came together to give birth to the Summer of Love in San Francisco, 1967.
If that sounds good to you then you can click through this link to watch via the BBC iPlayer.
The second episode can be found on this link. Show notes below:
The second episode explores how the Summer of Love of 1967 set in motion an era of social upheaval that pitted America’s youth against its elders and how the American government responded with a series ofbrutal crackdowns. The hippies failed politically, but their cultural influence changed the world. Everything from the environmental movement to the explosion in alternative health practices to the birth of feminism all grew out of this moment. And most surprising of all, we trace how hippie ideas first imagined on LSD went on to shape the information age itself.
The song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is a beautiful and whimsical folk track that was written by Sandy Denny (prior to her brief stint with Fairport Convention), when she was only 19 years old and it betrays a much older soul. Her life was tragically cut short, aged only 31.
The tune is the subject of the BBC Radio 4 series, Soul Music, this week and it’s one of those hauntingly beautiful tragic songs that warrants a half hour deep dive. Click this link to go to the show or download an mp3 (26.9mb) by clicking the image below.
Here’s the show notes:
Sandy Denny was just 19 years old when she wrote ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’, her much-loved song about the passing of time. Soul Music tells the story behind the song and speaks to people for whom it has special meaning.
The record producer Joe Boyd and founder member of Fairport Convention Simon Nicol remember Sandy and her music. We speak to musicians who have covered the song, including folk legend Judy Collins and the singer Rufus Wainwright, about what the song means to them. And we hear from people whose lives have been touched by the song, including the singer-songwriter Ren Harvieu, who suffered a back break in a freak accident and found strength in the song during her recovery. And neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman explains why the years seem to fly past ever more quickly as we grow older. Also featuring contributions from Sandy Denny’s biographer Mick Houghton and Dr Richard Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Music at Newcastle University.
Producer: Mair Bosworth.
The track has been covered extensively. You can find some of the covers referenced in the show together with a few other notable versions in the playlist below
Back in September 2016, Square Sounds Tokyo held its annual gathering for musicians from around the world to come and perform ‘chipmusic’ live. This genre, more commonly known as ‘chiptune’ (which is how I’ll be referring to it hereafter) or ‘8-bit’, refers to the creation of electronic music using sound chips commonly found in vintage computers, game consoles and arcade machines. If you need an example, think of the original ‘Super Mario Bros. Theme’. That’s chiptune before ‘chiptune’ even really existed as we know it today.
Upon watching a performance from Irish musician Chipzel (Niamh Houston) at Square Sounds, I began to wonder why so many people, including myself, enjoyed listening to music from this relatively niche genre. It seems odd, as a society, to have made so many technological advancements in music and sound quality over the past few decades and yet still occasionally rely on creating music through this method that existed purely due to technological limitations.
Let it be clear that this is not a ‘new’ genre. It has existed since the early 1980s, ever since equipment such as personal computers and video game consoles became outdated and hence more accessible to creative individuals who wished to use them for sound or art purposes. The reason I think many people see it as a new genre is because it sticks out like a sore thumb now more than ever because of, as I say, advancements in technology, as well as the simplistic nature of the sounds used in chiptune. Most people associate this genre with the soundtracks of video games in the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog etc. The fact it has made a comeback from the 2000s onwards is bound to confuse many who didn’t think there was a market for ‘video game music’. With the release of consumer software (such as LSDJ, a GameBoy cartridge created specifically for creating chiptune music on the console) from the late 2000s-early 2010s, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people utilising these old-school sounds, including popular mainstream artists.
For enthusiasts, it likely elicits a very strong sense of nostalgia. It takes them back to a time where they were playing video games as children. In this sense, they experience a sense of loss – a longing to return to this simpler, worry-free time, and the consumption of this music genre helps to bridge that gap. It sounds odd that a certain genre could achieve this. Nostalgia is usually specific – associated to a specific artist, song, phrase or lyric – but chiptune is such a distinct and recognisable genre that it can be linked to almost any video game from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Keiji Yamagishi, composer for Ninja Gaiden, chimes in on the appeal of chiptune, and states that “it’s difficult not having any limitations. I feel like I was being tested.” It’s an interesting concept – having technological limitations could actually make you feel less pressured to outdo other artists or create something incredible – it gives you a sense of focus. This familiarity would understandably benefit both composers and listeners.
But technological advancements in music and music production have not been lost on some chiptune artists. While some do create ‘pure’ chiptune tracks, using nothing but these old-school sounds for every instrument, including drums, bass, keys etc., the majority incorporate chiptune sounds into other styles of music. This creates many different subgenres of chiptune, including one that I found particularly interesting – Nintendocore. Yes, you read that right. Take a listen to ‘Four to Six‘ by Math the Band. They have found a way (and they are not, by any means, the only artist to do this) to combine punk rock and chiptune. Two genres that are very different from one another, but they somehow work. Other examples include EDM mixed with chiptune, courtesy of the aforementioned Chipzel (which, as a sidenote, works wonders live) and even orchestral rock (Curious Quail’s Rallying Cry). I’m not sure why any of these work, but they do. I’m the last person to be listening to punk rock, but throw some chiptune in there and I love it. It brings that sense of nostalgia and familiarity to any genre it’s paired with – it’s hard to explain
However, the (potential) problem with chiptune is that it generally doesn’t have lyrics. Much like the video game soundtracks it emulates, chiptune creates its melodies through instrumentation rather than vocal work. This makes it harder to break through into the mainstream, which is why many notable songs that feature chiptune (such as Ke$ha’s ‘Tik Tok’) simply sample it and use it sparingly as a background instrument rather than the main focus. A few artists, however, have created chiptune-centric tracks with vocals, such as the Somerset-based duo You Love Her Coz She’s Dead. These artists, however, very rarely see mainstream attention. Perhaps the most mainstream artist who can be considered ‘chiptune’ would be Crystal Castles, but even then, it seems to take a back seat to EDM in their songs.
This, ultimately, leads to it becoming a very niche genre, and seen by many as ‘hipster’ music because of the fact it is a fairly-recent trend that is outside of the mainstream. And the fact it is so niche is amplified whenever someone claims to have done this technique for the first time. This happened as recently as February 2016 when Killscreenran a story about a musician who had used a Sega Genesis sound chip to create a remix of some music from Sonic the Hedgehog. He said he believed he was the “only producer within the contemporary music platform that’s using that sound chip.” Needless to say, this pissed people off – so much so that they had to change the article to account for the massive amount of chiptune artists who pointed out the obvious oversight in Killscreen’s reporting (and the man’s ability to perform a quick Google search).
Maybe it’s an acquired taste. I know plenty of people who describe chiptune as simply “noise” and don’t see the appeal, which is fine, I see where they’re coming from to a certain extent. But in the right hands, these simple sounds can be a very powerful tool. Take a listen to the Spotify playlist and see what you think. There’s a wide variety of different chiptune tracks there for you to make up your mind about this relatively unknown genre.
Whether you love it or hate it, just don’t try and claim you invented it.
[[SOUND OFF]] is a series of student-written features on artists/albums/music worth checking out
When discussing genres, music critics love a good death metaphor – and it’s easy to see why – as a general theme around which to centre a review or think piece there’s so much room for witty, clever and entirely non-derivative turns of phrase that seek to illustrate to the reader the sombre truth that we, as a culture, have suffered a tragic loss. A music genre is no longer as popular as it used to be. A moment’s silence please.
A notable victim of music journalism’s psychopathic serial killer streak is Rock music, with scores upon scores of articles being written every year that mournfully state as an unequivocal fact that rock music, if not stone-cold dead, is barely hanging on to life – conjuring images in the reader’s head of a hospitalised middle-aged white man, R. Music, connected to machines by tubes and wires after being involved in a tragic (but totally rad) high-speed crash while thundering his Harley Davidson down Route 66. His leather jacket lies in tatters next to his tin pail of Jack Daniel’s and book of LaVeyan scripture.
The main problem with this ‘rock is dead’ narrative (aside from the obvious factual inaccuracy that we will get on to later) is that so many reviews of contemporary rock artists’ work is viewed through this lens, and not only is the rhetoric dull, tired and repetitive – but it places a severe amount of undue pressure on upcoming bands that presumably just want to play some music and not be tasked with the daunting challenge of striding purposefully into R. Music’s death bed, looking at his chart, and giving him the life-saving treatment he desperately needs in order to get back on his Harley and head out onto the open road.
Take, for example, this piece in NME where The Nicest Man in Rock™, Dave Grohl, singles out Bristol-based duo Royal Blood as being a good band – not a particularly sensationalist statement – and there are certainly no insistences that we have finally found the fabled saviour of our resident over-extended metaphor R. Music. This then gets picked up by another website under the considerably more hyperbolic title of ‘Dave Grohl reckons Royal Blood will save rock ‘n’ roll’, an article that impressively even links to the original piece where the Foo Fighters frontman explicitly does not say that. Then of course when the album is reviewed – it is seen at least partially through this lens, whether they think the album is good or bad . There have been many bands that this claim has been levelled at over the years, such as The Strokes, The White Stripes, Gaslight Anthem and many, many more – so many bands, in fact, that one might begin to question whether rock is actually even dead at all!
To be fair to music critics, they are generally not the ones who have written the obituary – they seem to be just part of a climate where it’s essentially regarded as received wisdom that rock music is dead and as such, it’s convenient to proclaim that any fellas with a guitar and some good tracks will be the ones to save the genre. The people we truly have to blame for this questionable received wisdom are, bizarrely, rock musicians themselves.
Roger Daltry, Flea, Gene Simmons, Bob Dylan and Joe Perry have all recently been quoted in articles as saying that rock music has died. What’s particularly irksome about the incessant claims from these musicians, is that after they were all tearfully huddled around R. Music’s bedside during his final moments, they will have left (presumably on Harley Davidsons) to play sell-out stadium tours with their respective bands – disproving their own point and earning millions of dollars collectively by playing rock music.
So that point is obviously not entirely fair, all of the aforementioned musicians are already established (bewilderingly, in the case of Gene Simmons) as rock legends and, as they come from a time before the supposed tragic demise of rock music, they are still able to find huge audiences and rake in the cash. This is where the ambiguity of the term ‘dead’ comes into play – if we’re to assume that a ‘dead genre’ is one that is simply not currently the most popular in the world then sure – forget all the snarky bullshit I’ve spouted over the last seven hundred words; rock music is dead – I’ll do a reading at the funeral. However, if we’re to assume that a ‘dead genre’ is one that is creatively and artistically spent – that there is nobody doing anything interesting within the confines of the generic conventions of rock music then I am delighted to announce that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
The reason I think the distinction between the two different possible meanings of ‘dead’ is an important one is that the popularity of the genre should have no impact on and is of no relevance to the critical discussion surrounding the actual music within the genre, which is why it is infuriating to see articles that proclaim new bands to be the saviour of rock, or to hear old musicians claiming that the genre is dead.
Artistically, rock music has been doing just fine for decades – it may not be the biggest genre in the world any more but that doesn’t matter, there are still great bands doing great things and it’s okay that they’re doing them to moderately smaller audiences. So when a website runs an article with the headline ‘Gene Simmons: “Rock is Dead, It Was Murdered”’ it may as well read ‘BREAKING: Old White Man Thinks Things Have Changed Since His Day and Boy is He Angry About It’.
[[SOUND OFF]] is a series of student-written features on artists/albums/music worth checking out
When Deafheaven released their sophomore record Sunbather in 2013, not many would have predicted quite how much attention it received. Achieving a rating of 92 on critical aggregate site Metacritic, Sunbather finished the year as it’s most highly regarded album . Which was pretty much unheard of, considering the ‘black metal’ label many critics threw at it.
Sunbather was unlike anything many outside of the black metal community had heard or seen before. Deafheaven sidestepped the corpse paint and morbid lyrics for a bright pink cover and songs filled with nostalgia, romance and despair. The blast beats and tremolo picked guitar leads still forged ahead, but they were sandwiched between pretty post-rock sections comparable to some of Explosions in the Sky’s most poignant moments.
The guitars blared, but they also twinkled at times. The album bypassed all the stereotypes that most music consumers would affiliate with black metal artists. Deafheaven weren’t Burzum, Varg Vikernes didn’t spearhead their line up with tracks about ethnic cleansing and an all too real history of church burning and murder . They didn’t parade themselves around forests in music videos carrying medieval flame torches . They wore shirts and derby shoes, sported Hitler Youth haircuts and played music that appealed to Pitchfork readers more associated with indie rock and synth pop than extreme metal.
Sunbather didn’t mark a shift in the black metal landscape, the musical amalgamation present within it had already been explored in 2005 with Alcest’s ‘Le Secret’ EP. However, Alcest have slipped past the waves criticism from the die-hard black metal community that has been levelled at Deafheaven and their fans. Alcest have for many years been producing records that combine shoegaze and black metal that is both ferocious and beautiful. The one element missing from their music was the widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. Unlike Sunbather, ‘Le Secret’ didn’t find it’s cover gracing the new Apple iPhone advertisements .
Criticism has been just as fierce toward Liturgy, another band carrying with them the ‘black metal’ tag without acceptance from it’s respective community. Perhaps this is more to do with frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s boastful claims of composing ‘Transcendental Black Metal’, complimented by his outlandish manifesto that tries so hard, yet misses the mark by such a distance it’s almost embarrassing . Liturgy’s new album The Ark Work contained many elements which in theory fit the black metal bill; layered tremolo picked guitars and intense blast beats shape the most consuming moments of the album.
Throughout The Ark Work however are some interesting stylistic shifts; droned, glitching vocals, extensive midi trumpet sections and bagpipes galore. Hendrix is incessant in his attempt to ‘reinvent’ black metal, as evident by the unusual, yet enticing union of ideas within The Ark Work. It remains no surprise critics were perplexed by the release, to the point that one accused Liturgy of ‘trolling’ their fans . While another rightfully questioned whether it was even black metal .
Battles for authenticity between those that consider themselves the cultural elite, and less concerned fans have been waged time and time again. During the 90s when artists such as Green Day and The Offspring broke the mainstream, accusations were made of them ‘selling out’ . This backlash from punk rock purists didn’t prevent the success of either band, and neither will they stop Deafheaven’s apparent march to success.
This case however is different in that there is so little commercial appeal here that any accusations of Deafheaven lacking authenticity is laughable. While they may have found a market for a genre of metal that is emotional, beautiful and brutish. The screamed vocals and harsh sonic landscapes littered throughout their releases aren’t exactly accessible. This music is still extreme, whatever genre you call it.
Try telling that to Ghostbath, a North Dakota based band whose latest album Moonlover received minor attention for bearing a stark sonic resemblance to Sunbather. This led to some disappointed comments from Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy, as he accused Ghostbath of ripping them off .
A channel appropriately called Hipster Black Metal has been lurking in the depths of YouTube over the past few years . The aim of this channel appears to be calling out bands for appropriating a genre of music they have no business operating within. It’s content is filled with lengthy videos criticising bands such as Deafheaven, Liturgy, Wolves in the Throne Room, Ghostbath and Panopticon. Bands all given the black metal label by critics, without being welcomed by the black metal community. The videos make audible comparisons between ‘real’ black metal bands and the aforementioned ‘hipster’ variations . These comparisons are convincing in making their case for the mislabelling of certain bands, though one major flaw remains in their argument.
The use of homophobic and derogatory slurs such as ‘faggot’ and ‘retard’ is a staple throughout this channel and of many black metal elitists in comments sections regarding these bands throughout the internet. Behaviour like this makes black metal purists appear foolish in their attempts to assert authority, it’s akin to children having a temper tantrum, preventing their argument from holding weight in a serious discussion. Sure, such bands may suit the ‘screamo’ tag more, but this is irrelevant to those enjoying their music, who aren’t going to be turned onto ‘true’ black metal because someone on the internet called them a ‘poser’.
It is undeniable that ‘blackgaze’ bands such as Deafheaven, Alcest and Ghostbath are far removed from the early Norwegian black metal outfits such as Darkthrone, Mayhem and Gorgoroth. The latter artists, who propelled the genre forward in the late 80s to early 90s, featured more abrasive production and a sharper guitar sound, while bathing in an air of pure malevolency that is impossible to find in the former groups. These modern US iterations with their cleaner production appear more emotionally frail, and open to experimentation with less affiliated genres. They tap into auras of despair, romance and hope, often within the same song.
Instead of perpetuating division, black metal fans should be wearily accepting of ‘blackgaze’ bands entering the relative mainstream. It’s not about the genre these bands operate in, it’s about what they offer to the musical repertoire of those who listen to them. Bands such as Deafheaven offer an easily digestible glimpse of black metal that may entice fans to delve deeper into the genre; one that is thoroughly rewarding when explored in full depth.
[[SOUND OFF]] is a series of student-written features on artists/albums/music worth checking out
There’s a fascinating radio documentary on the old BBC dealing with the ways in which musicians played around with gender roles. You can find it here (where you can also download it via mp3). You can find the show notes below:
For centuries musicians have defied gender boundaries to create some of the most evocative and provocative art and music.
Journalist and culture critic Laura Snapes joins the dots of a fascinating musical history that encompasses musical icons such as Ma Rainey, Little Richard, Lou Reed, the Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones and Madonna, and looks at how today’s musicians use music and performance to express who their own gender and sexuality.
In recent years the issue of gender and identity has been a hot topic in the musical landscape and beyond. From niche publications to tabloids and political debate, issues surrounding gender identity and how it influences both personal and social life have been widely publicised.
Amid the deeply complex personal world of gender identity and the often ruthlessly myopic world of the music industry, a new generation of artists are using music for fearless expressions of their gender and sexuality that break beyond the archetypes set by their forebears.
Rock Transition speaks with artists such as garage maverick Ezra Furman, Canadian pop stars Tegan and Sara, musician and author CN Lester, and musician and activist Ryan Cassata to understand why music offers an exciting platform to express and explore gender identity and sexuality – and asks how these artists can resist being marginalised and commodified by an industry keen to capitalise on a hot topic.
If you have an interest in the ways in which music and digital technology are converging then you might want to check out the podcast below. It’s from the BBC World Service show, Click. Be warned, it can be a bit twee in place (very BBC), but it does touch on things like virtual reality and music video art, artificial intelligence identifying music stems and lyrics in order to help creators identify new potential. Here’s the spiel:
At the recent Music 4.5, The New Creative Tech event in London, academics, technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators in virtual, augmented and mixed realities and artificial intelligence came together to explore some of the opportunities and challenges for music opened up by technology.
There are countless examples of advances such as bands collaborating with companies to create Virtual Reality live concert experiences. Notably both Brian Eno and Björk are using Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence in their music videos. New technologies now also enable micro identification of stems of music that allow musicians to be better remunerated for their skill. Click is joined by a panel of experts including, Paul Crick from IBM, Rachel Falconer from Goldsmith College and Martin Gould from Sonalytic to discuss the potential new direction and developments for music.