A Blog from John

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To follow is John Taylor's speech from his appearance at UCLA Engineering's 40th Anniversary of the Internet symposium:

First I would like to thank Grace Coopmans for dragging me out of my comfort zone and asking me to take part in this celebration. And it is a celebration, because despite any downsides to having the internet in our lives today, I think we would all agree that we are glad to have the internet, and that our lives have all been considerably enriched by the internet. I know I can say that for myself.

It has been suggested to me, that I tell you all, before we get started, in an effort at full disclosure, that I do not go on Facebook, nor do I have a Myspace page. And I do not Twitter.
I thought you ought to know that.

So… I don’t Twitter, BUT I LOVE pop culture. Music, the arts, literature… and generally prefer it to what I call real life, the stuff that CNN talks about, (politics, the economy, business…)
And always have. I always reach for the Entertainment section of the newspaper... That’s where my pocket money goes, and it always has.

I have twenty minutes to share with you some observations and opinions - they mostly relate to pop and popular music culture. The internet sometimes but not always.

I am working on a book at the moment, it’s a biography of a graphic artist who has created some of my favourite album covers, so I have been thinking a lot about this particular aspect of music delivery, this ‘manifesto of association’ that the artist delivers, and has done pretty much since Elvis in the mid 1950’s, alongside the music.

The packaging.

I’m talking about the photographs of the artist that the artist wants you to see, and the graphic iconography that the artist wants you to see, and maybe look at as you listen to the music. The logo of the band; what that says about who the band think they are or want to be, or what they want you to think they are. Is there a sensitivity, or a sense of irony, or humour, a sense of political awareness that the artist has and wants to present to us, that perhaps the song alone does not fully communicate?...

A video is a great way of expressing that, and broadening the artist’s presentation, as is a website, or for me what is most important, THE ALBUM COVER.

For me, and for a lot of music artists, the music is just the beginning. It is the most important component, the songs and the quality of the recordings, but beyond that there is a visual language, about which the artist has most likely been thinking long and hard for many years (for example the Guns & Roses tattoo logo, the Rolling Stones lips logo- which Andy Warhol got credit for but actually was done by a London art-student named John Pasche who I think got paid around $100..)
and that visual material, together with the music creates what I call the MANIFESTO. And quite often, it’s the visual material that attracts the attention and engages the imagination of you and me, the potential audience for the artist, before we have heard a note of the music.

Before I ever heard a note of music by The Clash I claimed them as my new favourite band, because of the way they hand-painted their clothes using Jackson Pollock paint splatters and stenciled numbers and letters, and they created this iconography, this mythology around themselves, and also from seeing fragments of lyrics quoted in the music press, so before they ever came and played in my hometown or made a record, I was fascinated by them as a band, and considered myself a fan.

Their first record actually came as quite a disappointment, and it took about eighteen months for them to make a recording that leapt up off the record player and grabbed you by the throat. That song was called ‘Complete Control’ by the way, and it was a snarling assault of the record company that they had signed to the previous year: CBS, which is now Sony. The Clash had a long and fruitful relationship with CBS/SONY in fact, but it was good for their manifesto to be seen having a public war with their US based multi-national record label who, we presumed, had tied them up and threatened their families with death if they did not sign a lifetime contract…

ask the audience:

How many of you have got music off the internet in the last four weeks? How many of you paid for it? How many of you got something for free? How many of you who bought music downloaded artwork? Anyone print up the artwork so you have it as a stand-alone piece of work? Anyone print up copies of the lyrics or just read the lyrics on your computer?

So getting asked to speak here today has caused me to think a lot about how the internet is changing the way we absorb music, and the artists who create the music, and how we appreciate them, and think about them.

I’d like to talk about the experiences I have had, beginning with when I was a teenager, because it is teenagers, I believe who have the greatest need for pop culture, which is a culture they can call their own, and then use it as something to define themselves as separate from their parent’s generation, and their parent’s ideas, especially their parent’s ideas about what is cool and what is good... which means it is usually the culture of NOW, THIS MINUTE, that they are most attracted to.

Teenage lives are filled with the most drama of any of us, you know, what with first love and wanting to die if he doesn’t love me etc.. It’s real operatic stuff, and that horrible peer pressure going on… cliquishness... and these lives desperately require a soundtrack.

I hated being a teenager, until I discovered just how powerful the world of popular music was. And it helped me find an identity, and define myself. Not just the notes and beats, but the icons and the haircuts and the clothes and the liner notes… so music saved me, in a way, or at least, it gave me a sense of direction, of how life could be.

I became a teenager in 1972.

Something that I often think about is this: In 1972 I was listening to music that almost exclusively had been made in 1972, with maybe some music from 1971. But that was it, with few exceptions.

Something the internet has most definitely done is that it has brought more music from more places and more eras, into the hearts and minds of us all, but young people in particular - which is great.

Most students I know have an extremely broad appreciation of music, far broader than I did. Obviously ‘classic’ rock, is very popular, but so too are all sorts of vintage and world music. My stepson who is at NYU was telling me he is currently into Cole Porter, and music from the 1920’s, and swing music, from the 40s...

And the availability and accessibility of music on the internet today is truly incredible. And I applaud anything that can inspire interest or curiosity in anyone. But this also means that those of us who before would have been looking towards the current culture for inspiration are now often to be found, like my stepson, in various backwaters of older music.

And this relative lack of need for current culture, which I would define as innovative culture can cause, has caused, is causing, maybe... the innovative culture to slow down. Much as an assembly line in Detroit slows down and lay offs have to be made when the demand for a new model recedes.

And another thing, the speed and growth of recent technology, which has been so heralded, and so much fuss has been made of, has actually served to disguise just how little real growth is taking place at the artistic level. Of course this is only my opinion.

Do you guys know Roxy Music? In September of 1972 Roxy Music appeared on ‘prime time’ TV in the UK. Their first national TV exposure was a three minute appearance performing their first ‘single’, and the way they looked and sounded stunned me and a generation of me’s… But we had no video recorders, and of course there was no YouTube. There was no way whatsoever I could watch that appearance again, however badly I wanted to, and the power of that restriction was enormous. And the only way I could get close to that experience was to own the song.

I lived in the suburbs, so I had to ride my bike for miles before I could find a store that sold music, let alone one that had the record in stock. It was a small trial of manhood, and an adventure. And to get access to that one song this is what had to be done. But once I had it I could play it whenever I chose. I could engage in the fantasy of that particular thing. I owned it. I could hold it.

I had to go on a quest of sorts to get it, but my need was such that I did it. Now is that because of the quality of the art, or my desperate need?

But the point is, the power of that single television appearance created such pressure, such magnetism, that I got sucked in. And I had to respond, as I know now, that previous generations had responded to Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan, or The Beatles a few years later, or Jimi Hendrix years after that.

And I believe that there is immense power in restriction, and holding back - as in the limitations there were in the medium of that time.

When artists today are asked to Twitter their every thought, their every action, or to record on video their every breath, their every performance, I believe they are diluting their creative powers, their creative potency, and the durability of their work. And in the long run, I believe they are also diluting the magical power and the magnetic attraction that they can or will ever have over their audience.

I wonder If I’d had unlimited access to that first Roxy Music TV appearance, if I’d had unlimited access to knowledge of their personal quirks, to the knowledge of what they liked for breakfast... If I had been able to access film footage of every performance, every rehearsal, every interview they gave that year, around the world, then I believe that bubble of my obsession would have burst a long, long time ago, and I would have ceased being a fan years ago.

I’m still buying copies of Roxy Music’s first album. Import copies on premium vinyl, Anniversary CD copies, Japanese imports in paper sleeves, iTunes downloads when I’m on the road and need a fix.

Such was the power of that initial strike.

Music companies take note!

As a teenager my world was pretty small. I lived in a house on a suburban housing estate. My room was about 10’ x 12’, with a view of several neighbours’ gardens, and I could look directly through the windows of several other houses without leaving my room. My record collection was small. When I was 13 I think I had about 20 singles, and maybe 6 albums. Maybe I owned a hundred songs.. but I knew them all quite intimately.

At the age of 13 I started going to see live music. That was scary! Into the city at night after school. Smell of drugs for the first time, sweat and the threat of violence. Seats being smashed, a lot of pushing and shoving. I often wanted to leave before the end. But it was an exciting world to get inside, and it fueled a passion inside me that I hadn’t got from my academic studies or sports.

That passion inspired me towards a career in the creative arts. And after one year at an Arts Foundation Course, I moved away from the visual arts towards a career in music. I had no idea that I would be successful. No idea whatsoever that thirty years later I would still be able to get paid to play bass and dance around in public, and to write songs with people I admire or call friends.

I have been able to perform in front of audiences around the world, and have a career beyond my wildest dreams. Ride the zeitgeist maybe, for a while... And the rules have changed, no doubt. The rules come at you like meteorites, you have to duck and dive, fast, and follow in the wake of a big one if you can. Know the rules, so you can break them. (That’s a good one).

And I have produced music that has been at different times made available on CASSETTE TAPE, DIGITAL AUDIO TAPE, COMPACT DISC, 7” VINYL, 12” VINYL THAT PLAYs AT 33 RPM, 12” VINYL THAT PLAYS AT 45 RPM, DVDS, MP3S, WAV-FILES.

And I think it is a big mistake for an artist to get hung up on technology. I’m not obsessed with analog sound for instance, or for what is the latest thing.. I don’t spend hours in the studio chasing the perfect bass sound. For me it’s about ideas, yes, and craft, and the eternal something that is the link in the chain between all music of all time. Energy and inspiration will keep you afloat and enable you to ride out these changes.

Musical artists, by definition, write and create recordings, usually writing their own material, making recordings and producing said material, (that’s a bit of legalese..) then taking it to the stage for a presentation of the work to their audience. This is pretty much what all musical artists do, and that’s what defines them.

Some artists live to perform and struggle to make new recordings. Some are only comfortable in the studio, and venture out to tour reluctantly. I think the most functional model today covers both grounds. Prince, Radiohead, and Madonna, to name three, have been able to mirror recordings of artistic merit with live performances that have raised the bar of what can be done. I’m sure there is someone out there doing it tonight. I wish I knew who. Any suggestions?

I’m even less concerned with the way we listen to music today, I listen to music in the car, as we all do, I listen to music at home. I have two homes, one’s an old house, so I listen to vinyl and that analog experience, when I am there. Here in LA I have a fancy Swedish CD player that reproduces the sound of CDs quite beautifully, and it’s a good experience listening to music that way.
I don’t like being tied to my computer, if I can help it, although my iPod, and the way it interfaces with the library of music I have in my computer, is a miracle. Particularly when you travel as much as I do.

Let me tell you a story about MP3s and iTunes. God I hated MP3s and DID NOT want to bother with iTunes. I’m a vinyl junkie man, I’m into the real thing. Who wants to listen to those itty-bitty little downloads?

WELL... I was in New York for a month with the band. We were just about to release a new album and some bright spark had suggested doing a run of shows on Broadway, as a way of announcing to the world our latest masterpiece.

Great fun actually, it was.. I had just bought a book about 20th Century music called ‘The Rest is Noise’ by Alex Ross. Great book, if you see it, well worth reading…and right off, chapter one, there is some great scene where George Gershwin visits Alban Berg in Vienna, and Berg plays him some of his new stuff, that just blows Gershwin’s mind… and I’m thinking. “I don’t know this stuff… I gotta get it NOW!’ and I’m thinking… New York… New York, where’s good to buy CDs? That place has gone… so’s that place… and WAIT A MINUTE… so what do I do? Okay… I SURRENDER to iTunes.

Fill out the forms, give them my ID, credit card info., choose a password… and whaddayaknow… moments later, THE VERY Alban Berg pieces Gershwin heard that evening in Vienna…

By the time I had finished the book and it was time to leave New York, I must have bought almost a hundred albums or partial albums from iTunes, to enhance my reading, which I really don’t think I could have done without iTunes. So now I love iTunes..

These are just a few observations of mine. I realise, that I’ve not said that much about the internet. But this is the stuff that the subject brought up for me. I hope you got something of use from it, so thank you for inviting me here, and thank you for listening.