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The 21st Century

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Lifestyles: James Skinner adrift on his desert island alone with Elvis and Johnny Cash

James Skinner

‘When I fall in love, it will be forever. When I fall in love with you.’

Johhny Cash

Who can forget the immortal lyrics of Nat King Cole’s most famous love ballad? Or how about Louie Armstrong as he crooned ‘Give me a kiss to build a dream on, and my imagination will make that dream come true’, in one of the many songs he sang with that awkward voice of his when he wasn’t blasting away at his trumpet. They were among the many jazz musicians in the last century that added a touch of romance to the equally sensational melodious soloists or groups that entertained everyone in the forties and fifties. Sure, Bill Haley and the Comets broke the mould of conventional popular music when he surprised the world with his ‘Rock around the Clock’ at around the same period of time. It paved the way for a twisting and pivoting Elvis Presley who equally impressed or shocked us, take your pick when he burst out with ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.’ Yet even Elvis developed a soft touch with his smash hit ‘Love me tender’. Remember all this you oldies out there?

How about going back even further to our parents and grandparents during the first half of the last century. I recall one of the greatest and most popular jazz singers of the twenties was called Al Jolson who used to paint his face black and pretend before his audience that he was a black singer. He hit the billboards, equivalent to today’s popularity charts for over thirty years. He also became famous for being the protagonist of the first ever talking movie, called very appropriately ‘The Jazz Singer’. Why should I know so much about this guy if I was born much later? In the late forties, after he had retired, Hollywood decided to make a biographical movie, ‘The Jolson Story’. In fact it was such a smash that they produced a sequel. Even after his death and for the next fifteen years or so, his songs continued to captivate the hearts of young and old the world over. Another well-known composer and bandleader of the softer version of jazz entered the history books thanks to a similar Hollywood production. Who can forget Jimmy Stewart in the tearjerker ‘The Glenn Miller story’?

If we move on to the sixties and seventies we can observe a divergence of popular music that begins to create several different versions from the original jazz base. Rock and roll added twist and shout and crooning went hand in hand with country and folk. In the USA, some veterans like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett adapted and held their own against the onslaught of newcomers. Whilst Frankie’s ‘New York, New York’ continues as a classic on today’s list and confirms him as ‘Mr. Big Apple’, Tony’s ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ will only die if an earthquake hits the beautiful ‘City by the Bay’. These two greats were joined at the time by competitors including a young and aspiring Barbra Streisand who still hits today’s top charts with ‘My name is Barbra’, and Simon and Garfunkel who wrote the smash hit ‘Mrs. Robison’ for the movie ‘The Graduate’.

Country music went it’s own way during this period and created superstars such as Kenny Rogers, who’s ‘Lucille’ always hits a chord in my heart, or the recently deceased and now immortal Johnny Cash. I have to pause just here as I think of this guy. His early success ‘I walk the line’ was my introduction to the soul of this tortured yet extremely lovable human being. To quote Maurice Chevalier’s song in ‘Gigi’, ‘I remember it well’. Yet my favourite will always be ‘A boy named Sue’. How could someone write a song about a cowboy father who gives his son a girl’s name so that he can later defend himself in life beats the hell out of me, but I love it! But so much for twentieth century basically Anglo-Saxon music, what about the classics?

I pause again and think; where do I start? How can one write about the wonderful world of classical music? The whole gamut varies from baroque to light opera, from symphonies and instrumental concerts to string quartets and solos. It also covers various centuries of monumental and magnificent musical scores. You have the super stars such as Beethoven and Mozart who were born with the gift of the musical gab, or the Austrian Strauss family who composed and entertained the world for decades. I can never remember which one composed ‘The Blue Danube’. Bo Derek making love to 'Bolero' in the film ‘10’ summed it up in her love scene with Dudley Moore. There is a piece of classical music for every occasion or mood.

If I take a small break in the product line and take a look at the history of the distribution market, the exponential growth in music composition and reproduction continued after WWII in parallel with the development of the various means of communication. Old 78-rpm records were replaced by faster and more compact versions rotating at 33 rpm. Radio transmission was enhanced with analogue television broadcasting and broadened eventually thanks to satellite and now digital cable TV. The new technology in both sound and video have allowed for hundreds of new artists and orchestras to enter the homes and minds of millions of both listeners and viewers around the world. Yet the old guys, and not to forget many dolls, some long gone and buried are still around today. Many of their recordings are constantly being refurbished and are rebounding on videos, CD’s and all other forms of recordings that I can’t think of at the moment.

But as I take a look around me at today’s musical offerings, I ask myself, where has all the talent gone? Where have the likes of Spain's Falla or the Beatles disappeared? What has happened to the inspiration of Albinoni, or the poetry of the Carpenters? I now listen to rattling tin cans and squawking geese as the sounds of modern classical music, or a fandangle of new types of contemporary music with absurd descriptions such as ‘Heavy Metal’, ‘Hip Hop’ or ‘Funky’. And what about the actual pop groups, they’re something else. Hairy bag people shouting like Tarzan and Jane running around the stage like gladiators rather than musicians, and when they stop they put on that look as if they want to beat the shit out of you! I’m afraid I just have to stop here. I can’t go on, as I have no words to describe what I think about the absolute garbage that is now pumped through the airwaves in the name of music. There is one thing though, like everything else in our consumer world, nothing lasts very long. Today’s ‘Top of the Pops’ is tomorrow’s dog’s dinner. Where has all the music gone?’
© James Skinner January 2004.

(Clearly James (who is older than Mick Jagger) has never heard 'Mad World' the Christmas No 1 in the UK - what about Nora Jones, Dido, Beyonce, Coldplay, Travis? What about Beddingfield, Jamie Cullum? James pop into upir record store and discover a wonderful world of new music that might surprise you.)

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