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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


For those of you who have kindly put up with my ramblings on matters pop, it is fairly obvious that my inclination is to the musical past. It may be the historian in me but I have always been interested in pop music from many decades and how it influences its successors.

Now, full disclosure, since I moved away from the UK around a decade ago, I have consumed very little new music - tending to either stick to the new material of artists with whom I am already familiar, or exploring the back catalogues of artists with whom I had never really come into contact. Some of it has felt entirely fresh and left me wondering why I had never listened to it before.

I have banged on in the past about music being less valuable to listeners now and I think the argument holds up. When you can download a track for the price of a can of fizzy drink, it is less important whether it makes a lasting impression; unlike saving up to buy that one record a month from Woolworths when you had better make sure you were going to like it or spending two hours with your hand over your tape player's record button hoping to hear your latest favourite record come on the radio.

This is all true.

But it doesn't mean that music these days is no good and to sit moaning about the old days is unjustified and unfair. I'm not necessarily supposed to like all of the latest releases any more.

Now I know some of you will want to tell me of a great record or band you've discovered and should really listen to and thank goodness you still can. But the truth is - and this predates my departure - I do feel that a lot of the lustre of pop music has diminished.

Hear me out.

Madonna has been releasing records for over 35 years. U2 have been recording for 40 years. Springsteen for nearly 50 and the Stones and Dylan will soon be pushing 60. These are still the acts that fill stadia. Crikey, even Coldplay are celebrating their 20th anniversary release of "Parachutes".

You will tell me that Ed Sheeran fills arenas and indeed he does but where are the big bands? Where is the swagger of Britpop? The colour of Glam? The bravado? The fun? The statements?

Songs are just as good; music is just as well written. But where's the pop in pop music?

David Hepworth, who is one of my favourite writers, talks about the Age of Rock being on its last legs and thereby encouraging us to see all of these old masters because they will not be replaced and rock music will be as relevant to youthful ears in 40 years time as Dixieland Jazz is to us now . I hope this isn't the case but he rightly says that we live in an Age of Hip Hop. He's right and there's nothing wrong in that because it is there we find the outrage, the dramas and the showmanship be it in rap or in dj-ing or in any of its associated forms. Modern traditional stars are only too happy to get Calvin Harris to administer a little gloss on their offerings or place a few timely millennial whoops into their production.

So why am I becoming vexed if there is still exciting new music being made?

Perhaps I'm just sad that the baton is not necessarily being passed on. Take a look in your spare time at all of these YouTube clips of young millennials reacting to old songs - it's almost a sport in itself. I am always amazed that they have no previous knowledge of them and that makes me particularly sad.

So why all of this?

Because I think I can pinpoint the beginning of the end.

Step forward - David Gray and "White Ladder".

A record that is also celebrating its 20th anniversary - although that as we shall see is not entirely accurate.

Now don't get me wrong, I thought this was a really interesting and new kind of record when it came out and I obviously was not alone as it was given 10x platinum awards in the UK alone and is the nation's 28th best selling album ever. Now that is more than any single release by The Stones or Bowie or U2 or Springsteen or Bob Dylan.

Can that really be right?

This a record that was so ordinary that at the time it seemed extraordinary. Little did we know.

Let's start with looking at the record's history. It was actually released in 1998 to absolutely no interest whatsoever but two years later was picked up in Ireland where it is still the best selling record there ever. Apparently one in four households owned a copy.

Gray had released it on his own label, having recorded the record in his bedroom - apparently, if you listen to "Babylon" closely you can hear the sound of the roadworks outside his window.

"Babylon" and the opener "Please Forgive Me" set the tone for the album. There is a real-life quality - an ordinariness - to the lyrics set to a rather mesmerising skittering drum pattern. Interestingly, Gray's brother in law was Phil Hartnoll from Orbital and he had recommended these particular Roland drum machines to him for recording purposes.

I always feel this is what gave the album a very fresh feel and outlook. And initially, this found its audience in the Ibiza chill out crowd who found the un-dynamic vocal style singing about everyday things set to an odd stuttering rhythm a suitably easy-going comedown. It had worked successfully for the second incarnation of Everything But The Girl a few years before with "Walking Wounded" and "Temperamental".

It would seem that the songs had found an audience younger than Gray had probably intended. He was hoping for an adult success but had accidentally hit upon a completely different crowd with his soul-baring lyrics.

This soul-baring style was another new development. The draw was entirely in the mundanity of the situation, any excitement came simply from the unusual rhythm. There was no swagger, no bravado, no statement just a genuine performance.

"Sail Away" would continue the theme but was about as adventurous as the record got, while "This Year's Love" was almost certainly the first dance at hundreds of 2001 and 2002's weddings (I can vouch as an attendee at several). The themes are universal and timeless without any real artifice.

The most interesting for me however was the choice of cover version in "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" which I still consider the record's highlight. As you know, I am always interested in covers but think the best ones will always make you rethink the original. Soft Cell's track was always a bit of an outlier but played to Marc Almond's torch styling that he has used to such effect throughout his career. However, Gray's later acoustic version found an emotional depth that the Cell's synthesiser backing of 1982 was simply unable to produce.

Around the time, Almond would perform the song in a similar laid back style - though more often with piano - that with his soaring voice created entirely new colour in the song. And yet the song was written from Soft Cell's oeuvre of bedsitter-land so fitted with the low-key nature of the album.

And "White Ladder" is a good album still. It hasn't fallen out of time because it was never really in time. And that was made it so successful at the turn of the millennium - there was little that sounded like it so I will not fault it for that.

However, its soul-baring nature and ordinariness has launched a musical world of James Blunts, Didos and Ed Sheerans - all of whom have shifted similar pallets of albums. Ed Sheeran made a video in praise of "White Ladder" for its anniversary and declared it his musical alpha and omega.

A colleague of mine used to call this "music for bedwetters" which is unfair but funny. There's nothing wrong with their success and each to their own. However, It may be a musical world that reflects their own often introspective realities; whereas listeners' existences on social media are where they choose to portray the selves they want people to witness - not, as was once the case, by letting their musical choice fuel their inspiration and self-image.

"White Ladder" is a reflection of the changing time which is unusual for such an uncontroversial record. Its lyrical content would also indicate that it also found its unlikely place and unlikely audience, whose concerns were very different form those of fans from previous generations. As a musical detective, I would hazard that it fits the timeline!

I fear that the move to ordinariness, authenticity and introspection means we'll never hear a technicolour world of Metal Gurus, Jumping Jack Flashes or even Mr Blue Skies ever again. There'll be no feat of heroism for being the first with a copy of "Aladdin Sane" in your town.

Sure - there will be rock bands but they won't be setting the agenda and that's a shame because I for one will miss the glitter, the axe heroes, the good vibrations and the sheer panorama of pop music's odyssey (and oracle).

Oh well time to strike up Alexander's Ragtime Band...

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Nov 08, 2020

That is a most interesting observation. After reflection, I'm sorry to say you are right. I (of course) have a copy! For me the most interesting thing to come from David Gray's work was his back-up singer Lisa Hannigan. Her 2016 album At Swim is worth digging out....

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