On the Speciousness of Origin
T, who is sixteen and a big fan of Mystery Jets, sent me an unhappy-looking arrangement of punctuation marks when I demonstrated to her the strong similarity between the verse section of that band’s latest single, Show Me The Light, and the Introspective version of Always On My Mind. But I wasn’t dissing the Jets. In fact, I’m rather half-heartedly thinking about deciding to quite like them. And Show Me The Light, as a song, really bears little resemblance to Always On My Mind. It may start from the same place, but it ends up somewhere else entirely, a bit like the M3 and the Queen Mary 2 although, in deference to T, I won’t say which is which. And, y’know, it’s good. It’s OK.
What some people of my generation still fail to grasp, weaned as they were on the "year zero" myth of punk, is that the development of pop music has ever been thus: take a bit of this and a bit of that, shove it through the latest technological gimmick or item of retro-fad equipment, try to copy somebody else’s idea and find that in getting the copy hopelessly wrong you’ve stumbled across something else entirely. That’s how it works. That’s some of how it works. Like one of Bono’s concubines, it moves in mysterious ways. For example – and I love this – it’s believed that jazz took the form it did partly because of the number of brass instruments left abandoned in the Deep South by the military in the aftermath of the American Civil War. I swear, if one more bored fortysomething hack offers up the pant-wettingly incisive observation that Drunk Girls might just contain a soupçon of a nod to White Light White Heat, I’ll take my treasured Culturcide C90 and make of it a nice comfy suppository for him. And don’t, just don’t, get me started on the blithering old fools who would have it that the wonderful, unique and really rather strange Arcade Fire are nothing but a yellowing photocopy of third-rate perpetual-comeback Doors-wannabes Echo and the sodding Bunnymen.
Unless you want to count the moment when an early representative of homo sapiens became the first of our game-of-two-halves species to bang out a rhythm on the distended abdomen of a putrefying mammoth with the femur of a wild boar, the point here is that there are no year zeros. Like evolution itself – not one of my areas of expertise as you can possibly tell from the example above – the development of music is a continuous process of becoming, subject to the same spurts and slackenings, dead ends and quantum leaps. The Sex Pistols did not just appear like space travellers out of nowhere one day, as their reliance on steroid-enhanced Eddie Cochran riffs and warmed-over Stooges tropes makes quite clear, and if it’s not always easy to discern the Clash’s sources from their early work that’s mainly because they hadn’t quite worked out what they were doing yet and had deliberately hired somebody who had no idea how to make a record to produce their first album. The Ramones and Blondie occupied adjacent frequencies in the audible spectrum between Spector and Motown, smearing the notion of "girl group" with a healthy dollop of 1970s NY sleaze. And Buzzcocks… well, OK, Buzzcocks just did appear like space travellers out of nowhere one day, although I’ve spent many happy minutes over the years trying to understand what Paul Morley (probably) was hearing the day he described them as a fusion of the Stooges and Can.
Of course, year zero thinking is a valuable tool. Early homo sapiens didn’t get where she is today by allowing herself to be discouraged by lukewarm reviews that suggested she had nothing to offer that chimpanzees hadn’t already done better. And she was vindicated: chimpanzees, as far as I’m aware, have yet to come up with anything that would impress an impartial, if somewhat anthropomorphic, alien visitor as much as the Terracotta Army, or an electric chair, or a palatable tin of own-brand spaghetti hoops – my assumption here seems to be that the alien must be a bit of a technophile because it’s managed to get itself here from its unimaginably distant home planet, but of course we could pick holes in that assumption all day before concluding that the alien, all raw meat, tentacles and telekinesis, would in fact be more impressed by the fact that chimpanzees brazenly cut through the bullshit by just sitting around all day wanking and gouging each other’s eyes out. You never know with aliens.
Quite different, then, humans and chimpanzees. Not to be judged by the same standards, you might say. Yet 99%, or some such implausibly high amount, of the two species’ DNA is exactly the same. In evolutionary terms, humans represent just a tiny tweak to the chimpanzee blueprint. So I doubt that we need to worry ourselves unduly about Show Me The Light swiping its bassline from the Pet Shop Boys, or Drunk Girls having a backing vocal that substitutes the words "drunk" and "girls" for "white" and "light". Pop music is as alive and as well as it’s always been. Phew. As you were.