Four rock/pop geniuses

The term ‘genius’ is often misused, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used…even in connection with pop and rock music…

Of course, one man’s genius may be another man’s moron, and what follows is a purely personal list – but feel free to disagree!

It’s not a long list (true genius is a rare thing) and it’s in no particular order (genius is an absolute).

Frank Zappa – I first heard Frank in 1967 when his ‘We’re only in it For the Money’ album was released. With its cover a clever and cutting pastiche of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album and its contents a strange mixture of self-composed pop, rock, doo wop, spoken word, comedy and musique concrete, it blew my 16 year old mind. Subsequent releases expanded on these genres (and many others along the way) and also revealed Zappa’s prowess on guitar, with lengthy ‘spontaneous compositions’, as he called his solos, which often reached rare heights of ethereal beauty as well as squalid depths of sonic depravity.

But Frank was far more than a musician. A staunch opponent of the Christian Right, Scientology, censorship and attempts to deprive people of responsibility for their own actions and a vociferous defender of free speech, rationality and individual enterprise, he even considered running for US President on what would have been an essentially Libertarian ticket.

Erroneously viewed by many as just another long haired hippy muso, Frank, in fact, disliked the hippies and, indeed, anyone group which just blindly followed trends without bothering to think for themselves. Something Frank himself never did. He never chased stardom by selling out, yet he still managed to make a more than comfortable living just making music for himself and collecting a large body of loyal fans who recognised his uniqueness and his genius.

Brian Wilson – Although the Beach Boys were part of the soundtrack to my teenage years, I viewed them as simply a great pop band and it wasn’t until much later that I began to discover the genius of their guiding force, Brian Wilson.

It could be argued that Wilson has done little of note since about 1967 and, indeed, his re-emergence over the last decade or so has plundered his heyday for material, but what he achieved with ‘Pet Sounds’ and the abandoned ‘Smile’ project is enough to put him firmly in the category of genius.

In 1966 and 1967, whilst the Beatles were still recording essentially guitar-based music, Wilson was taking a far more orchestral approach with sweeping harmony vocals and Spectorish backing tracks. So, whilst the Beatles could be termed a rock band of sorts, the Beach Boys were purely pop – supremely well-crafted, but still pop – but much more sophisticated then the Fab Four could ever manage. In terms of both chart success and band relationships this sophistication was the undoing of both Brian and the band, and both could be said to have traded on past glories ever since.

One gem stands out, however, that suggests that Brian’s creative years are not completely over. A collaboration with ‘Smile’ co-writer Van Dyke Parks – the ‘Orange Crate Art’ album – sees Brian on top form vocally and although Parks takes composition credits, it’s essentially a Brian Wilson album and a work of genius.

Todd Rundgren – Sometimes Todd’s been so far up his own arse it’s a wonder some of his output has ever seen the light of day, but he’s been a constant presence on the music scene for 45 years – from his time with his early Beatles and Yardbirds influenced band the Nazz to his recent solo albums which are as strong as ever.

If I had to pick one rock musician who embodies the spirit of the Renaissance but is rooted in modern times then it would be Rundgren. with his pioneering approach to record and video production and his constant efforts to explore all aspects of his chosen medium. Amongst his prolific output, Todd has released albums revealing a vast range of styles with experiments in a capella, electronic music, pastiche and extended improvisation, as well as all manner of variations on rock and pop.

Composer, producer, singer, guitarist and video director, Todd has constantly striven to make his music fresh and relevant to the times but has never lost sight of the importance of the song above all else.

Andy Partridge – the only UK representative here and, in my view, a truly neglected genius if ever there was one. Partridge has been producing great pop songs for 30 years now and still the band he fronted for much of this time – the magnificent XTC – is usually remembered by most people for a song (‘Making Plans for Nigel’) written by the bass player, Colin Moulding. There really is no justice here because as fine a song as ‘Nigel’ is, Partridge has written dozens of little pop gems which constantly enchant with their sublime melodies and witty lyrics and knock Colin’s song into a cocked hat.

Partridge is perhaps the most ‘English’ pop composer I’ve ever heard, with not a trace of American influence, and songs such as ‘Chalkhills and Children’ and ‘Senses Working Overtime’ reveal a sense of ‘Englishness’ that no-one else has managed in the genre.

I really can’t stress enough what a gifted songwriter he is. His 8 CD set of demos and works in progress ought to reveal a soft underbelly, but it doesn’t – with song after song that has never seen the light of day on a previous release standing out as an undiscovered masterpiece.

He’s also an amazing singer with a superb sense of harmony and a fantastic guitarist who was quite able to hold his own when the hugely talented Dave Gregory joined XTC on lead guitar after the band abandoned punk influences. 

So, there we have them: four geniuses and, I’ve just realised, all linked by one overriding characteristic – the ability to write a memorable pop song despite the eclecticism they all share.

Here’s some people who didn’t quite make it onto my list, but I’m sure would be found on other people’s:

  • Prince
  • George Clinton
  • Ray Davies
  • Steve Vai
  • Phil Spector
  • Al Stewart

Of course, Zappa, Wilson, Rundgren and Partridge only represent pop and rock, but there’s also my jazz genius list, my guitar genius list, etc, etc…

Perhaps another day.

The success of failure…the failure of success

Language is an amazing thing…

…whether it’s your own with all the expressive power and beauty that you can summon up in order to communicate or a foreign language that you’re trying to come to grips with.

After 7 months here in France, it’s getting slowly but steadily easier to both understand spoken French and to speak it ourselves.

I find the whole French language ‘experience’ very rewarding and today was great, with an hour-long chat with our neighbour, totally in French, and then arranging a delivery of firewood with M. Thireau at Renaze when I also had to give him directions to our place, again all in French.

Obviously, I’m still exposed to English (we’re not so immersed in the culture that we’re conversing in French at home, and the Sky Box carries all the usual English-speaking channels) and the few ex-pats that we have dealings with – we didn’t move here to get involved in some sort of British enclave – give us a chance to chat in our Mother Tongue from time to time.

However, after intermittently watching British TV here for a few months, I feel forced to ask, what the FUCK has happened to the English language?

In particular, what the FUCK is it with all this ‘heart and soul’ and ‘with passion/passionate about’ shite?

It seems that almost everyone who does anything has done, is doing or will do whatever it is with all their ‘heart and soul’ or that they’re ‘passionate’ about it.

It doesn’t matter what it is, there’s always this self-promoting, self-justifying cack which really doesn’t mean anything after even superficial analysis.

I’ve even heard it justifying total failure where it’s used as some sort of excuse – ‘well, I was really passionate about it’ – as if simply wanting to do something was some sort of key to success. What about skill, talent, practice or self-discipline, for fuck’s sake? 

Everyone, from an X-Factor contestant to a Commonwealth Games competitor, puts their ‘heart and soul’ into their efforts and says so with monotonous regularity  – but how else should they approach their endeavours if they’re serious about gaining success?

But it’s not just that these once valid but sparingly-used expressions of supreme effort and mental dedication have lapsed into cliché – they’re now used to justify lacklustre and mediocre achievement and even abject failure.

Fuck me…I can just about tolerate these expressions from people who clearly make an effort – it’s just lazy speech – but when it’s some obviously talentless twat in a TV talent show then it’s a bit more than just linguistic sloppiness – it’s self-delusion, as they clearly mean it.

Personally, I find it somehow emblematic of a generation, sapped of ambition through a culture of tolerance towards the average and mediocre, which now believes that merely stating that an effort has been made is the same as actually making an effort.

Increasingly low expectations in society  have robbed people of the ability to self-criticise and self-evaluate, with the result that even complete failure can be judged as some sort of success as long as the ‘passion’ was there or that one’s ‘heart and soul’ were in it.

I can clearly remember being told by my parents and teachers that as long as I did my best then it was no shame if I failed, but it seems that today it’s sufficient just to state that you did your best, even though no real effort was made. Thus the individual is taught to deceive himself in a misguided attempt to insulate him from failure.

But it goes even deeper than this.

Decades of deception on the part of successive governments and education experts have created a myth – the myth that no matter what background and/or intellectual capacity an individual has, he or she can be equipped to transcend these specific and often fixed limits and become enabled to achieve success. In essence, it’s a very laudable aim – but impossible to attain unless you lower your sights and redefine success.

A prime example of this can be found in the well-documented practice by some primary schools a couple of decades ago of banishing the competitive element from events like sports day. All participants were considered achievers and given a certificate regardless of whether they’d come first or last.

No-one lost.

But no-one won.

Those who came first were deprived of any sense of achievement and those who came last were deceived into thinking that they’d achieved equal placing with the winners.

Given that these children then entered a competitive society upon leaving school, many of them were ill-equipped to deal with competitiveness in the wider arena of work and other social situations.

(Nowadays, of course, we’re doing the same thing but with university students and Media Studies degrees…)

With educationalists seemingly given carte blanche over the last 50 years or so and government attempts at social engineering (admitted by those responsible in the last three Labour governments of the last 13 years) seeking to introduce equality across the socio-economic strata defined by ethnicity, gender, religion, race, income, environment and education, the British public was sold a monstrous lie – the lie that everyone could be a winner. In purely Darwinian terms this is a patent impossibility and, within the complex social structures of human society, pure fantasy.

Yes, equality of opportunity is a worthy goal, but only within very broad limits. Taking a metaphor from the school sports day example above, you can produce equal placings in a 100 yard dash if you handicap the faster runners with a time or distance penalty, but would those results have any real meaning either to the runners themselves or the doting parents?

Indeed, you could just dispense with entering potential winners in the race and thus ensure that some of the potential losers won – and that’s just what happened when the concept of ‘positive discrimination’ began to manifest itself in job selection, and shortlists and quotas began to specify that only certain groups of people would be considered for certain posts. Thus, those with a proven track record of success or obvious potential were often denied access to certain positions. So, once again, success was left unrewarded and the mediocre – and occasionally the failures – elevated to jobs beyond their skill sets.

Even within government itself, failure appears to be rewarded, with serial incompetents such as David Blunkett and Lord Fondlebum being given new cabinet posts after serious lapses of judgement and after a suitable period of time. Lesser figures in national and local government, finance, the Civil Service and a wide variety of public services seem to be able to escape accountability with impunity and, even when they are unable to continue in their job, often benefit from substantial severance payments and generous pension deals.

Naturally, the media plays a part in this celebration of the mediocre…

On one TV channel you can watch a documentary about the British airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain who really did put their ‘heart and soul’ into what they did, and often lost their lives in the process. Although I don’t doubt that their mental state must have been in turmoil, to say the least, prior to scrambling, nevertheless they just went ahead and flew off to an uncertain fate and possible death.

However, on another channel you can watch the day to day work of a haulage company, Eddie Stobart. I’ve just seen an extract involving the trucking of a load of cream cakes to Tesco in Didcot with the driver nervously saying what a difficult load it was. Now, whilst I have the greatest respect for truckers – with the exception of those fuckers who overtake their colleagues on the motorway with only a 1 mph speed advantage – it’s not exactly a matter of national defence or a process which might well result in death.

So, we celebrate the mundane in the same terms as we celebrate the heroic with few of us aware of the absurdity of it all.

Meanwhile, the absurdity formed after years of social manipulation and the drive for equality at all costs sits like a tumour at the heart of our society – success is largely derided unless it’s approved by a celebrity TV jury and failure is accepted as an inevitable consequence of equality.

Indeed, at times, I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference between success and failure…