Artistic Basics

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost
The Road Not Taken

All great art shares certain characteristics. These are necessary traits for rock music as well, if it is to stand and be counted in the same category. Following are what I believe to be the necessary characteristics, with discussions of how they apply to rock. Many of these characteristics are interrelated.

Artistic Purpose

I don’t believe that the motivation to create art is ever 100% pure. Artists like to eat and some even like to be comfortable. And all artists desire an appreciative audience. So it is not always easy to separate out a pure artistic impulse from other motivation.

Nonetheless, it is sometimes possible to look at the artist or artists primarily responsible for a finished work, and see whether they were unduly influenced by issues other than aesthetic ones. It is also possible at times to look at the finished works and see whether they betray tell-tale signs of motivation other than primarily artistic ones.

What is an artistic purpose? To some extent, it is reflected in a desire to please oneself, to be true to one’s own artistic vision. An artist always seeks an audience, but is unable or unwilling to pander to an audience, to compromise his or her own vision simply for fame or fortune.

In an interview with Sean Egan, Chris Stamp recalls how his independent record company assessed the marketing demographics for Jimi Hendrix’ first album.

Didn’t think like that. Of course, one was always going for this brighter, smarter, hipper crowd. One understood that there was an audience out there that really appreciated fucking good stuff — but we weren’t doing any, like, market research. We loved this album.... (Egan 2002)

The Beatles are a good example of a group that consistently stayed true to their artistic impulses. Before they began writing their own songs, they played songs that they genuinely liked. When writing their own songs, they wrote songs that they liked. As you review the decisions they made during their career, including their famous decision to give up touring in order to focus their efforts completely on recording, and their decisions to spend months in the studio working on a single album, one can see they were consistently true to an artistic purpose. This is reflected even in their decision to disband, based on feelings that they had done everything they could do together as The Beatles, and on feelings that they wanted the freedom to pursue artistic impulses not shared by the others in the group. It was for these same reasons that they steadfastly refused to re-form over the years, no matter how strong the pressures of fans and financial incentives.

The easiest contrast here is a group called The Monkees. They were a corporate construct put together for purely financial reasons. The members of the group, no matter how well-intentioned, recorded songs mostly written by others, and had other, uncredited, musicians playing the instruments, at least on their first couple of albums. They were designed as faux Beatles, specifically to take advantage of a hunger for more musical and TV appearances than the originals could provide.

Individuality

All great art inevitably betrays the character of the artist. Lesser works often seem to be made by committee, or by corporate edict, expressly designed to sell to a particular audience. These sorts of products often fail to show any signs of individuality, partly because none was required, and partly because the artisans who produced it felt no motivation to invest anything of themselves in their work.

When an artist’s work shows individuality, it is possible to see a certain consistency when looking at a body of work from that artist. For example, when looking at the work of The Beatles, one can see a consistent interest in love, friendship and feelings. These interests coincide with, but run deeper than, the normal pop preoccupations with girl/boy relationships. This is in sharp contrast to the work of The Rolling Stones, for example, whose work consistently reveals interests in power structures, including the ones that preserve class distinctions, as well as the ones at work in relationships.

Look at the collected work of The Monkees, however, and what do you find? Are there some deep underlying themes that connect “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”? Pleasant pop tunes all, but there is not much consistency between them, other than a bland banality.

A strong sense of individuality was especially important when the starting point for one’s work was rooted in traditional forms. Lonnie Youngblood, an R&B band leader with whom Hendrix had played, remembers the guitarist as having different aspirations than other performers.

Jimi was reaching for something much deeper than just a normal [route]. If he wanted to be a top R&B star, he could have been that. I don’t think that was in him. He had something inside of him. R&B—you’ve got Otis Redding, you’ve got Sam Cooke, they’ve got some great people out there singing their ass off and I thought Jimi was good enough for all that. But Jimi — something was calling him in another direction.” (Egan 2002)

Integrity

Great artists must be true to their own muse, to their own artistic vision. As a result, great art seems to have an internal consistency that lesser works lack. Great works of art seem to hang together as a whole in which none of the pieces could be removed or altered without destroying the entire work.

For many rock groups, issues of integrity were most evident in their ability (or inability) to record their own material. In the passage below, Paul McCartney recalls an early confrontation with George Martin, the man who was to become the Beatles’ producer.

Mitch Murray was writing songs. He came up with “How do you do it? How do you do what you do to me?” We listened to the demo and said, “It’s a hit, George, but we’ve got a song, ‘Love Me Do.’” George said, “I don’t think yours is such a big hit.” We said, “Yes, but it is us, and it is what we’re about.” (Beatles 2000)

The temptation to compromise was a strong one, for many groups. Keep in mind that there was no option for these artists to spend their careers painting or writing in obscurity, perhaps with the belief that their true talents would one day be recognized. In order for anyone to appreciate their talent, they had to have access to a recording studio. The comparable situation would be a painter who could only get canvas and oils if he agreed to paint commissioned works. Ringo recalls the pressure that fell on the other members of The Beatles as George Martin presented them with Mitch Murray’s song.

...but they were adamant, thank God, about not wanting this song they’d been given. On reflection, this was a huge stance because, as I say, for that bit of plastic you would sell your soul. (Beatles 2000)

A converse example can be seen with the early work of the British band Traffic. Their first two albums provided three compositions that garnered significant airplay for other bands, while Traffic themselves received little radio exposure. Traffic’s recordings were loose, jazzy and wonderfully textured with instrumental touches coming primarily from Winwood’s organ and Chris Wood’s flute. “Heaven Is In Your Mind” was recorded by Three Dog Night. This version of the song capitalized on the song’s interesting composition and druggy-sounding lyrics, but featured bland harmonies and little instrumental color. “Smiling Phases” was recorded by Blood, Sweat and Tears. This track was a bit truer to the song’s jazzy roots, but ended up as a ponderous big-band number, losing the quirkiness of the original. “Feeling’ Alright,” by Joe Cocker, was probably the best of the three cover versions. The song worked well with Cocker’s normal bluesy histrionics, but again pales against the original, which was given a low-keyed reading by composer Dave Mason, the understated vocals giving all the more emphasis to the quiet desperation of the lyrics. In other words, all three of these cover versions lacked the integrity of the original recordings.

Innovation

All great artists seem to thrive on innovation. This does not mean that they are necessarily the ones who first discovered, or invented, some new method or technique. The person who invented the movie camera was not necessarily the one who employed it to greatest artistic effect. Similarly, Les Paul is widely credited as being the inventor of the electric guitar. Yet his playing of this instrument is quite clean-sounding, very different from those who followed him on the instrument.

Rock histories have often placed great emphasis on who was chronologically “first” to employ a certain instrument or technique — feedback, for example, or the use of a sitar on record. From an aesthetic perspective, the more important issue may be who made best use of a new discovery.

My point here is really that all great artists are restless, eager to try new techniques, and reluctant to repeat themselves or others. Their art reveals a sense of progression, of forward movement, building on past successes while always trying something new (new, at least, to the artist). It may well be that this sense of innovation is more important to the artist than to the audience. After all, we can still appreciate art of past decades and centuries, even though the techniques they employ are no longer “new.” Yet this interest in innovation is still useful from a critical perspective, if only as a sort of acid test to help determine artistic authenticity.

The Beatles, again, are a good example of innovation. They began by demonstrating their mastery of most of the techniques of rock artists who came before them, both with cover versions of others’ songs and with their own first song-writing attempts. They progressed to recording complete albums of their own material, and developing their own very broad but distinctive style. They went on to create albums that were well-balanced collections of songs of different styles and sounds. They explored the possibilities of using other musicians as part of their recordings, expanding their artistic palette. They progressed by giving up touring, in order to concentrate more completely on the creative process of working in the studio. They progressed further by each exploring their own more individual interests and combining these on a single collection. And finally they disbanded, rather than continue a recording career together that would not display any further forward movement.

Timelessness

There is something about great art that reaches across generations, that transcends the contemporary conditions from which it emerges. In this context, it is certainly interesting to see that The Beatles are still topping the album charts, thirty-some years after having disbanded (most recently with their collection of hit singles, titled simply 1). These albums are not simply being purchased by aging fans, but also by a whole new generation. Similarly, there seems to be a renewed interest in Jimi Hendrix with the currently young generation of listeners.

It is often hard to pin-point artistic attributes that contribute to this sort of timeless appeal. It is sometimes easier to identify attributes that prevent a work from achieving this “classic” status. Sometimes a song is too narrowly focused on a particular topic of vanishing interest. The Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper” succumbs to this problem, being about housewives who take pills like Valium to help them get through their dreary lives. The Kinks song “God’s Children,” on the other hand, still succeeds today, even though it was originally commissioned as part of a movie soundtrack, and written as a protest against organ replacement — not, one would think, a compelling subject for a rock song. Yet Ray Davies frames his song in enduring human terms, dramatizing the conflict between a simpler view of life and a brave new world in which humanity is increasingly mechanized, blurring the lines between natural and man-made order.

This desirable trait of timelessness can also be compromised by being swept up in current trends. Most of The Rolling Stones album Their Satanic Majesties’ Request has this problem, being drenched in psychedelic effects having little to do with the essence of the Stones.

Great art ultimately speaks to some element of the human condition that does not change over time, that is as true for us today as it was the day it was written.

Summary

Purpose, individuality, integrity, innovation and timelessness: these are all characteristics of genuine art and artist, no matter what the medium. As we look at great examples of rock music, these artistic basics will surface time and time again.

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