I’ve recently turned 39. Nearly 40 in other words. As someone who’s genuinely never given the passing of years a second thought for most of his life this scarcely seems possible. Neither inherently good nor definitively bad you understand; just In terms of my life as a music lover, it means I’ve lived through a number of paradigm shifts in popular music culture. Rock has gone out and come back in, capitulating and later reasserting itself in the face of a two-pronged assault from synthpop and hip hop; MTV came from nowhere to establish itself as a prime mover in the dissemination of pop and now it scarcely plays music at all; the Rave generation made music dangerous again; the crossover success of ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Definitely Maybe’ forever blurred the line between the rock mainstream and those bands that purported to present an ‘alternative’, and most significantly, rapid technological advances within the last decade have begun to threaten the once unassailable dominanance of the big labels as publisher and distributer of music. The MP3, Napster, vinyl’s slight return, MySpace, YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp…
But today I want to go back to the birth of the CD. Like anybody doing their growing up in the ’80s, I initially faced the choice of building my music collection on cassette or vinyl and to be honest I never really planted my foot in one camp or the other. As a non-audiophile (vinyl’s) superior sound quality has never seduced me: I learned to love music on a cut-price ‘ghetto blaster’, taping promising tunes off the BBC Top 40 countdown or the ‘Friday Rock Show’; forever holding my breath – faintly – hoping that the DJ wouldn’t be so inconsiderate as to speak mid-song. Much of the ‘indie’ output sounded like it had been recorded on a Walkman in a toilet but who cared when the tunes were good (check out the early Sisters of Mercy singles to hear what I’m talking about). I still feel the same way.
But I remember the introduction of the CD very well. It was trumpeted as ‘the next big thing’ and all manner of outrageous claims were made about it: it would still play even if scratched or smeared with jam (did you see than edition of ‘Tomorrow’s World’?); that the discs themselves would never degrade or wear out; sound quality would improve if you drew around the rim of the disc with a green felt pen; and most tantalising to the record industry: they were ‘uncopyable’. All rubbish, of course – but we were all sucked in, weren’t we. CDs were the future.
So, 25 years later, I have a collection of several 1000 CDs, but it all started with one, which I bought shortly after my 16th birthday, having just received my first CD player. In those days you had to tot up the spoils of your part-time job plus any pocket money your folks had seen fit to award you – minus the bus fare into town – and decide what album you really, really wanted any given week or month.
And that day I can tell you I spent several hours overexcitedly vacillating between Stevenage’s five music outlets and a handful of potential new-ish releases before whittling it down to two albums and finally settling on…
‘Cold Lake’ by Celtic Frost.
If you’re any kind of fan of ’80s Rock you’ll know right away that I chose poorly; a real turkey in fact. Swiss metal outsiders CF did some pretty groundbreaking work in the Thrash/Black Metal field back in the day, but CL was an ill-advised stab at a mainstream (which back then meant Glam revival) rock sound and it sucked bad. I was seriously disappointed 😦
What made it worse in a way was that the other contender in my final two was the album that inspired this post – ‘The Real Thing‘ by San Francisco crossover alt-rockers Faith No More. When, awhile later, I finally got to hear that record it was almost as if I’d made a choice between Rock’s cheesy, shaggy-permed, tight-trousered past and its funky, tousle-haired, Nike-d future. Damn.
Trailed by the MTV-friendly, ‘Epic’ single, FNM‘s third album introduced a significant line-up change in new singer Mike Patton from Californian experimental rockers Mr Bungle. Whilst it would be an oversimplification to say that he was the blue-eyed soul boy where previous front man Chuck Mosley was the black punk; his greater range, soulfulness and a more flexible, inventive approach proved to be the magical ingredients which brought out the full pop potential in FNM‘s shouty, trashy, Post-Punk Metal hybrid. His delivery during the the title track, for example, offered a delicacy and dynamic richness beyond anything the band had released previously; clearly showing how a stronger voice could open up new avenues for the entire band. Patton is equally impressive when Metal comes to the fore, on ‘Surprise, You’re Dead!’ and a reasonably faithful rendition of Black Sabbath‘s ‘War Pigs’. Bolstered by far higher production values and kaleidoscopically-bold promo clips (see ‘Epic’, below) the band found their previously select appeal explode.
When I saw them tour the album at London’s Astoria theatre it was something of a revelation to see that half the audience bore little resemblance to the leather-clad knuckle-dragging rock stereotype amongst which I’d taken teenage refuge; yet we all rocked together nonetheless. The barrier between stage and audience was swiftly dismantled in the melee with much the same abandon that FNM crashed pop genres. Frontman Mike Patton rapped and beatboxed in between more routine, rock-like cooing and screaming; interspersing ad-libbed segments of popular contemporary hits such as NKOTB‘s ‘The Right Stuff’. Such genre-listic cherry-picking was very much the order of the day in the mid-late ’80s when the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, Tackhead and Ignorance amongst others worked to blur the lines between rock, hip-hop, soul and funk. No backwards baseball caps and b-boy posturing, just good tunes. There’s a certain sentimentality for me when listening to these songs today, and at the same time they still retain a freshness and distinctiveness which is the hallmark of the best pop music. Epic indeed.
And my personal favourite…