There’s a fine, some might say invisible, line between a deep passion with an agitative edge and simply knowing that anyone with half a brain would realize you are right if they just opened their eyes or ears. Whether that line exists is also probably dependent on perspective, particularly in the case of Dave Thompson’s I Hate New Music: The Classic Rock Manifesto.
Those who grew up the era of classic rock likely will find Thompson’s manifesto reasonable, rational and, for the most part, right. Younger people might just consider him a curmudgeon putting down the music of younger generations.
Thompson’s thesis is straightforward. Good, let alone great, rock music is long dead, the victim of an an abundance of technology and a dearth of imagination. Thompson believes death occurred during a 10-month period in 1978 when eight particular records were released. Identifying the specific LPs may be too much a spoiler so suffice it to say the bands releasing the LPs were not only popular, those records would sell more than 30 million units before the century was out and all went platinum or multi-platinum.
I Hate New Music posits that technology made things too easy technologically and reliance on it moved music from innovation to simulation. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix recorded with analog equipment and tape and, depending on the year, a very limited number of tracks. Today’s digital age means only a keyboard or mouse is necessary to edit, change or even create layers and layers of notes, tones, sounds or vocals at will. The same is true with instruments. No one would mistake the sounds emanating from a mid-1970s Moog synthesizer for a guitar or saxophone. Today, computer software or a compact synth can replicate virtually any instrument.
The ability to simply press a button to achieve a particular result impacts not just production but essence. Thompson believes that although the highly engineered, multi-multi-multi-tracked and overdubbed releases of the recent past may sound impressive, there’s “something not there. It’s called humanity. The sense that the song was written by a human and performed by flesh and blood.” It isn’t just age causes Thompson to note in his prologue that you use to give a store clerk some money and, in return, receive “a piece of plastic in a cardboard sleeve, with lyrics and liner notes and a real neat picture. Not a microscopic computer file that you can only play through your tinny laptop speakers, and it still sounds like shit that’s been run over with a forklift truck.”
Comparison to the LP reveals other effects of technology. The songs on vinyl LPs are fixed in place and, absent actual physical intervention by the listener, their order remains that determined by the artist. Today, a listener can create their own or totally disregard song order. While more modern musicians may take that into account (and thereby perhaps eliminate or reduce any overarching theme or structure), it can truly be a sin mucking with the playing order of classic albums. As Thompson notes, “there are occasions when an album needs to be played in the order in which it was first envisioned, because to do anything else isn’t simply to distort the artist’s vision, it’s to demolish the very premise of the record itself.”
For example, what does selecting “shuffle” on an iPod do to side 2 of Abbey Road? Or, like Thompson, consider Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 release, Brain Salad Surgery. The composition “Karn Evil 9” takes up nearly 30 minutes and roughly two-thirds of the album. Even in three parts called impressions, it was too long to fit on one side of an LP. As a result, the band broke “First Impression” into two parts, part one appearing at the end of side one and part two opening side two. Thus, just seconds into side two you hear, “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.” While that means something if you’ve just flipped over the LP on the turntable, it means nothing in the midst of one long track on CD.
Some of Thompson’s opinions will irritate, or even anger, hardcore classic rock fans. It’s also likely many readers may wonder if or just how far Thompson’s tongue is in his cheek. Is his paean to the 8-track tape or his choice for the greatest post-70s band — a band that was a put-on from the outset — serious, irony or ironically serious? Regardless of the blend any reader may think he uses, the ultimate message is the same: rock music has lost something crucial and we’re worse off for it.
I Hate New Music doesn’t claim every rock album before 1979 was sterling and everything from then on was crap. Likewise, Thompson freely admits that even great classic rock bands, such as the Stones or the Who, succumbed and their music suffered. As always, exceptions can be found to the general rule. Those exceptions aside, though, Thompson sees no real heart in the rock music of the last 30 years, merely imitation, “the last, and sometimes the only, resort of the terminally unimaginative.”
You want to know why so many musicians in the ’80s had big hair? It was to deaden the remorseless repetitiveness of their own music.
Dave Thompson, I Hate New Music: The Classic Rock Manifesto