Work time has been severely eating into leisure time this week, and I had to pull out of meeting Bespoke for a rehearsal/recording planning session. However I did take up an unusual invitation extended by a young local guy who’d seen one of my gigs to come and play at his 23rd birthday party. I was a bit nervous as I thought I’d be laughably out of place, but the kids (I know I shouldn’t call them that) were very friendly, welcoming and engaging. I played a song or two and jammed with very classy bassist from an up and coming band Dirty Modern Hero. Much of the talk was about music, recording and performing and it got me thinking about what has changed since I was that age.
It seems that music occupies a different place in young people’s lives. When I was growing up in the 70s, one’s musical allegiance was key to one’s identity. What records you carried under your arm, what names you dropped. There seemed to be only two main tribes – ‘serious’ followers (progressive or folk/rock) and ‘teeny’ or chart followers. It was very clear cut, for the fans at least, you were either John Peel or Tony Blackburn. (The bands, however, didn’t see it that way and had no qualms about ‘crossing over’ for commercial success, and why shouldn’t they? It gave us some of the best singles ever.) At the same time, actually being a musician or songwriter gave you a bit of status. It was unusual, mysterious in a local small-town sense, and a little glamorous. At the tail end of the hippy period, although the term had virtually disappeared before being resurrected by punks as an insult, there was still a sense of generational conflict, of a social movement and even, among the rather tawdry spliff politicos in Scotland at least, revolution. In America there was much stronger grounds for a movement – blacks were denied basic rights and both blacks and whites were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Here it was more of a posture and, at its best, a way in to serious left wing politics.
Nowadays, and I’m going to generalise from a senior citizen viewpoint and wait to be corrected, it seems like music has lost that cultural aspect. It is everywhere, and nowhere. Fandom is scattered into thousands of tribes, not two. The charts have become an irrelevance. The song, the film, the video, the download are as commonplace as the knife and fork. Songs are enjoyed but not seen as messages or the key to anything. At the same time, and this is what last night drove home to me, more young people than ever are actively involved in playing. They speak the language, they talk the tools, and their level of skill is astonishing to me at least. Someone who plays the guitar is no longer a focus of attention. When I subject myself to open mics, the quality of singing, playing and songwriting among the 20-30 age group is so impressive, I feel humbled. I can think of so many people who, if I transplanted them to London in the 60s or early 70s, would be acclaimed as superstars. And that’s just Edinburgh. And that’s just the Edinburgh songwriter scene! So nowadays young people don’t follow music, they make it. Possibly because the generation of teachers in their schools was that generation who saw it as something transcendent and life-changing. Whatever the reason – they don’t follow it, they make it and for my money that’s way better.