Damien on… The History Of Pop And Dance
…Began, as we know it today, around 1920. It emerged at the beginning of “The Jazz Age”. But although the term “Dance Music” was coined early on, the term “Pop” (short for popular) had to wait until the Fifties. In 1920, the New Sound was called – Syncopated Music.
This quickly sub-divided itself into what is now called Pop and Dance. Dance, by definition, is music made for dancing to – but you can also listen to it – while Pop is music made predominantly for listening to – but you can also dance to it. The main difference being – Pop has lyrics.
But in those days, ALL modern music was about BANDS. The vocalists were employed by the bandleader, and had no greater status than the lead trumpeter. However, upon the advent of electronic amplification at the end of the Twenties, that would CHANGE.
The CROONER was born. No longer were singers forced to bellow their lyrics through bull-horns – they could press their lips up to the huge, moving-coil mics and PURR their sounds into it – which would then BOOM through the dance-halls of the day. The POWER!
And with that power came the ability to get THEIR names onto the top of the label – instead of in brackets under the band’s name – often in the form of “with vocal refrain” – while the band’s name slid to the BOTTOM of said label. Bing Crosby, Al Bowlly, Peggy Lee – and of course, Frank Sinatra – became huge stars.
In those early days, labour was cheap. Thus the cost of keeping a 16-piece band – plus singers – and occasionally even a string section – On The Road, was manageable. But after WW2, this soon became impractical. And all but the biggest bands split up into combos. Rock ‘N’ Roll was born.
It was a merging of several styles – Boogie, Jump-Jive, Rock-A-Billy (up-tempo Country) and Rhythm-And-Blues (up-tempo Blues) – even Gospel. Elvis was the catalyst, turning R ‘N’ B WHITE.
But post-war repression gave Rock ‘N’ Roll a hard time. After the war, education had slowly lengthened the time kids were expected to remain in school – living with their PARENTS. Which inevitably caused friction – and REBELLION. Parents failed to understand this, and blamed their kids’ behaviour on the MUSIC the kids liked, not realising the music was an EFFECT of their behaviour – not its CAUSE.
Thus radio stations refused to play it and record companies refused to record it – they were run by Old Men – with the inevitable result that it was driven UNDERGROUND. While the Fifties charts were filled with middle-of-the-road pap, the kids were bopping to R ‘N’ R in juke joints.
This ended in the late Fifties, when managers realised their stars would never make MONEY from R ‘N’ R, and so began grooming them as “all-round-entertainers”. But around the corner – was THE SIXTIES!
In the Sixties, everything changed. Firstly, the people in charge of radio stations and record labels began to realize that the kids of today HAD money – and fashion designers came to the same conclusion. And those budding musicians who as kids had been part of the underground scene in the Fifties realised that R ‘N’ B and R ‘N’ R still had POWER – and could be MODERNISED. Enter the “Beat” scene, with its leaders – The Beatles.
The Beatles were given previously unheard-of room to develop, under the skilled auspices of George Martin – a gifted musician who had formerly been side-lined at Parlophone as a recorder of comedy records. And you hardly need THIS historian to tell you how THAT went.
And whilst even the Sixties had to end, the die had been cast. Now, YOUTH was what Pop and Dance were all about. And this movement continued through Prog Rock, Disco, Punk and eventually, Techno. Which brings us NEARLY to today. But at this point, to understand where we ARE today, it is necessary to detail the history of the medium without which NONE of the above would have HAPPENED. The Record Companies.
And at said point, this writer is forced to limit his description of events predominantly to the BRITISH scene, since it is THAT scene that he has experienced. But ALL record companies, World-wide, share the same paranoia, dealing as they do, with a product you cannot see, touch or in any real sense, consume. It can only be HEARD. Thus they have jealously guarded their “product”.
Sound recording started as a gimmick, long BEFORE the advent of Pop and Dance, merely FALLING INTO the commercial possibilities when the MUSIC emerged. Initially, the companies were run by the formats’ inventors – Edison and Berliner.
But as Pop and Dance began to achieve recognition, many small companies started up, eager to take advantage of the phenomenon. But as is the way of such things, it wasn’t long before the take-overs and mergers began. In Britain, there were two leaders – Columbia (no relation to America’s Columbia) who handled popular artists – and His Master’s Voice, with it’s famous trade-mark of the dog and gramophone, who went with more serious music.
During it’s rise, Columbia had acquired Regal Records and HMV, the Zonophone Co. In 1931, HMV effectively took over Columbia. And Parlophone was brought in as well. Thus the new company with its new Abbey Road studios, record pressing plants, record-player, radio (and later, television) manufacturing units, laboratories (where TV was developed – see elsewhere in these chronicles) and retail outlets (HMV Record Shops) controlled more than half the audio (later, audio-visual) industry of Great Britain. And Decca (similar story) controlled most of what was left.
And this situation continued – with outlets in The States – for the next FORTY YEARS.
The only major development came after WW2, when Philips – the European equivalent of EMI – began a record company in Britain. The success of which was based SOLELY on their having managed to wrest the license to distribute AMERICA’S Columbia records from EMI’s Columbia – giving them an immediate, ready-made catalogue of US-recorded MOR hits to flood Europe with.
And Pye – a small British manufacturer of A/V equipment – had some success when they signed the King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan. And Rank – a British film production and releasing organisation – gave it a go, but folded the division after a few years. Others came and went also, but EMI and Decca RULED until the end of the Sixties – then it all fell apart. The big two had price-fixed and strangled the market for so long – they forgot about the customers.
Who wanted DIVERSITY. And in the early Seventies, a whole lot of little companies began to GIVE them that. Let’s examine one of them. Virgin. A middle-class hooray called Richard Branson started the label with small facilities and would have gone the way of others who’d done similar – had it not been for another young man by the name of Mike Oldfield.
Mike Oldfield had made a record called “Tubular Bells”. Sort of Electric Folk, it caught the mood of The New Age – and was immediately popularised by having a piece of itself included in the hit film “The Exorcist”. “Bells” quickly became first an underground – then mainstream – HIT.
And Branson began selling SHED-FULLS of copies from his shop, above a shoe-shop in London’s Oxford Street. He also had a Man In New York who bought PILES of American rock titles he knew would sell in London and air-freighted them to Branson’s shop. This KILLED HMV Oxford Street, where you had to ORDER them one at a time – which meant they cost a fortune and you had to WAIT for delivery. At Virgin, they cost LESS than retail (records were always cheaper Stateside).
Furthermore, Branson would sell ANY records – at ANY price he felt to be fair. And since OODLES of small companies – many with just ONE signing – began following his lead, he had lots to choose from. Anarchy ensued! The price-fixing system where any company selling a record cheaply could NOT get distribution in the majors’ shops was OVER. The prices tumbled. By the beginning of the Eighties, records had never BEEN so cheap. But it wouldn’t last.
What was left of the big companies had a SECRET WEAPON. The last major record format change had happened at the end of the Fifties. The transfer from shellac (78s) to vinyl (45s and 33 1/3rds). It was time for ANOTHER one. Enter the CD. The Thing That Killed Pop.
The thing about pop is it’s SINGLE-BASED. You have an idea for a sound. You get some chums round and form a band. You rehearse. Get small gigs. Press a demo single at a small factory. Get your girlfriends to plug it to DJs. IF a radio station plays it, you MIGHT get a few orders. If you can fill them, your single enters the BOTTOM of the Hot 100.
At this point, radio stations prick up their antennae. They give it air-play. It builds. Eventually a scout from a major hears it and signs the band. They put ’em in the studio. Tracks are recorded – along with a better production of that single (or the original, if the quality is good enough). Tours are organised to sell the album – which people will BUY, having now HEARD it. Then you go back into the studio to record the follow-up. And so on. Rock And Roll!
But although the CD was INTENDED to be an album AND single format – it never happened. Single “mini-discs” WERE issued for a while, but the format died on its arse. It needed an ADAPTOR for some players’ “cup-holders”, so was issued with one. Trouble was, it cost MORE to make the mini-disc and adaptor than it did to simply make a full-size DISC. Thus CD singles merely became SHORT versions of the albums. The single was DEAD. And with it, entry-level Pop.
Of course, the record companies didn’t CARE about the lack of New Talent. They were too busy fleecing the public. Selling them new equipment (most record giants were then owned by, owned, or had SOME tie-in with the companies making the hardware) and encouraging them to RE-PURCHASE music they had ALREADY PAID FOR, in the new format. All it took was a cheap, back-room clean-up of the tapes they, the record company, already OWNED. Now, they could re-sell their entire back-catalogue. All of the classic albums – and ever-more-cheesy compilations.
And “in order to pay for the new equipment” – an argument that began losing credibility after TEN YEARS – the record companies charged SERIOUS money for the discs. Audio-cassettes of “singles” (three tracks off the album) and albums were issued as a stop-gap, but actually cost the record companies more to make than CDs – so they REALLY pushed those discs.
But eventually the public had purchased new hi-fis – and RE-purchased all the nostalgia they needed – and so the record companies were forced to re-think their strategies. Having developed NO New Sound (the CORE of Pop) their first move was to try and galvanise their producers. And those guys, not being creatives, fell back on the hits of the PAST.
Hiring groups of pretty boys and girls who would look good on posters (these guys knew MARKETING) they did a series of lame covers (shades of Woolworths’ “Embassy” records) knowing their demographic (gullible teens) would be too young to be able to remember the originals – and sold them this crap at FULL PRICE. A monstrous RIP-OFF.
But eventually, the young wised up (particularly when their parents played them the ORIGINALS of those lame covers!) and the companies needed ANOTHER trick. And right NOW, amongst the firings of their execs and tumbling balance sheets – they’re STILL looking for it! Which brings us back to the music.
We left things at the end of the Eighties. Pop’s Last Hurrah. New producers had revived Pop and it was on a high that ALMOST resembled that of the Sixties. But like the Sixties, there was a hangover due. The Nineties was The Decade Pop Died. Well, almost.
The thing was, Pop had always shared the stage with Dance (see above, right at the start of this reminiscence) and when Pop had been in the front seat, Dance had always taken a rest in the back. And vice-versa. But over the decades, Pop had mostly hogged that front seat – however, once more, change was around the corner.
You see, Pop has a CYCLE. And it lasts about ten years. It consists of (1) Birth. Someone comes up with a New Idea. Like Elvis with White R ‘N’ B. Then (2) Development. Others jump on the band-waggon. Then (3) Peak. The New Sound rules! Then (4) Decline. The New Sound becomes repetitive, with “variations”. And finally (5) Fallow Period. This is filled with “novelty records” – one-offs that do well but have no band-waggon – plus instrumentals and DANCE.
And in 1990, we fell into a VERY fallow period. However, Dance came to the rescue. Remember – “Dance; music made predominantly for dancing to – but you can also listen to it.” And in the Eighties, in addition to the European Techno-Pop sound of Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, etc. – there was a thriving Techno Dance scene.
The same MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) computer tech that helped shape Eighties Pop had also been commandeered for the underground RAVE scene of that period. This developed into “House” – a back-beat STRIPPED of melody. But when, E-ed out of your gourd, you required rest, there was usually a “Chillout” tent where screens with digital cartoons would be accompanied by a sound then called “Ambient”.
This was a spacey techno-trip – with a gentle beat, so’s dancers could “come down” slowly. Aaa-ah. And as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties, this evolved into TRANCE. Trance began, essentially, as Ambient, but slowly developed into a more gentle form of Dance music in its own right. And it had LYRICS. Which by definition (see WAY above) made it POP.
And by the end of the Nineties, it had gone MAINSTREAM. But it differed from conventional Pop in several ways. Pop records mostly lasted three minutes and had an intro, a middle and an end (albeit sometimes faded). But Trance records had a LONG intro, usually TWO middles and a long OUTRO.
This was because they were not designed to stand ALONE. Trance records were designed to be MIXED into a SERIES of tracks, by skilled DJs. As single units, they didn’t WORK. But the industry had an answer for that too. Much to the DISGUST of clubbers and ravers, they HIRED these skilled DJs to do THEM professional 80-minute (the max length of a CD) mixes of the latest anthems that they could SELL to the general PUBLIC.
That way, those who could not attend clubs or raves could, by proxy, be a part of the ONLY innovative musical scene that EXISTED in the Nineties. And they LAPPED it up. Some even WENT to clubs and raves (although the older fans had trouble getting IN!) Thus, Trance was in many ways, The Pop Of The Nineties.
But following the Ten Year Rule detailed above, even Trance would not last forever. In the early “noughts” it obeyed that rule, fading into remixes, chillout versions of the anthems and finally – silence.
So where does this leave Pop today? Well of course, thanks to THIS medium, the record companies have had their day. Many bands now actually IGNORE those companies, preferring to release their music on the Interweb for FREE – whilst making their money from live gigs.
But in one way, this is a tragedy. Because for all their faults – and there were MANY – the one positive thing the record companies DID do – was CHANNEL New Talent. Whereas the Interweb is a free-for-all, unmanaged, undisciplined, uncoordinated MESS. If a band like the Beatles emerged today, no WAY would they reach the kind of numbers the Fab Four did.
And one last thing. And this is something no record company could do ANYTHING about. Melody. There are only twelve notes in an octave. And since 1920, ALL logical progressions of those notes have been DONE. When did you last hear a NEW tune you could whistle?
Since 1980, few. This is thanks to “copy ID” computer programmes developed by the music publishers to save them the expense of suing each other over plagiarism. They have made it virtually impossible for new melodies to be composed.
Music as we know it, was developed nearly a THOUSAND YEARS ago (plain-song, madrigals, etc.) In the West, it slowly established a whole bunch of RULES, regarding chords and tones. But those rules are not fixed. Other civilizations have DIFFERENT rules. To us, their music sounds atonal. But if MUSIC (not just Pop) is to PROGRESS, perhaps we need to re-define what music IS? Pause for thought.
At which point, I think I’ll go and stick some Miles Davis on my gramophone…