Has Music All Been Downhill Since 1969?

Written by Ken Kessler

Some 30 years ago, I was involved in a debate with a younger co-worker on another magazine – let’s call him “Martin T”– about something I had posited, and with which he violently disagreed: that hi-fi sales followed directly the quality of the music of the day. Sales were beginning the decline that today has high-end audio with the entire industry enjoying a global turnover of less than what Apple does in a day. [Okay—we’re talking under $600M. I think the audio world is a tad bigger than that, Ken—Ed.] Back then, it was possible to blame the music, as I did, because mobile phones, gaming and other rivals for disposable income didn’t exist. And the music in 1988 or so was dire.

Because I had eight years on him, I was absolutely not in the same place when it came to his championing of punk, post-punk, indie or other derivative and/or atonal crap. My interest in Joy Division, Happy Mondays, U2 and the like was similar to my thoughts of …[suffice it to say, KK wasn’t wild about the genre. —Ed.] I argued that the then-current music sucked. As it was the era during which his tastes were formulated, naturally, he accused me of being an “old fart”.

My musical vantage point was the 1960s. The music he was defending in particular that day and which I was attacking included the “New Romantic” genre and synthesizer-based drivel such as Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, ad nauseam. At that point, I was the old fart, he was the young Turk, and, naturally, I looked like a horribly grumpy old man … in my mid-30s.

But numbers proved my point. You could overlay graphs of music sales with hi-fi sales. It was no secret that the first huge boom in hi-fi, outside of the traditional, moneyed doctors/lawyers demographic, coincided with the era of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Motown (Stevie Wonder, the Temps, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, etc.), Bob Dylan, the Rat Pack at its peak, “The British Invasion”, Stax/Atlantic (Aretha, Otis, Sam & Dave), the flourishing of master songwriters (Holland-Dozier-Holland, Bacharach/David, Hayes and Porter, etc.) and the final days of Broadway genius (e.g. Fiddler On The Roof), before Andrew Lloyd Webber and his ilk turned it all to trite swill.

Hi-fi’s decline, according to my theory (remember: this was long before its acceleration due to the onset of digital, downloads, iPods and the like), began with sub-cretinous, derivative, meritless genres such as disco, (UK) punk and all of that chronically soulless and insipid Eighties dreck which Martin loved. Shining lights like Tom Waits were too rare and/or too cult to matter.

Of course, this hi-fi-sales-vs-music-quality was not a scientific theory, merely the results of comparing annual sales charts from both music and consumer electronics trade magazines. But scientific or not, I have yet to be convinced otherwise. The passage of time – ever the great leveller – seems to support me. Just look at today’s charts and the state of hi-fi for a perfectly valid illustration, independent of the damage caused by downloading, streaming, smartphones and the economy.

Jay Jay French’s ode to 1967 in Copper # 36 reminded me of this old debate, concrete evidence of the superiority of my favorite decade came from one of my oldest friends in the USA. This column is, in fact, an update of one that ran in Hi-Fi News back in 2010, after a dear friend and former record shop owner named Fred Jeffery sent me a revealing e-mail.

Fred once owned Rockit Records in Saugus, Massachusetts, and attended the University of Maine with me and Rich Colburn, also of this parish. He was going through some old magazines and came up with this list. It dealt solely with the four-month period of September-December 1969 – the 1960s’ adieu.

Primarily in order of their release, record buyers (including Fred and myself) were offered for the Christmas season Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On, Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, the Band’s eponymous second LP, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Steve Miller Band’s Brave New World, Arthur from the Kinks, Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, Elvis Presley’s From Memphis To Vegas, Led Zeppelin 2, Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Johnny Winter’s Second Winter, Pentangle’s Basket Of Light and Spirit’s Clear.

Now add to the above Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Willie and the Poor Boys, the Byrds’ Ballad Of Easy Rider, the Grateful Dead’s Live Dead, the Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s, Children’s Children, Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon, John Mayall’s Turning Point, Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed, Blood Sweat and Tears’ and Grand Funk Railroad’s eponymous second LPs and Fairport Convention’s Liege And Lief.

Augmenting the above, and proving what an unrepeatable and rich period it was, the debut albums from Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, the Allman Brothers Band, Rod Stewart and the James Gang were also released that season. Genres ranged from country rock to psychedelic to blues to heavy metal to UK and US folk.

Those days are long gone. But why is this so? Have people dumbed down that low? How did music turn into such, well, shit? Aretha or Beyoncé? Jimi Hendrix, or ANY current hard rock guitarist? Sly Stone or Kanye West? MC5 or Rage Against the Machine? Joni Mitchell … or any one of the tedious, whining, solipsistic snowflakes that would have supplied mood music to Girls? I could go on like this for days.

How can it be that television drama – Game of Thrones, Blacklist, Orphan Black, Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, Ballers, Better Call Saul, Preacher, Arrow, ad infinitum – has never been better, but popular music is so mindless, samey, and/or unoriginal? Did the Beatles and their progeny and contemporaries simply do it all, leaving nothing for anyone else?

Please: don’t bother sending me e-mails “proving” I’m wrong. I stopped arguing with people who tell me Coldplay blows away the Beatles. Some things shouldn’t need explaining, and I tire of those who dismiss arguments with a quote from The Dude in The Big Lebowski and his catch-all, slacker excuse for being worthless: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

No, it isn’t: Rihanna ain’t Etta. I console myself with a touch of schadenfreude, via that comedy routine, for which I can’t quite remember the show, circa 2030, where the senior citizen says to his wife, “Honey, they’re playing our song!” And it’s “Smack My Bitch Up.”

In retrospect, I believe I’ve been proven correct: the Beatles still outsell vapid, unoriginal swill like Spandau Ballet. A decade ago, the Sex Pistols’ reunion couldn’t fill clubs; sales records were broken for tickets to gigs by Cream, Led Zeppelin and other bands punks loathed.

And as for our writing careers? I’m still writing for Hi-Fi News, while Martin’s the editor of a major national newspaper. Serves me right for having taste.

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