Defining the Genre - Defining the Style
There is a musical genre, that has largely defied categorisation. It has lain, hidden, misfiled, in music stores and radio stations, frequently misrepresented with mystifications by it's marketeers throughout the USA and Europe... particularly Europe for as long as I can remember. I hope here to try to offer up a way to begin to bring some core defining threads together into some kind of patchwork tapestry.
I think an early, perhaps the first, key mutation, was forty years ago, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" (an acoustic folk song with surreal drug inspired lyrics) and turned the music of the modern folk singer and troubadour into a pop category briefly called electric folk. There this fundamental adaptation of the genre remained for several years, while singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Carol King and Tom Rush were spawning astonishing new works and Dylan ("Something is happening here and you don't know what it is... Do you Mr Jones") was breaking every rule ever laid down about style and genre, culminating in Blonde on Blonde as early as 1966... though revisited with equal passion nine years later with Blood on The Tracks (1975).
With emerging artists like James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Woodstock generation of acoustic rock, who followed the barefoot trail Dylan, and others, had laid, was also coming business demands for another re-badging of this americana-arthouse music, with it's bastard hybrid celtic blues, jazz and pop influences. They called CSN a "Supergroup" which hardly did justice to either the form or content of what was basically three guys high on marijuana singing in close harmony about love and subversion of the Vietnam War ethos... often to just one acoustic guitar
In the late sixties and early seventies the entire industry was turning slowly on it's head in it's scramble to contain and accommodate the demands of this yet to be defined baby boomer generation. A label, appropriately called Asylum, was created at WEA by David Geffin just to house the newly emerging talents of what would become hugely influential artists like Jackson Browne. Also furrowing parallel but equally compelling grooves were European artists like the Fairport Convention and from Ireland Van Morrison, again making the job of categorisation all but impossible with tracks like "Snow in San Anselmo" incorporating operatic choir and strings to beef up the intentional free-form looseness he had created (despite it defying categorization) with Madame George and his now landmark "Astral Weeks" album - as important a contribution to 20th century music as Miles Davis "So What" which cauterized the jazz world a generation before. Browne spawned the Eagles - another supergroup who were re-badged as "outlaw country rock" to give the suits some way to keep market forces intact... Oh boy... and how! :(
What this category of music wasn't and isn't, is far easier to define than what it is. It wasn't heavy metal - not tamla - it wasn't the blues - it wasn't "black music" so called - not soul - absolutely not rock n roll - not Elvis - not pop - not punk - certainly not the Beatles or the Stones. It wasn't even the Doors or Jimi Hendrix and God knows, a more important figure for the electric guitar and for pushing the envelope would be impossible to name, with his rendition of Dylan's tame original of "All Along The Watchtower" or the luminescent genius of Voodoo Chile.
No, this music was essentially acoustic and introspective. It was driven by the garret writer, with just one six string guitar and perhaps iconically a packet of rizlas. As Neil Young ably demonstrated with "After The Gold Rush" - sometimes it would have drums (brushes preferred) sometimes just a shaker or a conga or a tambourine - sometimes nothing more than a solitary guitar. Think of the dissident poets of an earlier century like Shelley and Keats making their way to Italy where they hoped to shake down the stars with just parchment and quills - then contemporise them with electricity and mass communication, and you have the singer songwriter. In the sixties Leonard Cohen showed us that Dylan might have a lyrical rival with sensuality oozing from recordings like "Suzanne Takes Us Down". In the seventies Cat Stevens redefined himself as a serious artist - moving from "I'm Going to Get Me A Gun" bare torso pop pin up to what has become another utterly remarkable pair of albums produced by Paul Samwell Smith "Tea For The Tillerman" and "Teaser and the FireCat." ... even using his own art to adorn the sleeve. The hippy artisan class were beginning to give the appearance of having economic teeth to bite with.
Since then this bluegrass influenced arthouse-americana variety of ill fitting titles like "singer-songwriter", and "acoustic" or "un-plugged" continues to incorporate hard to pin down talents like Rickie Lee Jones, Mark Cohn, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Shawn Colvin ("A Few Small Repairs" is a great example of the evolution of the genre) Bonnie Raitt. Not rock - not country - not AOR or MOR or any other radio easy format. As the late Lowell George knew... It's simply about the song... What makes a great song?.. When is it art?
The eighties and nineties produced a whole new phenomenon of MOR stadium rockers, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen Dire Straits, Brian Adams, Chris Rea, U2... and Clapton continued an uninterrupted regime of mega success with all the self-abuse the eighties demanded. Whilst these guys all carried considerable writing talent - no question about it - they also carried 100 trucks worth of equipment and for awhile there - it looked like the humble acoustic guitar was becoming as desirable as an old Ford Cortina. The wonderful deep thwack of the loudest backbeats ever recorded to date from Shelley Yakkus at the Power Station (started back in the early seventies with Alice Cooper's "School's Out") continued unabated. The addition of disco - synthesizers and sampling then rap and hip hop has, however, not helped rescue this much misunderstood art form which has at it's essence - the simple craft of songwriting.
But the reflective songwriter is still among us - still rather chameleon like - still obscured and obfuscated by the chill winds of market forces and marketing demands - that require stylisation - but still they write and still they record and even all the pre-formatted, pay for play, dead hand of Clear Channel doesn't seem able to stop them. Like weeds through the cracks, sublime recordings continue to be made, and find marginalised outlet- like Warren Zevon's "My Shit's Fucked Up" - the stripped back sound of upright bass, brushes and acoustic guitar or acoustic piano, come back as perennial as the garden wisteria to remind us that the genre of the singer songwriter is the real deal - as true as real art has to be - and even while in the case of Warren, it's author is dying, it remains alive and well... Sometimes (though rarely) it even breaks the rules surprising itself, and everyone else, and crosses over the dance floor to join the mainstream of commercial "product"... Norah Jones might be a good recent example. More commonly not. I can name twenty or more extraordinary young singer-songwriters out there in cyberspace and in the clubs making great work - real work - most without labels even - most who'll never become household names.
Despite the frequent distractions of those who think (incorrectly in my view) this process is first and foremost about money (it isn't it's about art) it is for my love of the unadorned song and within that tradition I've dedicated and rededicated all my writing efforts since throwing out my clicks, codes and designer clothes in 1990. Like a reformed alcoholic, I've sometimes stumbled and fallen into bad company and allowed the blurring of the moral lines around my own creative aspirations and beliefs but each time I do I learn another way not to do it again. The less travelled road is still there and still calling to me.
Sadly many of the great studios that always supported real music continue to go broke, even as cable TV spouts ever more debased pornography and calls it music. Keep changing the labels and bring in trendy new designers boys - keep merging and talking the usual horse shit but we'll still keep writing and recording stretching ourselves to our creative limits, frequently failing but trying nevertheless to produce real songs unadorned; work that we'll still like to hear thirty years from now and somehow, through the wide margins of the ongoing dissent of the counter-culture that the sixties gave us, we'll continue to be heard and even promoted and enjoyed by those with enough imagination to visit art galleries, libraries, bookshops, mountains, lakes and empty beaches... Those who'll continue to reject this increasingly bleak and conservative paternalism of the mass media.
With apologies to the legions of honourable musicians and technicians out there who deserved mention as contributors to the real process of making the work of the artisan songwriter - this article is posted as my prayer for today and also my two fingered salute to the music business that remains so helplessly screwed up right now with lousy values, it both breaks my heart and defies belief.
18th June 2003
© David Knopfler 2003