Scott Walker, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Radiohead, The Besnard Lakes - Come on kids where's the ambition?

Dominic Valvona 12/10/2010

Here's a contentious one - in 2006 Scott Walker, at the age of 63, released the mournfully, cryptic and asperity driven avant-garde classic, 'The Drift'. No one seems to have pushed the envelope since or even equalled it, especially you kids!

Why is that? Where's all the radicalism in music these days?

For that matter why can't bands/artists produce even a decent album anymore?

Yeah I hear all those shouts - what about so and so or such and such! Well I'm afraid that whatever examples you throw at me, their in a small minority, amongst the flood of people making music. Of course I'm writing in grand sweeping gestures, the sort that hopefully rattles a few cages, if not antagonises. Forgive me as I'm just trying to start a dialogue, the central theme being where's all the examples of grit, determination and attitude disappeared?

In an age when the music industry has all but lost its way, with a chasm forming between those at the top and those at the bottom, it's never been a better time to knock out that mental crazy shit you always promised you would. The moneys all but vanished - fact! So why bother trying to appeal to the MOR, or X-Factor braying public - fuck' em!

No one is going to buy your music anymore, so you may as well release what you like, concept album or not, twenty-minute improvised jams or Marxist propaganda punk.

If, as we are constantly told, the power and control is in the hands of the band/artist, then either the majority want to produce boring, tried and tested formulas and regurgitate an era they never knew, or in fact we are being mis-sold another load of meaningless rhetoric. Oh and that goes for the argument against labels, the so-called demonic forces of hell, who may deservedly attract derision and the onslaught of vitriol aimed at them, but let's not forget, their system allowed such far-out riders of the surreal and avant-garde as Beefheart and Zappa to be let loose, or funded various outlandish and white elephant projects for countless artists over the years - I'd like to see Domino Records allow a band to release a grand lavish prog-rock double album whose central theme was the Apocalypse as described in the bible, as did Vertigo in 1972, with Aphrodite's Child's '666'.

It even allowed Radiohead to produce a catalogue of inspired albums, before Thom and co. turned on their label. 'OK Computer' alone made the band millionaires. Yet you'd have thought they'd never made a penny from any of it, working instead in a Siberian gulag like environment all these years, chained to a recording desk and made to write accomplished albums under the threat of immediate death, for all the outspoken attacks on the industry that hey now feel justified to voice. Would we really be better off with no labels? Hopefully yes, but now, at this precise moment we're not seeing any real tangible fruits from the 'democratized' digital age to put them away for good.

One of the main problems is the majority of bands/artists believe that they can make revenue from marketing themselves to brands, tours or aligning themselves to commercial concerns, which obviously make them nervous to take risks musically. If anything, the music is now a by-product, as evidenced at this summer festivals - a glittering middle-class affair that is now part of the social events calendar, right next to Henley, Polo and other well-heeled occasions.

The bands chosen for their happy-go-lucky sing-along, bank ability rather then their musical skills or the content of songs, which mainly act as placid safe anthems, devoid of any social, political and questioning statements.

Hell, maybe we are just seeing one of those musical historical cycles, where albums just aren't in vogue now, but may come back. I mean originally in the late 50s and early 60s, it was all about the single, before The Beatles and Beach Boys began to start composing more ambitious mini-opuses, propelling the album into an art form.

When albums were first conceived, they usually included the singles, maybe B-sides with a splattering of well-chosen covers; the Moptops took until their fourth album - 'A Hard Days Night' - to release an entire album of original compositions.

Punk kind of brought back in the single revival again, along with disco helping to make the 12-inch popular - a trend continued with the dance music explosion in the 80s. This may just be another one of those key epochs where the album seems out of step with the audience, an era where digital has messed around with the concept of songs being in an order or packaged in any way that may suggest the consumer hasn't a choice in the matter, remember its all about choice!

I do see some light, especially as 2010 has produced some choice inspiring albums, from The Besnard Lakes to Beach House, Archie Bronson Outfit to LCD Soundsystem, there has been some really great examples of the concept.

Trouble is nothing equals the sheer inventiveness of 'The Drift', with most artists now merely acting as the role of curator, picking ideas and sounds from the last 60 years, instead of rebelling against the past and look forwarding.