Music and the mislabelled classic

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When is a classic not a classic? When Stef tries to explain why some tunes have it and some don’t.

I have a distinction in advanced sound engineering. I’m also an excellent studio engineer, so I think I’m more qualified than most to state that too many people refer to songs as “classic” when the music is clearly not.

DJs — especially the excitable Radio 1 crowd — label anything popular as a ‘classic’ or, worse, ‘future classic’. Sadly it’s rubbed off. Now people refer to things like Barbie Girl by Aqua as a classic. I got news for you: it ain’t.

But music is so subjective — different songs mean different things to different people depending on what memory it sparks — that what I say can’t possibly be gospel. Indeed it isn’t, as it’d be a very boring universe if so.

What I can do, however, is try to use my engineering background to de-subjectivise the issue and offer what I think separate good records from the bad, and from the truly outstanding classics worthy of the term. You may agree, you may disagree: that’s what the comments section is for.

Two degrees of separation

In my worldview, a classic isn’t about popularity or novelty, it’s about production. It’s striking that perfect balance between a tune that’s just out there to sell vs being too pretentious vs trying too hard to be cool. It’s a tough tightrope to walk successfully, and good production / engineering plays a far bigger part than most people realise. Zane Lowe gets a mention all to himself here because he spouts things like “awesome production” over the end of a song that’s anything but. The poor man has no frame of reference to measure what it means to be well produced.

At one end of the classic scale we have tunes that are clearly just popular at the time — the true meaning of ‘pop’. They’ll arrive, make a splash, then either fade or be dusted off in 30 years at a party and everyone will look bleary eyed and bemoan the good old days of music when hair was long and love was free. Except the tune is horribly dated.

At the other, extreme, end of the ‘classic’ slider are those tunes that we have somehow — through marketing pressure or some other input — decided are beyond music. We’ve allowed ourselves to be duped into thinking such tunes somehow transcend societal barriers and are existential entities in themselves. Often the bands that make the tunes get some kind of elevated, yet wholly undeserved, uber-status too.

Perhaps annoyingly, the Olympics committee chose two such songs on my “no go” list to bookend the London 2012 games. Predictable, but saddening in a way: so blinded are we with the apparent awe these tunes carry that we can’t see the rest of the world simply looking down on us like a retarded younger brother and shrugging “it’s the best he can do.”

The worst songs in history, bar none

So here goes the perfect way to get flamed into oblivion: my list of tunes that are so utterly utterly utterly bad that they not only require three uses of the word “utterly”, but the rest of the planet seem to disagree with me.

No Woman No Cry — Bob Marley & The Wailers

Bob’s stuff is truly inspirational. It epitomises catchiness and simplicity. It blends pop with feel-good sentimentality while challenging us to think about our place in society, which is no mean achievement. Three Little Birds is one of my all time favourite ditties of his, and Buffalo Soldier is a masterpiece of lyrical poignancy strung over tight reggae interplay and delicious brass stabs.

So why when you place someone on the spot and say “name a Bob Marley tune” is the first thing out of their mouths “No Woman No Cry”? It’s abysmal. Twiffling on about everything’s gonna be alright. Superficial nonsense about some woman he doesn’t want to see cry because of the government. Tedious backing track with that awful, repetitive organ chord progression that makes me want to hunt down every copy and melt it. Bob is better than this drivel.

Stairway to Heaven — Led Zeppelin

Ask anybody to name a Zep song and this one comes tumbling out in the top three. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Everybody who enters a guitar shop feels compelled to play the opening riff like it’s some rite of passage towards becoming a rock legend. But it’s dull. Dull. Dull. Dull. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Led Zeppelin are quite dull overall, but that’s not the point here.

While the production of Stairway was typically bland for the time, thankfully it didn’t fall foul of the mistake they made on the (later) Kashmir which had a fabulous guitar riff ruined by shoving Robert Plant in an empty wishing well and chucking a microphone in after him (side note: they did the same to Ozzy on Paranoid but that has at least 511 times more energy and fun in it than Kashmir).

There’s no denying that Stairway just outstays its welcome. It starts off dull, speeds up, speeds up again, and somehow still ends up dull; like watching 1970s porn on a VCR that had the money shot taped over by an episode of Gardener’s World.

Hey Jude – The Beatles

I like The Beatles. Well, mostly, I like George Martin’s inventive orchestral arrangements and the fabulously sparse yet divine cleverness of the instrumentation combined with a no compromising attitude. I mean, in the same year, how can you go from things like Paperback Writer with its frivolous tongue-in-cheekiness and bouncy bass, to my favourite Beatles track of all time, Eleanor Rigby with its haunting cello riff and desperation ladled thick. A pop band shouldn’t be able to do that, but they did, and did it well.

Then came Hey Jude. What happened? A last dance-of-the-night club track? A crackpot karaoke experiment gone wrong? Record label hassling them for a track and that was all they could come up with? Did they need the money? And why three hours of naaaaaaa naaaaa naaa na-na-na-naaaaaa at the end?

It’s got good piano, mediocre everything else and trite lyrics. Yet it’s deemed good enough to open an Olympic ceremony? Gimme a break.

Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

I despise U2. And yet I’m strangely drawn to a few of their pieces — primarily the ones that don’t sound anything like their usual pompous selves: Numb, Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me and The Sweetest Thing come to mind.

Then there’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. They probably call it a tribute or awareness of the atrocities that took place. I just call it cashing in. The drums are badly recorded and in 1983 there was no excuse for that any more. Bono is his usual whiny self. The song doesn’t go anywhere, nor does it do anything; on some level maybe that’s the point — art imitating real life — and I missed the big irony flag he’s waving throughout.

Yes, people were shot. Yes, it was tragedy. Yes, I despise the Army almost as much as I despise Bono’s falsity. But please, stop revelling in it like it’s your constitutional right to inform the world of what happened because of your nationality. And especially don’t do it through repetitive, schoolboy lyrics that are a pale imitation of other, far more talented protest writers like, well, Bob Marley for one.

The Edge is a wannabe guitarist. Bono is a wannabe lyricist and a hollow activist. Yet, in some twisted way, he’s shrewd. I bet he comes up with these great angles while he’s jetting off to relief concerts about environmental damage. He knows that the road to rock legend status is to sing about topics that nobody can argue with, for fear of being branded a traitor or jailed or killed. So in a way hats off to him for creating the ultimate record that can never be disputed in public, even though it’s banality incarnate.

I’m sure his next project to guarantee ascension to King Bono is to sing about the holocaust… oh wait, he’s not Jewish.

Prince Charming — Adam & the Ants

I’m torn between this one and Stand and Deliver. They’re both awful. I can’t even begin to understand how this camp nonsense ever became important enough to be a ‘classic’. It’s classic in the same way that an Austin Allegro is a classic British car: it has all the components that make up an automobile, looks like a car, smells like one, but still manages to be crap.

This has all the elements of a song — drums, guitar, vocals — and yet very quickly descends into repetition and a quagmire of banshee wails that should be put to pasture after the first minute instead of dragging on for another three. Ant is quite clearly mad and yet is revered for reasons that baffle me. Sid Vicious was mad but at least he had guts and integrity. And attitude.

Infinity – Guru Josh

No list of garbage would be complete without this 1990 so-called classic. The trouble is, it has no substance. It’s entirely composed of a cheesy synthetic sax riff that sounds like it’s from a tampon commercial, which segues jarringly into a completely different record, then adds a few bars of an annoying, egotistical vocal sample, a random synth line, some arpeggios and a GCSE improvised piano solo. Repeat ad nauseum.

How anybody got the green light to remix it in 2008 I’ll never know. And the less said about that remix the better.

Light My Fire – The Doors

Another band that have mistakenly been awarded godliness. Jim Morrison’s troupe are the quintessential exercise in self-importance. Light My Fire is one of those records that should never be mentioned in the same breath as truly great works of music, because it’s badly recorded, the musicians are barely in time with one another, and six hours into the organ solo I switch off. The thing is, it’s not even background music that you can forget about, it’s just constantly ‘there’, like the naughty kid sat next to you in a mock exam looking over your shoulder.

Other tunes by the band suffer a similar fate. Most of them, in fact. The musicians just don’t seem to care or be trying: they simply go through the motions of strumming this and improvising that to make a sound — any sound. Maybe The Doors thought they were being cool to have massive instrumentals, but I think it was just because the tracks have very little content and they needed to make up for the time deficit to fulfil contractual obligations. Or they were off their tits.

Imagine – John Lennon

OK, last one. This to me is the ultimate worst record in the universe. It’s a dirge of mismatched instrumentation, it’s poorly recorded, dreary, depressing, and it’s inexplicably ranked the third best record of all time by Rolling Stone. OK, Rolling Stone are biased because they’re all over-the-hill and think the 60s was the greatest decade for music. In some ways, after the rut of the 40s and 50s, it was; but in many ways it was just about sheer volume of music than variety. One Jerry Lee Lewis record or The Kinks record or The Who record is just the same as another.

But I digress. Imagine, barely into the 1970s, was already dated when it came out and hasn’t fared any better with time. Yet in the same vein that one cannot criticize Sunday Bloody Sunday I wonder if people’s affinity with this song is due in no small degree to Lennon’s background and the circumstances over his assassination.

Well, tough. I disagree and will pop my head up over the parapet. Lennon might have been a strange man, but he was passionate, sharp, musically gifted, and no doubt a borderline genius. It’s just that even genius’ have off-days; and this was the mother of all off-days. I cannot think of a song that is more deserving of a place on a rocket bound for the sun.

So there you have it, the worst songs ever attributed to the word ‘classic’. Am I right and should be hailed a hero for outing the detritus? Am I horribly wrong and should be burned at the stake for sacrilege? You decide. Then head over to part two which explores records that truly deserve classic status.

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