Monday, September 29, 2014

Songs of Innocence: an experience

There has been much noise in the Twitterverse about Apple giving everyone in the iTunesverse a copy of the new U2 album Songs of Innocence. Bit creepy, was the consensus, someone pushing unwanted music at you. Less polite people asked, "What is this shit?" Others argued that hey, it’s free, so what’s your problem?

Jeff Sparrow weighs in at The Baffler. Quote unquote:
In retrospect, the alliance between U2 and Apple seems almost inevitable, not least because they’re both grappling with a late career slump. Throughout the post-Jobs era, Apple has struggled to live up to the expectations of its fanboys. This year, CEO Tim Cook faced the unenviable task of generating the customary buzz around an iPhone not appreciably different from earlier iterations. 
As for U2, its fortunes have been on the slide for decades. Remember the 2009 album No Line on the Horizon? No? Neither does anyone else. In the United States, it shifted, as they say, 1.1 million units, a significant decrease from the 3.3 million copies of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 4.4 million of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The band has seen “a steady decline in sales even steeper than the overall industry trend,” says the Wall Street Journal.

What follows is guff about the Ramones, social justice, yada yada, and then:
So, with the iTunes deal, U2 attempts to appropriate rock and roll itself. That is, Songs of Innocence offers a simulacrum of the old-fashioned rock blockbuster, an album that (because it colonizes millions of electronic devices) will be as ubiquitous as any record in musical history. At the same time, it renders traditional fandom entirely redundant, since the songs appear whether the device-owners like them or not.
It’s form without content, a musical experience that seems like rock, except without everything that rendered rock important. Teenage lust, the vagaries of fashion, obscure subcultural identifications: all of those components of musical taste have entirely vanished, as Tim and Bono simply make your choices for you.

Quite. Some musicians may feel that a mega corporation giving away music by a mega rock band is not in the interests of less-famous musicians who try to earn a living from selling their stuff, ie from persuading consumers it is worth paying for. U2 will have been paid megabucks for this, but the process just reinforces the Mega mindset that music has no value.

Some may feel that giving stuff away is not in the interests of all of us, not just musicians, who depend upon copyright for our living.

Others might have listened to the album. I have. It is the first U2 album I have ever listened to. (Because Bono, basically.) I thought it was not very good but then I don’t listen to much rock. I waited a few days and listened to it again to give it a fair go because first impressions can be so misleading. It was still not very good. It sounded dull and old-fashioned to me and I’m older than the guys in the band.

There is, however, a good album based on William Blake’s poetry collection  Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It is David Axelrod’s Song of Innocence, released in 1968, after the success of his production of  Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes. (Younger readers: I am not making this up.) Axelrod had earlier produced albums by jazz greats Stan Kenton and Cannonball Adderley and was a brilliant arranger. Mad, but in a good way.

Song of Innocence has Carol Kaye on bass, Earl Palmer on drums and a bunch of other legendary session players so, unsurprisingly, it has been a source of samples for DJ Shadow and many other hip-hop musicians. The most-sampled one, “Holy Thursday”, also features in Grand Theft Auto IV. More about the original album here and here.

The first three tracks are “Urizen”, “Holy Thursday” and “The Smile”:

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