Great Men, Great Music? An evolutionary view

Music today doesn’t sound like music from 70 years ago. Or 60 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Why is that?

Usually, when we talk about how music has changed, we credit “influential” individuals. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Bob Dylan’s ambitious song-writing, The Beatles’ carefree invention, Brian Wilson’s focus on the album, Hendrix’s guitar, Bolan’s glam, the ambition of Roger Waters, the energy of the Ramones, the fury of the Pistols. Robert Johnson, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar. They did something great, then the masses copied them. A new way was born and music changed. Fans arguing about how good their favourite artists are will point to their supposed influence as the ultimate “objective” measure of quality.

This approach isn’t limited to music; it’s often used in all areas of history. Prophets, philosophers, playwrights, politicians, and princes drag the mortals into the future they have created. They mould history in their own image, fundamentally changing events. Without Thomas Edison, we’d be relying on candles. Without George Washington, America would still be part of the British Empire.

This is known as the “Great Man Theory”, and was fathered by the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. Carlyle believed that society’s progress could be attributed largely to brave and heroic leaders hoisting progress upon the proletariat. History, in his words, is “nothing but the biography of the Great Man” – and the examples he picked were all men. Modern proponents of Great Man Theory sometimes tack Margaret Thatcher on; they have little truck for Angela Merkel or Rosa Parks.

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carlyle thinking of great men

Carlyle was very concerned that democracy would diminish the role of the Great Man. No more would Cromwell or Napoleon be able to seize power and challenge the established order. Consequently, Carlyle is routinely cited as an influence on both fascist and communist dictators. By his own reading of history, Carlyle comes out very badly.

Although not without its critics, Great Man Theory is compelling. We naturally like biographies. Thinking about history as the biographies of Great Men makes it more interesting. The history of music is no exception – it comes naturally to think of the development in 1960s music in terms of what was going on in John Lennon’s life.

Except Great Man Theory is total bollocks.

Yes, the world would be a different place without political leaders declaring wars. But inventions, ideas, and cultural changes would probably have come about anyway. Edison’s incandescent lightbulb had already been independently invented by Joseph Swan of Sunderland, and similar designs emerged around the world over the next few years. And it’s hard to see how America could have lost the Revolutionary War against an imported, malaria-stricken army. The light bulb was due to be invented, and America was ripe for independence. Get rid of the Great Men, and maybe history takes a little longer, but it still happens.

What about in music? Conventional wisdom says that Bob Dylan made rock music poetic, folk music topical, and pop music cynical. But folk was topical before Dylan, thanks to the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. If Dylan hadn’t made poetic rock, then Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen would have. And even if Dylan had never written the cynical songs which so inspired Lennon, then Lou Reed or Ray Davies or somebody else entirely would still have stumbled upon the power of cynical song-writing in the 60s.

Lennon and McCartney are often credited with inspiring bands to write their own songs and develop their own styles, but Ray Davies and Brian Wilson were writing their own songs before Please Please Me came out. George Harrison’s dabbling in Indian music are seen to have inspired songs like “Paint It Black”, but Davies simultaneously incorporated drones into “See My Friend”; Cornershop would still exist regardless. And the Beatles weren’t the first rock band to move away from simplistic “boy loves girl” love songs that don’t go anywhere – “Satisfaction”, “California Girls”, the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love”, and “See My Friend” were all much more complex than “She Loves You” – and all released before “Norwegian Wood”. Music in 1963 was ready for bands to write their own songs. Music in 1965 was ripe for complex song structures and varied themes. Without the Beatles, we wouldn’t have the great songs that they made, but we’d still have the ideas they are credited with introducing.

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The most important force in 1960s music wasn’t Dylan, or the Beatles, or the Kinks, or the Byrds, or anyone else. It was multitrack recording. Until the mid-50s, overdubbing was largely impractical, and all songs had to be recorded live. The Beatles initially worked with two-track recording, which allowed for a single overdub – further overdubs required the existing tracks to be consolidated (or “bumped down”), resulting in a loss of fidelity. Four-track machines were used on most of the great records of the mid-60s. Eight-tracks started to become more widely available as the decade drew on, allowing more complex, layered sounds before bumping down. By the time Queen recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975, 24 tracks weren’t enough. Musical complexity and ambition could only grow as quickly as technology allowed.

What about subsequent innovations? Well, inaccessible, grandiose prog rock “inspired” punk on three continents simultaneously. Attributing it to Malcolm McLaren or Patti Smith is senseless. It was a cultural movement, a reaction against the studio rock that seemed so detached from people’s lives. Similarly, post-punk wasn’t the brainchild of Ian Curtis, but a bottom-up reaction against the perceived faults of punk, specifically its lack of creativity and originality. The quiet verse-loud chorus model of alternative rock would have become popular without Nirvana or even the Pixies. Disco wasn’t created by Boney M or the Bee Gees, but by cultural forces reacting against the dominance of rock music made by and for straight white men. “Rapper’s Delight” was the first hip hop record, except the Fatback Band released “King Tim III” six months earlier. Kanye West invented chipmunk vocals, twenty years after Prince Paul and Newcleus started using them.

Sure, we wouldn’t have had bands doing Thom Yorke impressions without The Bends. But we’d still have bands like Keane and Snow Patrol making bang-average guitar rock with Feeling™. Styles might change slightly, but trends would be the same. The dominant genre would change every seven or eight years, reacting against the previous fashion. If all the “Great Men” were erased from history, we’d lose a lot of good music, but we’d still have blues, pop, rock, folk, metal, prog, punk, synth-pop, disco, hip-hop, alternative rock, grunge, indie, Britpop, dubstep, and Estonian chillwave.

Music doesn’t depend on super-talented individuals giving us what we don’t know we want – it depends on us rejecting everything we don’t want and deifying anyone who meets our needs. Musical evolution comes from us.

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