A WHOLE OTHER LEVEL

Talking of mondegreens, as we were, one of mine occurred in the Bob Dylan song ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, in which the murder-victim (I mistakenly used to think) ‘emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level’. I wondered how she had managed to elevate the task of emptying ashtrays to a higher plane; only later did I realise that a level in America is a floor or storey, and that Hattie Carroll emptied ashtrays ‘on the whole of the level’.
Dylan’s wonderful song (from ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ side 2 band 4) is now the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary which has irritated me for four reasons.
First, it was broadcast – in a last-minute schedule-change – in a slot that had been billed as a repeat of ‘God on My Mind Part 2’, which is a programme I produced.
Second, it’s a predictable cliché that every documentary about racism in the American south will include a brief snatch of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ – and here she was again.
Third, and most important, although it was well-researched and competently assembled, this programme missed the point about song-writing. The presenter, Howard Sounes, told us that the song ‘got some of the details wrong’, that ‘the truth was more complicated’ and that Hattie Carroll’s children were annoyed because they didn’t get any of the royalties – irrelevant, irrelevant and very irrelevant indeed. A song is not journalism; a song is a work of art. Everything we need to know to appreciate it is in there, burned in the grooves of the record. A great song makes its own room in the listener’s brain, decorates and furnishes it, supplies the view from the window and adjusts the lighting. We don’t need anyone to lug in extra bits of furniture and paint the walls a different colour. Anything that isn’t already in the song we don’t need to know. If the lyrics are ‘factually incorrect’ it doesn’t matter. If there’s some ‘context’ that can be supplied, we don’t need it, don’t want it and are better off without it. You might as well claim that Picasso was ‘factually inaccurate’ because there were no bulls killed in the bombing of Guernica.
‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ blew me away when I heard it the day the record came out in 1963. It blew me away when I saw Dylan sing it from the stage of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, in 1965. It blows me away today. All I ever needed to be told was that he didn’t sing ‘a whole other level’; and that wasn’t in the programme.
Oh, and fourth, if anyone was going to make a Radio 4 programme about Bob Dylan, it should have been me.

WIN A CD OF YOUR CHOICE

Here’s how you can win a free CD of your choice from the Kinace Records collection.
In chapter one of ‘Dead Men Singing’, Beemore Franklin is interviewed by Sergeant Joe Pardoe of the New Orleans police and answers his questions by quoting song lyrics.
Just email me – peter.everett@ntlworld.com – with the names of the five songs he quotes and the names of the original artists. If you’re one of the first five to send in the correct answers you’ll win a CD of your choice (plus free postage) up to the value of £20.
Kinace has over 7,500 CDs in stock, so there’s sure to be one you’d like.
The first chapter of Dead Men Singing is available free here

Good luck!

THE BEATLES WERE A BAD THING

It’s more than forty years since the Beatles stopped recording together (their final album, Let It Be, was completed in April 1970) but the world is still celebrating the Fab Four. We’ve heard all we ever want to hear about John’s funny little poems, Paul’s cheeky grin, George’s mysticism and Ringo’s seventeenth comeback. What the world needs now is someone to put the whole thing in perspective, slot the Beatles into their place in musical history and explain what would have happened if the lovable moptops had never met in the first place.
Would there have been all that taking-themselves-seriously that went on in bands in the late-sixties/early seventies? Would punk rock have been needed? Would Dylan still be strumming an acoustic guitar? Would the Rolling Stones have given up and gone into teaching? In short, would the world not be a better place?
So here’s the indictment against J,P,G & R:
• They were musically overrated to a ludicrous degree. Having grown famous by ripping off (note for note) little-known American performers from Barrett Strong to the Do-nays, they hooked up with a classically-trained producer (George Martin) who gave them string-quartet arrangements. They ended up sounding like everyone from Wagner to Ravi Shankar by way of George Formby, but they advanced the cause of music not a crotchet.
• They encouraged the delusion that the world needs to hear and take very seriously the opinions of pop-singers about everything from American foreign policy to vegetarianism.
• Their much-vaunted sense of humour, evolved to cope with the drunken heckling of Hamburg matelots, did not include a sense of the ludicrous. They dressed like pillocks and spouted pretentious rubbish.
• They influenced both fans and fellow-musicians to take drugs. This would not (arguably) have been such a bad thing had they not also suggested that taking drugs makes for better music and more appreciative listening. The result was some of the worst music ever committed to vinyl.
• They conceived the idea that musicians must ‘progress’ from one record to the next (hence ‘progressive rock’). The only dimension along which progress was in practice achieved was that of gargantuan pretension. The Beatles started the process that ended up with Rick Wakeman performing King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table On Ice. They took rock performance out of the club or concert-hall and into the stadium, where dopy fans paid fortunes to peer at inaudible performers from a quarter of a mile away. By becoming individually rather than collectively famous, they created the conditions for the supergroups (and then they broke up and joined in the nonsense themselves). Bloated egos clashed to the edification of no-one.
• Nor let us forget the Monkees, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, Yoko Ono, the collarless jacket and those endless overpriced anthologies cluttering up the record shops.

IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL ALSO LIKE… SOME THOUGHTS ON MUSICAL TAXONOMY PART TWO

In part one I looked at theories. I mentioned some of the problems and considered a few possible diagrammatic approaches. In part two I want to talk about how music has been classified for practical purposes.

The history of classification into musical genres goes back – in the Western tradition – at least as far as the ancient Greeks, who had separate Muses for Lyric Poetry (Cithara), Choral Poetry (Polyhymnia) and just plain Music (Euterpe).

By the 19th century the habit of labelling musical genres had taken firm hold, and already the system was looking quite complicated and rather messy. Some labels were based on dance movements (gavottes, reels etc). Some were based on mood and tone (‘light opera’ or ‘pastoral’). Some were based on instrumentation (‘orchestral’, ‘brass band’, ‘string quartet’). Some were based on the structure of the composition (‘Symphony’, ‘Fugue’, ‘Suite’ etc). And lots of composers were happy to distinguish between their works simply by labelling them with their ordinal number (first, second, third…) and the keys in which they were scored.

The advent of commercial recording in the 1920s gave new urgency to the need for a straightforward and easily-understandable system of classification. The public was being offered a range of objects – 78 rpm records, all of them identical in size, shape, colour and cardboard sleeve – distinguished only by two things: the record company name and the brief description of the music that was printed on the label.

As companies both amalgamated and sub-divided, the ‘label’ (i.e. the biggest name on the record, usually a logo set within a graphic design of some kind) came to be a useful hint (but usually not much more than a hint) of what the record might sound like. ‘Tamla’, ‘Stax’, ‘Alligator’, ‘Speciality’ or ‘Prestige’ give us a pretty good clue – especially if we also take into consideration the date of publication. Music released on ‘Pye’, ‘Columbia’, ‘Marble Arch’ or ‘Decca’ could be just about anything.

The title of the music and the name(s) of the performer(s) would usually give us a better idea, although the classic descriptive line printed beneath (typically, on 78s, “vocal with instrumental accompaniment”) was no help at all and would in due course be dropped.

The music industry, as it developed, introduced new players to the game. Musicians and audiences had always struggled to classify the sounds they wanted, respectively, to generate and to hear. Now there were talent scouts (later to be called ‘A&R men’), producers, company bosses, distributors, retailers, advertisers and reviewers to be accommodated, and they all had their own ideas about categorisation.

Soon, other interested parties were pitching into the debate: radio station owners, disc-jockeys, clubs, promoters and (to bring the story up to date) the designers of bar-code systems.

None of these people were objective or scientific in their analyses; most of them were driven by a desire to make as much money as possible. Two commercial pressures in particular were in conflict:
First, the drive in music marketing to create a perception of novelty in musical styles (and thus the invention of new so-called genres), whereas true novelty is much rarer and very often uncommercial when it does occur;
Second, the drive to amalgamate and homogenise existing genres, so that any individual artist can be presented to the largest-possible audience. As I write a television commercial is advertising a compilation entitled ‘Ultimate R&B’ which features among its performers Kylie Minogue.

HOW MUSIC IS CLASSIFIED ON THE INTERNET

Let’s look at some case studies, taking in the major online music retailers E-bay, Amazon, CdandLP and Gemm, together with the most widely-used online reference source, Wikipedia. We might also consider i-Tunes and Spotify, but five is enough to be going on with.

EBAY

This is how Ebay organises recorded music (against each category I’ve given the number of items on sale on the day I checked)

Avant-Garde (1,540)
Blues (8,646)
Children’s (2,076)
Christmas/ Seasonal (662)
Classical (30,075)
Comedy (3,029)
Country (17,313)
Dance (191,200)
Easy Listening (19,183)
Folk (12,956)
Indie/ Britpop (38,105)
Jazz (24,047)
Karaoke (31)
Metal (17,900)
New Age (184)
Not Specified (64,772)
Pop & Beat: 1960s (56,245)
Pop (177,066)
R&B/ Soul (62,336)
Rap/ Hip Hop (12,608)
Reggae/ Ska (36,597)
Religious (820)
Rock (199,170)
Soundtracks (12,318)
Spoken Word (888)
World Music (3,826)

Ebay uses 26 genres and offers a ‘first choice’ of six sub-genres within each – a total of 156 possibilities. What they have put together is a very vague and inefficient – indeed chaotic – system of classification, but then they have a financial incentive to make it so. If the record you’re selling seems to belong in more than one genre or – within a genre – in more than one sub-genre, then you can list it in several (in exchange for a higher listing fee). This may account for the fact that, in some genres, the total of records listed in each of the sub-genres is greater than the total number of records listed for the genre as a whole.

In other genres the top six sub-genres put together account for only a tiny proportion of the whole. This may be because, within that genre, most sellers find it unnecessary to specify a sub-genre at all.

Some of the sub-genres on offer seem perverse (New Age > Punk for example). It turns out that the records listed under that heading are not ‘New Age’ music at all, but are simply punk records which happen to use the words ‘New Age’ in their titles.

In many of the genres the first sub-genre offered simply repeats the label of the genre itself. This is the case with Country, Folk, Pop, R&B/Soul, Rock and Soundtracks.

Ebay offers an additional list of sub-genres for those who can’t place their record within the top six in any given genre. There are 106 ‘additional’ sub-genres to choose from, and these labels can be stuck onto any item, whatever its supposed primary genre, so that if you want to tell the world that your record is “Easy Listening > Speed/Thrash Metal”, Ebay is quite happy to let you do so. Most of the sub-genres are already included somewhere among the list of ‘top six’ options. Many of them appear to have been selected by only a tiny number of sellers, but they include some important categories that are not otherwise represented, such as ‘Bluegrass’ or ‘Chillout/Ambient’.

E-BAY SUB-GENRES ON OFFER

1970s (41,014)
1980s (87,538)
1990s (16,145)
2000s (19,721)
Acid/ Fusion (9)
Acoustic (10)
African (176)
Alternative (858)
American (257)
Ballet/ Dance (2)
Beat: 1960s (415)
Big Band/ Swing (285)
Big Beat (9)
Bluegrass (5)
Bop (115)
Brass Bands/ Military Bands (8)
Breakbeat (16)
Cabaret (37)
Chamber (2)
Chillout/ Ambient (8)
Choral (4)
Christian (72)
Classic (3,614)
Classic: Other (3)
Classic: Symphonic (4)
Compilation (389)
Contemporary (45)
Country (582)
Dancehall (26)
Death/ Black Metal (4)
Disco (990)
Doo Wop/ 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll (416)
Drum ‘n’ Bass/ Jungle (16)
Dub (111)
Early Music/ Baroque (1)
East Coast (4)
Electric (494)
Electronica (160)
Elvis (812)
English (204)
Film (173)
Folk (264)
Freestyle (16)
Funk (242)
Gangsta (5)
Garage (38)
Glam (347)
Gospel (25)
Gothic (25)
Grunge (130)
Hard (680)
Hard House (4)
Hardcore/ Rave/ Old Skool (223)
Heavy Metal (86)
Hip Hop (71)
Honky-Tonk (1)
House (1,202)
Indian (87)
Instrumental (233)
Irish (119)
Keyboard (1)
Latin (95)
Lounge/ Downtempo (6)
Mainstream (288)
Motown (633)
Musicals (39)
New Wave (876)
Northern Soul (138)
Not Specified (502)
Nu-Metal (1)
Old School (26)
Opera/ Vocal (14)
Orchestral (169)
Organ Music (2)
Pop (99,896)
Pop: 1960s (8,309)
Popular (18)
Pre-1970 (2,370)
Progressive (258)
Progressive House (8)
Psychedelic/ 60s Garage (156)
Punk (605)
R&B (215)
R&B/Soul (907)
Rock (6,043)
Rockabilly (40)
Roots Reggae (187)
Russian (31)
Sing-Along (7)
Ska (132)
Soft (571)
Songs (644)
Soul (1,471)
Soundtracks (144)
Speed/ Thrash Metal (2)
Stories (102)
Techno/ Electro (11)
Techno/ Industrial (98)
Television Shows (34)
The Beatles (897)
Thrash/ Speed (5)
Traditional/ Dixieland (3)
Trance & Hard House (13)
TV (134)
Vocal (468)
West Coast (14)

AMAZON

Amazon uses 18 genres and a total of 156 sub-genres. Within these, the most cursory glance at the any of the results pages shows that many records have been wrongly catalogued, but this need not invalidate the system itself, which has many virtues.

The categories are very American.

GENRE SUB-GENRES ITEMS LISTED
Alternative & Indie Alternative & Indie Rock 47,679
Alternative Metal 8,038
Britpop 2,325
Dark Wave 1,693
Emo 2,911
Garage Rock 4,732
Goth Rock 2,483
Grunge 2,085
Industrial 5,210
Lo-Fi 2,257
New Wave 3,155
Post Rock 2,808
Punk 27,171
Blues Chicago Blues 3,981
Delta Blues 1,020
Female Singers 1,848
Jump Blues 3,041
Louisiana Blues 1,202
Memphis Blues 947
Modern Blues 11,097
Texas Blues 2,333
Children’s Music Ages 0-2 N/A
Ages 3-4 N/A
Ages 5-8 N/A
Ages 9-11 N/A
Ages 12+ N/A
Children’s Classical Music 737
Children’s Popular Music 29,547
Classical Ballet & Dance 4,457
Chamber Music 59,875
Occasions 956
Orchestral 63,637
Solo Instrumental 62,507
Soundtracks 6,002
Opera & Vocal 83,140
Country Alt Country & Americana 5,619
Bluegrass 6,456
Contemporary & New Country 12,768
Honky Tonk 5,103
Nashville Sound 4,699
Outlaw 1,721
Tex Mex 1,827
Traditional Country 20,330
Western Swing 1,517
Dance & Electronic Ambient 6,533
Drum & Bass 404
Electronica 5,995
House 6,941
Techno 5,891
Trance 2,394
Trip Hop 3,029
Easy Listening Doo Wop 3,341
Exotica & Lounge 1,594
Instrumental 31,156
Smooth Jazz 4,529
Folk & Songwriter American Folk 5,124
Celtic Folk 11,941
English Folk 2,551
Modern Folk 6,899
Singer-Songwriter 18,570
Traditional Folk 6,346
Hard Rock & Metal Death & Black Metal 8,326
Doom Metal 1,574
Gothic Metal 1,456
Hard Rock 24,663
Hardcore 9,081
Heavy Metal 50,591
Industrial 5,210
Power & True Metal 1,611
Progressive Metal 3,430
Speed & Thrash Metal 5,634
Stoner Rock 780
Jazz Bebop 5,454
Big Band & Swing 29,946
Classical & Traditional 18,602
Cool 8,979
Dancefloor Jazz 2,872
Free Jazz & Avant garde 11,754
Fusion & Jazz Funk 5,508
Latin Jazz 6,540
Modern Post-Bebop 33,444
Smooth Jazz 4,529
Soul Jazz & Boogaloo 6,208
Vocal Jazz 16,631
Pop Dance Pop 22,788
Disco 7,865
Electro & Synth 650
Folk Pop 1,981
New Wave 3,155
Pop R&B 33,451
Pop Reggae 2,909
Pop Rock 59,873
Traditional & Vocal 32,665
R&B & Soul Classic R&B 4,883
Doo Wop 3,341
Funk 8,799
Modern R&B 7,814
Motown 2,830
Soul 44,154
Alternative Rap 3,173
East Coast 6,828
Hardcore & Gangsta Rap 17,944
Old School 1,548
Southern 4,914
West Coast 5,422
Reggae Dancehall & Ragga 7,392
Dub 3,503
Roots Reggae 6,149
Ska 4,877
Rock Blues Rock 12,413
Britpop 2,325
Classic British Rock 12,640
Country Rock 3,656
Folk Rock 10,412
Glam 2,267
Psychedelic Rock 13,011
Rock ‘n’ Roll 6,124
Rockabilly 8,051
Soundtracks & Musicals Film Music 32,369
Musicals 11,132
TV Soundtracks 1,853
Video Games Music 106
World Music African 9,202
Eastern European 2,049
French 2,111
Greek 693
Italian 2,189
Latin American 93,759
Middle & East Asian 7,623
Middle Eastern 7,930
Scandinavian 348
Spanish & Portuguese 2,817
Miscellaneous Ballroom Dance 1,216
Brass Band 582
Comedy & Spoken Word 23,557
Gospel & Spiritual 22,735
Holiday & Religious 47,097
Military Music & National Anthems 1,638
New Age 19,108
Sound Effects & Nature 1,612
Special Interest 8,484
Compilations Alternative & Indie 9,332
Blues 7,334
Children’s Music 10,646
Country 11,919
Dance & Electronic 34,085
Easy Listening 14,398
Folk & Songwriter 24,171
Hard Rock & Metal 8,963
Jazz 20,309
Pop 204,801
R&B & Soul 18,012
Rap & Hip-Hop 10,016
Reggae 10,437
Rock 40,818
Soundtracks & Musicals 19,077

CDANDLP

http://www.cdandlp.com is a French record-selling website which offers over 15 million items for sale, categorised according to the most peculiar system of musical taxonomy I’ve yet encountered.

CDandLP use only ten major categories:

Rock
Pop UK & US
French & Euro Pop
Classical
Soundtracks/Sound Library
New grooves/electro
World Music and Grooves
Soul Funk/RnB 60s
Hip-Hop
Jazz

But their ‘second level’ takes in 88 possibilities, and many of these are further subdivided, so that there are also 74 third-level categories.

Rock Rock General
Country / Folk / Southern Rock
Gothic
Metal Metal General
Black / Death
Dark Metal
Grind Core
Hard Core
Hard / Heavy
Hard Rock
Hard Rock French
Heavy / Speed
Neo Metal
Neo Metal / Indus
Stoner Rock
Thrash / Death
Metal Fusion
Pop-Rock 60s / 70s
Psyche
Punk / Oi
Rock 80s / New Wave
Rock 90s / Grunge
Current Rock
Rock n Roll
Progressive
Elvis Presley
The Beatles
The Rolling Stones
Industriel
Psychobilly
Garage
Pop UK & US Pop general
Crooner / Doo Wop
Pop 80s
Pop 90s
Current Pop
Pop 60s / Jerk
French & Euro Pop France Ambiance
Songs
Gainsbourg
Johnny Hallyday
Musette / Orchestration
Mylène Farmer
Rap / Ragga / RnB
French Rock
60s
French Pop
Others French
Germany
Spain
Italia
Other Countries
Greece
European Grooves
Classical General
Old Music
Contemporary
Ancient Music
Opera
Instrumental
Vocal
Soundtracks / Sound Library Musical Comedy / Theatre
Cartoons / Children / Christmas
70s Movies / Blaxploitation
Movies
European Movies
TV Shows
Others
Sound Library
Bollywood
Easy Listening / Erotic / Exotica
Experimental / Avant-Garde / Electronics
Documentary / History
Dance / Club
New grooves / electro Expérimentale / Electro
Hard Core
House / Garage / Deep
Jungle / DnB
Techno
Trance / Acid / Goa
Lounge / Trip-Hop / Ambient
Others
Beats
Broken Beat / New Jazz
World Music and Grooves Celtic / New Age
Christian
Flamenco / Tsigane
Afro Afro Funk / Afro Beat / Afro Jazz Fusion
African Traditional
Latin Latin Soul Funk / Boogaloo / Latin Jazz Fusion
Salsa / Pachanga / Mambo / …
Others South American Traditional
Brazil Brazilian Soul Funk / Sweet / Mellow / Balanco / Disco / Boogie
Bossa Nova / Brazilian jazz / Mpb
Samba / Batucada
Brazilian Blues / Pop / Rock / Punk
Brazilian Regional / Brazil Others
Jamaican Oldies Reggae / Rocksteady
Reggae / Roots
Dancehall / Ragga
Dub
Ska / Rocksteady
Others World Grooves & Traditionnal (sic) Oriental / Middle East
Asian
Indian
Australia / Indonesia
Others Countries
West Indies Zook / merengue / Antilles
Soul Funk / RnB 60s Early Soul / RnB (50s / 60s) RnB / Early Soul / Doo Wop
Northern & Southern Soul
Soul 70s / Sweet / Mellow / Crossover
Funk 70s / Soul Funk Bands / Early Funk / Rare Groove
Blue-eyed soul funk / Psychedelic funk
Soul Funk / Disco (70s / 80s) Disco / Boogie Funk
P-Funk / Gogo Funk
Funk 80s / Electro Funk
Soul 80s
Italo Disco
Groove Revival (90s / 00s) Nu Soul / Modern Soul
Acid jazz
Groove Revival
Others Soul funk / RnB
Hip-Hop US Rap Old School Rap
West coast Rap
East coast Rap
Others US Rap
French Rap
International Rap
Breaks / TurnTablism
MixTapes / DJ Mix
RnB
Hip Hop Movies
Jazz Big Band / Ragtime
Jazz Classic Hard-Bop
Be-Bop
Cool Jazz
Modern Jazz
Jazz-funk / Jazz-rock Jazz-funk / Soul Jazz
Jazz-rock
Jazz fusion
Vocal jazz / Spiritual jazz Vocal jazz
Spiritual jazz
Free Jazz / Avant-garde Free Jazz
Avant-garde
Blues / Gospel
Others Jazz

There are some very cloth-eared combinations here – for example, ‘Big band/ragtime’ as a single grouping, or ‘Northern and Southern Soul’, as though the two styles were similar! The weirdest linkage is “Easy Listening/Erotic/Exotica” – which is admittedly alliterative and very French in its sociological implications, but makes no musical sense.

There are also some distinctions without difference. ‘Jazz-Rock’ is separated from ‘Jazz-Fusion’, although they are pretty much the same thing.

CDandLP tease out fourteen different kinds of ‘Metal’, but they don’t have space to separate Blues from Gospel and are happy to lump them together in a single category. Even worse, they have no genre label for Country Music, which is bunged in with Folk and Southern Rock as a sub-division of Rock.

They go to great lengths to itemise the varieties of Brazilian music, assembling seventeen styles into five sub-categories, but there’s nowhere to put any singer-songwriters (or any comedians) .

GEMM

GEMM is another site which hosts inventory for online record-sellers. The initials stand for ‘Global E-Commerce Mega Marketplace. GEMM keeps it comparatively simple. The site sorts records into just 22 “top categories”:

Alternative
Ambient
Big band
Blues
Children
Classical
Country
Dance
Folk
Hip hop
Indie
Inspirational
Jazz
New wave
Pop
R&B
Rap
Rock
Soundtrack
Surf
Techno
World

It then offers a second browsing page called ‘hot categories’ which lists:

Classical
Country
Dance
DJ
House
Jazz
Karaoke
Pop
Rock
Soul
Surf
Techno
World

…and a third browsing page called ‘all categories’ which, when I clicked on it, came up blank.

WIKIPEDIA

The whole of Wikipedia is organised according to a hierarchical ‘tree of knowledge’, and so ‘recorded music’ resides in the category ‘Music’ which is a sub-category of ‘Performing Arts’, which is a sub-category of ‘The Arts’.

There are six categories within ‘Recorded Music’ :

Albums
Fictional characters from recorded music
Record charts
Opera recordings
Music podcasts
Singles

So far so bizarre. Let’s look at ‘Albums > Albums by genre’. Wikipedia recognises the following 58 genres:

Apocalyptic folk
Axé
Ballroom and social dance
Bhangra
Blackened death metal
Bluegrass
Blues
Brutal death metal
Cabaret
Celtic
Children’s music
Christian music
Classical
Comedy
Country
Dance music
Dansband
Death rock
Death/doom
Deathcore
Deathgrind
Desi
Disco
Electronic
Experimental music
Filk
Folk
Freestyle
Gamelan
Goregrind
Gospel
Heavy metal
Hindustani classical music
Hip hop
Homo hop
Intelligent dance music
Jazz
Kwaito
Latin music
Mathcore
Messianic music
Novelty
Nueva canción
Polka
Pop
Progressive bluegrass
Reggae
Reggaeton
Rhythm and blues
Rock
Shibuya-kei
Sludgecore
Soca
Spoken word
Swing
Technical death metal
Venezuelan music
World music

But having broken down the whole of music into categories as large as ‘rock’ and as small as ‘sludgecore’, ‘goregrind’ and ‘homo hop’, Wikipedia hasn’t yet reached the twigs on its tree of knowledge. There’s another level still to come.
It would be tedious to review all the sub-categories of each of the Wikipedia genres, but we need to look at some of the bigger ones. Just to hammer home the point that no twig on the tree is too feeble to be noted, here are the 52 sub-genres of ‘Rock’:

Acid rock
Alternative rock
Art rock
Blues-rock
Celtic rock
Christian rock
Comedy rock
Country rock
Dance-punk
Dance-rock
Darkwave
Emo
Experimental rock
Folk rock
Garage rock
Glam rock
Gothic rock
Grindcore
Hard rock
Hardcore punk
Heavy metal
Industrial
Instrumental rock
Jam band
Neo-progressive rock
Neo-psychedelia
New Wave
Oi!
Pop punk
Pop rock
Post-grunge
Post-punk
Post-rock
Power pop
Progressive rock
Protopunk
Psychedelic rock
Psychobilly
Punk rock
Queercore
Rap rock
Riot grrrl
Rock en Español
Rockabilly
Singer-songwriter
Ska revival
Soft rock
Southern rock
Stoner rock
Surf
Symphonic rock
Third wave ska

Many of even these categories are further sub-divided, so that for example the ‘Heavy Metal’ section breaks down into 27 sub-categories (including ‘melodic death metal’ and ‘folk metal’).

If we turn to other genres we find that the tree has quite a lot of missing branches. Under ‘Blues Albums by Genre’ there are only two choices: ‘Blues-Rock Albums’ and ‘Chicago Blues Albums’ – and beyond here we’re into the names of artists. On the other hand, the broad category ‘Jazz’ yields 29 sub-genres:

Acid jazz
Afro-Cuban jazz
Avant-garde jazz
Bebop
Big band
Bossa nova
Brazilian jazz
Contemporary jazz
Cool jazz
Crossover jazz
Dixieland
Experimental big band
Free improvisation
Free jazz
Hard bop
Jazz fusion
Jazz rap
Jazz vocal
Jazz-funk
Jazz-pop
Latin jazz
Mainstream jazz
Modal jazz
Orchestral jazz
Post bop
Smooth jazz
Soul-jazz
Swing
Third Stream

On the face of it, this is a comprehensive list, but look closer; there’s no ‘Trad’ or ‘Traditional’, so presumably we have to put 1950s and ‘60s revivalists like Kenny Ball and Monty Sunshine in ‘Dixieland’ alongside the New Orleans greats of the 1920s. Let’s look inside. Open up ‘Dixieland albums’ and here we find no reference to any original Dixieland record… by anybody. Not one. There’s an empty space where Dixieland Jazz should be. And then there’s a sub-category ‘Dixieland Revival Albums’ in which are listed eight records, a weird collection embracing “Kenny Davern and his Quartet in Concert at the Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque 2004”. No Monty, no Kenny, no Acker Bilk, no Ken Colyer, no Chris Barber…. In other words, the twigs may be listed and numbered, but where are the bloody leaves? To vary the metaphor, what Wikipedia offers us is a vast warehouse lined with shelves, all meticulously labelled, many of which are almost (or entirely) bare.

Clearly for all practical purposes (except perhaps those of Wikipedia) this system of musical taxonomy is madness.

I find it interesting that some genre-labels have shifted their meaning to the point where they can be used to describe radically different styles – examples ‘rhythm and blues’, ‘ballad’, ‘swing’. One descriptive term much-used in record marketing – ‘anthem’ – does not appear in any of the lists I’ve discussed in this chapter. It’s all over the covers of thousands of cds (it generates 3,300 hits on Amazon), but it appears to ring no bells with the taxonomists. As far as I can see it is a term without any meaning.

In my next blog about musical taxonomy I’ll look at the current attempts to automate the classification of music using computer-programmes based on wave-form analysis.

SOLOMON BURKE RIP

I never saw Solomon Burke perform live, but he’s influenced my appreciation of music as much as anyone.
I got to him in 1964, by way of the Rolling Stones, who delivered their versions of ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ on their second album, and ‘Cry To Me’ on their third. I’d already learned that when the Rolling Stones covered a track you could do yourself a favour by searching out the original version, and so it proved with Solomon. Back in the early sixties his was considered, by UK mods, to be a very cool name to drop. The first Burke record I bought was an EP with the ineffable track “(Won’t You Give Him) One More Chance” (covered over here by London mod-blues group the T-Bones) which used a beautifully-understated 12-string guitar backing. Later I was to pay more than I’d ever paid before (£60 as I recall) for a second-hand copy of his album ‘The Bishop Rides South’. That was before you could compare prices online and order your stuff on the internet.
Why was Solomon so good? And how did he manage to stay on top for so long in the world of soul music, where early burn-outs and flops into tacky self-parody seem to be the rule rather than the exception? His early stuff was pre-Jerry Wexler, pre-Muscle Shoals and pre-Hi Records. It was soul before soul had really been invented. But the voice was there from the beginning – grittier than Sam Cooke, smoother than Ray Charles – typically laid back, but capable of rising to heights of emotional intensity that gave Bobby Bland a run for his money.
Solomon rode the sixties and the early seventies, working for a range of labels (including Bell, MGM and Chess), handling not just his own material but songs chosen from a very wide field – everything from the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ to ‘Proud Mary’.
In the mid-70s he spent a little time in the musical wilderness trying to be a poor man’s Barry White – not so much the Walrus of Love as the Hippopotamus (‘Music To Make Love By’ – all growly smooching and simulated orgasms). But after that sadly-misjudged caper he bounced back into form with a couple of classic soul albums (‘Back To My Roots’ and ‘Sidewalks, Fences and Walls’) plus a clutch of lesser-known gospel albums for Savoy.
Towards the end of his career Solomon made some stunning albums, drawing on a remarkably wide range of songwriting and musical styles, including straight-out country (his Shout album ‘Nashville’). My favourite of these is ‘Make Do With What You’ve Got’ (2005).
It was a delight to see the great man on Jools Holland’s New Year TV show a couple of years ago, resting his bulk on an oversized throne but singing as powerfully (and as subtly) as ever.
Time to make sure I’ve got every record he ever made; the Lord is sure to be watching.

IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL ALSO LIKE… SOME THOUGHTS ON MUSICAL TAXONOMY, PART ONE

Musicians resist categorisation. The line ‘There’s only two kinds of music, good music and bad music’ is a commonplace. So is the epigram attributed to Louis Armstrong: “All music is folk music – I ain’t never heard a horse sing.” Neither is a very helpful thought when you walk into HMV looking for a record you’ll enjoy.

For lots of reasons it’s becoming more important to work out a sensible way of categorising music. One reason is the changing pattern of music-consumption and the shift to online buying of MP3s. There are also computer scientists trying to objectivise and computerise musical classification. Yet another reason is the new musical landscape – the ‘continuous present’ in which all the recorded music of the past 80 years is universally available. This creates the problem of too much choice. Despite this embarrassment of riches, it’s not clear that individual musical tastes are expanding; they may well be narrowing. The music industry does little to encouraging the expansion of taste, because it’s more comfortable with a neat segmentation of niche markets.
We are seeing the erosion and dilution of national and regional musical traditions and their replacement by a global mosaic of niche markets. All this is abetted by the general ignorance and confusion of music-lovers, the narrowing of musical choice in mainstream radio and television, and the inadequacy of musical coverage in the press and magazines.

It remains important for musicians to understand distinct genres and styles, whether they want to preserve and honour them or to regard them as colours on their musical palette. Musical progress tends to come from cross-fertilisation between traditions.

The problem

It becomes ever more difficult to decide where to place a particular record in the vast jigsaw-puzzle of musical ‘product’. For the critic the phrase ‘genre-busting’ is a term of praise; for the online record retailer it’s an expression that makes the heart sink.

Deejays and journalists are desperate to invent new names for slightly-different kinds of music. Here are a few descriptions culled from record reviews in The Sunday Times Culture Magazine, 3rd October 2010: “primitively-recorded mesh of big-mouthed Brit-beat vocals, snotty punk noise, sugar-rush power pop and oblique outsider strategies”… “jet-engine-in-a-basement sound”… “baroque chamber pop”… “uncompromising grime”… “disarmingly pastoral”… “post-Bartokian”… “dark psycho-comedy”… “pop-noir”… “skewed electronica”.

So what’s a musical genre, what’s a sub-genre and what’s just a cluster of weird anomalies?
Even when a genre is generally agreed to exist, there may be no general agreement about what to call it. For example, certain mid-sixties British pop groups (post-Merseybeat, pre-psychedelia) are said in continental Europe to belong in a category called ‘Freakbeat’ – a word that means nothing to most British music-lovers (although the term was invented by a British music journalist, Phil Smee).

The data

We have to start by asking what we can know about a record by listening to it. We can also consider the information that may be available on the label or the packaging and from external sources. Here are the main descriptors that are commonly used to differentiate examples of recorded music: Date – Place – Ethnicity – Precursors – Instrumentation – Production – Tempo – Structure – Mood and Message – Contexts of Performance – Contexts of Consumption – Markets and Marketing

Musical taxonomy is a multiverse with more dimensions than you’ll find in Stephen Hawking’s explanation of M-Theory. Each of the dimensions has its advantages and its drawbacks. For example: categorisation by date sounds straightforward, but music can be catalogued by the date of its composition, by the date of the particular performance in question, by the date of the record’s release (which may be years later) or by the date when it became successful and entered the charts (if indeed it ever did). The music may have been released on record at different times in different countries. It may be reissued, included in a compilation, used in a movie soundtrack or exploited by a TV commercial. It may appear in different formats, from 78rpm record through to 45rpm single, LP, cassette, cd and cd-dvd, and it is likely to be available in digital form, usually an MP3 or WAV file, as an internet download. Each new incarnation will have a date, but many of these dates will be undiscoverable without a lot of research.

Diagrammatic approaches

Biologists have used a hierarchical ‘tree of life’ structure to diagram the evolution of species in the natural world, and for them that works very well. The earliest attempts to construct this system were made in the 19th century. But the reason this approach works better for biology than it does for music is this: in nature, species do not interbreed and produce viable offspring. So whereas you can have lots of breeds of dogs (pedigree and mongrel), all descended from their common ancestor the wolf, you cannot (outside medieval mythology) have a cross between a horse and a crocodile.

If any species could breed with any other species to form a new line of development, biological taxonomy would get very messy. And yet that is what happens in music all the time. So we need a system of classification for music that allows us to describe and record all these matings and to follow the progress of their progeny.

Pete Frame

Pete Frame is a music journalist, best known for producing intricately-detailed outlines of the history of rock bands for various magazines. The family trees that he draws are a very useful way of tracing the careers of individual musicians and groups, but his method doesn’t translate very well into the wider sphere of styles and genres.

Closely related to the ‘family tree’ structure is the spider diagram, which seeks to plot the relationships between musical genres. Each style is encased in its own little box, and arrows connect them, each arrow indicating the influence exercised by another genre. A good example is this one, based on the diagram chalked up on the blackboard by Jack Black in the movie ‘School of Rock’.

There are many things wrong with this chart, but it offers an example of one way of mapping some of the territory.

Here’s another ‘family tree’ diagram that’s been published on the net. It’s designed to chart the development of UK pop music, but it betrays great ignorance of the subject.

Venn Diagrams

As the major problem of musical taxonomy is the problem of overlaps, we might find it helpful to express genre-relationships in Venn diagrams. For example if you draw three overlapping circles and you label them ‘Blues’, ‘Country’ and ‘Rhythm and Blues’ (by which I mean R&B from the 1940s onward, as distinct from ‘Modern R&B’) then you get four overlap areas, which might represent particular kinds of ‘fusion’ music .

This diagram can also be expressed as a set of equations:
country + blues = western swing
country + rhythm and blues = honky-tonk
blues + rhythm and blues = urban blues
country + blues + rhythm and blues = rock’n’roll

Sliding scales and distribution graphs

Another way to locate a piece of music is along a sliding scale between two genre-labels. So for example you can put jazz at one end and soul at the other end and you can string your records along it – Betty Carter towards the jazz end, Randy Crawford slightly further towards soul, Aretha quite a bit further along etc. Or you could equally well label the extremes ‘soul’ and ‘gospel’ or ‘jazz’ and ‘pop’.

For a more sophisticated version of this idea, we can combine two such sliding scales and create a distribution graph. Suppose we take the line that runs from “primitive folk music” to the most extreme varieties of “avant-garde art music” and make that our X axis. The let’s take the scale that runs from “rhythm-without-melody” at one extreme to “melody-without-rhythm” at the other. We can make that the Y axis. Now in theory we should be able to locate any piece of music / performer / album as a dot an the graph according to its distance from each of the extremes. A cluster of dots may then be labelled a genre.

Here’s an example of this sort of graph:

Another way to structure a diagram is to draw concentric circles and then divide each of the levels, from innermost to outermost, into segments. This gives us a reasonable chance of being able to plot where each genre touches its neighbours.

Here’s an example (from http://www.constantthoughts.net/wp-content/uploads/rock.gif)

I find this particular diagram deeply unconvincing.

In my next blog on this theme, I’ll put aside the theory and talk about how music is categorised in practice.

P.S. IF YOU LIKE THE WAY I WRITE, WHY NOT READ MY BOOK?  DEAD MEN SINGING

 

 

COLLECTORS VERSUS PLAYERS

When I was eight I collected those little metal cars and trucks known as Dinky toys. So did my best friend. He kept his in their original boxes in a drawer, took them out occasionally, looked at them and put them back. Mine were taken out of their boxes (which were thrown away) and zoomed around the floor; they were involved in dramatic pile-ups and lost their little rubber tyres; convoys of them, bringing guns and ammunition to my battered toy soldiers who were besieged in a corner of the garden, might get stuck in the mud and be ambushed by enemy forces hurling bricks. Guess which of us went on to make megabucks selling his Dinky collection on Ebay. But then guess which of us had more fun.
Jerome K Jerome wisely pointed out, in his humorous novel ‘Three Men On The Bummel’, that you can ride a bicycle or you can maintain it, but you can’t do both. In a similar way, it seems to me, you can either own a collection of records, or you can be a record-collector, but you can’t do both.
Let me explain. You buy a new record. The moment you take off the cellophane wrapping, you’ve damaged its collectability. Play it a few times and you’ve decreased even further its value to the ‘serious collector’.
As I got older, I graduated from Dinky toys to vinyl records. One weekend I decided that my collection of singles would be neater if I threw away their flimsy paper sleeves – and the picture sleeves that came only with EPs in those days – and put all my seven-inch discs in identical sturdy cardboard sleeves with the names written on them. I was pleased with the result, which I now realise must have cost me a fortune.
In 1967 I remember thinking that the inner surface of the gatefold ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album would make a fine poster for my wall. So I scissored it out and taped together what was left of the sleeve to hold the record (which I later left at a party).
When, later still, I acquired a Bel-Ami jukebox, I picked out a hundred of my favourite singles, punched out their centres and loaded them into the machine, to be smacked about by the robotic loading system and gouged by the heavy tone-arm. Bliss.
I’m older now and wiser. Kinace customers will be pleased to know that I have developed a healthy appreciation of unscratched vinyl and original sleeves in clean condition. But I also know that some records are so scarce that even a dodgy copy is worth having. Reggae records in particular hardly ever turn up in mint condition. They usually appear to have been used as ashtrays, frisbees or both, while their covers (if any) may have bits missing – torn out to make roaches, I suspect. It’s sad in a way, but I can’t bring myself to disapprove of those records’ original owners, who were just having fun.
The dealer’s dream, of course, is to be offered a collection by the record-buying equivalent of my friend the Dinky-collector. It’s happened to me a few times, and I’ve been thrilled by the neat lines of records, some still sealed, none appearing ever to have been played. And again, a little bit of me has thought ‘How sad’.
The ultimate difference between record-owning and record-collecting can be demonstrated by a copy of the Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ EP from 1963. I already had half a dozen of these in the Kinace stock, but another one turned up recently in a job lot of records I’d bought. Then I noticed that the sleeve had on it, above the leaping figures of the Beatles, four faded signatures: ‘Ringo, George, Paul, John’.

I sent a scan to the Beatles autograph expert in Chorley (there is indeed such a person) who told me that it was probably not an authentic signed copy. So what the hell, it’s now in the stock and it’s yours for a tenner. Of course if he’d said ‘They’re definitely genuine signatures’ I’d have auctioned the record and might have expected to get around £5,000 for it. The music inside is no different either way.
A copy of the Beatles’ white album bearing the number ‘0000005’ sold a couple of years ago for £19,201. My copy was numbered in the thousands, so I let it go for £166. If you’ve got a mere unnumbered copy, cheer up – the good news is… it sounds exactly the same.
If you’re a ‘serious collector’ as opposed to a record-owner, I’d like to think you’ll find plenty of desirable items in the Kinace stock. But you might also want to take a look at Everything Collectible, the best UK site offering records that are valuable because they’ve been signed, or because they’ve been framed to be hung on the wall. They deal in signed photographs, guitars and suchlike as well.
If, on the other hand, you’re just a humble record-owner, I salute you. Happy listening.