CMU Opinion

Elton John wants you to turn off that racket

By | Published on Friday 13 April 2018

Elton John

Look, Elton John realises that pop is a young person’s game. But he also wishes that pop radio stations would be a little less ageist and play a few of his songs too. Because he still writes proper songs. Unlike all those bloody kids they have scuttling around these days.

Speaking to Nihal Arthanayake on BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘Headliners’ podcast, John says that – while he recognises that “it’s someone else’s turn now” – it is nevertheless “frustrating” when radio ignores his new tunes, because “you do want your music to get heard [and] there’s not much output” for it anymore.

He then references his 2010 record with the then 68 year old singer-songwriter Leon Russell. Not one pop station played any tracks off it, he says, because pop radio stations are “very ageist”. This, he adds, is why he’s now got a load of younger artists to record contemporary pop and country versions of his songs for two new compilations.

“One of the reasons we did ‘Revamp’ and ‘Restoration’ is to get our songs out there to [younger] people that don’t know our songs”, he says. “So they might want to go back and investigate the fact that we made a record [in the past]”.

If you’ve heard the first single from ‘Revamp’ – Q-Tip and Demi Lovato’s version of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ – the only thing you’re likely to investigate is the inside of the nearest cushion to work out how much of it you can stuff into your ears. It is not a good advert for anyone’s back catalogue – John’s or their own.

But maybe I’m saying that because I’m too old to understand the nuances of modern music. Or perhaps I’m too young to know a good song when I hear one.

Certainly John doesn’t think these young folks are putting out anything of much worth music wise these days. “I just wish people would write better songs”, he says. “When you listen to even the cheesiest songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s – they’re songs. There are a lot of songs in the charts I can’t sing, it’s just a beat”.

Ah, the old ‘it’s just a racket and you can’t even hum the tune’ argument. A position that has delighted young people – and definitely made them want to hear more about the music of older generations – since time began.

One issue, John says, is that modern pop songs have lots of different writers, which means “you lose the soul and also the skill of writing a song”.

Those modern songs are still very popular though, so does that argument actually stand up? Plus, I think you can find lots of examples of music from the 50s, 60s and 70s, where, if you strip it right back, there’s very little going on underneath.

All this chatter reminds me of an episode of the ‘Sound Opinions’ podcast from back in 2006 where producer Jon Brion, who’s worked with everyone from Fiona Apple to Kanye West, breaks pop throughout history down into “songs” and “performance pieces”.

“What most people like are specific performances [because] we’ve grown up in an era of recordings. Recording has killed people’s ability to hear songs just as chord change, melody and lyric. It’s a very strange and beautiful artform, because when it’s right, boy do you know it”.

To illustrate his distinction between songs and performances, he uses the work of Led Zeppelin. “I’m a big fan … [but] I don’t consider most of those [Led Zeppelin recordings] songs. And the way I can prove my point is, have you ever listened to someone else play a Led Zeppelin song and thought, ‘Oh, that was a great satisfying experience’?”

He then turns to a piano and plays a familiar melody that is neither great nor satisfying, pointing out that what people like are not Led Zeppelin songs but the sound of Led Zeppelin playing them.

So maybe the trend that John is talking about here is a trend in which pop has increasingly become about “performance pieces” rather than “songs”. Though by linking them to Brion’s insights I’ve just given John’s moans more credence, which wasn’t my plan when sitting down to write this article. But still, I think about the Jon Brion interview all the time, so it’s good to have an excuse to listen to it again.

Anyway, even if there are fewer ‘songs’ in the charts these days, maybe that doesn’t matter. I guess it depends what you consider music to be. At its heart, I’d argue that music is a sound or collection of sounds designed to illicit a response.

For example, here’s a piece of music I love and find quite moving, ‘Vibrators’ by Barbed.

What even is it? Same goes for someone like Brian Eno. It took me years to find out the name of ‘An Ending (Ascent)’, because you can’t saying to someone, “What’s the tracks that goes ‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEeEeeeEEeeeeee aaaaaaAAaAaAeaaeaeaeaEAAEeeee?”

Breaking away from the idea that music has to be something specifically defined frees the artform up to become more things – to find new ways to trigger different responses in listeners. Yes, songs are quite a good way of doing that. But they are not the only way. And, anyway, the modern pop song is a fairly recent invention in the wider scheme of things too.

Sure, the multi-writer song-camp-constructed pop songs of today can sometimes seem cynical. But surely there’s always been a certain cynicism in pop?

I mean, when Max C Freeman wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ at nearly 50 years old, I’m not sure it was because he felt an uncontrollable desire to tell the world about his love of 24 hour rocking. It was designed to get a newly identified market of young consumers out of their seats dancing. Which is exactly what pop music should do. Does it need to do that with a clear melodic progression? Nope.

Right now, we’re seeing the continued resurgence of grime, which I’d argue is at its most creatively appealing the further away from traditional song structure it gets.

Elton John would not agree with me, though, preferring Stormzy – say – when a more traditional structure is employed. He goes on: “Someone like Stormzy can actually [write a song] with ‘Blinded By Your Grace Part 2’ and he sings and it’s so beautiful. He’s got it all. He’s got the ability to do the grime and stuff like that, but he’s also got the ability to use his voice and do something really beautiful. That’s what I love”.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to John, though. Let the old man have a moan about all the songs on the radio. After all, he still has a long history of supporting younger artists, and those artist’s own musical approaches. I mean, his company actively worked with Ed Sheeran, who I don’t think anyone could argue is known for writing finely constructed songs.

Besides, “it doesn’t bother me”, John continues about all the rubbish pop music that’s around these days, even if you listen to that instead of his new stuff. “In the sense that I’ve had my time in the sun”, he goes on. After “the most amazingly lucky career”, it no longer matters if anyone wants to hear what he has to offer. “Time will move on. That’s the way music has to be and it’s always been like that”.

Too right. Elton John, of course, is retiring, so to allow music to move on as it has to be and always has been. Though, not before he heads out on a three year farewell tour. A lengthy trek around major venues worldwide which does somewhat derail the argument that he can’t find people who want to listen to his music anymore.

Another thing the farewell tour disproves is that he’s happy to pass on the music making baton to a younger generation and slip away quietly. One of the reasons for the length of the tour – other than the sheer number of people around the world who’ll want to say goodbye – is to allow lots of data to be gathered in order to create a virtual Elton John.

This is a story that seems to have got slightly lost in the farewell tour news. Elton John the human may be retiring, but it’s hoped that a new “post-biological” Elton John can replace him, utilising all that data.

Speaking to Wired earlier this year, the CEO of a company called Spinflex, Ben Casey, revealed plans to use the tour to record John’s movements, speech and behaviour on stage, to form part of a data set that will allow John to live on long beyond the 300 shows. Work on this has already begun, capturing elements of his performance, such as finger movements, resulting in an augmented reality 1970s Elton John performing at Kings Cross Station in London in January.

But using this technology to simply create yet another hologram artist to go on tour isn’t the main aim. Ultimately, Spinflex hopes that by using artificial intelligence and analysis of his songwriting style, this virtual Elton will also be able to write new songs.

“The cognitive Elton can be part of the creation of new music into the future”, says Casey. “From this point onwards there are endless opportunities for Elton to find ways to outthink the limits of time and geography. I want to be able to have a conversation with Elton John at a piano in his physical form”.

With a virtual reality, artificially intelligent, still song-writing, still performing eternal Elton John in the pipeline, just think, that means, your great-great-grandchildren might also be able to enjoy the experience of having John lecture them on what pop should sound like.

Though by then machines will be writing all the pop music anyway, so I’m not really sure what the point will be. Except, perhaps, to provide an article’s worth of data for the machine that is due to take over this column in 2021.