How sacrosanct is a piece of popular music? How far should we defend the rights of an original artist or a recognised recording from the tentacles of those who wish to interfere and re-shape what we identify as the standard version?
In some ways, to ask the question is to step back almost two decades into a pre-digital age when there was little debate about what we regarded as the legitimate text. Then, if a single or album was released by a record company, indie or major, there was a real sense that what we were hearing was the authentic object. Within that notion was a sense that the band, producer, engineer and label had negotiated a shared vision, one that ensured that the product we saw in the high street racks of HMV or Virgin Records was the bona fide version. There may have been compromises in-house, but what we placed on our record players or listened to on the airwaves was assumed to be the true gospel.
Yet, even then there was a creeping influence that suggested such orthodoxy would not last long. As the dance clubs of Detroit and Manhattan, Chicago and Washington, learnt the lessons of Jamaica, where re-mixes and re-takes, talkover and dub versions, had long been a feature of the scene, the idea that pop songs were somehow set in stone was not to survive much longer. By the mid-1980s, when British club culture exploded and brought techno and house out of the gay and black ghettos of inner-city America, the mix-and-match, re-make and re-model philosophy became a ruling principle for a generation of DJs who saw themselves less as promotional portals for the industry’s official output and more as sound sculptors, taking the raw material of soul and R&B, disco and hip hop, and re-moulding it in a melange of cross-beats and fade-outs.
But it was more than just creative deckwork that would undermine notions of the record as the irrefutable artwork. Advances in studio technology, too, meant that the sample would become a central tool for a new generation of singers and groups, as pop’s treasure house of hooks and riffs, beats and stabs, would re-surface, prompting shimmers of déjà vu for older listeners, in a plethora of 1990s hits. This was an intriguing twist on one of the more famous works to emerge from the Frankfurt School Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction of 1936 which speculated that the aura of a piece of art was threatened by the new machines of replication. Instead, as the end of the century beckoned, the postmodernists were revelling in this marketplace of appropriation: aural collages merging past and present.
The legal issues became complicated as claim and counter-claim saw the courts employed to unravel borrowed bass-lines and pilfered drum loops from the increasingly complicated offspring of multi-track sound desks. A decade or so on pragmatism reigns: songwriters or producers who intend to revive a piece of the archive, in this way, merely come to an agreement with the rights holder and both contemporary artist and historical creator can thus benefit financially. These thoughts were not raised, however, by this new wave of expert and frequently thrilling manipulators, but rather by the decision to re-issue the Beatles’ Let It Be. The 1970 album’s reincarnation in its Naked format restores, we are told, the genuine intentions of the group.
I must confess, I haven’t heard the Fab Four’s swansong freed of the Spector of Phil, the Sixties svengali who concocted the Wall of Sound and was then hired to save the Let It Be tapes from the desperate mediocrity that several weeks of fractious sessions had produced. During this time, the Beatles declined from world-beaters to a squabbling fivesome; Yoko’s presence souring the last vestiges of creative friendship the group members could muster. Nor will I be rushing to lend my ears to Naked in its re-vamped form. I just can’t get sufficiently worked up about music this ancient even by the acknowledged giants of the genre. But has anyone the right to take an existing document and resurrect it in this manner?
Commercially, of course, the decision-makers McCartney and Starr, EMI and Apple can do what they like with the material they own as reach their own consensus, but I find it a gesture fraught with emptiness: a vacuous act in its own right but worse, a minor piece of sacrilege against a recognised history. It’s happened before, of course: the Beatles sanctioned a string of post-dissolution Anthologies, movie-makers routinely re-promote their work in re-cut adaptations and the notorious Chapman Brothers, Jake and Dinos, enfants terribles of the UK art scene recently displayed de-faced versions of actual Goya cartoons they had bought and then re-crafted in their own dubious hand as part of their Turner Prize nomination show.
What I can stand is the artist who constantly re-invents his oeuvre with a passion and near obsession. As Dylan’s never-ending tour wends its way across the globe, it seems that his desire for renaissance is insatiable. Casting aside his guitar arthritis or rheumatism are blamed Dylan now re-kindles the flame of his songs, somewhat chaotically, at the keyboard. Such devil-may-care minstrelsy may be a little ragged at the edges, but at least Dylan’s mission to re-generate his catalogue, rather than merely renovate it, is admirable and deliciously surprising for his audience.
As for Naked, I think we are being treated to the Emperor’s clothes rather than a display of re-discovered finery. Let It Be wasn’t such a great album when it first appeared all that while ago. It had some pretty awesome competition in the shape of the Beatles’ recent releases. But it was a snapshot of a significant moment. By then, the group’s salad days were over and the ramshackle affair that represented certain aspects of their demise would, I think, have been better left alone. Lenin tried to re-write history with revisionist zeal; I somehow doubt Lennon would have been so enthusiastic.