A few months ago, I wrote the article What’s Your Thing? diving into what separates the wheat from the chaff in popular music; the artists who have a definitive impact and staying power upon the rest of society and those who follow a trend (set by the handful of pioneering, influential acts) and are ultimately forgotten as one of the many that were part of whatever wave they rode when they wash up. With that, those who jumpstart trends in music almost always have one artistic magnum opus that defines the rest of their career.
It’s the same as a painter who has one great painting that becomes a cornerstone to their legacy, one movie can permanently define a director and one TV show can define a producer. In music, that one album is often the one that breaks the artist into the international consciousness, though massively influential records can come after the artist is established to some degree as well. There can be a string of records that turn into an artist’s golden run if they’re lucky enough, but even in a hot streak there’s still one that sticks out as the shining diamond among the others.
The thing to understand about these acts and records that come out and change everything is that their success isn’t solely attributable to the quality of the product. Listening to Rolling Stone list-makers and radio jocks, you’d think it’s all about putting together a really solid album and having it blow up off of its sonic merits alone. Without a doubt, you can’t just throw any old ragtag collection of songs out there and think it’s going to stick; the songwriting has to be on point, the mix has to capture the right energy and the album sequencing has to flow and make sense.
With all that said, there’s still the element of luck, and more importantly, the element of timing. Many of the albums that are noted as being massively impactful dropped at a time when the outside culture called for it, such records suited and channeled the mood and zeitgeist of the period and people flocked to it in kind. Dig deeper into the story of the “greatest albums” listed in countless music publications and you will find generational conflicts, economic downturns, shifting mediums in communication, doubts, fears, and all manner of sociocultural elements that give your favourite records a far greater context than is often acknowledged. Here’s just three examples from the 20th century to drive this through.
The Beatles- Meet The Beatles (1964)
In all honesty, the example of the Beatles’ initial commercial explosion can’t really be restricted to one single record, but for convenience’s sake this one, their second U.S release sticks out the most. Their iconic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show and their inaugural U.S concerts can be more accurately pointed to as the moment the floodgates opened and the British Invasion commenced. Now take into consideration the year of 1964. A few months before the Beatles landed on American soil, JFK was assassinated, shattering the pollyanna post-war security of the boomer generation, an innocence that was already in limbo due to the introduction of television. Even before that, the demise of the initial rock and roll explosion in the 1950s had a similar effect on the youth, albeit not as resonant on a national level.
Then throw in the fact that the baby boomers, a cohort raised on instant gratification into upward mobility and rootlessness due to their suburban upbringings started hitting college age in ’64 as campus activism was starting to tick up and U.S involvement in the Vietnam War was looming. While the fault lines were shifting in America and U.S popular music had become clean and easy since 1959, introducing a band from across the water who were seen to be far more subversive than their poppy image would indicate in the midst of this tumultuous void was a substantial boon to the counterculture in its early days. The youth of the ‘60s flew into hysterics over the Beatles and soon became hippies and radicals along with them, this gradual evolution on the band’s part culminating in their zenith Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and a few more highly regarded albums after that. Nevertheless, it was that crucial moment in ’64, with all the factors that were present that allowed the Beatles to happen.
The Sex Pistols- Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
The Beatles had a 12-album discography over 7 years that allowed them to shape music from that point forward. The Pistols had 1 album in 1 year, but it delivered a fatal blow to whatever was left of the ‘60s zeitgeist and what was hip long after in the late ‘70s. What were the conditions in ’77 to make a record like this? As the counterculture fizzled out in the early ‘70s, the mood changed from the peace-and-love idealism of the previous decade to one of cynicism, nihilism and distrust of government and institutions in general after the end of the Vietnam War and the fallout from the Watergate scandal.
On top of that came the recession of ’73-’75 stemming from the Nixon Shock and the Arab oil embargo, putting an end to the long boom in the West after World War II. Urban decline and high unemployment rates resulted, though disillusioned flower children didn’t seem to care that much as they doubled down on hedonism and packed themselves into rock concerts and discos, ultimately turning the “All Together Now” generation into the Me generation. By the mid-70s, popular music reflected this change entirely: No more were stars making rousing political statements and encouraging social revolt, they lived the jet-setting high life and revelled in immense levels of decadence.
To some, this was all fun, well and fine, a careless period of escape and abandon after a period in American (and English) life that seemed all too serious and divided. To others, it was aimless and complacent, a chunk of those people being punks. In the eyes (and ears) of a band like the Sex Pistols, the hippie dream was good as dead, progressive rock was naval-gazing, meandering nonsense, big-time hard rock and “corporate” rock were hopelessly sterile and commercial and disco was an abomination. The obvious answer to a grandiose and bloated music industry was to strip it down and get back to basics- a snarling, raw, untamed and relentlessly defiant form of rock that did away with all and any niceties, slickness and public polish.
Aside from being a powerful counterpunch to the rest of the music industry, Never Mind The Bollocks totally channeled the alienated, angry and destructive view of working-class English youth who saw no social or economic future for themselves. Some will point to the Ramones, Patti Smith, the Misfits and others as equally influential in the punk world across the water, and they are indeed significant figures within the genre. At the end of the day though, the Pistols stand out as the greatest example (and prototype) for what punk is about and Never Mind The Bollocks is one of the greatest portraits there is of that time in history.
Nirvana- Nevermind (1991)
Some funny things happened in the ‘80s. The punk movement started by the Pistols and others broke up into several subgenres including post-punk (Joy Division) hardcore punk (Black Flag) and new wave (The Police, Talking Heads). Other derivatives like glam punk (Hanoi Rocks) diluted the essence of punk and led to it being woven into the fabric of ‘80s metal, which with few exceptions could not have been more opposite to punk in its bombastic rockstar ethos. Culturally, things shifted in a big way as well. By the bicentennial, the baby boomers started hitting 30 and fell into an identity crisis after years of sex, drugs, rock and roll and social rebellion that they imagined would bring about a whole new world.
When their dreams disintegrated and adult responsibilities were inescapable, they slowly started to become what they had once railed against; a social caricature that came to be known as the yuppie. They now fully embraced consumerism over communalism; many even abandoned their former left-wing inclinations and voted for Ronald Reagan. Indian beads, long hair and dungarees were long gone, now it was clean cuts, suits, convertibles and brick phones. It was Reaganomics, it was Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous, it was “greed is good”, “why ask why” and “just say no.” It was the ‘80s, a very different time indeed.
Along the way, these recovering peaceniks happened to have kids, albeit in far less numbers than their own generation. Eventually dubbed Generation X, the next cohort came up in a setting where the economy was rough, divorces were shooting up and more women were heading into the workforce, leaving them latchkey kids for most of the day and utterly unenthused and uninspired by life (though certainly engaged by MTV). Seeing their parents betray everything they once stood for and even poise themselves as figures of moral authority made things infinitely worse, a generational tension exacerbated by the fact that the boomer generation still solidly dominated the culture in the ‘80s, leaving nothing for Gen X to identify with.
In locations like the Pacific Northwest that were isolated, rainy and unequivocally dreary, these tensions took on new heights and inspired a new creative wave antithetical to what was in at that time. Steely, mechanical pop songs and huge and excessive Sunset Strip metal didn’t appeal to the youth of Washington state, and they were far up the coast from the music industry epicentre of Los Angeles. Throughout the ‘80s they built off of feelings of dread, despair, angst and depression, emotions fuelled by their regional and generational experience that ran counter to the feel-good, bigger, better escapist ethos of the time. As the ‘90s drew closer, more and more people started to shift away from the cultural ethos of the excess era and felt that its soundtrack, hair metal especially had become played out, predictable and comical. The stage was set for a change.
In 1991, the Cold War concluded with the collapse of the U.S.S.R, the relatively brief Gulf War came to an end, and the sands were shifting, starting with George H.W Bush towards a globalized, centralized world, not to mention a more politically correct, “liberal” one that went hand-in-hand with the Clinton presidency that followed. As all this was going on, in the music world a three-piece band from Aberdeen, Washington that had released one obscure album on Sub Pop Records put out its major debut on David Geffen’s DGC label, a record called Nevermind. A combination of early heavy metal, hardcore punk and in their case, Beatles-esque pop elements (whether used ironically or not), Nevermind was a slow seller at first but after a number of its singles, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” among them hit alternative and college radio stations and eventually MTV, it blew up like an atomic bomb.
The record came to represent a plethora of different things in terms of culture; first and foremost it was the killshot to ‘80s hair metal and the album that brought grunge and alternative rock to the forefront. Lightheartedness and rock-god bluster were old hat; vulnerability, darkness and anti-corporate attitudes were in. Such were the collective experiences of Generation X, who were damned for years as a scathing, slacker stepchild generation cast to the shadows who now had a sound and aesthetic they could identify with. Beyond that, it was a middle finger to their baby boomer predecessors who had about-faced on their old selves, and represented a cultural microcosm of the rise of more sensitive, universal values that defined the rest of the decade and generations to come. It’s a record that couldn’t have left the mark it did at any other time- just ask Butch Vig.
Now you can see that legendary albums often come not only as a consequence of their quality, but as a result of social and cultural circumstances, generational dynamics and often times dissatisfaction with the status quo. Revolutionary leaders in society come out of situations like these, and there’s a number of musicians who to a certain degree could be counted as such. When I first started paying attention to this, I thought to myself, how can I make Nevermind for the Millennials? and thought about planning the whole thing out and concocting the right sound. Of course, I realized in time that this was completely naive. You can’t just sit down and try to deliberately cook up a gem, you just let your creative juices flow and if the stars are aligned and the universe wills it to, it happens on its own.
The other thing is, when asking myself why albums like this don’t pop up and define generations anymore, it’s because albums aren’t a thing anymore; at least not to the extent they once were. The internet is the gift and the curse, it’s great because everyone can get on and do their thing, and it sucks because everyone can get on and do their thing. You don’t have to rely on the industry like you used to, but you have to work that much harder now to set yourself apart in a saturated, levelled playing field. There isn’t the same attention span as there was before, we now can truly dictate what an artist’s greatest hits are- to us– and we can break songs on an album down by playlists that correspond to whatever mood we’re in the current moment. Though the means in which we access and engage with music have changed, our connection to it never will. That’s something to keep in mind, along with the contents of this article whenever you sit down with you guitar and feel inspired by the goings-on of the world. Who knows? One way or another, you might just become the next big thing.