Warmer: What are your favourite pop songs, singers and bands? Do you have a collection of music in some form? Do you actively listen to music? Do you think that pop music from the past is better or worse than the music produced today? Are you someone who understands the music today?
Now read the text below, answering the questions that follow.
The day pop music died – or was it the day I just got old?
An original article by Roger Hartopp, 25 June 2020
At 7.00pm on Thursday 4 April 1996, I began watching the BBC’s Top of the Pops – the only show on UK television that featured acts performing songs from the nation’s best-selling singles.
Now I don’t really remember much about what was on the show that week, apart from the number one record. This record was ‘Firestarter’ from the UK Essex-based band The Prodigy. The video featured a scary Mohican hairdo-ed figure twitching and gurning as if possessed; that’s what it seemed as frontman Keith Flint was truly terrifying to look at. This record had entered the charts at number 1 and would also turn out to be a massive hit all over the world.
But I just didn’t get ‘Firestarter’. It started with some kind of synth riff that sounded like a series of klaxon calls, before a mad synthesised drumbeat kicked in and Flint doing his best to look as ghastly as possible. For goodness sake, how could you sing to that? Where was the tune? It would be this record, ‘Firestarter’, which made me fall out of love with pop music. But sales suggested the youngsters understood it, and I was over thirty years old. Was I now thinking like a parent who disapproved of what my children listened to, just as my parents did when they were my age?
I like to think that I grew up in the best possible period to see rock and pop music develop, although my older sisters could credibly say that, as young children, they recall the excitement of the early days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I particularly remember many of the songs blurting out of my father’s radio in the caravan in that period of 1967, otherwise known as the summer of love; these songs were the soundtrack to my seaside holidays with mum and dad and my sisters. ‘Monday Monday’ and ‘California Dreaming’ by the Mamas and Papas. ‘San Francisco’ by Scott McKenzie. ‘I’m a Believer’ by the Monkees. ‘All You Need is Love’ by the Beatles. And so on. It was a very happy period in my life as a child. All songs that were memorable and you could sing along to them.
Although I’d remain aware of these songs and more over the next few years, I wouldn’t pay rapt attention to pop until the start of 1972. From that time I remember all the number ones and much of the top twenty with acts such as David Bowie, The Sweet, The Drifters, The Temptations, T Rex, Don McClean, Free, Focus, Slade. The first single I bought was… well, ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon. Now considered a novelty song (and so in the eyes of the music press, rubbish) I still have fond memories of it although I no longer have the disc. But it’s there on Spotify, along with pretty much all the stuff you’ll find mentioned in this text. Indeed, when I look back at the first half of the seventies I wonder why I never appreciated all these great songs.
The first album I owned was Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel (a birthday present), and I can quite happily listen to that today as it contains the title track, ‘The Boxer’, and ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. But in 1973 the album that really blew my mind was The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. It was a borrowed record that I played over and over again to the point that for sure the disc didn’t get back to its original owner in the best of condition! Indeed, listening to Dark Side of the Moon gave me the confidence to buy Pink Floyd’s follow-up album Wish You Were Here with my own pocket money. Indeed, I rate it even better than Dark Side of the Moon; I became a Pink Floyd fan, buying all their back catalogue with cash from delivering newspapers house-to-house.
But with buying music, one big difference between now and then was the sense of anticipation. I’d be excited all week at school, then on Saturday morning going into town by bus, and taking my hard-saved pocket money, going into the record shop – in this case it was Pink Floyd’s Animals – buying the disc in its 12-inch gatefold sleeve, coming home, taking it out the bag, admiring the artwork that was a pig flying above Battersea Power Station, removing the large black flat vinyl disc from its inner sleeve and putting it on the turntable, and then sitting down to absorb what I’ve spent a lot of time getting excited about. Now it’s … New album? Open Spotify, type it in, and there it is and you hear it. No sense of anticipation. It’s just there. Instantly. Any time. And for free if you don’t mind the ads.
I wasn’t sure about punk when it well and truly hit the music scene in 1977 – even today, I don’t exactly rate the Sex Pistols – but a lot of the punk acts to follow were actually pretty good (I quite like The Stranglers’ 1978 Black and White album). Indeed, I understand why punk was there as an awful lot of music being produced at the time was overblown and pompous, particularly in progressive rock. But this period would be brief: many bands would either change with the times (The Stranglers being the best example), and newer bands started using the same synthesizer technology that Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were using; New Romanticism and electropop were in. This was where my keen following of the top forty singles and LPs would end up adding to my collection of albums, with the additions of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (their debut album is also in my top ten) and Visage (along with their debut album!). I was into the Human League before they became the most popular band in the early eighties, and I also had some records by Soft Cell.
1984 saw the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Art of Noise and the extremely underrated Propaganda release some quite brilliant music, but for me their debut albums were the best. (I was more for buying albums rather than singles, although at this time I did buy a lot of 12 inch singles.) But one single became a big game-changer in the history of pop: the release of the hugely influential ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order (formerly Joy Division). Over seven minutes long, it would be the best selling 12 inch record of all time. Their first album, Movement, is seriously underrated. Their collection of 12 inch tracks onto the double CD Substance would be another one of my top ten favourite albums.
Over the years I would continuously listen to the charts although the arrival of dancefloor, techno, rap, drum and bass, hip hop and other new electronic genres meant that my interest began to waver. But I still followed what was going on musically until 4 April 1996, when Liam Howlett and Keith Flint would ensure my connection with the top 40 singles chart would be severed for ever. Since then, I feel that pop has lost its way, with many commercial interests now influencing the way music would be presented, and often with very little patience with manufactured bands (Spice Girls, One Direction) and singers (winners of TV talent shows such as Pop Idol and Britain’s Got Talent). As Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason commented, in today’s climate, Pink Floyd would never have been given the time needed to eventually come up with Dark Side of the Moon.
Today, I will maintain that a lot of the stuff I listened to when I was younger would still be listened to today, and that much of what is being produced in the last ten years will be largely forgotten, save for the likes of Amy Winehouse, Ed Sheeran, Adele, and a handful of others. But come on, look at the current UK top 40 singles… is anybody seriously going to remember Dababy Ft Roddy, S1mba ft Dtg, Topic ft A7spositiva? The album chart is far more interesting because as I write this (23 June 2020), half of the top 40 includes Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Thin Lizzy, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, Oasis, Abba, The Beatles(!), Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse – all acts and albums from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the early part of the noughties. No sign of Flobh2SO4 ft blurg or whatever these youngsters call themselves. These days acts don’t have to do or sell much to get into the singles chart. Or even give themselves a proper name.
Back in my time you had to sell hard copies of music; if you wanted the public to buy, they had to be good. That’s why they’ll be remembered and evidence from the current top 40 albums confirms this.
Conclusions then? I may have grown older, but what happened on 4 April 1996 was The Prodigy telling me that my songs were already ending.
1. What was the number one record in the UK on 4 April 1996? Do you know this track?
2. Who were the two main members of The Prodigy?
3. What was the mid-year period of 1967 known as?
4. What was the first single and album bought by the writer?
5. What was the 1973 record that changed the writer’s view on music?
6. What differences does the writer discuss when it comes to buying music then and now?
7. Was the writer a fan of punk rock?
8. How does the writer feel about pop music today?
9. The writer says that today’s music won’t be remembered as much as songs from the past. What do you think? What evidence does the writer provide?
twitching – to make continuous jumping movements. When I stood up to her, her right cheek would begin to twitch.
gurning – to make ugly and exaggerated expressions on your face. Gurning contests are a rural English tradition, usually held regularly in some villages, with contestants traditionally framing their faces through a horse collar.
to be possessed – to believe that someone’s mind and body are controlled by an evil spirit. He behaved like someone who was possessed.
Keith Flint – an English singer, dancer and motorcycle racer. He was a founding member of the electronic dance act The Prodigy. Died 4 March 2019
synth riff – a short repeated tune played on a synthesizer. What are your favourite synth riffs of all time? You know which ones I mean, the ones that stay stuck in your head for weeks at a time.
klaxon calls – a type of loud horn noise used to announce something. Most people who attempt to describe the sound of a klaxon call come up with something like "AH-OOH-GA".
to kick in – to begin to take effect, to begin to happen. It's just before the interview when the fear kicks in.
to blurt out – here, sounds or words that are made suddenly. After being arrested, the criminal just blurted out the truth.
the summer of love – a social phenomenon that occurred during mid-1967 which included music that was popular for that time. In that summer of love large numbers of hippies travelled to California to hear favourite bands such as The Who, Grateful Dead, the Animals, Jefferson Airplane, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Byrds.
rapt attention – to be extremely interested and fascinated. I noticed that everyone was watching me with rapt attention.
novelty song/hit – a comical or nonsensical song, performed principally for its comical effect. Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling" reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, and is regarded as a novelty song.
to blow ones’ mind – to be very excited or surprised by something. There was one scene in the film that really blew my mind.
follow-up album – here, a long-playing record that is done to continue or complete something that was done before. Mike Oldfield’s follow-up album to Tubular Bells was Hergest Ridge, which was not as successful.
to admire – here, to look at something or someone that you like and respect. I really admired all those doctors and nurses who had to directly deal with COVID-19 patients.
turntable – the flat, round part of a record player on which a record is put when it is played. For my birthday I was very kindly given a record turntable and have once again been playing vinyl records.
to absorb – here, to interest you a lot and take up all your attention and energy. When you become a parent you realise how much children absorb your free time.
overblown and pompous – to seem more important or serious than it really is. Music fans regard the band Yes’s double album Tales from the Topographic Oceans as overblown and pompous.
Tangerine Dream – German electronic music band that was founded in 1967 by Edgar Froese, and are considered pioneers of the early days of electronica, influencing many such acts today
Kraftwerk – German band formed in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. They were among the first successful acts to popularize the electropop genre, as well as being pioneers. They are hugely influential on many electronic bands today
New Romanticism/New Romantic – a pop culture movement from the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, and was characterised by flamboyant, eccentric fashion and influenced by David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Roxy Music. The New Romantic movement is sometimes characterised as a reaction to the punk rock movement.
electropop – a music genre combining elements of electronic and pop genres. Kenneth Womack wrote that singer and songwriter Billie Eilish had "staked her claim as the reigning queen of electropop".
debut album – the first official long-playing record released by a band or singer. Mike Oldfield’s debut album, Tubular Bells, has sold over 2.7 million copies in the UK and an estimated 15 million worldwide.
to waver – to be undecided about something, or you consider changing your mind about something. Opinion in the UK still seems to waver as to whether BREXIT was a good idea or not.
Liam Howlett – English record producer, musician, songwriter, co-founder & leader of the British electronic band The Prodigy
to sever – here, to end a connection with something. She severed her ties with England after BREXIT.
the noughties – the period between 2000-2009. The amount of money being lend by banks in the noughties simply could not continue.