When “The Ever Present Past” doesn’t supply marketing research

Paul McCartney has a new single out called “My Ever Present Past.” (Scroll down the page to download the song.) Not only is it sonically a nice synthesis of a lot of the music he’s heard over the last, oh, forty plus years or so, the lyric explores his failed marriage, his still burning desire to make music, and the albatross around his neck that being Paul McCartney can be.

Bob Lefsetz has a note from a radio guy who pointed out that he couldn’t play the new McCartney single because there’s no market research for a song by Paul McCartney.

Let’s think about what that means for a moment.

As both Rolling Stone and VH-1 (those bastions of all that’s important in music – the lying bastards) assert, The Beatles are the greatest band of all time. While this is certainly arguable (see Sam Smith’s piece here as well as this one on a similar topic), there is much truth in the assertion of that ranking for The Fabs. No one argues their place in rock’s history, and almost everyone except for the maybe the youngest of the current generation of, as Jagger and Richards term them, “earphone heads” can name all four of them.

They’re icons, in other words.

So why is it that an icon can’t get his music played on the radio anymore?

Marketing plans.

As Sam Cutler observes, “Naked greed, based upon the exploitation of the ignorant consumer who is (essentially) told what he wants and needs, is the order of the day. WHEN did this happen? When people like Allen Klein (an accountant) took over from people like Andrew Oldham (a visionary) and re-ordered the priorities. The “dream” was replaced by “the scheme”! Money and power, money and power – the ethics and morals (and the tastes) of the military-industrial complex now rule in the sphere of popular music – we sell our children shit, but no problem, it’s a living!”

Where does that leave someone like Sir Paul, who still thinks that people raised by the Nickelodeon/Noggin/MTV empire even care that he’s NOT one of the dead Beatles?

“He’s a real Nowhere Man…”

11 replies »

  1. This raises a really great issue, Jim, and it’s one you and I have talked about before – that of relevance. There’s no arguing – as you note – The Beatles’s place in history. Even in my most rabid moments, the best I can do is set U2 up there as sort of a 1A entry, because as great as I think U2 is even they’ll tell you that they couldn’t have gotten there without the influence of Le Fabs.

    But how many artists were once great and somewhere along the line sort of stopped making music that mattered so much? Even if they’re making good music, to what degree is it firing on the same kinds of cylinders that made them great to start with? When was the last time a Stones record mattered?

    Maybe this is a youth-centric way of looking at things. I don’t know. I hear relevant music from “mature” artists, but it seems like that’s the exception. Graham Parker’s new one just rages (see the item linked above) and he’s the rare case of an artist who’s maybe about as good as he was when he first made his bones 30 years ago.

    I respect that Macca keeps pounding. And I wouldn’t begin to deny his legend. But – I don’t know – does he matter anymore? Can you really place his current music on a par with The Beatles or RAM or BAND ON THE RUN (maybe my all-time favorite McCartney moment, honestly)?

  2. You raise two issues here, Sam – let me address them separately:

    1) the “youth centric” issue – yes, I think this is rock’s greatest problem – it’s one you and I have discussed repeatedly, thoughtfully, and probably circularly (?) – what to do with “old” rock stars – as you know, it has something to do with the decision of rock as a popular art form to tie itself to other popular art forms like fashion – art forms that have as specific aims obsolescence. This makes rock, which should have tied itself more closely to “serious” music (i.e., classical, jazz, blues), seem trivial by comparison.

    Think about the way we even talk about popular music pre-rock: an artist (even a rock artist like Rod Stewart or Linda Ronstadt just as examples) “does” a “standard” like “Stardust” or “As Time Goes By.” The song supercedes any particular performer – it is a composer’s work, to be sure, but it stands on its own as a work of art. Compare that to how we talk about one rock artist performing another artist’s tune – we call that a “cover” and reference the original almost always – further creating the sense of specific temporality of a rock song. And we’re always impressed by a “cover” that isn’t merely an imitation of the original performance of the song.

    2) the relevance question – you can rave about Graham Parker, Don Dixon, or anyone else you’d like to tout – (and you know I love and admire the work of both, so this isn’t an issue of distaste) – but they’re in the same boat as Sir Paul – they’re irrelevant in a music environment that always argues “the latest is the greatest” and where market research into what “target audiences” (read pre-teens and teens) “want.” I refer you to Sam Cutler’s rant as to what motivates that behavior.

    Perhaps you don’t find Macca’s current work to your liking – that’s as it may be, I certainly don’t like all (hell, most) of what I hear – but I respectfully disagree and say that I find everything he’s done since Linda died has been a rediscovery of the fact that HE IS BLOODY PAUL MCCARTNEY. The albums “Run, Devil, Run,” “Driving Rain,” and “Chaos and Creation…” all show a mature artist re-exploring his world through his medium – music. It’s very good work, I believe – time will tell if it’s great….

    But that doesn’t solve the problem that he, Parker, and other “mature” artists have – how can we have a conversation about them that isn’t hamstrung by their inability to reach broader audiences due to current music industry practices? Maybe that’s the real problem….

  3. I think we’re conflating. McCartney and other mature artists can’t reach an audience and industry practices – you’re asserting a cause/effect that I think is partially true but not completely.

    If you’re old, you’re at a huge disadvantage, no matter what, and this is the industry critique. (Whatever happened to “hope I die before I get old, anyway”?) However, just because you used to be good and now you’re old and the industry ignores you, that doesn’t mean that your music is still worthy.

    I can argue that Parker’s latest is on a par with SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS and HOWLIN’ WIND – if it’s not quite as great, it’s damned close, and we may only think it’s not quite as great because 30 years presents a certain apples/oranges problem for us.

    But are you arguing that Macca’s latest is as good as – or on a par with – his best work? I’ve heard one tune off the new record and I don’t think it’s in the same league as his early solo work, let alone his great Beatles moments. So to make the industry beatdown work we have to be able to make the critical case, you know?

  4. I’m arguing that Macca, who’s 64 – and Graham Parker, who’s 56 – should get treated like the authentic, worthy artists that they are and at least get a fair shot in the marketplace.

    If they succeed or fail – that should be on the merit of their work – not on whether they fit a marketing plan.

    It’s not a matter of whether you or I like a particular song or album – an artist who has proven his talent over decades of work should get the chance to prove it again. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

  5. It’s hard to argue with such a sensible principle – they’ve earned a fair hearing.

    I wonder – and here comes the heresy – to what degree this is the fault of electronic technology. These days there’s just SO MUCH competing for our attention, so we have our cultural filters turned ALL the way up. Like an HR manager sifting through a stack of 1000 resumes – he’s not looking for reasons to hire, he’s looking for reasons to eliminate, and after a few years of that it doesn’t take much.

    “Too old” becomes a knee-jerk. But when was the last time we had a bust-out hit by an old fucker? Bonnie Raitt?

  6. I don’t think that technology reference is heresy at all. I invoked pretty much the same trope to comment on the need for a progressive hell-raiser like Upton Sinclair on your post about food contamination….The HR manager analogy is a good one, too. That’s really what we do isn’t it…? And because of the solitariness of much of our “conversation” in a Net/Info driven world, perhaps this causes us to default to our prejudices – generational and otherwise – more than we’d want to admit….

    As for your last question – while there’s certainly been hoopla for records by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison in the last 5-7 years, none of those albums sold anything beyond core audiences. So maybe Bonnie is the last one to be successful in a “traditional” way….Are we forgetting somebody…?

  7. I guess you could count Carlos Santana’s put-up job a few years back, where the label had him pimping everybody within hollering distance (Rob Thomas being the most prominent). But I really don’t think that counts, does it?

  8. Well, if we count Santana’s album then we might have to start counting stuff like the duets albums Sinatra and Ray Charles did. I don’t think that’s a road we want to go down…

  9. McCartney has few peers, if any, given the fact that he and 3 other guys conquered the world of music and literally defined the high water mark of rock and roll. How can one not listen to, and appreciate whatever comes out of his heart, and how dare anyone say he is not relevant? How many artists are even being discussed after 40 years? There are few Artists who are as studied, discussed, admired, and remembered after 40 years, let alone ANY who could hope to compare to The Beatles. This man is half of the greatest songwriting team of all time. I dont think this is arguable. The facts speak for themselves. All who came after them have never outclassed them, and all in rock have the Beatles to thank for the roots of what they play in Rock to this day. Gimme a break here. Relevant? Hell yes he is relevant. Was Piccaso relevant when he got old? Hell yes! Beetovan? Hell Yes! MCCARTNEY? MY GOD. ARE YOU PEOPLE ASLEEP?

  10. PS Not relevant? To what? Todays music? Geez, its crap mostly, todays music. Everything everyone seems to produce is yet another cloaked interpretation, or offshoot in some form of what the Beatles already did in one song or another. They fully covered the entire root spectrum of rock in a time when “the new beat” was non existent. They, in effect, found it if you will, or shall we say founded it. All great artists have their ups and downs dont they? But McCartney is paid attention to and sought out, whether he gets airplay or not. As a songwriter myself, I would be a bloody fool not to listen just on the off chance that he has spawned yet another unbelievable piece of musical art. I dont like many songs he has written, but its worth sifting thru the volume to find the genius, which, in my opinion, has never been equalled. He had one peer, and that was John Lennon. Good luck in finding another one like him. None of the artists I have ever heard could hold a candle to Lennon/McCartney, and I have yet to hear one to this day who can put McCartney to shame, be it songwriting, singing, or playing, even at his age. Its hard to imagine any artist who can still sing the original hits in thier original key, 40 years later, can still rock, still inspire, and still make young girls “swoon”, if you will, and he can do that. Relevant? They will be studying every word he wrote and note he played 50 years from now. Can you name another artist who can command such relevance as this?