By Hans Ebert
There’s a track out called “7 Years” by Danish band Lukas Graham that’s been on Repeat at home and in my head for the past few weeks. That’s scary because the track is almost a year old and makes me concerned that I’m letting too much clutter into my life and not enough music- good music. This is not the person I think I am. Or was or want to be.
Like Hozier’s “Take Me To The Church”, “7 Years” is one of those tracks that are so rare these days- melodic, with intelligent lyrics and performed by an extremely tight band with real raw emotion in the vocals of singer Lukas Graham Forchhammer. Why can’t there be more music like this?
Here in Hong Kong, what’s stopping those who profess to be musicians and arrangers and producers and A&R people in music companies from recording music as good as this? Let’s be polite and call it a defeatist attitude. Some might call it the Fear Factor- the fear to move away from formulaic dross. The fear to cut the cord. Or, it might be something far more simple: They’re incapable of it.
Let’s face it, incompetence and lack of talent is not exclusive to the music industry. It’s all part of the Peter Principle where incompetence is rewarded so that no one rocks the boat and actually dares to be different or think differently.
Once upon a vinyl record or CD, us music fans inhaled music. We were inquisitive, we were rabid learners, and it had nothing to do with being a musician. It was being a music fan. No one was ordering us to be one. It just came with the territory and there was always the need to share everything we discovered. Do this today and there are those who think it’s name dropping or showing off. But, to use that awful term, back in the day, when one bought, for example, a James Taylor record, apart from listening and absorbing the latest music from this brilliant singer-songwriter, we wanted to know who the players were- who was good enough to record with JT. And so was set a chain reaction of information and knowledge about musicians like guitarist Danny Korchmar, drummers Leland Sklaar and Steve Gadd, guitarist Waddy Watchel, Craig Doerge, Andrew Gold etc- which then made you buy records- remember buying music?- by other artists who worked with these musicians.
If these musicians were good enough to record with James Taylor or Paul Simon or Carly Simon or Carole King or Joni Mitchell etc etc, they had all the right credentials- and whoever they chose to play with had that seal of approval. These musicians, mostly in-demand session musicians didn’t record or perform with just anyone. It had to be a musical mutual admiration society. It was that special undefinable connection that brought Eric Clapton and George Harrison together, what inspired Joni Mitchell to record with Jaco Pastorius and Robert Plant to make music with the wonderful Alison Krauss.
It’s like a marriage or a love affair and where you just know that everything clicks and let’s see what develops. And over the years, these musical collaborations have, more often than not, resulted in magic. It’s taking jamming to another level of creativity. And, at least in these books, those musicians who refuse to jam have some shortcomings. They maybe technically good, but they’re not creative enough to offer up something new.
What’s baffling to me are professional musicians who don’t make the time to learn, appreciate and understand all those other great musicians who came before and whose work has taken us this far. Okay, asking musicians today to go back and listen to Sinatra’s work with legendary arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Don Costa might be taking things too far, but how those writing songs have such a minimal knowledge of the work of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Stones, Dylan, the Byrds, Todd Rundgren, Bowie, Prince, Jackson Browne, Don Henley etc and the role Quincy Jones played in creating the greatest hits of Michael Jackson is something I cannot understand.
Sure, some might say, listening to all this music might cause sub-conscious copying, where influences become part of creating original music and plagiarism comes into play along with lawyers sweeping down with legal action for infringement of copyright. Look what’s happening right now as to where exactly “Stairway To Heaven” originally came from. But there’s still a helluva lot of “new” music out there sounding extremely similar to older songs. One doubts because we only have a handful of notes to work with that these are just accidents. Sorry if some disagree, but “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams owed more than a passing nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”. There’s homage and then there’s blatant copying right down to “more cowbell”.
When it comes to Canto Pop, probably no other song has been part of blatant “inspiration” than “Desperado”. The problem is no one really cares. There are some music executives who even believe that recording something that sounds like another hit song to be a good thing as it means it’s easier to be accepted. Seriously?
There are then those songwriters whose subject matter never gets further than the you-left-me-and-I-feel-bloody miserable school of songwriting. How many of these stories can one take before reaching for the razor blades, or else nodding off? It doesn’t matter if the new song has a drum loop to it? Most of the time, these two musical worlds collide. It’s like adding some beats behind “Greensleeves” or “Puff The Magic Dragon” and thinking this is progress. No matter how huge Ed Sheeran might be, I find him a tepid songwriter with nothing new to say. He’s no Nick Drake or Cat Stevens or Jeff Buckley. And Taylor Swift is no Tracy Chapman.
How many of these new musicians have gone back and really listened to the recordings the Beatles produced with George Martin? Did McCartney keep writing variations of “Yesterday”? Did Lennon keep going down the same route as “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Of course not- and which is why the band and its main songwriters have such a rich and amazing catalogue of work. They were never lazy. They were constantly evolving. That creative envelope was always being reshaped and pushed further.
Music is an extremely complex woman. You fall in and love with her, you break up, you make up, and when familiarity breeds either contempt or boredom, you take on a mistress thinking she might bring you somewhere else. This is often helpful as it either moves you along a different path or makes you come to your senses and return home after a mild flirtation.
A few months ago, I was listening to “Work” by Rihanna and pulled myself towards working with musicians or, rather, engineers, capable of taking me in a new direction- anywhere except an intro, two verses, a chorus, a bridge, repeat the chorus, change key, and bludgeon that chorus.
This way of songwriting had begun to bore me- and even the lyrics were written to just fill in the blanks. But after a few meetings with various “beat meisters”, there was something missing: There was no song that was a story. And then came “7 Years” by Lukas Graham. Denmark has a history of producing some great bands- Kashmir, Mew, Nephew who should have been huge etc. But, for one reason or another, the most successful exports have been Aqua and Michael Learns To Rock, both of whom conquered Asia.
Signed to Warner Music might give Lukas Graham a head start. Some years ago, that “graduation” from the local Copenhagen Records to signing with Sony Music in the land of leverpostej, herring, cheese, and Restaurant Noma never took the bands further than Norway and Sweden and an appearance at the Roskilde Festival. Here’s hoping Lukas Graham buck this backward trend and succeed where some excellent bands from Denmark have sadly fallen by the wayside.