Elton John, David Bowie, and The Beatles. Three of the UK’s biggest ever musical exports all began their long and storied professional careers within a short space of time. In fact, all within the same year, 1962. In the 6 years that followed, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Cream and Led Zeppelin would all start their illustrious careers.
This is not an article about those times as much as it is about the current ones. Harping back to the glory days tends to not make for the most exciting, or interesting, writing. But sometimes events happen which permit us to take a step back and take stock; they give us perspective. The passing of David Bowie has become one such event. And one of the most incredible facts to emerge from that tragedy has been the realisation that, for all his uniqueness and flair, Bowie was only one of many amazing musicians to emerge from Britain in the 1960s; a collection of artists that to this day represent the core of British musical excellence.
What were the creative, cultural, social, and economic conditions that made that time period so fruitful? What has changed since then? A comparative look at the last decade-and-a-half is makes it startlingly clear that, whatever has changed, its changed a lot.
We don’t want to suggest that musical creativity doesn’t continue to transpire within British borders. But with that being said, we don’t seem to be producing artists with the same combination of creativity and consistency, innovation and longevity, as before. Who, amongst the artists that have risen to prominence in the last 15 years, could we see being remembered as hallmarks of British music? Who’s career might have the staying-power of The Who or The Rolling Stones? Our best-known artists are either safe bets (Adele), commercial products (One Direction), or have succumbed to themselves under the pressure (Amy Winehouse), while our best continued to be overlooked by the mainstream.
Why have we not produced a legendary artist like Led Zeppelin since the millennium? Maybe we’re all simply too distracted to develop talent quite like theirs. Maybe we just don’t care as much about the craft of music, or music as a whole. Maybe, technology and the internet means that we don’t need huge stars to promote creativity, and that the time for rock stars has passed. And what is the responsibility of the industry within all this? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we, as a population, are now satisfied by catchy tunes and temporary stars.
We don’t have all the answers, but its important to start asking the questions. The first one is whether we still want and need to be producing artists like those that emerged in the 60s. But I for one would submit that we do. These artists symbolise our collective desire to create, and represent the highest measure of our ability to connect with others. They set a bar for those who follow, and become sign posts for their cultures and generations. Nostalgia can be paralysing, but when used to better oneself, it can also be the most powerful tool for motivation and critical self-reflection.