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Miscellaneous - Music, Morality and Economics

  by Jon Rogers

published: 13 / 3 / 2012

Miscellaneous - Music, Morality and Economics


Jon Rogers in 'Hitting the Right Note' examines fans' renewed forgiveness of their musical and other heroes, however deplorable their behaviour

Pennyblackmusic writer Mark Rowland made an excellent case in his recent column 'Rock 101' for the music industry taking a strong stance against the likes of Chris Brown when they have proven to have indulged in some bad behaviour. Not of the usual rock band high jinx of overdoing the drugs, drink, groupies and perhaps a bit of public exposure of the more intimate areas of their bodies. In Brown's case just downright illegal - a spot of physical abuse to his then girlfriend Rihanna. That's all well and good and his record label and his listening public should really tell him what they think of his actions. The unfortunate thing is they won't. And while the likes of Brown might very well deserve a taste of his own medicine it is unlikely to be dished up. As with all Art, not just music, listeners separate the personalities from the actual art created. Because a lot of musicians embody that Nietzschean role of the übermensch normal codes of morality just don't seem to apply when it comes to our musical heroes. Just because we might be appalled by some artist saying or doing something that horrifies us, that doesn't stop the majority of people still carrying on buying their records. Perhaps the best example is that of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. It's hard to deny the man changed the face of the genre several times and, arguably, made the best jazz record ever with 'Kind of Blue', one of my very own personal favourites. But should I destroy it just because I know that, well, as a person Davis was a complete shit of a human being. For a time whilst he was feeding his heroin habit he was basically a pimp, living off what would legally be called "immoral earnings". His treatment of musicians in his group was pretty appalling, often firing them without warning and treating them with little respect. Even Davis knew he wasn't a very nice man telling 'Newsweek' on 23 March 1970: "Put that down. Put it all down. And listen, don't you try to make me into a nice guy." That perhaps leaves the listener in something of a quandary. On one side here's someone who made some undeniably wonderful music. but on the other he's a very horrible man with little or no concern for others, which appals me. But is that going to stop me listening to his music? Probably not. The same stance could be taken over David Bowie and his seemingly flirtation with fascism. During his Thin White Duke phase - and perhaps not unimportantly whilst he was working his way through a mountain of cocaine - Bowie turns up at a London train station, utters a load of suspect tosh and seemingly makes a dodgy right-arm movement that looks rather suspect and seemingly endorsing the far-right. Bowie may have since disowned those actions and tried to say that isn't what he meant, but the seed of doubt has been sown. The far-right are particularly hideous so should I jettison albums like 'Hunky Dory', 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Low'. What about that Bob Dylan bloke, eh? He completely lied about his upbringing on many occasions that have since been shown to be a complete fabrication. So he's a liar. Biographers have noted that he'd often take records he wanted from the flat where a friend had let him crash for a while because he had nowhere else to go. That makes him a thief. And let's not forget the rather shabby treatment he doled out to Joan Baez. She'd given him a leg up and given him strong support in his early years, but once he found fame he didn't want to know her. Perhaps not illegal actions but certainly not a character trait this writer approves of. Right, out goes 'Blonde on Blonde', 'Bringing It All Back Home' and 'Blood on the Tracks' along with many others. And the list could go on and on. Ian Curtis, singer with the acclaimed post-punk band Joy Division may have been deeply troubled but as his wife relates in her memoir 'Touching from a Distance' he had an oppressive, controlling influence over her and was a supporter of the then Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The latter, admittedly not an illegal act but in my opinion should be. And don't forget about the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, Gary Glitter and James Brown. Add their to the pyre and watch 'em burn. And just how old was Mandy Smith when she caught the eye of one Bill Wyman? It's not just the pop and rock worlds that suffer from this either. Look at all the prima donnas in the opera world who thought that just because they had a wonderful voice they could treat everyone else as simply inferior. And she might have been a highly acclaimed cellist but Jacqueline du Pré didn't seem to mind having a 16-month affair with her brother-in-law. That's not something to be condoned, but to make matters worse she was married at the time too. Well done, Jacqueline, well done. Better chuck out those recordings too. And it's not just musicians too. Jonathan Richman may have noted that "no one called Pablo Picasso an asshole" but one of the world's most acclaimed painters was exactly that. The Spanish-born painter of 'Guernica' was a renowned 'swordsman' having numerous wives, mistresses and lovers - invariably at the same time. So perhaps I should never look at another painting by Picasso ever again. One of my favourite authors William S Burroughs, part of the Beat Generation writers who penned 'Naked Lunch', had some unsavoury views on women. Most notably writing 'Women: A Biological Mistake?' which was included in his collection of essays 'The Adding Machine'. Unless anyone has quite forgotten the world of top class Premiership, footballers is riddled with bad behaviour, admittedly adultery and using prostitutes isn't illegal nor is having an eight-year affair with your brother's wife, but people still go and watch their favourite team every week. And now Chris Brown has been added to this list of muppets who have all behaved badly at one time or another. So while both listeners and the music industry as a whole should perhaps make more of a stand and condemn this sort of behaviour, it won't. Simply because the listeners won't. In effect it is down to economics. As long as the artist can be exploited by the record industry and every last penny of profit can be squeezed out of them, they'll turn a blind eye to their less savoury personality traits and just carry on as before. And the fans won't stop listening to their records either. If everyone went and got rid of every record by every artist that had done something they found abhorrent or even of dubious morality then most of us would only have the birds to listen to in the mornings during the dawn chorus... Or perhaps Cliff Richard's back catalogue. Is the listening pleasure we gain from hearing a wonderful song or piece of music diminished in anyway if we know that the person who wrote or sang it may have an unsavoury and morally dubious history? In most cases cited above it would seem that the listener is only too eager to forgive their musical heroes. Until that changes it is unlikely the industry will take a tough line against those who misbehave. Better not kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs.

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