The lights dim and the voices drift into a murmur, gradually ebbing down to silence. Your dope-addled, mushroom-fogged eyeballs swivel in their bloodshot sockets to face the stage – a splintered, make-shift contraption of knock-off wood and bent nails. As a thick layer of smoke curls across the stage, that you would have thought was coming from a smoke machine if only they existed in 67′, must be a lit roach in a bin somewhere! Some helpful hippy pours his pint into the smoking bin with a hssssss extinguishing the potentially devastating fireball in a curl of damp smoke.A Band of Gypsys take to the stage in outlandish outfits – flamboyant greens and yellows and bright waistcoats – most attention has been converted from the bar to the would-be stage now, as people are keen to see just who this yankee negroe thinks he is, comparing himself to ‘Cream’. You decide the gig will probably be pretty stale, after all, this negroe has to top off ‘The Who’ for a support act, and you saw ‘Big Brother & The Holding Company’ yesterday – what could possibly compare to that?
As you start to hum the opening chords to ‘Piece of My Heart’ a tall man takes to the microphone, wearing a large top-hat and strangely coloured, lanky clothes, his head is crowned with a wild and unruly afro – he puts you in mind of the Wizard of Oz – you’re mulling this over, contemplating, when… Jimi Hendrix straps on his piece and blows your already disjointed mind to shattered fragments with the apocalyptic opening chords to his version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, and, like a hit of good, powerful Sunshine acid, you’re screwed to the spot for the next two hours, as your mind adapts to this futuristic sound you never knew could exist! Like seeing a colour you’ve never seen before!
By the time he closes with ‘Voodoo Chile’ your nerves are frazzled, your eyes are frozen wide, and every little hair on your body stands to the attention of each slide of Jimi’s pick, like rats pricking up to the sound of the Piper’s fiddle. What the hell did I just witness!? Did history just happen there? The monumental click of the universe fitting into place?? Or the birth of something revolutionary? You don’t know for sure, but either way, you know your life has been changed, in some small way, forever, the world (with the help of the acid) has become a thoroughly illuminated place – bright shards of golden inspiration shine everywhere, nothing has happened of this magnitude since Lennon first decided to drop a hit and pen a song, or Dylan chose to strap on the electric and rock out!Then, Mr. Hendrix closes his act by setting fire to his instrument in a twisted sort of voodoo tribute to The Who’s set, and proceeds to make the flames dance and leap, seemingly controlled by his hand gestures – like string puppets, his fingers twiddle out intricate little patterns, like the incantations of some witch doctor or majestic sorcerer, it is the climax to an already climatic show. A tsunami-like wave of awe floods over the crowd’s faces, and the wave breaks and is returned back and lavished onto the stage via the fixated glare of 90,000 stunned LSD freaks.
So did the audience of that fateful gig in 67′ really shuffle out of that concert like they had been struck by a bolt of lightning direct from God himself? Or is that just the way it seems, 46 years later, through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia? What I’m saying is, did the crowd at that gig realise at that point in time, in that sunny corner of the world, that they were experiencing a little piece of history? A key moment in rock legend. Or did it only become apparent a few months, or decades later with hindsight, as an afterthought? Or indeed is the whole thing muddied by the passage of time, and reflected upon now as a slightly exaggerated account of a ‘pretty decent night, with some pretty good bands?’
Surely not, surely there must have been an overwhelming notion, a sense that night, that whatever they were doing was right? That there was some mystical force at work beyond the comprehension of human reflection? And if so, why doesn’t it happen now? Or does it happen? And we just don’t realise it? Until forty years down the line, when our hair is wispy, our teeth are in a glass, and our Sunday dinner is in the blender – and we notice they’re making some epic rock series out of bands like – Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Greenday, Franz Ferdinand – and their outstanding contribution to the 17 Ages of Rock! And you think Hey! Yeah! I was at that gig, and it was awesome!!! Then you get too excited and can’t go to the toilet for another six days – and the spectre of legend floats slowly into place – as told, in the year 2040, by a bunch of twenty-something art students from Liverpool, interviewing Dave Grohl, Billie-Joel, Flea and co. who are trying desperately to claw through the shrouded mists of their drug-stricken, dope-sick, coke-fried minds, to recall a day, some forty years ago, they took to the stage at T in the Park 2007 and blew the roof off! But they were so wasted at the time, they now can’t recall a single second of the whole affair!If we do realise these things are happening, when they are happening, then that is saddening, because it means it just doesn’t happen anymore. And if we don’t realise they are happening, then that is equally alarming because it defeats the whole purpose of being there in the first place! You want to have been at that monumental concert in time for more than just the ability to say ‘I was there!’ and an old worn-out ticket stub (if you’re lucky!).
I find it difficult to imagine bands like the ones we’ve had over the past decade or so are going to become the stuff of legends – Spice Girls? Westlife? Kasabian? Kaiser Chiefs? – not exactly the stuff of myth! So let’s look to the heavier, more rocking bands of present – Marilyn Manson, Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, etc. Perhaps they are the icons of tomorrow? Pah! I doubt it! I mean they’re good in their own right, but I’ve seen all those aforementioned bands live, and I doubt it compares to the tingle-down-the-spine performances of Hendrix, and The (young) Rolling Stones – or like I’ve said before, perhaps that is what it felt like – you just don’t realise it.
Maybe we can look to the more underground bands of today to martyr themselves on the spear of fame – NOFX, Rancid, Lagwagon, Bad Religon, though these bands are currently unheard of in the mainstream world, connected to their (understandable) reluctance to be included in anything popular or commercial, maybe they’ll rise to the surface – thirty years after they’ve long since disappeared into obscurity, or killed themselves off with drugs – to become the long-forgotten, heavily overlooked kings of rock – they deserve to be – Who knows? Perhaps death is the major catalyst for legendary recognition as in the cases of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Hendrix and Cobain.
Perhaps you could argue that the reason for the serious lack of idols – is that these days, everything has been done before, and nobody can be truly original, no-one can come up with anything because there is nothing else to come up with! Every genre seems to have had its day – blues, country, rock, punk, metal, ska, reggae, pop, nu-metal, brit-pop, they’ve all had their eras, their 15 minutes! Although I admit it begrudgingly – the last great musical revolution was with Oasis, and the slightly more likeable Blur, and before that, Nirvana, The Pixies, predecessed by Happy Mondays, Joy Division. All the above genres just continuously travelling off the backs of one another – punk morphing into metal, reggae morphing into ska, blues morphing into classic rock, and so on and so forth, but all that comes off the back of the so-called ‘bands’ of today is an endless cycle of vomit, spewing out the same undigested bull for the past 20 years and showing no sign of cease. Even all the muppets of yesteryear’s terrible scenes are rising from the dead. The resurrections of Take That and East 17, not long before New Kids on the Block will be at it too! Just when we thought we had been spared that terrific noise and it was safe to go back into the water, Boyzone reform, taking a bite out of your head!
So this brings us back to the speculation of there being nowhere left to go in terms of musical creativity. Well frankly that’s just horsesh*t! Evident when you hear bands like Against Me, Transplants, Common Rider, Leftover Crack and the RX Bandits, mish-mashing styles, and mixing up genres to come up with refreshing styles and ceaseless original-sounding hits. The well of creativity runs deep, byt take too much water from a well and it runs dry. When The Stones wrote Paint It Black was that one less tune for the rest of us to write? Will future musicians run out of sounds to create?Obviously there’s more to a song than just tune, there’s melody, rhythm, texture etc. By tune we mean a short composition maybe thirty notes in length, so with that in mind here comes the maths bit, bare with it, it’s worth it…Mathematically, a tune is a sequence of notes and the set of all possible such sequences forms a phase space; a conceptual catalogue that contains not just all tunes that have ever been written, but all the tunes that could possibly ever be written! How big is Tune-space? Naturally, the answer depends on just what we are willing to accept as a tune – it has been said that a monkey jabbing randomly at keys on a typewriter will eventually produce Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, and that’s true if you’re willing to wait longer than the total age of the universe! It’s also true that along the way the monkey will have produced an incredible amount of Fifty Shades of Grey-style ‘novels’. In contrast, a monkey pounding on a piano will actually hit on a reasonable tune every so often, so it looks as though the space of acceptably tuneful tunes is a reasonable-sized chunk of the space of all tunes. So here’s where we bring in the mathematician – a calculator.
…To keep it straightforward, we’ll consider only Western music based on the twelve note scale. Whether played on a guitar, keyboard or a triangle, all that matters is the sequence. We’ll ignore whether the note is played loudly or softly and we’ll ignore timing. We’ll restrict the notes to two octaves – 25 notes altogether. Of course all these things are important in real music, but if we take them into account their effect will be to increase the variety of possible tunes – our answer will be an underestimate, and that’s all right cos’ it will still turn out to be huge! Really, really huge!
For our immediate purposes only then, a tune is a sequence of thirty notes or fewer, each chosen from 25 possibilities, so the number of sequences of 30 notes is 25 x 25 x 25 (with 30 repetitions of that), calculator whispers in my ear that the answer is
which has 42 digits. Adding in the 29 note tunes the 28 note ones and so on we find that Tune-space contains roughly nine million billion billion billion billion tunes. Assume that a million Beethovens write music for a thousand years, each producing a thousand tunes per year, then the total number of tunes they would write is a mere trillion. This is such a tiny fraction of the 42-digit number above, that those composers will make no significant dent in Tune-space at all! Nearly all of it will still be unchartered territory!
Agreed, not all of the unexplored landscape will be good tunes, among its produce is heinous things like Boyzone and Justin Bieber, nevertheless there must be an awful lot of good new tunes still waiting to be invented – if all of humanity had been writing tunes since the Dawn of Creation and went on doing it til’ the universe ended, we still wouldn’t run out of tunes!
……so maybe, just maybe, there is hope yet, maybe this rotten race of worms still has a few good musical revolutions up their sleeve, before I get too old, and until then, this music journalist will continue working hard to find new-sounding bands and fresh sounding records, with my fingers crossed, just waiting, hoping, maybe even praying, for the next Jimi Hendrix – the next messiah of rock, to descend from the apocalyptic skies and blow our minds!
Chris Herron, 21st February 2013
References: Science of Discworld Vol.2