Cross Generational Music Appreciation

By James Wallace Harris, March 14, 2016

In his new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook begins by telling how his young son took over the car radio during their morning ride to school. Seabrook loves music and wanted his son to love his music, but the kid was adamant that he wanted his own music. I remember doing this to my dad back in the late 1950s. I’m sure all of us have been on both sides of that divide of music generations. Seabrook decided to get into his son’s music, and ended up writing a fascinating book.

How much cross generation listening goes on? Don’t most people bond with the music from their teenage and college years and then essentially stop listening to new stuff when the next generation annoys them with their music? In recent years though, I’ve noticed that some kids have embraced a few bands, songs and albums from my generation, the 1960s. I belong to their grandparents’ times. Are these kids rebelling against their parents’ by listening to the music their parents rejected?

My generation (who knew the Who could be so prophetic) has become terribly nostalgic for music history, seemingly to never tire of documentaries like, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Searching For Sugar Man, Atlantic Records, and Respect Yourself: The Stax Years. Just last week I watched documentaries on Fats Domino and Carole King. I’d watch more if I could find them. It’s funny, but this music is the one bridge I have with my Fox News watching conservative friends. We hate each other for our politics but commune over music.

But if I tell my peers I have Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj on my playlists they laugh at me. But if I tell them I’ve been listening to Ronnie Spector or Dionne Warwick it sparks a memory fest. And if tell them I’m been playing Peggy Lee or Lena Horne, a few of them will perk up. Among my music loving buddies who do cross generations, they generally travel backwards. I guess the young people I meet with Jimi Hendrix T-shirts are traveling backwards in time too. I don’t know why older folks look down on the music of younger generations. I have a number of friends who stopped listening to new music around 1975, and no matter what I play for them, I can’t seem to get them to move forward in time.

That’s a shame because musical creativity didn’t stop in the 1970s. Seabrook writes specifically about pop music (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Rihanna, KPOP, American Idol, Denniz Pop, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Ester Dean) and how they make hits with computers and teams of creative personnel that collaborate with the performing artist. There are no singer-songwriters here. No bands that play all their instruments. Producers are the emperors of the studio, hiring up to a dozen people to write a song. But wouldn’t that be true back in the Motown era if everyone who added anything to a song got credit? The Song Machine was absolutely fascinating to me, even though I’m not from that generation. It annoys me that my friends won’t give new music a chance, and probably refuse to read this book.


All this cogitation about cross generation listening has made wonder about many things. How do kids today choose what they listen to from past generations? And why? Are they mesmerized by tunes in movies and end up chasing them down? Have they found LPs at Granny’s or Goodwill, which inspired them to dig up an old record player, curious about the tunes on those strange black discs? This morning I was wondering why young people remember The Beatles, but not The Byrds. Is there any reason for one generation to remember the pop culture from another generation? Has classic rock become the elevator music of today, and Beatles songs became ear worms boring into young brains? Do they teach The Beatles in school? Maybe kids clicked past nostalgia shows on PBS and got hooked. I don’t know what percentage of today’s generation discover old music, but is there any reason to expect them know about my music, or even like it? And why don’t I ever hear them express their love for The Byrds—my favorite band from the 1960s?

Mr Tamborine Man - The ByrdsTurn Turn Turn - The Byrds

At the moment I’m listening to a collection of 1950s songs on Spotify because I caught an episode of American Masters on PBS about Fats Domino. One thing I didn’t know, Fats was as popular as Elvis for a short while during the 1950s, but people now remember the 1950s belonging to Elvis. That makes me think there are some people like me, who remember their decade of music differently. I hardly play The Beatles anymore, but I play music from the 1960s constantly. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Motown, San Francisco rock and pre-1965 Brill Building pop dominate my memories. If I made list of my favorite songs, I bet there would be a couple hundred songs from the 1960s at the top of my list before I even listed my first Beatles tune.

And I loved The Beatles, but I loved other artists from the 1960s more. Should I encourage young people to discover their music? Should schools teach 1960s music like they teach classical music in music appreciation courses? As I got older I sought out popular music that came out before the 1960s, going back into the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and even the 1920s. I crossed genres into jazz, country, big band, folk, pop, world, opera and classical. I suppose some of the kids who are discovering The Beatles are doing that today.

Fifth Dimension - The ByrdsYounger Than Yesterday - The Byrds

When does pop culture become history? When does memory become nostalgia? They used to play Fats Domino songs like I’m listening to as I write on the weekends in 1962, on WQAM and WFUN, and called them “Oldie Goldies” even though they were less than ten years old. Now they’re over sixty. People from my generation go to concerts today performed by acts they grew up with, even though those artists are even a generation older than us. I’m not keen on seeing dinosaur rock. I love remembering those performers when they were young, vibrant and in their times. On Facebook I have friends who post photos from parties where they act like they are still in high school. That’s cool. But should they listen to some new music too? It’s really hard to give up the pop culture that imprinted on us as teens.

I’m not sure there are reasons to require listeners to cross generational divides. When I watch “People Are Awesome” videos on YouTube I realize the current generation have plenty to keep them busy, more than I ever had. Now is always more important than the past—or the future. On the other hand, I’ve switched from Fats to “Jealous” by Ester Dean, playing it over and over. It’s definitely not from the 1950s! I’m too old to live in the times in which this song belongs, but Dean’s voice and melody touches my heart in a way that I wish I could.

Nortorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo - The Byrds

Do the young today long to visit my era in the same way I wish I could be young now? The Beatles were tremendously exciting, but were they more exciting than the groups now? Why are the sounds of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane still siren calls that hold me back in time? If I stopped listening to the songs that tie me to the past, could I modernize my brain by only playing new songs on Spotify?

I often think about my future when my body will be fading out of existence and my mind barely floats in reality. I’ve often thought listening to music on headphones while I die would be a great way to go. Will I be listening to seventy year old songs? More and more, the songs on my main Spotify list are newer ones. I play my tunes on random play. Will I leave reality hearing 1965, or 2037? Wouldn’t it be weird if I lived long enough to live The Sixties again?


Whatever Happened To The Beatles?

When I was growing up, back in the 1960s, there was a band called The Beatles that was more famous than any other band.  From 1964 to 1969 they were always in the news, always on the radio, often seen on television, setting the pace for sixties pop culture.  You heard their songs everywhere, either ordinary folks just singing, or professionals covering their tunes.  I bought all their albums as they came out, with each new release a big occasion.   Then The Beatles broke up and everyone was sad.


Years later, when CDs came out, I bought all The Beatles albums again, but this time the albums were different from when their songs came out on LPs in the 1960s.  The CD albums were repackaged like they had been first released in England as LPs.  For a while, this brought The Beatles back into my life.  For decades when I listened to music it was by listening to CDs, and now and then I’d play The Beatles.  I still thought of them as the most famous band on Earth.

Starting many years ago I switched to Rhapsody subscription music, and after a few years to Rdio, and after another few years to Spotify.  I listen to streaming music at my computer, or when walking around with my iPod touch, or on my big stereo through my Roku connected to my receiver.  The Beatles have never been on streaming music.  As I slowly stopped playing CDs, The Beatles were forgotten.  Then they released their albums again on remastered CDs.  I bought them all except Yellow Submarine.  However, I didn’t even play all these new CDs because I’ve gotten out of the habit of playing CDs.  Some of those remastered CDS are  still in the shrink wrap.  Maybe I’ll get around to them eventually, but streaming music is my habit.

I’ve gotten so used to listening to streaming music that if I can’t add a song to my playlists, or call the album up when I think about it, it doesn’t get played.  So I don’t’ hear The Beatles anymore.  This year when they had all the 50th anniversary stuff it was fascinating to watch on TV.  That would have triggered memories and gotten me to add some of their songs to my playlists, if they had been available on Spotify, but since they weren’t, I haven’t.

I said to my wife, “I wonder what Beatles songs I’d add to my playlist if they were available?”  I never found out, because they still aren’t on streaming.

I have two sets Beatles CDs, plus all their songs ripped to my computer, and even uploaded to my Amazon Music and Google Music accounts.  Rhapsody/Rdio/Spotify has ruined me.  I now think of music as what I hear everyday from Spotify.  I sometimes get out my favorite albums I play on Spotify and play them on CD just to hear their better sound quality, but I don’t play The Beatles because I don’t remember them anymore.  My music world has become Spotify, and The Beatles are not part of that world.

I know people who still play The Beatles, not their CDs, but digital songs they’ve stolen or bought as singles.  Those folk are still stuck in the past of owning music.  Statistics show streaming music is catching on, and even the number of illegal downloads are down.  Sales of purchased digital songs are down too.  If stolen and bought songs are in decline, and renting is on the increase, when are people going to play The Beatles?

I wonder if other people are like me, and have forgotten The Beatles because their songs aren’t available via streaming music?  Well, new people who never knew The Beatles don’t even know what they are missing.  But for us old farts, it’s, “Whatever happened to The Beatles?”  It’s a new world out there when it comes to discovering and playing music.  Some bands are bucking the trend because of the money.  And I can understand that.  But music seems to be in two places now, either live or streamed.  Who plays albums anymore?  Or the radio?

Hey, whatever happened to The Beatles?

JWH – 7/10/14

Katy Perry vs. The Beatles

There is a kind of age prejudice in pop music that I’d like to explore.  When I was growing I thought Perry Como and Dean Martin were for over the hill folks, like my parents.  The Beatles and Bob Dylan defined my generation, even though older college kids looked down on us teens from their folk music purity.  And let’s not forget the smugness of classical music fans or jazz aficionados who sneer at three chord rock and roll from their hipster highs.

But I have to admit, we baby boomers are terrible music snobs.  Many of my generation stopped listening to music after 1975.  For people coming of age in the 1960s, The Beatles are the yardstick that all other pop music is measured.  To many of us the art of music has been in sharp decline since 1969’s Abbey Road.  But has the music declined, or just our youthful enthusiasm?

I’m now a generation older than my parents were when we all first watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan back in February of 1964.  The Beatles, The Byrds and Bob Dylan have become my Perry Como, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

When I tell friends my age that I’m listening to Katy Perry most of them do not have a clue to who she is, and if they do, they think of her as some kind of under-aged, under-dressed young woman who doesn’t really sing but flaunts her body to loud noise.  “Oh those girls don’t sing they sell sex.”  But what emotional response were all those screaming teenage girls buying when they heard:

Oh please say to me

You’ll let me be your man

And please say to me

You’ll let me hold your hand

Now, let me hold your hand

I want to hold your hand

Almost a half-century from when the Beatles sang to little girls, girl singers now dominate the pop charts, and sing songs like “Pearl,” that rebels against the tyranny of love and men,

Oh, she used to be a pearl, oh

Yeah, she used to rule the world, oh

Can’t believe she’s become a shell of herself

Cause she used to be a pearl

She was unstoppable

Moved fast as light, like an avalanche

But now she’s stuck deep in cement

Wishing that they’d never ever met

When we were young we were more than willing to accept the wisdom of Lennon and McCartney, who were no older than Katy Perry now.  Why, when we’re two or three times older than Paul and John in 1964, do we cling to their music and reject the artistic expression of today’s youth?  You’d think we’d be listening to something old and fuddy-duddy by now, like our version of Perry Como.  Do The Beatles sound square to the modern listener?

Do we all get stuck in our own teenage dreams?

Pop music has never been that deep and I don’t think Katy Perry’s album Teenage Dream is that different any of the Fab Four’s early LPs.  We are told Perry is involved with the writing of her songs, but that could be PR, but don’t the lyrics represent the young of 2010?  Her hit song “Teenage Dream” does not show the poetical sophistication of “Eleanor Rigby” but it’s sentiments are far more sophisticated than the early Lennon-McCartney love songs when they were her age.  Remember, in 1964, things were much more innocent than this video.

What does this say about this generation?  And what if you heard your answer back when you were a teen – don’t you sound like our parents?  My Mom and Dad hated The Beatles and thought they were vulgar, lacking in talent.  My father claimed they played noise.  But we thought The Beatles were cutting edge brilliant.  They expressed our desires and dreams – but don’t those dreams and desires seem so innocent and unsophisticated now?  Children under ten today love The Beatles.  Older kids want Jack White, whose anger is hard to fathom to us, but obvious to them.

Of course, I wonder if today’s high school and college kids are really more mature than we were?  The Beatles were living what we see in this Katy Perry video, we just didn’t see it.  And we were no angels either.

And if we graying baby boomers, now over the hill by our earlier philosophy of not trusting people over thirty, stop listening to twenty-something art, doesn’t that put us out of touch like we thought our parents were back then?

Or maybe pop music encapsulates every emerging generation, and the normal mature thing to do is to hate the music of young?

I listen to music like it’s a drug.  When all The Beatles albums were recently remastered I went out and bought most of them, but I only played them once.  Their potency as a musical stimulant has worn off.  But I’m playing the Katy Perry songs over and over again because they get me high with restless energy.  To me its new music that thrills.  As I’ve gotten older it’s gotten much harder to connect to the young, so I return to my old favorite albums, but it’s a nostalgic thrill, not a let’s go out and conquer the world defiant dance.

Just being current doesn’t make music powerful.  There is something else.  I think the powerful emotion I crave in music is the strong emotions of ambitious artists.  I think we loved The Beatles music because of the passion of John, Paul, George and Ringo to succeed.  And I think the reason Katy Perry is popular now is because of her passion to be on top of the world musically.  She expresses that desire in her song “Firework.”

Do you ever feel already buried deep

Six feet under scream

But no one seems to hear a thing

Do you know that there’s still a chance for you

Cause there’s a spark in you

You just gotta ignite the light

And let it shine

Just own the night

Like the Forth of July

Cause baby you’re a firework

Come on show ‘em what your worth

Make ‘em go “oh, oh, oh!”

As you shoot across the sky-y-y

In the song she is singing these sentiments to someone else, but she’s talking about herself.

JWH – 10/7/10

The Return of the Fab Four

So far I’ve purchased four of the remastered Beatles albumsBeatles For Sale, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.   The sound quality is amazing.  It reminds me of Super Audio CD (SACD) quality.   I can’t help but wonder what the remastered content would have sounded like on a real SACD disc, which has a sampling rate of 2822.4 kHz compared to 44.1 kHz for the CD, and the storage capacity of 7.95 GB versus the CD’s 700 MB.  Theoretically the difference should be a 7 on the Richter scale, but the reality of blind tests have shown most people can’t tell the difference, and this may be true of the new releases.  I can tell the difference, and I expect anyone who tries, should be able to hear significant differences clearly with the new productions.

To me, comparing the old CDs and the new, the remastered albums sound phenomenal.  The new sound is so clean, so bright that the musical instruments stand out with vastly more texture, and the Beatles’ voices have a richness that makes the old CDs seem faded and muddled.  However, the average person might go, “Ho-hum, what’s the big deal!”  So far reviewers haven’t said that, but I’m expecting some buyers to respond that way.

Evidently, a CD technically provides all the dynamic range that most people can hear.  To hear the difference between the first generation of Beatles CDs and the new remastered CDs, you’ll need to play them on a good stereo at home or in the car, and you’ll need to pay attention.  If music is just the soundtrack of your life played in the background while you bop through your routines, save your money and wait for the MP3 releases.  The new CDs come with colorful booklets, containing far more Beatles photos than the original albums, plus a good bit more background story for the album, but far less content than I was expecting, and each comes with a QuickTime “mini-documentary” – but I was disappointed here too, because “mini” is the apt description. (Here’s a portion of the mini-documentary from Beatles for Sale.)  I guess if they had included a longer film they would have had to cut down on the sonic quality of the music.  I own the wonderful Beatles Anthology so I was expecting the new on-disc documentaries to surpass that standard, whereas they appear to crib from it.

These are A+++ productions, but I was still wanting more from the extras.  I guess it’s bitchy of me to expect so much.  I was hoping each album would come with the definitive documentary, essay and photos that would totally capture for all time each album’s moment in history.  I just can’t get enough Beatles info at the moment.

Because the release of the remastered CDs and Beatles Rock Band are such a media event, I’m finding lots of wonderful reads – check them out:

JWH – 9/10/9

The Beatles 09-09-09

Hardcore Beatles fans are waiting for the the ninth day, of the ninth month, of the ninth year, of this new millennium for the remastered Beatles catalog to be released.  It’s been 22 years since the last reissue of the Beatles, when their LPs first came out on CD, when many audiophiles claimed those productions were botched. 

Could this be the stimulus package that the music industry needs to get people to buy CDs again?  My wife and I have been buying Beatles CDs again for the last year, getting them all except A Hard Day’s Night, so now we have to decide if we want to go and buy them yet again.  Of course we both bought all the LPs in our separate teenage lives in the 1960s.  And if we want, we can even buy the remastered CDs again immediately because they are also releasing a special second box set in mono.

Will modern kids who live and die by the iPod be anxious to buy sonically superior versions of the Beatles’ songs?  Especially considering that their collections are probably stolen now?  I can’t Help! but believe that EMI is expecting us Baby Boomers to pay the tab.  And will we?  Susan and I have opted not to get the box set immediately, but I plan to at least get A Hard Day’s Night.  I want to see just how good these remastered songs sound.

The real question is:  How many people still listen to CDs on a stereo system?  I do, and a few of my old fogey friends, but I think the number is dwindling.  I was one of the gullible who bought into the SACD (Super Audio CD) technology when it came out, just about the time the rest of the world was turning to MP3 music.  To really appreciate the quality of the new CDs, they need to be heard on a good stereo, or at least a good car CD player.

I know who will buy these new Beatles CDs, the same 3,000 folks Susan and I saw when we went to see Rain, A Tribute to the Beatles last June, a Beatles cover band.  The hall was full of Baby Boomers and their kids and grand kids, all seeking the perfect illusion of being at a Beatles concert, and damn if Rain didn’t bring a deep kind of nostalgic catharsis.  I recently saw Rain on PBS, and the illusion doesn’t work with TV.  I always thought it was a joke that people loved Elvis imitators, but now I know different.

In the 09/03/09 Rolling Stone magazine, they get Paul’s response to one of the recording engineers talking about the new digital production, “McCartney judges the reissues by an even higher standard, ‘It sounds like it did in the room when you recorded it.’”  The magazine even says the recording engineers on the project claim, “the digital version is indistinguishable from the masters.”  These new discs will be the closest we can get to time traveling back to the 1960s. 

However, they also quote Paul as saying, “I can listen to a record on the radio on the beach and it sounds OK to me.”  He goes on to explain that he and John were never audiophiles, and they originally recorded most of the songs in mono and let technicians make the stereo mixes.  But at the end of the piece they quote Paul again,

Now I hear John and think,’There he is,’ he says, Like, you can almost close your eyes and you can kind of see him, because the quality is so real.  So I like that about it.

Fans who don’t buy the remastered CDs won’t get that close if they listen to these new songs as MP3 downloads, but the quality still might be noticeably better.  I’m anxious for the Beatles’ catalog to appear on streaming music services like Lala and Rhapsody, so I can add their songs to my playlists.

I’ve been listening to my ripped Beatles albums at work and while I write on my blog this last couple of weeks trying to decide which of the remastered albums I will buy first.  Here are their albums in the order of their original British release.

  • Please Please Me
  • With the Beatles
  • A Hard Day’s Night
  • Beatles for Sale
  • Help!
  • Rubber Soul
  • Revolver
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  • Magical Mystery Tour
  • The Beatles (The White Album)
  • Abbey Road
  • Let It Be
  • Past Masters
  • Yellow Submarine

Strangely, I’ve learned that my taste in Beatles’ songs have changed over the years.  I used to think the later albums were their masterpieces, because of their studio sophistication and the kids had grown into mature artists, but now I’m wondering if The Fab Four were more creative when they were younger, and their songs were silly love songs.  My current favorite Beatles song is “I’m a Loser” from Beatles for Sale.  However, I can click anywhere in my 253 Beatles’ song collection and find tremendous creativity.  My friend Janis interrupted this writing with a phone call, and we chatted for a long time about the Beatles and I played the beginning of dozens of songs for her.  She could hear the beginning of the music, remember the words, and start singing the songs, which made me envious of her talent, because I can never remember words to any song but “Happy, Birthday,” and I sometimes stumble on its lines.  Susan also has perfect memory of words and melody.  I’m so jealous.

The Beatles are considered the musical giants of 1960s music, but there are so many songs from the 1960s that I love much more than any particular song the Beatles created, like “Downtown,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Eve of Destruction,” and so on.  Their collective catalog overwhelms, but they were mostly competing with one-hit wonders.  Look at their competition: 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969.

I wish some record company would remaster the hits of 1960s on month-by-month CD collections, with each set capturing the top 100 songs for that month.  Wouldn’t it be great to buy February 1964 and hear The Beatles invade the American music charts again, and hear their songs in context to their competition and inspiration.

Recently I finished listening to The Beatles by Bob Spitz, unfortunately an abridged audio book of a great Beatles biography, that has rekindled my Beatles-mania.  I plan to read the full version of the book someday and try to list and listen to all the songs mentioned that inspired the Beatles.  They loved the popular music of the 1950s, and they even named their band after Buddy Holly’s, The Crickets.  Bob Spitz must have interviewed hundreds of people for the biography, and I was most taken with the musical influences that create The Beatles.  An idea of what I’m talking about can be found on John Lennon’s Juke Box.

Another way to discover The Beatles is through The Beatles Anthology, an 8 part documentary from 1995.  Once you start learning about their history it becomes addictive.  I have no idea if young people have much of an idea of who the Beatles were.  An old joke twenty years ago was about a young women asking an older man, “Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”

With the release of The Beatles Rockband game and the remastered catalog of albums, will there be a new wave of Beatle-mania this September.  I hope so.  Ask yourself and your friends, “What are your favorite Beatles songs?”  I was surprised with what my friend Janis answered.  She remembered songs that I never think of, but when I listened to them, I thought, wow, I need to concentrate on these tunes for awhile.  It’s so easy to forget.

Maybe people don’t listen to CDs anymore, but they still listen to songs, so lets hope these reissues get the world to go nuts over the Beatles again.

JWH – 8/31/9

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