On the 1975, LCD Soundsystem, and Popular Memory in Pop Music
One of the reasons we as music fans should pay attention to history is so we don’t get all worked up when something fucked up happens. For example, the whole Harlem Shake thing can be read as something startlingly innocuous when you think about exactly what Pat Boone did to black music in the fifties. As Questlove pointed out, the out-of-sync sound of The 20/20 Experience can be explained by Justin Timberlake not wanting to make a career choice that would be historically analogous to one Michael Jackson made. U2 sold out more suckily and overtly than Kings of Leon or whoever could have possibly hoped to. The point of all of this is that all shit is informed by other shit, even when it’s not.
Enter The 1975, a good, very young band from Manchester, England. As of now, their most famous song by a fairly wide margin is called “Sex.” What’s particularly interesting to me about this song is that it basically sounds like what would happen if a bunch of dudes from the northern part of England were to try to turn LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” into a late-period Kings of Leon song. The band has played up their allegiance to American R&B in the past, but ultimately their main formula seems to be to ape the style of recently popular bands and then wash them in a bath of reverb and pretty much everything that signifies "Big Rock Music" in these troubled times. That’s not a sleight against them at all, however: late-period Kings of Leon is way better stadium rock than we deserve, and in The 1975’s native UK there’s not really that much of a divide between the notions of “mainstream” and “indie” (at the risk of being severely reductive, this nearly entirely the fault of Morrissey). In short, The 1975 sound like they should be in a stadium because they’re fast-tracked to be.
Anyways, back to “Sex.” The first lyric is, “This is how it starts,” and lead singer Matthew Healey mimics the cadence of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy for the first bit of the track as he and the rest of the band does this kind of halfassed approximation of the pace/backbeat of the LCD song. “All My Friends” begins with a nearly identical phrases and the way Murphy delivers it makes it one of the great opening lyrics of our time—Healey is drawing upon the lyric's power and iconic nature to let you know you're in for something big. If you’ll recall, one of the main draws of LCD Soundsystem was their gift for curation of influence and Murphy’s knack for tasteful, well-orchestrated pastiche. A lot of the fun of listening to the band came from being able to pick out the exact spot within the hipster canon from which Murphy was cribbing. Which is all to say, for a guy who made original songs, James Murphy pretty much lived and died by his record collection. “All My Friends,” it should be noted, pretty much nicks a bassline and a backbeat from New Order’s “Age of Consent.”
I’m not accusing The 1975 of having never listened to New Order; that’d be silly because as a band named The 1975, they’re very obviously concerned with older things. However, I am gonna call them on pickpocketing a line from LCD because that shit happened. So what does it mean? Well first off, it means that bands are now being influenced by bands I managed to absorb the entire discography of in the natural course of my adolescence, which makes me feel old. More importantly, it raises the question of, “What happens when musicians crib from those who crib?” Will pop become an ouroboros? Are we doomed, in seven years, to have a wave of bands influenced by Foxygen?
This is where history comes back in. This type of shit happens all the time, where artists are influenced by/borrow/steal from one another in a double helix of appropriation that weaves in and out history for perpetuity. Musicians who are influenced by The Police might have never heard a Specials song; rap fans who don’t give a fuck about Bob James and “Nautilus” probably think RZA’s beat for Ghostface’s “Daytona 500” beat is just a muddied up take on Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.” It’s fine. Musical lineage will always be important, and it will be there for those who care. But just because someone should be paying attention to something doesn’t mean they are—there is no standardized test that one must pass to create art, and ultimately, creative people are going to make creative music and idiots are going to make music that sounds derivative. Regardless of where they think they got that backbeat from.
Drew Millard likes rock music he swears. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard