Friday, December 05, 2014

The best pop records are essentially stupid

"Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has 'em play as stupid as they possibly can."
That's the late Nashville drummer Kenny Buttrey on Neil Young in Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough.

When Sting first played "Every Breath You Take" for Stewart Copeland the drummer couldn't believe that he wanted him to play anything quite so simplistic. That's why his playing on the record has the exact "I can do this in my sleep" feeling that makes it work.

Similarly Hugh Cornwell told me that Jean Jaques Burnel refused to play on The Stranglers "Golden Brown" because he thought it was just too stupid. (Didn't prevent him taking 25% of the publishing.)

Musicians are naturally drawn to complexity. Humans, on the other hand, like things simple, which is another reason why they always prefer the musicians' earlier records to their later ones.


  1. I play in a grandad country band, and finding a drummer who is not trying to hit all his drums as many times as possible is hard, but necessary.

  2. It's interesting that improvement in a writer (technically, at least) is usually regarded as them achieving a greater economy of expression, a more concise use of language. Rock musicians, however, are expected (usually by critics) to demonstrate "progress" with each release, with the expectation of increasing complexity and sophistication that that implies.

  3. fair enough but there's simple and there's simple.
    I can listen too The Stranglers' relaxing, meditative 'Golden Brown', sit back and float off.

    But when I hear Ann Lee's simple demented nursery rhyme 'Two Times' I feel as if I'm trapped on a psychopathic fairground waltzer that won't stop. It will never stop!

    Very stressful.

  4. Anonymous9:54 am

    You'll always get a bit of that with Copeland, a technically fascinating drummer and a personally bolshy bastard. (Then again, so were all of The Police, which made them burn bright.)

    Harder to fathom Burnel's antipathy to Golden Brown - it's not as if there was a surfeit of pop singles in the baroque style with a chorus in 13/4 time.

  5. Gary - I didn't realise Andy Summers was Bolshy. I'd always seen him as very much the Luke Warm Water in the Sting-Copland, Fire and Ice dynamic. But I could be wrong.

  6. Anonymous3:49 pm


    Perhaps bolshy is the wrong word, and he'd have to be a towering egomaniac to match his fellow Policemen in that respect. A lot of ego untrammelled in that band; there may (already?) be a thesis in the nature of three-sided relationships compared to those within a four-piece, wherein the band can safely switch between pairs and perhaps prompt greater longevity.

    Anyway, Summers may be a walk in the park compared to Copeland and Sting, but his autobiography acknowledges his own, erm, issues: Record Collector's review says he "leaves no stone unturned, even at the risk of casting himself in a less than flattering light".

  7. "Musicians are naturally drawn to complexity. Humans, on the other hand, like things simple"

    Is that the reason why jazz is loved by more musicians than non-musicians?

  8. I'm sure we've all heard it before but I will say it anyway. Rock music is three chords played to thousands of people, jazz is thousands of chords played to three people.

  9. As the great Pop Philosopher professor Pete Waterman once said, there are only three subjects for great pop music: 1. I love you. 3. I hate you. 3. Please come back.

  10. “Humans, on the other hand, like things simple, which is another reason why they always prefer the musicians’ earlier records to their later ones”.
    Well, yes, people often prefer the early work. I do. Usually. But I really don’t think “simple” is part of the equation.
    I know it’s sacrilege and clearly shows what a barbarian I am, but I’d rather listen to the first two Beatles albums than any of the others. I do listen to the others; I like ’em all. But, Beatles fan though I am, favourites are favourites. No explanations (I don’t have any) it’s they way it is. Although, to repeat, I’m pretty sure that “simple” doesn’t have anything to do with it.
    As for “Aja” and “Gaucho,” give me “Can’t Buy A Thrill” anytime.
    Phew. Like I said: Barbarian.