As Frank Zappa felt compelled to report a long time ago, “Jazz isn’t dead; it just smells funny.” Perhaps it’s time to say something similar about pop music. It isn’t dead. It doesn’t even smell bad, for the most part – or not to these nostrils. But bits of it do seem to have fallen terribly still.
“Do you fancy coming with me to see Elton John?” asked my friend Craig.
This was back in November 2018.
“When is it?” I said.
“November 2020,” he replied.
Two whole years away! Even by the regal standards of the globe-girdling A-list megatour, this scheduling seemed to be taking an unusually nonchalant attitude to the tides of time. It also, I’ll be honest, rather snookered me. The truth is, I didn’t particularly fancy seeing Elton John. Not that I don’t care for him. Everyone cares for Elton John at least a little bit, don’t they? At any rate, anyone who says there is no Elton John song that hasn’t spoken to them at some point in their lives is either fibbing or forgetting something or entirely uninterested in music. Probably everybody ought to see Elton John once.
But I had seen him – at Earl’s Court in the 1990s, when, actually, to my immense disappointment, he performed on a plastic keyboard. What? No grand piano? For me, this represented at least as much an abandonment of core principles as Bob Dylan strapping on an electric guitar at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1966 – my own personal “Judas” moment, if you like, not that I shouted it out on the night.
I did feel I had ticked Elton off the list, though. Did I really need to see him again? In a tiresomely inaccessible Enormodome in Greenwich? At £103 per ticket? And in two years’ time? But what’s the etiquette when someone asks you to do something with them 24 months later? Like receiving one of those devious “save the date” instructions – in this case, “save the date and then some” – the set-up drastically narrowed my wriggle room. I could hardly say I was busy.
“Be great,” I said.
So I stumped up and went back to my life. As the ensuing months went by, the prospect of going to see Elton John was something I continued to feel more or less indifferent about. Craig and I filled some of the gap by going to see Hall & Oates at Wembley Arena and Lianne La Havas at the Barbican. 2019 passed and 2020 arrived. Winter once more became spring. Elton’s show, if not imminent, was at least now dimly discernible on the horizon.
But then, of course, Covid struck, and, in March, England belatedly followed the rest of Europe into lockdown. Large gatherings were abandoned. In July, Craig forwarded the email he had received from Elton John, addressed to “all my dedicated fans”. Not unexpectedly, the November 2020 show was postponed a year, to November 2021.
Which, at the time of writing – October – is close enough to touch. Except that last month Elton apologetically announced that he had injured his hip in a fall during the summer and the concerts he initially postponed to November 2021 would, with regret, have to go back again – this time to 2023.
Now, the exact dates have yet to be confirmed. But three years after I was two years away from seeing Elton John, it would appear I am once more two years away from seeing Elton John. And assuming that 2023 date holds firm, fully five years will have elapsed between me buying a ticket for this show and actually getting to watch it. It’s probably a good job I was never actually bursting to see Elton John. By now I would formally have burst.
Five years, though: think how much happens in pop music in five years. Or used to, anyway. Just imagine, for example, you had bought a ticket in 1963 for one of The Beatles’ Christmas shows at Finsbury Park, and as a result of unforeseen circumstances, you had been left holding that ticket until the end of 1968. By that point, the fresh-faced Fab Foursome who had set your feet a-tapping with their poptastic smash ‘She Loves You’ would have conquered America, grown beards, retreated into a studio, invented the concept album, discovered they didn’t like each other as much as they thought they did, and begun quietly sounding out lawyers. Moreover, any imminent concert action would be taking place fleetingly on a windy London rooftop before the police arrived to shut it down.
Or say it was the beginning of 1970 and you had bought tickets to see Fleetwood Mac, because you rather warmed to their unashamedly beardy, three-guitar British blues vibe. But circumstances intervened and you didn’t get to see them until 1975. By that time, none of those three guitarists you liked would be in the band any more and Fleetwood Mac would have turned into a folk-pop group with a number one album in America and two women on vocals.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that life simply came at you faster in the past. Or certainly that pop music did. Five whole years? A 1976-style punk revolution could blow up, peak and subside more than twice over in such a period – though it doesn’t look likely to on this occasion, even once. Indeed, by contrast, all that we ask of our pop heroes in 2021 seems to be basic survival. Again, imagine a promoter in ’63 telling the 21-year-old Paul McCartney, “Yeah, the postponement’s a bit of a drag, but don’t worry about it, Paul. All you’ve got to do is stay alive for the next five years. People will still come.”
Craig and I will wait, I guess. What else are we going to do? We’ll wait and we’ll hope, because Elton – a sprightly, clear-eyed, spring chicken of 71 at the point at which we bought our tickets – will be 76 and a half in November 2023 and he’s recently had a fall. And without wishing to put too fine a point on it, this is what started happening with my mother, and very soon after that she had to go into a care home, and then… but that’s another story. The point is, after a certain age, none of us can afford to take too much for granted. Or, as Craig put it – a little unsympathetically, I felt – “By the time we get to see this show, he’ll be appearing as a hologram.”
But, even then, we would probably still go. After all, the prospect of travelling to witness digitally generated protagonists doesn’t seem to be putting anybody off next year’s ABBA shows. Nevertheless, part of oneself heaves a quiet sigh. From the perspective of the 50-something gig-goer, it’s hard not to form the impression that pop music is now an almost completely moribund cultural form. What was once a raging, white-water torrent of creativity, washing us breathlessly from one movement to the next, is now a kind of sheltered pond on which we potter about at leisure, taking our more or less predictable – and more or less longed-for – pleasures.
Ah, well. It’s probably more relaxing this way. No hurry, then, Elt. See you in 2023. Assuming we’re all spared.
Giles Smith is the author of the memoir Lost in Music. In the 1980s he was a member of the pop group The Cleaners from Venus, who began to enjoy lasting cult success pretty much the moment he left. He first wrote for Tortoise in 2019.
Photograph by Alejandro Garcia/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
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