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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery ...

(September 28, 2009)

Over a summer of festivals and gigs there’s something that has begun to nag away at my brain with ever increasing insistency.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but why does it permeate music to such a degree, why does it persist and what prevents people from forming their own style? Occasionally lucky (talented) artists arrive with a unique approach, and eventually most develop their art - but sadly far too many don’t.

Of course the ‘cover band’ has been around for years and few of them pretend to be anything other than a copy of their chosen originator. I have excluded the exponents of that form of flattery from this debate - maybe next time.

The focus for this diatribe is those that turn imitation into emulation and never move beyond slightly sycophantic tinged mimicry. There doubtless comes a point when one decides to be a solo musician or a group of musicians decide to form a band. Initially, the strength of influence from a genre of their chosen musical style or styles catches their souls and there’s the genesis. Whatever the particular influence may be in the early days it inevitably makes itself heard through music and vocals.

Naturally there’s the hangover from what emerging musicians hear that invades what they write and play.

Pick up the early recordings of many well-known artists and bands and it appears that everyone tries at one time to sound like everyone else. Inexorably these musicians progress with their art. The need to write their own thoughts and their own music leads them away from that first ‘sound-a-like’ position. And even those especially admired songs that one keeps in one’s soul forever receive a new treatment, and sometimes become an ‘original’ version.

However, there remains an array of artists and bands that do nothing more than reproduce the sound of existing artists and bands; mostly by playing their songs without re-arrangement or variation. Indeed, some copy the work to such a degree that it can become hard to tell them from the original. This is nothing new, and neither is this reproduction confined to any one genre, however recently it appears to be more prevalent. And from my perspective it has become more widespread than ever in acoustic/ folk/ roots/ or ‘call it what you will’ music.

Goodness knows how many ersatz versions of ‘Streets of London’ crept out of the woodwork over the years as imitators followed Ralph McTell. Probably it’s as many as there were James Taylor look and sound-a-likes that dogged the heels of ‘Sweet Baby James’. There was no attempt to redefine. It was just ‘bang it out’ and hope the audience can’t tell the difference. There’s probably as many bands riding the coat-tails of every aspect of acoustic music as there are in pop, rock or whatever.

Then there’s the imitators that pretended and still pretend to be everyone from Ewan McColl and Martin Carthy to Maddy Prior and Sandy Denny. English folk and acoustic music is riddled with Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention ‘sound-a-likes’ – some good, some average, some dire. There are also many clones of Oysterband, Jethro Tull, Gaelic Storm, Albion Band ... And the list just goes on. Take old stagers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young – both with their own unique styles, like them or not. They carved out a niche in their chosen field. They have a right to their style. They have made it their own. I’m sure that when they started they spent some of their time copying or at least mimicking someone else’s style. But eventually they progressed and became themselves instead of wanting to be someone else.

Apart from those countable on the fingers of one hand (maybe two at a push) there are precious few new approaches among today’s acoustic and folk artists.

The desire to mirror leading artists by (usually badly) mimicking their style is on the rise. Of course, you may argue by citing the handful (or maybe two) that folk and acoustic music is vibrant, new and different. That’s true but a vast (and I do mean vast) number of bands I’ve heard in the last year or so leave their imitative roots exposed for all to see. And from previous experience of these artists over a few years they do not intend to progress or develop new branches from those old roots, which usually belong to someone else.

Possibly the uberglot of the Internet or the total absence of time and distance it creates has anything to do with this. Perhaps there is no more development because everyone hears everyone else and no one (or few) can exist in their own creative place without corruption. I think that it’s more than that I think it’s laziness. When I hear the new and the different it’s usually because the musicians involved have worked hard to define and refine their art. When I hear the ‘same-old same-old’ the reverse is always true.

Unless you subscribe to Frank Zappa’s view that ‘All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff’ then there is no reason to remain stuck in the creative mire of someone else’s thoughts.

Break free. Experiment, strive and perhaps fail.

But for goodness sake at least try.

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