Wednesday, 28 December 2016

We Really Need To Talk About ABBA & The Peculiar Nature Of Genius

We really need to talk about ABBA; I just need to get it off my chest. ABBA are, to me, the music equivalent of science's string theory (super trouper string theory, perhaps) - and what I haven't resolved since childhood is quite where ABBA belong in popular music's pantheon. The thing about ABBA is that they have this rather arcane qualitative thing going on whereby they are superior to the level they are required to be to produce the thing they are producing.

What I mean is, to make good pop you only have to be at the kind of Duran Duran, ABC, Supertramp, 10cc, the Bangles or Ace of Base level - a kind of n where ABBA are n+1, and where 1 = some obscure quality that outputs material that's superior to what it needs to be.

The sixties pop equivalent would be The Beatles n+1 where n is bands like The Animals, The Small Faces, The Hollies, The Monkees and the Spencer Davis Group. And the same with prog rock and Pink Floyd too. To be a decent prog rock band you only need to be Yes, Jethro Tull or Rush. Pink Floyd were far better than they needed to be - the n+1 to the others' n.

And for me what adds to the mystery of ABBA's high quality singles is that generally their album tracks are little more than mediocre filler. When other great bands make great songs you usually get a sense of their qualities from the other songs on the album too. Not so with ABBA - the brilliance of songs like Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me, S.O.S and Mamma Mia are not hinted at anywhere on their non-single tracks.

It's almost as if ABBA were a band with flashes of absolute brilliance trapped inside the body of a mediocre band, bursting out every now and then with enough inspiration to wow us with enough brilliantly arranged and executed pop singles to secure them a place in music's pantheon. They had bursts of genius without being anything close to geniuses.

On the subject of genius, I recall in his considerations of tonal and nagual art, William Burroughs saw the nagual as much more unmanageable in the sense that it was unpredictable and harder to creatively construct than the more predictable patterns of the tonal. The tonal universe is the more empirically predictable cause-and-effect universe, whereas the nagual is the less foreseeable, intractable elements of reality that burst through unannounced and linger beyond the radar of prediction. As Burroughs put it, "For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open"

Whether it be the painter with his formulae of form and colour applied to a canvas, or the writer with the formulae of words to paper, the true ‘genius’ of creativity was not thought to be in the person being creative, it was instead being continually re-crafted by tapping into something transcendent of the individual self - even if that transcendent thing could still be classified as human creation.

It ought to be noted that this wasn’t a scientific viewpoint, but an artistic feeling. Norman Mailer has suggested that William Burroughs was "possessed by genius" as opposed to ‘being’ a genius or even ‘possessing’ genius.  The dynamic spontaneity of ‘genius’ is nagual according to Mailer and Burroughs, and to be possessed ‘by’ genius is to tap into something altogether special – something that seems to find itself located in the collective nature of human minds, in that we share it and all in our own way seek to take possession of it, yet so often find it elusive. 
If this is the case about genius then the old maxim that genius is more about perspiration than inspiration probably has some mileage, particularly bearing in mind that the greater the output in terms of quantity, the more opportunities for the door of chance to be opened to let the nagual genius creep in.

Then again, if one looks at some very ungenius-like highly prolific artists in output - such as Paul Weller, The Fall, Tangerine Dream, The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen - one gets the impression that however long they keep trying they will never produce something of genius that's on a par with the really great artists.

One final point about greatness is that it so often requires the lens of retrospection to reveal its quintessence. For example, if you asked 1000 keen music fans at random in the UK which 3 albums from the 14 years of 1966 to 1979 they considered to be the best and most innovative, I think the range of different albums chosen would be narrower than if you asked 1000 keen music fans at random in the UK which 3 albums from the past 14 years (the noughties - the years 2003 to 2016) they considered to be the best and most innovative.

However, I suspect that if you asked 1000 keen music fans at random in the year 2050 which 3 albums from the years 2000 to 2013 they considered to be the best and most innovative you'd find the range of albums chosen probably would be as narrow as the current 1000 keen music fans choosing from the 14 years of 1966 to 1979.

I think that's probably because while there are more albums being produced in the modern era, there are fewer great ones - but also because people need a considerable passage of time to assess what makes an album really great, and today probably is too soon to assess the past 14 years with a proper consideration.