My drive to work and back is just about two hours twenty minutes each day, sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more, and I have started listening to audio books as well as podcasts and music. I’m currently listening to ‘Life’, the autobiography of Keith Richards and he’s just finished talking about ‘Exile on Main Street’. One point he made about it is it’s longevity. It was released in 1972, 44 years ago, and people still listen to it and buy it. The recent expanded re-issue did very well. As with the Beatles, some teenagers today are discovering the Stones for themselves. This had set me thinking about what would I have been listening to if, as a teenager, I went back 44 years, what would I discover? What, if anything, had the longevity to present itself to me at that time?
In 1980 I was thirteen years old, so we have to go back all the way to 1936 for the same time span as ‘Exile On Main Street’. This makes me feel extraordinarily old, but it’s not like I was there, so the first track I found (I’m not expecting to find albums but songs) was ‘Summertime’ by Billie Holiday, which certainly stuck around and which has been covered many times.
There’s lots of Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Fred Astaire, quite a few more from Billie Holiday. There are lots of different people ‘and his Orchestra’ and Fats Waller. More interestingly, particularly as this look into the past was inspired by Keith Richards, we have Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy.
The musical landscape was quite different then. BBC television was launched in ’36 so there was no exposure to music for kids from TV, it was all from radio and there were only a couple of stations back then, controlled by the BBC, but there was Radio Luxembourg and by 1938 they had a bigger share of the 5 million listeners than the BBC, so, of course, laws were passed to try and prevent anybody but the BBC broadcasting and, of course, when the war broke out Radio Luxembourg was controlled by Germany.
There was also still a lot of sheet music sold. I seem to recall that the first music charts were based on sheet music sales and not records which I suppose made popular music much more social and family oriented.
I think it was the rise in popularity of Albums, which weren’t some singles and cover versions, but a collection of original songs, that brought about the longevity that Richards speaks of. There are, of course, albums older than ‘Exile on Main Street’ that still do well and are still being re-discovered, ‘Sgt. Peppers’ being an obvious suggestion, but also ‘Miles Davis’ with ‘Kind Of Blue’ which came out in 1959 and is still being re-issued now.
I can’t draw many conclusions by looking back that far. There was a lot of music that was released locally, in the US and they had local hits. Much of this could have been amazing, but it never hit the mainstream so here in England, all these years later, they are not just forgotten but never discovered.
I’ll leave you with that Billy holiday song, it’s wonderful.