I’m finally beginning to think about the preparation for a long-desired course on rock and popular music from 1970 to 2000. Although I listened to some rock music from earlier (The Who, The Beatles, The Monkees [!], Chubby Checker, Steppenwolf, and a few others), I only began to pay much attention to it in the 1970s, and even then I didn’t really get very excited by much of it until the later ’70s and ’80s—the synthpop invasion of the ’80s was my watershed moment, and I think that I knew something new was on the horizon (and also that what I had loved was over) when I first saw the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991.
My tastes are quirky—I experienced (in particular) the ’80s as it happened, before television and radio stations were dumbed down (in Clear Channel fashion) to play only the biggest-selling hits and rarely if ever play anything that was less known. (For instance, I’m shocked at the relatively narrow rotation schedules on the three Sirius channels devoted to these three decades.) And so I liked what I liked without knowing or caring how popular it was in the mainstream; I can remember many times staying up very late for some video show or another on TBS of MTV hoping that one of the obscure songs I liked would come on—and being disappointed more often than not.
I think if I were going to teach a course about this music I would want to have a good chunk of it (over half? more?) devoted to the so-called one-hit wonders of the era—for these delightful songs were often more surprising than the usual chart-topping fare. Likewise, some very established bands occasionally released songs that didn’t have a huge success, and these too were often, somehow, more compelling to me. Perhaps this is my temperament.
If I like one-hit-wonders and little-known songs by mainstream bands, however, I’m almost diametrically opposed to the classical equivalent, the Kleinmeister—composers who, if known at all, are known for only a handful of pieces, and who are regularly treated to mini-revivals by musicologists with too much time on their hands and university performers who want to carve out a niche for themselves in the agony of pre-tenure or the limbo before associate professors are finally promoted to full professor. There’s a small number of such works that I really think deserve to be better known: Sonata 5 in G Major from the Armonico Tributo of Georg Muffat (c.1645–1704), for instance, or (more recently) Change, by Judd Greenstein (b. 1979). Most of it, though (pieces by a dizzying array of Baroque and Classical composers and not a few nineteenth-century ones, too), is mercifully unknown today. The music they wrote was competent but eminently forgettable, unless and until performers of the first rank lavish their attention on it—I’m thinking, for instance, of Mahan Esfahani’s current interest in Jiří Antonín Benda (1722–1795) and possibly Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959); great performers make a difference.
I guess I’ve put my finger on the distinction in my mind between the one-hit wonder and the Kleinmester opus: the performers of one-hit wonders are themselves great performers, at least for that one song, and the songwriter, producer, and everyone else involved in making the record seem inspired—at least for that one song. And there’s a built-in freshness about the humble one-hit band, too; one doesn’t need to consider its entire catalog comparatively because there is no catalog. (Try evaluating Elvis Costello’s enormous output to single out the really great songs and you quickly find out how difficult it is.) I’m inclined to think that the most discerning listeners of pop and rock don’t simply follow the chart-toppers, but also sample more widely and have some of these more obscure works as favorites. Too often we’re made to feel ashamed of such ephemera; we call them “guilty pleasures.” But I don’t feel guilty, and I have a feeling that populating my course-to-be with such offerings will actually result in a more vivid experience for the students, not least because it gives them the chance to search for things outside of their comfort zones.
In addition to the Muffat and Greenstein pieces I mentioned above, I include two other obscurities: the one-hit-wonder Tee-Set, and their “Ma belle amie” (1970) and “The Lebanon,” by The Human League (1984). And for good measure, a nice cover of “The Lebanon¨ by a French indie artist, unTIL BEN.