Written by Pete Armitage
It’s the golden chalice of desire for most artists. The final frontier of self-actualisation. Only a very precious few can posthumously achieve such immortalisation of their contributions - perhaps the most elusive of treasures for the creator. Indeed, the material of such ‘legacy acts’ comprises the bedrock of our cultural landscape; the music that we play to our children - the music everyone loves. That which is timeless.
However, the delineation of musical legacy is complex and mysterious. What shared attributes do the classics have in common? How and why did such works connect with the audiences so well and continue to do so?
Take for example Aphex Twin. Somehow his music is adopted by the mainstream, adored by headsy tastemakers whilst simultaneously being a ‘gateway drug’ of sorts for newcomers to electronic music. Have you ever heard someone say they don’t like Aphex Twin?
Let’s look at some of the factors creators might consider when attempting to create a musical legacy, and examine the features of the most enduring musical works of the past.
It’s a commonality among artists’ finest work. Those albums that come out of nowhere and break the mold. They are originals, serially imitated by everyone else. The 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico famously only sold 10,000 copies, but lest us forget, as is tirelessly recycled by the press - almost everyone who bought it started a band. It takes raw innovation and bravery to have the belief in your work despite it not pandering to labels or fans. The brutal truth is that for every ten thousand ‘non-conformist’ albums, only one will become a gold standard. Herein lies the risk. But one thing is for sure - playing it safe will never yield a masterpiece.
In order to stay ahead of trends and keep one’s aesthetic fresh, maintaining a prolific output of work is essential. Nobody, not even Jeff Mills, can be perfect. Among any successful artist’s oeuvre is a breadth of material, some of it connects with the audience, some of it doesn’t. This is not the concern of the artist who will enjoy a musical legacy.
American philosopher John Dewey’s ‘learning-by-doing’ theory of education comes to mind, whereby students ‘...must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn.’
By admission of the above theory, Bob Dylan only struck gold with his 1975 album Blood On the Tracks (his fifteenth LP) by first releasing Dylan in 1973, which received universally poor reviews from critics. He honed his craft by making records, and by the fifteenth, he had made arguably one of the best ever.
Relating back to the first point of non-conformism, it takes a great deal of courage in order to stick to one’s guns and maintain true conviction in pursuit of a musical vision. Often there is a great deal of pressure on producers from management, labels, the press and most crucially, peers to create something in accordance with existent axioms. Something accessible and not too offensive. In reality, our raw visions and ideas are most often beautifully divergent of that which is in vogue.
Creating something magical that will stand the test of time requires it to transcend the ordinary - to be of another realm.
Work on your active development
Crucial also is the acceptance that we must grow, and in order to grow we must nourish our imaginations with only the best. Native ability and hard work are not enough alone. Our creations are merely vessels of our experience. Their prospective footprints in the passage of time can be augmented by controlling our experiences - by ensuring that some of the epigraphs we irreversibly bestow upon our memory possess aesthetic integrity. Why not get down to the East Side Gallery this Saturday instead of spending the day smashing gear at a random afters in Neukolln.
Understand your audience.
Sometimes an album or a song just hits a certain spot and somehow distills the zeitgeist at that particular moment in time. Daft Punk’s seminal album Homework somehow bundled the heritage of house music into one package - creating a masterpiece which almost acted as a yardstick for the future of the sound. By capturing all that had preceded it and fusing it together in an entirely novel way, the duo created an album that will never get old. They encapsulated ten years in 74 minutes.
The song Teachers perhaps perfectly represents this factor in musical legacy. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo knew all too well that they needed to pay direct homage to their predecessors, and reference the sonic innovators whose material had maintained a legacy within the genre. They took existing axioms, paid their respects in their work and raised the bar of credibility in the process resulting in an ingenious contribution to the tradition of electronic dance music.
Capture the zeitgeist
Perhaps the most paradigmatic example of this instrumental element in creating timeless work and creating a musical legacy is The Sex Pistols and their only album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. On paper the band sound like a total joke. The members could barely play their instruments, and were almost constantly intoxicated - and this was their only album. But despite these seemingly vast limitations to their potential, they produced an album which changed the course of UK rock forever.
The group and their visionary manager Malcolm McLaren captured the spirit of the youth in London in the late 1970s. They were jaded with the indulgence of progressive rock acts like Pink Floyd. They wanted something fresh, and unlike anything that had come before. The hippie subculture that had prevailed a decade before had arguably left an indelible mark on the music industry. Flower Power was dead, that was for sure, but it needed burying once and for all. The Sex Pistols rose to the occasion and created a bunch of songs that were anti-everything. The album was a movement in itself. This set of barely literate plonkers in their early twenties changed the world - by capturing the zeitgeist. They read the minds of the masses. They anticipated the future. Genius in camouflage.