As every right-thinking person knows by now, the Shakey Rays are going on tour and will be descending upon Bangalore shortly. This is great; so great, in fact, that my first reaction to the news was to drink up all the beer in the fridge and spend an entire evening listening to various different cover versions of I am the Walrus. Now, at casual glance, these two things seem unconnected, but anyone with half a rock ‘n’ roll head will understand that the time has never been more right for running around the flat going “goo goo goo joob”.
But it’s not the Shakey Rays I’m concerned with right now, they’ll get their due when the time comes (and the time comes this weekend). What was interesting was, on my weaving and slightly unfocussed journey through YouTube in search of still more covers of I am the Walrus (it’s not the easiest song to do), I stumbled upon a recording of it by a certain Lord Sitar.
Who this Lord Sitar is, I’ll probably never find out. Even the ever-reliable Wikipedia only goes as far as to drop some tangential clues. From these, I gather that Lord Sitar was actually the English session guitarist, Big Joe Sullivan, the talented bloke who graced many a Petula Clark single in his time. I won’t vouch for this, and neither does it matter: what matters is Lord Sitar’s quixotic commitment to recording major mid-sixties psych singles with a horn section and – quelle surprise – a sitar.
That’s pretty fucking cool, of course. Everybody wants to listen to a groovy, beads-and-lava-lamp version of I Can See for Miles – and it’s less limp than it sounds, the recordings are actually loud and exhilarating, for as long as the schtick holds your attention, anyway. And, even more intriguingly, Lord Sitar isn’t alone in this. Ananda Shankar did something very similar around the same time, and his sitar versions of Jumping Jack Flash and Light my Fire continue to dominate the collective consciousness of at least two of my friends, neither of whom can be called a “success in life” with any honesty, but I’ll let that pass.
The sitar holds a special place in pop history, being perhaps the first major “world” instrument to feature in songs which enjoyed mainstream success in the US and the UK (and, since those two countries dominate pop out of all proportion to either of their populations, there’s no use pretending they don’t count). Thus, it’s safe to assume that the Lord Sitar effort, and at least part of Shankar’s first cover-heavy album, were motivated by simple commercial sense. The sitar was super-hip. So were the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors, and the Who. Put one and one together, and voilà, you have your retirement fund.
But once you start thinking that way, there’s no looking back, and everyone who’s ever used an instrument that’s not a guitar or a piano becomes suspect. And, now, it suddenly strikes me how little of what passes for “fusion” or “world” music is actually, really compelling. I don’t mean “enjoyable” or “impressive”, I mean something that sticks to your life as a little, permanent emotional snapshot. There’s the Talking Heads, sure, and Peter Gabriel, but their dabblings were peripheral and the “world” element is not much more than window dressing for essentially American or British music. Paul Simon’s mid-eighties albums were breezy and lovable, but his African and Brazilian influences largely just prop up some extremely New York songwriting. You could potentially play Diamond on the Soles of her Shoes with just an acoustic guitar, and it would sound exactly like any other folk song. Carlos Santana is convincingly Latin, but he’s just as convincingly awful. There’s the whole Birmingham bhangra thing, and that’s pretty cool once you’re a bottle of gin in. But, in the end, as for “world” music having a tangible impact on the very core of pop, there seems to be no evidence.
Fusion bands abound, certainly: it’s the easiest way for a group to carve an identity in a competitive business, and every young college band (in India, at least) wants to put a raga to a hip-hop beat at least once in their lives, if for no better reason to prove that they embrace diversity.
The point though is, none of this has really changed pop, not in any fundamental way. And this is truly odd: of all modern artforms, pop music has been the most open to practically everything, indeed, the key to its success lies in its ability to accept, and validate, seemingly insane ideas like arpeggiators and ska-bass and drum-sets tuned down to play the part of lead instruments. What’s more, it continues to do just that: if a woman like Tune-Yards gets TV time, then pop is no more narrow-minded now than it ever was.
Maybe it’s the “fusion” tag itself that does something to stop the marriage from working. Once you give something a name, you freeze it into place. Any music that takes so much of its identity from the instruments which go into it is pretty much constrained from the outset: the rules become more important than the result. You spend so much time making sure that it’s a real, authentic cross-cultural experience that you forget that you have to write songs.