When I hear the words “pop music” two names, two geniuses, come to the forefront of my mind. Not Lennon and McCartney but two greats that sit on opposite ends of the spectrum; Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson.
Both are known for writing some of the most beloved and well known songs of the past century, but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Dylan sang in a barely in key howl with just a guitar and maybe a rough around the edges backing band whereas Wilson sat not with a guitar in hand but behind the mixing board. Dylan had said he records “reluctantly” whereas Wilson was reluctant to leave the recording studio.
Dylan captures the raw power an expertly written song can produce but Wilson showed the beauty obtained from seamless layering and brilliant arrangements that can only be executed on tape.
For audio-based evidence just listen to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and then The Beach Boy’s “You Still Believe in Me.” Wilson’s use of every musical instrument imaginable (including a bicycle horn) brings a song to life that couldn’t exist in a standard 4-piece rock set up. On the other hand Dylan’s minimal brilliance could barely hold up with a full band, an oboe or two would just murder the song.
Not to set this up as a “which is better debate,” but which is better? A battle raging on even today, which aesthetic better serves the listener? Do the Arcade Fire’s near classical arrangements outshine the The White Stripes and their 3-chord rock? There isn’t an answer but it brings up a point, that one is dependent on the song itself whereas the other camp depends on the sounds that accompanies the lyrics and melody.
At the Pitchfork music festival, this idea came to mind. M Ward stood up and played with just a guitar and was able to captivate an audience. On the other hand, Animal Collective needed tables filled with expensive samplers and drum machines and reverb pedals (a mini light show too) to put on a show.
In politics and most other things, the middle of the road seems to be the best path to follow. In music though, you have to live on the fringe. Bands that sit in the middle are forgotten. Music should be extreme, be Dylan or Wilson, not Neil Diamond.
Brian also thinks St. Joe Strummer was a pretty decent teacher and can be reached at brianmcgo@gmail.com

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