The day music disappeared
The intriguing tale of how all had to adjust to a strange new world
It’s easy to forget the impact it had at the time. Writing this in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, the upset and panic at the time seem trivial compared with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives across the world. But back then it was huge, and we are still coming to terms with its effects.
The Millennium Bug
If you remember, it started as panic, was then dismissed as hype and finally became a reality, but in a way which no-one anticipated. The Millennium bug, or the Y2K bug as it was also known, was flagged up in the last few years of the 1990s as a potential problem which would affect the way that most computers would interpret and work with calendar data once we tipped into the new century. In the event, with some programming fixes in the background, at one-minute past midnight on the 1st January 2000, planes didn’t drop out of the sky and our lives were able to carry on with the minimum of disruption.
With one important exception. Everyone has their own memory of when they first noticed what had happened. I celebrated the arrival of the Millennium with my family down in Devon. My son Ben even went in the sea on that freezing January morning. We got home late on Sunday 2nd January and I put on a CD which I’d recently bought, Sonic Youth’s Goodbye 20th Century (a more prescient title than they could have imagined) which had been released in November 1999. Nothing. Silence. Nothing came out of the speakers. The digital output on the CD player was showing Track 1 and the time ticking by but no music was playing. CDs’ robustness has always been overstated – even the tiniest bit of dirt can cause them to skip or not play. Bloody thing, and it’s new too. Took it out, did the time-honoured rubbing of its surface on the inside of my t-shirt, and tried again. Still nothing. Skipped through every track, which still came up on the display with their track time listed, but just silence from every one of them.
I then got out several other CDs and tried them. Same story. What about some vinyl? There is nothing digital about that, good old analogue warmth, as vinyl junkies never fail to tell you. Sgt Pepper, the first Beatles vinyl album I owned, let’s give that a go. Dropped the needle in the groove, expecting to hear that familiar orchestra tuning up sound at the beginning of the album, and… nothing. Just the crackle of my particularly worn copy playing even more loudly than ever, with no music to cover it over.
This is crazy. OK, where else have I got music stored? Some old cassettes – just hiss. What about the thousands of tracks stored on my trusty iPod? The folders are there but at this point, 2 January 2000, there is not a single track which is playing. Music files on my computer – same story. How about music videos? I tune into MTV and they are still broadcasting, but with no sound! Good for karaoke, I guess…
And then I heard it on the news. Radio stations had no music to play. Master tapes in vaults were being hurriedly examined, even though it was the weekend. Wiped. Well-known musicians are being interviewed, in tears as they describe how their life’s work has vanished.
For weeks there was panic in the whole entertainment industry, as the vast legacy of 50-odd years’ worth of recorded pop music was found to have disappeared. The experience of being able to see but not hear old TV and video performances was tantalising and frustrating, but at least it prompted memories, if only to try to sing or play along to.
So, 20 years on, where are we now? There is now a 20-year legacy of recorded music to be explored. Many nostalgists who are now music collectors in their fifties and sixties decided to turn their back on this new music. If they couldn’t listen to Deep Purple in Rock and Led Zeppelin II then they weren’t going to listen to anything. Me? I decided to embrace the new music being made, and below is my playlist selection of post-2000 music.
Desert Island Discs
The nostalgia market has, surprisingly, continued to thrive, even though the music can no longer be heard. Music is one of the most powerful triggers of memories from our past and remarkably, most of us can still quote lyrics from songs recorded in the 60s and 70s, even though we’ve not heard them for over 20 years. Guests on Desert Island Discs still choose a remarkably high proportion of tracks from pre-2000, with Lauren Laverne having to repeat the phrase, “Well, I’m sure many of our listeners can remember that one, so here is 75 seconds of silence for us all to imagine along to that one.” I prefer listening to the episodes online where they skip those bits and just continue with the interview.
Sales of vinyl records have surged over the past few years, fed by the nostalgia market. When the first reissues of pre-2000 albums came out on vinyl, people laughed at the idea. Pay twenty-five quid for an album I’m never going to listen to, you must be crazy! But it’s the whole package people are buying. The sumptuous gatefold sleeve artwork, the sensation of sliding the album out of its inner sleeve and placing it on the turntable. Dropping the needle onto the first groove, the anticipation of hearing it again. Except of course, there is nothing to hear. But still, it’s the artefact that’s important, the desirability of it as a prompter of the memories of listening to it.
So, record companies have found ever more ingenious ways to make people buy new versions again and again. Vinyl as picture disks or in various colours and finishes abound – after all, ‘splatter’ vinyl looks even more interesting as it goes round and round, bringing back memories of listening to that Pink Floyd album mildly stoned.
This interest in vinyl reissues has transferred across to newer music. Most new albums are issued as LPs as well as CDs, with of course the bonus of actually being able to listen to them. Most collectors though are so in the habit of just looking at the vinyl versions that they never play them and use the handy download codes or CD equivalents instead. A survey found that 48% of vinyl bought is never played, with 7% of purchasers not even owning a turntable.
What about people’s existing collections? As with most music nerds, I have a confession to make. I’ve still got a huge CD rack and some LPs, with it all lovingly displayed and alphabetised by artist, even though I never play most of them. The pre-2000 ones all sound the same. Except not quite. I know many people who play their old vinyl just to listen to the hisses and scratches. Here is a typical moment I’ve shared with a friend. “Come and look at the needle here. Did you see that? I know it sounds like a scratch, but it’s more than that. It actually jumps at this point, missing about 10 seconds of Dylan’s Idiot Wind. It was an argument with my first girlfriend at Uni. She threw a shoe at me and missed, hitting this copy of Blood on the Tracks. Kind of appropriate I guess as this is Dylan’s break-up album. Takes me right back to that moment.” There were tears in his eyes at this point. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed listening to the scratches. Give me a pristine digital version of something any day, but many people seem to love it, even without the music.
Have you seen that Richard Curtis film Yesterday? The one with the crazy premise that something triggers the whole world except one man to completely forget The Beatles and their music. I guess it was inspired by the Millennium bug event, but then took it one stage further, magically making everyone’s Beatles’ records and artefacts disappear. And then the hero of the film is the one guy who can remember their songs. He goes on to have incredible success as the ‘writer’ of their amazing catalogue. It’s quite a neat idea which pokes fun at our collective attempts to remember and recreate the music which has vanished.
Re-recording lost music
Talking of Richard Curtis, one of the most famous scenes in the film Love Actually is when Emma Thompson’s character is given a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now CD. Joni is one of my all-time favourite artists and she re-recorded the song Both Sides Now and a few others straightaway in 2000, and then a larger selection of her songs with an orchestral backing for 2002’s Travelogue album. Such a relief to be able to listen to at least have some of her songs, even if not in their original form.
Similarly, the reworking of classics with an orchestra has been picked up by genres such as acid house, with Hacienda Classical reimagining club classics, with mixed results, but Madchester nostalgics seem to go all misty-eyed for it.
It’s surprising that more artists haven’t attempted to recreate their lost music in this sort of way.
Tributes to lost music
There have been other attempts at recreating lost music though, with varying success. The incredible popularity of tribute bands, even tribute festivals, is the most obvious example of this. If we can’t listen to the original, let’s attempt to recreate it, with the look of the band as we saw them on Top of the Pops, and the songs as we remember them. The problem of course has proved to be the reliability of people’s memories to recreate these classic songs and albums. Most of them sound either like pale imitations or not-quite-right versions, where the transcription of the chords hasn’t quite been achieved. They have my sympathy though, as often they are relying on 20-year-old and more memories.
A similar problem afflicts the original artists themselves. Reforming and going out on tour with pre-2000 music is another trend which has been fuelled by the bug event. Ageing rockers dust down their memory of their 1983 classic album and they lug it around venues across the UK (well, they did before the virus), ‘playing the album in full’. Except quite often they don’t get the running order accurate and, as with the tribute bands, it just sounds like a less good version of the original than the one you remember.
Life has changed at gigs for artists with music pre- and post-2000. If you saw a band in, say, 1995 who had been big in the 70s, your heart would sink when they announced, “Here’s one from the new album”. Time to head for the bar. I’ve found it is now the other way round. With their failing memories and wobbly arrangements, the old tracks are always a disappointment. Audiences have generally picked up on this, and “Here’s a new one” now gets a huge cheer, as a good proportion of the audience will never even have heard of the older songs. I saw New Order at a festival, and they were brilliant, but when the opening chords of Confusion came on, it was only old people like me who went nuts and broke out into dad-dancing. The teenagers stood around me with their arms folded and a look of, well, confusion. True story.
Jumping into the stream
Another big change which the Millennium event triggered is the attitude to buying music. Those of us actively and avidly buying LPs and CDs pre-2000 got our fingers well and truly burned, as our entire collection was rendered useless. At least it didn’t become worthless, with people still prepared to part with huge sums on eBay for copies of albums they will never be able to listen to.
However, this has dented most people’s faith in buying music. It’s no coincidence that the first major file-sharing platform, Napster, came to prominence in 2000. Investing in a physical copy of something had turned out to be no guarantee of permanence after all. So why not just download something for free, even if it did mean that the artist received no royalties? To start with there was precious little to share and this probably contributed to Napster not being able to capitalize on this first-mover advantage and become THE online music brand. Once online streaming speeds became viable, it went legit in 2006 with Spotify and others, by which time there was a decent catalogue of music to listen to. It has still proved to be a meagre source of revenue for musicians. A whole generation has now shunned physical copies of music and has thought it easier and safer just to stream it.
If you can’t hear it, read about it
I love reading about music and have dozens of books about music. A noticeable trend has been the boom in titles coming out even if often about bands and music you can no longer hear. I find this is somehow not a barrier. I happily read books (and articles in magazines like Mojo) about music I’ve never heard and now never will. This type of interest has led to seemingly everyone associated with music from the sixties to the nineties writing a book: roadies, groupies, managers, and all sorts of hangers-on. Still, it’s all good and I’m buying them!
Musing on the bug event there is another aspect to mention. Some artists with music produced either side of The Great Divide (as it has become known) have used it as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and become something different, often with surprising results. Morrissey is a classic example of this. Many of us hold a deep affection for The Smiths, perhaps THE embodiment of the 80s’ Indie spirit in music – affecting, socially aware music which spoke to a whole generation across a slew of great singles and a handful of albums. Since 2000 though, Morrissey’s music and musings have seemed to be the antithesis of this. He was always seen as miserable (a lazy misinterpretation of his mordant humour), but now he has become misanthropic, racist and reactionary, everything we thought The Smiths were fighting against. Strange.
You will have your own disappointments…
What would Bowie do?
I admire Bowie’s life and career more than anyone else’s, so this is sometimes a question I ask to guide me through things. And, as ever, in this situation he made some shrewd moves. Bowie reacted immediately to the situation, appearing at Glastonbury in 2000, his first show there in nearly 30 years, where he played a career-spanning set which has recently been repeated to great acclaim on the BBC.
The final song Bowie played at that Glasto set was a surprise to many. Everyone was expecting a well-known classic such as Jean Genie, but instead it was his coruscating critique, I’m Afraid of Americans. Many interpreted this as his support for the widely circulated theory that the bug’s source was California’s Silicon Valley. Maybe residual guilt for this is why the US is so keen to lay blame for coronavirus on a leak from a lab in Wuhan.
Bowie then made two albums in quick succession (Heathen 2002 and Reality 2003) and went out on tour in 2003 to showcase tracks from these and to play a fantastic selection of pre-2000 songs while his band was still relatively fresh from performing them. My favourite gig of all time.
The very first line he sang post-Divide, on the opening track to Heathen, was “Nothing remains”, and we all shared the mournful regret in his delivery. Unfortunately, ill-health curtailed this surge of post-2000 activity and forced Bowie into semi-retirement from music, choosing to focus instead on his family. A number of artists took a similar path during this difficult period. However, after a decade of silence, Bowie suddenly re-emerged in 2013 with The Next Day. Its cover, with its witty sleeve artwork being an overlay on top of the cover of 1977’s “Heroes”, was a perfect visual symbol for this new world: the past has gone, we need to start building again on the top of it. Bowie then left us with the glorious final statement that is Blackstar just before his death in January 2016.
Other legends have been determined to establish a new legacy of recordings. Bob Dylan, even in 2020, continues to surprise with great new work, reaching number 1 with his new album. There have been great late flowering albums from the likes of Paul Weller, Van Morrison, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Pet Shop Boys and many others.
For a 5-hour personal selection of great post-2000 music, go to my Music Disappeared playlist on Spotify.
Is it happening again??
I love the music of the past two decades. In quantity and variety, it now dwarfs the music which has been lost. I find it invigorating being forced to disregard the past and stay focused on new music. I’m happy to hear in my head some of the old stuff, but the inventiveness, the choice, the eclecticism and the fresh new directions music is taking means that no lover of music need go hungry. And if the same thing were to happen, I’d be up for starting over once again.
And right now, in July 2020, with live music having ceased for over three months now and little prospect of it returning properly until sometime in 2021, the lifeblood of the music industry has been cut off. The gigantic rock dinosaurs don’t need your sympathy or your support, but thousands of struggling bands and grassroots artists need help just to survive.
That is where supporting crowdfunded albums on Indiegogo and elsewhere, and platforms such as Bandcamp can really make a difference, along with ticketed live streaming gigs. Seek out music you like and give generously, otherwise, just like other arts organisations in peril in this crisis, when it’s gone, it’s gone. So, it could be happening all over again…