Turning imitation into emulation and slightly sycophantic-tinged mimicry

(May 10, 2010)

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but why does it permeate music to such a degree, why does it persist and what prevents people from forming their own style?

Occasionally, lucky (talented) artists arrive with a unique approach, eventually most develop their own style - but sadly far too many don’t.

Of course the ‘cover band’ has been around for years with varying degrees of competency. Few of them pretend to be anything other than a copy of their chosen originator. Some make a career out of being a good copy rather than being an original. I’ll exclude those exponents of that form of flattery for now - maybe next time.

My focus is those that turn imitation into emulation but never move beyond slightly sycophantic-tinged mimicry. There doubtless comes a point when one decides to be a solo musician or a group of musicians decide to form a band. Initially, the strength of influence from a specific genre or style catches the soul and there’s the genesis. Whatever that particular influence may be, in the early days it inevitably makes itself heard through music and vocals.

It’s natural that what emerging musicians hear invades what they write and play. Pick up the early recordings of many well-known artists and it appears that everyone tries at one time to sound like everyone else. Mostly, musicians progress with their art. The need to write their own thoughts and their own music leads them away from that first ‘sound-a-like’ position. And even those especially admired songs that one keeps in one’s soul forever receive a new treatment, and sometimes metamorphose into another ‘original’.

However, there remains an array of artists and bands that do nothing more than reproduce the sound of existing artists and bands; mostly by playing their songs without re-arrangement or variation. Indeed, some copy the work to such a degree that it can become hard to tell them from the original – aside from the fact that they don’t sound as good. This is nothing new, and neither is this reproduction confined to any one genre.

Goodness knows how many ersatz versions of ‘Streets of London’ crept out of the woodwork over the years as imitators followed Ralph McTell. Probably it’s as many as there were James Taylor look and sound-a-likes that dogged the heels of ‘Sweet Baby James’. There was no attempt to redefine. Imitators pretended and still pretend to be everyone from Ewan McColl and Martin Carthy to Maddy Prior and Sandy Denny. English folk and acoustic music is riddled with Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention ‘sound-a-likes’ – some good, some average, some dire, as are the many clones of Oysterband, Jethro Tull, Gaelic Storm, Albion Band ... And the list just goes on.

Consider Bob Dylan and Neil Young – both with unique styles, like them or not. They carved out a niche in their chosen field. They have a right to their style. They have made it their own. When they started they spent some of their time copying someone else’s style. But eventually they progressed and became themselves instead of wanting to be someone else. Yet people still (yes still) try to pass off their songs and (usually poorly) imitate their style.

The day of ‘bang it out’ and hope the audience can’t tell the difference remains the province of the pop world. Yet there’s probably as many bands riding the coat-tails of every aspect of folk and acoustic music as there are in pop, rock or whatever. Apart from those countable on the fingers of one or two hands there are precious few new approaches. Of course, you may argue by citing the handful (or possibly two) that folk and acoustic music is vibrant, new and different. That’s true but a vast (and I do mean vast) number of bands leave their imitative roots exposed for all to see for far too long.

These ‘imitative’ artists do not intend to progress or develop new branches from those old roots. They remain content to use someone else’s talent and use it for their own ends.

Now I don’t know if the uberglot of the Internet or the total absence of time and distance it creates has anything to do with this. Perhaps there is less development because everyone hears everyone else and no one (or few) can exist in their own creative place without corruption. I think it’s more than that, I think it’s laziness. When I hear the new and the different it’s usually because the musicians involved have worked hard to define and refine their art. When I hear the ‘same-old same-old’ the reverse is always true.

Unless you subscribe to Frank Zappa’s view that ‘All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff’ then there is no reason to remain stuck in the creative mire of someone else’s thoughts. Break free. Experiment, strive and perhaps fail. But for goodness sake at least try.

Conversely of course, that’s why when you hear something not only new but different it’s so refreshing. Can’t have it all I suppose.

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