Bill Wyman of the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band is alleged to have said once, “I’m in the Rolling Stones, I don’t need to practice.” He might have meant, We gig constantly, so I don’t need to play more than I do anyway, or he might have meant, I’m already successful, so why should I have to improve? And the Who’s drummer Keith Moon once asked for a lesson from jazz expert Philly Joe Jones. According to Tony Fletcher’s superlative Moon biography, Jones listened to Moon bash away, asked how much he earned per week with the Who, then whistled appreciatively and said, “I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
Somewhere in those two lines is a succinct summary of pop musicianship. Unlike the field of classical music (and increasingly of jazz), it’s still possible to become a professional rock, folk, R&B, or country player without any formal training; indeed, it’s a safe bet that the wealthiest singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists in the world are musical illiterates. Is this bad? After all, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie aren’t drilled in the disciplines of Stanislavsky. Music is a universal medium which is open to anyone who can whistle or tap their feet, rather than a priesthood accessible only to the enlightened. Does technical knowledge detract from the spontaneity and simplicity of the best pop? How much musical ability is too much for a mass audience, and can there be too little of it too?
True, some accomplished pop artists were musical sophisticates – I’d name Prince, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix for starters, while others might place Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, and Carole King on the list. But what about Irving Berlin, who could only play on the black keys of his piano? What about vocal interpreters of other people’s material, like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin? Or virtuosic electric guitar heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, or Randy Rhoads? Were they great, or just adept? Were they brilliant, or just popular? How exactly do we define talent, skill, or genius? Is it possible to be blazingly inspired within a dully derivative genre? Can you be both an original and a hack?
Take an example just about everyone knows: the Beatles. Most musicological assessments of the quartet conclude that Paul McCartney alone had a serious musical facility; John Lennon had an outsize personality, George Harrison was a conscientious craftsman, and Ringo Starr was a natural foil, but none of them had advanced grasps of orchestration or harmonic theory. The four Beatles made great music together, yet by traditional measures there was just one great musician in the band. That’s the paradox which still sits at the heart of pop. Anyone can play it, and anyone can respond to it, so we often value work without caring if its makers were good enough to have made it.
There are probably thousands of full-time session players and sidemen who ply music like a trade, like competent carpenters who are always in demand but who’ll never be innovative architects. Conversely, there are probably millions of amateur singers and guitarists who’ve achieved moments of transcendence jamming in a garage, like aspiring writers too shy to show their poems to a publisher. And there are likely many famous acts who don’t fall into either camp: dynamic performers who only know one motif and four chords (AC/DC, James Brown); encyclopedic vampers who can elevate anything they play but who seldom compose themselves (Ray Charles, Eric Clapton); superstars whose reputations are based on an idiosyncratic, inimitable sound (Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell); and cult figures too clever for all but the most patient listeners (Frank Zappa, David Bowie). There is no way to compare any of these to any other, or to rank them by a single determinant. If pop music represents a democratization of culture, we may also have to accept that our democracy of popular styles has more and more accommodated musicians who – because of commerce, demographics, or the vagaries of public taste – don’t need to practice. But, like the man said, I don’t want to spoil it for you.