These days, a lot of people like to complain about a lack of originality or purity in music. This isn’t always fair, and it’s largely a result of the boom in electronic styles we’ve seen particularly over the past decade. But it’s at least understandable that people are looking for something that at least feels a little more genuine. There’s just something about an artist, and instrument, and a will to make great music that we seem to see slightly less of today, at least at the highest level. (Incidentally, I think this is why there’s so much excitement about Bradley Cooper’s forthcoming remake of A Star Is Born; it looks poised to show us the kinds of artists we don’t see as much of anymore.)
None of this is meant to direct any disrespect toward modern artists. The ones that make it are always brilliant in their own ways. It’s just that in some cases they’re a little harder to imagine emulating or being inspired by. For that reason, I did a little bit of thinking and came up with a list of five pure, legendary musicians that aspiring, old-school indie artists might want to study up on.
1. Paul McCartney
John Lennon is the mythical figure of The Beatles, and with good reason. He was a genius, and one whose life was cut short far too soon. Alongside Lennon however, there are many who believe Paul McCartney is every bit as much the “brains of the operation.” That plus the fact that McCartney has kept up a lively music career for decades following The Beatles’ heyday, makes him about as good a musician as any for young artists of any kind to study. In fact, the artist only recently put out his 18th solo album – “Egypt Station” – and made it back to number one on the Billboard 200 for the first time in 36 years. He’s a study not just in perseverance but in sustained excellence.
More generally, McCartney’s songwriting, humility, simple vocal style, and palpable love of music are treasures. His approach to what can be a cutthroat, competitive industry should be emulated by anyone hoping to make it, and enjoy the process of doing so.
2. Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury only sometimes seems to get the respect he deserves as a daring and original musician. That said, he will be the subject of a film coming out this fall (called Bohemian Rhapsody), and by the look of some early footage, lead actor Rami Malek is going to do Mercury justice and then some. Hopefully it will get more young people, and particularly those interested in music, to take a close look at the real figure of Freddie Mercury. His boldness and passion are to be commended even these many years later.
3. Jimi Hendrix
What can’t you say about Jimi Hendrix? The man arguably did more with less time than any other musician in history, and his influence today is undeniable. Indeed, even in the last few years we’ve seen a slew of tributes to him. Hendrix is at the foundation of a park in Seattle, a street in New York, and is the underlying theme of one of the best online games based on music. The game couples online slot gaming, favored by many young people who didn’t grow up on Hendrix, with some of the star’s greatest hits.
Tributes like those illustrate Hendrix’s lingering value to society. But really it’s his influence on other guitarists that makes him such a fascinating artist to study. He’s inspired musicians from Eric Clapton to Eric Clark Jr. (an up-and-comer sometimes called a new Hendrix), and likely innumerable amateurs in between. No one gives a better sense of the joy and inventiveness of guitar playing.
4. Dave Grohl
If you think about what constitutes a pure musician, Dave Grohl may just be the ideal modern candidate who comes to mind. Unfortunately it’s hard to describe exactly why. The obvious point to make is that few if any people in musical history have had so much success with two different bands. But as the drummer for Nirvana and frontman for Foo Fighters, Grohl has kept himself relevant and influential for decades now.
Best of all however, Dave Grohl has done all of this with an infectious joy that makes him seem as genuinely devoted to his craft as anyone else in the industry. Case in point, when the entire town of Cesena, Italy produced a viral video of hundreds of people playing the hit song “Learn To Fly,” Grohl led his Foo Fighters to play a show there. If that’s not an example of genuine passion in music, there is no such thing. It won’t ultimately be surprising if we look back on Grohl as the last great, true, rock star.
5. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan can teach any artist that it’s OK to break the traditional rules of what songs are supposed to be. That’s how it was put in a Rolling Stone article that ranked him as the second greatest artist of all time, behind only The Beatles. And it’s a good way to think of Dylan in terms of what indie artists in any genre might be able to learn from him. More than most anyone who’s ever found significant success in music, Dylan cut his own path. He made infectious melodies, yet was also thought-provoking enough with his storytelling that he won a Nobel Prize for literature. You can’t get much more unique or interesting than that.