The 20th century saw great change in how music was accessed by people. The ability to record a musical performance, and then to reproduce this performance repeatedly via radio or record player, changed forever how music was to be experienced. The advent of recording meant that the piece of music changed from being a composition to being the performance itself. It also allowed it to be enjoyed in the privacy of the home. The impact of this shift was huge and can be difficult for us, in retrospect, to comprehend. Recording and production techniques continued to evolve, and music developed a strong relationship with numerous cultural revolutions. There were many artists who, throughout the century, made an impact. Below are five personal favourites. Who are yours?
Woody Guthrie: This machine kills fascists.
To say that Woody Guthrie is a music legend is not an overstatement, just a fact. He was a man who lived through some of the most tumultuous times in his country’s history and channeled his experiences into extraordinary art. He wrote songs from inside the maelstrom, songs that resonated deeply with those who shared his plight. His political views were steadfast and often caused him to shift location and lifestyle, but never ideology. Woody’s impact at the time was significant, and this has endured though the decades. His music remains as powerful today as when it was written. Countless musicians, including Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg, have acknowledged his influence with gratitude and reverence.
Recommended album – Dust Bowl Ballads (1940)
Essential listening – This Land is Your Land (1940)
Essential listening – Pastures of Plenty (1941)
Bob Dylan: ‘People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.’
A gifted lyricist with an adroit intelligence, Bob Dylan was one of the strongest voices of the 1960s folk revival. While his music was ostensibly born out of the preceding folk tradition, his sound was still startlingly original. He revolutionised the genre when, in 1965, he infamously ‘plugged in’. Fans, who initially resisted the electric transformation, have since been treated to one of the most eclectic and rewarding catalogues of music ever recorded. Always led by his own creative zeal, he has continued to defy expectations and dodge pigeon holes. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he is arguably the living legend of music.
Recommended album – Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Essential listening – Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965)
Essential listening – Idiot Wind (1975)
Borrow – Bob Dylan in America / Sean Wilentz
Borrow – The Nobel lecture / Bob Dylan
John Lennon: ‘War is over, if you want it.‘
After The Beatles, music would never be the same again. No other band has had as many hits, has dominated and altered the landscape of popular music so dramatically, or has been able to lead generations through a myriad of musical doors that didn’t previously exist. They continue to resonate in the public consciousness some 50 years after disbanding. John Lennon may not have been the only creative force in The Beatles, but he was the strongest. His talent for melody is demonstrated by his chart success, but his legacy is more firmly rooted in his innovation. He often laid his soul bare in both lyrics and performance, which has resulted in some of his best work being a compelling fusion of art and therapy.
Recommended album – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Essential listening – Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)
Essential listening – Mother (1970)
Patti Smith: ‘I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one.’
Patti Smith was one of the central figures of the New York punk rock movement, but her contribution to the world of music and literature reaches far beyond. Dubbed the ‘punk poet laureate’, Patti created a new style when she began combining poetry with rock music. Her groundbreaking performances were revolutionary, and as a result the claustrophobic limitations of punk were exploded forever. Pathways were opened for artists to evolve while still remaining true to punk’s DIY ethic. Among many acknowledgements, Patti has been listed by Rolling Stone in the top 50 artists of all time, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. She remains active and is a vocal advocate for human rights.
Recommended album – Horses (1975)
Essential listening – Gloria (1975)
Essential listening – Pumping (1976)
Borrow – Just Kids / Patti Smith
Borrow – M Train / Patti Smith
Borrow – Year of the Monkey / Patti Smith
George Young: ‘If you do your own thing and bomb, at least you go down on your terms.’
Angus and Malcolm Young are household names, yet older brother George remains relatively unknown to all but the most hardened aficionados of Australian rock. The contribution that George Young made to music across three decades is staggering. As a performer and songwriter, he was the co-founder and creative spearhead of Australia’s first internationally successful band – The Easybeats. After they disbanded, he formed a songwriting and production duo with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda. Together they went on to further international success with Flash & The Pan, as well as penning numerous hits for local artists. Their production credits include the first six AC/DC albums – regarded by many as their best. His songs have been covered by such rock royalty as David Bowie and Grace Jones, and he has been famously immortalised as “Guitar George” in Dire Straits’ mega-hit Sultans of Swing. George Young is truly one of the giants of Australian music.
Recommended album – The Best of the Easybeats + Pretty Girl (1976)
Essential listening – Wedding Ring / The Easybeats (1965)
Essential listening – Waiting for a Train / Flash & The Pan (1982)