Chasing the Dragon

August 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Three weeks ago, I posted this photo on my Facebook, adding that apparently KEEPOFF had a solid fan base at the Jersey shore.

A former student (Thomas Springsteen, no relation) commented: “Their early stuff was way better.”

Perfect. It’s what people always say about rock groups. At least, it seems that way to me. Is there systematic evidence of the earlier-was-better bias? Well, sort of.

Philip Cohen asked people to rate performers twice on a scale of 1 (“terrible”) to 5 (“great”):
  • how good were they in the 70s?
  • how good were they in the 80s?
Here are the results.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Most groups are on the 1970s side of the line of equality. And of those few who were better in the 80s, except for Pat Benatar and perhaps Prince and Michael Jackson, the degree of improvement is small.

Philip’s explanation (here)  is that his respondents are accurate reporters – music really did go downhill in the 80s, along with the whole damn Zeitgeist.

As I look back on these events – Reagan, the Cold War, sell-out music – in the context of what I thought of as my emerging adulthood, they seemed to herald a dark future, in which loss of freedom and individuality, the rise of the machines, and runaway capitalism was reflected in the decline of rock music.

Maybe. But maybe the results in this graph might not be so fixed in the historical moment. My guess is that Philip would have gotten similar results no matter what dividing point he chose. And not because of some inevitable law of musical entropy. It’s not the music, it’s the audience. The sound of a group or performer when they first become popular defines who they are. And that’s what we want to hear. We think: that’s what they sound like, and I really like it.

But what happens after a few years? The group can keep turning out music that sounds pretty much the same. We the fans think: yeah, it still sounds like them. But we don’t get that same thrill we had when we first heard them or saw them in concert.

Or the performers get bored and search out new sounds. They then risk losing their audience. A few can bring their audience along with them in these new explorations, like Dylan when he went electric or the Beatles with “Sgt. Pepper” and beyond. But these, I think, are exceptions.

My guess is that the graph looks the way it does for the same reason that we have oldies stations. We want to hear the songs that made us fans to begin with. Their early stuff was way better.


  1. David J. LittleboyAugust 07, 2017 12:20 PM

    There are some other ideas here. For example, a group starts out, has a musical idea, hashes it out in lots of local small-time gigs, and once it's ready for prime time, it gets a record contract and released. Then they spend a year touring to support said first album. And then people start asking where the second album is.

    Almost all the time, the first album really is better. The second one is a rushed afterthought.

    The truly talented ones, of course, keep creating new material (Clapton, Traffic, Cowboy Junkies!). The skillful and hard working ones get a sound down and manage to come up with something similar (Credence, Velvet Underground maybe as exemplars here).

    But it's a tough gig being a pop hero, because most of us get stuck on the first good music we come across. At 65, my playlist is mostly 50s and 60s jazz (I'm dreaming of playing like Kenny Burrell and/or Grant Green), but also has the R&M Farina, Mike Bloomfield, Traffic, Dave van Ronk I listened to in my teens.

  2. What your comment suggests to me is that the causes of regression to the mean are statistical -- that first album was a lucky outlier; they were playing over their heads. But the causes are also structural. Maybe they could produce an album of equal quality if they could devote the same amount of time to it, but the structure of the music business requires them to put out the second album even if they don't have the material ready yet.

  3. David J. LittleboyAugust 11, 2017 11:18 AM

    "Maybe they could produce an album of equal quality if they could devote the same amount of time to it, but the structure of the music business requires them to put out the second album even if they don't have the material ready yet."

    Yes, that's my point. It's a structural phenomenon.

    Whatever. Someone just posted the complete lyrics to the Velvet Underground's song "Heroin" to a physics blog. It's just as beautifully devastating as it was when first released. From their first album, of course. (I'm completely aghast at the opioid epidemic in the US. The hippies figured out the hard way that opioids were a bad idea. And I couldn't imagine that that lesson had been lost. To the whole US medical establishment, no less. But I digress.)