The Derivativeness Syndrome

In this piece I’m going to pick on Dan Patlansky a bit. It’s not entirely fair but he is the catalyst for my writing this so he’s just going to have to bear up. I’m quite certain he doesn’t care what I think anyway. But for those of you who think he’s some kind of guitar demigod: be warned.

Patlansky had the honour – a rare one I’m told – of opening for Bruce Springsteen at the Johannesburg concert earlier this month. Given that Springsteen played for three hours and had brought three – four including himself – world-class guitarists with him, Patlansky was unnecessary in both temporal and auditory senses. Nevertheless, there he was.

Without doing a detailed review of his performance let’s say two things. First, he is technically a very proficient guitarist. His phrasing is clear and precise, and he is passionate with the instrument. And secondly his material is utterly derivative and unoriginal. When musicians use the word “blues” to describe their music, in 2014, they are telling you to prepare yourself either for cover songs, or for painful attempts to add to a genre that is already too crowded. By and large, I mean. Every style of every art still has space for new geniuses. Unfortunately Patlansky isn’t one.

During the concert I tweeted that Patlansky had both listened to too much White Stripes, and not enough. As a fairly obvious example of how a guitarist, with blues roots, can completely change the musical landscape, look no further than Jack White. That said, this is no more helpful than saying “look no further than Picasso”. White is a genius, both of the instrument and of composition, and is placed into this scene as a point of comparison. An unfair one perhaps, but I did warn you I would be.

Patlansky offered up to the enthusiastic crowd at Soccer City every rock and blues guitar cliche ever invented. There wasn’t a single sound or note that wasn’t an imitation of something else. I know there is no such thing as “truly original” in music, or anything else, but there is a difference between technique and mimicry. Mastering a scale but deploying it in a surprising way is, in effect, taking something played a million times before and playing it yourself. Lifting, wholesale, phrases and sounds, and piecing them together is more akin to remixing than invention. And even then we must demand novelty rather than simple competence.

And competent he is. As I said above I can’t fault his physical technique or delivery. If you want to hear someone trot out blues and rock cliches one upon the other, at times with superb athleticism, Dan’s your man. His vocal skills are less impressive and his band merely capable, but his guitar playing is excellent.

The problem here is that he – like so many talented South African musicians before him – is failing to innovate. And, like many South African musicians, plays crowd pleasing music that has the tin ears of the general SA public vibrating in ecstasy. We too, you can hear them thinking (and read them tweeting), have our Peter Green; our Stevie Ray Vaughn. Indeed, our Tom Morello. Yeah Dan, rip up that stage.

This is not to say that South Africa has never produced great music or great musicians. Depending on your tastes, and your generation, you can point to some examples of bands that have done something unique and have gained international acclaim as a result. But the truth is that in a country of 50m+ people, 20 years after sanctions ended, we have produced hardly any really world class acts. In fact, I’d go as far as to say we have produced none. We have no U2 or Sigur Ros or Crowded House (to name three of thousands). For international recognition we have some Apartheid-era icons like Johnny Clegg or Hugh Masekela. And we have the sorry examples of The Parlotones and Goldfish: horrible me-too acts that, like Patlansky, are all trying to epitomise something they overheard.

The fault, it must be said, is with the audience more than the musicians. As a public, as a culture, we are content to hear someone quote Hendrix and Jimmy Page. We mistake that for greatness. We are connoisseurs of craft, instead of champions of originality. I see this in many parts of our art and culture (with obvious, but telling, exceptions that prove the rule). It’s as though we were so starved of this kind of thing during the Apartheid years that we believe it is sufficient to simply keep up with the Joneses. And as long as we do that we will never have an iconic world band emerge from this country.

It is wonderful that young South Africans are so supportive of local music. From Hip Hop to Rock, Metal and RnB we have lots and lots of love for local music. Credit must go to radio stations, venues and people in general for snapping out of the belief that South Africa has no talent. We have, in some ways, drifted to the opposite extreme. We now think we have so much talent that all we need to do is show up and throw empty beer cups at one another. We’re great so what’s the problem?

The problem is that we are going nowhere with all of this. There is no emergent culture or style in the way that kwaito, or even boereorkes, was. There are just white guys, with fake American accents, aping acts from times gone by, who were blessed with more talent and the benefit of being pioneers. It’s kind of tragic when you think of it like that. Or, if not tragic, then at least self-defeating. I’m not taking away from the fact that everyone in the stadium had a jolly old time when Dan laid down his blue notes against a 4/4 rhythm. But having fun and growing culture are not the same thing.

We have to start supporting musicians whose goal is not to be a great example of something but to create something new. And whilst they too will be derivative and inspired by others they will, in the process, create something that is an expression of our country and our culture. Something we can export with pride and be the world’s best exemplar of. Springsteen took to the stage and utterly, effortlessly, erased any memory of Patlansky within one song. And well he might: he is the best in the world at being what he is. We stare, as South Africans, in wide-eyed wonder as much at his fame as at the object lesson. He cannot be dismissed. This is what we need to encourage and nourish in our own land.