Harmful Music

Posted by: Dave Douglas on January 29, 2013 @ 6:53 pm
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Listening

Interested in your thoughts on this. Subjective input on whether music can be too powerfully influential is welcome. Is there a record or records you think have the effect of changing artists to a degree that may be detrimental?

I got on this train when I heard an interview some time ago with an author who listed the “Ten Most Harmful Novelists for Aspiring Writers.” It was Crawford Kilian, a Canadian contributor to the blog, The Tyee, who suggested we simply withhold these works from young authors to protect them from negative influence.

Read Ten Most Harmful Novelists for Aspiring Writers at The Tyee

Why am I writing about this? Because at the time I remember wondering if there would be a corollary in music. Are there recordings or compositions that, because of their power to influence, you recommend young musicians avoid? Records I maybe wish I hadn’t heard because I was never again able to play the same? A conversation with a friend re-triggered the idea.

OK first of all it’s a silly idea. I get it! None of my friends would comment on the record (no pun intended)! Maybe you will. But that’s another issue. You can’t blame the masters for their imitators. But I decided not to scrap this post because I know some folks will chime in. You may do so anonymously (if you prefer) by writing to the Greenleaf Help Desk.

Kilian says some novels are so powerful that aspiring writers are pulled into their orbit, corrupted by unavoidable influence. “[These books] are often well-written, but their effects have generally been disastrous: they inspired younger writers to imitate them, they created awful new genres that debased readers’ tastes, or they promoted literary or social values that we could very much do without.”

The list contains books by Ayn Rand, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, William Golding and it’s true that most folks read these in high school and were affected. He identifies traits we see in writing today (that he abhors), and blames it on Catcher In The Rye, Atlas Shrugged, and On The Road.

Does Kilian really mean they should be verboten? I don’t think so. But influence is something I hear in music a lot. Sometimes I hear it as an avoidance rather than an emulation, i.e., players trying, often to negative effect, not to sound like something or someone. Maybe that is even stronger evidence for the influence problem in music.

Here are some records that changed me. I wonder how different a musician I would be if I hadn’t heard them. I recommend them enthusiastically! But maybe I agree that young listeners should beware their pull…

Miles Davis, In A Silent Way

Don’t even remember how I got it. Listened to it five million times. Can’t play the same way over a vamp in F. Can still sing every note, still go to that church. It’s a masterpiece, but did it profoundly affect countless musicians? Undoubtedly.

Weather Report, Heavy Weather

Just a couple months ago I was in a car with a bunch of musicians and we spontaneously sang together, from memory, Jaco Pastorius’ Teen Town. What a moment of recognition: this was a piece we had all unconsciously internalized! Likewise, A Remark You Made is possibly the most powerful instrumental ballad of the era. There’s a perfection to the production on this record that can be dangerous to attempt in an improvised context. It raised the bar, but it also changed the game for a lot of people.

Woody Shaw, Woody III

Wanted to have a band because of this record. It’s the way they played the arrangements together that most affected me. It felt like a community, with Mr. Shaw’s brilliant musical mind at the helm. There is a spontaneity to the playing here, but it sounds so effortless (I think) because it was a band on the road and at the same time a new imagination of ow a band works that Woody Shaw had the vision to bring into being. Maybe some of the hard work behind putting it together was something I was not as aware of when I listened so obsessively.

I could go on. But I’m really curious what others would say. Which recording or composition do you think has this kind of influence and do you think there is something to NOT hearing them? Which records do you wish you’d heard later? Or earlier?

Be Civil.


  1. When I was growing up, I always heard about this Sgt Peppers album—this was around 6th or 7th Grade. Mind you, I was pretty big into Pearl Jam, Nirvana, even some Iron Maiden, so I wasn't a big fan of early She-Loves-You-type Beatles stuff. But I got that record because it was The Best Record Ever according to whoever. I wish I hadn't have done that. Sure, I liked A Day In The Life, and Mr Kite, but the rest just wasn't my thing. And that was pretty much the end of my exploration.

    Thankfully because of that, I absorbed most of the later Beatles catalog much later than a lot of people, hearing the full sequence of Revolver sometime in college. And because I got to the party pretty late, I feel like I know something different than the folks rolling their eyes at another admission that they were a great band.

    I could point to any number of classic rock records like this. But truth be told, listening for me goes in long and short cycles. I didn't listen to the Dead for maybe 6 years. Then I remembered how great the tunes on Europe 72 were and started listening again. There's something to that thing you used to think was cool, then thought super uncool, then maybe pretty cool again. Waves. Rediscovery is everywhere for me thanks to the web. Historical listening, just like reorganizing your records autobiographically a la High Fidelity, can be as fruitful as seeking out new music.

    Comment by Jim Tuerk — January 29, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

  2. Bitch's Brew followed by "In a Silent Way" for me- Then, "I talk With The Spriits"- Rahsaan Roland Kirk- I think these albums opened sonic possibilities, and that is never a bad thing. Though there was a lot of so called 'Fusion' to follow, none of it sounded like those two recordings- For me, they opened up my rock cloistered ears- Leading to checking out much earlier work and more varied work. Don't think that's a bad thing…

    Comment by Theo Stevens — January 29, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

  3. I spent a long with the music of Miles Davis, first carefully gathering all the recordings, and later on I had to unlearn his perspective (as well with Pat Metheny years ago).

    Comment by Andrzej Kalinowski — January 29, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

  4. Very interesting. I wish I didn't hear modern day (soulive, Karl Denson , Robert Walters… ETC) funk/jazz at such an impressionable age. And I wish I discovered John Zorn's Film Works earlier in life. Just like Jim, My listening goes in cycles, therefor the influence on my playing does as well.

    I've found a huge importance in regards to my playing in having a vast amount of influence. It keeps the orbit of any one artist at a certain minimum. Though I can definitely identify certain times where my love of avant-garde could have been considered "harmful".

    Comment by Fifty Thousand Watts Of Goodwill — January 29, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

  5. Mingus- Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I thought I wasn't going to find jazz all that interesting. Mingus said: you are wrong stupid kid.

    Comment by Todd Steed — January 29, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

  6. OK, I’ll bite. Hopefully this answer is in the spirit of the question. I never added up to much as a musician, but I *might* have had a slightly better chance if I’d never heard Albert Ayler. Lack of discipline and a host of personal problems were really to blame for my failures, but it didn’t help that after listening to ‘Spiritual Unity’ I didn’t want to learn the blues, memorize standards, master the Omnibook or play weddings… All I wanted was to have my EVER LOVING SOUL COME SCREAMING THOUGH MY HORN IN A BLISTERING CAVALCADE OF FACE MELTING SONIC TRANSMISSIONS. So, yeah, maybe it would’ve been better if my friends (and friendly local record store proprietors) would have hid that rack card from me until I had mastered Cherokee at least…

    Comment by Steve Wilmart — January 30, 2013 @ 4:02 am

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