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The tech lets you just get on with playing

The changes in the last time Billy MacInnes saw the Rolling Stones haven't just been to the band line-up

I recently went to a Rolling Stones concert in Dublin. It wasn’t my first time to see the band but given that the last occasion was in 1990, there had been quite a gap in between gigs. Back then, at Wembley stadium, Bill Wyman was still in the group. That concert coincided with the England v Germany semi final in the world cup which went to penalties and it was slightly tarnished for me (a Scotsman) by the fact so many people in the audience were half-listening to radios and Mick was intermittently asking “what’s the score?” in the gaps between songs.

I thought they looked pretty old back in 1990, leathery even, but they performed very well and put on a very entertaining rock concert. 28 years later on a miraculously dry and warm May evening, I watched them again (minus Wyman) in Dublin. Four huge screens behind the stage provided a great view of proceedings for those of us who had bought the cheaper €70 tickets, ensuring we were able to put faces to the stick figures we could see moving in the distance on the stage.

It’s fair to say that they gave a good account of themselves and performed many of their better known songs, as well as a couple of old blues numbers from their blues covers album, Blue and Lonesome, released at the end of 2016. But what was striking was that nearly every song of their own that the Stones performed was originally released between 1965 and 1981, with the exception of The Worst (no, me neither) from the Voodoo Lounge album of 1994.

We often talk about a band’s back catalogue and it’s clear that, in the case of the Stones at least, their catalogue is receding further and further back with every passing year. Does it matter? Not really. After all, when it comes to entertaining large crowds at a concert, it’s probably sound advice to “play what they like” rather than “play what you want”.

But it does speak to the band’s waning creative force. After all, despite Jagger’s best efforts to the contrary, there’s only so long you can write mildly suggestive songs about sex. Never mind worrying about the response from your peers as you grow old disgracefully, the greater fear is what your grandchildren might think. Which reminds me that the first time my eldest daughter, then just four, saw a video of the Stones in concert, she asked who the grandads were playing on the television.

In all the years they’ve been touring, the Stones have experienced some major advances in the technology around performing, things like electronic guitar tuners, wireless mics, in-ear monitors, sophisticated sound and mixing systems, computerised lighting systems, the aforesaid video screens, wireless guitar systems that mean they don’t need leads anymore, even the way people buy and collect their tickets.

And yet, despite all those advances around what the band does, it’s still doing the same thing it’s always done. Playing music.

That’s pretty much what most technology is supposed to do. Allow people to get on with their jobs or tasks but help them do that in a way that provides a better experience to their customers. True, technology can often significantly change the way those jobs are done, but the objective is still the same. Where it can often go wrong is when people decide that technology should take centre stage rather than make things better for those already on it.

It’s a bit like telling Mick, Keef, Ronnie and Charlie to ditch the rock and roll, dump their instruments, get themselves some drum machines, sequencers, digital samplers and synthesisers and start playing hip hop. From the point of view of technological advancement in music, that might make perfect sense, but the result would be truly awful to behold (and hear). Those of us who work in the IT industry or around it, would be well-advised to remember that if we don’t want to leave people complaining they can’t get no satisfaction from their technology.

And no, reminding people that You Can’t Always Get What You Want would not be an appropriate response in that context.

This was last published in May 2018

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