Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Not so long ago, anything outside the canon of Western classical music was considered at best irrelevant to music education. There was 'serious' music, which merited serious study, and then there was everything else. Popular music, the music that had played a central role in the lives of (especially) young people over three or four generations, the music that actually made millions of people feel things, was nothing more than vulgar, distracting noise to the musical gatekeepers within our schools, university music departments and conservatoires.
If you wanted to learn a serious instrument, you learned to sight-read and you learned music theory. You eventually learned a good deal of musical history and context. If you wanted to play rock guitar you went to your local long-haired old rocker (every town had one) who could show you some licks but didn't know a crotchet from a hemiola or an augmented sixth from a slap in the face. There was very little in between. I remember trying to convince my class music teacher that Iron Maiden's twin lead guitars shared something with Vivaldi's string writing. He was seriously (almost detention-provokingly) unimpressed by this idea.
In Britain, even jazz was a dirty word in music education until some point in the eighties. Leeds College of Music, where I studied in the nineties when it was still staffed mainly by that wonderful breed of crusty, chain-smoking, elbow-patched British jazz veteran of whom there are very few left, originally had to disguise their jazz course - at the time the nearest thing to a British version of Berklee - behind the term Light Music. In hindsight it seems incredible that associating a study course with the musical wallpaper of James Last, Frank Chacksfield and Klaus Wunderlich might confer the credibility that Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Chick Corea couldn't. Literally incredible.
By the time I studied at Leeds, this had begun to change and jazz was rightly out and proud. They even had a course at the Royal Academy of Music, and my year at Leeds was the first to do an actual degree (as opposed to a 'listen up, here's how you do it' vocational diploma). And rock? Not so much, yet. But to get into Leeds you had to have grade 8 on your instrument; my classical guitar skills were severely lacking so I took the all-new Rockschool grade 8 electric guitar exam instead. Years later they told me I'd been their first grade 8 candidate.
Fast forward fifteen years or so, and I bagged a role in the arranging, recording and production of Trinity College London's Rock & Pop syllabus. It's like a classical grade syllabus, except the candidates play to backing tracks rather than an accompanist. They get to be 'in the band', playing real songs from the past sixty years - vocals, production touches and all. It was a huge success, and five years later we replenished it with new material - over 300 songs. I'm also an examiner for the syllabus, so in normal non-pandemic times I get to travel the world and hear my tracks in action.
The syllabus is wonderfully varied in terms of both style and era: everything from Elvis to Rage Against The Machine; The Beatles to Rihanna; Queen to Taylor Swift. I worked with a whole bunch of fabulous instrumentalists and singers. In particular George Double, on drums, has always been an absolute joy to work with on this and other projects. George always seems completely in tune with the needs of the production, whatever that may require.
The other constant presence when I'm somewhere in the world hearing these tracks back is that of Bo Walton. Bo is one of the most versatile singers I've ever worked with. He's also a compulsive mimic, so he was the perfect choice on a big proportion of the songs. I've known him since I was about three. He's been obsessed with Elvis ever since then, and he's really like Elvis in many respects: not only when singing Elvis songs or other early rock 'n' roll (which I would go as far as to say he does better than anyone else alive. Yes, really) but in a broader sense: he can sing anything and make you feel he really, really means it. That's rare. Elvis had it in spades and so does Bo, but with added versatility.
Because Bo is on so many of the tracks, and because the most popular instrument is drums, there's a good percentage of the syllabus where I'm out in the field basically listening to nothing but myself (guitar, bass, general production), Bo, and the candidate. It's really quite strange: the two of us Herefordshire lads, and an eight-year-old in remote South India. Or Hong Kong. Or South Africa.
Trinity examining work has gone virtual for the time being as a result of the pandemic. So instead of travelling, I sit at home assessing videos. I get the same fuzzy feeling sometimes. Obviously I can't share these videos, but watching them has prompted me to search for public YouTube videos of essentially the same content. It turns out there are loads out there, of both kids and teachers. Drummer Ayden, aged five, has to be my favourite so far but there are lots more. In all of the videos below you are hearing the video 'star' plus some combination of me, George and Bo (or one of the other equally great singers, where noted).
Music education has come a long way. Watching these reaffirms my view that, to coin a phrase from George, We Made A Good Thing. I'm fiercely proud of it.
(Billie Jean vocals: Brendan Reilly)
(Pressure & Time vocals: Tom Adamson)