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Alan Cross: Let’s explore some musical alternate realities

Bob Marley
Bob Marley performs on stage with The Wailers at Houtrust Hallen on May 13, 1977 in The Hague, Netherlands. Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

On the most infinitesimal level of reality, normal physics breaks down, and we end up struggling with the strangeness of quantum mechanics.

Amongst the many theories seeking to explain how the universe works at the sub-atomic level is the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI), first brought forth by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957. At the risk of oversimplifying everything, the inherent uncertainties and probabilities of the quantum world, the MWI says that if you can imagine an outcome for a certain event, then there somewhere exists a universe where that outcome is reality.

(If you want to go down this rat hole, just look up “wavefunction collapse” and “quantum decoherence.”)

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The MWI is a fun place to play when it comes to creating speculative fiction. What if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War? Then we might have ended up living in a scenario similar to what we see in the TV series The Man in the High Tower. Quentin Tarantino had fun with alternative universes in both Inglourious Basterds (Hitler and his entire crew are wiped out while watching a movie) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (the Manson murders were thwarted). Canadian sci-fi writer Robert Sawyer has a trilogy of novels where Neanderthals did not go extinct. Writer Philip K. Dick, a big fan of the MWI, once delivered an address called “If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others.”

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Once you start getting into these what-if scenarios — here are some examples — your imagination starts to run wild. Can we apply all this to music? Absolutely. All of this is pure speculative fiction, of course, but it does make for a fun series of thought experiments.

Scenario: The Beatles never broke up

Our reality: The Beatles announced their breakup in April 1970 with all four members embarking on solo careers.

Alternate reality: They worked out their differences and continued to work together.

Despite the issues around the group’s finances and disagreements over management, The Beatles decided to carry on. After Let It Be was released, the group decided to take a break when it was agreed that each member would release one solo album over the course of an 18-month period after which they would reconvene to work on a new Beatles record. Having outgrown working with producer George Martin, they enlisted Glyn Johns, the engineer that helped with the Get Back sessions and was enjoying success with Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.

Graduating to 16- and 24-track recording studio technology, The Beatles’ music became more complex, evolving into a sound somewhere between Supertramp and ELO. In 1975, after much negotiation, they accepted the biggest concert guarantee of all time to play a one-off charity gig (complete with a closed-circuit pay-per-view broadcast) in London’s Hyde Park. But a year later, punk hit, suddenly making The Beatles feel irrelevant. While there was never a formal breakup, the members quietly drifted apart to do their own musical projects and philanthropic pursuits. Happily, because John Lennon never moved to New York, he was never assassinated.

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Scenario: Bob Marley recovered from cancer

Our reality: Bob Marley was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in Miami on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36.

Alternate reality: The treatments worked. Marley beat cancer.

Marley’s near brush with death had a profound effect on a man who was already very spiritual. While making music remained very important to him, cancer left him with some physical impairments that made it difficult to play the guitar. Realizing he’d been given a second chance, Marley was persuaded to get into politics on a full-time basis and became a voice for those affected by poverty and oppression.

While some wanted him to run for prime minister of Jamaica, he demurred, saying that he didn’t have the experience or the cunning to be a politician at that level. Instead, he accepted a role with UNESCO for a half-dozen years before joining the World Health Organization. In 2005, Jamaica named him as their ambassador to the United Nations, where he became an outspoken advocate for developing nations, focusing the planet’s attention on the atrocities in places like Darfur.

As a Rastafarian, Marley helped the movement explode in popularity worldwide with membership jumping from one million to more than 10 million. And because cannabis is an important Rasta sacrament, more of the world moved to legalization more quickly.

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Scenario: Kurt Cobain didn’t die by suicide

Our reality: Depressed and heavily addicted to drugs, Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 5, 1994.

Alternate reality: The intervention held by friends and family in March 1994 worked. Cobain went to rehab, cleaned up, found the cause of his stomach issues and lived to compose another day.

Nirvana may have survived Cobain’s physical and mental health scare, but the group wasn’t long for this world. An already tense situation over songwriting royalties became worse, while the presence of Courtney Love strained the relationship Cobain had with Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. While Novoselic was happy to do whatever his old friend wanted, Grohl felt increasingly marginalized and, after one more album with the group in 1996, decided to go solo. He ended up forming the Foo Fighters, surprising everyone with his talent and versatility.

This suited Cobain fine. Worried about being pigeonholed as a grunge guy, he began exploring new territory that paralleled that of former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, releasing a series of whiskey-voiced, highly emotional albums that, while not selling in great numbers, were well-received critically. Embracing a new drug-free lifestyle, Cobain also began a series of collaborations with Michael Stipe of REM (someone who really did reach out to him before he died), Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and, surprisingly, Jeff Buckley.

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Eventually, his marriage with Love broke down, and by 1998, they were divorced. Novoselic, tired of the drama and all the touring, began to devote more of his time to working as a political activist, effectively retiring from music except when Cobain needed his help.

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Then, a surprise announcement: Nirvana reformed for a 10th-anniversary release celebration of Nevermind at the 2001 edition of Glastonbury. While their set was a bit sloppy — they were, after all, out of practice — it was generally regarded as a success, and the subsequent live album was a major seller. That would be the last time Nirvana would appear together, as Cobain went back to his singer-songwriter ways, occasionally surfacing to support various feminist charities. Grohl continued with the Foo Fighters, and Novoselic stepped away from music entirely.

Scenario: The major labels bought the original Napster

Our reality: Several major recording labels seriously discussed buying Napster but couldn’t reach an agreement. And while Napster was eventually sued out of existence, illegal file-sharing took off, and the music industry ended up having to bow to the wishes of Steve Jobs and iTunes.

Alternate reality: The labels overcame all their differences and bought Napster in 2000.

Truth is that even if the labels had bought Napster, they would have faced serious regulatory scrutiny over what could have been seen as monopolistic action. But let’s say for a moment that they were able to get around that.

Being the competitors that they are, the labels would have jockeyed for control of the new platform, and no matter what the division of powers would have been, they would have screwed it up. After shutting Napster down in hopes of protecting their precious physical CD sales, the labels panicked when new decentralized file-sharing platforms appeared, just as they did in our universe. In an effort to create a digital store that they controlled, the majors created a Frankenstein monster of a solution loaded with digital locks and restrictions — just as they did in our universe with PressPlay and MusicNet. Everything they tried was rejected by the public.

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Steve Jobs then appears with iTunes (sans its original digital rights management hassles) and its ability to handle micro-transactions with credit cards. The labels buy in, and we end up exactly where we are today but perhaps delayed by a year or two.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play