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Thursday, 9 November 2006

God is in the I-Pod (Part 587)...

I'm re-reading The People's Music for the umpteenth time on the way into work, light as sharp and crystal clear as Ian MacDonald's prose streaming in from the slow rising sun. His examination of the legacy of Nick Drake is a highly revealing masterpiece of proselytsising for a much-loved artist. Drake's transient and delicate songs obviously spoke very profoundly to the sensitive and depressive MacDonald (he eventually took his own life too, so it's quite haunting to read his descriptions of the troubled singer-songwriter's depression and untimely death). In attempting to understand Drake's enormous popularity to a nineties audience, MacDonald beautifully describes the magical, transcendental feeling he himself has for nature when he is working in his countryside home. It's a similar gulf, he argues, between such contemplative calm and the hustle and bustle of contemporary life (with its "loud, shiny, mechanised musical ethos of shallow excitement; glamour and clamour") as it is from our materialistic, rational culture and that which produced Drake's quiet, spiritual muse.

The essay that gives the volume its title posits the familiar old fogey's refrain: pop music has been in serial decline since its 1965-67 heyday. It's a boring and elitist position, I know, but you can't shrug off someone with MacDonald's breadth of subject knowledge. His logic is simple - as in other fields of creative endeavour, it's become easier and easier for anyone, regardless of talent, to make popular music and to be heard. This has inevitably led to a diminution in the quality of what has been produced. MacDonald highlights several factors for this decline. The general slide in standards since the war (and, tellingly, The Bomb) has largely been brought about by the crumbling of the rigid old order of deference. In a more visual culture, people no longer listen as intently as they did. The sixties was an optimistic era in which artists were always looking futureward, demanding new sounds, new techniques, whereas at the time of MacDonald's writing, the popular culture was in the clutches of a cabal of list-making, backward looking children of the 70s intent upon justifying their own youth by constantly rehashing their "so bad it's good" nostalgia. Oh, and punk and sequencers have played their part too.

It's hard to disagree with the thrust of MacDonald's assessment. He cites the biography test: the big names of jazz, for example, whose lives and work warrant hefty biographical tomes rolls off like a rote-learned litany - Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, Coltrane...and so on. Who might we add from today? Wynton Marsalis? The field of pop would suffer similarly, the argument goes - and, apologies to Tim, but will the life and works of Thom Yorke or Frank Ferdinand engross in the same way that those of (off the top of head) Iggy Pop, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, John Lennon, Brian Wilson, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend (and many, many more) do? Individualism has never been more prized in our culture, MacDonald goes on, and yet, perversely, with less to kick out against, that sense of individualism is shallower than it was in the era when to follow one's own path was more of a threat to the prevailing social order, and thus less encouraged. As our individual development encounters fewer barriers, we find ourselves more readily - but this ease comes at a cost; with fewer character building hurdles placed in our way, we inevitably develop less character. Or so the logic goes. The depth of our culture suffers accordingly. The weight of previous achievement stifles the new and there are fewer artists commanding enough to punch with the weight of a Dylan or a Lennon; because, quite simply, they just don't make 'em like that anymore...

Reading this, I start thinking about transcendence and time and my own songwriting, which has always owed a massive debt to what came before. MacDonald highlights Bowie and Ferry's ability to create futurism from an ironic nostalgia and I start thinking wouldn't it be great if you could write a sci-fi country & western song? And then I realise that Bowie's already done it. And in the split second it takes me to recall the title, the clip clop, click guitars of the opening of 'Drive in Saturday' come up on my shuffle-set i-Pod, as if summoned up telekinetically from another realm.

Spooky, huh?

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  1. I think music has been sterile for a long time but recently there seems to be a lot more good stuff out there. Whether this is because the 'means of production' is so accessible or the 'long tail' effect I don't know but I've discovered more good stuff in the last 6 months than in the previous 6 years.
    Maybe I just get better recommendations these days, thanks to you amongst others Mr Swipe.

  2. And where does Wreckless Eric fit into all this?

  3. Lots of food for thought there Robert. My own feeling about pop, British pop anyway, is that it was a natural reaction to the austerity of the war years. I wouldn't say it was ALL downhill since the 60' and 70' just got more mainstream, lost it's edge.

  4. I agree that there's been a lot of good stuff - I've probably listened to more contemporary music over the last couple off years than at any time since my teens. I just find someone like MacDonald interesting because he pretty rejected the sort of relativism that propped up most of the interesting modules that comprised my belatedly undertaken degree. I feel ambivalent about the whole high culture v. low debate because, I suppose, I am such a product of very low culture (grew up in a hoiuse where Alisair MacLean was probably the key literary figure, with chart radio usually on and an intermittently working TV.) Then again, I suffer from the terrible English disease (well, endured by those of us born before Thatcher came to power) of taking pop music far too seriously because it's the only thing not contained in a bottle, can or jar that's ever provided one with something that might loosely be termed a spiritual feeling of transcendence. That inevitably leads to one having quite disproportionately firm and unreasonable opinions about what is, basically, a piece of plastic that makes a noise when you stick it in a suitably configured machine.

    I've jsut started the Sim0on Reynolds one, so I'm afriad that this will probably be a bit of a recurring theme for a while...

    Eric was OK, Stray. I think you'll agree that the Ariels version of Whole Wide World knocks his into a cocked hat though...

  5. I like the fact that there seems to be a new genre of music invented every week at the moment. I like the choice it presents. But hten again i've never been one to stick to one single style of music regardelss of whats out there

  6. I always get worried that I don't hear the 'new' stuff now. I just rely on recommendations from other people. There used to be more of a community feel to music. Now, I wonder how many people have 500 million downloads that they will never listen to. I still like the 'artefact' of the record or CD don't you? I like to hold it and know that it mine and that it sits on a shelf. I suppose that's why I don't have an iPod...because it almost *too* much to take in. It scares me that I'll never be able to listen to it all. Sometimes it's nice to be able to just stick to what you know and be damned. That's why I'll be listening to Tijuana Bass does 1978 Top of the Pops this weekend...

  7. Tedward's Missing Ear10 November 2006 at 13:14

    AAh 'Drive-in Saturday'. Love that tune.

  8. magic-transendental-countryside-nature...

    Or you could jsut go read Tintenr Abbey and leave aside Drake's whiney mewlings.

    Sorry - never got on with him. And I'm way too young to comment on the rest of the post.

    But Radiohead will join the ranks of the greats. They've retained their audience through staggeringly uncommercial outlay. Can't be doing with his whingey-whiney voice meself, but credit due.

  9. In answer to the implied gauntlet thrown down by Bob, I agree with Spinsterella that Radiohead will last, as will a few other post-1990 acts: Nirvana, Beck, the Flaming Lips, maybe a few tracks each of Blur, Pulp, Manics, Oasis. This isn't to say they're as good as the Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Roxy, etc; but it won't be embarrassing to mention them in the same breath.

    But rather than the validity or otherwise of any individual act, I think MacDonald yearned for a time when the musical landscape was groaning with songs that combined musical invention, commercial appeal and (after some time) historical resonance. Not for nothing was his annus mirabilis 1966 - UK number ones in that year included 'Keep On Runnin'', 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More', 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me', 'Paint It Black', 'Paperback Writer', 'Sunny Afternoon', 'Out Of Time', 'All Or Nothing', 'Reach Out I'll Be There' and 'Good Vibrations'.

    With that lot as the First XI, think what the Reserves must be like. And it's that overall depth that's missing today, and what makes the likes of Radiohead stand out.

  10. What music can you call original?
    There's not much out there really, as it is in a constant state of borrowing, mixing and evolution from what has gone on before, as you've said.

    When I really started to get into music, I was into new romantics Adam and the Ants which sounded totally new to me at the time. Of course, I now know that they were heavily influenced by Roxy, Duane Eddy and African drumming. They just happened to put all the pieces together.

    Lately, I've been obsessed with the band known as Mr Bungle and they've done exactly the same with their influences. The originality lies in how they've compounded these influences together.

    Attitude has overtaken musicality to a certain extent (it happened with punk - but a lot of the songs were great). The Prodigy's "Firestarter" is one that'll be remembered, even more so now that we've been subjected to TV programs such as Pop Idol and X-Factor (what's the point of showcasing 'new talent' that sings old songs? Bring back Hughy Green).

    I recently heard "Aeroplanes" by The Aerials and Bobby Swipe can be heard warbling a la Bowie. It's OK, you can't help having influences...a lot of the stuff that I write ends up sounding like The Stranglers!

    This is how it is: You get older, you get wiser. Someone recomends something "that's new, it'll blow yer mind" only for you to become more critical of the music in question because you've allready heard similar stuff as you get more advanced with age.

  11. When all is said and done etc...
    Music is...?
    Buggered if I know really. If I hear something I like, I know I like it and that's good enuff for me.
    I like Nick Drake for example, but to stumble across something current, usually at the behest of my kids, is cool too. My 7 year old is a huge fan of Johnny Burrell (tosser or not, he floats her boat, she complained the other night, when unable to sleep that she "couldn't stop thinking of Johnny with his shirt off".) Now far from disturbing me, i thought this was great. I'd love a kid who gets pop music, plays the piano, and listens to what I play her too, and she does.
    Musical taste tends to be dictated by one's age. When I was deciding who I was, this was done to a soundtrack of bands and people who still move me today. But I don't think it works to say that those particular people are "better" than anyone else. There are always others who would argue about who is better than someone else, but I think I'd rather try and listen to as much as possible.
    I have a confession though. I think I'm going through a slight mid-life crisis. I've recently started listening to jazz...

  12. "Then again, I suffer from the terrible English disease (well, endured by those of us born before Thatcher came to power) of taking pop music far too seriously because it's the only thing not contained in a bottle, can or jar that's ever provided one with something that might loosely be termed a spiritual feeling of transcendence."

    Very well put Robert. In other words it's an identity thing. Kind of like "So what are you then? Beatles or Stones?" Of course we all know it it much more nuanced than that.

  13. God is in Depcast # 4. I think this one warrants your attention Bob.

  14. Hi Bob, 'Kevcast' up and running