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.
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