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Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Rip it Up and Carry on From Where We Left Off Yesterday...

Still reading Simon Reynolds' Rip it Up and Start Again. Excellent chapters on the Sheffield scene and Gang of Four/Mekons/Delta 5 Leeds University scene. Reynolds observes that in highly militant lefty Sheffield (they flew a red flag above the Town Hall there for many years), rebellion actually consisted for many of *avoiding* the Clash-style urban guerilla chic that the southern softies went in for. Hence the rise of the Human League (named after a team in some daft sci-fi computer game - Oakey was well into his Dick. Philip K, that is...) et al., for whom apeing the glammy glitz of Bowie and Ferry was a far more seditious act. Indeed, my pet faves Roxy Music were enormously big in the city of steel; the leading lights of Cabaret Voltaire allegedly cornering Eno in the bogs at a lecture he was giving nearby and foisting one of their Dada-inspired home recordings onto him.

Reynolds astutely points out that the scene in Sheffield was as vibrant as it was partly because of the old Labour Council's policies - 5p to ride anywhere on the local buses, ample rehearsal/performance space opened up under its auspices for the local bands to get stoned and run riot and so on. One such was The Meatwhistle club which offered a valuable early plaform to most of the city's emerging talents sounds a most unlikely utopia: communal meals, illicit drug-taking and weekly open spots, all hosted by the city council with benign indifference. Indeed, the pre-punk scene in the city sounds anarchically akin to the Dadaist nightclub that gave CV their name. And it's here that you again begin to wish that Reynolds had structured the book slightly differently and maybe looked at his material more thematically. It's hard to credit such an atmosphere of municipal tolerance and lackadaisical nurturing in today's world of corporate blanding out and tendering out.

Interesting too to read Reynolds' assessment of the ideologically driven Gang of Four - "emasculated cock rock" (...and he's a fan too, by the way) Again, the band's worthy aspiration to eschew the sexist language of rock and desire to deconstruct romantic attachment - previously the chief subject matter of the pop song - remind one of the reason so may of these bands didn't make it into the Swipe record collection at the time. You sense that even Reynolds wants to say what one feels oneself about bands who set out to move so far from the dominant form as to be almost unrecognisable as pop music: go and right a bloody essay and let us get on with enjoying the music. And this is perhaps central to my fogeyish feeling that he's perhaps overstating the gloriousness of these years.

Reading Reynolds questioning the repressed nature of lead Gangster Andy Gill and pinpointing the conflicts between the GofF's undoubted manliness and their uneasy acceptance of the constraints of political correctness, you began to realise what was missing. Hard for a right-on, manifesto clenching collective of musoes to tackle the many complexities of the thorny subject of sexual uncertainty in an age when the whole issue of gender was highly politicised. True. But the same subject matter provides just one strand to the career of a pop genius like Morrissey. And this is probably going to lose me most of my readership, but you do start to realise that that horrible old Martin Amis/Eric Morley word is the only one that does justice to what is lacking in so many of the acts Reynolds is presenting as being the saviours of popular music: talent.

I was thinking about the long history of the popular form. If you'll excuse a brief digression into the mists of time, its chief narrative seems to me to be the secularisation of spiritual music. Soul music is gospel style applied to the pleasures and pains of prosaic urban life. The Blues descended from African spiritual music, those West African tribal incantations fusing with the missionary inculcated Christian hymns to form the field spirituals of the slave diaspora. The same transformation is evident in white country music - just listen to Hank Williams or Johnny Cash to hear the honky tonkification of white church music. The two strands fuse in Presley - that glorious plasticised angel's voice of his. In his best work, he's perched atop the apex where the secular and spritual meet and the joy of listening to him is in the tremulous uncertainty as to which way down the mountain he'll slide; the sublime or the ridiculous. And that's what records embody for me - the most materialistic device you could conceive of; uniform, mass produced and utterly worthless, only when it's done right, they're charged with such spirit, such beauty that you wonder at how the plastic could ever have contained it. That's, to be pretentious and music criticy for a second, the uber narrative here: the erosion of the spiritual by the mechanical. You can hear it playing out in the work of all the best artists: Presley, Cash, Beatles, Bowie, Ferry, Lydon, Morrissey all embrace that central contradiction and work with it. It's all very well to say you want to break with the past, but if you do, you are leaving behind one hell of a story.

And I guess that's my quibble with much of the stuff Reynolds is writing about. It's too clever by half, doesn't know it's history and ultimately just ain't up to the job because it wants to stop doing what you most need it to do. There's something ineffable about the best music, so you have to admire anyone who tries to pin it down with words,and Reynolds writes with a nerdy passion shared by all the best writers about pop. But if the answer is, in the end, a feeling, then I'll stick with Al Green's voice catching on the phlegm in his throat as he sings "How can you mend a broken heart?" Or Scotty Moore hamfistedly scuffing the beginning of the second solo on 'Hound Dog' and coming up with something unrepeatably brilliant. Sometimes that's all you need to know. And maybe this is why Reynolds wondered so intensely if he'd been wasting his time with music all these years. Maybe he had. Or just listening to the wrong stuff, perhaps.

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  1. Surely writing about music is like dancing about art?

  2. Good one realdoc. I'm trying to make my own meagre contribution to this fascinating debate but blogger won't let me publish.

  3. Never reckoned much to Gang Of Four myself - too joyless and worthy. Likewise, Scritti Politti were way better when producing brilliant offbeat pop songs like The Sweetest Girl and Faithless, not all the noodly Skank Bollock Bologna nonsense.

    I'm now starting to sound exactly like my parents: "you call that singing? It's bloody shouting, that's what it is" etc.

  4. I like that Gang of Four song that's got two men singing different words at the same time. Don't know what it's called.

    Otherwise, I prefer Franz Ferdinand.

  5. I think it was called Love Like Anthrax, Spin.

    Not to be recommended....especially with cockrot.