Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dancing About Architecture - a digression

That last piece about ELP was about as negative as I've managed so far. This would be unusual for professional music journalism.

I mostly read the glossy monthly mags, Uncut, Mojo, Q, The Word, that sort of thing, these days, but not regularly. They're expensive so I pick and choose according to content - a feature on Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd may enhance your circulation in this corner of Gloucester by 1, while extensive naval-gazing about Britpop will keep the shelf full. Throughout the late seventies, however, I bought the weekly New Musical Express - then a newspaper rather than the mag. it is now - religiously. Much of the writing was witty and, by the standards of the day, a little risque, which was and remains a selling point for spotty teenagers. While I was in the sixth form punk rock arrived and changed the content, attitude and staff of the publication. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill were drafted in as revolutionary young guns with attitude, an attitude which was sometimes downright obnoxious. When Pete Townshend's Empty Glass solo album arrived in 1980 one track, Jules and Jim, was a blunt attack on the pair referencing their view that Keith Moon's death two years earlier didn't matter. Ironically it was Townshend, or at least The Who, who indirectly broke my allegiance to what had been my bible for the past 5 years.

Following Moon's death in September 1978 it was announced with almost undignified speed, that The Who would continue with Kenney Jones, formerly of the Faces, on the drumstool. Eventually, on 18th August 1979, I travelled down from Chester with my sister and A.R. to The Who And Friends Roar In, their first major concert (bar a couple of low-key warm-ups) since the enforced change in personnel, an 80,000 ticket sell-out at Wembley Stadium. Sometime I'll get round to writing a full account of the show, but for now let's just say that while Jones was no Moon and the Greater London Council shut down the much anticipated laser show, the vast majority of the 80,000 enjoyed themselves. They sang along with every song (there was no new material) and cheered as loudly as any crowd I've been in. Strange then, that the following Thursday the N.M.E. carried a review which was disparaging to say the least. The writer may have been at the gig, but the impression given was that he was way too cool to admit that these dinosaurs had any validity in 1979 and so might as well have saved himself the bother. 79,999 paying Who fans had a great time, but the clown from N.M.E., with his free ticket, probably adorned with a coveted access-all-areas pass, felt obliged to write the band's obituary. It was not a great show, but nor was it the abomination described. With Chester a relative backwater for music, we did rely on John Peel and music journalism to tell us what was new and worth hearing. If The Who had lost their street credibility, while the one-dimensional now-you-hear-them-now-you-don't likes of Sham 69 were somehow overflowing with it, I don't need to stay cool, I thought. And I stopped reading N.M.E.

The monthly glossies are written by many of the people who once worked on N.M.E., although Parsons is now a novelist and Burchill is what the profession calls a "commentator", although I could suggest a few other words. The magazines deal extensively in nostalgia, covering the endless re-issues, "newly discovered " archives (stuff deemed unworthy of release when it was recorded) and live reformations that generate a chunky portion of music industry revenue. Of course, they also endeavour to be down-with-the-kids by featuring this month's bright young things, of whom some will turn out to be the revered dinosaurs of 2040! Overall, though, the tone is largely positive with negativity mostly reserved for reviews of recordings which may or may not warrant it. Still, if you believe reviews of any kind, caveat emptor! A couple of years ago I bought an album (British Sea Power) solely on the strength of rave reviews. Never again.

This isn't to say that I'd deny anyone an opinion, nor expressing that opinion in writing for money, but the pinch of salt once taken has become larger over the years. I had always thought the line "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" was coined by Frank Zappa. FZ certainly used it, however a snuffle around the internet suggests not only that others including Elvis Costello have used it, but that similar expressions have been knocking about since 1918. Have a look at   for a fascinating bit of research.

Anyway, whoever started it, they were right in the sense that music is an emotional experience and while D.H.Lawrence may have come close, emotions really elude verbal description. Now, that kind of argues for making myself redundant from this endeavour, "a music blog from Gloucester U.K." as it says in the title. However, going back to the beginning of this entry, what I'm after presenting myself is a largely positive and (subjectively) truthful account of what music has meant and does mean to me, rather than any kind of point scoring arrangement. As an amateur, for a start, I only really get to see shows and listen to records properly that I have chosen to pay for. I could "review" stuff on the radio or from Spotify, I suppose, but that's not a prospect that excites me, nor you, I dare say. Consequently what appears here is biased, but in the opposite direction to what you'd expect from many of the professionals, in that I like some aspect of the act I go to see or I wouldn't go to see them (support bands excepted). So if I tell you that I really like the recent Richard Hawley record, Standing At The Sky's Edge, that's because I do, but you might not. If I say his next record sucks, though, it will be because I thought it would be good on the strength of this one and as a fan I am disappointed. Similarly, if I can't hear the words at a gig because there's a chimp running the sound-desk, I'll moan because I was looking forward to hearing something I know I like already.

I suppose my point is that I really don't see the benefit in music journalism which, like that review of The Who in 1979, is written from a pre-conceived perspective, unless that perspective is also pre-declared. The pretension of objectivity cultivated by the music press which relies on the patronage of record companies and promoters for advertising, review copies (which regularly find their way to the capital's second-hand record shops) and free tickets for their existence, renders the content suspect. That's not to say that it's corrupt, but open to question, certainly.

A footnote to the N.M.E. tale is that the paper and others like it would regularly set up a band as the next big thing, only to knock it down with a "backlash" to coincide with the next tour, the second album or whatever. They would even joke about the impending backlash before it happened. At least, that's how I remember it. Sometimes the backlash may have been deserved. Often the records and/or gigs referred to remained unheard in the depths of Cheshire so we just had to take their word for it. Happily that is no longer the case. Aside from the proliferation of broadcast media that make new music and its authors more accessible in 2012 (6Music, web radio, numerous T.V. channels), there are ways of listening to many new releases legally (Spotify), partially (iTunes preview button) or illegally (naughty downloads). Artists also promote new material while avoiding the established system altogether, by posting on YouTube, MySpace and others so that the influence of printed words has diminished significantly. Maybe that's why the tone seems gentler than it was 35 years ago?

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