One of Paul Morley’s clever quotes about music I shamelessly copied and adapted myself many times. When associated with ZTT Records in the 1980s he described one of the label’s signings The Art of Noise as “God’s backing band”. It was obvious that his description scarcely applied to that band, except with heavy irony, but I felt it was a phrase which might be applied to other artists whose talent lifted them rather closer to the heavenly, like the late Sandy Denny and the happily still thriving Richard Thompson. So Denny might be reasonably described as “God’s backing singer” and Thompson as “God’s guitarist”.
Catching many of Morley’s contributions to TV arts reviews in later years, I saw that he, a middle- aged man who has heard a lot of popular music, was seeking aural stimulation elsewhere, so I was not surprised to read his recent article exalting the splendours of the music which we all still tend to categorise as “classical”.
Unlike me, Morley has listened closely over the years to the major figures of jazz as well as of pop and rock – his article refers to Ornette Coleman and Thelonius Monk – and I am sure that this will have guided him towards orchestral classical music. After all, jazz was once described, certainly by Wynton Marsalis, and possibly by others too, as “black classical music”.
In the 1980s the New Musical Express for which Morley wrote often gave an equally high profile to jazz artists like Marsalis, Courtney Pine and Miles Davis as to more familiar rock names like Prince, the Smiths, New Order and Bruce Springsteen. Personally, although I knew I should be finding out about the jazz greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, I was reluctant to do so, partly because their music is largely instrumental, and also because, at least by reputation, it centred around long periods of improvisation. At that time I was still more drawn to vocal music and to words which I could understand, and, on the occasions when I did move away from that strait-jacket, it was towards the new African artists like the Bhundu Boys, Salif Keita and Ali Farke Touré.
Morley is fairly scathing towards modern pop and rock music and many of his generation will agree. It “has become the status quo” and “trad”; while some changes in its sound have taken place during the last two or three decades, “what is sung about remains more or less the same; the poses, controversies and costumes repetitive and derivative”.
Here, as I have heard him do before, Morley ponders, not just the quality, but the purpose of present-day pop music . He says that “machines are now the new pop stars (and) performers and singers are like travelling sales workers whose ultimate job is (simply) to market phones, tablets, consoles, films, brands”. I tend not to follow him down that particular road. I think listeners are still looking for entertainment, stimulation and provocation, even if that comes in a different musical or technical package than it used to do – or a similar one. Younger listeners will inevitably have different preferences to older because they have heard less and will find freshness where Morley and I don’t.
Morley’s article could be accused of being a bit too self-regarding when it lists disparate artists and makes tenuous musical connections . For example, in one place, Luciano Berio with Bob Dylan and Cecil Taylor; in another, Elizabeth Cotten, Thelonius Monk, Beyoncé and Autechre. However I readily agree with the main thrust of his argument and it would be good if BBC Radio 6 Music applied some of his ideas in its programme scheduling.
“Classical music is not all big, mighty orchestras and epic, overpowering, bloody-minded symphonies, or tarted-up operatic fussiness”, Morley reminds us. That chunk of the classical repertoire has usually been a bit overpowering, overcrowded and bombastic for my own taste, in the same way that my liking for heavy metal and progressive rock has been narrow and occasional. Obviously Mozart’s operas and Beethoven’s symphonies were above criticism, like certain parts of the popular music canon. Otherwise I have often preferred the periods on either side, either medieval/Renaissance or 20th century, and certainly smaller groups of instruments and voices.
Listening to classical music is like visiting “mind-bending outer space,” exhorts Morley. He will have displayed similar zeal to describe any number of acts in his earlier life, of course – but we know what he means. It was after all his and my generation which played a large part in us becoming now a culture so prone to superlatives and hyperbole. And it is surely true that we are all always still on the search for exciting new experiences, in the arts and elsewhere.