Tag Archives: Music

The new ladder


Happy New 2019!

Famously, in decades recently past, the arts have been a rewarding way for young people in the UK from modest backgrounds to make a national impression.

In the 1960s Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Glenda Jackson became successful actors; in the 1970s came others like Stephen Rea, Jack Shepherd, Jonathan Pryce and Paul Copley.

From the 1960s onwards, hundreds of young people from all regions of England, Ireland and Scotland became successful as pop and rock musicians.

Such career paths seem less available nowadays, due to a loss of venues and promoters and audience, and perhaps an overall decrease in national confidence about the value of the creative arts.

In the 21st century, a better route for an ambitious young person looks like journalism, especially in the areas of politics and government. It has certainly created high-profile opportunities in national television discussions and book festivals and other live culture events for people like Owen Jones, Stephen Bush, Ash Sarkar and Ella Whalen. In their youth and self-confidence they seem very similar to those actors and pop stars of the past.


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Mother, come and see what is outside


On the television of my youth, Amahl and the Night Visitors by the Italian-American Gian Carlo Menotti was another of those narratives which enlarged the familiar Christmas bible story with new characters. This time it was the three kings, the Magi , stopping at the house of a young widow and her disabled son, as they follow the star to Bethlehem. Unfortunately for me it was an opera, albeit a short one, so I never actually watched it until this year!

It was actually premiered on American TV in 1951, and You Tube retains a couple of the early TV versions. Video clips and text reviews show it is frequently revived in stage performance.

Menotti’s music is accessible classical with some decent melodies. The woodwind tune which opens and closes the drama, supposedly played by Amahl on his pipe, reminded me, in my modest knowledge, of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The section of the shepherds’ singing and dancing also seemed reminiscent of that work. The arrangements in the older TV productions seem a bit syrupy and overdone so it is good to have the contemporary performances on video as a crisper, fresher alternative.

However, one particular attraction of the 1960s TV version is its set and costume design. In its look, recounting a story of rural poverty and hardship, it seems to evoke the then recent Italian cinema of neo-realism.

The libretto has many attractive references to Italian food. Amahl hopes that his successful begging will allow them to “eat roast goose and sweet almonds” and King Kaspar offers Amahl “black sweet liquorice”. The shepherds bring the kings a cornucopia of local produce like “olives and quinces…medlars and chestnuts…goats cheese and walnuts” and then add with no apparent hint of irony, “This is all we shepherds can offer you”.

Amahl’s mother clearly remembers what it is like to have enough to eat, and complains about the selfishness of rich people who don’t appreciate their privilege. “Do they know how to roast sweet corn on the fire?…Do they know how to spice hot wine on cold winter nights?”


The Chapel of the Angels in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, where, by Christian tradition, the angels appeared to the shepherds when Jesus Christ was born.


It might seem a bit strange that Amahl and his mother are so needy since the shepherd families who live nearby are clearly more comfortably off, but that may demonstrate one household’s pride in its individual effort and resilience and that all those living in the countryside face an ever-changing cycle of comfort and difficulty.

The Magi have brought the traditional material gifts for the new-born child and the sight of these tempts the mother to steal. This suggests a plot inconsistency in that King Melchior allows her to keep the stolen gold, explaining that “the child we seek doesn’t need our gold” because “on love alone he will build his kingdom..” Why bring the gold if they know that?

The answer seems to be that they do not know for sure. They are human, hopeful searchers. The story ends with a miracle of Amahl’s cure, because of his faith in the new Christ-child and his wish to meet the child in person to present his gift. The Magi are equally amazed by this miracle. They call him the “blessed child” and ask his permission if they can touch him. Amahl joins them in their onward journey. There is the strong impression that son and mother will never meet again, that Amahl is now giving his life to Jesus Christ as an apostle.


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Young music in old stations


The various people who have run the BBC’s main classical music station, Radio 3, during the last 50 years have often worried that they need to make its audience bigger and younger. That has led to setting up programmes of music which is associated with a younger audience – in other words, the various sub-genres of what we still tend to call pop and rock music.

45 years ago, in the days of my early music discoveries, they had Sounds Interesting, presented by Derek Jewell. 20 years later, there was Mixing It, with Robert Sandall and Mark Russell, which metamorphosed into Late Junction, with Verity Sharp, Fiona Talkington and others.

The latest version of this development includes the programmes Night Tracks and Unclassified. Like all the previously named, these are scheduled for late at night – although of course that means little in this digital on-demand radio world beyond the signal that the station management expects them to get a smaller audience.

Neither programme appears openly to define its ideal audience as “young” or even “people who don’t normally listen to classical music”. Night Tracks  aims to be “adventurous” and “immersive”. It does include famous classical composers but also less well known names from that genre plus “pop” people like Tom Waits or Tim Buckley or Kraftwerk.

Unclassified suggests its listeners will be people who have “curious ears” and be willing to “get lost” in sounds which are “soothing, serene and strange”. Its music belongs in a “grimy” basement venue or a “quirky art-house” cinema as much as a “prestigious” concert hall. In practice, that means music which is often electronic and synthesised and sampled, with sparing use of conventional instruments. Also ambient and gentle and delicate more often than loud and dense and fast.

The broadcasting of pop/rock music tends to give most attention to the performers, who may also be the sole composers, but are not always. In contrast, classical music broadcasting foregrounds the composer who is rarely the performer – although contemporary composers often write to commission for particular instrumentalists or work regularly with the same groups of instrumentalists.

The artistes featured on Unclassified tend to fit that former pop/rock composer/performer category. So it is always puzzling to me that their work is crammed into specialised programmes on Radio 3, sometimes annoying many of its long-term loyal listeners, rather than played widely to a younger audience on the “cutting-edge” BBC Radio 6 Music. However, the quality of the product is probably more important than the source from whence it comes.

Most of the names who have featured on Unclassified were previously unknown to me. But nowadays composers and performers like Carolina Eyck and Erland Cooper and Julia Holter and Oliver Coates and Edmund Finnis and Shiva Feshareki and venues like Café Oto and festivals like Dark Music Days all have websites to provide valuable context.

In Elizabeth Alker,  Kate Molleson and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, Radio 3 have presenters who combine their youth, knowledge and enthusiasm in a deft manner which doesn’t make me feel too old. So I look forward in 2020 to be further educated and rewarded in the way I always felt by  Late Junction.


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The heart of Saturday night


One of my favourite parts of Trevor Griffths’ brilliant 1976 TV drama Bill Brand  is at the very end: a social gathering at the house of Labour MP Brand with his friends from a left-wing theatre group. It’s a Saturday night, which is commented on twice. Friend Jamie remarks that sharing alcohol and singing with friends on a Saturday night will compensate for the disappointing audience reception at that evening’s performance. When Brand apologises for the noise to his visiting neighbour, she brushes it aside: “I’m not bothered…it’s Saturday night.” The collective singing of songs of comradeship, added to an envelope of letters of support which he has just received, encourage Brand to look forward optimistically to the political struggles ahead.

Saturday night was regularly the big night out in the days of the reliable 5-day working week. Perhaps, even within our very different 21st century conditions of employment, it still is. The news media certainly refer to “the weekend” and “the working week” as if we hadn’t years ago invented shift work, 24-hour shop openings and home deliveries.

Saturday night is celebrated in many popular songs by such as Tom Waits (“The Heart of Saturday Night” and “Jersey Girl”), Sam Cooke (“Another Saturday Night”), Elton John (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”) and Whigfield (“Saturday Night”). Saturday night is a time for relief and excitement from drudgery and routine, involving cinemas, dancing, pubs and clubs, and, perhaps, also, romance and sex.

Saturday was also a big night for television programmes in the 1970s – variety shows, comedy, sports highlights, drama both light and more serious, produced in Britain or imported from the USA. The special status of Saturday night television is an idea which the present day media is still attracted to, despite the evidence of much lower audiences. Perhaps it makes them feel that those days of large profits and cultural impact have not entirely vanished. Not so long ago I heard a particular TV performer described as “the king of Saturday night” – possibly it was the late Bruce Forsyth – as if their programmes appeared at no other time in the week.

If Saturday night as a time of relaxation and entertainment has changed less than we might have expected, certainly the political improvement which Bill Brand and his comrades were working for, and expecting, seems like a more ridiculous and more old-fashioned goal.


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Did the counter-culture end?


“There was just a moment in time …when that counter-cultural thing could have happened,” said Shaun Keaveny on his BBC Radio 6 Music programme, reflecting on the Woodstock music festival, “and then it all sort of disappeared again.”

Alternatively, one might argue that a great deal of the counter-culture ethos of the late 1960s did take root in private and public life in the USA and Europe, and spread further in the decades afterwards.

A few examples?

The US presidency of Jimmy Carter, a great fan of Bob Dylan and other popular music of the day, whose government style appeared to be strongly shaped by the counter-culture ethos.

The US presidency of Bill Clinton, who, as Johnnie Walker on BBC Radio 1 pointed out in 1992, was “younger than any of the Rolling Stones and who (played) a mean saxophone.”

The ubiquity of denim as a material of casual clothes, never out of fashion for one second since Woodstock.

Long hair and facial hair for men became totally acceptable throughout the 1970s for older members of the middle-class professions, not merely idling drug-taking students, to the extent that the young rebels of the later 1970s had to revert back to short hair to demonstrate their subversion! Long hair and beards have enjoyed other periods of trendiness since.

The fact that many men in the highest elected government positions and in the most esteemed positions in public life have been self-confessed users of illegal drugs. (You know their names.)

The fact that couples living together and producing children together without being married has been commonplace and unremarkable for many years.

The continuation of mass political protest, most visibly perhaps the protests against nuclear weapons in the 1980s, the anti-war protests of the 2000s and the “green” protests of the 1990s and the present day – even when they are seen to be not very effective.

Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, which perhaps says less about Dylan’s achievements than about the changed knowledge and tastes of the Swedish Academy which made the selection.

Most especially, the constant cultural status of pop and rock music. Shown in the way that most people’s understanding of the word “music” is the pop and rock music produced since 1955 ; that the BBC, one of the most respected broadcasting companies in the world, has four 24-hour radio stations devoted to pop and rock music and only one which regularly covers the other genres; that every summer there are many weekends of large outdoor pop/rock music concerts which are often also broadcast on national radio and TV stations; that the pop/rock music of the past is continually replayed in the soundtracks to films, in TV documentaries and in the performances of “tribute bands” both famous and local.

But one example where the values of the counter-culture have certainly not taken root? That during the last fifty years, in practically every country in the world, material wealth has become more unevenly shared,  and that poverty and deprivation remains visibly widespread.


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Your most important job?


The media of my youth was full of (male) polymaths, I reflected, when I read about the recent death of another. Bryan Magee was a philosophy academic who was also a Labour MP and a television presenter. Two TV series which he presented for the BBC about philosophy now seem astonishingly old-fashioned in their intellectual earnestness; at the time they were screened, I’m afraid, any such discussion programmes I would have been watching would be on the less demanding subjects of cinema, theatre, books and music.

Also on TV in the later 1980s was Pat Kane. He was the lead vocalist and co-songwriter of Hue and Cry, one of several British bands of the period who took their musical cues from US soul and jazz music. From the start, he was a confident interviewee on both musical and political topics, and at one point, I remember, he was writing two Saturday columns for The Herald newspaper, one interacting with theories of arts and culture and the other dealing with day-to-day political issues. As time passed, Kane participated more in the media and less in music. His two current websites The Play Ethic and Thoughtland show a variety of intellectual interests and suggest an impressive capacity for hard work and learning new skills.

Kane’s singing style famously recalled Frank Sinatra as much as Marvin Gaye or John Lennon, and he and his keyboardist brother Greg were an ambitious pair who liked to set themselves apart from contemporaries who sounded similar. For instance, they worked with acclaimed young Scottish jazz and classical saxophonist Tommy Smith, and, on the Big Day concert in June 1990 as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture events, I recall they appeared on the international stage at Glasgow Green with Nanci Griffiths and Les Négresses Vertes rather than the UK pop stage at George Square with Wet Wet Wet.

The Kane brothers’ latest musical work in Hue and Cry shows they have both retained much of their original expertise even if the passage of time makes it sound rather repetitive and familiar. Pat Kane has built a decent career on transferable skills, but I wonder if he wishes his musical career had been more like David Byrne’s or even Damon Albarn’s: more records, bigger venues, more chances to develop musically, a higher reputation among his peers as an artistic innovator.

Jonathan Miller was already a qualified doctor when he became a comedy writer and performer with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. That success led him to more serious work as a theatre and television director. I discovered him as an engaging conversationalist and raconteur on such TV shows as Michael Parkinson’s in the 1970s , where he regularly protested that he was a serious medical person first and that all these stage and TV performances were distractions which he would soon pull himself away from. These different strands in his professional life did seem to come together with his TV series on medicine The Body in Question, although I personally was more interested in his stint as producer of the BBC’s project (during 1978-1984) to televise all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Michael Parkinson’s first period of BBC shows ended in 1982 but revived successfully in 1998 – by which time the original “chat show” description was being replaced more often by the more grandiose American “talk show”, probably because the format was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the TV schedules. I remember noting that similar groups of celebrities whom Parkinson interviewed in the olden days returned in the new period: established Hollywood actors, TV comedians, and sometimes the same people, like Michael Caine or Billy Connelly. But I never saw again Jonathan Miller. He was now in his mid-60s, and he probably felt that the format of the TV interview and the interests of TV audiences had changed too much.

George Thomson was also a Labour MP,  a few years before Bryan Magee, who later became one of the UK’s representatives on the European Commission when the country first joined what was then called the EEC . However he started his adult life as a journalist with DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publisher famous for children’s comics as well as adult newspapers and magazines. “I sometimes wonder,” I heard him say once on TV, “whether I added more to the sum total of human happiness during the years when I was editor of the Dandy.”


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Eurovision, and the particular legacy of Brighton 1974


The weekend of the Eurovision Song Contest, the most well-known event of the European Broadcasting Union and popular music’s closest equivalent to an international celebration, is another suitable time to reflect again about the decades of changes in the music.

As I was growing up, it was obvious that the USA and the UK were the dominant forces in pop and rock music. Other countries’ artistes sometimes seemed to copy openly these countries’ originals; for example, Johnny Hallyday in France. If only more pop music heard in the UK was sung in languages other than English, I used to think, more young people would be encouraged to learn such languages. But such artistes never seemed to emerge into the music mainstream.  Artistes from other countries who enjoyed international status tended to be instrumentalists, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany. World music artistes from the French- and Spanish-speaking countries remained a niche market. The music world became more European only with the rise of electronic dance music in the 1980s, building through the continental clubs of Ibiza and Ayia Napa and the Sónar festival of Barcelona, and most of this music was instrumental where any vocals in any language were unimportant.


Views of three cities which have hosted the Eurovision Song Contest: Amsterdam, and, below, Paris and Bergen.


In its beginning the Eurovision Song Contest was definitely a forum for western and central Europe. Political changes like the end of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union led to the event being hosted and contested by countries formerly on the fringes of and even outside the continent. The fifteen or so participants in the 1960s has now more than doubled to this year’s 40. Qualification procedures seem now as tortuous as for the UEFA Champions League or Formula One motor-racing.

In the 1970s, it was sometimes seen as ironic that, at a time when British pop/rock songwriters and performers like Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Elton John and David Bowie were so successful all around the world, none of these people represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. That was possibly because it was felt that the UK was doing well enough with acts who might be considered as our “second eleven”, like Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and the Shadows. Whatever, it allowed our major figures to concentrate on their serious work in the important markets and stages.

The most musically significant of the artistes who have won the competition during its history is probably Abba, who won in Brighton in 1974. Although Scandinavian, they sang in English, following the dominant US-UK paradigm. Their Eurovision victory led to an international career and further decades of influence and homage.


The Grand Hotel in Brighton.


In the 1970s any self-respecting pop/rock producer or artist could compose a strong melody. Because it was a minimum requirement of which everyone seemed to be capable, it led to arguments among fans about which practitioners were the more culturally acceptable. Abba became an acceptable pop act for the musically snobbish – which most of us were at least some of the time. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (occasionally assisted by Stig Andersson) wrote some great melodies and arrangements for songs like “SOS”, “Money Money Money”, “The Name of the Game”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “One of Us”and “Head Over Heels”. They also wrote lyrics in their second language which were at worst perfectly serviceable, and at best witty and sensitive.

Nowadays I am more interested in the European Broadcasting Union for their annual radio days of music for Holy Week, and Advent broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 3, but a lifetime of listening to pop music has included at least a little attention to the Eurovision Song Contest. While it may not have helped to raise musical standards, it will still, in the middle of a period of European division,  remind viewers and listeners of ideas and a culture which they share in common.


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There be monsters



Some time ago, I discovered Stephen Prince’s website A Year in the Country.  It sought to investigate the strange, frightening and paranormal aspects of the English countryside through his own photography and also by analysing other artistic work such as the writing of Alan Garner and John Wyndham, films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Winstanley and A Field in England, music by folk-rock artists of the 1970s and some later musicians like Kate Bush and Virginia Astley, and some neglected TV drama.

I have since found that Prince’s successful completion of one year has spawned several more, plus a published book and music production.

A recent musical work which fits perfectly into the ambit of A Year in the Country is Pastoral by Elizabeth Bernholz, who performs under the alias of Gazelle Twin. I was guided towards it by two trusted sources, the BBC Radio 3 programme Late Junction  and the online publication The Quietus, who both regarded it one of the best albums of 2018.

The title suggests its subject is a peaceful and stable English countryside. The landscape on the album sleeve evokes the sylvan landscape of painters like Claude Lorraine. The tracks have titles like “Little Lambs”, “Tea Rooms” and “Sunny Stories”.



However, Bernholz’ music shows that she does not believe in an idyll of stability and safety. It is cluttered and dissonant. Sometimes there are heavy bass-like beats, sometimes the sounds are higher-pitched and meandering. The instruments will mostly be keyboard synthesisers but others sound like the flute and the harpsichord. Singing voices are sometimes individual and female, sometimes in choral ensembles. Various speaking voices interject, both male and female, which are usually unhappy and anxious and angry: “it was much better in my day…the streets were safe then…trust no-one…picking the wound bleeds, pus flows…is it not just criminal…I don’t know what I’m doing here…dirty brawl by the town hall.”

The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually characters who disturb the equilibrium and challenge the established order, such as the fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It. The figure on the cover of Pastoral appears to be a contemporary equivalent, dressed in red and white motley but also with a baseball cap, a balaclava mask and training shoes.

The tone and atmosphere of Pastoral is similar to what I understand is the tone and atmosphere of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Where the countryside is vulnerable to the modern urban infections of crime and drugs and where one larger-than-life individual demonstrates that the ideal of a settled community respecting tradition no longer applies.

Journalists are fond of linking every piece of contemporary arts work to the UK electorate’s recent vote to leave the European Union  and to the UK parliament’s debates and disagreements about how and whether this should be carried out. But it is true that the populations of small towns and villages are often older and socially conservative and that they did tend to vote to leave the EU as they seemed to feel membership was responsible for their poverty and deprivation and poor economic prospects.

The Gazelle Twin website describes Pastoral as “a deranged absurd reflection of deranged and absurd times”. Certainly an alternative vision for Easter and St George’s Day.


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The confusing shape of modern pop music


If you’ve been listening regularly to various types of popular music for 50 years, it’s hard to break the habit entirely, isn’t it? You want to keep up to date, to know what the current stars sound like.

And, actually, what the pop/rock mainstream sounds like is the way that it has sounded for a while. The only significant shifts in the sound of most pop music came when the practice of several acoustic or electric instruments being played together at the same time was gradually replaced by such things as synthesisers and computers and sampling, and with voices rapping rather than singing. Those changes took place only slowly and gradually from the 1980s onwards. It is probably true that this is today’s dominant popular musical sound, although other music is still regularly released which sounds similar to other styles of the 1970s or 1990s, such as heavy metal, punk, rhythm and blues, jazz and acoustic.

Writers much younger than me can feel a confusion in navigating the current scene. Kitty Empire admitted in 2017 that there was “(a) matrix of sameyness currently plaguing pop”.  Caitlin Moran made a similar complaint wittily in an interview at the Hay-on-Wye book festival in 2016. “There’s such a uniformity of voice and tone and subject matter across… pop music at the moment,” she said. “ (It’s either) ‘ everybody in the club tonight’ or a very sad man who appears to be sitting in a cupboard with a ukulele playing a very sad song or they’re taking bangers and saddening them, (for example) people are taking massive huge bangers by Queen and paying them very sadly on a ukulele”. Barbara Ellen wrote that the music scene was “almost as dominated by a smug clique of multimillionaire mega-artists as it was back when punk exploded”,  while, in a discussion earlier this year on BBC Radio 3, Luke Turner from The Quietus expressed concern that “ increasingly… this age of algorithms (feeds you) the blandest lowest common denominator rubbish” .

The BBC’s Ian Youngs (or the sub-editor who chose the headline of his article) summarised the current period of popular music as “the collaboration age”.  This may be why, as pondered before,  new artists continually talk about “writing” their new album. Do they worry they have no distinct identity, or are not treated seriously enough? Invariably the released material has been co-written, even that of the most famous icons like Beyoncé, Adele and Ed Sheeran. This must surely be at least partly because competence in playing and a reasonable technical skill in composition are both nowadays rarer.

Even though we are in “the collaboration age” and the business of recording music is for most people still as much a team activity as it ever was, many more artistes today release their work under an individual name rather than a band name. 45 per cent of the most successful albums of 2018 appeared under the names of solo artistes,  whereas in 1995 the percentage was 34%
and in 1978 it was 26%. Although solo artistes often give themselves names which sound like ensemble titles apparently to distance themselves from the old 20th century singer-songwriter stereotype; people like Iron and Wine, Bat for Lashes, Gazelle Twin and Snail Mail.

So why does modern pop and rock music sound as it does? From the 1960s and throughout the 1980s (it will be a matter of readers’ opinion when this period ended) all musicians, geniuses or journeymen, could feel that they were creating something new and fresh out of the earlier genres of blues, country, folk, jazz, rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

But if you are a pop/rock musician in the 21st century, you must surely be aware you are standing on the shoulders of giants, to use Isaac Newton’s phrase. The artists from the past are often still around, their songs are recycled into “jukebox musicals” on stage and screen, documentaries are common on TV and radio, and tribute bands are widespread and accepted. This music of the past is still widely available, and, yes, it is generally of a high quality, which must be the reason that so many contemporary artists want to sound like people you’ve heard before. To give just a handful of examples which I’ve heard on the radio in recent weeks: Anna Calvi, Marika Hackman, Beirut, Pi Ji Ma, Julia Jacklin, Jordan Rakei, Big Thief, Lewis Capaldi, Tom Walker. That leads to the further consequence that reviews you read now explain the music of the present mostly by comparing it to artistes or songs from the past.

When I was young, music preferred by older listeners was orchestral and instrumental and long – although often tuneful. Our pop/rock preferences used electric instruments, shorter songs, vocals and lyrics. The abundance of newer radio stations and music festivals show that the latter has become the norm and the former the exception. Pop music has truly become the “popular” music, the mainstream music, the default setting for most people in the UK of all ages when they use the word “music”.

For me, personally, it is the music which is still usually called “classical” which I usually find myself listening to, whether by deceased composers or current practitioners like Roxanna Panufnik or Thomas Adès or Amanda Feery. Just because it is music I haven’t heard before and is generally considered to be worth some of my attention. Happily, a lot of such stuff is still available free on the internet, even as, encouragingly, ways are being found in the new technology world to provide non-celebrity musicians with some income.

Maybe the new technology will bring further new shapes to the pop music scene. As it did in the 1980s.


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The ancestors of the Sex Pistols


I was slow to start record buying in my teens in the 1970s and most people I knew had larger record collections than I had. Nevertheless, by the time I was in my mid-30s, I was comfortable that, through the rigorous process of listening, buying, borrowing, reading and talking, I was as knowledgeable about the contemporary music culture as the next person. Except on one aspect. I hadn’t yet read the book which everyone agreed was the major piece of critical writing on the subject between hard covers: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, published in 1975.

Three more decades further on, that gap remains; I still haven’t read Mystery Train. Now at least, though, I have read another of Marcus’ books, Lipstick Traces, first published in 1989. A fascination with both low culture (pop/rock music) and high (literature, visual arts) and an ability to combine the two within the same piece of analysis has always been Marcus’ stock-in-trade. As fellow journalist Kitty Empire put it, Marcus is “probably the rock and roll era’s most lateral thinker”.

Unlike many US journalists of his era, Marcus was just as impressed with UK punk music of the late 1970s as he had been earlier by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan or Sly Stone. It is that era of music which formed the foundation of Lipstick Traces – although only the foundation. As Tony Wilson says at the start of the 1989 TV interview with Marcus about the book, “It’s got a picture of Johnny (Rotten/Lydon) on the front, but it’s about much, much, much, much, much more.” In that interview, Marcus summarises the book as an investigation into a long “heretical tradition”, which first took form in continental Europe as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries and then developed into the 20th century, especially around World War One in Dadaism and then again in the 1950s and 1960s in Situationism. Sometimes this tradition took form in political manifestos, sometimes in individual subversive actions, sometimes in works of avant-garde art, and one of its most visible later incarnations was the short career of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren.


A San Francisco street, photographed in 2000. The Sex Pistols’ final concert in 1978 was at the now demolished Winterland Ballroom, a few blocks west of here, and is the starting point of  “Lipstick Traces”.


Marcus’ long narrative is not always easy to read. As he explained in another interview with Simon Reynolds in 2012, “I realised that I didn’t have a talent for extended narrative…I had to write (the book) in short fragments, maybe a page, maybe six pages. The book would proceed in these almost arbitrary sections, and that relieved me from having to write a transitional sentence. And in fact there pretty much isn’t one in the entire book; there are no phrases like ‘as we have seen’ or ‘and now’.  Every time I would start a new section I would title it after the first one two three words of the first paragraph.” However, you might well consider this individual literary style, plus a highly varied selection of illustrations, as perfectly appropriate for a book which spends a lot of time in the world of avant-garde artists and political anarchists.


The main façade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, photographed in 2005. “Lipstick Traces” describes the incident on Easter Sunday 1950 when, during Mass at Notre Dame, four men, one dressed as a monk, walked onto the altar and read a sermon announcing “God is dead” and accusing the Catholic Church of “swindling (and) infecting the world (and) being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.”


Some of Marcus’ musical favourites from the late 1970s and early 1980s were the less well known from the era, like X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Gang of Four, Essential Logic; music which often included brass and jazz rhythms as well as guitars, drums and  vocals. This pushed me towards several more of the maverick outfits from the period whose names I knew better than their sound, like Rip Rig and Panic, the Pop Group, Shriekback, Durutti Column, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Some of the music relevant to the book is included within the frankly breath-taking Ubu anthology of avant-garde material compiled by one Kenneth Goldsmith. But, of course, in the wonderful modern world of the internet, audio and video files are also available on You Tube or elsewhere!

Marcus saw Lipstick Traces as his anti-Reagan book. Elsewhere in his interview with Simon Reynolds he describes the “depression” which he felt during that time in US public life and how he viewed the writing of the book as an “act of cowardice or betrayal” when he should have been joining in political activism.

Lipstick Traces certainly brought back many memories of my own 1980s. That was a time of the fresh popularity of Brecht  and Weill, the profusion of small touring theatre companies, writing about eastern Europe and the Middle East championed by Granta, the popular battleground of protests against Thatcherism and nuclear weapons, the politically engaged Mayfest arts festival in Glasgow, the contemporary art presented by the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, the New Musical Express  with its mix of new music, old music, politics and wider culture.

It may be that such periods of political and cultural ferment belong to particular circumstances of the past. However, Marcus says that creative and valuable voices of protest come around often in forms you don’t expect. Perhaps I just have to look more closely.


Reference : Marcus, Greil (1989) Lipstick Traces : a Secret History of the Twentieth Century   London: Secker and Warburg


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