So last May, as some FT readers will recall, I ran a conference at Birkbeck about the politics of UK music-writing from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, its roots and discontents, its early evolution and its latent potential, as I put it here back then. The plan all along was to gather extracts of the (extremely interesting) panels into a book, add in some essays from participants (and others) and publish it.
To that end, I present the kickstarter for A HIDDEN LANDSCAPE ONCE A WEEK: how UK music-writing became a space for unruly curiosity, in the words of those who made it happen, an anthology companion to the conference featuring conversations and essays that unearth the many surprising worlds explored by the UK music-press from the 1960s-80s. Click through for further details, little explanatory films and so on.
Contributors (panelists and essayists) will include:
Val Wilmer, Richard Williams, Mark Williams, David Toop, Tony Stewart, Bob Stanley, Charles Shaar Murray, Jon Savage, Cynthia Rose, Edwin Pouncey, Penny Reel, Liz Naylor, Mark Pringle, Tony Palmer, Paul Morley, John (aka Jonh) Ingham, Barney Hoskyns, Jonathon Green, Beverly Glick (aka Betty Page), Simon Frith and Nigel Fountain. The illustrations will be by the legendary SAVAGE PENCIL (see left for cover mock-up).
I think this is a strong and interesting project, giving voice to people in this history who’ve been lost from view as well as better-known names, exploring ideals and describing day-to-day practicalities — so click through, read, pledge if you like what you see, and (above all) pass it on to friends who you think will be interested.
Like disco and Philly soul before it, UK garage mixed upfront celebration with flashes of heartbreak, only lightly concealed. The carrier for 2-step’s bittersweet accents was often its string or harpsichord lines, set as counterpoint to the carefree lyrics. Sometimes songs were more open about their anomie: “I’m tired of love / And scared of no love” sighs the unhappy singer on Y Tribe’s beautiful “Enough Is Enough”. The opportunity was always there for a garage track which slipped further into the emotional dark, which took the skittering beats of 2-step not as champagne pops but as the prickly heat of nervous desire. Daniel Bedingfield took it.
Kylie’s brief glimpse into pop’s realm of platonic forms only made the central issue starker: British pop was in the doldrums. The Spice Years seemed more than ever like a can shaken too hard: a burst of fizz, and only flatness left behind. It’s not that Blue’s “If You Come Back” or S Club 7’s “Have You Ever” are especially bad songs. In fact that was the problem – each saw their group at full strength, delivering the best ballad they could. It’s not enough.
Both are vignettes of love and regret. Blue’s is weaker and smarmier, a jilted dude trying to understand what he did wrong, professing that next time it’ll work out. Ghosts of better – or at least more famous – songs flicker through the mix: “I Swear” is in there, and there’s a hint of “Always On My Mind” in the bridge. It only makes you notice how thin Blue’s porridge is. Mush-mouthed, the group make “If you come back to my life” sound like “if you come back here alive” – more exciting, but in any case the song isn’t short on the usual hyperbole. Everything is eternal in boyband songs, all loves last all time.
This is the text of my presentation to EMP 2016, in Seattle. The theme of the conference was “voice”, thankfully this proved flexible enough for me to ride my favourite hobby horse. I gave the presentation without notes, so the text here is slightly drier than attendees might remember, and lacks ad libs, embellishments, moments of desperate panic, etc. Thank you to everyone who attended and thank you especially to all those attendees who came up afterwards and said nice things. I had a wonderful time.
Hello Seattle. Make some noise.
Back to ‘Life, back to reality. The charts’ burst of Autumnal energy fades, the novelties and classics depart, and it’s a return to business very much as usual, the first single from Westlife’s third LP. “Queen Of My Heart” sounded to me like the ur-Westlife song from when I first heard it, a merciless tramp through the now-established formula. It flirts with the sombre, at first – can this be the Westlife track where the boys are actually going to break up with their long-suffering lady? Not a bit of it: though this is a more muddled Westlife lyric than many, the initial finality turns into a very temporary break.
Six days ago I was about to do an EMP talk and I saw rumours about Prince on Twitter. I thought for a second about what I would do if I had to break the news that Prince had died to a room of women and men who loved him. Only for a second, because the answer was very obvious. I would tell them, and end the presentation, and we would all go to the bar and talk about Prince. Prince had not died. Prince has died. I would prefer to be with the friends I was with then, not in an open-plan office which feels like the least Princely place in the world right now, without any of his music to play. Prince is a star who makes most sense with people – dancing, talking, gasping at his ideas, sharing ideas and memories. There are probably other things you might think of to do with other people that involve Prince.
But I also wish I was there, talking to Americans, because for me Prince was America. My first idea of America as a place that could be wilder, stranger, funkier, deeper, more committed to itself, more religious, more dangerous than where I lived. British stars I understood. Prince was a myth, a creature of scandal and rumour; from Smash Hits I understood Paisley Park as a city of music, an Oz. Prince’s records sounded electric and frightening. At that time he was the centre of pop’s map and its edge at the same time. Nothing I learned about him later changed any of that, or of my sense that he was a key to America’s music and its secrets.
He was a star, I want to say the first, where that dynamic of incomprehension turning into awe hit me, very strongly with “When Doves Cry”. “Do I like this”, “I love this”. The pop uncanny. Without that, pop is just things you like and things you don’t. Prince gave me things that made no sense then suddenly did. Every so often in the decades since I’ve heard something and thought, ah, pop has come back to Prince. He was a meeting point of all the ideas America had about pop, soul, and rock music and the ones it was about to have. This will go on for decades more, there are futures to mine in Prince beyond easy reckoning.
That’s what he meant to me, a long time ago, and as an adult. There is so much more to say and learn. I will read the stories. Thankyou to Prince.
If rock criticism was a stoner, one of its endlessly repeated good-vibes stories would be Paul McCartney waking up and ‘discovering’ the melody to “Yesterday” in his head as “Scrambled Eggs”. McCartney, no enemy of the herb at this point, became convinced he’d heard it before, only gradually accepting that he’d stumbled upon the tune via luck or talent or sheer morphic resonance – the theory popularised by Dr Rupert Sheldrake in the 80s that blue tits learn to open milk bottles because they’re all connected by a kind of blue tit superconsciousness, mind blown, except it wasn’t true. Though it was true enough for a physics teacher I had to suspend lessons so he could give us all crosswords to fill in, staggered batch by batch to see if morphic learning was happening.
Between its two writers and its performer, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is the sound of over seven decades’ pop experience. It’s better heard as distillation than prediction. Maybe its bright, brisk pop-dance sensibility comes from Cathy Denis. Maybe its moreish chunkiness, the crunchy stomp of its beats, comes from Mud’s Rob Davis. Its obvious comparison point, as a mantric, obsessive disco song, is Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. But “I Feel Love” risks goofiness in placing a wager on the future – I bet this isn’t a novelty record – while there is no risk of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” being anything other than a classic. As Kylie Minogue knew, the second she heard the demo.
“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is still sleek and clean, impeccably designed, full of beautiful textures. If “I Feel Love” was a kiss blown to an imagined future, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is an engineer’s fond response now that the imaginary has come true, more pragmatic but just as heartfelt. Moroder and Summer’s song was a jet pack. Dennis, Davis and Minogue’s is a map of flight plans. It’s a crystal of a record, an omnihedron revolving gently at the centre of pop, refracting and reflecting the 20th century’s music. In a context of Atomic Kitten, DJ Otzi and Blue, you might weep for joy on hearing it. It’s so well-arranged, so uncluttered, so satisfying. But the joy is partly one of familiarity. Ever since “Telstar”, people imagined 21st century pop would sound a bit like this. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” isn’t futuristic, it’s the fulfillment of a promised future.
One of the many remarkable things about David Bowie’s career is that it came so close to not happening. Bowie seems like an archetype of individual genius – even his most misguided detours have something interesting about them, as Chris O’Leary’s blog (collected in part in this book) patiently shows. But his career had a multiplicity of false starts – even once he’d scored a big hit, five years in, there was no particular sense he’d become a constant presence in pop. Let alone rewrite or dominate it.