11
Nov 08

DON MCLEAN – “Crying”

FT + Popular65 comments • 3,614 views

#460, 21st June 1980

1980’s summer of mope continues with this mawkish, overheated Roy Orbison cover. Orbison’s great strength as a singer was his dignity: as a performer he knew when to hold firm in the face of grief, and more importantly, he knew when to crack. McLean shows no such awareness – he has no dignity to lose in the first place, and his performance here sounds slick and horribly insincere. Lacking the skill to bring any emotion to the song, he opts instead to slather on the strings to a quite grotesque degree: the last minute of this record, with McLean’s puny falsetto battling an avalanche of tacky tears, is painful.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    mike on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Take your point, Rosie – but it’s hard not to feel a certain dismay at this juncture, with the uncommonly “representative” (subjectively loaded epithet alert!) glories of 1979 still fresh in the mind.

    In my case, this raises a wider issue. Far away from the Populista hot house, I think you’d find plenty of people of my vintage who would a) champion the late 70s/early 80s as the Golden Age for chart pop and, almost in the same breath, b) get quite cross about The State of Pop Music Today. (“Today” being more or less any time since the Death of Britpop.)

    (And I take an arguably disproportionate pride in excluding myself from the b) category… of course…!)

    Sure, you could argue that ’twas ever thus, but I think the effect is more pronounced amongst those who were of the traditional pop-consuming age during this period, and also during the explosion of forward-thinking creativity that occurred around 1964-67.

    Because, in a sense, we were spoiled. This was one of those periods where boundary-nudging creative innovation and mass popularity coincided in a major way – and once you’ve lived through something like that, your expectations remain set at a certain level. And so, generationally speaking, I’m almost bound to view all subsequent developments through the prism of this period.

    One of the things that I’ll be looking forward to as Popular progresses is the claiming of subsequent periods as perfect-fit Golden Ages for successive generations. And I’ve got at least four possible periods in mind…

    Anyhow. Bloody Don Bloody McLean! Bah! Boring!

  2. 32
    Tom on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Re #27 and #31 – Popular is partly about thinking about how the best-selling pop music and the best pop music relate to one another, or I wouldn’t bother putting marks on things. In an ideal world every entry would attract comment from people who love the record (since presumably every entry must have SOME) but in this world there are going to be some singles which get a rawer deal than others.

    Mike is right that the joy of the charts is the way best-selling and best coincide, every now and then for what seems like an extended period, but it’s quite rare to find a year where not one single No.1 wouldn’t also be in my personal annual Top 10.

  3. 33
    rosie on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Of course I’m of the age that regards 1964-67 as the golden age of chart pop but then I’m not going to be absolutist about that. I wouldn’t say there was less bitterness amongst me and my peers against Englebert Humperdinck, say, or Jim Reeves, or the Seekers.

    I know what I like and what I don’t, and I know what’s significant and what isn’t, and I’ll say so, but I do think that every entry in Popular has a story to tell. There’s a nagging voice in the back of my head that says there was a reason – something in the news, not just Noel Edmonds playing it a lot – that made Crying a big hit at the time. But I’m blowed if I can remember what it is.

    EDIT: Ok Mike, I’ve just re-read your post and I missed your comment about 64-67, so I’m arguing against myself to a degree. I don’t really recall how polarised things were in the 70s, although surely the same applies in spades to the punk period? Punk v Northern Soul and all that?

  4. 34
    mike on 13 Nov 2008 #

    I should add that my generation were also super-served during the glam/teenybop 1972-74 era, when the credibility gap between singles and albums was ever widening, and so much of the most successful chart pop (Sweet, Slade, Glitter, Mud, T.Rex, Wizzard, Stardust, Quatro, Osmonds, Cassidy) was aimed squarely at the under-16s, if not the under-12s.

    God, we late-period boomers had it lucky!

  5. 35
    AndyPandy on 13 Nov 2008 #

    …and who decides what is “culturally relevant” – to read the “broadsheets” you’d have thought that the early 90s was all about”grunge”- maybe that was true for the circles that the media themselves moved in (6th forms/universities etc) but for British “youth” in general it was all about raving and ‘ardcore – similarly the heyday of Britpop was (notwithstanding Oasis and to a lesser extent Blur which were undeniably household names) to vast swathes of young people the era of the superclubs,the dj as superstar and eventually trance’s global domination.
    It’s like Rosie says just because certain forms of music tend to be to the taste of the kind of people who write for a living it in no way represents what things are like for the masses and gives a very distorted idea of what it’s really like for the majority of young people yet alone for an all-age inclusive population…

  6. 36
    Conrad on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Re 30, Fair dos.

    On the plus side Rosie, the miserably wet summer of 1980 did give us Borg v McEnroe – arguably one of the greatest tennis matches in living memory. I vividly recall being desperate for McEnroe to win the tie-break (and I liked Borg).

  7. 37
    LondonLee on 13 Nov 2008 #

    Well I liked ‘American Pie’ AND ‘Vincent’ so stuff that in your sack, haters.

    Though I’m not sure how this record reflects the zeitgeist, the only point of it is how it stands so completely outside it which pop records often do, especially when they’re played by non-zeitgeisty Radio One DJs with beards.

  8. 38
    lonepilgrim on 13 Nov 2008 #

    I often find the process of re-evaluation encouraged by this site to be quite a surprising one for me. Songs I took for granted or disdained at the time turn out to be richer and more enjoyable than I thought and other songs that seemed essential or that have greater critical cache can seem mpre pedestrian and dull than I remembered.
    I enjoyed this song at the time – not knowing the original – and because as a callow youth with little experience of serious relationships the sentiment seemed believable. 28 years later it doesn’t seem believable enough – it needs the intensity of the Roy Orbison performance to do it justice.

    ..oh, and I liked ‘American Pie, but I don’t like ‘Vincent’

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 13 Nov 2008 #

    This one made no impression on seven-year old Billy.

    The impression that it makes on thirty-six year old Billy is to tut “OH SHUT UP!” on the rare occasions that I hear it.

    It’s a funny thing how great the original of this is, but how it seems to never be served well by cover versions, including Orbison’s own eighties duet with kd Lang.

  10. 40
    Billy Smart on 13 Nov 2008 #

    #2 Watch, and a particular reason for historical irritation with McClean’s wet song – 2 weeks of Lipps Inc’s ‘Funkytown’, an evergreen thing of ticklish, kissy delight.

  11. 41
    wichita lineman on 14 Nov 2008 #

    I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style, and so I came to see him and listen for awhile. At the Albert Hall in the mid-nineties. And the rum bugger didn’t even play Vincent.

    I love Don McLean’s voice, and would stand firmly behind the American Pie album: Winterwood, Till Tomorrow, Sister Fatima, Empty Chairs, The Grave (covered by George Michael!!). Subtly arranged, warm, cosy, rocking-chair-folk balladeering. I’ll take that any day over the hollow Xanadu. McLean h8rs can give this a listen and see if they’d rate it higher than a 2:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJdamx1GHq4&feature=related

    Beyond that, Castles In The Air is a rare love song, a cowardly way of backing out of a relationship (Kenny Rogers would not approve) using the wonders of nature as an excuse for not being able to face the girl he’s leaving. Typical hippie.

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=gdtxREoUiWU&feature=related

    Crying isn’t good, granted, but like MASH it chimed with the social situation in Britain at the time. Summer was cancelled, by rain and unemployment.

    I’m always out of sync with Populistas on this disco-lite stuff, but Funkytown drove me nuts. No.3 watch gives us the chunky Back Together Again by Donny Hathaway and… Roberta Flack, whose 1972 US number one was inspired by seeing Don McLean performing Empty Chairs. Ah, the symmetry!

  12. 42
    Mark M on 14 Nov 2008 #

    Re 39: how about the version in Spanish in Mulholland Drive? I know plenty of people are Lynchophobic, but if you buy into his m.o. at all, that’s a great scene.

    Re 35: I think you’re making the classic mistake of trying to replace one false consensus with another one: of course, Britpop was far easier for most journalists to write about than Happy Hardcore, TranceBag or whatever the house variant of the week was in the mid-90s. But many Britpop bands (however briefly) sold shedloads of records. So did all sorts of other acts who we will get to eventually who had absolutely nothing to do with either dance music or retro 60s/new wavish guitar bands. Vast swathes of British kids of all classes went to megaclubs, and vast swathes didn’t. And loads of people went out to Cream or the Ministry or the Sub Club or whatever was happening in your nearest big town – and then came home and listened to Pulp or Guns n Roses or the Oliver! OST.

  13. 43
    wichita lineman on 14 Nov 2008 #

    Oliver sounding like a pre-cursor to Park Life, that kinda makes sense.

  14. 44
    rosie on 14 Nov 2008 #

    For some reason I always read ‘Park Life’ as ‘Pond Life’.

  15. 45
    AndyPandy on 14 Nov 2008 #

    I agree with you No 41 but the media would have us believe otherwise and that usually “rock-influenced” forms which they themselves tend to like/understand/find easier to write about are the be all and end all.

    To maybe start to go off topic here but anyway this idea of certain music being “easier to write about” is significant and even permeated the dance press ie you’d have thought the “dance clubs” were full of people ‘aving it to Underworld/Fatboy Slim/post-Firestarter Prodigy/Chemical Brothers (ie what was often called “student-techno” on dance sites). When in reality you could very rarely heard anything by any of these artists played in a “dance” club/rave situation.Most of the acts who were played were far too “anonymous” in the eyes of the music press.

    PS Besides Oasis and Blur and maybe Pulp I don’t know if many of the other Brit Pop acts sold shedloads of records nb this was the era when it was easy to sell very few copies and make brief appearances in the top 10 of the singles and albums chart.

  16. 46
    unlogged-in lord soülråt on 14 Nov 2008 #

    totally agree with andypandy’s issue of “easier to write about” — except it needs to be balanced by “want to read about”, and “the media” is much too handwavey, given that the parameters of the mediation of music altered VASTLY even between 1975 and 1985, let alone between say 1967 and 1997 — however too busy (in the evil heart of the media gorgon!) to write more about this today, hope can do so tomorrow

  17. 47
    Mark M on 14 Nov 2008 #

    Re 44/45 I can’t anticipate what lord soülrat, as he appears to be this week (hi Mark), will say, but my tuppence worth that it isn’t necessarily to do with what the journalists themselves like musically. An endless wave of one-anthem wonders are hard for magazines to deal with, especially a monthly like MixMag, say. And good stories are good stories: whatever your taste in music, George Jones or Motley Crue or Elton John will often provide more to read about than this month’s cutting edge musician who has spent too much time in their bedroom.

  18. 48
    AndyPandy on 14 Nov 2008 #

    The Scottish (eventually British) dance magazine M8 (if we exclude the more underground Eternity etc) was the nearest in my memory to a widely distributed magazine which ONLY wrote about actual club music so it was sort of attempted.

    But I know what you’re both saying is also true and that Mixmag etc were businesses and needed to attract the casual browser too and attempted to do this by putting the artists I mentioned and who the average person had heard off, on their covers…

    It was frustrating though…all those classic middle of the night club anthems that got the clubs going mental but which the producers of which you hardly ever found out anything about whilst instead in the dance press you were confronted with yet another article on the bleedin’ Chemical Brothers!

  19. 49
    SteveM on 15 Nov 2008 #

    I loved Eternity magazine altho it was surely the ‘hippiest’ dance mag out there ha ha. I’m not sure who AndyPandy has in mind re producers ignored in favour of the Chems tho – maybe some ‘anti-fame’ American or German proucers who were a bit harder to access?

  20. 50
    AndyPandy on 16 Nov 2008 #

    Yeah “Eternity” was a funny one like you say it had this hippy feel to it (eg articles full of love and spirituality) but was loved by the real headstrong hardcore/then happy hardcore and jungle massive on the estates. Possibly the hippy vibe was an attempt to continue the original ’88/’89 Second Summer of Love “Right on One Matey” thing in print. By the producer thing I just mean there were countless big 3 o’clock in the morning tracks which I still play to this day and which I still know next to nothing about…despite me reading all the dance press at the time. But yes a lot were Dutch/Belgium or German and probably “beneath” the kind of people who wrote for Mixmag and unbelievably believed Alison Limerick’s “Where Love Lives” to be the best track of all time!Yes Mixmag had a poll where they picked what was in it. Perhaps a few of them took their first pill when that track was around…you always got the feeling that the Mixmag writers had probably been listening to The Smiths at university until some epiphany in the 90s.Nothing wrong with that if they hadn’t then set themselves up as arbiters of taste for the whole scene.

  21. 51

    OK before I start

    i: this is VERY long so apologies
    ii: it is a bit of a confused mix of how i felt then (as a teen reader in the late 70s) and how i feel now (reassessing my own very small role in things at the nme in the mid-80s); i think teasing these strands out from one another will take a lot longer
    iii: i’ve chosen being firm about what i believe, at the expense of all manner of caveats and undecidedness — not so much to provoke or start arguments, as actually to get that element across which i think is being missed; i probably sometimes have more mixed feelings than i’m giving the impression of, but felt that (at this stage) examination of my own conflictedness would muddy things to no real use
    iv: essentially i think something interesting and valuable has gotten lost, in the successive hindsight over-simplifications, about the various hopes and utopias of a clash of groups of people between 20 and 30 years ago; i think it’s worth digging a bit into this, which is why i’ve done it

    ANYWAY:

    The ideas I mainly want to push back against is of a rock media in the late 70s that’s monolithic and narrow in its self-regarding canon-polishing — and of the rock papers in the mid-80s as blithely indifferent to, distant from and ignorant of dance culture, club culture, soulboy culture and the tides and currents of (american) black music as it impacted on brit white youth. Both of these claims feel entirely wrong to me — writing as someone who was on the staff of the NME from 83-88, and only too well aware of how things worked inside the beast.

    There are two key things worth remembering: one is that, in 1978, the UK rock media was really quite new, not yet fully formed, and two, far from being (at that time) a distant, ignorant, up-itself monolith, it was an intensely factionalised space, a quick-changing space in essence both debateable and (extremely fiercely) debated. This is part of what made it exciting in the 70s, and it’s a set-up that continued, with increasing ferocity but with clearly diminishing returns in terms of its draw until the general establishment of niche markets as the best possible shape within the magazine industry, which (I would argue) had become the orthodoxy by around 1987. This is is when monolithicity becomes conscious shaping market choice; when the goad of the cloud of directed fanzines became internalised and normalised, and the driving spark of conflict was sedimented into formal media and market divisions.

    Between the mid-70s and the early 80s, the rock weeklies — in a dynamic primarily defined by the NME* — became (fairly remarkably) a one-stop shop for several not obviously compatible information streams poorly served by other media. By the mid-80s, the contradictions of this incompatibility were really chafing; and all manner of new media projects (not all printed) were chipping off larger and larger chunks of the inadvertently foregathered constituency. By targeting them better, as regards their primary interests — but at (this is my core argument) a significant cost.

    Some — not all! — of these information streams were: pop, rock and music news and information (record releases, tour dates etc); pop gossip (the stuff now primarily covered — at much higher volume and hysteria — in the tabloids; then on the whole never touched by the tabloids); the establishment and refinement of an agreed-on critical mass of the best music from from pop, rock, soul, jazz, blues, prog, whatever**; a clearing house for all kinds of countercultural politics and projects, which it inherited — along with a tranche of then-youngish writers — from the underground press of the late 60s; serious and intelligent film and TV reviewing***; all the above, also, re comix and SF; and last and absolutely not least, they were a platform for talented young writers (and photographers and designers and… ) working in styles or voices or subject-matters unlikely to find workable outlet via more orthodox routes… The thrill being that you came for one of the above — and unexpectedly encountered knowledgeable, judicious, affectionate, sometimes inspirational coverage of some of the others.***

    *My somewhat biased judgment of the four weeklies at he moment of punk (ie 1977-78): MM was considered the intellectual grownup choice; it veered towards stodgy seriousness; not entirely coincidentally it covered jazz and folk much more extensively (and politically) (and ultimately rather damagingly, for both). Record Mirror I didn’t read often enough to trust my retroactive judgements today — my sense (based on skimming a handful of my sister’s copies) is that it was more chartpop-centred, more comfortably frivolous, more girl-directed than the others; certainly less earnest. Sounds had been started to cover metal, which was not taken very seriously elsewhere; being the newest it was in an excellent position to steal a march on everyone else punk-wise (and was also down quickest with post-punk). NME was more or less the centre of these differing currents — which meant, paradoxically, that it was more angsty about and critical of what it considered the mainstream, the conventional, the compromised: its chief weapon, though, was an alert and cheeky pop-art scepticism, aimed at everything; primarily, it found rock and pop and the rest fun because FUNNY, even when it was taking a strict ethical or political or aesthetical line; the exciting incompatibility for a teen at the time was the idea that something could matter very much, and be really enormously important, at the same time as being in may ways very silly and flawed and goofy. (This is not to say that there weren’t loads of lame or unimaginative or crappy contributors, or indeed intense and humourless ones; but sparkiness was the rule at this stage, and it wasn’t at all routinised into a culture of cynical zingers.) (Others I’m sure will baulk sharply at this definitively prejudiced summary — but I think at least some of the value for me of this world then was its ability to give to a wide grouping of very different readers not just what they new they wanted, but what they DIDN’T know they needed; which included the chance to be in the same space as people quite unlike yourself.)

    **In effect I think the four weekies — maybe excepting Record Mirror, which I feel I now a lot less about — determined their identities via distinctly (which is to say distinguishably) different critical-mass canons, and via different rules (some spoken, some not) of the evolution of and challenge to these canons (including — vitally — ow they responded to punk). NME — in the argument I’m making — was always the most likely to argue that being a rockfan and being a popfan were closer to two moods of the same person; that quarantining one from the other was a mistake with bad consequences; Melody Maker — the MM of that era, now more or less entirely forgotten — was (I then felt) the most likely to make this particular mistake — I valued its commitent to breadth of coverage but was allergic to its tone. (Sounds was honestly too quirky and mercurial to summarise; it had some of the worst writers cheerfuly alongside some of the most interesting.) Anyway, I don’t think the canon-building project is intrinsically something to be resisted (bcz I think it’s kind of unavoidable); the issue is how it gets built (and who’s building it); and the degree to which it’s kept flexibly open to the vividness of the now, and how it deals with the tedium of the set-in-stone-to-be-gravely-handed-on. The point I’m making is that at this stage, in the late 70s, the project was — despite the way received history now reads it — remarkable wide-open for debate; which is why the debate was able to arrive so forcefully; and why (partly as a result of their heritage, part fan-sheet, part tradepaper, part underground press) these venues were unusually open to writers from all kinds of different backgrounds, and to what strikes me now as a genuinely surprisingly wide range of approaches and voices.

    ***By the time I arrived in the office (late 1983), I think this commitment to openness was becoming mannered and brittle and routinised and much-gamed; taken for granted in a damaging way. Certainly the faction-fighting at NME 84-88 was horrible — abusive and disenchanting — even when its ostensible reasons still seem eminently correct (what music should we cover, small and large, old and new, and why? who should get the benefit of automatic shared approval, if anyone? where does the heart of the matter lie? where should it lie? when is popularity a sign of worth and when not? and so on and so on — all of this hashed out constantly, on and off the page ); this infighting has gone into anecdotal history rather reductively, as the “hip-hop wars”, as much of an over-simplification as any attempt just to divide the embattle factions into soulboys and rockheads. I resigned in (perhaps somewhat melodramatic) disgust in 1988, protesting the paper’s general direction, as well as a (somewhat engineered) huzzbuzz over a specific incident; went on to attempt to set up my ideal of a forum-of-all-the-voices at the Wire in the early 90s.

    The underlying problem b the mid-80s was demoralisation. The paper was desperate to once again find a larger readership, without merely losing (by alienating) its current readership: even when the soulboy crew (as i’ve just said they shouldn’t be thought of) were most in the ascendent in the office, they never to my mind found a convincing language or a voice to achieve this (certainly they never convinced their colleagues; nor is there much evidence that they ever reliably spoke to the subculture they were proselytising for). A fast-evolving media-scape had unleashed a flood of niche-marketing rivals, which stripped out whole zones from the paper’s broadest possible readership. The default broad-church had been eaten away actually very fast: transformations in printing technology allowed the emergence of the style monthlies; smash hits gobbled up the younger end of the readership, straight out of kids mags and now simply never considering making the jump to the rock papers; and the broadsheets and the tabloids also increasingly featured rock or pop and whatever music coverage suited their projects and readerships.

    Secondly — we’ve talked a little about this before — punk, by virtue of its do-it-yrself aggression about mediation (ie if “they” are getting “it” wrong, whatever “it” might be, don’t just whine and gripe about it, DO IT BETTER YOURSELF). The explosion of fanzines — by no means just punk fanzines — had gingered up all kinds of rival subcultures, especially working class music subcultures with good reason to believe they were being overlooked and dissed. Many of these laid claim to exactly the territory punk appeared to be being declared master of; nevertheless, its attitude was key. It was NOT a recessive “those twats, they’ll never understand, haha leave em to stew in their ignorance”, but instead “OK they don’t understand so we’ll MAKE them understand”.

    And what was clear about punk, despite its relatively small initial size, was that it had (for whatever reason) visibly got results far beyond its mere bodycount; which is certainly one reason why, in the 80s, soulboy culture became much more militantly proselytising than before — not just getting on with its own thing offscreen, not just arguing that “this is what we like and fuck you if you don’t” but “this is what we like and you should too because it’s the best thing ever”; going out into the world (which is also the market) and making the argument FOR itself, AGAINST the rest.

    Years ago, on ILM, I tried to get a discussion going that asked “can a music matter if its fans don’t especially want to read about it?” — the conversation didn’t go very far because people (as usual) weren’t certain what I was getting at, but I think at the heart of the heatedness of the in-office wars at NME was a lot of confusion (on both sides) about what the role of strong personal writing ought to be (and — much more trickily — what the language or voice, or mix of languages and hubbub of voices, ought to be); hadn’t the soulboy culture actually largely managed, and flourished, without recourse to this machinery of persuasion. Blues & Soul and Echoes (formerly Black Echoes) were excellent reporters of their own scenes, put together by people with a rapport for the tides and currents of this world; but very few of them were recognisable as strong writers outside this mainly functional role. In particular, “being read about by outsiders” wasn’t something this scene appeared greatly to crave — was this a strength or a weakness? I think it’s interesting that andypandy, when outlining the mod-soulboy-danceculture-DJculture lineage, 60s to the present, has hinted at a suspicion this lineage has towards three key dimensions of potential mediation, as impermeably middleclass enclaves it was well able (and well advised) to sidestep: the mainstream media (which is mainly what i’ve exploring above); higher ed (ie involvement of students); and overt political organisation.**** But what was exciting about the early 80s, as well as tangled and easy to misread and get muddled in, was that this same suspicion could manifest as open engagement and challenge — these rival modes of mediation for a season or three actually fencing directly with one another, to test relative worth and potential. It’s the fact of this confrontation — ideally absent the bitterness, if that’s not too unrealistic — that I’d prefer not to be written out of history.

    Of course the encounter was mired in defensiveness (on both sides); mutual misunderstanding, mutual mistrust, mutual rattled conservatism; and the accelerating shifts in media quickly ensured that the happenstance bohemian space for the encounter ended up shut down. Sub-generational shifts (and exhaustion) did for both factions, as did the arrival of rave culture; what was lost (if not discarded) was the sense of what had been at stake in the earlier idea of alliance, however crackly and uneasy.

    ****Worth adding that all three enclaves were probably actually more open to working-class involvement on its own terms in the late 60s and 70s than they were even by the mid-80s; and far far FAR more than they are now…

  22. 52
    pink champale on 20 Nov 2008 #

    wow, p^nk s, excellent stuff. i think you’re right that a lot of this has got lost in history, as my glibness was demonstrating on the other thread. the thing is, by the time i started reading it, the nme itself was happily peddling the line that the nme of the eighties had taken a turn away its audience (not to mention the spirit of rock n roll!) and was all chin stroking about derrida that only a few hardy readers stuck with and even pretended to undertand. in fairness, the mm of the early 90’s had a lot more ambition and much better writers, but even it was firmly in a mire of monoculturalism, even the dissenters were dissenting around indie rock.

  23. 53
    mike on 20 Nov 2008 #

    That was fascinating to read, lord sükråt (and I’m feeling particularly pleased with myself, because I understood EVERY WORD, for once).

    Basically, I’m in full agreement with your central argument, and you’ve done an instructive/informed/authoritative job in examining the background.

    A few add-ons, if I might.

    1. Tying this all back to 1980, there was – for the first time, I think – a general dismay and defeatism in the weekly inkies as regards the future of rock music. “Rock and roll is dead” was a lament that you often heard expressed, by both writers and artists (e.g. John Lydon, The Beat, The Fall). “So we should be looking elsewhere”, was the usual follow-up observation, and I think this informed the general widening of the critical net that was taking place. And as someone accurately observed in a recent-ish comment, there were a lot of people who simply jumped the rock ship (primarily into electronic music, soul/funk, New Pop), never to return.

    2. Yes, there were still also plenty of workmanlike dullards writing for the inkies! I recently seized upon some autumn 1979 issues of the NME that a friend had stockpiled, with wild anticipatory glee – “Ah, here we go, the Golden Age of Music Journalism!” – only to discover that my memories had been disproportionately skewed by the output of the maverick minority.

    3. I do think that the Neil Spencer era NME, aka the Morley/Penman glory days, while magnificent from my perspective, also helped sow the seeds of the paper’s slow decline – in that there was an increasingly sharp disconnect between what the writers wanted to write about, and what the readers wanted to read about. This was made acutely apparent by the end-of-year readers’ polls, in which The Jam routinely swept the board. You could easily visualise the readership (their long-suffering loyalty largely sustained by the unavailable-elsewhere content in the news pages and the gig guide) yelling “We don’t want this plastic cocktail Kid Creole crap!”, even as the writers haughtily rammed their fingers in their ears. I loved it all, and was firmly on the side of the “Pah, they just don’t know what’s good for them yet” elitists – but it was dangerous hubris all the same.

    4. I never thought of Sounds as having been originally set up to cover metal, seeing it more as a cheekier, more iconoclastic version of the NME, which wasn’t burdened by the pressures of being seen as “definitive”, and didn’t feel the need to adhere to any particular canon. It was certainly first off the blocks when it came to absorbing punk, with a bunch of writers whom you felt were properly representative of the scene as opposed to well-meaning observers. But as I think you say, 1980 was where things started to falter, as the boorish rise of the two GBs (Geoff Barton and Garry Bushell) started to crowd out the Dave McCulloughs and Jane Sucks of this world.

    5. My take on Record Mirror, which I bought religiously all the way through the 1980s, was that its readership was split three ways with increasingly little crossover between the groups: 1) fairly polite, non-rebellious pop fans who saw themselves as too grown-up for Smash Hits and not cool enough for the other inkies, 2) chart anoraks (the RM charts section was second to none), 3) DJs and dance music fans who primarily bought the paper for the James Hamilton section (widely seen as definitive in its heyday).

    6. My prejudice against Melody Maker, which never altogether left me, was based on what I saw as its failure to embrace the sea-changes in the wake of punk. It was a last refuge for pissed-off Genesis fans, basically. Even in its late-80s heyday, I thought “Puh, they’re trying too hard to escape their past, and they’re STILL missing the point!” This is not an attitude that I would necessarily defend in retrospect!

  24. 54
    AndyPandy on 20 Nov 2008 #

    Very interesting and enjoyable post from Lord Sukrat. Especially incisive in its mentioning of the lack of any real flair in magazines like “Blues and Soul” I used to get this (along with “Record Mirror” for James Hamilton and in my New Romantic stage “New Sounds New Styles”)as I had no interest in any of the music peddled by the rock press although would have admitted that (reviews of weekenders and clubs apart) it was generally boring and often just a collection of puff pieces and anodyne interviews. I did however used to enjoy reading Frank Elson’s “Checkin Out the North” Northern Soul column not because it said anything about my scene (London and south-eastern jazz/funk and soul being my thing) but because you could tell he was an intelligent bloke who had worthwhile things to say.This was in contrast to the closely typed Blues of Soul of 1974 of which I found some old copies in a junk shop years later and which with the Elson and especially Dave Godin’s columns (in which incidentally in about 1970 he’d given Northern Soul its name) would have been worth waiting for each fortnightd. My last connection with the rock press had been buying Sounds when I was about 15 in 1980/81 which in my 15 year old way I thought seemed more “street” than the other two!
    That’s excluding throwing down a copy of the NME (left in the rest area of the supermarket I briefly worked in by one of the weekend staff)in disbelief after a writer had criticised either Kid Play “Last Night” or “Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff’s “Girls Ain’t Nothin But Trouble” (I can’t remember which) for being “sexist”. And not just criticised but completely castigated the track whilst refusing to say anything about the record’s musical side.We arent talking ‘bitches and ho’s’ gangsta rap here after all but jokey light hearted teen-rap the review of which in its humourlessness and total “out-of-touchness” from the world I lived in seemed to confirm all my suspicions about what I saw as the po-faced rock press/world.

  25. 55
    Vinylscot on 20 Nov 2008 #

    Great piece punk lord, and good comments following on.

    Coincidentally (honest) I gave up on the NME around the time sukrat joined it,after having bought it religiously since the demise of Disc as an independent paper in the mid 70s. (When the late J.Edward Oliver’s page had been the raison d’etre for Disc, as far as I could tell)

    NME always had the best crossword.

    As an outsider (i.e. not involved in journalism in any way) I found that the weeklies were a little slow to react to the phenomenon of fanzines and the emergence of provincial local radio stations both as alternative sources of information and as influences on the musical preferences in their regions. The weeklies collectively lost a lot of their power then, and central to this was one of the main points mentioned above – these writers continued to write about what they wanted to write, not what people wanted to read about.

    It seemed to me that they realised this, and tried to decide whether they wanted to reflect current trends (RM – charts and disco), champion new stuff (NME, to a lesser extent Sounds, although it held onto metal), or maintain a slightly more high-brow, “musicianly” stance (MM).

    To my eyes they all seemed to flounder at around the same time. I’m not saying they didn’t recover, or at least have purple patches after this, but once they lost me and many of my contemporaries we never really went back. We didn’t need to.

    Within a few years of this we had early morning (and late-night) TV, with pop/rock stars gaining far more exposure than ever before, and following that, MTV, video juke-boxes in pubs, Ceefax, The Tube, Record Collector, the style mags and monthly music mags, etc., etc…

    Maybe the late 70s was just a golden era – maybe it was easier to be a music journalist when there was a lot going on, maybe the interesting subject matter obscured the poor standard of writing (was DIY writing good enough for DIY music?), or maybe it was easier when you were still more or less the only source of information available.

    More than likely it’s my age; 16 was probably the best age to be in 1977.

  26. 56
    Lena on 21 Nov 2008 #

    Apropos to all this I came along rather late to reading the UK press (having read Creem in ’82-’84) so when I got to Melody Maker and the NME in ’86-’87 it was almost two different worlds, MM being more narrow in general than the NME; also more serious but able to take that seriousness further into the music (I hope this makes some sense) – I’m thinking of the rapturous reviews US alternative rock got, Husker Du in particular, Throwing Muses, Pixies (hello Monitor crew from Oxford)…the NME in the meantime was indeed caught up in some nightmarish breakdown, where indie rock (C86 and all that) was up against the soulboys, who (from this American’s p.o.v.) were practically hysterical in their love of Aretha, which struck me as odd – why lobby so hard for something so obvious? Everyone knows she is great, over here is this is more than the accepted thing…and both papers had a ‘we know what hip hop IS’ attitude that kind of misled them as to what hip hop actually was (the NME wanted it to be more righteous than it was, the MM more outsiderish). The NME was more open to writing that was about music but also other things at the same time (I really enjoyed that aspect of it) – MM was more about ‘oh noes music is bad for you’ (didn’t they publish the Vermorels?) and ‘oh noes, what direction is music going in NOW’ (hand-wringing over 1987 when in fact it was a fine year).

  27. 57
    mike on 21 Nov 2008 #

    Have to say that I never set much store by the NME soulboy contingent’s coverage of soul/funk/electro/hip-hop/go-go/house/acid/techno etc etc, however well meant. I was listening more closely to trusted sources in specialist publications (and even the style mags – The Face and i-D were forever getting it right in the 80s), reporting from within their scenes, with James Hamilton in Record Mirror providing a more detached, detailed, inclusive, and hence definitive overview (at least until around 1989 or so).

  28. 58
    Billy Smart on 23 Nov 2008 #

    Re #53 point 3. Moreley and Penman probably killed off the remaining hippy readership at that time, as well. I always like the story of the NME publishing Paul Morley’s impressively fed up interview with a highly complacent Jerry Garcia, where Morely asks “Have you ever heard of The Fire Engines? They play 15 minute sets!”.

    Neil Spencer told Moreley that he thought that that article had lost the paper 10,000 readers.

    The greatest example of these writers being allowed to pursue their own interests at this time is Morley’s 1979 cover feature on Devo, which starts with several thousand words on the archetectural history of Los Angeles.

  29. 59
    lonepilgrim on 23 Nov 2008 #

    I loved Pinmoon’s work for the NME – he and others turned me on to a great many performers and movies as well as giving me a suspicion of half-digested pomo philosophy. In fact I think my journey to this site began after I googled him and through a series of links found myself here.

    re Morley’s piece – I remember making a similar if less articulate point at some freshers week social event in 1979 where we had to bring along a significant piece of music. Everyone else turned up with dylan, mozart, bowie, etc. complete with lengthy analysis and I took along ‘On my radio’ by The Selecter. When asked what it’s significance was to me I explained the title said it all – what was significant to me was whatever was on the radio at the time – which caused much consternation and chin stroking.

  30. 60
    punctum on 23 Sep 2009 #

    Let’s talk of numb. Let’s talk of a Sunday matinee at my then-local arthouse cinema, the Clapham Picture House, very early in a New Year which at the time I wouldn’t have minded not seeing. And let’s talk of David Lynch’s two unqualified masterpieces, and how the emotional axis of both pictures turn on the delivery of a Roy Orbison song. While Dean Stockwell mimes his ghostly way through “In Dreams” in the key sequence of Blue Velvet, Hopper’s Frank finally, if temporarily, cracks; through his hammy tears – would we feel them so firmly were they not hammed? – we see the infant son realising that it can never pretend to be a father, except if, as Jeffrey’s emotional father, he is doomed to scar and injure his son…or is it his unknowing, belated brother? “In dreams, you’re mine, all of the time…”…to kiss, to caress and protect, and then to maim, to punch, maybe to kill…the scorpion fathers the frog and hates, or fatally injures, himself because of it.

    And then we cut from the Camden Plaza of 1987 to the bereft Clapham of whatever post-2001, pre-2005 year it was, and there on the screen is Mulholland Dr, the truest art Lynch had produced since Blue Velvet – truly, they are his twin peaks – the three-sided coin of a tale which miraculously didn’t become a momentarily amusing shaggy dog story but examined, both warmly and coldly, how much people live through their desire for art, or to be part of that art, how much they dream, and how much of themselves they are prepared to throw away or even exterminate in order to absorb themselves fully in art’s sneakily cackling mirror. For once you don’t wonder why the film is going this way, but understand absolutely the ineluctable, lateral logic of its doing so. You move along with it. And eventually you arrive in the dreamed audience of Club Silencio, where this woman comes onstage…

    …and begins to sing a Spanish version of “Crying,” and she is giving her entire body, her whole soul, to performing this song of irredeemable loss, and the voice (one Rebakeh Del Rio, who reportedly walked into the studio off the street, sat in the booth, delivered the performance in one take and promptly vanished into the afternoon, but then this is Lynchworld) is cutting, caressing, maybe the greatest and most passionate singing performance you have ever witnessed…

    …but the woman is hurt, is visibly hurting, agonised, and then abruptly she collapses on the floor, unconscious or even dead…but that voice continues to sing through the speakers; it is mimed, or was she only singing it in her head, or are we only imagining it, and the voice which CANNOT SING FOR ITSELF…so you see why I don’t want to remember whether it was January 2002 or 2003; was I actually capable of speech, coherent or otherwise, at those times, and is my memory merely protecting me?

    And Roy Orbison, the man who could sing these songs which ranged through four octaves with utter belief and passion and not make it sound like a technical fireworks display, who perhaps tired himself out with that passion; as Morley remarked of Billy MacKenzie, it was as if every time he drew a breath and sang one of those notes he was knowingly shortening his own life – there is something terrible about the truth of these songs and his singing of them that cannot be adequately reproduced elsewhere, save by the wandering Rebekah Del Rios of this world, with nothing to lose or explain.

    Don McLean, in unutterable contrast – and perhaps only Terry Wogan will ever be able to explain what Don McLean was doing back at number one in 1980, after an absence from the singles chart of seven years – treats this template as though it were a niggling toothache. He gives it the standard quiet-to-loud(ish) post-“Bridge Over Troubled Water” treatment, but his delivery is totally free of purposeful passion or honest hurt. The giveaway comes when he opts for the easy falsetto escape route as he approaches the higher notes; thus all the grief he has to feel to make the song work remains hidden away, unclutched – it is as if he is turning away in fear from what the song might represent, or threaten. The net result is something that is actually worse than useless, such that you end up questioning what “American Pie” meant to him – if this is the music whose death he mourns, then why does his mourning have to be so damnably polite, bloodless and – finally – numb that the order “Silencio” scarcely needs to be issued?

  31. 61
    Brooksie on 14 Feb 2010 #

    I think many people might have missed a basic truth; the public at large would not have been familiar with the song ‘Crying’ – unlike ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Only the Lonely’ it was one of Orbison’s lesser-known hits. When the McLean version was getting airplay, most of the people who didn’t know much about music would have thought of it as a new song. McLean’s version is solid if uninspired, but still strong enough to convey the strength of the song. The song was a hit – McLean was the incidental benefactor.

  32. 62
    Chelovek na lune on 8 Sep 2010 #

    I don’t dislike McLean at all, but, my God, this is painful.

  33. 63
    wichitalineman on 3 Jan 2011 #

    RIP Teena Marie whose sublime Behind The Groove peaked at no.6 while this snoozer was no.1.

  34. 64
    Billy Smart on 3 Jan 2011 #

    #63. ‘Behind The Groove’ – Yes please! A few thoughts;

    Behind the groove is behind the looking glass, a portal through which the listener is taken to a hyperreal state, where the fantastic things that are promised in songs appear to actually be occuring;

    “Beee-hiiiind the groove!
    There is another side inside of yoouuu…
    Beee-hiiiind the groove!
    We can make your wildest dreeeeams come true…”

    This wonderland can be entered by uncertain mortals such as you and I, “Romance is just a glance away” if “we can put away our masquerade”.

    This being a song written and produced by Rick ‘Superfreak’ James these fantastic things are generally sexual… There’s an element of James acting as a pimp in the fabulous records that he created for his female protegees, perhaps most blatantly in the Mary Jane Girls’ stupendous ‘All Night Long’ album, with its sleeve of the foursome as a troupe of prostitutes on a backstreet corner (or possibly Marie’s ‘I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love’, come to think of it) – even before you know the stories about him. This could (and perhaps even should) be construed as offensive, but the redeeming factor is just how extraordinary these records are, creating a freaky pornotopian landscape where both singer and listener are reconfigured as ideal sexual beings – “Another me and another you”, in fact.

    James manages to create this Ovid-like impression of magical transformation through the massive accretion of hooks, making you feel as though your listening to a dozen great records at once. Amongst the myriad aural pleasures that are crammed into these four minutes;

    Some brassy stabs, a magician’s shimmering percussion effect, the sound of glass shattering, a rhythm guitar riff that spirals away, a phat synth line that goes WUUUNNNG!, a referee’s whistle, one amazing scat line from Teena – Shoob be do do! Shoob be do be bop!, handclaps, multitracked Teenas making happy party ad libs creating a party of dozens of Teenas, the most almighty bass arpeggio, the command to to “shakeyorbody – Shakeyorbody – SHAKEYORBODY! SHAKE!!” that would be the chorus in any other song, a WOO! WOO! siren, sexy Teena huh!huh!huh!huh! panting…

    There are yet more. It’s no wonder that Tina fades out with the most ecstatic “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!
    La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!” that you ever did hear.

    You enter into a whole new world in this song, where things are done differently. A hall of mirrors where gorgeous hook upon glorious hook seems to refract back into infinity.

  35. 65
    Adam on 22 Mar 2015 #

    This guy is up there with the Eagles as the King of Pop Ersatz… made a career out of “faux depth”… funny thing is that with his “American Pie means I don’t have to work another day in my life” he acknowledges it, so critics need to approach him as a charlatan. I don’t think history will be kind to McLean.

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