“But rock criticism does something even more interesting, changing not just our idea of who gets to be an artist but of who gets to be a thinker. And not just who gets to be a thinker, but which part of our life gets to be considered ‘thought’. Say that – using rockers like Chuck and Elvis as intellectual models – young Christgau, Meltzer, Bangs, Marcus et al. grow up to understand that rock ’n’ roll isn’t just what you write about, it’s what you do. It’s your mode of thought. And if you do words on the page, then your behavior on the page doesn’t follow standard academic or journalistic practice, and is baffling for those who expect it to.” –Frank Kogan (responding to Xgau; update: see Frank’s comments below for link to complete piece, or go here)
“People who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.”—Noel Gallagher
Some time in the late 80s or early 90s, I heard a story that may not be true, or anyway may not be fair. I remember it because it’s quite funny, and seemed at the time telling (though I think not in the way I then felt it was). It was told of one-time Kirkaldy-born art-punker turned model turned TV presenter turned film-maker Richard Jobson, and it came to me via two writers very much self-taught as readers and intellectuals, both from more or less working-class backgrounds, both bookish even by my standards (and both unnamed, as I don’t entirely trust my memory for gossip over 25 years, and I don’t want to get them into bother). As Writer2 told it, Writer1 was interviewing Jobson in his home. Making some point about working class cultural heritage and self-education — and his own hungry autodidact fascination with, for example, the War Poets — Jobson had pointed to a large bookcase, full of books: Write1 asked how many he’d actually read. “Well,” said Jobson, “I’ve definitely made sure to read the first page of every one.”
I say 25 years — but I’m not quite sure when this interview took place: The Skids dissolved in 1983; Jobson’s second band, The Armoury Show, lasted until about 1988; not long after it folded, Jobson was riding high as a cultural gatekeeper on TV, a presenter and tastemaker. Certainly it was during this last phase that I *heard* the story — when I took it to be a tale against the kind of television Jobson was involved in; fast-food magazine shows in which everything (fiction, film, art, politics) was self-regardingly skimmed, and converted into this week’s glamourbot accessory. Nothing was ever mastered.
But there was always also a kind of carnival naughtiness about them. What had punk’s original promise been, after all? Let’s start over! Say that everyone’s equal and begin from there! Set all the cultural value-meters back to zero and re-run the entire race, starting now! Here was a return to its energy and levelling allure: here was all culture, and here we all were, barrelling through it all, to enthuse and explore and play and pretend; to learn as well as to gurn; to take what we found and use it as we pleased. And this pleasure of course included playing pranks on the swots of this world, and how they imagine they grasp the world better. There’s a punkily disarming cheek about Jobson’s admission — or boast, or performance, or whatever it is. And an urchin challenge too: I’m a Gemini, not George Steiner, I haven’t read all my books either, maybe more than one page each, but even if we ignore the ones I haven’t quite er begun yet, how much more than one is acceptable, when it isn’t all (and a stiff exam passed). On what page does the authentic cultural capital kick in? I very much trust my boredom.
This idea of the year-zero reset was as adolescent and as silly as it was intoxicating, of course: and as intoxicating as it was old-school. The 1913 Armory Show had been a reset: the New York exhibition that announcing the arrival of the new “modern” art in the USA, a flamboyantly new creative language and attitude. And here was a more or less hitless 80s new wave group — minor league by most accounting — snaffling this legendary name: at once a blatant appeal to high-art authority via fancy reference, and a insolent snook-cocking upturning of same: we name ourselves thus because we are EXACTLY AS IMPORTANT. And even as they rolled their eyes at such an absurd — not to say pretentious — spectacle, all kinds of commentators caught up in punk’s aftermath (“flamboyantly new creative language and attitude”) had placed themselves at the exact same oedipal fork: of course they too want to be urchins running through museums, but there’s also the urge to seek employment as enthusiastic ushers, showing one and all how exactly this (old-school) radical art ought to be understood and used.
And so there was always already a schoolyard-type squabble who gets to be a consider a “thinker”. Rock was always a dramatisation of growing up in public; less a refusal of the demands and changes and skills that school might produce than a theatre of the confused hope of an alternative: combination NO and YES. And we all have to start somewhere: and sometimes you need the goofy and even the deluded elements to help you open up cultural space for what maybe might matter (if only to you): the schoolyard play-acting and grandstanding.
And sometimes it’s a help to have missed the fights on the day, to grasp better where they’re really coming from. I’d left The Wire in early 1994, and really didn’t pay attention to pop for several years — Britpop’s distant alarums were very distant indeed for me; I didn’t engage; I also didn’t get bored; I was teaching myself ancient music history, pretty much. So there’s this cartoon of Be Here Now as mere lout-culture frenzy, driving down all possibility from wider pop of the art of the weird, the queer, the clever, the political, the experimental, the art-school (as Weej more or less puts it on a Popular thread): but coming back at it with a skewed ear, and probably more burnt out on the institutionalised complacency of experiment and avant-garde rebel pose, that’s not really what I hear.
These exhausting seven-minute drone epics all set about with clouds of FX, the the oddly delicate seagulls of reverse-tape guitar: someone should do a compare-and-contrast with Band of Susans! Is Liam’s singing really any less placemarker than Sonic Youth’s? What happens when you recognise the vocals as a basically instrumental elements? Pedal-point noise-roar against quiet integument-backdrops of musique concrete; the deliberately evasive Burroughsian cut-ups in the words: Oasis couldn’t pass an exam on the lineage of any of this — but the mark-grubbing parading of approved non-pop forebears are the problem they intuitively set themselves against. A Gallagher would never hint that he admired any school-approved non-pop mode of aesthetic sensibility — because in that moment he’d see himself become a kind of Manc Momus, the usher of culture stamping on a self-taught council-estate urchin face forever. But of course there are garden-variety avant-gardists also, of a lineage pre-redeemed by chart-topping sales — and plastered with Lennon’s (rather than Yoko’s) face. The clutching at the (dad)rock canon isn’t simply truculent and disastrous, it’s actively misleading. In clinch with the swotty twerp Albarn — well, let’s just say the clash often pushed both sides out towards the worst of themselves. The oddities at the edges of Oasis arrangements seem designed to be drowned out by the dominant lout-stomp; to be treated as ornament. You really have to listen against the main lairy bellow of the sound for the (very) masked musicianly detail. Even a decade later, with their 2008 return-and-farewell Dig Out Your Soul, when you could finally recognise a miniaturist’s mannerist sensibility, a still small connoisseur’s mutter, it’s still mostly framed in maximalist grind, Liam’s chant upfront. Who you never need to listen to twice, to catch anything you didn’t get the first time: a triumphant coarsened framing context from which the arty stuff peeks, in hopeful wait for the aesthetic respect it never quite gets…
Look back at the quote up top, Noel G’s pronouncements about books. It’s natural to see them as anti-book and anti-reading. But look past the anxiety and the aggression, and he isn’t even (quite) saying he’s anti-fiction; he’s saying he’s pro-music-making. To speak in very unGallagherly mode, he’s arguing that the dominant critical hierarchy exalts fiction-making (and those who enjoy the results) over music-making (and those who ditto ditto); but that he (relevantly a music-maker) does not. [Update: as Frank pointed out in comments, my reasoning seemed a bit opaque here — I had in mind a section on the GQ interview I’d forgotten I hadn’t quoted, Noel G contrasting his taste in books with his wife’s: “I only read factual books. I can’t think of… I mean, novels are just a waste of f***ing time. I can’t suspend belief in reality… I just end up thinking, ‘This isn’t f***ing true.’ I like reading about things that have actually happened. I’m reading this book at the minute – The Kennedy Tapes. It’s all about the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis – I can get into that.”]
Oasis came up entirely in post-punk time, in age and as industry backdrop: they never had to tussle with prog or whiteblues R&B, or even punk, really. But yes, they too confronted the oedipal fork: for all that it resolves itself in the Oasis-Blur wars — each combatant assigned a clear role — you look a bit harder and it’s right there in the interviews, that patented Gallagher performance, structured as much as anything round a self-loathing sibling rivalry: which brother is the least deluded; which best retains the pap-art [update: POP-art] faith…
A pitch to reassert music-making as a value is everywhere taken — masked as it is in a dogmatic rockcanon doggedness — as an assault on everything other kind of cultural value; the Gallaghers themselves make exactly this mistake. So the Gallaghers may loudly and proudly scorn actually existing higher art; and may insist that rock is properly anti-school, and that are they are properly and heroically anti-intellectual. But this is only true if the “mode of thought” of musicians is cast out from the ordinary understanding of intellect. Somehow, in the 70s, in the 80s, music-as-an-art-in-itself had became cut off from the ordinary trust the rest of the arts still somewhat received. I think it’s right to resist this, and — however inchoately — I think resentment at it is what drives Oasis. Their Oasis — their hubristic triumph, its as-swift collapse into a stupid shadow of itself — was a symptom of this curious situation.
There was never a golden age of countercultural comity of course — at most what there was, within rock, was a brief imagined utopia of progressive quilted fusion (discussed here): punk broke into useless pieces prog’s programme of radical inclusivity (all modes of sound-practice gathered into one stream) and furiously dispersed the fragments; post-punk was the various fragments unblurring and emerging seeminfgly whole in themselves, against a miasmatic background of ambition and doubt (explored somewhat cryptically here). It was at once almost hysterically out-facing (can we not attitudinally master and absorb anything now? from football to fashion to radical politics to avant-garde performance art?) and pervasively jittery with anxiety at the problem of cohesion. Before punk, a kind of anyone-can-do-it hard rock blues sound (guitar and vocal styling) had functioned as the thing “we all” agreed on — the notionally shared tongue, the element that made it all “rock” — into which could be poured anything from country to raga, the music-college swagger and self-belief of prog with the New Deal/Civil Rights/anti-war movement vagueness of hippie politics… After punk, a futile subcultural precession trooped the audition catwalk for the role of countercultural centre: two-tone, goth, rockabilly, afropop and electropop, besuited jazz, revenant psychedelia, post-no wave artnoise… And week after week in the NME, popstars of all kinds sketched out their own individual pan-cultural gallimaufry: Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer.
The post-punk break-up had seemed an amazing liberation — and it surely helped that so many from the unexpected sides of the tracks were emboldened to let themselves loose among all this high cultural stuff. But (as is often the way of amazing liberations, perhaps) it had quickly clotted into a landscape of jealously embattled fiefdoms and fandoms…
Which isn’t the only way. Here’s another story, from 1986, about who gets to be a thinker. The BBC’s Arena was shooting a documentary about a Joseph Beuys installation at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Plight: in effect a cave fashioned of rolls of one of Beuys’ signature materials, felt, containing a grand piano, some sheet music with nothing written on it, and some thermometers. (You can see it here and in the top four images here).) It was only just months after the 1984-85 strike ended, and Beuys had expressed an interest in meeting Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers. Unfortunately, Beuys died shortly after filming began, so the meeting never took place — but, their interest piqued, the documentary-makers decided to follow through (“We liked the idea of bringing together two charismatic figures from completely different worlds and had no idea what the outcome would be,” director Christopher Swayne told me), and invited Scargill to the gallery to comment on the work. He “was terrific,” Swayne continues: ” (…) more sensitive and suggestive than I would have imagined, and the seemingly incongruous conjunction between Bond Street art and a trade union leader gave us a rather surreal scene.” Like Yoko Ono, Beuys was a member of the fluxus group, part-prankster, part-primitivist — and of course (in the UK especially), trawling for responses from voices outside the usual relevant circle of art-savvy suspects can be a risky tactic. There’s suspicion, a stand-off of knowing or philistine scorn — when you’re not sure you know enough to comment, sometimes you lash out; and sometimes when what you know is merely dismissed, you lash back. Overcompensation on either side, and the conversation devolves into mutually spiteful misrepresentations and contempt (“jealously embattled fiefdoms”).
Beuys talks about the installation here, but famous as he was for explaining pictures to a dead hare, it’s not a very good discussion. This interviewer doesn’t get the right conversation from him; can’t seem to focus on the interesting Beuys does begin to say; perhaps fails even to spot them as such. I can’t find the Arena documentary on the internet, unfortunately: to get a sense of Scargill’s responses I’ve used these three pages, scanned from a book that discusses it (from Theatre and Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance by Alan Read, pp172-3, publisher Routledge):
Muffled a little by somewhat unfortunate writing, the author nevertheless gives a sense of what also excited the documentary-makers: the fact that this comes across as a cross-exploration of different realms of expertise, Scargill taking the project perfectly seriously, going out of his way to put engaged thought into his response, digging deep into his own adult experience as a miner. In conversation with the art if not the artist, Scargill brings his own knowledge and belief and passion to an an encounter of equals, and a blend of confidence and curiosity. There’s no sense that he feels he isn’t equipped or entitled to be talking about it. We’ve stepped fully out of urchin-time.
“I only listen to music derived or from the 60s. I’m not interested in jazz or hip-hop or whatever’s going round at the minute; indie shit. I don’t loathe it but I don’t listen to it. My education as a songwriter was from listening to the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles. I don’t listen to avant-garde landscapes and think, ‘I could do that.’ I’m not a fan of Brian Eno. It’s Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend for me. —Noel Gallagher
“Because our time tends to work with a kind of ideology, they call those things sculpture and paintings visual art. But I think that vision plays only one role and there are twelve other senses at least implied in looking at an artwork (…) If people are training and are really interested in art they could develop more senses. So this is now related to the senses of touching and surely also to seeing. This remains. I am not against vision because it’s one of the most important senses. You have a kind of acoustic effect, because everything is muffled down. Then there is the effect of warmness. As soon as there are more than twenty people in the room the temperature will rise immediately. Then there is the sound as an element muffling away the noise and the sound (…) So I try principally to do this thing further on over the threshold where modern art ends into an area where anthropological art has to start — in all fields of discussion, not only in the art world, be it in medicine, be it in miners’ problems, be it in the information of state and constitution, be it in the money system.” —Joseph Beuys, 1985 (quote reordered to amplify a point)
It would take all the magic out of it to break down ‘I Am the Walrus’ to its basic components. I listen to it and go, ‘It’s fucking amazing; why is it amazing? I don’t know, it just is.’ That’s why I find journalists such joyless fucking idiots. They have to break music down and pull it apart until there’s nothing left, until they know it all; they analyse it down until it’s bland nonsense. They don’t listen to music like the rest of us.” —Noel Gallagher
“I think it’s a bit unfair to erase the contribution of morons to British pop music – Sabbath, Troggs, Animals, Damned etc… Sometimes you need a Lemmy or Lonnie Donegan or John Fogerty figure to stop the intellectuals getting out of hand” — @dsquareddigest (Daniel Davies) on twitter
Step back again. What I’m trying to describe is a choppy and changeable sea of shifting layers, of the sense of authority within the assumed cultural hierarchy — complex in the sense that a lot of moving parts were moving a lot, in very different ways at very different levels, for quite a long time. And to push a little back against the melodramatic attempts of everyone involved (not least the Gallaghers) to simplify it.
A: Begin with Noel’s very hostile response to the way a writer might want to think about music — more as a spur for writing, for telling good (meaning sellable?) stories, than to reflect the needs of the musician. Noel can’t possibly mean that he never pulled apart his own songs, to get at what made them work — to see if they can’t be better. He might mean that such public analysis this is bad practice for a musician — who may well trust instinct and intuition, without ever having the words to explain what he hears or he wants to any non-musician outsider. Straight away it’s difficult to determine what’s punching up and what’s punching down. decision might be acutely hard to make. As much as anything, an official education is the elaboration of a shareable jargon of discussion and exploration between experts; someone talented but untrained may well be acutely aware that the extant jargons aren’t pinpointing or naming or describing precisely what they’re hearing and valuing. Hence: you clam up and trust only yourself and your pals.
B: The root of all “up” and “down”, punching-wise, is class, of course. And however much training and expertise can be a route upo and out, a smart working class kid will always be conscious of the middle class kids round them, with more time and space and money for extra tuition, with connected parents in the same field, with better means to game the system. And not unrelatedly, the line in the UK between the fine and the applied arts has always boiled with resentment (up) and snobbery (down). Routinely, historically, despite movements and revolts to counter it, in most eras it’s never quite enough to be an artisan, a professional craftsperson, a technician — the higher layers of creative respect will remain shut for you. (The genderline in pop is policed by exactly this prejudice.)
C: Age. Post-war, youth had seemed to have a much amplified power to reverse matters. Suddenly only the young had sex, grasped politics, understood the direction the future was arriving from… a position of seeming weakness had become one of saleable (exploitable) pseudo-strength. By the 90s, this had gone stringy and tangled. The potent founding tokens of youth culture were all old or dead; to insist on their continued value was to impose merely parental mores (or worse, the icons and ideations of bad cultural studies). Always there are be new names and pretty teenage faces, sure, but the counter to dadrock can quite soon just be a kind of dizzy, headachey flicker.
D: Back to Beuys for a moment: he’s saying that there are two further hierarchies. The first (which folds back into B and C) is a heirarchy of genre, which is why his work only reaches the top galleries, to make it as respectable art, once it’s been de-fanged and renamed: “sculpture”. The second is a hierarchy of the senses (saying there are 12 of these, rather than the canonic five). The categories of art history and critical theory tend to be highly conservative in effect; even theory that explores and celebrates the revolutionary moment is just stiff with cousins of the “original intent” movement in US constitutional theory. And this second harks back to A: the serried layers of sensual response, in which the visual has pre-eminence, with sound — and powers over it — always assigned a subaltern role.
(Because in the original bookshelf anecdote, right up top, what isn’t anywhere discussed is the large collection of records that was very surely standing quite near Jobson’s bookshelves. Because one of the things that successful musicians have likely done, at quite an early point in life, is to prioritise which archive exactly they’re going to devoting their time to, and learning from. We are all time-poor: this above all was something that punk dramatised — the leisure to mastery as a mark of privilege. But for a period — a period we may or may not yet have moved out of — the self-constructed private archive from out of a vast pool of LPs and 45s (CDs? mp3s?) was at once enormously more accessible and unregimented than gallery art or cinema or even book-learning. The freedom to do it all WRONG — which musical self-education via 45 and 33 very much allowed — was a central element in the sense of liberation that rock had once seemed to offer, and the curious topsy-turvy authority it at first gathered to itself.
E: and finally, very quickly, there’s all the ins and outs and shifting fashions and facts of what functions at any moment as the cultural “outside”. But this is rough notes towards a map and not at all the map itself — even a brief attempt to sketch how jazz or rock, born in black-created sound in a Jim Crow world, operated and evolved once borrowed or replicated elsewhere is going to end up a very long attempt. Because it’s quite complicated.
At any point, the verticality is unlikely to be clear or fixed; anything but. Move just a little and dimensions can reverse, distances can balloon or shrink, perspective can turn itself inside out. And let’s not beat about the bush: Oasis had no clear analytical grasp of all this or any of it, their responses very often purely reactive. It’s what we turn to art or music for — descriptions of ambivalence and complexity — but of course they only trusted themselves, and scorned the tools or even the desire to analyse same. And in this refusal, could never avail themselves of a refreshed context of self-awareness or experiment or outside input — as Lennon did with Yoko Ono.
Arthur Scargill’s argument about art — that there’s an artist in everyone, that something like the strike can bring a fruitful curiosity out in anyone — invokes the confidence that derives from a challenge faced and a fight sustained against odds: if you didn’t see yourself as an equal at some point, you’d always dodge away from fights. And sustained conversations are only possible between equals. The strike failed because the miners were defeated — and surely a loss of the relevant kind of confidence followed this, with all kinds of consequences in education; who it’s for and how. The social upheavals that allowed the rock generation to feel equals and more — even the late odd echoes that set the young siblings of punk against their older brothers and sisters — were not so much the kinds of upheaval that can be defeated or reversed. But of course they were vulnerable to time’s passing and the conflicted precession of generations. Even as late as the 80s, working class kids like Jobson (or less ambiguously, Mark E. Smith) could wage autodidact play-battle with echoes of the counterculture, and foray far beyond the the expectations of their own upbringing, on their own terms. But with the stutterstep of doubt introduced into musicianship as a shared value, and the surrender implied by the sourcing of authority extrinsically to music (in any written school of criticism or theory, for example), the options for similarly confident play couldn’t last beyond the early thrash of joyful contrarian noisemaking for Oasis. Semi-occluded semi-avant-garde musicianly grace notes hidden behind a defensively coarsened pretorian guard of bellow and bar-chord: this is — at worst and best — the hypocrisy-as-tribute that vice pays virtue.