Foreword: I wrote this over several weeks, forgot what I was doing with it, created a mysterious section (later removed, subsequently regretted) about armchairs and have entirely lost the plot of what it’s meant to be about. Also I am ill. Enjoy!
Not for beginners, you understand, by one for lo, I am a new bug. I don’t remember the smoking ban coming in (here, at least; it was quite an event where I was at the time, in Mid Wales) and Samuel Smiths are still a little entertaining to me in their sheer oddity; people say ‘Clerkenwell’ to me and I go ‘cor is that a real place? I really liked the Real Tuesday Weld album of the same name!’ and I have, on two separate occasions, spent ten miserable, sodden minutes standing in a doorway outside Euston Square station, peering at Google Maps and wondering what the hell happened to the road that I’m sure I went down the last time I came out of one of the doors here; I think everywhere east of Westminster is bat country, still find Oyster cards a bit esoteric and don’t understand the Blue Posts acronym system; occasionally I still give bartenders scandalised looks when they tell me how much a pint of Kronenbourg and a Winter Warmer is going to be and despite the best attempts of my educators, I’m not actually sure I understand what an estate pub is* and six months ago I knew a lot less.
Here is what I have learnt.
(This is the second part of a piece on managing long blog projects. The first part is here.)
Popular’s main strength – and I’m very proud of this indeed – are its regular 50-post comment threads that are lucid, civil, wide-ranging, full of healthy disagreement, and add amazing richness to the topic. I hope I don’t come across as arrogant here but this kind of comment box culture is really hard to get. I know of very few blogs (let alone music blogs) which have comment threads as sustained and high-quality as the ones on here.
Obviously, this isn’t all – or even mostly – down to me: a lot of the time I barely comment on a thread once it’s started. The blog has been lucky enough to attract a wonderful mix of commenters over the last six years and I am enormously grateful to them all. Bear that in mind when you read this!
In September 2003 I started a blogging project: six years later, I’m halfway through it. It seems like a good time to put down in writing what – if anything – I’ve learned through doing Popular: what I got right and what I got wrong.
Not the marks, of course – those aren’t changing, much as I’d like some of them to. But since I started doing it I’ve seen a lot of other blog projects – some predating mine, some inspired by mine, some in whole different galaxies. Some of them – and here’s where I shudder slightly – have not only started, they’ve finished while I’ve ambled scenically through some decade or other.
In other words, there’s a certain type of blogging saint or fool who likes to undertake vast projects and might appreciate advice on how to go about it. Am I the best person to give that advice? I doubt it, but I’m going to do it anyway. Here goes:
Cluetrainers In The Age Of Conversation
This post is my contribution to the “Cluetrain Plus Ten” project, in which 95 bloggers provide commentary on each of the 95 Theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. I chose Thesis 15, which runs as follows:
“In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.”
As it happens, I was working on a brochure when I first read The Cluetrain Manifesto. I’d already realised that being “the internet guy” in a curious but not tech-savvy department gave me certain leeway to break from my duties. The Manifesto required a longer break than I generally risked, but it was worth it.
The brochure languished. I started proselytising. Then I got a different job, started my own blog and online community, and spent a few years grappling with the grubby reality of conversation online. I forgot the Cluetrain Manifesto, but when I heard about this project I jumped at the chance to revisit it. So – Thesis 15: let’s go!
A couple of weeks ago I found myself transfixed by a Youtube video of Westlife singing their new single, surrounded by swirling ice skaters and talented lighting technicians. It was wonderful.
As I hit the ‘blog this right now’ button, I wondered if – at 26 years old – I’d finally sealed my fate of becoming a Mum. Not biologically of course (*shudder*), but in my musical tastes. Is Mum-pop really my inescapable destiny?
The seeds of the detective fiction genre were planted with Poe’s 1841 publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, but it was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) that introduced many of the now classic features of the genre – viz – a country house robbery, a celebrated investigator, bungling local constabulary, false suspects, the ‘locked room’ problem, the ‘least likely’ suspect solution. By the 1920/ 1930s the genre was firmly established, and enjoying a golden age, seeing stories published by the ‘Queens of Crime’ – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, who introduced us to detectives such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Chief Inspector Alleyn, Albert Campion (and less well known – Sayers’ other amateur detective – the wine salesman Montague Egg). The golden age helped cement the various characteristics (clichés even) that modern audiences feel are indicative of the genre.
In 1929 the crime writing priest* Ronald Knox wrote his Ten Commandments for detective fiction:
1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
Things most people know about European languages – One – Spanish for ‘beer’ is ‘cerveza’. Two – English is not in the same language family as French and Spanish. When looking at other European words for beer it is apparent that lots of them are similar to the English, making the Spanish word look a bit odd, it being so different phonetically from the others, and the superficial assumption that it’s a weird anomaly is reasonable, but it’s actually the French and Italian words that are anomalous.
There are four basic word roots for ‘beer’ in European languages, found in the Germanic, Slavic, Scandinavian (technically Nordic and Baltic), and Italic language families. The derivation of beer themed words from roots related to brewing/ or beer ingredients is common, for example ‘brew’ and ‘broth’ both come from indo-European ‘*bhru’, a word connected to heat and bubbling (asterisk denotes a word that’s been reconstructed theoretically, but has no direct evidence for its existence).
Scandinavian languages use a word possibly derived from a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word meaning ‘bitter’. English has a word from the same source – ‘ale’, from the Old English ‘ealu’ (OE was influenced both by Germanic and Norse languages). Ales bitter reputation stems from the bitter herbs, or gruit used in its preparation, and from comparison to the other popular sweet tipple of the time – mead. ‘Ale’ could also derive from a PIE word that had connotations of sorcery, magic, possession, and intoxication, and it has been suggested that Neolithic beers were flavoured with henbane – a poison that would cause the drinker to act somewhat erratically, so perhaps ‘ale’ dates from as long ago as that. Here’s the various Scandanavian words:
“[John Thelwall] also had the misfortune to be a mediocre poet — a crime which, although it is committed around us every day — historians and critics cannot forgive.” —E.P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class*
It was called The Battle of Waterloo, and it was one of the plays offered by J. K. Green’s Juvenile Drama: in other words as sheets of figures to cut out, colour and deploy, on little slides, in a miniature proscenium theatre you’d built yourself, from paper or card on a wooden frame.
A miniature proscenium theatre like this features as a prop in the classic 70s version of The Railway Children — one of them is bedridden, the others put on a show for her, and the show is Waterloo.** It also features in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1884 essay ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’
A quiz: name this Marvel Comics crossover event.
An incident – caused by the irresponsible use of superhuman powers – has caused massive loss of life, public outcry and led to swift government action. Many people with superhuman abilities are being rounded up and registered, while others go on the run. As the situation escalates, super-war seems inevitable…
Obviously, if you answered this summer’s CIVIL WAR series, you’d be wrong.
British Political Pop 1990-2005
This is the second of a pair of compilation CDs giving one potential outline of how British pop acts tackled politics. This CD looks at the post-Thatcher era, from 1990 onwards. This coincides with my own life as a voter – the first time I was eligible to vote was in the 1992 general election.
GARY CLAIL AND THE ON-U SOUND SYSTEM – “Human Nature”
“Bigotry, intolerance and racial intolerance!” Gary Clail had a long and honourable association with Tackhead, producing hard-edged, politically-themed dance records through the Thatcher years. This bizarre record, festooned with italo piano riffs and decadent diva vocals, was his land-grab on the mainstream. Its big-picture conclusions – “There’s something wrong with human nature!” – clumsy lyrics and none-more-passionate vocal ranting have made it a weathervane for cynicism about political pop, but for all the easy laughs it’s still a very enjoyable record.
CARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE SEX MACHINE – “Bloodsport For All”
“Stand up and beg for Sergeant Kirby” Like most of Carter’s songs “Bloodsport” tackles a specific issue, in this case racist abuse in army barracks. Like most of Carter’s songs it is also undermined slightly by its vaguely feeble wordplay (“The coldest stream guards of them all”??) but for eye-popping anger and cheapo drum machine pop you couldn’t beat them. Here the machines are coaxed into a glitterbeat rhythm that puts the song into a strange agitpop-schaffel territory.
SIMPLY RED – “Wonderland”
“The end of an era, our future no clearer” A quite bad record – limp melody, limpid singing – but one I feel a personal connection to. In April 1992 I was backpacking round Europe and anticipating returning to a Labour government: no luck. The friend I was with had this Simply Red song, about the fall of Thatcher, on a tape and I listened to it repeatedly and sadly on European trains as the reports of a Tory victory came through. I’m disappointed I downloaded it as I remember it as being much more forceful and incisive than it is: it still sounds like the end of something, though.
CREDIT TO THE NATION – “Call It What You Want”
“Lots of people all they need is a push!” 1993-4 saw a resurgence (of sorts) of political pop, with bands politicised by Tory harrying of dance culture making agitated hip-hop-fuelled rock, and the ‘New Wave Of New Wave’ groups creating exactly what the name suggested. Backed by the weekly press for a while, the records were fairly unpopular and when Britpop came along the media dropped ‘collision pop’ at once. The link between indie and left politics may have held, but the need to express it lyrically was gone.
The specific issue fuelling ‘collision pop’ was racism, specifically the rise of the fascist British National Party, which won its first ever council seat in 1993 in Tower Hamlets in London. This explains the anti-fascist message of “Call It What You Want”, enthusiastic hip-hop whose sampling of Nirvana grabbed student ears (like mine!) immediately. Rapping deficiencies notwithstanding this record stands up very well. Ah, the snakebite-lacquered dancefloors of my youth!
CHUMBAWAMBA – “Timebomb”
“Unattended at a railway station, in the litter at the dancehalls” The IRA bombing campaign of the early 90s saw London targeted regularly: hence this terrorist-themed dance-pop hit (maybe MIA should cover it). Despite being catchy as hell this didn’t sell, and is now just one more nostalgic anthem for me.
HUGGY BEAR – “Herjazz”
“This is happening without your permission!” The British wing of Riot Grrrl in full voice. The theme is male co-option of a feminist revolution, and on Radio 1 this sounded genuinely like nothing else. It also sounded petulant, incompetent, confused blah blah blah – none of this mattered cos modern punk scenes are always about micromarketing, one-to-one targeting, personal wake-up calls and doubtless “Herjazz” caused a few. I was no way part of the target demographic and got on with my life.
PULP – “I Spy”
“It’s more a case of haves against haven’ts” Britpop was political mostly by inference – most of the songwriters liked to try a bit of social commentary, but tracks like “Girls And Boys” are documentary, not editorial. Pulp, no surprise since they grew up as a band in the 80s, wrote some obviously political songs – eg “Cocaine Socialism” – but Different Class while never prescriptive, is all about the curdling of class and sex, and “I Spy” goes straight to the resentful, righteous groin of the matter.
D:REAM – “Things Can Only Get Better”
“You ain’t ever gonna know me – but I know you” Some songs have politics thrust upon them. D:Ream’s uplifin’ house hit from 1994 was adopted by the New Labour team for its 1997 campaign. From an eight-year distance the razzmatazz of New Labour looks staggeringly naff, and even at the time nobody liked this song, but like Bill Clinton’s sax it marked the moment at which the political establishment declared “Hey, we’re aware of pop music.” May sound a bit sour now.