I wrote a thing for here about David Bowie and how I felt about him and what he meant to me, but then Pitchfork kindly decided they wanted to run it, so it’s below. (Original title: He Could Be Dead, He Could Be Not, He Could Be You). And to any other good pieces I see, or that you want to point me to, or memorial threads.
Meanwhile this feels like it deserves more than an RIP on a Popular entry, so by all means use this thread too to post, comment about Bowie, list your favourite songs, fit him into your history or pop’s history. Whatever, really.
David Bowie: RIP
I’m going to listen to one album on a once-a-day basis for a week, a different one each week. Not in order to write about them or anything, unless I decide I want to. Just a minor attention-span workout, the listening equivalent of that “20 minutes of brisk exercise daily” or “5 a day” advice. I realised now I don’t review albums any more I’ve got out of that habit of intensive listening, except for Popular, which is done very much with writing as the aim. It would be healthy to get it back, I reckon.
The albums will mostly be a) stuff I already own that b) I know I like but c) have never really given the time they deserve. The listening cycle is
Friday to Thursday, until such time as I miss a day, at which point it will shift currently Tuesday to Monday. Albums below:
The Secret History Of Band Aid
Everybody remembers Band Aid. And – despite everything – most people remember Band Aid 2. And now we have Band Aid
20 30. Which rather begs the question – why does nobody ever talk about Band Aids 3 to 29? Take a trip down memory lane as we remind you of the charity singles we all forgot.
Band Aid 3: Recorded in a secret corner of the Hacienda, “Baggy Aid” in 1990 melded social conscience with a wah-wah break and found Shaun Ryder offering to feed the starving his melons. That Line was sung by Bobby Gillespie, but nobody heard his reedy mewlings and the single flopped.
Band Aid 4: Top One Nice One! Altern8, Shaft, The Prodigy and many more superstars got together to give the classic tune a new boshing 90s sound – though it was B-Side “E For Ethiopia” that found favour with the DJ community. But a secret orbital party for famine relief was busted and the marketing juggernaut found itself turned back at a police roadblock.
It was a gilded age: the commercial zenith of the music industry at the end of the 20th century. In America, its apex as a money-making force came in 1999 when – adjusted for inflation – $71 per head was spent on music, a small box set for every man, woman and child in the country. Other countries hit the summit a little later, but they hit it. Did the industry see a crisis coming? Certainly – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the USA weeks after “….Baby One More Time” was released. But the biz was surely overconfident, it had seen its way through busts before. In 1981, when Britney Jean Spears was born, the industry was financially stagnant, caught in a recession-hit decline after the unsustained mini-boom of disco. It climbed back thanks to technology, and kept climbing. CD revenues rose and rose, and the machine to ensure they would not stop rising grew slicker and faster: radio, TV, promoters, manufacturers, labels, press and retailers meshing ever more efficiently in the pursuit of getting people to take home silver discs. And here we are at the top of the growth charts: peak pop.
Every Popular entry starts with the same question: why this record? This time it’s especially loud. “Candle In The Wind ‘97” is the highest-selling single of all time in the UK, almost 2 million clear of its nearest competitor. This is as big as pop gets. But “why?” might strike you as a silly question here, because its answer is so obvious: Diana, duh. So reframe it: why Diana?
The death of Princess Diana is recognisably a global news event, in the way we experience them now: the sudden in-rush of information into a new-made vacuum of speculation; the real-time grapple for meaning; and most of all the flood of public sentiment, deforming the story and becoming the story. It was also inescapable in a way nothing in my lifetime had been. But there are elements which feel very distant, and this single is one of them. It pushed the machineries of pop – literal ones, like CD presses and distribution fans, and metaphorical ones, like the charts – to their limits. HMV stores carried signs warning of a limit of 5 copies per person, and still sold out. There were reports of people buying 50 copies – for a shrine, perhaps, or just because CD singles had briefly become, like flowers and bears, part of a currency of devotion.
“Whenever we played that live there would be rows of grown men crying. It was almost like these guys couldn’t cry when they needed to cry, but that song operated like a pressure valve for them and it was okay for them to cry at a big rock concert.” – Richard Ashcroft on “The Drugs Don’t Work”
The list of number ones is not a complete history of anything except itself: it’s an iceberg party, a throng of bobbing and jostling tips – rock, hip-hop, reggae, indie, cinema, politics, comedy, charity, marketing and more, each one an incomplete and distorted story. But sometimes – when a berg seems over-familiar – the tiny and partial story told by the tip can put a new spin on it.
So the rock and indie number ones of 1996-1997 have seemed to me to tell a story about anxiety, a crisis of legitimacy for rock music. “Setting Sun” brutally demonstrated that it was impossible simply to pick up where the 60s innovations had left off. “Discotheque” suggested that other musics could no longer be easily absorbed into the working practises of a rock band. And Oasis were a walking declaration that a traditional band line-up should be the centre of pop, simply by right and by confidence – and it had worked, until Be Here Now showed the limits of this fiat rock.
In 1997, talking about music on the Internet means USENET, a Gormenghast of diverging and reconnecting fora whose goblin tribes gleefully rampage through each other’s chosen lairs: a thread will start on alt.music.prodigy, then careen into alt.music.spice-girls via alt.music.misc, while Discordians and trolls plot to spread it still further. Still, there are hierarchies in this cheerful froth of just-unleashed opinion – top level domains rarely bump uglies. Rec.music.misc keeps a snooty distance from the alt.music rabble, and despite sharing a suffix, alt.music.alternative and uk.music.alternative only occasionally meet. The former talks about Mercury Rev, Pavement, and Spiritualized, but seems increasingly fond of chart pop, a tendency I do my best to foster once it becomes my late-night home. The latter has divergent interests: I glance at it now and then but the closest it gets to the fields I know is Stereolab. Urusei Yatsura, Long Fin Killie, The Yummy Fur, some bunch of Scots named after a kids’ TV show… these are what uk.music.alternative goes for. It is almost my kind of place: I keep it as a subscribed group on my newsreader but let the messages pile up unwanted.
The point of this post is very simple. If you want to be a manager in the Pop World Cup, put your name in the comments and pick a specific team (first come first served) or choose a random one.
More clarification? But of course!
Ten years ago tomorrow, I started writing a review of Al Martino’s “Here In My Heart”. I’d never heard the first UK Number One, and thanks to P2P networks I had the chance. Somewhere between starting the blog entry and finishing it, I thought of reviewing all of them.
I had no idea how long it would take. That hasn’t changed: I still have no idea how long it will take. At the time, the No.1 was The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love”, and we’ve had around 300 new ones since then. Unless the Official Charts Company dies before I do, the project is unfinishable – but I admit I’d imagined I’d have reached the present day before now. For a variety of reasons – job, family, fluctuating motivation, other things to write about – I haven’t managed that. Maybe by 2023!
Popular has been a terrific hobby. I started it when I was an established blogger but not a published journalist: I was feeling wrung out and underconfident, and wanted something I could write quickly and thoughtlessly, about songs nobody cared about: a reaction to the higher-powered, febrile blogosphere of the time, which was very focused on being up-to-date and expert. I wanted to be able to feel my ideas and opinions out, like I had when I started blogging.
The blog has now outlasted my part-time career as a music journalist, and probably played a big part in me getting those opportunities. I now think a lot more – sometimes too much – about each entry, but Popular is the most satisfying writing I do. I’m also conscious of the marvellous, entertaining, informative and – by web standards – fantastically good-natured comments each entry will attract – which also means I can leave stuff out, and zoom in on a particular feature or scrap of context if I want to. If I felt I had to be comprehensive I’d have given up long ago.
Thanks so much for reading, and commenting.
If not for the trick of putting a mark out of 10 at the end of each review, I would have far fewer readers. So here’s a Popular “highlights reel” centred on the marks, one entry/thread for each.
A “heavyweight battle”, the NME cover-billed it. And if “Country House” vs Oasis’ “Roll With It” was a title bout, the music press were desperate to play Frank Warren.
Perhaps they had most at stake. It was, in a way, their last great fight. Many other moments define Oasis. Blur are best remembered for different songs. Britpop itself? Well, this was the high tide – probably the main reason Oasis even count – and the rivalry became an ongoing, rather tiresome, pop storyline for years after. But even then the battle is just one of a scrapbook of memories: Britpop had to be a thing already for this tussle to even matter.
The press, though – this is the climax of its 80s and 90s story, its turn away from other music to keep the indie flame burning, and how it saw its favourites gradually win over first the radio establishment, then a wider public. And look – here they are! Top of the charts, ma! Whoever wins, we won, is the NME’s message, but in that final ridiculous week the story had outgrown them. After Britpop, readers dwindled, and no new story emerged: the price of ‘we won’ turned out to be that there wasn’t a “we” anymore.