Posts from 25th May 2000

25
May 00

What Went On: How Marvin Gaye Killed Soul

I Hate Music2 comments • 1,711 views

In 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Goin’ On?, an album of unprecedented ambition for soul music, which addressed real issues – poverty, the state of the nation, the economy – and did so with thick, complex arrangements and, of course, smooth, emotional, inspirational singing. It has since been described, often, as the greatest album of all time. It was nothing less than a new birth of soul, the coccoon from which would hatch a wonderful butterfly: a mature, album-based music which would last forever.

By, oh, 1976 or so, soul music was in a bad way: within another five years, soul was creatively dead and commercially wounded, floundering in a quicksand of overcooked bedroom schlock . What had happened? Most critics and commentators blamed the rise of disco, a bastardised kind of black music, production-line funk which had attracted multiracial and polysexual dancers to clubs where they could dance and have fun. They didn’t ask why disco had become necessary in the first place, didn’t ask why people were buying these repetitive, ultra-catchy songs and – relatively speaking – spurning bloated albums like the Temptations’ Masterpiece or the O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy, with its thirteen-minute ‘soul opera’ title track on the subject of slavery. They certainly didn’t look across the way to rock, where the album was King and where monstrously over-extended records were causing an intense critical backlash against overweening ambition and in favour of – yes – simplicity and acceptability. Disco was the black punk, simple as that.

It’s often said that it’s wrong to blame Sgt. Pepper’s for progressive rock: is it wrong to blame Marvin Gaye for the pomposity of album-based soul? No, because What’s Goin’ On is no work of genius – it has all the faults its successors did. A vagueness at its centre, an unwillingness to offer analysis and a reliance instead on vocal technique and empty empathy. Critics ever since have swooned over how ‘brave’ it was of Gaye to tackle social issues – but why was it brave? The message of the title track boils down to “It is bad that bad things happen”, not something anyone could disagree with, but equally not likely to have an effect, to change people’s minds. Disco was attacked for its vacuity, but at least it was an honest vacuity, whereas most social-issue soul, Gaye’s opus included, hid its lack of real commentary under a parade of platitudes and the occasional sob or melismatic howl. The will to comment was there, sure – some singers, like Curtis Mayfield, even had the verbal felicity to do something with it – but it would take hip-hop to open up a space where truly substantive things could be said and thought. Gaye’s brand of soul was just sound and technique and signified nothing: it was no surprise at all that it was this stuff that became the bible for ‘serious’ 80s pop music, with even the horrendous Spandau Ballet crooning smugly about “Lis’nin’ to Maaaaarvin all night long….”.

Motown boss Berry Gordy tried to stop the release of What’s Goin’ On?, and he’s been painted as a cloth-eared villain ever since. But Gordy was not a stupid man, and certainly not a philistine: over ten years before he’d written “Money”, after all, which said more intelligent things in a slyer fashion than anything on Gaye’s hand-wringing epic. That was the problem: the worst thing about What’s Goin’ On? wasn’t what it caused but what it replaced – the old Motown had been a place where songwriters, their skills honed by hectic competition, would turn out three-minute gems with polished (and insightful!) lyrics, brilliant high-impact arrangements and absolutely irresistible beats. By 1971 that version of the company was on the wane anyway, but What’s Goin’ On was one big nail in its coffin. So Marvin Gaye helped destroy the best pop label the world ever saw, and in doing so turned soul music into a gigantic supper club. Greatness indeed, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Machine Age: Net Loss

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Machine Age: Net Loss – cool analysis of the MP3 situation. As I was saying earlier, bad news for record shops. (link via Fred, who offers a bit more analysis too).

REM – “STAND”

I Hate MusicPost a comment • 441 views

REM – “STAND”

I mean, what the FUCK?

Blur join row over MP3

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Blur join row over MP3: mostly worth reading for the arrogant comments by a Jeepster spokesman. (Without internet piracy, incidentally, I would not now be into their most profitable band, whose records I have been buying in shops, rather than, as previously, not touching with a bargepole). Jeepster’s particular take on the situation is that indie labels deserve special attention because indie fans can’t live without music and are thus more likely to nick it, or something, and it’s much less harmful to steal major label pop because it’s disposable anyway. This addled nonsense mostly just proves that no matter how tangential it is, some indie ideologues will stop at nothing to get a cheap potshot in. And if “Legal Man” isn’t ‘disposable pop’ then I don’t know what is.

Campaigners fight for axed Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw

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Campaigners fight for axed Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw: my knee-jerk reaction to Andy Kershaw’s sacking is “Oh, that’s a shame”, especially when you compare Kershaw’s easygoing, affable style to the on-air posturings of slugs like Chris Moyles. But, but, but…I never actually listened to Kershaw, and the BBC does have five national radio stations to play with. Why not put him straight onto Radio 3, which is forever dipping toes into sharky waters with programmes like Mixing It?

Longplayer

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Longplayer: sound art – a piece of music set to last a thousand years – which raises a lot of interesting questions. If, like me, you believe (sometimes) that art arises out of a ‘dialogue’ of sorts between artist and audience, what does it mean for a piece of art that no human being – including the artist – could possibly experience it in its entirety? This is the kind of stuff La Monte Young has also been exploring throughout his career, but Longplayer’s designer and creator has no particular minimalist or avant-garde pedigree, being Jem Finer, ex of the Pogues!

Hip hop at a crossroads

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Hip hop at a crossroads: “This was no ordinary hip hop show: Mos Def took the unprecedented step of dispensing with a DJ and employing a distinguished live band” – unprecedented how, exactly? Review from the Guardian.

Well,

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Well, now we’re talking. Tangents has started what amounts to a weblog. I was thinking this morning about how I should probably try and put more news-y content in NYLPM, because while there are several excellent websites that will move heaven and earth to tell you when a new Jimmy Eat World split 7″ is coming out, there aren’t any that might do that for UK indie releases. But now this crushing responsibility (which I am totally unsuited for, as you might have guessed) has been taken from me, at least partially.

(I will still try to do the newsy thing though, so if you know of anything happening and you want me to mention it then please send me details or a link.)

Flat Eric Archives

New York London Paris Munich1 comment • 309 views

Flat Eric Archives: an incredibly important cultural resource.

Piano Magic

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Piano Magic, who might well be the best band in the country, have a new album out (Hooray!) and a remix 12″ (sigh). I started but never finished a full-length review of their last album, Low Birth Weight. In summary, though: it’s beautiful, fragile and very original, and was one of last year’s finest releases.

(Indulgent aside: I find writing album reviews really difficult, whereas sites like Kickbright and Westernhomes seem able to really crank them out. How do they do it?)