“ROCK AND ROLL is the spearhead of our attack because it is so effective and so much fun.”

– John Sinclair, revolutionary and manager of The MC5, November 1968 from the first ‘White Panther Statement’.

No matter how or what you choose to put on the turntable, it should be obvious that music is fun, that pop music is fun, that the Marlene Dietrich or Edith Piaf or Johnny Cash record I’m listening to is fun. See, dying on the back of a beautiful career resurrection, Johnny deserved plaudits – he had fans and influence and all that – and he got his resplendent obituaries, as if they somehow justified his life, his addictions. Sean O’Hagan typed his way round JC’s ‘latent sense of evil’. He nodded appreciatively to the fact that Cash was, apparently, ‘the first existential pop singer’. Maybe: there’s always something beautiful about skirting death and religion in music, about people who can break your heart while rolling in the aisles on Dexedrine and amphetamines.

But there’s also something beautiful about odd rockabilly singing and peculiar anachronisms. There’s something beautiful about how a suburban 21 year old can feel such unmitigated glee when hearing a frail 71 year old intone Depeche Mode songs on CD b-sides. There’s something beautiful about dancing to songs called Ring of Fire and A Boy Named Sue, about listening to pompous albums in which an odd countrified rockabilly singer goes to the Holy Land and recites messed up parables about cutting out your mother’s heart. There’s something amazing about singing songs called Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog and Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart to convicts. There is something amazing about listening to ironic pastiches of an ironic medium, performed and enjoyed first time round with dollops of irony, and playing them to your friends with an ironic smile and an unironic tear creeping across your face.

The closest dictionary definition irony comes to this kind of irony is ‘incongruity between what is and what is expected to be’. Which kinda means listening to records people wouldn’t expect you to listen to is always ironic. Which means, dependent on the particular context of your friends and acquaintances, your whole rack is ironic. It’s all debased beyond recognition. It’s all devoid of any of the things you got into music for. It’s just ain’t right.

No. Irony is just another way of enjoying music. Another way of getting the kind of fun that even those who saw rock as a tool, like John Sinclair and – to a lesser extent – our parents, just had to embrace. Sure, irony’s not necessarily MEANINGFUL and EMOTIONAL and ALL THOSE THINGS WE’RE TOLD GREAT MUSIC MUST BE but it can be, it really can, and, anyway, IS THAT THE POINT? Music is about fun and diversion and imagination and getting a sense of community and all the things you know instinctively the first time you hear any music, let alone the first time you hear music you actually love – even the real POIGNANT stuff, like most of Johnny Cash, is more about fun than MESSAGES. But a record being enjoyed ironically is seen as the ultimate death toll for both the music and the person enjoying it. It probably stems back to the need many felt, and still feel, to defend music against allegations of faddish, depraved twaddlisms. To admit that you’re only enjoying the damn thing, that you were enjoying the enjoyment rather than the music itself, well, it lets prigs and censors inch their way towards ‘your music’ – look at what’s happening with UK garage and gangsta poses and, let’s face it, look at what’s happening with the continuing condescension towards ‘chart pop’. So, rather than being a successor to skiffle, rock and roll is now seen as the illegitimate child of some notional ‘blues’. It makes the whole enterprise seem so much more PROPER, less fly by night and ironic. It stops them painting you as either stupid or corrupted or both. Irony doesn’t kill off ‘meaningful’, really heartbreaking stuff like Johnny Cash and Scott Walker and Dionne Warwicke and whiny old Dylan and 60’s pop and garage music of all types and loads of 80’s electro and the best house and trance and techno. It just means you can like its fractal magnificence in yet another way.

And of course, the ironic enjoyment can be a pose, which can be fine, but it can also be damn annoying. But why stop people enjoying music? Censorious, ignorant and just plain boring if you ask me. It takes the assumption that ‘it’s all about the music’ and clamps your feet and lips tight. It’s never just been about the music, and it’s never just been about the music and the fashion and the tribalism and the art either. It’s always been about taking the piss with friends, pissing people off with friends, pissing friends off with people. Building your beatific lands against the oh-so-elegant sub-strata of music, revelling in and rebelling against genre and boredom and the like. If you ever needed proof that fans should look after music and not musicians, this is it. See, only the ironic will understand that this argument is nonsense, that it doesn’t matter, and it’s only the ironic that will find it fun.


written by Jim Robinson