26 January 2008

Pop! What is it Good for? Eh?

Started writing this a while ago, but only just got it finished. But hey, at least I did get it finished, right?

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OK, randumb thoughts on the Paul Morley show I watched On Demand(!!) the other night. A bit of background: I never liked Morley, never liked the way he wobbled his double chin in excitement at the next big pop/indie band on Newsnight Review, his earnestness belying the mediocrity of most things he was banging on about; stuff is awesome because it speaks to the common man, speaks to the young person, yeah let’s all sit on a wall somewhere and knock back 20:20. Much prefer the part-laid back, part-paranoid delivery of Tom Paulin. His defence of some Star Wars film in the face of smuggers like Miranda Sawyer, in which he discussed it as an allegory for the American Civil War in great detail after their complacent ‘yeah yeah it’s an excuse to sell toys, innit’s remains one of the most glorious examples of criticism I have encountered.

Anyway, times change and I mellow (I hope this isn’t the dreaded reduction in testosterone men are supposed to encounter around my age; I just got a bunch of eighties thrash metal in!), and I see past the double chin: maybe Morley isn’t so bad after all. Let’s face it, Reynolds loves him. And Woebot loves Reynolds (and I quite like him too). And I love Woebot. And I respect their opinions, so maybe I should check out more of his stuff. I have to admit I love the fact that he’s carny enough to get paid by the Observer to write monthly columns that generally amount to lists of gigs he’s getting into for free; got to admire that.

The idea of this programme was Morley banging on about why pop is so good, why it speaks to us unlike almost any other form of art or commerce and why it’s bloody brilliant. Watch the thing, if it’s still up, for his own preamble. Speaking of which…

I liked the way Morley was always getting messed with, which was a nice counterpoint to his music-world status of untouchable icon. The security dude outside the train station who, when told they were filming for the BBC, simply remarked ‘then they should know better’. That was a great way to open proceedings – the interruption of Mighty Morley in full flow by the rules and regulations that pop music itself exists to rebel against. Which made it even more amusing when the closing bookend, the interview with Sugababes on their ‘classic’ (more on that later) ‘Freak Like Me’, was interrupted when Morley was asking them about their feelings on the inherent darkness of the song; he was gutted when they were dragged off for more important matters. He desperately yelled at them ‘yes or no’?

‘…Do we enjoy..?’

Anyway, he decided to pick six great pop songs and talk about them instead of getting all Promethean on the scale of it; his rationale was that if he explained why they rule, the audience could extrapolate from there why pop as a whole rules.

1. Kylie Minogue – ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’

This was kind of an obvious choice, but a good one nonetheless. I know Kylie’s career was already resurrected in massive style the year before with her kitsch-pop manifesto Light Years, but this single – and the album that followed – was a critical rebirth, as a credible popster for the first time ever. Morley approaches it fro the right way too: rather than pretend it was a flash of inspiration, a result of the relationship between artist and muse, we see how mechanical the writing process was. Dude from Mud happened upon a hook, added a bass-line and that was that. Kylie ended up singing it. In a way a pretty depressing look at the art of the modern pop song, but in another way very frank and a great illustration of the context in which these great hits are usually written.

2. T-Rex – ‘Ride a White Swan’

I don’t know. Marc Bolan. Glam. Goldfrapp. OK, it was the escape from a young life potentially full of north-western drudgery that kid-Morley needed to encounter in order to follow his true calling of writing about music. Whatever, I don’t really like UK Glammage.

3. Kinks – ‘Lola’

The Kinks are a band I have meant to get into for a while and, to be honest, I’m not sure why I hadn’t already. Part of me dislikes music that is too ‘English’, but I shall discuss that in (slightly) greater depth below. Anyway, it was something that had to wait until I got my turntable in. Which is now five and a half months ago, so I’ll get on it ASAP. I just hope most of it is in stereo, as I’m not bothering with a mono cartridge just now.

He selected ‘Lola’, a song that I recently became aware had to be a classic. A version of it was used to advertise something – I think maybe Weetabix – when I was a kid, with a cub scouts gimmick, with ‘arkela’ replacing ‘Lola’. Needless to say it was god-awful and hindered my appreciation for the original until recently. Yes, recently Radio 1 celebrated forty years of broadcast and got a bunch of crap artist from now to cover some good songs from the past. So we had Just Jack doing ‘Love Fool’, Keane performing ‘Under Pressure’, the Kooks covering… well, does it even matter what they played? But Robbie Williams recorded a rendition of ‘Lola’ and it was good. And for Robbie Williams to be good the song, I decided, must have been stellar.

We are treated to a live performance of the tune by the originators on this show, and it’s fantastic. Not only does a philistine like me get to appreciate that, yes this is a great song, but main Kink Ray Davies performs with such a knowing wink and smile that it’s nigh-on impossible to do anything other than love what’s flashing up on the screen. I’m sure there was some critical analysis of it, but it was all rather academic (hurr) at this point. Gotta get some Kinks in.

4. Smiths – ‘This Charming Man’

What can I say about the Smiths that hasn’t already been raked over the coals for the last two-and-a-bit decades? OK, I hated the Smiths as a young ‘un, as you’ll soon learn.

I hated them, even before I knew why I hated them. I really first heard the Smiths when I was in my early-mid teens, when the quality of music was defined by me in measures of how heavy it was, how much aggro it caused and how powerful it sounded. I found them soft and whiney. As a child of the nineties I found them old fashioned and quaint. Look at Morrissey’s stupid hair and their round glasses. Set of student bastards. Etc. What was worse was the faux-intellectuals who loved the band (almost as bad as the faux-hooligans who listened to the execrable Oasis, Dodgy and Shed Seven).

So they were a band I had always felt an animosity toward. The Smiths kind of represented the opposite of what I was loking for in music: they were both aforementioned soft intellectuals (the exact kind of thing I was attempting to escape from within myself while at school), and also a/the defining image of the British eighties. It is worth mentioning that I hated the eighties too. It was probably to do with the era in which I was born, and the fact that my earliest perceptions and sensations were made at a time of Thatcher, miners’ strikes and a second generation of ska that brought a style of music that should have been sunny and free from worry into a world of grey concrete, stupid fringes, parkas with grotty sludge-fur collars, Cosmo and Dibbs.

However, time flows like a river and perceptions alter (spot a theme here?). While I never turned into a fan of the band, I learned to quite like the bomb and started appreciating what they were about. It was partly my boy Duncan talking them up a storm when I was at university (I dropped out when I realised I was a student) and partly my own forays into the once maligned indie (My Bloody Valentine as gateway drug, natch). This song’s pretty good, so’s that one, Morrissey is still a wanker.

Morley did a good job in this one though. He opened my eyes in a way to the Smiths, specifically to the meticulous construction of the lyrics. In keeping with the programmes subtext of approaching each song in a manner befitting the song itself, Morley gathered people from the north-west in their forties to sit about and pore over the lyrics in a manner combining labour of love with GCSE ‘what does this line mean? And what does this line mean?’ school of analysis-under-duress. Another band I want to buy some records of, then.

5. Adam Faith – ‘What Do You Want’

I was nodding off at this point. This was the really, really early single Morley was to bang on about; we’re talking pre-Morley. So he brought in the big guns, not necessarily to talk about how it was constructed, or to wonder what this line meant, and this one, ooh and this one, but to look at the impact it has on a time before the Teenager. It was nice to see Robert Wyatt on my telly screen in a capacity other than gamely applauding Mercury Music Prize winners. There were some other old dudes, one was an artist and one might have written the song. They imparted wisdom. I drank some Sunny D and 20:20.

6. Sugababes – ‘Freak Like Me’

I like the Sugababes, and I always have. I fell for debut hit ‘Overload’ thankfully before I learned they were meant to be a girl group; there was something about the juxtaposition of superbly tightly-written song with charmingly flat singing that I loved. It went a bit downhill for me when Siobhan left (just like Bananarama, innit) and they drafted in human piece of airbrush art Heidi (who looks eerily like a photofit combining both Victoria and David Beckham into one Stepford celebu-mutant). I always felt their edgy image rather too contrived and I never got the feeling – as one Grauniad dummy put it – that they were ‘dangerous’. Tell me about it. In fact I much prefer them now they have ditched that ‘urban’ albatross and got back to making pop gems with god-choruses.

But back in the bad old days, there was a concerted attempt by the Powaz Dat B to legitimise what we fin de siècle ruffnecks called bootlegs, but which got officially branded ‘mashups’. That, along with the Kylie/New Order Brits thing and this single, pretty much signalled the end of the party. See, the point of a good bootleg is to transcend the source material. Not only was ‘Freak Like Me’ cynical as fuck, but it came nowhere near the Numan or Adina Howard songs. It was sad, the song wasn’t very good and Sugababes just weren’t hot til they hired Amelle. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

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There was an inconsistency to the structure of the programme that enhanced it, that evinced Morley’s understanding of the songs at hand; he looked at each single from the perspective each single should have been viewed from: the Kylie was investigated in terms of how the faceless music industry veteran behind it composed the piece; ‘Lola’ was regarded as the (not so) subtly subversive and oh-so English classic middle aged Kinks fans are wont to do, and ‘This Charming Man’ was humourlessly over-analysed by people being (intentionally?) boring. And ‘Freak’ was over-rated. I loved this programme, even if it did feature an unwanted interjection from the New Young Pony Singer (oh, you like dance? And rock!? Glory be. And let’s not mention Cubanate or Pitch Shifter or nuffink).

Gotta get some Morley books in now…

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