Wednesday, 22 July 2009

MUSIC JOURNAL-ISM


The boundaries seem as steeled down as ever. In one corner, a worried middle-aged man – those Art of Noise/”Firestarter”/Frankie B-side royalties evidently don’t last forever – fulminates curiously against mythical millions of music critics who have no other mission save to undermine his self-regarded role as a “traditional skilled gamekeeper,” much as Rick Wakeman or Annie Haslam might have moaned in 1977. In another corner, Matthew takes a timely swipe at the latter and a more subtle one at Alex Ross; I’ve only speedread The Rest Is Noise thus far and am already faintly irritated by the underwhelming conclusions at which it appears to arrive, but clearly I need to read it properly. I also recall the sniggering, in-joking London Symphony Orchestra making fun of Ornette’s score for The Skies Of America back in 1972 before the man himself picked up his plastic alto and embarrassed the tea drinkers into silence. But Morley might want to have a word with the likes of Giles Swayne or Jonathan Harvey about exactly how much more lucrative the life of a classical composer is than a “music journalist.”

It’s all running away from death, of course; I recently obtained a copy of Nothing, not having read it at the time of its publication because I didn’t feel I needed to, and clearly many others felt the same way, such that it vanished peremptorily from print; I had to order a copy from a wholesale book company based, of all places, in Abingdon, and as you can see, there are plenty of copies left. As for the book itself, it consists of over 400 moderately excoriating pages, partly autobiography but mostly an attempt by the author to come to terms with the suicide of his father. It’s probably twice as long as it needed to be and simultaneously about half as long as it ought to be; the concluding semi-catharsis reads like a draft TV documentary script. Does it tell us much about Morley? As ever, only as much as he wants to tell; in terms of (in Dominic Fox’s words) “renegotiating relationships with the dead,” I’m not sure there’s anything here to renegotiate. Morley gradually discloses the kind of person his father was and the various turns of events and happenstances which led him towards a crossing in inaccessible Gloucestershire in the summer of punk, but one still feels that he is holding something vital back. I could speak – indeed, do speak – as someone who has seen two dead bodies in his life, one of which was his father, but since grief, like music writing, isn’t the Barclays Premiership I’ll leave it at that.

Music “writing.” I have occasionally described myself (for professional purposes) and been described by others as a “music journalist” but I much prefer to think of myself as a “music writer.” Music journalists have to be in the thick of things, or invent a thickness to match the wonders they’ve just discovered if they expect or are expected to be taste makers; music writers are by definition a more leisurely bunch who tend to express feelings about whatever they’ve just listened to, or to help them negotiate their own uncertain paths through life, using whatever resources they need to achieve passage. Music journalists are active, music writers passive. Music journalists write it straight down and wait for the kisses or the shrapnel; music writers spend maybe too long trying to write a work of literature inspired by a work of art. Or, if you’re me, you do it because it’s the one thing in your life you’ve discovered that you’re good at doing.

There is, of course, much to be said for stringent theorists such as Max Harrison who can articulately and evocatively discuss pieces of music and musicians in painstaking musicological detail with the critical discipline inherited from the great nineteenth century essayists such as Hazlitt; but there is also everything to be said in favour of those reporters who find themselves in the midst of a revolution and can successfully convey the essence of the changes to their readers.

For a generation-old solution to this – and how pleasant that its columns end more or less at the point when Leavis died! – I direct you to The Disco Files 1973-1978, essentially a collection of the weekly columns Vince Aletti wrote for Record World magazine during that period. Unashamedly reportage-based, but his writing is so evocative and passionate that it betrays the reality of a music jiver who hunts down and picks up everything he can find and then attempts to make gut level sense of it all, as well as interacting with other DJs to see whether he’s right or not – and since the DJ charts reproduced in this anthology come from the likes of Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons and David Mancuso the importance of liaisons is heightened. We watch as successive revolutions occur; dazzled by the Moroder/Cerrone moves of 1976-7 in particular (and Trans-Europe Express and “Magic Fly” get their correct dues at the time it counted), we hardly think about punk occurring in a parallel world at the same time. Aletti’s discussions of records like “Devil’s Gun” by CJ & Co. or Cerrone’s “Love In C Minor” are potent enough to make you want to pull these records down from the shelves – and he also uncovers an entire universe of Canadian disco of which I had no previous idea at all. Music journalism at its best and most vital, Aletti’s columns contributed to the changes as crucially as Tynan’s Observer columns of the fifties (and try to track down a copy of Tynan’s 1975 anthology A View Of The English Stage); they refused to chronicle in pickled aspic of delayed reaction or subsume the music under a prefabricated aesthetic order; most importantly, perhaps, they obviate the music journalist's trapdoor of "either/or" by disregarding it entirely. Moreover, the writing clearly keeps the music journalist alive – and that really should be its point.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

SCOTT WALKER: Lost In The Stars


While the moon prepared to be landed upon forty summers ago, Scott Walker was in our top ten with an album of show tunes derived from his shortlived peaktime BBC TV series. This series did its best to persuade its public that Walker was harmless, safe, a reliable crooner in the Humperdinck camp into which so many reluctant late sixties solo male artists were being pushed; those deemed too glossy for the bedsits – but who in turn-of-the-sixties Britain wrote better about bedsitland than Walker? – or too clean for prog/metal, or too solitary for groups.

Walker has resisted all attempts to reissue this record (and various others, such as 1972’s film theme collection The Moviegoer) which he has deemed unrepresentative of what he has been about. Certainly the record’s commercial success somewhat cancelled out Scott 4, sneaked out (under his real name of Noel Scott Engel) towards the end of 1969 without anyone really noticing. At the same time he was “enjoying” a Top 20 single with the non-album “Lights Of Cincinatti,” which despite its vague made-to-measure sentimentality and less vague melodic resemblance to “The Twelfth Of Never” contains one of the most heartfelt vocal performances from this lost Ohio boy.

I finally tracked down a copy of the album this weekend, and unexpectedly so, since it was sitting in the £1/please-take-it-off-our-hands racks. Surveying the package, its presence wasn’t entirely surprising, since its condition betrayed the fact that this record had been through the wars (“The War Is Over”!), although on turntable testing, despite the ceaseless “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” crackles in the background, it played perfectly well (only jumping a couple of times, and I managed to clean out both of the offenders). Most significant, however, was the fact that the cover, with Scott’s studiously glum profile, was cleft precisely in twain; there was a straight rip right down the middle, as though Walker himself had intervened to divide his public misperception.

The record itself holds an interesting assemblage of tunes, and nearly uniformly fine vocal performances – he takes a deep breath, goes for that high C at the end of “The Impossible Dream” and nets it easily, but “The Look Of Love” really isn’t him. The song selection, too, is gratifying non-obvious; Aznavour’s “Who (Will Take My Place)” has a particularly truthful vocal. Robert Farnon’s bitter-lovely “Country Girl” is given the right kind of tender grieving, the Jobim essay (“Someone To Light Up My Life”) makes one wish he had sought Antonio out first hand. Much of this provides a fascinating counterpart to the controlled, internalised melancholy evident throughout Scott 3. Set against this must be Peter Knight’s arrangements, which generally do Walker no favours, and sub-Rat Pack big band romps like “Will You Still Be Mine?” and “The Song Is You” are genuinely ill-conceived.

But Walker’s “Lost In The Stars” stuck with me; Sinatra’s earlier reading may well be the definitive one, but this version actively builds a bridge between showbiz obligations and the less easily negotiable conduits of Scott 4; the singer foresees his loneness – never to be confused with loneliness – in his resigned sigh of “And one little star fell alone.” He resigns himself to God finding his mislaid constellation but the song – an “Ol’ Man River” for the apartheid age – requires its singer to drift confusedly between clouds of doubt and hope. Knight’s orchestra is relevant but discreet, but Scott already knows that where his star is heading, few will dare to follow him; the delicately pregnant pauses and perspectival differences between his “Little stars” and “Big stars,” echoed by orchestral pauses of varying volume, finally lead him to an outbuilding of terminal uncertainty; his voice wanders off into the middle distance, Knight’s strings and woodwinds cut the thread with tonality, and he might be playing chess with Death, or be the boy child awaiting baptism by ashen angels; as with Neil Armstrong, he is aware that he will never really get back to where he once belonged. Not when you've seen what he saw.