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.

1 comment:

Henry Barnes said...

Ironically we (I work at the Guardian website) are running a Paul Morley special on disco tomorrow featuring a chat with Vince Aletti. It's mostly Morley satisfying his fancy (as ever) but there is a great interview with Candi Staton.