Sunday, 3 May 2009

Musical cheese

We went round to Andrew and Lynette's last night for a meal with them and their friends Barbara and Mark, and our friend Anne Cunningham. My son sat in the lounge watching Young Frankenstein and rolling around in hysterics. It is always a pleasure to see Anne and it was great to meet Mark and Barbara. Nice food, good company - what more could you want?

Well. . .It is very bad form to criticise your host's musical tastes. Very bad. Very bad indeed. Ah, but what the hell. . .

I think I may have disgraced myself by making my horror at the musical choices too obvious. But they crossed some kind of line, so I feel released from the normal bonds of good manners. Besides Andrew once asked me to turn Midlake off when I was playing them in the studio. Midlake. Outrageous.

Musical taste is obviously a very personal thing - some people have it and some people don't. I have very catholic tastes. I can find something in most genres of music. Except for opera and heavy metal. And for similar reasons: the silly clothes, the inanity of the lyrics, the falsetto voices.

But I would never inflict Sonic Youth, say, on guests at a dinner party just because they couldn't escape. Lynette (who I hasten to add is, in every way, a wonderfully cultured, warm and witty studio-mate) had warned me that she had bought a CD called Sad Songs (why?) in a charity shop but, oh my, nothing quite prepared me for what was actually on it. My ears; my poor, poor ears. If I say that Janis Ian was probably a high point, you will get the picture.

Look at that cover. She looks as if she is staring into a shower cubicle. And that drip coming from the 'A'. It's supposed to be a teardrop, I guess. All I'll say is that it doesn't look like a eye it's dripping from.

I do understand that some people aren't really into music. Well, actually I don't really understand it - but I accept it. I love music - most kinds of music anyway. It's important to me. I like pop music. I just believe there is good and bad - often very, very bad - pop music. I have certainly enjoyed pop music of questionable quality and sometimes even trash can be amazingly evocative of a particular place and time. But there is a limit. As I may have said more than once: nostalgia is not my thing. I can't listen to things ironically.

Not that I haven't got vivid memories of watching Top of the Pops with my mum saying, 'Hasn't he got lovely hair - for a girl', and buying singles and stacking them up on my parent's Dansette record player. But when I was a teenager there was Roxy Music and Bowie and T Rex, but there was also the Wombles, Mud, Pickety Witch, Paper Lace, Middle of the Road, Leo Sayer and Gilbert O'Sullivan. I'm proud to say I was on the side of Roxy Music, Bowie and Bolan. My mum liked Gilbert O'Sullivan. And I may be the age my mum was at when I was listening to that stuff, but that doesn't mean anyone is going to persuade me it's any good. Gilbert O'Sullivan was a featured artist on Sad Songs. As was Leo Sayer.

This just marks me out as a snob of course. But everyone is a snob of some kind. No one likes everything and I certainly don't come at this from a muso position. I'm as happy to hear a three chord (or two if it's Lou Reed) pop song as the next person. I grew up listening to my sister's Mowtown singles. I just need to believe its real. It doesn't have to be real - it just needs to convince me while I'm listening.

Anyway the very same people who would never dream of reading a Jackie Collins book or looking at a Jack Vettriano painting, who are happy to be snobs when it comes to classical music and would stab themselves in the ears before they would listen to Richard Clayderman or Il Divo, are happy to listen to absolute drivel when it comes to pop. When it comes to pop they have a taste bypass. It baffles me a little. I suppose it's because they are unable to take pop seriously. I am a pop snob and proud of it.

And come to think of it, most of these songs weren't even sad - they were just mawkish or drippy. An equivalent Love Songs CD would not have any of the great love songs on it - it would be full of the greetings-card-sentiment nonsense that pads out the charts most weeks. Celine Dion would almost certainly be on it.

The compilers seemed to confuse sadness with limpness. Sadness is a perfectly laudable emotion to strive for in a pop song. We all have songs that made us feel like someone knew what we were feeling at a time when we were broken-hearted. There are some great sad songs in pop music. None of them - with maybe the exception of Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U - was on this CD.

Hank Williams sings sad songs. Nick Drake. Leonard Cohen. Dusty Springfield. Peter Green. Lucinda Williams. Tom Waits. Billie Holiday. Bruce Springsteen has written some great sad songs. So has Lou Reed. A lot of Motown songs are heartbreaking. And what about Antony Hegarty? There's Tim Buckley. Smoky Robinson. Aretha Franklin. Sufjan Stevens, Sparklehorse. Sandy Denny. Not Air Supply.

Never, never, never Air Supply.

I rebel against the idea of nostalgia because so often it involves a fondness for the frankly godawful. That's not to say that I don't regularly reminisce and rewind the tape of my life, replaying various bits (editing them too, of course). But my memories of teenage parties and discos and the like are mixed, and rarely sugar-coated. I was shy and a bit awkward. There is as much pain as there is warmth in looking back and I like songs that reflect that. That's the mark of a great pop song - it can be simple and complex at the same time.

There was some truly dreadful music providing the soundtrack to my teens, but I never much liked it then and I never want to hear it again. I did have the odd Slade single and I have a feeling I may have bought Tiger Feet by Mud in a weaker moment, but I'm happy to confess that I was - and I pray I always will be - totally immune to the soft-rock ballad. Besides there are just too many good bands around today to ever want to hear Chicago again.

They are never going to invite me back are they? And anyone who was about to invite me round to dinner is probably having second thoughts. Hey - but someone has to stand up for decent music. It's a tough job, but I'm willing to take it on.

And if they hadn't followed Sad Songs with a Carpenters compilation I might have let them off (and I know Karen Carpenter had a very pure voice and died terribly young, but the music is still - with perhaps the exception of Goodbye to Love with its oddly over-the-top guitar solo - like being drowned in luke warm honey). But as I said - they crossed a line. And playing Rufus Wainwright at the end didn't compensate. The damage was done.

Maybe I ought to make them a CD of really sad songs. That'll show 'em. Now where's my copy of Berlin? (I'm cackling maniacally at this point, by the way.)

I took my son to football this morning. We also took Ian Farnan and his son - Ian having broken a metatarsal in a football match the other day. Their team was beaten 6-0 but oddly my son played really well and was praised by the coach. Maybe the fact that they were so far behind made the boys relax and enjoy their game.

I thought my days of standing in a bitterly cold wind were over, but it was freezing on the touchline. My back was killing me by the time I was got home. A cup of tea and a blast of Neil Young and I was much better.


  1. but Chris, Sad Songs, they say SO MUCH!!! (as Sir Elton once said). But I'm with you on being choosy about sad v. limp... jeff buckley's rendition of Lilac Wine would be on my compilation of really good sad songs.

    Sorry to hear that judges once again lacked the insight to give you an award. Your readers know better. :)

  2. Thanks Maggi. I wuz robbed. Again.

    Hmm. Jeff Buckley. I always want to like him more than I actually do. I have that CD. I'll give him another go. I prefer his dad though.

  3. pulpsfromthebothy5 May 2009 at 21:58

    I wrote a nostalgic post on my blog about Heavy Metal, back on the 1st of December 2008, called 'Heavy Vinyl', don't know if you read that one Chris? Mrs K's old friend shot the music vid to Sinead O'connor's 'Nothing Compares 2 U', and my work mate's sister sat next to Gilbert O'sullivan in church last Sunday, they both happen to live in Jersey. Oh, and I think the album cover art to Rainbow's 'Rising', is top of my list in that field, great album too. Gotta love those fantasy lyrics!

  4. The Nothing Compares 2 U video is great, isn't it. Do you I might have almost guessed that Gilbert O'Sullivan would live on Jersey.