Friday, January 10, 2014

Writing, Old-School

Back in 2003 I wrote a couple of music essays and submitted them to two music webzines: In Love With These Times, In Spite of These Times; and Tangents.  The musical tastes of the sites’ authors, Kieran and Alistair, resonated with me, and I admired their writing styles; I read their work regularly, and was inspired in part by them to attempt to put some of my own thoughts on music into writing.  In fact, my first piece (“66 in 86”) was a direct reaction to Kieran’s views on music before punk, in particular the Beatles; and, despite the fact that he violently disagreed with my premise, he had some wonderful things to say about the essay on his site.

Meanwhile, In Love With These Times, In Spite of These Times lives on in blog form (; Tangents is now defunct, but its archived contents can be found at

Here is the first of those two essays (second to follow):

'66 in '86 - an appreciation of the Pop legacy  

"He [Clive Langer] was producing Imperial for Primal Scream, I went into the studio at about ten o'clock one night and he was sitting on the floor, on his own, crying. I went up to him and asked him what was wrong. He looked up at me and said 'The Beatles, Alan, The Beatles, I f* * * ing love them' So I just thought 'what a brilliant guy'. . ."
-- Alan McGee in an interview in Underground Magazine, May 1988

I've always imagined the development of my musical tastes was not worlds apart from the 'average' indiepop fan: First, there were the Beatles. (Actually, to be honest, in my case they were second, after the Monkees - but I usually prefer to revise my own history in this case.)  Then, in my college years, I started listening to a lot of punk.  And then, after a few years, there was another revelation:  indiepop, and above all C-86.  I remember well the reaction I had on hearing "Beatnik Boy" for the first time - it was the same I'd had the first time I listened to songs like "London's Burning": "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS???"  But before long, as with punk, I viewed the rawness, the lack of polish, not as something abnormal but as part of the music's charm, and in fact as the vehicle for its real power.  And here was something that miraculously managed to marry the best qualities of all the music I had grown up with: the melodicism of 60s pop, the urgency of punk.  I had fallen in love.
These qualities of indiepop, and particularly of that peculiar brand that arose in the UK in the mid-80s, have been so commonly observed that any statement from me is sheer redundancy.  Given this, then, I must say I have long been puzzled by the trend in indiepop to denigrate, or even deny the significance of, 60s pop - and above all the Beatles.  Whether it's Amy Linton declaring "I didn't like the Beatles anyway" in "Jimmy".  Or whether it's fanzine writers seeming to think that the history of pop music began in 1977, or maybe 1976.  Of course I'm biased, considering my own musical upbringing, but the connections seemed so obvious that they begged the question, "Where did this come from?" As with many elements of the indie community, the anti-Beatles attitude (assuming it to be something more than a childish rebellion against our parents' music) can be traced back to the heady days of 1977 (of whose headiness I am certain since I was all of a year old at the time).  That was the year that the Clash declared, "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones!"  And Glen Matlock was supposedly kicked out of the Sex Pistols for liking Paul McCartney; so said the infamous telegram that announced his sacking.  This rejection of pop, of music history generally, was a major tenet of the punk philosophy.  The nihilism of the Sex Pistols, and even the more pro-creative stance of the Clash, were ultimately concerned with the destruction of the music industry and of music as was then known, in order to create something new. One reflection of this philosophy is the attitude of the UK bands of 1977 towards covers: they were almost completely avoided. For instance, the only remake the Clash released in that year was a version of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves" - but that was a clearly exceptional case, since it was a reggae song (and thus not representing the musical past of the UK, or the US), and since the original had come out but a year earlier. Punk was preoccupied, after all, with presenting itself as sui generis, as a break from the past without musical influences.
Ultimately, however, this attempt to revise, or just plain ignore, music history was - like so many other aspects of punk - a sham.  Like Joe Strummer's attempt to make himself five years younger, so as not to look like an old geezer.  Or like Joe's attempt to hide the fact he was the son of a diplomat, or his entire band's affectation of cockney speech patterns, in order to present themselves as simple working-class blokes.  Marcus Gray's Last Gang In Town, in these cases as in so many others, convincingly deconstructs the Clash myth, and that of punk in general.  And this is no less true of punk's rejection of its musical roots.  By the time Joe Strummer was announcing that "phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust" on the title track of London Calling, the words of "1977" were ringing very hollow: the album cover was a blatantly obvious tribute to that of Elvis Presley's classic first album.  And of course by then the Clash were recording songs like "I Fought The Law" and openly embracing the American roots of rock. But this was not a mere development away from the rigid punk orthodoxy; these acknowledgments of influences had always been present, if suppressed by the dogmatism of punk.  In his pre-Clash band the 101'ers - a pub-rock band - Strummer had performed a variety of old R&B and rock covers - including Beatles songs!  The Sex Pistols and the Clash had both been indebted to the mod-pop of the Who and the Small Faces in their early days: the Pistols in particular covered songs like "Substitute", "I'm a Boy", and "What'cha Gonna Do About It".  And echoes of this influence were still audible even at the height of the punk movement: maybe half a dozen Clash songs ("1977", "Clash City Rockers", etc.) begin with variations of the same Pete Townshend riff from "I Can't Explain".  
Above all, the influences of the musical past and especially of the pop past were visible in the Ramones.  As Jon Savage wrote, "the Ramones knew their pop history, but they played dumb."  While other bands looked down on covers (though Howard Devoto's sneer did grace the Troggs' "I Can't Control Myself" not to mention Captain Beefheart's "I Love You, You Big Dummy", in a 1976 demo), the Ramones gleefully embraced them, churning out versions of songs like "California Sun" and "Surfin' Bird" and "Needles and Pins".  And then there was the matter of the band name: the surname Ramone was taken from Paul Ramon - a pseudonym used by Paul McCartney.
"1977 - Daniel hears about this 'Punk' thing and quite likes the idea behind it, could they be as good as the 'Strawberry Alarm Clock'?"
 -- Alan McGee, 'Diary of a Young Man', from the fanzine Communication Blur (1982)

C-86 may have adopted many aspects of the punk philosophy - the emphasis on short songs, the singles and fanzines, the DIY ethic - in varying amounts of sincerity and pretense, but it clearly differed from punk in its relationship to the pop legacy.  Whereas punk had suppressed its links to the past, the C86'ers and the popkids who followed wore their 60s hearts on their sleeves (certainly the Sea Urchins did).  That this music preserves much of the trappings of  '60s pop is, of course, readily admitted.  One need look no further than the Television Personalities, whose alternate mod/jangly/psychedelic approaches are as drenched in the '60s as the band's album covers.  But there is something more substantial, something beyond the nebulous concept of 'influence' or of a generic 'sound'.  Listen to those TVP's singles - there are the sorts of direct quotations that provide a peek at Dan Treacy's record collection.  The intro to "Where's Bill Grundy Now?" is lifted straight from "Windy" by the Association (a song covered a decade later by the Groovy Little Numbers).  Similarly, "King and Country" remakes the famous guitar solo from the Byrds' "Eight Miles High".  And as for Dan Treacy-worshipper Alan McGee, any folk-pop fan will instantly recognize that the intro to "Fifty Years of Fun" by Biff Bang Pow! was first played two decades earlier by the Byrds, on "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better".  Just as they will recognize that the Flatmates' "On My Mind" 'borrows' its intro almost wholesale from the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star" (something readily admitted by Martin Whitehead).  Just as they will know that Billy Bragg did not write the first two lines of "A New England". . . Paul Simon did (see Simon & Garfunkel's "Leaves That Are Green").  While the Jesus and Mary Chain may have avowed a desire to "kill surf city," they also paid homage to Brian Wilson with a cover of "Surfin' USA".  Choo Choo Train performed a version of "And Your Bird Can Sing" in their live shows.  The NME-assembled Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father contained Beatles songs as performed by the likes of the Wedding Present (with Amelia Fletcher) . . . and the Fall!  Even Hue Pooh Stick admitted that his music collection contains, alongside the OJ and Pastels rarities, not only the entire Velvet Underground discography but the Monkees' Head soundtrack (and of course Monkees songs have been covered by everyone from the Sex Pistols to Minor Threat to the Wedding Present, and have had their riffs stolen by the likes of the Undertones, for "One Way Love").

Of course, such examples do not simply end along with the '80s. There was that early-90s Beatles tribute album, with tracks by Heavenly, and the Driscolls, and the Brilliant Corners, and Mega City Four . . .There's the Rose Melberg cover of "I Will" on Portola, as well as the Three Peeps (Rose and Jen Softie plus Peter Green) version of the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman"...  There's Yo La Tengo's "Tom Courtenay", whose lyrics pay detailed tribute to the Beatles' film Help!; in fact, the entire video centers on Ira Kaplan's daydream of opening for the Fab Four . . . And their reverent remake of "Little Honda" on I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, not to mention their cover of "My Little Corner of the World" or their musical reference to Burt Bacharach . . . And Caroline Now!  . . . And all of these are just what come instantly to mind.
All of this merely serves to enhance the experience of listening to music, at least for me: the joy of listening to those TVP's singles for the first time and guessing what '60s single Dan Treacy will rip off next; or putting on the Shop Assistants' "Big E Power" 12" and discovering that they took the Beatles' "She Said She Said" and simply trimmed the name, without properly crediting it.  Of course, perhaps the lack of attribution is a statement in itself - in the same way that Rose Melberg writes credits her cover of "I Will" with the eloquent "by the Beatles, duh."  The assumption is that everyone will know what it is anyway, that such Beatles songs are so well-known, that they are a fundamental part of our common musical vocabulary - that anyone who doesn't already know this should be ashamed.  This is all clearly more than a matter of people influenced by the Beatles or the Byrds second-hand, or of recreating a false nostalgia for a time they never knew: these are records they grew up with, and cherish still.  In the same way that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is often referred to as "the pianist's Old Testament," the Beatles' discography serves as the Pop Bible.  Indeed, over the course of writing this, I happened to be flipping through the radio dial, and came across a college station playing something off Psychocandy - only to be followed by "Day Tripper".  And this fitted perfectly, the sublime naturalness of one pop classic flowing into the next.

© Michael D. Press, 2003.

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