A Last Dance among the Ruins

I was already fifteen by the time I became passionate about pop music. Before, I had liked it, but indiscriminately; it was just something to laugh at on Top of the Pops, to sing along to on the radio, to dance to at the disco. It was background sound, entertainment, be it Kim Wilde or Adam and the Ants, Madness or the Jam, ’99 Red Balloons’ or early Madonna. It was great, but it wasn’t central to my existence. It didn’t affect the way I dressed or styled my hair, and I certainly didn’t spend my pocket money on it. But then, something changed.

Maybe it was just hormones, and becoming a teenager; I wanted to be cool, and in my adolescent awkwardness, music gave me a way to reinvent myself, to create a new identity quite distinct from that foisted upon me in childhood. It was a way to be creative, to live in my imagination, and to have a social life and hopefully a sexual one as well. It was a world where being an outsider misfit meant that you actually belonged.

Me and millions of others. But part of that process of reinvention was that I started reading the music press. And isolated and poor out in the sticks, there was a sense that NME, Sounds, Melody Maker and zines like Jamming and Tongue in Cheek were just as important as the music itself in opening up a new world to me. I discovered the music through the press, which by explaining and analysing, celebrating and criticising, alternately mythologising and deconstructing, opened my eyes and ears to rock and pop’s place within a broader cultural, social and political context, and made me realise that the music, at its best, was more than just entertainment. It meant something.

The idea that music is more than just entertainment is not one that holds much currency these days. It smacks of the discredited spirit of ’76, or worse, the naive hippy idealism of the drug-addled ’60s counter-culture, and we all know how that turned out. Now, everything is available, and nothing is special. It’s all equally disposable, entirely utilitarian, IPOD fodder for a distracted, ADD generation.

The 1980s were a low and treacherous decade, filled with bad music and worse haircuts. They began with the assasination of Lennon and the suicide of Ian Curtis, and went downhill from there. Nevertheless, those of us who were young in those godforsaken times still look back on them with a certain bittersweet fondness. There were still some fine records released among the slurry, and as I grow older even the worst of them sometimes seem preferable to the dreck that passes for pop music today, indie, mainstream or otherwise.

But let’s not fall for nostalgia. It’s a drug as deadly, insidious and addictive as crack, and just as prevalent within the music business. The ’80s are gone and I, for one, wouldn’t want them back. Certainly not as some kind of hideous, ironic, re-animated po-mo zombie half-life of ZX computer fonts, Flock of Seagulls fringes and smirking Thundercats t-shirts worn by gormless goons who were barely born when the Thatcher decade ended.

No, the ’80s were a wasteland, something that even Wayne Hussey and Frankie goes to Hollywood eventually realised. But the thing about growing up in a cultural wasteland is that when you do finally stumble across something that matters, it really matters, to the extent that it can change your life. But who has the time to have their life changed by a pop song these days? Who would even want to? There are DVD box sets to watch, and Facebook applications to enjoy. Now, everything is just more stuff, and we download our music by the ton, without ever asking what it means.       

These days, every aspect of the music press is ruthlessly aimed at a specific target audience, whose preferences, likes and dislikes are systematically assessed by crack teams of market researchers, and all content and tone is determined accordingly. But there was a time when papers like the NME set out to challenge their readership, if not to alienate them completely. As a typical white, lower middle-class indie-goth NME reader in the mid-eighties, I fully expected a weekly helping of contempt, scorn and vitriol to be directed at me for my narrow, parochial, predictable taste and lifestyle, and for generally being the enfeebled, reactionary rump of a pampered and complacent ruling elite. I was treated like a dog, and the NME was right to do so. It was character building.

Nobody would buy a music paper to be abused and sneered at these days, and who can blame them? They will stay in their comfort zones, happy to be segregated and niche marketed to, buying the publication that tells them about the kind of music that they already like. Music journalism has become just a product guide, giving you a CD’s technical specifications and rating it according to how well it performs on those terms.

And why not? Why should we stop people from getting what they want? We are all rocking in the free world now after all, and we have fought long and hard for our 24-hour opening, instant gratification, all you can eat consumer society, where we are guaranteed as much choice as we can handle, if not more.

I don’t know. I sometimes wonder if music journalism is really something for a grown man to aspire to. Leave it to the kids, or the dogs, whoever gets to it first. Sure, some of the greatest pure writing of the latter half of the Twentieth Century happened to be about pop or rock, but those days are over, and does anybody really care? The NME, as is well known, is a joke, a disservice even to the sixteen-year-olds it so blatantly patronises. Q, Uncut and Mojo are just toothless marketing rags, consumer guides promoting the product and keeping the record company back catalogue steadily rotating in the public eye. Their writers, in the end, are just artful advertising men. And as for the music sections of the broadsheet newspapers- well, no-one buy the Daily Telegraph expecting to be blown away by its gonzo rock coverage. 

Nowhere anymore is there any sense of rock as a separate culture, to be treated with the savagery and passion we would expect from anyone who genuinely cared. There is practically no distinction between the articles and the adverts. Look closely at either Mojo or NME and you’ll find ‘promotional features’ that are indistinguishable, but for that discreet caption, from the supposedly serious interviews beside them.

But maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe the music doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all just processed information and noise after all, and maybe it’s some kind of neurosis of capitalist society to fall in love with the product and to care so much about its form. Much healthier and more realistic to see it for what it is, to stop pretending that it has some kind of higher significance, to swallow our soma and dream on. 

And yet… pop music, rock music, often in its dumbest, most debased form, still says more to me than almost anything else. Not when it aspires to be high art, or when it starts to take itself seriously, but when it reveals vast depths of meaning and profundity almost in spite of itself. Music is an unfinished art form- it requires that you bring something of yourself to it, your own life, your own experiences and emotions, in order to complete the circuit. It is different for everyone, but sometimes it comes close to being the same. That is why I still like to read about how other people respond to music, especially if they write well, with feeling and insight and sensitivity. And that is why, in spite of everything, I still want to write about it myself.

Someone once said, notoriously and disparagingly, that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Well… I’m asking.

Even though the once-mighty flying buttresses are now so much rubble, and the other jivers have long since left or are just going through the motions…

Let’s have one last dance among the ruins.



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4 Responses to “A Last Dance among the Ruins”

  1. simon Says:

    hi ben
    some interesting comments-and although i agree with the general premise that we shouldn’t be bringing the 1980’s back-you should remember that this period produced a VERY fertile independent and alternative scene that paved the way for what we laughably call ‘indie’ these days…
    The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, etc etc. All of whom have been copied and never bettered.
    Couldn’t agree with you more on most points though!!! It’s all over bar the shouting…
    If you’re interested i’ve just finished a book called ‘The Road To Nowhere’ which details my pathetic attempts to make it in the music industry.It mentions a lot of great forgotten bands along the way……
    All the best sir!
    Simon[ Turncoat manager/Cable Club blokey]

  2. hellisforhipsters Says:

    Hi Simon,

    I agree completely- I was probably just countering my natural inclination to pine for just those great indie bands of the 80s. One thing about that decade though, was that there was a very clear divide between Them and Us- the mainstream (Stock Aitken and Waterman, Phil Collins, T-Pau, Margaret Thatcher, Dave Lee Travis, The Sun) and indie (the bands you mentioned above, the disorganised, malcontent left, John Peel, NME). While remembering the good bands, you have to remember what they were kicking against, which was the dominant culture. Remember, you barely even heard The Smiths on daytime radio back then… The Roses and The Mondays broke down those barriers at the end of the decade, a breakthrough solidified by the Britpop scene a few years later, for better or for worse.

    Do you have a publisher for your book? I’d be very interested to read it.

  3. simon Says:

    Hi again Ben
    Yeah-radio was stubborn…daytime being solely in the hands of radio 1 and idiots like gary davies and simon bloody bates.
    anyway, keep up the good work-i look forward to reading your next installment.
    here’s a brain twister for you…why do so many young bands who spent their school days downloading music for free still think they are going to be signed to a major label for lots and lots of money?
    been trying to work that one out myself recently…….
    re;the road to nowhere-no i haven’t sent my book to any agents or publishers as of yet but will be trying to do this in the not too distant future [i think]
    email me at cableclub@hotmail.com for a digital copy

  4. chris Says:

    I can only agree with the sentiments above. I’m kind of interested in what effect the relationship between the advertisers (labels) and the magazines editorial departments has on the type of review or the subject of a feature. Magazines’ revenue comes largely from advertising on mid-level magazines like Plan B who I know have given lukewarm reviews to some of their bigger advertisers so props to them for being honest-ish because it comes at a price (and a lot of backstage diplomatic damage-limitation).
    Back in the day I did used to get a kick out of the cruelty sometimes imparted by the music press and have been on the receiving end of it too. But I’ve always taken it as just part of that world. Irreverent, sarcastic, caustic when required is okay by me. It doesn’t happen so much nowadays because written responses are more target-led and watered down which may mask any seething contempt. We just have to read between the lines. more now.
    Online are things worded more carefully perhaps in a world where self-googlers abound? The relationship between writer and subject are much closer. Now I can even get to comment on a review of my stuff if I so wish. Its somehow not right, or is it?
    Gor blimey guv’nor, in my day ….etc etc

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