Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

Ron Asheton RIP

January 6, 2009


I don’t have much time for guitar heroes. I’ve never particularly enjoyed hearing technical virtuosity for its own sake, unless it’s in the service of something excitingly original or beautiful. Ron Asheton, by far best known as the guitarist with The Stooges, wasn’t neccesarily the most technically brilliant guitar player in the world. But he was the living proof that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to make music that can move the hearts, the souls, the bodies and the sexual chakras of millions.

Ron Asheton’s guitar playing cut right to the essence of punk rock. It was dirty and loud, sleazy but somehow pure. It was psychedelic without being in the least part whimsical or pretentious. It was anger, energy, sex, frustration. It was Detroit. It was working class, industrial, but reaching for the cosmic beyond in an uneducated, and therefore real and genuine manner.

Ron didn’t play fast. He played deep. He played like he meant it, because he did. Listen to the guitar sound on ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ or ‘Funhouse’ or ‘1969’. Anyone could do it, but nobody could make it sound quite the way Ron did it. Leastways, not before he’d done it first. It was a noise that inspired generations to get it on; to challenge, to change, to question, to break free, to shake it up, whatever.

This is all off the top of my head, an immediate reaction to the news of Ron’s tragic and untimely death at the age of 60. A thought: in the week I started my current job, after years on the dole, Joey Ramone died. In the week I end it, Ron Asheton follows.  




After The Flood

February 22, 2008


When I was a child it was the 1970s, and we listened to Radio Two. Specifically, we listened to Terry Wogan’s Breakfast Show, to get us up in the mornings for work and for school. Apart from the epic Radio 4 serialisations of The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy and Lord of the Rings on long rainy weekends, I don’t actually remember listening to the radio at any other time until, unbidden and certainly unapproved of, I discovered the poptastic tones of Radio One in my early teens.

 Wogan will always be remembered for his catchphrases, his banter and his gentle, mildly smutty, Anglo-Irish surrealism rather than for the music he played. And I’m sure he played a blandly diverse selection from across the middle of the road throughout the decade. But if my personal recollections are to be trusted, then Terry seemed to have been wallowing, for all of those years, in an almost endless tide of melancholy, adult-oriented soft rock and post-hippy musical detritus.

 ‘Horse with No Name,’ by America. ‘Woodstock,’ by Matthews Southern Comfort. ‘The Cat’s in the Cradle’ by Harry Chapin. They kept on coming; songs suffused with such an unbearable autumnal melancholy that it’s a wonder we ever mustered the strength and optimism to get out of bed at all.


Maybe it’s just my selective memory; maybe my temperament is such that it’s always the sad songs that stay with me. But certainly these brushed denim ballads, uncool as they always were, struck a chord in some deep part of my pre-teen psyche. Despite the fact that I was living in smalltown Yorkshire, part of me identified unconsciously with an airbrushed and cocaine-damaged California, sliding quite passively, from the sound of things, into the depths of the Pacific bay.

 ‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young. ‘After the Goldrush’ by Prelude. ‘Me and You and a Dog named Boo’ by Lobo. Where other people remember childhood as being all long hot summer days that never ended, I remember grey rainy mornings soundtracked by minor-key acoustic guitars, plaintive mournful harmonies and lyrics about riding across the desert and trying to get back to the garden. Watergate, Vietnam, Altamont and Charles Manson meant nothing to me, but I was nevertheless immersed in the cultural fallout from these events, wearing mirror shades in the glare of the setting sun as the Aquarian dream turned sour, and the beautiful people all wondered where their future went.

 ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles. ‘On the Road Again’ by Canned Heat. Almost anything by Crosby, Stills and Nash or Jackson Browne. In these songs, people always seemed to be travelling long distances across empty, dusty landscapes, driven by disappointment and doubt, and with little hope of redemption at their journey’s end. These were not songs of, by, or for youth; they were full of the dissillusionment that comes with age and experience, songs of mourning for an idealistic golden age that was now irrevocably lost, elegaic hymns to some misplaced innocence.

 They say it never rains in Southern California, but it pours, man, it pours. Truly, I felt, I was living after the flood. 

A Last Dance among the Ruins

February 9, 2008

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.