Monthly Archives: October 2017

The People’s Music – Ian MacDonald

Writing about Marcello Carlin’s new blog the other day got me thinking about music writing in general. Here’s a piece about a book I read when I was fresh out of university, 15 years ago.

Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music was published a couple of months before its author’s suicide in August 2003. It’s a collection of articles previously published in Mojo and Uncut in the late nighties and early noughties, after MacDonald’s rep had been re-established by the success of Revolution in the Head, his song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ recorded works.

I admire Revolution in the Head hugely, but trouble brews in certain entries, and especially in the postscript essay, in which MacDonald compares the work of the Beatles to that of contemporary artists, and finds all of it lacking by comparison. He argues that the soul went out of pop music some time in the late sixties, or certainly by the mid-seventies*, and is disparaging and dismissive of the eighties almost totally, and not just in terms of its music.

Awed by his erudition and the breadth of his knowledge, I absorbed his criticism of post-Beatles pop without challenging it as a 20-year-old. Now, I disagree strongly with much of what he says, and (if it’s not to impertinent to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of a man whose depression was all-encompassing to the point that he hanged himself) I feel like his comments probably said as much about his own psychological state as they did about the music he was writing about.

This undercurrent of horror at what he sees in the world around him is not as prevalent in The People’s Music as it is in Revolution in the Head. The industry’s reissue mania began in earnest in the late 1990s**, and MacDonald was an ideal figure to write articles about, or reviews of, these remastered and/or expanded editions of classic records by the Band, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and so on. He loved the records, but not uncritically. He was there at the time, and so was well placed to gauge their importance and influence. And above all he had the analytical chops equal to the task; MacDonald had been assistant editor at the NME in its seventies pomp – the era of figures such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. You couldn’t have gotten that gig in that period if you couldn’t bring it. Crucially, writing about artists from the sixties and seventies allowed MacDonald to write about music that made him happy, which is definitely when he was at his best, and the short word counts kept him concentrated on the music, and didn’t allow him to move sideways into the music’s place in the broader culture. The essays and reviews are consequently sharp and laser focused.

I owe my interest in half a dozen different artists to the reviews and articles in The People’s Music, particularly the pieces on David Bowie’s Station to Station, Laura Nyro’s New York trilogy, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Randy Newman’s debut album. I bought my first records by Laura Nyro and Steely Dan on the same day having devoured those articles, and fell hard for them both. They were every bit as wonderful as MacDonald had made them sound.

That’s the highest goal music writing can achieve, and so The People’s Music  furthered my musical education hugely. I seldom look at MacDonald’s books now (I know them too well, for one thing, but moreover I find the pessimism that hangs over them puts me off a little), but I can’t deny the influence they had.

If you’re not familiar with Ian MacDonald,  I’d recommend The People’s Music over Revolution in the Head (unless you are a big Beatles fan), which is ultimately a downbeat, elegiac book. MacDonald’s magisterial essay on Nick Drake from The People’s Music is at times as despondent about the world as his Beatles postscript, but at other times he’s combative (Minimalism and the Corporate Age), clear-headed about the faults of weak records (Not a Revolution: Jefferson Airplane From Play Power to Power Play) and vigorous in his praise of great music (almost everything else). It’s well worth seeking out.

 

*To give you an idea of the position MacDonald takes in this postscript essay, here’s its concluding paragraph in full:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) – but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s music, which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms – most obviously classical and jazz – confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

** At that time, the reissue of classic records on CD (often in expanded editions) did often serve a useful purpose for the fan and consumer.

The original CD releases of many artists’ catalogues were of very poor sound quality, and were often based on transfers from sources other than the original masters -the industry cutting corners to get product to market as quickly as possible. Consequently they were frequently very quiet and lacking in low end. A tasteful remaster job from the late 1990s or early noughties improves vastly on the 1st-generation CDs, a consequence of improved AD converters and digital mastering software.

That same technology, alas, made possible the loudeness war, and so the only sonic gains that could be made by releasing a remaster of a record from the last 15-20 years would come from backing down the levels to where they were in the first half of the 1990s.

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Raise All Kinds of Candy to the Stars

I adored Marcello Carlin’s last blog, Then Play Long, which was a survey of every UK number-one album in chronological order. Given the research and sheer analytical effort Carlin put into the project, not even his most devoted fans could get mad when he decided to put the blog to rest at the end of 2016. It was always an ambitious undertaking, and in the end the workload – voluntary and unpaid – was too much.

But Carlin is one of the best music writers out there. For a start, he is passionately devoted to music, and his criticism starts and proceeds from a strongly held belief in the power of music to alter lives and perspectives. He isn’t afraid of getting technical if the occasion demands it, he’s good on the history and context (the rock-nerd stuff and the socio-political stuff too), and his writing gets into allusive, imaginative territory few venture into these days.

As we noted a couple of months back, a lot of music writing is concerned with stuff like where a new record fits in with today’s prevailing sonic trends, or how the new single from [insert artist name here] fits into the arc of their career, or even what all the other writers are saying about X’s new song. Responses to responses, thinkpieces about thinkpieces. It’s refreshing to read someone wade hip-deep into the music itself and ask, “what does it feel like to be listening to this thing?” and “why does it feel this way to be listening to this thing?” Call me old fashioned (I am undoubtedly old fashioned) but that still seems to me like work worth doing.

Thankfully, Marcello’s still doing it. His new blog, Raise All Kinds of Candy to the Stars, takes on all the Billboard number-two hits, again in chronological order. Its song-at-a-time format lends itself to a brisk posting schedule, so a few months in he’s racked up quite a number of entries and has already reached the mid-sixties. Today’s post is about Like a Rolling Stone, and is a fantastic place to jump in if you’re not already following the blog.

Bright as Yellow – The Innocence Mission

With its soundtrack by and cameo appearances from all the big-name Seattle bands with the exception of Nirvana, Cameron Crowe’s Singles is basically the official movie of the grunge era. Reality Bites, the good-on-paper, shit-on-celluloid rival-studio response that starred Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke (and was directed by Stiller), is all but unwatched these days, and is anyway all but unwatchable.

Then there’s plucky little Empire Records. It bombed on its release, receiving universally negative reviews. When I saw it, it did indeed seem to me unexceptional, and notable only because it featured a scene where Liv Tyler sexy-danced to Throwing Muses’ Snakeface until being disturbed by the doorbell (notable not because of Ms Tyler’s performance, but because of the unlikely choice of song, you understand). Yet Empire Records has a thriving cult that still enjoys the film and celebrates 8th April every year as Rex Manning Day – Manning being a washed-up ’80s pop star whose in-store appearance on that date forms the backdrop to the movie’s events. For its fans, Empire Records is more than just a don’t-they-look-young time capsule (as well as Tyler, the film features Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia as put-upon store owner Joe – the only character who merits much sympathy); they really love it.

Empire Records the movie may not be a favourite of mine, but I have still have pretty strong memories of seeing it in college as my brother had bought the soundtrack, and knowing the tunes before I saw the film seemed to help it lodge in my memory. Likely he bought it because Edwyn Collins’s A Girl Like You was on it, but apart from that it also featured a decent cover of The Ballad of El Goodo by Evan Dando, the Gin Blossoms’ lovely Til I Hear it from You (co-written with power-pop pioneer Marshall Crenshaw) and the Innocence Mission’s equally lovely Bright as Yellow.

My first thought on hearing the Innocence Mission was that they had to have been opportunistic second stringers that the soundtrack supervisor settled for after not being able to secure a first choice. In the early 1990s, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Belly and Juliana Hatfield were all indie favourites, and Innocence Mission singer Karen Peris seemed to owe something to all of them.

But, I think now, that was very unfair. By the time Empire Records came out in 1995 and the Innocence Mission got the closest thing they ever had to a mainstream moment, all of the above artists had seen their commercial waves crest and recede. Whatever you did to try to get big in 1995, it sure as hell wasn’t rip off the Sundays. In fact, the Innocence Mission had been going for as long as any of those artists whose sounds theirs resembled. Furthermore, they were a Christian band from a completely different milieu to those groups, and on close listening, I can’t help but feel their sonic similarity to other acts that had enjoyed recent critical and/or commercial success just had to be a coincidence. I don’t hear Karen Peris as capable of that kind of cynicism.

Bright as Yellow takes its time, builds slowly and may not sound like much initially, but each time that chorus comes around, it lands with greater force, and that middle-eight section (repeated twice) in which her singing becomes increasingly urgent and staccato is a wonderful bit of writing.

It’s Funky Enough – The D.O.C.

Y’all ready for this?

Yeah, this is where that sample (the one enthusiastically embraced by 2 Unlimited) comes from: the Diggy Diggy Doc’s 1989 single It’s Funky Enough, the first track from his Dre-produced debut, No One Can Do It Better.

The album was an unsurprising success for Ruthless Records, as the D.O.C. (born Tracy Lynn Curry) was already a big name among deep fans of West Coast hip hop. He’d been a member of the Fila Fresh Crew in Dallas before making his way to LA, where he met and began working with Andre Young, himself not long out of the World Class Wrecking Cru. When NWA became stars, Curry’s star rose with them. The D.O.C. was never a member of NWA, but he was a frequently referenced figure in their songs, and it was an open secret that he’d written a large proportion of the group’s lyrics; he was credited on some songs, but much of what was credited to Eazy-E was actually the D.O.C.’s work, too.

It’s Funky Enough is derived from Foster Sylvers’ 1973 hit Misdemeanor, released when Sylvers was just 11 years old. It doesn’t sound to me like a sample though. Whatever the vocalist is singing (lyric sites insist on “it’s funky, it’s funky”), it’s not what Foster Sylvers sang (“Love traps, setbacks”), and the riff never appears in Misdemeanor without Sylvers singing on top. It sounds to me like, Rapper’s Delight-style, Dre had regular collaborator Stan Jones actually play the song’s riff on bass and guitar for him (either that or he added guitar, bass and drum programming on top of the sample of the Sylvers track to beef it up, then got World Class Wrecking Cru singer Michel’le to record over Foster Sylvers’ sampled vocal to bury it).  Either way, it’s a great production from Dre, with loads of interest: my favourite elements are the tinkly percussion in the right speaker and the little stuttering kick variation that appears during the “It’s getting funky!” breakdowns.

With such a strong track to work off, the D.O.C. can hardly contain himself. His exuberance is completely infectious. His delivery is forceful rather than elegant, but you can’t help getting swept along with him, and he drops more than his share of quotable lines. My favourite is probably:

Enunciate well
So that you can tell
I am not illiterate
No, not even a little bit
Nothing like an idiot
Get it?

But there’s gold in every verse; his delivery of “I want all chairs off the floor/And if he stands to the wall/Show him the door” is worth the price of admission on its own.

Calling your first album No One Can Do it Better was a boast, a youthful provocation; the D.O.C. was still only 21 when the album dropped in August 1989. Sadly, he never got a chance to prove that it was really true. Later that year he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car (he was by his own admission drunk and high; that same night he was let off a DUI by police who’d seen the gold records on his backseat). He slammed into a central reservation barrier, was thrown through his car window and ended up in a tree. His teeth were nearly all knocked out and he was taken to hospital, where his vocal cords were severely damaged while the doctors tried to insert a tube in his throat as he struggled with them. A later operation to remove the scar tissue, aimed at enabling him to return to performing, made the situation worse, with his voice left permanently weak and raspy.

Today, Curry claims that, the way he was living at the time, he probably wouldn’t still be alive if it hadn’t been for that accident. This may be true. Yet the damage to his larynx was a huge blow to his career. His damaged voice, robbed of its power and malleability (and physically painful for him to produce), was only really workable in certain sonic contexts: while it sounded appropriately creepy and sepulchral over a Cypress Hill-style backing, it no longer worked for the style of music that had made his name and in which he excelled so effortlessly. Nearly thirty years later, he has the rep and the money from his work with NWA, but his story remains a sad one, a story of what might have been.