Tag Archives: Ian MacDonald

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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Dear Boy – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ram, released in the spring of 1971, is the highpoint of Paul’s Farmer McCartney phase. It’s not as home-spun and lo-fi as his debut, McCartney, and its mood is strange kind of low-key anger, giving it more kick than its predecessor. Too Many People sees the singer taking aim at those “preaching practices” (Lennon assumed McCartney was talking about him). Dear Boy, which we’ll get to shortly, takes someone to task for not appreciating what they had (Lennon, again, saw himself as the subject).

The early seventies saw McCartney in self-imposed exile on his farm in Scotland. Some biographers have suggested that Paul had a nervous breakdown during this time, while others have seen it more as an alcohol-fuelled episode of depression. The cover shows McCartney holding a ram by its horns; perhaps the subtext of this was less about his contentment with his lot up on his farm and more about what McCartney himself was wrestling with.

What I love about this album is how relaxed McCartney sounds, simply pleasing himself, while tackling weighty subjects and moods. None of the slightly forced jollity and cheap hookiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is here present, but the author’s lightness of touch (a trademark of his from And I Love Her onwards) is fully intact. The songs on Ram are as strong as anything he wrote in the latter days of the Beatles if you’re willing to meet them on their own terms and accept that they are designed to be minor pieces, not grand Hey Jude-style statements. And as always with McCartney, there are melodies here that lesser songwriters would kill to have written.

Yet Ram, famously, was not particularly well received by critics on its release (sample review from John Landau: “incredibly inconsequential… the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock thus far”; sample reviews by Robert Christgau: “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it” and “Ram is a bad record”).

This was blatant nonsense, and when I listen to the album I find it hard to believe that anyone with any sort of ear for music could fail so completely to get any of it. It seems like they must have been expecting McCartney to look outwards more in his early solo career – to address the world and its ills in the way Harrison and Lennon had. McCartney’s music must have seemed insular, whimsical and self-satisfied in comparison. But it’s not valid criticism to dismiss a work because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what a record should be. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in his essay on the Beach Boys, Retire the Fences, Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album. Ram seems to me as determinedly, modestly small-scale (and yes, as whimsical) as Paul Simon’s first solo record, which Christgau loved. So why the problem here?

Dear Boy – with its gorgeous harmonies and surprising chord change from Fmaj7 to Bmin7 in the verse – is my favourite track from the album, but there’s an awful lot to like here: the wonderfully daft Heart of the Country (“I want a horse, I want a sheep, I want to get me a good night’s sleep”); the proto-Waits Monkberry Moon Delight; the Beach Boys-esque Back Seat of My Car (though, in fact, the Beach Boys songs that this song most resembles all post-date Ram); the gnomic opening trio of Too Many People, 3 Legs and Ram On.

A recent double-album reissue and accompanying rapturous reviews. Jayson Greene’s 9.2 review in Pitchfork was typical in its assessment of the record’s overall quality, but atypically shrewd in its view of Linda McCartney’s role in them:

The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.

We live in twee-er times than the early 1970s, so perhaps the massive rise in critical and fan esteem for Ram is simply a consequence of that, but open-eared listeners (which is to say, the public, who voted in pound sterling, and sent it to the top of the album chart) understood all along.

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I Want You – Marvin Gaye

I have a little theory to float about Marvin Gaye.

If What’s Going On and Trouble Man had turned Marvin into one of the most vocal social critics among mainstream black popular musicians (Marvin’s dissent, after all, paled next to that of Gil Scott Heron or Charles Mingus), Let’s Get it On saw him turn his energies once more to the carnal. His biographer David Ritz has suggested that Gaye’s most sexual works are also his most spiritual. Five minutes in the company of Here My Dear, Vulnerable or What’s Going On should be enough to dispel that as a ridiculous myth.

As for so many others in the seventies music industry, Gaye’s interest in sex was intimately bound up with his interest in cocaine. The very sound of the Marvin Gaye albums that are seemingly most concerned with sex – Let’s Get it On and the later Midnight Love (parent album to Sexual Healing) – give away the true inspiration behind them: not eros, and certainly not agape, but coke. Trebly, bright, cold and essentially hollow, they are competent, intermittently inspired, but not much more. Efficient and easy to admire, but hard to love.

There’s a difference in the voice and in the sound. When Marvin cared, it showed in the attention he lavished on his vocal arrangements and on the warmth of the instrumentation. Let’s Get it On (the single) in comparison to, say, What’s Going On (the single) sounds tinny, the bassist and drummer are seldom together, and the wah-wah guitar part is sketchy. After the famous opening lick, the guitarist quickly runs out of ideas; by the end of the song his playing is pure wibble. Compare this to the care taken over What’s Going On, which saw him scrap the original, perfectly good, Detroit mixes and start again in LA, honing the sound until he arrived at a finished product which is unquestionably one of the greatest-sounding records ever made. As the producer of his own work, Gaye could have worked harder and called for better takes from his players. Instead he kept the performances given to him, oversaw mixes that skimped on the bottom end (maybe to hide the looseness of the playing), and went on his way, presumably to get it on again.

I Want You is a curious album that occupies a middle ground between the two extremes, containing both the best and the worst of Marvin Gaye as an artist. The title track trumps Let’s Get it On and Sexual Healing by managing to be all at once a wracked love song, full of romantic and sexual desire, and a genuinely spiritual piece, with Marvin pleading for the soul and the body of his love, not just the latter. The vocal tracks are so dense with harmony and counterpoint that they almost bury the lead vocal, which paradoxically works in the song’s favour: Gaye’s pleading surges and recedes in intensity and audibility as he puts to use all of his registers: a close and intimate near-whisper, an airy falsetto and a strident, throaty wail. Gaye’s ability to multi-track his own voice, in different registers, is unparalleled in pop music (Prince did similar things, but he didn’t need to invent any of it). I Want You would be captivating if reduced to only the vocal tracks; a documentary I saw on Gaye did just that to soundtrack one section – it was absolutely thrilling. With the jagged lead guitar and the drum track, playing the snare on every other offbeat (creating a weird, stop-start effect that seems to switch the song into half-time every half a bar), added to Marvin’s voice, the song becomes undeniable.

The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the title track; although it has its moments, it’s second-division Marvin, with too few ideas stretched over too many minutes. Ian MacDonald’s off-handedly damning reassessment-cum-obituary characterised him as ‘a charming muddle who hadn’t much to say’ and bemoaned the ‘supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work’. This was on the harsh side, but I share his reservations about this aspect of Gaye’s work. Further, his closing comment about Marvin’s inner world, ‘wherein ecstasy, melancholy and ennui were entwined in troubled complicity’, seems to me an accurate encapsulation of his music, and indeed this gets to heart of why he’s so fascinating, even when he was wasn’t, um, really trying.

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Marvin Gaye, troubled man

River Man – Nick Drake

The rain is bouncing off the flat roof outside my window as I write this. Yep, it’s definitely autumn now. Let’s get into what may be the finest – and most autumnal – song of the British folk-rock revival

When I was sixteen or seventeen and began hearing about Nick Drake and reading about him in music magazines (younger readers note: this was in the late 1990s, and at that point – in the UK at least – the majority of homes didn’t yet have an internet connection so hearing new music was not as simple as it is now, and frequently involved parting with hard currency), the consensus seemed to be that the album to begin with was Bryter Layter. It’s indisputably a fine record, and my life would be much the poorer for not having heard Hazey Jane II, At the Chime of a City Clock and Northern Sky, yet once I was familiar with all three of his completed albums, I connected most deeply with Pink Moon (in its entirety – it’s a short album, with nothing that you could excise without harming the whole) and a few tracks of his debut, Five Leaves Left (Three Hours, Cello Song, Saturday Sun and of course River Man).

If pushed, I’d have to judge FFL the weakest of Drake’s albums. There are tracks that are precious or bombastic (Way to Blue, Fruit Tree) in a way that he grew out of, and one that breaks the twee-o-meter (Man in a Shed). Yet when Drake gets it right on his debut, he produces the music that is somehow most characteristic of himself, that seems to come from deepest within him; if someone were to ask me to play them one song that epitomised the sound and mood of Nick Drake’s music, it might well be Cello Song.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Bryter Layter may have become the canonical favourite of those who like their Nick Drake cosmopolitan and baroque, and Pink Moon is the pick of those who like their Drake uncanny and skeletal, nothing in his slim but important body of work can match River Man.

This does seem to be becoming the prevailing critical consensus. In his 1999 Mojo piece on Drake, the late Ian MacDonald devoted more time to River Man (‘one of the sky-high classics of post-war popular music’) than any other song, and in Electric Eden, Wire editor Rob Young, like MacDonald (to whom he may be indebted) spends time unpacking the song’s metaphysics, declaring ‘There’s nothing on Five Leaves Left to match River Man, which finds Drake at his most transcendent.’ Of Drake’s oeuvre, only Bryter Layter’s Northern Sky gets anything like the time and analysis that Young dedicates to River Man (merely an observation, not a complaint – the task Young set himself with Electric Eden was huge, and to have discussed every notable song in depth would have resulted in a book several thousand pages long, rather than 500). The point is that the two most noteworthy critics who have in recent years turned their gaze on British folk music and its 1960s revival lighted upon River Man as the supreme example of Nick Drake’s genius. It may not be entirely characteristic of Drake (principally because its magisterial string arrangement is by Harry ‘Lord Rockingham’ Robinson, not by Robert Kirby, Drake’s usual collaborator), but if there’s one Nick Drake song I’d like readers to go and seek out if they’ve never heard it before, River Man is it.

Harry Robinson’s work may be most familiar to readers from the many Hammer films he scored, and the music is frequently the best thing about those movies. But curiously, unlike Drake himself, Robinson had known chart success: as Lord Rockingham, in 1958 (with the deathless number-one single Hoots Mon), and had been a fixture of the British pop scene for years before ever working with an Island Records folkie (as well as Drake, Robinson worked with Sandy Denny and John Martyn). Like all good pros, then, he was adept at tailoring his gifts to the situation while producing fully evolved, emotionally engaging (and engaged) music rather than mere hackwork. The difference, to be blunt, between someone like Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Anton Fig or Kenny Aronoff on the other.

Any songwriter would feel blessed to have an arranger such as Harry Robinson on their team, and I wish Drake had used him more. As it is, we have River Man, and its spine-tingling second-verse string part. Drake used Robinson after Kirby tried and failed to write anything satisfactory, defeated by the circularity of the chord progression and the five/four time signature. Kirby’s analysis of Robinson’s work is acute:

I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry’s string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4 – it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it.

So a technical and formal triumph, but an emotional one too. Robinson got the song, got the metaphor. His music alternates between static block chords in the ‘Gonna see the River Man’ sections, and the drama of the second verse and coda, where the strings surge and draw back, hold heavy-vibrato chords and clash rhythmically with themselves: this is the song’s moment of crisis, when Betty, the song’s subject, reported on by Drake’s narrator, gets a glimpse of the world beyond the river and, overwhelmed by it, rejects it, returning to the world of mundane sense experience:

Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure

For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.

The coda of River Man, where Drake repeats the line ‘Oh, how they come and go’ (as MacDonald points out, recalling McCartney’s ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ from Eleanor Rigby) and the strings once again rise and fall and hold tremulous chords, is the deepest and most moving passage of any of Drake’s songs. It’s a masterpiece that drew next-level contributions from everyone who worked on it. If you don’t already know it, go listen now.

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Nick Drake, 1971 (Keith Morris)

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some contemporary acoustic folk rock with double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine: