Tag Archives: music writing

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.

Music Critics have Stopped Yelling at Clouds

When I was younger, a big part of why I read music writing was to have my biases and prejudices reinforced by reading a negative piece about a band I didn’t like. At the time (late nineties), there were plenty of music writers, at least in the UK, willing to oblige, including more than a few who made this kind combative writing into a shtick.

Whether or not I agreed with their published opinions week to week, I usually enjoyed the writing. It wasn’t just that it seemed invigorating and funny. It went deeper than that. Music fandom seemed much more tribal then, and the need to actively police the boundaries of your tastes much more pressing. It was only natural that, to do this, you’d need to vigorously put the boot in on stuff that you found wanting as well as simply praise the things you liked. Or you’d need to read other people doing it on your behalf.

Now, in truth this stuff doesn’t tend to have a great shelf life. Bands oftentimes have longer careers than writers, unless you’re Robert Christgau or something, and yesterday’s roiling controversies look like piffling little storms in teacups just a few years on. So it’s not a huge surprise that this kind of writing has all but disappeared from pro (which in Internet terms means ad-supported) and amateur publications. The few practitioners I was aware of who made it a significant part of their online personas 10 years or so ago are no longer being published on a regular basis. The trend is more towards the evaluative and the pseudo-objective, with serious (non-click bait) writing as concerned with how a new work fits into the arc of a given artist’s career, or the music landscape in general, as it is with critiquing the music itself. And when you can hear the record for yourself with a click or two and form your own opinions, why would a writer spend time doing that? Who would want them to?

This kind of writing feels like a mature and sensible response to the situation we have now. And it always behoves writers to remember that a) opinions about art are only opinions, and b) even given that, little music that we hear will strike us as either really great or really terrible. Most of it is in the middle, and contains something redeeming, whether it’s in the quality of the mix, the attention to detail in the arrangement, the technical proficiency of the singer or whatever.

For me, I can only find it within myself to be angry at records that seem insultingly cynical, and that’s fairly rare*. More than ever, too, I’m aware that new artists (and writers) are for the most part a decade younger than me. Maybe their first album isn’t very good, but if there’s something in it, there’s always the chance that they can take it, develop it and grow. Who would have known in 1982 that Talk Talk would one day make Spirit of Eden?

On the I Love Music message board over the last couple of days, a few regularly published music writers have been discussing all this stuff, with some really interesting perspectives thrown up by those who are “in the game”, so to speak, work with editors regularly and are affected on a day-to-day basis by issues like: will X record company put us on a blacklist for panning their new artist’s debut, and, will running a “meh” review get us more clicks or fewer than a more obviously positive or negative review. These are issues I feel grateful not to have to face. Taken all together, they make it pretty clear that massively negative reviews haven’t just disappeared because music writers as a breed have gotten more fair-minded. There’s a complex web of issues here.**

For what it’s worth, I still enjoy reading negative reviews and opinions about a band or artist if the writer has done the work of engaging with their music and isn’t just being controversial to generate clicks, or infamy. That said, as I get older and more reflective myself, the less knee-jerk tone of modern criticism does seem to be a net gain.

*I think Mercy by Duffy was the last time a single actively made me angry on this score, and that was 10 years ago. But still, the effrontery of it was outrageous. A straight rewrite of Rehab and replace the “No, no no”s with “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s. It was breathtakingly cynical, especially when performer and cowriter openly admitted the album was already recorded but was missing a first single. Hall of shame stuff from performer and writer Steve Booker.

**A few days ago, Pitchfork ran a review of the new Arcade Fire record where the writer seemed wounded personally by the band’s new music. He professed only to like one or two songs, and those not without reservation. It reads like, at most, a 2-star review (out of five), yet the published score out of 10 was 5.6. Like I said, a complex web of issues going on here. It’s been a while since I read that negative-seeming a review on a big online music site, though.

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.