Tag Archives: Station to Station

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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Modern Love – David Bowie

Update: 12/01/16. Sad news about Mr Bowie. I’ve given this a bit of an edit, but have resisted the temptation to soften it much. More a case of fleshing out things I just moved over in passing and would have explained more fully if I hadn’t knocked this piece out in an hour on a Sunday night.

As a younger man, I had little time for David Bowie. As most music fans do, I derived a certain philosophy from the music I liked. I saw common attitudes and threads in the people who made it. Now, the musicians I admired were, almost without exception, unglamorous people, people for whom street clothes and stage clothes were the same thing. As a determinedly non-glamorous person myself, this seemed to me to be positively a virtue (signifying authenticity, sincerity and all that jazz), and it hardened into a dogma. A musician who was conspicuously concerned with visuals – to the point that they wore costumes rather than mere clothes, foregrounding the theatrical and performative nature of what they did – was not only inauthentic, but had to be less concerned with the music than they should be, man. (Yeah, I was a humourless little choad.) So David Bowie, a man who early on had built his career out of costumes and personas and haircuts and pseudonyms, was anathema. Didn’t get it, didn’t get what other people got from it.

On a musical level, too, I wasn’t hugely impressed. The big hits of his early years still sound a bit messy, underpowered and half-baked to me, even when I admire the songs (and the harmonic and melodic accomplishment of songs like Life on Mars or Space Oddity are undeniable). The Spiders from Mars, a pub band from Hull, sound pretty much exactly like a pub band from Hull. Even the Aynsley Dunbar/Herbie Flowers rhythm section from Diamond Dogs sounds weedy next to Dennis Davis and George Murray, the magisterial duo who worked with Bowie on Station to Station, Low and ‘Heroes’.

Hearing the second side of Low (particularly Subterraneans) at university opened me up to the idea that Bowie’s music could also be overpoweringly moving, as well as embarassingly am-dram. But the tipping point came a few years later, and hearing Sound and Vision on the radio. I didn’t recognise it (when I was played Low by my college friend Calum, he didn’t play me side 1), and was completely caught up in the intro groove. And then the vocal came in and, oh god, is this David Bowie? This was funky. It was soulful. If this was Bowie music, sign me up.

Since then I’ve heard pretty much his whole catalogue, while reading Chris O’Leary’s wonderful Bowie blog. I’m still on the fence about much of the early stuff, but equally I’m more into his work from the mid-1980s onwards than many, and I’ve developed a huge fondness not just for the Berlin trilogy but for Young Americans and Let’s Dance as well. A lot of fans of his 1970s work get off the bus after Scary Monsters. Marcello Carlin, whose blog is consistently the best music criticism on the internet, is scathing about the album:

Let’s Dance, the album, is a disgrace, one of the laziest and most contemptuous records ever released by a major rock performer. Its eight songs whizz by in an uninteresting and uninvolving blur and commit to nothing except Bowie’s need to be David Bowie for another year.

I don’t agree, though his take-down of the record is brutally hilarious (particularly his characterisation of 1983-era Bowie as the Beckenham Young Businessman of the Year). The thing is, I don’t think Bowie has it in him to be lazy. Nor Nile Rogers, for that matter. And Let’s Dance is David Bowie and Nile Rogers and Tony Thompson and Rob Sabino (Chic’s drummer and pianist, respectively) and Omar Hakim and Carmine Rojas and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Clearmountain. With that much talent in the room, killer moments are inevitable. It’s true that they’re mostly crammed into the first three songs (it’s hard to think of a record before the 1990s so front-loaded as Let’s Dance), and that the first track is the best. But those songs are hard to deny, and while some have heard them as clinical and calculating, I hear them as Bowie having fun with the same sort of R&B derived music he’d played early in his career with a succession of Mod bands.

Modern Love is the hardest to deny. It’s “a Bowie cultural doom-piece like Five Years recast as a boogie, nihilism in the high key of Little Richard,” as O’Leary called it astutely. The rough edges of the lyric (modern love, traditional marriage, religion and humanism are all tried by the singer, and all found wanting) are smoothed over by Thompson’s all-time-great drum track, Sabino’s piano and Rogers’s guitar. Those backing vocals, meanwhile… Carlin called them “the stupidest backing vocals in pop since Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World”; O’Leary was also not a fan of them in the wider context of the album (“like a demented glee club”), but, again, I think he’s on the money when he describes how they work as “audience surrogates, chanting back whatever words Bowie feeds them, being driven along before him”.

Lacking the iconic hooks of either Let’s Dance (the Twist and Shout build-up; those heavily echoed guitar-and-horn stabs) or China Girl (the Chopsticks guitar riff), Modern Love is nevertheless the most substantial single from Let’s Dance, and gives me exactly what I want from a David Bowie song and what he specialised in between 1975 and 1983: a hugely intelligent lyric coupled with a fantastic groove.

Bowie ML
“I saw the footage of Bowie in Singapore. And I suddenly thought, he’s turned into a rock’n’roll version of Prince Charles. In a suit, with an old-fashioned haircut like a lemon meringue on his head, talking in this posh accent” – Charles Shaar Murray on Let’s Dance-era Bowie