Tag Archives: the canon

On the canon

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little aside on the idea of a canon in popular music:

By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music. However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it’s rather less likely to become part of the canon.

When I was eighteen I went off to university to read English at UCL. At UCL, all first-year undergads (at least in the English department) follow the same programme of study, no choice in the matter. You do a module of Old/Middle English (that is, you read Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer in the original Anglo Saxon, but a translated Beowulf – because even a certain academic in UCL’s English department isn’t that cruel – and then stuff like Gawain & the Green Knight, written in a Middle English dialect that makes Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing seem as easily comprehensible as Dan Brown’s). You do a module of foundation texts in English: Paradise Lost, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, Gulliver’s Travels, Bleak House, The Waste Land (there were a couple more but I forget – maybe Tristram Shandy or Boswell’s Life of Johnson). You do a module on critical terms and theory.

And you take a module called, imposingly, Intellectual & Cultural Sources. Which could carry the alternative title: ‘Squeezing As Much About the History of European Literature and Thought Into a Student’s Head As We Possibly Can In Twenty Weeks’. This is a whistle-stop tour through: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine, Boethius, Dante, More, Montaigne, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Marx & Engels, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Woolf and Barthes. Whew. That’s a lot of knowledge to drop on an eighteen-year-old, an awful lot of DWMs (or DWEMs, if you prefer).

And it is. It was, and still is, since the course has scarcely changed since I was there 13 years ago. The Western Canon doesn’t change much in 13 years, and the list of works that UCL’s big kahunas think are absolutely essential to read before you go on to study anything else hasn’t changed much either. I don’t think we studied Epistemology of the Closet in 2000, which they do now (and it’s a welcome addition to the list in that it may alert some of the more addled students to the DWM-ness of the programme of study they’ve just gone through).

All of which would seem sensible enough. No one can read everything, and it’s not a controversial opinion to state that Shakespeare is more important than Kyd, even if you like Kyd more.

The problem comes when we don’t interrogate this canon at all, when we just blindly accept it, and particularly when we don’t move beyond it. These writers and their works are important. But every time we focus on them and put everything else to one side, we engage in a process that makes those few chosen works a little bit bigger and more important, and everything else a little more marginalised. If you marginalise something enough, it gets forgotten, and then no one reads it. The canon in pop music doesn’t have the same status as the Western Canon does in art, literature, philosophy, classical music and so on, but it seems pretty unarguable that it exists. It’s reinforced in radio playlists, in the type of music books that publishers will touch (‘Another book on Dylan? Sure! A book on Judee Sill? Well, we just don’t think there’s a market out there’); in the broadsheets and rock monthlies (as I noted a couple of weeks ago re: Mojo and Uncut); in the major online music sites (all of which regularly publish top-100 lists which hardly vary from Mojo‘s or Rolling Stone‘s).

There are a couple of major difference between popular music and literature. It takes dozens or hundreds of hours to read a book. It takes four minutes to listen to a song. If you’re the kind of person that wants to find out about music, a relatively small investment of time is needed to do it. Set aside an hour and you can listen to a few songs each by, say, the big four thrash bands. If you like it, you can go further. If not, then you can stop there. But it’s so much easier to fit that kind of listening into a busy life than it is to read outside of the canon or mass-market contemporary popular fiction, just because of the difference in the time it takes to consume the art: you may, like me, frequently hear a voice in your head saying, ‘How can you justify spending your time reading [for the sake of argument] Shakey again when you’ve still never made it all the way through Finnegans Wake?’ (and I haven’t). But the ease and speed with which you can listen to music you’ve never heard before means that the judgmental voice inside you is liable to keep its opinions to itself.

Secondly, writing a novel is a major job of work. It takes a long time. Way, way longer than it does to read that novel. It is exceedingly unusual for an average workaday writer to tap into something greater than themselves or to push themselves to the edge of their talent every day for six months or a year or more to produce something truly timelessly classic if they themselves are not that order of talent. It just doesn’t happen. In pop music, musicians, producers and songwriters do it all the time. There are thousands of wonderful songs by acts whose only real consequence is that they made that one great record. And that’s part of what makes popular music what it is, is how democratic it is. Three minutes of greatness is possible for just about anyone.

My only real objection to the formation of a rock/pop music canon is that it tends to focus on those acts that consistently made strong albums and marginalises the makers of classic pop singles or individual songs (since not all get released as singles), especially if they only made one or two. Sure, if you want to know about the most widely agreed-upon great works in post-rock’n’roll pop music, if you feel like that’s an important and worthwhile thing to do, you need to know about Revolver, and Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On and Blue. That’s fine. They’re all fantastic records and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But it’s worth taking the time out of your day – worth moving outside of the canon – to hear Mouse & the Traps’ Sometimes You Just Can’t Win. If you really dig that song and want to hear more by them, there’s more out there. You may conclude that the genius of Mr Mouse and His Traps doesn’t extend beyond that one record. But just hearing that one song will, I guarantee you, improve your life a small amount. The Beatles and Beach Boys and Joni and Marvin will still be there tomorrow.

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St Michael Overcoming Satan, John Flaxman, UCL library

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Halo of Ashes – Screaming Trees

‘What did you think?’

‘They were screaming!’

‘Yeah. They were great!’

‘They were screaming!’

‘They’re from Seattle—’

‘Yeah! [Feigns deafness] What?’

‘But I’ll be honest with you – I was kinda scared.’

So ran the conversation between David Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1992 after the Screaming Trees performed an intense, and apparently rather loud, version of Nearly Lost You, live on late-night network television.

Even in 1992, when some pretty uncommercial prospects had major-label record deals and all the TV appearances they could hope for, Screaming Trees were an odd fit for the world of talk shows and smart-alec comedians with house bands. It’s worth remembering that by and large the frontmen of the really big bands from that era, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain and so on, were photogenic dudes, and that Vedder and Cornell were never above taking to the stage shirtless. Even Layne Staley was OK-looking before he got too cadaverous. Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, just looked permanently angry, and as for the rest of the Trees, well, as Van Connor so memorably put it in Hype!, there may have been tons of bands in Seattle, but the Screaming Trees were a ton of band. The Connor brothers were two enormous guys, so big they made their guitars look like toys, windmilling, thrashing around, rolling on the floor and beating each other up.

That sense of barely restrained chaos still animated their live shows – with Lanegan the calm, motionless eye of the storm – but by the time that Nearly Lost You hit, the band’s recorded output was getting more controlled and focused, and was all the better for it. Screaming Trees are that rare band whose work got consistently stronger as they went along, and their last album Dust, from 1996, is their finest. (With some folk preferring their early SST records there’s inevitably some debate about this, but not in my house.)

Of all the records I listened to in my teens, Dust (along with Murmur) is the one where my relationship with it has most slowly evolved. With other records, I’d leave such long gaps between listens that from one listen to the next the record would seem completely different. WIth Dust, though, I’ve never stopped listening to it, even as I put heavy rock aside for a few years while I took the time to get educated in the canon*, so as I changed and developed, so did Dust seem to. I heard the reflections of so much music from the 1960s and 1970s in it, I came to understand more about the musical traditions the Screaming Trees worked in and rather than making the record seem shallower or retrograde, it brought it even more to life.

But it’s the energy of it, the renewed vigour, that gets me most now. Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, originally intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, had recorded an album’s worth of material, but their hearts weren’t in it and the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot. They were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and needed time apart. Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were just the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But the album was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period (he would relapse hard in 1997) and it shows. The energy level is higher on Dust than on any other Screaming Trees album. On record, energy is a most intangible, evanescent thing, not at all related to how loud or fast the band’s playing (similar to how ‘heaviness’ has nothing to do with volume or amount of guitar distortion). It’s more the case that on some records the songs seem somehow animated from within. From the intro of Halo of Ashes all the way through to Gospel Plow, Dust just barrels out of the speakers. To my ears this energy comes partly from the physicality of drummer Barrett Martin, an upbeat, music-for-music’s-sake, jam-till-the-early-hours kind of guy, much needed in a band whose other members tended towards the depressive and argumentative, but mainly from Lanegan, who sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive: ‘I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave,’ he sings, and his performance carries the fervour of someone who knows how damn lucky he is to still be here.

The second half of the nineties was short on records as life-affirming as this, and in retrospect much of that period’s pre-millennial tension, so hip in 1997 and 1998, looks a little ridiculous, mere juvenile posturing. Dust, on the other hand, looks bigger and grander every year, a little-anticipated album by a band of perennial also-rans that has ended up outlasting the work most of their contemporaries and leaving it in the, well, dust.

Oh, and it should go without saying that electric sitars are cool. Tablas, too.

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Screaming Trees in 1993, l-r Gary Lee Connor, Barrett Martin, Mark Lanegan, Van Connor

*Just a side note on ‘the canon’. By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it;s rather less likely to become part of the canon (it does happen though: witness Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, its reputed ‘difficultly’ and unavailability on CD becoming a bigger claim to fame than the music it contains).

It’s interesting to note how artists rise and fall in esteem over time, how opinions are transmitted and received from one generation to the next. I wait to see, for example, if the death of Ray Manzarek prompts a revival of interest in the Doors, whose stock seemed to me to drop in the nineties and noughties. And will the new film about Ginger Baker, accompanied by a feature in Uncut last month (‘probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe,’ says Baker; I’ll refrain from comment in line with my declaration of positivity the other day), rehabilitate a band whose critical standing has been in the toilet for a couple of decades.