August 18th, 2004

Ian MacDonald – The Peoples’ Music

“There is no correct way to write about popular music,” writes Ian MacDonald in the introduction to this selection of writings which range from relatively brief if laudatory reviews of Chic and Diana Ross & The Supremes to more extensive overviews of the likes of The Beatles, Hendrix, Bowie, Laura Nyro, Miles Davis, The Stones and the Bobs Dylan and Marley. He adds that rock music is a “vast subject unknowable in its totality by any one mind”. Yet one of the most striking qualities of MacDonald’s prose is its formidable sense of certitude. This is coupled with an Olympian perspective and cultural and musicological frame of reference which has the average (or even above average) rock crit quailing with awe, especially when contemplating their own, relatively meagre intellectual credentials. When setting an artist in context, MacDonald is capable of invoking everything from the sociopolitical tectonic shifts of the era and the world’s great religions to the preferred drugs du jour.

All of this might seem far fetched to readers weaned on the ephemerally hip waffle that passes for much musical journalism nowadays. Yet MacDonald’s tone is neither pretentious nor condescending, just fearsomely authoritative. Born in 1948, Ian MacDonald is one of the founding fathers of UK rock journalism. Although he declares his belief that the Sixties were the greatest decade for pop and rock, these were not great years for music writing. Take the concluding paragraph of NME’s review of Sergeant Pepper in 1967, for example, which read something like as follows; “Once again, The Beatles have furnished us with an album that will not only have you tapping your toes but also gives you something to think about!” During the same period, Melody Maker was running features with titles like Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Rolling Stone?

It was only with the arrival of a new generation of writers like MacDonald in the early Seventies that rock journalism came into its adulthood, learned to discuss music in the terms it deserved, as a complex and finely wrought cultural phenomenon rather than another offshoot of showbiz. These pieces, however, were all written either in the Nineties or the present decade, appearing in magazines like Uncut, Mojo and Arena. They are, as the author freely admits, detached and analytical in tone – no present-tense atmospherics or sleazy odour of booze, groupies’n’drugs here. Yet this doesn’t make for an arid read – on the contrary, MacDonald’s cerebral ruminations are highly refreshing in this extended post-punk era of neurotic anti-pretentiousness. What’s more, whether discussing events like the Stones at Altamont or Bob Marley’s 1975 concerts at the Lyceum, which instigated the birth of British reggae, he thrillingly evokes both a sense of time and place as well as precisely measuring the weight of their historical significance.

MacDonald claims not to be advancing any grand theory in these disparate pieces an overarching view does emerge, particularly in the one from which this collection takes its name, a soberly pertinent account of the rise and fall of post-war rock and pop. For him, it’s no coincidence that rock’s halcyon years were the Sixties, an era of musical awakening as groups took control of their own songwriting and their own artistic destiny, an era of transition from monochrome to colour, from innocence to experience, an era of becoming, of spiritual curiosity. Nowadays, laments MacDonald, supersaturated as we are in post-modern irony and nostalgia, driven by the high-speed imperatives of hedonism, materialism, gratification and lifestyle, the cultural conditions no longer exist for the pop and rock geniuses of yesteryear to flourish. MacDonald blames among other things a shift from a listening to a visual culture, the natural dissipation of rock’s energy and the abandonment of the spiritual introspection of the counter-cultural era in favour of the clever-clever but spiritually vacuous frivolity of today, which MacDonald suggests is “murdering our souls”. Fearlessly, he also claims punk destroyed the “skills base” of British pop and the emergence of sequenced music for creating the featureless sonic terrain we presently occupy. As proof of this devolution, MacDonald drily points to the return of “All-round entertainment” and “a resurgence of generalised celebrity not seen since the 1950s”.

I disagree with MacDonald’s essentially dismissive attitude towards post-1977 music in general. Just because the Great Deeds in rock and pop have been done and the golden perfection of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is nowadays unattainable doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a myriad of minor delights and micro-revolutions to avail of these past 25 years. Yet MacDonald’s jeremiads aren’t the grumbling of a past-it hippie but a magisterial and, in the context of the mainstream, near-unanswerable rebuke to the modern era. While exalting rock’s classic hall of fame-dwellers, he certainly doesn’t regard them as sacred. Of Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks he writes, “Emotion abounds but so does cliche”. He suggests that the Stones were “never as truly radical” as American groups like MC5 and that Hendrix’s music suffered rather than flourished when effectively commandeered by the Black Power movement. There’s also a brilliantly scornful essay on minimalism, which MacDonald clearly regards as one of the 20th century’s bright shining frauds.

Ultimately, however, you emerge from this book with an enhanced, rather than diminished sense of the greatness of the greats. This is particularly the case with a final, lengthy study of Nick Drake, worth the price of this volume alone, in which all of MacDonald’s virtues come joyfully to the fore – close, penetrative textual reading, copious historical and anecdotal evidence and a placing of the late singer/songwriter in a much wider context than most critics would dare. Invoking Blake and Buddhism, he argues that Drake was attempting to seek out a “different way of being” through his music. It’s the culmination of an essential and humbling volume of work, a superb rock and pop reader.

MACDONALD ON . . . . Bob Dylan “Dylan’s work constitutes the peak achievement of critical articulacy in popular music in the last half-century . . . his dynamic presence in post-war popular culture has been seminal for the thinking minority in several generations. In terms of the people’s music, only The Beatles can be compared to him in influence on the temper of our time.”

On The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: “To enjoy this album today, you have to grasp it as a piece of history. Then, its occasionally gloopy sentiment becomes touching and its textures breathe something precious lost to us. At the same time, it becomes fresh again . . . you fall down and worship before pop’s most perfectly beautiful three minutes, ‘God Only Knows’.”

On David Bowie: “In Berlin, he saw neo-Nazis beat up Turkish immigrants. In Berlin, low on the aftermath of heavy drugs and Hollywood glamour, he forced himself to live like an everyday person, buying his own groceries. The nightmare of the Thin White Duke faded, chased away by hours of laughter with his new cohort Eno, the first person Bowie worked with who could keep up with him.”

On John Lennon: “In hindsight it’s easy to mock Lennon for his political pretensions; indeed, those born since 1975 will probably be mystified that a pop star could ever have been taken so seriously as to become a prized figurehead for radical movements, let alone monitored by the security agencies of Britain and America. The key word here is “radical”. Nowadays, there is neither an equivalent to the radical politics of the early Seventies nor anything that begins to approach the extent to which such radicalism was then de rigueur for young thinking people.”

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