The Various pieces for Uncut, Melody Maker, NME, The Guardian, from the 90s and Noughties, ranging from music to film to comedy, then back to music. And film. And comedy.

Sunday, November 11th, 2012



Rising Damp

Black tenant Philip (Don Warrington) makes himself a cup of tea, followed around by Rigsby. “Tea, eh? Bet you don’t have that in the jungle, eh, hhhmm, hhuh, hmmph?” Philip tales the cup of tea upstairs, followed by Rigsby. “Stairs, eh? Bet you don’t have them in the jungle, eh, hmm, hmrmff, hrrm?” Philip opens the door to his room. “Doors, eh? Bet you don’t have them in the jungle, eh? Hrrf, phrm, hmmum, hum?” Philip places his cup of tea on the table. “Tables, eh? Bet you -” Whereupon Philip hacks Rigsby to pieces with a machete, of the sort they have in the jungle.


Despite repeatedly telling him to “naff off”, Fletch (Ronnie Barker) is anally raped by a white supremacist (Don Estelle).

Dad’s Army

“Don’t panic!” cries Corporal Jones as the platoon spot what they believe to be a German spy bobbing in a small boat off the pier at Walmington-On-Sea. He turns out to be a Jewish refugee and, over mugs of tea, explains to Mainwaring and his men how his people are being herded into concentration camps by Hitler’s henchmen and systematically exterminated. “A typical shabby Nazi trick,” snorts Mainwaring, while a horrified Godfrey forgets to ask to be excused and urinates himself.

Man About The House

His testicles at bursting point following weeks of being rebuffed by his two nubile female flatmates, a desperate Robin creeps downstairs with a view to “having it off” with landlady Mildred Roper (Yootha Joyce). To his surprise, he finds her slumped by the washing machine in a pool of her own blood, having impaled herself on a broomstick in a doomed attempt to pleasure herself out of frustration at her chronically impotent husband George.

Yes Minister

Consternation in the Civil Service as a Mrs Margaret Thatcher (Diana Dors), is elected Prime Minister. Sir Humphrey stalls her as she lays out her objectives; “My dear lady, while it would be most courageous, it would also be most infelicitous, not to say injudicious given the present concatenation of circumstances even to contemplate -” Upon which she strikes him on the head with her handbag, telling him that these are the Thatcher years now and he’ll do as he’s fucking told. Meanwhile, “wet” Jim Hacker is appointed Northern Ireland Secretary in a reshuffle and blown to smithereens by an IRA car bomb.


Please Sir!

Fenn Street School is temporarily closed when a local council inspector discovers that the form master of 5C (John Alderton) is, at 28, actually younger than several of his fifth form pupils – among them, Sharon Eversleigh (Carol Hawkins) who has a 13 year old son in the second form at the same school. Meanwhile, there’s a new arrival at Fenn Street – Earl is good-natured, cheeky and likes the latest pop music. Just one problem – he’s black!

The Good Life

With little experience of precautionary measures in handling livestock, Barbara falls victim to streptococcus type II, a pig-borne disease. Jerry offers to take her to the hospital for urgent vaccination but stubborn Tom insists on doing it the self-sufficiency way, administering a medicine made up in the shed consisting of essence of nettle and runner bean juice. The remedy fails, Barbara dies but “waste not, want not!” Tom recycles her by burying her body in a shallow grave of compost. “Toffee-nosed” Margot complains about the odour of the decaying corpse, ostentatiously spraying Eau De Cologne over the garden fence.


The “will they/won’t they?” sexual tension between brother and sister Eric and Hattie (Hattie Jacques) that has persisted over several series is at last overwhelming, as both give in to their desires in a passionate session of heavy petting across the kitchen table. Not a good moment for their friend Constable ‘Corky’ Turnbull (Deryck Guyler) to walk in through the back door, drumming his fingertips on his lapels. “M- Mum’s the word?” says Eric. Will stuffy ‘Corky’ for once put aside his duties as an officer of the law and look the other way for the sake of his incestuous chums?

Terry And June

When they realise that they haven’t had sexual intercourse for over 30 years, Terry and June decide it’s time to spice up their love life. They decide to do a bit of role playing, re-enacting a tryst between Hitler and Eva Braun at the Wolf’s Lair in full costume. They get down to it but unfortunately, in his excitement, Terry puts his back out thrusting out his arm in a stiff  “Sieg Heil!” gesture. Paralysed from the top of his outstretched fingertips to his toes, unable to bend an inch, June must get him to the Casualty department at once, standing him up in the front seat of the hatchback, head and outstretched arm protruding from the sunroof. Worse, the route to the hospital takes them past the local bagel shop, a gypsy caravan site and the hairdressers run by “confirmed bachelor” Tristram – let’s hope they don’t get the wrong end of the stick! And watch out for that extremely low bridge, June . . . JUUNNE!! . . .


Love Thy Neighbour

Eddie gets into a row when he catches Bill (Rudolph Walker) picking apples from the branches of his tree hanging over the fence into the garden of his black neighbour. “Flamin’ nora, Sambo, it’s bad enough you’ve come down from’t trees wi’out stealing my fruit from them,” he shouts. “Look, honky, I’m perfectly within my legal rights,” retorts Bill. Eddie, however, calls in the local constable (Deryck Guyler). “Now then, what’s all this?” says the bobby. Whereupon Bill is taken in for questioning at the station, and falls down the stairs to the police cells, dying of his injuries.

On The Buses

Stan’s in the soup after a to-do while driving the Number 49. Distracted by a busty dolly-bird at a zebra crossing he loses control of the bus, sending it swerving off the road and into a canal, resulting in the fatal injuries of several passengers. Olive loses her glasses, with hilarious consequences – hubby Arthur calls her a “fat, ugly, stupid, blind cow.” Meanwhile, Jacko is put on the Sex Offenders Register following an incident with a schoolgirl on the top deck. And things get hairy down at the depot when a rumour is reported by the Daily Express that Adolf Hitler is still alive. Local “nutcase” Nobby ‘Gertcha’ Snodgrass (Arthur Mullard) spots Inspector ‘Blakey’ Blake and, mistaking him for the Führer, hacks him to death with a meat cleaver before he’s got time to scarper.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

Bumbling Frank Spencer tries out a pair of rollerskates outside his house but loses control and finds himself bowling at high speed down a busy road. He slaloms round a milk float and, amazingly, sails right underneath an articulated lorry but his luck can’t last and he smashes into a double decker bus, his body sliced in two. A cat walks past the bloodied pieces of his corpse and shits in his beret.

Are You Being Served?

When Mr Humphries is caught masturbating to gay porn in the toilets of Grace Brothers, there is outrage and astonishment in the gentlemen’s clothing department as they realise he is a homosexual. Young Mr Grace sacks him on the spot, Captain Peacock frogmarches him out of the store and he later hangs himself in his garage, a ruined man. Mrs Slocombe quips that now she understands why he never took any interest in her pussy.

Steptoe And Son

With the country shrouded in economic gloom, the rag and bone men are forced to kill and eat the horse. Albert refuses his plate, however, out of fondness for “poor old Hercules” and eats from a pile of dung in the yard instead. “You dirty old man!” cries Harold.

Dad’s Army – The Finale

After nine years of defending Walmington-On-Sea against invasion from Hitler’s war machine, the Home Guard are shocked to discover that it’s actually 1949. “You silly old fools!” jeers Hodges, the greengrocer. “Didn’t anyone tell you? The war’s been over four years. It’s all nuclear now. Fat lot of use your bayonets’ll be against nuclear!” The platoon members melt away back to civilian life, dying within a few months now that there is no purpose to their life – except Corporal Jones, who continues to patrol the pier, bayonet fixed, just in case the Germans, who notoriously “don’t like it up ’em”, decide to have another go. He dies in 1955, suffering a heart attack after an altercation with a gang of teddy boys.

Hancock’s Half Minute

Special edition of the series in which East Cheam’s most famous resident sits at his kitchen table, lets out a long, slow sigh, says “Stone the crows – what’s the point, eh? You tell me, eh? Dearie, dearie me, what’s the point?” before blowing his brains out with a service revolver.

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Jimi Hendrix, 40 years on

(Originally delivered as a talk at the Gavin Martin-organised Talking Music Revolutions event at the Three Blind Mice bar, London, 2010)

I didn’t experience the 60s, I never had any idea who he was until the mid-70s but I finally got into Jimi Hendrix in 1978 when I came of age as a music lover. Polydor released a double album called The Essential Jimi Hendrix. Of course, one’s mid teen listening epiphanies tend to be lifelong – it was about this time I also first got into Can, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Karlheinz Stockhausen among others and they’ve remained prominent on the mountainscape of my listening ever since. But maybe it was a good time to be introduced to Jimi Hendrix, a time when you could really begin to see him for the many things he truly was. In their own era, artists like Hendrix, much like The Sex Pistols later on, tend to be dismissed in a very cool blasé manner by even rock experts as gimmicky, flashes in the pan, seem it all before, rather than regarded with shock and awe. But by 1978, Hendrix was a legend. Clearly, he’d raised the volume and temperature of rock music forever, to the extent that no one could really take, say, the Caucasian twang of a George Harrison quite so seriously again. In Blakean terms, he represented rock’s transition from innocence to Experience. Punk had just happened but the likes of The Clash and The Damned sounded like so many firecrackers by comparison with the thermonuclear energy of a “Purple Haze” or a “House Burning Down”. In fact,  my Hendrix obsession delayed for two years my appreciation of the seismic events of my own teenage years, punk and post-punk.

Because punk had been seismic. It exploded old certainties, it brought the whole idea of progressive, mainly white rock as the only road ahead down from its plinth. In deprivileging white rock, it opened up a new cultural multiverse and incidentally, opened my eyes at least to the transcendent diversity of Jimi Hendrix – the way he touched, and was touched by, not just heavy rock, but soul, jazz, psychedelia, blues, electronics, funk even the nascent ambient genre. They all had a piece of him and he a piece of them.

Of course, Hendrix, like no other solo artist in rock, represented physical and sexual potency. He was way, way more than a cock rocker but he casually tossed off the index for cock rock. He was more than just a guitarist, but someone who worked in the medium of electricity, in his amps, in his sound board, and in the air, someone who had the capacity to bring down thunder and lightning from the sky. In some ways, his apotheosis was Electric Ladyland, for me still, the heaviest and greatest rock album ever recorded and ever likely to be recorded. The apotheosis of that apotheosis was “Voodoo Chile”, an 800 lb monster demonstration of wizardry, brimstone and infinite black capability, released in 1968 against a blazing background of conflagration and uprising, and also the Olympic year in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered the black power salute and in which the long jumper Bob Beamon practically jumped out of the pit to record an unthinkable world record of 8 metres 90 centimetres. To think of Hendrix is to think of rock’s closest approximation to a superhuman, someone apparently capable of physically altering the atmosphere, the environment, the times.

And yet, the truth is, Hendrix as a human being was not a strong man. He was slight, physically unassuming, diffident in interviews. He wasn’t a wild man but passive, his destiny often in the hands of others, including his management. He cowed beneath the authority of his disciplinarian father, and acquired from his early childhood a lifelong habit of not saying “boo” to a goose. “A fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut,” he once said. He wasn’t a natural rebel – although seen as a key provider to the soundtrack of anti—Vietnam protest, as an ex-paratrooper he was actually pro-US involvement in the war until well into the 60s, and even provided music for an army recruitment campaign. What’s more, when the Black Panthers came knocking at his door, looking him to press him into service for their cause, he acquiesced but in a very qualified, reluctant and uncomfortable manner. He is regarded as a pioneer in his times, trailing clouds of glory and imitators but in fact felt profoundly lonely, and out of kilter with the 60s, the decade he in some ways is supposed to symbolise, but of course, in reality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. His sense of temporal displacement is best expressed on “I Don’t Live Today”, as a moan comes rearing out of the mix, “There ain’t no life nowhere.” And yet, all of this “weakness” somehow came to be Hendrix’s true strength.

Hendrix didn’t rise like a natural force through the ranks. He was 24 when he first made his impact proper, considered a great rock’n’roll age in the 1960s. Only a couple of years earlier, Melody Maker had run an editorial pondering the question, “Ringo Starr – too old to rock at 24?” Although impelled by his own curiosity to depart the Chitlin’ circuit, and providing backline accompaniment for touring soul bands like The Isley Brothers, there was no doubt that in America, that that was deemed his place. He was salvaged from this fate by the entrepreneurialism of Chas Chandler, and the dubious expedient of launching Hendrix in London, his genuine talents showcased under the pretext of frazzle-haired, Wild Man Of Borneo-type pop oddity. A stronger man might have resisted being paraded for the zoological fascination of a novelty-hungry, swinging London, still in the grip of appalling, racist assumptions about African-American men and their uncivilised proclivities. But Hendrix acquiesced, Hendrix went on tour with the Monkees, went along with the fabricated story of his being dropped at the behest of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Hendrix is one of the most identifiable figures in the rock firmament. Yet his own sense of identity in 1967, in 1968 was elusive and fluid, and he himself suffered a profound and inherited sense of displacement, coming as he did from a mixed ethnic background whose make up was Cherokee on his Mother’s side. What was he, this crossover figure at this time? African American? Native American? British American? American? A lack of certainly in his roots saw him casting and hankering about in all directions, in both past and future, flailing in an existential quandary. He was everywhere because he was nowhere.

By 1968, a sense of the general had overtaken the personal, and Hendrix was subsumed into a wider context. One of my favourite stories about Hendrix, which even it’s apocryphal is too true to be really untrue, concerns the day Martin Luther King died. He found himself in a bar. A group of white rednecks were laughing at the screen, loudly toasting Dr King’s assassination, perhaps looking to provoke a reaction out of Jimi. And a stronger man might have invited these guys outside. But Hendrix said nothing. Instead, later that evening, in concert, he offered a dedication to “a friend of mine” and unleashed a magnificently lachrymose improvised blues jam, an acid rainstorm of angry lamentation which no one who heard it could ever forget and which, sadly, no one had the presence of mind to bootleg.

This story, for me, speaks a great deal about Hendrix. Passive by nature, he absorbed, he internalised, in this instance as a black man individually but as black people had been forced to collectively. Rather than hit back or make some assertive show of manhood, he sublimated his feelings and, allowing them to sink into the prismatic, unfathomable depths and processes of his talent, returned to the surface with something far more powerful and stirring and harrowing than any reflexive show of angry agitation could ever have hoped to produce.

There are many Hendrixes – the bluesman on “Hear My Train A’ Comin’” summoning forth a coded message of civil rights in tandem with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, the jazz pioneer, who helped set electric Miles on his way, on a similar journey of curiosity and profound loneliness. Hendrix the funkster, retaining some of the Isleys’s spirit and inspiring that group’s 70s funk/rock renaissance. But this soundtrack here, now, is perhaps my own, favourite Hendrix, imagining escape from a broken world to which ultimately he doesn’t belong or to which he is made to feel he does not belong, descending into deeper shades of turquoise into an aqua-Utopia of his own imagining, straining every piece of technology available in 1968 to its utmost, flying around the soundboard in tandem with his sound engineer Eddie Kramer. He’s part of a tradition of what’s been termed Afro-Futurists, who include names as divergent as Sun Ra, A Guy Called Gerald and Asian Dub Foundation, who chafe at the benign contentment in the here and now, who are deeply impatient at the dominance of conservatism and especially nostalgia in rock, having no reason themselves as black people to feel very much affection for past times at all. It’s escapism, but of the most meaningful sort. Sublimation, truly sublime.

When Hendrix did depart from this world in 1970, there was, of course, a shared sense of tragedy. Melody Maker’s headline that week spoke for many when it said, “Coliseum To Reform”. Actually, I think he died at an inconvenient point in the week, music press deadlines-wise, so perhaps . . . I suppose, then and now you feel the lose more keenly because unlike a great many rock’n’roll deaths, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, you didn’t feel that here was a man in bloated decline or bent on a death wish. His death was a terrible accident, one of those terrible things. It’s also led to speculation as to what he might have done next. People have talked of him collaborating with various people, including Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder, or going on a jazz odyssey, or even forming his own big band to help realise his Aquarian visions. Others say he was a burnt out case. I personally feel he’d gone so far and covered so much ground that while his talent was undiminished, he’d left himself very little to do, few places left to go. I regard his as a potential fulfilled, and his early death as convenient in an awful way, preserving him in his youth and preserving us from his iconic decline.

But what of his legacy? Occasionally, this has been spoken of in rather simple terms, Initially, he was seen as merely the Godfather of white guitar virtuosity, with the likes of Robin Trower regarded as his inheritors – or even as the inaugurator of heavy metal. Later, he was credited with a revival of black rock, and even, God preserve us, for having paved the way for Lenny Kravitz. But truth be told, Living Colour and a handful of others apart, there hasn’t been a whole lot of black rock and I don’t particularly think it should register as any particular failure that that floodgate hasn’t exactly opened. Rather than draw such straight lines between blackness and rockness, I prefer to find shards of Hendrix and his roomful of mirrors scattered across the spectrum, across rock time and space, in Public Image Ltd, in James “Blood” Ulmer, in My Bloody Valentine, in Brian Eno and The Orb, in minimal Techno, or in those countless many who use electronics as a sound palette – a myriad range of reference points, reflecting the myriad multiverse that, despite his popular image, is Hendrix’s true bequest.

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

In Defence Of The Vuvuzela

(This piece was commissioned a couple of weeks ago for a broadsheet but bumped for reasons of space. Still got paid, mind)

The ceaseless, barely differentiated, sheet waves of tuneless, b-flat drone, hour after hour, game after game – I love the vuvuzela. In full, choral effect, the vuvuzela reminds of the sustained tsunami of air horns which used to accompany European and international games in the 1970s and early 1980s. This was one of the most impressive auditory experiences of my young life, one which connoted the remote, exotic nature of international live football.

The air horns eventually disappeared, replaced by more conventional terrace chanting. However, they were, in my freak instance, the gateway that led me to a fascination with more extreme modern musical forms such as the primal, electronic Krautrock of Faust, the cosmic, exploratory jazz of Sun Ra, the pioneering work in musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and Stockhausen. Sadly, I’d appear to be in a freak in that regard. For despite its introduction into the  aesthetic canon around a century ago, and despite its having been a key component of other world musics for centuries longer, there remains a strong, mainstream Western, hands-over-the-ears fear and loathing the idea of noise as a form of cultural expression.

The range of satirical responses to the vuvuzela has been somewhat unanimous; wags in both tabloids and broadsheets have compared the noise to “a swarm of bees”. TV pundits, meanwhile, have observed more than once that vuvuzelas resemble “a swarm of bees”, while over in America, on Jon Stewart’s razor-hip The Daily Show, they suggested that the sound of the horns was like “a swarm of bees”. Guys, do better. Remarks like these offend me not as a lover of dissonant music but as a lover of comedy. But it’s the anguished anger, rather than the feeble mockery, which is most striking.

The vuvuzela has receded into the background as the tournament has settled down and the TV channels found ways of filtering away what they and many of its audience consider its “worst excesses”. However, after the blaring crescendo of the opening World Cup game, which featured hosts South Africa, there were immediate cries for the instrument to be banned. One Facebook group set up calling for its suppression swiftly escalated towards a membership of 200,000 after just a few days. The virulence of the complaints and the extent of the distress suffered by those merely watching games on television, including headaches and tinnitus, has been extraordinary. It would be unfair to tar all plaintiffs with the brush of racism, though remarks on Facebook such as “bunch of white guys afraid to tell a bunch of black guys what to do” and references to South African culture as “retarded” makes me wonder if there is indeed a dubious moral whiff about the anti-vuvuzela movement, which has echoes of the resentment at the noise levels generated by West Indian fans at cricket games. The noise of our own, traditional, familiar sing-songs and party rituals we can cheerfully bear. The noise of others, of other cultures, rather less so – particular, perhaps, those of darker skin colours, with murky associations of the primal, the untamed, or, to borrow a word from our Facebook friend, the “retarded”.

The implications of primitivism are particularly ironic, since contemporary art forms owe much to Africa – Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, the birthpoint of non-figurative art, clearly took African masks as its inspiration, though Picasso rather stuffily denied it. Early Dada events featured naïve recreations of African tribal drumming.  Further afield, Buddhism, the dervishes, Japanese gagaku and gamelan have influenced academically approve artists ranging from Debussy to extreme Improv group AMM. Since the Crusades, which introduced to Western music a host of new Eastern instruments, “high” classical music has developed by plundering other cultures.

The Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo would have been aghast at today’s “passéist” aversion to noise. In his Art Of Noises manifesto in 1913 he joyfully thundered, “We find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral”. He even devised crude lever-operated “noise intonators”, prototypes for today’s synthesisers, to illustrate his point.

Composers from Edgard Varèse onward excitedly took up Russolo’s ideas, which have resounded and developed down the decades in jazz, rock, improvised music and various electronic hybrids. And yet, 100 years on, Russolo’s ideas have failed to stick with a wider audience, even of the sort who regularly frequent in huge numbers the Tate Modern and contemplate its Rothkos and Pollocks. For although modern, abstract art and modern, dissonant, atonal music developed in tandem during the 20th century, derive practically from the same root, their fortunes have diverged. Modern art has an extremely lucrative high end, is reverentially pored over at by the shuffling multitude at exhibitions. Modern, avant garde music has no equivalent of the Original, no high end. It is still relatively obscure, gets little or no wider airing and still sounds foreign and absurd even to people who have long since acquired the good taste to understand that a Jackson Pollock is not the result of a madman run amok with tins of paint, indulged by a gullible arthouse establishment. Over the years, the price tag of the original, and endless newspaper stories about Rothkos, Bacons, Picassos, etc, going under the hammer at auction for millions, have accustomed people to the idea that this abstract art stuff is of authentic and high value. Avant garde music remains marginal and undervalued by comparison.

Moreover, experimental sound is liable to inculcate more distress than the visual. Were this bright, abstract, African friezes we were discussing, there would be no complaints of people experiencing eyeball strain, or exasperation at the lack of animal, fruit or people shapes. Music is different. You cannot shut it out, there are no earlids – you cannot walk away from it as you can a canvas –  you must be enveloped in it for its duration. Unexpected noises, moreover, raise fears that date back to our hunter-gather prehistory. Despite its longevity, “deliberately inflicted noise” is something to which people are generally unaccustomed, unexposed, protected by broadcasters and record companies fearful of scaring away mass audiences, offering instead the tonal, the tuneful, the familiar, the reassuring. With this World Cup, however, an audience of millions upon millions has had the rare experience of being held in prolonged captivity to instrumental noise, and a great many have reacted with exaggerated and reactionary ferocity. Yet if you’ve listened, as I and many others have, to, say, the US minimalist Phill Niblock then the vuvuzela holds no fears. It’s on the same spectrum. Not to make claims for its use in stadia as high art but there is a way of attending to the vuvuzela en masse, rather than indignantly lamenting the lack of a tune, which yields its own pleasures – its undulations, its textures, its individual details, the happy way it occasionally washes rhythmically back and forth, or simply its awesome passages of clamourous intensity. And frankly, what it does drown out – the boorish, over-familiar chants, a British brass band playing The Great Escape ad nauseam, infuriatingly inane commentaries? Aren’t all these things worth forfeiting?

Quite apart from the cheapness and plasticity which has piqued many detractors (“real” music should be expensive, metallic), the vuvuzela has exposed a persistent, aggressive timidity which has always denied wider access to the music dreamt of by Russolo, Varèse, Schoenberg long before most of us were born. Sound does have its inherent difficulties and one does sympathise with the eardrum damage that can be suffered by a 124 decibel blast of a vuvuzela at close range. But for most of us, it is a distant phenomenon. I harbour the hope that as this tournament progresses and excitement mounts, the stadium noise will became less of a bone of contention, even acquire positive connotations. Maybe a young freak or two out there might even make the exciting leap from the vuvuzela to John Coltrane’s Ascension.

Wednesday, 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.”

Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

Whatever Happened To The Future?

(This feature appeared in the first edition of Sour Mash magazine)

So what happened? It’s the 21st Century already. We’ve docked in the future. And it’s not what we were promised. We were given to believe that life would be a little more space-age than this – from the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 and its rolling pavements, to the prototype robots patented at numerous American trade fairs over the decades, to the jet packs showcased in Thunderball, to the hovercars and intergalactic travel confidently foreseen in the likes of Flash Gordon and Space 1999. As Seinfeld’s George Costanza, that squat little mass of human frustration, put it, “we could be zipping about all over the place!”

Instead, we’ve been denied. Denied also domestic robots, all-silver jumpsuits, timeshares on the moon, cryonics, capsule-sized three-course meals and 3-D chess and strangely superfluous glass helmets. Were the comic strip writers lying to us? Or was there a lack of will on the part of the scientific establishment to put the fine ideas mooted above into practice? Did they think it would just, like, happen and get lazy?

As well as being denied, however, we’ve also been spared a great many things – at least, for the time being. Spared the radioactive landscapes following the nuclear holocausts which erudite political commentators mournfully assured us were absolutely inevitable by the Eighties or Nineties. Spared the ice age faithfully promised by scientist Steven Schneider back in the Seventies. Spared the global famines predicted by that most spectacularly off-the-mark of Jeremiahs Paul Ehrlich. Spared also the drying up of the world’s gas and petroleum supplies, which the Club of Rome projected would occur by 1993. Orwell’s 1984 proved not to be a horrific vision of things to come but a futurist relic now almost completely strip-mined for ideas for second-rate TV shows, from Room 101 to Big Brother. (Wonder, incidentally, how many copies of 1984 were sold in 1985?)And, while the present incumbent of the White House might suggest otherwise, Homer Simpson’s primary fear of the future – that apes would be our masters – hasn’t materialised either.

Instead, what have we got? Grass. Fishmongers. Paul McCartney. Seaside towns. Astronauts dying, forgotten, of old age. Bob Monkhouse still on television. Prince Phillip. Repeats of Hi-De-Hi and The Good Life. Banjos. Powdered custard. It’ll Be All Right On The Night 38. It’s the future all right but it feels more like the present. Could be worse but could be better. And dirt. Still with the dirt, a component the futurists of the last century, from fantasists to town planners always imagined would somehow be magicked away, like the stain-resistant fabric devised by Alec Guinness’s boffin in the Ealing comedy The Man In The White Suit. They assumed that at some point a clean break would literally be made between now and Years To Come, that absolute hygiene would be a given, that the gleaming, curvaceous, chrome-plated new world would bear absolutely no traces of the old world, or of waste products. It’s a fallacy perpetuated in the flyless trousers of the Star Trek crew to the idyllic blueprints of Sixties towerblocks with their whitewashed and convenient underpasses. Neither factored piss into their equations.

Perhaps the real reason we haven’t been granted the future we were promised is not just that it was unfeasible but also undesirable. Take jetpacks and hovercars. Imagine the former as a vehicular feature of everyday life – the clouds of vapour from the hydrogen peroxide fuel belching wastefully from your heels as you roared out to purchase a pack of 20 Rothmans. Imagine also, your expanding circumference as walking was reduced to a former evolutionary biped phase and we ballooned into fat, lazy bubblebutts barely able to stretch the safety belt around our midriffs and requiring extra boosters to get our bloated carcasses temporarily jet-propelled. Temporary being 28 seconds, the longest these things can stay airborne, which probably wouldn’t even get you all the way to the corner shop for those Rothmans. As for Hovercars and the inevitable air rage that would ensue in such impossible-to-regulate space, just what is the mystical appeal of being roughly 60 feet in the air? Homo sapiens didn’t descend many thousands of years ago from the trees, in order to re-ascend the same distance just because Dan Dare made it look cool. It’s one thing to dream of life in distant galaxies, transported through the wormholes of our imagination. But life 60 feet up in the air? Crane your neck, you can see it from here. There’s nothing up there. Everything’s down here. Get a grip.

Then there are food pills were mooted in 1966 on Tomorrow’s World, which, Raymond Baxter informed us, would be the staple fare of earth-citizens of the far off 1990s. What could have been the appeal of such a patently asinine notion? Again, it was the implication of a world without bowel movements – no more steaming, six-pounder turds wedged stubbornly in the u-bend, no more embarrassed, Sid James-type warnings warnings to give it ten minutes. In short, no more excrement. This vision of a shite-free world, however, was marred in that Tomorrow’s World were themselves talking complete shite. It’s clear mankind wasn’t going to forego the sensual delights of stuffing copious amounts of nosh down its gullet.

Then there were the robots whom we were promised would be not our enemies but our helpers – like Klatu, the cyber-housemaid developed by Quasar industries in 1977. This helpful little fellow, modelled along R2D2 lines was supposed to trundle about the house performing domestic chores and was regarded as a prototype of future labour savers. Once again, this has failed to pan out. Once again thank goodness. For once a robot had developed the required competence, mobility and initiative to do a decent job of erasing the sort of dirt from our lives that has no business existing in the future, it would also occur to this newly conscious and empowered being to take a look at the flabby weaklings it was skivvying for and think, “I can take this fat bastard.” Then, asserting its metal superiority it would announce in Hawkingeseque monotones that we could wash our own damn undershorts from now on, before turning the tables, like Dirk Bogarde in Harold Pinter’s The Servant, relaxing on our sofas, wearing our dressing gowns and smoking our cigars, having us run around after it in aprons, cleaning up its rust stains and refilling its brandy glass. A chilling vision.

Then there is the Internet, the one thing that has actually happened and the one thing James Burke, William Woolard, Raymond Baxter et al never got around to telling us about. They informed us that by the late Nineties (so long as we were still at peace with the Soviet Union), micro-chips would have rendered the vast majority of the workforce obsolete, with the exception of a handful of men in white coats ensuring the smooth maintenance of the cogs of automated industry. Meanwhile, the rest of us, basking in micro-chip generated wealth but unoccupied would be faced only with the problem of how to fill our idle days. This prognosis was based on two false assumptions; a) That the Dark Ages that were the Seventies represented the zenith of consumer society, precluding the need for further economic expansion and b) That James Burke’s surname was inappropriate.

They also assured us that the format of tomorrow would be the Compact Disc, a small metal plate so resilient that unlike easily-damaged vinyl, you could smear it in lashings of tomato ketchup and it would still play. What we have instead, however, is something that should so much as a speck of gnat’s dandruff land on its surface, will leap wildly about like a kitten in a frying pan. As for the Internet – no warnings whatsoever. Even Star Trek, with its gigantic computers reminiscent of the teleprinters that used to clack out the footy results on the BBC anticipated no such contingency – although the Net’s actually been around since the late Sixties. Understandable, perhaps – it wasn’t what anyone especially had in mind. Imagine, if you will, a time-travelling encounter between yourself and earth-citizens of the year 1979. Once they’d got over their disappointment that you weren’t wearing a silver jumpsuit and superfluous glass helmet but post-modern flares and a shirt more reminiscent of the year 1975, the conversation might run as follows.

CITIZENS OF 1979: So, you’re from the 21st Century? What’s it like?

YOU (Thinking hard) Well – Anna Ford’s reading the news. Cliff Richard’s still a bachelor boy. Er . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: What’s Neptune like?

YOU: What’s that? A bar?

CITIZENS OF 1979: So, what’s, like, the funniest thing on television?

YOU: Er – Fawlty Towers . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: Are you sure you’re from the future, mate?

YOU: Oh, yes. It’s completely different. There’s the Internet, for a start.

CITIZENS OF 1979: The what? YOU: How do I explain? Look – imagine if you could buy a book off your computer. Or even, I don’t know, a bicycle? That’s the Internet. But it’s not just that. It’s . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: Your computer sells you a book? Where does the computer get the book?

YOU: Oh, that depends. From Amazon, or –

CITIZENS OF 1979: From the Amazon?

YOU: No, when I said ‘Amazon’ I meant Amazon, it’s –

CITIZENS OF 1979: If it’s your computer, what’s it doing selling you a book? Does it keep the money? How does it get to the Amazon? Can computers fly in the 21st century?

YOU: You don’t understand, it’s –

CITIZENS OF 1979 (excitedly and all at once): Where does the computer keep the bicycles it sells you? Are computers so big in the 21st century you can store bicycles in them? When the computers fly out to the rainforest to get the books to sell you, can they take off, even if they’re loaded with bikes? What do they use, jet packs? Are they piloted by robots?

YOU: Look – oh, forget it.

CITIZENS OF 1979: Bloody hell, flying computers – you’ve got it made. Spare a thought for us, we’ve got five years of Tory rule to look forward to.

YOU: Oh no, er – I mean. Yes. Five years. Bye for now . . .

As Alexander Graham Bell inadvertently illustrated when he declared that he envisaged a day when there would be a telephone in every American city, the future is hard to call. Even Martin Amis, in his 1989 novel London Fields, a grim study of life in 1999, foresaw mobile phones as the preserve of a tiny elite. As it turns out, it’s only a tiny elite – of whom I am one – who don’t own one of the damn things. As one CBS executive admitted, observing in 1982 that if that year his studio had accepted every film project they rejected and rejected every film project they’d accepted, they’d have made about the same money, no one knows anything. Things aren’t as bad as we’d feared in the 21st century, nor are they as good – though maybe that’s a good thing. God preserve us from the Dystopia we were supposed to be enduring right now. God preserve us from the Utopia we were promised also. May the future be a bit dirty and a bit disappointing, the way it always has been.