Tuesday, October 11, 2011


"the word 'essential' really shouldn't belong in pop" -- Tom Ewing on never listening to Nevermind ... until now

I recall Ian Penman declaring--in print and in conversation--that he'd never heard Never Mind the Bollocks or the first Clash album. It wasn't a confession, it was a boast. Later the claim was revised to never having listened to either record “all the way through”. But the polemical thrust, and evident pride, remained the same.

This sort of dereliction of critical duty--all the more effective if couched as shruggy "never quite got around to it" rather than policy of active avoidance--could be the ultimate anti-rockist gesture. Because anti-ESSENTIAL-ism is at the core of the Project. First, what's denied is the idea that there have historically been records that Everybody listened to (Sgt Pepper's) ... second, what's rejected, or demurred from, is the notion that there are records that everybody ought to listen to... that everybody would benefit from hearing... that are capable of speaking to everybody ... anti-ESSENTIAL-ism is anti-universalism... it opposes grand narratives... it avoids critical modes that comfortably use the "we", that apply a moral frame to their judgements and claims, that adopt an exhortatory tone...

but hey, it's certainly a fun parlour game

“guilty pleasures” inverted to "guiltless non-interest"

what can I claim on this front?


pretty certain I’ve never listened to What’s Going On (even though I love the title track)

not sure I ever made it all the way through Blonde On Blonde. a few years ago I heard most of it while digging through the crates in a record store,and it sounded pretty great as background sound. Generally like Dylan quite a bit as non-forefront listening, it's when I concentrate that the resistance sets in...

actually, talking of the Clash, I have never heard Give 'Em Enough Rope and it was only quite recently I heard London Calling all the way through. (See I'd got that Story of the Clash box set and assumed "the best bits" were on there and thee desire or opportunity just never presented itself)


actually my exact counter-example to match Tom's not-bothering-to/not-bothered-about vis-a-vis Nevermind: I have never heard Pet Shop Boys’s Behaviour (despite having rather liked the previous album). I find “Being Boring” a bit... boring


Vaguely related in both the crit-geek fun ‘n’ games and profound philosophical issues of our time sense: LA Review of Books have an interview with Chuck Eddy plus a review of Rock and Roll Always Forgets

The interview is by Matos (apparently the longer 8000-plus word version will be aired presently!) and takes the form of a Rockcriticism Jukebox, i.e. like the Wire format but instead of guessing what the record is, Eddy had to guess who the writer is.

The title of the whole LARB package is “King of the Contrarians”. Which probably irritated Chuck since at one point in Rock and Roll Always Forgets, he takes umbrage at being called a contrarian and musters a bunch of not-wholly-convincing evidence to the contrary.

It made me flash me back to the very first time I spoke with him, on the phone, at some point in the early-to-mid Nineties. Very early on in the conversation, I’m not sure apropos of what, he says “I like Poison”, with an odd insistence, like it's meant to be a challenge. Like I'm supposed to be outraged. Water off a duck's back of course: liking-what-you’re-not-“supposed to”-as-polemical-gesture had been a standard move in the U.K. music press for, like, ever( Morley saying Tight Fit 12 inch = better than Led Zep III etc etc;). Plus I quite liked “Unskinny Bop”.

Another flashback: after a music-crit conference in New York in the late 90s I briefly exchanged words with [Rock Critical Legend Who Shall Remain Nameless]. The name “Chuck Eddy” came up (he’d been a rather lively presence at this seminar) and the venerable elder opined with exasperation: “oh, he doesn’t take anything seriously”. But Chuck clearly does takes very seriously the business of not being serious about things that you’re supposed to be serious about, while being serious about things generally deemed external to proper seriousness. That's his Project: challenging orthodox critical notions of what warrants respect and analysis. Despite his reputation as a funnyman, most of the writing in Rock and Roll Always Forgets is not particularly light-hearted. It’s cantankerous. Anger is his energy, disgusted disagreement with his peers is what fuels him, and the best stuff in the collection is not the enthused praiseful stuff but the nihilatory mode: e.g. a scathing attack on mainstream pop in 1986, which strikes me as devastatingly accurate, something I’d have agreed with at that time. Of course Chuck being Chuck in the book’s hindsight-view sections he recants the opinion and says ‘what on earth could I have been thinking!’. How contrarian is that--contradicting your own past self!


But thinking about the role of the professional contrarian, the critic who aims to write a kind of revisionist history of the present ... ( I would count myself in that company, from the heterodox take on dance in the 90s to... well, Retromania). Does that role-- siding with the underdog--still exist in the grand scheme of contemporary music? Digital abundance/atemporality/iPodSpotifyetc is doing that work already... everybody is “listening outside the box”, grazing omnivorously across all fields of potential musical pleasure, refusing to be fenced in by genre divisions.

Take Hannah Murray (Cassie in Skins season 1 & 2), now an Oxbridge student, talking about her favourite music:

"I try to listen to a really wide range of stuff. My favourite bands/people are probably The Beatles, Nirvana, Regina Spektor, The Smiths, Tom Waits and The Velvet Underground. I also really like a lot of 70s punk, a lot of folk, The Gerbils, Lethal Bizzle, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater Kinney, Rufus Wainwright, Destiny's Child, Johnny Cash, 20s jazz, early Rolling Stones, Nina Simone and M.I.A."

I don't think at 22, even as a wannabe music journalist, someone in training as it were, I'd listened that widely... I couldn't afford to, for starters... it's not just that there's been so many more decades of music since then (22 for me = 1985), it's a whole different mentality i think... all-gates-open... eclecticism not as stance but as base-level condition of listener-existence...

People who’ve been consuming music in this fashion are producing music in this fashion. Grimes, a female musician roughly the same age as Ms Murray, talks of her music as “post-Internet... The music of my childhood was really diverse because I had access to everything, so the music I make is sort of schizophrenic. Basically I’m really impressionable and have no sense of consistency in anything I do.”

These new creatives are omnivores and thus omni-gurgitators: their out-spew is the musical equivalent of fusion-cuisine.

So disco-metal --once an intoxicating Eddy fantasy-prophecy (in Stairway To Hell)--is just the kind of hybrid that is par for the post-indie/post-Internet course.

When all barriers of taste are broken down... when the kind of frisson and renegade prestige that attaches to being a breaker of taste-barriers, is no longer available because nobody abides by those barriers anymore... when there is no consensus whose blinkers and biases you can rail against.. what now, contrarian?

Recent pronouncements suggest that Eddy's negative drive is still intact... probably it's too fundamental to who he is and what he does, to ever fade away. But now he's turned against the things he once stood up for: saying he hates most modern manifestations of the disco-continuum (“maybe disco really does suck, this time”), that he's bored by metal, that he's even lost interest in country (the last hurrah of the generalist/no-barriers critic trying to find something Pazz-neglected to triumph). He says he's listening to a lot of old records.