published: 28 /
In the latest in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' applauds BBC Radio 4's under rated music programming, which manages to be comfortingly conservative and astoundingly radical and often both at once
A sign of the cultural dominance of pop music is the extent to which it has come to be part of the nation’s high-end media, in particular Radio 4. Of course, it fits perfectly well on that station, which manages to be comfortingly conservative and astoundingly radical, often at once and usually in daytime hours.
Earlier this year, I listened to a programme which wondered why the likes of Bowie, Springsteen and Morrissey had done so badly at school, and yet so well at life. Another interesting show featured the reactions of 'The Times' classical music critic, whose past experience of pop literally began and ended with the Beatles, being played Queen, Radiohead and Nirvana by her goddaughter. Won over by Radiohead and Bjork, if not by Queen, she ended the show recommending an indie band, a good one, that I actually hadn’t heard of at all myself.
More recent highlights included ‘I Was Morrissey’s Drummer’. Here, we learned about, yep, Morrissey’s drummer. Andrew Peresi, our presenter, is now a comedian and writer, and he detailed his days drumming for the former Smith with the help of Stephen Street, Suggs and David Quantic. What was remarkable about the programme was how it combined some charming nostalgia and insightful analysis of the music with real humour. Similar stories are often told in 'Uncut' and 'Mojo', but this had the nerve to acknowledge that being a fully grown adult in a rock band does make one’s behaviour rather childish.
Taking itself more seriously this month was ’The Reunion’. Another edition of the programme will feature the key players behind the scenes of the Blair administration, so the choice of the 'NME' writers of the 1970's demonstrated the esteem in which they have come to be held.
There is a fairly convincing argument which says that the 'NME' pre-empted punk and shifted the whole pop music agenda. Certainly the revolution which saw the ‘blazers’ and professional journalists kicked out by a troupe of professional drug users is remarkable, not least in that there continued to be a paper published every week.
I was struck by how naïvely innocent most of the main players seemed. They were music fans first, and employees a distant second. Despite their affected cynicism, the likes of Barney Hoskins, Tony Parsons and Paul Morley were obsessed by the music game, albeit in very different ways. It was fascinating radio, and wholly justified the editorial decision to feature more rock music on Radio 4.
It‘s baffling, then, that while Radio 4 can make pop music sound so interesting, those who write about it as their primary activity so often make it sound tedious. Yes, declines in sales have meant that music journalists no longer have such a free rein. But, even where sales are healthy, a massive expansion of the music industry has meant much more to write about, and much less time simply to be a fan. The average music fan today can afford to consume far, far more music than during the era of the three day week and the winter of discontent. That consumption rate is probably quadrupled again for the average journo.
Thus, our modern day 'NME' conspires with MTV2 and BBC6 to second guess which bands will be popular - there are a ludicrous amount to choose from. This is a full time activity, pressured even - though, obviously not comparable to being a surgeon, an architect or a volunteer in an Oxfam shop. There just isn’t time anymore to spend a month going round the US in a van with your favourite band.
Consequently, many critics can no longer really claim to be fans. Their next month’s wages are dependent on music, rather than just being spent on it. Being a music fan - a complicated activity not necessarily associated with robust mental health - is now a hugely different thing to writing about it professionally.
A music critic might get a new album and listen to it three times before they review it (even less if it’s by Oasis).Then they never play it again. And yet, there are so many types of album, and very few can be effectively summed up by swiftly determined star-rating. Music critics move on to brand new albums so quickly. It would be impossible for them to notice, but music fans can reasonably hope for the CD they have just bought to be a part of their lives for a long time to come. After all, do you recognise any of these in your collection ?
There is that old chestnut - that album that seems like a masterpiece after you have played it non-stop for three weeks, but has never been played since (for me, Primal Scream’s 'Xtrmtr'), the album you dismissed upon release only to change your mind having heard the single every morning on the radio and now think is a masterpiece (The Killers’ 'Hot Fuss') and, especially invisible to critics, the album that isn’t as “good” as a band’s earlier albums but you like a lot more (Grandaddy’s 'Sumday').
Then there is the album that lifts you up after a long day (Bruce Springsteen’s 'The Rising'), the album that just makes you smile (Ben Folds’ 'Songs For Silverman'), the album you think is flawless but you suspect no-one else ever listens to (Paul McCartney’s 'Flaming Pie'). Then there is the album you like today (Jill Barber’s 'For All Time'), so who cares if you‘ll like it tomorrow? And, of course, the album you will like tomorrow, which you may buy today.
For most music critics, however, all that matters is that their response to an album fits with the rest of the industry. If the band might also make the photo diary page in London Lite, all the better.
Unlike the 'NME', Radio 4 can feature almost anything and is rather less dependent on the success of the White Stripes and Babyshambles for its continued commercial viability. On Radio 4, you might not be able to get the vitally important verdict on the new U2 single but you may hear the classical music editor of 'The Times' or the first drummer for Morrissey make you listen to your own music in a wholly new light. You’d do worse than to tune in.