Wednesday, December 09, 2020

About writing about music

The first proper book about music I read was Philip Norman’s Shout! And because it was the first, and because I was 13 years old, I accepted its analysis, that the recently deceased Lennon was the towering, tortured genius of the band, while McCartney was a thin-skinned prima donna writing plinky-plonky singalongs about sheepdogs and cross-dressing market traders for your mum and auntie. After a while, I began to realise that life and art were probably more complicated than that, especially when I read other books that didn’t necessarily followed Norman’s conventional “and then this happened” model of history. Among the most significant on my thinking and my own writing were Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which redefines punk rock in the context of Dada, Situationism and even the medieval Cathars; and then Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, about the triumphs and tragedies of black musicians in the Southern states, against the backdrop of the political turbulence of the 60s and 70s. These books, and other, reinforced the idea that I hope informs my own writing: great art is always about more than itself. (Also, mainly thanks to Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, I came to realise that there was more depth to McCartney’s work than I’d realised, and that some of Lennon’s was a bit crap, really.)

So, with no slight intended to Norman’s work, I rather grew out of it, just as I’d grown out of Roald Dahl or CS Lewis (but retained a nostalgic fondness for them). And apparently Norman hasn’t taken such rejections lying down

In Britain, writing about rock music still isn’t really taken seriously – and, by and large, doesn’t deserve to be. In the US, by contrast, it’s taken far too seriously, with the earnest, plodding pair Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick vying for supremacy in the field. To me, their combined surnames suggests a new verb, “to greilnick” – ie churn out leaden paragraphs overstuffed with show-offy facts, yet be unable to create a compelling narrative or convey character or atmosphere.

Poor Philip. Maybe the problem is that some of us are shallow enough to fall for the charm of those “show-offy facts”.

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