Top of the pops
Paul Morley’s brilliant disquisition Words and Music may be eccentric, pretentious and exasperating, but Steven Poole defies anyone to dismiss it
Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City by Paul Morley 360pp, Bloomsbury, £12.99
After 20 pages, I was convinced that Words and Music was the best book about pop I had ever read. After 280 pages, I was at least convinced that it was the weirdest book about pop I had ever read. But that too is a kind of recommendation. Most books about pop are simply products of glossy merchandising, or obsessive-compulsive histories of studio minutiae for prog rock or gangsta rap aficionados: they are essentially tribal credos, written by insiders for insiders, a sort of comfort reading whose sole purpose is to reassure the audience of the importance and heroism of their discrimination.
The best book about pop that I had previously read was Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, a masterpiece of musicological and sociological analysis concerning the songs and cultural context of the Beatles. Even so, MacDonald’s writing is marred, in that book and elsewhere, by a kneejerk hatred of any music that is made using computers as tools. Such prejudice is still common among today’s rock fans, who bleat that great pop can only be made by men with guitars and that “computer music” is by its nature soulless and inauthentic, even as they refuse to believe that their latest beloved fifth-generation Radiohead rip-off act has almost certainly had its “authentic” guitar ‘n’ drummery mercilessly converted into malleable computer bits and processed by studio boffins just as much as the latest slab of uplifting Eurotrance the DJs are caning right now in Ibiza. Paul Morley, refreshingly, doesn’t agree, and swiftly dismisses such nonsense with a brilliantly compressed aside about “programmers, who are, after all, an emotional bunch”: he adores the music of Kraftwerk as much as that of Lou Reed, so that his history of pop is extraordinarily generous and eclectic.
It begins as it means to go on, with a yoking together by violence of two heterogeneous things, which he claims are his current favourite pieces of music ever. One piece is Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”, a piece of 1960s experimentalism featuring spoken-word tape-loops: this confirms the author’s intellectual status (as he disarmingly confesses: “I fancy myself for liking it”), and foreshadows one story the book tells of how pop music grows directly out of the experimental side of classical music, from Erik Satie to Steve Reich.
As a practitioner as well as a critic of pop music (he was a member of Art of Noise), Morley has decided that the only way to write about his subject is to attempt to make his prose as strange and sensual as the music itself. So, naturally, the book’s main structural conceit concerns a robot Kylie driving in a fast car towards a virtual city, which is of course the city of pop. Tattooed at the nape of this cyber-Kylie’s neck is a microscopic prehistory of music. The author himself tries to persuade Kylie that he is qualified to ghostwrite her autobiography. And throughout the book various other characters appear in the passenger seat next to cyber-Kylie in order to conduct bizarre conversations with her: from Philip Glass to Ludwig Wittgenstein (at which point, of course, a unicorn appears in the back seat), Iggy Pop and Japanese noise terrorist Masami Akita.
Kylie’s story is told in a language of acid-fuelled science-fiction euphoria. “She has her flesh-covered hand on the stupendously suggestive gear stick of her golden speedmobile as it slices through the landscape of a robot’s imagination towards a city where she is queen,” Morley assures us. Alternatively: “Somewhere in some universe down some wormhole on the edge of some supernova, Tangerine Dream were a time-travelling science-fiction boy band, and Kylie, as a coltish, bare-cheeked Barbarella, guested on their biggest hit, a song that went on for centuries and whose lyrics consisted simply of the sounds ‘la la la la la la la la’.” Such reveries are regularly punctuated by pitch-perfect drollery—
In between these episodes, Morley does in fact tell an exhilarating history of pop that manages to encompass Charles Babbage, Ornette Coleman and John Cage, or that leads, as he has it, from “Stockhausen to Steps”. His likeably looping, self-referential, elastic prose enables him to brake at will for an extended essay on whatever takes his fancy: the “bootleg” craze, in which disparate songs are mashed together; the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”; the robotic ecstasy of Kraftwerk; or Lou Reed’s notorious feedback album, Metal Machine Music. Morley can also be superbly angry: he constructs a tremendous rant about the malignity of Pop Idol impresario Simon Fuller, accusing him of being William Burroughs’s “death dwarf”, and excoriates coffee-table samplist Moby for his appropriation of the work of 30s blues singers.
Almost every page of Words and Music contains some perfectly sculpted, apparently throwaway evocation: here is David Bowie, “glowing at the centre of some golden smoke pretending to know where he was”; over there is Xenakis’s Metastasis, which “sounds like an aeroplane engine mutating into string orchestra, and sometimes even better than that”; yowling in the corner is “pole-dancing pop fiasco Christina Aguilera”. One might nitpickingly suggest that Morley is over-fond of a trope by which he describes something as the missing link between X and Y; although one might also finally agree that its use is vindicated by the climactic celebration of Eminem as being “the ultimate American link between Bing Crosby and fucking fuck you”.
As the book draws to a close, it performs a mimetic fracturing, dissolving into a forest of interlocked footnotes and a panoply of lists, including several different lists of the 100 greatest albums of all time. As Morley explains, with a dying fall: “It’s a story full of lists. Some day music will only be air. Continue »
I suppose I should acknowledge the sad possibility that there will be people who don’t like this book. (In fact, it is possible that I only like this book so much because it agrees with me; or, if you insist, I with it.) Our aforementioned anoraky types who believe that good music can only be created by men with guitars, among whom we must regretfully count many contemporary rock journalists (“geography teachers”, in Morley’s hilariously considered view), will just sneak back to console themselves in their indie bedrooms.
There will also doubtless be those who object to the most well-chosen adjective in the whole book, when Morley refers to “Nirvana’s holy ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’”. Many people will prefer to reserve the word “holy” for denoting those massive slabs of explicitly hieratic music by composers such as John Tavener, without wishing to acknowledge that Nirvana and Tavener are actually working, if not in the same room, then certainly on the same floor in some multi-storey celestial studio.
And there will, finally, be readers who claim to find Morley’s extravagant prose experiments “pretentious”, but since anyone who can use this violently resentful, very English word with sincerity has already committed to the idea that it is better not to try than to try and fail, that clever and creative people should in general shut up rather than try to provoke an audience out of its aesthetic complacency, and that art overall has no business attempting to be transcendent, such readers may be well advised to stick with their grubbily thumbed Nick Hornby collection. In the end, Morley’s exasperating, brilliant and joyous book about pop is tribal to this extent: that it excludes the chronically narrow-minded.