Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Now online at Pitchfork, the essay I wrote for the first issue of the analogue-only Pitchfork Review about the analogue-era weekly music press of yore - "Worth Their Wait."

Loved the James McShane illustrations for the piece, which I suppose were meant to be me as teenage NME fiend, but in this case make Berkhamsted High Street look almost Parisian.



In the piece I refer to being such a NME-devotee that a caustic review of a bunch of NWOBHM records by Paul Du Noyer inspired me to compose an anti-heavy metal leaflet, which I distributed to bemused
passers-by on Berko High St.

Earlier this year I finally shipped the contents of  my 19-years-running storage unit in London to LA. Alongside boxes of records, cassettes, books, old music mags, and so forth, I found a trove of personal memorabilia - letters, scribblings, sketches, souvenirs, all sorts of shit I'd completely forgotten about. And in one folder I found the anti-HM tirade, which is scanned below.

Except it was different from how I'd remembered it. First, it's a work of co-authorship -- the handwritten bit isn't my handwriting, and the tone throughout is different, a composite of voices.  And it's not so much a straight diatribe as a spoof. Posing as an informative guide titled "The Bare Facts About Heavy Metal", the leaflet purports to clear up the misconceptions and negative stereotypes about this unjustly maligned subculture.



Just slightly too big to scan fully -- the cut-off last line, following the quote from Du Noyer's NME review, is:

 WHAT A WIMP!! WE KNOW HM IS SUPREME! HEAVY METAL CAN NEVER DIE.

Heavy metal gets the last laugh, though, as I now love even such lowly, irredeemably unsound examples of the genre as this:



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"the ultimate in being uncool"

Amid the gratifying response to the Kate Bush piece, some people voiced doubts about my contention that during almost her entire creative prime, Bush was never hip.  The most indignantly disbelieving seemed to think I was talking about an inherent property of the work and the person, when of course I was discussing reputation and perception -  the image and standing of an artist from the perspective of a particular population: informed opinion during the postpunk period, 1978-1984. But  even those dissenters who did grasp that it wasn't a aesthetic judgement but a historical observation about the sociology of taste, still disputed the idea that Bush was ever not cool.   

My sense that  this was so came from memory, as confirmed by various vintage reviews and interviews I'd looked at while researching the piece.  But since the sceptics were insistent, I got to thinking about how you might measure such a thing. An inexact science, even at the best of times, but one metric might be to look at the most influential and respected  power-base of critical opinion at that time and see how often the magazine made the artist its cover star.

So, the New Musical Express: the U.K.'s biggest selling weekly rock paper during that entire period, the one most widely taken as the arbiter of what was relevant and what was irrelevant. 

How many times did Kate Bush appear on the NME"s front cover during her imperial phase of pop fame and escalating creativity - "Wuthering Heights" to Hounds of Love?

Starting with 1978 and scrolling through the years with mounting disbelief, I discovered that the answer was in fact zero times. 

Even in 1985, when those who had once dismissed her started muttering about how glorious "Running Up That Hill" was (Morley described it as "thick", a passing morsel of praise in a Blitz piece on something else), the NME did not put her on the front of their magazine.   

But just look at some of the female artists they did put on the cover from 1978 to the end of 1985:

Pauline Murray of Penetration, Toyah. Jayne Casey of Pink Military. Claire Grogan of Altered Images.  Laurie Anderson. The Au Pairs. Virginia Astley. Nena. Girlschool. Kim Wilde.  Bananarama (twice).  Alison Moyet (twice).  Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins (twice). Grace Jones (twice).  The Mary Jane Girls. Tracy Thorn of EBTG. Nena.  Sade. Annie Lennox. Tracie.  (That's not an exhaustive list of women who got the NME cover by any means, but the point is made). 

Certainly most, perhaps even all, of these deserved to be on the front cover of the NME. But more deserving than Kate Bush - creatively autonomous, a mass phenomenon, such a curious figure?  Virginia Astley? Toyah? Pink Military? The Mary Jane Girls?! Tracie?!?

NME's attitude to Kate Bush is also captured in the standfirst / dek to a feature from October 15th 1983, written by some anonymous editor and thus, I deduce, representing something akin to a collective voice for the writership of the NME and probably most of its readership too:

Kate Bush has moulded herself in an icon of pop erotica — so much that suburban couples claim her breasts stimulate their love making. Yet to like her voice and music is the ultimate in being uncool. Jane Solanas decides to give Kate the benefit of the doubt. 

Formerly  Jane Suck of the punk-era Sounds, Solanas took her re-name from S.C.U.M. Manifesto monger Valerie Solanas, and was overtly feminist in her writing. So I imagine her being quite peeved by the patronising, creepy introductory text that frames her article, further dubiously headlined "The Barmy Dreamer". But the piece itself, is tinged with apologetics for this misunderstood and underappreciated artist ("but among a younger generation, the school of thought seems to be that liking Kate Bush is about as hip as owning a set of Melanie albums") while Solanas also says she herself only got interested in Bush circa "Sat In Your Lap" and The Dreaming:

"Kate Bush hit her artistic peak on The Dreaming album. Yet sadly it wasn't recognised as an important or courageous album, and caused more confusion than fuss.... She blew away that MOR 'Wuthering Heights' image by changing her voice (lowering it) and injecting aggression into the music. There's a note on the bottom of The Dreaming album instructing you to play the record LOUD! Before, Kate Bush as a flaming great noise would never have occurred to anyone."

(Solanas's gradual awakening to the Wonder of Bush pretty much parallels my own arc as a postpunker with very limited spending power. Intrigued by "Breathing" and its bizarre Top of the Pops appearance...  beguiled enough to tape "Army Dreamers" off the radio... but the first Bush record I actually coughed up cash for was the single "The Dreaming") 

(In the just-aired BBC doc  Running Up That Hill, Brett Anderson outlined a similar trajectory -- arguing that it took Bush a while to find her style, that the first two albums were a bit "am. dram." - a nice insight in a program otherwise rather dense with platus *)

On through the late Eighties, past NME front covers for Cilla Black, Paula Yates, Samantha Fox, and T-Pau.... and finally, in 1989, on October 7th,  Kate Bush makes the cover of NME. Perhaps understandably, she looks a little browned off at this point.



Of course, NME didn't have a monopoly on the arbitration of cool and uncool. But looking at other rival sources of opinion at this time, as far can I ascertain The Face did not place Bush on its cover during her imperial phase, despite being so very, well, face-oriented -  a sucker for beauty male and female.  Instead they bestowed this honor upon such as Blue Rondo A La Turk and Carmel.  

What of the other music papers?

Melody Maker and Sounds had her on the front at least once each.  Not sure this indicates that they took her much more seriously, though - it might be simply that, chasing the NME's way-in-the-lead circulation figures, they were looking for a sales boost from random pop fans. 


                                                   



But what's most revealing is the case of Record Mirror.  Of the four UK weeklies, RM was the closest to the territory that Smash Hits would make its own.  A pop paper, with extensive coverage of disco (including James Hamilton's cult-beloved column), the magazine had a younger audience than the other three papers, and I suspect, a less masculine one. In the mid-70s, long after his teenybop star had faded, they had Marc Bolan  pen a weekly column. 

Record Mirror put Kate Bush on its cover about half-a-dozen times. 








That to me indicates how Kate Bush was seen by the after-punk rock press - at once as pop and as Old Wave. And then by the time New Pop comes along and makes pop itself cool, she's too prog, too pre-punk,  too rockist (ironically!) to be seen as the fellow traveler to Japan, Associates, Kiss in the Dreamhouse Siouxsie, that she really should have been. 




Of course nowadays, what passes for the NME goes along with the received wisdom, the rewritten history  , and recently placed Bush at #8 in its 100 Most Influential Artists Currently Working Today: Kate Bush pretty much created the archetype for mysterious singer-songwriters everywhere. Turn on the radio these days and you’ll hear echoes of her in the overblown production of Wild Beasts, the electro-celt inventions of Björk and PJ Harvey, the expansive wafts of Zola Jesus and in the dolphin-lunged vocals of Florence + The Machine or London Grammar.” 


* "platus" - see also platulence. The quantitative plural of platitude. i.e not a number of discrete inanities but a supply, resource, reserve) 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Me on the goddess Kate Bush, for The Guardian.









                                     

Friday, August 15, 2014