Trying to drum up interest in Mark's UK rockwrite anthology (which needs to happen, Kickstarter here, quick, only 3 days left) by reengaging controversies from last year's Freaky Trigger thread on the Overground/Underground conference. Posted comments on Paul Morley (here, here, and here), whose work I'm now just starting to explore. Excerpts from my comments:
Okay, Morley's 1982 "Quick Before They Vanish"* piece, let's see how it operates. It courts and uses our response, e.g. wants us to balk at his claim to like everything (no one likes everything; that's not what liking is about) and wants us to compare ourselves to those people who are into only the Pop Group, one side of a Roland Kirk LP, and just the best bits of Sandinista. Also, while the specificity, Pop Group–half-Kirk–bits o' Sandinista, bring such people to life, we're to recognize that they're a type and they're hyperbole, so it can be similar artists not those three in particular and there might be five not three, or 105 or 505, the important attribute being the progressive discernment and diminishment, from a group down to a side down to only the good bits.
[*Link only works sometimes, other times gets me an error message. If you can't access the piece, email me and I'll send it to you.]
Morley's tone has a certain uncertainty; there's no hesitance, it's a strong commanding voice that relies on us to amplify its doubts.
He starts, "when people ask me what music I like… I say 'everything.'" I think he's trying to imply that, whatever their restrictions, the charts, for at least the moment, carry a message of everything, that they are somehow open to more than they'll ever contain, and you can't ever be sure what they'll contain. In any event he likes everything, but then of course he immediately, deliberately contradicts this: it turns out not only doesn't he like everything, here off the bat is this Genesis song at #10 that he can't stand. So now that's the challenge, does his "I like everything" manage to prosper nonetheless? Morley hates the next song too, Charlene's "I've Never Been To Me." "It's a great feeling, isn't it, to hate things?" He's performing a quick martial arts wrist flick, so it's not "I like Genesis and Charlene after all" but I like hate and I like that Genesis's and Charlene's presence here gives me the opportunity to hate them. By implication, this could also be standing on behalf of the bad bits of Sandinista. If Sandinista were all good would it be as good?
(Okay, here's something the piece isn't stating, and if it's implying it this may be inadvertent: but, if we'd be diminished without the opportunity to hate Genesis, we're also diminished without the opportunity to put the Pop Group–Kirk–Sandinista Bits people in their place. They broaden Morley's story just as much as Genesis and Charlene do. So we can say that — obviously — Morley includes these people in the story. But I don't think we can meaningfully say the charts include them in their story.)
Going forward, the Charts are a genre "in a world of its own, pleasured by its own making, but not a deceitful alternative to reality." So, he's anticipating that possibly in my mind — possibly in his own — anyway, in someone's — there is the idea of the charts as a deceitful alternative to reality. But rather, he's saying, it's a fantastical reordering of the world, "a strange arrangement of facts and fictions," neither a fake picture of the world nor an evasion of it, just its own playpen and odds-and-ends store, maybe. (But are these the only choices, and can't it include elements of all these things, great inventions and hurtful lies, harmful escapism and daring escapes?)
He makes the brief point that he "wouldn't want a chart oozing with Haircut 100s, but certainly they can get their 1/30th of it." This point seems unnecessary, because he's already told us the chart's an everything, not a one thing. But the point turns out necessary after all, since it sets up Morley's concern over Duran Duran taking up 1/30th of the chart — so finally, though it's a bare hint between the lines, and not nearly enough of a hint, we've arrived at the question of whether and how what's on the charts is freezing out what isn't. And Morley is hinting a potential affinity with the Pop Group–half-Kirk–Sandinista people after all. Maybe we should get rid of some bad bits.
To refute this, Morley, and the charts, next give us Tight Fit, whose "Fantasy Island" with its range and variety (that's how Morley hears it) compensates for Duran Duran. This is a pretty weak retort, actually. A stronger argument is made via assonance: "Duran Duran are ridiculously bland… Tight fit are a ridiculous blend." So Duran Duran have made a useful contribution after all, at least to this piece. (But this doesn't come close to relieving the discord in my mind. I'm sure Morley's fine with letting such discord stand — discord's a thing, too — but he should have given the discord a way louder voice.)
Question: He claims the 12-inch of "Fantasy Island" is actually better than Led Zeppelin III. Is this a straight-up compliment, that he likes Led Zeppelin III but thinks "Fantasy Island" outdoes it? But what is the comparison? That Led Zeppelin are a ridiculous blend (which is kind of true), but Tight Fit are even more ridiculous, or more audacious? Zep was one of the weirdest great groups not to be known for their weirdness, Zep III perhaps the foremost flowering of their unemphasized strangeness. "Fantasy Island" has a great matter-of-fact camp overstatement, but it hardly ranks with Zeppelin's perpetual extravagant overstatement, not to mention Zeppelin's out-and-out offensiveness.
Question 2: Was there a radio format in the UK in which radio stations would be playing all these songs? If not, and if the songs therefore are not rubbing shoulders and butting heads sonically, that undercuts the claim that the Charts constitute a world. If my memory is right Top 40 in the U.S. was fading as a format, playlists being more narrowcast. (MTV was coalescing into a kind of Top 40, but wasn't close to there yet.)
That's where I'll leave it, at least for now. What I like is the insistence that all chart songs are speaking to one another. Where this piece has a weakness it's in choosing weak adversaries. Every time Morley uses the word "cool" the piece clanks, because he's not interested in facing a cool that's challenging and smart. No one in 1982 who was listening to the Pop Group and Roland Kirk and Sandinista was using that music to impose limits on themselves; such people were at least glancing at the charts, some were listening as hard as Morley, and those who veered away believed that their everything was way bigger than the Charts'. Their song of 1981 might have been "Double Dutch Bus," and they were likely scarfing up import 12-inches by Taana Gardner and Afrika Bambaataa, and working out whether Marshall Crenshaw or Elvis Costello was the more interesting pop formalist. In NY, a friend of mine who was plumping for Sandinista was eagerly making me tapes of Chris Conner and Rosemary Clooney and Jerry Lee Lewis's country years. A sax player I jammed with, a Lee Morgan fan, said if we were to form a band we should get someone like Teena Marie to sing lead. The people who did pull back into their fortresses, the hardcore punks and (in Britain) the oi kids, had more interesting and strong reasons than just dourness, ditto the people who'd rather hear something hard than something fun. All these people were due a critique, and in a few years they got one, from me, from the inside because I was one of them and to some extent still am. In this piece, at least, Morley didn't get within miles of it — to a genuine critique — but he was trying out dance steps, to a beat he heard in his head, dancing out of a tomb, and I do think "everything" is a good word for it.
(But this is pretty great.)
- Quick Before It Vanishes (discovering Paul Morley)