Sunday, June 23, 2019

the truth of pop (continued)

In this 2016 celebration of pop and the single - written for The Telegraph and timed for the reissue of his classic Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom  Nik Cohn comes very very close to celebrating pop music as a system of exploitation that treats its human components as disposable and interchangeable but because it infallibly produces bite-sized buzzes of thrill-power for the consumer, that's okay. Sort of Adorno, but with the value-judgments reversed.

"The early Sixties were the age of the single, and singles were my love. The vast majority of LPs were duds – a couple of recycled hits in a morass of filler. Magic came one song at a time....  
The speed of change was dizzying. Songs came out, burned up the charts for a week, a month, and were cast aside. Often the artists who made them were cast aside just as quickly. One-hit wonders were legion. Managers trawled the streets and coffee bars on the prowl for pretty boys. How well they sang was incidental, just so long as they looked good and moved well, and didn’t argue.

"Gross exploitation, both financial and sexual, was the norm. Among the stars I wrote about was Billy Fury. Before the Beatles came along, he’d been one of the three kings of British pop, along with Cliff Richard and Adam Faith. Growing up Ronald Wycherley in Liverpool, he’d gone to a Larry Parnes package show and made his way backstage. Parnes, pop’s prime kingmaker of the day, ran a stable that featured names such as Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Cuddly Dudley, Dickie Pride – you get the idea. He took one look at Wycherley’s perfect cheekbones and Presleyan pout, and handed him a contract, which the freshly renamed Billy Fury signed unread. A hundred quid a week, in perpetuity.
And the contract remained unaltered through all the hits that followed. Fury was expendable. He needed Parnes, but Parnes had no need of him. Nor did the other ruling powers. The BBC, which still had a stranglehold on pop, was openly scornful. When Fury had the temerity to request that his own guitarist, rather than a middle-aged session man, be used for a broadcast, there was a move to ban him. Who did these rock and roll chappies think they were? “Really – these odd gentlemen with their odd names,” wrote one BBC manager. “I propose to discover a new girl singer and I shall call her Dementia Praecox – she should be a succès fou.”....

 "Fury’s case was prototypal. Huey Meaux, a long-time American hitmaker, once listed the key ingredients for a successful record, in order of importance. The song came first, then the arrangement, producer, and the studio sound. The artist trailed in fifth.

"That dismissiveness was everywhere. Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records revered by rock critics as a seminal force in boosting black music into the mainstream, used to boast brazenly of what he called “n----- contracts” and took huge glee in recounting just how royally he’d managed to screw the performers. The performers, living from handout to handout, were less enthused.

"The ugliness is obvious now. At the time it seemed to me simply the way things were. There were also compensations. Ruthlessness bred desperation, and desperation quickened the mind. Both rock ’n’ roll and the teen-dream pop churned out to order by the industry’s hit machines lived moment to moment. All you needed was a sharp lyric, a catchy hook, and maybe a gimmick thrown. Artist X was out on tour and unavailable to record the new song? Get someone else to do it."

Then, as Cohn writes with evident regret and distaste, performers realised that writing their own material was the only way to make money - and get respect. The result: the album boom, and the decline of the single. Artistes became artists with no 'e'. Entertainer-performers became poet-oracle-visionaries (in the minds of critics, earnest fans, and themselves). SuperPop dies in a swamp of self-importance, helped by drugs and the rise of a studenty-minded music press.  

"In 1968, I wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first cohesive history of pop to that date and also my farewell love letter, and exited left, pursued by bores." 

He was only 20 at the time.

But black pop stays excitement-generative (presumably by keeping a similar sort of exploitative system going as in the Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll / Pop) and that keeps Cohn interested despite himself. 

And then (and I always wondered about this - whether Cohn would have liked it) came glam. 

"....  David Bowie showed up. Here was someone who understood and cherished pop myth, and turned those myths into art. More to the point, he made great singles. In this, as always, he was swimming against the tide. For years, from Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper on, the album had ruled white rock, with singles reduced to little more than marketing tools: trailers for the main event. Financially, this was a winning strategy; musically, not so much. Those who could sustain inspiration for 40 minutes or more, and keep doing it, album after album, were precious few. Bowie, one of those few, prized the single on its own terms. Albums were his markers for posterity. On his singles, he came out to play."

Then came New Wave, similarly committed to the single, and disco, and early rap, then MTV pop etc etc. All single-oriented and single-tastic. 

"Prince, the greatest pure talent that rock (or pop, or funk, or whatever musical label you care to stick on him) has produced, was such a master of the form that even his albums, during his glory years, came off as a string of singles, played back to back to back."

Interestingly of course Prince is the dude who felt that the record industry treated him like a slave.

Image result for prince slave picture

Cohn seems happy that in the age of streaming etc, the single is back and more dominant than ever. 

"By definition, all downloaded music comes in singles; we consume music in three-minute bursts again. As Patrick Moxey, who runs the EDM label Ultra Music, puts it: “The pressure is all on the song.”

He waxes lyrical:

"The song. That’s all I’ve ever chased. Since childhood I’ve believed, inanely, that the next single I hear will be the answer to everything. It never is, but the quest in itself is enough. And there’s never been a better time to be insatiable. It’s fashionable to rubbish the current music scene as plastic and superficial, all about branding, as if the music business was not ever thus. Garbage feeds the beast, and always did. It’s the exceptions that matter, and there are plenty around... The supply of magical singles is almost inexhaustible.   

"In many respects, we’ve gone full circle, back to where I came in. As Awopbop is republished, almost a half-century on, and I ponder how we got from there to here, it’s eerie how much there and here look alike. Producers and writers rule again; artists are often an afterthought, called in to add their vocal track to an all-but-finished product; marketing, not talent, decides."

Yes indeed, and hmmmm....

Perhaps the solipsistic self-pleasuring of the isolate consumer should not be the only criteria, the only metric that matters?

This line in particular - "at the time it seemed to me simply the way things were"  - which by the end of the piece is implicitly reaffirmed as "this is simply the way the things are and ever shall be" - confirms my feeling that pop (and rock'n'roll before it became rock) was largely a youth subset of showbiz, and that showbiz's ideology is "the world is as it only can be".  Showbiz is worldly - in the sense of cynical ("money makes the world go around" etc), but at the same time cynically peddling silly unrealizable fantasies and happy endings to its punters. Whereas rock (in the largest sense - including rave etc) is at its best either about reflecting and bringing out the truth, or it's about changing the world, the imagining of new worlds, etc.


Cohn's account of Billy Fury is a little misleading and facts-challenged  (typically for him - "never mind the veracity, feel the myth" has always been his modus op as a pop writer - with fab results, don't get me wrong!). Fury approached Parnes backstage at some show or other as an aspiring songwriter - Parnes straightaway saw the looks and the potential star appeal, and immediately shoved him onstage to perform there and then, so the legend goes.  The taking (or bestowing by Parnes) of a stage name is very showbiz in itself. Fury's sexed-up stage antics made him a sensation, but he also continued to write songs, including some of his own material and chart hits. Typical of the way rock'n'roll was seen on both sides of the Atlantic then - as a sort of anteroom  to a proper, serious,  long-lasting career in the business of show -  the managerial and the record label drive was always was to turn these boy rockers into "all round entertainers", which meant singing ballads, appearing at the Palladium for the Royal Variety Show, etc etc. Which Fury duly did - the ballad bit, at least.

There's no doubt that Parnes had a contemptuous disregard for the raw material fed into his machinations:


In 1956, with John Kennedy, Parnes began to manage young rock and roll singer Tommy Hicks; he and John Kennedy approached his parents, after Steele, aged 19, had already signed another contract, which was under the legal age. Steele anglicised the name of his Swedish grandfather to become known as Tommy Steele. Steele achieved popular success, some of his songs being co-written by Parnes' friend Lionel Bart, and Parnes succeeded in presenting Steele as an "all-round entertainer". Parnes claimed in a court action that he and Kennedy took 40 per cent of Steele's "gross takings", out of which they had to pay 10 per cent to booking agents as well as the costs of Steele's accommodation, advertising and publicity, travel and other aspects "needed to keep Tommy on the road to stardom". This became the standard arrangement with Parnes' artists.

After Steele's success, Parnes looked to find other young men who he could groom to become pop stars. At Bart's suggestion, he next signed Reg Patterson (né Smith), whom he re-christened Marty Wilde, and who also rose to pop stardom in the UK. Parnes developed a network of contacts within the British recording industry and entertainment business, with leading British songwriters providing songs for his growing stable of talent, and many of his protégés achieving success in the British pop charts...... Parnes' approach was to select, and then groom, handsome young men who would be attractive to a teenage audience He also gave them new stage names, which were rumoured to reflect what he considered to be their sexual characteristics. Among those he managed with at least some degree of success were Billy Fury (originally Ron Wycherley), Vince Eager (Roy Taylor), Dickie Pride (Richard Knellar), Lance Fortune (Chris Morris), Duffy Power (Ray Howard), Johnny Gentle (John Askew), Terry Dene (Terence Williams), Nelson Keene (Malcolm Holland), and Georgie Fame (Clive Powell). He also managed Tommy Bruce, as well as Joe Brown, who he unsuccessfully tried to persuade to change his name to Elmer Twitch.

Music journalist Richie Unterberger has commented:

Parnes' performers were groomed as teen idols, rock music being a convenient way to eventually establish all-around entertainers who could also work in straight pop music, variety shows, and film. Image, more than content, was essential to the appeal of Parnes' protégés.

"Groomed" seems to be doing some work in those sentences.

Wiki continues:

"Sometimes, Parnes employed his charges himself rather than being employed by them, and paid them a weekly wage. According to one report:

Vince Eager began to wonder why he had never received any record royalties. "You're not entitled to any," Larry Parnes told him. "But it says in my contract that I am," Eager protested. "It also says I have power of attorney over you, and I've decided you're not getting any," Parnes replied.

The BBC TV programme Panorama featured Parnes as a 'beat svengali' and the press gave him the nickname "Mr Parnes, Shillings and Pence". He was bitingly satirised as the manipulative "Major Rafe Ralph" by Peter Sellers, from a script by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, on the 1959 album Songs For Swingin' Sellers.

Ah Songs For Swingin' Sellers - that was an album that was played a lot in our household when I was a kid. 

Sellers equally unmerciful about the stuff that imagined itself uncommercial, authentic, folk-real and anti-showbiz. in this double spoof of Brendan Behan and skiffle man Lonnie Donegan (piss-took here as Lenny Goonagain)

Interviewer: Are you anything to do perhaps with rock'n'roll?"

Goonagain: Rock'n'roll? -  No! I'm a folk singer, man -  I sing blues, work songs - songs of the people and the peasant, you understand, cos they're workin on a railroad...

But when Lonnie played on TV they put him in a suit with a bow tie

Later in his career he tried music hall and also worked on the American cabaret circuit

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