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

Monday, June 17, 2019

the military-entertainment complex, or, Why I called the book "Shock and Awe"

wrote this in early 2001, reflecting on my unfaves and overrateds of 2000, and discussing in particular the beginnings of a disappointment with recent R&B for both its rhythmic stagnation and the fact that ultimately it was just "showbiz-with-a-beat":

"It's sort of a cross-the-board antipathy that goes from R&B to all the white-out teen-oriented versions of blackpop from Britney to the legion of boy bands.... As pop music goes, on a certain level, it's irresistible... but mainly in the sense that a conquering army subjugating all in its path can be said to be hard to resist.

"The remorseless, ruthless, invincible precision with which this vidpop is programmed, edited, choreographed, groomed... definitely verges on the militaristic. And the "artists" involved, whether it's Aguilera or Aaliyah or whoever, are like figments spun into existence by squadrons of technicians *--make up artists, hair stylists, lighting crews, postproduction special effects, recording engineers who tint and pitchshift the vocals, chop up the best takes down to single words and re-stitch them together... The amount of energy and effort and money and micro-management that goes into one 2 second shot in a video, or one bar of the record, it's staggering... 

"These stars are cartoons, robots, ciphers, logos, branding devices.... and while I suppose there's a sort of Baudrillardian hyper-real/posthuman/simulation-pop buzz to it... I dunno, is it backward of me to prefer the early Eighties New Pop era? Where there was a striving for glamour yet at the same time the charm of all-too-evident flaws and fallibility and untampered, untreated fleshly reality-- I'm thinking of Altered Images or Human League... or going back further, Marc Bolan (who, with just a mane of corkscrew curls and some glitter on his cheekbones, was more otherworldly and alien than any of today's digitally enhanced popstars). 

"This faux-animation element to modern vidpop, the way that the choreography and film techniques are designed to make humans move in ways that resemble the characters in videogames, is why you've got this spate of pop groups taking the next logical step and hiding themselves behind cartoons: Gorillaz, Daft Punk's anime-style promos and robot shtick. William Gibson's Idoru--the purely computer-generated star-as-figment--is just around the corner."

That bit led me (eventually!) to Shock and Awe - both the project and the book title ** 

This next part of the unfaves section from early 2001 is one of the first steps on the path to Rip It Up and Start Again. (This would be another key earlier step).

"I'm also, gotta admit, starting to feel a certain intellectual exhaustion with the whole rhythm-as--the-star, rhythm-as-melody approach. When everything else about a record sucks--the song, the star, the cultural ramifications--maybe a "dope beat" alone ain't sufficient. Rhythm, melody, lyrics, compelling persona.... It's not entirely unprecedented to have the whole package: Sly Stone, Prince, P-Funk... there's even a few white examples I can't be bothered to list.

"Perhaps what I'm imagining in the back of my brain is some kind of eventual revolt against the utter victory of "black" musical values (rhythm-and-production as more important than song/lyrics; nouveau riche/aspirational, licking-the-arse-of-the-status-quo lyrics/attitudes) and the return with a vengeance of rock pretentiousness/bohemianism. Simon Biddell has been banging on about "vision" as a concept that needs to be reintroduced to the critical lexicon---the idea of being transported, by music as well as by lyrics and charisma, into an individual's very particular view of the world---and citing the likes of Beefheart, Mark E. Smith, Sly Stone, Peter Hammill as exemplars. And in a lot of ways I kind of concur, if only out of boredom, desire for an all-change: a massive movement of sonically over-reaching and lyrically over-ripe art rock would be just the ticket right now. (Some would say that's what the best of modern hip hop is anyway--today's art rock--and maybe they're right--which reminds me, you gotta hear the Cannibal Ox album). 

"Of course, as Biddell concedes, the idea of "vision" leads back down the perilous path towards auteur theory, the expressionist fallacy, and so forth... But maybe it doesn't have to be so backward: Radiohead, for instance, have shown that you can have the vision thing and the riddim thing at the same time. PiL, Roxy Music, Can, Joy Division---all utterly bang-up to date rhythm-and-production wise, all utterly vision-ary. And there was this great moment in the late Seventies/early Eighties, when people tried to fuse punk and disco, "white" and "black" in really suggestive ways. How did we ever learn to settle for less, adapt to the split consciousness of liking parts of things but not the whole?"

* more developed version of this argument in this Aaliyah piece

** the historical origins of "shock and awe" in military theory as the strategy of rapid dominance

"military-entertainment complex" = a coinage of Bruce Sterling

in S+A the element added to the conception of the military-entertainment complex is the notion of propaganda - the idea that advertising is propaganda for corporations and brands, that PR (or management hustle) is propaganda for performers/entertainers/artistes etc etc.

it struck me suddenly that people talk of a publicity campaign  or advertising campaign or press campaign, in the same way that people talk of a military campaign or a political campaign -  campaign: operation of an army in the field, from "champagne", open country

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

the truth of pop (domination)

"From the outside — and even for some inside Britney Spears's world — the restrictions surrounding the pop star are startling. This is a celebrity who has toured the world, racked up a string of No. 1 hits and platinum albums and starred in a popular four-year Las Vegas residency. Yet under the rules of the conservatorship, her father controls her finances and personal and business decisions. This reality is difficult to reconcile with her confident, swaggering performances in so many iconic pop culture moments..."

(from Washington Post).

".... Spears exists in a carefully protected bubble, handlers shielding her from negative influences or hangers-on. She doesn’t have an email address, and her father has the right to sign her tax forms, revoke all powers of attorneys and “pursue opportunities related to professional commitments and activities including but not limited to performing, recording, videos, tours, TV shows and other similar activities as long as they are approved by Ms. Spears’s medical team...”

"[In late 2018] she was preparing to launch her second Las Vegas residency. Highly distracted and struggling to adjust to a new combination of medications, she started missing rehearsals. Eventually, she told her team she didn’t think she could be ready for the scheduled opening in February....  Spears announced the news on her website in early January. “This is so tough for me to say,” she wrote. “I will not be performing my new show ‘Domination.’"

Domination - that is a truth of pop.

Domination of audiences and fans, by performers and their razzle-dazzling shows

Domination of performers and artists, by their owners and exploiters

Fans also use and exploit performers, too.

It's all fairly unwholesome stuff really.

Imagining trying to balance your child's mental health against their fiscal health

Child-as-being versus child-as-brand


  ... or at least, if not endorsing / encouraging, then at least accepting the existence and inevitability of theatricality as a social mech...