Tuesday, 2 March 2010

G - L - O - R - I - A

Just Kids, Patti Smith's recently-published reminiscences of her life in NY with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is being read by Smith on Radio 4 as Book of the Week this week. I've never been a big fan of either Patti Smith or Mapplethorpe, but they've both been artists you couldn't help but notice.

In summer 1976 I crashed for a while in a house where Horses rarely left the turntable. The owner of that album was not so much an enthusiast, as an evangelist. But it always struck me as hysterical art-school posturing. "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine!" Cor, really? It's instructive to compare Patti Smith's version of "Gloria" with Van Morrison's original version recorded in 1964 with Them -- hmm, which is the rawest, the most elemental?*

True, by that time I was no longer that typical small-town teenager who thought rock and pop defined the outer limits of human experience. My trajectory had begun to veer off in the direction of classical music and contemporary jazz: this was, after all, also the time of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert. But the changes that happened in popular music around 1976/77 (often referred to as "punk" in journalistic shorthand -- a travesty of the complexity of what was happening then) did affect me deeply, because I cared very deeply about popular music.

I was an avid reader of the New Musical Express, which was in its ultra-hip, antinomian heyday with writers like Ian Penman, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, and Paul Morley turning out provocative and thought-provoking pieces on the emerging scene. For a few brief years, it seemed that pop music might be regenerating itself with the energy of raw creative impulse rather than stacked megawattage, and might be re-situating itself back on the streets, rather than in the stadium. And, crucially, on British streets. Finally, it seemed, singers had shaken off the compulsion to mimic an American accent. American "punk" acts like Patti Smith and The Ramones seemed somehow to have missed the point.

It didn't last, though. It can be difficult -- at the time, up close -- to distinguish between a phoenix rising from the flames, and a crash and burn situation. Despite its ongoing (and apparently eternal) half-life, what we witnessed then was the final fizzling out of pop's batteries. Sorry, young 'uns, but it's true. Pretty much everything since has been a repeat or a reworking of models established before 1980, and has aspired to nothing more than the condition of entertainment, mere background noise.**

As to Robert Mapplethorpe ... Oh, don't get me started. What was I saying about hysterical art-house posturing?

* Rhetorical question. Can you imagine what it must have been like hearing Them improvise Gloria in those legendary extended sessions at the Maritime Hotel in Belfast? For me, the song always invokes the sleazy danger of those leather-jacketed guys who operated the dodgems at fairs -- the very essence of rock'n'roll.

** I do realise that this is a bit like saying, "Look, we already had attractive young boys and girls back when I was young, so why do we need to have them again now?" or even, "I ate yesterday, why bother again today?" But the unoriginality of contemporary pop is profoundly irritating; done for the second (or third, or fourth) time around, it's like someone is trying to steal your youth (except -- even more irritatingly -- they can do it better, because instruments and studios have improved, and people have learned from all the mistakes that were made first time round ...) Grrr!


Dave Leeke said...

I must admit I'm not a fan of either of them (whisper it though - my eldest daughter is a PS fan).

However, it seems to me from this side of the telescope that the years circa 1967 - 1972 produced the most revolutionary and exciting music. I know that's an age thing but as soon as Cocaine became the drug of choice and Big Business saw the profit potential, it was all over. Much like having a thousand channels to watch now - we're doomed to endless repeats.

All we can do is check out(but of course, we can never leave).

Mike C. said...


The fact that our children can be fans of artists whose heyday was a decade or more before they were born speaks volumes, doesn't it? I mean, I quite like some 1940s big band swing, but that's my guilty secret...

You won't get any argument from me on the quality of the music of that period, but I do think there was a second golden age in the late 70s / early 80s -- top ten artists like Elvis Costello, the Police and The Jam, (plus Talking Heads, and the like) did bring something new to the pop party.


Dave Leeke said...

One of my all time favourite gigs was seeing The Jam live in Portsmouth. Songs like "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight", "Strange Town" and "Butterfly Collector" are still amazing. I saw Ade Edmundson & The Bad Shepherds in the summer - they did an acoustic version of "Tube Station" which blew me away. It shows the sheer quality of the song.

No argument from me either (but the 80s were crap).

Anonymous said...

That the young are into "our" generation's music never ceases to amaze me. My 21 year old asked me to list my fave raves from the 70s and then said, "Yes, that's what all my friends who see themselves as the music connoisseurs are into".

Mike, give over man. Whatever you think of Patti Smith, her version of Gloria is fabulous, true rock and roll. Saw her live in Cardiff at the time and she was brilliant. Her alleged poetry and that Mapplethorpe fellow leave me completely cold, be it said.

Mike C. said...


"her version of Gloria is fabulous, true rock and roll"

Sigh. I suppose I'm going to have to listen to it again...

I concede it may be better than I recall, but my memory is of someone making a meal out of something that's meant to be simple (didn't someone say you could chuck an electric guitar downstairs, and it would play "Gloria" on the way down?)


Dave Leeke said...

I just tried it and it played a Robert Fripp solo.

Mike C. said...

It may not be visible at web resolution, so I thought I'd point out my little joke: the label on the door in the picture says "cycles". Heh. (Horses? Cycles? Maybe not...)

But: careful with that axe, Eugene/Dave!


Brendini said...

Well, I tried throwing my acoustic down the stairs and it played 'Sovay'.

Mike C. said...

Disclaimer: This site cannot be held responsible for damage caused to any instrument, electric or acoustic, incurred while investigating the musical possibilities of multiple, gravity-induced impacts. Such experiments are carried out at the owner's risk. Using someone else's instrument is a recommended alternative, though this site cannot be held responsible for any consequent damage caused to the experimenter.

The Management.

Dave Leeke said...

I borrowed a friend's banjo and threw that down the stairs.

I couldn't identify the tune but I took great delight in just throwing it down the stairs.

Mike C. said...

Do you know, I think we have the makings of an album, here...

I'm going to call Brian Eno right away, it's the ultimate "oblique strategy". If only John Cage were still around...