Saturday, 30 March 2013

Cheap Music

Is there a word for something which has become the best example of itself?  If there is, then the song "More Than a Feeling" by MOR rock-band Boston would be a good instance of it for me.  If you know the song (and how could you not?) then you will know how well it is capable of illustrating itself, being one of those meta-songs about the mnemonic power of music.

For me, it is always more than a feeling, when I hear that old song: I am instantly whisked back to a tiny study-bedroom in one of the "ziggurat" residence blocks of the University of East Anglia where I spent academic year 1976/77, alternately studying literary theory, getting high, getting low, and writing long poste restante letters to my on-again off-again girlfriend, who was away that year travelling in South America, whereabouts unknown.

I'd usually be listening to my little transistor radio late into the night, and once John Peel and the BBC were tucked up in bed I'd retune to Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station, then in its "Loving Awareness" phase and broadcasting from a leaky boat about 20 miles off the coast to the south-east of my desk.  The change of gear from Peel's acerbic proto-punk to the album-rock and classic pop of Caroline could be brutal, but also often a relief. That year, of course, was the year that particular old song was new, an instant classic, and it got played most nights on Caroline. 

It was a memorable time, 76/77, one of those turning-point years that everyone remembers.  A summer heatwave and drought was followed by the deep-freeze winter that ushered in the year of the Jubilee, when "punk" supposedly rendered the likes of big-hair Boston obsolete overnight.  The Sex Pistols were booked to play at UEA on 3rd December 1976 (plus The Damned, The Clash, and the Heartbreakers  -- the very first date of the "Anarchy in the UK" tour) but it was cancelled following the notorious "dirty fucker" TV interview with Bill Grundy on 1st December. Grrr.

I suppose you might say I was trying out for size being a punk academic that year.  Those were the early days of the "theory" revolution, and we felt we were sweeping away the complacent, canonical certainties of the gentleman scholars.  I was quite an angry, aggressive person in those days, and enjoyed (some might say, instigated) the inevitable confrontations. At least one visiting academic fled prematurely from the verbal roughing-up we gave him at a seminar.

It was in the air: the New Musical Express was having a moment, too -- writers like Ian Penman and Paul Morley had brought a new political and intellectual edge to music writing, and NME was, for some of us, required reading every week.  Though, it turns out, everyone else had stopped buying it for exactly the same reason.  Ah, well.

However, although I might have preferred the Sex Pistols in principle, after a few beers in the Union Bar I would get misty-eyed to the more maudlin juke-box hits of that year, like "I Don't Want To Talk About It" by Rod Stewart.  It seems my inner truck-driver is the solid-but-sentimental core around which more sophisticated personality traits have been temporarily draped and, like Van Morrison, as I grow older that truck-driver pushes more insistently at my waistband.

So, regrettably but truthfully, it's "More Than a Feeling" that evokes that time most pungently, not "Pretty Vacant".  As Amanda says in Noel Coward's Private Lives, it is extraordinary how potent cheap music can be. There's no denying it.

But, in the aggressive, punk-political spirit of those long-ago times, you'd have to counter:  "Come on: define and defend cheap, Amanda".

My monastic cell 1976/77
(wot, no internet?)


Martin said...

Your old room looks almost identical to the one I was shacked up in for OU summer schools at Bath.

In 1976/77, my working world was changing rapidly. Delivering milk for the Co-op, preparing the ground for the building of a trout farm (during that big freeze), and later my baptism of fire - almost literally - as I entered the rather dangerous world of road re-surfacing.

Zouk Delors said...

No internet

No focus or exposure controls on cameras in those days of yore either, it seems?

Can't think of a single word in answer to your opening question, but how about "paragon of self-reference*"?

*For more on self-referential systems, see Goedel, Escher, Bach etc.

eeyorn said...

I stayed at the converted airbase at Horsham when I was at UEA. Much nicer rooms with a refrectory and bar on site. The only problem was the dead airman who took to visiting us when we moved into married quarters.

I found the Ziggurat incredibly claustrophobic and far too warm for my liking, so rarely visited my friends who lived there. Still, with luck you'd have had a nice view over the Yare valley.