By Beppe Colli
Aug. 5, 2003
In an age when subjective likes and dislikes constitute the most common
dimension of critical discourse, the long Introduction and the Note
To The Chronology that appear in Revolution In The Head - The Beatles'
Records And The Sixties, the widely acclaimed book by Ian MacDonald
(originally published in 1994, revised in 1997), represent a courageous,
successful and all-too-rare attempt at examining trends that are only
apparent at a "macro" level.
While there are many reasons why the recently published The People's
Music - the new collection of reviews, articles and profiles by Ian
MacDonald - can be considered to be required reading, the excellent
essay which gives the book its title is maybe the most intellectually
stimulating item - and in a way the key to the other pieces in the book.
Of course, it's not difficult to imagine some people jumping out of
their chairs after reading a sentence like this: "One aspect of
this book which is undeniable is its view that the best popular music
done in the period under consideration was made during the sixties,
when rock was at its peak both as a new, half invented art form and
as a receptacle for rebellious social impulses." (the quote is
from page viii of the Introduction). So - I thought - why not have a
chat with the author himself?
Though he was extremely busy, Ian MacDonald kindly accepted to answer
my questions, which were sent by e-mail last week.
On page 193 of your book you write that from around 1963 "Music
increased in popularity - just as, in the nineties, it grew less so,
giving way to other leisure activities." I have a couple of questions
First, it seems to me that the current trend in music magazines is to
dramatically increase the number of record reviews per issue (with its
logical consequence of the "star rating" system becoming even
more widespread than before). In my opinion, this supposed remedy only
makes matters worse. What's your opinion about this?
It's the standard wisdom of the publishing industry that more reviews
means better coverage. One of the magazines I work for recently decreased
the average word-length of reviews in order to get more in. Obviously
this means that the quality of comment suffers. So, yes, I agree that
this makes matters worse.
Second. You write of "Music papers which, in the nineties, found
themselves desperately chasing readers..." (p.193). I have this
quote by Jim DeRogatis (writing about the brand-new collection of writings
by Lester Bangs): "If much of rock 'n' roll is ephemeral - it's
here today and gone tomorrow - what does that say about rock writing?"
What's your take on this when it comes to the press - and to the increasingly
common "consumer guides" (however disguised) that appear on
I've not seen any Internet consumer guides, so I can't comment on that.
As for whether the majority of rock'n'roll is ephemeral, and therefore
much of the writing about it is the same, I'd say that was self-evident.
Very little in the industry lasts long, especially these days. Whether
the writing about it survives will depend on the quality of the writers
- although it obviously helps if the music is worth writing about in
the first place.
I have to say that, in an age of post-modernism and ever-increasing
relativism, reading what you write (on p.196): "(...) and something
which is still taboo to recognize: a decline in the quality of popular
music per se." (...) "The latter fact (...) has also
been rejected by many young pundits in what remains of the pop music
press for a less cynical version of the same motive: a wish to avoid
conceding that the pop music of their time is inferior of that of earlier
periods." is quite shocking. What's your opinion of those who vehemently
deny this and who, though being in their sixties - say, Robert Christgau
- praise to the skies people like Eminem and Pink?
I've read very little of Christgau and didn't find that I agreed with
much of it, although that's mainly a question of varying tastes. Those
who vehemently deny that pop music has declined ignore, in my view,
the various objective measures by which music may be judged which I
discuss in the "Note to Chronology" in Revolution In The Head.
This is their prerogative but it doesn't give me much confidence in
their ability to distinguish between good and bad music. Jazz and classical
music have both declined drastically over the last thirty years and
there would be few commentators in those fields who would not agree
with this. Why, then, not in the pop/rock field?
You write: "Ears today are less sensitive than they used to
be. This is partly a consequence of the social transition (...) from
a listening culture to a visual one." (p.207). "Standards
have declined (...)" (p.209). This reminded me of some things that
Chris Cutler said in an essay he wrote for the ReR Quarterly, when he
compared this to the fact that people were once able to evaluate craft
- to tell a well-crafted chair from a shoddily-built one (I'm quoting
from memory). But this is a line of reasoning that quite often is defined
as being "elitist" - just as your attitude about sequencing.
Would you mind elaborating on this?
Well, sequencing is a technical process with obvious downsides, which
I outline in my book. As for distinguishing between what's well-crafted
and shoddily built, I'd agree with Chris Cutler. I'm very struck by
how many of the new groups one sees hailed these days cannot construct
a coherent piece of music, let alone write a decent song. This is, I
take it, largely because people copy what's immediately to hand in order
to learn their craft and over generations the standards of musicality
have degenerated year by year. Many modern groups obviously THINK they're
working in the same ways as their forebears from decades earlier, but
they're sadly mistaken.
Recently, writing a propos of the prevailing attitude towards the
new Liz Phair CD, Gina Arnold has said: "It highlights the failure
of rock criticism to move beyond the whole lo-fi/highbrow paradigm,
whereby good music sounds bad, and vice versa." Do you think this
phenomenon really exists?
I've heard plenty of lo-fi products which have, in my view, undeservedly
received high praise merely because their relative simplicity and roughness
makes them sound in some way "authentic". If this, as Gina
Arnold suggests, has led to a paradigm of the sort she outlines, I can
well believe it.
Some of your analysis on modern society (on p.208 you use the expression
"the individualization of society") reminded me of sociologist
Zygmunt Bauman. Are you familiar with his work? And: are there any sociologists
whose work you regard as having been inspirational for you?
No, I've read no sociology. My ideas along those lines are strictly
At some point (on p.207) you use the expression "So bad that
they are good". This immediately reminded of a scene in the movie
Ghost World. Talking about the whole "irony/nostalgia" phenom:
Have you seen this movie? What did you think of it?
Sorry, I've not seen this movie.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Merely that one should not be surprised that a phenomenon, such as
pop music, has declined over time. It's by and large a very simple musical
genre and its possibilities are necessarily limited. It's more surprising
that there continue to be, in isolated instances, pieces of pop/rock
music which stand up to the standards of scrutiny of earlier eras, even
if they don't rank very highly in the wider scheme of things. It's inevitable
that people will go on enjoying music for the foreseeable future, despite
its objective decline. If one has nothing excellent by which to compare
something of lower value, one won't notice that one is being short-changed.
This being so, pop/rock music will continue to thrive after a fashion
and new generations of listeners will continue to enjoy it. It's just
a shame that what's listened to now is of such a low standard compared
to that of the Sixties and Seventies.
Beppe Colli 2003
| Aug. 5, 2003