Arts: Now that's what they call music

What happens when you give 10 writers and cartoonists free rein to compile and illustrate their own CD? Something surprising, predictable, innovative and revelatory. Andy Gill spoke to Hunter S Thompson, Gilbert Shelton and Savage Pencil about their choices
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The Independent Culture
Perhaps because both music and literature, unlike painting, are experienced as they unfold through time, music has traditionally held a special position in the affections of writers. Carlyle described it, rather sweetly, as the speech of angels, while Goethe, with typical Teutonic hyperbole, claimed that music gave the "dignity of art" its very highest expression. Shakespeare probably put it best when he wrote: "The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is mov'd with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils... Let no such man be trusted."

Subsequent eras have seen no dimming of the ardour felt by writers for sweet music, reaching a peak of aesthetic symbiosis in the Fifties, as beat wordsmiths like Jack Kerouac tried to develop extemporised prose riffs to mimic the way that Charlie Parker bebopped around with a tune. But the relationship between the two media has probably never been as close as it became in the Sixties, the decade in which, thanks to the influence of Bob Dylan and The Beatles (and the comparatively dismal standard of movies), music and words became the primary modes of expression through which a generation defined itself and the world around it.

It's entirely appropriate, then, that the 10 writers and cartoonists featured in the first batch of EMI's Songbooks series should either be icons of the Sixties, or moulded by that era. Styled to resemble a book, each CD features music chosen by an individual writer to reflect their personality in some way. Some choices provoke idle questions - how did Iain Banks square his taste for both Jethro Tull and The Sex Pistols back in 1977? - while others manage to be both predictable and revelatory; knowing that the cartoonist Robert Crumb is a fanatical collector of dance- band 78s from the Twenties, for instance, still doesn't prepare you for the joyous delirium of the 24 examples he's compiled on his lovingly packaged That's What I Call Sweet Music. Others accurately convey the quixotic nature of selectors such as Ralph Steadman (Spike Jones, Leonard Cohen, Beethoven, Billie Holiday) and Ivor Cutler (Mahalia Jackson, Bartok, boogie- woogie, Arvo Part and world music).

Only occasionally are the selections at variance with what you would expect. You might imagine, for instance, that the creator of those celebrated hippie icons The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers would choose wall-to-wall psychedelia and drug songs, but Gilbert Shelton's Honky Soul, Race Music, Hard Bop & Anachronic Jazz - another beautifully-packaged offering - tracks instead the cartoonist's obsessions from an earlier era, blending R&B classics, comedy songwriters and cool jazz sounds from his Fifties childhood in Houston.

Shelton's taste for comedy songs such as Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" and Tom Lehrer's "The Irish Ballad", is all but insupportable today. "It's a special genre that kind of peaked in the Fifties," he acknowledges. "Maybe nothing's funny any more! Tom Lehrer claimed that the success of Bob Dylan killed off both the folk song and topical song in one fell swoop."

The decline of the topical comedy song, however, was probably due more to the form's dilettante distance from its subject-matter, as the Sixties got up close and personal. No writer reflects the immediacy of that era better than the gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, inspired protagonist of a thousand legendary scrapes, and deviant analyst of his country's degenerate progress through four decades. Hunter's compilation Where Were You When The Fun Stopped? is stuffed with images of escape and outsiderdom - from "White Rabbit" and "Spirit in the Sky", to Robert Mitchum's moonshine odyssey "Ballad of Thunder Road" - that skilfully evoke the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the Sixties.

For Thompson, music is indispensable to his creative process. "I have to write to music," he explains. "If I don't hear the music, I don't like it; I have to get a rhythm. I must have worn out three or four tapes of The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! when I was writing Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. I consider myself a musician - but with a different keyboard!"

Thompson approached the selection process as a kind of musical diary, choosing songs that recalled different periods of his life. Howlin' Wolf's "I Smell a Rat" - which could be his signature tune, if you think about it - was, he claims, "a big influence on me when I was a teenage juvenile delinquent", and "American Pie" was his "Saigon song", a reminder of his time in Vietnam. His old friend Jimmy Buffett's "Why Don't We Get Drunk" - which could be his signature tune, if you think about it - is a reminder of their time together in Key West ("Fast boats on the ocean at night - oh yeah! I like to do that!"), while Herbie Mann's version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic", which closes the album on a wistful note, served as Thompson's official campaign song when he ran for sheriff of Aspen in the Seventies. But there are, he claims, some glaring omissions, most notably Van Morrison and, of course, the Stones. "Just licensing that stuff is so hard," he says. "We just barely got Bob Dylan on there at the last second."

The Dylan song in question is "Mr Tambourine Man", whose aspirational qualities are neatly balanced later on by The Band's "The Weight", perhaps the most sophisticated evocation of the disillusion that afflicted the same generation a few years later. "Absolutely!" concurs Thompson. "You have to keep in mind that a lot of these songs are from that era when everybody we voted for and thought was gonna change things, that represented the better angels of our nature, was killed. So these songs reflect a sadness with what could have been - a disillusionment, yes, you might well say that.

"I guess it's all about growing up and getting over it," he concludes. "Only the really crazy, or the very lucky, go to their graves believing in all the high things. You don't get any wiser or better as you get older. That's why these songs are kinda sad, 'cause it reflects that melancholy."

The other side of the coin to that generational melancholy is rage, most accurately reflected here in the punk cartoonist Savage Pencil's The AntiQuack, on which music by Captain Beefheart, Faust, Sun Ra and Viv Stanshall illustrates a scabrous, visceral narrative concerning Dead Duck, an old SP cartoon character.

"It was a way of making something a bit different out of the brief that I'd been given, using this Dead Duck character," explains Sav, aka Edwin Pouncey.

"I realised that it wasn't going to make much sense with just this music and these drawings, so I wrote a narrative and made it into an aural mini- movie, and got my next-door neighbour Rob Brown, who does voice-overs for Lynx after-shave, to narrate the story."

The CD is not, Pouncey is at pains to point out, a definitive account of his own musical character. "The Dead Duck character came out through listening to really bad gangsta rap records," he says, "but to have included a bad gangsta rap track would have been too obvious. And it just wouldn't fit. The idea was to make this thing that flows, and I hope it does. I'm particularly proud of the way the Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Faust track collide: it's an attempt to give bad-trip karma a sound, to suggest what's happening in the duck's diseased brain, done with a Carl Stalling, Loony Tunes-type mentality."

The next step, Pouncey explains, is to present The AntiQuack as a live show at the ICA, with a rock band playing and Brown narrating. "I want to extend it further, beyond the comic-book format," he says. "Because I don't want to draw comics any more. It's too time-consuming, like writing a novel, and by the time you've got it out, nobody wants to read it anyway because it isn't The X-Men or something boring like that. Whereas the spoken word thing is interesting because you can make your own visuals up in your mind, as you do when you read a book. Or the way rock music used to be before bloody pop videos came along and robbed you of your imagination."

Therein, I believe, lies the ultimate value of this Songbooks series, as reminders of what things were like before the tyranny of the moving image had completely colonised consumers' imaginations. When detractors criticise TV, movies and computer games, the talk is invariably of content, of the desensitising effect of representations of sex and violence; but the real danger surely lies much deeper, inherent in the very nature of the delivery system itself. For unlike music and literature, both of which act as spurs to the imagination, relying on the consumer to bring the raw material to life through their own visualisations, screen-based media allow no interpretation other than that presented on screen.

It's a diametrically opposed effect, the difference between an outgoing, centrifugal attitude and an insular, centripetal one, and it represents perhaps the greatest factor separating today's Disneyfied, merchandise- hungry youth from the generation responsible for the cultural explosion of the Sixties. We shall not see its like again, because nowadays, ironically, we are only allowed to see.

Apocalypse Culture is at the ICA today from 2.30pm to midnight, including performances by Ivor Cutler, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Savage Pencil. Information: 0171-930 3647