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BOOKS: THE RISE AND FALL OF POPULAR MUSIC by Donald Clarke, Viking £22.50 Hard facts about easy listening

A LITTLE knowledge is a dangerous thing. This might seem an absurd dart to hurl at Donald Clarke, who after all compiled the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, but in many ways The Rise and Fall of Popular Music is an absurd book. Clarke's big idea - to reclaim the idea of popular music from "the post-Beatles industry that separates adolescents from their pocket money" and give it back its historical context - is a fine one. His book might, and sometimes does, trace changes in the ways music is produced and consumed through the developing apparatus of commerce and technology. More often though, the author chooses to ride his team of hobby horses off the track and into the sunset.

This realisation takes a while to dawn. During this book's early chapters we are in unfamiliar and interesting territory: the beginnings of commercial performance in London's pleasure gardens, and the bizarre rigmarole of American minstrelsy. Clarke's twin populist plateaux - 1910, when sheet music sales ("artless art songs for the English-speaking masses") were at their peak; and the Swing Era, "a high-water mark in the quality of popular music, when popular music was good and good music was popular" -are not too well-trodden either.

But what exactly does "good" mean in this context? Clarke's definition of quality hinges, like everyone else's, on his own personal preference, but he never addresses this issue, and the portentous tone which results - "The Brill Building era was the beginning of a new singer-songwriter genre, in itself a good thing" - is often painfully reminiscent of 1066 And All That. This is even true of one of the less tendentious statements contained in Clarke's 600 pages: of all the many criticisms which might legitimately be levelled at Rattle and Hum, U2's cinematic search for their musical roots, the fact that the film "does not bother to tell you which member of U2 is which" is surely not at the very forefront.

About music which he doesn't like, Clarke can be comically vindictive. On those young and foolish enough to enjoy heavy metal: "The cost of their cheap rebellion is that when they are older they will find that their hearing has been damaged." The roots of the bitterness that runs through the heart of this book are not revealed until two-thirds of the way through. And, like so many other aesthetic tragedies, this one is Frankie Avalon's fault: "It mattered to me, deeply mattered, that he could not sing at all; already a life-long music fan the same age as Avalon, I could not figure out where this junk was coming from, and I was ashamed for my generation."

Clarke's personal perspective, as someone who was at the height of his fandom when the first wave of rock 'n' roll ebbed, is a perfectly interesting one. But there is no acknowledgement of the fact that it might colour his consequent snootiness about TheBeatles (" `She Loves You' was unremarkable, its yeah yeah yeah chorus typical of the trashiness of pop"), rock, rap, disco, punk, pop and the record industry. Or for that matter his abiding love for free jazz, new country and Joan Armatrading.

The external theme of this book is that things ain't what they used to be, but the internal truth of it is that things have never been what they used to be. That's what's so great about them. A "fashion parade" has not, as Clarke claims, "taken the placeof musical values", the two have been inextricably linked from the start. "Suppose," he contends apocalyptically, "that all we heard on the radio was the style of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, but played absurdly loud by synthesisers..." Hang on a minute, I think he's got something there.