The People's Music by Ian MacDonald
Paeans of praise and epic demolitions
Friday 27 June 2003
Ian Macdonald is one of the most gifted critics ever to apply himself (or herself) to post-war popular music. This collection of recent pieces demonstrates his inability to approach any subject without coming up with an innovative insight, cogently and wittily framed. Anyone who thought there was little left to say about Bob Dylan and the Band after Greil Marcus - or, for that matter, about the Beatles after MacDonald's own magnum opus Revolution in the Head - should think again.
MacDonald was the NME's deputy editor for the middle third of the Seventies (it's a shame that none of his work from that period is included here). He rapidly demonstrated that, while interviews or colour pieces were not his strong points, his criticism was what you found when you looked up "incisive" in the dictionary.
Nothing much has changed. Alongside paeans of informed praise for heroes such as Nick Drake, Laura Nyro, John Fahey, Miles Davis and Steely Dan are scintillating micro-theses on the Stones and the Sixties, Hendrix and the blues, and Bowie's experiments with esoteric mysticism. He also includes epic demolitions of "Minimalism and the Corporate State" ("a drip-feed pseudo-art for cultural bottle-babies"), Cream's blunderbuss live recordings ("crude banality blown into megalomania by a zillion watts") and Jefferson Airplane's "tub-thumping moral seriousness".
"Standards have declined," he warns in the titular essay, the only one written specifically for this book. The skills base has been eroded. Computer-based music-making has debased songwriting; punk's thrash-guitar style has done for finger-picking skills. The "people's music" initiated by composer-performers such as Dylan and the Beatles has led, indirectly, to a reassertion of the music industry's talent-manufacturing production-line, which it initially displaced.
The creative high point of pop, MacDonald claims, was 1965-67. Anyone wishing to dismiss his assertion as a cranky old git's there-wuz-giants-in-them-days-sonny rant is going to have to argue as cogently and energetically as he does. Right or wrong, he is a formidable debater.
If there is a flaw , it lies not in the content, but the organisation, or lack of it. The author tells us that "most of these pieces" originally appeared in magazines like Mojo, Uncut and Arena, but the individual articles are, almost without exception, unattributed and undated. They are also, though MacDonald does not explicitly say so, full "director's cuts", untouched by sub-editing hand.
Why they appear in this seemingly arbitrary order is unclear. The reader is compelled to follow the threads of the central thesis from essay to essay before arriving at the full-blown statement. Nevertheless, much of The People's Music is as good as rock criticism, in its purest form, ever gets.
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