Stars in their eyes

As the first history of pop criticism is published, Steve Jelbert wonders where it all went wrong
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The Independent Culture

If there's one thing writers about popular music have always been good at, it's creating myths. We know in our hearts that Woodstock (of whatever vintage) was, in fact, a muddy disaster zone best enjoyed on the telly, and that Jarvis Cocker's "Sorted for E's and Whizz" painted a truer picture of the supposed euphoria of 1988's Summer of Love than a thousand ecstatic memoirs. But it's more romantic to believe the versions passed down through time, where every thump of the bass drum and overwrought power-chord is invested with historical importance. Watch the Woodstock movie, and it's clear that thousands of filthy hippies are asleep, and not even Hendrix's dive-bomb version of "The Star Spangled Banner" can wake them. Yet just a mention that the Vietnam War was at its height at the time, and suddenly we all become characters in Platoon (or, more likely, Tour of Duty, its low-budget, late-night TV equivalent) each time we hear it.

If there's one thing writers about popular music have always been good at, it's creating myths. We know in our hearts that Woodstock (of whatever vintage) was, in fact, a muddy disaster zone best enjoyed on the telly, and that Jarvis Cocker's "Sorted for E's and Whizz" painted a truer picture of the supposed euphoria of 1988's Summer of Love than a thousand ecstatic memoirs. But it's more romantic to believe the versions passed down through time, where every thump of the bass drum and overwrought power-chord is invested with historical importance. Watch the Woodstock movie, and it's clear that thousands of filthy hippies are asleep, and not even Hendrix's dive-bomb version of "The Star Spangled Banner" can wake them. Yet just a mention that the Vietnam War was at its height at the time, and suddenly we all become characters in Platoon (or, more likely, Tour of Duty, its low-budget, late-night TV equivalent) each time we hear it.

But when rock critics conspire in creating myths about themselves, it's an entirely different matter. The recent film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's rose tinted recollections of his days as a junior rock hack on tour with a striving young band, was better received by the press than the public, who couldn't see what was so great about a lad taking notes on the tour bus when he should have been making trouble, not sorting it out. Last year's biography of Lester Bangs, gonzo guru of early rock criticism (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock'n'roll's conscience in Crowe's movie, incidentally), couldn't escape the obvious problems raised when describing the life of a man who spent much of it hunched over a typewriter banging out prose rather than actually getting out of the office, even if he did have the stereo on. (To Bangs's eternal credit, he once "played" a battered Smith-Corona on stage with The J Geils Band.)

It was a music critic, David Quantick, who first turned the fine phrase, "Pop will eat itself," in an NME review. A hapless gang of West Midlands crusties pinched the name for their band, then later discovered samplers, attempting something along those lines with their music, with variable results. But today it seems that pop criticism is actually doing the same thing. Critics are eating, well, their own words at least.

At the end of next month, In Their Own Write – Adventures in the Music Press by Paul Gorman will come out. This tome is the first history of the opinionated juggernaut we've known and sometimes loved all these years. It starts with the Fifties when New Musical Express regurgitated already politely worded press releases while its rival, the long-running Melody Maker respectfully covered the jazz scene and filled its pages with "Musicians wanted" ads, and concludes with today, when pop's Balkanization and concomitant niche marketing mean that no single publication can speak to all tastes.

Along the way we're reminded of the intellectualisation of rock criticism in the Sixties, kicked off in America by a plethora of mim-eographed fanzines, the rise to crapness of Rolling Stone, the great years of press freebies in the early Seventies, Punk's Year Zero-star graduates Burchill, Parsons and Morley, the invention of Smash Hits, The Face and Q, and the eventual replacement of editorial instinct with demographic surveys.

It's undeniably entertaining, as a series of one-time faces reminisce about their time in the sun, but by the conclusion, it's become a book about magazine publishing, rather than music. Smash Hits was certainly amusing and beautifully presented at its Eighties peak, but its opinions were never built to last, while Q took its flippant tone and turned it into a strangely enervated form of criticism, in which nothing could be taken seriously. Though not always a bad thing, it also destroyed the insane enthusiasm that had always powered the entertainingly irresponsible "build 'em up, knock 'em down" nature of the once dominant weeklies.

Gorman finishes with the story of how Felix Dennis's Blender, a high-powered riposte to Rolling Stone launched this year in the States, kicked off with the same cover star (Janet Jackson) as Redbook, a long-running women's magazine that bears the subtitle "Balancing Family, Work, Love, Time For You". It's obviously a valediction rather than a celebration.

Appropriately Bangs's work is the source of much dissension among lesser hacks (ie, all of them). And Julie Burchill always did prefer living in her head to the real world. It transpires that the "kinderbunker" – by her account a partition in the NME office "lined with barbed wire" and shared with her partner at the time, Tony Parsons – never existed. The editor, Nick Logan, instead recalls a less threatening "curtain of plastic strips". (As Pete Silverton, once of Sounds and later the Radio Times, says: "She would never let facts stand in the way of an opinion." It's an occupational risk. Nik Cohn, when challenged by a litigant who claimed that Saturday Night Fever was based on his life, had to admit that the film's inspiration, his magazine article "Another Saturday Night", was fiction.)

Some sanity seeps through. Mick Farren complains about the isolation of America's academic school of rock criticism from their subjects, as well as their appalling dress sense. "They all want the chair for rock'n' roll studies at Princeton, whereas we were all cartoon characters, and when you're one of those a pie in the face comes with the territory," he comments, remembering his own barneys with musicians. That veteran consumer John Peel is equally down to earth. "I like things like Jockey Slut in that they're written by fanatics. I've listened to an amazing number of dance records and I look at their charts and I don't recognise a single name," he says, recognising just how things have stayed the same the more they have changed.

Yet everyone's a critic now, however unlikely. In Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich – A New History the author dismisses Hamburg's well-documented Thirties teenage jazz scene as irrelevant. To Burleigh, the very idea that "taste in music is an index of wider non-conformity" is "a conclusion easily dispelled by the fifty-something street-fighting merchant bankers at contemporary Rolling Stones concerts". Hang on, Professor Snippy, it's not as if the "swing kids" were filling stadiums. That was Herr Hitler. Such a glib generalisation is worthy of Burchill, not a real-life academic.

Even the deservedly renowned Popbitch website, fount of trivia for the entire media industry, can't resist eulogising anonymous producers such as Max Martin and Stargate, shadowy figures who sit in darkened offices on Scandinavian industrial estates, counting their euros while surrounded by machines. This whiffs of the chronic inverted snobbery that fuels Heat and the BBC's horrible Liquid News, in which supposedly intelligent people sneer about idiots who none the less make more in a week than they earn in a year.

There is, after all, a certain irony in that music's approved history was created by people who can't even agree on what they were actually doing at the time, though they all, Peel excepted, seem to concur that it was better than today, dagnamit. Then again, we have been spared any number of lousy novels by people who've instead spent their life in the service of popular music, and for that we should be grateful.

'In Their Own Write' is published by Sanctuary, price £12.99, on 30 Nov

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