Pop music: one man's part in its downfall

Failure. Disappointment. Fatuous dreams of stardom. Lost in Music is not your usual pop book. Thank Giles Smith for that, says John Peel (left). At last there's someone who tells it like it is for those bands who want to be Blur, would settle for being Howard Jones, but end up like the Cleaners from Venus
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The record numbered 8815 in my collection is Going to England by The Cleaners from Venus, the first of two LPs by the band. I don't own the other one, Town and Country. On the front cover, by Gini Mason, is a montage of things English; an Austin 7, steam train, two double-decker buses, a postman, a teapot, no-nonsense working people with, reason insists, hearts of gold. We could be in Blur territory here. Given that both bands have their origins in Essex, we are. Sort of. On the back of the sleeve is Martin Newell (singing, fretwork, tambourine), red-haired and leaning on a lamp-post on the corner of the street, wearing what is probably a frock-coat. The frock-coat (or whatever it is) is, I'm afraid, a bad sign, although not as bad a sign as a battered top hat would have been. In a separate photograph below sits Giles Smith (pianos (old and new), distant singing). On the paper inner-sleeve are written my track timings. Three of the tracks - "Living with Victoria Grey", "Follow the Plough", "Illya Kurayakin Looked at Me" have two asterisks alongside their timings. These asterisks mean that I liked the tracks enough to consider playing them on the radio. If I did play them, Giles Smith has not noted it in Lost in Music: a Pop Odyssey and, given his attention to detail in this good- hearted, clever and touching book, I think this must mean I never did.

There are too many books about success in pop music. There are too many books about pop music. The shelves groan under the weight of volumes with titles like Simple Minds: the Truth and Springsteen: An American Story. (If either of these actually does exist, I apologise now.) Lost in Music is a story of failure and frustration and therefore the real story of pop. For every Simple Minds there are dozens, even hundreds, of Cleaners from Venuses, bands which, according to the accountants and promo hit squads, have failed. I know about these failures and I respect them. Some of the best music I have heard has been made by failures. This book could equally well have been, say, the Skip Bifferty Story, the Stackwaddy Story or the Bogshed Story, but these bands had no Giles Smith to record the handful of games with the reserves they played before their free transfer to oblivion.

All over the country, all over the world, bands like The Cleaners from Venus and Smith's earlier groups, Pony and Orphans of Babylon (sometimes musicians expend the bulk of their creativity on amusing names) are sputtering into a sort of life. They are putting their names down for band contests with grand finals in municipal buildings judged by a local disc-jockey, a man who works for a music equipment manufacturer and, as a concession to glamour, a beauty consultant. If the group is even slightly interesting, it will be eliminated in the first round because the only thing the judges will have in common is their love for Phil Collins or Simply Red. They will be competing with bands that have played for seven years in the same pub, believing that this is proof of their talent rather than a sure indication of the lack of it. Members of such bands sidle up to you in pubs in Chester to tell you they are rehearsing again, this time with Colin on bass, you remember Colin, Colin from the Blue Ones. All these musicians, old and young alike, are sending me demo tapes. Well, that's how it seems anyway.

The Orphans of Babylon sent me a tape. No, that's not right. Giles Smith gave me a tape at a gig in Colchester. He describes how I led him out into the car-park and showed him the boxes filled with cassettes that in turn filled the boot of my car. The boot of the car - the same car, in fact - is still crammed with demos, and as I grow older, I sometimes muse, as people do, on the manner of my passing and like to think that, at some suitable time in the remote future, I shall be attempting to read a band's name on the spine of a cassette case by the headlights of the car behind me and will slam into the back of a truck. He would have wanted to go that way, people will say.

When I look at all those tapes, I think to myself that there are people's lives tied up in every one of them. It is one of those lives that Giles Smith has teased out onto the pages of Lost in Music. If you have ever watched a band play or bought a pop record - if you even know someone who has bought one - you should read this book. From the day spent watching for Marc Bolan to pass through Colchester on his way to the Weeley Festival to the suggestion on the final page that the Cleaners from Venus may yet rise again, Lost in Music captures perfectly the illogicality, the unreason, the sheer stupidity of dreaming about being in a band, of yearning to be Sting, of wanting other pop stars as your friends. Smith usefully lists the steps that brought the Cleaners to a recording contract. Here they are for you to cut out 'n' keep:

"1) You send your music to a former member of the Damned.

2) He plays it to a 24-year-old Scotsman in a cheap suit.

3) The Scotsman flies to Cannes and gets drunk.

4) A German woman picks up the tape in Cannes and flies with it back to Hamburg.

5) The German woman plays it to a Beatles fan at RCA Germany.

6) A major record company awards you a three-album contract."

A substantial number of those who send me tapes imagine that I will be able to furnish them with a checklist of instructions which will, if carefully followed, lead to the main stage at Glastonbury or Reading. Frankly, Giles Smith's list would be as useful as any other. Success in pop comes about in a manner not far different from winning the National Lottery. Luck plays the major part in a chaotic and disorderly process which may result in your becoming Sting but is much more likely to bring you to a lifetime of Ancient Mariner-style reminiscing about the night your band supported a band the bass player of which played on a Sting album track some 11 years later.

Smith also catches perfectly the excitement, pain and again, the stupidity of being a fan. He details the strange joy, the sense almost of purification and renewal, that comes with the realisation that you have grown out of musicians once venerated, of records you once bought. "When I went to the shelf and took down, say, Innervisions (the Stevie Wonder LP), I was just as importantly electing not to play Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy or Venus and Mars by Wings or any of those albums that had seemed like a good idea at the time, but whose appeal had dwindled with age or the dawning of good sense. I was able to prize the wheat," the author writes, "because of its contrast with the enormous, patiently accrued pile of old chaff." That's exactly right. So Smith has stuck, apparently to the present day, with Innervisions and the other great Stevie Wonder LP, Songs in the Key of Life, but turned his back on Supertramp, the Rolling Stones, Top of the Pops, cricket and Radio 1. This is one of the processes that makes pop fandom so attractive, the certainty that the records you buy and the bands you follow that you believe will endure for ever will be, in a few years, wildly embarrassing to you. At the same time, the records and artists you despise - or, at least, affect to despise - for their glib superficiality will show a surprising capacity to survive and may even come in time to delight you. I mean, in the late Sixties I pretended to loathe soul music and to like Melanie.

There is so much to recognise and celebrate in this book, from an explanation of why records have to be played loud to an analysis of Tony Blair's stated pop preferences. There are, as I have said, too many books about pop, from the tawdry and exploitative to the laughably scholarly. I have read few as funny as Lost in Music, and none that caused me to recognise the roots of my own enthusiasms as clearly or as frequently. Now I am off to listen to Innervisions again, then Going to England. Then I'll have another look for that Orphans of Babylon tape.

n 'Lost in Music: a Pop Odyssey' by Giles Smith is published by Picador (pounds 12.99)