The Critics: It's EightiesWorld

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The Independent Culture
Rock & Pop

The National Centre for Popular Music


Lauryn Hill Brixton Academy, SW9

When you emerge from Sheffield railway station, you're greeted by an unearthly sight. Glance over the roundabout, and there, to the left of the Tudor pub and the shed-like science park, is a gleaming alien spacecraft. As you walk up the road, this Gilliam-esque panorama gets weirder. The giant Sheffield steel curling stone is just one of a set of four, and the set is part of a building. It's the National Centre for Popular Music, a brand new museum that is "the World's First Interactive [pop music] Attraction", and, yes, there is Lottery money involved. The four millennium domes were built with pounds 11m of Lottery funding, plus pounds 4m from other sponsors. And like its big brother in Greenwich, the NCPM raises the question of whether it was money well spent.

Inside, the Centre looks like a swimming pool. It's open-plan, with concrete pillars, tubular banisters and glass panels for walls. All in all, it's much too hygienic and airy an environment to evoke popular music in the mind of anyone but a Kajagoogoo fan.

Downstairs there's a cafe, a bar and a shop. Upstairs, the steel drums function as the Centre's four main exhibition rooms. The first one I experienced on Tuesday's press tour was "Soundscapes", a planetarium-minus-the-planets with a "3-D sound system". Thanks to a strategic arrangement of 16 speakers, rhythms from around the world came at us from every direction. It's impressive, but not all that different from the bit before a film when the cinema shows off its Dolby stereo. I didn't think much of the voice-over, either. "Our British Isles have produced some of the megastars of pop," it informed us, "like the Beatles, Elton John, George Michael and the Spice Girls." So now you know.

You'd assume from this narration that the Centre were aimed at children who had barely heard a record in their lives. Elsewhere it's assumed that they've never seen a cello, either. In one room there are musical instruments mounted around the circular wall as if they were rare artefacts - without even the excuse that they once belonged to somebody famous. I noticed just two instruments donated by pop stars. One was a guitar from Def Leppard, the other was Rolf Harris's wobble board. Hard Rock Cafe it ain't.

In the "Turning Points" room, you can look up a rock encyclopedia via one of six computer screens. But once you've got over the novelty - and difficulty - of operating the mouse, you might wonder why the Centre didn't just set out some books instead. You might also wonder what all the other visitors are supposed to do while the six consoles are being used. The rest of the room is empty but for a big screen - in case you go to museums to stand and watch documentaries - and the "World Wall", a glass and metal map. Turn a dial and you can "tune in" to music from different countries. Basically, the room is ideal if you want to pretend you're a Bond villain planning global domination.

The Centre's creators are right to identify digital interactive technology as a revolutionary learning tool. Their mistake is to try to jam this technology into an outmoded museum environment; a virtual encyclopedia is nice to browse through on your home computer, but you're not going to get much reading done with 500 people pushing behind you. Likewise, the "Making Music" room can be fun if you're young enough. You can press a button and distort your voice. You can design an album sleeve or watch interviews. But each of these activities takes a few seconds, and some take several minutes. The Centre is just not designed for the 400,000 visitors a year it's hoping to get. On Tuesday it was open to no more than two dozen journalists, and we still had to queue for a shot at remixing a Garbage track. Once the school parties are bussed in, expect bloodshed.

I can't see what the NCPM has to do with Moloko, BabyBird or the rest of Sheffield's current bands. And I shudder to think what Jarvis Cocker would make of it. I'm sure it will improve - live music in the bar is promised, for instance - but at present it seems scandalously ill-conceived. It's shiny, expensive and hi-tech, and it values presentation much more than content. The fact that it offers you the chance to edit a Phil Collins live video only confirms my worst suspicion: this millennial celebration of popular music is stuck in the 1980s.

A better way to learn about pop would be to attend a Lauryn Hill concert. Her album may be entitled The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Columbia), but you couldn't ask for a better lesson in the history of soul, reggae, gospel, funk and hip-hop - and in their future. Last Friday, the past was covered by the cover versions: the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back", Bob Marley's "War" and two Fugees hits, "Ready Or Not" and "Killing Me Softly". These influences were brought up to date via the songs from The Miseducation. Like the record, the live show forces you to ask how long it has been since we've seen a soul artist like this. When did someone last come across as this positive, this independent, this knowledgeable and talented?

Boogying onstage in a canary yellow shirt, a rainbow skirt and a tea- cosy hat, Hill coolly commands the attention of her pupils - not an easy feat when there are 17 other people onstage. Among these are three dancing backing vocalists; two clowning DJs who specialise in tag-team turntable- juggling; and a drummer who solos on plastic paint tubs. But nobody upstages Hill, the Super Teacher, a natural performer with an outstanding voice. What makes her even more exceptional is that she is only 23, and that besides writing, arranging and producing The Miseducation, she has acted in films, made two albums with the Fugees and had two children (Bob Marley's grandchildren, no less). Oh, and let's not forget that she's dazzlingly beautiful. Chris Woodhead did say that affairs between teachers and pupils could be educational, didn't he?

The National Centre for Popular Music opens on 1 March. Booking: 0114 296 2626.