"Long-distance information, get me Memphis, Tennessee ..."
Pop songwriters have always found it helpful to phone home. Phoning home is what keeps them honest, gives them a sense of proportion, reminds them of what's fundamentally important. And home is almost always in a city. Up on the roof, racing in the street, down in the tube station at midnight - up, down, all around but hardly ever out in the countryside where the lanes have no name.
Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Kansas City, Oakland, Harlem, Bowery, Bronx and Queens. These are the fundamental places in popular music, the ones we think we know because of it. They're all American and they're all cities or bits of cities. Detroit is Motown. Memphis is Chess, Stax and Sun. Philadelphia is Philadelphia International. Nashville is Country. New Orleans is, well, New Orleans: more a groove than a city.
You could argue that pop is a metaphor for the city; certainly, that it is a continuation by other means of the urban mind. Pop is suspicious of wide open spaces.It is neurotically territorial. It conceives of community as an extraneous mass, not a local group. And while pop aspires to universality in its appeal to the senses, it gets a lot of material from the closet in which it keeps its most cherished and fetishistic clobber. Pop, when it's good, is frequentlya glimpse of the urban world through a macroscopic lens.
Think of Chuck Berry, The Drifters and Ben E King, Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Velvet Underground, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, The Specials, The Smiths, Ice-T, Blur: "Memphis", "Ferry `Cross the Mersey", "London Calling", "Home of the Body Bag". They're all pop stars with a grid reference. They write better about places than they write about themselves, and they wear clothes and strike attitudes that constitute the livery of those places.
The British have done their bit in this respect. We may not have a city- myth of perpetual musicianliness, a Memphis or a New Orleans, but we do have Liverpool, Canvey Island and Muswell Hill.
"Up and down the Westway/ In and out the lights/ What a great traffic system, it's so bright," bawled Joe Strummer of The Clash, deathlessly, in 1977, confirming the concrete purlieus of Ladbroke Grove, west London, not only as a Babylonian suburb of Trench Town but as a place in which subsequent generations of rebel rockers might convene to cock a leg against the street furniture, in the hope that the Westway might return the compliment by impregnating them with the real gone rocking vapours.
Also, they confirmed what The Kinks, Mel & Kim, Aswad, the Small Faces, Madness, Fairport Convention, Th' Faith Healers, Spandau Ballet, The Who, Soul II Soul, Dusty Springfield, George Michael, Tommy Steele and a thousand others already knew, or would come to know: that London is not one place but many - a composite city made up of a host of smaller, cellular cities with their own sound, their own mythologies andfetishes.
The simple factis that pop is better on cities than on anything else, apart from love. It's taught us to be intrigued by cities, to fear them, to face up to them. And until pop succumbs to the allure of cyberspace, it will need its cities as much as cities need people.
After all, how many teenagers today know Sheffield as the city that used to make steel, and how many know it as the place that made JarvisCocker?
These are our New Orleans, our Philadelphia and our Memphis, Tennessee.
Fauna: Herman's Hermits, The Hollies, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Magazine, Joy Division/ New Order, A Certain Ratio, The Smiths (below), Simply Red, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Oasis
Clobber: grey macs, cumbersome trousers, baggy stuff, gladioli, pinched cheeks, pink eyes
Vocab: doom, gloom, urban decay
Mise-en-scne: urban decay, doom, gloom. And the Hacienda
Vibe: neither chirpy, cheeky nor pleased with itself, and as such Manchester is pop's anti-Liverpool. Herman's Hermits are the exception that proves the rule
Fauna: Beatles (above), The Searchers, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Cilla Black, The Real Thing, Echo & The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, various Wahs!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Christians, The La's, Lightning Seeds, The Farm, Boo Radleys
Clobber: funny little collarless jackets, cuban heels, raincoats, leather trousers, floppy fringes, chubby cheeks
Vocab: cute, rhyming, perky, and lots of it
Mise-en-scne: docks, ferry, civic splendour, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, urban decay
Vibe: chirpy, cheeky and pleased with itself, except when it's feeling sorry for itself. Perhaps archetypally, Liverpool goes in phases. Not in one at present
Fauna: Pink Floyd (right), Nick Drake, Soft Boys/Robyn Hitchcock, Katrina & The Waves, The Bible/Boo Hewerdine
Clobber: don't go in for that sort of thing, though you can get nice cheesecloth shirts atthe market
Vocab: careful with that axe, Eugene
Mise-en-scne: Grantchester Meadows and the windmills of your mind
Vibe: the windmills of your mind, with reverb, andsyntax
NEWCASTLE, TYNE AND WEAR
Fauna: The Animals, Lindisfarne (above), Geordie, Bryan Ferry, Penetration, The Police/Sting, Mark & David Knopfler (Dire Straits), The Kane Gang, Martin Stephenson, Wildhearts, Jimmy Nail
Clobber: less butch than you'd expect, although Bryan Ferry would make an enchanting Versace stevedore
Vocab: not as chauvinist as you'd expect and often verbally expansive (see also Prefab Sprout down the road apiece in Durham), although Sting is given to literary over-reach
Mise-en-scne: fog on the Tyne is all mine, all mine, and so were the shipyards, once, although they weren't really
Vibe: despite a good small-venue live music scene, very little of lasting iniquitousness has come out of north-east England. Jimmy Nail is the exception that proves the rule
Fauna: Subway Sect, The Pop Group, Rip Rig And Panic, Mark Stewart And The Mafia, Blue Aeroplanes, Massive Attack, Portishead (right), Tricky
Vocab: "karmacoma", "glorybox", "pigbag" and other intriguing portmanteau words that probably mean something important
Mise-en-scne: basements, lofts, squats and priest-holes
Vibe: in the airing cupboard with soul, jazz and reggae on the turntables and someone spikey on the mike. Spacey yetclaustrophobic
SOUTHEND, CANVEY ISLAND and all points west on the A13
Fauna: Procul Harum, Mickey Jupp, Kursaal Flyers, Dr Feelgood (right), Lew Lewis, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Billy Bragg, Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart
Clobber: mohair suits, sheepskin car-coats, Edwardian clobber, Ford Orion Ghia, 1988, fully loaded, pas, alloys
Vocab: I got my cheque book, baby, got my bags all packed with an assortment of mojos and black cat bones
Mise-en-scne: gantries, derricks, Roxettes, whelk stalls, bookies and I'll see you in the morning down by the jetty
Vibe: the first Americans. Rescued from Seventies time-warp by the push inland towards new centre of Estuary Pop: Barking
Fauna: Joe Cocker, Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, Heaven 17, ABC, Human League (left), Def Leppard, Pulp; also the home of "cutting edge" dance label Warp whose roster includes Black Dog and Sabres Of Paradise
Clobber: post-industrial, asymmetrical, glitzy-drab, technical, plus loads of slap (not Joe Cocker)
Vocab: post-industrial, technical, minimalist, form following function at all times. Example: "Don't you want me, baby? Whoah, oah-woah"
Mise-en-scne:the post-industrial non-production continuum standing metaphorically for human inner space. Except in the case of Def Leppard who are entirely unaware of human inner space
Vibe: current success of Warp - dance music put through the post-industrial mangle - serves to conceal the dwindling influence of the trad Sheffield aesthetic. If cyberspace is ever discovered, it'll be in someone's airing cupboard in Sheffield
Fauna: The Wilde Flowers, Soft Machine, Caravan, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Matching Mole, Hatfield And The North, Gong/Steve Hillage
Clobber: Canterbury in the late Sixties/early Seventies was a lagoon in time and space. All clobber, like all things in Canterbury, effloresced from The Wilde Flowers, who were awful but gave rise to an awful lot
Vocab: genteel, quietly doctrinaire Workers' Revolutionary Party parables and incomprehensible gibberish, conflated and set in 13/8
Mise-en-scne: genteel, idyllic, floral; mud-caked children playing on the Aga
Vibe: pothead pixies with serious chops
BIRMINGHAM & WEST MIDLANDS
Fauna: Spencer Davis Group, Moody Blues, The Move (+ ELO, Wizzard), Robert Plant, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Slade, Steve Gibbons, Steel Pulse, The Beat, Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Specials, Selecter, UB40, Duran Duran, Fine Young Cannibals, Jaki Graham, Fuzzbox, Pop Will Eat Itself, Wonderstuff
Clobber: anything goes, from paisley cravats to spangly spex to bovver boots to S&M gear to donkey jackets to tams to tonic suits to angora sweaters to Byronic ruffles to whatever Jaki Graham used to wear on breakfast TV: and that's just Duran Duran's spring wardrobe
Vocab: baroque bordering on the flowery (The Move, Robert Plant, Duran Duran), yet alsodemotic (Specials, Selecter, Dexy's) and gormless (Slade, Judas Priest, Sabbath)
Mise-en-scne: usually indoors, under bright lights, in front of a bed- sheet or creation by a local sixth-form Hieronymus Bosch. Otherwise, urban decay
Vibe: despite a reputation for perpetual riffiness, the conurbation isgoing through a fallow period. The West Midlands, like London, is not one place but many.Unlike London,not many musicians are in a hurry to get there
Fauna: Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ian Dury,Sham 69, Merton Parkas, Shakatak, The Cure, Alison Moyet, Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, Erasure, James Taylor Quartet and "the Medway sound", St Etienne, Suede, Orbital, Eternal
Clobber: never mind the quality, feel the trousers - it is incumbent on all musical suburbanites to cut a bolder/sharper/ kitschier dash than the ponces in town. Yes, even Eric in his Armani suit
Vocab: no nonsense. Who needs words when you got trousers?
Mise-en-scne: London's musical suburbs garland the metropolis as a laurel, without end. And like the M25, suburban music goes on and on forever and is not one place but many, from Basildon to Basildon via Woking and round again the other way, in 14 lanes. Not to be confused with Estuary Pop
Vibe: music is fashion
GLASGOW & STRATHCLYDE
Fauna: Lulu, Marmalade, Alex Harvey, Incredible String Band, Frankie Miller, Average White Band, Simple Minds,Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Altered Images, The Bluebells, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions (left), The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Blue Nile, Wet Wet Wet, Hue & Cry, Eddie Reader, Teenage Fanclub
Clobber: no rules, although Glasgow has seen its fair share of stripey trousers, billowing grand-daddy shirts, top hats and, mostdistasteful of all, waistcoats. Guiding precept: "this is music, not fashion"
Vocab: romantic social-realism, wind-swept, gritty, although Glasgow's finest lyric moment was one word written by Jacques Brel and pronounced, at some length, "nnnn-e-e-e-e-e-ext''
Mise-en-scne: walk across the rooftops, headlights on the parade and the rusting hulk of a ship called Dignity
Vibe: this is music, not fashionReuse content