It started me thinking how much I dislike contemporary popular music. Not in a grumpy way, but something much more melancholy. Contemporary pop makes me squirm with loathing not so much for what it is, but what it isn't. Catch some on the radio, you feel polluted. It completely lacks the dionysiac whole-body rapture which Nietzsche thought life-transforming. Which is another way of saying it really is crap. It is not joyous, it is joyless. A nice requiem, Ockeghem's Missa pro defunctis, perhaps, is very amusing. Babyshambles is cosmically depressing. And then back in London I noticed a nasty rash of 48-sheet posters across the city telling us everyone is invited to Johnny Vaughan's Breakfast Show on 95.8 Capital FM.
Now, inviting "everyone" to breakfast is a barbaric notion in the first place. My idea of breakfast is a couple of espressos, a solitary chair in the sun in the Campo dei Fiori and half an hour with the Gazzetta dello Sport. Still, we should be alert to all of life's possibilities so, in the spirit in which Shackleton advertised for his Polar expedition - "Men wanted for Hazardous Journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful" - I grabbed my espresso and tuned into Capital. Whereupon I entered a surreal reverie of semi-wakefulness in which the horrors of contemporary life swam viciously in and out of aural focus. "No culture so far discovered," according to the psychologist Anthony Storr, "lacks music." Dr Storr had not joined everyone for breakfast.
My notes have a Joycean ring: "Johnny Vaughan the Capital Breakfast Show with Kellogg's Crunchy Nuts. Irresistible. Everyone can do their bit in the Flora Family Marathon. Expedia dot com." It was like a continuous assault from unsolicited phone callers, the ones who say you have won an unwanted Spanish cruise, double glazing for your "porch", whatever that is, or a BMW coupe. Then it's "back to the music and it's seven fifty six." But there is no music. "And you can win cash. Do you like cash?"
What are the themes and values here? Venality and cupidity. Gain without effort. A saccharine sort of community. "Woss 'appening with the news this morning, guv? Fears about the Pope's health and Kilroy's comeback. Don't miss Racing Stripes, the official film of Red Nose Day and the Zebra everyone is talking about. Some people think untaxed cars are harmless." I have now been listening to this torrent of brain-corroding drivel for 10 minutes and no one has played a song. "Ring Ring. It's for you, love. Simply share twenty-six point two miles over the whole family over five days." A simian-Clarkson voice, no it is Clarkson, pimps for BT. Talks about "choccy" on cappuccino. Another ad says "You'll believe animals can talk."
"Cloudy, but dry." Still no music. "Maybe some sun later." Canned laughter. A jingle: "Johnny on the radio now now now. We are tracking down London's best public toilets. Text us. Eight oh-five, got the papers coming up, this is Kylie Minogue." Talk-over. "First a quick weather check." Synthesised acoustic glop. "Eight thirteen Capital Breakfast Show with me, Johnny Vaughan." Still no music. Lots of schlock-matey patter, however.
I know I betray my age if I say the Sixties was a true Golden Age of popular music. And still Johnny Vaughan has played nothing, but there is an ad for a "modern, but sexy scent". Then I think about the Brunswick studios on Chicago's Southside and Detroit's Jackie Wilson recording "Higher and Higher" in 1967 when Motown session musicians joined Chicago horn- players to make an exciting fusion of jazz and pop which I have absolutely no doubt in saying is two minutes and 59 seconds of art. Meanwhile Johnny Vaughan is still receiving texts about experiences in public lavatories. Oh hang on, here's some music. No it wasn't, it was the Stereophonics. Now there's a phone-in. For cash. "D'ya wannna hear what you could've won, Hazel from Enfield?" (who is trying to get the kiddies ready for school; I think she should have been reading them Proust).
Unbearable all of this, although it does prove the medium is the message.
Modern popular music is depressing because it is the expression of the debased and disagreeable culture that supports it. Yes, I know Mozart moved in dodgy circles, but when you have seen the sort of slap-head bruiser in a black AMG Mercedes and all his retinue of cutpurses, cony catchers, priggers, palliards, fraters, abraham-men, bawdy-baskets and rufflers who comprise the music industry... only then do you understand the full- on meretricious horror of joining everyone for breakfast at Capital FM.
So back to the Beatles. That sad tug I felt in Paris. Was it just nostalgia? Some argue that it was their producer George Martin who made the Beatles great, but that is like saying Schumacher has the best car. Of course he has. He deserves it. The Beatles excite sadness because they make us realise how thin and nasty modern pop is. It is not bad because it's modern, it's bad because it's bad. I said Capital was Joycean so I flipped open Ulysses to check and read "Mi sono convinto che il mondo e una bestia" - "I'm convinced the world is beastly." Exactly so.
The great thing about great music is that it is at once "intelligible and untranslatable", in Levi-Strauss's expression. The horrible thing about modern pop and 95.8 is it is unintelligible, but all too easily translated. It lacks attractive enigmatic properties. Like Mozart, the Beatles didn't always keep the best company, but their culture was not slaphead bruisers nor was their medium a radio station that finds egestion funny. There'll be no sad tomorrow, don't you know that it's so. Hah! Wrong again.Reuse content