The Agreeable world of Wallace Arnold: How I helped Roger put ghastly 'pop' in its place
Sunday 15 November 1998
In this estimable work, Professor Scruton has applied his formidable intelligence to "pop" music (dread entertainment!). And what fascinating points he has come up with! "Modern pop stars," he points out, "often refuse to answer to a normal human name, since to do so would compromise their totemic status. The name must be an icon of membership. Sting, REM, Nirvana, Hanson, Madonna, U2 are like the species names assumed by tribal groups, in order to clarify their social identity..." Most penetrating! To my mind, only Scruton has the sheer intelligence to see what distinguishes these awful young people from old-fashioned musicians of real quality such as The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Count Basie, The Choir of King's College, The Black and White Minstrels and Hutch.
Scruton also pinpoints what he calls the "near-total inarticulateness" of modern popular music. "The singer," he complains, "can find no words to express what most deeply concerns him." How true! And how unlike the delicious songs of yesteryear such as Yes, We Have No Bananas.
The book is the result of more than 15 years of intensive research into popular culture, conducted with a research-team of like-minded thinkers. For 15 long years, Scruton scoured every pop concert and music paper, every discotheque, festival and wireless station in the land in a determined effort to discover what was so ghastly about modern music. And his conclusions are bound to blow up the very foundations of popular culture: pop music, he reveals, is often played loud, its heroes unkempt, its tunes simplistic, its meaning obscure, its appeal primarily to the young. I trust that these young people put Professor Scruton's argument in their pipes and smoke it. In fact, it's my guess that following the publication of this seminal attack on modernity, "pop" music sales will plummet, and the world will be set free once more to appreciate the haunting melodies of George Formby.
Like Lord St John of Fawsley, Mr Paul Johnson, Lord Tebbit and Lord Dacre, I've been privileged to sit on Scruton's investigative panel these past 15 years. I well remember our initial meeting, way back in 1983. "Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chameleon!" said Scruton, scratching his head. "You come and go, you come and go. What the bloody hell do they mean by that? Come whither? Go whence? Full report on my desk by January!"
We five panellists thus booked ourselves into a "Culture Club" concert at our earliest convenience. To our astonishment, we were confronted by a hall packed full of people with lengthy, often unkempt, hair, many of them attired in "casual clothes", some with "make-up" on their faces. "I suppose these are what are known as 'the young'!" exclaimed Fawsley, dabbing some eau-de-Cologne on a Kleenex Tissue for Men and placing it over his nose.
All went comparatively smoothly until the concert began. "Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chameleon" screeched the singer. Poor Norman Tebbit looked particularly distressed. "Is that a man? Or... not a man?" he yelled.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were busy taking scholarly notes. I peeked over at Fawsley's notepad. "Copycat!" he snapped, covering it up with his hand - but not before I had sneaked a look at what he had written: "Vocalist sings into a black stick he holds in his hand. Each guitar connected by length of plastic to a tall box. Oh Glyndebourne, wherefore art thou?"
As we emerged from the concert hall, there was Professor Scruton at a desk by the door, beadily collecting and indexing our notes. "Your next assignment," he announced, "is to study The Life and Works of Geri Halliwell. Compare and contrast with Dmitri Shostakovich. Essays on my desk by Tuesday week, one side of the paper only. And strictly no conferring."
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