A Parnassus of electric gods

THE FABER BOOK OF POP ed. Hanif Kureishi & Jon Savage Faber pounds 16.9 9; Ben Thompson applauds a delicious, presumptuous, epic anthology of writings on pop music and musicians

Ben Thompson
Friday 19 May 1995 23:02

The main character in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity has a theory about making compilation tapes. He thinks that you should never put white performers on a tape with black performers on it, unless the white singers are trying to sound like black singers. If you want some idea of the mentality behind Kureishi and Savage's monumental 800-page treasure chest of pop history, it's the opposite of that.

This book is physically impossible to read from front to back: the temptation to race gleefully hither and thither is just too strong to resist. Taking a non-random dip, Pete Fowler's "Emergence of the Skinheads" looks back from the hindsight of 1972 to the Rolling Stones' free concert in Hyde park three years earlier. "Here were the Rolling Stones, the old Mod idols, being defended by the Hells Angels - the descendants of the old Rockers - and the whole scene was laughed at by the new Skinheads, who were the true descendants of the old Mods". Not for nothing does Jon Savage's introduction take as its title the immortal words of The Who's "Substitute": "The simple things you see are all complicated".

It's Hanif Kureishi's preface that comes first, though, and in describing pop as "a form crying out not to be written about", he seems determined to undermine the point of the whole exercise. If something being "physical, sensual, of the body rather than the mind" means you shouldn't write about it, where does that leave sex or shopping or scenery? There is a whiff of condescension, too, in Kureishi's attempt to identify pop music as the new literature Tom Wolfe demanded in his introduction to Bonfire Of the Vanities. Pop music does not aspire to the condition of literature; it aspires to the condition of pop music.

Jon Savage's introduction is infinitely more perspicacious. It places pop at an intersection between public and private worlds, between high art and what Colin MacInnes called "the vast, mysterious majority". Savage recounts an encounter with pioneering British pop svengali Larry Parnes, the man who changed Ronald Wycherley into Billy Fury and Clive Powell into Georgie Fame. However exotic they might have sounded to audiences on this side of the Atlantic, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were real names, and British pop's sense of starting from scratch would be crucial to its distinctive identity. "Parnes", Savage asserts, rather convincingly, "made it clear that pop was about one thing: self-recreation. You could be an inner-urban child with a boring circumstance, yet by one simple act - changing your name - you could be transformed for ever into an electronic deity".

Given two such differing editorial perspectives, the air of encylopaedic impartiality exuded by the uncredited introductions to each of the book's ten chapters (a sturdy chronological progression from 1942 to the present day) seems somewhat fallacious. But this is entirely as it should be, because pop music, as Greil Marcus observed, is "an argument . . . anyone can join in". Violent disagreement is the very stuff of it, so if some of Kureishi and Savage's interpretations provoke irritation or even outrage (though most of them seen pretty sensible to me), then so much the better.

The opening piece, Malcolm X waxing lyrical on the joy of the lindy- hop, sets the tone of the whole anthology. His is just one of many weighty names to crop up in the contributor's list - Norman Mailer, Studs Terkel, Joan Didion, Joe Orton, Germaine Greer and a packed charabanc of others are there too - but none of them is slumming it. The sense is not of pop as an excuse for literature, but as an impact felt in innumerable ways, from Noel Coward calling the Beatles "bad-mannered little shits" to Angela Carter reflecting mellifluously on 1977 - "I suppose I'm glad that the year of the Jubilee was the year of the punk really, it was actually a very happy kind of irony, almost tasteful".

Excerpts from such pop-informed literary landmarks as Absolute Beginners, Lucky Jim, A Clockwork Orange and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man make sense not only on their terms, but also as a context within which the value of the greatest specialist music writing can be formally appreciated. Jack Good and Lester Bangs and Penny Reel and Greg Tate open up new worlds as boldly and surely as fiction can - you can almost feel the ground shifting beneath them. There is a strange and perhaps unexpected poetry, too, in some of the early tabloid pop writing, for example the Sunday Pictorial's "Is Johnnie Ray a mass hypnotist?" ("What Ray does is break down self- consciousness, to make his fans feel that they are no longer mere cogs, no longer alone"), and even the Sun's first vision of Boy George - "the sensational singer who looks like a girl, sounds like a fella and behaves like something strangely in between" - has acquired a certain sneaky resonance.

This is the first anthology of pop writing to broaden its understanding of the thrill of it all beyond the immediate to the perpetual. Savage writes of a shift "away from linear time (a progression) to circular time (a loop)", and this idea offers perhaps the best hope to those struggling to make sense of now's place in things. Whether it's Lou Reed interviewing Vaclav Havel, Junior Walker and the All-Stars rocking up a storm in mid-Sixties Mali, or Kean Wong's fascinating analysis of heavy metal and Islam in Nineties Malaysia, there's an exhilarating sense here of pop's history as a living continuum rather than a dead weight.

If there's one quibble, it's that in their understandable determination to prove that pop is more than just (as the current vogue for how-the- Sex Pistols-helped-me-through-A-levels nostalgia would have you believe) one of a range of lifestyle options, the editors have got their polemics slightly in a twist towards the end. The final section, "1988 - The End of the Century" (Wait up! There are five years to go yet), puts a little too much stress on fracture and finality. Admittedly, the virtual and actual demises of Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain - both scrupulously covered here - are daunting events, but pop has always seemed on the brink of apocalypse. That's one of the best things about it.

The notion of pop as something that must be defended at all costs will not be new to anyone who has ever watched Top of the Pops with their parents, but the level of battle-readiness in this anthology may come as a surprise. Given the all-pervasiveness of the music and its attendant clutter, pop's battles might seem to be won. The classic attacks on it here, Paul Johnson raging hilariously against "The Menace of Beatlism" for example ("At 16, I and my friends . . . would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on the Beatles and their ilk") have a quaint, almost nostalgic, ring (though anyone privileged to have heard Roger Scruton on Start The Week talking about "the nihilism of modern American groups like REM and AC/DC", will know that this flame has not been entirely extinguished).

In the view of the editors, the enemy within is of more immediate concern. It may be true that the spirit of pop is now more in danger from faint- hearted friends than sworn adversaries, but the body of faith and knowledge and pure joy on display here is resilient enough to survive the embrace of the scurviest of allies. And if you can't find something to learn from and savour in this delicious, presumptuous, epic thali of a book, you either know everything already, or you have no appetite.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments