Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Give up

When I was a kid, I loved Madness. I bought all their singles as soon as they came out. I’ve always been like that, a loyal consumer of the bands I love. I will buy the new record by my favourites regardless (until they finally make a record so egregious I can’t bear any more). I have all of New Order’s albums, for instance. They are my greatest love in music. Other bands move me more, but I’ve loved New Order for a very long time now, more than 25 years. (How that ages me! Ah well. Today I received a Blancmange collection in the post and I’ve been reminding myself what a great, inventive, even deep band they were.)

On the train to school, I’d play cards with a group of older boys. Not poker in those days; it was mostly euchre. They put up with me because I knew M, one of the players, from the scouts, because I was good enough to keep up with them and they were keen enough to want competition, not easy wins, and because I could be funny and charming. One of the boys, A, was in my tutor group. Some bright geezer had come up with the idea of having kids from different school years form together first thing in the morning. I have no idea why. At secondary school, this meant that kids from first to fifth grades (years six to ten in today’s money) would pointlessly gather for a form period. At sixth form, it meant that both years would mix. Which was okay. I suppose it helped us grow up to have older boys and girls around.

One day, A and I were walking up the hill to school (the train station in Penzance is by the seafront, and my school was at the top of the slope that Penzance straggles down). I should say a word about Penzance because it is one of the places closest to my heart. It feels like home. I have never known anyone visit it and not feel that it is a bit special. It’s not as picturesque as St Ives but it has more character. It feels a million miles from the England of London and Manchester. Shopkeepers – people in general – are warm to you, friendly, despite the inherent distrust of furreners. (I am laughing as I write that because I recall the conflict at school between the natural-born Corns and the outsiders. I had a Cornish accent and passed as a Corn – I had lived there since I was two after all, bar six months. It’s hard to describe: there was never fighting exactly, nor bullying – the boys would pick on the weak or odd just like they do anywhere. But there was the feeling of superiority, belonging. It is powerful. I lack it and feel the lack. Sometimes I just want to go home to Cornwall so that I can slip into the accent (bung it on, I mean; I lost it when I went to uni) and have people feel I am one of them.)

And A is saying to me that I don’t really like music, because I like that pop crap, and he’s into the Sabbath and Deep Purple (and to tell the truth, so was I, somewhat; I’ve always been quite catholic in my tastes, and then I was into heavy rock too). It’s musicianly, he is saying.

I am feeling downcast because I am not smart enough, not musically literate enough to answer him back. It seems true that the bands he likes are more complex than Madness. (Soon my eyes were opened fully! I was already into some indie, exposed to it by friends, particularly H, who were into John Peel and everything he played.)

I did not know then what I know now. Anyone can do rock. It’s the easiest of genres. The songs pretty much write themselves. Yes, you have to come up with a riff, but when you have, you simply bung it against a standard chord progression and Bob’s your ma’s bro. Those who like it will like it. You think I’m exaggerating? Think how many awful records U2 have made, or horrible duffers like Metallica. Formulaic, boring shit, prettied up by expert production.

Making great pop is much harder because you have to be loveable. You cannot be grungy, dirty or ugly. And being explicitly about fucking is more or less against the rules.

So I love great pop more than even the greatest rock. Someone who makes three minutes of something that moves me, makes me want to dance and – most of all – sing along without self-consciousness (which I’m sorry but none of your heavy rock bands are ever going to do), well, they are my idols.

The story of the Postal Service is well known among those who are into indie or whatever we call leftfield music these days. The guy out of Dntel, who aren’t very good, made some tunes and posted them to the guy out of Death Cab for Cutie, who aren’t very good either.

But the result is great pop. I don’t know how the fuck. I don’t know what makes it wonderful: perhaps the tenderness, the cleverly worked lyrics, the tunes, the fey fragility of it. I don’t know. I just know that music like this beats your turgid rock every day of the week.

And let me tell you, it is something like this that gives me hope for us. Because this is one of our smallest things, the least of our art, yet it is lovely. And if we can make lovely, we are maybe worth a little. It’s a silly, half-formed thought, but it would have warmed the heart of that Cornish boy walking up the hill to school, wondering how he could defend Madness, how he could explain that they made the world disappear for a moment and replaced it with something just that ounce more shiny.


Anonymous Jefe said...

Do you know the origins of Euchre? I grew up playing it in Michigan, and I've known very few Americans outside midwestern U.S. who have even heard of it. I suspect it's German, given my family's heritage and the preponderance of German-Americans in the Midwest. While in college, we'd play for hours and hours on end. It's how I became so adept at slapping my cards down on the pile with such a satisfying "snap!"

March 21, 2007 at 3:15 AM  
Anonymous Jefe said...

The problem with most pop, for me, has always been that whatever I'm listening to, I imagine myself playing it in front of a huge crowd. And imagining myself playing AC/DC in front of thousands of scantily clad horny hotties is much more enjoyable that imagining myself playing New Order in front of a bunch of mopers.

March 21, 2007 at 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Sour Grapes said...

I find it very hard to separate that particular British (possibly English, though I can think of a few exceptions) sort of wry, knowing pop from the concept of "yer mates". I don't know if Americans even have "mates" the way Brits do. It's not at all like friends, and even less like Friends. The guys in Coupling and Cold Feet are mates, and I suppose the girls are too.

Well anyway, that sort of pop represented by Madness, and the Kinks before them and Lily Allen since, is the kind of thing your mates would do if they were stars. It has the same quality you value in your mates. Bono, on the other hand, could never be anyone's mate.

This probably came out like utter bollocks, but oh well. I had a point when I started.

March 21, 2007 at 3:47 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Jeff, euchre is German in origin. It has many of the features of central European, particularly German, card games: smaller pack, special ranking of cards, special trumping rules. It also has bowers, which are "bauers" in German. It's very popular in the West Country of the UK, not so much elsewhere.

AH, you are so right! And so is Jeff in a way. The bands you name are people you'd welcome into your house. They are nice. Rock bands tend to be people you would only want to encounter from a distance. Dance music is made by people you would not want to meet at all. Each has a value for its audience.

March 21, 2007 at 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Jefe said...

I miss playing Euchrse. We should figure out how to start an online game. Though I'd only play if we could make the snapping sound of the card being slapped onto the pile.

March 22, 2007 at 1:32 AM  
Anonymous Don said...

I saw Penzance from a distance one day. I've always wanted to go to Penzance. I hear they have pirates.

March 22, 2007 at 3:07 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Jeff, there are places you can play euchre online. You could always make a recording of the snapping noise and play it whenever necessary.

Don, I learnt all I know about bastidry from the Pirates of Penzance.

March 22, 2007 at 9:14 AM  

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