Friday, September 20, 2013

Retro nouveau: Toop on Prince, 1987

Arena, Summer, July August 1987

M U S I C retro nouveau

David Toop looks back to the present.  
Arena magazine, Summer 1987 July/August.

(Copyright belongs to David Toop, am posting for research purposes only. I found this fascinating riff on nostalgia while digging thru a friend's Arena/Face magazines, such brilliant design by Neville Brody. Check out some of  Toop's fantastic books, like Oceans of Sound, or Rap Attack No 3)

BUDDY RICH WAS PLAYING at Ronnie Scott's, GENESIS were at The Starlight in Crawley, JUDAS PRIEST were at The Temple in Wardour Street, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND were playing the South Parade Pier in Southsea and BLACK SABBATH'S Master Of Reality'' (issued this month on CD) was in the album charts. The mail order clothes were longline canvas zipper jackets or two-tone 'Budgie' shorties, scarlet and royal sailcloth flares, military coats supplied with buttons and flashes, starred scoop-neck tshirts, stars and stripes singlets and DIY knee-length fringed moccasins ''stand on paper and draw around bare feet."

A musician was advertising for work under the description, ''Tenor sax, coloured", and MILES DAVIS was quoted as saying, "I look through your paper and all I see are white guys." CHICORY TIP were getting panic reviews of the ''Is pop killing music?" slant and CLAIRE FISCHER, PRINCE'S arranger was demonstrating the 'revolutionary' Yamaha Ex-42 electronic organ, price $11,500, at a Hollywood nightclub.

The year, as they say when television undergoes a nostalgia flashback, was 197 l . The publication was the Melody Maker and within its pages Richard Williams wrote, ''There's more to the current Oldies Revival than mere generalised nostalgia. Something, it seems, is very wrong with the current scene."

These are familiar words in 1987, when reissues, revivals, nostalgia breakouts, authenticity manias, exotica fads and postmodern peerage are regularly, tritely diagnosed as symptoms of something lacking in popular music. In '71 the analysis was simple.

Pop had aspired to Art. It got what it wanted but it lost what it had. The steep ascent of progressive rock was the reason why obscure soul quartets like THE FASCINATIONS were having to abandon steady jobs in Detroit to service Britain's fickle devotion to lost causes and forgotten moments. The mainstream interest in The Fascinations and their Northern classic, ''Girls Are Out To Get You'' followed a now-familiar pattern. We didn't care for you yesterday and we'll shun you tomorrow but today we love you and you shall bow to our love. Back in Detroit at the beginning of 1972 it must have all seemed like an unsettling dream.

It is interesting to see how reasoned, how liberal and how conscientiously educational the music journalism of the period was. Of course, its cautious attacks on the new art rock had as little effect on public taste as today's tortured partisan rhetoric. Writers plunge themselves into a contradiction with their very first word on music since the best music deserves listening, dancing, sex, work or shopping and the worst deserves ignoring.

Musicians know this and so do the bulk of the consumers who prop up the leisure industries.Writers will always choose to deny and defy it.

Nevertheless, it was the Word that helped to consecrate the notion that popular music and its derivatives have significance in the world. British writers were slow to acknowledge rock lyrics as sacred texts or the rock lifestyle as a model for society. After all, the Melody Maker began as a danceband newspaper. It was a chronicler of entertainment, aimed originally at musicians.

It was perhaps the American paper, Rolling Stone, that fostered the change. It may be hard to credit it now - Rolling Stone with its complacent, indifferent leisure capitalism - but in its younger days the embrace of new journalism, the investigative features, the sprawling, indulgent fiction, the lifestyle and subculture pieces - anything from Radical Chic to New York disco, Shag Dancing and in Top-Popping in the Carolinas to California cult skateboarding or Low Riders and Angel Dust in the Los Angeles barrios - all of it was a sharp departure.

It also propated the rather absurd idea that rock music and life were somehow symbiotic. Rock had great meaning. If necessary, you would scrabble through a rock star's rubbish - not to find scraps of gossip to sell the tabloids but to go further in the search for that meaning. You lived your life according to the tenets of rock and its great moments.

What is perhaps obvious, with hindsight, is that a generation was created sunk in irredeemable nostalgia, sentimentality and illusion. You could change the world just by listening to a record and the record would probably be by VAN MORRISON. The depths of this illusion were apparent from in the early Seventies until the present. Pop music now is pleasure, leisure, fantasy, soundtracking. Perhaps only for the over-committed BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN fan is it life-creed rather than lifestyle. Writers, however, plough on as though pop music was the last barricade between salvation and perdition.

If pop music were really to make a break from its past back in the supposedly heady days of 1976/77 then this centralism of rock should have been the abandoned baby. The movement that Rolling Stone and the 'alternative' lifestyle had started was in full swing in Britain, however. If anything, punk exaggerated the swing. More commitment, more analysis, faster abandonment of cults and sub-cults, theories, heroes and villains .

White pop is always searching for roots. That is its neurotic burden. Whereas the crises in black pop stem from social changes within black society since the 1960s - integration or the lack of it - the crises in white pop stem from its lack of autonomous identity.

White pop began as a lot of rhythm and blues, a little bit of hillbilly, some 'square' quasi-symphonic arranging, some crooning, some jazz. It later took in folk - itself suffering an identity crisis - the classical legacy and the experimental tradition. It also took elements from ethnic cultures other than Afro- American. It has made a great commercial success out of this mix but in its periodic upheavals will always return to the Holy Grail quest for roots.

The best white pop of the present is saturated with retro fervour. THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN sing ''Kill Surf City'' on the flip side of their last single as if JAN AND DEAN were still a threat (perhaps aware that it was a Jan and Dean concert that caused the recent pop concert riots in China).

DWIGHT YOAKAM, on the other hand, dedicates his ''Hillbilly Deluxe" album to BUCK OWENs, the king of 1960s California honky tonk. As a role model, Buck Owens is perfect. In 1965 he placed a full-page advertisement in the American trade journals which claimed, amongst other things, ''I shall sing no song that is not a country song" and ''I refuse to be known as anything but a country singer."

This pledge against miscegenation and the dilution of purity by commercialism recurs in many different forms. Musicians currently talk about a return to rock values and the purging of black rhythmic sophistication - ignoring the fact that hard rock is derived from the blues rather than rockabilly. It is tempting also, to see GEORGE MARTIN'S remix of Beatles albums for compact disc as a means of eradicating the stains from white rock.

Martin, the Prince Philip of the record industry, likens the process to stripping and cleaning a car engine. ''They were not right for CD as they stood, '' - he says.

The only major, mainstream musician who is free of the genre restrictions, the ephemerally, the roots pursuit, is PRINCE. Like many others, he is a bricoleur - fooling around with ideas, referential constructs - but he has the self-security and originality to succeed with this treacherous formula.

"Sign 'O' The Times'' may be last month's album but it is still absorbing, mysterious, funny, sexy and infuriating. You can spend a week listening to the mixes - where's the bass? where's the hi-hat? what's the instrument? is that vocal speeded up? what's that sample? You can play spot the reference.

BRUCE? CURTIS? JONI? QUICKSILVER MESSBNGER SERVICE! Is that 'sitar' as in THE BEATLES or THE STYLISTICS or RAVI SHANKAR? You can listen to the lyrics, some of them beautiful, some of them daft, and marvel at his ability to actually sing half of them.

You can listen to the musicianship because Prince is a brilliant musician whether he's playing drums, guitar, Hammond organ, noise or the studio itself. You can listen to a track like ''It'' and wonder, with music technology being at its present fabulous stage of development, why there is not more music that sounds like this. You can marvel at his ability to write an endless stream of melodies and hooks. It seems without effort; throwaway even.

And that, in the end, is what makes PRINCE so impressive. He understands that pop is trash. Pop is plastic. And that, ironically, is what will make his music last in the future when all the strivers for significance have vanished into historical inconsequence.

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