Friday, January 25, 2008

Morley of what you fancy

"It connects you with other people... you put on the jukebox and suddenly everyone knows it, everyone can tap their feet to it. It makes a warm, living thing out of the room" - Robert Wyatt on what the pop song does

Going back to this Pop Britannia series, the supposed centrepoint comes tonight with a debate to find the greatest decade, which won't be a pointless and ill thought out carve up missing the key areas stage by stage at all. This follows a season which incorporated all manner of repeated shows and some business that proves Charles Hazlewood, the Lidl Howard Goodall, is much more comfortable on the radio. Then there was Pop! What Is It Good For? Whether we're supposed to respond "absolutely nothing" we don't know, but it's the sort of title that suggests a thorough sociological and theoretical going over, searching for and isolating the meaning of pop and where it stands in comparison to the rest of music, or indeed the rest of art and culture itself. Kate Thornton was never in the running for this one. In fact, with Ian MacDonald dead and Simon Reynolds never camera friendly, only one man could ever have been asked to expand on the titular question.

Accusing Paul Morley of low art pretentiousness is like accusing Samson of being a follical fashion season behind - he is what he is, and that was never the point anyway. Words And Music, the book this seemed loosely based on, may be a baffling cluster of ideas and ideologies on many fronts with page-long footnotes and an arcing storyline in which Morley hitches a lift in the car Kylie is driving at the start of the Can't Get You Out Of My Head video, but it also effortlessly traces the progression and point of the music he's spent his adult life earning his corn from. And after all that it's really a superannuated list book for all that. It just gets a bit linguistically flowery and dizzy along the way. And you shouldn't trust his sleevenotes work. (This, remember, is someone who's comfortably at home as a cultural commentator for Richard & Judy)

So he's a pop fan - indeed, his opening words are "I love pop music", left there, nothing need be added - but one with an idea that pop goes wherever the hell on the musical scale it wants to go. Clearly, given his back pages, you don't need to be told his opening spiel, a joyously worded personal appreciation of how good pop transcends, grabs hold and changes, along with some postmodern bits. You also don't need to be told that he's going to start with "a song about a song" Can't Get You Out Of My Head, the first of six songs he picks out as demonstration of its special powers (the others, before we go further: Ride A White Swan, Lola, This Charming Man, What Do You Want?, Freak Like Me), at which essentially his big ideas hit the first wall of other people. Rob Davis may know how to construct a pop marvel, but next to Morley making connections with the Stooges and Steve Reich (although Davis does see a Philip Glass comparison in dance trend terms, when he starts invoking the power of minor chords and the "darkness" of the diminished chord you feel he's only millimetres away from declaring D minor the saddest of all the keys) his input doesn't really tell you anything beyond the basic structures, so both end up watching a monitor.

Where the programme really worked was when Morley met people who appreciated his stance and could get where his own memories were planted - on the topic of Lola Suggs, whose band have covered it, made an autobiographical connection with his own mother's singing and work in the sort of Soho clubs Ray Davies wrote, sang and lived about as well as with with the mysteries it brought up in the adolescent mind, while This Charmind Man saw Mike Joyce look on slightly baffled as Morley and Simon Armitage took the lexicographal scalpel to its lyrics, interpreting it as a dashed love and temptation "sort of Withnail And I sketch". Adam Faith's What Do You Want?, which Morley thinks may have been the first song he ever heard, was taken as the first proper British take on an American idea, the original rock'n'roll rebellion, a round table of Peter Blake, Robert Wyatt and writer Johnny Worth evoking a lost era of genuinely new sounds, Worth crediting the song's pizzicato strings to a mix of Buddy Holly's sound and that of raindrops off London's bridge parapets, Wyatt claiming he could still remember the first verse years after he'd last heard it and Blake making connections to his own emergence on the Pop Art scene. Had the scope not been so narrow, BBC4 could eaasily have had an extra programme alone out of the rushes of that meet-up.

Inevitably the youngsters come off less well - Tahita Bulmer made a surprise appearance and pretty much held her own, but for the final piece of the programme Morley tells the Sugababes - one of whom wasn't on the record, of course - in a BBC Children In Need backstage area about his theories of Freak Like Me, chosen as a prime example of pop plundering its own history while retaining ideas and originality (Richard X also shows up, looking a bit like Daniel Bedingfield and turning the tables by asking Morley and Anne Dudley how the Art Of Noise worked, to which Morley reveals Theresa Bazaar of Dollar nearly sang on Close To The Edit). They smile back at him, all talk at once and secretly hope the scary man isn't about to give them a cassette of his demos and a note written in illegible green ink, Morley left to admit that "pop is not what it was".

And another thing - it was called We All Stand Together, not The Frog Chorus.

Early on, Morley posits that the great pop songs, for all their scope, are those "you can imagine them being sung by Elvis". It's not entirely waterproof, as indeed the clips of an impersonator help prove, but it says a lot about Morley's approach - he's seduced at a base level by the glamour and possibility of pop, right through to the all-inclusive producer-led POP! of latter days and technological fair use of 'bastard pop', and how it never truly leaves anyone who chose to get involved in it. Morley excels because he has an advanced awareness of both the transient nature of the business and its Proustian possibilities, passionately talking about Ride A White Swan, the first single he bought, as his gateway into this pop cultural stratosphere, something that "we're all in this together". Everyone reading this, even the spammers, can surely emphasise, and for some it's happening right now.

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