Nearly three years after a Pepys reader kindly gave me a copy, I’ve finally got round to reading Paul Morley’s Words and Music. I enjoy seeing Morley on TV clip shows (I Love the Third Week of 1978, Top 100 Singles with ‘B’ in their Name, etc) where he’s one of the few to say something that has been thought about, even if it doesn’t make sense. I found 300 pages of that tough going at times though — when he’s writing about music, or writing about writing about music, it’s good stuff, but when it’s page after page describing how shiny Kylie Minogue is as she drives a car toward a city made out of music I end up skimming, looking for something interesting.
The good stuff is definitely good though, if you don’t mind his clever-clever style (as he suggests later in the book, you should either take it very seriously or not at all seriously). The book made me excited about music, particularly about music that’s new and exciting, from early tape-powered experimentalism through Kraftwerk to modern pop produced to within an inch of its life. He points out that today’s pop music (Britney, Kylie, Beyoncé, Missy Elliot, Pink, Eminem, etc, etc) is often much more new and ground-breaking and interesting than guitar-led rock, despite the latter’s enduring pretensions to being challenging, something I knew deep down but had never put into words.
Rather than take notes I used the “turn over the bottom corners of interesting pages” method, but only ended up with two pages that stood out enough to crease paper. One of these I loved:
[Kraftwerk] clicked and crackled with sadness. There was a strict sadness in Kraftwerk’s music. This came from the way their music was based around a poignant pointless longing for a new version of the past that would never be brutalised by the Nazis, for a past that looked forward to a utopian future and tried to make it happen, for a past that was a perfect midway point between a history that moved life and society forward and a future that accepted this history with smart, thoughtful grace. The sadness was also because Kraftwerk believed in this utopian future and they knew it could never come true, ruined by historical pressure, and political corruption, and the failure of dreams to come anywhere near true. Their music was an echo from an unsullied past and a shadow of a dreamlike future — an echo and a shadow placed so deliberately and so bravely between the melancholy drum rhythm of a present that disappeared instantly the drum was synthetically hit.
When I saw the V&A’s Modernism exhibition earlier this year, the hopeful but doomed utopianism of it all had quite an impact on me, and I love this idea of looking back on this past’s optimistic failed future. I need to get some Kraftwerk.
Words and Music is a book of lists, as Morley describes it: “this book of lists listing the lists that list everything in the shape of a city from the perspective of pop music contains words that if you piled them up together, would form the shape of Kylie Minogue.” (See, it tediously comes back to shiny bloody Kylie all the time.) While I skimmed some of the lists (many of which you can read at Rocklist.net) I loved the lengthy timeline which includes music, books, art, TV, movies, politics and pretty much everything else in a way that makes every year covered sound like the single epochal tipping point, a fantastic and fascinating time to be alive. Which, I guess, is the way we should look at every year.