Everywhere there was song and celebration

By Kevin O’Sullivan
Woodstock_redmond_hairIt’s forty years since Joni Mitchell went on down to Yasgur’s farm to join in a rock’n’roll band, camp out on the land and try and get her soul free. The same has passed since Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, The Band, Liege and Lief, Tommy, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dusty in Memphis, Songs from a Room, Five Leaves Left and Led Zeppelin II first hit our shelves. It’s been fifty years since the first Newport Folk Festival. Next month the Beatles release the digital remasters of all their studio albums. Neil Young calls his re-release programme ‘The Archives’. The record industry is dead? Long live the music.

It’s everywhere now: on the train, in the shops, in the bath, on your television, on your phone, in the lift, in the swimming pool (I kid you not). Everyone’s a collector, everyone’s got their favourites on shuffle. Everyone, it seems, has released their own version of ‘Hallelujah’.

But amidst the saturation, it is easy to lose sight of the important role played by popular music in the social and cultural history of Western and, increasingly, global society over the past fifty or so years. There are plenty of treatises out there on music, culture and history, from journal articles to broader texts like Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties: Cultural Transformation in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, 1958-74 (1998), Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (2005) and Eric Harvey’s interesting recent social history of the mp3 for the online magazine, Pitchfork. But by its very nature, the medium itself – the music – demands an altogether different approach. No words can describe the rattlesnake shake that kicks off ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ or the pregnant pause that begins Prince’s ‘Kiss’. We need to hear this history to feel it and understand it.

Tony Palmer’s 1976 documentary series All You Need Is Love, re-released last year on DVD, is a great place to start. It might look and sound a little dated in parts, but for the way it’s put together and the depth and quality of its interviewees it is unparalleled – try not to let your jaw drop when one ninety-something American black man explains the origins of his music with the words ‘my parents were slaves’. Originally intended as a book, it retains something of that structure running the gambit from modern music’s beginnings in Africa, through ragtime, blues, jazz, vaudeville and music hall to the Beatles and glitter rock across seventeen fifty-minute episodes. This is history as popular entertainment, and all the better because of it.

In fact, watching Palmer’s footage, from his interview with mountain singers in the Appalachians to Mick Jagger drawling ‘pleased to meet you, I hope you’ve guessed my name’, it struck me that a love of music prompted something very close to the history gene in its (mainly male) adherents. It’s like a form of archaeology. We’re like the white middle-class kids in Joe Boyd’s fascinating memoir White Bicycles (2006) who sought out their black blues-playing heroes in the toughest areas of the urban United States and put them on stage in university bars, living rooms and any space they could hire for their own entertainment. We want to get closer and closer to the source, to hear how it formed, to see behind it, to explain why it turned out this way. And the only way to do this is to hear what came before, to understand the motivations, the chord and time changes, the lost verses. Greil Marcus’s intriguing (though not for everyone) book Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005) is a case in point: a whole book devoted to the development and recording of just one song. Ian MacDonald’s tome Revolution in the Head (1994), Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Neil Young’s Archives, the Beatles’s Anthology, U2’s ongoing re-releases, all fall into the same pattern, digging deeper into their own musical pasts. And, of course, as anyone who’s listened to the Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear et al will testify, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’.

Now if only historians could devise a way of bringing history on tour, selling millions of copies of our work, reading to packed-out audiences at Wembley and living in a white mansion in LA (à la the Fresh Prince), all would be rosy in the Garden.

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6 Responses to “Everywhere there was song and celebration”

  1. Tomas Says:

    One of the best chronicles of any musical movement is, in my opinion, Legs McNeil and Gillian MacCain’s ‘Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk.’ Oral histories seem to be more and more in vogue these days, but ‘Please Kill Me’ was one of the first and is probably still the best.

    While on the surface it seems to be a ridiculously salacious account of sex, drugs, more sex, more drugs, death and some more drugs, in sum it forms a really interesting social history of the United States c1965-1980. The book itself was compiled in the late 1980s/early 90s and the protagonists are not so far removed from events as is often the case with music books. Their accounts are less pretentious and more instant as a result.

    I think that too often, the authors of music books try to ascribe far too much importance to their subject. Oral histories are the antidote to this but, at the same time, you have to remember that approximately 80% of the anecdotes may not have actually happened (and the stuff that did happen often can’t be remembered). Read cumulatively, however, books like ‘Please Kill Me’ say quite a bit about musical movements and their cultural significance.

    • Kevin Says:

      ‘I think that too often, the authors of music books try to ascribe far too much importance to their subject…’
      Agreed. Wholeheartedly. Those who write about Bob Dylan and The Beatles are particularly guilty of this – see the Greil Marcus and Ian MacDonald books I mentioned above.

      ‘…the stuff that did happen often can’t be remembered…’
      Wasn’t David Crosby (of The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, etc) rumoured to have told the ghost-writer of his autobiography to research and write everything that happened prior to 1985 because he just couldn’t remember any of it? That story’s possibly been twisted a little by the winds of time, but there must be a grain of truth in it nonetheless.

      And while we’re on the subject of oral histories, I read a review today of a new oral history of the post-punk era in northern England by John Robb, called ‘The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City, 1976-1996’. The genre shows no sign of running out of steam.

  2. Brian Hanley Says:

    ‘Larry Gogan’s Pop File’ is a great little book: it just lists the charts from the early 1960s until 1979, but you can get a picture of what was popular: so much showband and Irish music in comparison to the 60’s heavyweights. It’s also sometimes fun to see what was number 1 when particular events were happening. Perhaps unsurprisingly ‘The Men Behind the Wire’ was no. 1 over the winter of 1971 and ‘Give Ireland back to the Irish’ went straight to the top after Bloody Sunday.

    • Kevin Says:

      This is too addictive. Over on Wikipedia they list every number one since 1962. Fantastic. Though quite how ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ is the eighth-longest running number one is beyond me.

  3. Justin Stover Says:

    Great article Kevin,
    Too bad the forefathers of blues, folk-rock, rock, etc., aren’t immediately recognized by subsequent generations. Good thing there are bio-pics, biographies and social histories to fill the gaps. Check out this article on Bob Dylan who, when taking a stroll in New Jersey recently, was reported to police as a strange man strolling through the neighbourhood.

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/14/bob.dylan/

    In fairness – the hats, the mustache, the voice – many would probably call the police as well.
    Keep up the good work-

    • Kevin Says:

      I heard the Dylan story earlier this week alright – and laughed and laughed. It might have something to do with the fact that he supposedly mopes around in a shabby hoody, sunglasses and something approaching tracksuit bottoms so as not to be recognised. Would you not call the police?

      And why was he hanging around in New Jersey? Well, Bob being odd (and perhaps having something of a fetishistic historian in him) likes to visit the childhood homes of his favourite musicians. He’s been known to turn up and ring the doorbell at Neil Young’s former home, to take a trip around Liverpool to see where the Beatles lived, he’s even been to Belfast, but on this occasion he was apparently looking for the childhood home of New Jersey’s greatest export – Bruce Springsteen.

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