I LOVE pop music.
Always have, always will.
But it isn’t everyday that you find writing about pop music which sums up everything vital about it: not whether it is ‘important’ or ‘ground breaking’ or contains some technically brilliant musicianship or the most beautifully poetic lyrics. Of course, great pop music can contain any or all of these things, but GREAT pop music pays no heed to any of them. Great pop music is about feeling and emotion and memory…and there is no better writer on the subject than Garry Mulholland, and his books ‘Fear of Music’ and ‘This is Uncool’ contain possibly the best writing on the pop music of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.
Because he understands the beauty of art for arts sake and that art can come from anywhere and be anything.
Take this on The Human League’s magisterial ‘Dare’ album:
‘..the League understood that pop exists to make us feel that our lives are worthy, and its best practitioners are capable of transforming the mundane into the magical. Indeed, (Phil, lead singer/songwriter) Oakey’s entire gamble of dumping the band’s muscianly founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh…and replacing them with two girls – the wonderful Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley – who couldn’t play, sing or dance, but were better than all that because they represented the working class pop audience, being glamorous on the cheap, being cheeky and tough and indefatigable, making the best of what they had and deserving to strike gold – the entire gamble was about demystifying showbiz and stating that prole beauty and prole art were actually better than stage-school fools and pampered brats employing battalions of posh stylists to make them appear…better than us. Pop stars are not better than us, No one is better than us.’
Or this on the Human League’s equally wonderful ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love) single:
‘Proof that one note in the right place at the right time can carry enough memories to fill a biography. My attempts at not getting too nostalgic on your ass are floored by the lonesome, repeated, synthetic ‘BEOW’ at the beginning of this record, which instantly reminds me of everything great about being 18, having cash, preparing for a flat of my own, and falling in love truly and utterly on an almost weekly basis with lovely Peterborough girls.’
‘This is Uncool’ (published 2003) concerns itself with ‘The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco’ and runs accordingly from 1976 to 2001, with a summary of each year, a list of ‘also rans’ and then the greatest singles of the year. ‘Fear of Music’ (published 2006) does the same for ‘The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco’, this time from 1976 to 2003. And ‘Greatest’ here refers not to sales or place in the charts, but purely on merit. In terms of singles, Mulholland’s criteria are simple:
- It stands alone from and transcends an artist’s usual work.
- It uses every production gimmickry in the book…to make it more than just a recording of a live performance.
- It must have hooklines, even when they subvert the norm.
- It should, whether it means to or not, say something striking about its chosen theme, even if it’s an instrumental (Music does talk)
- It should want to be a hit, even if it fails. It should, almost without exception, be made for people to listen to, rather than the artist to indulge themselves with.
- It should, when heard for the first time, induce the previously inattentive listener to stop what they are doing and exclaim ‘What the fuck is that?’
- It must speak directly to you.
And like all true pop fans, Mulholland cares not a jot for genre or style or gender, or class, sexuality or race or religion and so these collections of mini essays show just how important pop music is in helping us all transcend any petty barriers. Take, for example his first grnre bustjng five ‘greatest’ singles, from 1976:
- ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – The Sex Pistols
- ‘Car Wash’ – Rose Royce
- ‘Spiral Scratch EP’ – Buzzcocks
- ‘More than a Feeling’ – Boston
- ‘Boogie Nights’ – Heatwave
And so it goes on.
This is a book which dares to put the politics into pop while being unafraid to talk about energy and beauty and sheer, exhuberant joy. It goes from Sex Pistols to Kylie Minogue to Eminem to Dead or Alive to Public Enemy to Womack and Womack to X-ray Spex. He bemoans the relative failure of Pet Shop Boys ‘New York City Boy’ as being down to no one wanting to hear the ‘beefed up Village People march’ saying that ‘discovering you’re gay in your youth is more thrilling than being straight.’, something which he sees as ‘beautiful’.
He finds an ‘absolutely shattering mixture’ of ‘despair, disillusion and dreamy hope’ in Robert Wyatt‘s ‘Shipbuilding‘, while going out of his head for the ‘queer-as-fuck, unselfconscious whirl of joy’ that is Dead or Alive‘s ‘You Spin me Round (Like a Record)
Above all else, Mulholland’s love of music is infectious. Neither you nor I will agree with all of Muholland’s choices, but like all the best writers when he writes about something it makes you either want to hear it (if you are unfamiliar with it) or wonder if you should give it another listen (if you don’t like what is being written about).
I first came across Mulholland’s writing in a column he used to produce for the Guardian, each short review forcing me to track down and listen yo whatever he wrote about. I can think of no finer example of this than ‘Pop a Cap in Yo’ Ass‘ by Ben Watt with Estelle, which Mulholland described as being ‘ancient house realigning with the new, and a white man in his forties discovering a connection with a black girl in her teens. There’s something symbolically hopeful and happy new year about that, even in this saddest of songs.’
Gary Mulholland is the finest writer on pop music ever. If you have ever cared about those records which soundtrack your life, all our lives, these books are indispensible.