Whatever | August 2010

Whatever | Guilty pleasures
They’re songs and books. What’s to feel guilty about?

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In May 1933, when the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund decided to collectively haul themselves out of bed before the Third Reich equivalent of Loose Women and organise a nationwide purge of “un-German” literature at universities across Germany, more than 25,000 titles were burned on bonfires which must have smelt powerfully musty. Around that time and under that particular regime in that particular swathe of Europe, if you chose to leaf through a play by Bertolt Brecht in the park, or a novel by Thomas Mann on the tram, or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front just about anywhere, you were by definition experiencing the illicit thrill of a guilty pleasure.

Similarly, your enjoyment in the old Soviet Union of The Gulag Archipelago, Doctor Zhivago or Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been laced with that bracing buzz of the forbidden, as each might have earned you the bracing buzz of a KGB show trial. In 2008, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence banned the military from reading an armful of “seditious” books, including that well-thumbed squaddies’ standby Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and The Secret History of Capitalism by Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang.

Even today, owning a copy of Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard in the new Russia carries a 3,000 rouble fine and a jail term of up to 15 days. (Most of the arch-Thetan’s canon was banned under a recent law, for “undermining the traditional spiritual values of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”) It remains illegal to read The Diary Of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List in Lebanon, all de-listed by the Sûreté General for portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism “favourably”. And The Da Vinci Code is conspicuous by its absence on the streets of Beirut, too, thanks to lobbying by Lebanon’s Catholic Information Center, who officially have nothing better to do.

Bear all of this in mind when you consider that in May 2010, the Guardian newspaper asked various browsers on a knoll at the Hay Literary Festival to reveal their “literary guilty pleasure”. Their willing responses included Marian Keyes, David Nicholls, Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett, “heavy metal biographies”, and The Kite Runner.

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Why should anyone literate enough to attend a Guardian-sponsored book fair in a country that even Mark Thomas would be hard pushed to call a totalitarian state, feel guilty about reading Zadie Smith, or Marian Keyes, or a heavy metal biography? These answers, like the spurious questionnaire standby itself, may be lightly thrown but they reveal weightier truths about our national neurosis: we are rendered daft by keeping up appearances like a bunch of insecure teenagers. Though we have little to fear from secret police or religious junta, we merrily and self-mockingly go along with the flimsy pretext that some books, films and TV shows can be consumed without guilt, while others must be enjoyed behind locked doors. Such as, apparently, the Celebrity Come Dine With Me of literature, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Hey, people might think you’re reading a book about kites, rather than the rise of the Taliban in the power vacuum after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Incidentally, the popular film was banned in Afghanistan, making the DVD a cinematic guilty pleasure in Kabul.

In 2007, commissioned by the Costa Book Awards, a YouGov poll declared Stephen King “the UK’s favourite literary guilty pleasure.” UK readers also “freely admitted” to feeling a bit self-conscious about whipping out a Rowling, a Grisham or a Pratchett without first slipping it between the covers of a decoy copy of Fiesta or Knave. Expert comment on the coffee chain’s press release came from a contributing editor of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate To Love, published in hardback in 2006 and described by the Times Literary Supplement as “something of a guilty pleasure.” Its very opportunistic existence flagged up the phrase’s sudden marketability.

That this sado-masochistic concept should still linger in the popular imagination and across so many artforms is, I’m afraid, rock music’s fault, where lines are forever being drawn and redrawn in the dunes of credibility. It was enterprising London DJ Sean Rowley who first trademarked Guilty Pleasures™, which now covers an entire cheeky empire of club nights, compilation albums, SingStar tie-ins, a Fearne Cotton-fronted ITV1 karaoke show, and a mobile disco available for hire at festival tent, arena warm-up, corporate jolly and private function. Rowley was astute in locating the fecund no-man’s land between cool and uncool a few years back and bagging the salvage rights.

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I don’t wish to poop the party: the pics on the Guilty Pleasures website suggest a sizable slice of ongoing camp, works-outing fun in nightclubs up and down the land – verily, it is the new School Disco. But in taking the notion so irretrievably overground, gurning wig-outs of allegiance to ELO or Journey or Japanese Boy obviate any need for guilt. We live in a world of pop pluralism and Glee glasnost, where nostalgia packages and tribute bands make everything alright and, for anyone over 30, the last vestiges of embarrassment have been cast aside like a pair of crutches at Lourdes. Now is not the time to transfer our guilt to books.

Among the Guilty Pleasures website’s “celebrity confessionals”, Russell Brand cleverly eschews the obligatory Toto or Wham and plumps for Gary Glitter. “I feel a bit guilty about this,” he declares. “What with him being a convicted paedophile.”

In the same spirit of literalism, three cheers too for Alex, 70, retired, from mid-Wales, the sole Guardian respondent at Hay to break ranks and say, “I don’t feel guilty about reading anything.” Nor should you. Now, where’s my copy of Mein Kampf? I need something to wrap around The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures on the bus.

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It is a fool’s errand to enshrine a list of your favourite anything-of-all-time to print. And yet, I am having an intermittent whale of a time cataloguing, illustrating and annotating The 143, that is, my Top 143 songs of all time, in no qualitative order, based on the playlist I built for myself earlier this year and which grew to 143 by itself, at which point I stopped. The only rule was that no artist was allowed more than one entry. (Solo artists and the bands they came from, or joined, were allowed one each.) I started a separate blog to give it a bit of clout. And a Twitter account, @CirclesThe143 (based on the subheading Circles Of Life), which is currently being followed by a sweetly tiny 338 people.

It’s niche fun.

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Today, I added my 41st entry, Groovy Times by The Clash, a choice which I think illuminates the system. I could have chosen about 25 Clash songs to embody the six-year output of their “classic” lineup, most of them family favourites, but in the end, after much deliberation, I plumped for the third track on an EP, which captivated me when I first heard it in 1979 and captivates me still. I’m not being deliberately obscure. I chose Mr Blue Sky by ELO and Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manics. These choices are hard won on each occasion, as permanence is only bestowed by the click of the “Publish” button, at which point an entry enters the statute books. The full 143 is amorphous; I tinker with it all the time. Echo & The Bunnymen, for instance, have been flying around from pillar to post, and as I type, Killing Moon is their flagship. This may change before I commit it to blog. I’m finding it hard to dislodge the track Buck Tha Devil by the virutally unknown, Ice Cube-mentored rap group Da Lench Mob from The 143, but all the while I wonder if it really can take its place alongside Wild Horses and Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)? Time will tell.

A nice man on Twitter asked if this will ever become a book. I’d like that, but I am realistic after the poor sales of my last two books. Who would pay money for the 143 favourite songs of a man? That said, I slave over the entries for way longer than I should, sculpting my thoughts and working in anecdotes; this is, after all, unpaid writing. I’m doing it because I want to do it. (This explains why I have entered very few entries recently – I’ve been hard at work, with no spare time. A good and a bad thing.)

What I’m finding interesting – and I hope the handful of you who follow the blog do too – is the very personal nature of each choice. Many are connected to a formative memory. But nostalgia alone will not get you past the gates. I loved 4 Hours by Clock DVA the moment I heard it under the bedspread on John Peel in 1981 and I love it today. I play the 143 playlist directly into my head from my ancient iPod constantly. Having almost logged a third of the tracks in the blog, I feel closer to those, and at the same time desperate to describe the remaining little beauties. I’m listening to Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow right now. I must enter that soon. Oops, just given one away. What fun!

Why do we feel the need to quantify, order, list and catalogue? By which I mean we men. I wouldn’t insult women by endowing them with a deeper emotional response to the things they love than to sort them out and place in order, but it does seem anecdotally to be a male deficiency. Our love for songs is no less profound, it just needs putting in a labelled tin before we can sleep at night. (I’m all for a debate about this – all rules are proven by exception.)

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While some artists demand to be included – Dylan, Bowie, The Fall, the Wu Tang Clan – I’ve yet to find a chair for the Beatles. There’s time. But with George Harrison already enrolled (The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp), and both The Plastic Ono Band and Wings in the wings, it may be that The 143 has no need of the Fabs. You mustn’t force these things. If All About Eve by Marxman makes it in, and Paperback Writer doesn’t, so be it. It’s not definitive. It’s not concrete. It’s not right, or wrong. It’s mine. All I know is that no song in this eventual list will ever fail to light up my life when I hear it.

More enterprising folk than I have been following The 143 and turning it into a Spotify playlist. If you are one of these folk, please throw your links at me. In the meantime, I’m off to start writing an entry about the Psychedelic Furs album track Fall.

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I am a free man!

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Having struck a chord with what turned out to be one of my most-read blog entries in June, Keeping up appearance fees, in which I railed against a mission creep within the media whereby contributors are expected to contribute their expertise for free, it may seem counterintuitive to have launched a second blog.

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Let me explain. Blogging has always been free. I started this one in 2006 because, after a number of years broadcasting every weekday on 6 Music I’d moved to weekends, and found the daily blog I started on the station’s website a fun way of staying in touch with the listeners during the week. I moved over to Blogger in order to a) relieve me of the workload pressure of writing every day, and b) relieve me of the editorial pressure of doing so on a BBC website. I’ve been tapping out my thoughts ever since.

A childhood diarist, I used to use the blog as a place to post bulletins from my ordinary everyday life. But this solipsistic approach has hardened into something a little more formal, and a little less revealing since 2007. I can’t imagine how I can have become more busy since the punishing days when I was a DJ, author and scriptwriter in the late noughties, but I find myself going for a whole week sometimes without blogging now. If it weren’t for my weekly alert for Telly Addict, which takes five minutes to write, the gaps would be longer. But when something’s on my mind, it’s a unique outlet, with a surprisingly large available audience, thanks to Twitter.

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The new blog, Circles Of Life: The 143, came to me in early July, when I felt an urge not just to catalogue the best 143 songs of all time, but to write a short, personal essay about each one, and do so in an aesthetically pleasing manner and gradually. So it came to pass.

Because these entries about individual songs are by their nature fairly brief, I feel I can snack on them, publishing them as and when I have the spare time in an otherwise busy day. So far, I’ve published 13. Only 130 to go. I quite like not knowing how long it will take, and I love the freedom to mould the list as I commit it to the public domain. (It’s based on an actual playlist I made for my iPod earlier this year, and only one song is permitted per artist; I’ve already added, dropped, altered and replaced quite a few as I’ve catalogued them in The 143. It is the compiler’s right to do so.)

Anyway, have a look if music is one of your lifelong passions. Compared to the numbers under the bonnet on this blog, the following is modest, and not all that vocal. But a “soft launch” was my aim, and a soft launch it has been.

It was very kind of the esteemed David Hepworth to blog and Tweet about it earlier today. Numbers have risen as a result. So I’m officially “hard-launching” it here. What I wanted to say was: yes, I’m writing prose for free. I’m not trying to get a book deal, or even an eBook deal. I’m not trying to get a job. But rather than wait around for a publication to pay me to write about music, I’m doing it anyway. For fun. Barney Hoskyns’ campaign to withhold freelance labour from those who would exploit us is something I’m right behind. But since nobody asked me to write about my 143 favourite songs, I don’t feel I am exploiting myself in doing this.

I’ve spent much of my professional life writing about music; for around seven years, I did this while on the staff of three consecutive music publications, thereafter in a freelance, per-word capacity. But when Word calamitously went down a year ago, I lost my main outlet for paid music writing. (The Times dallied with me for a while, but lost interest – hey, commissioning editors change jobs, you fall in and out of favour, it’s a cruel world.)

I’ve grown quickly fond of The 143 blog. I like the “theme” I’ve chosen from WordPress. I’m quietly proud of the 999-based montage I made on my scanner and with very basic “effects” software. And I hope you enjoy reading my free essays. There’s nothing to you can do recompense me for them. That’s not the idea. But if you enjoy them and have something to say, post a few words, follow the blog, and that will be payment enough. It’s all about the music in any case.

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Twenty Twelve: Music

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I cannot lie. I am out well of touch with modern popular music. I watched the Christmas Top of The Pops on Christmas Day and found much of it either underwhelming or actually irritating. Of the artists who’d evidently had hits this year, I obviously recognised the big-name artists – Coldplay, Florence, Robbie Williams, Girls Aloud – and I’d seen Emeli Sandé on the Olympics, plus I did well with the middle-aged musicians on the Christmas number one for the Hillsborough families, but a lot of the newer artists were just seemingly interchangeable young men and women singing in the same, Autotuned, post-X-Factor style.

I speak as a middle-aged man. I don’t lose sleep over my disconnect with what’s in the charts. Since Top Of The Pops was taken off-air, I’ve had no connection with the charts anyway – I assume Rihanna is having a hit at any given time, but have little idea of who’s placing where in the Top 40. (I could recite the Top 30 from any week in 1977 of course, thanks to the endangered TOTP re-runs, but that speaks volumes.) As such, having worked up a very good Top 11 albums, and a healthy list of 17 tracks I loved this year, I find that I seem to exist in a parallel universe.

There are one or two big names – Lana Del Ray, Dexys, The Wonder Stuff – but most of the artists below I’ve discovered through being sent their records by the pluggers who service 6 Music and kindly keep me on their lists, even though I don’t have a regular show. So thanks to those dedicated individuals really. Hip hop has passed me by this year, not least because so much of it has been swallowed up by R&B, which I cannot connect with in any meaningful way. (I tried the much-admired Frank Ocean album: nothing.) I’m certain I’ve missed a number of albums that I might love, but that’s the case every December when I compile these lists.

These are very pure inventories, in that they are not influenced by fashion, or success, or even backstory (with many of the bands I don’t even know where they come from or what they look like). This really is just music I have listened to a lot this year. I have supplied label names with the LPs, but not the tracks, as names of labels don’t really have much bearing on downloads, right? It’s interesting, and organic, that three out of my Top 11 albums are on Fat Cat. Well done, Fat Cat!

ALBUMS 2012

1 LANA DEL RAY Born To Die | Interscope
2 THE TWILIGHT SAD No One Can Ever Know | Fat Cat
3 PETE WILLIAMS See |Basehart
4 BRETON Other People’s Problems | Fat Cat
5 MILK MAID Mostly No | Fat Cat
6 THE HEARTBREAKS Funtimes | Banquet
7 JACK ADAPTOR I Saw A Ghost | Supple Pipe
8 RUSTY BEAR Source To The Sea |Mollusc
9 ADMIRAL FALLOW Tree Bursts In Snow | Nettwerk
10 DEXYS One Day I’m Going To Soar | BMG
11 BALTIC FLEET Towers | Blow Up

TRACKS 2012

THE WONDER STUFF Far, Far Away
THIS MANY BOYFRIENDS Tina Weymouth (from album This Many Boyfriends)
FLATS Country
THE WINTER OLYMPICS I Prefer The Early Stuff
SHIMMERING STARS Into The Sea (this may well have come out in 2011, but I listened to it a lot this year)
A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS Onwards To The Wall (Onwards To The Wall EP)
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD Sweater Weather
MEURSAULT Dull Spark
FUNERAL SUITS All Those Friendly People
FOXES Youth
FOREST FIRE Future Shadows
ESCAPISTS Burial (Burial EP)
CITIZENS! Reptile
CEREMONY Hysteria
LITTLE BOOTS Every Night I Say A Prayer
KIMBRA Warrior
RACE HORSES My Year Abroad
BINARY Prisoner (I know for a fact that this came out in November 2011, but I didn’t hear it until this year, and I’m still listening to it now – I have literally no idea who Binary are!)

Naturally, if you want to recommend something – especially hip hop – I’m all ears. Here’s to 6 Music giving me some more work in 2013 so my drip to modern music isn’t completely cut off. (I so miss my old 6 Music show with Josie Long. I think after a full year of not being asked back, we must always think of it in the past tense.)