Pt. 2: Growing up in the Back Seat

I’m not sure why I remember my youth so vividly as one long journey in the back seat of my parents’ car. We did our fair amount of driving. I grew up near Belfast and both sides of the extended family were based in the far southwest of the country. Six to eight hour drives down to Limerick and Cork were a regular feature of my childhood, mammoth journeys by Irish standards. There were other driving trips as well: I remember my mother and father sitting in the front seats by dark windows as the car hurtled through the Ulster countryside with the promise of ice cream to come. I remember the family car driving into Carrickfergus and Belfast. We didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the car by most standards, but I loved sitting in the back looking out the window and I remember it vividly now. It’s also the first place I remember being actively aware of popular music.
My memory betrays me now of course, and it’s hard to know if my father was as enamored with the motley collection of Americana classics that come to mind when I try to think back to that back seat now. The names and songs that persist for me are all big ones, in our household anyway: Don McLean, Don Williams, America, Glen Campbell, Gilbert O’Sullivan, James Taylor. This is only a selection of the rotation in the car but these are the names I remember, a mix of country and 1970s Americana with a slightly odd but talented Irish pop singer thrown in.

The Irishman cuts a particularly weird figure in my memory. Now, thanks to YouTube and other online searches, I have a clearer picture of his persona. O’Sullivan, originally at least, modeled himself in street urchin chic, belting away at his piano on “Top of the Pops.”[ref]The cancellation of “Top of the Pops”, the classic television show rendered obsolete in recent years, made me extremely sad despite the fact that I no longer watched it, had no intention of watching it and spent most of my teenage years complaining about it.[/ref] He was unapologetically “pop” in the way that nobody really talks about anymore. At some point, largely due to people like me, talking about yourself as a pop act or pop musician became incredibly lacking in hipness unless you intentionally drove the concept beyond any concept of reality and deep into the throes of carefully curated irony. Not so in the 1970s, when O’Sullivan’s flat cap and the curly mop of hair it contained sat in front of a piano and belted out song after song. O’Sullivan, for all his music’s flaws, knew how to write a song.

He was also an interesting songwriter in a manner that one would not at first appreciate upon seeing him and hearing his music. “Alone Again, Naturally” a huge hit for him in 1972, talked of a jilted lover considering suicide with the backdrop of an upbeat piano melody and wandering vocals. By far his most interesting song came in the form of an expression of social guilt: “Nothing Rhymed” (1970) sketched out O’Sullivan’s anxiety at the alienating experience of eating his dinner in front of the evening news’ coverage of famine in Africa.

“When I’m drinking my Bonaparte Shandy
Eating more than enough apple pies
Will I glance at my screen and see real human beings
Starve to death right in front of my eyes?”

“Nothing Rhymed” engaged with questions on the nature of morality in a world divided by wealth with people in O’Sullivan’s position enjoying the increasingly impressive creature comforts of the post-war recovery while others in Africa struggled to acquire enough food to keep themselves and their children alive. Again, O’Sullivan relied on his piano and distinctly pop-friendly vocals, though the song’s refrain with its build in tempo and circuitous lyrics is more a recurring bridge than refrain. “Nothing Rhymed” is the kind of song that advocates would argue today needs to be considered as something outside of simple “pop music” but that is not what O’Sullivan would want. It’s not what my parents wanted. I grew up on a diet of 1970s pop and an ethos of pop most clearly represented by O’Sullivan’s work. It’s funny; this connection with supposed absolutes such as “good” songwriting and lyrical integrity if anything fuelled my hatred of mainstream pop in years to come, a phenomenon that combined with the music industry’s chilling efficiency in controlling the medium has brought pop music to a different place in 2013.

O’Sullivan came to be, in my young mind, the personification of 1970s pop. As revealed by the list above however, I grew up in a household with musical tastes heavily influenced by Americana. Don McLean was central to this influence. “American Pie” (1972) is a very odd song indeed, one of those classics with which everybody of a certain age (and varying ages spanning generations) is familiar. Like “Hotel California” (1977), the song is seemingly written for drunken karaoke nights and groups of diverse ages and backgrounds. Everybody seems to know the lyrics and everybody seems able to commit to a shared experience as the song plays, masking the diverse experiences each of us have with the song.

My parents were of the same generation as the famous “Baby Boomers” of the United States, though such a demographic moniker has no meaning in an Irish context. Thanks to traditions of poverty, Catholicism and social interaction that generated a predilection among most Irish people towards large families, one could argue that Ireland’s “boom” lasted from the end of World War II until the beginning of the 1980s, though it is perhaps more accurate to point out that the 1980s saw the first decline in birth rates below a fairly solid standard (of about 19–20 births per thousand) for the first time in a century. My parents, then, were of a certain Irish generation: the first generation to have children in fewer numbers. Three, in my family’s case. This represented a specific place in Irish cultural and economic development; my parents were the first post-war generation, though that meant very little in the context of Irish neutrality. My generation, the generation of the 1980s, grew up in a social context defined by sectarian conflict, the appropriation of nationalist history by terrorists and the deathly slow deterioration of the Catholic Church’s role in defining public morality and political agenda. We also came of age during the heady days of the “Celtic Tiger,” when many Irish convinced themselves we had finally banished poverty.

That was still years in the future as I sat in the back of my parents’ car listening to “American Pie.” In the early 1980s Ireland’s place in the world seemed defined by the Irish relationship with the British and the ever-spreading diaspora throughout the globe. Thus, America existed in my young mind in two contexts: first, as a destination for Irish people abroad, home to members of my extended family and base camp for the inevitable Irish cultural domination of the planet; secondly, as an abstract concept that generated film and music. Films like BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) presented California as a mythical land of milk and honey, the veritable Tir na nOg of my favorite faery tales. In this context, “American Pie” represented a missive from afar. I didn’t know what a levy was as a young boy, let alone the considerably more abstract and confusing “Chevy.” I certainly didn’t know much about the plane crash that inspired the song in the first place.

I’ve never appreciated “American Pie” beyond the abstract, to be truthful. The song introduced me to some key concepts in popular music, though: lengthy, thoughtful lyrics. Storytelling in song. A catchy chorus. The sense, however illusory to an eight year old with little to no concept of The Big Bopper’s importance in modern pop music, of something meaningful beyond the song itself. Among other things, the song seemed to inspire impromptu sing-alongs without being cheapened by the process. “American Pie” is a true classic in the sense that it is remarkably difficult to undermine.[ref]Though Madonna did her best. Listening to her cover today, it is truly wondrous that anyone defended it. I often wonder how many critics actually turn off the television and listen to the music today. The music video has completely translated our consumption of the medium to something else, with positives and negatives.[/ref]

I often wonder at the preponderant influence of Americana in the music of my youth. It doesn’t seem a stretch that my taste for American rock music in my teens could be tied back to those journeys in the car, but what of my contemporaries? Surely I wasn’t the only one? Perhaps my childhood was exceptional and my friends were raised listening to the traditional music that I would encounter mostly at a slightly older age or the 1970s British pop that I know my parents liked but that I have no memory of hearing as a child. I don’t have any personal connection with the Bay City Rollers, and I know my parents liked Dexy’s Midnight Runners but it didn’t leave an impression. It’s a little odd that when I think back to my very first memories of music I think of American sources.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that my parents, and my father in particular, had a fondness for American music. Maybe my memory doesn’t betray me after all, and my parents really did think that much of Glen Campbell. It’s hard to know I suppose, but then this is what drives my curiosity about the genesis of musical taste: how dependent are we on what our parents choose anyway? I didn’t grow up to be a fan of country music, though I did grow up to become a huge fan of American music more generally. Perhaps my occasional weakness for soft-spoken ballads stems from formative years spent listening to plaintive country (and country-influenced) songs. Maybe I’m just a big softie and I was always going to like these songs regardless. Maybe I was born with specific aesthetic sympathies hard-wired in.[ref]It’s a weird idea, thinking about “nature vs. nurture” in the context of personal taste… I’m inclined to argue against any debate for natural tendencies because I lean against such debate generally, and to be fair, I don’t see much argument in favour of the idea. Still, it would be interesting if I could defend my love of Columbo with a fully socially acceptable exclamation that “I am who I am!” I suppose it works anyway.[/ref]

There was a lot of traditional Irish music, too, though that deserves its own treatment really. Funnily enough, I associate falling in love with Irish music with our family’s time in the Philippines though I know that it was a part of our lives before that and not just a product of homesickness. There was broader, more recent pop music as the 1980s took modern society in its grip and began to squeeze. There was always an interesting divide between the family’s communion around the television on Thursdays for “Top of the Pops” and the music played in the car, or at least there is in my memory. The television threw all the neon, lip-syncing and other odd accoutrements of 1980s entertainment production out at us, but only a select few made it into the car. Nik Kershaw, I remember distinctly, made the cut; my father often qualified, or rather certified, his musical choices via an evaluation of their songwriting integrity. This basic characteristic tied “The Riddle” to “American Pie” and has informed my own experiences with popular music ever since, though the inherent issues of linking the two didn’t occur to me for quite a long time.

Of course, trying to tie Nik Kershaw’s work to Don McLean’s would wear a little thin. I have no doubt it could be done. That’s the beauty of intellectual endeavour. I don’t see myself making much of a case here. Besides, Kershaw fell into a category all of his own in my own personal musicology, though I didn’t know it yet, alongside Joe Jackson and other pop songwriters of the early 1980s. At first he seemed like another addition to the car’s playlist.

I wish I could say that this early experience built a certain propensity towards eclecticism in my musical tastes… I suppose, to be fair, it did; it’s just that it’s more a case of faux-eclecticism, varying tastes within well defined and narrow parameters. There was no jazz in the car, virtually no blues… The Beatles made appearances but The Rolling Stones did not. No Dylan, nor either was there much evidence of the 1970s rock that I know now my father liked, though his tastes skewed populist into that odd arena of British 1970s pop-rock were Slade held sway somewhere to the left (or right) of the wonderfully Dickensian-monikered Uriah Heep.[ref]I’m not mocking Slade here, or Uriah Heep, not by a long shot; it’s just that my father has never hinted at any interest in getting the led out. This might be why I don’t like Led Zeppelin, but that’s a tale for another time.[/ref] I’m personally much more intrigued by the work of Ritchie Blackmore and his contemporary master guitarists, though those discoveries came later… By the early to mid 1980s at least my parents’ musical tastes had moved on. There was certainly no punk, though that’s for the best I think. I’m not sure discovering punk music as a child being driven around in the car by your mum and dad is the best introduction to the genre.

No, country music ballads and popular music leviathans are much more suited to that arena. Still, I can’t just discard these influences. Surely I have to take them as a starting point? To this day, I interact with popular music using a specific, distinct vocabulary. That vocabulary is not always informed or necessarily as high-minded as I perhaps would prefer it to be, but it is the vocabulary into which I fit my interpretations of music encountered for the first time. Song-writing, tone (thematic, not musical), sincerity, authenticity, emotion… these are all categories-cum-standards into which I fit the music to which I listen. Sometimes the fit is snug and sometimes loose; often I’ll shoehorn it in, choosing to ignore one or more of the categories. This vocabulary wasn’t fully formed by the time I turned ten years old of course. It continues to evolve and has inspired these posts. It must have a genesis however, and as far as I can tell that genesis is found in the back of a family sedan travelling through the Irish countryside at night. There are worse places to encounter popular music for the first time.

Towards a Personal Musicology, Pt. 1

A close friend and I often joke that our taste in music crystallized in 2003. I suppose one could argue that ossification first set in around then; as much as we supposedly have our tongues in cheek, the truth is that I haven’t made a huge amount of effort to discover new music in the last decade. Not that I don’t, of course; it’s just that I don’t make finding new music a priority. 

Part of the problem is the simple fact that I don’t listen to as much music as I used to. I listen to news programming an awful lot more than I did twenty years ago and I have a regular rotation of podcasts to get through week to week. Such programming takes up all of my listening time: a fairly sizeable commute to work and periods of physical exercise.

I rarely listen to music at other times, at least not actively. I don’t pay particularly close attention to music playing in bars or restaurants when I’m out and about, typically because I don’t like the music enough to become particularly curious. There’s nothing new there. Where my appreciation of music was once driven by a need for discovery, it’s now driven by a nostalgic tendency to celebrate the familiar and, often, to denigrate the unfamiliar. This seems reasonable to me… I mean, there hasn’t been any good music produced since 2003.

For a long time I’ve accepted this state of affairs, though I’ve refused to condemn my love of music to my teenage past.  I don’t believe music is a product for the young, as much as those who control the music industry may believe this to be so. Beyond that however, I don’t think about the medium as much as I used to and I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I feel that I’ve lost much of my authority to speak about popular music in any kind of critical way.

Now, that’s pushing things, just a little. When I consumed music in great amounts, particularly throughout my teenage years, my critiques of popular music forms I didn’t like where not necessarily of a notably high intellectual level. In fact, I mostly consumed popular music through a mechanic dominated by my own ideological perceptions and an emotional appreciation of the form. In that sense, I didn’t have much authority in the first place. Of course, we’re getting into sticky territory here, especially when talking about a popular cultural form. Do I really have to have a solid background in music theory to point out I think that the majority of popular music produced today is garbage? Surely the clear disposability of the medium lends itself to such criticism.

There’s also an additional level here that makes me a little uncomfortable, specifically the idea that my distaste for current popular music is driven as much by a growing generational gap as by anything else. My immediate riposte to that would be that I used to be considerably harder to please; if anything, my taste in music is considerably more populist now than it once was. You’ll notice however, that I am completely failing to get away from a personal understanding of music. This calls the notion of being critical into question, really. When I complain about the contrived shallowness of contemporary pop, I am not necessarily criticizing the form in the context of what has come before but am rather reacting negatively to what I see as an unopposed victory for commercial interest in a supposedly creative process. This is the constant. This is what drives me crazy. That opposition to commercialism in music, or at least the commercialism run rampant that has utterly corrupted the popular music scene and rendered plagiarism a virtue assuming you have the connections, derives from a personal interpretation of popular music’s function and importance more than a clinical interpretation of the form’s relevance in modern society.

This brings me to the concept of a personal musicology. Increasingly, I find myself wanting to engage with popular music once more and to write about it critically. I have little interest in acquiring a particularly substantial understanding of present-day popular music however and I lack the tools (particularly in the field of music theory) to analyze popular music in a manner that I would find satisfactory. Instead, I’d like to think about my own reactions to popular music and the evolution of the thought processes that feed those reactions: a musicology not of the self but of my self. This is of course pushing the limits of propriety regarding personal vanity just a little bit, but hey: this is the Internet and it’s the twenty-first century.

Having said that, there’s no merit to writing glorified diary entries and posting them to the Internet, though I’m not sure that’s possible anyway. I can’t simply recreate the reactions of my twelve-year-old self to hearing Radiohead for the first time or of my sixteen-year-old self discovering The Velvet Underground. It’s just as well, though. The truth is that writing essays based on how I view those discoveries now should be far more interesting. That’s the goal of this little series that I’m starting today: to go back to the start and make the journey back to the present anew, asking questions all the way. As I’ve already written here, I understand my appreciation of music to be driven mostly by ideological factors, but I’m looking forward to remembering the passion of my teenage years in particular with the context of my 20s already behind me. My personal musicology is not over, as much as I might believe that 2003 marked the end of my active participation in popular music as a medium. It continues to evolve. As an historian, surely I should study my past to understand my present? I hope you join me and I hope you find the journey interesting.