Monday, December 29, 2008

Simon Reynolds – ‘Bring the Noise’

The last Simon Reynolds book I read, Blissed Out, was a largely impenetrable critique of some of my favourite music. By applying literary theory to Throwing Muses, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine and A. R. Kane (I never did get properly around to A. R. Kane), Reynolds investigated how music affects individuals and cultures, how sound works on people, how it affects their cognition, and how they use it as a palliative to the ills of society: as a way of feeling rebellious, without actually taking any political action. Dry as it was, I’ve never ready anything else like it. By contrast, Bring the Noise is a far more readable account of a whole load of music I have never heard, with a similar individual / culture sweep. Actually, I have heard quite a lot from the first half: this book is a collection of Reynolds’ journalism between 1985 – 2006, and early on he covers Morrissey (making the same Smiths / Throwing Muses connection as in Blissed Out) and some of the same late ’80s / early ’90s bands (Dinosaur Jr, for instance: ‘J: “My turtle... ran away. Very slowly, he ran away.”’ (p. 66)). In amongst chapters on Ragga, Hardcore Rave, Timbaland and Puff Daddy there sit Nirvana, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers. But the rockers get less and less frequent as Reynolds’ ear is drawn to the electronic, and to hip hop. Which is just not me at all, and I found that for the last 200 pages of this 400 page book, I was almost entirely without reference points.

It’s these pages which fascinate, though. It’s so easy, listening to the little pockets of music which carefully / randomly forged paths lead you to over the years, to assume that Pop Is Dead, at least in the ‘popular’ sense. And who cares, if there are still new sounds which leave you dazed in wonder, like the charts once did (1987, I think it was, for me)? To pass the slack time at work over Christmas, someone dug up some pop quizzes – lyrics from the ’80s and ’90s in spreadsheets, where you have to fill in the song title and artist. I was disturbed to find that Michael Bolton still lurked somewhere in my consciousness, and quite pleased to have forgotten which song ‘I live my life for the stars that shine / People say it’s just a waste of time’ comes from. I would probably have got no marks at all for a ’00s spreadsheet. Simon Reynolds, though, never lost sight of the ‘popular’ part of pop, and it is wonderful to read about it again as something that matters, which has a cultural and a populist weight as well as (or instead of) a pretty tune. He can convey so much of the pop experience that it isn’t strictly necessary to know the music to enjoy the writing. Even if it isn’t possible to imagine sounds purely from his descriptions (not accurately, at least), you do get a sense of the scale, intensity and success of the scenes which spawned them. The way US rap bestrides the globe, the way UK rap doesn’t (but strives to). The way grime came together from three or four distinct sources: ‘gabba-gangsta-garage’ (p. 347), he called it, before it got a proper name. The way Jamaican dancehall feeds into it. The lack of content in rap post-Public Enemy. Can that be true? Is it really just self aggrandising and dissing ‘playa haters’ (people who criticise others who have made it big, it says here)? All of it?

But Bring the Noise’s articles are rarely definitive in themselves: polemic in one direction is often matched by an equal and opposite force elsewhere in the book (I don’t have the quote, but Reynolds does praise US rap’s narrative inventiveness somewhere). Spontaneous reaction is more important here than the after-the-fact eulogising of Rip It Up and Start Again (or almost any other rock book). Appraisals after each piece provide a contemporary context, but they also create a context for each other, you can track enthusiasms as they wax and wane, Reynolds never less than immersed in some scene, trend, record, song. His defence of the Arctic Monkeys against kpunk is almost quaint, he invests so much in his own take on whether it is even possible for a rock band to have worth at this point in history. Of course, the piece isn’t just about his own liking for their record, at its core it is also about whether popular music can still be important. I had rather assumed not, but Reynolds makes a convincing case. ‘Against All Odds’, about grime’s ‘make-or-break’ year in 2005, attributes much of the genre’s power to ‘its expansionist drive, its extroversion, its sheer hunger’ (p. 386).

Occasionally, through the scenes and the smoke and the push and pull of black / white / US / UK, a description of a song will appear, and you’ll remember why it was you fell for rock writing in the first place:

On his remixes of St Germain’s ‘Alabama Blues’ and his own tracks like ‘Never Far From You’, New Jersey producer Todd Edwards developed a technique of cross-hatching brief snatches of vocals into a melodic-percussive honeycomb of blissful hiccups, so burstingly rapturous it’s almost painful to the ear. (p. 219)

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