Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

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This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

1971: Never a Dull Moment, by David Hepworth

1971--Never-a-Dull-Moment-Rocks-Golden-Year-by-David-HepworthThis book, says its author David Hepworth, started as a column in the late lamented Word magazine, but I don’t remember reading that. I do, however, remember a series of tweets and a Spotify playlist around September 2012 (and a blog entry – remember blogs?).

The central idea is intriguing: that 1971 was the greatest year for the rock album. So the blog entry/column turns into a full-length book, which takes in the bigger cultural picture (decimalisation, Dirty Harry, the price of a pint etc.), and is a good, entertaining read. I don’t do favourites, but I’m pre-disposed to agree with the central thesis; there is much to be said for the idea that the music of the first 25 years of rock, when everything was new and being done for the first time, was a genuine golden age.

The problem is, however, that I don’t really like many of the 1971 albums.

From the list of albums by British artists, for example (Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Meddle,  Madman Across the Water, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin IV), I only ever owned one, plus a couple of tracks from one other. I’ve never much liked Bowie, Rod, Elton, the FLoyd, or Zep. So while the arguments starts off sounding convincing, my honest reaction to a lot of the music is indifference. Hepworth argues that the above list would be the Mercury Prize nominees, had it existed then, and I’ve no doubt he’s correct. But I don’t think I’ve ever liked a Mercury Prize nominee artist, ever.

But I’m an Americanist at heart, so what of the other side of the rock (me on the) water? Blue (Joni Mitchell),  LA Woman (The Doors),  Mud Slide Slim (James Taylor),  If I Could Only Remember My Name (David Crosby),  Songs For Beginners (Graham Nash) and  Tapestry (Carole King), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)… and so on. There really are a lot of records came out that year, but very few of them mean anything to me.

Who’s Next is singled out as the best of the best, with ‘Baba O’Reilly’, it’s opening track, given a special place as the best track on the best album of the best year for rock music. ‘Baba O’Reilly’, with its bring-your-own-meaning lyrics and anthemic synth loop, is certainly a show-stopper. But I still think of The Who as a great singles band with a killer 2-hour live set. I’ve no interest in the album as a whole.

All that aside, it’s a book well worth reading. It leaves me with a puzzle, though: for my particular tastes, just what is the best year for albums? Well, I’ll retreat to my usual answer: I don’t do favourites.

Night Moves – I wonder who’s kissing her now?

Night Moves (album)

David Hepworth blogged some time ago about the album Back in ’72, released in 1973 by Bob Seger, pointing out that he had it on vinyl, and that it had (unusually) never been released on CD. He was wrong, of course: in this wild west age, it is available on CD (apparently, this is an Argentinian release), but how official that availability is is unclear.

Seger is one of the famous iTunes holdouts, who lasted longer than many when it came to making his music available to download. Even now, you can only buy one compilation and two live albums through iTunes. If you want to get hold of, say, Night Moves, you’re going to have to buy it on CD – or use YouTube, a downloader, and your own cheekiness to assemble the album yourself. Not that I would ever do such a thing. *cough* I quite admire Seger’s stand. Obviously, it’s no skin off his nose, given the meagre source of income that iTunes downloads would be in comparison to his concert tours and income from computer games.

So I bought the iTunes comp. I don’t know why. I think John Scalzi tweeted something about “Night Moves” and it made me think, I’d never even sampled Bob Seger, having dismissed him early on as a low-rent Springsteen copyist. I was wrong about that, of course. Back in ’72 pre-dates Springsteen’s first album (give or take a Steel Mill bootleg), and while Night Moves was clearly inspired by Springsteen, it’s different. And Seger’s voice is straight out of Detroit.

I don’t get many people listening to my jams on This is My Jam – you can count the plays on the fingers of one hand – one Simpsons hand, much of the time – so for anything to get more than 5 plays is remarkable. As of this writing, the song “Night Moves” has had 9 plays, two comments (I never get comments) and six likes. Now, I’ve put some pretty fucking ace classic tracks onto my Jam page over the months, so what is it about “Night Moves” that makes it so different? I imagine that if I was someone with social skills and some kind of profile the play count would go through the roof.

The song seems to work on a couple of levels, partly aided by its own structure. The lyrics are a bit awkward, too. I think sometimes people cleave to an awkward lyric more than they would a perfect one. The chord sequence is very straightforward, meaning that any idiot could play it. And in some sense, like a Dylan number, it does’t feel quite finished: it’s a work in progress. The song begins in 1962, and with one meaning of the title phrase. By the end, it’s shifted to looking back at 1962 from 14 years later, with a new meaning for the title phrase. The third layer of nostalgia comes from the fact that the track is from 1976, and not only do they not make ’em like that any more, they can’t. The song itself is a musical version of the movie American Graffiti which came out in 1973, with the same sense of nostalgia for a decade or so before.

From this perspective, it seems slightly ridiculous that there was so much nostalgia in the mid-1970s for just a decade earlier. It’s as if we, here in 2013, were getting all misty-eyed about 2002. 1962 is that year before everything changed forever. In some ways, things changed for the better (the end of deference, the fucking Beatles), and in some ways a simpler (more sexist, more racist, less colourful and nuanced) way of life that had something to recommend it was gone forever. qv. Pleasantville for more on that theme.

1962 was the year I was born.

1976, 37 years ago, stands at the the cusp of the change in recording technique, from the three-mics-on-the-drumkit to the mic-on-every-drum technique that came in around the time of Who Are You and Damn the Torpedoes. More than that, of course, it sits at that awkward historical place, what you might call “classic rock” just before punk came to burn it all down. Just as Bruce Springsteen seemed old fashioned in 1978, Bob Seger was beginning to be old news. People looking back at that era now, people my age who might have been looking the other way at the time, find something in “Night Moves” that fills a hole.

’76 was 14 years on from ’62, and I think this is what Scalzi was tweeting about. 14 years on from 1976 was 1990. “Night Moves” comes from longer ago now than “Heartbreak Hotel” was distant in 1976.  And the fact is, it wasn’t that big of a hit to start with. #45 on the UK singles chart? #4 on the Billboard Hot 100? To us, now, “Night Moves” stands in the same historical position as Glen Miller‘s “Moonlight Serenade”, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Judy fucking Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” did to it.

Perhaps the hit song that most closely resembles “Night Moves” from 1939 is “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” by (it says here) Ted Weems and his orchestra with Perry Como.

And in 1939, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” was itself a 30-year-old song, a nostalgia fest in its own right:

I wonder who’s kissing her now

I wonder who’s showing her how

I wonder who’s looking into her eyes

Breathing sighs, telling lies;

I wonder who’s buying the wine,

For lips that I used to call mine.

I wonder if she ever tells him of me,

I wonder who’s kissing her now.