Pop goes history

The Guardian


After 20 pages, I was convinced that ‘Words and Music’ was the best book about pop I had ever read. After 280 pages, I was at least convinced that it was the weirdest book about pop I had ever read. But that too is a kind of recommendation. Most books about pop are simply products of glossy merchandising, or obsessive-compulsive histories of studio minutiae for prog rock or gangsta rap aficionados. Paul Morley, swiftly dismisses such nonsense with a brilliantly compressed aside about “programmers, who are, after all, an emotional bunch”: he adores the music of Kraftwerk as much as that of Lou Reed, so that his history of pop is extraordinarily generous and eclectic.

It begins as it means to go on, with a yoking together by violence of two heterogeneous things, which he claims are his current favourite pieces of music ever. One piece is Alvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’, a piece of 1960s experimentalism featuring spoken-word tape-loops: this confirms the author’s intellectual status (as he disarmingly confesses: “I fancy myself for liking it”), and foreshadows one story the book tells of how pop music grows directly out of the experimental side of classical music, from Erik Satie to Steve Reich. The other piece of music is Kylie’s hit ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, and anyone who feels unable to acknowledge this song’s genius had better look away now, because Morley’s project is in part about stripping away the Nietzschean ressentiment that lurks in the dank indie (independent) bedroom and celebrating those rare moments when art can intersect beautifully with commerce; when, as he puts it, we can recognise pop’s “occasional odd shine of mind-changing art”.

As a practitioner as well as a critic of pop music (he was a member of Art of Noise), Morley has decided that the only way to write about his subject is to attempt to make his prose as strange and sensual as the music itself. So, naturally, the book’s main structural conceit concerns a robot Kylie driving in a fast car towards a virtual city, which is of course the city of pop. Tattooed at the nape of this cyber-Kylie’s neck is a microscopic prehistory of music. The author himself tries to persuade Kylie that he is qualified to ghostwrite her autobiography. And throughout the book various other characters appear in the passenger seat next to cyber-Kylie in order to conduct bizarre conversations with her: from Philip Glass to Ludwig Wittgenstein (at which point, of course, a unicorn appears in the back seat), Iggy Pop and Japanese noise terrorist Masami Akita.

Kylie’s story is told in a language of acid-fuelled science-fiction euphoria. “She has her flesh-covered hand on the stupendously suggestive gear stick of her golden speedmobile as it slices through the landscape of a robot’s imagination towards a city where she is queen,” Morley assures us. Alternatively: “Somewhere in some universe down some wormhole on the edge of some supernova, Tangerine Dream were a time-travelling science-fiction boy band, and Kylie, as a coltish, bare-cheeked Barbarella, guested on their biggest hit, a song that went on for centuries and whose lyrics consisted simply of the sounds ‘la la la la la la la la’.” Reveries are punctuated with perfect drollery — “Kylie in a car crash might be a very commercial event”.

In between these episodes, Morley does in fact tell an exhilarating history of pop that manages to encompass Charles Babbage, Ornette Coleman and John Cage, or that leads, as he has it, from “Stockhausen to Steps”. His likeably looping, self-referential, elastic prose enables him to brake at will for an extended essay on whatever takes his fancy: the “bootleg” craze, in which disparate songs are mashed together; the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’; the robotic ecstasy of Kraftwerk; or Lou Reed’s notorious feedback album, ‘Metal Machine Music’. Morley can also be superbly angry: he constructs a tremendous rant about the malignity of Pop Idol impresario Simon Fuller, accusing him of being William Burroughs’s “death dwarf”, and excoriates coffee-table samplist Moby for his appropriation of the work of 30s blues singers. Almost every page of ‘Words and Music’ contains some perfectly sculpted, apparently throwaway evocation. As the book draws to a close, it performs a mimetic fracturing, dissolving into a forest of interlocked footnotes and a panoply of lists.