Sunday, September 24, 2017

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds is one of the most celebrated writers and critics in the music world and the author of some of its most fervently acclaimed and notable books, including Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, Bring The Noise: 20 Years of writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past and last year's Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century. Known for his innovative and distinctive blend of cultural and music criticism, he began his long career at the Melody Maker in the 1980s and moved to the U.S. in the 1994, when he is said to have first coined the term "post-rock". In a huge coup for Lichfield Interrogates, I caught up with Simon to discuss glam, contemporary hip-hop, poptimism, the past's current grip on the musical present, life in the US and Trump. 




Image courtesy of Adriana Bianchedi

What are your main musical and cultural memories of the early seventies and the glam rock era? 

They’re really all from Top of the Pops, I think. Where I lived, in Berkhamsted in west Hertfordshire, I don’t think you saw that much in the way of people dressing like David Bowie. I guess some of the basic fashion things filtered through – I remember seeing platform boots and hot pants, certainly. It was mostly TV, I think. That’s why I started the book with references to television and specifically Top of the Pops performances that I remembered. And they crop up throughout the book. That was how I experienced pop music. I didn’t listen to the radio until quite a bit later. One of the things about these glam TV memories is that Top of the Pops was a context that was very variable – you had the really middle-of-the-road performers, you had novelty singles, singles by comedians, you had sort of generic pop groups, then you’d have hairy groups like Hawkwind on there. Then suddenly you’d have weird teenage-oriented groups all covered in spangles. 

One of the things I didn’t actually discuss in the book but was in an early draft, was how Top of the Pops had certain visual special effects – I think one of them was called howlround - things that probably now look really cheap but at the time looked mind-blowing. For instance, the whole screen would go this metallic purple, and Marc Bolan would become this sort of purple haze figure. They would use these effects a lot, specifically on glam groups. They seemed to know it wouldn’t really work on the Brotherhood of Man or Tony Orlando – the MOR groups would be filmed flat, but T-Rex and The Sweet would get all these plastic-fantastic effects on them where suddenly the screen would go all trippy. That had a pretty big impression on me as a child. It seemed like a really suitable effect to use on these bands, with it being very psychedelic but also plastic and artificial-looking, with a cheap sci-fi feel. They would also use it on people like Gary Glitter to fit their sort of trashy, bubblegum sound. That’s really the main thing I remember from that era, seeing these bands swathed with those special effects on Top of the Pops. 




The Sweet, Blockbuster, Top of the Pops, 1973

Do you think that glam has been unfairly ridiculed and been turned into a caricature over the years? 

Well, it’s difficult to say because I operate in a rarefied area of rock criticism, and in those circles ridiculing glam is not something that would have occurred for a long time. Me and my friends at Melody Maker including David Stubbs and Paul Oldfield, we had rediscovered glam in the mid-1980s when were doing the fanzine Monitor. They seemed amazing to us, particularly Gary Glitter’s music. For someone like Bob Stanley or someone with that sort of sensibility, the idea that glam is ridiculous has not been an idea ever – Bob was one of the first people I met that would talk about how amazing David Essex records were. So, in those rarefied British music critic circles, glam rock has always had a lot of cred. However, you don’t need to go too far beyond that little world to encounter people dismissing the whole era. There was an issue of The Face in the eighties, an issue dedicated to the Seventies called “The decade that taste forgot”. That was the general view of the seventies, as a benighted era before the 1980s itself, when you had style magazines and when groups all looked sharply-dressed and there was the true birth of the video as an art form. Of course it’s the Eighties that now look like a decade that taste forgot, just as dated and absurd. 

People looked back on the seventies as this era of daft hair, platform boots, ridiculously wide lapels and a sartorial lack of taste on an epic level. There was a general cliché of the seventies that said Bowie, T-Rex and Roxy Music were the only ones that deserved to be considered “cool”, with the rest being written off. Some journalist came up with a cliché I was determined not to use – “bricklayers in Bacofoil” – one of the clichés about Gary Glitter and The Sweet is that they were these beefy blokes that weren’t in the least bit androgynous but were trying to copy Bowie whilst wrapped up in silver foil. There were variations like “plumbers in Bacofoil”, “hodcarriers in Bacofoil” and various other derogatory terms, but if you actually look at Glitter’s performances, they’re pretty strange and excessive, and The Sweet looked hilarious whilst having a great deal of fun, essentially mocking glamour more than trying to be glamorous. Even Slade looked pretty remarkable and the music was just fantastic. 

Even back during the 1970s, there were a few serious rock critics who were saying “this Gary Glitter phenomenon is pretty fucking strange” -  that there was something mind-blowing about the tackiness of it. Tackiness taken into this almost extreme performance art area.  So even in the seventies there were a few critics taking all this stuff pretty seriously. With The Sweet, critics would acknowledge that they were a pretty good hard rock band underneath all the bubblegum. If I’d been around then as a critic, I would hope I’d have been amongst this minority of people that thought glam may have lacked substance in a conventional album kind of sense but it had all these other things going for it. 

Would you agree glam’s influence stretches way beyond rock (OutKast, Prince)? Has its reputation improved over the years? 

I don’t really know to be honest. Prince was certainly aware of Bowie’s work and I think you can hear T-Rex in there. I think black music has its own tradition of fabulousness, whether it’s Little Richard’s pomp and how he wore a jacket with tiny mirrors, which is said to have influenced Gary Glitter, or Sun Ra Arkestra’s robes and costumes. I think a lot of black music had its own separate tradition of image excess. OutKast  - the influence of glam is probably in there, but if you think about the way Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament and Funkadelic dressed, the black entertainment of the era fully embraced the 1970s norms of extremely wide lapels, bell-bottoms and spangly man-made fabrics. 

That sort of razzle dazzle is probably an innate base-level part of the black music tradition, and we don’t need to give glam too much credit for it. Labelle supposedly got some ideas for their outfits from glam, and Chic were very taken with the Roxy elegance, but I think it’s the norm in black music to look extremely glamourous and dazzling. If you think about it, there aren’t that many black performers that do the dress-down thing. I suppose if you look at Bill Withers with his cardigans and the early days of rap with its hoodies and sneakers, it’s the opposite of Diana Ross and other mainstream black pop, but generally speaking, black music tends to go fully towards razzle dazzle. So I don’t think it needed to be influenced by glam. 

Which contemporary artists have the most in common with glam rock?

Lady Gaga is very overt about having a glam influence – she has made a point of referencing Warhol, Bowie, Klaus Nomi and Leigh Bowery and other extreme clothing figures. Kesha is another one – glitter is a huge part of her image. When I interviewed her, she talked a lot about Marc Bolan, she’s worked with Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, and her stage performance is very theatrical with lots of props, including a dancing phallus. In the last part of Shock and Awe, a section called Aftershocks, I see all sorts of echoes of glam in a lot of contemporary artists who have songs around fame and stardom. A lot of glam was self-reflexive and you get the same thing with Kanye West, Drake and many other rappers and R&B performers where their own fame or rise to fame is the subject matter of the music itself. I thought this was interesting and possibly a form of decadence in a way. 



Kesha, Take it Off

What were your thoughts on Blackstar? 

I thought it was great – I thought The Next Day was good too, though there seemed to be a bit of timidity in the sound, some of it was clearly mixed and produced in the hope of getting on the radio, but Blackstar is just completely full-blown, undaunted self-expression from someone who has got nothing to lose and has just decided to try and do something really different. You can hear traces of old interests like jazz and drum ‘n’ bass but it doesn’t really sound like anything he’d done before. I must admit it’s not a record that’s easy to integrate into everyday life. 

I think I heard it after his death – I couldn’t rank it alongside other records from last year so I put it into a category on its own on my blog when I did my faves of the year in December. It is hard to objectively assess it because of the effect of his death and hard to say where it ranks compared to his other masterpieces. But there was no holding back in the artwork or videos. The project was possibly a strange thing to be doing when you’re about to shuffle off this mortal coil – most people in that situation would probably spend all their time with loved ones -  but perhaps Bowie felt that he belonged to the whole world and wanted to make a final, ambitious artistic statement. 



David Bowie, Lazarus

What are you currently listening to? Do you listen to more contemporary music than old music? 

Like most people, it’s probably a mix of both. There was a period over 2016 where I was obsessed with playing The Hissing of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell – I’m not really sure why. But mostly I listen to the radio here in LA, especially the rap stations. Some of the tunes turned out to be on many people’s albums of the year, but I can’t seem to get into the mind-frame of listening to the whole record by YG, for instance. 

There are so many records I listen to once. Schoolboy Q had a great single, but I just haven’t had a chance to go back to the album. From 2016, records I have gone back to repeatedly included Let’s Eat Grandma’s – I was amazed to see how that hadn’t appeared in any magazine’s best of lists, and eMMplekz, an amazing spacey-techno-grime-dubstep record – a kind of “ghost music” version of Sleaford Mods that didn’t get mentioned anywhere. It seems odd how people can go off into completely different paths – very few people listen to the same things. I look at lists from FACT or The Quietus and most of the things I’ve never even heard of, let alone actually heard. 




Let's Eat Grandma, Eat Shiitake Mushrooms

Records by SchoolboyQ, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown and Kanye West have been ecstatically-received over the last few years. Would you say we are living in a golden age for hip-hop?

I’m not sure – it seems like it’s a pretty good age. Every year since I’ve moved here, the radio has seemed to have a lot of “bangers” on it. There’s a certain LA sound that includes local stuff and things from Atlanta. The composite of those sounds is fantastic – people like Rae Sremmurd, Future, Migos, Travis Scott, Schoolboy Q. Clearly the greatest and most popular song of last year - judging by what I heard on the radio - would have been Low Life by Future and The Weeknd. It was played once an hour for most of 2016 on the radio here. I’ve never once tired of listening to it. But “Low Life” didn’t appear on a single magazine list or critics’s list of the best tracks of 2016. Either the music critics are out of touch or the radio listeners like me in LA are completely in their own delusional zone. It’s very odd – there’s a huge gulf between what the critics are calling the best rap records and what the punters seem to like. Rap’s probably one of the only genres where I turn on the radio and hear something and I think “yes, we’re in the present – maybe even the future”. 



Future feat. The Weeknd, Low Life

It seems like hip-hop has gone really interesting sonically again in recent years. I love the way 2010s hip-hop seamlessly shifts back and forth between rapping and singing - I suppose Drake pioneered that. The other thing I really like is the way that you hear sort of whooping and choking noises behind the main vocal in a lot of modern rap records or just sounds of unclassifiable emotion like exultant or vaguely disturbing effects. I’m not sure who did it first but tracks that do that quite substantially are Bad and Boujee by Migos and Panda by Designer. It’s more the commercial end of rap than the “credible” side of it that’s been keeping me interested recently. 




Migos ft Lil Uzi Vert, Bad and Boujee 


Is rock dead? 

It certainly seems to have died as a major force in the charts – it doesn’t seem like it’s terribly vital as an art form that’s going anywhere or has the ear of a mass audience. You still have groups doing interesting things – the most recent Radiohead album was good, but they’ve been around forever, you can’t really deduce the vitality of rock from Radiohead knocking out a pretty good record. There are probably quite a few people doing interesting things – I listened to a Finnish psychedelic metal group called Oranssi Pazuzu and thought they were pretty amazing. But groups like that operate in such a marginal cordoned-off zone. I think rock has long since been like jazz was. In the 1980s, you still got interesting players and new directions, but jazz was already well on its way to being an old person’s museum culture or minority interest. I think rock’s now well down that path. You can see it on the festival bills that have (that horrible term) “legacy acts” from the era where rock was more central. I wouldn’t say it was “dead”, but it’s probably somewhere in-between middle-age and old age, and its best days are behind it. 




Oranssi Pazuzu - Lahja

What are your thoughts on contemporary dance music? I feel like we have seen a nadir when it comes to mainstream electronic pop music over the last couple of years, and I couldn’t wait to see the back of tropical house. What are your thoughts? 

I haven’t heard much from mainstream or marginal dance music that really makes me feel like it’s got much of a new direction in it. Looking at various lists, it seems that there has been a lot of quality, intelligently-made yet banging techno but that’s not really enough in 2017 to really get me paying attention. 

What do you think about the reputation of pop? Has it improved with the likes of Charli XCX, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé now being seen as credible songwriters? 

Yes, I think recently we’ve seen a lot of serious artistic statements being made and written about endlessly with think pieces and highly serious, intense analyses of things like Lemonade and the Solange record for instance. You could say pop has become the new rock, with a somewhat didactic, improving, rather worthy form of writing being produced around it, in exactly the same way critics would have written about Bruce Springsteen or U2, using a language and a tone that makes you feel like you’re in school basically. The other thing I noticed was that, amongst the people some of us call “poptimists”, is that they saw 2016 as the worst year for pop music ever. 

Drake’s “One Dance” was divisive – I think you need to hear that song in a car to appreciate it better, it just sounds great in that context, the beat sounds huge. It tickles me that he has taken things from London pirate radio culture like funky house and made them work as global pop. I never got tired of that song. It amuses me that people who were waving the banner for pop five or six years ago are now seeing it as being at an absolute nadir, when I don’t think the quality has dropped. I see what you are saying about the slowness of the charts but in terms of actual content it doesn’t seem like pop music has declined that much from 2011-2012 to me. 

The charts haven’t really been exciting since Top of the Pops was something to watch or since the early 2000s when you had Timbaland coming through or newish pop stars like Britney Spears and Girls Aloud. I wasn’t in the UK then but from what I did see on MTV, it seemed like there was a lot of great pop and rap in the mix. But I still don’t think there has been a marked decline. I didn’t mind those Justin Bieber songs at all though I know people find them annoying.  



Drake feat Wizkid and Kyla, One Dance 

Do you think the past’s grip on the present has weakened at all since you penned Retromania? 

Things don’t seem to be as extreme in terms of Retromania as they were when I wrote the book. In the charts, there’s a lot of flashy, contemporary-sounding pop music that doesn’t have a retro element. There are certain figures with nostalgic sounds like Bruno Mars, Meghan Trainor and Adele, but the old doesn’t seem as dominant as it was at the time I wrote Retromania, which was 2010 when I finished it. I think the re-issue mania, the bands reforming, the legacy acts, the festivals dominated by acts from other eras and digging up of things that didn’t deserve to be dug up by reissue labels – all that is still there.  The hipster retro aesthetic thing of flicking through the past and piecing together of old sounds is still going on, but it doesn’t feel as prominent, both in the mainstream and in the underground (which can seem almost exaggeratingly futuristic – there isn’t a retro element to people like Arca at all). 

There are quite a lot of retro-tinged things I find enjoyable, and a few futuristic things I admire from a distance but don’t ever have a desire to listen to them, which puts me in quite an odd position. I ought to be loudly in favour of someone like Arca, but in practice I don’t find the music that easy to listen to or enjoyable, whereas something that’s in a retro style might be much more pleasing to the ears, even though I disapprove it – it’s a tricky one. Ariel Pink is a winner for me, even though if I was being strict, I should disapprove of what he does because it’s so bound up with pastiche. 

How does life in the US compare to life in the UK? 

I haven’t lived for any length of time in Britain for many years, so it’s difficult to say. When I go back for any length of time it’s always a great deal of fun, because I’m seeing people I haven’t seen, whizzing around and it’s not like living a normal life there. If I was in the UK full-time, I might find it a bit depressing, I don’t know. Emigrating wasn’t an easy or a hard decision to make – it’s just what happened. I married an American and it was easier for me to work in the US for various reasons. Before long, you realise you’ve spent almost 25 years in a country that’s not your homeland. Initially especially it was very exciting to move – I was living in New York at first, where there’s always something going on or someone coming through town like bands and deejays. As well as this stream of visitors, New York has its own rich traditions of music, art, writing that are constantly going on, just never flag. Tons of cultural energy. LA is exciting in different ways. I do feel a little unplugged from the UK culture that formed me, but I don’t even know if a lot of it is there anymore, such as the music press for instance. 



Image courtesy of Adriana Bianchedi


Finally, no interview with anyone living in the US in 2017 would be complete without a Trump question, so I thought I would ask about your reaction to his election victory. 

As you might expect, just horrified disbelief. It’s a scary moment when truth and facts don’t seem to matter at all, and the media will carry on writing diatribes and exposes that have zero purchase or effect on the people who support Trump. They are just immune to it, have closed their eyes and have made their decision. They have made their emotional investment in this figure and nothing at all is going to dislodge him from their affections until he starts betraying the things he has promised to do for them. So, it’s just unbelievable. 

The thing that is probably the most interesting or revealing to me is this ineffectuality of words. In the year-and-a-half before the election, there was a feast of brilliant analyses, beautifully-written, high-minded rhetoric, editorials, New Yorker articles and well-researched investigations into Trump’s past. A downpour of eloquence that still goes on, to the point where it feels exhausting keeping up with it. We’re in a golden age of investigative journalism. But all those passionate and beautifully written denunciations of Trump before the election had no effect at all on the result. You have a guy elected who is the absolute polar opposite of the previous President. Obama was very skilled with language, could talk like a book, was erudite, eloquent, could string together a series of connected thoughts, and was deeply involved in formulating policy and knowing his shit inside out. He is replaced by a guy who thinks in Tweets, who is talking about something completely different within three sentences  - sometimes within a single sentence - and has the vocabulary of an eight-year-old. 

The people who voted for Trump clearly voted for an inarticulate, irrational, non-thinking, non-linear and anti-intellectual person as a deliberate choice. Especially anti-intellectual. They hated Obama for the very reasons that he is great – his ability to communicate, his eloquence, his oratory, his great clarity of mind and instead picked someone who was impulsive and inarticulate even before you get to his arbitrary, ill-chosen policies and values. He doesn’t have any fixed principles. 

As a thinker and a speaker, Trump is so vastly Obama’s inferior, and that and his mental mediocrity was what was attractive to his fans. Also his emotional immaturity. People talk about EQ as well as IQ – emotional intelligence. This is a person who isn’t wise, who is unskilled in language and thought, who blurts out his emotions. They deliberately picked this immature and impulsive brat. What struck me is how it was very much a revolt of the ignorant, picking someone made in their image. It’s a revolt against expertise and clear rational thought itself. 

Thanks, Simon! 

You can buy Shock and Awe here.