Thursday, August 21, 2008


In the Mid Seventies, I worked as a small Accounting/Engineering Cog in one of the wheels of the largest Car plant in Britain, situated in the southern suburbs of Birmingham. One evening a group of us went out into the City for a meal, and ended up in a Pizza Hut. We certainly knew how to live in those days.

Midway through the meal, one of us turned round and pointed out two girls and two guys at the next table. One of the girls was a good looking blonde, one a rather enigmatic looking red-head, and the two men with them had beards and looked as if they had just finished a hard day filming a Division 2 Porn Movie.

Abba had been appearing at the Birmingham Hippodrome that evening in front of 2,000 people, and there they were, chomping their way through a Marguarita with extra Anchovies and Olives less than ten feet away. Being true Englishmen, we completely ignored them, so I don’t even have an autograph to show for the encounter. I haven’t thought about that little incident for about 20 years, until the other day.

A week ago, (see attached link), a guy in the “Telegraph” called Neil McCormick - - decided to write something like 1000 words explaining to us all his opinion of Abba. For reasons best known to himself, he assumes we all want to know how much he hates them and really vents his spleen explaining himself to us. I suspect it must have been the Meryl Streep film of “Mamma Mia” which set off his vitriol, but, to mix the metaphor, we had both barrels, and from very close range. Abba were the Devil Incarnate, Mediocrity personified, and a disgrace to the Human Race. Their songs were worthless, their song-writing a waste of time, and their singing was simply awful. Oh, and their clothes were beyond a joke.

Now to be honest, you can’t avoid agreeing with the last sentiment, but ONLY that one. Really though, what is the point of fulminating in such a picky, snobby, small minded way about something which gives a mass of people such a huge amount of pleasure. It says a lot more about the writer, who it seems is a failed U2 member, than what is written. To me it comes across as a sneering and rather arrogant attempt at Holier Than Thou – I know more about this than you, and I’ll show you why. I’ve only read this one piece by him so perhaps I shouldn’t judge, but he seems like the sort of person who is perfectly balanced - a chip on both shoulders.

Pop Music is many things to many people. Little 3 minute chunks of sound which become integral parts of people’s lives. For some people, they can almost be the Chapter headings in the story of how they have passed their time on earth. The songs themselves are not necessarily meant to be profound, although some of them are. They’re not meant to tear your soul apart, although some of them do. But, the effect they have on you – well that’s something different, and that’s why taking a cheap pop like McCormick did is a bit unpleasant.

As far as Abba are concerned, are they the greatest Pop Group ever? I don’t think so, but they’ve got to be up there somewhere. In Pop Music, you can’t argue with 270 million records sold.

Go to any wedding or social gathering, and watch the disc jockey struggling manfully to get more than one couple onto the dance floor at the same time. It’s like herding cats – get one up there and the ones you had a minute ago disappear. Everyone sits around the floor listening as the DJ’s play us his favourites and the floor stays totally bare. Until…..

If you want all the men up there, just play the first five notes of the intro to the Stones’ “Satisfaction”Da-Da, Da-Da-Da….. (that’s as much as you need) and instantly, you’ve got a dance-floor full of lip-pouting, swivel hipped males mincing across the floor in unison, flicking their hair back and clapping like a seal. Those of us who lived through and saw the Stones live in the Sixties have just had their life-tape rewound forty years, and we’re 18 again. Unfortunately, all the females are still examining the contents of their handbags, chatting to each other or fiddling with their nails.

But if you want everyone, male and female, old and young, drunk and sober, fit and infirm, on the floor, just put on “Dancing Queen” and it is as if you’ve wired everyone into the electric socket. They all jump up and start singing as one - “You can dance, you can ji-hive, having the time of your life….”, and the evening BEGINS.

Pop music doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful, mournful and miserable, or loud and brash. Try putting Leonard Cohen on at your party, and really you wouldn’t want to dance with anyone who got up onto the dance floor. This McCormick guy seems to think that being No.1 in the enjoyment generating stakes, as you could argue Abba are, is worthy of scorn and derision. Rather sad, really.

But why do people love to disparage them? There’s no doubt they could write some horribly addictive melodies, the sort which drill themselves into your mind and won’t let go. And if you read the lyrics of some of their later songs, the subjects are unusual, individual, quite dark and very non Pop Music – you can almost see the effects of two divorces in the group rippling through the sentiments in their songs.

Try “The Visitors”, a record I will come out here and now and say I think is an 8 out of 10er (that’s a good score from me). The songs range far and wide. The title song starts with an intruder walking up to your front door and approaching it with a malevolent force coming to do Who Knows what – you feel a Russian Spy connection here. Another looks back rather poignantly about an ageing couple where the future seems to be slipping downhill. One’s a commentary about the real threat facing the soldier in war when the gloss of joining up has gone, another tells about the sadness of a couple gradually disentangling and becoming two separate people, another is about the mother watching her child grow up with time “slipping through my fingers”, one alludes to passing love remembered “like an angel passing through my room”, with a clock ticking time, and perhaps life, away like a metronome. Oh, and given that we’re still in Sweden, there’s one about a gentleman who swept railway station platforms answering an advert with the promise of physically enjoying both a daughter and her mother, but not necessarily in that order – the original Buy One, Get One Free.

Not one of these is a simple, joyous, uninhibited Pop Song – they address some of the darker sides of life, and, to my ears at least, are really worth listening to. But they’ve all still got that insane addictiveness that gets you singing the tunes as you go about your life.

So, Pop music is about the individual – you either like it or you don’t. There are no Musts in it, although the Emperor’s Suit of Clothes in the form of The Dedicated Follower of Fashion often seems to be more visible (or not) than perhaps it should. You like what you like, and it’s almost as simple as that. I don’t own a Beatles record, but I do own three by Gerry Rafferty. As far as I know, that’s not yet a crime. You might think me an idiot, but what the hell! I just like some more than others. I could write as much as you like about why it’s like that, but for me to pour out a diatribe on why the Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin or Eminem don’t get into my Top Ten is pointless.

I might however, tell you about the ones which do make it, and why they do – that seems much more positive. But really, even that only means anything to someone else if they feel something similar. The “Yeah, Man” moment. When was the last time you read an article about a singer you didn’t like, with the result that it changed your mind? Exactly. Arguing whether The Sex Pistols are better than The Osmonds is a bit of a meaningless exercise. These things flow from the heart, not the head.

So, having metaphorically stuck the Man McCormick’s head onto a skewer, to feed a point of Principle, I’ve just got “The Visitors” out, and off we go - “I hear the door-bell ring and suddenly the panic takes me, The sound so ominously tearing through the silence……”

Now tell me you really don’t like that, Neil.




Whitenoise said...

The Sex Pistols are better than the Osmonds?! Surely you jest, man!

rogerc said...

It's a very close call. I dislike them both with an almost equal intensity!