Saturday, September 06, 2008


Pop Music is facile, shallow and of no lasting value. Discuss.

Sounds like a question in an English exam paper I would have really liked to answer. It’s always seen as the sound-bitey, three minute, three chord wonder, music-lite end of the spectrum.

Now I love Classical music as much as I love Pop Music. One's not better than the other -they're just different. I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms last night and was absolutely stunned at the quality of what I heard. Brahms 3rd Symphony and a frightening version of Shostakovich 10. The Brahms is a very difficult piece to get right. It’s almost chamber music in some respects, and the light and shade in the way it swirls around is far easier to get wrong than it is to get right. The torture of the Shostakovich is not an easy capture either.

But the Berliners got it dead right. Is there a better orchestra in the world? Virtuosity everywhere that you don’t quite believe possible, a solo horn part played with staggering confidence and a gloriously liquid, seamless tone, and all held together in a riveting performance by Simon Rattle. Quite amazing, and a privilege to hear.

But that was yesterday and this is today. I’m mulling over what piece of music to put behind a slideshow of some photographs I took in April this year of New York, and in particular Ground Zero. Not an easy subject. I decided that all the music needed to have a New York base or heritage, whether it be performer or composer to give it a thread of continuity. Blondie (not for Ground Zero!), Paul Simon and Bob Dylan immediately jumped into my mind.

Now, I’m probably in a minority of one here, but I’ve never got on with Bob Dylan singing his own songs. Too often, for my taste, he throws them away, not seeming to give them the colour, the contrast and the attention I feel they warrant. But just listen to the lyrics. If the man doesn’t end up as a subject to be studied under Modern Poetry in an English Literature course, there’s something not right. I think the imagery he conjures up is remarkable. I’m left wondering what some of the images refer to, but they drill themselves into your mind and I’m sitting here even now mulling some of them over.

Rather than listen to his own versions, I picked a couple up by other performers. His songs are such that they allow other singer’s views to be meaningful. Forty years apart, I put on Joan Baez singing “A Hard Rains a’Gonna fall”, and a relatively new version of “Gates of Eden” by Bryan Ferry. Both knocked me out. But first you have to look at the words. Try this from the Gates of Eden – a random selection of one of the nine verses.

The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what's real and what is not
It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden

I’ve always liked Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. Laid back, louche, lazy, and bucketloads of attitude. He set out a couple of years ago to record some of Dylan’s songs, and the resultant album Dylanesque is a permanent fixture on my CD player at present. His treatment of “Gates of Eden” is atmospheric, haunting brooding and quite magnetic. A strange, almost atonal guitar riff underpins the background of the song, and an ominous sense of tension and dark drama pervades it all. Sitting behind a set of Ground Zero pictures might work quite well.

The other option I came up with is a million miles, and 40 years different. Joan Baez, with her pure, clear voice but singing Dylan’s “A Hard Rains a’Gonna Fall” took my fancy. She sings it very straight, but there is a haunting guitar base to its inexorable tempo. The contrast between her clean, positive soprano voice, and the dark message in the song creates quite a frisson. The song builds and builds, image by image, with the repetition creating a pressure of its own, to the point when you almost can’t wait for her to release the tension and wrap it all up. I don’t know which of the two I shall choose – they’re both tremendous songs – full of power and class.

It’s what I call a High Class Problem – they’re both so good.


1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

Maybe not quite the direction you'd chose with it's focus more on civil rights and the south- but Same Cooke A Change Is Gonna Come" Considerr: 911 completely changed the psyche of this continent, the feeling of safety, of insularity.

Dylan doing his own music... try topping "Lay, Lady, Lay".