BY Dan Fox in Critic's Guides | 01 OCT 10
Featured in
Issue 134

A Number of New Publications Take Diverse Approaches to Music, Imagination and Identity

A recent crop of new publications exlpore the lives and histories of people and communities through music 

BY Dan Fox in Critic's Guides | 01 OCT 10

Bob Pegg, Abe's Folk Music Magazine, 1968. Courtesy: Bobb Pegg

Few books about music aimed at the general reader are solely about music. Most tend to be about the lives and histories of people and communities, and music is usually an excuse to talk about them. This is certainly the case for a recent crop of new publications, all of which are haunted by imagination and questions of personal and social identity.

None is more haunted than Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (all books 2010), a major new study of the musical ley lines that crisscross the British psyche; a romance for an idealized country, carried through the 20th century by folk song and ‘a mindset that always finds its identity in the grain of the past’. Young’s book spans the period from late Victorian to the present. It follows the rediscovery of British folk music by musicologist Cecil Sharp (who founded the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1911) and composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock and Gustav Holst. Young explores the folk revival of the 1950s, spearheaded by, amongst others, Ewan MacColl, A.L. Lloyd and Peggy Seeger. He looks at the folk-rock explosion of the 1960s and the intersection of folk with counter-cultural psychedelia: a huge rainbow of music that embraces the well-known – Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band, Pentangle – and the obscure (Heron, Mr Fox, Comus). Crucially, Young’s book does not equate British folk music with pastoral aesthetics and organic wholemeal lifestyles. He discusses, for instance, how the same romantic spirit also pervades Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s – just look at the juxtaposed images of rural poverty and Midlands suburbia depicted on the cover of Led Zep’s J.R.R. Tolkien-influenced fourth album, IV (1971). So too Crass and anarcho-punk, born out of ’70s free festivals at sites such as Stonehenge, and the mystic ‘industrial folk’ of Coil and Current 93. It’s there in Julian Cope’s fascination with the country’s Neolithic sites, and the pop Arcadias of Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside (1978) and Hounds of Love (1985). The present is mindful of the past too: the ghostly electronica of Boards of Canada, Broadcast and the Ghost Box record label is filtered through hazy childhood memories of British public information films, rural occultism, Open University and science fiction TV shows.

So Electric Eden is also a social history. It guides us through William Morris’ Utopian socialism in the 1890s, British Communism and the peace movement in the 1950s and ’60s, the political crises of the ’70s, and Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism in the ’80s. Young identifies salient themes: middle-class romanticization of country life; the transmission of oral culture; ‘the friction between conservation and progression, city and country, acoustics and electricity, familiar and uncanny’. Holst’s marathon 1916 Whitsun Festival in Thaxted, Essex, is described as ‘the moment English music lost its inhibitions and erupted into a cascade of spontaneous music-making […] an orgy of colour, music and movement on the village green.’ Electric folk-rock is seen as ‘an experiment to propagate an organic alternative to [Harold] Wilson’s white heat’. Free festivals are placed in the continuum of the historical struggle for access to land. Unexpected connections are revealed: for instance, between Kenneth Grahame and Pink Floyd (their 1967 debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn was named after one of Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ stories), or the early music revival and the space age (a rendition by early music pioneer David Munrow of ‘The Faerie Round’ by Elizabethan composer Anthony Holborne is included on the Voyager spacecraft’s golden record). Distancing folk music from nationalism, Electric Eden is less a history of British music culture than a hymn to its alter identities constructed over centuries – Albion, the Land of Cockayne, Avalon, Merrie England – and how the country’s history of radicalism is inseparable from nostalgia for versions of itself that never existed.

Grahame’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (1913) is also found in David Toop’s Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, a book similarly haunted by imagination. Toop cites Grahame’s story as an example of sound as described in literature: Mole and Rat are involved in ‘an anomalous ethereal reverie of far-off heavenly music’. Sinister Resonance aims to rescue sound from the ‘visuocentric’ culture we live in, one reinforced by the English language itself: ‘seeing is believing’, ‘I must be hearing things’. With beautifully associative streams of thought and occasional autobiographical detours Toop uncovers a history of listening – not to music, but to the world of sound around us – within the mute arts of painting, architecture and literature. His ‘listening’ occurs across an impressive breadth of sources: 17th-century Dutch genre paintings, medicine, Victorian ghost stories, the Freudian uncanny and the ‘infra-thin’ category of fugitive phenomena proposed by Marcel Duchamp.

Toop’s complex meditation has a number of thematic crossovers with Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence, a highly readable monograph on John Cage’s so-called silent piece, 4’33” (1952). Gann’s book is an excellent case study to read in tandem with Toop, as Cage’s best-known composition is ‘an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds’. In telling the story of 4’33” Gann describes the influence of abstract painting on the composer, particularly Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘White Paintings’ (1951), and also of science, such as Cage’s visit to an anechoic chamber where he heard the sounds of his nervous system and blood in circulation. Gann emphasizes the fact that although 4’33” contains no notes to be ‘played’, it has a score and is composed in three separate movements, their duration determined using the Tarot (not the I Ching, which is usually associated with Cage). The book looks at the legacy of the piece, situating it on American music’s path to developing an aesthetic free of European influence. As Cage himself put it: ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.’ (For another angle on US music of the same period and its impact, I recommend Richard Williams’ 2009 book The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Remaking of Modern Music which recently came out in paperback.)

Opening with ‘A New Song’ by mid-18th-century English poet Thomas Chatterton, Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango: A Fanzine about Felt has echoes of Electric Eden romanticism. Edited by artist Christian Flamm and writer/curator Mike Sperlinger, Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango is no cheaply photocopied ’zine. It is a beautifully produced love letter to 1980s British band Felt, featuring contributions from 30 artists, writers and former associates of the group. Led by a mercurial singer known only as Lawrence, Felt’s jangly, mellifluous songs have a devoted following, and one of the joys of reading Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango is the straightforward pleasure expressed in its collected reminiscences and appreciations. For a band whose excellent song titles included ‘All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead’ and ‘I Will Die With My Head in Flames’, it’s perhaps no surprise that the fanzine is shot through with wistfulness. Yet its mood seems nostalgic too for a certain moment in British alternative music, full of post-punk possibility, but with the 1960s still not that far behind. It was the moment before the deathly cycles of retro culture cranked into gear.

Finally, Justin Bond/Jackie Curtis, by New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als. An elegant, slender volume, it features photographs of singer and drag performer Justin Bond juxtaposed with images of Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis (who died in 1985) and a short essay in which Als traces the development of his own sexuality and identity. It’s a highly affecting piece of writing, which ends with a memory of meeting a stoned Curtis one evening in Manhattan, ‘excited by the possibility of people seeing her for who she is, even in make-up’. Justin Bond/Jackie Curtis is not strictly a music book, but nor are any of the titles discussed here. They’re books about identity, be that of drag queens, American avant-gardists or English visionaries.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).