U2 - a band that's immune to de-mythologising?

Published January 13, 2012

I've just watched the U2 documentary From The Sky Down, ostensibly telling the story of the creation of their 1991 album Achtung Baby. According to U2 lore, this album was when they broke free from their full-of-themselves arena-rock existence and reinvented themselves as ironic and whatever blah blah blah. And certainly, Achtung Baby does contain some excellent tracks and was a breath of fresh air upon its release (it's the only U2 album I own). But this documentary... I almost laughed out loud. Although we get some insight into the band's creative process, and that's always interesting, I can't see that the film does anything than build on the mythology of the band - and I'm talking about clichéd old arena rock band mythology. The only thing missing was the hand of God reaching down from the sky and touching the shoulders of the four U2 members to guide them on the path leading to their preordained destiny.

I guess there's just something so humour-less and so unambiguous about U2, that if you're a documentary-maker and this band is your subject, this is where you end up. For all the archive shots of the band dressing up in drag - wow, they're so, like, alternative - there were tons more of The Edge in that horrible bandana-and-long-hair look, and Bono in mullets, mullets and more mullets. Even his re-invented 1991-1992 hair-style looked like mullet-lite to me. The presumably unintended message of the documentary seems to be that the reinvention was mainly cosmetic.

Another thought: In Sweden, this was broadcast by our public service company, SVT. The production bears a copyright of Mercury Records, U2's record company. Now, I'm wondering: Where are all those TV reviewers who threw a hissy-fit when Agnetha Fältskog's self-produced and -financed 2004 documentary was aired on SVT, because they felt it was "promotion"? Come to think of it, where have they been when SVT has broadcast other programmes produced and financed by the record companies and/or artists involved? Oh, I forgot. Agnetha's documentary was about a sad old member of that ultra-commercial pop group ABBA ("pop", not "rock"), a member so crassly commercial and self-promoting that she had done everything in her power to stay out of the limelight for 17 years, so of course that had to be pounced upon.

One more thought: The U2 documentary used an interesting device to discuss the dangers of a band falling apart, by showing several examples of other famous bands losing one or more members. It would have been an excellent segment if there hadn't been something seriously lacking in the research department. Guys, it wasn't Carl Wilson who left The Beach Boys - it was his brother Brian, the original driving-force behind the band.


Rock's Backpages 10th Anniversary

Published December 01, 2011

November 2011 saw the 10th Anniversary of a fantastic website that currently hosts almost 20,000 articles and reviews from the rich history of rock journalism. Rock’s Backpages was launched a decade ago by veteran music journalist and author, Barney Hoskyns, who is also the author of two of my favourite books on the Los Angeles music scene, Waiting For The Sun and Hotel California.

Today, Rock’s Backpages is a thriving, constantly growing archive, covering every aspect of the history of rock and pop. “Any band or genre/movement that proves to have legs or impact/influence is grist to RBP’s mill,” Hoskyns says. “We don’t jump on every Next Big Thing or new trend but wait to see whether it has some staying power. We believe it’s as important to include pieces on the X-Factor as it is to feature stuff on John Cage.”

Rock’s Backpages was born in 2000, when Hoskyns was asked to recommend someone who could write the liner notes for a CD by British musician Roy Harper. This then led to another idea. “[I thought] it would be great to aggregate online at least 10 great Harper pieces – from all walks of the music press – that would span his career.  A little over a decade later, that vision has come true. Maybe in another decade we’ll have twenty Roy Harper pieces.” It certainly doesn’t sound like an impossible achievement – with 10 pieces available for a non-household name such as Harper, you can just imagine the multitude of stories relating to big names such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and so on. Many who read this particular blog will be interested to learn that there are, at the time of writing, 23 articles and reviews about ABBA, including the previously unpublished full transcript of the Björn Ulvaeus interview that formed the basis of Jim Irvin’s insightful ABBA story, published in Mojo in 1999.

Rock’s Backpages does not simply represent the writings of a select few rock journalists, but does include pieces by almost every well-known and lesser-known British and American writer you can think of. According to Barney Hoskyns, the archive boasts contributions from “over 500 writers from all eras and on all genres of popular music”, with 30 or 40 new pieces being added every week. The archive also features over 300 audio interviews with icons from Hendrix to Cobain. “Almost all the writers have embraced RBP from the get-go,” says Hoskyns. “One or two American curmudgeons demurred. Now it’s a club that most rock writers want to join. We never like to turn anyone away but it’s difficult to manage the sheer amount of content flooding in.”

With so many articles and reviews covering so many different aspects now collected in one database, Hoskyns is in a perfect place to make an informed observation about how rock journalism has evolved over the years. “Broadly speaking,” he says, “rock writing has turned from freeform countercultural commentary – passionate and often iconoclastic – to service-industry compliance: blandly deferential profiles and soundbite consumer-guide reviewing. With most outbreaks of rebellion now instantly commodified by the marketplace, rock and roll has been subsumed into the general entertainment culture and lost its tribal, lightning-rod shock value.”

The mere existence of an “archive” of rock writing does indeed seem to suggest that rock and pop as a subversive force, capable of truly surprising its audience and having the function as a life-or-death cultural identifier for young people, is now a thing of the past. Barney Hoskyns would agree. “Without wishing to be an Old Fart for the sake of it, I do think rock culture has reached the end of its first major cycle – and that it will never impact on society in the way it did with Elvis or Dylan or Hendrix or the Pistols or hip hop or even Cobain (arguably the last rock star who really ‘meant it, man’). People will say, ‘It’s still new and radical to a 14-year-old’ but I think even 14-year-olds are aware of the weight of history (of Elvis and Dylan and the Beatles and the Clash) bearing down on contemporary pop. Rock and roll will survive and mutate but I’m not sure it can ever ‘change the world’ again.”

Whether this prognosis proves to be true or not, the fact remains that rock and roll turned 60 this very year (if you’re willing to accept the 1951 recording ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston as the first rock record, as many historians do), and a lot of great writing has been done on the subject over the decades. Much of that writing is now available at Rock’s Backpages and I urge you to become a subscriber. You will be lost for hours reading story upon interesting story reflecting the rich history of modern pop and rock music. As far as I’m concerned, that could never be a bad thing.


Living In The Material World

Published November 10, 2011

As previously posted in this blog, a George Harrison documentary, Living In The Material World, has recently been released on DVD. As a long-time Beatles fan I naturally bought this as soon as I could. I’ve since watched it a couple of times and although I haven’t got much to add to the praise lauded upon on the film – and it really is not to be missed – it did trigger the following thoughts.

Rock documentaries are not only a depiction of the life and times of its subject, but do also reflect the times in which they’re made. This might be stating the bleeding obvious, but in this case it’s particularly poignant, for when Imagine: John Lennon, the official documentary about Lennon, was made back in 1988, relations between the surviving ex-Beatles and Yoko Ono were not such that his former band mates could be interviewed for the film. Today, of course, post-law-suit-settling, the situation is different, and both Paul and Ringo, as well as Yoko, were interviewed for the film about George. Also, John’s film was a cinema-length film, around 1 hour and 40 minutes in length. George’s film is about 3½ hours, taking a leaf from Scorsese’s 2005 Bob Dylan extravaganza, No Direction Home. So if the John Lennon film had been made today, it would in all likelihood have been a very different, more expansive experience, and probably an even better one.

Some rock documentaries require a high level of knowledge about its subject so as to fill in the blanks in the film. If you come to Living In The Material World with only basic knowledge about its subject, my guess is that some of the events depicted and people featured in the film will raise a number of question marks that are never straightened out. With my fairly deep knowledge of George’s life, I was still left puzzled by some sections in the film. Also, I do agree with some of the points made in this review, particularly about the complete omission of George’s comeback album Cloud Nine and its international hit single ‘Got My Mind Set On You’. It would have required an additional five minutes at the most, and I can’t see that this would have made much difference when the film was already so long. Perhaps David Hepworth is on to something when he writes in Word Magazine that “you do wonder how many people were interviewed whose contributions ended on the cutting-room floor because their views didn’t coincide with the producer’s argument. Bob Dylan is an obvious no-show but the absence of Jeff Lynne is more puzzling.” Indeed, Jeff Lynne was interviewed but his contributions are only in the DVD’s extras (and not very much at that). Knowing that Lynne was George’s most integral partner on his albums Cloud Nine and Brainwashed, as well as The Traveling Wilburys albums, his complete no-show in the film is incomprehensible.

So: If you’re a Beatles or George Harrison fan, you will definitely enjoy this film – its rare and previously unseen archive footage, and interesting insights from George himself as well as the interviewees, pretty much guarantees that. But be prepared to fill in the blanks.


Quiz answers

Published October 05, 2011

Oh dear. It seems I promised to post answers to a number of quiz questions about three weeks ago. Well, better late than never!


These are the names Prince used when he released the following songs, or contributed to songs by other artists:

  1. Prince & The Revolution:  Pop Life
  2. Prince love symbol : The Most Beautiful Girl In The World
  3. Christopher: Manic Monday (performed by The Bangles)
  4. Prince & The New Power Generation: Money Don't Matter 2 Night
  5. Alexander Nevermind: Sugar Walls (performed by Sheena Easton)



Click here to see who those drawings of variable likeness were supposed to portray.


It's a George-a-vaganza!

Published September 30, 2011

I don't mind admitting that I've been drooling for a long time now at the prospect of Martin Scorsese's mammoth George Harrison documentary, Living In The Material World, which will receive its first public screenings and airings next week. For a long-time Beatles fan, this is like an early Christmas. Here in Sweden we have to wait until the DVD release on October 10 - which is much too long, as far as I'm concerned.

Meanwhile, the book of the same name has an official release date of October 3, but in an amazing reversal of what's usually the case (things getting delayed, postal services f***ing up), my copy of the book was delivered by the good folks at Amazon today three days in advance!

The book is not a proper biography, rather it's a pictorial journey through George's life with comments from George and his friends, many previously unseen photos (several taken by George himself) as well as rare documents, letters and what have you. I know what I'll be doing tonight...

If you want to know more about the Living In The Material World project, this is a convenient place for information.