Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Gerry Smyth's book on Irish rock

Here's my review "le mo ainm as gaeilge" since my anglicized name is as common as, in Joyce's phrase, "Mickey Mud and Paddy Stink." It appeared in The Blanket last week; the link's at the bottom back to that doughty online project straight out of Ballymurphy, West Belfast.

The Critical History of (Irish pop) Noise Gerry Smyth. Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music (Cork UP, 2005) 1-85918-387-5. Book Review Seaghán Ó Murchú • 21 February 2006

Mark J Prendergast's pioneering 'Isle of Noises' (Irish publication as 'Irish rock', 1987; St Martin's US, 1988) brought Irish rock, by anecdotes, interviews, summaries of bands and albums and key songs, its first extended presentation in print. Now, in a book also titled with a variation on 'noise', cultural and literary critic Gerry Smyth (Liverpool John Moores U) brings his postmodern application of Jacques Attali's 70s-era 'Noise: the political economy of music' to dismantle the leftist, Adorno-founded, snobbish dismissals of rock as a populist vulgarity unbefitting the deluded proles beholden to their cunning minders. Smyth takes music seriously but not snootily. He's an academic who can discuss music intelligently without falling into condescension or hyperbole. He is a fan of much of what he writes of, but he also knows when to keep his intellectual distance. He presents the shift in Irish rock and pop from an insular, uncertain, cultural expression to another slick (if perhaps classier) product for the global capitalist media market by the 90s. Ireland's boom allowed its cultural production the status it needed to enter into the ranks of Anglo-American cultural capital (and sometimes beyond): successfully sold, eagerly consumed entertainment.

I only caught a couple of typos; sadly such quality's rarer to find in many scholarly studies today. (Although it is debatable if as he states Horslips began in 1972; the band played in some form as early as 1970.) Smyth admirably can paraphrase arcane French theory while analyzing the most glossy pop tart or candyflossed ditty. He integrates his critique with a defense of some oft-benighted musical efforts. His apologia for the showbands' significance; his understanding of Horslips as the first home-grown, domestically-committed success; his placement of punk and then U2 as harbingers of the confidence that Irish youth by the mid-90s began to exude; his thoughtful examination of 'Celtic' music's label and the Enya and Clannad's ethereal emanations; Eurovision and its spawn of the martial Riverdance-- these topics make convincing points that foreground the emergence of artists who knew how they could be marketed to accentuate their Irish identity as necessary. This appeal to the Irishness supposedly inherent in a band's image or musician's sound, however, could as easily been irrelevant, and part of Smyth's study also examines why and how certain musicians, especially those aiming for the top of the pop charts, presented themselves without discernable traits supposedly tied to Ireland. This calculated strategy-- to be or not to be heard and seen as if Irish-- itself deserves more sustained attention. This book is so brief that such theoretical matters lack the investigation that they deserve. However, this book should inspire in-depth study by those scholars and critics who will extend and narrow Smyth's arguments to particular bands, styles, and musical trends.

Smyth "reads" a few songs closely, and in Horslips' "Dearg Doom," the Undertones' 'Teenage Kicks', the fusion of Moving Hearts, the defiance of the Pogues, or in 'N17' the contradictory allegiances from Saw Doctors, Smyth shows how such songs capture key moments of the Irish experience. The emerging confidence of the island between Britain and America begins to be heard as the early 1970s bring about (as Horslips drummer and 'Hot Press' commentator Éamon Carr has commented upon in Harper & Hodgett cited below) a delayed countercultural movement in Dublin that began to mix folk and rock, pop and experimentalism. While the 90s began to promote this version of a homegrown response to the Anglo-American media hegemony, its roots can be found, Smyth reminds us, as far back as at least the showbands, Seán Ó Riada, and state-sponsored cultural bursaries as a spin-off of the Lemass administration's emphasis upon economic self-sufficiency. (For more context, read Irish-born and a few Irish-by-adoption baby-boomers on the largely classic rock influences that shaped them in the collection 'My Generation', eds. Antony Farrell, Vivienne Guinness, Julian Lloyd. Dublin: Liliput Press, 1996. Track how many old hippies acknowledge the LP 'Ó Riada Sa Gaeilty' as a desert island disc that argued for the first time that the traditional music need not be moribund, risible, or barbed with CBS threats.)

It is a credit to Smyth's ability to listen without (much) prejudice that he gives a patient ear to many efforts by musicians that au courant hip critics would have disdained. He does not let his own preferences overly interfere with his quest to understand how Irish musicians-- at least in their more inspired moments, rare as they may be-- tried to balance acclaim with integrity. Even those musicians I never have cared for (such as Rory Gallagher, Saw Doctors, Enya, or most of Van the man), by his patient exposition and evident enthusiasm, proved in Smyth's rendering able to account for themselves reasonably well as representative forces for not only musical expression but cultural significance. Neither does Smyth ignore pin-ups, one-hit wonders, or rather obscure groups who earned or did not deserve their obscurity.

The book does have slight shortcomings. Do not expect a narrative as complete or as personal in its style as "Isle of Noises." Smyth does take the necessary story further fifteen years past Prendergast, yet this is not an exhaustive compendium or a definitive reference. It's ultimately a 'Critical' as well as a 'Short History'. He is a professor. It's oriented for an academically inclined general reader, whereas Prendergast's book was for fans. Both authors clearly possess an inherent patience and eclectic embrace of a vast array of musical efforts. Popular music for Ireland seems in both books doomed to account for folk, a bit of trad, jazz, blues, bubblegum, teenybopper, rave, dance, chart fodder, and techno, to name but a few varietals. Like Prendergast's book, Smyth appends his own bibliography along with a provocative discography. Many entries, however, are not mentioned in the text. Pictures contributed much to Prendergast's evocation of the times; illustrations for Smyth's book would have been effective. I assume their absence is to lower production costs, as Cork UP has had tumultuous times lately.

I do wish Smyth had paid further attention to both Ash & Therapy? within their Northern context (or lack of, he might observe). As an aside, I find it odds-defying that another Northern Irish group had emerged in the 70s, more folky, called 'Therapy'! (no punctuation in the original...) A major oversight also lies in too little attention paid to the punk movement, on both sides of the border in the later 70s and early 80s. Similarly, Stiff Little Fingers has often been yoked with their 'British' journalist-lyric writer Gordon Ogilvie, but why not a look into how that band cleverly managed to speak to both sides by its ambivalent stance and its refusal to take sides so as to appeal to both sides? Smyth correctly cites this in 'Alternative Ulster' but the analysis deserves in-depth attention. The evolution of the 'Tones into That Petrol Emotion with its more aggressive counter-Thatcher lyrics and graphics and liner notes needed to be expanded similarly, as did the emergence of Ruefrex, Derry and Belfast punk, and the Good Vibrations label. I know that 'Tone Seán Ó Neill and Simon Tregarth {mistake: Guy Trelford, some other Brit-Cornishy name!} co-authored 'Makes You Want to Spit' on NI punk, but Smyth needed to incorporate more of its expression into his own study-- as it is he only lists in the bibliography.

Likewise, genre-challenging experimenters better or worse like Pierce Turner, Iarla Ó Lionaird, or Kíla needed more than a nod. Country & Irish gets superficial asides; I ask how does its appeal connect with the showbands' past audiences? The sean-nós vocal heritage and its echoes in modern Irish singers could have merited reflection and exemplification. The tastes of those raised in Ireland on either limited domestic hits or British and American pop stars from the 50s and 60s: how did they change with the demographic and musical shifts as Irish artists gained wider success abroad? What influence has local radio had? The remarkably vapid choices of most regional radio stations in their musical programming seem to me forever at odds with the wealth of innovation by many Irish musicians. How can Smyth account for this and the role of alternative media channels over the past five decades? He does consider more recent innovations such as digital recording at home, the Net, filesharing, and DJ mixes, but this area of individually-driven production and distribution needed more historical situating within earlier channels and home-grown distribution efforts that countered, subverted, or aped the largely London-dominated mass media.

The quirky Cork rock scene of the 80s gets but a nod beyond a bit on Microdisney. How that city succeeded or failed in churning up an contrasting sound to that of guitar-driven Dublin deserved more detail, as the book suffers from a Dublin-centered concentration. Understandably so, but all the more reason for a closer examination of the regional reactions to it in such places as Cork, Derry, Belfast, and Galway. What happened in the market towns? What was played at the parish dance? How did bands in rural areas adapt, or fail to do so? Did varieties of music persist in particular districts-- were these popular as well as traditional types? The political uses, particularly in the North, of grassroots protest songs and cassettes of rebel ballads and loyalist anthems might have greatly enriched Smyth's study. However, the political applications Smyth applies and the theorists he chooses admittedly follow in post-modern more than nationalist or sectarian directions.

Two complementary books from 2005 (they seem to have appeared too late for Smyth's acknowledgement) widen a key section in Smyth's account of the 60s and earlier 70s. Britta Sweers musicological-sociological study of the British heyday of 'Electric Folk' (Oxford UP) treats the scene from which-- if one or half a step removed-- kindred spirits Paul Brady, Sweeneys Men, Planxty, the Bothy Band, and the Woods Band emerged. Belfast journalists Colin Harper & Trevor Hodgett's 2005 'Irish Rock, Trad & Blues' (Cherry Red; also reviewed by me for The Blanket) in rock mag style compile their interviews and reviews and reminiscences of this same era, more or less. This late 60s, somewhat postponed, Dublin-Belfast counter-cultural ferment, when progressive mingled with protest tunes, psych with acid, and folk with rock, needs still more investigation in its Irish manifestation. Dr Strangely Strange, Skid Row and Brush Sheils are nearly invisible; Eire Apparent-- whose one album was shakily produced by Jimi Hendrix-- is invisible.

Likewise, Virgin Prunes and the alternative-to-U2 Dublin movement of the late 70s, as well as the place of the Radiators within as Ireland's fast-maturing answer to and challenge to punk, gain notice but lack the detailed treatment that they deserve. (Neil McCormick, whose 2006 book co-authored with U2 is a bestseller, earlier wrote an engaging and surprisingly thoughtful memoir of this Northside Dublin milieu as he grew up with the band in school, provocatively titled 'Killing Bono'. The Christian evangelical mix with a proto-goth ethos that Lypton Villagers practiced also merits more sustained study. Speaking of which, not mentioned is the metal-Irish-folk hybrid Cruachan. Their ethos could have garnered for Smyth a heap of rich ore to grind in his critical mill!)

Basically, a longer book, for once, would have been better.

To his credit, when the Corrs or Thin Lizzy's 'Whiskey in the Jar' or B*witched-- not to mention Van Morrison with and after Them-- raise familiar touchstones, Smyth also pauses and treats these breakthrough artists with the same attention that he devotes to lesser known musicians or groups more fawned over by many erudite rock critics. As an aside, speaking of hits, I would have liked to know, if only to satisfy my momentary curiousity, why Chris de Burgh (to blame for that wretched 'Lady in Red' ballad!) was only a psuedo-Irish artist. Even Gilbert O'Sullivan gains his glance. This book-- far more than Smyth's previous, more theoretical, Pluto Press, post-modern analyses of literature and culture-- reads easily. He's able to show why cult faves and chart toppers both left an Irish legacy, some for being identified with the island, some for not.

By the turn of the century, it seems less so that Irish artists desire to be identified with the island's benign or patronising musical stereotypes. Whether the Corrs, JJ72, Samantha Mumba, or Boyzone-Westlife-Take That boybands, Smyth shows cleverly how they all chose to downgrade or simply elide over any sense of themselves as the Other as they achieved wider chart success. The few pages given to Louis Walsh's Svengali-like spell over boybands itself again shows how a topic SMyth raises could lead to follow-up exploration by cultural critics, especially those enamoured of queer theory and gender issues. Similarly, Smyth's take on Sinéad O'Connor's soul-baring move away from her early contradictions of fragility and brutality into a more complex relationship with her Irish allegiance presents a challenging idea that future scholars will continue to refine.

U2 is the guiding angel-daemon behind any Irish rock music post-1980. Suffice it to say that Smyth shows well why 'Achtung Baby' succeeds. He argues that the band took an enormous risk here, and stayed with the zeitgeist even as it expressed it, yet its music hearkened back to its roots even as it expanded into the dance-rave scene then popular. He tracks how after all the Fly-Zoo hubbub again the band regrouped from a weak album a decade later. The band's own talent at managing to speak to its own audience while advancing their listeners and the band itself into further self-exploration, artistic courage, and musical challenge is expressed well by Smyth. Again, credit the author with being able to convince at least this tepid listener to U2 that the band does indeed represent the past three decades of Irish identities in its music, its image, and its idealism. 'Beautiful Day' was well-timed as the rarest of feats, a band able to move with the times for the third time. Smyth, with this concluding episode, to date the zenith of Irish pop success, reminds us that the band, for all its slyness, embraces many facets of an artistic shape-shifting. U2's success helped them, as the first truly international Irish superstars, to achieve the fruition of today's complex blur of Irishness. Four teens and a sharp-eyed manager, they have been able to express all the changes of the past thirty years within the vision that they began with when Ireland slumped in the late 70s and appeared as if it would never recover. Smyth's small study reminds us how crucial popular music has been in encouraging today's Ireland.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Horslips: Their best album

Here's an updated version of an Amazon review of "The Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony," one of the few concept albums that did not embarrass its listeners three decades after the prog-rock mid-70s, at least in my opinion. Since the wife hates Jethro Tull, however, she may not like this either. (P.S. I do see that on her blog at http://casamurphy.blogspot.com she did put up a nice portrait of the Fab Five in their prog-glam Don Kirschner presents In Concert-ish heyday, so maybe she now realizes Horslips are better than Tull, and more humble too I am sure if less enriched after their decades-long legal battle to regain control of their tapes.) But, it's my tip of the cloth cap to a literate and accomplished recording.

Well, it's a toss-up between this and "Tain" as the two best Horslips LPs, and since I gave their debut "Happy to Meet" a full five, I'd give these other two albums even more. Neck-and-neck at first, but the Book of Invasions gets the horse's nod over the Tain. Book is a bit less dated in its arrangements. The pace is more sustained. The tightness of the band has been honed by years on stage. The prog leanings of their career's start seem--after Dance the Cold Winter's trad detour--seem to have been supplanted by a more medieval sounding, courtlier spark. Hearing this after practically memorizing the LP--it was the first of their LPs more widely distributed outside Ireland and Britain--this ain't rock and roll, this is rouse & roll. Coming out of the mid-70s overkill from so many "serious" musos, Horslips kept their sense of humor and cleverness, which I supposed enabled even their blandest albums (such as preceded this two back) somewhat worthwhile.

Unlike the other Horslips albums I have reviewed on Amazon, this album gains force from its accrued impact, rather than its individual tracks. Like "Táin," "Book" is meant to work as a unified single piece of music, as the subtitle defines it. Songs are chapters in a book, verses of a poem.

Instrumental and sung passages alternate in the three movements of the album from Geantrai--cheerier songs-- to Goltrai-- laments--to Suantrai-- songs of sleep or dreams. These unify as in storytelling various "branches" of the tale and classify them in ancient Irish categories of narrative craft and intent. It's a "Celtic symphony," therefore, in the ebbs and crests of the musical representation and the lyrical explanation of the energetic clashes and couplings the Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhala) relates-- the tribes who landed in pre-Christian Ireland successively to fight over its land and its wealth.

I always have a bit of a problem with lyrics from this band; they stick maddeningly in the memory--few bands wrote such catchy tunes that aren't jingles or dance-pop--but sometimes I think they fall flat in their rhyming or imagery, even as many other times they are sung as perfectly terse and cutting, fitting the aggression or the tenderness of the battles and couplings they narrate from one of the rhetorical skills preserved in these oldest surviving Irish epics, I reckon more than two thousand years old as they were passed down orally long before their manuscript forms. They do combine the grand metaphor with the colloquial taunt in a style that I guess might be surprisingly faithful to the shifts in register of the Old Irish text! Admittedly, compressing a long epic into forty minutes challenges the most talented, and Horslips proved here that they could not only repeat their success with the Táin, but bettered it by skills honed over their intervening three years of relentless gigging. No other band had the literary skills as well as the musical imagination to pull this off. "Book" should make you want to look up the originals--on or off-line now, handily. As a teen hearing this, I then turned to reading the original stories.

Rock and folk, tradition and innovation: few groups can combine these strands well. Horslips, in this and their other albums, even if they did not always reach such heights as here, were accomplished original artists. These guardians and transmitters of the storytelling treasure here are amplified; their determination to make the tales relevant as heard and as read remains impressive.

The clash of the tough tribes invading Ireland and the De Danaan defenders echoes through the shrieking guitars and whining winds and keys and ominous marching tattooes. It's a visceral album begging for great headphones and quality speakers. Vocals are winningly humble or dauntingly taunting, and the bold and tender tales are told with economy and intelligence.