Thursday, August 9, 2012

Garry Mulholland's "Fear of Music": Book Review

This starts with the Ramones' debut and halts with 2003. 261 ["greatest albums since punk & disco"] ensures no criterion except what matters to the author. This type of willful individualism makes this attempt to make talking about music fun again; as he warns in the preface, "Critics turned jazz into academia." You won't get song-by-song summaries or who played what; you get him reacting to what he likes, and what goads him on record into having an opinion and making a fuss.

I have a great affection for many of the earlier LPs (as they appeared as such for we who first heard them then) here; Garry Mulholland's less than two years younger than me; he and I bonded, vicariously, over many of these records. Mulholland's keen on the frustrated adolescence, the furtive sex (or lack of) in Pere Ubu, Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Elvis Costello, or Wire. He's excellent on revealing what forced Siouxsie and the Banshees, Devo, X-Ray Spex, Young Marble Giants, or Pere Ubu on "Non-Alignment Pact" (discussed at appropriate length) to put what they had to sing and play on vinyl. He channels more his own reflections on growing up in London (and getting to know some of those mentioned here as musicians) through hearing and learning from such recordings, and this combination of subjectivity and objectivity succeeds.

As he matures, and as he continues to intersperse bits of his life into his mini-essays, the music often surges or fades in equivalent interest for me, perhaps since I was paralleling his own trajectory through his albums, rejecting some and embracing others. Since I never gravitated towards the dance-oriented, trip/hip-hop, or mainstream pop that comprise many selections herein, I admit my own tastes differed, more and more as the decades progressed in this volume. Yet, Mulholland strives to sustain the tone that opened his account, with his own teenaged years coinciding, nearly, with punk's first sparks.

He counters the usual critical impositions that fetishize an often hit-and-miss original LP; he adds greatest-hits or compilations. Roxy Music's collection earns deserved acclaim; "Wanna Buy a Bridge" from Rough Trade label's singles (I have it too on LP) typify this expansion. Fine assortments "Hatful of Hollow" by The Smiths, Can's "Cannibalism," Buzzcocks' "Singles Going Steady," Jesus and Mary Chain's "Barbed Wire Kisses," and The Fall's "458489 A-Sides" gain appropriate mention.

Mulholland leans against the usual critical pressure; he defends My Bloody Valentine's "Isn't Anything" rather than "Loveless" and often overlooked works like Young Marble Giants' "Colossal Youth" and Wipers' "Youth of America" prove refreshing choices. Even if The Fall's "Extricate" & "Live at the Witch Trials" or Husker Du's "Candy Apple Grey" appear odd as the only original LPs from these two stalwarts of (post?)punk from this era.

I step aside when it comes to half of the entries. These didn't interest me as much--I'd heard what I liked here long before, and despite Mulholland's introductions to hundred-odd other (mostly British and U.S.) obsessions, they left me unmoved to seek out different genres and markedly new sounds now. I can't fault this volume for that--it takes on a wide swath of modern music. I may not like as much as he continues to admire, that's all.

Maybe it's part of me and Mulholland as contemporaries growing older with the music. I wonder if he'll keep returning to what moved him as a teen or young man, or whether a post-'03 volume will sum up 261 more come 2030? Today's musicians, amidst similar access to recordings, listen more and more of the past. They may try to leave it behind, or improve it, or pay homage to it. Is this a reason to blame this idealistic and impulsive messenger for his own fervent messages about his beloved stacks of wax and shiny discs?  (Amazon US 12-28-11)

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