Giles Smith has written his own highly personal history of pop music, and virtually the whole of the pop agenda is touched on, from the first incriminating piece of vinyl you ever bought to the disillusioning machinations of the record companies armed with 35 page contracts. What is refreshing about Smith’s approach is that this is far less a cautionary tale for aspiring pop stars than a wide-eyed, anecdote-laden eulogy to pop, what Smith at his most serious and Nietzschean refers to as a ‘monumentally life-affirming force, proof of the raging heart and the racing pulse.’ He is at his most insightful on the relation of pop music to identity, how pop has the potency to centre you in yourself, to both confirm your self-chosen image and, inevitably, expose you to the critical glare. There is much more to pop music than simple faddish predilection, and he brings this out most memorably in his comments on Tony Blair who, when asked recently about his pop tastes, listed Seal, REM and Annie Lennox, thus (cautiously?) betraying no bias whatsoever towards race, gender, genre or American culture, and every conceivable bias towards the dynamically modern, perfectly poised PR leaving us to conclude for ourselves that in its obsession with veneer, pop has found an uncomfortable bedfellow in politics.
The earliest glimpses of Smith are also among the funniest. As a nine-year-old and potential sociopath of the early seventies (and who wasn’t) he is out shopping on Saturday morning in Colchester with his parents, and scouring the streets on the off chance of spotting Marc Bolan whom he knows doesn’t live there and would be unlikely to shop there on a Saturday morning if he did. ‘No place for Bolan, really,’ admits Smith, casting a retrospective gaze on himself as a nine-year-old sitting upstairs in Jacklins with coffee and individually wrapped chocolate digestives while middle-aged waitresses mill around in their starchy uniforms. ‘No place for Bolan with his corkscrew hair, his glitter painted cheekbones, his shiny silver jacket and satin trousers,’ he muses, merging Bolan with the mundane setting to good comic effect. This is a frequent strategy of Smith’s, a marriage-of-incongruities style straight out of the Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer school of comedy. Still, he does paint a good picture. Before he made it big-ish, Rick Astley used to work at Parkside Garden Centre, Newton Le Willows, and Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners once had a job washing up at Butlin’s in Clacton-on-Sea.
This is pitched to the outside edge, the periphery of periphera. It is trivia about trivia, but not evidence of a writer trying to debase the subject matter so much as flatter it with a focus on its minutae worthy of Mastermind. What else can you expect from a man (and part-time ‘hi-fi enthusiast’) who declares ownership of NMEs dating from 1977-87 and – wait for it – an unbroken set of 100 ‘Q’ magazines? You must concede at least a token of admiration for a man who owns up to possessing and being emotionally buoyed by his 12 inch copy of Deneice Williams’ Let’s Hear it for the Boy and who confesses to having been in a gents’ toilet and mouthed the words to Prefab Sprout’s Care and Girls at his reflection – instantly becoming Paddy McAloon (‘…proof of the raging heart and the raging pulse’?)
The hilarious special pleading for Nik Kershaw (Smith owns his first four albums) must be read to be believed, particularly in the light of his unfathomable dismissal of Lennon’s Imagine album. But then this book is, after all, about obsession rather than taste, about trees rather than wood, and even if it is occasionally naff then its passion and engaging wit render it forgivably, and even endearingly so.
Reviewed by Francesco Spagnolo