As it happens, I’m a person with a lot of heroes. Whether or not readers will find this fact surprising, I don’t know; but the truth really is that there must be a hundred inspiring individuals — most of them dead, but one or two very much alive! — whose example energizes me in my everyday life, and whose standards and achievements I take as the best kind of guidance.
As far as the musical and musicological side of things is concerned, my heroes number in the dozens; but there are three who are particularly important to me. In merely alphabetical order, these are Deryck Cooke (1919-76), Hans Keller (1919-1985) and Robert Simpson (1921-1997). All three of them were magnificently insightful writers on music; all three were good and close friends to each other; all three worked for the (culturally) pre-lapsarian BBC, where they proved themselves marvellous broadcasters as well; and, perhaps significantly, all three of them could and did compose (though only Simpson was officially ‘a composer‘). At the present moment — and for reasons I won’t bore anyone with — Cooke is very much on my mind; and what I want to do here is share with readers the latest (and very recent!) stage in my comprehension of a small but substantial article that he published in the BBC magazine The Listener in 1968.
[[Insert: For those who’ve never encountered it, The Listener (founded in 1929) was a remarkably thoughtful weekly magazine whose intellectual focus was upon the world as presented in and through the BBC’s broadcasting — and whose fate (as the society-destroying forces of neoliberal wealth-extraction became stronger and stronger during the 1980s) was to be publicly tortured to death over five years of increasingly imbecilic commercialization, finally dying in 1991.]]
The Cooke article in question is called ‘The Lennon-McCartney Songs’, and it was published as long ago as 1 February 1968 — which means that, as far as The Beatles and their singles were concerned, it appeared between the B-side that was ‘I Am the Walrus’ (UK release 24 November 1967) and the A-side that was ‘Lady Madonna’ (released 15 March 1968). The bit of text I want to present at this point, though, isn’t about any specific Beatles record at all — but concerns a noted pianist’s mouthing off about stuff, and a number of songs by other individuals.
Here’s the extract, derived from a scan of an original Listener copy…
Now, I can’t remember precisely when it was that I first read the article from which this extract is drawn (it will have been some time in the mid-1980s, and by way of a library copy of the posthumous collection Vindications , in which it was reprinted) — but I do remember that, apart from ‘Downtown’ (which I had definitely encountered many times, probably on BBC Radio 2, which my folks often had on during the day), none of those titles meant anything to me at all. What’s more, there didn’t seem to be any obvious way of my getting to hear those specific songs: though ‘Stormy Weather’, from 1933, was evidently some kind of ‘classic’ (its title was vaguely familiar to me), it wasn’t an item that showed up on 1980s ‘light entertainment’ TV; and as for the other Tony Hatch numbers, they were all written in 1964-6 — and by the 1980s had long dropped off any ‘popular music’ playlist that a young lad not very interested in popular music was likely to encounter. Back in those days, too, municipal record libraries didn’t tend to stock a lot of popular music (nowadays, of course, they contain little else — those that are managing to survive the latest round of neoliberal wealth-extraction…); and, in any case, ‘Stormy Weather’ wouldn’t have been anywhere I’d have thought to look: it certainly wouldn’t have been under ‘A’ for Arlen…
Anyway, the result was that, aside from Cooke’s comments about ‘Downtown’ and the ‘tense syncopated approach to its climax’, I have spent literally three decades of my life not having a clue what he was talking about in that part of his article. Until last Friday, that is.
You see, there I was, walking through Cambridge on my lunch-break, when I encountered a busker performing ‘Downtown’ (or, at any rate, an approximation to it: that ‘tense syncopated approach to its climax’ has to start confidently on the bar’s second beat — and she misplaced it every time…) ‘I wonder what those three other Hatch songs are like…?’, I thought, for probably the hundredth time. And suddenly the realization struck me: all the songs Cooke mentioned would probably now be findable on YouTube…
And here they are, in the order in which Cooke names them. (You may wish to look back to the scanned extract to refresh your memory of what he says…)
First, here are the four Tony Hatch numbers:
And, secondly, here is Harold Arlen’s ‘Stormy Weather’, as performed by its first interpreter:
Having now had a few days to hear and think about these five songs, I’ve decided that I have some worthwhile thoughts about all of them. Why not give them a spin and a ponder yourself — and then we’ll see if your thoughts are at all like mine…?
Incidentally, Cooke’s quotations from Glenn Gould were inevitably shortened very drastically, pared down to the few words that were relevant to the matter in hand. (If you want to hear Gould reading out part of his article, there’s an extract here.) Gould’s original criticism of the Beatles actually proceeded along these lines:
Theirs is a happy, cocky, belligerently resourceless brand of harmonic primitivism… In the Liverpudlian repertoire, the indulged amateurishness of the musical material, though closely rivaled by the indifference of the performing style, is actually surpassed only by the ineptitude of the studio production method. (Strawberry Fields suggests a chance encounter at a mountain wedding between Claudio Monteverdi and a jug band.)
In case that last parenthesis has you baffled, here’s an upload of ‘Strawberry Fields’ (released February 1967) to refresh your memory…
No, I don’t know what the hell Gould means either…
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