Lists are dangerous.
This fact should be abundantly clear in these post-millennium, nowheresville dog-end days, where time is wasted in magazine-land arguing about ‘The Top 100 Songs That Last Less Than Three Minutes With The Name Jimmy In Them’. Prioritising the songs you love is a dirty, sinister thing, so why should you bother? Who in their right minds derives pleasure from deciding whether Kraftwerk’s The Robot is the ninety-fifth best single ever released? Or is it the ninety fourth? Does that cheeky guitar-break in She’s Lost Control make it too damn pop? This endless need to define and compare, to keep reducing something till it’s neatly filed away, categorised into insignificance, is the antithesis of all things music. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it certainly isn’t pop; it’s a “fun” and “crazy” game for the pedantic, the smug and the boring to engage in down the pub.
These are all valid reasons why any music-lover should instinctively bristle at the very thought of Garry Mullholland’s This is Uncool, a collection of the best five hundred singles released since the birth of punk. The title alone smacks of the self-satisfied, ego-tripping knowing journalism of the “I wrote this book for myself and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus” variety. And yet… and yet when you get past the appalling title and all that it represents, and actually begin to read Mullholland’s commentary it becomes clear that this book differs significantly from irritating, generic list-obsessed cousins.
Mulholland’s trick is to skip the whole futile comparison crap and cut to the good stuff. It’s essentially a list of the singles he cherishes from the years 1976 to 1999. Free from any superiority ratings system it becomes an enjoyable journey through the evolution of the pop song. This journey is accompanied by stunning visuals, full, glossy pictures of the best sleeves, including the simplistic brilliance of The Damned’s paper-bag clad heads on the cover of the frantic Neat, Neat, Neat. The book is an insight into the evolution of sleeve art as much as the records within them and it’s all lovingly put together like some high-class, hard-backed, arty scrapbook.
His descriptions of the songs run chronologically and some may grumble about what they feel are glaring omissions. But Mulholland’s full strength enthusiasm is so addictive that it’s impossible to avoid being swept away on a sea of communal affection, uttering the phrase “Oh my God I Love this song” whilst nodding in agreement like a semi-comatose cat. The author strives to express the visceral joy of hearing a song you love for the first time or rediscovering why you fell for it in the first place, whether it be the guilty pleasure of More Than A Feeling or the menacing primal hum of AntMusic. He captures that quicksilver moment where one song manages to lift you from the mundane into a place where you believe it exists for you alone; to satisfy a thirst you never knew you had. This, coupled with his self-deprecating humour, his unending, insatiable obsession with hand-claps and the fact that he does not veer too far into the dangerous “personal anecdote” territory raises the book head-and-shoulders above its nearest shelf-mate/rival, Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs.
Hornby’s book works on much of the same premise, albeit with marked differences, namely the fact that Hornby trades on his own established literary identity. You know, the man who brought you High Fidelity, Fever Pitch and others…Yes, that Nick Hornby, the supposed saviour of the white-middle-class-forty-something-male. Just in case you weren’t paying attention at the back, he seems to re-iterate this fact every second paragraph. It’s obvious Hornby is aware of his target audience and what they anticipate from a typical Nick Hornby book (the usual misty-eyed misplaced sentimentality) which is all well and good within the confines of a novel, except that 31 Songs is no such thing. Hornby’s awareness of his “celebrity” dominates the book, which sadly detracts from his otherwise wry observations about those songs that shaped his world.
I agree that a book of endless descriptions of songs is about as exciting as watching a feature length episode of Heartbeat, and that a little personal narrative is required. But Hornby takes this to the extreme, sometimes managing to bypass talking about the song altogether in favour of describing some irrelevant (mostly trite) personal memory. You’d think that the man that effectively created the culture of the dreaded music list would be able to adhere to the bloody thing, but alas no. Descriptions of songs like The Velvelettes sublime Needle in a Haystack and Your Love is the Place Where I Come From by Teenage Fanclub are lost beneath a deluge of self-indulgent frippery. You’d have to be the most devoted Hornby fan to be able to stomach his tales of asking Teenage Fanclub to play a benefit gig for his son’s school or how the only advantage of the Hollywood adaptation of About A Boy was being able to listen to the soundtrack before everyone else.
Due to this slightly conceited attitude 31 Songs is less accessible and lacks the warmth of Mulholland’s prose, as Hornby refuses to let his reader indulge in any kind of collective recognition. It’s the kind of book those “I liked it first!” territorial, bed-wetters would enjoy. It’s as if Hornby doesn’t feel the need to share the wonder of the songs themselves, that greatness is implied in his act of choosing them in the first place from the myriad of others available. However, one unsettling trait that both Hornby and Mulholland share is their need to explain what the song means, not to them personally, but literally, sometimes separating line by line to share with the obviously inept reader what’s going on inside those “crazy” musicians’ heads. Personally, I couldn’t give a flying fuck what Tom Verlaine’s talking about on Marquee Moon; all I know is he mentions rain, graveyards and a Cadillac, and that my friend is damn sexy; there is no need nor room to speculate any further.
Hornby’s reflective style would be much better suited to a music-centric biography like Giles Smith’s exuberant Lost In Music or Bill Drummond’s fantastic (and criminally underrated) 45. These type of books give an imaginative writer room to breathe, to expound their theories on their life through music, free from the rigid structure that Hornby tries to eschew in 31 Songs. Just as This is Uncool triumphs, revelling in its glorious irrelevance. Hornby overcomplicates 31 Songs by trying to elevate it above its light-hearted, frivolous form. Hornby should know that frivolity is a good thing, it’s what the best pop songs are made of.
Originally published in Foggy Notions