“Pretentious rubbish”, a friend would say about music he didn’t like.
His comment was chiefly reserved for a rock group called “Yes”, but was used about other bands as well. Only years later did the thought occur that his vocabulary, with which to comment on music, might not have extended much beyond those two words; when you have no words at all, having two words makes someone an expert.
It was hard to know what “pretentious” meant, what did he think the music was pretending to be? Can rock music pretend to be something it’s not?
Going to university in London, there were people whose critical vocabulary extended far beyond two words. I would buy New Musical Express sometimes in the hope of finding the language to understand those who used the opportunity of being at a college just off the Strand to go to concerts in all the nearby venues. It never worked. Reading Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds’ Corner’ column, I would wonder if the NME reviews bordered on the point of being ’pretentious’, but would never have dared to say so. What would someone from the sticks know about such things?
There was music I loved, but would not have admitted. Tamla Motown tunes could lighten grimy London streets; but what undergraduate in a left-wing college in 1980 was going to admit to being fond of Diana Ross and the Supremes? It was bad enough being seen buying a Blondie album in the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street.
The other music that could transform a situation was Ska; for a brief period, the Two Tone bands filled the charts. My friend would undoubtedly have dismissed them as being just ‘pop’ bands, he could hardly have called them ‘pretentious’ and the smart middle class students in their New Romantic outfits would probably have thought it was pub music. But there was an energy in the music that drove away the gloom of the outside world.
The lyrics were about the ordinary things of life and the beat was for dancing. You didn’t put on Ska records to sit down and have intellectual conversations.
Madness were the best. Their rhythms drove out the thoughts of recession Britain. They could articulate the thoughts for which a nineteen year old working class kid had no vocabulary. The second verse of “My Girl” expressed in a few lines that inability to communicate:
“My girl’s mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard
Why can’t I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
‘Cause everything I say
She doesn’t understand
She doesn’t realise
She takes it all the wrong way.”
One Step Beyond, the album from which it came sits a few feet away, in a pile on the study floor, along with Blondie and Diana.
Madness came to Dublin last year, their energy remains; their sound still has a recession-exorcising quality. They are returning after Christmas, but no-one I know wants to go – a recession, and listening to Ska by myself, it will be like going back thirty years.