Thursday, 11 December 2008

Good taste: it's all a matter of taste

Quick! While it's there, have a listen to me saying how great Phil Collins is on national radio. That's right, last Friday, I was back on Radio 4, gently closing the door marked Credibility on my musical taste via the medium of Front Row.

Of course, there is a certain amount of editorial exaggeration when it comes to these things but in saying that we should not be so harsh on Philly C (as he is known hip hop circles) I was being genuine. And as I suggested might happen in the piece itself, I have already had put-downs from some of my more image-conscious chums, announcing that all contact must now be severed; all skinny tie albums returned.

I've always been concerned about the need to be honest about musical taste and there is nothing that angers me more than people expressing enthusiasm for music they feel in order to wear it like a badge. I have no problem with people genuinely getting excited about say, Slint or Autechre; it's when they claim to really adore something for reasons other than listening to it that I get annoyed. I recently had an argument with a pal of mine, who works in the music business (and am being no more specific than that, I'm afraid) who claimed that most people in record companies and music publishers only listen to things they have to for their job but otherwise remain entirely indifferent to music new or old. I think that's harsh but having said that if you read those annual lists of top executives My Favourite Records of the Year that appear in Music Week, you will see lists of records that most have them have listened to no more than once. If that.

Like everyone, I pride myself on my eclectic taste but in my case, I honestly do have ludicrously broad taste - I bought the current Feeling album for example and whilst not as good as the first, I have played it a damn sight more than than the Bon Iver record. I'm not saying this to be iconoclastic or join the queue of Julie Burchill wannabes, I'm just telling you the truth. I like the Keane record too - admittedly, not enough to keep the CD after ripping it onto iTunes, but certainly enough to keep it on my hard drive and enjoy the tracks that crop up on Shuffle alongside Gregory Isaacs, Magazine and Friendly Fires.

Are you still reading this? I suspect that some of you may be thinking - where is this going? What is he going to reveal to us next? I mean, I know he signed Sleeper but Jesus, does he really need to show us his dirty sock draw?

I'll tell you where I'm going with this, I'm saying that so much of what Good Taste is, is about people not being courageous enough to recognise what they like.

A friend of mine who is a bit older than me was at Art School in the 70s when punk arrived. He told me recently what it was like there when the Clash and the Sex Pistols arrived - most of his mates were listening to Gong, Genesis and Yes and punk was rejected by most of them because they 'couldn't play their instruments'. There was a status that these groups had which you just couldn't knock. Recently he had a argument with a famous dance crossover artist about the unknockable status of the Clash - this musician was suggesting that you simply couldn't say anything negative about the band - they were the benchmark. But, said my friend, all you are doing is is what my old mates at art school did about Gong - you are adding to a consensus of what constitutes good taste - which is based on nothing more than random opinion.

My friend Polly went to see Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in the 90s. It was the hottest ticket in town and she was very keen on Ralph too. But she walked out. "Why?" I asked. "Because I didn't understand all that blank verse; I was bored." Now this girl is no fool, she is extremely bright, reads loads and went on to a very successful management career. It's just that she'd not seen much Shakespeare and had never read Hamlet. So rather than sitting in the dark for another two hours in the dark, she walked back to her flat in Hackney and had a bite to eat. There were probably lots of folk in the theatre that night who were dreaming of doing the same thing but just weren't courageous enough.

I went to the Royal Opera House this week to review a production of Hansel and Gretel. It was the first time I'd been to the ROH despite the fact that I've lived in London all my life so just going inside the building was a treat - brimming with posh old ladies eating Green & Blacks. The review I wrote was a fairly accurate description of what I felt about the show (a good night out) but if I'd had been a little more courageous I would have said- you know what, it really only got going in Act 111; I was pretty bored by Acts 1 and 11 - I mean, where was the drama? Where was the jeopardy? And frankly where was the trail of breadcrumbs? And I'm sure a lot of the punters there were thinking the same thing but the fact that the seats are the price of a weekly supermarket trip meant that they were clinging on to every morsel of proffered entertainment as if it was their last, laughing at things that had they been on the telly, wouldn't have raised a smile. And one last thing - you know the gingerbread cottage that the children eat in the story? Well in this production, it was a dolls house- two mouthfulls of digestive biscuit and it had pretty much gone; like Stone Henge in Spinal Tap. Sort it out! But there you go, I'm in print (next week) saying it's a good night out. Coward.

Earlier in the week I had slightly more fun at shouty metal entertainers, Slipknot. I went with my brother who is a big fan and it must be said they purvey a genius balance of dry ice, scary serial killer imagery, and trad metal with a mid song demeanor of Vegas Rat Pack: "Hey London, it's great to be back!" says the singer in a mask made of human skin, "you guys are just like family, we love you!"

There you are - that's how eclectic my taste is opera, Slipknot ... Keane. Next week I'm reviewing two ballet productions. It's all entertainment, catering for different tastes, maybe, but all of it is of merit and shouldn't be dismissed as worthless just because someone with alleged 'Good Taste' has set the consensus that it's no good. My mum is swayed by this sort of thing a lot: "Oh, it's not been very well reviewed, has it..." she'll say about a film or a play and I'll say, "Oh really, what did they say about it?"
And she'll answer, "Well, I don't really remember but they didn't like it."

"Just one review?"

"Yes, it was in the... Evening Standard, I think." (or whatever paper she happens to have seen that week)

"Oh right - who wrote it?"

"Oh I don't know. Anyway, they didn't like it."

And that's that. End of story. All that time and effort by the creators and just because someone got in print and didn't like it, thousands of people like my mum spread the vague word that it's not worth bothering with the film/book/play/album. My old head of A&R used to get so wound up by bad reviews - comparing the amount of energy, care, and creativity and of course cash that goes into making and releasing an album, with the solitary figure in a room, getting paid 30p a word for writing, "It's a bit rubbish."

So, when I say I like Genesis, The Feeling and Keane, I'm not trying to be contentious. I'm just saying, they may not be for you, but they are not entirely without merit. And liking them shouldn't make you remove me from your Christmas card list. I could tell you that in amongst my current listening is Soft Machine, The Rich Kids, Jake Thackray and Fleet Foxes. Some of these you might like - there is merit in all things. Apart from James Blunt, obviously. Now he really is rubbish.


  1. And I'll raise you Ben:

    What the bloody hell is 'guilty pleasures' meant to be about? If you like something, why be ashamed about it?

    It really annoys me, people going "well, I like Neil Diamond but, obviously, it's a guilty secret" - it's like having a girlfriend you don't want to be seen in public with.

    If you don't have confidence in your taste, you've got a problem - you should be ashamed of yourself, not the artists whose records make you happy.

  2. I love the Level42. Can you guess who I am Ben?

  3. I agree with Simon HB...`guilty pleasures' my arse. One of the good things about being forty something is that you can finally admit to liking the Carpenters and Abba and still listen to Big Black if you want to.

    Two types of music in this world: Good and Bad

  4. like Stone Henge in Spinal Tap

    God yes. I was searching for Hansel and Gretel on Youtube today (the passage where they find the house is one of my favourite in all opera) and it came to mind as soon as I saw the house. Surely everybody must have thought this, including the set designers?