The Guardian‘s arts coverage is perhaps the best the British press has to offer, and it has always seemed to reserve a special place for rock and pop music, treating it with the same level of respect that the NME of old did. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the standard of music journalism in The Guardian Book of Rock & Roll is of a generally high quality. Featuring pieces from the 1950s until the recent past, the tone is always respectful of its subject (even when meditating on the explosion of tribute acts in the 1990s) and frequently inspiring about the possibilities of music (a point of all good music journalism).
Due to the wide scope of the collection, it is also eclectic, which is sometimes good and sometimes not so good. The piece by British Conservative party leader David Cameron, using the Ramones as potential inspiration for their party’s election fight, for instance, is little more than curious. Yet the sympathetic interview and “guilty pleasure”-esque write up on denim clad boogie rockers Status Quo is a refreshing treatment of a very unfashionable band. That particular article honestly appraises the band’s innocent rock ‘n’ roll appeal, without valourising its members as pioneers, and avoids treating them with a standard rock critic sneer.
Another high point here is the analysis of the fractured relationship between the two main songwriters in the Libertines — Peter Doherty and Carl Barat. The piece is a balanced account of a band that’s British following became phenomenal, and reached a cult status redolent of the Smiths. The article is full of telling quotes from both, often directly at odds with each other. This one is slightly flawed, however, in that it falls into the trap of perpetuating the hype around a band that produced occasionally sublime, but more frequently mediocre, albums, and were the benificiaries/victims of “voice of a generation” tags from the NME.
Weighing your own opinions against those of the authors here becomes part of the overall enjoyment of the collection. Particularly in the piece on “overrated albums”, as identified by an array of musicians and literary writers. This one gives voice to some intelligent and sometimes quite acerbic opinions that are against so-called classic albums. A member of Battles attacks the “post 9/11 party rock” of the Strokes, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside’s description of Arcade Fire as music for “people in cars” is inspired, while Wayne Coyne derides the commercial sheen of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind. A little editorial intervention should perhaps have been included to challenge the legitimacy of having a member of the Kooks deride the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds LP, though.
Perhaps the best piece in the collection, however, is Dorian Lynskey’s on the popularity in the early noughties of moderate rocking driving music (“Music To Drive Cars By”). It functions as an excellent snapshot of a rather dire moment in pop music culture when Nickelback exemplified the zeitgeist. Some eras attract more ire than others, but it reminds the reader to be grateful for his or her own era’s blessings. Indeed, these “state of music” style pieces are a cornerstone of the Guardian‘s music writing. By using the template of the newspaper opinion piece, they analyse pop in the same way as one would current affairs.
Due to the widely read nature of the Guardian, some pieces in this collection seem a little bit middle of the road — clichés about the “generational angst” of Radiohead are put forth in an article prior the release of OK Computer; likewise the fact that Arctic Monkeys are sarcastic and Northern isn’t all that illuminating (a reccurent theme of Alexis Petridis’ feature on their rise). Two responses — firstly, the breadth and quirkiness of much of this collection overshadows the occasional bland sentiment. And secondly — and more importantly — the balanced angle of the Guardian serves music better than (for example) the latter day NME‘s hypemongering, or the more self-satisfied, Dylan-obsessed critic’s definitive canonical responses. Well worth a look.