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Rock in the Academy

Simon Warner

Few are stunted or stultified by the need to think about and analyse where rock or reggae or rave fits into the cultural landscape.

Rock 'n' roll education remains something of a contradiction in terms. The great American heavy metal commentator Deena Weinstein told me recently that she gets asked by the hard rockers she interviews to avoid mentioning the books they may have read. The idea that the tattooed hulk of a metal mother might have been shaped at some point by a piece of literature doesn't ring true for that sub-culture at all, so hiding your past bookish misdemeanors is crucial.

But the fact is, rock 'n' roll education is what I do. For almost a decade I've taught in the Popular Music Studies BA program at the University of Leeds. In this area of learning, at least, our rather conservative land has been something of a ground-breaker; bringing pop and rock to the curriculum in a way that most countries — the USA included — have not yet truly managed. Colleges in the States may well touch upon such topics in media and sociology and communication and black studies programmes, but there isn't yet a fully blown degree dedicated to the full-time study of latter day musical styles.

On to our course we bring a range of entrants: some just seeing it as a natural progression from their school or college; some disaffected with more traditional educational routes; some returning to education as mature students. But all are practitioners: talented singers, guitarists, drummers, keyboardists, you name it. As a strictly amateur music-maker myself, I dedicate myself to the theoretical terrains of the degree: cultural theory, history, and the role of the industry.

Nonetheless, to return to my original point, there remains something of a disjunction between the idea of making thrash metal or rapping hip hop, re-mixing techno records or blasting a funky horn, and the notion of serious study. Towards the end of the 19th century, when English Literature drifted into the Victorian curriculum, there were those who regarded the new fangled concept of reading books for their own sake — and for a university qualification — as something beyond the pale. So popular music's difficult arrival at the high table of learning is hardly without a precedent.

Setting aside, however, the academic tensions that always attach themselves to new fields of enquiry, I have the pleasure or working with a string of under-graduates who thrive in this environment. Few are stunted or stultified by the need to think about and analyse where rock or reggae or rave fits into the cultural landscape. Most come with a raft of creative ideas and soon discover a roomful of individuals who want to share and cross-fertilise their own musical dreams.

So far we've seen one graduate become bass player with Morcheeba, the singer-songwriter Chris T-T make a few waves with a number of well-received albums, and an ex-Sister of Mercy spend time with us and then go on to be songwriting tutor at the Paul McCartney-backed Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. It's also worth mentioning that the League of Gentlemen, perhaps the most acclaimed of the current alternative comedy crop, also emerged from the drama school next door.

Our most recent attention-grabbers are the band Little Japanese Toy, who have attracted the affection of legendary rock scribe Everett True, once of Melody Maker and a key figure in the dissemination of Seattle's grunge movement to the wider world. The group recently featured at a live London event celebrating True's latest project: an indie fanzine called Careless Talk Costs Lives.

Yet the group that has probably earned most critical acclaim and shares strong links with our course is Magoo, a band formed before their guitarist, Owen Turner, came to study here, but one that would go on to feature no fewer than five other members of our program in the years that followed. Magoo recorded early singles for the cult independent Fierce Panda, before signing for the Glasgow-based label Chemikal Underground, home to a string of inventive, left-field music-makers from the Delgados to Arab Strap and Mogwai. For them Magoo recorded and released two albums in the late 1990s.

Widely compared with US acts who were little known at the time — lo fi practitioners like the Flaming Lips and Guided By Voices, offbeat nostalgics such as Mercury Rev — Magoo became darlings of the British underground. Yet they surfaced regularly on BBC Radio 1 shows that specialised in records that kept more than an arm's length from the rock mainstream. Veteran DJ John Peel became a fan and Steve Lamacq's programme, credited with giving Oasis and Blur early breaks, also caught Magoo fever.

But if albums like The Soateramic Sounds of Magoo and Vote the Pacifist Ticket Today and singles such as "Holy Smoke" were critically complimented for their compellingly quirky approach to music-making (dissonant guitar noise married to eerie and emotional vocals and haunting harmonies), Magoo was always more likely to win plaudits from art-minded commentators than the from the average person in the street. There was always a sense that if their roots had been in America, Magoo's idiosyncrasies would have been lapped up more enthusiastically in the UK. Comments Turner: "I've long thought, and so have others, that if we were a US band we could have made it big over here quite a while ago. Where's the mystery in Norwich?" (a reference to the East Anglian backwater where the group originally set out). Source for this quote?

When the Chemikal Underground sojourn came to an end and the band was forced to take stock: it found itself label-less and with little material profit to show for years of studio work and gigging. But Magoo have always possessed an utter commitment to the processes of uncompromising artistry and, after some extended downtime, the group is back on track and presenting an impressive body of fresh songs.

Turner sees the new chapter as an organic evolution. He remarks, "Magoo has never intentionally reinvented itself. I would have to call any changes in sound a natural progression as the band and my producing skills mature. We do spend a very long time recording the records, but this is because I'm a producer who's rarely satisfied and because we really are still trying to make sounds and songs that are something different from the majority of what's about at the moment. We want people to like us cause we are unique and not cause we sound like . . . whoever".

The new double A-side single, "Can't Get Off the Ground Today" and "Expansion Ride", came out in mid-March on the group's own May Go Zero label. Their live reputation — always a great calling card — has been re-affirmed with a series of scorching small-scale shows. In a neat piece of circularity, Magoo played a recent set in Oxford — an arty, university city from where Radiohead emerged — and found their support act was Little Japanese Toy. That made for two waves of our popular music course gathering on the same beach.

As for rock 'n' roll education, I don't take any credit for the music that Magoo, Little Japanese Toy, and others have made since studying with me and others in our teaching team. But I don't think there is much doubt that their attitudes to the rock labyrinth — its pitfalls and its possibilities — were shaped more than a little by seriously considering its culture and its economy, alongside those more practical aspects of performing, composing and recording.

Magoo may strike gold this time, Little Japanese Toy may benefit from Everett True's patronage, and a set of even more recent arrivals, Yellow Stripe Nine, could prove bigger than them all, but pop has always been marked by those glorious uncertainties. What is surer is that the music we listen to and immerse ourselves in has finally been recognised as a topic worthy of intellectual enquiry. Yet, if the academy has belatedly embraced rock's many-headed beast, taming it, I assure you, is not on the agenda.

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