Canon Fodder?

I have not, at least for many years, fallen prey to that anally retentive behaviour most often associated with the male of the human species — list-making. In Britain, we have another name for it — trainspotting — a term that pre-dates by some distance Irvine Welsh’s adoption of the phrase as the title of his most famous novel.

Genuine trainspotters are those early adolescents who assiduously track down railway engines: every vehicle has a distinctive number and ticking off each sighting has been a hobby for thousands of boys over the decades. If you gave this group the task of spotting the 55 most dangerous Iraqi power-brokers, it wouldn’t be long, I’m sure, before Saddam’s name was crossed off the wanted list.

These dedicated 14-year-old boys — I’ve never heard of a girl dedicating herself to this diversion — are caught in the twilight zone between childhood and maturity, able to wander well beyond the parental gaze but not quite ready to dedicate their energies to the pursuit of more adult pleasures. Also dubbed “anoraks”, a reference to the zip-up jacket inevitably worn by these train chasers, clan members have usually drifted off to other pleasures by their mid-teens. However, entertainment and leisure magazines — rock, movies and sport — have never shied away from that tradition which orders the world via definitive Top Tens and, for the trainspotter in us, as we snuggle into the metaphorical anorak wrapped around us, such listings are curiously reassuring, confirming our belief that this band or that director are indeed the ultimate avatars of style and status, cool and class.

I was never a literal trainspotter, but once, I do admit, I had my league tables of guitarists and songwriters, actors and movie-makers. It was not a lengthy phase, but now such innocent pleasures seemed to have gained a kind of nostalgic respectability. The rise and rise of Nick Hornby must be partially responsible for this trend. Hornby (or at least his characters) has become an emblem of the “new man” — sensitive and reflective — and his love of the list as an aesthetic signifier of the psyche, even a mirror to the soul, has made the practice if not fashionable, then at least acceptable, again. High Fidelity and the much more recent 31Songs are transparent evidence of this particular revival.

You can now reach 30, even 40, and still confess to your attachment to a bunch of favourite soul songs or swear allegiance to those key television moments that sustained you through the good and bad times. You can count your life not through T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons, but through crucial sax solos and critical Scorcese sequences.

I tend to avoid such fripperies now: for one thing, the world has become a much more diverse, enriched and confusing place. Not so long ago, the UK had so few TV channels, so little opportunity to catch movies beyond the current blockbusters, so few music publications, that life’s erratic odyssey could be charted, principally, through the pages of New Musical Express, where, by the 1980s, books and politics, big and small screen reviews, nuzzled up to its unbeatable music coverage. This weekly journal was the one-stop shop of young manhood.

In 2003, multi-channel television comes courtesy of cable and satellite. Countless multiplex cinemas offer dozens of movie choices. Video and DVD allows us to catch anything we’ve missed. Magazine launches seem to happen monthly. And this is before you even click on your computer screen, and become info-intoxicated hitching the side-roads of the information highway.

However, in the last year or two, my own list-omania has enjoyed a brief resurgence. On the popular music degree I teach, I quite often muse on, say, the twenty most significant artists in popular music’s short half-century, since Presley in the mid-1950s to, maybe, Radiohead in the early 2000s. In compiling this mental pantheon I try to avoid such issues as personal taste. I endeavour to make it an irrelevance whether I like the performer or not, a near impossibility but one that makes the exercise a little more interesting and marginally less indulgent.

Such brain games were brought into specific focus during April when, on consecutive nights, I saw performances by two artists who I would not hesitate to include in that cavalcade of influence, commercially or artistically. One Wednesday, I hooked my first live Beatle, catching Paul McCartney in quite stunning form in Manchester. Twenty four hours later, Public Enemy muscled their way into Leeds and delivered a fearsome and compelling blend of aggression and attitude.

The contrasts in the evenings could hardly have been sharper. McCartney’s super-tech show was a joy from start to finish. I’d hated the whole notion of the stadium show until that night but this production — its sound, its lighting, its staging, its charming lead player and, primarily, its deliciously performed music — made me believe that rock can work in the mega-arena.

Chuck D and co were, instead, gathered in the subterranean club of Leeds University: a small dance floor filled to capacity, and hundreds of other bodies leaning over balconies, leering round pillars. Everyone was cast in an all-too bright fluorescent light while the group — a fluid massive of vocalists, rappers, DJs and rhythm section — pumped up their relentless, somewhat resentful, canvas of raw noise.

What was intriguing was that so different a show could emerge from, in essence, a similar black tradition: Southern US acoustic blues re-shaped by, on the one hand, a Liverpudlian with a unique gift for melody, and, on the other, the politically charged preachers of the hip-hop revolution. McCartney took the sound and sweetened it for a white audience; Public Enemy heard it and set out to reconstruct the original cries of slavery as a nightmare soundtrack to the contemporary ghetto.

Who else might take their place in this mythical canon? We’ve mentioned the book-ends of Presley and Radiohead already, but what about this as a popular music history through the 16 remaining places: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, the Sex Pistols, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Nirvana?

No Jerry Lee Lewis or Phil Spector, no Doors or Jefferson Airplane, no Who or Van Morrison, no Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye or Elton John, no Clash or U2 or R.E.M., no Mariah Carey nor the Spice Girls. There’ll be plenty of others whom you just know should be present. Still, while the occasional list may challenge our minds at best or our memories at the very least, it has to be worth emphasising that very little in life or in art can be so neatly arranged, authoritatively drawn, and categorically pigeon-holed.

But in the weft and weave of the everyday, such idle speculations can, on occasions, make the journey a more engaging one. Lists, I guess, were made to be torn-up, but rewriting them can be a stimulating test for our wandering imaginations.

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