Stuck a piece of crack in a butcher’s hand
Remind me to give me my cat back
– Happy Mondays, “Do It Better”
Over four decades have scampered by since the Rolling Stones – tongues stuck firmly in their collective cheek – wrote a song about being “so respectable” (“Well now we’re respected in society/We don’t worry about the things that we used to be”); almost five have elapsed since the late singer George Melly first conceptualised the process whereby commerce sweeps up anything left-field and confrontational in its sanitising grasp, sands down the rough edges and starts making money out of it. Melly’s thesis was entitled The Revolt into Style – the phrase can be found in Thom Gunn’s 1950s poem about Elvis Presley – and illustrations of it can be glimpsed in practically every major UK publisher’s catalogue, as well as most Friday nights on BBC4.
Nothing could be more symbolic of the revolt into style’s ever more devious assault on the citadels of high culture than the book that fell out of a parcel onto my kitchen table sometime last month. Published by the fine old firm of Faber & Faber, dinkily got up in the wafer-thin hardback format of a svelte volume of poetry, uncompetitively priced at £14.99 for 93 widely-spaced pages, this turned out to be… a new collection by Paul Muldoon? The latest musings softly let fall by Sir Andrew Motion? No. What we had here was Wrote for Luck, the “selected lyrics” of Shaun Ryder, one-time front-man of the Happy Mondays and Black Grape and still called upon to perform vocal duties for these ensembles whenever another VAT bill wings in from HMRC, beginning with a song entitled “Kuff Dam”:
If you’ve got to be told by someone then it’s got to be me.
And that’s not made from cheese and it doesn’t get you free
– Happy Mondays, “Kuff Dam”
The Mondays, in case you don’t remember them, were a particularly lairy bunch of northern hooligans brought to public notice by the ‘Madchester’ phenomenon of the late 1980s. The music journalist Nick Kent conducted a famous joint interview with Shaun and his boys and fellow Mancunians the Stone Roses in a Top of the Pops studio around this time, which made such legendary wild men of pop as the Sex Pistols or the New York Dolls look positively anodyne. Of the many autobiographical fragments in the current volume, my favourite – in fact from the mid-’90s Black Grape days – has Shaun waking up stark naked in the basement of a restaurant next to a pair of similarly unclothed waitresses, holding a gun from whose chamber three bullets have disappeared, and with no idea of how he got there or what happened to the missing ammunition.
Why our troubled times are perfect for poetry
All this is simultaneously a proper larf, as Ryder would put it, and, with its elegies for dead friends and drug casualties, a serial tragedy, a kind of souped-up Mancunian version of Hubert Selby jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. But what are we – the critical, interrogative we, that is – to make of Wrote for Luck, in whose elegant presentation and chaste Faber typeface there lies the hint of something deliberately provocative?
Ryder’s introduction is horribly self-deprecating (“I’ve never put myself forward as an agonised wordsmith.”) His sponsor, Faber’s Lee Brackstone, has remarked, on the one hand, that lyrics are rarely art (although there is a case for regarding them as “pop art”) and, on the other, that publishing them in the format of a Muldoon or a Motion is a self-consciously subversive act. Shaun, as Brackstone winningly puts it, is a poet, but he doesn’t write anything that could be called ‘poetry’.
Why are publishers pandering to the mob?
As for Wrote for Luck’s three dozen or so selections, Shaun confides that at the start of his career, when the Mondays were not much more than a musical street gang whose heads were as scrambled as those of their MDMA-toting audience, he was “more concerned with how the words sounded than what they actually meant”, which makes him seem like more of a sound poet hauled out of a bygone experimentalist’s vault inhabited by such hard-line Sixties avant-garde pranksters as Bob Cobbing. Crammed with arresting images (check out ‘Performance’, which nods to the Nicolas Roeg film of the same name), and huge amounts of drug-addled free associating, the Ryder oeuvre also nods at what might be called the buried literary sensibility that lies at the heart of so much English pop – the way in which bright but undereducated working class boys (Ryder claims to have left school at 14 as a virtual illiterate) are still borrowing from a word-hoard assembled from everything from the Bible to Charles Dickens.
You’ve been with fat lady wrestlers
And Germans in trenches,
And teachers who speak to themselves
Snide sneak corner, and baby beat a pauper
Peasants who eat from the road
– Happy Mondays, “Fat Lady Wrestlers”
All this may not, strictly speaking, be literature, but like many another pop lyricist’s gleanings – practitioners as various as Paul Weller, Polly Harvey and Howard Devoto spring to mind – it occupies a curious hinterland where pop and literature (and a fair amount of sociological baggage) collide head on. Meanwhile, as reviews of Shaun’s magnum opus continue to appear in Sunday newspapers and Keith Flint – another mad-lad denounced as a public menace 20 years ago – finds his obituary taking up a full page of The Times, it is worth trying to locate the topsoil in which all this sanctification of pop-cultural talent took root and grew.
Certainly, such a thing barely existed in the world of my adolescence. A few high-brow critics might have acclaimed the Beatles’ “pentatonic clusters”, but I can remember the terrible row that broke out in August 1977 when the The Times obituaries page led with an encomium to Elvis rather than a distinguished churchman who had died on the same day. I can also remember, as a sixth-former, discovering a review of the first Siouxsie and the Banshees album in the New Statesman, and registering my surprise that a magazine I had previously gone to in search of upper-brow literary criticism should now be noticing, well, pop records.
A howl of anger from the heart of forgotten Britain
By the late 1980s, most of the snootiness had gone, such luminaries of the ’70s music press scene as Charles Shaar Murray were ornamenting the arts pages of the Daily Telegraph and rock sociology had become a staple of publishers’ lists (again, much of the running was made by Faber, who published Jon Savage’s trail-blazing England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock as early as 1992.) As for the motivation, part of it lay in an awareness that such subjects are, and were, fascinating – whatever you might think of Morrissey he is part of a tradition of working-class auto-didacts that goes back to Winstanley’s diggers. A little more, to return to Melly’s ur-text, is to do with commerce and still more is to do with straightforwardly generational factors.
As was several times pointed out at the time, one of the reasons Kate Bush’s series of live concerts a couple of years back attracted such lavish coverage (Ms Bush, too, is a beneficiary of the Faber lyric-publishing project) is that all the nation’s middle-aged male newspaper executives had never got over her first performing “Wuthering Heights” back in 1978.
The future, alas, is less promising than it seems. Leaving aside R&B and teen-pop, the big money in the modern music business tends to be earned from the entity known as “heritage rock” played – and replayed – by musicians who have in some cases been going for upwards of half a century. What happens when Mick and Keef and Paul and all the other beneficiaries of the revolt into style have shuffled off the planet? Twenty years hence, will Faber be publishing, say, the selected lyrics of Dizzee Rascal? It would be interesting to hear Mr Brackstone’s views.