There is no footage of George Orwell, no recordings of his voice, just assorted photographs, and of course, his writing, his brilliant writing, which forms the basis of this Emmy award-winning documentary George Orwell - A Life in Pictures.
This documentary recreates Orwell’s life through a series of imaginary film clips, fictional archive news stories, and the sort of documentary films Orwell may have made. Chris Langham is Orwell and he brings a warmth, intelligence and humanity to the role.
Best known for his star performance in The Thick of It, and his work with Spike Milligan and The Muppets, Langham has become a controversial figure of late as he was sent to gaol in 2005 for downloading hard core child pornography. He said he did it for research, for a character he was playing on a TV series. Well, you would, wouldn’t? You’re not going to say it was just for the hell-of-it or, you wanted to knock one out, are you? But Langham has served his time and accepted responsibility for his actions. However, this knowledge can make this excellent documentary problematic to watch, though Langham’s performance is superb, and the content of this documentary - George Orwell’s writing - essential viewing.
Though this all perhaps raises a bigger question, as to whether creative works can be viewed separately from the lives of its creators? Can we read William Burroughs without considering the senseless murder of his wife, or his use of young boys for sex? Can we read Philip Larkin’s poetry without thinking about his racism? Or, look at Eric Gill’s vast output - from religious sculpture to typeface - without thinking he sexually abused his daughters and fucked the family pets? Unlike these reprobates, Langham has served his time, and all we can do is to be aware of what has happened, before choosing our own response to it.
Ultimately, the issue is perhaps subverted by the importance and quality of Orwell’s writing, which Langham brings brilliantly to life.
A couple of interesting music related articles have popped up in the last short while that I want to share here. Both have instigated some heated debate, but it seems to me like they both represent different sides of the same coin, namely the age old battle between the supposedly “authentic” nature of rock music and the disdain that rock snobs in turn show for “pop” music.
The first of these articles appeared in the Guardian on Thursday, and is titled “Indie Rock’s Slow and Painful Death,” by Dorian Lynskey. I’m pretty sure you can guess the content of the article by the headline alone, but here’s a taster anyway:
Just before Christmas US music writer Eric Harvey compiled a list of sales figures for the top 50 albums in Pitchfork’s end-of-year poll, inspiring the Guardian to conduct a similar exercise [re-published at the bottom of the article]. Each list prompts much the same conclusion. Of the five albums in Pitchfork’s list that sold more than 100,000 copies in the US in 2011 only two (Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes) are indie artists. In the Guardian’s top 40 the only alternative acts to pass 100,000 (the benchmark for a gold record) are Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Noah and the Whale, PJ Harvey, Radiohead and Laura Marling.
Of course critics’ polls are not an authoritative measure and other indie artists exceeded 100,000 sales in the US (including Wilco, Feist, the Black Keys, the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket), the UK (Elbow, Kasabian, the Vaccines, Snow Patrol, two Gallagher brothers) or both (the Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead). If you really stretch the category then Coldplay, Foo Fighters and Florence + the Machine also did the double, and if you count 2010 releases you can add Mumford & Sons and Kings of Leon. And let’s note that, because of Spotify and YouTube, sales figures aren’t the only measure of success. That said, it’s still an unforgiving climate for the kind of crossover alternative rock act that not so long ago was taken for granted, especially when so many of the bands mentioned have been around for a decade or so and selling to loyalists rather than new fans. This sobering data invites two questions: how long will indie’s big slump last? And does it matter?
To an extent pop trends are cyclical. To borrow the language of economics, after each speculative bubble bursts (grunge, Britpop, mid-00s indie) there’s a market correction that leaves many casualties. In 1999 and 2000 there were many brilliant records but they were disparate and rarely suited to magazine covers, throwing both Select and Melody Maker into first panic and then closure, when just five years earlier it had seemed like the stream of charismatic, platinum-selling, magazine-shifting rock bands would never end. Of course just a few months later the Strokes and the White Stripes heralded a vibrant new phase, which led to the Libertines and Franz Ferdinand and then another bubble: landfill indie. By the time radio and magazines were pushing dreck such as the Automatic and the Pigeon Detectives the writing was on the wall.
While I think the thrust of this article is applicable in both the US and the UK, I feel it’s important to note that in the UK “indie rock” is seen as an actual genre of music rather than just a descriptive term for independent artists. Because to these ears “independent” is the last term that comes to mind to describe acts like Oasis, Snow Patrol, Foo Fighters, the Strokes and Mumford & Sons, and it seems somewhat absurd to judge the success of supposedly “alternative” acts on how much they sell. Also, the term “landfill indie” refers to a glut of bands whose names begin with “The” and who tend to dress similarly and make similar sounding records, who get signed for a year and release a “buzz” album, before being dropped once the PR budget runs out.
I think the real subtext of Lynskey’s article is that there is a crisis in mainstream music journalism. As less and less genuinely interesting music reaches journalists’ desks through the traditional PR channels they have relied on since the 1990s, the journalists in turn cry that “music is dead!” Because surely excessive PR spin is the only rational explanation for the acts mentioned above being considered “alternative” or “independent”? And speaking of Spin, I think it’s the same reason that magazine has decided to abandon music reviews in favour of tweets, while claiming that there are “fewer and fewer actual music consumers” (a claim which is demonstrably false, by the way.) There is no dearth of interesting and forward-thinking music being made in the world, but as is repeatedly pointed out in the article’s comments section, journalists need to look a bit harder to find it now.
The second article I have read lately that has provoked some commentary is Wallace Wylie’s “Why Pop Music Matters (No Matter What Age You Are)” on the Collapse Board website. While, again, the content of the article is explained pretty succinctly in the headline, this time it’s a bit more composed and thoughtful than Lynskey’s piece, taking in as it does criticism of both rock and pop:
The tragedy of rock music is that it went from cutting edge rebellion to conservative defender of values in a very short amount of time. Music magazines still run stories of Dylan going electric as a singular moment in rock history, and each person who reads this story shakes their heads sadly at the idea that anyone would castigate Dylan, thinking that, obviously they would have embraced this thrilling new sound. These same people then decry the current state of music and complain loudly at almost every new development, claiming that the current version of pop is some degraded, commercialised bastardisation of what music once was. Despite the obviousness of the historical lessons above, each generation still produces thousands of individuals who imagine that THIS time music really has drifted too far from its roots, that some essential quality is missing, that music has become meaningless.
Utimately, nobody can prove one way or the other whether ‘music’ was ever good or bad, and to think that anybody can launch a rational argument based around the idea that the entire musical output of a new generation is somehow not meeting some in-built standard is foolish beyond words. No art form or style has ever held firm amid the onslaught of modernisation and emerged the victor. The only thing able to somewhat succeed in ending innovative thinking and inevitable change thus far has been murderous totalitarian governments. Left to their own devices, many artists willfully experiment, and those in the commercial field are no different. This is not to say that pop music is above criticism. If pop music has a problem, however, it is in its process and in its reception. While the music plays on regardless, an intellectual war rages beneath the surface. With charges of frivolity thrown constantly at pop, postmodernism came to its rescue, bringing a brand new set of problems in its wake.
There is something rotten at pop’s core. While it is undoubtedly more welcoming to women and non-whites, it has a tendency to use and discard those same people at will. Women’s looks are under constant scrutiny in the world of pop, to the extent that a little extra weight can undermine a performer’s entire career. Once a person’s moment under the spotlight is over, hosts of cackling jackals take great delight in declaring that person a non-entity. Pop worships at the altar of youth and beauty, and anyone deemed old or ugly should probably wander off into the cold and die the moment their time in the spotlight is over.
It’s important to note that there are differences, of course, between popular music culture in the US and the UK, but Wylie addresses this in his article (being a British writer based in America writing for an Australian site, he’s well aware of these differences.) But I’m with Wylie on this. “Pop” is just as valid a “genre” as any other you’d care to mention, and I have an innate distrust of those who dismiss pop music out of hand. It seems nonsensical to me to disregard any music simply because it is popular, just as it would be nonsensical to dismiss all music made before an arbitrary year like, say, 1974. It’s not a sign of having more developed and advanced taste I’m afraid, it’s actually the exact opposite - your taste must be pretty weak if it is swayed by the amount of people who enjoy a song rather than the song itself.
What is more interesting to me though are the core arguments that get bandied about in relation to the perceived “authenticity” of rock music as opposed to pop, and how these notions can lead to enjoyment of pop music being seen as shameful. As Wylie mentions in the comments to this piece, an artist like Neil Young is perceived as being somehow more “authentic” than, say, Missy Elliot, despite coming from an upper middle class family with a famous father, while Elliot came from a truly impoverished broken home and had to fight harder to achieve her popular status. There is another excellent Collapse Board article on this same issue that music fans should also read: “Everything Is Plastic: The Corrupting Ideal of Authenticity In Music” by Scott Creney.
There’s much food for thought to chew on in these articles, but it’s important for me to re-state here on DM—a site where only last week a newish rock band experimenting with electronics called Errors got dismissed as being clones of, err, Hawkwind?!—that following music is now easier than ever. It’s as accessible as simply surfing the net, and as mystifyingly off-putting to older generations as that pass time can be, too. It’s the lame-ass reason that Spin is cutting its reviews (because the audience can hear the music before the review is read - yes, that is what they said!), it’s why Dorian Lynskey’s desk is overflowing with dross, and why shitty “indie rock” matters less now than it ever did.
NOBODY is too old for pop music, or even the music of the younger generations, regardless of genre. I’ll leave you with this quote from Wallace Wylie:
When a music fan starts to imagine that the essential sprit of music lies in holding on to an old idea rather than embracing a new one, it’s probably fair to say that they have become something of a musical conservative. I say this without labeling myself the most forward thinking of listeners. I merely state it as an absolute, unarguable fact.
If you’re not familiar with the work of the British music writer and academic Andrew Dubber, then this is a perfect place to start. He’s a man of many talents, with a very future-positive outlook to make all the current music industry doom-sayers blush. Rather than me boring you trying to sum up all he does, here’s his bio as appears on his website andrewdubber.com:
Andrew Dubber is an academic, author, public speaker, blogger, music reviewer, radio and music industry consultant, whisky writer, podcaster, record collector, DJ, broadcaster and record producer. He is Reader in Music Industries Innovation at Birmingham City University, an advisor to Bandcamp and Planzai, manages half a dozen blogs, and is the founder of New Music Strategies – a pan-European music think tank and strategy group. In his spare time, he coaches productivity and time management.
Mr Dubber has just published a new article on his blog called “Music Journalism Is The New Boring” where he takes to task the notion that nothing interesting has happened in music in the past 12 months, a stance currently being pushed by some of the world’s major publications such as the New York Times and the Guardian. Dubber positis that the problem lays not with music culture or musicians themselves, but rather with the old stream media and its failure to adapt to these exciting new internet times:
[...] while “beige against the machine” is a cute and retweetable one-liner, it’s nothing more than a cheap shot based on a faulty premise: that something went wrong with music in 2011. That musicians gave up en-masse and just made safe, ineffectual and dull music.
There are quite a few problems with that idea. I’m just going to mention just three here, but you’ll no doubt think of your own too.
1) You can’t complain about a dull year in music if all you do is report on the pile of CDs that ended up on your desk as a result of public relations and major label marketing. If you were looking for urgency, relevance and innovation in that lot, you’ve misunderstood the process. No matter how much you shout “Challenge me!” at your stereo, it’s not going to oblige if you keep putting Coldplay CDs in it.
2) Even if you are looking outside the pile, chances are you’re still looking in the wrong places. Things that sound like (or aspire to sound like) the music that did make it to the minor landfill of compact discs cluttering your desk are not likely to be any better. After all, it’s no longer the job of rock music to be urgent or important. And it’s certainly not the job of mainstream rock music. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but guitar, bass, drums and vocals is no longer by default a counter-cultural lineup. The same can be said for R&B and mainstream hip hop. It’s possible to do radical stuff in those musical domains, but it’s certainly not the norm.
3) IF IT’S BORING, DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT. In fact, write that on a post-it note and stick it to your laptop screen. Writing about boring is contributing to the boring.
The guiding question for interesting music journalism needs to be “Yes, but what else is out there?”. More than ever before there is the opportunity (even the need) for major publications to employ investigative music journalists and people with genuine curiosity. We all know what can happen when people with these kinds of qualities are given a decent platform.
John Peel-ism should be the norm by now.
You can read the rest of the article here - it’s worth it. It’s also worth checking out the comments section, where some of the journalists being criticised in the article get to have their say. Andrew Dubber has some very enlightening things to say about the music industry and new technology, and he says them very well. If you have any interest in these areas (and music culture in general) or even if you’re late to the online party and just want to find out what the hell is going on, then be sure to check his website for regular updates.
For its access to interviewees and the archive alone this should have been a better documentary, but its proposition, the Final 24 hours of Hunter S Thompson’s life, stops it from being excellent. It’s too morbidly obsessed with why the great good man killed himself (just count how many times we’re told HST was in “constant pain”), his addictions, his operations and the method by which he died. All fine and dandy for Forensics 101, but Thompson deserves better.
The problem stems from TV commissioners, who don’t trust their audiences to sit through a straight documentary on Hunter S Thompson (or Jim Morrison, John Belushi or any of the other talents who’ve been included in the Final 24 series) without having a gimmick, a hook to keep them watching during the adverts. Most of the time these gimmicks just get in the way of what is usually a fascinating, full and inspiring life.
Okay enough from me, here’s the blurb from Biography:
He was an author trapped in the body of a rock star. His drug-fuelled adventures were legendary and became the basis of one of the classics of 20th century literature. Thompson’s constant questioning of authority and wild antics made him a hero for a generation of rebels across the globe. But in the end it wasn’t enough. A lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse was taking their toll and at 67, with a broken leg, two hip operations and in chronic pain Thompson could no longer live up to the legend he’d created. On February 20, 2005, he decided to end it all with one of his favorite possessions, a Smith and Wesson 45. We chart the life of this troubled genius and uncover why a bullet to the head was the only way out.
His first assignment for Esquire was to interview Frank Sinatra - no easy task, as Old Blue Eyes had knocked back such requests from the magazine over several years. But Gay Talese wasn’t so quickly put off. He spent 3 months following Sinatra and his entourage, racking up $5,000 in expenses. Not common then and unthinkable now in these days of Google and Wikipedia.
The result of Talese’s hard work was “Frank Sinatra has a cold”, possibly the best profile written on the singer and certainly one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism written at that time. As writer and broadcaster Michael Kinsley has since said, “It’s hard to imagine a magazine article today having the kind of impact that [this] article and others had in those days in terms of everyone talking about it purely on the basis of the writing and the style.”
What’s great about “Frank Sinatra has a cold” is what’s best about Talese as a writer - his ability to make the reader feel centered in the story by reconstructing the reported events using the techniques of fiction. You can see this technique in another of his essays, “Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-aged Man”, which begins:
“ ‘Hi, sweetheart!’ Joe Louis called to his wife, spotting her waiting for him at the Los Angeles airport.
She smiled, walked toward him, and was about to stretch up on her toes and kiss him, but suddenly stopped.
‘Joe,’ she said, ‘where’s your tie?’
‘Aw, sweetie,’ he said, shrugging, ‘I stayed out all night in New York and didn’t have time.’
‘All night!’ she cut in. ‘When you’re out here all you do is sleep, sleep, sleep.’
‘Sweetie,’ Joe Louis said, with a tired grin, ‘I’m an ole man.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘but when you go to New York you try to be young again.’”
The article has its own symmetry and ended with one of the boxer’s ex-wives, Rose, watching home footage of Louis’s fight against Billy Conn:
“Rose seemed excited at seeing Joe at the top of his form, and every time a Louis punch would jolt Conn, she’d go ‘Mummmm’ (sock). ‘Mummmm’ (sock). ‘Mummmm.’
Billy Conn was impressive through the middle rounds, but as the screen flashed Round 13, somebody said, ‘Here’s where Conn’s gonna make his mistake: he’s gonna try to slug it out with Joe Louis.’ Rose’s husband remained silent, sipping his Scotch.
When the Louis combinations began to land, Rose went ‘Mummmm, mummmm,’ and then the pale body of Conn began to collapse against the canvas.
Billy Conn slowly began to rise. The referee counted over him. Conn had one leg up, then two, then was standing - but the referee forced him back. It was too late.
But Rose’s husband in the back of the room disagreed.
‘I thought Conn got up in time,’ he said, ‘but that referee wouldn’t let him go on.’
Rose Morgan said nothing - just swallowed the rest of her drink.”
It’s a clever and poignant ending, revealing as much about Rose and her relationship with her husbands, as it does about Talese’s talent as a writer. It also signals his need to record everything, which is all the more impressive when you know Talese never used a tape recorder when working on these profiles.
Gay Talese was born into a Catholic, Italian-American family in Ocean City, New Jersey in 1932. It was an upbringing he would later claim made him “not unfamiliar with the condition of being an outsider”:
“Indeed it was a role for which his background had most naturally prepared him: an Italo-American parishioner in an Irish-American church, a minority Catholic in a predominantly Protestant hometown, a northerner attending a southern college, a conservative young man of the fifties who invariably wore a suit and a tie, a driven man who chose as his calling one of the few possessions that was open to mental masqueraders: he became a journalist, and thus gained a licence to circumvent his inherent shyness, to indulge his rampant curiosity, and to explore the lives of individuals he considered more interesting than himself.”
His father was a tailor and his mother ran a dress boutique, it was here the young Talese learned his first journalistic skills:
“The shop was a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother; and as a boy not much taller than the counters behind which I used to pause and eavesdrop, I learned much that would be useful to me years later when I began interviewing people for articles and books.
I learned to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments (as the listening skills of my patient mother taught me) people are very revealing - what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them.”
In his brilliant “Frank Sinatra has a cold” Talese created a portrait of the singer that captured his over-bearing “mood of sullen silence”, his capricious nature, which made him at times both cruel and aggressive; or kind and overly generous. Talese revealed the background of Sinatra, the only child from Hoboken, who was scarred at birth by forceps, considered a weakling, reared mainly by his grandmother, his father a Sicilian who boxed under the name of Marty O’Brien, his mother worked at a chocolate factory, was strict and ambitious, who originally wanted her son to become an aviation engineer.
“When she discovered Bing Crosby pictures hanging on his bedroom walls one evening, and learned that her son wished to become a singer too, she became infuriated and threw a shoe at him. Later, finding she could not talk him out of it - ‘he takes after me’ - she encouraged his singing.”
Unlike other members of the New Journalism group (Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson), Talese didn’t put himself at the heart of his essays, rather he saw himself as a non-judgmental writer, who allowed each subject to speak for him / her self. Nowhere was this more true than in “The Loser”, his incredible profile of boxer Floyd Paterson, which included a shocking admission by the former World Champion:
“Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, ‘You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don’t know…but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word - myself - is because…is because…I am a coward.’”
Non-judgmental, perhaps. But somewhere down the line, Talese makes the decision of what to keep and what to cut out, and by nuance and omission, he shapes our impressions, and gives the reader an intimacy mere facts could not supply.