In the Critics this week

Gessen on Amis pere, Gray on Ballard, Drabble on Rowling and Robson on the Booker.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. Ballard’s political views often inspired perplexity, Gray notes, though “why a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear”. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books: novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy (“Though Rowling claims there is comedy here, there is not much to laugh about”); Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (“Ben Goldacre is angry, and by the time you put Bad Pharma down, you should be too”); Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt (“the tragedy of Hebron lies not in its mythic history but in entrenched ideologies that make the possibility of coexistence increasingly remote”); Hans Kundnani reviews Günter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany (“Grass [was] hopelessly out of step with the mood in Germany”); Oliver Bullough on The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski (“Poland’s war was so terrible as to almost defy summary”); Daniel Tyler reviews Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City (“Flanders captures the variety and colour of 19th-century London, stirring admiration and indignation by turns”). PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize. The chair of the judges, Sir Peter Stothard, has, Robson avers, “been making the right noises and an unabashed seriousness about literary debate has always been not incidental but central to what makes the prize worth having and even cherishing.”

Our Critic at large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954. “Amis began Lucky Jim as a book about Larkin,” Gessen notes. “Jim Dixon in the end is an Amis-Larkin hybrid who manages to be sweeter and more engaging than either of the men on their own. They were both Lucky Jim.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke praises Best Possible Taste, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic; Antonia Quirke is beguiled by the World Service’s Boston Calling; Alexandra Coghlan vists the Beethovenfest in Bonn; and Ryan Gilbey reviews Taken 2, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero. PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals.

Kingsley Amis in 1967 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.