Town on BBC2: Welcome to the bay to nowhere

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention?

Town
BBC2

I know Oban quite well, from the air. Some years ago, an open-cockpit biplane in which I was travelling from the Isle of Mull to Glasgow was forced to make an emergency landing at what was laughingly known as the town’s airport (in reality, a disused car park whose “control tower” comprised an old caravan).

As you may imagine, this was somewhat terrifying, for all that I was wearing both a fireproof suit and a parachute. But even in a state of quaking fear, I was still able to register how bleak the place looked. As I listened to the dialogue between the pilot (my then boyfriend) and (ha, ha!) “air traffic control” – the euphemism “unscheduled landing” was used, doubtless for my benefit – I remember thinking: “Oban. What a place to die!”

Oban was the star of the first film in the latest series of Town (21 May, 9pm), which is sort of like Coast, only with more buildings and less guano. Why towns? As its presenter, Nicholas Crane, told us in the opening sequence, towns are “where we first learned to be urban”. This sounded kind of interesting to me – perhaps by going back to our roots, we can work out how to make city life a little more tolerable – but, in truth, it wasn’t an idea he explored very much. Or, indeed, at all.

Crane isn’t a great one for ideas – beside the Johnson’s dictionarythat is Jonathan Meades, he will always be a mere Ladybird book – and for this reason his films have the weird feel of the schools education programmes I remember being forced to watch in the 1980s, when my teachers were too busy planning their next strike to get up off their arses and teach.

Sometimes, Crane’s footage was so boring, it might almost have been a spoof. First, he showed us the local quarry. Then, he visited a sorting office. And then, as a special treat, he jumped aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The quarry was notable for its reserves of granite. The sorting office was marked out by its abundance of letters. The ferry was replete with passengers.

Crikey. I was on the edge of my seat. What next? A pub, where the characteristically Scottish beverages that are known as “beer” and “whisky” may be purchased and enjoyed over a quiet chat with friends? Or what about a quick tour of Oban’s railway station, where tickets for travel are on sale at what is known colloquially as “the ticket office”?

Oban is dominated by the rather wonderful McCaig’s Tower, a folly of granite on which construction began in 1897 and which resembles the Colosseum (I remember it well, as seen from the tiny metal bird in which I had foolhardily agreed to go away for a “romantic” weekend). Crane informed us that no one knows why John Stuart McCaig, a local banker, decided to build it – largely because he died before its completion.

Is this so? I understood that the project was a benevolent one, the better to keep local stonemasons in work during the winter. Also, that McCaig had hoped to instal some kind of gallery inside it, complete with memorial statues of his family. And I’m afraid that Visit Scotland agrees with me. Anyway, right or wrong, it was at this point that I truly ached for a little Meades-style lyricism: some vivid line to explain the strange and now almost extinct impulse for folly-building. The best Crane could do was to lower his voice to a whisper and describe it as a “sanctuary”.

I can’t believe that Town – this is the second series – is ever going to be as big a hit as Coast (eight series and counting). But if by some miracle it is, we’d better brace ourselves. According to Wikipedia, there are 936 towns in Britain, so it could run and run. In the fullness of time, Crane and his Pooterish insights might even start to have an effect on house prices – at which point, he’ll be the new Kirstie Allsopp. Or something.

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention? First, Mary Portas, in her spike heels and Barbarella frocks. Now, Crane in his sensible boots and his Gore-Tex. All I can offer by way of reassurance is the certain knowledge that no one ever moved anywhere just because it had a particularly hectic sorting office.

A fisherman in Oban. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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.