Away the Crow Road

Remembering Iain Banks, an intensely political writer.

The title of Iain Banks’s 1992 novel The Crow Road comes from a Glasgow expression: its hero tries to work out if his uncle Rory has merely vanished temporarily, or if he has gone “away the Crow Road”. It is a book preoccupied with death right from its showstopping first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” (They forgot to remove her pacemaker before cremating her.) It is also, for my money, the best of Banks’s novels: warm, funny, dark and intoxicatingly imaginative.

Like many of the best sciencefiction writers, Banks – who died on 9 June from gall bladder cancer at the age of 59 – was intensely political. Unlike many of his peers, however, he dared to imagine utopias as well as dystopias. In his “Culture” series, he imagined a universe of superabundance, patrolled by infinitely wise artificial intelligences. There were no laws, no money and no death, unless you were tired of life. The recurrent question was: how would such a liberal, socialist society respond when it encountered others that didn’t share its values?

In Banks’s vision, the Culture developed a special taskforce to carry out “secular evangelism”, benignly meddling in the affairs of other, less evolved civilisations. The highbrow citizens of the Culture never had to get their hands dirty.

In real life, sadly, intervening in another society is neither that simple nor that innately benevolent. In 2004, Banks tore up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair to protest against the Iraq war (handily, this also allowed him to get out of foreign book tours). It was the culmination of three years of politicisation; unfortunately, this did not make for better art. Dead Air (2002) seems desperate to say something about 9/11 but never manages it; then it took Banks an unprecedented five years before his next book, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which is marred by a multi-page slab of diatribe from the protagonist along these lines: “The US is a great country full of great people . . . It’s just their propensity as a whole for electing idiots and then conducting a foreign policy of the utmost depravity that I object to.” It carries on in this vein for several pages, and although it might have made a bearable newspaper op-ed, it doesn’t really belong in a novel about a family that invented a board game.

So, what will remain of Iain Banks? His science fiction, undoubtedly, for its scope and humour. And his three best literary works: The Bridge (1986), a multi-stranded hallucinatory narrative; Walking on Glass (1985), which is – and I use the technical literary term here – bonkers, albeit in a good way; and my own favourite, The Crow Road. This last book showed that even when Banks wasn’t in fantastical mode, telling a story set among spaceships or never-ending bridges, even when he was writing about the mundane, he could still make his subject feel magical.

Iain Banks.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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.