New Statesman writers appear at Stoke Newington Literary Festival

From Laurie Penny on protest to Helen Lewis on videogames, via Daniel Trilling on the far right, join NS staff and contributors at the North London festival.

The North London neighbourhood of Stoke Newington boasts a rich literary history: Daniel Defoe once lived at 95 Church Street; Edgar Allen Poe went to school just down the road.  The annual Stoke Newington Literary Festival, now in its fourth year, pays homage to the area’s tradition of radical thinking and literary values with a five-day programme of events, tours and talks.

The New Statesman is pleased to partner with the festival, in which several of our editors and writers will be participating. Highlights include:

Reads Like a Seven

Friday, 8pm. £4. Venue – Babble Jar

New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis joins Steven Poole, award-winning broadcaster/game developer Ste Curran and others in a revival of ‘Reads Like a Seven', where they read out one of their pieces of games journalism. It's curated and presented by New Yorker games contributor Simon Parkin (read Simon's pieces for the NS here). Following a sell-out debut at last year’s GameCity 7 - where blogger Kieron Gillen described it as “a reminder of the breadth of what gaming is, what it means and, indirectly, how writers on games have wrestled down the immaterial” – this second iteration promises to “dispels any doubts that video games deserve to be considered alongside other art forms, either for their breadth of invention or the passions they provoke”.

Multiculturalism and the Rise of the Far Right

Sunday, 5pm. £5. Venue – Abney Public Hall

David Goodhart, director of think tank Demos, will be in conversation with New Statesman assistant editor Daniel Trilling. Goodhart has recently authored a controversial book, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, advocating for reduced immigration to the UK and posing the argument that immigration can undermine national solidarity. Trilling’s book, Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right, charts how the likes of the BNP and the EDL have exploited anti-immigration sentiment to pin the nation's ills on to the shoulders of the vulnerable.

Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere

Saturday, 3pm. £5. Venue – Abney Public Hall

BBC Newsnight’s economic editor Paul Mason contextualises worldwide dissent — the Arab Spring, Athens, and Quebec, as well as social unrest in the UK — in his updated best-seller Why It’s (Still) Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. He’s joined by New Statesman contributing editor Laurie Penny in offering insights and anecdotes on dissent and its role in the global future. How will social networking, the economic crisis and a new political consciousness ignite the next generation of radicals?

Tariq Ali in Conversation with Owen Jones                                                             

Sunday, 2pm.   Venue – Stoke Newington Town Hall                                                 

Tariq Ali, filmmaker and author of over a dozen books on world history and politics including The Clash of Fundamentalisms and The Obama Syndrome, engages leading new Left voice and New Statesman contributor Owen Jones in a wide-ranging geopolitical discussion - in light of the reissue of Ali’s The Stalinist Legacy. Jones is the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.

For the full events programme visit the festival website: www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com/the-programme

The power of books, by Tododesign. (via. Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Facebook)
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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.