Words and Music: a history of pop in the shape of a city
Paul Morley Bloomsbury, 360pp, £12.99
Some years ago, I was in the habit of playing a slightly pretentious parlour game with my journalist friends. It involved imagining how some of popular culture's more bizarre manifestations might have been pitched to their corporate backers. One of the most amusing examples was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Just imagine: "It's a cartoon about biped reptiles who live in city sewers. They're named after Renaissance painters. They're martial arts experts and they survive on slices of pizza. Oh, and they take their orders from a giant mouse."
When selling the idea for Words and Music, Paul Morley must have found himself in a similar position. As far as I can understand - and I'm not sure even the author could make things any clearer - it's a book based on a) a huge number of lists, and b) such matters as the implicit link between avant-garde music and modern pop, the death of rock, and Morley's own progress as a writer. If that makes the book sound like an easy read, it should be remembered that much of it is based around a fictional journey to a city formed from music and text, in a sports car driven by an android Kylie Minogue. Kylie talks to Morley about the possibility of him ghosting her autobiography, while taking calls on her mobile from Sigmund Freud and occasionally being replaced in the driving seat by Madonna. Mercifully, there are no giant mice (although there is at least one reference to "robot rabbits").
To anyone familiar with Morley's music journalism, none of this will come as a surprise. His interest has never been in telling stories, nor in dispensing useful information. While working at the NME and also during his spell as in-house rhetorician for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, he wrote deeply self-conscious, wilfully florid prose that, at its best, could simultaneously entertain his more cerebral readers and flash penetrating light on his subject matter.
Much of the time, however, Morley came off looking like a tipsy undergraduate trying to impress his superiors. He still does: in Words and Music, he comes up with scores of points that are presumably meant to sound swashbucklingly post-modern, but which fall short. Britney Spears's version of the Rolling Stones song "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is "the end of a story of popular music that began in Gladys Presley's womb". Earlier, he claims that "if the universe cut itself shaving - and it has to shave every now and again (it is the universe, after all) - then it would bleed to the sound of [Robert Fripp and Brian Eno's] 'No Pussyfooting'". That's right, Paul.
And yet, although the fictional stuff about Kylie displays an off-putting mixture of whimsy and sweaty-palmed lairiness, his more straightforward passages about the singer can be delightful, particularly when he dramatises her relationship with her one-time mentor Pete Waterman.
However, if you're going to strike the pose of a mischievous cultural magician, sloppiness doesn't help. The techno artist Richie Hawtin has no "s" at the end of his surname. The legendary Rolling Stones manager is Allen Klein, not "Alan". Most unforgivably, the name of the central character on The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie", a record surely burnt into the consciousness of any serious rock writer, is not spelt the same way as the pre-revolutionary French king.
Like Morley - who modestly suggests that he just might be "the greatest rock-and-roll writer in the world, for what it's worth" - I was once a journalist with the NME. Having arrived there in 1993, I was presumably part of the move towards what Morley bemoans as a "corduroy reserve" and the habit of "giving records marks like you are a geography teacher". Therefore, I'll close this review by reverting to type and issuing a few bits of advice. If you don't know who Neu! were, this book probably isn't for you. If Kylie's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" makes you want to dance rather than mull over its spiritual debt to Kraftwerk, the same applies. In fact, if you're not someone whose student years were brightened by Morley's words, you probably won't have the patience and/or knowledge to get beyond the first 20 pages.
And to think Words and Music will soon be sitting on the same racks as books by Nick Hornby. Aside from his other skills, Paul Morley clearly has considerable powers of persuasion.
John Harris is the author of The Last Party: Blair, Britpop and the demise of English rock (Fourth Estate)