More than rock 'n' roll

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
THE FABER BOOK OF POP. Edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage. Faber #163;16.99. - 0 571 16992 9 Sinan Savaskan revels in contemporary pop culture. The cover has POP POP printed on it in bright primary colours in a quasi-silk screen manner, reminiscent of the Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol hard edged prints of the early 60s.

Inside, true to the essential pop methodology, a "process" brings about a "product' made up of pre-existing materials in great diversity and multiplicity. In fact, the connection with pop as in Pop Art, in the sense of the term as coined by Lawrence Alloway in 1955, is not taken much further than that. This 862-page anthology, weighing a hefty three pounds, brings together pop writing from 1942 right up to October 1994. Fiction, fashion, reviews, poetry, reportage, visual arts and politics, almost always as filtered through the influence of music, are all presented in well judged, bite-size portions. There are more than 160 articles in ten chronologically ordered chapters that are introduced by concise and atmospheric essays by the editors, the playwright and novelist Hanif Kureishi and the journalist and writer Jon Savage.

Again, in the best Pop tradition of "culture-sampling", the process with which this book is put together seems to be that of juxtaposing and contextualising through skilful framing of extremely diverse articles in good company with each other. A well-balanced chronological order helps the history of Pop to unfold very well to give a good sense of the changes and shifts in style, ideologies (pseudo or otherwise) and political movements as related to popular culture.

The book includes a large number of writers and writings one had missed at the time. Also it is a nice surprise to find a number of articles one heard about but never managed to get hold of: Paul Johnson's 1964 New Statesman article "The menace of Beatlism"; in his autobiography, Malcolm X's description of the early 40s, his love of zoot suits and lindy-hop dancing; Stud Terkel's The Gap; William Rees-Mogg's 1967 leader in The Times, in protest against the arrest of Mick Jagger, "Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?" The description of the Altamont Festival murder during the Rolling Stones set is even more vivid and horrible here than the film of the event.

Typical pop trivia such as "How Does a Beatle Live?" is contrasted with serious articles such as Mary Wilson's description of touring with The Supremes in the most hostile conditions in redneck country, and the current state of Malaysian heavy metal in the context of Islamic influences as reported in The Wire magazine in 1993.

The anthology also contains extracts from the works of a number of more established people of letters: Anthony Burgess, Tama Janowitz, Angela Carter, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe among others. The selections are good and often come from works one would not want to go back and read cover to cover again.

The increasing liberation of the language is another point of interest. In the earlier chapters, in articles taken from publications such as the Picture Post of the 1940s, even the most exciting news of the rivalries, ups and downs, etc of the matinee idols and the ballroom orchestras are reported in highly polite and measured tones with just the occasional touch of irony. By chapter seven, 1975-80, the F-word count reaches 16 on page 517. Admittedly (and fortunately) the increase does not follow a chronologically progressive pattern.

This book arrives at a time when very possibly Pop has reached its use-by date. Today the very characteristics of Pop - its pluralism, its mass production, its reliance on mass-media and its communications-based position and re-cycleability - are all exploited to such extremes that a neutral state is reached. The co-existence of the greatest number of fads,fashions, trends and hypes in the history produces a sense in which "the shock of the new", an essential ingredient of Pop, is lost forever. Here one is, again and again, confronted with the fact that, in its 50-year span, Pop managed to be a vital force in industrial society while remaining, remarkably, both contrived and innocent.

The sincerity of the editors' own essays and the authentic voice of the rest of the collection, taken from both low and high art phases of Pop, somehow manage to avoid any sense of naivety; also the lack of post-modernist irony and cynicism all help to alleviate any sense of unease the reader may feel at the outset when confronted with this large collection of writing from the years in which, as the editors put it, "pop outstripped literature". In fact the whole formula works perfectly; this is compelling reading.

Jon Savage said in a recent interview that the original intention of putting together this anthology was "to have fun . . . the impetus is enthusiasm. " This is undeniably true; it would be impossible to put together such a comprehensive selection of writing inspired by the activities of Pop Culture - be it pop music or otherwise - without being completely and ecstatically fascinated by it. As well as being great fun to read, its 43 page index - a name spottersdroppers paradise - makes this a handy reference book replacing the old crate of magazines and papers, waiting in my attic since the mid-70s to be scrutinised, cut and indexed as useful future reference materials.

Sinan Savaskan, composer in charge of creative music at Westminster School, London, spent two years in the early 70s supplementing his music studies by touring with various groups.

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