Simon Frith and music writing

I’ve lately, by which I mean today, taken a bunch of books by Simon Frith out of the library. I never much liked his rock writing back when he used to do it in the pages of newspapers and music papers, but I could never figure out why, and it put me off reading his books, because why read entire books by a writer whose 1,000 words in the Sunday Times you thought were ridiculous? Later on, around 1999, I read the awesome/awesomely twisted Rock and the Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci, whose take on Frith and other English pop music writers was nothing if not, um, bracing, but in one respect Carducci’s book simply confirmed my opinion that Frith isn’t worth reading, which, as we’ve seen, was based on next to no acquaintance with Frith’s work, bar the admittedly well-chosen-because-unconsciously-revealing quotes that Carducci seized on. [Note written two days later: looking up Frith in Carducci’s index, I find that I misremember Carducci’s attitude; Frith is actually one of the writers that Carducci is almost respectful about, noting that SF and Dave Marsh ‘are pretty much alone in discussing class as an issue in pop/rock culture’, p. 193. Check your sources, boys and girls.

My beef, if I can call it that, with Frith, is not unlike Carducci’s, insofar as it’s that Frith mostly writes about music I usually neither like nor find interesting, namely mainstream pop music, and Simon Frith was a pop writer when mainstream was mainstream, bubeleh. Carducci, working his ass off to promote bands who were far better (musically more powerful, more intelligent, funnier, more interesting in every way) than the bands Frith wrote about, was driven to the verge of insanity by Frith & Co’s inability to see beyond the Top 40. Let’s face it, if Simon Frith had discovered the Minutemen back in the day, his take on 80s music would have been quite different — and if it wouldn’t have been, so much the worse for him. In Music for Pleasure, Frith says something about how he stopped listening to rock music because he couldn’t stand all that relentless 4/4 and men singing about ‘freedom’. Well, sure, if you think that Yes is a typical rock band, I suppose; but King Crimson had a considerably broader spectrum of lyrical interests, from describing Rembrandt paintings to songs about groupies and cat food. King Crimson’s greatest ever song, ‘Starless’, is an account of the end of a friendship, unless, of course, it isn’t, but either way, it’s hardly rock & roll cliché. You can’t help wondering why Simon Frith never seems to have mentioned his younger brother Fred‘s many ventures into popular music. The reason must have something to do with the fact that, other than playing lead guitar on Robert Wyatt‘s cover of I’m a Believer, Fred Frith has never been anywhere near the charts.

I’ve always had more time for the younger Frith than the elder. Having said all the above, my jazz/punk-inspired resentment of Simon Frith’s MOR taste in music has mellowed over the years, and not just because my daughter really likes ABBA: You Can Dance for the Wii. (Abba are great.) Now that I’m finally reading him, when I happen to be taking steps to get that degree that I never had, I find him much wiser, funnier and smarter than I ever gave him credit for being, even if I still deplore that he wasted his energy writing about people like the Pet Shop Boys (who, if they’re wondering why they alone in this blog post don’t get the compliment of being given a hyperlink, can fuck off.)

Also — full disclosure — Simon Frith is now Tovey Chair of Music in the University of Edinburgh, in the school of music of which I spend a certain amount of time every couple of weeks playing improvised music with Edimpro, so you’re not going to hear any more nasty words from me about him.

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Simon Frith and music writing

2 thoughts on “Simon Frith and music writing

  1. The ‘disclosure’ (or should one say, ‘insurance policy’) at the end made me chuckle. But you are on the money in many respects: thoughtful music journalism is hard to find. Just this week the Melbourne age published a Guardian piece (cannot recall the hack’s name) on Lou Reed that seemed to entirely miss the point of his symbiotic (parasitic?) relationship with pop. Guess we just have to do it ourselves.

    1. I think you might be thinking of Suzanne Moore’s piece, about how Lou Reed was an avant-garde hero because he had integrity, etc? That made me chuckle. Lou Reed began as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, a label that specialised in knock-off cover versions of hit songs, and in some respects that’s all Lou Reed ever was; a populist, not an originator, someone who did knock-off cover versions of the avant-garde. I’m one of the minority that regards the Velvet Underground as the band John Cale was in before he got really good.

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