Arts feature

Why I’m stepping down after 28 years as The Spectator pop critic

In the past three decades, pop's place in culture has changed drastically, drifting out of reach and away from people's lives

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

This is my 345th and last monthly column about pop music for The Spectator. I believe I might be the third-longest continuously serving columnist here, after Taki and Peter Phillips. Others have been writing for the magazine for longer, but have occasionally been given time off for good behaviour. You may be astounded to learn that I have not been fired. I, certainly, am astounded. I have been waiting for the tap on the shoulder, or maybe the firm but regretful email, since my first column in May 1987. Eventually I came to realise that the less the editor of the time was interested in my subject, the safer I was. As sheer delight in survival morphed into freakish longevity, I decided it was best to maintain a low profile, to the extent that when the 25th anniversary of the column loomed a couple of years ago, I asked Liz Anderson, legendary arts editor and tireless moral support to any number of anxious columnists, to say nothing to anyone. It’s not that I didn’t want people to make a fuss about it. I’m not that modest. It’s that I didn’t want people to make a fuss about it and then fire me straight afterwards.

This year, though, I have started to feel that I have said almost everything that I have to say on the subject, possibly several times. Once it becomes hard work to write a column, it won’t be long before it becomes hard work to read it. I have also spent a decent chunk of the year in The Spectator’s offices leafing through dusty old binders for a book I am compiling for Christmas 2016, entitled The Spectator Book of Wit, Humour and Mischief. Reading so many wonderful columnists in intense bursts, you see that even the best of them eventually runs out of steam. In my case, I suppose, I could also say it was an age thing, except that it wouldn’t be true. I was 27 when I started writing this, and I am 55 now, but I was an unusually crabbed, creaky and ill-tempered 27-year-old, who already felt left behind by the way pop music was developing, and preferred the music of his own teenage years, as almost everyone does. This hasn’t changed much. I still think hip-hop is a waste of ears. Grunge was spectacularly uninteresting. Of Britpop I now listen to only Blur and Supergrass. And so on.

The truth, and the problem for any such columnist, is that there’s far too much music out there for anyone to keep a handle on, and pop follows what I learned this week is called Sturgeon’s Law, after the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. This states that in every arena of artistic endeavour, 90 per cent of everything produced is crap. All you can do is find the 2 per cent you like and listen to that, which I do with pleasure, every day. But I have always been aware that my 2 per cent is probably not your 2 per cent, and it may not actually be anybody else’s2 per cent. All men are islands, and our taste in music makes us particularly small, isolated islands separated by vast unnavigable stretches of stormy sea. This is why people still love going to gigs: because for one night only, they are surrounded by strangers who love this music as much as they do. Then it’s back home, where everyone tells them to turn that bloody racket down.

Pop’s place in culture has changed drastically during my tenure. When I was growing up and buying NME and Sounds every week, there was no such thing as a pop column in The Spectator, and newspapers ignored the music as though it wasn’t there. Then the baby boomers took over the media, Live Aid happened, Bono started wearing those sunglasses, Sting released an ever more pompous string of jazz-inflected albums no one played more than twice, and it became clear that pop had captured the mainstream. At the time we assumed that this would be a permanent state of affairs, and indeed, Bono is still wearing those sunglasses. But the music has drifted back out of reach and away from people’s lives. Even substantial stars of today, the Sam Smiths, the Lana Del Reys, are listened to only by their core constituencies. How many new songs are there every year that absolutely everyone knows? Half a dozen?

That’s not to say that pop music is ‘over’, as one or two of my friends have been heard to say. They have their Neil Young records and feel that nothing more is necessary. It’s just that pop’s present is unusually burdened by the excellence of its past. Music fashioned long ago for instant gratification has proved to possess extraordinary staying power. Over the years I have met one or two pop performers socially and if I have been drunk enough, I have asked them how it feels to have songs they wrote (in some cases, dashed off) in their youth still being played and loved decades later. And they can’t quite get over it either. How did that happen? I bet even Paul McCartney asks himself that question from time to time.

The music industry, delightful behemoth that it remains, squeezes this music dry, of course. I’m not sure there are many manifestations of modern life more dispiriting than the jukebox musical, wherein much- loved hits of yore are attached to a story so thin and ridiculous that only Ben Elton could have written it. At the same time, we shouldn’t be too hard on people who are just trying to make a living. The other day, I met someone else who had grown up and grown old with ABC’s 1982 album The Lexicon Of Love, and we sat and discussed it with wild glints in our eyes. Needless to say, the song we both liked the most was a non-single album track that many people will never have heard of (‘Date Stamp’, in case you are similarly afflicted). Teenage elitism never dies, and as far as we were concerned, neither does that album. Thirty-three years on, The Lexicon Of Love sounds only slightly less than current. ABC’s Martin Fry has never come close to equalling it, but he is still out there, playing it live. It’s one of my favourite albums, and it’s his pension.

So while I will no longer be writing about music, I will still be obsessing about it, and buying too much of it, and being slightly disappointed by most of it. There is a new Squeeze album out shortly. Fingers are crossed. There’s also one by Jeff Lynne, who now calls himself ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ to avoid confusion, although there isn’t any. The Amazon order is already in. That said, I heard a song by Gabrielle Aplin on the radio the other evening and that sounded wonderful, so I might get her new record too. She is only 22. It never stops, and for that, I suppose, we should only be grateful.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Marcus Berkmann’s first Spectator pop column, on Fleetwood Mac and Microdisney, appeared in May 1987.

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Show comments
  • bhutanbeau

    Thanks Marcus. I have always enjoyed reading your column and frequently learned something new or treasured a particular insight.

  • Yorkieeye

    Best of luck Marcus and thanks for the heads up from time to time. Although we are of the same vintage and I am still astounded at the sheer quality and inventiveness of 70’s music.

  • oldoddjobs

    There hasn’t been much worth listening to since the Microdisney days

  • Nick

    Absolutely with you on The Lexicon of Love. Unquestionably the best album of the eighties and not a duff track on it. “If you gave me a pound for the moments I’d missed, and I got dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed – I’d be a millionaire….I’d be a Fred Astaire – diddle-iddle diddle-idle UMP!”

  • Nick

    Incidentally, after “Love has no guarantees”, is it “Yes, I’m dead certain” or “Yes, I’m dancing”? I have never been able to make up my mind………

    • venyanamore

      “Yes, on date stamp”, surely?

      • Nick

        Ah!! A revelation!! How could I have been so stupid for 33 years??? Thank you very much!

      • Nick

        On reflection it must be “Yes (or guess) I’m date stamped”, surely – given the next line “yes (or guess) I’ll fade away”……come on Martin, straighten the quiff and come clean……

        • venyanamore

          A-ha, thanks, yes. Spot on.

  • Scradje

    Re Sturgeon’s Law, the brilliant conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein believed that 95% of rock/pop was garbage and the other 5% wonderful. He got that about right and it still applies today. He was a great advocate for talented and original artists; he was a big fan of the Beatles’ She Said She Said, off Revolver, as he was able to spot the liberties it took with time sigs as well as other innovative things. It still sounds amazing even today.’There is nothing new under the sun in music’, Chuck Berry once said; it is what you can do with it and whether you can say something different without consciously trying. Most of all does it have feel? There are only 12 notes in western music, all you have are harmonics and rhythm to play with.

    • Melodies. Every time I write a complete song (as opposed to singing fragments that I love just for the moment before they’re gone), I think ‘by golly where did THAT come from?’ If it didn’t sound sparkling new to me, I wouldn’t bother.

      • Scradje

        Tricky to come up with something new. Reminds me of Ronnie Scot at his club one night. A fan requested him to do some number or other and his reply was ‘we’re going to do Night in Tunisia (Dizzy Gillespie), but don’t worry, it’s got a lot of the same notes in it!

    • blandings

      I wonder if The Beatles knew what they were doing before Bernstein told them.
      Good record, Revolver – the music in 1966 was better than the food, mostly

      • Scradje

        They didn’t; that wa the charm of it. Although of course they had a seriously gifted and musically literate producer (George Martin). They also were lucky to have the unjustly maligned Ringo on drums who could cope with numbers that switched from 4/4 to 3/4 to 5/4 and back in the course of a few bars.

        • blandings

          It was Ringo’s misfortune not to look like a Beatle.

        • post_x_it

          Did you see the episode about the Beatles from the series ‘Howard Goodall’s 20th Century Greats’? I highly recommend it. You can find it on Youtube.

          • Scradje

            Brilliant recommendation! I just saw the first part, it was quite difficult to locate as many of the uploads of the series have been blocked. I hope I can find the second part. Howard Goodall’s knowledge of modes and enthusiasm for the subject is reminiscent of Bernstein.

          • post_x_it

            Yes, he is an excellent presenter. I also remember watching a documentary of his where he explored the theory that Mozart suffered from Tourette’s. Very funny and engaging.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Thanks for all the articles Marcus. Your taste was always too mainstream/MOR for me – how I cursed you for persuading me to buy a Warren Zevon album in 1988 (I think it was you) – but I always enjoyed your writing and observations.

  • upset

    “I bet even Paul McCartney asks himself that question from time to time”.
    He asked himself that yesterday.

  • Fraziel

    I am not surprised you feel the need to step down as a pop critic. It is a little bit silly to still be a pop critic at 55 and only a conservative paper would have a pop reviewer at age 55. I am 48 and i still love music but i would be the first to admit that i no longer have the connection to “pop” music that i once had. I strongly suspect that neither do you or anyone else your age for that matter, no matter how much they loved music in their younger days. I cant help but feel that this article reeks of a man past middle age blaming the music for being crap rather than the changes in himself from ageing.

    • post_x_it

      “…only a conservative paper would have a pop reviewer at age 55”
      Must be why the Grauniad (bastion of conservatism) employs Charles Shaar Murray (64) and Paul Morley (58).

      • Fraziel

        ha ha, i stand corrected although Paul morley doesnt have such mainstream bland, dare i say it, conservative taste as Marcus. I am sure you would agree its ridiculous to have pop critics in their 50’s and 60’s. Talk about not having your finger on the pulse of the nations pop loving youth.

  • Zalacain

    Thank you for the many articles Marcus. Although it would be impossible to always agree on the music, I have always enjoyed the quality of your writing and respected your criteria.

  • Ade

    So, there must be a vacancy. Consider this my application. As a guitarist for nearly 40 years, I have played almost every song of note in that time, and quite a few others. No man hates “Mustang Sally” as much as I. And I retain contact with “Da Yoof”, as I try and persuade them to play a chord occasionally. It’s Uncle Frank’s world, we just live in it. What’s the pay like?

  • mdj

    H’m; I’m reminded of the Tory spokesman who, questioned as to the worth of his opinion on some issue concerning the Young Conservatives, said,’ I should know what I’m talking about, I’ve been a member for seventeen years.’

  • dyd

    As someone 20 years your junior, I’d not once heard of ABC, never mind Date Stamp. So went ahead and found it on youtube just now. It starts off extremely ‘dated’, to my ears, but by the minute-mark I was in! Seems intriguingly ahead of it’s time. Will give the album a listen. Cheers for the recommendation and for the thoughtful sign off. Hope you keep writing.

    • Funny, I find it unlistenable. It has as well that typical 1980s jerky sound, the singer stabbing at higher notes with his barky voice, as the song lurches around. It’s a sound I never liked and I only got through that decade by playing my dad’s records from an earlier era!

  • whatever name

    I agree, nearly all pop is crap, especially these days.

    Online party for Marcus. 🙂

  • Liverpool History

    Mine the past.
    I’ve recently discovered early 70’s Krautrock and it is like re-learning everything you once knew about music.

    • Scradje

      The bassist from krautrockers Can, whose first name was Holger, appeared in a TV doc on the subject. He had a bizarre anecdote about, of all people, David Niven, who approached him at some eclectic gathering or other and said ‘you were great, I didn’t know it was actually music!’

  • Sten vs Bren

    Vey best of luck to you.

    Who is the new pop critic? Or was 1987 – 2015, the full extent of the Spectator’s interest in music that is popular?

  • Dear Marcus,
    Can’t wait for the new book and do keep writing, as you have a wonderful talent for it.
    Cheers, Amanda

  • ohforheavensake

    So, essentially, you got old.

  • trace9

    Pop is a palindrome
    It begins quite as it ends
    Pop has nowhere to go
    So it wends, & wends – & wends..
    & Ends. Thanks, for nothing, much, except drug addiction – to make yourself sound Better.

  • go simile

    “Sting released an ever more pompous string of jazz-inflected albums no one played more than twice,”

    I played Summoner’s Tale lots of times. Deeply relaxing.
    Would not call most of his work, Jazz-Inflected albums either…

    You deserve a subpoena.

    • blandings

      Come on, no one can feel litigious about Sting.
      Maybe I’ll regret saying that.

    • Gilbert White

      Muzak to have tantric sex by?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I never realised the Spectator had a pop critic.

    • Labour Mole Catcher

      Neither did your parents realise that the rubber had pop’d, I suppose!

    • Sten vs Bren

      Well, after Elvis hit big, the Spectator sprang in to life and recruited one, thirty years later.

  • blandings

    Well, I enjoyed the read but I was always struck by the thought that pop music is music about which there is nothing much to say, other than I do or I don’t like it.
    Anyway, good luck and crack a bottle..

  • venyanamore

    Ah “The Lexicon Of Love” – no, pop music does not get better than that. “Date Stamp” is not quite my favourite track on it, but when the competition includes “Many Happy Returns” and “Valentine’s Day”, this is not damning with faint praise. Thank you also for flying the flag of the Lilac Time in the national non-music press, as they really ought to be at least a little more well known than they are.

  • John P

    First, thanks so much for the columns over the years – I always enjoyed them, and their vignettes of obsession, and would often hunt up something you’d recommended. As you said, I’m stuck on my own island, largely Van Morrison, but this, by some new Bristol outfit, popped out of the radio the other day, played by Craig Charles, and it felt old and new at the same time, and an instant classic. Great title, too…

  • Firstly, good luck to you, Mr. Berkmann, and thank you for your many years of writing and serving the music community and industry. Music will continue to go through evolution, or as the Beatles said, ‘Revolution’. Singers, songwriters, producers all come and go, and time has a way of breathing new life into music. The elder icons of pop legend now have their legacies set in stone and still played frequently. What I have found is that many of these legendary pop artists are returning to their classical roots, ie Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka, Jimmy Webb and the like. What we love and remember from the music of our youth we will always cherish, and things do cycle but in new ways. The future of pop music may well have its newcomers being born or in early childhood at this moment. Leonard Bernstein was a mentor of mine, and he was quite forthright about his feelings about music of all styles. He was very open minded about music and I believe there will indeed be a future in pop music–it may have a different sound–one yet to be discovered.

  • Jason Newstedt

    Pop/Rock music was never supposed to be scrutinized to such great lengths as it is. It isn’t about the music, rather the presentation. People tend to identify with what the act is trying to convey than the actual music.

  • Max Finucane

    Deacon Blue, Prefab Sprout, The Lilac Time, Squeeze’s “Some Fantastic Place”. Having lived outside the United Kingdom for over 40 years, I would never have discovered any of this but for Marcus Berkmann. Thank you sir.