Lives in Sound

New books by veteran music writers Ian Penman and David Toop show that, at its best, there is no higher category than music journalism.

In the brief introduction to his concise and elegant second collection of essays, Ian Penman raises the spectre of an alternative preface containing thousands of words about his past, only to dismiss it with an a considered flourish: “I decided any such contextual backdrop was not only unnecessary, but perhaps contra… the spirit of the thing”. David Toop’s deeply personal but richly rewarding exploration of the conflicted estate of the critic/practitioner begins with a quote from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon: “Those who tell their own story… must be listened to with caution”. 

Both authors have grasped a difficult truth which is far from being consensual in today’s publishing landscape, and perhaps this is one reason why these two exemplary volumes appear on lower profile imprints than they ought to. The harsh reality to which I refer is that as a general rule, music journalists should not be encouraged to write about themselves. 

The clanking of the gears as a mythologising apparatus developed for the glorification of others is put to self-promotional use is all too often painful for the reader. And from such Alpha male monuments to unabashed hubris as Nick Kent’s Apathy For The Devil and Robert Christgau’s Going Into The City (objectively, two of the worst books ever written), down the journalistic food chain through a seemingly endless sequence of former and current EMAP and IPC stringers’ pun-filled accounts of the way a childhood spent watching Crackerjack in Ipswich prepared them for life in the free lunch fast-lane, the micro-genre of ‘rock critic tells all’ is not one upon which literary posterity can be expected to look with favour. 

It would be nice to believe that Flutter Echo and It Gets Me Home… – two very different but similarly impeccable volumes by veterans of (among other things) the early eighties style press -could bring down the curtain on this particular egotists’ arcadia. Although a cursory survey of publishers’ music book lists for 2020 suggests otherwise, the concluding injunction of Maggie Doherty’s tart recent London Review of Books survey of confessional US millennials to “leave the memoir behind” might yet be the grain of sand around which the pearl of a new authorial self-effacement can begin to coagulate.

For those wondering how the space left by eschewing fifteen round heavyweight bouts with minor substance abuse problems and loving descriptions of the favourite shoes you were wearing to do the big interview might possibly be filled, Penman’s eight essays – previously published in the LRB and an American conservative think-tank’s house magazine called City Journal – are an object lesson in the right way to go about it. His strategy for shedding new light on such potentially over-exposed subjects as Elvis, James Brown and Frank Sinatra is a simple one: to distill a lifetime’s critical engagement into fluid and accessible prose.

Fluid and accessible were of course not always the first two adjectives which sprang to mind on contact with the writing of this former NME tyro. Reasonably authoritative legend has it that when ex Old Grey Whistle Test presenters David Hepworth and Mark Ellen drew up the blueprint for Q Magazine’s early eighties assault on the NME’s cult of writerly personality with two templates ‘What Q is…’ and ‘What Q is not….’, the only 5 words on the latter list were “Paul Morley and Ian Penman”. That Hepworth and Ellen – erstwhile shock-troops of journalistic house style – should now be churning out avuncular book-length paeans to their personal places in cultural history while the former iconoclastic high prince of the gratuitous Roland Barthes quote pens sumptuously disciplined tributes to the work of canonical figures like James Brown and Bill Evans is an irony that is almost too delicious to contemplate. 

There’s an interesting bias in the rather florid puff quotes on Penman’s cover towards writers who have never really been music journalists, many of whom seem to be striving to elevate him to some higher literary sub-category above that much (and often justly) derided profession. Newsflash: when music journalism is of this quality (as of course it all too rarely is), there is no higher category.

Where Penman’s book bottles the Indian summer of a writer whose talents have previously threatened (at least in book publication terms – his earlier anthology Vital Signs being a somewhat unsatisfactory and scattershot summation) to languish too long on the vine, David Toop’s is an unexpected and gripping addition to what is already a uniquely self-contained and expansive oeuvre. If Toop had never published another word after 1984’s prescient and ground-breaking hip-hop snapshot Rap Attack, he would still have made a unique contribution, but the sequence of publications which unfolded from 1995’s Ocean Of Sound through Exotica (1999), Haunted Weather (2004) and Sinister Resonance (2010) to the improbable climax of 2017’s Into The Maelstrom  – a book which somehow conveys the thrill and danger of playing completely improvised music even to readers with no interest in that activity whatsoever – is one that is entirely without precedent in British music writing (or any other that I know of), exhibiting the kind of internal momentum more usually associated with particular phases in the careers of Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman (or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell come to that) than the contingent and necessarily compromised decision-making processes of everyday rock journalism.

Not always easy to read, but difficult to forget, Toop’s spiralling exegeses are closer to visionary tracts than the extended Mojo article that is the British rock book’s default setting. They derive at least some of their ascetic character from their author’s long years of toil at the coal-face of British experimental music as a practitioner rather than a critic. While by no means thankless, as his lengthy and illustrious discography attests, the elements of privation and struggle within Toop’s performative pre-history weaponised his critical apparatus in the same way that people used to season cricket bats by applying numerous coats of linseed oil and throwing balls at them to ‘knock them in’.

Beyond such enjoyable autobiographical vignettes as the boy musicologist being presented with his first guitar by an older sister dressed as a Native American squaw in front of a tepee made from a blanket and sticks, Flutter Echo functions as a revealing DVD-style director’s commentary on Toop’s other writings. The personal circumstances which inform and intrude upon Toop’s work – most sadly and strikingly the suicide of his wife Kimberly Leston – enter the narrative as honoured guests rather than unwelcome visitors, and the location of Exotica’s fragmented structure within the realities of raising a bereaved child as a single parent is a particularly precise and tender piece of writing. 

Of course there are other exceptions that prove the rule in music-journalists-putting-themselves-into-the-story-usually-being-a-bad-thing terms, but few that put the abundant competition on its mettle as starkly as Toop’s resonant and haunting memoir. And if Penman’s publishers are moved by the success of It Gets Me Home to put together a further collection of his non-music writings – starting with his fine City Journal profile of Walter Benjamin – then the critical bar would’ve been raised thrice over.