Broken Greek, a process of elimination

I wrote Broken Greek by a process of elimination. Music magazines were shutting down one by one, leaving more music journalists seeking work from rapidly diminishing outlets. Cutting costs in order to survive, newspapers were increasingly relying on staff writers for their arts coverage. And although I had a reasonable reputation as a music journalist, I was also painfully aware of the fact that no-one was as hopeless at pitching features ideas as I was. It’s a peculiar sort of anti-talent. There isn’t a single pitch so good, no scoop so hot, that I couldn’t ruin it by explaining it to a commissioning editor in an unnecessarily complicated and uninspiring way. Queen announcing that they’ve just found Lord Lucan and he’s going to be their new frontman. Prince’s final five albums being a series of coded instructions for a subterranean-dwelling species of lizard-people to emerge into the light and enslave every man, woman and child in America. Between 2005 and 2010, in my five years as The Times’ chief music correspondent, that hadn’t been an issue. I pretty much commissioned myself and no-one seemed to mind. I’d just been left to get on with it. And, by and large it worked, because I liked all of my ideas.

The other problem was that the world in which music journalism had become an entire, distinct category of writing no longer existed. When I used to read album and singles reviews in Melody Maker and NME as a teenager, I did so in the knowledge that I only had a finite amount of money to spend on records, and I didn’t want to risk picking a dud. Flaming eviscerations of the atonal free jazz-albums recorded by the bin-bashing inhabitants of a Stoke Newington squat in 1982 seemed fair enough. How dare Squonktrumpet try and get me to part with £3.99 when their album sounds like a sustained act of insurrection in a cutlery draw! 

But now, in the age of streaming, those sorts of takedown don’t feel so fair. You can pretty much listen to anything before you buy it, and the chances are that as long as you can stream it, you probably won’t buy it. Which means that the musicians whose day NME might have once ruined with a few deadly adjectives are about as poorly renumerated as most present-day music journalists.  

So given that the work was drying up, I decided to fill in the gaps by writing some pieces that, even by my standards, were a tough sell. I figured that if I wrote them first, then I could send them to likely takers and if they wanted them, I’d let them have them for free. “Think of it as a shop window,” I told myself. “Something good might result from them.”

Among those pieces was a 5,000 word essay prompted by the plight of Tony Blackburn, who had been dismissed by the BBC because the contents of documents from the early 1970s were in conflict with evidence that the DJ had given to the Jimmy Savile inquiry (Blackburn was subsequently cleared and reinstated). But it wasn’t really a piece about Tony Blackburn. It was a meditation upon how our notions of cool change as we move from childhood to middle age – and how our perception of characters like Morrissey, Bob Dylan and Tony Blackburn changes with it. Like I said, I’m terrible at pitching – but I wrote the piece and The Quietus took it off me. No point in charging them for it – I know The Quietus functions on a hand-to-mouth basis. For about five minutes, it went viral. Which was nice, because for all I had been able to gauge, my searing defence of Tony might have resulted in people in the street pelting me with rotten fruit. 

About a year later, at something of a low point, I wrote a piece about Ocean Colour Scene’s 1996 album Moseley Shoals – a record I feel had been misunderstood by critical consensus on account of its creators’ Britpop associations. Uncool records are always fun to write about because you feel like you’re on a mission to make people see them differently, and – unlike, say, writing about The Smiths or Marvin Gaye – also you’re not competing in your head against the hundreds of brilliant pieces already written about those artists. 

Nevertheless, Moseley Shoals was not only a record I truly loved, but it was one that held up a mirror to emotions I was feeling at the time. People close to me were unwell and, try as I did, I didn’t know how to help them. One escape from the resulting feelings of failure was to reflect upon simpler times – which is something that several of the songs on that Ocean Colour Scene record also do. What probably also helped compound the connection was the fact that Ocean Colour Scene’s frontman and main songwriter Simon Fowler grew up in the same part of Birmingham as I had done.

The Quietus – God bless The Quietus – took that piece too. And once again, only the lightest scattering of people took to Twitter to tell me I was a total philistine. About a year later, I bumped into Felix White from The Maccabees who thanked me for writing it. He said he’d been waiting for someone to write a piece that corresponded to how that record had made him feel as a teenager. It feels good to make money out of writing, but it really does feel just as good to make an emotional connection, and that singlehandedly justified the time spent writing that piece. 

Furthermore, it was while seeking an escape from other situations in my life that I started writing Broken Greek. Another unpitchable idea. Two books in one. Or one book that can’t quite decide what it’s supposed to be. A childhood memoir? Or a personal history of music between the years 1974 and 1982? The problem was that I couldn’t write the former without writing the latter. And the latter required context that could only be provided by the former. 

I mentioned the book idea to a few people. “Don’t you sometimes think that – especially when you’re a kid – you love the music you love because it’s explaining your situation to you?” Like I said, I’m really rubbish at pitching. There were some nods. Nods garnished with concern. Is there a book in that? So in the end, I decided to do what I’d done with the Tony Blackburn and Ocean Colour Scene pieces. I wrote the whole thing without trying to pitch it. That way, other people could decide what the book was and whether it deserved to exist. Recalling the first time I heard Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes, I wrote:

“It was perfect then and it’s perfect now: the ascending vocals of the intro that, at some subconscious level, I must have been expecting to reach some sort of plateau; the doubling up of the tempo on the snare drum signalling that, actually, the very opposite was about to happen and then – just fifteen seconds in – the emotional bottle rocket of [Paul] Da Vinci’s falsetto, shattering the canopy of restraint and taste and propelling you with it into a world far more exciting than the back of a fish and chip shop in Birmingham.”

And once I started, I knew that this wouldn’t just be a book to be read in silence. It would be a book with a constant soundtrack: life interwoven with music. Because for those of us who were obsessed with Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops, that’s just how life was. I told myself that when it was finished, I’d make a giant playlist with every song that’s mentioned in the book – and then 35 more playlists corresponding to each individual chapter.

If the world has changed and we can now listen – without having to move – to the very song we’re reading about, then perhaps music writing can reflect that change. I still love reading well-written reviews, but the negative ones? I have to say, not so much. It might partly be because I’m getting soft in my dotage. But mostly, I feel that in this already punitive age, I’d rather that bad records were ignored rather than torn to bits. What I want to know is – with only a certain number of hours available to me – which records do I need to prioritise over others? Often, I’ll click play on Spotify as I start to read the review – just like I did with Alexis Petridis’s five star review of the new Wolf Alice album in The Guardian on Friday. 

At moments like this, it becomes apparent to me that the age of the gatekeeper may have run its course. The area between critics and fans has been levelled out by universal access to music. One way that music writing can acknowledge this is by creating something that runs parallel to the experience rather than describing it to a prospective purchaser. Of course, that’s not a new idea. There’s a long tradition of liner notes which do just that. They act in a similar way to the theatre programme you buy before you make your way to your  seat. Sometimes they explain the technicalities of the music you’re hearing. Sometimes they simulate the very rapture that takes hold of the listener when they put that record on – and by reading it, you want to feel it too. Has the opening paragraph of any liner notes ever whetted your appetite for an album quite like this one by Bill Evans for Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue?

“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.”

There are certain books I return to time and time again because they also do this: Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler, his guide to the golden era of German progressive and experimental music of the late 60s and early 70s; Simon Goddard’s history of Postcard Records Simply Thrilled; Bob Stanley managed it literally hundreds of times in Yeah Yeah Yeah, his stunning history of pop in the post-rock’n’roll era. And if you’ve never found a way into the oeuvre of Queen, there’s no better way to do it than listening to a playlist of their best-known songs while reading Kate Mossman’s breathtaking interview-cum-mini-memoir with/about the group. It was first published in The Word magazine in 2011, but you can also find it on music journalism library Rocks Backpages.

Edited by New Statesman’s Tom Gatti, a new book Long Players – Writers On The Albums That Shaped Them effectively acts as a cache of liner notes for 50 albums. I enjoyed reading about the ones I knew – Tracey Thorn on Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Fiona Mozley on Cassadaga by Bright Eyes – but what I really loved was properly listening to albums I didn’t know as well while reading their corresponding pieces in the book: Preti Taneja using A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders as an escape capsule from the narrow expectations of her small town upbringing; Teju Cole on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star by Black Star, a love letter as achingly eloquent and poetic as the record to which it’s addressed. 

Where music is concerned, prose and music go together as perfectly as the words of Hal David to the music of Burt Bacharach. It seems amazing to me that music streaming outlets like Spotify, Apple Music and Vevo seem so indifferent to the discourse around music. If someone’s made a great playlist, I’d love to read a piece about the thinking behind it; the reason they thought these songs might go together; the story they’re telling through these songs. Is there an appetite for expert-curated playlists with accompanying bespoke articles? Sure there is. It’s why physical formats continue to have the edge over streaming. When I wrote the 15,000 word booklet that came with a Lloyd Cole & The Commotions box-set in 2016 and the essay that came with Domino’s reissue of Lal & Mike Waterson’s unsurpassable folk masterpiece Bright Phoebus, I imagined the sort of thing I’d like to read as I were listening to these albums. 

That emphasis on providing something that allows you to truly immerse yourself in a record and the world from which it came is the reason Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ themed compilations for Ace Records – boasting evocative titles like The Tears Of Technology, Three-Day Week and State Of The Union – have been such a critical and commercial success. To drop the needle on their 2020 anthology English Weather as you start to read their accompanying essay and annotations is like travelling through time, “looking out through wet window panes to a new decade with a mixture of melancholy and optimism for what might come next. With the Beatles gone and the pound sinking, a new and distinctive sound emerges, led by flutes and mellotrons.”

When I read the liner notes of English Weather, I yearn desperately to board a Tardis that will take me to that world. I’m reminded of the time, aged 18, when I read Nikos Kantzakis’s novel Christ Recrucified, about the attempts of a fictional Greek village under Anatolian rule in 1921 to stage a Passion Play. One of the characters depicted in the book Yannakos is a merchant-peddler – seemingly content with his life – who travels with his donkey from village to village and sells his wares. He cares for nothing in life more than the welfare of his trusty donkey, and when he’s hungry, he simply pulls out some bread, olives and an onion from his satchel. He takes great big bites out of the onion, as you would with an apple. One afternoon, I was got carried away by this idyllic depiction of Yannakos’s life that I walked downstairs from my room to the family kitchen and I ate an entire onion just like Yannakos. My reality remained suspended until the very last bite of the onion – at which moment, the most overwhelming nausea consumed me and I threw it all up. 

Together with the music that inspires it, music writing can cast a similar spell in the people who come across it. It’s why entire subcultures form around it. I don’t think I could ever create a character so  real and relatable that they could inspire someone to eat an entire raw onion. But someone did email me to tell me that they’d reappraised The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love as a result of reading Broken Greek. A song they had once considered a corny, cynical, throwaway pop confection was now deeply moving to them. Five years ago, if you’d told me that was even a possibility, I’d have felt a rush on a par with the deathlessly thrilling intro of that very record.

Watch Pete Paphides discuss Broken Greek at Hay Festival 2021 here and buy your signed copy from the Hay Festival shop now here.