This is something I’ve written for academic publisher Intellect’s site, who will be publishing the first edition of Punk & Post-Punk later this year. In the meantime, I thought I’d give it a home here, as it has some sage words from your very own site proprietor.
Last week I was invited to join a group of students touring the London College of Communication’s impressive Stanley Kubrick Archive. Having navigated the Elephant & Castle’s bewildering subterranean underpass system – the sort of place you wouldn’t want to encounter any rowdy malchicks late at night – a temple to the visionary American film-maker awaits in the LCC’s lower depths.
Comprehensive to a fault, the care with which notes, drawings, photos, props and ephemera are preserved herein would surely impress the notoriously obsessive director. Granted access to the temperature-controlled storeroom, electronically operated doors slide open to greet us, recalling a space-age time capsule devised by the BBC special effects department. Short only of dry ice and a Cyberman sentry, row upon row of carefully arranged reference material awaits. It’s a hermetically sealed environment that would delight Dr Strangelove’s General Jack Ripper, given his aversion to alien bodies intermingling with our precious bodily fluids. Here the Kubrick student can graze upon the original faked newspapers used in A Clockwork Orange, or contrasting pictorial research gathered for films set in the Victorian age (Barry Lyndon) and the near future (2001: A Space Odyssey). Ornate masks used on Eyes Wide Shut are present, as are scripts, location notes and Kubrick’s oft-terse personal correspondence. Simply put, it’s an outstanding research facility.
But here’s my question. Why does popular music, across its numerous genres and equally rich cultural history, have no such archive? Where is our space?
Some students of popular music and subcultures can get very angsty indeed about the relative kudos afforded film in this country ahead of music, which by any definition of scope, impact and influence, is a more immersive and interactive culture. It’s an age-old snobbery. The use of the prefix popular being as pejorative as it is indicative (Kubrick’s films may have had occasionally lunatic horizons with respect to integrity of artistic vision, but they were not, by design, unpopular). It has its roots in class readings of art forms and their relative worth and we should really, really, be beyond all that now.
In contrast to the body of work produced by, essentially, one filmmaker (albeit a singularly important one), there is currently no true archival centre for popular music research in the UK. While America boasts the ARChive of Contemporary Music in New York, on this side of the pond the concept has never recovered from the closure of the ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield. Extant for just over a year at the turn of the 90s, it squandered £15 million of funding (partially from the lottery, when everyone was still doing the lottery). Completely over-estimating its visitor pull, it was eventually turned into Hallam University’s Student Union centre.
Opened in March 2009, the British Music Experience resides at the O2 in Greenwich as a ‘permanent exhibition’. It’s a place where you can gasp in awe (depending on your generation and taste) at the Spice Girls’ outfits, Noel Gallagher’s guitar or Humphrey Lyttleton’s VE day trumpet. All well and good and there’s lots of ‘interactivity’, which helps if you’ve been brought up on game shows and 3D computer games. Yet it’s a highly corporate venture (supported by Sky, Harvey Goldsmith, O2 owner AEG) with a very limited focus. You might be able to Dance The Decades in the garish booth provided, should you place no store by your personal dignity, but you will not be able to access any of the true artefacts of late 20th century popular music; original vinyl discs.
There is, of course, the Institute of Popular Music (IPM) in Liverpool, established in 1988, becoming the School of Music (in association with Liverpool University) in 2003. While its focus is research, alongside a number of taught degrees in popular music, its phonographic library is necessarily limited; 20,000 LPs, around the same number of singles, and 5,000 78s. It sounds impressive, but I could name half a dozen private collectors with larger stockpiles of vinyl, and it’s dwarfed by the two million sound recordings held at New York’s ARChive.
The British Library Sound Archive is, of course, far more comprehensive, with over a million recordings. Yet herein popular music shares shelf space (digital or olde world wooden) with classical music, with drama and literature recordings and wildlife sounds. It’s about sound in totality rather than popular music.
The vinyl single and album represented an often highly individual artistic statement that, back in the day, was far more accessible and pluralist than film ever could be. I know first-hand, for example, of the haphazard processes occurring during the CD boom whereby music master tapes, from all but the biggest artists, were ‘baked’ to achieve transfer; a one-off process that was hair-raisingly hit or miss. Budgets were infinitesimal compared to those afforded the most canonically tangential Kubrick ‘rush’, and undertaken almost exclusively for commercial profit. I know of one master tape that was almost completely destroyed when shipped from overseas because of customs X-rays (although this may have been a sound engineer’s crafty excuse for leaving it too close to a radiator for all I know). I dread to think how many cultural artefacts we have lost permanently as a result.
It’s not just about the vinyl, though. In the UK at least, popular music was accompanied by vast tracts of ongoing critique. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that, during the 70s and 80s at least, the output of the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds amounted to the single biggest source of genuine cultural exchange in British life. Here at least endeavours are underway to preserve this rich tradition, under the auspices of Rocksbackpages.
Writer and Rocksbackpages founder Barney Hoskyns notes that, “Historically there has always been a snobbery; a supercilious attitude towards popular culture. Robert Warshow wrote a book called The Immediate Experience in 1962, and that was one of the first books to say – this is as valid as anything else; let’s lose this idea of high-brow versus low-brow culture and see it all as valid artistic expression. It is historically important. It can be discussed intellectually. My feeling is that we have come to the end of a cycle; the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll has subsided. It’s a period of cultural history that has a beginning and an end and we’re still living in the echo of Elvis’s big bang, if you like. So just as there are great scholars of jazz and blues, I think popular music, rock ‘n’ roll, is becoming part of the academic syllabus. It’s inevitable. One of the motivations for starting RBP was to say, look, there’s all this great content out there. Did I know that people would be writing theses on Robbie Williams? No, not necessarily. But I still thought it was important to organise all this material, and digitise it, in a way that would be entertaining for fans and consumers, but also useful for future scholars of pop culture.”
Hoskyns sees RBP as one attempt to redress the balance and to lend this particular strand of cultural endeavour a haven it has previously been denied. “I’m not pretending that all of the critical writing on Rocksbackpages is deathless prose, or F.R. Leavis. There is some very good writing on it, but there are also interesting interviews and material involving artists who now are recognised as being genuinely important. If you want to know the theory of rock ‘n’ roll, you can read about Syd Barrett and Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson. If you want to look at it from a social or historical perspective, in terms of genre and political dissent, etc, you can research that. We see it as a great complement to academic writing on rock ‘n’ roll. If you are a conscientious student and you want to go to a primary source, and you don’t just want a regurgitated, diluted version of wiki-consensus ‘rock evolution’, you can go back and check.”
But RBP remains an exception to the rule. Within the specialist field I know best, ongoing curation – in terms not just of vinyl, but posters, fanzines, button badges and beyond – is being done at the hands of collectors. A couple are English, but the majority come from Italy, from Greece, from Japan. They are preserving our culture in a complex, albeit largely benevolent manner. It still rankles, however, that there is no facility that adequately supports academic reporting of popular music – arguably our finest artistic export economically, culturally and on other levels – within the UK.
The Stanley Kubrick Archive is a wholly laudable entity. I just wished it didn’t provoke such instant envy.