The Black Album 
by Hanif Kureishi.
Faber, 230 pp., £14.99, March 1995, 0 571 15086 1
Show More
The Faber Book of Pop 
edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage.
Faber, 813 pp., £16.99, May 1995, 0 571 16992 9
Show More
Show More

Pop music in Britain is almost forty years old. By 1957 ‘Rock around the Clock’ had opened a generation gap, London-based record labels like EMI, Decca and Pye had started to refine the art of hit-making, and Manchester had an import record shop bringing American rhythm and blues direct to Northern youth. By the mid-Sixties Jamaican sound systems in South London, Birmingham and the North of England were playing the bluebeat and ska records that marked the ripening of reggae. In 1964, while rock ‘n’ roll, soul, rhythm and blues, and beat music were mutating into vying forms, and laying down roots in British cities, Brian Epstein had taken the Beatles over to America, and the Beatles had taken over America.

In St Petersburg, on the other hand, youth culture has been left alone to flourish only for the last year or two. A venue-owner in the city recently told me that he has nearly three hundred local bands lined-up to play over the next four months. But this enthusiasm doesn’t mean that there are any quick – or even slow – bucks to be made in Russian pop music. The local bands have little access to records from abroad, and no means of production or distribution of their music other than rudimentary tapes recorded on eight-track machines at gigs and passed on through friends. The bands, it seems, all want to be the Sex Pistols; a fair choice. The Faber Book of Pop reprints an interview with the Sex Pistols in which one of them tells an NME journalist that ‘we’re into chaos.’ There’s plenty of that in St Petersburg: to be like the Sex Pistols you need mastery of only two (or maybe three) chords and something to say – or shout – above the equally discordant sound made by falling roubles, gangsters’ Mercs and roaring inflation.

The predicament of St Petersburg’s bands throws Britain’s situation into sharp relief; in the last four decades, pop music has thoroughly infiltrated this country. In 1994 £900 million worth of records, CDs and tapes were sold in Britain. The music industry recorded a trade surplus of £571 million, making it as big a contributor to the nation’s wealth as the steel industry and a better performer than either the oil or pharmaceutical sectors. The economic activity surrounding live performances and dance clubs also has an impact on the economy, as young people juggle their Giros to ensure a Saturday night out. The other lunchtime I heard a Portishead song being played in Spud-U-Like, and every weekend since 1988 motorway service stations on the M6 and M62 have been haunted by clubbers who spend the nights journeying between venues in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and the Midlands.

Pop music has also stormed the citadel of literary fiction, and characters in novels such as Karline Smith’s Moss Side Massive and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity are identified, and minutely differentiated, by their music tastes. The characters in The Black Album tend not to be pinned down by their music tastes. Chili, the central character’s brother, is, in fact, one of the most alarmingly eclectic music fans in contemporary British fiction, listening to the Rolling Stones one minute, and the Pakistani qawali singer Nasrut Fatah Ali Khan the next. Chad – a hardline Muslim trying to forget a slightly shady past – insists that ‘pop music is no good for me. Nor for anyone... I used to be a music addict... it was overtaking my soul,’ yet he can’t stop himself looking through someone’s record collection to find his favourite Prince LP.

The Faber Book of Pop is especially good at capturing the impact of pop music, the inexplicable power of the right sound in the right place at the right time. Jon Savage and Hanif Kureishi have gathered more than a hundred and fifty pieces extracted from punk fanzines, key texts of pop history (such as Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music and Ice T’s autobiography) and the weekly music press, as well as from more outré authorities on pop music (such as Joe Orton) and a few anti-pop pieces (by Paul Johnson and Richard Hoggart, among others). Liveliest and most useful are the contemporary reports documenting specific occasions: Elvis Presley recording ‘Hound Dog’, Decca turning down the Beatles, the Rolling Stones at Altamont, the Osmonds at the Rainbow Theatre, the Ramones at New York’s CBGB, the Sex Pistols tramping around London, Derrik May in Detroit and Nirvana on the road to Tijuana.

The collection is a massive improvement on the comparable Penguin Book of Rock and Roll Writing, sparkier by far, and closer to the lived experience of fans and bands. It ignores cultural theorists with their laborious Post-Modernist lingo, graveyard prose and overwrought debts to Lacan and Baudrillard. There are also few of the rhapsodic rewrites of record company press releases that so often fill the weekly papers.

Apart from the eyewitness accounts of memorable moments, the most valuable writing is by the ‘super fans’. As they get older fans and writers usually declare that pop music isn’t as good as it used to be, that commercialism has taken over. But some, like Simon Reynolds and Greil Marcus, emerge with their enthusiasms undiluted and are able to explore the links between the memorable moments and the groundbreaking acts, serving as a corrective to the inclination to see pop music as a series of unconnected spectacles, moments, geniuses.

It’s clear that a canon is being formed in pop, starting with the assumption that the Beatles stand proud, Elvis is the progenitor and the Sex Pistols were the most important group since the Sixties. The Beatles get more pages than anyone else here – and perhaps that’s only fair – but much else in The Faber Book of Pop is the result of two skewed (and unacknowledged) perspectives. First, the collection suffers from a parochial view of pop: no South African jazz, no Arabic voices, no Asian synth-pop. It is true that, in pop music at least, Britain is a great power: but it is one which has absorbed outside influences, and emerged with hybrids that often have as much energy as the original forms. This means that you can’t properly understand British pop without understanding, for example, its debts to American music: the way the Beatles and the Stones plundered black American R’n’B, the Sex Pistols drew on the Stooges, and rave acts of the early Nineties plundered American and Italian sounds. Or its debts to Jamaican music, from the On-U Sound label’s adventures in dub, to the junglists of 1995 ripping off and recycling old-school reggae. Too close a focus on British music misses this, and, in addition, misses the way British bands have then exported their sounds not just to the three hundred bands in St Petersburg inspired by the Sex Pistols, but also, for example, to ambient artists in Norway like Sketch and Biosphere, who are influenced by Brian Eno and the Orb, record for a Belgian label (R&S) and sell all over the world. Colin Machines writes in a 1958 article that teenagers are unselfconsciously ‘internationally-minded’ (‘Teenage songs and even styles of clothing are carried across Europe, it would seem, by a sort of international adolescent maquis’), but that’s the only hint you get of the ability of pop to cross borders, to cross-fertilise.

More than a British bias, there is an English, or more specifically, a London one. London, of course, is Kureishi’s favourite subject. Both Karim in The Buddha of Suburbia and Shahid – the central character in The Black Album – idolise it. Karim describes the West End as ‘the centre of this old city that I loved, which itself sat at the bottom of a tiny island’. Shahid, too, sees London as the best thing about a paltry country: ‘Despite London, things could get small in England.’ The Faber Book of Pop reflects this obsession. Life at the Biba shop on Abingdon Road is documented; we spend pages and pages walking up and down Carnaby Street; fashion-following funkateers in London clubland in 1982 are celebrated in Robert Elms’s grand explication of a scene that amounted to no more than a bunch of people wandering around with no socks, espadrilles and holes torn in the knees of their jeans. Most ludicrous Londonism of all is a 1972 claim about George Best: ‘Though he lives in Manchester, he was, and still remains, a swinging Londoner.’

The book has a marked reluctance to include groups who’ve developed outside London (there’s no space for U2 or Massive Attack, Joy Division or Led Zeppelin). Nor is there any room for the mega-successful, but undeniably uncool American groups like Bon Jovi and Guns & Roses. The canon developed here is that of the London fashion police with their fundamentalist belief in style bibles like the Face and ID. Here the guest list is limited, and if you’re not wearing the right clothes and dropping the right names, access is denied. There’s no untidiness, and no mistakes. But not every group can be the Pet Shop Boys.

The collection also suffers from the stress it places on the involvement and contribution of gay artists, or, rather, from the artists chosen to represent this contribution. Boy George and Marilyn are deemed worthy of over twenty pages. Elton John is represented by an account of the rent-boy allegations made in the Sun, Derek Jarman is dragged in to reminisce about swinging in San Francisco and NYC, and out of all the British bands to make their mark in the last four years (the Stereo MCs, Blur, Primal Scream, M-People and Oasis), the editors choose Suede, not, it seems, for their artistic originality, but for their coy, Bowie and Morrissey-influenced embrace of sexual ambiguity.

Women, on the other hand, are ignored. There’s no Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield, EnVogue or Eternal, no mention of the Raincoats, Björk or Patti Smith and, most curiously of all, only five hundred words on Madonna. There’s stuff about groupies, girls in boutiques and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads: ‘A large group of male fans stood as close to the stage as possible, transfixed by bass-player Tina Weymouth’s lunatic stare.’ remarks a reviewer, colluding with the hankering male gazers. In his Introduction, Kureishi writes that the intersection of pop ‘with issues of class, race and particularly gender has been at the centre of post-war culture’. But The Faber Book of Pop only seems interested in gender insofar as the blurring of traditional distinctions which pop has encouraged has empowered boys to dress as girls.

Kureishi writes that pop ‘sprang from a momentary but powerful impulse: teenage sexual longing’. In embodying that belief and in navigating a number of social and religious rites of passage Shahid is a typical Kureishi character Up from Sevenoaks, he’s an innocent in London – what knowledge he has is drawn mostly from William Blake, and videos of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. He doesn’t know how to make friends or how to avoid getting clothes stolen at the launderette. Still, better ‘the spooky shadows of the city than the thin sunlight of the countryside’.

Shahid is torn between the sexy, liberal, Post-Modern world personified by his college lecturer Deedee Osgood, and the Islamic fundamentalist world of moral certainties represented by a sect based at the local mosque and led by Riaz. Kureishi sets The Black Album in 1989, the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It’s the burning of that book, never mentioned by name, that forces Shahid ‘to take sides’. Kureishi’s depiction of the fundamentalists is confused, however. Despite Riaz’s obvious status in the community and his dispensing of practical legal advice, and despite the fact that he saves Shahid’s life, he is presented as unworldly and his beliefs are reduced to catchphrases: ‘Without religion society is impossible.’ Evidently, Kureishi’s need for the reader to understand the attractions of the group for Shahid conflicts with his desire to undermine their credibility. Deedee’s cuckolded husband, the unreconstructed Marxist Andrew Brownlow, also yearns for past certainties. His stutter worsens as Communist regimes fall and when he makes his exit from the novel he puts ‘Hey Jude’ on repeat on the record-player.

The novel has an almost constant soundtrack to accompany it. At one point the vigilantes from the mosque go to defend a flat where a Bengali family have been attacked. They go armed with knives, machetes, clubs and knuckle-dusters into what is clearly enemy territory. As they make their way through the block of flats Shahid hears ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. Kureishi is good at these set-pieces, which resemble scenes from a screenplay.

The choice between fundamentalism and liberalism isn’t Shahid’s only problem: he also has to distance himself from his brother Chili and their dead father. Shahid’s father had flown RAF bombers in the war, and been awarded an MBE. On the walls of his house in Karachi hung autographed pictures of Cowdrey and May, and a print of George V. Chili, by contrast, is most happy playing the gangster, feeding off Scarface and The Godfather, wearing Boss suits and Calvin Klein underwear, brandishing a wallet ‘the size of half a loaf of bread’, cruising in his car and dealing drugs. Chili is ‘the last person Shahid wanted to be like’, and from an early age he cultivated a bookishness which both his father and brother found ‘effeminate’. At the end of the book ‘the dissipater’, as Riaz calls Chili, is brought down in a soap-opera style morality tale and hides out, before finally saving Shahid and Deedee from the avenging fundamentalists. Thus the two people Shahid most recoils from end up saving him from death.

Deedee is a cultural studies cliché, who includes Madonna songs in her lectures, and believes that the story of race in America starts with Jimi Hendrix and ends with Marvin Gaye. She is a regular at raves, and a reader of Lipstick Traces. Shahid finds her teaching methods condescending but falls in love with her because she is exotic and seductive and provides him with drugs, entry to all the best parties and adventurous sex. The Black Album dramatises a confrontation between those who seek pleasure and those who deny it. ‘Me a Muslim’, shouts Chad. ‘We are people who say one important thing – that pleasure and self-absorption isn’t everything.’

In ‘Eight Arms to Hold You’, a piece published with the screenplay of Kureishi’s film, London Kills Me, the power of pop music is asserted by contrasting the voice of John Lennon (‘It is aggressive and combative but the violence in it is attractive since it seems to emerge out of a passionate involvement with the world. It’s the voice of someone who has understood his own experience and knows his value’), with that of Margaret Thatcher (‘A sound so cold, so pompous, so clearly insincere... ’). Kureishi quotes a homily Thatcher recalled from her childhood, in words almost identical to Chad’s: ‘To pursue pleasure for its own sake was wrong.’

Prince’s The Black Album, from which Kureishi borrows his title, was withdrawn from sale, and thus shared a similar fate to The Satanic Verses. Prince himself is a pop star who identifies with both blacks and whites, men and women, gays and straights. He couldn’t represent anything more opposed to the severe certainties of puritanism.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences