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The Varmint Show

making tracks

Regular listeners to the Varmints Show will recall John Varmint playing tracks from places he had visited on his 'heritage travels'. He wasn't just showing off, you know. John V has a long-held fascination with music and place: how places shape the music made there; and how the music reflects its city (or village) of origin. Equally, readers of British Archaeology magazine will recall, a year ago, John's co-written contribution about the 'Liverpool Musicscapes' project, complete with free music downloads. Now, one year on, a themed issue of the journal Popular Music History (Vol. 4.2, 2009) contains more on this project and related research. Here, John Varmint provides edited highlights and another opportunity (for those who missed it in 2009) to download tracks related to the Liverpool project.

Of the contributions to Popular Music History (PMH) three involve archaeologists. From University College Dublin, Tadhg O'Keeffe suggests that music research in urban studies derives not from the potential of music to capture the nature of urban life but from its potential to illuminate subtle but sometimes politically potent cultural concepts of the city as a place. Here's a flavour:

The Shaft soundtrack album, like the Superfly and Trouble Man soundtracks, by Curtis Mayfield (1972), and Marvin Gaye (1972), as well as The World is a Ghetto (by War, also 1972) and other comparable records of the early 1970s, had cross-community commercial success. Thus songs that conveyed some sense of 'the dead landscape of the city' entered the mainstream of popular culture, an entrance symbolised by John Shaft stepping out onto 42nd Street. Gaye's Trouble Man soundtrack has been described as the highpoint of contemporary commentary on the inner city from within the black community: 'there's only three things in life for sure', sang Gaye, 'taxes, death and trouble', and for much of the rest of the album he barely sang at all, allowing 'the narrative silence [to evoke] the ghastly silences that accompanied the smouldering ashes of riot-torn Detroit'.

John V (aka Schofield) with Brett Lashua and Sara Cohen provides an account of Liverpool drawn from their 'Popular Musicscapes' project, noting that popular music histories of Liverpool have been characterised largely by three dominant moments in the city's popular musical past, closely linked to three well-known venues (you must read the paper to find out which!). Their research points to alternative sites and lesser-known histories of music-making in the city that are not often mapped. It is these lesser-known histories that are represented in some of the tracks listed below, and which were described and mapped in BA110.

In a provocative paper, architect (and one–time member of post-punk Indie Rock three piece Big Flame), Greg Keeffe provides a flipside to recent emphases on regeneration and 'creative cities' that mark many accounts of places such as Manchester and Liverpool. Against the grain, he argues that ruin and neglect are important 'compost' to fertilise creative scenes and provide fertile spaces for music to propagate and bloom. Keefe focuses on the dystopian decay in an estate in Hulme (Manchester) in the 1970s, painting a portrait of disastrous urban planning that nevertheless led to a flourishing post-punk music scene in the 1980s.

Justin Williams's captures something of the American character of Los Angeles in the 1990s, remarking on the music of that city at the time—notably gangsta rap—characterised by urban sprawl, cars and freeways, and troubled racial relations. Williams argues that rap music is both product, and productive of, car cultures in Los Angeles, with rap music tailor-made to suit such auto-mobilities. For Bruce Johnson, however, the bass throb emitted from customised cars with the windows down is an example of a growing problem in urban environments: the proliferation of low-frequency noise (LFN). Johnson connects this to two particular developments in contemporary urban lifestyles: changes regarding the nature of urban space and architecture; and changes in the sonic profile of pop music since the late twentieth century. Johnson explains how LFN has begun to attract specific social policy and legislative measures and its own specialist scientific journals, and argues that it presents new challenges for popular music studies.

Dave Laing describes the benefits of mapping popular music performance through the examples of particular urban centres, the itineraries of four national tours of Great Britain in 2008, and the international touring career of Elton John. These studies illustrate spatial aspects of music performance and local, national and international performance contexts. They show how mapping performance circuits, tours and sites can help to explain historical relationships between musicians and audiences, and between music and its geographical, social, economic and cultural environments.

Finally, another archaeologist, Paul Graves-Brown presents ideas corresponding to an anti-heritage agenda on monumentality. He explains how a monumental sense of place is based on concepts of tenure and ownership that are challenged by the fluidity of modern urban life; yet with increased mobility and the media of instant communication come a non-Euclidean sense of place, commensurate with the development of recording and other audio media. While Paul does not seek to refute the connection between music and place, he does see both making and listening to music as involving a dynamic construction of place necessitated by the ephemeral, kinetic nature of music itself.

Music is closely tied into the way we experience and think about place, but the relationships are not necessarily clear-cut. This collection of essays begins to unravel the complexity. It seems fitting to end on a more material, archaeological note and for that we stay with Paul's contribution, which ends as follows (paraphrased from the original essay):

Clearly musicians do write about places, whether it be Kirsty McColl's Soho Square or the Kinks' Waterloo Sunset. Whilst music is not representational, the genius locii of such places may, I will admit, find its way into the sound. Equally listeners do construct musical memories around places: Pink Floyd's Echoes always reminds me of a rainy afternoon of earnest teenage philosophising. My point is that, since music is an event and an action, and since modern urban and post-urban 'places' are fragmented, topological and often virtual, the attempt to monumentalise popular music seems misguided.

In my own recent studies of pop related places in central London I have been struck be the tenuous connections monumentalised by the plethora of blue and green plaques. The plaque to Bob Marley at 34 Ridgmount Gardens commemorates a stay of barely two months, whilst the controversial Blue Plaque to Jimi Hendrix in Brook Street does not mark the more poignant location of his death, the Samarkand Hotel, 22 Lansdowne Crescent, Notting Hill – a more fitting place, I feel, for a memorial. Those locations that do give one a sense of something more genuine are the more informal traces of a lived tradition; the bench dedicated by fans to Kirsty McColl in Soho Square, or the 30 year history of graffiti in the 'Ziggy Stardust phone box' in Heddon Street.

That said, pop-related places have often been highly ephemeral: the Blue Gardenia club, venue for the Beatles first ever London gig, existed for only a few months, as did many other music clubs and club nights. Other important 'off-site' locations have only a passing association with music: Savoy Steps, an alley at the back of the Savoy Hotel was, for a few minutes, the location of Bob Dylan's performance of Subterranean Homesick Blues in DA Pennebaker's (1967) film Don't Look Back. The disused Aldwich tube station was used for The Prodigy's (1995) video for Firestarter (see below). Music, live or recorded has a life, a dynamic which cannot be pinned down. It does not have a place in the sense that the Lascaux cave paintings or the Mona Lisa have a place (even if the latter is portable to some extent). We may use it to sing up the country, either literally or on an iPod walking the urban landscape, but its emotion will always be in motion.

Think about that next time you are listening to the Varmints Show, or as you are listening to the seventeen tracks that originate with the Liverpool musicscapes project and remain available for free download.

Further reading/listening/viewing:

All image © Paul Graves-Brown, who will be the subject of a future Varmints column.

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