Friday, 28 February 2014

This Is Pop!

“What do you call that noise
That you put on?”
    ~ ‘This Is Pop’ by XTC

I have, from time to time, been considered as a bit of a music snob. I resent that. I don’t generally snub or criticise entire genres. I may well feel negative towards numerous aspects of certain genres, but there’s usually something in every genre that I will quite like or admire. My history with Abba is one of the reasons why I simply cannot dismiss pure pop entirely. It’s also why, even as I discovered rock, metal, indie and numerous other guitar-oriented fields, I still never completely left my pop roots behind.

Madonna is a classic example of a pop artist who resonated with me, and to a certain extent still does. I fell for her, like many others, when Like A Virgin became a huge hit. She looked dead cool and a lot of fun. Madonna was/is more than just a singer; she was/is a performer. In many ways, Madonna rewrote the script in terms of how pop music should be done. She never compromised and while she often sexualised herself, she never seemingly allowed herself to be manipulated by others. 

Her early works really should be considered among the elite of everything that happened in 80s pop. That first self-titled record has some incredible tunes on it – Borderline still makes me tingle – and this trend continued through 'Like A Virgin' and 'True Blue'. But by the time 'Like A Prayer' came out, Madonna was not only established as the queen of pop, but as one of the most colourful and controversial stars on the planet. In a way, the furore over the video for Like A Prayer and her increasing self-imposed sexualisation overshadowed Madonna’s remarkable talent as a performer. 'Like A Prayer' remains one of my favourite albums of all time, its title track in particular being her first real work of genius.

I lost touch with Madonna for a while following 'Like A Prayer', but reconnected with her on the release of the 'Ray Of Light' album, her collaboration with producer William Orbit. It, too, rates very highly on my list of all time fave records.  Since then my interest has been mainly one of curiosity. Madonna still provokes, knowing which buttons can be pressed to get tongues wagging. Yet, she never comes across as desperate (unlike the non-stop publicity-seeking antics of Lady Gaga who, quite frankly, has long passed the desperation stage and is now well ensconced in the realms of the pathetic). Of course, this too is up for discussion, but I’d rather hear what Madonna has to say than pretty much any aspiring young wannabe who just happens to be the current flavour of the month. I wonder if Gaga will ever get an entire monologue written about her in the way Tarantino did for Madonna in 'Reservoir Dogs'?
[1] Don’t hold your breath, little monsters…

Madonna obviously stands out in the kingdom of pop as much for being Madonna than her music. It was always about the music for me though, which is why, into my teens, I still bought a decent amount of pure pop records. The Pet Shop Boys occupied a small space in my collection, as did Erasure and Depeche Mode. All three were ‘OK to like’ among the cooler echelons of the music press. Pet Shop Boys songs were not just throwaway pieces of pop trash, they had substance. Lyrically they were often cutting, witty or insightful which, when married to a damn fine tune – of which there were many – resulted in songs that transcended the majority of other chart fodder at the time. Erasure and Depeche Mode were signed to the uber-cool indie label Mute, whose roster also included Nick Cave, Wire, Fad Gadget and German industrial legends Einstürzende Neubauten. I remember buying a lovely (but very limited) marbled-vinyl 12” remix of an Erasure single one lunch hour at college. On examining it in the student common room, a cool kid asked me if I collected Mute records. “No,” was my uncool, naïve reply. “I just like the song.”  “You should,” he concluded. “They’re very collectable.”

‘Collecting’ records wasn’t a concept that I was wholly familiar with. Sure, I had bought some collectable items over the years – gatefold sleeves, coloured vinyl, picture discs – but mainly for the novelty value rather than the monetary value. I couldn’t quite understand the point of buying records because they were on a particular label. But with hindsight, picking up some more of those 80s Mute rarities could have proven to be a worthwhile venture. Mute wasn’t the only collectable label at the time. There were also the likes of 4AD and Factory, the former of which boasted Throwing Muses and Pixies in its impressive roster, while the latter had Joy Division and New Order.

It was when I was 16 and part way into becoming a fully-fledged ‘indie-kid’ that I somewhat belatedly got into New Order. I heard True Faith and became immediately hooked (pun intended)
[2]. It’s one of those tracks that moves me tremendously, in a truly emotional sense. There’s just something about it that gives me a sort of lovesick pang in my stomach and makes my hairs stand up on end. It also has one of my favourite ever sleeves.

Factory Records, like 4AD, was as revered for its artwork as for its music[3]. Its emphasis was on the visual with a particularly minimal stance (unlike the literary nature of the extensive sleevenotes of ZTT releases, as I discovered through Frankie Goes To Hollywood). The golden leaf image on True Faith was the work of Peter Saville, Factory’s in-house designer[4] and has been revived in numerous forms and colour schemes on New Order releases since. It struck me as another example of ‘the perfect package’ – the outside and the inside combining style and substance in harmony (another pun[5]).

But in the end, it’s all comes back to music. Pop doesn’t get any poppier than Saint Etienne. But while New Order had the highly artistic sleeve art and Madonna had her highly-publicised confrontational elements, Saint Etienne’s main appeal is their music. True, they have a pretty female singer who many would argue adds to the appeal, but like the Pet Shop Boys, Saint Etienne clearly realise all you really need are good songs and everything else will follow. Having said that, there is something about their moodiness which sets them aside of the rest. When I say moodiness, I don't mean miserable; Sarah Cracknells' sweet and blissfully light vocals can put a smile on even the grumpiest old git's face. There is a definite air about them, though.

Take their second album,
'So Tough', for instance. The opening "ooohs" on Mario's Café lead into a glorious stream of observations - the people, actions and conversations in a London caff. Dull? Not likely – it’s a slice of real life. Musically, it's still relevant because a lot of it was quite retro at the time of release; You're In A Bad Way is like an understated Phil Spector-esque girl group minus the wall-of-sound, while Conchita Martinez mixes Italian house piano with a sample of Rush's Spirit Of Radio.

But Saint Etienne's strength is obviously the single. From their debut, a sublime cover of Neil Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart to the present day, Messrs Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs have always been able to knock out a decent tune. The singles album 'Too Young To Die', which compiles songs from 1990 to 1995, is a delightful example of this. For me, the highlight is Hobart Paving. Boasting a string section and a beautifully mournful French horn (both absent from the original 'So Tough' album version), it is the best example of Sarah Cracknell's captivating, almost hypnotic voice. It is a song I listen to even when I'm not in the mood for something light.

It's well worth mentioning songs like Avenue, an entrancing and rather offbeat seven-minute opus which demonstrates a slightly more adventurous side to the group. Then there's Join Our Club, which celebrated the rave and grunge movements of the early 90s and the feelings of belonging they brought with them.

More recently, Saint Etienne’s latest album
'Words & Music' is pretty much all about “how music affects your life… believing in music, living your life by its rules.”[6] For this alone, it has become one of my favourite records of the past few years.

Pop music is nothing to be ashamed of. When it’s done properly – Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Saint Etienne, etc – it takes on an entirely new aesthetic and validates its status as an art form that can stand up to serious critical appraisal, regardless of its reasons for existing.


[1] The classic ‘Like A Virgin’ monologue: (checked 7/10/13)
[2] Not going to explain it – I shouldn’t have to!
[3] The book Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album (ISBN 978-0500286364) is very highly recommended
[4] 4AD had Vaughan Oliver, ZTT had AJ Barrett (pics) and Paul Morley (words)
[5] ‘Substance’ being the title of the compilation album that ‘True Faith’ immediately preceded.
[6] (accessed 16 October 2013)


  1. Well thought out and well stated! Pop is artifice and substance, it's fun and thoughtful. Pop is most successful when it lives up to is brief - music which reflects popular moods and sentiments.

  2. Saint Etienne totally passed me by the first time around. Through the deluxe edition reissues of a couple of year's back I "discovered" their pop genius. Since I have picked up every proper release and have yet to be disappointed, although I am a tad underwhelmed by Sound Of Water.

    1. Yeah, 'Sound of Water' is quite a difficult record to listen to. It's about as experimental as Saint Etienne ever got.