Pop! What Is It Good For?, BBC4

by | Jan 8, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

Paul Morley is always a joy, even when he talks nonsense, as he does so with such a rare, flustered passion that makes him captivating and refreshing. And when he recklessly gushes into any number of philosophical cul-de-sacs, he always appears quaint; cute even, like a naïve child trying to educate their proud parents on how the world is.

What was good about it?

• The exposure of how Can’t Get You Out of My Head was composed as functionally as a small boy might glue together a model aeroplane. Writer Rob Davis, once of Mudd (“towards the bricklayer end of Glam”) blithely explained to Morley the melody, drums and bassline, and that Kylie wasn’t even the first choice to sing it, that was Sophie Ellis-Bextor, but her manager had chosen the song with the same impulsive bliss as a drunken stag nighter in Amsterdam picks out a whore from the brothel window.

• The deliberately amateurish fashion of the documentary in which the director drones at Morley about what questions to ask and how to frame the shot. This perhaps is because it was shot and edited in the tabloid Blitzkrieg over ‘fake’ TV, as evidenced by the omission of ‘noddies’ and some grotesquely blunt editing.

• Morley’s interview with the gurning Sugababes as they prepared to perform at Children In Need. Their bemused looks and swirling washing machine eyes suggested they imagined he was some kind of lunatic stalker rather than someone who will have a infinitely more enduring and deep impression on pop than they will ever have.

• After Morley had finished his excruciating eulogy about Freak Like Me – “one of the greatest pop songs ever” – Original Sugababe gazed at him as if trying to stare him into a submissive skulk back to the shadows and was affronted that she actually had to navigate her cubic mind into a position where it had to reply to his praise; praise made even more remarkable as they had as little to do with the song as a joyrider has to do with the manufacture of a car they’ve stolen.

• New Sugababe even brazenly offered her opinion on what it had felt like to be offered Freak Like Me even though at the time she had been moored off the coast of Pap waiting to be hauled in like a cage of crabs to the fish market of manufactured music.

• They became very animated after Morley had intimated they were the “prime brand” for songwriters to aim for with their compositions because they wanted to assure him above all else that they “write the majority of our music” – advocates of God make a similar claim about the Bible. But any pretensions of divinity the Sugababes may have had were dispelled by the thunderclap of Phil Collins atrocity In The Air Tonight – at which point New Sugababe started singing along and dancing, indelibly unmasking their true faith to diabolical, mindless music as surely as the handkerchief damns Iago.

• Morley’s rambling but lucid account of how his world was gouged apart through his purchase of T-Rex’s Ride A White Swan; how this one single record uncorked his bottled perception of the world that there was more to life than Stockport in 1970.

• Richard X badgering Morley about his former life in The Art of Noise, one of the strangest groups of the 80s, of which Morley was a member. Sadly, they focused on the agreeable industrial tubthump of Close To The Edit rather than the sublime Moments In Love.

What was bad about it?

• The assumption that everyone watching is an avid reader of Brian Eno And His Esoteric Theories on Music that left everyone else baffled at times. Morley drew comparisons between Can’t Get You Out of My Head and Iggy Pop, Donna Summer and Philip Glass, with examples of the first more familiar two, but nothing of Glass so the viewers had no reference to appreciate this allusion.

• There was also a discussion about minor and diminished chords, and how they are “sad” and mournful – but why so?

• Morley examined the video to Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, in the belief that the futuristic video “creates the perfect imaginative landscape for that song to exist”. This over-accentuates the role of video in music; videos only act to distract the dominant visual sense from becoming bored by the predominant auditory inflow, or at least until the song has become entrenched in the brain. But such a necessity endures when the song is weak and incapable of inflaming the mind’s eye with evocative imagery – which is why Foo Fighters videos are so animated and elaborate.

• Morley’s heavily flawed belief that “all pop songs are great because you can imagine them being sung by Elvis”. While the Sugababes lack of veneration for Morley stank of ignorance of musical history, Morley’s blind devotion to Elvis smacks of ignorance of the musical present. While many of his generation may still worship Elvis, to almost everyone else Elvis is an anathema of culture, little more than Robbie Williams for men too proud to show off their grey hair, a bloated icon of 60s hyperbole whose undoubted innovation has been swept away by a cascadence of bile from a generation who are sick of being told how life-affirming the previous generation was.

• Tahita Bulmer and Morley exaggerating the profundity of Madonna’s Like A Prayer – “the complex things you can say in a pop song”, “Incredibly complex” – if memory serves us correctly it was a licentious and tedious set of flailing arms beating hard on the doors of controversy through allying a song ostensibly about religion with a video featuring a black Jesus while the (trite) lyrics hinted strongly at oral sex.

• Morley presuming the upsurge in British pop music was fuelled by the national shame at the downturn in the fortunes of the empire – “Britain has lost India, but it had gained the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks” – as the only folk who would have had the time to fret about the fall of the empire would be aristocrats, everyone else still had their noses in the dirt following the Second World War.

• The earnest analysis of This Charming Man’s lyrics, in which poet Simon Armitage intelligently and intuitively attempted to paint a clearer picture of Morrissey’s deceptively whimsical tale of how a “ vulnerable, hapless “jumped up pantry boy” is seduced by the titular charming man. The problem was that our vision of the boy – soaked to the skin with lank hair plastered across his face pushing his “punctured bicycle” with arms outstretched across some “hillside desolate” before his encounter with a rich gentleman in a fancy car – isn’t really very different to Armitage’s, nor, we imagine, anyone else’s as the lyrics are so rapturously evocative.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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