Bowie, Zappa, Adele & The Purpose Of Contemporary Music

Originally posted on Planet Slop

With Glastonbury reactions highlighting the debate over elite and popular art, Alan Parry ponders the purpose of contemporary pop music.

There is an age old debate which rages over elite and popular art.

If we look back through history, its apparent that much of what is deemed ‘high’ or ‘elite’ has been presided over by a very small minority who believe that they better understand, and/or appreciate art than the grubby masses.

But why do they get to tell us what we should or should not like?

At the outset of the twentieth-century, it was common to hold the position that this small number of academics ought to reserve the right to declare what is good and what is inferior, a point promoted by F.R. Leavis when he wrote in 1930 that ‘Upon them depends the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age’. This is a position which came under great scrutiny as the 20th century advanced.

Throughout the 60s, this position was challenged by both younger, cultural critics and creative artists who had their fingers firmly on the pulse. We saw a great deal of experimentation with popular forms, think about the legacy left behind by Jackson Pollock; think about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); think about Doctor Who; think about Frank Zappa and The Beatles and the birth of the concept album. It was a matter of out with the old and in with the new. Creative artists everywhere were looking to push boundaries and challenge the establishment.

Nonetheless, there is still some worth in attempting to define an art and literature, and musical canon. However, after this momentous shift in what was deemed valuable, it’s difficult to stomach some of what is on offer to us today.

How can we be expected to listen to, watch, admire that which is on offer as we live in a world filled with social, political, economical and religious injustice? I mean, have you seen the news? There was a time when an artist could respond to the world around them, they could hold up a mirror and show their audience their own failings. There was a time when this was what popular music, literature, film and art was about. There was a time, before I was born I might add, but not all that long ago, when the very best art instructed us and gave us agency to change the contingent world in which we live.

So, what the fuck happened? When did Adele start to speak for me? When did everything become so safe? So beige? Have we relinquished control? I am a father of three young children, one of whom plays guitar, (and quite well too), but why is he sat in his bedroom teaching himself to play Galway Girl?

There is a debate about the purpose of art, in all its forms. Should it be instrumental, didactic or merely, to coin a phrase ‘art for art’s sake’? The answer to this is multifarious. Indeed, it is far too great to explore every possibility here. But what I will say is that art should in the very least make us feel. The risk of opening up what is deemed elite up to more popular forms and genres was, in part due to the fact that the great and the good would be diluted. There would be less quality music and film out there for us, which is why I contend that it remains important to sift carefully.

I mention my children because I am particularly interested in how I can use contemporary art and the canon to shape their moral compass. I believe that music can be feel good, that there is room for that. However, what is more important to me is that I and my children, and anybody else that I can have influence over will go in search of something which challenges their beliefs, which challenges authority, which will transcend time and tastes.

I can recall getting in my old man’s gold Ford Princess and listening on cassette to Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti, to Dylan‘s Desire and to The Best Punk Album in the World… Ever. More than introducing me to some great music that continues to sound fresh and exciting now, he was introducing me to music which was fighting against the status quo. I see it as my duty now to do something similar for my children and anybody who cares to read this, to urge you to look a little deeper, to look for meaning and true fulfilment from your music, art and literature. It is possible to do this without disregarding the music which makes you dance, but the discovery of that which will make you think and act differently has, in my opinion, to hold more value.

However, it is also possible to go too far the other way, and you don’t have to look too far to find people making an utter fool of themselves. It is possible to be too choosy, to morph into a snob. And all the while I urge you to seek out music, art and literature which makes you think, I urge you to be careful you don’t fall into this trap.

I once had a friend who refused listen to female vocalists, he was turning his back on Aretha Franklin, The Ronettes, Janis Joplin and Carole King among others, based purely on this ridiculous gender bias. I have read others complain about the simplistic form that pop music is supposed to have, its utter bollocks. I am wary of repeating myself at this point, but it is ridiculous to look down on people and their taste, art is personal, but I honestly believe that it has a resonance beyond, ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This is catchy’.

I’m going to end by quoting David Bowie, who once said of work, but this rings true of in the search for artistic gratification too, ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting‘.

‘Cheated’ by Alan Parry

Originally published in themarkliteraryreview.com

I don’t recall her name, and I’m too afraid

to ask, but still I can see her smeared

eye-liner, those torn fishnet stockings and

that spiky blonde mane as if she stands

before me now. The image of her smashing

her fists clad in fingerless gloves against our

front door will never fade. Her anguished

adult accusations, my old man’s shouting

and my mother’s sobbing on the stairs, me

sitting in the window of the front bedroom

over the porch, it’s all there. A tragic

tableau, my earliest memory.

Paul Foot Interview: “What if Spiderman was a right bigot?”

Originally posted on Planet Slop

Alan Parry quizzes comedian Paul Foot on his wacky inspiration, ties, politics, piglets and more.

Paul Foot brings his extraordinary brand of comedy to Liverpool on Thursday 9th November.

The show, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Piglet had moderate success at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, but a prolonged worldwide tour has provided Foot with the opportunity to hone the material and this year’s reception was far kinder. In this interview, I ask about Paul’s inspiration for his brand of surreal and consider how he positions himself within his contemporaries.

Comedy of this nature is certainly going to divide opinion, but Foot has a loyal following whom he refers to not as fans, but as connoisseurs. An audience who have paid to see him fully understands that his material is not intended to be cutting edge, or breaking down any boundaries; its simply engineered to make you laugh.

Foot could be said to find the funny where many wouldn’t dare to even look, but it would be unfair to describe him as nothing more than an eccentric. His rigorous touring and commitment to reworking and writing new material proves there is much more to him than his renowned wild movements and unique hair style.

PSWho, or what was it that drew you to comedy in the first place? And which comedians, past or present, do you admire?

PF: I was drawn to comedy by accident. I was at university and there was a student comedy night coming up, some friends of mine said that I was funny and should sign up to do it, and I agreed. However, I had never seen stand-up comedy before ever, so I didn’t really know what it was. I didn’t know, for example, that comedians tend to prepare their performance/write material beforehand. So when the moment came I just went up and made up a load of stuff about fruit, asking about audience members’ favourite fruit and improvising from there. It went pretty well, and I knew from that moment that I would do comedy for the rest of my life.

In response to the second part of your question, my favourite comedian is Brian Gittins. He is excellent, and also present. I love his comedy.

PS: Similarly, are there any up and coming comedians, new to the circuit who you would advise us to keep an eye on?

PF: I very much enjoy the comedian Malcolm Head. He does comedy poems which are top quality. He sometimes is my support act for my shows when I tour; in fact, ye will see him perform if ye come to my upcoming shows.

PS: Have you always made people laugh?

PF: I have, and not always when I want them to laugh. Sometimes I try to be a very serious businessman, and people just laugh. Filing my tax return with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is a friggin’ nightmare; they just won’t stop laughing. Maybe it is my fault for keeping all my receipts filed meticulously inside a to-scale replica of the Mary Rose, and arriving in full Henry VIII regalia, including authentic 16th Century obesity jacket.

PS: What do you wish you knew when you started out in comedy?

PF: I wish I’d known that, one day, I would be successful. Nowadays, weird and surreal comedy is quite popular, but when I started out I was one of the only weird ones, and no one wanted the weird comedy. I was spectacularly unsuccessful for about 14.3 years, earning no money and getting booed off stages. And it was very difficult, but I stuck to my instincts, and one day, after 14.3 years I became an overnight success. It would have been nice to know in those long years that it would all be OK one day.

PS: You have something of a cult following, have you made efforts to whittle down your audience in a similar way to Daniel Kitson, or is this perhaps more closely related to your style? That is to say, do you think your comedy translates easily for the more casual comedy fan?

PF: I have made no efforts to whittle down my audience, nor to manipulate their make-up in any other way. I just create the comedy that comes naturally to me, and that seems to have gained an audience who appreciate it. And that has been expanding for the past 9.37 years. I do think my comedy translates to the more casual comedy fan, especially this latest show, which even contains tropical humour about the tropical subjects of the day, like what would happen if Spiderman was a right bigot, and terrorism et cetera. There’s loads of stuff to interest the casual comedy consumer.

PS: From the outside, it very much feels like the comedy we are shown has been through a process of sanitization and as a result many of the familiar faces are a product of this. How do you feel about the live comedy which is regularly broadcast to the masses on prime time television?

PF: I actually tend not to watch comedy on television, so I don’t really know what is being broadcast to the masses. The only things I watch on television are murder mystery shows, horse racing and Dragon’s Den, which is HILARIOUS. I especially love it when someone has come up with an utterly useless invention, and then it becomes clear that they have poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of their own money into it; they’ve remortgaged their house, spent their aged parents’ pensions, absolutely obliterated their childrens’ chances of going to university, and the dragons beg them to pack it in. But they never do! They always say, “Those dragons will regret it when I’m earning billions and every household in Britain loves my special plastic lid for the ends of half-eaten cucumbers!”

One of the things I have noticed, though, is that the comedy you get on television tends to be the sort of comedy that couldn’t possibly offend anyone, which is often not the most exciting comedy. Frankie Boyle, for example, who is a brilliant comedian, was sent away from television for ages because he made a joke about the private parts of our queen, Elizabeth Regina.

PS: You have an extraordinary ability to create hugely funny sets based on topics many may never consider an area for comedy. How do you come up with these ideas?

PF: What? People don’t think the dwindling numbers of Shire horses is an area for comedy? I thought everyone laughed at stuff like that. I guess the ideas just come from seeing a Shire Horse, or ordering a Chinese takeaway, or taking a walk by a pond. All sorts of ways.

PS: Your loyal connoisseurs are clearly prepared to seek you out, and consequently know, to an extent what they are going to get from you. That is, a very funny, although somewhat surreal evening. Bearing this in mind, do you find yourself testing their limits? Are they prepared for you to push them a little further?

PF: I do not mindfully ‘test the limits’ of any audience. It is not a case of pushing them as far as they can go, rather I just do the comedy I find funny, that I love to create, and I guess that tends to push the limits of comedy. But to me, comedy is not about pushing limits or always searching for new ways to make people laugh. It is simply about being very, very funny, and about communicating with people, and about saying something that resounds with people. Having said that, my audience do always seem willing for a right stretching.

PS: How do you try out your new material?

PF: I often try out my new material at my Secret Shows first. So the top Connoisseurs of my comedy see it first. And then I try out the comedy at various shows I do around the country. I eventually premier the new completed show at the Edinburgh Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sturgeon.

PS: How much does the political landscape influence your act?

PF: It is difficult to say. I am not quite sure myself whether it is quite a lot or not at all. Political subjects seem to manifest themselves in my act, such as homophobia, misogyny, racism, religion, farming et cetera, because the people within those subjects are hilarious and I think it’s important to laugh at them. But I’m not particularly interested in the party political landscape, in relation to my act that is. I love laughing about all the losers in Parliament in my spare thyme. Poor old Nicky Clegg, and Terrorisa May, and Timothy Farron, who had to step down because he found being leader of a political party incompatible with being secretly homophobic. Absolutely top quality!

PS: Do you notice any differences in audiences around the country?

PF: Not really. I find that, wherever I do a show, the people that come to see me are very plugged in and sophisticated. They know what to expect and they come to see the surreal humour. The shows are always wonderful and filled with top quality people.

PS: To what extent do you improvise in your performances?

PF: It depends which performances. My tour shows are very carefully planned and executed, even if they don’t look that way. But when I do my Secret Shows for my Connoisseurs, I sometimes improvise the whole show, for 2.4 hours.

PS: Where do you buy your ties?

PF: Duchamp in London. They have excellent ties.

PS: How did you settle on the name ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Piglet’ for this tour?

PF: I saw a piglet, and I thought it was a pity she were a piglet and not a person. People have slightly better lives than piglets do. All that mud. I can’t bear to think of it.

PS: What can audiences expect from it?

PF: I don’t know. I don’t even know what to expect from it. It’s half surreal, half silly, and half hard-hitting satire…and one third trout.

PS: Has writing begun on your next show, and what do you have planned post tour?

Writing has begun on my next show. It started last year in the month of Novella on a trip to Madeira, and now it is in full flow. And I am going away again, after this tour finishes in the month of Decadence, to Australia to complete the writing, and the show will premier in the Edinburgh Festival next Augustus. Watch this space baybayyyy! I have never understood that phrase. What space? The final friggin’ frontier? It’s such an Americanism. I despise myself for writing it.

PS: How would you describe your sense of humour?

PF: I mainly laugh at wedding cakes falling over, or newsreaders messing up. I love it when weddings go wrong though. That’s the funniest thing in the whole universe.