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Dabbler Diary – I Was Norman Smith

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Last year I wrote a short biography of my childhood dog, Jason, and mentioned that, preposterously indulged, he had his own armchair in the front room. It was a pretty naff 1970s-coloured one left over from a previous suite, but this is what British people are like with their dogs. After a hard day’s bounding about Jason would curl up in this armchair, plop his head on an arm, let out a long sigh and gaze out the window. This daily tableau so tickled my father that he one day decided to have a crack at sketching it. The resultant picture captures the essence of  dog-on-armchairness with uncanny insight, and it remains among my favourite works in the history of western art. Here it is:

jason

I mention this because while conducting the hard-hitting investigative journalism demanded by my role as Culture Editor for sofa.com, I discovered that there is an extraordinary quantity of art devoted to dogs in chairs, dogs on laps, and dogs generally being comfy. David Hockney published an entire book of paintings of his two daschunds sound asleep. I can only think that there is something in the human soul that derives profound satisfaction from the sight of a contented pooch in repose. Check it out!

(David Hockney’s daschunds, incidentally, were called Stanley and Boodgie.)

***

Better Call Saul (on Netflix) has started well. Not as good as Breaking Bad but then Breaking Bad didn’t get as good as Breaking Bad until the middle of season 3.

Anyway, in the third episode we learn why the small-time con artist James McGill chose ‘Saul Goodman’ as his ambulance-chaser pseudonym… Because s’all good, man. How come I never noticed that before? Did anyone?

***

Worm’s alarming trove of photos rock stars at home with their parents brought with it, as Steerforth put it in the comments, a ‘Proustian whiff’ of 1970s interiors. What was that obsession with brown and orange everyone had? Yes, when I enter the memory chambers of my early childhood, they’re all just painted brown and orange.

On the subject of the 1970s, I sat, multiscreening idly, through a countdown/talking head show last week called The Nation’s Favourite 70s Number One (the winner, tediously, was Bohemian Rhapsody, a song which surely nobody has voluntarily listened to in decades because they’re so sick of hearing it on countdown/talking head shows).

A great many of the songs featured were disco hits, and not a single punk one. Nonetheless, narrator Zoe Ball felt duty bound to insert into proceedings the obligatory tale about how the punk movement ‘blew disco away’ and ‘changed everything’, over a vid of the Sex Pistols playing Anarchy in the UK (which made it to #38 in the chart).

(Is it me or is that conventional narrative about the importance of punk, so often told by middle-aged music journalists and critics, starting to look a bit frayed? Blondie were supposed to be a post-punk act, yet their highest-placed song in the list was Heart of Glass, a cracking disco number. Immediately after the ‘Disco Sucks’ trend supposedly killed disco, Diana Ross came out with her biggest-selling album, a disco record produced by Nile Rodgers. How groundbreaking was 1970s punk, really, compared to the Stooges and the Velvet Underground? Did punk ever produce a track as innovative as Donna Summer’s I Feel Love? If punk really did ‘change everything’ it was only temporarily. Nile Rodgers is now officially a Living Legend and much in demand. Fashionable again too are the rock ‘dinosaurs’ like Fleetwood Mac and ELO. Johnny Rotten is a slightly pitiful figure who scares nobody. Fashions shift all the time, even ones that are in the past. Could it just be that the particular group of media types for whom punk rock really was the movement that personally ‘changed everything’ is becoming less influential, and their war stories, through endless repetition and exaggeration, have become boring? My suspicion is that in every cultural movement 90% is crap, 10% is good and the narratives about social trends are hugely subjective.)

But I digress. What I wanted to mention was this video of Freda Payne singing Band of Gold. I felt compelled to watch it a number of times without knowing quite what it was that nagging at me…

Obviously there is Freda herself, who is simply awesome and comes swinging onto the stage like a supermodel. Then there are the bonkers, rhythmless dancers who could only be English. But after a while I realised it was both of these things in conjunction with the audience who, after an initial polite ripple of applause, sit in stony, motionless silence, many with the expression of serious concentration worn by men at a Soho striptease revue.

The juxtaposition of the unenthusiastic audience with the wildly enthusiastic dancers and the groovy goddess Freda lends a sort of heroic quality to their performance. I’m put in mind of the myth of the virgin youths sent by King Aegeus as a sacrifice to the Minotaur, if that doesn’t sound too mad and pretentious, which, I realise, it does, very much so.

***

It’s weird in this day and age to see a proper Fifth Columnist at work. Seumas Milne was born too late to be one of the Cambridge Five but he has long been the silliest figure on the anti-west left who writes regularly in a mainstream newspaper. However, this apology for Putin surely plumbs new depths, for him and for the Guardian. Imagine what Putin would do to him if he was a Russian writing similarly ‘unpatriotic’ stuff about the President… Except, we don’t really need to imagine, do we?

 ***

I’ve never really grown out of Roy of the Rovers. Even during my teenage years when I hung out with the Doc Martens and rock music gang who not only disliked sport but had an utter contempt for it, I anomalously continued to play enthusiastically for the school football team. The truth is that secretly I still look forward to my twice-weekly five-a-side games more than anything else I do. However, over my career, glory has been elusive. There was the 1989 Portsmouth Boys League triumph (I still have the trophy) but precious little silverware since. Though there was one memorable occasion when I played as a ringer for a large insurance company, scored a cracker of a goal from just outside the box and was subsequently pictured in their corporate newsletter… above the caption ‘Goalscorer: Norman Smith’.

However, that all changed the other week when as part of a scratch five-a-side team called Boca Seniors we triumphed in the Veterans Category of the Bristol round of the FA People’s Cup, a gruelling day of lung-busting, leg-cramping ultra-competitive (and in the quarter-final, against a bunch of ageing skinheads, ultra-violent) five-a-side games. There is a photo of me celebrating awkwardly on Getty images and we even made it on to BBC’s Football Focus – after seeing which I decided it was time to try the 5:2 diet before we compete in the regional semi-finals.

‘Veterans’ are over 35s and if you think that late-30s seems young to be a Vet then you’ve never tried playing football against 18 year olds. Those little bastards run fast. There is an even older category: over-55s play ‘walking football’ – viciously so, and it was consoling to think that I could potentially still be playing some form of football into my eighties. However, since all the Veterans are in the 35-45 age range, there is a worrying ten-year gap where you are  too decrepit to compete with the Vets but not old enough for the Walkers. We therefore need to invent another category for 45-55s. Trotters League?

***

If you noticed the site running a little slowly last week it’s because our server was creaking under the weight of traffic directed to Steerforth’s post about the Book Thieves of London, which got picked up by Digg, Reddit, The Browser, Boing Boing and others. This happens every now and again and we receive thousands of extra visitors.

By my calculation, on average approx 0.1% of them leave a comment. So once again, and I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, thank you very much to those who do take the trouble to comment on The Dabbler. Commenters are a very rare breed – but they make a blog come alive, and all comments short of outright abuse are hugely appreciated by the writers.

 

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

20 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – I Was Norman Smith

  1. March 10, 2015 at 09:35

    My blog has appeared on Reddit and Boing Boing a few times and the elation of watching the visitor stats rocket was swiftly followed by the sobering experience of seeing them crash back down to where they were the week before. When the odd comment appeared, I always felt immensely grateful.

    I agree about punk versus disco. I was a schoolboy when ‘I Feel Love’ reached No.1 and it sounded a lot more radical than any punk track. Read a male, middle class rock journalist’s account of the late 70s and you’ll get the impression that there was an ‘explosion’ of punk on the streets (of Welwyn Garden City, probably. The reality was more Saturday Night Fever, Showaddywaddy and Grease. Punk was always on the fringes until it was watered down and relaunched as ‘New Wave’.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    March 10, 2015 at 10:57

    It could be argued, especially by him if he was still drawing breath, that Malcolm McLaren, designer, self proclaimed inventor of and general factotum to the punk industry did, eventually, squeeze something out of it, like an art student’s expertly ejected blackhead. Walking with Satie, from the Paris album has about it, if one can see through the dripping pretension and faux atmospheric bilge, a certain flavour of the streets of the joint, the tang of the Rue Blanche, the whiff of dog’s doo-doo, the sound of cops beating up innocent Algerians. Whether or not this qualifies him to walk alongside the atmospheric Eric is another matter, McLaren, just possibly, may have spent too much time walking alongside that dopey woman Westwood.

  3. Brit
    March 10, 2015 at 11:05

    I should say that I don’t by any means think that disco was better than punk. The 10% of punk is awesome (i.e. The Jam, early/mid Clash, Never Mind the Bollocks and a smattering of hits by the likes of the Buzzcocks, Undertones etc sufficient to fill a triple-CD compilation.) 90% of punk you’d now have to be a specialist, a masochist or an incurable nostalgist to listen to. Approx same ratios apply to disco and anything else really.

  4. Worm
    March 10, 2015 at 13:41

    Punk never really reached Cornwall, so I was certainly never exposed to it as a kid through my older brothers and sisters, apart from the watered-down punk-lite of The Jam, Clash etc. I think you are right, and that punk was lent too much weight by the NME writers of the early 80\’s who created a mythos around it that of course inserted themselves skillfully into the central narrative. Nowadays Tony Parsons writes for The Sun and supports UKIP.

  5. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    March 10, 2015 at 13:43

    I agree – the 90%/10% rubbish/quality split does apply to just about anything – However, I’ve got a suspicion that there truly was a time in pop music, somewhere around the mid 60s – when the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Byrds etc were peaking at the same time as Soul, Motown, Stax etc – when that 90% came way down. Yes I know – a lot of true dross around, but it’s possible to look at weekly charts from that period and find in every one a generous handful of classic songs you’d gladly hear again. That was never true before or since, but I think it was then, for a while…

    • Brit
      March 10, 2015 at 14:18

      Ah well you’re cutting it temporally there, Nige, which is a different argument altogether. The Beatles alone brought the 90% down in the late 60s. However, if you cut it by genre, so ‘1960s British guitar pop’ for example, the 90/10 rule very much applies, as a listen to ‘Sounds of the 60s’ on R2 will testify. Similarly all the formulaic Motown commercial records.

      The 90/10 rule is really just saying that a small percentage of artists in any genre transcend the genre and make quality art (of course if you’re a genre specialist, and love the sound of any punk or any disco or any Northern Soul, say, you’ll take a different view – but that’s just an ‘I like this better than that’ argument).

  6. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    March 10, 2015 at 15:08

    Quite so, but hasn’t the 90/10 rule applied across the charts at nearly all times apart from that brief golden age/ respite? Which would suggest that each individual genre was also then beating the odds, and simultaneously…

    • Worm
      March 10, 2015 at 16:15

      Each new musical ‘genre’ as it appears has a quality bell-curve of the 90/10 ratio – where the hottest producers pile onto the latest trendy sound the quality suddenly ramps right up – to a saturation point where then derivative and lower quality copycats come online and then quality goes south and the ratio flattens out at 90/10. In the 60’s all these genres were new at the same time and at the start of their respective curves. New genre appearances were a bit more staggered in the following decades

  7. cj107@hotmail.com'
    CJ
    March 10, 2015 at 16:42

    Oh dear – now I feel slightly guilty. I’m a lurking dabbler you see who has been with you since the conception of the glorious Dabbler and although I have often felt compelled to leave a comment, I have never really seen what value there could be for others in doing so. However the last observation in another tremendous entry in the Diary has inspired me to break this invisible tendency I have and congratulate you all and thank you for putting together a website which barely a day goes by without me looking at. You have also introduced me to the joys of Slightly Foxed, Nige’s own website, the Old Batsman website amongst many other things. So when the comments are light, take heart that there are silent lurkers out there taking pleasure in your outpourings.
    Just as a quick reference to the 90/10 rule and to Punk – as a teenager in the ’90s I tried to get into punk but couldn’t really be bothered and never really liked it apart from a few songs which are up there in my all time favourites.

    • Brit
      March 10, 2015 at 17:53

      Thanks CJ – much appreciated!

  8. March 10, 2015 at 19:28

    If I was exiled to a desert island with a choice of either ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ or the soundtrack of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, there’d be no competition. I’d be busy ‘Stayin’ Alive’.

    • Brit
      March 10, 2015 at 19:55

      Me too. And when I went mad and started setting fire to my island and laughing maniacally, I’d want ‘Disco Inferno’ playing.

  9. Gaw
    March 10, 2015 at 22:33

    I think chronology is important in shaping the judgements we make of the arts. The first flowering of a form gives it extra interest. Britpop may have had music as technically good and aesthetically satisfying as the 60s but it just wasn’t as exciting second (or third…) time around. The cultural buzz wasn’t present.

    But apart from that there was surely a rare flush of talent on both sides of the Atlantic during the period Nige picks out. Not just the Beatles but bands like Led Zeppelin not only created great music but also whole new genres.

    Putting the two things together might suggest that talent is most likely to arise amongst the pioneers. Does newness stimulate greatness? I think we need an airy and obtuse Hegelian analysis of the subject.

    • Brit
      March 11, 2015 at 10:16

      I think over the course of these debates we are in fact inching towards a Grand Overarching Hegelian Synthesis Theory of Pop Music. Give it another ten years and we’ll have cracked it.

  10. Brit
    March 11, 2015 at 10:29

    Adding to Nige, Worm and Gaw’s points, if you cut it chronologically, then you might be able to argue that what we think of as pop ‘golden periods’ happen when the overall cross-genre pop chart ratio is significantly better than 90/10 because multiple pop genres were coincidentally interesting (and interacting interestingly) at the same time – eg. mid-late 60s (guitar pop, Motown), and the mid-late 70s (disco, punk) and the mid-90s.

    The mid-90s were an interesting pop time because Britpop wasn’t only retro guitar-based music but was an energetic scene that involved interaction between guitar music and a lot of exciting dance movements – Trip Hop, Underworld, Chemical Brothers etc…. This mix being embodied in the eclectic Trainspotting soundtrack.

  11. kathywllms1@gmail.com'
    Mary
    March 11, 2015 at 17:24

    I’m a lurker too, for the most part. But I appreciate and enjoy your site very much. I’ve learnt a lot from it.

    I have to say those dancers really were a national disgrace.

  12. mail@danielkalder.com'
    March 12, 2015 at 02:03

    Sometime around the late 80s, when the second “Summer of Love” kicked in and Candy Flip were in the charts, Baby Boomer nostalgia hit a critical mass and I remember developing a distinct nausea for Woodstock retrospectives, James Taylor, and all that crap. Some of it may have been good, indeed some of it was good, but I grew tired of listening to people in their late 40s and early 50s (as they were at the time) telling me how good it was. About ten years later, I noticed that the punk generation were doing the same thing, and their incorrigible nostalgia also grew tiresome very quickly, and I think has now hit peak bullshit. Very soon I anticipate my generation will start rambling on about The Shamen, Suede, raves, Menswear (snort, guffaw) and how all that changed everything forever, although I am pretty sure I recall that a lot of that stuff was contemporaneous with Mr. Blobby hitting the top of the charts. When this wave of nostalgia kicks in, the seas will turn red as blood, and verily I prophesy that Jarvis Cocker will attain Stephen Fry levels of Guardian and BBC ubiquity and all that entails, resulting in the advent of Antichrist and the final dissolution of the earth.

  13. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    George
    March 12, 2015 at 14:44

    You might make commenting a little easier by fixing the navigation on the text boxes. One tabs from name to email address to website, then a tab pressed in the website box takes one not to the Comment box but to the top of the page. I don’t know anything about WordPress, but I bet that a one-line change in some file would correct it.

    At the end of each year, The New York Times Sunday Magazine runs an issue called “The Lives They Lived”. Some years ago, it gave a couple of pages to two musicians who had died that year, Joey Ramone and a fellow I had never heard of; in fact, I had never heard of his genre, “hair metal”. The writer remarked that the hair metal band lasted much longer and sold many more records than the Ramones, but lacked anything like the respect that the Ramones had from the literati. (He didn’t say whether the metal guys were better musicians, but I suspect they were.) He was writing, I think, about the role that stereotypes and preconceptions play in the literati’s view of popular culture.

  14. Worm
    March 12, 2015 at 17:21

    thanks for letting us know George! There’s going to be a wordpress wiz looking at the site next week – I shall pass this on

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