Monday, 9 December 2013

1969 and All That: Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the beginning

Nik Cohn grew up in Derry, and this – his first book – was written in 1969, that significant turning point for pop music, a moment that appears not to have been lost on Cohn at the time of writing.

His text is capable of passion and dismissal in equal measure, but there is often a clear sense of ‘What next?’ in his chapters, and an unerring prescience so far as anticipating seismic change is concerned. For example, he defines the late 1960s as a second stage of pop, one in which clear factions have developed – mainline, industrialised pop on one hand (80% he says) and idealists on the other hand. Of the mainline pop stars, he writes: “[they are] computerized” and “They have a function and they sell records. They make money. When I’ve said that, I’ve said everything.”

Of the idealistic 20%, they are “hardly even pop stars anymore.” He adds “In ten years, they’ll probably be called by another name entirely, electronic music or something, and they’ll relate to pop the way that art movies relate to Hollywood.”

Cohn was 22 when he wrote the book, and had been writing about rock’n’roll for four years in the UK and US. But, as he puts it in his preface to the 2004 edition, “I had met most of the people who interested me, and the edge of my passion was starting to dull. Time, I thought, to gather my thoughts into one final package, and move on.”

The book was written over seven weeks in a house in Connemara, and is the product of Cohn’s previous 4 years, working at a time when music journalism itself was still largely undefined and ever evolving, much like the music it was covering. As Cohn writes, he had no examples to base his book on, no reference books or research. He wrote it “off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me.” He adds “What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved. They were the things I tried to reflect as I left.”

The book itself reflects this writing process: Reading it is like being seated in a particularly fine American dinar or London expresso bar with a young, excitable raconteur, determined to tell you everything about popular music from its roots in jazz and blues in the 20s right through to the state of play in England in 1966. It is selective (as all music histories are) but also deliciously irreverent, a type of music writing that became a stylistic pastiche in the 80s with Smash Hits, and has now largely died altogether.

Because the book was written in 1969, and Cohn has (very sensibly) refused to update his observations in the light of later events, his is a curiously refreshing take on the 1950s and 60s musical landscape. He likes what he likes (Little Richard, PJ Proby, The Who, Tina Turner, amongst others) and has little time for what he doesn’t like (Dylan, later period Beatles, Trad Jazz, so on) But never once does he claim to be in the right so far as taste goes: He makes it clear that these are merely his opinions, his own taste.

Even the book’s dedication is enough to lure you in: “To Jet Powers, Dean Angel and Johnny Ace.”

As a twelve or thirteen year old, I first read Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom as a series of short stories, so alien and unknown to me were many of its subjects at the time. But the lyrical immediacy of Cohn’s writing makes it readable in this way. It isn’t an academic or objective book, it is friendly and partisan, Cohn appearing in his role of narrator as a character in himself. These days an hour on the internet would remove any confusion and, indeed, mystery. Had the internet existed in 1969 both popular music and Cohn’s book would have been very different indeed.

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