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The Rise and Fall of Popular Music

[A polemical history]

Donald Clarke

During the 1980s, while I was working for five years on The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, my friends and acquaintances assumed, according to what they knew about music or about me, that I was working on a book either about pop music or about jazz. The word 'popular' had long since been appropriated by the post-Beatles industry that separates adolescents from their pocket money; the first time I heard the term 'pop music' was from the lips of a wonderful Welsh headmistress of a high school in south London in 1974, and her pronunciation of the phrase left no doubt about what she thought of it.

Opera houses and symphony orchestras are subsidized, and very few classical composers ever make a living solely from their music. But there are no subsidies in popular music; if you want to play jazz piano or rock drums, or write hit songs or sing on Broadway, you should hang on to your day job. Popular music includes all the genres; we could also call it commercial music. Popular music as a commercial enterprise got under way in Britain in the eighteenth century, when for the first time music publishers sprang up to publish nothing but new songs, hoping that people who had heard the songs in the pleasure gardens or music halls would then buy the sheet music.

It was the estimable critic Max Harrison who suggested that the book should have been called 'This Crumbling Pageant', after John Dryden (in 'A Song For St Cecilia's Day', 1687):

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great creator's praise
To all the blessed above:
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.

When this book was first published some people asked, What do you mean by the 'rise and fall' of popular music? I meant that we no longer had a common culture. In 1950 everybody knew what the number one record was, but by 1995, nobody outside the industry knew what was in the pop chart, and nobody cared; and since then, the popular music business has fallen even further and faster than I could have imagined. In the digital world of the new century the business as we have known it is disappearing up its own balance sheet; the biggest record companies in the world are going broke. Instead of touring to promote a new album for the benefit of the record company, young performers now concentrate on playing and singing for a living, selling their own recordings on their own labels at their gigs and on their websites (as Ani DiFranco has been doing for many years).

I began writing this survey because music has always been the most important thing in the world to me. I make no apology for concentrating here on the English-speaking world, because that is where the business side was developed until there was a comical tension between the music-biz hype and the enthusiasm of the children. The British pop music press in its perennial fog of optimism thought that each new act was going to sweep the world and become the new Beatles; from 1984 to 1993, to name just the ones who were cursed with the endorsement of Morrissey, formerly of The Smiths, there were James, The Woodentops, Shop Assistants, Easterhouse, Raymonde, Bradford, The Sundays, Phranc, Suede and Gallon Drunk. None stayed the course, but I didn't have to risk my pocket money on any of it, because I knew from experience that if the music is any good, it will find me.

The first people I have to thank are the authors of all the books on my shelves in which I have gleefully wallowed, in some cases for decades; they have guided and informed me. (There is a bibliography at the end of the book.)

Chris Parker first commissioned the present work, when he was editor of a music book list in London; then Jon Riley at Viking took it on. Cal Morgan at St Martin's Press in New York liked the concept so much that at first he wanted the book to be longer, which was impossible. They all offered valuable suggestions and criticism; when it came to obtaining permissions to print the song lyrics, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller also volunteered information. (None of the other publishers cared what we said, as long as we paid them.) David Duguid read the manuscript for Viking and did his usual valuable job of querying this and that. Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned Max Harrison, one of the most rigorous music critics I know of, offered to read the first draft: he gave it a line-by-line going over; and with all this help, a publishable book seemed to have resulted.

A reader at a certain publisher in New York also read the manuscript, and pronounced me an amateur, a nobody, a bad writer, an anti-Semite and a gay-basher, and complained that I loathed Elvis Presley. I have forgotten his name, but an anagram was Iain Wicked. I was buying Presley records when he was probably in diapers, but in his case, only his approval could in any way have annoyed me. And, too, that reminds me that whether you like the book or not, I alone am responsible.

After the book went out of print it was available online at MusicWeb International for a while, for which I am grateful to Len Mullenger; and with a few editorial updates and conceits, I am now happy to have it on my own website.

June 2008
West Des Moines, Iowa



The publishers would like to express their thanks to the music publishers who have given their permission to reprint the following lyrics:

'Some of These Days' (Brooks): by permission of Francis Day and Hunter Ltd, London WC2H OEA, and J. Albert & Son Pty Ltd. Copyright @ 1910, Will Rossiter Pub. Co., USA.

'After You've Gone' (Layton and Creamer): by permission of Francis Day and Hunter Ltd, London WC2H OEA, and Hal Leonard Corporation. Copyright @ 1918 (renewed) Edwin Morris & Company, a division of MPL Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

'I Get a Kick Out of You' (Porter), 'I Wish I Were In Love Again' (Hart), 'Settin' the Woods on Fire' (Rose), 'Stormy Monday Blues' (Walker), 'Blue Monday' (Domino and Bartholomew), 'Desperadoes Waiting for a Train' (Clark), 'Express Yourself' (Wright): by permission of International Music Publications Limited. Copyright @ Warner Chappell Music Ltd, London W1Y 3FA.

'Cool Drink of Water Blues' (Johnson): by permission of Peermusic (UK) Ltd, London WC1. Copyright @ 1929 Peer International Corporation, USA.

'I Won't be Home No More' (Hank Williams, Sr): copyright @ 1952 (renewed) Hiriam Music & Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. All rights on behalf of Hiriam Music administered by Rightsong Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

'Low Down Blues' (Hank Williams, Sr): by permission of Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. Copyright @ 1954, renewed 1982. All rights reserved.

'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels' (Miller): by permission of Peermusic (UK) Ltd, London WC1. Copyright @ 1952 Peer International Corporation, USA.

'Well, You Needn't' (Monk): by permission of Mautoglade Music Ltd. Copyright @ 1961 Regent Music Corporation.

'Long Tall Sally' (Johnson, Blackwell and Penniman): by permission of Peermusic (UK) Ltd, London WC1. Copyright @ 1956 Venice Music Inc., USA.

'Tutti Frutti' (Penniman, La Bostrie and Lubin): by permission of Music Sales Ltd. Copyright @ 1955 Venice Music Inc., USA. ATV Music for the UK, Eire, British Commonwealth (excluding Canada and Australasia) and the Continent of Europe. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

'Summertime Blues' (Capehart and Cochran): by permission of Campbell Connelly & Co. Ltd and International Music Publications Ltd.

'Shake, Rattle and Roll' (Calhoun): by permission of Campbell Connelly & Co. Ltd and International Music Publications Ltd. Copyright @ Warner Chappell Music Ltd, London W1Y 3FA.

'Movie Magg' (Perkins), 'Blue Suede Shoes' (Perkins), 'Honey Don't' (Perkins): by kind permission of Carlin Music Corporation, UK administrator.

'Yakety Yak' (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller): by kind permission of Carlin Music Corporation, UK administrator, and Warner Chappell Music, Inc. Copyright @ 1958 (renewed) Jerry Leiber Music, Mike Stoller Music, and Chappell & Co. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

'Too Much Monkey Business' (Berry): by permission of Mautoglade Music Ltd. Copyright @ 1956 Arc Music Corp.

'Firewater' (Hancock): copyright @ 1991 Rainlight Music (ASCAP)/administered by Bug Music. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

'Senor Aka Tales of Yankee Power' (Dylan): copyright @ 1978 by Special Rider Music (ASCAP). Used by permission.

Untitled (2 Live Crew): by permission of MCA Music Limited.

Every effort has been made to contact all copyright holders. The author will be pleased to make good in this space any errors or omissions brought to his attention.

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