A Short Obituary of Irish Pop

Once the pulse of youth, pop has now become repetitive and self-referential – the tedious soundtrack to a society that does not want to grow old.

I think it’s all over. It is now. Perhaps it has been over for years and nobody noticed or dared to say so. The emperor was naked under all his stolen robes and nobody called the cops. But the time has come to say it is over now. Irish pop music, peacefully at home, surrounded by its sorrowful Svengalis and grieving groupies. House private. Funeral arrangements later.

What we know as pop music belonged to a particular time in a way no other music did. It was a creature of, in no particular order, mass media, fashion, money, sexual longing, sentiment and youth. Young people had always wanted to speak for themselves, but had never before been given the opportunity. What we call pop found a way of expressing, at a time when the availability of mass technologies enabled the personal to become universal, a sensual view of the world.

We learn from Elvis that rock ‘n’ roll is mostly about the body, especially the lower half. It starts below the waist and works up, only occasionally reaching the brain. From time to time, it engages the mind or touches the spirit, but mostly by accident, or because some strand of genius intended for another address finds its way in. This sounds like an old snobbery, but it is merely the lonesome truth. Of course, the roots musics from which pop drew its energies had their own richnesses, but that is not what we are talking about. When we talk about ‘pop’, we mean something else, the creative-commercial hybrids we hear on the radio, the soundtrack of the shopping malls, the pulse of the materialist-individualist world. Pop, in this context, includes ‘rock’, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, hip-hop, reggae and a hundred other strands. To talk about ‘the blues’ in a twenty-first-century Western context is waltzing at the rave. Pop is a noise – as Gerry Smyth acknowledges in his new book, Noisy Island: a Short History of Irish Popular Music. Pop is a noise, diversion, lifestyle and attitude. It was always closer to media than art, and most pop artistes closer to fashion models than composers.

This is not a judgement on the music, much of which was worthwhile, in as far as it went, for as long as it lasted. It was what it was: a soundtrack to something else. To what? The Times. The Awakening. The Counter-culture. The Materialist Era. The Sibling Society. In Western society, as I never grow tired of telling my erstwhile co-rockers, what we call rock ‘n’ roll provides the soundtrack to what Robert Bly, after Alexander Mitscherlich, called the Sibling Society, a society in which nobody ever really grows up because nobody wants to: ‘Adults regress towards adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults. Few are able to imagine any genuine life coming from the vertical plane – tradition, religion, devotion’.

Instead, Bly argued, our world is increasingly focused on the horizontal plane, on the self-referential culture of the young and the wannabe young. Once we elected sober men in grey suits who smoked pipes. Now we elect leaders who resist adulthood in the same way as the rest of us, or at least for electoral purposes give the impression that they share the general desire to be forever young. And pop is in large part the reason for this. Pop has for a half century been the pulse of youth, the chatter of what for a time and to an extent was an excusable narcissism. But then it became boring and repetitive and self-referential. And it didn’t become these things just to the old or the ageing or the disillusioned. On the contrary, the ageing tried with all their might to hold onto the pop sensibility, long after it had ceased to be a dignified way of going on. And this failure to vacate the tenancy on youth culture has meant that pop became tedious to the young, for whom it was at best no longer enough, and very often an embarrassment.

The reasons for this are manifold. Life is supposed to be a cycle of energy, birth to death, waking to sleep, naïveté to wisdom, lust to quiet. Pop tries to subvert this, to create the illusion of forever young. But this ethic does not stop at the personal boundary; it seeps across to infect the public domain, where it now governs our entire collective outlook, from pleasure to politics. For young people imprisoned within the logic of age, as were the growing generations of the 1950s and 60s, pop was a vital relief, but, for the more recent generations who have heard nothing but the din of that now ancient revolution, the sense must be similar to being fed entirely on a diet of candy floss.

What pop is not
The reasons why pop is not art are circumstantial rather than absolute. It has the potential, and sometimes comes close too proving it, but mostly it never tries, because the obligations of art involve far more responsibility than pop is willing to shoulder. There have been artists in what we call pop music or its near relatives who have shown the capacity to deliver works as significant as anything in the field of painting, poetry or prose, but they have been marginalised, or have marginalised themselves on account of their too literal interpretation of the pop dream in their own lives. Elvis springs to mind: without a certain synchronicity of events, Elvis Presley would have lived the fairly normal life of a truck driver, and might now, at 70, be teaching his grandchildren to sing the blues. Instead he entered a Faustian pact with pop’s promise of divinity, and ended up losing his balance.

Pop’s close relationship with commerce means that it is reluctant to carry much in the way of bad news. Its principal brief is to distribute the feelgood factor, and can buck this responsibility only with the heaviest of irony, like The Smiths or Pixies. An interesting aspect of this is the way the mainstream media, which generally major in bad news, have appropriated pop as a way of leavening the mix. In doing so, of course, ‘pop’ journalism has zeroed in on the dark side of the lives of the ‘popsters’, creating a story out of the dissonance between message and mediator.

There never was a competition between pop and anything else. ‘Keats or Dylan?’ was a spurious question, and nobody knew this better than Dylan. In Chronicles, the first and so far only volume of his autobiography, Dylan lays false trail upon false trail to retrospectively confuse the posse as to his intentions with regard to popular music. Taking every opportunity to distance himself from the idea of a ‘generation’ and a youth culture, he abdicates his leadership role and pours cold water over the idea that pop music is about anything other than itself. He emphasises his own role in seeking to inhabit a traditional idiom and recreate it in a modern context, and is at pains to place himself in a traditional pantheon with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson rather than with Elvis and the Beatles. He resists in particular his status as ‘spokesman for a generation’, insisting that he didn’t belong to anyone, past or present:

I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of. I’d left my hometown only ten years earlier, wasn’t vociferating the opinions of anybody. My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilisation. Being true to myself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.

I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody. I wasn’t that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble. It wasn’t my particular feast of food. Even the current news made me nervous. I like old news better.

Here, then, is pop’s most credible practitioner, bandying around concepts like ‘tradition’ and ‘primitive’. It makes you think, if only a little.

Pop as a Good Thing
What rock brought to Ireland, say Sean Campbell and Gerry Smyth in the introduction to another new book in this subject, Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock, was the chance to speak your truth in your own voice – ’however amateurish, raw or far removed from society’s prevailing narratives’. They continue:

Perhaps the major thing that rock music offered young Irish people in the early to mid-1960s, however, was the prospect of a connection with a group defined for the first time in terms of age rather than religion, race, class or gender – an international population of adolescents and young adults who, on the invitation of their post-war, market-oriented parents, had come to a sense of themselves as a unique social and cultural category. Encouraged to focus for so long on narrowly domestic issues, or disbarred entirely on account of their age, young Irish people grabbed the opportunity to register identification with an international youth culture and its defining noise: rock music.

This is good in as far as it goes. The trouble is that neither book, Beautiful Day or Noisy Island, really takes it beyond the rather turgid celebration of these notions. I have difficulty with these books, and particularly with Noisy Island, because they advance an analysis of pop that rarely avoids being itself part of the problem. They know their music, and are convincing in their love of it, but they bring to the subject far too many of the sclerotic ideas you seem to pick up in the groves of academe.

The trouble with both books, then, is that they state the obvious or the conventionally accepted, when the packaging suggests that they might be about to say something more. A working assumption of both books, as outlined in the introduction to Beautiful Day, is that there is ‘a crucial relationship between a society’s popular music and its wider social, cultural and political make-up’. Beautiful Day sets out to document the changes that have overtaken both Ireland and Irish rock music since the early 1960s, and to ‘consider the mutual impact of each of these stories upon the other’.

It used to, indeed, seem plausible that rock ‘n’ roll could change the world. From time to time it even appeared that it was doing so. But, latterly, it has become clear that, whereas it may be legitimate to note the social and cultural influences that shape the sounds of our time, the idea that these sounds themselves impact significantly on the social reality is somewhat more fanciful. Thus, it is interesting to read in these books of the social background from which various bands/artistes and their music emerged, but rather less convincing when the authors, particularly Gerry Smyth in Noisy Island, seek to suggest that the music being chronicled had a significant impact on the further flow of events. It may well have done, and indeed may well have done so balefully, but the underlying assumption of both these books is that pop is always, unambiguously – socially, politically, artistically and morally – a Good Thing.

Pop’s promise
Beautiful Day is a list book, a series of essays about songs by Irish bands/artistes, one per year from 1964 to 2004. (The sub-title of the book is ‘Forty Years of Irish Rock’, but you don’t have to be a mathematician to observe that there are actually 41 songs featured.) Of the two volumes, it is the more commercially targeted, and would make an intriguing Christmas present for almost anyone with an interest in Irish pop music. As the introduction acknowledges, the list of songs is in no way definitive, but selective, arbitrary and a bit hit-and-miss. Nevertheless, there are many interesting dimensions, not the least of which is the inclusion for 1966 of Dickie Rock’s ‘Come Back to Stay’, described as ‘a poor man’s “Unchained Melody”’.

Campbell and Smyth flirt with the revisionist school of Irish rock ‘n’ roll, according the showband culture its somewhat controversial but arguably proper place in the narrative, but are infected by the present-centred hubris of the average Hot Press reviewer when it comes to evaluating the music. Most of the songs featured in Beautiful Day are predictable and uncontroversial, but they make the occasional odd choice which lends the exercise a certain engaging perverseness. ‘Yes, I Need Someone’, by Eire Apparent, for instance, is the song for 1969, an exotic and somewhat obtuse choice, one you feel has been chosen not so much for its chronological relevance as to suggest that Ireland has a healthy psychedelic past.

The choice of the first U2 British Number 1, ‘Beautiful Day’, as the song for the millennium year and the title of the book is, a bit dismayingly, a perhaps unwitting exposition of the problem with U2, Irish rock ‘n’ roll and such attempts as these to valourise their respective, or collective, achievements. U2 are, unsurprisingly, all over both of these books, with Bono’s leather-clad back featuring on the cover of Beautiful Day. This is as it should be: a few piggy-backers, flashes-in-the-pan and one-hit-wonders aside, the story of Irish pop is the story of U2.

There is a sense from these books of a certain lack of fulfilment of the promise of Irish rock, a feeling that there should by now have been more to report, but a sense also that we may as well make the best of what we’ve got. In many ways the story is flimsy, erratic and disjointed. This is a story in which U2 were supposed to play a significant role but only as John the Baptists to the Real Thing. For several years back in the 1980s, the ambitions of Irish rock ‘n’ roll knew no bounds: Ireland was about to become a new Jamaica, a post-colonial paradise of Celtic soul and post-modern aural consciousness. Nobody says it much nowadays, but U2 were never really loved in Ireland in the beginning – or for some considerable time afterwards – in the ways the retrospective record tends to suggest. They were admired, up to a point, and laid claim to rather excessively, but they were rather too independent of mind and spirit to be regarded as truly of the soil of Ireland.

They were never really up for ‘the crack’, were at once too wayward and not wayward enough, too radical and yet too conformist in the wrong ways. The anticipated narrative had U2 playing a bit part – a pioneering part, yes, but by no means the leading role. But instead of the vibrant island of noise that was promised by the early success of U2, the whole enterprise disintegrated into a babble of boybands, a tragic lapse into post-modern pop mimicry, a mutant parody of the showband beginning, and this time without the excuses. It is interesting that, although Gerry Smyth provides an interesting analysis of the boyband phenomenon in Noisy Island, Beautiful Day does not acknowledge the phenomenon at all.

In a sense, then, these books represent a revised narrative as much as they represent, at times, a revisionist one. Because now there is acceptance, indeed an insistence, that U2 are the point of the story, that there is no other story, that U2 is the end as well as the spine of the narrative, the point at which everything converges – to the extent that it converges at all.

Campbell and Smyth’s core analyis of U2, outlined succinctly in their title essay, is that the band lost direction in the mid-90s after Achtung Baby and only returned to form in 2000 with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This, indeed, is the conventional analysis. Its logic, however, is commercial rather than artistic. In truth, the much disparaged 1997 album Pop was U2’s moment of opportunity, the moment when, intoxicated by the possibilities it had glimpsed with Achtung Baby, the band laid out the full gamut of its options, from the dancefloor parody of the opening three tracks, through the familiar terrain of the standard U2 ballad ‘If God Will Send His Angels’, to the breathtaking, undefinable ‘Wake Up Dead Man’. But, at this moment of opportunity, within grasp of the artistic prize for which it had campaigned for two decades, the band lost its nerve. Alarmed by the prospect of losing its place at the top of the rock premiership, U2 steered knowingly back into the mainstream, producing two albums of hyper-digested essence-of-U2 and settling, finally, for the spirit of Colonel Tom Parker rather than the spirit of Elvis Presley.

But that might have been all right if the band had merely been trying to ground itself in the pragmatic need to maintain a position from which it might have reasserted its artistic mission all the more emphatically. Sometimes, in order to consolidate a foothold, an artist has to revert to the banal – as a way of steadying himself and securing a capacity to strike out anew. But, after a four-year wait, U2 came up with an album that seemed to be prompted more by mid-life crisis than a desire to get back to grips with its artistic mission.

Back in 1994, just after Zooropa, I wrote a book about U2 in which I tried to outline what it was about their Irish background that fuelled what was unique in their music. Without knowing it at the time, I was writing about the fact that U2, unlike any other band in the current carnival of Western rock music, sought to find themselves and their roots in precisely those elements of tradition, religion and devotion which comprise the vertical plane mentioned by Robert Bly. In a sense, the book remained unfinished, because U2 spent the subsequent decade running on the spot, while seeming to grow exponentially even after it seemed that they couldn’t grow any more. Far from looking for an opportunity to exercise myself in the traditional Irish art of begrudgery, I was waiting for the vindication of my own analysis, but with each album it drifted farther and farther away. The 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was, in a way a great album, but it wasn’t a great U2 album, because it was simply a way of buying time to allow the band remember what it was supposed to be about. As I wrote at the time, U2 always promised more:

They said the world could go far if it listened to what they said. They undertook to liberate rock ‘n’ roll from its Dionysian obsession. They promised meaning and mission and much, much more. They embraced a ragged medium and sought to reintroduce it to the roots whence it had grown. They demanded of pop no less than that it grow up. It is only by their own words and standards that they can be harshly judged, but harshly judged they should be. (Magill, 2004)

And this is what ails the animal that is Irish rock ‘n’ roll: it promised to change the world and ended up reinventing the wheel. In the end, for all the talk about unsettling traditional narratives and subverting gender roles, there is nothing much except U2, and U2 has failed, ultimately, to deliver on its own project. Beautiful Day says it all: a neat pop song about nothing, a vehicle for U2 to prove that they can write neat pop songs about nothing as well as the next man. In this the band embodies the core problem with pop music: it can’t transcend its own hunger for shallowness, cannot emerge from its one-dimensional obsession with the light side of life. U2 asked the question: is there more? And then they answered it: ‘no’.

Noisy Island: a Short History of Irish Popular Music, by Gerry Smyth, is published by Cork University Press; Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock, by Sean Campbell and Gerry Smyth, is published by Atrium.

Published on 1 November 2005

John Waters is a journalist and editor and for the past twelve years has been a columnist with the Irish Times. He is the author of four books – Jiving at the Crossroads, Every Day Like Sunday?, Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2 and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland. He has also written several plays for stage and radio, including Long Black Coat, Easter Dues and Holy Secrets.


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