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Book review: <i>Ways of Hearing</i> by Ben Thompson


the cover of the book

If this was a musician, it would be Paul Weller. Note to reader: I know fuck-all about music.

Cover

[EDITOR: Cover described not the same as the one pictured above.]

A close-up photo of the earpieces of some nice Rotel headphones, against a purple background. The text isn’t fantastic, but there’s something curiously appealing about the photo of the headphones. Equal credit to the industrial designer, I suppose.

Plot

There’s an extended introduction, which conveys a general sense of what Thompson wishes to achieve and explains the title, but practically this is a collection of rock writing. There’s three main sections; the first concerns rock music as it blends with other media—rock stars as actors, on TV, on the page, etc. The middle section is a collection of straightforward band and artist profiles. Thompson is British and, although his subjects aren’t always from the same country, they do fit well within the typical purview of the UK modern music press—hip-hop yes, ancient metal maybe, US alternative if the singer has a back-story, and no grunge (except Nirvana obviously who were genii). The book’s last third, with chapters like “The Psychedelic Ear” and “The Metal Ear” is the section most directly related to the author’s (loosely) stated goal, i.e. to examine the different ways of listening which form subcultural territories around various forms of popular music.

The good

As a collection of rock journalism, this holds up quite well. Thompson has a style which will be familiar to any reader of Q magazine, but styles evolve for a reason, of course, and we can’t all be Lester Bangs (who, like Hunter, would now be too stylistically idiosyncratic for the average magazine editor anyway).

My favourite parts of the book were the indulgently enjoyable first quarter, discussing the intermingling of rock and pop with other forms of pop culture, and the more ambitious later chapters where Thompson takes the standard NME blueprints and tweaks the plans into something challenging. There’s a great example near the end wherein Thompson sequences interview samples to convey the ways in which the group creative process working toward a one-way mass communication can mirror the manner in which we communicate at street level. I can’t say if Thompson is 100% successful, but it’s an intriguing way to introduce and link an apparently disparate bunch of information, and makes the reader contextualise seemingly off-hand utterings of musicians in within a new frame. Which is the point.

There are good stand-alone chapters in first and last thirds. I fortuitously arrived at the Metal chapter the day after I watched a doco about the same subject and featuring more than a few of the bands mentioned within (including Motorhead’s Lemmy, who also gets a profile in the middle of the book), and I can safely say that, in his dozen pages, Thompson came a lot closer to revealing something new about the form’s unique band/audience connection than hours of well-lit interview footage managed. The psychedelic chapter is also pleasantly honest in asking to what extent drug use affects the appreciation of music.

This book works on two main levels. It’s competent, occasionally inspired rock writing, and Thompson also endeavours to provide a thematic context which can be kept at the backs of our minds to add extra dimensions to it, if we wish to do so.

The bad

There’s only so much thematic backdrop you can erect behind Missy Elliot. The music-mag apocyrpha which states that all writers must attempt to create high-minded context regardless of the nature of the artists involved provides some of the funniest moments in music writing, not to mention Spinal Tap, not to mention Ben Elton’s entire “experimenting with drugs” routine. Thompson is far from the worst example, but it’s obvious that the entire middle of the book is composed of interviews which, while probably selected according to the theme of the book, were not written with it in mind. They feel like padding, in other words. Which is not to say that they’re badly written or unenjoyable, but they are the heart of what I found to be wrong with the book, to whit, half-arsed adherence to an already tenuous theme.

I shouldn’t get annoyed at Thompson for trying something more challenging than a mere collation of his old columns and interviews, but his segments of academic-ese tend to obfuscate the topic at hand, or, when they’re successful, set up an intriguingly open-ended argument which, ten pages later, is revealed to be literally open-ended, i.e. the end came open and the point fell out. In the chapters mentioned above concerning the band/communication dynamic, for instance, after a genuinely thought-provoking introduction, we progress through Thompson’s examples, including some fascinating stuff about the Pet Shop Boys and Godspeed You...Black Emperor until we reach a point where it seems his hard drive has run out of even tangentially relevant offcuts, or, if we’re being nastier, to the point where the author has forgotten how he begun the chapter. Either way, asking the reader to make an effort then failing to do so yourself is pretty cheeky. More so, from a writer who’s prepared to second-guess Lester Bangs.

I’m being a bit harsh. This is a perfectly acceptable collection of modern rock journalism with a few ideas above its station, some of which come off. Thompson has a sense of humour (when he’s not writing for Q, anyway) and has a knack for using a familiar topic to ask a new question. He just doesn’t cough up many of his own answers.

What I learnt

Missy Elliot relaxes in a tracksuit and many thousands of dollars worth of diamonds. She also refrains from wearing the same pair of athletic shoes on more than two occasions, a discernment which must be a spur to the workschildship of those who build them at ten cents an hour.

I must have learnt one or two things reading this, because I remember going hmm, that’s interesting, I just can’t recall them right this instant. Sorry.

In short

Title: Ways of Hearing
Author: Ben Thompson
Publisher: Orion Publishing
ISBN: 0753812894
Year published: 2001
Pages: 352
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Music

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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