Christopher Nosnibor’s Guide to Being a Music Reviewer – Part Four

Knowledge is power, or so it’s said. In the music industry, there’s a sort of consensus that it’s now what you know but who you know, and while knowing the right people for bagging the best gigs and high profile interviews can help, gaining the respect of readers is more about what you know. People who read reviews – and a lot of music fans dismiss reviews as pointless, and consider reviewers to be pond-life – expect reviewers to be knowledgeable about music. It’s not such an unreasonable expectation.

After all, you’d expect anyone in any other profession to be suitably qualified and / or experienced. Granted, music reviewing isn’t on a par with being a medic or lab technician, but if someone’s job – paid or otherwise – is to impart critical judgement, you want to believe they have a background that means they understand context. While there are plenty of bozos down the pub spouting shit about football who haven’t got the first clue, anyone who writes a sports column or appears on TV or radio as a pundit has to have more than a pretty face or good speaking voice.

Of course, what ‘qualifies’ someone to be a music critic is pretty vague, but ultimately it’s about the hours put in listening to music and learning about bands and styles – including the ones you have no interest in, including the ones you hate. I make no bones that I’m no fan of The Beatles, but have a rudimentary knowledge of their career path, and know what they sound like and so on.

If anything, I think my own personal knowledge is more extensive than most. I’m a cultural sponge, and still keep half an ear to the chart shit that flops out of the R1 playlist and another on the half-arsed emo cack Kerrang! pass off as rock so much of the time. Because I’m curious. Because I consider it my duty to stay informed. I can’t criticise something I’ve never heard. Which means I’ve tortured myself with Katy Perry and Miley fucking Cyrus in the name of music journalism.

But people have unreasonable expectations. They expect you, as a music writer, to have heard every album, ever. And to remember every song, by title. And in sequence, on every album. They’ll whinge that their favourite album of the year isn’t on your list. It might be great, but you haven’t heard it. The fact you’ve listened to and reviewed over 500 albums in the last 12 months counts for nothing if you haven’t heard and raved about X, Y or Z, which 6 Music and the NME loved. Meanwhile, people in the office who love generic mass-market indie bands and who think The Cribs are off the beaten track and worship Paul Weller, and scenesters who go out to be seen at all the local shows while they talk through every act will be amazed you haven’t heard of their favourite new local band who have only played three shows but are amazing and are already getting quite a buzz around them. That, or the fact Tom Robinson played them and I haven’t a clue who they are… They were on the front of the NME! Kerrang! Featured them last week! They played the local pub last month…. The fact I don’t know who they are, and certainly don’t know their every song makes me the most pointless asinine excuse for a music journalist on the planet. I don’t deserve all these CD and downloads or free gig passes. I should just give up and get back to watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks right now.

 

Indie

Some generic indie kids, yesterday. Your opinion as a music reviewer isn’t worth shit if you’ve not heard – and raved about – their friend’s self-released cassette, limited to six copies.

Criticising the Critics Criticising the Critics: An Exercise in Infinite Reflexivity and Getting Hip

So I recently stumbled upon a piece that was ostensibly a review of a gig I’d attended and reviewed, but with the secondary purpose of dismantling my review.

The writer, one Patrick Lee attacked my write-up from a number of well-considered angles, but it seems that the primarily provocation, to which he took particular exception, was my observation regarding the number of trendy hipster bozos in attendance (in fairness, relatively small) and the fact they talked incessantly (thus more than compensating for their number in terms of volume and level of irritation caused).

What I actually said, in the middle of a glowing review of all 4 acts performing that night, was, “Granted, a band as hot as White Firs are going to attract more than their fare share of hipster hangers-on, and the duffel-coat wearing popped-collar brigade are out in full force tonight, standing right at the front talking loudly and posturing hard. Forget ‘em. it’s all about the music…”

His response – suggesting he didn’t read the entire piece – was to get uppity about the duffel coat diss (I’d add that I was wearing a fleece under a jacket under a leather coat, because it was cold and I need the pockets to carry my pad / camera / beer / ego, but of course, I like to be inconspicuous at gigs and so not only to I keep out of the way but I keep my trap shut) and to defend talking throughout Bull’s set (I wouldn’t know if he jabbered on through the headliners’ set because I moved to get away from the hipster bozos who’d been standing directly in front of me).

He begins by saying ‘I think I might have been (depending on the time of the paragraph taking place) one of the “hipster hangers-on”, and whereas I am, I think, borderline complimented by this, I do take exception to the duffel-coat criticism, wanting to take the chance here to express admiration both for the duffel coat itself, and for those daring enough to wear it inside at a gig as “hot” as the one The White Firs produced.’

I’d also note here that neither of the places which have published Patrick’s piece (in Vibe as ‘Notice the form, or, Looking up at music culture from the underground’ and One&Other under the more descriptive and succinct title ‘Review: White Firs at Nichely Does It’) include links or even proper credits to my own original review which appeared at Whisperin’ and Hollerin’ and this, it has to be said, is poor form. But what’s considered good etiquette clearly isn’t a part of his agenda and may not even feature in his cognisance.

More pertinently, only a narcissist of the highest order would find any way of converting my criticism into a commentary, and then to admit to a) being one of the ‘characters’ so depicted b) being complimented (borderline or otherwise) transcends narcissistic egotism and borders on sociopathy. But then, such is the arrogance of the hipster. Pretentious, moi? I’m so cool, of course he’s writing about me… At this point, Patrick turns my criticism around a full 180 degrees to reveal that in fact, it is I who is in the wrong for being so misguided as to complain about their incessant chatter, writing,

‘to criticise those voicing an opinion during bands like Bull and The White Firs would be an error. Daring to pursue, tackle, render lifeless and then begin a post-mortem on this error is, as noted, daring, as splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions is likely to result in being covered in surgical smelling entrails; but, dragged here as we have been, we might as well cover ourselves in the grizzly innards of the thing, and hopefully be left cathartically and metaphorically cleansed by the end. A crucial question has been left unasked by the typical, cliché-ridden reviewer of music: What do The White Firs do?’

What do White Firs do? I think I covered that, actually, because I make a point of providing objective reviews that actually say what bands sound like and what they ‘do’ on whatever level people who’ve not heard the band may be interested in knowing about. Again, this furthers my theory that Patrick’s protracted exposition was a knee-jerk reaction to the second paragraph, and he was so incensed and overwhelmed he was compelled to spill his effusive verbiage instantaneously without taking the time to read on.

I feel a degree of empathy here. I too sometimes struggle to contain the urge to splurge when it comes to committing words to the (virtual) page, although I do think it’s poor form to dismantle a piece of writing without having read all of it. There’s a grave danger of appearing reactionary and ill-informed, after all. More importantly, my piece doesn’t have any pretence of being anything other than a review. It’s a short article, not a feature. I produce over 400 reviews a year. There isn’t the time to pick apart every fibre of every band’s being, and nor would I wish to even if there were. I don’t care what White Firs ‘do’ in terms of their being some kind of mega-influential cultural phenomenon. Not yet, anyway.

So when I wrote that ‘During their blistering set that ratcheted up both the volume and intensity of the night, they proved themselves to be in a different class altogether. With a rock-solid rhythm section (drummer Jack Holdstock occupied the stool for now-defunct but hotly-tipped garage noisemongers The Federals) providing the pulsating heart of the sound and the essential foundations for the fuzzed-out guitar attacks, they’ve got the swaggering Stooges sound absolutely nailed,’ I think I gave a few hints about what they ‘do’.

In fairness, hipster wordsmith Patrick Lee is writing with a different purpose. His angle, while writing on music and culture, in this piece, is to consider the nature of music reviewing, and there are many who believe that reviewing is a frankly pointless exercise. Fair enough, but in my experience both as a reader and writer of reviews, I’ve found that people come to respect the opinions of certain reviewers, and discover a lot of new bands they otherwise wouldn’t have because of the acts those reviewers provide exposure to.

It’s notable that a number of people have complained that they’ve never heard of any of the bands I review. As far as I’m concerned, that’s precisely the purpose of my reviews. Everyone already has an opinion on U2, Radiohead, Madonna, Coldplay, the household names and acts they have heard of, and there’ll be no short of coverage of their latest album in everything from The Guardian to the NME via The Sun and Q, not to mention every last website you might care to look. I find it much more gratifying – and culturally useful – to put word out about unknown and lesser known bands. And it’s for this reason I place such emphasis on description. Again, by way of example, another excerpt from my review of White Firs.

Danny Barton’s vocals have a nonchalant drawl about them, but still carry a melody and delivery some tidy pop hooks. Meanwhile, brother James churns out thumping basslines as cool as you like, while occasionally throwing in some shouty backing vocals. For all the overdriven noise blasting from the amps and the PA, it’s clear they’ve got a keen ear for a tune, their appreciation of Big Star shining through the squall of feedback.’

I’d also add that I tend to keep my style simple and direct, not because I’m incapable of flourish-filled purple prose, but because, well, who needs it? I love seven-line sentences and paragraphs that extend beyond three pages more than most of my work reveals, but by the same token, I do make every effort not to produce slabs of text so sense with descriptors as to lose even the most articulate of readers – an my own meaning – before the first semicolon. Postmodern society’s alienating enough without needlessly alienating the bulk of any potential readership before you’ve even said anything. Moreover, a good reviewer knows that their job is to convey what’s exciting about the band – and it’s all about the bands, not pushing my own agenda of convincing a publisher that they should indulge my literary aspirations by signing me up for a five-book deal which will see me rubbing shoulders with Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie and other heavyweight purveyors of literary fiction. Again, Lee’s reference points – Hemingway and Brett Easton Ellis – are telling in that they’re suitably literary (by which I mean they’re worthy namedrops for anyone with a casual interest in 20th Century literature) but reveal the author to be lacking in real knowledge of the field (Stewart Home makes for a much more pertinent and credible alternative to Ellis, and Lee could do far worse than acquaint himself with the exploratory prose of my own recent anti-novel, This Book is Fucking Stupid, if only to demonstrate just how firmly he’s got his finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist).

I’m practically bawling into my beer when I read his incisive summation of Bull, which pisses all over my my ‘tepid, cliche-ridden’ descriptions (being a typical music reviewer, I’m completely incapable of moving beyond such abysmal prose, while yearning to achieve flourishes comparable to his Paul Morley-esque circumlocution, brimming with esoteric verbosity dressed in endless frills. So when Mr Lee writes of ‘splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions’, it’s worth remembering the context. He’s writing about talking at a gig. And what’s more, he’s trying to defend it by pointing out that he was only saying good things about the bands. Good, clever things, too, unlike my simplistic, witless cliché things – which I at least had the decency to keep to myself until I’d left the venue. Put simply, Lee is making a pathetic and utterly misguided attempt to excuse the inexcusable and defend the indefensible by means of absurdly overinflated and exhausting prolix.

Of course, it all amounts to no more than pleonastic posturing. Fair enough. But please, next time you’re watching bands play, just shut the fuck up.

 

hipster1

A hipster at a gig, minus duffel coat. He’s so cool he’s hot and doesn’t need any tepid descriptions, dude.

 

 

 

Patrick Lee is a graduate from Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has written for Mint Magazine, International Relations, The Vibe and continues to write and edit fiction for Shabby Doll House. He enjoys music and film, and reading contemporary fiction, non-fiction and philosophy.

His profile pic features him, with a chick – thus illustrating his popularity and appeal to the opposite sex – with a paper or polystyrene beaker held in his mouth. What a bozo.

 

 

Christopher Nosnibor is a writing machine. He doesn’t feel the need to justify his existence by including his superior educational background in his biography and has written for more publications than her can be bothered to list.

He doesn’t have a profile picture, so no-one can identify him and beat the crap out of him when he’s dished out one of his more critical music reviews.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

‘Pretentious and Dull’: Celebrating Ballard’s Lone Stars

Negative reviews have long been something of an obsession of mine. Having grown up reading Melody Maker and the NME in the late 80s and early 90s, it was the out-and-out slatings that I found made the most entertaining reads. In many ways, these reviews were a leading factor in my deciding I wanted to become a music journalist. For the first reviewing job I applied for, which happened to be at my local paper, I sent a deeply scathing review of a recent gig I’d attended, because I felt it provided the best means of demonstrating my flair for description and finding creative ways of saying the bands were shit.

I was elated when the section’s editor rang me to tell me I’d got the ‘job’ (I say ‘job’ as it was unpaid, an ongoing feature of my reviewing career which now spans the best part of twenty years). My elation was countered by no small degree of horror when he went on to tell me he loved my submission so much he was going to run it.

It was a vital lesson in writing, and at a relatively tender age (I was about 18), namely that if you’re going to write something, you have to be prepared for people to read it. The paper received a number of letters of complaint, the first review to have elicited such a reaction in its entire history.

Still, it wasn’t the first time my writing had received complaints. A couple of years previous, during the summer holidays, I had produced a newsletter of sorts, a parodic ‘gossip column’ type affair about people from my school. It went by the title of ‘The Parish News’, and I simply printed up and posted out copies to various friends and people I knew. Unfortunately, one (female) recipient shared initials with her mother, who opened the correspondence, and, taking offence at the references to her daughters breasts, decided to call the police about this ‘offensive’ publication. They turned up at the back door while I was cleaning the porch for pocket money, and delivered some stern words. They couldn’t tell me who’d complained, of course, but I spotted one of the, coppers was holding the envelope they’d been handed by the complainant and read the address, and made the simultaneous discovery that bobbies aren’t always the brightest. They also told me in no uncertain terms that I was to cease the publication of ‘The Parish News’ or anything similar. I gave them my word and they went on their way. I was a lot more careful with the distribution of the subsequent three issues of the quarterly A4 one-pager.

Since then, very little’s changed in many respects. I learned quickly to develop a thick skin when it came to comments regarding my work, and for every detractor there are many protractors, and besides, I’m of the opinion that it’s better to be slated than ignored – although that doesn’t stop me bailing in, feet first with all guns blazing when I receive a particularly feeble or otherwise irksome CD in the mail. It’s good to let off steam to flex my muscles that are primed for serving up vitriol, and I still believe the bad reviews are the best.

Unfortunately, many reviews on the Internet, be they reader reviews or fan reviews or little blogs or zines, are extremely poorly written, and the one-star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., are nowhere near of the standard of the scathing reviews penned by good journalists who possess wit, humour and an extensive vocabulary. It was this strain of review that was a key inspiration for This Book is Fucking Stupid, and long before I decided to write / assemble the book, I’d developed the habit of skipping straight to the one and two star reviews of books or CDs I was considering buying. Sometimes I’d find myself embarking – unintentionally – on extensive one-star journeys, reading all the terrible reviews of books I’d read or by authors I like. And really, most of them are truly terrible. Invariably, it’s abundantly clear that the reviewer is only semi-literate, and needless to say they’ve generally missed the point of the book completely.

I’ve recently been on something of a Ballard trip, and it’s perhaps not surprising that despite the glowing critical reception his works have received, many ‘everyday’ readers have been less impressed. tvpunter’s comments on Amazon.co.uk concerning High Rise – a book I found powerful and quite affecting – are in many ways typical:

1.0 out of 5 stars WE-1984-, 8 May 2011

By tvpunter

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

That kind of novel that potrays the middle classes in turmoil as oppossed to the state controling the masses..a metaphor for today in 2011..did’t work for me.

Clearly, spelling ‘dos’t’ work for him either, and reviews like this reveal more about the reviewer’s deficiencies than the shortcomings of the book. The point is, I’m aware that Ballard is guilty of the occasional lumpy sentence and sometimes the action scenes are so hastily sketched it’s difficult to discern precisely what’s happened. Consider these features endearing, small imperfection that are essential to the unique style of Ballard’s writing. Therefore, while not all of his books have had the same effect on me as The Atrocity Exhibition, I nevertheless find myself marvelling at the way in which he constructs his narratives, and I’ve not once – thus far – found a Ballard book to be ‘disappointing’ – unlike Thomas Hunter of Banbury:

1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 11 Nov 2011

By Thomas Hunter (Banbury, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

This book started so well, painting a great picture of a realistic brave new world on the French Riviera, and setting up an intrigue that promised to blossonm into an exciting mystery. But then it all went wrong as implausibility piled on top of implausibility. JGB thought he was building tension but instead he was building incredulity, finishing off with a pathetic ending that made me think the whole experience had been a waste. My first Ballard and probably my last.

The one thing that’s always struck me about Ballard is his ability to signpost the future. The London Riots of August 2011 immediately brought to mind High Rise and Millennium People. But the trouble with writing the near future is that for many, it will seem far-fetched and improbable, in much the same way Smellgrovia finds aspects of Kingdom Come ‘silly’.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pale Imitation, 21 May 2007

By Smellgrovia (Blackheath, London)

This review is from: Kingdom Come (Hardcover)

I am a huge Ballard fan and so am sorry to say that I really did not enjoy this. I agree with other reviewers in feeling that Ballard has done this so much better in other novels such as Cocaine Nights. I thought the shopping mall run riot was silly at best, and I just could not get involved with the characters or plot. By the end I was skim reading just to finish the damn thing – never a good sign.

2.0 out of 5 stars gratuitous, 17 Nov 2010

By biskit

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

i knew this book was supposed to be alarming, thought provoking etc., but i didn’t bank on the feeling of impatience and horror. never one to abandon a book half way, i kept on through gritted teeth. I have since passed dwellings that have made me think of this book, but that can be its only legacy. a fear that the hell within this book could become reality is what makes one read on, but beware the same is true for other stories of the horror genre. this is not a convincing tale, people going to work as normal and then setting up war zones in their own block of flats? i dont think so!

We live in silly times. I suspect many inhabitants of inner city areas would liken their tower blocks to war zones. Many considered 1984 absurd in its day, and no one got Nova Express, yet these books are now very much reflections of the society in which we now live. It’s a pity the authors weren’t around to witness recent events – or perhaps it’s a blessing. Sometimes, it’s not pleasant to find you were right all along.

I wrote This Book is Fucking Stupid as a means of addressing the dichotomy that runs through the whole field of reviewing as it’s emerged in recent years. Readers rarely seem to agree with critics, yet purchase books on the strength of the reviews its received – and then complain, feeling that they’ve been in some way misled by the critic’s positive assessment of any given text.

1.0 out of 5 stars One for the Daily Mail readers, 28 July 2008

By Bryan (Newcastle)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

If it’s a satire, it’s lacking wit, insight and humour, and if it’s not satire it betrays a staggering naivete. Characters are poorly drawn, but even in their one-dimensional state manage to be either wholly unsympathetic or downright offensive, and the world they inhabit is one seen by the most blinkered Daily Mail reader, where school fees are an important economic indicator, and the death of Jill Dando can shake the country. (The inclusion of a version of the Dando murder is so bizarre it’s almost funny, but not quite enough). The point of the book, such as it is, is facile – professionals have a function in society – but by presenting their closed world as the entirety of society, and not giving us any shade, or any tension, against their short-sightedness, the book’s never going to work unless you can actually sympathise with their views. And if you can, then I pity you. There’s also a nearly quaint 1960s radical feel – the giveaway line for me was a reference to a ‘shared lover’ – the uneasy balance between permissiveness and misogyny bringing the bearded conservatism of 60s student to mind. (The idea of overpriviledged revolutionaries obviously chimes with the theme of the book, but I don’t think that’s a deliberate echo).
There are some nice prose flourishes, but a handfull through the book, which mostly reads somewhere between plodding and clunky, while the dialogue is risible. If I’d not read some early Ballard, I’d say his editor hadn’t paid attention to an esteemed author’s manuscript.
Overall the book is a re-tread of High Rise, and suffers that book’s problem of a fundamental misanthropy based on a wilful acknowledgement only of the most venal side of humanity, that expressed in the broadsheets and world cinema of the London middle class. That could work if it was sufficiently stylised (and much as I disliked High Rise, it nearly worked through the conceit of staying within one building), but this wants to operate within a real world, but completely fails to acknowledge one exists.
If you like your writing dull, your authors solipsistic, and your themes akin to being battered over the head with a rolled Telegraph, then fill your boots on this one, but otherwise, there’s nothing to see.

Another key aspect of This Book was recycling. In these times of austerity and while green issues remain to the fore, I’m still the keen advocate of recycling I was a decade or more ago. I was raised to waste not, want not, and I’ve spent most of my writing career working to this ethos. Just as William Burroughs cut up Naked Lunch to create much of what would subsequently become the Nova trilogy, so a large proportion of the material that became THE PLAGIARIST and From Destinations Set began life as a novella entitled Destroying the Balance. This novella became my ‘word hoard’ so to speak, and I decided it was a more than fitting text to recut, re-edit and reconfigure in order to produce This Book. And why not? By reworking a pre-existing text, I’m joining a lineage of great authors who did precisely the same. Of course, not all readers appreciate what could be considered formulaic plotting, although no-one seems to complain that the bulk of crime, horror or romance novels all follow the dame formula.

1.0 out of 5 stars A waste of time and effort…, 4 Oct 2001

By deborah.daley@marshallcavendish.co.uk (London, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

I bought this book as I was going on holiday and needed something to read. It was a haste decision based on the rave reviews and the fact that this book had won an award. I did not find this book to be exciting, tense, thrilling, visionary, etc. This story of a man tracing the footsteps of another man’s killing spree is written in such a way that I wasn’t immersed in the story – I didn’t care about any of the characters, the plot was unbelieveable, long winded and consisted of twists that I had been guessed early on. It was only when I got to page 371 that I felt the story had some real feeling or was exciting – this isn’t a good sign in a novel.

Another thing was that there were too many poetic terms for describing things throughout the story. This is a talent of Mr Ballard’s that he utilised to the nth degree. I challenge any potential reader to open a page in this book and read – you’ll see that it’s difficult to keep track…

Why is this author praised as some kind of genius? Reading the synopsis of his other books it looks suspiciously like he rewrites the same story over and over again – perhaps he is a genius…

There is of course a fine line between genius and insanity, and if dumb is the new smart and the rewriting of the same story over and over again is the height of creativity, then This Book is Fucking Stupid is the very definition of a work of genius. What’s more, I’ve long said that plot’s overrated, and while a substantial number of truly important works of literature dispense with plot completely (again, The Atrocity Exhibition, Naked Lunch are obvious leading examples), while others relegate plot to a secondary or even tertiary position (I’m thinking instinctively of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work here, although again, there are many others) but of course what I really mean by this is that a truly great book needs a lot more to it than plot, and readers who read for plot alone are missing out on vast portions of the experience reading can provide. How often does plot as of and in itself make a reader pause for thought to assess their own lives, beliefs and the world around them? Still, even a good plot is wasted if the readership’s incapable of following it without it being spelled out. Perhaps more complex novels should come with plot-line summaries, and, better yet, a diagram with the key events in sequential order, just to make sure no-one gets lost along the way.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious and dull, 24 Mar 2008

By A. Auburn (Cambridgeshire, England)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

This is among the worst books Ive ever read. I couldnt follow the plot,and the language was over pretentious and unexciting. I have heard alot about J.G. Ballard but he is highly overrated and dull.

Ultimately, any writer has to accept that they’re not going to please everyone, and in fact, few would want to. I’ve made my decision: I’m going all out for the one-stars. I want to produce an entire oeuvre of ‘worst books ever’ than crush my soul churning out potboiling bollocks about knights or espionage. Let’s face it, the paperback fiction chart is grim and endlessly samey. Where’s the variety? Where’s the writing that challenges the reader and the status quo? I’d rather sit with Ballard in the ‘pretentious and dull’ corner of the literary world than be adored by the masses who loaf around on the beach reading Shopaholic or dross by Dan Brown. Stupid? Career suicide? Perhaps, but then so’s the idea of writing to become rich or famous. Fame and fortune are even more overrated than plot, but again, you’d have to venture off the bestseller list and read something other than celebrity autobiographies to find that out.

 

J.G.-Ballard-at-home-in-1-002

The late, great J G Ballard and his untidy bookcase

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk