Sting and the lute's a no-no - but rather this than plain narrow-mindedness, argues Paul Stump
From what I've heard, the snipers are right; Sting's lute album is a bit crap. Mannered, vocally insecure to the point of enervating, unsympathetically recorded, kitschy. But perhaps we're missing the point; Sting's efforts have been ridiculed not because of its quality or lack thereof. Oh no. He's a target because, as Jessica Duchen acknowledges in today's Independent, he tried to be clever. And popsters thinking outside the box musically in Britain means it's tall-poppy time.
For a field of endeavour which occupies so much cultural space, online, in print, on telly, rock and pop criticism - especially, perhaps uniquely, in the UK - is still hobbled by a level of technical ignorance and/or teenagerly prejudice that in any other branch of criticism it would be considered not just a scandal, but bizarrely surreal. Diminished sevenths? Recapitulation? You what?
Not unnaturally, this bovine obtuseness manifests itself in suspicion of, and outright hostility towards, those who even dare allude to any occlusion of musical technique and imagination, the exemplar of same being the sub-genre of which Sting's labours could be considered a distant cousin, progressive rock.
Nearly ten years ago I published the first book-length critical reappraisal of progressive, and despite many advances in rehabilitating its unfairly slighted reputation - all manner of closet progheads coming out, from John Lydon to Howard Devoto, a good BBC4 documentary, rock glossies with good writers taking it at least a bit seriously, Radiohead. But the mainstream media still pour bucketloads of poison on it and anything even smacking of it. Not least that supposedly fearless defender of artistic laissez-faire and diversity, the Guardian. Their alleged 'music critic' John Harris summed up the entire prog universe as a 'crime against music' a couple of months ago while apparently celebrating being too lazy to learn to appreciate Captain Beefheart. He ventriloquized almost every rock journalist outside the specialist press - hence the scorn for Sting.
Can anyone really imagine a serious newspaper publishing a blanket condemnation of magic realism, or action painting, or Restoration comedy? Prog rock? Oh yes, file in the spacehoppers-and-Choppers ghetto. A historical aberration, like the Khmer Rouge or Jonestown. Among broadsheet commentators, probably only John Aizlewood and King Crimson freak Jonathan Glancey (whose first responsibility is architecture) are open-minded enough to acknowledge the breadth and diversity and inspiration of progressive rock and its countless and continually evolving sub-sub genres. The Observer Music Magazine scarcely acknowledges that anything outside pop, rock and indie exists. The last issue's 'guest editor' was Jarvis Cocker. Next one? Hmmm... Robert Wyatt? Robert Fripp? Steven Isserlis? If it isn't Morrissey or Damon Albarn I'll eat my hat.
Prog was, and sometimes still is, preposterous in the extreme (Marillion, anyone? Oh God, oh God); in fact, I am often accused by fanatics of being 'anti-prog' for daring to be able to greet it with as much laughter as love. Most rock musicians playing at being classical maestri make fools of themselves and get their justly abusive deserts. Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, a skilled technician, but dressed as a medieval troubadour, comes over - let's be honest, people - as an absolute berk. But there's hope - Steve Hackett, the onetime Genesis guitarist, makes creditable classical albums. Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke can put an orchestral piece together and make it work.
But what is galling is that the current situation mirrors the time of punk (most of whose practitioners were closet musos anyway who smelt a fast buck), which righteously slew the cute but ultimately pointless likes of Greenslade and Curved Air but also did for most British avant-garde jazz, indeed anything that thought first and played later (This Heat, Henry Cow, The Enid, National Health). It was, however, the media, rather than punk itself, that set out to harm progressive thinking in young musical Britain. In 1979, you'd never have known that there was good and bad in the tendency to 'improve' rock and pop - step forward, Paul Morley, Ian Penman - and even now, one would never know unless one goes online or into the rock press. It's why ultra-craftsmanlike bands like ELO and 10cc are reduced to the margins of Guilty Pleasures nights (whether the music is good or bad), and why Todd Rundgren's brainy soul-pop never gets the column inches it deserves.
Because the kneejerk reaction to Sting's and McCartney's efforts is based less on the judgement of intrinsic musical values - after all, this is the Land ohne Musik, rarely better displayed in these sordid diatribes - than on the traditional British terror of intellect and/or grandeur, rather than - as anti-prog voices often parrot - a desire to prick the bubbles of the pompous. Jonathan Meades once said that Victorian neo-Gothic was defiantly anti-British because it - embodied, for example in the architecture of Pugin or Lutyens, for example - was determinedly showy, technically not just adept but expert and proud of it. I sometimes think that Coldplay get the bird not just because they're dull (agreed) but because they can play, and do it very well.
Clever is the key word. The British don't like a smartarse. Vide the annual plunge in students taking science and language exams. The music industry is everywhere crying foul about lack of funding and resources, and with good reason; but what it fails to address is the fact that musical prowess of any sort is still regarded as sad in the extreme. When broadsheet newspapers imply the same, then we have come to a pretty pass. The Guardian at least featured a column on new prog bands this summer - but damned it from the off by getting Rick Wakeman, a smart chap but perhaps the biggest and daftest prog Aunt-Sally of them all, to review the latest material.
The great jazz guitarist John McLaughlin (one of the UK's finest musicians of the last 100 years, if anyone's noticed. Hello? Hello?) once told me that his speed and technique was not developed for its own sake, but simply to facilitate a better understanding of his own music and music he might otherwise have not properly appreciated. He practised because he wanted that next discovery. In other words, he was like every creative artist worth the name.
Thus speak most musicians in most genres from the 'Smoke On The Water' strummer in a Denmark Street shop to Julian Lloyd Webber or Evelyn Glennie. But here in England, where people, as Sir Thomas Beecham pointed out, don't like music but merely the sound it makes, they're regarded as muso creeps, bores, teeds.
I won't be buying Sting's album. But if he's got the backs of Britain's wannabe-studenty, hipper-than-thou rock cognoscenti up, then he is, in my opinion, doing something right, and more power to his elbow.