Monday, May 21, 2007

Tomorrow was another day...

If pop music has a future, it is to be found in the past.

Of course, I like pop music as much as anyone, so long as we are talking about the pop music of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. True, standards fell in the forties, as they did in most things, but I still enjoy forties music as much as the next man when I’m in the mood. (No stuffed shirts here, thank you.) The early fifties brought that agreeable form of pastiche that defines the term 'easy listening', the Dean Martin kind of thing. Nothing new, but all very likeable.
It was only really in the late fifties, when that silly lump Presley turned up, ushering generational apartheid into music, that things started to go downhill.
Before Presley pop music was a simple yes or no deal, you accepted it or you rejected it. After Presley, desperate to be taken seriously and rotten to its core with the kind of unchecked pretension that would be tolerated in no other art form, pop music degenerated into a series of gestures by which various tribes identify each other and their enemies.
But imagine some alternative universe in which the world changed through the twentieth century in most of the ways that it actually did change, but for some reason pop music stayed true to its original ethic of providing uplift to as wide a demographic as possible using proper instruments and a strong voice. Imagine no John Lennon (it's easy if you try). Imagine moshing in front of Ruth Etting. Imagine Pink Martini.

Pink Martini prove that the only new pop music is old pop music. Hailing, as if I needed to say, from America (that supposed cultural desert, leading the way as usual) they are part Hollywood musical extravaganza, part European dance orchestra and part Lyons Corner House, played in proper gig venues with a real band (strings, brass, percussion, piano, the latter played with many an agreeable Chico Marx flourish by founder member Thomas M Lauderdale) and a singer called China Forbes who not only has many times the voice to match the sound but looks the part and then some too.
But the most important ingredient is an absence: that of anything resembling kitsch, the Dutch Elm Disease of culture; there is no irony or camp or condescension in the artistry of the playing, the multi-lingual erudition, or the often haunting precision of the singing.
Their albums are one thing, but live, I think, is the point of Pink Martini, if only for the proof that they really can whip an audience into a frenzy with an encore of Barroso’s Brazil. We went to see them at the Roundhouse last night. A full crowd in Chalk Farm, drawn from every imaginable age group, all happily milling together, singing along to songs entirely in French... this is what might have happened to popular music.
The songs are a mix of original thirties and forties numbers, with a laudable tendency to give greater focus to the lesser-known, sprinkled with new compositions in keeping with the general ethos. Some of the more familiar have been stylishly reimagined: Lauderdale explained that the inspiration behind their languid, slightly sinister version of Que Sera, Sera came from the fact that it derives from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the idea was to give it something of the Bernard Hermannesque treatment that it lacks in the original recording.
None of this feels cobbled-together, none of it feels like pastiche, none of it feels like an art-school experiment. It's not forced, it's not faked, it's not cabaret - just the pop music sensibilities of another time restaged in our own as if there was nothing unusual about it at all. It is serious and joyous; it is the sound of revolution. No doubt I’m reading too much into it, but great fun, all the same.