Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education: Part I – Free Creativity as a Vocational Imperative

Brief Introduction

The following is the first in a three-part series in which I relate some of the key issues I have encountered trying to teach popular music (both practice and theory) at Newcastle University over the last 11½ years. Everything I’ll be writing on this blog for the foreseeable future will basically be stuff I’ve been saying out of my mouth in class during that time. Having now started putting that stuff onto the page in a manner that is intended to be read and, hopefully, argued with and talked about, I’m gratified to see that all that talking wasn’t a total waste of time and breath, since all the things I’ve been formulating and trying to get across remain very much in tact in a part of my brain that opens up easily when I try to access it.

This series, Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education, is meant as a kind of report on my experience of teaching non-notated (i.e. devised/improvised performance and recorded-media) composition to honours-level students (which is to say, all such classes have been populated by students choosing to pursue non-notated composition, usually with the genuine intention of trying to pursue its inherent disciplines, to as realistically viable a standard as possible). The idea to write the series started with wanting to report on the intense struggles I’ve engaged in with students regarding their relationship what we call the mainstream – essentially the corporate, market-driven culture of commercial pop. In essence, those struggles concerned a commonly perceived and what they felt was a suspect leftfield avant garde, which, given the kind of music most of us teaching those modules were known for, they felt somehow obliged to emulate, albeit reluctantly, in order to ‘get a good mark.’ I’ve always maintained, (because I damn well know) that such a dichotomy is a fallacy. It’s this ‘report’ that makes up the majority of the second part in the series, while the third part attempts to outline a methodology for discerning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in pop. This first part, however, tries to set the scene, and the tone, for those two pieces, while offering a glimpse of the context that we, as those charged with teaching this stuff, found ourselves in.


Free Creativity as a Vocational Imperative

It was inevitable that so-called popular (henceforth ‘pop’) music (I’ll hazard an attempt at a broad definition, as a necessary part of my argument, below) would become integrated into the institutional framework of higher education (henceforth HE). Inevitable, primarily on two fronts: firstly, pop is a huge global industry, which, as a cultural phenomenon affects so many lives in so many ways, and serves the multiple interests of those who invest in it, financially and ideologically – its multifarious, universal importance makes it too enormous to overlook; secondly, with each passing decade, and each evolving stylistic proliferation, an increasing percentage of people (not just school-leavers) are willing to think of pop music as a realistic subject to commit a university career to. Where that lands them, exactly (or even approximately) after three years is anybody’s guess, but it is the duty of those who are engaged to teach them to try and make it worth their while, to deliver a degree that is as intellectually and professionally commensurate with, first of all, other Humanities subjects, but also with those in the sciences, engineering and so on. In terms of how a pop degree sits alongside any other HE subject, the issues concerning the balance between intellectual and vocational is perennially tricky, and I’ll explore this a little more later on; but for me, whether vocational or intellectual, the agenda must be research-led and research-oriented – that is to say, the imperative to pursue new knowledge with the same discipline and rigour as other subject areas is essential.

People interested in studying popular musicology at university initially found a home within cultural studies, media studies, communication studies (which is the one I remember being prevalent in the early 1980s, when I was leaving school) as well as in anthropology and human geography; even more commonly, those wanting to carve out careers in pop music itself (i.e. as a practical discipline) went primarily to art college if they went anywhere at all. To a large extent, many of those students still operate very happily in any reasonably appropriate faculty outside music, not least Fine Art. Conversely, most well-established music departments have proven relatively inappropriate, even unrealistic, settings to take on pop music pedagogy, not least given the significant, and signally overlooked, differences between the logic of conventional classical music disciplines and their counterparts in pop. I am making this comparison between classical and pop pedagogies because ever since pop music was first introduced to the GCSE music syllabus in the late 1980s, its incorporation into the broader music education structure has been continually compromised by being cramped into technical frameworks long established within the European classical tradition. As someone who, like so many millions, began making music spontaneously and intuitively in response to the pop that I liked, completely bypassing any formal tuition, it still truly amazes how entrenched the counter-intuitive approach to music-making that defines classical music pedagogy still is in any curriculum that seeks to embrace pop. It amazes me more, even, how seldom it seems to have occurred to people that artificially, or retroactively, (re-)imposing the logic of classical music on pop, in the manner of some archaically out-of-touch, near-geriatric pedagogue of yore, is so pointless, useless and counterproductive, maintaining a deeply-ingrained imperial arrogance instilled in the citizens of European societies; learning to purge one’s self of an inherited, inculcated, imperialist world view is much harder (and requires much more subtly nuanced reflection) than most people seem to realize – in the case of too many self-styled pop music educators, it hasn’t even begun to occur to them. As a result, pop music education at UK universities is still in a fantastically confused state. I used the word ‘fantastically’ with a note of intended enthusiasm, since taking all of this on has been, and remains, a lot of fun, even if it involved, as it does, a heck of a lot of bashing one’s head against a brick wall – a brick wall erected by the institutional collegiate body as much as by truculent students. Speaking of which, I should stress that each year-group has always had at least 10% of students who totally ‘get it,’ although they’re very often the ones who’ve been involved in making their own music for several years – which, incidentally, is one of many factors which distinguish pop music studies from just about any other subject area: it recruits people who have already reached a fairly high level of maturity, which in turns comes with a relatively advanced understanding of the materials and their inherent challenges.

In taking up my own position as an educator within this field in 2004, I was aware of some of the inherent issues and contradictions, a legacy of 16 years as a peripatetic music teacher who’d frequently been co-opted as the resident pop music sub at several private schools whose music teachers (rightly) felt ill-equipped to tackle the incoming requirements of the newly devised, pop-inclusive GCSE syllabus. But developing a sense of how to deal with them in a realistic and productive way has been a long process subject to years of scrapping with them on the frontline, pursuing ever more persuasive and convincing methods of prising open the doors that both the market and the schooling have long managed to seal so tightly shut in the minds of so many students who sign up for a ‘pop degree’ (or indeed those who’d signed up for the ‘classical’ degree but who wanted to specialize in pop disciplines, which has always been an option during my time and for some time before it). It was a good few years before I discovered the immeasurable support available for such challenges in the writings of Christopher Small. In particular, his Music of the Common Tongue became something close to a bible for me, its incisively insightful and illuminating critique of the European classical tradition’s professionalist acquiescence to, and reinforcement of, bourgeois ideology set alongside his exploration of the musicalities and core cultural dynamics of Africa and the African Diaspora.[1] Prior to discovering Small, I had long sought a commentator who was responding to African American music in a similar way to me, which can be pithily summarized for the moment as a ‘this-changes-everything’ scenario. What was, actually, an unlikely route into African American, and more broadly African Diasporic music[2] had started with a wholly unexpected Hip Hop epiphany when I went to see Do the Right Thing, just after it came out, on my own during a stop-off in Paris; in pursuing an auto-didactic scholarship of Hip Hop, needing to know what ‘Jazz’ was, starting with needing to know what all the fuss about Coltrane was, became imperative. Part of that pursuit led me to Music in a New Found Land by Wilfred Mellers, which, by extension, led me to the work of Richard Middleton. In the folklore of HE popular musicology Mellers is the Father of the discipline and Middleton, who studied under the former at York, his anointed heir; a crudely conceived lineage, but not wholly inaccurate – before Mellers, musicologists really didn’t bother to try and carve out a scholarly, high-critical space for pop as a serious subject for HE (or otherwise) research.

Unlike Christopher Small, Richard Middleton continued to pursue the development of a viable and relevant pop musicology firmly, and officially, within the higher education infrastructure. His professorial appointment to the staff at the Newcastle University music department in 1998, where he was expressly charged with developing a popular music degree, may yet prove to be a significant historical step. Well, actually, it may be that the extent to which it does so might well depend on the extent of my own commitment to, finally, trying to establish myself as a listened-to voice in the field of popular musicology; if not that, then surely some of the amazing people whose PhDs I’ve supervised… It was during the last phase of his institutional academic career at Newcastle that I was appointed. My appointment was grounded in a vision of popular music studies through which Middleton regarded it as essential for pop music practitioners to become the foremost popular musicologists, recognizing, as he did, that a purely historical-theoretical bearing could seldom penetrate the discourse deeply and knowingly enough for any resulting texts and formulations to be of use to any community of intelligent musician-thinker-fans who really know ‘what’s happening’ because they’re living it, breathing it and bleeding it.[3]

When I joined the staff at Newcastle, the second-ever cohort of students taking a two-year top-up (to their Further Education diplomas), as part of widening-participation scheme that Middleton established, had just graduated. I got to know the seven of them who went on to study for their masters (four of them funded) fairly well, not least since my initial appointment was funded by the European Social Forum to teach creative practice at masters level. Three of them went on to PhD, and two of them now work in HE themselves. It’s worth noting that neither of those two, nor four of the other five, had any formal, notation-based education prior to their undergraduate degrees, whether classical or otherwise, and the two AHRC-funded PhDs completed their doctorates without ever having to make up for that in any way. Far from being any kind of happy anomaly, this scenario was not only exemplary of how to study non-classical music at HE, but, I thought then, that it would signal a seismic shift in how HE music in general would begin to recruit and educate increasingly switched-on and in-touch student cohorts. Those were fantastically exciting times; a close colleague and I (charged with the task) shaped a pop music curriculum which attended to the emerging agendas of the students themselves, complemented by our own knowledge and interest in pop music that, in keeping with my definition below, happily ignored genre boundaries, stylistic parameters and any imposed reading of any culture as being defined as ‘high’ and ‘low,’ ‘underground’ or ‘mainstream.’ Thus my first few years at Newcastle were characterized by engagement (practical and musicological) in the worlds of Techno, Hip Hop, Rock, free improv, chart pop, Folk, Country, Blues, Funk, free jazz, Noise… and much more – anything, without considering any styles or traditions as hierarchical or definitively orthodox. For those students who signed up, the department served them very well (and a good while before getting ‘their’ money’s worth, courtesy of New Labour’s launching of tuition fees, was a factor); Middleton’s influence at Newcastle had yielded a staff body distinguished by an historico-intellectual inclusivity that integrated up-to-date and relevant critical theory, near-encyclopedic knowledge of pop/rock history, cross-cultural dialogics, ahistorical performance practice and imaginative rethinkings of recorded pop music’s legacy to date. Tuition fees and 2008’s economic down-turn might have put paid to that vibrant and cooperative ethos; they certainly brought about a dramatic change.

What we were crafting during that time was an approach to teaching pop that treated the subject as a field marked by constant expansion, proliferation and diversification. In some respects, it’s easy to see how one might argue that the very idea of taking on such an unfathomably huge subject area is ridiculous. Except that the majority of institutions setting out a stall to teach it don’t regard the field as being any broader or more complex than what can be surveyed on an HMV top sales list, i.e. mainstream music that has made it into the charts, primarily in the UK and the USA along with its historical antecedents established through the same protocols. Out of this, a clear hierarchical lineage can be traced from the early-1960s post-R&B (almost exclusively male and white) band-culture explosion flag-shipped by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the baton of whose centrality is then taken up Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin, U2/Nirvana, Oasis/Blur, Coldplay/Metallica,[4] while parallel developments in various tangential directions are treated as useful (Prince, Rap, Fatboy Slim…), and sometimes intriguing (Björk, Kate Bush, Tom Waits…), so long as they can be seen to fit the template of a professionalism in tune with corporate logic. As a result, the vast majority of pop music teaching, both in schools and universities, is geared towards being a kind of music-industry training programme – there are ‘correct’ ways to do things (rules) and the blueprint for that correctness is handed down by market-governed standards. Yet the history of pop music in the recorded era has been consistently shaped by genius daring to work outside and beyond the narrow confines of what ordinary consumers are continually ready to settle for without doubting the authority of advertising and corporate radio playlisting.[5]

When my colleague and I started working together in 2004, we knew that pop always was, and would continue to be, a domain defined by multiple anarchies generated by two principle anarchies at its core: the anarchy of the market itself, ready and willing to back anything that would sell substantially (so long as it didn’t propose any serious ideological challenge or inspire genuine subversion) – Laurie Anderson’s ‘O, Superman,’ as much as Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’; and the anarchy inherent in the drive among individuals and communities that seek to define themselves in contradistinction to an alienating mainstream culture bloated, as it is, on corporate steroids. Fortunately, Internet 2.0, which has yielded open platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundlcoud, has made such anarchies the prevalent dynamic in pop, re-setting the coordinates of ‘success’ to account for the infinitely diverse ways in which people are prone to be attracted to sounds, grooves and songs without the bullying hector of what Guy Debord terms the ‘monologue’ of power.[6] As a consequence of the dramatic shifts brought about by the digital revolution, ‘commercial’ music is now defined far more truly by the myriad sub-generic scenes that emerge from countless autonomous infrastructures of DIY organization, promotion and administration represented by club nights, labels, zines, radio stations, blogs, online journals and brands (Rinse FM, NTS, TTT, Low-End Theory, Boiler Room, Dischord, Pitchfork/Fader/Factmag/Boomkat/Quietus etc. – in fact, the new ‘establishment’). Such micro-economies are characterized by the same tendency that drove Mark Zuckerberg’s inception of Facebook[7] – learning to read what people want rather than coming up with something to ram down people’s throats with incessant monster-moneyed advertising and promotion. I’m not going to go on about the digital revolution, here, except to say that its effect on what pop music is and can be seems to have had little influence on how it’s taught anywhere, at any level. Sure, all institutions are happy to embrace the technologies of contemporary production and dissemination (everyone uses Soundcloud), but the overwhelming tendency is to emulate the rock industry’s use of them to maintain archaic musical forms and frameworks– a world in which Kasabian and Mumford & Sons are allowed to be considered relevant. We knew from the start that a research-led degree in pop music should be concerned with what any music might be two years any given hence, rather than instituting non-existent paradigms based on the incredibly narrow and reductive industry model foisted via radio, TV and the web onto an otherwise disinterested public.[8]

Far from excluding the industry paradigm, however, I understood completely, not least from my own formative experience, that mainstream (corporate-fuelled) rock and pop ushers most people’s initial introduction to any music and, moreover, will have provided the beginnings of their own desire to be a part of it in some way. When a child first shows interest in music, and even starts asking for an instrument, their desires are already, usually, starkly etched into their psyche in an industry-mapped image. Already at a disadvantage, therefore, well-meaning parents arrange for that child to have music lessons. Given the utter backwardness of music education generally, but for non-classical musics especially, the vast majority of music teachers that such kids will be sent to will immediately start closing doors of enquiry, imagination and adventure rather than opening them as wildly wide as possible – through an immediate imposition of technical dos and don’ts, rules and rudiments. And of course, thanks to the parameters already imposed on what they think they want, it all seems perfectly natural. I don’t intend to make any further case for this claim here[9]: I worked in that environment for 16 years since when I’ve gone on to be involved in the development and education of literally hundreds of people who went through such a system, quite apart from all the countless record store employees I’ve talked to over the decades who harbored a lifelong regret that they’d been prevented from becoming musicians by teachers who told them they were unsuitable for it (tone deaf, unmusical, lacking rhythm etc.). Actually I can be no more eloquently and articulately damning of this age-old scenario than Christopher Small himself:

The circle of control is complete. The professionalization of music and the insistence on selection, examination and certification within the classical culture has effectively cut off most people from their ability to do anything more than sit and listen to what is presented to them; even their ability, and their right, to hold opinions without reference to the professionals is in doubt. Amateur performers scarcely dare to make an appearance in any public place, and certainly not in the company of professionals, while amateur composers, even if their existence is recognized at all, are usually figures of fun, at best eccentrics.[10]

Small is exposing the absurdity of the historically observed classical music pedagogy; within the teaching of pop music, it should be the ghost of a memory virtually forgotten for good – incredibly, it remains very much prevalent in the experience of most people setting out with a desire to play an active part in music; the lamentably sterile rock, pop and jazz pastiche compositions that comprise the syllabi of pop music exam boards are testament enough to this. More depressing still, however, is a colleague’s recent suggestion to me that, in defence of maintaining compulsory music notation training for all first-year pop students (having by then moved to a full, three-year programme), there may well come a time in their future professional lives where a technical knowledge of harmony and how chord progressions work in relation the European harmonic system might be expected of them and therefore a firm grounding in such disciplines would preclude any shame or embarrassment.[11] It’s a bit like telling a drama student that they should learn to give good head since it might well be the best way of landing a decent part in the future. Yes, that is flippant and impertinent, but one of the core essences of all rock and pop music, historically, has been grounded in the intuitive, trial-and-error guesswork inherent in hearing something and wanting to make something sound like it, or in a similar vein, out of which has emerged, since at least the beginning of the recorded pop era, the most original, unexpected and innovative developments in the pop’s evolution – courtesy of precisely the ignorance of technique that formal tuition is intended to overcome; if ‘trial-and-error guesswork’ sounds a bit haphazard, let me be as clear as I can that what I’m referring to is an overriding tendency amongst non-classical, informally grounded, musicians to acquire an advanced aural virtuosity, wherein their ears take priority and the connection between those ears and their owner’s creative intelligence is kept as clear and unhampered as possible. Unfortunately, I don’t have my copies of either volume of Morton Feldman essays/interviews to hand (I’ll update this blog once I do), but for the moment I’ll paraphrase a famous quote: ‘All I ask is that composers learn to wash out their ears.’ I should stress that I have never been actually opposed in any way to using Western notation as just one among many technologies; but if one is to take seriously the task of establishing a viable, realistic and relevant pop music pedagogy, then its place as a predominant orthodoxy must be supplanted – not just because it doesn’t hold sway in the real world of pop production, but also, moreover, it is a system of codes associated with a very specific historical and political context, namely the post-Enlightenment bourgeois era that saw the rise and dominance of European imperialism and all of its globally rapacious implications. I would also remind the reader that the place of European harmony in pop music itself has its roots in the various manifestations of the colonial era, not least, of course, various European folk forms (especially Anglo-Celtic); but the various movements derived from a more definitively African Diasporic heritage (above all Hip Hop and the various post-Soundsystem club forms) have increasingly challenged European harmony’s dominance. In post-Hip Hop, post-digital rock music (white-male, guitar-centric, bloke-group culture) doesn’t anyone hear how like Anglican hymns the ploddingly laborious balladeering of Coldplay and their ilk sound?

I will have lost some readers with that apparently blunt and crude drama-student fellatio analogy, but I’ve no inclination to apologize because in terms of how important this is, I’m deadly serious. I must insist on being as strident and forthright on this as possible – because in all honesty there’s simply no excuse for such backward thinking; not just backward, mind you, but counter-intuitive and imagination stunting, if calling it ‘thinking’ isn’t itself too generous an assessment. No excuse, that is, especially within the context of a ‘research’ university; herein lies the beginning of a perceived dichotomy between the vocational and the research-oriented intellectual approach to studying pop music: this defeatist and negative preparation-for-donkey-work-session-playing model cannot, ever, provide access to ‘new knowledge,’ for which read ‘new insight, new understanding, and (potentially) independent thought.’ To help cultivate the right developmental tendencies in emerging pop musicians – i.e. to teach that, in so far as one can – the principle task is to disavow them as quickly and as completely of as many of those fallacious rules and protocols they’ve thus far been indoctrinated with; in short to force open as many of those doors as possible, long since bolted shut. Just to be clear, before I proceed, my own education, along with my lifelong passion for discovering great music, wholly embraces the European classical tradition; Haydn, Mahler, Ives, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Hindemith, Messiaen, Feldman, Xenakis, Ligeti, Lachenmann… remain as important to my dialogic imagination as anyone or anything else. My point, here, is that the position of primary orthodoxy that the European classical tradition retains, even today, in how music is taught just about everywhere on the planet is not only wholly irrational (to the point of absurdity) but it unwittingly maintains the principles of a cultural encoding that is indistinguishable from the very bourgeois ideology that has led humanity into its darkest recesses (fascism, capitalism, imperialism, neo-liberalism, perpetually apologist genocides). A regular companion text to Small’s Music of the Common Tongue, has been Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. In his formulation of ‘the spectacle’ to denote the particular conditions through which a post-20th century mass culture preserves the ideological cohesion needed by ruling oligarchies to maintain their hold on antisocial, global power, Debord provides the crucial insight with which to apply Small’s critique to the contemporary, technocratic environment we find ourselves in today. In his preface to the third French edition, he perfectly sums up the way in which deeply entrenched, supposedly natural values can be seen to prevail as a matter of inevitable consequence; the supposedly natural predominance of European diatonic harmony in Western music has been as fundamental (perhaps, in its unchallenged subtlety, even more so) to instilling and reinforcing those values as anything else:

This striving of the spectacle toward modernization and unification, together with all the other tendencies toward the simplification of society, was what in 1989 led the Russian bureaucracy suddenly, and as one man, to convert to the current ideology of democracy ­ in other words, to the dictatorial freedom of the Market, as tempered by the recognition of the rights of Homo Spectator. No one in the West felt the need to spend more than a single day considering the import and impact of this extraordinary media event ­ proof enough, were proof called for, of the progress made by the techniques of the spectacle. All that needed recording was the fact that a sort of geological tremor had apparently taken place. The phenomenon was duly noted, dated and deemed sufficiently well understood; a very simple sign, “the fall of the Berlin Wall,” repeated over and over again, immediately attained the incontestability of all the other signs of democracy.[12]

So, returning to the matter of teaching pop music at HE level, there arises a problem with regard to a perceived discrepancy between a ‘vocational’ teaching/learning agenda and one that is deemed more in keeping with an HE research environment. The received opinion, certainly during my early years at Newcastle, was that the ‘industry training’ curriculum referred to above was akin to the kind of vocational training undergone by apprentices of such trades as carpentry and plumbing. There’s a truth in that, of course, but to leave it there (and thus proceed with an agenda that consciously seeks to circumvent the vocational) would be to overlook the fact that most conservatory training of classical musicians has been vocational in precisely that way, preparing them for the kind of professionalized environment critiqued by Small. Having initially subscribed to a view that a vocation-skeptic approach required a vaunting of underground, alternative and countercultural pop that could be presented as ‘serious’ art as opposed to pop-trivia pap (or whatever the opposite was), I have, in the last few years, adjusted my approach to one that is more overtly and avowedly vocational, but vocational in the most true and realistic sense as possible: in other words, in recognition that training producers to imitate how Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chilli Peppers records were recorded, or training composers by pretending that Queen, U2 or Metallica represented a culturally didactic orthodoxy, was in fact to do them a profound injustice on the grounds that all of those ships have long since sailed, a pop music pedagogy should seek to inculcate the core dynamics of the kind of free creativity that can lead to unexpected outcomes, not least to the people producing them – that the primary pedagogical imperative, actually, should be a thorough unlearning and unsettling of techniques and their governing protocols. For no more straightforward or simple reason than that’s how it’s actually done. Which is to say, that’s how it’s done in a real world of intuitive, collective and commercial music-making that exists beyond the parameters of corporate investment, notwithstanding that it’s precisely those organic and communal scenes that the corporations habitually plunder in order to maintain the appearance of freshness and novelty in commodity production.

To close this first part, then, I will offer the following attempt to define ‘pop music’ as promised at the start and as befits my purposes in trying to speak on such a field as a subject area within Higher Education:

Pop music is any form of music whose composition, improvisation and performance emerges from a spontaneous desire to make it on the part of individuals and communities for whom its production feels both essential and inevitable. For the most part, I use the term in reference to music of the recorded era (in the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ to borrow from the title of Walter Benjamin’s most famous essay). The story of recorded music is one defined by an increased (and exponentially increasing) accessibility to the machinery of cultural production whereby the dominant place occupied by European classical harmony, which is inextricably tied to the rise of capitalism and its parallel narratives, has been eroded to the point where any musical tradition beyond it can now assume institutionally equal status. Historical models of musicianship and musical inclusivity that have always functioned outside of European-ordained culture, especially those of Africa and the African Diapsora enforced through the imperial slave trade, have, since the explosion of the recorded pop industry associated with post-WW2 Rock & Roll, become the dominant forces in music’s production, a progression that has only become increasingly influential since the emergence of Hip Hop and the rise of DJ culture.

Pop music is any music whose momentum is accumulated through the force of people wanting it and wanting, needing, more. At the mid point of the 21st century’s second decade, such a momentum is as likely to be generated through digital networking as it is through the older avenues of corporate industry investment (which takes from anywhere it can and remains the most dominant force) and local entertainment infrastructures like DIY gig scenes and club nights. Wherever it emerges from, real pop is marked by two core dynamics: irresistibility and inevitability… the logic of such an inevitability was never better summed up than by Ghostface Killa, in part of a radio interview inserted into the track sequence on the Wu Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers):

‘Cuz right about now, I ain’t braggin’ or nuthin’…? But the Wu, the Wu got somethin’ that I know that everybody wanna hear… Cause I know what I been waitin’ to hear, y’know wha’m’sayin’?’[13]


[1] I failed to acquaint myself with Christopher Small for far too long, courtesy of a misrepresentation provided by a widespread tendency among musicologists to reduce his proposition concerning the idea of ‘musicking’ to bland, self-serving jargon.

[2] I always feel obliged to include this term in order to be able to include Jamaican pop (most notably the Reggae tradition) and the Afro-Caribbean British post-Reggae/Dub forms that eventually led to the UK Hardcore Continuum (to borrow the phrase made popular by Simon Reynolds). My knowledge of any broader forms, such as those present in South American and Latin American cultures is very scant indeed.

[3] This comes from the regrettably few conversations I had with him in the staff common room before he cleared off.

[4] Yes, I’m hazarding here: my point is that there’s a global, corporate-pumped industrial standard that the vast majority of institutions take as a God-given.

[5] Putting it this way reminds me of Tony Gage saying to me, not long after he joined Radioactive Sparrow in 1988, that part of what shaped his worldview (and how that drove his art) was that he couldn’t believe how little people were prepared to settle for.

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle taken from a free PDF downloaded from

‘The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.’

[7] I don’t feel terribly comfortable citing Facebook in this way, given its having assumed the position of monster-corp, but its inception is redolent of a new mode of entrepreneurial practice; the modern economic model that the internet has made into the new global paradigm is one which finally caught up with a pattern established by the feted soundsystem DJs of 1950s Jamaica which can be seen to have been replayed countless times since with Hip Hop, Techno, House etc.

[8] This ‘disinterested public’ aspect of the pop music market and its products will be discussed in more depth in the second part of this series.

[9] I will almost certainly get around to it, however: during my time as a peripatetic music teacher I enjoyed some amazing encounters with kids who responded even more positively than I’d imagined they might once I acquired the confidence to be ‘that teacher’ who opened such ‘doors.’ In some instances, the results were actually, brilliantly, terrifying.

[10] Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue (London: Calder/New York: Riverrun; 1987) p. 179.

[11] I learned with horror a couple of years ago that this colleague had actually been drilling them on augmented 6ths! If you’re good enough to not know what those are, go and find out: so quintessentially part of the post-Enlightenment, bourgeois culture – in fact very idiomatic of the First Viennese School – nothing to do with ‘music’ per se.

[12] Guy Debord, Preface to the Third French Edition of Society of the Spectacle.

[13] Wu Tang Clan, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud/RCA, 1993). The radio interview insert used to come between ‘Protect Ya Neck’ and ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’’ on my original tape, but I’m aware that later versions of the CD and such rejigged the order somewhat…

Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education: Part I – Free Creativity as a Vocational Imperative

What Is Claws & Tongues (About & For)?

Claws & Tongues was started in order to provide a visible yet fluid platform with which to try out ideas for writings by Gustav Thomas that may or may not lead elsewhere, as in articles, chapters, essays, papers zines or books. Gustav Thomas is my real name in so far as it comprises the two middle names included on my birth certificate, which, as a bona fide part of my ‘real’ name makes it only a half-alias. I’m not ashamed, especially, of what one would normally consider my ‘real name,’ but I don’t intend to use it or announce it here, in this ‘about’ text, or anywhere else on this blog. That’s not because I wish to keep it somehow hidden or secret – to find out what my framing monikers are would be very easy since I’ve never sought to keep them separate from Gustav Thomas. Rather it’s because that ‘real’ name is the one that teachers, headmasters, employers, receptionists, the Inland Revenue, medical staff, authorities of any kind, and so on, and on, has been so thoroughly used by, and thus inextricably tied to, such institutional protocols, that it leaves me, as an individual who, like any individual has the capacity to access their own agency, very little space or scope for developing the potential power and effectiveness of that agency. Gustav Thomas happens to also be my facebook name and as a musician I also chose it (the first time I used it) as the pseudonym I use whenever I produce 8-bit Techno on a Gameboy. Gustav Thomas also conveniently encapsulates my two ethnic provenances as half Slovene and half Welsh; they are also the first names of both my grandfathers, one a fairly well known (in his time) Slovene writer, novelist and educationalist, the other a WW2 colonel descended from Welsh solicitors and priests who was  among officers that led the Normandy landings, for whatever significance that, or any other part of their own rich histories, can have, here, or in anything else that I do.

Above all, I have started this blog because in my professional life, as an academic, I have made the decision, officially, to have my research assessed (by the various state bodies that do that, through the RAE, REF etc.) as much through my writing as through my art practice, which it has been exclusively so far. The kind of writing I intend to do is the kind of writing I’ve always done, over the past 15 years mostly on internal departmental blogs meant as teaching support, and will almost completely draw on things I’ve been thinking and saying within an academic context during that time. My first extended pieces, then (those that are 10,000 words or more), are being extracted from my brain as a matter of almost pathological necessity, freeing up space before I can move on and at least learn new ideas, if not make them and articulate them formally. Given the context, and my stage in life (a 50-year-old whose two kids have left home), I fully intend not to start teaching myself to write in a recognizably formal-academic style; nor do I intend for my writing to be considered as such, albeit there are inevitable traces of academia in what I’m writing due to my having earned my living as an academic for – already – too long. Instead my intention is to improve, develop and extend the style I already have which will have probably begun somewhere in early childhood when I first scrawled some short stories with the vague idea that I wanted to be a ‘writer’ and, above all which has evolved through at least three decades of learning, loving to know about, talking about, and teaching about music, art and the ideas, their impulses and inherent discourses that inhabit and surround them.

I am aware that I have a propensity to criticize certain other artists and commentators harshly, often with tart pronouncements, in a manner easily perceivable as arrogance or some such self-ingratiating tendency. I’m not sure exactly where that came from; it could be the years of being fully committed (because I knew it was right) to a mode of expressive practice that operates very consciously, and critically, beyond the reductive ring-fencing of ordained culture, what most people think of as Music, Art and Culture; it may well be, though, that I learned such an approach from certain writers I’ve read over the years – it’s in Dostoyevsky, Bukowski and DeLillo in ways I can see in my own mannerisms, but also in someone like Ben Watson/Out To Lunch, whose writing on music and ideas not only had a big impact on me but certainly also encouraged me to be bold and direct about what I knew needed saying, not least because – and this is central to everything – the way in which music, popular music, popular arts and cultures are dealt with on the day-to-day, ordinary level – as in what people consume, accept and ingest, how/why they do it – manages to circumscribe completely the immeasurable seriousness regarding how politically and ideologically penetrating all art is (and was always meant to be), but especially (and this is embarrassingly tautological in a way that’s generally ignored) that which is thrust upon a people at great expense by its state and the (almost entirely) corporate (read: oligarchal) interests the State serves. I’ve been accused by colleagues of being too polemical and by Ben Watson himself as not being a polemicist at all, in both cases identifying a weakness; I would say that to consider anything I write as polemical would be to negate any capacity it may have to say something useful – too much is being said and done by modern humanity that is unfathomably (self-)destructive. My drive in all this comes from a need not necessarily to oppose and take up the position on any opposite pole; rather I just feel that someone (as many someones as possible, starting anywhere at all, including just ‘me’) needs to be engaging in a tendency to question, starting with the very simple interruption, ‘Hang on a second… that can’t be right.’ There are tens of thousands of writers and artists already doing that very well, of course. This blog is merely a workshop from which to start making my own contribution more discernible and, just possibly, useful.

The title ‘Claws & Tongues’ has a backstory to do with my ongoing practice as a visual artist (ongoing as in having never stopped after leaving art college after just one year of it in 1985) and my maintenance of it through keeping a drawing book on me at all times so that no moment of suspended activity imposed by daily routines may be surrendered as unproductive in some way. Over ten years ago I suddenly had the urge to try and draw a sense of despair, sometimes actual depression, that, I guess, my involvement with the ‘world’ was depositing in me; the initial results were ink drawings of cracks in bleak rocks and stone (all drawn from imagination in a way that straddles abstraction and figuration) which in turn naturally evolved into fissures and folds in flesh-like forms that started, at some point, to also include actual allusions to human surface and interiority such as wrinkles and crevices, which (I felt) inevitably invited graphic allusions to guts and creases, balls and tits, pimples, pubes, arseholes, cocks and cunts (although rarely gratuitous, generally hinted at through stylization). At some point in the past two years this ritual, which is always necessarily improvisational in its resistance to intending to ‘draw something’ necessarily identifiable, started to produce two very distinct motifs assembled together: claws and tongues. How exactly they evolved and emerged remains as much a mystery as any spontaneous expression, one of the ongoing attractions of that discipline. But they bore an attractive significance since their combination entangled and intertwined the actions of cleaving, licking, articulating and declaiming, tearing holes and sensuously probing them (plenty of other things as well, of course), all of which can be seen to represent vitally penetrative and explorative functions, both biologically and critically. I was happy, therefore, to welcome their symbolism into my own lexical tool-kit of critical-practical materials.

I intend to scan and post many of these drawings on the Claws & Tongues tumblr, among making other use of them, such as artwork for the Make Property History radio show uploads on Mixcloud. Since posting the Gustav Thomas Gameboy album Soul Anus on the Free Music Archive (where it has had thus far over 6,000 downloads and, apparently, though I’ve not seen it, garnered a review in that other extreme metal magazine that isn’t Terrorizer, but whose name is suddenly eluding me), I’ve been trying to get around to completing the follow-up, working title Gustav Thomas On Crack (the pun obviously being that the ‘crack’ I’m ‘on’ refers to the fissures, interstices and contradictions the work is meant to cleave). The finished product is intended to be some form of hardcopy audio format along with a booklet, gatefold, zine of drawings meant to be considered inseparable from both the music and the writing.

It’s important to stress from the outset that I intend to edit any post at any time subject to changes or developments in my thinking (as a result of further immersion in debates and discovery or as a result of subsequent commentary and discussion) on a given topic, thus exploiting blogging’s capacity to be fluid rather than fixed and letting it behave like a kind of diaristic window onto chronological progress.

What Is Claws & Tongues (About & For)?