I was in the car on the way to work the other day when I heard an interview with Van Morrison on Radio 4’s Today programme. Not initially approving of the airtime dedicated to advertising the old man’s new album on what is ostensibly a ‘news’ programme, my mood soon turned even less charitable. I understand it’s really a magazine show, so sometimes the arts can be mentioned, and that’s fine because art is culture is everything (to paraphrase Raymond Williams). However, this segment was just a puff-piece designed to cater to the wallets of the middle-agers listening and the content was shocking in its hypocrisy.
Nothing against the work of Morrison – I’m sure he’s fine (the apostrophe representing ‘was’ rather more than ‘is’) – but this was pathetic. Playing up his hucksterish schtick of ‘I’m just a simple man in a complicated business’ (pretty much direct quotation), Morrison bemoaned the evil record company forcing him to release – and make a ton of money off – a greatest hits set before he could release his album of all-‘new’ material. And it is this that irked me greatly.
His rationale for hating on the greatest hits part of his job was based in what he deemed the unhealthy obsession the public has with nostalgia. I sort of agree, as there are only so many Wolfmothers/Kookses/Auditions I can stomach before suicide bombing the nearest music festival, but then again there is nothing wrong with a bit of personal nostalgia. The Nostalgia Industry is indeed a dangerous, malignant tumour, ever pulsating and growing at the heart of the entertainment world, but an introspective look at one’s own history and experience can be healthy indeed.
If I were to play, for example, the excellent In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country by Boards of Canada, I would no doubt be transported to the start of this century, two Sainsbury’s bags in each hand, as I walked through the gently misting rain of a springtime-grey Manchester’s Withington area, as I have vividly enduring memory of that particular play of the E.P. On a Minidisc player (a small detail that really heightens that sense of time for me). And that’s cool, because memories are a very personal resource both to be cherished and learned from.
But if I agree with Morrison’s stance on the homogenisation and sale of allegedly communal memories, on force-feeding the sharing of experience down our variously willing gullets, where is my beef with the man? That lies in his album, or at least both what he said about it and what I heard of it. In the very same segment that he was beeling about people fetishinng the past and hindering the present, he was also banging on about how on the new album he has gone back to basics, inspired by ‘the music my father used to listen to’.
You can’t have it both ways, jerkstore. If you are going to moan and whine about how living in the past is stifling more contemporary creative endeavours, don’t use the soapbox that stance provides to shill your warmed over re-branding of the past as something ‘new’, an act more disgusting and deleterious to the already sorry health of recorded music than the label branding a CD ‘greatest hits’. At least the latter is an honest act and not a charlatan sleight-of-hand pseudo-individualisation, as he tries to hide the truth under his sleeve while waving a shiny new disc at us. To make matters worse, not only would the greatest hits tracks likely be better than the new stuff, but they would just as likely sound no older, to boot. And they’d probably less compressed than an album mixed and mastered in the last couple of years.
So shame on Morrison, a man who would use the weight of his record label to leverage a slot on a news-magazine show, only to turn round and have a pop at said label, in the most hypocritical fashion possible. And shame also on the BBC for broadcasting such a ham-fisted not-even-veiled infomercial and having it share the stage with real tales of war, suffering and human achievement.