The weird thing about me reviewing stuff is that the first time I was ever asked to do so, back in school, I wasn’t even sure what a review was. Did I just explain the plot to people who perhaps hadn’t seen it? How could I say anything much more than “that was good, I enjoyed it” or “That was rubbish”? How did reviews work? What was the point of them? I was only about ten at the time though. I finally realised their worth several years later when I would hear a new album or song and for some inexplicable reason if I really liked it I wanted to read other people’s thoughts about it. This still happens today, though I now wait till I’ve written my review before I see what other people say. So how did it all start….how do you learn to review if indeed it can be learned. After all it’s just your opinion and everyone has one. So where was I inspired to start putting mine into the public domain?
The answer was to be found in the pages of the UK music papers and I felt as if I had uncovered a vital link to the world beyond my world. Younger readers may like to know that before social media or even the Internet these publications engaged in the same discourse you might now share online though with the delay of printing. Back them there were several music publications each published weekly and each with their own take on the business we call music.
`Sounds` was rock, sorry I mean RAWK! You could follow the often ludricous weekly line -up changes of the Michael Schenker Group or Rainbow. `New Musical Express` was dour raincoat indie, hated rock and loved The Smiths. NME made the best out of the monochrome print and was home to the best serious music critics. Yet it was not beyond being charmed by pop. Indeed I once read Paul Morley spending far longer than he needed to in its pages discussing the use of the colour yellow by Haircut 100.
`Record Mirror` was shiny pop but largely without humour. `Smash Hits` was shiny pop with sarcasm. When Neil Tennant, later of the Pet Shop Boys, worked on it the content was genius. David Bowie was always referred to as Dame David Bowie, artists were either back, Back, BACK!! or else in “the dumper”. Interviews consisted of random questions like What colour is Tuesday? In that sense it was very much like the Internet is now. `Melody Maker` was the chameleon- or the chancer if you prefer– craftily shifting its musical focus as the times changed. It could run a six- page feature on Duran Duran as well as be the home of the expletive laden Mr Agreeable.
The music press did sometimes get carried away and discussed music in such abstract terms as to make the review nonsense- “shimmering shards” anyone? Yet a good review can capture a moment in time. One of my favourite reviews ever was by Chris Roberts in, I think, `Melody Maker`, at a time when other critics were not giving David Bowie’s Tin Machine project the time of day. He reviewed their gig and what I remember is how he focussed on something as seemingly ordinary as the way Bowie was holding a cigarette. Somehow it made me feel like I was there. Of course it is much more fun to be critical than it it is to hand out praise in a written review. There seem to be more adjectives available to criticise than there are to applaud and they are more solid. If you praise too much you end up with, well, “shimmering shards”!
I think I enjoyed reading the music papers as much as I did listening to the music and over the years I started to write similar stuff for fanzines, a road that ultimately led to this blog which started ten years ago this month! Next year will mark twenty years since the fanzine This Way Up started. It ought to be a national holiday!
So is the value of reviewing still as potent as it was back then? The answer has to be that it is. The platform and style may have changed, technology has enabled anyone to publicly post reviews easily, but the need to read reviews has remained constant. In the professional reviewing world a good write up from a few critics can seal a production’s fate either way. Us amateur reviewers don’t have that kind of power but you can bet that a fair cross section of our views are seen by production people however publicly they claim never to read reviews. And a wave of reviews, favourable or otherwise, can still play its part in determining the long term prospects of anything creative.
Artists might say; “What qualifies you to review this play / album / film?” My answer would simply be that you made it for us to see or hear and we're going to have an opinion. Art is surely created to express feelings and ideas and by design is seeking affirmation. Nobody wants to sweat for six months on a tv show and find it lands without much comment at all and I never believed it when some people would say: “we made this music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus”.
One thing I would ask is that you continue to read blogs like this. You don’t have to read this actual one but please read somebody’s. Reviews you may see on Amazon or other platforms like that are often created as promotional tools rather than genuine reactions. Someone who really wants to express their views will do so without being invited.
I’d like to thank everyone who has read or supported This Way Up over the past decade, its definitely been an interesting one.