I don’t imagine that Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll was a very hard sell to its publishers.
I don’t imagine that Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll was a very hard sell to its publishers. John Harris has been writing about music for nearly 20 years, has an acclaimed book about Britpop to his name and is established enough in the wider media world to appear on Newsnight Review. Now, he’s had the bright idea of providing a kind of Schott’s Miscellany of mostly old pop, linked by a genial Stuart Maconie-style prose, and with a heavy dollop of Nick Hornby-style fandom mixed in. Surely, the result is bound to find its way onto the shelves — or at least into the loos — of middle-aged music obsessives everywhere. After all, as both Maconie and Harris are so fond of saying, what’s not to like?
Well, as it turns out, more than you might think. Admittedly, the book does start pretty well. Chapter One is a greatest-hits anthology from some of pop’s most reliably bonkers interviewees. Keith Richards reflects on the etiquette of drug use. (‘I’ve never turned blue in someone’s bathroom. I consider that the height of bad manners.’) Lemmy from Motörhead laments the fact that his Adolph Hitler autograph is worth so little money. (‘He signed a lot of shit, man.’) The Gallagher brothers row in 1994 with such ferocity that you wonder once again how Oasis managed to stay together until 2009. (No examples remotely printable.) Nonetheless, the longer the book goes on, the trickier it becomes to ignore its overwhelming sense of laziness.
Far too many of the items (the full Live Aid set-list, the ‘clues’ in the Paul Is Dead rumour about the Beatles) seem to have been taken straight from the internet — although sometimes Harris can’t even be bothered to do that, and instead advises us to ‘Google it’ if we want to know more. And once we’ve got the impression of an author not trying very hard, the choice of items doesn’t seem so much pleasingly quirky as completely hit-and-miss. Oh, and one other thing: Harris endlessly repeats the same verbal formulas — including ‘Oh, and one other thing’. (Among these formulas, incidentally, is ‘for better or worse’ which suggests that Harris often regards deciding on his own opinions as too much like hard work as well.)
A similar lack of care has also gone into sorting out a consistent tone. Harris’s love of his subject is beyond doubt. Yet, alternating with the unashamed expressions of that love are weirdly selfconscious little qualifications about how ‘sad’ it is — when a) Harris clearly doesn’t think it’s sad; and b) neither will anybody in his target audience. ‘Look,’ you keep wanting to tell him. ‘You’re interested in this stuff. We’re interested in this stuff. So, forget about the defensive use of words like “anorak”, and just get on with it.’
Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll will still give those middle-aged obsessives some happy moments: a welcome chance to remember the likes of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, say, or to have another chortle at the haircut of that bloke from A Flock of Seagulls. For more hard-core readers, there’s also a useful illustrated guide to the various types of Fender, Rickenbacker and Gibson guitars. Even the cheeriest nostalgic, though, will find it difficult to shake off the feeling of how much better the whole thing could have been if everybody involved — including the designer and the proof-reader — had put in more effort. As things stand, one of the most baffling sentences in a largely baffling mess comes in Harris’s closing acknowledgements. ‘Massive appreciation,’ it reads, ‘to Andy Fyfe for so expertly editing the book.’