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The great divide

It seems to me that society can now be divided into three different types of people on principles that have nothing to do with class, wealth or status, and everything to do with one’s ease — or lack of it — with modern technology.

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

It seems to me that society can now be divided into three different types of people on principles that have nothing to do with class, wealth or status, and everything to do with one’s ease — or lack of it — with modern technology.

It seems to me that society can now be divided into three different types of people on principles that have nothing to do with class, wealth or status, and everything to do with one’s ease — or lack of it — with modern technology.

In this arrangement, my parents, who live comfortably in Surrey with two cars in the drive and a delightful garden, would belong to the underclass. They have no computer at home, would have little idea how to use one if they did and even struggle with mobile phones. The last time my octogenarian Dad broke down in his car he had to walk miles to find a functioning telephone box because he had, as always, forgotten his mobile, and even if he’d had it about him it probably wouldn’t have been charged-up anyway.

Then there’s my 18-year-old son who had IT lessons at school and is able both to compose and record music on his laptop. Technology seems to hold no terrors for him. In contrast, muggins here still uses an ancient Walkman after two different iPods died a speedy death in my hands. I tote a selection of CDs with me whenever I travel and have become aware of pitying looks from the young whenever I place one of the silver discs into the trusty old machine.


But I did feel I had made a tremendous advance when I signed up to Spotify, the music-streaming service that allows you to listen to almost any song you want to hear via your computer. It was simple to operate, even for an incompetent like me, and free, provided you were able to put up with the ads that interrupted the songs.

I began to trust Spotify and feel safe with it — always a mistake in my experience of modern technology. Rashly, I signed up for a subscription service where for £5 a month you could listen to the music without the ads. And blow me down+ I now find my link to Spotify has crashed and I can’t access any music at all. Worse still, I have no idea how to cancel my subscription.

Frankly, this is a minor inconvenience compared with my worst computer disasters — inadvertently deleting entire reviews just minutes before I’m due to file them, for instance, or suddenly finding I cannot access emails or the internet. At moments like these I weep hot salty tears of frustration and self-pity, completely unmanned by technology I rely on but don’t understand.

All of which explains why I wasted a few quid buying a double CD of tracks by The Fall, John Peel’s favourite band, rather than getting a taste of them on Spotify and deciding that they definitely weren’t for me. God, they are terrible, musically ugly, usually tune-free and with their curmudgeonly leader Mark E. Smith ranting interminably like an embittered old drunk in a grotty Salford pub. This is music that somehow sucks all the joy out of life as I discovered while submitting myself to two hours of the stuff on a car journey home from Dorset. By the end of the drive I felt like slashing my wrists.

Yet this same miserable Smith turns out to have wonderful taste when it comes to pop music. The excellent Ace records has just released a compilation of songs that Smith and his band have covered over the years called Before the Fall and it is an absolute blast, ranging from rockabilly to prog rock, from folk to disco and from psychedelic pop to northern soul. Needless to say, The Fall’s cover versions — or at least those of them I have heard — aren’t a patch on the originals, for Smith has characteristically declared that a ‘true cover is half not knowing it and half mutilation’. But the originals he has chosen to mutilate over the years are the goods, and I can’t think of a better single-disc sampler to the varied delights of pop music. 

Nowhere else will you find Iggy Pop rubbing shoulders with the Searchers or Sister Sledge in the company of Leadbelly. And there isn’t a single dud selection. Even novelty numbers like Nervous Norvus’s ‘Transfusion’ raise a smile.

Two tracks have particularly gripped me. ‘Pinball Machine’ is a hilariously lachrymose and sentimental country and western number about a truck-driver whose family died because of his chronic addiction to the game, and who snuffs it himself at the end of the song. Better still is ‘There’s a Ghost in My House’, a thrilling soul number about sexual obsession by R. Dean Taylor with a killer guitar riff. To my shame, I had never previously heard it, and it sends shivers of pleasure racing down my spine whenever I play it.

There is no doubt that Mark E. Smith has terrific taste when it comes to pop music. What a shame, for him and us, that he makes such a mess of it when he writes and plays it himself. 

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.


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