Save our pop heritage, says Pete Townshend's daughter

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Sat Feb 2 07:19:13 CST 2008

>From The Times:

Save our pop heritage, says Pete Townshend's daughterThere's more documented evidence for Handel than for Jimi Hendrix, who lived in the same London house 200 years later

By Emma Townshend

 Sitting in the auction rooms at Bonhams on a rainy January afternoon, I watch the bits and pieces of a life in pop music flick past rapidly as they go under the hammer. Stephanie Connell, the sale organiser, is used to it: “I love selling entertainment memorabilia. I find fanatical buyers completely fascinating, their desire to own everything relating to their particular artist.” But somehow the sight is tinged with melancholy: sale rooms encourage a Hard Rock Café approach to preserving the past, in which our extraordinary heritage of rock'n'roll can be reduced to signed guitars and autographed albums. A fear that was, if anything, sharpened by the announcement that Britain is to have its own Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, in the O2 in Greenwich.

 An article in last month's French Vogue highlights what we're missing. Charlotte Gainsbourg shows us round her father Serge's now-infamous Paris apartment which she plans to open as a museum. Each room feels as if Serge just went out to get his Gauloises: strewn with magazines, guitar leads, tape machines and gold records, they have an extraordinary flavour of the man. The value of the collection as a key to Serge Gainsbourg is inestimable because it hasn't been broken up into saleable items. It can provide an amazing glimpse into his off-the-scale way of life. There's nothing else like it anywhere in the world.

 Pop music was one of Britain's most important contributions to the cultural life of the 20th century. And yet it looks as if the French, whose pop music is generally rubbish, are doing a better job than us. Most collections like this are inherited by relatives who tend to dismantle them bit by bit. And once broken up, they can't be put back together. Yet as a nation we want to engage with our cultural heroes, whether they are Winston Churchill or Keith Richards, and we need to ensure that privilege for the future.

 It would be great if we had more Charlotte Gainsbourgs to let us nose around their personal space, but we also need documents: photographs, letters and diaries are precious resources. And it's one thing to record the lives of the artists, but the lives of fans are important too. David Hesmondhalgh, Professor of Media and Music Industries at Leeds University, sets out the problem: “Pop music is full of transient, fleeting stuff that's very hard to keep. What you have out there is a lot of fans who are collecting. I'm wondering what happens when this generation of people die: where will all those collections go?” 

 You may think that saving your annoying sister's collection of Haircut 100 posters is an unnecessary task. And some would say that the recent past doesn't need archiving, yet - after all it was only a few years ago. Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House Museum, disagrees. Her Mayfair building was the 18th-century home of the composer Handel, but in recent years a blue plaque was put up for Jimi Hendrix, who lived in the top-floor flat during the winter of 1968.

 “Yet we have infinitely more documented evidence for Handel, who lived in this house from 1723 to 1759, than we do for Jimi Hendrix,” Bardwell explains. “Hendrix's girlfriend gave us a lot of her personal recollections, and we have lots of fan-club magazines talking about all the parties and people falling down the stairs. But we simply have no idea how to assess that evidence. Whereas for Handel we have documents and letters that scholars can come and look at.”

 The problem for future Hendrix scholars will be locating the equivalent documents. You might think your teenage scribblings about how much you loved Morrissey are only fit for burning. But only a few diaries full of devoted love for the Smiths will survive the next 50 years of attic clear-outs, and they'll end up having enormous historical interest for researchers. Anyone who has tried to work out from the pages of NME whether a gig was actually any good will see the need to preserve this kind of evidence. 

 But speak to musicians who have made a life in music and you begin to realise why there might be an inherent problem. My father Pete Townshend of The Who says: “My early manifesto for The Who was that we would destroy everything about us in a very short space of time. It was like an art installation idea, which was that there would be nothing left after 18 months. I'd been indoctrinated at college, firstly by people like Gustav Metzger, saying it was the artist's duty to make their work self-destruct, but on the other hand, by my art-school friends telling me that in ten years' time all information will be on the back of a pin head that you put behind your ear and then everybody will know everything. So it seemed as if there was no need to keep stuff.”

 Of course there do exist large archives whose value is incontestable. The McCartney family developed a habit of videoing themselves, which must amount to thousands of hours of tape. And one famously promiscuous rock star is known to have kept a photo of almost every one of the thousands of women he slept with. You don't need to work at Bonhams to be able to suggest the value of those particular caches. It's the absence of smaller archives, recording for posterity the indie bands, smelly venues and club flyers, that should cause the most concern.

 As Hesmondhalgh says: “There's a tremendous amount of pop music history around at the moment - excellent documentaries on BBC Four, Hollywood biopics on Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and now even Ian Curtis. The music press often seems dominated by nostalgia, with a few new bands thrown in. And it's all very well done. But commercial projects will always focus on a few main players. So we need serious historical research, too, and to do that you need resources and archives.

 “There's a danger of losing things if we don't take care. How are we going to write the history of jungle and drum'n'bass, developing out of rave and Ecstasy culture? Times change, and we can't know what historians will find interesting in future.”

 But as Townshend points out: “What undermines the academic business of archiving the past is that people feel that's exactly what they were trying  to get away from when they joined a band. Rock music has self-consciously sneered at all that art and academic stuff. It says, ‘we don't care about the past'. The whole ethos of the industry was dedicated to disposability and accepting that everything was transient.”

 While we might not be able to rely upon our rock stars, can we hope that our academics and curators have more of an eye on the future? One of the few bastions of curatorial care for our popular music is the British Sound Archive at the British Library. “We try to get a copy of everything commercially issued in the UK,” says Andy Linehan, the curator. (And there are shelves and shelves of printed materials, including a collection of the NME dating back to 1926.) “We have voluntary agreements with the major record labels; then a significant part of the job is picking up all the smaller labels, encouraging them to send copies into us. We even try to cover limited editions - we have hundreds of Fierce Panda recordings. Basically - we try, we try, we try.”

 The dilemma for Linehan is simply popular music's collectibility: “Most people are going to have trouble turning down the money they'd be offered for a collection relating to anyone popular - it requires enormous generosity on their part.” A comparison might be made with writers, though, and the Government is increasingly shelling out to ensure that the important papers of British authors stay in Britain. After a strong campaign headed by Andrew Motion in 2005, the UK Literary Heritage Group was set up to use Lottery money to buy the archives of British authors.

 But musicians don't count as “writers”. Don Paterson, the wonderful but little-known poet, just scored one of these payouts from the National Library of Scotland, but Scottish musicians of a similar stature, such as Belle and Sebastian, will have no such luck. And what if a seminal figure such as Jarvis Cocker decides to have a good old clear-out? Jarvis Cocker has been more central to our nation's cultural life than Don Paterson (sorry Don), but nevertheless, he'll have to go straight down the tip like the rest of us. Yes, British artistic archives should be saved for the nation, but that includes our pop music too.

 At the British Library, Linehan has yet to face the dilemma of trying to secure an expensive archive, though he admits that his future heart's desire would probably be the world-famous John Peel record collection. But he gets wonderful donations on a regular basis. “Often the most interesting offers come from people who've collected in a small area, where we just have nothing else like it in the library.” Fans of the really, really obscure, in other words. Linehan remembers a collection that came from a superlative punk collector: “There were records, posters, photographs and fanzines from a decade's utter dedication to punk music. Sadly, this guy had died in an accident. I think his family felt that it would have really pleased him, his collection becoming part of a national institution. We were certainly thrilled to receive it.”

 Even Townshend has succumbed to the collecting bug over the years. But his collection has its own sadnesses: “Wading through is deeply disturbing and exhausting. It's like moving house. And there's an arrogance, a smugness, to keeping everything, like people who keep every one of their child's drawings.”

 People with great collections need to know that they are wanted. We should be offering as much encouragement as we can for fans and artists to donate their precious documents. We particularly need indie band members or promoters to realise that their memories and collections could be valuable to history too. And most of all we need to show as a nation that we take the responsibility of preserving our popular music past seriously. Yes, it's an inherently ephemeral medium, but that should make us more careful about looking after it, not less so. Or are we really going to leave preserving our musical past to the O2 and the Hard Rock Café? 


-Brian in Atlanta

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