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This article is taken from PN Review 178, Volume 34 Number 2, November - December 2007.

What Songs Arctic Monkeys Sang Adrian May

When William Mann, music critic of The Times, wrote 'What Songs the Beatles Sang', his famous and prescient article of critical praise in 1963, the unusual serious attention became part of the still unsurpassed phenomenon of that 'beat group'. This was the piece with the 'Aeolian cadence' and 'pandiatonic clusters', which people might have mocked, but serious attention was serious attention. Since then, we are used to maybe less scrupulous media critics cuddling up to the popular, in the usual clamour for 'post-modern' credibility, which often seems more about the writer than anything to do with the songs. Mann's piece, on re-examination, proves better than merely the easily mocked musicology, and brave and correct, from his opening words, where he calls the Beatles 'the outstanding English composers' of the day.

Outside newspaper and popular music criticism, there have been literary critics and writers of some status and note risking making fools of themselves by attending to the words of what an earlier generation of their like might have dismissed as 'popular crooners of banal sentimentalities'. Christopher Ricks has his Dylan and Seamus Heaney has defended Eminem and there is an academic book due on Morrissey. If poetry is, in Heaney's word, a place of 'redress', then poets, or serious critics, being foolish in its favour is perhaps a proper thing, as song, in the face of the tragic, attempts to achieve its positive comedic happy ending. Even a blues or a dirge is about ...


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