About the Book
About the Author
Also by Nick Coleman
Title Page
Introduction: Hearing voices
1. The horsemen in the box: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley
with Led Zeppelin, Suzi Quatro, Patti Smith
2. Boys and girls and girl groups: The Ronettes, The Marvelettes and the Shangri Las
with The Four Pennies, Bananarama, TLC
3. Vulnerable: Marvin Gaye and Roy Orbison
with Aretha Franklin, the Ramones and Mary Margaret O’Hara
4. Class acts: John Lennon and Mick Jagger
with The Kinks, David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Richard & Linda Thompson, Kirsty MacColl, The Smiths
5. The urge for going: Joni Mitchell
with Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Rickie Lee Jones, Steely Dan
6. What is soul?: Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, Joe Cocker, Paul Rodgers, Elkie Brooks, Terry Reid, Jess Roden, Frankie Miller and Rod Stewart
with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Kiki Dee, Bonnie Raitt, Tedeschi Trucks Band
7. Croon: Iggy Pop, Gregory Isaacs, Kate Bush, Luther Vandross and Frank Sinatra
with George Jones, The Carpenters, Prince
8. So, what?: Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley
with Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, John Surman
9. The spectacle of anguish: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Ian Curtis
with Chris Bell, Amy Winehouse
10. Psalms and raptures: Van Morrison, Burning Spear, Alex Harvey and John Lydon
with Bob Dylan
Epilogue: Harvest

About the Book

Food. Shelter. Warmth. Love.


Other people’s voices, singing – the fifth essential necessity of life.

Nick Coleman’s new book is an exploration of what singing means and how it works. What does it do to us to listen hard and habitually to somebody else’s singing? And why is the singing of others so essential to human life? Why do we love it so?

The book asks many other questions too. What was Roy Orbison’s problem? Who does Joni Mitchell think she is? Why did Jagger and Lennon sing like that (and not like this)? What did Aretha Franklin do to deserve the title ‘Queen of Soul’? For that matter, what is ‘soul’? What is the point of crooning? What does it say about you if Frank Sinatra leaves you cold? Billie, Janis, Amy: must the voices of anguish always dissolve into spectacle?

The history of post-war popular music is traditionally told sociologically or in terms of musicological influence and innovation in style. Voices takes a different tack. In ten discrete but cohering essays Coleman tackles the arc of that history as if it were an emotional experience with real psychological consequences – as chaotic, random, challenging and unpredictable as life itself. It is the story of what it is to listen and learn. Above all, it is a story of what it means to feel.

About the Author

Following a brief spell as a stringer at NME in the mid-1980s, Nick Coleman was Music Editor of Time Out for seven years, then Arts and Features Editor at the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. He has also written on music for The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Intelligent Life, GQ and The Wire. He is the author of The Train in the Night, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Book Prize.




The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss


Pillow Man

For Tom and Berry

Title page for Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life


Little Richard, 1956

Love … is a losing game

Amy Winehouse, 2006


Patti Smith is crammed on to a balcony in a stately ballroom in Stockholm with a small orchestra.

She’s up there on behalf of Bob Dylan to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature, and she is going to sing his famous song ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ to the accompaniment of small guitar, lap steel and strings. She is dressed in a black tuxedo and planted like an Easter Island statue.

The audience is composed of the great and the good of Swedish culture and the Swedish royal family, who are all done up in formal fig, bibs and tuckers, gowns and jewellery, stoles and tiaras. And medals. They are arrayed formally, as for a state portrait. Smith has no medals though her white shirt beneath the oversized tuxedo is nicely ironed. Her steel-coloured hair is long and heavy and parted severely in the middle. She is like Albrecht Dürer, who did not do state portraiture. She is also faintly reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

The introduction is strummed artlessly on two chords. Smith sings. The sound she and the guitarist make is as severe as her hairstyle and so is the intent of the words she sings. Yet she is singing beautifully with total involvement, her rich, twangy contralto, with its flattened vowels and its inclination to yodel, driving hard and straight into the language, as if the song had been written this year, the year of all hateful years, 2016.

All is suspense.

But then, after a couple of minutes, Smith appears for a moment to be overwhelmed. She stops singing. She gulps. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she says, blanching. She tries to carry on… ‘Unh…’ But it won’t come. She apologises again and looks up in appeal to the conductor standing above her left shoulder. ‘I’m sorry. Could we start that section …? I apologise.’ She looks out into the audience. They are frozen in their places. ‘I’m so nervous.’ She forces an agonised smile.

There is sustained, kindly applause from the audience. You can almost hear the jewellery rattling.

And soon enough she goes again with renewed resolve until, a minute or two later, she dries once more, and again looks up at the conductor with the mute appeal of a frightened child. The conductor, out of shot, presumably makes encouraging faces because Smith, suddenly somehow heartened, hooks quickly back into the song and then seems to grow, to expand in her place and to move her hands a little and then her shoulders and then to pace, striding on the spot, no longer an Easter Island statue but a living, breathing, marching embodiment of the hipster-symbolist song lyric she is singing, all about the doom of the world and the love that may save it. She reaches the end of the song in a sea of strings.

It is impossible to watch without tears.

It is also as great a passage of singing as you are ever likely to hear, if singing is to you not about the observance of musical correctitude and extravagant display and signalled passion and technical virtuosity, but about the inhabitation of the moment up to and including the moment when the moment bursts.

Introduction: Hearing voices

The human voice is the very first medium that we take for a message.

At the time, being babies, we do not understand that what we are hearing is a medium and are unable fully to interpret the message. But that’s what happens. We hear a sound; we listen; we intuit that the sound means good; we learn quickly to draw comfort from it and to enjoy feelings of expectation and curiosity … and then we learn to shape identity from it. It’s possible of course that we do the identity thing first – our mother’s voice, our father’s voice: the first intimations in life that rowdy, meaningless chaos does in fact submit to meaning, the message ‘I love you’ boring like a drill through the big-bang debris of not knowing anything at all.

But the message is not encoded in words. There are no words yet. There is only sound, as there was only sound in the womb. It is the sound of the voice that makes the feeling happen – the tone and timbre of the voice, its comforting rhythm and, of course, its sheer familiarity in its association with touch, proximity, warmth, comfort. And our capacity for feeling these things develops as we develop, keeping an even pace, side by side, as if going somewhere. From the very start of our lives we know that voices carry information, yes. But much more than that, they also express emotion – they confer emotion. They stimulate it. We know, even without the involvement of clearly articulated and comprehended language, that voices are vessels brimming with stuff: that a voice can itself be a message. We learn that we don’t actually need to hear the words of an altercation to know that anger is being expressed, even at low amplitude, even in a whisper. Equally, we can hear love through gibberish. A voice is a ship, and sometimes it is enough to know that it is a ship and that it is coming, whether or not we can picture in our minds precisely what it carries in darkness below the waterline.

It’s fair to say, then, that before words are distinguishable, voices make some sort of case for our close attention. We learn from the start to read voices and to engage with them, as if the voice itself and not the language is the primary agent of meaning. Voices invite inference. They switch us on. Even before we have words with which to encode and decode meaning, voices are an event.

And then we learn that voices have other modes. They can sing, too.


I have no idea when singing first became noticeable to me. In our house, when I was growing up, singing was just what happened. It was part of the everyday fabric of life, not in any particularly attractive or impressive way but in a comfortable, pleasing, homely way; because it was quite a nice thing to do and because singing constituted a significant feature of the family’s social breathing. There was nothing fancy going on here – there was no ‘agenda’. I’m afraid we just sang. We sang neither cutely nor Von-Trappishly, and certainly not with any zeal – in fact we sang in rather a methodical way, without any great consideration of how we might sound to others or even what the point of singing was. We sang in church as we sang in school assembly, because it was required. We sang at home because it appeared to give my parents pleasure and because it was normal. None of us sang particularly well. We sang either solo or in harmony, sometimes contrapuntally, never in unison (what’s the point of that?), sometimes accompanied, sometimes not. Victorian parlour songs, church music, carols, arias, lieder, A.A. Milne – the middle-to-highbrow middle-class repertoire of the mid-twentieth century …

Why? Well, I suppose my dad – the instigator – thought it was a good way to engage responsibly with his children without having to be overtly educative, or run around or dress up or build things or compete; plus it was a creative and enjoyable activity for himself. We children went along with it because it was quite fun to do and because … well, because it was normal.

After all, doesn’t everyone do this?

When I discovered as a moderately small boy that not everyone did it, I came to know the sting of embarrassment possibly for the first time. To my friend Nigel over the road, singing was wholly disturbing. It signified not only weirdness but also girliness, and he disapproved of both of those things. My dad once asked us in passing (Nigel and I were doubtless on our way upstairs from the kitchen to play Subbuteo) whether Nigel and I fancied joining the rest of the family in the living room to try out a four-part Christmas carol he’d re-harmonised – ‘just belt out the tune, Nigel!’ – and Nigel reacted as if he’d been invited to participate in group sex. He appeared for a moment to have had a seizure, while standing upright next to the cupboard under the stairs. He then backed into the cupboard door with a thump. Then he came to and shuddered and was quite unable to speak for a period, which was unlike him. In the end he managed a choked ‘No, thank you’, but was obviously shaken and left the house soon after.

Singing, then, was evidently both normal and not normal, and obviously much less normal in the world beyond the front gate than it was within. What was a boy to make of this?

I quickly learned to swallow the embarrassment along with the niceness, and without too much chewing or gagging. If singing was now associated in my mind with prissy gentility and the dangers of effeminacy then that uneasiness was always redeemed by the uncomplicated pleasure it gave me when the gaze of society was turned elsewhere and I might sing unselfconsciously – especially in church, where there were echoes and candles after dark, and sustaining, cloaking, caressing harmony, which was like being held. Singing was two things to me: both shame and the sensation of being held. I still feel that way, a little.

But that was only my singing. What about other people’s?

There is of course a considerable difference between the act of singing and the act of listening to other people sing. One is active, the other less so; one is a pushing out, the other a taking in; one is fraught with the potential for embarrassment, the other can be an unselfconscious, even selfless, pleasure that can take you out of the quotidian and into another place and time altogether. Yet – and this is a very important thing to me – it can also make the quotidian vivid and beautiful.

Singing and listening to singing are conjoined but non-identical twins, profoundly linked but really quite different from each other in actuality, and it feels somehow like an act against nature to separate them. But separate them I must, for the good of all. Although it may sound grossly insensitive, I know which twin I prefer and which one I can happily live without. I always want to separate them.

Discounting sex, I love listening to singing above all other activities that are common to all cultures. Other people’s singing is to my mind the highest and deepest human attainment. To me it represents not only the glide of evolutionary progress – the transformation of primordial throaty gurgling into an exquisite, expressive, life-sustaining, tuneable communication system – but also authentic transcendence, through the transmutation of melodised language into something that really does go beyond its functional self, both literally and metaphorically. Singing is, to me, where human life flowers most brilliantly, most subtly and most diffusely.

But that’s enough about flowers. I also like singing as I like food – for its nourishment, its sensory stimulus and for its abiding quality of uncontingent necessity. I really cannot think of anything other than food, warmth, shelter and love more needful in life than the sound of other people singing. I’ve got to have some, every day. And on those rare days when I don’t manage to get some, I find myself going cold turkey and then relishing the feeling of deprivation because it means that the next time I do get some, the hit will be a rush.

But actually, even that isn’t the whole story, not if I’m honest. I think I like listening to singing most of all because it allows me to be unselfconscious. Singing – other people’s singing – actively encourages unselfconsciousness, facilitates it, ensures that it happens, supports it. I hope that you will indulge this thought on the grounds that you also feel that way – or, if you don’t, that what I’m saying at least rings true and not like the ravings of a solipsist who has spent too much of his life shut up in the box of his own head – and may even have serious attachment issues to resolve. I am afraid it is true, though. Singing throws a switch in me, turns the flux around. It’s as if the sound of singing gives me permission to phase down the arc lamps of self-scrutiny and to focus on a compelling exterior phenomenon to the exclusion of all else. (Although of course what I mean by this really is that singing makes selfhood palatable: I like myself more when I’m listening to singing.) My father was a bit that way inclined too – although, strangely enough, not when his methodical children were doing it. But plonk him down in front of properly good singing done by people who can really sing and he’d go all funny. He’d switch off, as if unplugged at the mains, only to flip over in the same instant to another private circuit, one that was deeply enlivening to his senses and compelling of his attention but just happened to exclude everything else going on in the shared world. And then we would all laugh at him because his mouth would fall open and his eyeballs would bloom over like plum skins.

For me, then, singing is not necessarily cathartic, but it does always compel, provided it fulfils two criteria. One requirement is that it be good singing and the other that it is true singing. True singing does not necessarily have to be ‘good’, but good singing really does have to be true – otherwise it is not useful.

What do I mean by that? Well, this whole book is an attempt to explore what I mean – what, for me, makes good, true, useful singing.

This is not a technical exercise, nor an academic one, nor a talent competition in prose form. It isn’t a beauty pageant. It is not my intention to isolate ‘the best voices’, nor to model an ideal voice or way of singing, but to explore the voices that count, that have done something for me, that connect with me, that thrill me, that make me wonder, that fill me with quantifiable emotion or weird thoughts or feelings that just can’t be accounted for. These are the voices that have shaped – and continue to shape – my world.

It is a subjective study, as it has to be. There is no such thing as the Platonically perfect voice or way of singing; a voice is not a thing, after all, and it cannot be fixed with tools. There is only transaction: transaction between the voice and you, you and the voice. That’s all there is. The push and pull, the give and take. The loom of interaction.

Is this fair to the singers in question? Is it useful? Is it even sensible? I don’t really know. Possibly not. But it seems to be something I have to do, for my own edification, to explain my voices back to myself. Because nobody else is going to do it for me, and there are plenty of people out there who are more than happy to show me how voices should be, and what they’re worth.

Yes, we would all probably trust an X Factor winner to deliver the prevailing sentiment of ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ in more marketable terms than, say, Winston Rodney would, especially in the context of a TV talent show filmed in front of a partisan audience under flashing lights accompanied by a crashing, hyperventilatory arrangement pre-recorded elsewhere and then processed into a sequence of cadential cues specifically designed to frame the drama of the act of singing for judgement. (It’s exhausting, isn’t it, just reading about it? But then exhaustion is central to the X Factor experience, which defines singing as the sinew-straining, health-threatening, competition-shredding, life-changing exercise of supreme effort.) But X Factor vocalisation is to true singing what keepy-uppies are to football. It is the exhibition of decontextualised skill; a measurement of the ability to show off. Where’s the use? What does singing like that mean, beyond the advocacy of exhibition and the solicitation of admiration? We might admire what we hear for its technical accomplishment and even feel moved by the singer’s effort and commitment to the moment (without which no one ever ‘nailed’ anything). We might even think that the singer has a nice voice. But we will also be experiencing lots of other things. We will certainly be aware that what we are doing is sharing in a ritual, a ritual that requires participants to consume an elephantine product on an enormous scale as part of a multidimensional entertainment cascade, which, inter alia, entails social jousting at home with fellow sofa-sitters, all of us bantering and passing judgement both on the singing and on the judgements made about the singing, as well as boggling at the spectacle, marvelling at the costumes, choking over the plastic surgery, the social semiotics, the desperation, the agony, the expense, the cruelty … The X Factor is by definition a self-conscious mass experience, as the Roman Colosseum was a self-conscious mass experience – it literally depends on mass consumption to warrant its existence, while the mass is incentivised to rejoice in its own mass-ness as it does so – with the result that we are unlikely to be haunted by it on any personal level at all.

I can’t argue with the X Factor definition of singing. It is what it is. It makes money. It titillates. It reminds us, feverishly, of our mass-ness. It offers the suggestion that the only real and worthwhile object of singing is personal celebrity. But what I am interested in with this book has little to do with showing off, nor with mass consumption, nor lights and costumes and cruelty and, least of all, competition. I’m interested in what makes a good haunting.

I am pretty certain that we are only haunted by singing when we experience it not as an act of showing off but as an act of authorship, and then as a personal invasion; an invasion conducted privately, discreetly, loudly or quietly, at home or abroad, upright or lying down, tearfully or dry – it doesn’t really matter where you experience it, or how, so long as the context is felt to be your own and that you listen to the singing not as a constituent of a mass consciousness but as the sole occupant of a single one. Psychologically alone. For what is singing, if not the creative assertion of individuality? And what is a voice, if not the most inimitable, indelible mark of an individual’s individuality – the vessel, the ship sent out bravely over the horizon to export the fruits of our consciousness to places unknown.

I am not entirely comfortable with admitting this, but I am quite sure that a disproportionate amount of my own socialisation was accomplished through the agency of other people’s singing. I have never told my mother this.


Does it matter how old you are?

Of course it matters. It matters enormously. It matters as much as it matters that you engage with the world beyond the compass of your family in terms that may, at the time, be defined as your own. Otherwise we’d all be excited only by those officially approved things we are given to know in our early upbringing. (I, for instance, would be turned on more by Alfred Deller and Janet Baker than I am by Al Green and Mary Margaret O’Hara.) The evolution of personal taste is always a small act of rebellion, and when we make it, we begin to separate ourselves from all that we are given to know. The constellation of moments in which you accomplish this separation are among the most important moments of your life, and so the context in which this transition takes place matters tremendously.

So I didn’t choose Mick Jagger; he just happened to be passing at the time.

I first encountered his voice at pretty much the same moment, in broad historical terms, as everyone else heard it for the first time, in 1964, shortly after hearing Lennon’s and McCartney’s. ‘You Better Move On’ was the first Rolling Stones song I ever heard, and it is not insignificant that I not only heard it, but saw it, on television. And I have no doubt that, had I been a teenager then, I would have been struck by the underpinning authenticity of Jagger’s voice. I would not have couched it in such terms, but some part of me, at some unknowable depth, would have recognised his slightly self-conscious English suburban sneer as the real thing, a vessel of an unaccommodating new articulacy demanded by a brand-new social mobility – unattractive on the surface, yes, hopelessly inauthentic in R&B terms, but irresistibly compelling in other, less-anticipated ways. I would have been excited by it, plain and simple. Turned on.

On the other hand, if I had been an adult in 1964 – perhaps one who had endured the war and the long passage of economic austerity and social conservatism that followed it – it seems likely that Mick’s hipster insolence would have struck a different chord.

As it was, I was four – and I was scared.

A decade later I was trying to sing like that with my own band, because it seemed like the only way for semi-knowing white English middle-class boys to sound authentic to themselves – even as the real thirty-year-old Mick was himself essaying a series of knowing parodies of ‘black’ voices as part of his enjoyment of his new status as a leading light in a new kind of sophisticated jet-setting global elite. His desire for upward social mobility had by then been slaked, pretty much. He’d reached an acceptable ceiling. Of course it matters how old you are when you hear a voice.

Of course it does. It’s because I was born in 1960 into a churchy middle-class East Anglian family that my formative voices were not those of Sinatra and Bennett and Streisand and Nat ‘King’ Cole, but Jagger and Lennon and Hendrix and Dusty and Otis and Orbison and Bobbie Gentry. It’s because I was a teenager in the 1970s that I am still moved by the utterances of Marvin Gaye and Peter Gabriel and Gladys Knight and Joey Ramone and David Bowie; much more so than by those of Morrissey and Lennox and Prince and Whitney, or Cobain and Gallagher and Adele and Sam Smith. The complexities of human neurology and biochemistry see to that, as well as the wearying effects of fashion and time. Whether we like it or not, it is a neurological fact that the developing brain disposes us to soak up experiences most vividly and adhesively during our teenage years. If you must blame something for my taste, blame dopamine.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike Morrissey and Whitney and Prince and Frank Sinatra and Adele. On the contrary, I have plenty of time for all of them, one way or another – as voices, if not necessarily as ‘icons’ or as movers of my heart. The point is that even though none of them connected with me on first, second or – in one case – even thirteenth contact, I have learned to at least ‘get’ them, as a direct consequence of the listening habits formed in my childhood by my terror of Mick Jagger and, a little later, my horny bewilderment in the face of Marvin Gaye, the weird disturbance wrought by Suzi Quatro and the utter conviction, arrived at rather later in life, that even if I didn’t like his voice much when I was younger, then Bob Dylan’s best singing is as true and good as singing has ever been. There you go: the habit of paying attention to voices breeds tolerance, patience and curiosity, as well as horror, distaste and contempt.

The bottom line is that voices ask questions, and some of the questions are very hard to understand, let alone answer. Which is one reason why we have to keep on listening.

1. The horsemen in the box

I first heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis ten or eleven years after the event, by which time I was twelve or thirteen years old. The story unfolded on a grave Sunday evening in 1972 or 1973 and my parents seemed slightly alien for a moment. I’d never heard them talk like this about anything before. They told me what it had been like to live through the experience. ‘It felt as if the whole world was holding its breath,’ my mother said, ladling soup. ‘We really didn’t know what we were going to wake up to – or even if we were going to wake up at all.’

My twelve-year-old self thought about what it would be like to be caught in a nuclear holocaust at the age of two. It was a hard picture to hold in my mind. I thought of my fat baby cheeks melting like butter and then, as the nuclear wind pursued the heatflash across the Home Counties, saw my high chair, with me in it, shooting across the kitchen floor to disintegrate against the wall by the door as everything turned to carbon dust. I imagined a sort of PLUFF! sound. I thought it likely that I would at least feel no pain.

The world was young in 1962. I was even younger; so young in fact that I have no memory of the Crisis. Memory starts for me in 1963, around the time of the first Beatles album. But for those old enough to actually remember it, the Khrushchev/Kennedy face-off in the Caribbean seems to have constituted one of those harshly indelible memories, the sort you feel as a charge in the body every bit as vividly as you experience it in the mind as a story. Probably more so. They felt it like disease. People really did think the world might end.

It would have been a dreadful shame if it had. Think what such a catastrophe would have meant. No Beatles, no Stones, no Animals or Yardbirds or Kinks or Small Faces or Led Zeppelin. In America, no Hendrix or Dylan or Aretha. No Otis, no Sly or Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And that’s just the Sixties. Ultimately, it would have also meant no Taylor Swift.

It’s not an easy thought.

Eventually, of course, at some inconceivably remote future date, armoured ants would have emerged from the subsoil to build a new kind of civilisation, one based on carrying and heaping. I think we may presume that. But what would they have made of the relics of 1962, the archaeological remains of our time?

Let us suppose then that some worthwhile things did survive the blast: an old Dansette record player, for instance, heat-stripped of its leatherette skin but otherwise intact, having been shielded for the passing centuries of radioactive nothingness in the angle of a pair of crumbling suburban walls. There’d be nowhere to plug the thing in, obviously, but it would surely not be beyond the wit of highly evolved armoured ants to figure out how to get the juice on in due course. Then it would be a matter of a few millennia spent pondering the significance of the shiny black discs in paper sheaths found not far from the Dansette, handily insulated from the blast in a metal box beneath a drift of carbon dust behind what appears once to have been a living-room door. And then the ants would have music.

I’m going to ask you to make another imaginative leap here, I’m afraid; an even bigger one than the first. This time I want you to believe that the box found by the ants only has good records in it.

It is a simple mathematical improbability that a real box of records from 1962 would not contain a minimum of seventy per cent crapola (especially a box recovered from the suburbs of what was once the UK), and this is perhaps the point at which my scenario does become a little implausible, perhaps even crumbles to yet more dust. But I am asking you nevertheless to make that leap. This box, sifted from the wreckage of a Home Counties semi, does not have any Wally Whyton in it, nor indeed Harry Secombe, nor Perry Como, nor Dean Martin, nor Elton Hayes. Not even Mantovani or Pat Boone. There is nothing in it from the brief recording career of Florence Foster Jenkins. ‘The Nativity Story’, declaimed by Dame Flora Robson at 45 rpm, is nowhere to be found.

But the box does contain a handful of discs stylishly roundelled with the liveries of a quartet of old American recording firms: Specialty, Sun, Chess, RCA Victor – records by people called Chuck, Jerry Lee, Elvis and Richard. Nothing too extensive. Just the good stuff they did before 1962, in due proportion. You might call it a nuclear collection.

So, assuming that the ants realise that the black vinyl discs are meant to go on the turntable in the Dansette, and they figure out that Chuck, Jerry Lee, Elvis and Richard sound better at 45 than they do at 16, 33 or 78 – what then? Would they dance? Would they clack their mandibles? Or would they simply turn away without curiosity, on the grounds that what they’re hearing is ‘an infernal racket’?

Let’s be specific here. Specifically, what have we got? This is a hypothetical situation, remember, so we can speculate wildly. We’ll offer the ants a round dozen tunes. These are, with one exception, A-sides which have somehow suffered neither heat damage nor, in their sealed, airless metal record box, the natural chemical decay to which 10,000-year-old vinyl is sadly prone. Some songs just survive, as they always do. ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘That’s All Right’, ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’, ‘Ready Teddy’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, ‘Let It Rock’. A round three songs each by four artists – once again, the Apocalypse has been even-handed in a way that music consumers, historically, have never been. Twelve cuts by four artists defining … what, precisely?

To an armoured ant, of course, such names represent nothing at all. The words ‘Elvis Presley’, ‘Chuck Berry’, ‘Jerry Lee Lewis’ and ‘Little Richard’ are not freighted with legend. Not even myth. Not yet, anyway. The words on the record labels are mere squiggles. Glyphs. Meaningful, no doubt, to someone once – but meaning what now? You see, the armoured ants of the future do not read English. They just don’t have the brains for it. Remember, the ants’ civilisation is almost entirely organised around an evolved social imperative to carry and heap. They don’t do culture. Reading is unnecessary in a world governed by obedience to the nest mind. ‘Individualism’ for them is an alien and frankly unappetising concept. The ants are not given to reflection, even in their rare moments of repose. To ants, life is a dance already. Well, a dance routine.

And yet something stirs them. Through the ragged membrane of the now-functional Dansette speaker, flapping and pulsating in its exposed chipboard frame like a thorax struggling to breathe poisoned air, something connects with the ants. Despite all the rigmarole of getting the electricity to work and then figuring out how to get the vinyl on to the turntable and then the tone-arm on to the revolving disc and then, after all that, evolving the brains with which to hear the music as music, which is no mean feat in itself … Despite all that palaver, which would have daunted lesser species at a much earlier stage, there is something in the music of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Richard and Chuck that speaks to them.

What can it be?

An obvious answer would be rhythm. The early work of all four rock ’n’ roll captains is characterised by what we might call rhythmic assertiveness. Rhythm is the first thing you feel in the music, whether you’re listening or just hearing, never mind dancing. The records rock. (And we know now, because the balloon did not actually go up in 1962, that in its strictly musical application, the verb ‘to rock’ has a very specific meaning.)

‘Awop-bop alu-bop alop-bam-boom,’ yells Little Richard at the top of ‘Tutti Frutti’, and it is clear that he is not inviting you to meditate earnestly upon the meaning of what he is saying, nor to consider what he might be thinking, nor even to try to understand what tremulous emotion skulks blushing beneath the veil of his utterance – no: he wants you to get his rhythm. He wants you to get it as skiers get an avalanche. Here it is, all of a sudden, with horns: boom! You feel the sound as a charge in the body every bit as much as you grasp it as an idea in your mind. In fact, more even than that, it’s as if the charge in the body exists primarily as a means of overpowering the idea in your mind. It is the negation of thought.

But that’s Little Richard.

‘That’s All Right, Mama’ by Elvis Presley isn’t like that at all. But it’s still all rhythm. A sort of bobbing 2/4 – BONG-bong BONG-bong – inviting the listening body to go up and down like a plastic duck on a choppy river. It’s irresistible. Furthermore, the conceptual material Elvis offers is fractionally less obtuse than Little Richard’s, and much less screamy. He starts with a shrugging, wailed ‘well’ – ‘We-e-ell, that’s all right, Mama’ – but the bridging ‘well’ is of course merely the lift to a larger sentiment. Not a deeply considered one, it’s true, but at least a passionate, possibly sardonic, certainly irresistible assertion of something the singer feels in his gut: his commitment to his own path. ‘Mum, fuck off!’ is what he is saying. But what he’s doing is rhythm. Of course the ants don’t care about what Elvis is saying to his mum, because they don’t speak English. But they get the rhythm.

Jerry Lee, too. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm: pound, pound, pound. Let’s imagine the ants’ first encounter with Jerry Lee Lewis is ‘Mean Woman Blues’. What will the ants get? They’ll get rhythm. Locomoting, thrusting rhythm. Mandibles will surely clack along to this one, if no other. This is a different kind of pulse: not the pompadoured avalanche of ‘Tutti Frutti’ and certainly not the ingratiating, house-trained, even feminine wriggle ’n’ bob of ‘That’s All Right’. Certainly not. Right from the off, from its dark declarative rooting in the slightly-out-of-tune piano arpeggio which constitutes both the first notes of the song and also Jerry Lee’s first assertion of his hungry potency, ‘Mean Woman Blues’ describes a muscular arc of rhythm, a growing, extending, straightening, protuberant, hardening, thick-veined blood-thump of irresistible momentum, which eases momentarily – ‘E-e-e-asy now!’ – to allow Jerry Lee to admire himself for a stretch before heading off north again into the antechamber to ecstasy … and then sudden collapse into nullity.

The climax never comes. This rhythm is all about the hair-raising excitement of getting there. And when it no longer has any use for getting there, it just stops. Flump. You can see the ants turning to one another after the flump and intuiting a collective understanding of what has just passed. ‘So this is what it is to have flexible tissue networked renewably with a fine mesh of nerves and capillaries!’


What can be said about Chuck in this context? The very thought of Chuck Berry feels like a category error next to the thought of Jerry Lee Lewis. An anomaly. An intellectual proposition next to a punch in the face. His rhythm is a semi-detached rolling thing, a track-bound, wheeled conveyance heading for any destination you might choose to nominate – and of course ants have no time nor use for rolling stock. It is nothing like a biological command, this rhythm. Its horizon is limitless but its feel for the present is chiefly philosophical. Not a now rhythm but a forever groove: drums, guitar and piano, interlocking for all eternity.

The ants will not of course appreciate that the narrative of ‘Let It Rock’ features a steel-driving hammer; and they will certainly not infer as much from the sound of the rhythm section – for this is not the sound of steel being beaten but of it locking a multiplicity of subtly articulated parts into a functional mechanism that, for all its smoothness, relies on friction to generate metre. Something much less atavistic is going on here. Something less gravitational than Little Richard, less ingratiating than Elvis, less animal than Jerry Lee. Chuck’s rhythm is all about words. Language. The rhythm that counts in Chuck’s mind is the same one that counted in Shakespeare’s.

So it is really very likely that the armoured ants will have no time for Chuck Berry.

However, being an intuitive species with an insatiable sense of curiosity, they will be less troubled anyway by the literal meaning of the words being sung on these dozen sides (the decoding of verbal language can await the consideration of boffin ants in the future) than by the curious feeling generated by the assortment of voices riding the rhythms. The rhythm the ants can get without thinking, without feeling. They can do it together, almost by reflex, clickety-clack, as a sort of group activity. Life is, after all, a dance routine. Rhythm is, as each and every armoured ant will attest, a stimulus, an organising principle, a matrix, a vehicle, a notation of flow, a repetitious scratchmark on the hull of time’s great vessel …

But rhythm does not speak. It has nothing in particular to say. It does not articulate anything other than its own pattern and the excitement that a good pattern vigorously expressed can impart to a nervous system, however primitive its wiring. A rhythm is a mark of activity, not a nomination of ideas. It gets you going – but that’s all it does. Ant brains, like human ones, are always compelled by patterns, but they are not necessarily stretched by them: stretching comes only with the recognition and enjoyment of difference.

So what of voices? What is the meaning of all this uttering? For the one other thing upon which the armoured ants clacking in front of the Dansette will surely all agree is that, even if they have no comprehension of what is being expressed through the agency of indecipherable linguistic gibberish, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck and Richard are all expressing something individual – not because of the language they are speaking in but because of the voices they are singing with. Where words convey no meaning, voices still speak … And that’s what gets the ants.

Jerry Lee’s voice, his butch-antic holler, will at the very least convey menace. The ants will shudder within their shiny black armour at the furious sound of the uncontrollable boor, at the threatening, sneering, electrified self-loathing hunger of a creature who sees a boundary in life and interprets it as an invitation to crash on. They will find nothing in Jerry Lee’s voice that speaks of heaping or carrying, but they will hear his appetite and they will hear his disgust. And they may even understand that his disgust is not merely self-directed but is in fact universally directed, arising not only from the lack of perfection in the world but from the very idea that perfection might conceivably be said to exist in a world that is altogether made out of imperfections. Brrrrrrr. How the ants will shudder. That is not how they see the world at all.

Little Richard on the other hand is on a hiding to nothing – and he’s taking the hiding because it’s better than nothing. Richard screams because that’s what Richard has in him: he is beyond thought or consideration: he is all body and sensation and that is what he has to say: screaming, unappeasable appetite – the unholy ‘wooooooooo-oooooo-ooooo’ that really is the most exciting sound in the world. The ants will get that, even if they don’t see it as an appropriate way to behave.

On the other hand – on the other claw – there is Chuck …

‘Long-distance information, get me Memphis, Tennessee,’ he enunciates through his fine teeth, as if addressing himself quite matter-of-factly to a telephone exchange operator up the road – some respectable Republican granny in tortoiseshell specs, jabbing jacks into a socket-board. ‘Help me find the party tryin’ to get in touch with me,’ he goes on, while the instrumental rhythm burbles and lurches beneath him like a lairy old V8 engine. The ‘hurry-home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye’ will mean nothing to the ants. Nothing. Ants don’t do sentiment, and they don’t conceptualise the world through the agency of language. They hear Chuck’s voice and they hear the wiry slyness of a trouper, a creature who has been around the block a time or two and, in doing so, has sensed poetry in the block – and then extrapolated from it. The ants will sense that this voice has form, that it embodies knowledge almost amounting to wisdom, and that perhaps not all forms of wisdom are to be trusted. They will meet Chuck’s voice with compelled suspicion. But they will love the clickety-clack of the words. They will conclude that perhaps Chuck Berry had mandibles for sound evolutionary reasons.

They will not understand Elvis Presley, though, not at any level. Why, this sound is like burnished gold! It shines. Carapaces are shiny; and eyes are too, and mucus. Shiny and bright in a veiled and sunless world. As is metal, if you buff away the scorchmarks and rust. But how can a voice be shiny? How can a sound reflect light, even radiate it, yet be soft and strong at the same time, and pliable and expressive and giant? How can a mere vibration in the air stand for the actuality of anything, let alone permeable tissue networked renewably with a fine mesh of nerves and capillaries?

If it isn’t an ant, what is an Elvis Presley?

In Elvis the ants will have to confront the awful possibility that they, the armoured ants, do not represent the highest peak of evolutionary development, nor are their remarkable achievements all that there is, was or will ever be. The group mind will have to unhitch itself to grasp this one; it will need to rethink. Because here, manifestly, on the knackered Dansette in a blasted landscape in the time after Time, in which nothing lives but ants and life is a dance routine, something new has stirred. Something from beyond the compass of knowledge. In Elvis’s voice the ants will hear manifest destiny.

Somebody else’s.

And they will shudder yet again, not this time in prurient excitement but in naked fear. The ants will share intuitions. They will click and clack. Perhaps, after all this time, this is the clue they’ve been searching for, the key to unlock the Great Whatnot. The mystery. The mystery of What Went Before. They will be compelled to speculate that perhaps this is how the world once was … Or perhaps – and at this intuition the ants will literally cower – Elvis, along with Chuck and Jerry Lee and Richard, is the very reason that everything is the way it is: bleak and inhospitable and devoid of meaning – a sub-rhythmic howling emptiness that goes on for ever.

Yes. Elvis, Chuck, Richard and Jerry Lee … Perhaps they were the warning, these bodiless creatures who ride rhythm like ants ride one another. Perhaps, then, these ghastly yelling ghosts were the prophets of the Apocalypse, the ones carrying the message. There were four of them. Chuck and Jerry Lee and Richard and Elvis – the quartet of voices heralding the end of all things (apart from ants).

And they will stand in awe.

Grace notes

Led Zeppelin: ‘Immigrant Song’
Atlantic Records, 1970

One of rock’s nagging compulsions down the decades was to stay in touch with its very first instincts – first instincts that were of course purer than its more evolved ones, by definition; purer and somehow more youthful, less contaminated by … well, what have you got?

And so soi-disant rock ’n’ roll revivals of one sort or another dogged post-war popular music all the way into its latter days. Some of them were puritanical, others really quite cavalier. But hardly a half-decade has passed since 1962 without some gang of arbitrary youths ditching the civvies for drainpipes, creepers and a drapecoat to tattoo the ’billy beat for a new generation of retro-reprobates.

Some of these gangs have been so confident in their own contiguity with their source material that there has been no need for dressing it up. They just do it – wallop, just like that, out of boredom or preciousness or even out of earnest conviction. Led Zeppelin did it in 1970 dressed in cheesecloth and flared denim, and they repeated the procedure throughout the duration of their twelve-year career, as if a periodic rereading of the Ur-text were a sacrament necessary to the group’s continued existence. Bashing out old rock ’n’ roll numbers also gave them something to do during soundchecks.

The song ‘Rock and Roll’ on their fourth album is probably the most literal-minded of all their authored rock ’n’ roll retreads. John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham’s intro brings loutish new life to the drum figure that launched Little Richard’s ‘Keep A-Knockin’ and then the rest of them hammer through a powerful (if foggily mixed) litany of the form’s most knock-about clichés. They do it as if gabbling in the dark from a scroll recently discovered in a jar in a cave in Syria: the song iterates the quartet’s undiluted reverence for the form and expresses their abiding desire always to be identified with the garden of rock’s origins, as well as its mystic power.

‘Rock and roll’ is great, but it isn’t that interesting. This is possibly because it actually expresses nothing much more than post-war English youth’s inclination to make the Mississippi Delta feel more like home than Kidderminster. Rather more interesting, and a lot more open to counter-interpretation, is ‘Immigrant Song’ which kicks off Led Zeppelin III. This obtuse yet marvellous piece was recorded earlier in the same year, the chief by-product of a Zeppelin diplomatic mission to Reykjavik.

‘Immigrant Song’ is rock ’n’ roll not reverenced from a jar but taken apart, then reassembled with gleaming new parts and rebranded as a weapon in service of a new mythology; very much, it should be said, in the spirit of the music engendered by the original rockers, who did much the same in the 1950s with the constituent parts of blues, country and R&B.

What defines the song as ‘rock ’n’ roll’, as distinct from the mordantly heavy blues with which the group was identified at that stage in their career, is its pace, the impression it gives of unrelenting, barely controlled momentum, its streamlined sleekness. ‘Immigrant Song’ is not a draggy, bludgeoning 12- or 32-bar edifice constructed out of huge girders, pentatonic intervals and the molten lava of adolescent sexual angst. It is a hurtling stem, steel-tipped and penetrative. In fact it barely assumes song form at all, except incidentally, as an aid to its main purpose, which is to get where it’s going hard and fast. Harmony is certainly implied but not really developed (the chord structure modulates narrowly from an F#-minor riff to an