Paul Morley: ‘I wanted to write about Mozart like the NME in 1980’

Paul Morley: “I now understood that I was in no position to save classical music.” Photograph: Kevin Cummins
Cult pop conceptualist Paul Morley on post-punk mythmaking and his discovery of classical music

What to do when you’re a fiftysomething writer about rock and pop and what’s expected of you is either one of two things: revisit rock heritage to recycle old myths, or write about contemporary pop in a cranky or, perhaps, embarrassingly enthusiastic way.

For Paul Morley, whose imaginative and bold writing for the New Musical Express in the late 1970s and early ’80s made his name and helped shape the mythology of bands – including, notably, Joy Division – the answer was to begin writing about classical music. Pivot to Mozart.

The journey to his latest book, A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History), began 11 years ago with an invitation to appear on a BBC documentary called How to Be a Composer, which featured Morley attending London’s Royal Academy of Music to study composition, leading to him writing a piece for string quartet. (Hearing his score performed for the first time was “incredibly emotional”, he tells me. “It’s the most remarkable feeling, and I can see how you could get addicted to that.”)

Around the time of the documentary, he became dissatisfied with writing about pop.

“I was getting actually frankly furious with being asked in my 50s to write about Harry Styles or Taylor Swift or reunion music or anniversaries,” he recalls of that time. “And I thought: ‘My God, is this it now?’” (Morley is now 63.) “Is this thing that I started out doing when I was a kid, being a rock writer, which was so glamorous and exciting and experimental, has it become now a kind of weird way in which I drift off into the middle distance, just writing about this stuff again and again and again. It really terrified me slightly.”

Making the programme, meeting young musicians and acquainting himself with the history of classical music changed things for him. “Classical music, which I never thought I was capable or qualified or understood enough to write about, suddenly became a really great challenge. Not necessarily becoming a composer as such, which is a little fanciful, but just the idea that I’d got something new to write about, and that I could begin again almost, with a kind of naivety.”

‘Back into time’

Morley’s growing interest in classical coincided with the rise of streaming sites such as Spotify and Google Play, which provided a plenitude of music. “Suddenly, this combination of a great miracle but also something slightly sinister enabled me to get to old music. Suddenly my classical music collection, overnight, was everything. And, therefore, I could go out and find my way through it, I could build my history, I could go back into time. Suddenly I had something to write about.”

He decided that classical music, “never rooted in the solid” in the way that rock and pop were – less dependent on packaging and hype to stir a listener’s excitement – was more suited to this new form of listening, and that this radically recontextualised classical, making it permanently modern, here and now. This triggered his excitement, made it feel like new territory that he could explore in an adventurous way.

If I listen to music 50 years old I might as well listen to music 200 years old

“I didn’t want to make [classical] rock and roll, I wanted to more write about it as I wrote about rock and roll. I wanted to write about Mozart as if I was writing about something I would have written for the NME in 1980.”

Did he find it liberating? “I did, I did. I found it exciting because I suddenly wasn’t writing about Harry Styles, I was writing about [English composer] Harry Birtwistle.” The accelerating retromania of pop and rock, the reissues and reunions, made him think “that if I listen to music 50 years old I might as well listen to music 200 years old”.

Morley also liked that it was something different from the constant chatter and conformity of the online world. “At the moment the herd mentality is intense, and everybody’s talking about the same things, and everybody’s responding to the same sensation that’s emerging every day, and I quite liked, perversely, the idea that [with classical music] I was in a deeply unfashionable and quiet place.”

But hasn’t the wide availability of music online, free or otherwise, and the growth of thumbs-up thumbs-down-style criticism and Amazon reviews threatened the critic’s role in culture? (Not to mention the decline of the print media.)

‘Inventing the story’

“I obviously felt that the critic and the journalist in rock and pop was a key part of the thing in explaining and, if you like, inventing the story and the myths which in turn helped the musicians themselves work out what they were,” Morley says.

“If you think of the acceleration that [musicians and bands] made in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of it was in response to the early rise of the pop journalist. It sort of became part of their adventure, it became part of their story in terms of them looking at what they were and responding to it sometimes changing very quickly because they didn’t like the way in which they were being pinned down.

“And that whole context has collapsed and has been replaced, like you say, with the thumbs-up thumbs-down, with the star rating, with an immense amount of writing about music that tends to be, I’ve found, pretty much 99 per cent the same. It’s a recycling of the same opinions, the same history, the same canon.”

In A Sound Mind, Morley digresses into reflections on rock and pop, recalling his time as a member of Art of Noise, and writes of pop that “the potency of the drug is wearing off”. But his disenchantment is nothing new.

“I had originally stopped writing about pop music when I was 25 or 26 for the NME because I thought I was too old. And then, much to my surprise, everyone [else] carried on,” Morley tells me. “I then went back into it a couple of times, but I always felt there was something not quite right, and then by doing that Art of Noise album [1984’s (Who’s Afraid of) the Art of Noise] it opened up parameters for me.”

Morley feels that the eclecticism of Art of Noise, the group’s desire to draw from pop and rock and electronic and classical, “putting things together that no one else seemed to be doing”, foreshadowed his approach in the new book, breaking down boundaries between genres. His experiences with the group, their experiments with technology “set me up for the 21st century”, he says.

Paul Morley wasn’t looking for a Classic FM-style version of music where “the ideological sting is taken out; the mystical, magical power, properties are extracted. I wanted to put all those back in.”
Paul Morley:  “I understood I was in no position to save classical music.”

Although Morley has shifted his focus from pop to classical, A Sound Mind features many of the tics you might by now expect from this journalist, and either love or loathe: the idiosyncratic lists, the repetitions, his urge to put himself at the centre of the story. Narcissism? Or a searching interrogation of what he thinks and feels about the music?

The latter, I think. The book is, among other things, a useful if deeply and amusingly subjective guide to listening to classical music. Above all, it’s a fascinating document of a critic’s attempt to rethink what he does, why he does it, and to weigh up whether it’s all worthwhile.

Keynote speech

Morley’s urge towards mythmaking, his desire to remake classical according to what he thinks it should be, collides with the realities of the industry – always seeking to reach new audiences to ensure its own survival – in one chapter. Morley, newly and briefly feted in the world of classical music after his appearance on How to Be a Composer, gives a keynote speech to the Association of British Orchestras.

“What motivated me to deliver my speech was some vague notion that what I was about to say would change their world,” he writes. Afterwards, following muted, brief applause: “I now understood that I was in no position to save classical music.”

The moment illustrated the risks of his approach.

“I was coming in with the innocence of a mythmaker who wanted to make myths around an orchestra as I would around Joy Division, where you make up a story that then becomes part of the [wider] story. And obviously as a rock writer that becomes very exciting, because you realise you’re making something happen. You’re contributing to something. And, of course they were looking for something different.” (At another event recounted in the book, Morley was heckled by a wheelchair-bound classical fan in his 80s.)

I was coming in with the innocence of a mythmaker who wanted to make myths around an orchestra as I would around Joy Division

Morley says that he wasn’t looking for an easily digestible, Classic FM-style version of classical music, one in which “the ideological sting is taken out of [the music]; the mystical, magical power, properties are extracted. I wanted to put all those back in.” He admires Ken Russell’s films about composers for “getting inside the guts and psychic energy of the music, not worrying about the formalities and the rituals, really getting inside the imagination”.

The book’s oscillation between the worlds of rock and classical generates some interesting juxtapositions. A chapter about the year 1973 places Iggy and the Stooges’ Gimme Danger and Roxy Music’s In Every Dream Home a Heartache alongside works by Mozart, Steve Reich and Terry Riley.

Temporary glory

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m not bored with rock and pop, I still obviously listen to it. I’m not being stupid. I’m not saying one or the other, I’m saying all. The music that I liked as a teenager growing up, if it can stand up to classical music and all the great music I’ve found, then it’s tremendous. And some of the more trivial stuff just disappears – as it should. It was temporary music made for temporary reasons, and that’s fair enough, and that was part of its glory.”

Even so, it’s still something of a shock to see, in a book ostensibly about classical music, a reference to Ireland’s much-praised post-punk revivalists Fontaines DC.

“People do expect me to say to them, when they ask me for a great new band, Fontaines DC,” Morley says. “That’s what they want from me. I say the Danish String Quartet and it disappoints them. Because what they’re actually looking for is: what’s the new Public Image Ltd? Even if they’re in their 60s, because they’re my generation, they want me to give them something that will be like what I would have given them in 1980, but I can’t do that.”

He doesn’t see listening to classical as a betrayal of his relentless, modernist search for the new, but as consistent with it. “The music we listened to in the ’70s and ’80s was very radical and progressive, we hoped; it stretched the form. It seemed a failure of that and the individual if they themselves didn’t progress along the way but just stayed with that [kind of music].

“It seemed to completely contradict, actually, the spirit of that. You should keep moving rather than staying with that.”

A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History) is published by Bloomsbury