An interview with
Barney Hoskyns (2003)

By Beppe Colli
May 20, 2003

If you've read the rock press during the last twenty years, chances are the name of Barney Hoskyns will ring a bell. In the '80s he wrote for Melody Maker and New Musical Express, then for UK newspapers such as The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer. In the '90s he was Associate Editor and then U.S. Bureau Chief of (UK) Mojo, while contributing to Spin and Rolling Stone.

Among the books he's written: Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes & the Sound of Los Angeles; Glam! Bowie, Bolan & the Glitter Rock Revolution; and Across the Great Divide, about the Band.

In 2000 Barney Hoskyns set up Rock's Backpages, an online archival resource to which this writer has been a subscriber for quite some time.

He recently edited The Sound & the Fury: A Rock's Backpages Reader (Bloomsbury), a selection of pieces by some of the writers on the site. Having read his introduction to the book, I thought some of the points he made definitely called for an interview. So I sent him a message via e-mail, and he kindly agreed to answer some questions.

The questions were sent on May, 12 and one week later I got the responses.

I read your intro to The Sound & the Fury: A Rock's Backpages Reader, and I'd like to ask you a few questions about some specific points you made.

You write: "The sad truth is that rock journalism has become little more than a service industry, with scant critical autonomy and even less responsibility to its readers. We have all, in our different ways, colluded with the entertainment machine in its canny efforts to dictate what music sells." My question is: Why this? And: Do you think that the post-mortem canonization of Lester Bangs could in a way reveal rock's bad conscience when it comes to the current state of affairs?

Lester has become a bit of a sacred cow - or holy fool. It is always easier to exalt someone who's dead and hail them as some kind of free poetic spirit untarnished by commercial needs. Lester did hack work like anyone, and the price he paid for his maverick iconoclasm was the torment of addiction - I'm not sure it's a good tradeoff. But it's still salutary to go back to his work and realise what FUN rock writing can be - and how much of what Charles Shaar Murray calls a "creative response" critical writing can be.

Regarding bad conscience or bad faith, I think most of us have had to conform to the norm in the way we write and review, tailoring everything for some nonexistent Everyman consumer. Anyone with a singular or difficult voice - the Paul Morleys and Ian Penmans are the obvious examples here in the UK - is being frozen out of all pages other than those of The Wire or the more anarchic American magazines. The music business - well, capitalism - HAS successfully created consumers who just want to buy and not think. But then people don't want to think about movies or painting or politics or anything much. There's a deep fear and distrust of intellectual discourse today, especially in Britain.

You write: "The music industry's greatest victory has been to make pop music - from boy bands to nu metal - a mere lifestyle choice, a disposable commodity. (...) Little wonder, therefore, that teenagers treat pop music like Coke. Trained to consume and dispose by a cynical, junk-food industry, teens ascribe no real value to the acts whose MP3s they swap so freely." I wholeheartedly agree (and this is, I think, the reason why the legal, industry-owned music-file services face an uphill battle). My question: Do you regard this as something that's peculiar to teenagers? And something that's specific to music? Or do you see it as being part of a bigger picture?

I'm increasingly wary of "looking down" on teenagers from the patronising promontory of my forty-four years, mainly because it's too tempting and I've done enough of it in recent years. And no, I think we've all been seduced into behaving like "kiddults", encouraged to consume for the sake of it and to pass quickly on to the next cultural fix - this is THE band or movie or pair of trainers you HAVE to buy this month. There's a soulless appetitiveness and zombie-like conformity about western "lifestyle" today.

You write: "The billions of sound files exchanged in the post-Napster pop universe represent not just a voracious consumerism but a loss of faith in pop as event, as something that means anything at all. Pop music is no longer a main course, simply a snack between meals. And this has everything to do with the industry's conscious decision not to nurture true talent." OK, maybe this is a classic case of Catch-22, but: Do you think that - given the current state of affairs - if the industry decided to start nurturing true talent, people would start buying this "quality stuff"?

Actually I think talent will ALWAYS out in the end, if only because people tire of the lack of it. And actually there IS enough talent out there - the new Radiohead album is fantastic, and this week I have to review new records by Gillian Welch and Super Furry Animals, both of which contain sublime, transporting moments. But it is still chilling to think that an artist such as Randy Newman would have been dropped after his first two albums were he getting started today.

You write: "Moreover, it's no coincidence that, just as record sales are plummeting, so the music press is in perilous decline. (...) There is a fundamental loss of faith in the value of pop culture, with so much coverage reduced to bland, consumer-guide homogeneity." A good friend of mine who read your intro wrote to me thus: "The glory days of rock are over. Rock as he knew it is gone and will never return - any more than his - or anyone's - youth will ever return. It's about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice. Think about the history: it was a new music with new instruments and its audience did not exist before it more or less created itself. That newness and that innocence can never return; whatever engages a future self-organizing public around their own new musical form, it won't be rock, it won't have that spirit Barney laments." (Here I started thinking about current "rock renaissance" groups such as The White Stripes or Yeah Yeah Yeah.) How do you regard this perspective?

I think your friend is quite right - You Can't Go Home Again, in the words of Thomas Wolfe. More to the point, the experience I had as a teenager or twentysomething can't be matched by my perception of what teenagers or twentysomethings experience today. My end-of-history grieving and false nostalgia is for a time when rock was set apart from - and ostensibly in opposition to - the status quo, and when one had to work quite hard to BE a rock fan. Now everything is available and has no political resonance anymore. Today's young rock fans would rather wear MC5 T-shirts (sponsored by Levi's) as fashion statements than follow bands who really ARE trying to kick out the jams, motherfuckers.

Do you think you've reached the goals you had in mind when you decided to start Rock's Backpages? Are you satisfied with its current situation - when it comes to the feedback you get and in practical, commercial terms?

No. We've laid the foundations for RBP as a digital archive of - and perhaps content network for - rock history. But we've struggled like everyone else to bring in revenue and must continue to look for ways to expand the brand and market our content - thus speaks a true reconstructed rock rebel, taking his place in the postmodern pop universe!

© Beppe Colli 2003 | May 20, 2003