Going, Going, Gone…Pop, Museums and Auctions

‘Going, Going, Gone’ is one of Bob Dylan’s less well known tunes. It’s on Planet Waves, his one and only studio album not to appear under the bright tangerine colours of Columbia/CBS.  It came out on Chris Blackwell’s Island label in the UK and David Geffen’s Asylum in the US, a substantial coup for both men. This oddity has created a brace of collector’s items in the process – the UK edition is coveted in by American Dylan nuts, the Asylum edition by their British cousins. This idea of the collectable item associated with pop is absolutely germane to this instalment of Pete Sounds.

Label from the UK version of Bob Dylan’s 1973 album Planet Waves
Label from the US version of Bob Dylan’s 1973 album Planet Waves

Here’s a question for you: what connects David Bowie, The Jam, Pink Floyd and Abba?

My answer (there may be others…) is that they’ve all been the subject of huge, commercially successful exhibitions in long established, ‘serious’ museum spaces in the past decade. In a generation pop has gone from being seen as a wearisome fad for young people that eventually had to be grown out of to being a touchstone of national identity, a key weave in the fabric of global culture in itself. Think of the role pop played in the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the optimism of which now seems as remote as the stars, alas.  It’s not just in the UK that this changed assessment of the value of pop music has arisen– a few years ago I saw a great exhibition about the Belter label, the de facto label of Spanish pop in the Franco era, in Cadiz and stumbled upon a dazzling digital display on the history of Japanese pop in Tokyo in the summer of 2019.

EP by Los 3 Sudamericanos one of the biggest groups of the 60’s in Spain, and one of Belter’s most successful acts.

The rise of the pop heritage industry goes back a bit of course.  Probably the earliest formalised acknowledgement of pop’s enduring cultural significance was the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ which was established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986, funded in part by Ahmet Ertegun, indisputably an important figure in the story of post-war pop himself. Though the organisation was founded in 1986, the actual Museum was not opened to the public until 1995. Every year since ’86 a number of acts have been ‘inducted’ into this pantheon of pop: the first inductee was Elvis Presley, the most recent Marc Bolan and T.Rex. Being selected for inclusion is characterized by the RRHOF as ‘Rock’s Highest Honor’ and the choices of inductees reflect a certain range of tastes and perceptions of ‘value’, primarily reflecting those of head of the selection panel Jann Wenner, hippie entrepreneur and founder of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967.

So far, so slick. It pleases me to report , however, that not everyone is delighted by the idea of a museum for pop being a monument to the orthodoxies of business driven good taste – for example Steve Miller used his press conference at the 2016 ceremony (where he had been inducted) to attack the whole organisation as a commercial enterprise. Check it out here.

In a similar mood, anyone who knows me or has read Pete Sounds before knows that The Monkees are going to pop up sooner or later – they are everywhere –and here they come, walkin’ down the street. It turns out that there is a substantial number of pro-Monkee agitators  lobbying for their inclusion in the RRHOF.  I don’t really care either way – their work and enduring popularity is their vindication – but it bugged Peter Tork, who told the New York Post in 2007 that:

“Wenner doesn’t care what the rules are and just operates how he sees fit. It is an abuse of power. I don’t know whether The Monkees belong in the Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty clear that we’re not in there because of a personal whim.” Tork believes Wenner doesn’t like the fact that The Monkees, who were originally cast as actors for a TV sitcom, didn’t play their own instruments on their first two records. “Jann seems to have taken it harder than everyone else, and now, 40 years later, everybody says, ‘What’s the big deal? Everybody else does it.’ Nobody cares now except him. He feels his moral judgment in 1967 and 1968 is supposed to serve in 2007.”

Michael Nesmith commented on the debate in 2012 via his Videoranch Facebook page, and was more sanguine:

“I can see the HOF (Hall of Fame) is a private enterprise. It seems to operate as a business, and the inductees are there by some action of the owners of the Enterprise. The inductees appear to be chosen at the owner’s pleasure. This seems proper to me. It is their business in any case. It does not seem to me that the HOF carries a public mandate, nor should it be compelled to conform to one”.

Nesmith and Tork  were very different people, of course, and Michael was financially stable and ‘career secure’ in a way that Peter was not but both make essentially the same point – it was up to Wenner.

Jann Wenner 1968
First issue of Rolling Stone, rock’s ‘journal of record’, November 9th 1967

That notion of ‘gatekeeping’ is key to the sense of who is understood as ‘important’ to a received version of a history. Sometimes popular culture can force a change upon these accepted narratives of value – this is seen clearly in the example of Hidden Figures (2016), a film shining a light on a group of actual ‘hidden figures’, in the movie’s depiction of the black women scientists and mathematicians who contributed to the NASA programme in the USA in the 50’s and 60’s.

Poster for Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi 2016)

That ‘untold true story’ becomes a way of navigating value and significance in historical contexts. In terms of the museum, or should we say the ‘heritage sector’, this action comes dressed as curation. Who is important to the story of, say, the colonisation of Australia, or the building of the Forth Road bridge, or the roots of the New York punk scene? We might think we know the names and the stories, but if we do it’s because we’ve seen or heard them in books and documentaries. The curator, or gatekeeper,  shapes the narrative, attributes the value. In a museum, that value is an abstract notion:  to speculate upon the actual cash value of, say, Syd Barrett’s notebooks seems almost a vulgarity, somehow. Their value lies elsewhere, in a more aesthetic realm.

Page (1966) from Syd Barrett’s notebooks as displayed in ‘Their Mortal Remains’ V& A 2017

An attempt to instigate a similar permanent home for pop history in the UK met with less success. Part of the upsurge of cultural optimism and decentralisation of resources which accompanied the 1997 election of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’, the National Centre for Popular Music (slogan: ‘Where Music Lives’) opened in Sheffield in March 1999. It followed Cleveland’s example of creating a pop related tourist attraction in a northern post-industrial city short on obvious ones . Swerving London and Liverpool was commendable, but the project barely made it over the line into the new century, closing in June 2000. It fell foul of not being quite sure what it was – exhibits in cases sat alongside hands-on features where you could remix a track or attempt some choreography. Was it for musicians, fans, or kids? No-one had long to find out as it closed within 15 months and is now the student union of Sheffield Hallam University.

Sheffield Hallam University SU, formerly the National Centre for Popular Music

What seems to work better is a temporary set-up in a pre-existing space and in some ways this is closer to the troubadour spirit of music and musicians anyway: we’re here, but soon we’ll be gone. The June-November 2018 exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, ‘Rip It Up:The Story Of Scottish Pop’, was a splendid example of this working very successfully. The visitors comments in this clip are instructive listening for anyone wondering what to include in such an exhibition.

Clearly, theming is important – a hook to catch the attention of as large an audience as possible. There’s a generational dimension here that we shouldn’t ignore, as the demographics of it all are significant – the visitors in Edinburgh are all of a certain age and talk about how ‘their life is in there’. Similarly, the 60’s pop kids are now retired, well-off if they are lucky, and still interested in the ‘mortal remains’ of their youth. So the David Bowie or Pink Floyd story and the story of one’s own life could intersect substantially. One major difference , and perhaps a key to why  pop exhibitions at  ‘serious’ museums have succeeded where the Sheffield project did not is because the skills and curatorship of the extant staff have been very carefully applied to the surviving fragments of popular music, act by act. Thus the flyer for that gig in Dunstable is treated just as carefully as if it were a piece of pottery from Pompeii.  

The Pink Floyd exhibition at the V & A had it right by calling itself ‘Their Mortal Remains’, acknowledging both the passage of time and the undiminished persistence of the music with a parallel stream of surviving ephemera. There was nothing to disturb the establishing of an authoritative narrative – proceeding from Syd’s notebooks, the gig schedules, invoices and picture sleeves from Japan, the posters for a hundred gigs out ‘on the road’, the rush and anguish of their global success in the mid-70’s, on to the evidence of their subsequent, more corporate incarnation, in the anonymous, monolithic PA stacks of the late 80’s. Behold, ‘The Pink Floyd Story’ : presence and absence in languid synergy. Check this fascinating piece via the NME on the exhibition.

Turning to indicators of monetary rather than cultural value, I recently maintained a ghostly virtual presence in  two online sales of music-related materials by an ambitious Auction House, who seem to focus strongly on material related to popular music. As they seem to do on a monthly basis, they ran one sale of memorabilia, one of actual recorded material – vinyl and CD’s. The latter resembled a massive online car boot sale, albeit with super-inflated prices, but it was the former that really caught my attention.

It comprised nearly a thousand lots,  covering  a host of musical forms – excepting classical, interestingly – across half a century, from the 1940’s to the 90’s. The star sellers were ephemera , perhaps most notably a combination of poster and ticket for a Sex Pistols show at Cromer Links Pavilion on Christmas Eve  1977. As Marty Di Bergi says of the ‘Electric Banana’ club in This Is Spinal Tap, don’t look for it, it isn’t there anymore, but the gig  proved to be their final public live show in the UK.  The survival of these items is in itself newsworthy – local papers picked the story up and ran lengthy features on the topic. Ticket price was £1.75 – not cheap for the era – and the stub and poster wore a £600-800 estimate but to no-one’s real surprise the pair went for £2,200 – not forgetting  the Buyers Premium: “23.34% + VAT (28% inclusive).” So someone has made a real investment there. This is surely above and beyond the notion of a fan’s indulgence: it’s almost pushing these items into the realm of an art object, with the provenance of it being the band’s last public UK appearance and the ephemeral nature of the objects ladelling added value to the ideas swirling around these two slips of paper.

Poster for Sex Pistols show in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977 (front)
Poster for Sex Pistols show in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977 (back)
Ticket for Sex Pistols show in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977

How to bring these two types of value together? It’s hard.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the UK punk scene the British Library mounted an exhibition, ‘Punk 1976-78’ in March 2016, based upon a mix of its own archival holdings and donated materials. This sat neatly between the two V & A examples of a growing inventory of pop’s incursions into the heritage sector: ‘David Bowie Is’ in 2013 and as we have observed Pink Floyd’s ‘Their Mortal Remains’ in 2017. It’s worth noting that the V & A have also curated a 60’s pop subculture display, ‘So You Say You Want A Revolution’ (2016-17), while ‘About The Young Idea’, an exhibition of memorabilia associated with The Jam, toured the country in 2019 like a band simultaneously promoting their debut and Greatest Hits albums. If lockdown ever ends, and if cultural life ever recovers, we might expect – and probably now tightly embrace – further examples of this kind of cultural curation of pop histories.

Poster for British Library Punk 1976-78 touring exhibition visit to Liverpool (2018)
Poster for ‘About The Young Idea’ touring exhibition 2019

However, not everyone was simply thrilled, honey.  Former Slit Viv Albertine amended/defaced a list of bands in the British Library Punk exhibition as a protest against the marginalisation of female musicians in the narrative as displayed by the chosen exhibits – and she was right. One of the defining features of punk was the sudden appearance of female musicians and singers on stage and record who were not Dusty, Joni or The Supremes – all of whom I love, but who embodied the generally accepted ‘job descriptions’ for female musicians in pop up to that point. Albertine’s act of protest was a shout against the settling in of an orthodox narrative that inevitably flows from exhibitions such as this.

A more grandiose rebuke came in  November 2016 when Joe Corre (multimillionaire son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood) caused a furore which bleakly echoed the fuss caused by the group itself in 1977 by taking to the Thames and destroying a huge archive of Sex Pistols related memorabilia. Many criticised Corre, observing that the objects could have been sold to raise money for charity or that such material ‘should be in a museum’. Corre claimed to be objecting to the commodification of punk on its 40th anniversary, perhaps embodied by events like the British Library’s Punk exhibition, saying it had ‘become a brand, like McDonald’s’. He was of course a little late arriving at this conclusion, as the BL’s dates of 76-78 suggest, and his troubled relationship with his father may have had something to do with his attitude to the mortal remains of the Sex Pistols. This act has however  certainly enhanced the desirability to collectors of material that survives, such as the Cromer poster and ticket.

Pop is certainly culturally embedded now in a way which seems to lead directly to the archive and the curated exhibition; but was Corre a fool, a rich kid who could afford to carry out such a ‘punk’ assault on the collective memory? Probably. Yet why be so upset about a burning t-shirt, for that matter one that says ‘Destroy’ on it, almost as an instruction? Maybe it is because the shared body of knowledge, the shared set of responses and memories associated with music, and pop in particular, are more important than might have been anticipated:  pop belongs to everyone so when those posters, photographs and acetates burned it felt to some like an attack on our collective cultural past, just as surely as if Dominic Cummings decided to demolish the British Library  (and please don’t  think this isn’t on his To Do list). These are our mortal remains.

So what do we think about this? The museum or the funeral pyre? This seems a particularly acute issue for punk and its ideological burdens it has to be said; probably less so for, say, Abba or Kate Bush – both far more popular in the strictly commercial sense than any ‘punk’ act of course. Tellingly the former are market leaders in the field of keeping their ‘brand’ lively and innovative, from inescapable musicals to interactive exhibitions worldwide, and my feeling is that under normal circumstances La Bush would have been high on the shortlist for the next subject of a Bowie/Pink Floyd style exhibition.

What struck me while watching the virtual hammer falling in the online auction was that it is indeed in the ephemera that fans, collectors, investors are placing most faith: while £160 would have bought you the first dozen Neil Young albums in ‘first press vinyl’ – one of the terms which have been uneasily esperanto’d from the established lexicon of bookselling to the relatively new market of vintage records – it barely covered your costs if you wanted a poster for a Slaughter & The Dogs gig in Coventry, 1977.

I am currently researching the history of concerts at Higher Education institutions in Leeds so my attention was caught by a poster in the sale, for a show at the Leeds University Union  on Saturday 16th of November 1968, the bill topped by Bruce Chanel (‘Hey, Baby’) and among the supports an appearance by a lowly Yes, eight months short of the release of their debut album and probably arranged with the help of their former (and future) drummer Bill Bruford who had quit the band to study in Leeds just weeks before in September ’68. So, a very early show, with that interesting local connection. But still, it’s a folded, creased black and green swirl of ink on paper. It sold for £1500 (plus the hefty Buyer’s Premium…).

Poster for early gig by Yes at Leeds University November 16th 1968

Dozens of Smiths posters – albeit with the added provenance of being from the personal collection of Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis- sold for around £900 each. By God I wish I’d kept my poster from their gig at the Mountford Hall, University of Liverpool, February 8th 1984! And there’s the rub: it is precisely the unlikely nature of these artefacts surviving that puts a premium upon their perceived – make that manifestly real – commercial value.

Pop may still be at its most potent when it celebrates transience and trash, but its mortal remains are junk culture no more.

ps turns out I’ve still got my ticket stub from that Smiths gig so the next blog may well arrive from Sardinia….ciao bella!

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