Voices by Nick Coleman review – an enthusiastic history of the best pop singers

This sharp history of pop music focuses on the lives and songs of the partially deaf journalist’s favourite singers, including Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin

Nick Coleman loves voices, in particular those of the singers who rose above the babble of life in the second half of the 20th century to create the great outpouring of pop music that evolved, as he points out, from the unreflecting entertainment of the Beatles’ first album to the poetic soul searching of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in barely five years.

Those examples are the brackets chosen by Coleman, a journalist and critic, to define the sheer velocity of pop’s evolution in the 1960s. Its gathering sense of seriousness is illustrated, in his account of the voices he most loves, by a pair of records from a single source, Bob Dylan. The first, performed in a Greenwich Village folk club in 1962, is a version of “No More Auction Block”, an 18th-century spiritual; the second, recorded 20 years later, is a Dylan original called “Blind Willie McTell”, a panoramic survey of a nation that began with the near extermination of its indigenous people and fed itself on the proceeds of slavery. Works such as these exemplify a phenomenon: “It was as if beneath pop’s brightly coloured, ever-busy materialist surface, something slower and graver was taking hold,” he writes.

Coleman thinks hard about such matters, and in recent times his thoughts have been focused and intensified by misfortune. Ten years ago, he went deaf, permanently in one ear, intermittently in the other. An earlier book, The Train in the Night, dealt thoroughly with his experience, which is mentioned only in the epilogue of Voices. This new set of thoughts took shape during a brief period when the illness receded sufficiently to allow him to binge, albeit through one ear, on the stuff that had once supplied his life with, in his own words, a psychological mainstay.

What came out of that binge was a desire to enumerate the voices that had been important to him since he first encountered music as a boy chorister and a pop fan born at the start of the 1960s, and to make sense of their effect. He gives a central role to the British singers rooted in a love of R&B and soul music, all of them deeply serious about their calling, whether “sonorous, raw-knuckled urchins” such as Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe, or those who, including Morrison and Steve Winwood, were “like muezzins calling the faithful to prayer from a remote place”. “These were voices – no longer confined to the stage of the Royal Court – suggesting that struggle, anxiety, lust, self-absorption, resentment, low mood, high spirits, bad faith and recalcitrance were living manifestly among us in this very place.” They belonged to “the emotional curriculum of our own era, doing service in the front line of British life alongside the stiff upper lip and the deferential simper”.

But this is not really a book held together by a unified theory of pop history. It’s more a series of portraits of his favourite singers, who include some choices with an air of inevitability about them – Little Richard, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin – and some less obvious candidates, such as Mary Margaret O’Hara, George Jones, Winston Rodney and – hallelujah! – Gladys Knight.

Sometimes his descriptions of the sound and the effect hit the target perfectly. The Shangri-Las’ hits displayed the Bronx teenagers’ “apparent lack of concern with anything remotely resembling elegance or maturity or sophistication or empathy”. The Ramones were “the sound of bullying from the point of view of the bullied”. The songs of Roy Orbison “were like strange 3D sonic sculptures you might walk around and poke. You could enter them, as you might enter a ghost ride at a fairground.” Donald Fagen’s voice “splashed human corruptibility over the polished surfaces of Steely Dan’s music”.

Expanding the definition of “voice”, there’s also a chapter on jazz instrumentalists. This gives him an excuse to suggest that jazz musicians work so hard to perfect their skills in order that “they can never be caught out with nothing to say” – which is amusing, if not really profound. Much sharper is his observation that “rock music, as constructed by the Rolling Stones for the British audience and then a wider international one in the 1960s, was never a music of intimate connection but an animated description of life as it is lived on the edge of its own times … an account of an experience, not an appeal to the heart.”

In the circumstances, you can hardly blame Coleman for occasionally letting his ideas and enthusiasm run wild. Many of his readers will find their enjoyment of the book extended by the need to keep getting up and finding the record he’s writing about, or perhaps locating it via Spotify – but that’s not really the same thing, is it?

  • Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life by Nick Coleman (Penguin, £18.99). To order a copy for £16.14, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

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Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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