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  • Writer's picturejoanna braniff

How Belfast Got the Blues - A note on style, form and ambition

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

By Noel McLaughlin

This book has been written with the non-academic reader very much in mind.

As authors we were very conscious - and at the outset - of the ghettoization of markets and readerships and sought to break out of simply appealing to the academic marketplace. Sadly, it is one of highly priced books aimed at university libraries, or mandatory (and equally expensive) textbooks targeted at students, which are often framed as necessary for them to complete their course.

We know this from first-hand experience. When trying to purchase books relevant to the research for the current volume, and which were not available on the University library’s catalogue, we were confronted with astronomical price-tags (most often from £80 upwards). Even if we could procure those books on the UK Universities’ inter-library loan system, we were conscious that this facility was not open to many of our intended readers.

As community libraries are either facing closure, or already closed, we felt it wrong that knowledge was being further monetised and access to knowledge increasingly privatised.

Moreover, the very idea of an ‘academic’ book is often off-putting to a general readership. The stereotype of the ‘dry’, terminology-heavy and insider-speak book was a perception we very much wanted to overcome.

In the spirit of punk, we wanted to break these silos of market and readership apart, tear down the walls of the compartmentalisation citadel, and make an ecumenical appeal to readers, publishers and reviewers to desert these more customary camps. In support of this stance – ad to add substance to these grand claims - we deliberately forfeited any royalties, with the aim of keeping the price of the book as low as practicably possible.

We sought a subvention from Northumbria University to this end, with the University supporting our ambition to have a cross-over academic book which would appeal to a more general readership interested in the subject (but who might have been otherwise put off by a hefty price-tag).

Thanks to Matthew Potter and Ysanne Holt for making this possible.

Happily, we have realised our ambition of offering not so much a weighty price as a lengthy tome, one that matches in RRP – but out-does in word length - the type of Faber popular music book as written by, say, Jon Savage or Simon Reynolds.

In the light of current economic arrangements, this is a not inconsiderable achievement. Fortunately, we pitched this ambition to our publisher, Intellect Books, early on in the writing process, and it has only been made possible because they shared in this ambition to ‘cross-over’. Intellect also supported us in writing a book that is over double the length of the usual ‘academic’ monograph. Thank you for taking that risk, your faith in the project and in our ability to realise it.

You are, undoubtedly, the most ‘rock’n’roll of publishers. (click here to find more about Intellect)

Nonetheless, while we have endeavoured to make the writing as clear, accessible and jargon-free as possible, the book is objectively informed by many of the tools of cultural criticism in the academy. In this sense, and before one may get alarmed, we are no different than the NME in the 1970s and 1980s, when that magazine in its golden age played a historically important role in introducing critical theory into the consideration of popular music - whether as art, culture or politics - to a more widespread readership.

However, in a practical way, this, on occasion, may require the non-academic reader to look up a word or phrase, or perhaps re-visit a sentence. If specialist terminology appears it is certainly not attributable to the desire to show-off or bamboozle. Rather, a specialist term, or turn of phrase, is often the most precise and concise, or indeed sometimes the only way to explain a certain point. In other words, while we endeavoured to make the book accessible and as easy to read as possible, we are also proud of the fact that it is informed by these kinds of critical-theoretical approach.

In other areas of academic life (for example, medicine or economics), there is little resistance to specialist terms and concepts. In this spirit, we hope that any such recourse to ‘academic language’ will be justified in the practical demonstration of what these concepts can uncover and illuminate. In support of this ambition, it is our sincere hope that the book’s mix of academic and critical approaches, and these being realised in an accessible style, will shopwindow what some of these ways of seeing, thinking and hearing can bring to the story of popular music and its importance.

Finally, we hope, also, that non-academic readers won’t be put off by footnotes, references to other authors in the text, and occasional lengthy quotations. All of these are driven by a democratic impulse: of making sources transparent and available, as well as openly revealing that not all of the ideas are our own - and acknowledging where particular ideas came from throughout. It also breaks down the tiresome pretence of individual genius, whilst also displaying the collective nature of learning and the related importance of sharing ideas.

In addition to all of this, footnotes and references also provide the reader with other books, articles and audio-visual sources to pursue according to one’s interests.

In other words, we are open about sharing our homework.

Finding a balance between an accessible style and maintaining a sustained critical focus is not always easy. The other side of the jargon-heavy academic tome is what one might call the ‘pseudo-populist academic book’. We certainly didn’t want the present volume to replicate the kind of ‘talkin’ music with your mates down the pub’ tone that is often a feature of books desperately trying to display to their reader that they are anything other than elitist.

To this end, it is a worth sharing a comment from an early reader who described How Belfast Got the Blues as ‘a non-fiction academic detective novel’. We warmed to this remark. It’s a prescient observation, as the book is meant to be read a whole and not to be dipped into. Like the detective novel it reveals as it goes; even though most readers will be aware (and unlike the investigative thriller) that, at the decade’s end Belfast is immersed in the troubles and the optimism associated with the 1960s is well and truly over.

Nonetheless, the investigation structure was necessary in both keeping the reader’s interest, and for conveying our enthusiasm in the connections-making process so fundamental to archival research and cultural-historical writing.

Having said all of this by way of explanation, the book is finished and will have to fend for itself without its authors present to qualify any points or answer any queries or explain away any oversights. The time has come for us to let go.

We sincerely hope you enjoy this cultural history of popular music in the 1960s.

Photo caption: Bernadette Devlin demonstrates that sometimes you need to use every tool at your disposal to have your story heard.

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