Dave Struck A Chord
By Noel McLaughlin
One of the saddest, yet greatest honours of my life was writing the obituary for The Guardian of my friend Roger Pomphrey – music filmmaker and first guitarist in Eurythmics.
I had no ambition whatsoever to write for Britain’s only mainstream left-liberal paper – I mean it would have been nice, don’t get me wrong – but there was a bigger picture.
That was getting my friend into the only broadsheet he had any respect for. Another friend, and my informal mentor, Dave Laing, one of the true founding figures of what we now call Popular Music Studies, wrote erudite obituaries for that paper, so my plan was that Dave would write something about Roger.
There was a certain symmetry to this idea: Roger and Dave had been feted to work on a music documentary project that never materialised. But Dave held Roger in the highest regard. That, in itself, was unusual. Dave was by disposition wary of overstatement, so I was pleased he held Roger in a hallowed place.
Anyway, I was tasked with doing some research to make the case for The Guardian. I presented my findings to Dave, hoping (so hoping) the paper would run with the obit. He informed me that they would not only run it, but that I should write it.
I’m delighted that Roger will get some national recognition but nervous that I am responsible for providing it. I start to feel the pressure. I’m not used to short word-counts for a start. I run my drafts past Roger’s more long standing friends.
One, the renowned cinematographer, John de Borman, the man who shot Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, gave me invaluable advice: don’t make it a compressed CV, inject Roger’s personality into it. I hope I fulfilled the brief and honoured John’s helpful suggestion.
Several years later, Dave Laing would also pass away.
I was crest-fallen. Not just because he was a mentor, but because he was a friend. He embodied and represented an attitude that was in danger of disappearing. He avoided the usual academic posts. He was bombarded by offers of professorships. As an independent scholar producing work of the highest order, he was sought after to boost Research Evaluation Framework (REF) submissions, where universities are ranked according to the quality of their research (and ‘quality’, not unsurprisingly, equals money).
An extremely important facet of the late Dave Laing was his love of a certain protocol.
Not procedure, but an altogether different way of 'doing business'. Ideas would be discussed over an unhurried meal in a good restaurant, one we’d agreed on in advance. This would be followed by an equally good pub.
There was none of this Formica, IKEA coffee shop vibe that contemporary universities settle for. The discussion of a serious topic and a weighty article/idea required good food, surroundings and fine wine and beer.
Why should the devil have all the good music had morphed into a different maxim: why should the conservatives have all the good food and wine?
When Joanna and I started writing and researching How Belfast Got the Blues, Dave was our first supporter. He loved the audacity, the book’s capacity to upset received wisdom.
He also was smitten by the fact that my co-author was not primarily from academia, and instead belonged more securely to the world of newspapers and organising political campaigns. He knew from his own experience that this would add something ‘out of the box’ to the usual trot through secondary sources. He had spent many years writing journalism of music as a business and knew the conceits.
He was right. And he put his proverbial money where his sentiments had been.
We aired the ideas from the book for the first time in Popular Music History, where he was our strict – but supporting – editor. It stands, if Dave is to be believed, as the longest article he has let past his supervising gaze. Praise indeed or perhaps indulgence of our enthusiasm.
Dave’s book on punk, One Chord Wonders, is still the best I’ve read on the subject. Sure, Jon Savage has the detail. Dave, however, has the broader and deeper issues in his sights. It is also more modern: gender, sexuality and identity hover large in a way they don’t in better known works.
I wish he was around for the launch of How Belfast Got the Blues. Joanna and I would have approached him to write the foreword for a start, just as he had done so eruditely for my last book with Martin McLoone. But I miss the fact that he would have enjoyed the ‘re-centring of periphery’ narrative Joanna and I have put in place in the book.
Dave hated metropolitan snobbery, but he also loathed the rant: an argument had to be carefully presented with evidence if it wanted to convince those outside of its immediate constituency. He knew that a ‘ranting lefty’, however heartfelt and informed, and however much he agreed, merely played into the hands of Conservatives.
As Martin Cloonan observed in a heartfelt tribute, Dave was a Marxist, not in the loud, demonstrative fashion of a zealot, but because he quietly felt it was the most just perspective and critical lens through which to view the world.
Of course, what’s in the book is Joanna and I’s responsibility, even if Dave inspired the approach in many ways. I know he’d be critical of some of it. I selfishly wish he’d been at the other end of the phone for advice about some sticking points.
The world of exploring popular music is much lonelier without him. I, for one, am incredibly grateful for the advice and informal mentoring of the first generation of popular music studies scholars – to Dave, Will Straw and Simon Frith. There was a critical mission at work. At risk of pretension, no one called it that at the time.
I’ll never know what Dave thinks of the book overall. I can only speculate. I’m also disappointed he and Joanna never got to meet on one of those delightful, but very long, lunches. I know that he’d have loved talking to someone who had organised political campaigns against the reactionary forces of the DUP over the company of ambitious young popular music scholars, and revel in the connections between winning hearts and minds, implanting myths, and selling product accordingly.
Dave Laing you are greatly missed. If there is a God, I hope you enjoy the fact that this book is dedicated to your memory and influence.