EARTHBOUND by Paul Morley (Penguin Books, 2013)

By common consensus Paul Morley is a pretentious tosser and, moreover, he knows it.

He was a weekly source of irritation during his tenure at New Musical Express from 1977 – 1983 but somehow his pieces were impossible to ignore.

His self-consciously provocative style was exasperating but I have to concede that the man can write. With the benefit of hindsight, I think he was providing a valuable service to NME readers by making the point that writing about music is always subjective and personal.

When we listen to recordings or find bands, we bring our own baggage which includes plenty of prejudices and preconceptions. We can never hear these sounds in a vacuum; our responses are coloured by our mood, background and the space in which we experience the music.

In Earthbound, Morley admits that his articles would “seem to be about one thing and then half way through, start to be about something else altogether” and this book follows much the same pattern.

The book is one of twelve pocket-sized Penguin paperbacks inspired by a different tube line to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. They are intended to illustrate how, although we are all connected in some way, the space we live in shapes our imagination in different ways.

It begins with cosy, though half remembered, memories of his first experiences on London’s tube network then morphs into reflections on “the impermanence of all things” with musings on adventures in modern music. The subjects are tied together in his head by virtue of the fact that “a tube journey can seem like a piece of music, one reflecting a city in suspense”.

“Enough of the Underground, let’s talk about me.”

Morley selected Bakerloo as this was the line which linked the city centre to his first home in north-west London. He tells how the line, represented on the tube map by an unfashionably earthy brown colour, has changed since its inception in 1906 when it was named the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway line.

However, the book this is more of a meditation on the travel experience than a history lesson. For instance, he visualises the transport network as a “submerged labyrinthine space broken into ricocheting fragments” making it sound like being part of a sci-fi movie.

The surreal experience was further intensified when he travelled while listening to the one of the earliest Sony Walkmans, a gift from Japan at the end of the 1970s. This prompts comparisons between the way we consumed music then and how we do so in the present digital age. Walkmans have now become quaint and clunky antiques when placed beside iPods and the march of progress is so rapid that even these mobile MP3 players are on the way out.

Morley criticises the internet driven music business model as a “a sterile and perversely inhibiting calculation of people’s tastes”. He recalls with some nostalgia how, when he discovered a new band he liked to imagine that it was his discovery alone and that “it had been specifially made to my own specifications”. Little now seems so unique and personal.

The way underground music making has altered is exemplified in the exploratory analog improvisations that were an essential feature in the music of Krautrockers Can. To show that he has not strayed entirely off topic he makes great play of the fact that this band recorded a track called Up The Bakerloo Line With Anne on the John Peel show on February 20th, 1973; part of a session at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios which is best reached via the Bakerloo line.

At 136 pages, this entertaining book will take more than a single tube journey to complete but not much more.

Paul Morley’s conclusion of sorts is that a city depends on its machinery while humans live a good part of their lives on imaginary journeys which only occasionally connect with reality.

Related link:

Secrets of the Bakerloo Line – short, entertaining video on the history of this tube line.

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