Clive James, The Observer

Television
by Clive James
The Observer
23 Aug 1981

An unintentionally wonderful programme called A Town Like New Orleans (BBC2) showed what happens when people whose proper concerns should be some form of fruitful labour start mucking about with art. Few real artistes despise business – in fact the more original they are, the more they tend to respect the workaday world – but it is a hallmark of the dabbler that he prides himself in being set apart, and so it proved here.

Leeds it appears, is crawling with jazz and pop musicians who have managed to convince themselves that they are contributing to the biggest explosion in their respective art forms since King Oliver met Louis Armstrong or Phil Spector invented the wall of sound.

The sonic evidence adduced to back up this contention sounded pretty feeble, but perhaps the television crew had called during a bad week. ‘Singing is one of the most important things in my life,’ said a lady in a sad brown hat, ‘it’s a very deep need in me … I suppose I’ve never been lucky enough to have … the breaks.’

A man with a beret, beard and spots played be-bop sax while one or two passers-by, stiff with cold and too many rehearsals for the camera, dropped pennies at his aching feet.

And that would have been the sum total of the action, if it had not been for the resident art teacher endowed with a remarkable gift for improvising endless streams of free-form sociologese. ‘Plurality … any viable activity as art … ideologically valid intervention by a rock and roll band.’

One of his pupils showed signs of outsouring his master. ‘We ‘ave a lot of problems as a band … we see ourselves more as a working unit who are trying to locate ourselves as a working unit of production … criteria … validate …’ It was the kind of talk which Duke Ellington used to say stank up the place. New Orleans had Storeyville and the sound of Buddy Bolden’s cornet across the water. Leeds has ideological intervention in the back room of a pub. It follows with inexorable logic that Leeds is not a town like New Orleans.


Article reprinted in Glued To The Box, a collection of Observer Television reviews by Clive James

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