Monday, November 27, 2023

Titanic #2 (Ray Lowry versus Ian Penman) (1981)


Ray Lowry

Titanic Refloated

New Musical Express, June 20 1981

Ian Penman

Titanic Resunk 

a.k.a. Political Conscience Every Now and Then. Pub Every Night. NME Every Week.

New Musical Express, June 17 1981

Unusually clearcut for the Punman then -  and a piece that did some rewiring of my ideas in those formative days, so deftly did it demolish the quaint 'n' clunky idea of  politics + pop that the Lowry tirade wished to restore, with such clumsy yearning (stick to the cartooning, boy, you're ruff at that).

I believe this is the last of the Titanic-themed pieces that NME did. 

Missing from the sequence: the proto-Titanic piece that Mick Farren wrote at the very start of 1976, a sort of warming up to the theme of "things have gone adrift". I feel that I have at some point read that proto-piece, but where it would be and how to get my hands on it, I'm not sure....  

Unabashed by being thrashed, in October 1981 Lowry continues to demand generational voices of angry sanity from within the ranks of rock. 

"I promise I'll be funny again soon - when the economy looks up"


  1. Hilariously two-footed challenge from Penman there. No affected fastidiousness about ad hominem attacks.

    Absolutely wild that the NME was prepared to publish a staffer eviscerating one of his colleagues like that. Anarchy!

    1. Now I think about it, I believe there was some kind of feeble response from Lowry to this dainty dismembering from IP - like a third, much shorter piece, with all the fight kicked out of it, sort of "let's be friends / agree to disagree". I don't know if Titanics were mentioned.

      But this might be a memory hallucination.

      Or even a dream...

      Music papers have an unusual prominence in my dreamlife, although it's nearly always Melody Maker - a MM that stills exists... albeit in much reduced circumstances.

    2. Ah, not entirely imagined but misremembered - Lowry did not get to do a retaliatory essay, but he did write a letter to NME's letters pages (full of missives about the Titanic debate), which attempted a conciliatory, smooth-over troubled waters tone. Only to get knocked back firmly by Morley, who was editing the letters that week: "Decent of you, chum. But it’s no use—you’ve been hell and back truly crushed by the capricious little runt. If I were you I’d get back behind the cartoons—it’s hot out here and it ain’t easy being funny writing about pop records. That’s why I never bother.”

    3. Morley calling two-years-junior Penman a 'little runt' is a nice tongue-in-cheek reminder of the assumed gulf in age gaps taken for granted in that time and place, even if it was intended to needle the elderly 37-year old Lowry.

  2. The ironic thing is that while he's never warmed up to the Old Wave canon (Elvis aside, intriguingly), the older LRB contributor Penman is temperamentally closer to the 'menopausal' Lowry than to his younger self - which is where age in general and living in properly post-Thatcher(/Blair/Cameron/Johnson) England will take you, I suppose. Whatever the merits of separating pop music and political agitation (and he does make an eloquently sensible case for it), the New Pop was not quite the neutral territory he supposed it to be in 81.

  3. Sorry, but "unusually clearcut"? Can't we just be straightforward and say the criticism of the punk/post-punk era was drastically overwritten and impenetrable? Indeed, the paradox of these pieces about the failure of contemporary rock to connect with the kids is that they were written so as not to connect with the kids, but the backslapping mates of the writers. I mean, have you ever noticed that Paul Morley is far more coherent on telly than in print? That's because he has a proper editor when he's on the box.

    1. I will say that Penman's LRB pieces are far more my speed than his NME work - they feel measured and grown into, like he can back up his youthful cleverness with actual knowledge and considered thought on the subjects he's writing about.

      Very much unlike Morley (who, bless him, will write exactly like that until he drops dead), he evolved. I've wondered if they had a falling out at some point, since Penman raked his first-thought posthumous Bowie monograph over the coals in the Review...

    2. Yes I actually paid (a small amount of) money for that collection of Penman's LRB pieces, and really enjoyed it. His Sinatra essay is particularly good, I think, and persuaded me to take seriously someone who I had never had any time for before. His most recent book was on Fassbinder, though, and I am not going to be buying that. For all I know, it may be terrific, but I don't think I've ever seen a single frame of a Fassbinder film, and I can't face the thought of all the homework I would have to do to enjoy the book. Here's hoping he publishes something more accessible next time.

      I had forgotten about him blasting the Morley Bowie book. Payback for the "little runt" line, 40 years later! Although Penman does affect a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone: "I worked (and played, and plotted) with him at the NME in the 1980s and still regard him with something beyond mere affection..."

      Morley, as you say, hasn't changed a bit, really. I enjoyed his Classical music book, and it introduced me to a lot of stuff I wouldn't otherwise have heard. But there are lots of lists, a fair amount of self-aggrandisement, and a lot of free association. I would be surprised if that one took him much longer than ten weeks, either.

    3. "Little runt" isn't a put-down, it's more like an amiable bit of taking the piss, and a reference to his slight figure and height I should think rather than the small age difference between the two. IP and PM were thick as thieves in those days

    4. I honestly find it hard to believe anyone who'd read these blogs would find the Penman riposte hard to understand. It's very direct and to the point, especially compared to some of the more abstruse Derrida-influenced and prose-poetical things he was writing in that era. Those could be challenging but a challenge I would gladly take on. Even if comprehension hovers out of one's grasp, you can just enjoy the sensuality, the frolic, of the language.

      But this piece, the Lowry counter-blast, it's clear as day, surely. Punchy, even.

  4. OK, I might have been a bit harsh there. What has caused me to mellow is this, which I believe is the B-side to the first Mondays' single. I avoided listening to it for a second time for such a long time, for fear that I'd be disappointed, but it turned out that I adored it without qualification.
    Why aren't the Happy Mondays appreciated?