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A Question of Accent

PostPosted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 1:08 pm
by howard male
Now hands up who likes Lily Allen? Yes it's a tricky one isn't it. That single's go a nice tune and good lyrics, and suddenly it seems terrible fashionable to like mockney singers again. And it reminded me of a brief e-mail discussion I had with Charlie a few years back before I started bringing my gripes and pontifications to this place.

What prompted the discussion was a Cambridge band who guested on CG's show but sung as if they were born by the banks of the Mississippi. This incongruity might have passed me by if it hadn't been for the fact they'd then talk to Charlie in their middle class East Anglian accents. It reminded me of how irritated I'd recently been by the lead singer of the Alabama 3 who refused to drop his fake American accent (he's from Scotland I believe) even between songs at a gig at the Windmill. Charlie then informed that when he'd been on the show he'd even spoken in 'American' during the interview segments!

Of course we have to accept, I suppose, that pop is American, and it's so American that most of the time we hardly even notice the American inflections and phrasings our 'yeah-yeah- yeah' artists adopt. In fact British singers only stick out like a sore thumbs when they refuse to play ball; when they dare to sing in the regional accent of their birthplace.

So what is our problem with English-accented singers? Charlie has publicly stated on this forum that it was Bowie's Anthony Newley cockneyisms which put him off the guy from the start. And I always found one of Charlie's favourites, Ian Dury, difficult to fully embrace because of his cod-thuggish delivery, despite his highly original words and music - I simply didn't quite trust him, if that makes sense. Yet his New York parallel, Lou Reed, delighted me from the first moment I heard him.

And while Bob Dylan, despite not being the world's greatest singer, sounds like an agreeable force of nature whenever I hear him, I've only very rarely been able to listen to Billy Bragg without wincing as he delivers his home-grown protest songs.

Perhaps it comes down to the fact we are as class ridden as ever as a society. If we're not moaning about the sound of these singers, we're moaning about the fact that Joe Strummer or Lily Allen aren't even working class in the first place, and so have no right to be dropping their H's and singing 'fink' instead of 'think' - this curiously twisted view, steeped in inverted snobbery, is hard to even get one's head around because if Lily had chosen to sing like Madonna, or Strummer like Springsteen, we would hardly have batted an eyelid. So what's our problem? Anyone got any ideas?

I've already stated elsewhere on the forum that one thing I like about Corinne Bailey Ray is the Englishness which slips through her Billie Holiday slur once in a while, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's a contributing factor to her burgeoning success in the States, so perhaps it can be good to be British these days. And, many other British acts such as Blur, the Kinks, and most of the UK punk bands sang in their own accents.

So where do the rest of you stand on regional British accents in pop, or the adoption of the American accent as the default setting for popular western music?

accents

PostPosted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 1:21 pm
by Dayna
I love different accents, especially British ! If that's what they are. I figure you are what you are. It's what adds to the whole thing & makes it more interesting.

PostPosted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 9:36 pm
by judith
Howard, this is an extremely complicated subject. Am I not surprised. Language as sound, language as culture, region, color, class...

I remember listening to my mother practice an aria, and asking her how she could sing in Italian when she didn’t speak it. She said not only could she sing in Italian, but she could sing without an accent (she had been told), but when she read the language aloud, she couldn’t. I asked her why and she said probably because she wasn’t in her head when she was singing and also, the songs were written in Italian and the sounds just flowed with the notes. She also told me when she was singing, she wanted to know what the words meant, what the song was about, so she wasn’t just mimicing sounds but going to ‘where the song is’. She sang the same aria to me in English and it not only didn’t work, she couldn’t finish because she was laughing too hard. She said maybe a poet could sing it in English but that she wasn’t a poet.

I remembered this when I listened to one of Charlie’s Sat Night ping pongs with, I think, Damon Albarn. Charlie played K’naan and the guest commented that he had never heard the rhythms with English before and how well K’naan pulled it off. (Please correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong.)

Many of us wondered when we first heard the Beetles why they sounded like Americans when they sang, but talked like the Englishmen they were. Guess we just got used to it. It had never occured to me until I read your posting that the reason I liked the Kinks was partly due to accent, or even that pop is American. Did the Beatles write in American? That brings up the embarassingly patronizing lyrics of blues sometimes written by white people - but what about singing in such a dialect as composed by the black artist? Or as in England, posh speakers singing not so posh? Are they delving deep in the gorgeous sound of a dialect other than their own or are they talking up or down or to?

I’ve got to go. Once again, you've asked a question that will probably stick in my head like one of those sound (ear?) worms somebody wrote about. I’ll leave off here with - my family is a mix. Observing thru a loved one’s eyes the visible - when you’re on the receiving end - statement of ‘you are different’ exuded in aped accents or 'hey listen to me, I know your jargon therefore I am cool' and the like reminds me over and over, begin with respect. Go to where the song is.

As to your ending question, default settings exist for the uninitiated, for convenience, and because they are generic and broadly understood, like an analogy. I will always hope to have more to hear, even in pop. Stuff that's so unto itself a comparison doesn't even come to mind.

PostPosted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 9:54 pm
by Martin_Edney
I'll answer the easy question in Howard's original posting, which is to put my hand up to say I like Lily Allen (or at least the songs of hers I've heard on the radio). Can't say the accent bothered me either way, except that I like to hear a British person sound British rather than American. However, I was sold on the little vignettes of stories told in the songs (brings The Kinks to mind again), as well as the bouncy arrangements and catchy tunes.

Surely these elements are more important than whether someone's accent is genuine or not? Afer all, we're happy for actors to assume a voice when acting a part, so maybe a singer should be allowed to do the same.

Lily, Sandy, Corinne

PostPosted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 11:13 pm
by Philip Ryalls
From the point of view of a photographer: Corinne Bailey Rae, Lily Allen and Sandi Thom, all recently at the top of the charts, and all allowed us to take photographs at their recent concerts. And all were terrific. As for the much hyped Camille - no photographs at her Jazz Cafe showcase. I am biased but I like the music of Lily, Corinne and Sandi and want to stick Camille's CD in the crusher.

Re: A Question of Accent

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 12:46 am
by Ian A.
howard male wrote:we have to accept, I suppose, that pop is American, and it's so American that most of the time we hardly even notice the American inflections and phrasings our 'yeah-yeah- yeah' artists adopt. In fact British singers only stick out like a sore thumbs when they refuse to play ball; when they dare to sing in the regional accent of their birthplace.

Don't get me started . . . aarrghh, too late, rant mode approaches . . .,

At the age of 16, I set out - with varying degrees of failure - to become a geriatric Mississippi blues singer. I did this for some years. I even carried the accent through my 4 years (and 4 albums) amongst the world's worst singer/ songwriter/ guitarists. Somewhere in the mid 1970s I woke up one morning (as bluesers are foolishly prone to doing) and heard one of my records though another person's ears. I thought "why on earth am I singing in this stupid fake American accent?" So I tried to stop. It took me a good year of conscious trying to get it cleared out of my system and sing (if it could be called that) in my own accent.

During that period, the shit really hit the fan. I remember playing in a club inear Newcastle and some local blueser having a real go out me in his native Geordie at why I was singing in "a posh voice". "That's not a posh voice", I pointed out, "it's just a southern English accent. Ordinary people speak like that." He ranted on, and then got up to sing in a really silly and very fake imitation Texas accent. He just didn't get it.

I don't like silly voices. I don't like people who fake American accents any more than I like Brit folkies singing in all-purpose Mummerset, or Londoners who put on fake Irish accents, or Scottish punks who put on identikit Sarf Lunnun. To me, the best singers in the (English speaking - that's all I can judge) world sing in the voice they speak in. I've no idea what accent Lily Allen speaks in so I reserve judgement, but Joe Strummer sang in the voice he spoke in - it may have been a different accent from the one he grew up with, but he'd grown into it long ago by the time he made his best records. It was all of one.

Pop is only American because we've rolled over and let it be - cultural colonialisation. I remember watching TOTP one week with my daughter and us both noticing that every single artist sang in an American accent, whether they were Murkans, Brits, Scandiwegians or whatever. It was truly depressing, ludicrous and objectionable . . . and with this realisation we very quickly drifted out of ever watching it any more. So yes, some of us really do "notice the American inflections and phrasings" and once you've started noticing them they jar more and more.

British singers in their natural accents don't stick out like "sore thumbs" to me - they shine through like rays of light. But I agree it's uncommon: a singer I'm working with regularly gets accused in the press of being influenced by British folk artists who she's never ever heard, simply because it's so unusual to hear a singer singing in English English that lazy journos can only think of the one genre they've encountered where people do it naturally, as a matter of course. Hence gut anti-reaction to anybody singing English from certain quarters!

I take Martin's point about acting. I understand why people want to inhabit a character. In blues terms, I used to think my dear friend the late Jo Ann Kelly did it wonderfully and I greatly admired her artistry but these days I can't listen to that kind of thing any more without feeling uncomfortable. Acting is fine up to a point - I remember expressing mild disappointment to a friend on my third Lhasa gig in less than a year that what I had first taken to be elegantly improvised, intimate off-the-cuff anecdotes were in fact finely scripted - but grudgingly accepting it once my friend pointed out that I wouldn't expect a theatre actor to improvise their lines differently every night. But singing like you speak is singing from the heart, with no artifice. It's the real thing.

I mean, don't you want to fall over laughing when you hear Van Morrison? Can anybody take that degree of affectation seriously?

Re: A Question of Accent

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 2:23 am
by Adam Blake
Ian A wrote: I mean, don't you want to fall over laughing when you hear Van Morrison? Can anybody take that degree of affectation seriously?


I know what you mean, but I still listen to and love "Astral Weeks" as a uniquely emotional record. And astonishingly mature for a 22 year old...

I think your friend's point about actors and acting is the whole thing in a nutshell. Is it so bad to act? Is acting a role that you've created for yourself something we should look down upon? If so, why?

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 9:29 am
by howard male
Martin wrote -

Surely these elements are more important than whether someone's accent is genuine or not? After all, we're happy for actors to assume a voice when acting a part, so maybe a singer should be allowed to do the same.


Art is artifice - that's the bottom line, I suppose. The Americans invented pop as we now know it, that's why an American accent is pop's default setting.

It's interesting that Judith brought opera into the discussion because surely Italian is the default setting for opera - it is the language of opera just as, in a sense - because the phrasing is so different - American is the language of pop. But at least in pop it isn't a dictatorship in the same way opera is - an opera singer singing in a regional accent wouldn't even be considered an opera singer. The accent is part of the instrumental character of the human voice in opera, isn't it?

I never had the problems Ian had when I tried to embark on a career as a pop singer (apart from the problem of not succeeding). In fact I embraced my Englishness from the start. Firstly because my primary influences were English (Bowie, Bolan, then punk.) And secondly, because I knew I was never going to cut it as pinup, I grew a Charles Darwin beard and stiffly waxed moustache and wore nineteen thirties Oxfam Shop three-piece suits. If I'd then sung like Bruce Springsteen it would have been patently absurd. But if that all sounds a little contrived it wasn't. Singing in 'American' never felt right, anymore than singing the word 'baby' did.

But of course everything is about timing, and England in the eighties didn't want anything so quintessentially English as my quirky art school band. It was at it's very peak of American domination of pop, with all that perfectly sculpted hair, wide-shouldered suits and huge drum and keyboard sounds. So I agree, at least the likes of The Streets, Damon Albarn, and Lily Allen indicates we can sing with our own voice again.

But to go back to my voice, if I was to listen to my old recordings again, I'd probably hear all sorts of voices which weren't mine creeping in, because art is also imitation. I was simply the best Bowie and Bolan impersonator imaginable from age fourteen to sixteen: you have to go through a stage like that to learn the craft, and you then hopefully grow beyond it.

Most blues, rock or pop musicians learn to do what they do by copying; soaking up there favourite records through countless playing. Those favourite records were 99% American in pops infancy, so it's hardly surprising that the dishwater came along with the baby.

Finally a couple of words on Camille in defence of Phil binning her because her management wouldn't let him take pictures of her. I don't know how she was promoted in France but here I feel it has been very much a slow and organic process stemming from a genuine appreciation of both her CD and then her live performances, beginning with Charlie's playing of her. So no hype as far I was aware of. And surely there is one woman who certainly isn't effected by the global sweep of the American accent in any of the voices she sings in! In fact according to her collaborator MaJiKa, who I spoke to after the Scala gig, one of the main influences on her during the recording of Le Fil was the TV show Little Britain!

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 10:12 am
by Charlie
howard male wrote: Charlie has publicly stated on this forum that it was Bowie's Anthony Newley cockneyisms which put him off the guy from the start. And I always found one of Charlie's favourites, Ian Dury, difficult to fully embrace because of his cod-thuggish delivery, despite his highly original words and music - I simply didn't quite trust him, if that makes sense. Yet his New York parallel, Lou Reed, delighted me from the first moment I heard him.

Great topic, Howard, one that should run and run.

But I didn't say anything about Anthony Newley's cockneyisms when I was grumbling about David Bowie reminding me of him - you have made an assumption that my problem ws their Englishness. It's my fault for not being more specific. In both cases, it's their tone of voice that bothers me, not their accents. Their timbre is thin and reedy, their voice is not located in their bellies or their chests but in their throats.

Being entirely inconsistent, I did like Lonnie Donegan when I was a teenager, somehow accepting both his thin, reedy vocie and what now sounds like a ridiculously fake American accent. What I welcomed was a collection of songs that weren't about how much I love you, miss you, don't like you any more. I went off Lonnie when he switched to singing in an English accent - Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour and My Old Man's a Dustman.

In the early 60's, hits done in an English regional accent were regarded as novelty songs - but I did like Mike Sarne's 'Come Outside', sung in a London accent.

I'm interested that the Beatles sounded American to Judith. To me, they sounded (and still sound) very English, especially when John sang lead. The way he says 'It's been a hard day's night' is not just English, but specifically Liverpool.

And whereas I didn't like the early Small Faces hits sung in American accents typical of the time, I was amazed by Steve Marriott's switch to an East End accent in 'Lazy Sunday Afternoon' and 'Itychycoo Park', which still sound like little masterpieces.

I can understand Howard's problem with Ian Dury's voice - Ian was very uncertain about it himself! - but his hits sound more and more remarkable to me, brilliantly crafted lyrics that can sound so off-hand. If there are readers unfamilair with him, start with 'What a Waste' and 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', the latter a UK number one at the end of 1978.

What little I've heard of Lily Allen shows no sign of that kind of discipline, of making sure the phrases have a natural rhythm to them. I have the same trouble with The Streets, another English-accentd singer whose lyrics tend to just go on and on, no sense of structure. It's hard to do. Ian himself only achieved perfection a few times, thanks partly to the insistence of keyboard player Chaz Jankel that Ian should drop some of the words in some songs.

I share Howard's problem with Billy Bragg's English accent. Awkward for me, because I like him as a bloke (and am close friends with two members of his band, The Blokes!). He writes very good songs, but I usually prefer other people singing them. And to confuse things further, I like Billy best when he sings 'Dark End of the Street' in an accent as-close-as-this to American.

judith wrote:I remembered this when I listened to one of Charlie’s Sat Night ping pongs with, I think, Damon Albarn. Charlie played K’naan and the guest commented that he had never heard the rhythms with English before and how well K’naan pulled it off. (Please correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong.)

Damon's point wa slightly different, but still pertinent to this topic. What he heard, as K'naan began the song in English, was that he was phrasing the words to suit an African melody. Damon was very gratified to hear that when K'naan swtiched to Somali half way through the song, the melody and phrasing remained exactly the same.

Damon himself belongs in the category of British singers who always sounds English when he sings. I place him in a line that starts with those Small Faces records mentioned above and runs through Ian Dury and Squeeze, whose 'Up the Junction' and 'Goodbye Girl' still sound as good as ever.

These English-accented hits are what I believe should be celebrated as English folk music. And indeed they are, at primary schools around the country where children seem to know the entire colleciton of Beatles hits off-by-heart.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 10:33 am
by Dayna
I tried & tried all night last night to write here I have always loved British accents & the groups from UK were always attractive to me, because of them, plus the music. The accents have always just been part of the songs. I liked Kinks & Human League a lot. And now Damon's voice.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 11:05 am
by Dayna
I can't seem to edit what I wrote earlier, & just wanted to say more that I've always loved different accents. British accents & culture have always been fascinating to me. I can't see whay anyone would have a problem with someone singing in an English accent. I thought that whether it was in the 60s, 80's, or whatever. I have wondered why some of the British singers didnt' always sound like they were.
I always thought a lot of other Americans felt the same way. Why else would they have such a popular commercial with a talking gecko that's English?
Dayna

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 11:21 am
by Ian A.
Rant PS - don't you always think of something you meant to say after you sign off? How come people who love world music for the very fact that it doesn't sound like globalised wannabe American pop have a mental block when it comes to English music sounding English, actually prefering it to sound American? When interviewing go-ahead young bands from all over the planet who have been doing something new and exciting out of their local roots, you nearly always get the same answer when asked why: "we were fed up with our culture being obliterated by globalised American". Our world music audience all love what they do, admire them for it, and would take their side against local home critics who accuse them of being retro, old-fashioned, unhip. And then turn their noses up at the English equivalent. What Australians used to call "the cultural cringe" working overtime here.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 8:44 pm
by howard male
Charlie wrote -

I'm interested that the Beatles sounded American to Judith. To me, they sounded (and still sound) very English, especially when John sang lead.


Yes, the Beatles do still sound like they are from Liverpool because they managed to unselconciously overlay their accents with the American accent they've assimilated from being immersed in American music since their teens. And so they didn't end up sounding affected or stylised. The best singers in pop are the ones we don't even notice or remember what accent they sung in. 'Itychycoo Park' is a perfect example of this - it's just sung in a melding of American and regional English accents which perfectly suits its otherworldly pop sound.

Perhaps Dury's problem was that he had to make a conscious effort to break away from Americanisms in his singing, because that's what he thought, politically, he should be doing. Likewise, Bragg - the guy has written some nice tunes but the only time they spring to life is when someone like Kirsty McColl covers them - but then again, she sung in a regional accent, so maybe what it really comes down to is whether you can sing or not!


Ian A wrote -


How come people who love world music for the very fact that it doesn't sound like globalised wannabe American pop have a mental block when it comes to English music sounding English, actually prefering it to sound American?


I don't think we do, Ian, apart from the kind of singers you yourself mention in your previous post - the kind who sing in 'all-purpose Mummerset' as you so accurately put it - unfortunately that's the kind of folk music most people get exposed to.

I just like to be surprised by music, it doesn't matter where it comes from. So just point me in the direction of some English music which surprises and I'll be a very happy man.

oh it's lonely at the top.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 9:41 pm
by ritchie
Gosh isnt it hot! I've started to wear socks with sandals for the first time in my life, who says you cant teach an old horse new tricks ....or is it a dog?...whatever!.... tomorrow I might wear a vest and a hanky on my head, well after all I'm British....and that's what all british do...don't they!

But harrah way an shite man aa think it's canny keeping traditions and aal that but aa wood haight to heer the geordie accent in aal those grate songs by sting or gording as we aal affecshunally caal him....or eving dire straights alltho' aa think mark has a little geordie twang wen he sings. mebee it's just wen he sings aboot the spanish city or dog leap stairs.

theres nowt at aal rang aboot keeping yor roots unless of course ye dye yor hair.

Mind yeu aa coodnt imagine 'letter t' america' being sung any other way than with a scottish accent....whether or not yee came from newcassell or brightun.

for me its aal a load of bollocks and Ian if y'had a been singing at the club a gogo with your 'posh accent' we honestly woodnt have said owt ...but we wood have narf took the piss oot of y' afterwards tho'

aal the very breast.....sid the sexist ;-)

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 9:44 pm
by Ian A.
howard male wrote:So just point me in the direction of some English music which surprises and I'll be a very happy man.


The Bellowhead album due out soon should surprise you - produced by Ben Mandelson of this parish . . .
ritchie wrote:but aa wood haight to heer the geordie accent in aal those grate songs by sting or gording as we aal affecshunally caal him

Just wait til you hear the Hal Wilner Rogues Gallery sea shanty album mentioned in another thread. Sting singing in his best Johnny Handle geordie folk accent . . . and why not?