The Twisted Bell

Constructive Criticism

Date: Mon May 12 12:21:31 1997
Subject: Re: "Constructive criticism"

To get in my two cents about Stephen's snappy little put-down and Terry's follow-up comments (and speaking entirely for myself, of course):

I prefer Amarok and Ommadawn to most of Mike's other works, and I'm not so keen on Voyager. But I'm more than willing to leap to the defence of those who do like Voyager if there are signs of thought police trying to shut them up. All the opinions expressed here are nothing more than opinions, not facts, and none of us should take the attitude that someone who expresses a fondness for an album we don't like is violating the fundamental order of the universe. That way lies the death of the list.

We shouldn't get too concerned about the exuberant rhetoric sometimes bandied about in support of one album or another. Saying 'Give us another Amarok, Mike' is really nothing more than saying 'I like Amarok a lot'. It's harmless, at least in the context of this list. But a 'feedback' page to WEA is a different matter. Obviously, saying 'Give us another Amarok, Mike' when you know he might read your message takes on more significance. I would still defend it as valid, though, for the following reasons:

The creative purity of the artist is all well and good, but that's not how most artists work. If you want to keep yourself entirely pure and uninfluenced by outside pressures, the answer is simple: don't publish, exhibit, perform or release your work. And, at the opposite extreme, if you want to maximise your chances of financial success, produce work that's aimed squarely at the mainstream and hope that it does the trick. Most artists work somewhere between those two extremes, and thank God for that, because an artist with no public exposure whatsoever, unless they're unnaturally driven, is unlikely to produce as significant a body of work as they would have done if they'd had some encouragement (financial or otherwise) to keep working.

Mike's been fortunate. He pulled a winner out of the hat at the age of twenty, and that's given him a lot of creative freedom. But he still needs record companies if he wants to get his work to the public, and record companies have their own interest in the matter. There have been plenty of occasions - he's said it himself in many an interview - when Mike's been subjected to record company pressure to produce more 'winners', and has acted on it. That's why he kept up the supply of short vocal songs in the 1980s. That's why he produced 'Voyager' - because WEA encouraged him to do a Celtic album.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Even when you're working to someone else's agenda, you can produce good work (as Mike has shown - some of those 1980s songs were great). Sometimes outside input can catalyse your thoughts at a time you're feeling blocked, and set you off in an interesting new direction. We shouldn't assume that time spent working-to-order would otherwise be spent producing a masterpiece; it could have been spent doing nothing.

So if outside influence isn't necessarily bad, where does it come from? The general public? Well, Mike's not really a 'rock star' in the screaming-teenyboppers sense, so I'd imagine that, unlike some other rich musicians, he's free to mingle with 'ordinary folks' when he wants to without fear of being mobbed. But he's not going to get much feedback on his music from ordinary folks, because hardly any of them know his music. The feedback he gets is from his record company and management, the critics, and fans. The critics who know him for more than TB are few and far between. Record companies have their own agendas dictated by what's fashionable and likely to make the most money at any particular point - influences not necessarily likely to produce the best work. Mike's management, third party sources have reported, praise him whatever he does. So the only useful sources of informed feedback left (apart from his circle of fellow musician friends like Tom Newman) are his fans.

The WEA site says that Mike is interested in what we have to say (and let's put aside any doubts and take that at face value for the moment). Now, as a fan - and we all are, or else we wouldn't be here - what kind of feedback do you think is more useful?

'You're great, Mike, and there's not a single thing that you've ever done that I don't like. Just keep doing whatever you feel like, and I'll love it and buy every single release that I possibly can because you're an absolute genius.'

All very flattering, but it doesn't really lead anywhere. If that's all he hears from us, Mike's back to relying on his record company for advice again. How about:

'I thought the most promising thing on Voyager was 'Mont St. Michel'. That could be an interesting direction to explore further.'


'The dance remixes by other artists have been a bit disappointing. I'd rather hear dance music that you've produced.'


'I've always liked the extended instrumentals, especially Ommadawn and Amarok. Your music seems to work best when you strip away the obvious nods to current musical fashion.'

Even saying 'give us another Amarok' (which I wouldn't in those precise words) is preferable to saying 'just do whatever, man'. It's specific, not vague. It's stating a definite point of view. That doesn't mean it's the only possible view; if 'Voyager' is top of your pops, then by all means say so. But if the man asks for feedback, then at least offer something constructive. After all, genius minus constructive criticism equals 'Wings Wild Life'.

There's another point. At a fundamental level, 'let him create what he wants to create' and 'give us another Amarok/Ommadawn/TB' mean the same thing. The point about those three albums is that they're prime examples of Mike 'creating what he wants to create'. Amarok, in particular, was significant because it was Mike doing what he wanted to after a decade of bowing to Virgin pressure. And for some of us here, Voyager is disappointing because it represents Mike whipping off a quick album of Celtic Music's Greatest Hits in response to a record company that already had one Enya and wanted another. Sure, there's some nice music there. But it doesn't feel like 'core Mike'.

Still, if Mike wants to follow his record company's every suggestion, sure, let him. But if he wants feedback from his fans, let us offer it without being told we have an 'attitude'. I'd rather an attitude than a platitude.


Date: Thu Feb 20 10:56:50 1997
Subject: Re: This list's reputation..

Kerick wrote:

I don't want to start a debate over this comment...

Awww! Pleeeease? :)

I just thought you might like to know what sort of reputation we're getting.

We're a hard bunch. Cruel, but fair.

To be honest, I don't know how to react to this guy's comments... so the best way is probably with complete sarcasm!

"Before I joined Amarok I was warned by friends at record companies in the US to stay away because all you do is bash Oldfield for the most part."

Of course, record companies are, as we all know, excellent judges of Mike's qualities. After all, there were all those record companies that turned down Tubular Bells, knowing that such disappointments would do him a power of good by building up his moral fibre. Then there was Virgin, which knew that completely ignoring him in favour of its new punk bands in the late 1970s would be just the tonic he needed, and that pressuring him to turn out short pop songs throughout the 1980s would clear his mind of all that instrumental nonsense. And of course when he regressed to his earlier instrumental tendencies with 'Amarok', Virgin rightly ignored that too. And who can forget WEA, with their thoughtful 'remix that sucker to death and release the results on 14 different CD-singles' policy? And let's not forget the record companies in the US, so wise in their decisions to delay the American release of Mike's albums (by over a year in one notable case) - after all, they want to give Mike's work the chance to mature 'in the can'.

And how right they are! Mailing lists are such a trial... all the fans do is bash their heroes. The Velvet Underground fans make fun of Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music'... the Bob Dylan fans lay into 'Self Portrait'... why, even Beatles fans have been known to make snide comments about some of Paul McCartney's solo releases. (Can you believe it? Paul McCartney! Don't they know he's a KNIGHT? For shame!)

(That's enough sarcasm - Ed.)

He made this judgement after a week on the list. Now, that's not a long time to make a judgement on, but it's about the right amount of time someone will take to decide whether the list is worthwhile or not on subscription.

True enough. But what can we hope to do about it? Anyone who's been here a while will have seen yours truly say adulatory things about some of Mike's work, and condemnatory things about other parts of it; and the same is true of all of us who post here. Can we help it if someone catches us at the wrong moment and forms the wrong opinion?

We think too highly of Mike, and take him too seriously, to write nothing but uncritical praise. And everything we say is said in the context of this list, where we know that everyone else present thinks Mike is great, so what's the point in saying that over and over again? I for one am not going to pretend that Mike's worst work is anything but pretty damned ordinary, even if it's no worse than a lot of music out there. That doesn't mean that I don't think that his best work is among the best music ever made, because I do think that. And I can't think of a higher compliment that one can pay a musician than that.

Amarok: The Thinking Fan's List. It's the difference between us and the fawning teenybopper music press, dammit. (Not that I've seen the press fawning over Mike lately...)


PS: I might lay off posting to the list for a while. Too much work to do at present, and I've been saying too much over the past few months. Besides, I don't want to scare off any sensitive newcomers by letting slip a blooper such as "You know, I think 'Innocent' may not be quite as impressive a song as the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life'".

The Twisted Bell

©2001 Rory Ewins