Welcome to The International Association for the Study of Popular Music UK and Ireland Branch

Dave Laing (1947-2019)

Posted: January 14th, 2019 | Filed under: Remembrances | No Comments »

In recognition of the status of Dave Laing as a founder of the field of popular music studies and a much respected and loved colleague, as witnessed by the outpouring of tributes across social media and elsewhere, we feel it appropriate on this sad occasion to open a dedicated page of remembrance.

Dave Laing

The following was originally published on Facebook by Dave Hesmondhalgh, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

I’m so sad to hear from friends on and off Facebook that Dave Laing has died. Dave was a music journalist, in particular an extremely accomplished music industry journalist. But he was so much more than that. His knowledge and appreciation of popular music was immensely deep and wide. Even though he didn’t pursue an academic career, his contributions to popular music scholarship were massive. He was one of the founding editors of the key journal Popular Music, and his books included The Sound of Our Time (1969), Buddy Holly (one version from the early 1970s and a very different version published in 2010, One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock (1985), as well as an extremely accomplished book on Marxist theories of art (1978). That list doesn’t even begin to capture what Dave was, and what he achieved. This was a man who could hold his own just as much in the strange world of the London record industry (which he knew inside out from his work with Music Week magazine and the Financial Times newsletter on Music and Copyright) as when engaging in discussions of French post-structuralism or German critical theory with academics.

I’m taking the liberty of pasting below the tribute to Dave I composed for a symposium organized by Martin Cloonan (and others I think) on the 30th anniversary of One Chord Wonders in 2015. I wasn’t able to attend that event, but Sara Cohen kindly read it out, I believe, and I posted it on Facebook at the time. I hope it gives some flavour of the man, as well as of his superb work. For as well as being a brilliant writer and intellectual, he was also extremely funny, hugely supportive of others, and really really lovable. Many people will be raising a glass to his memory in the next few days, and mourning the loss of this lovely man.

I was from that generation of people whose lives were changed by punk. Not just our musical lives, our cultural lives, but how we responded to the world. It affected the very way that we walked and talked, laughed and loved. So when I returned to academic life in the early 1990s, seven years after an undergraduate degree that had put me off academic writing, it was a joy to discover that someone had written a serious, thoughtful, deeply knowledgeable exploration of the music that had meant so much to me. I’d read Jon Savage’s wonderful book on Sex Pistols, of course. But One Chord Wonders got at questions of power and meaning in a way that Savage’s historical take couldn’t. And the very way that the book was organised seemed to be a superb model for serious approaches to popular music. The one-word chapter titles (naming, looking, listening, framing) opened up a world of analysis, effortlessly incorporating Barthes and Benjamin, feminism and Foucault, and going beyond the limitations of the subcultural theory that had previously been the main game in town when it came to punk. As well as Dave, credit is due to Dave Harker and Richard Middleton for the book series on Popular Music in Britain in which One Chord Wonders was published. Reading their editorial preface now makes me nostalgic for the 1980s (and, believe me, that’s not something that happens to me very often). Here’s how that preface ends: ‘We hope that by clarifying the history of popular music culture we can help clear the ground for a genuinely democratic musical culture of the future’. That seems a really apt way to frame Dave’s contribution in One Chord Wonders.

I was even more delighted when my PhD supervisor, Georgie (Georgina Born), suggested that I get together with Dave to discuss my thesis, and kindly rang Dave up to secure such a meeting for me. I went to his home, in Kilburn if I remember right, at midday at some point in early 1993. Four hours and five pints of Guinness later, I staggered out of a nearby pub, clutching beer-stained and often illegible notes, and hugely more informed about the music industry than I’d been in the morning. Throughout my remaining years in London, Dave and I would meet regularly in West London hostelries, where he would strive to steer me away from my profound naivety through the restrained deployment of laconic one-liners.

My topic was the relationship between majors and independent record companies, and Dave was incredibly kind and helpful in securing introductions to people in the recording industry, most of whom I disliked intensely, but who seemed to share my admiration and respect for Dave. His generosity and warmth (and this was true of other IASPM figures too) together with his immense knowledge of musical history, and the breadth and open-ness of his musical tastes, made it so much easier and more pleasurable to make the transition into professional academia than it otherwise would have been – even if I sometimes found it hard to find my way home after our meetings.

Dave’s immense knowledge helps to make him one of the great all-rounders of musical writing: music journalist, encyclopedist, obituary writer, and yet also able to operate at the highest academic levels. He wrote brilliantly, whether it was for Marxism Today, Let It Rock, Music Week, The Guardian, or the Music and Copyright newsletter. Being a Dave Laing nerd, I have a copy of his 1969 book The Sound of Our Time. It’s very much of its time, but full of insight. I also have a copy of the great Encyclopedia he did with Phil Hardy. Some bastard nicked my copy of his book on Marxist theories of art many years ago, and I once had the pleasure of reading the original Buddy Holly book in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but have never had my hands on a copy since. But One Chord Wonders will always be a special book for me. And Dave remains one of the most knowledgeable and acute commentators on contemporary popular music – not just the industry, but the whole damn thing. I’m so sorry that I can’t be in Brighton today – and I really really can’t be there – especially as I’ll miss Dave’s laconic comments on sentimental tributes such as this.

Please leave any tributes, memories, in the comments section below. 

Colleagues are also welcome to send their thoughts directly to [email protected] for inclusion in the next IASPM newsletter which will compile a fuller record of tributes in recognition of Dave Laing’s contribution to popular music studies.

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