As this book makes clear, though, Penman’s musical and sartorial roots were shaped by, of all things, mod. This took me by surprise when I first read his magisterial essay Even If You Have to Starve in the London Review of Books in 2013. (The LRB is where the nomadic Penman has belatedly found his true home, his wonderfully discursive style unconstrained by the tyranny of the word count.) Like the other pieces here, it is an extended book review as essay, Penman celebrating the European and American roots of mod while lamenting what it has since become – a very British kind of doggedly faithful, but essentially meaningless, pop-cultural nostalgia. He moves deftly between the personal and the sociohistorical, touching on leisure, class and the peculiar conjunction of conformity and narcissism that shaped the original mod aesthetic. “Early mods had a deserved rep for sartorial aloofness,” he writes, “which shaded into a kind of radiant anonymity.”
Penman’s essays display a rare ability to draw readers behind the music. For example, he compares the switch in the 1950s from live to recorded music to “Hollywood’s changeover from silent cinema to the talkies”, improving the welfare of instrumentalists who swapped “the marriage-destroying purgatory of touring for well-remunerated union-protected session work”. The writer sparingly allows aspects of his own life to slip through. Unconcerned with cultivating a personal mythology as a hard-living rock journalist (having already snogged Grace Jones and fought off a decade-long heroin addiction), Penman gives glimpses of mundane trips to local supermarkets or recent coastal holidays. His confessions stretch to an admission of owning more than one pair of “antique shoe trees”.
The eight pieces have a depth and expansiveness that transcend their origin as book reviews, several of them cannily commissioned by someone at the London Review of Books who saw his potential as a long-form essayist. They are linked in their search for “a vanished world”, in which black and white musicians intermingled and distilled a “cross-colour” alchemy of sound. Whether that idea holds up or not isn’t important. What gets us home, as it were, is Penman’s verve, and his eagerness to make us listen to the records as attentively as he does... This neat volume shows there is still life in the back pages of one survivor, and should be snapped up by anyone who loves genius phrasemaking. Frank Zappa’s famous quote will never die: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” But he plainly never encountered Ian Penman.