Glenn Gould, that intellectually intense, aesthetically austere interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach, had little time for pop music. He had especially little time for the Beatles: “Theirs is a happy, cocky, belligerently resourceless brand of harmonic primitivism,” he wrote in High Fidelity in 1967, when the Fab Four had reached the top of the zeitgeist. “The indulgent amateurishness of the musical material, though closely rivaled by the indifference of the performing style, is actually surpassed only by the ineptitude of the studio production method,” he declares, likening “Strawberry Fields Forever” to “a mountain wedding between Claudio Monteverdi and a jug band.”
But the Beatle-bashing was incidental to the purpose of the article, a paean to English singer Petula Clark. At first listen, her four singles on which Gould focuses his analysis — 1964’s “Downtown,” 1956’s “My Love,” and 1966’s “A Sign of the Times” and “Who Am I?” — sound like nothing more than adolescent-oriented pop hardly touched by any of that decade’s musical (or indeed social) revolutions. But “this quartet of hits,” in Gould’s view, “was designed to convey the idea that, bound as she might be by limitations of timbre and range, she would not accept any corresponding restrictions of theme and sentiment,” with the result that she came to command an audience “large, constant, and possessed of an enthusiasm which transcends the generations.”
Gould says all this in The Search for Petula Clark, a 23-minute radio documentary that aired on the CBC on December 11, 1967, less than three weeks before his much better-known experimental documentary The Idea of North. He situates his analysis of the singer he calls “Pet Clark,” which gets into not just her songs’ themes and lyrics but their technical qualities as music, in the context of a solo road trip around Lake Superior when “Who Am I?” first hit the airwaves. So compelled did he find himself that he timed his drive to get within range of one of the radio stations scattered across the vastness of his homeland at the top of each hour in order to hear the song over and over again, after 700 miles he got to “know it if not better than the soloist, at least as well, perhaps, as most of the sidemen.”
Though born within two months of each other in 1932 and thereafter living lives dedicated to music, Gould and Clark would seem to have little else in common. While Gould died at 50, Clark, at the age of 85, continues to both record and perform. Gould, as J.D. Connor writes in an essay on The Search for Petula Clark, “stopped performing for live audiences in 1964. Freed from the rigors of the concert circuit, he dove into radio and television at just the moment when he and Canadian state media could parlay his immense musical popularity into something more.” This and the more intricate radio productions that would follow both sprang from and allowed Gould to construct “a media theory of his own. In print, on television, and, most important, on radio, Gould became the great complement to Marshall McLuhan.” And like McLuhan, when Gould obsesses over something that never seemed to merit serious attention, we’d do well to heed the insights he draws from it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.