Thanks, Jim Steinman and Les McKeown, for reminding us that the best pop is pure fantasy | Pop and rock


Aw, no, Jim Steinman and Les McKeown gone in the same week! Steinman, 73, composer extraordinaire of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, had deep roots in musical theatre and the dark blood of rock’n’roll bombast squirting through his veins. McKeown, 65, singer with 1970s phenomenon the Bay City Rollers, was the strutting, half-mast trousered tartan keeper of the true teen spirit.

While obviously very different, Steinman and McKeown had at least one thing in common – they wound up the purists, the très sérieux musos, something rotten. Even as tributes poured in, there were those who couldn’t resist pointing out they weren’t fans. Variations of “I didn’t care for the music, but…”. What provokes this sort of mealy-mouthed nonsense? As if affection for particular artists must be carefully rationed if they’re not deemed to be of cultural value.

‘Couldn’t care less about subtlety’: Jim Steinman in 1981
‘Couldn’t care less about subtlety’: Jim Steinman in 1981. Photograph: Terry Lott/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images

In truth, Bat Out of Hell continues to be a monster seller for all the best reasons. If the title track doesn’t make you want to ride a motorbike along a clifftop with your hair on fire, nothing will.

The same is true of other Steinman hits: Total Eclipse of the Heart (an invitation to cling on to Bonnie Tyler’s tonsils for dear life during an emotional tsunami) and Dead Ringer for Love (tremble as Meat Loaf and Cher flirt at full scream). It wasn’t that subtlety was beyond Steinman – it was more that he couldn’t care less. You got the impression that if a volcano erupted in his back garden, he’d moan that there wasn’t enough lava.

The Rollers, for their part, had a story dark enough to make you weep, but still, undeniably, they did it, didn’t they? For a flash, they were global sensations, the band to beat. And while boys rejected the Rollers, this was also about girls ruthlessly rejecting the boys, specifically, the musical tastes that males deemed acceptable. “No!” screamed the girls of the 1970s. “We don’t want your ‘serious’ music; we want young Scottish blokes stomping about in crazy trousers, showing off their belly buttons.” It says something that Rollers songs (Bye Bye Baby, Shang-a-Lang) have remained earworms for decades – something beyond many serious artists.

Perhaps, in their different ways, both Steinman and the Rollers proved the same thing: that even if things erupt into ridiculousness, does it matter? Music is an art form deserving of serious critical scrutiny, but it needs light (fizz, swagger, epic silliness) as much as it needs shade. Who gets to dictate what’s daft or overblown anyway? Steinman, in particular, understood that supposedly ordinary lives are full of drama. And supposedly ordinary people harbour inner drama queens.

And that, in many ways, this is the best of us and we will always want and need to access it. So thank you (with no caveat) for the music, gentlemen. And, just as importantly, thank you for the drama.

The pandemic has really hurt students – give them a break

University of East Anglia
The way it was: students at the University of East Anglia. Photograph: Imagedoc/Alamy Stock Photo

Who could blame university students for wanting clarity and fairness when it comes to Covid tuition fee refunds and appeals? A group of 20 student unions, including the National Union of Students, has contacted the Competition and Markets Authority to demand clearer refund/appeal guidelines. At present, the students and unions argue, the processes are so complex that they seem designed to put people off trying.

There’s a feeling among complainants that full fees haven’t been justified by online/blended learning during the pandemic. They feel they’ve lost out regarding tuition, campus facilities and accommodation. Which all sounds reasonable. Parents I speak to who’ve had children at university during the crisis paint very bleak pictures, with some experiences stretching over two academic years. Obviously the entire country has been dealing with a pandemic, but students are still entitled to point out that sitting in their rooms doing online tutorials doesn’t resemble a “university experience” worth paying full whack for. All this can’t just be filed under “Yes, but the pandemic…” or “That’s life”. They are only asking for applications for compensation to be dealt with and for clear guidance on how to proceed.

No one wishes to attack the efforts of universities, or higher education generally. I’m sure many pains have been taken to provide the best service possible in the unprecedented circumstances. However, is it fair for students to bear the brunt and, if they complain, to be portrayed as whingeing brats who just need some Blitz spirit? Student debt is a huge financial burden that can affect graduate lives for years – the expense needs to be worth it.

Pandemic students have already missed out on a key stage of socio-educational development, one that can never be “refunded”. If they don’t feel they should pay in full for a university experience they haven’t had, they should not struggle to be heard.

For those of us with good taste, Marmite is the elixir of life

Toast and Marmite
Food of the gods: Marmite on toast. Photograph: Simon Dack/Alamy

The world is divided into people who like Marmite and people whose taste buds have rotted away, leaving only tiny blackened portals leading straight to hell.

Who’d ever have thought that the pandemic might pose an existential threat to Marmite? Last year, there were the first stirrings of a Marmite supply crisis. As the hospitality industry closed, beer production went down, meaning a reduction in yeast production, leading to limited supplies of Marmite. We stood firm and didn’t panic. That much.

Now Marmite stocks are so low that supermarkets are running out. There’s online talk of poignantly empty shelves. People have resorted to using (whisper it) Vegemite. The desperate fools. No amount of toast and butter is going to make that devil paste taste like anything but parboiled Tarmac.

We’ve all been through so much and this could be the final insult to our essential humanity. People need Marmite to eat and to cook with. There haven’t been Marmite marches or Marmite riots yet, but don’t rule them out. Even now, some of us are hunting out our summery Crocs, so that we can be comfy while we make our voices heard.

So, never mind Boris Johnson’s pandemic bounce in popularity – that will soon disappear if British citizens can’t get their hands on a jar of Marmite.

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist



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