Live Music Exchange Blog

A Tribute to Dave Laing



The Popular Music scholar and writer, Dave Laing died suddenly on 6th January 2019. Amongst many other things, Dave was a very good friend to Live Music Exchange, someone to whom we often turned to for advice and help. Both were always freely given in a wonderfully supportive way. Here LMX Directors, Adam Behr and Martin Cloonan offer their tributes to Dave.
Dave_Laing_01-768x510(Dave Laing, speaking at NYU, 2012. Photograph: Joe Mabel – CC BY-SA 3.0)

Adam Behr:

When Dave Laing was on a panel at our Live Music Exchange, Newcastle event he described himself – in typically understated fashion – as a “a kind of crossbreed between academic teaching and research” and spoke of  “a career in music journalism and particularly music business journalism which gave me, I hope, quite a lot of insight into the wondrous ways of the music industry.”

‘Crossbreed’ was one way of putting it. ‘Pioneer’ would be another. It’s already been much remarked upon since Dave’s recent passing how his writing broke new ground in terms of the considered analysis of popular music – from his work on Buddy Holly, serving as the first editor of Let It Rock, through One Chord Wonders – the first extended analysis of punk – to the Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, and a bibliography too extensive to list here, including numerous contributions to academic journals.

Along with pushing forward the notion, and practice, of bringing serious critical reflections on popular music to both academic and general audiences, however, he was also an early leader in the detailed and rigorous study of its industrial contexts. At that same event, he brought along a copy of a report he co-authored in 1996 called The Value of Music, an early attempt to map the music industries. Such efforts have proliferated since then – including our own. But it bears remembering that Dave helped to lay a path in primary research as well as cultural analysis. A sharp observer of the drift in discourse from ‘culture’ to ‘creative industries’, he informed practice and theory alike. We certainly owe him our gratitude at the Live Music Exchange, even beyond the concrete contributions he made to our events and our site. Our goal has been to build bridges out from academia, to make research available to industry, policymakers and a wider public. Dave was a one-man embodiment of that.

This extended beyond his publications, and beyond his formal teaching activities. He was a reliable and generous supporter of the many researchers and writers who followed in his wake. In his writing he combined analytical depth with the clear, unfussy prose that has seen him become a bedrock of Popular Music Studies reading lists. Likewise, in person he would comment on ideas or work with acuity and affability in equal measure – encyclopaedic in knowledge (literally, he produced one), and diffident in manner. Some hugely clever people can be intimidating, intentionally or otherwise. But his way of engaging inevitably made you aware of what might be possible. A pint with Dave was always an education and a pleasure rolled into one.

Very few have managed to operate across modes and platforms – from industry reports, through mainstream newspapers to academic texts – quite so seamlessly. His passing leaves a large gap, and an equally large legacy, in Popular Music Studies, as in cultural research and criticism more broadly. The epitome of ‘a gentleman and a scholar’, there’s still much to learn from his alloy of rigour, good humour and kindness.

DL works

(A small selection of Dave’s work)

Martin Cloonan:

I honestly can’t remember where I first met Dave, but I know what he would have been like on that day – quietly cheerful, supportive and open, but also with a knowing glint in his eye. To me, that was his usual self. Dave had the wonderful ability to be supportive and encouraging, while simultaneously suggesting that you hadn’t got it quite right yet. So he would gently prod you to try harder, to strive for more and to seek the truth about whatever you were researching.

He was a truly amazing scholar, one of the very best this weird beast called Popular Music Studies has produced. He wrote the UK’s first book length academic study of popular music, The Sound of Our Time, when he was 22. 22! His seminal text on punk, One Chord Wonders, remains one of the best books ever written about pop. His writing was always rigorous, reflective and incisive, the sort of stuff you could give to students and say “This is what you should be aiming for”, knowing that it was easier said than done.

In common with many pioneers of Popular Music Studies, Dave was politically on the left. Yet, he wore his Marxism lightly. There was no place in Laing’s world for dogmatism or sectarianism. He seemed to take it for granted that Marxism was just commonsense and that the role of popular culture within capitalism was an area entirely worthy of high level academic scrutiny. The need was to examine and explain, not to hector.

Dave was calmly reassuring. Whenever I was thinking of researching something within the music industries, Dave was my first port of call. I knew that he would both have more knowledge on the issue at hand than I did, but also that he’d make me think differently about it. I knew that he would make me work harder and better. That was some gift. I always left Dave knowing much more than I did than when our meeting began, but also with confirmation that I was on to something – if only I could now chase up the numerous sources which he had just suggested to me.

Of course, during our meeting he would have been great company – funny, inquisitive, generous and thoughtful. We would have discussed music, politics, football and life (probably in that order) and I would have left with a warm glow. Dave’s company was as intoxicating as the beer which would have been routinely consumed when we met.

With Dave’s passing we have lost one of the greats. I was very lucky to have known him and will miss his sagacity and warmth very much.

Thanks Mate.

Laing- Frame- Frith(From left to right – Simon Frith, Pete Frame, and Dave – January 2016. Photograph: Martin Cloonan)


(Dave at the event to mark 30 years of One Chord Wonders. University of Brighton, October 2015. Photograph: Martin Cloonan)


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