Posts from July 1999

Jul 99

The Greatest Record Ever Made

FT/Post a comment • 153 views

What was the worst you were hurt? And was it as bad as this?

A simple piano figure echoes through the emptiest room in creation, its notes caked with dust and maybe regret, repeating until it stops being any kind of melody and becomes the sad up and down rhythm of a girl’s thoughts. And then voices whisper something: “Past”, so softly you almost don’t catch it. “The Past” replies the girl, just as soft, and then she says, with a heartstopping mixture of longing, defiance, coldness and bafflement, “Well now, let me tell you about the past…”

The Shangri-La’s “Past, Present And Future” is the greatest record ever made in part because it’s the best acted, a melo/dramatic monologue of dwarfstar compactness, a two minute armageddon and aftermath which is simply one of the most astonishing vocal performances in pop. The singer’s voice swells and sighs with infinite resignation, giving the track an undercurrent of blank-eyed numbness so that when the killer punch lands, you don’t see it coming: it stuns.

Halfway through the first verse she takes a question from the audience (the piano’s still going, joined by the high whine of a single string) “Was I ever in love?” she repeats. The answer comes easily, “I called it love. I mean, if felt like love. There were moments when…” and then she pauses, catches what she’s saying before it goes too far back into herself. “Well, there were moments when.” Some things you don’t talk about. The pause is perfectly short, the repetition sly genius.

At the middle of the song’s narrative there’s a hole as big as a heart, a gap between the idyll of past and the blasted amorality of present. What happens there? We’re not told. The ground zero of teenage (or any) break-up, or something darker? The pat characterisation of the Shangri-La’s as soap-opera queens draggin’ the pop song into a world of gum-chewing issue-led relevancy has driven a couple of commentators to see “Past, Present And Future” as a song ‘about’ rape. It’s not that that’s a step too far – if that had been the intention, the track can carry the weight – it’s just pinning the tune down in this way can’t ever go far enough. The Shangri-La’s’ two untouchable strengths are theatre and atmosphere, but they were never mysterious – in every song the situation is clear, the narrative as bubblegum as a magazine and as inevitable as a classical tragedy. What elevates this one track above even their magnificent others is its unknowable centre. (For what it’s worth, I never bought the rape argument – it rests on a literal reading of the word “touch” which I just didn’t hear.)

“Present”, whispers the backing chorus, and the monologue shards into fragmented dialogues, the girl faced with a gaggle of would-be boyfriends. “Go out with you? Why not? Do I like to dance? Of course? Take a walk along the beach tonight? I’d love to.” The repeated questions are almost disgusted (especially the disbelieving ‘dance?’), the replies off-handed and laced with something which might be contempt, if she cared enough. And then the warning: “Just don’t try to touch me. Don’t try to touch me. Because that can never. Happen. Again.” And then….

The defining moment of “Past, Present and Future”, the moment that nobody who hears it forgets, is its catastrophic, classical, climactic middle eight. “Shall we dance?” asks the singer, her voice a dagger, and suddenly the backing music explodes into fifteen seconds of a waltz so melodramatic that it turns the record inside out. It’s so unexpected, so unsubtle after the tenderly, tensely weighted words we’ve heard so far, that it’s both brutal and laughable at once. Is it sentimental? Of course it is.

Ian MacDonald’s patrician pop overview, Revolution in the Head, pretends to be a book about The Beatles in order to deliver a reactionary deathblow against everything else (made worse by the fact that he’s just as insightful as he is pompous). At one point he comments dismissively that his revolutionary moptopped poppets shared the charts with the “kitsch” Shangri-La’s. He’s talking about one of their few false moves, Remember (Walking In The Sand), which is too in love with its own found sounds and is too sprawling to really impact, but he’s still right. The Shangri-La’s are kitsch, sentimental, any adjective that the pockmarked priests of rock realism might care to chuck at them.

And just for MacDonald, the “Future” section of “Past, Present and Future” is as corny as it gets, songwriter Shadow Morton trying vainly to top the coup his own production just launched by referencing A-Tisket, A-Tasket and wringing some magnificently tremulous speech-singing from his performers. It’s sweet, silly and touching, and it’s the only part of the song where you can actually climb inside and live it, too. “Past, Present And Future” isn’t the best song of all time, you see, only the greatest. The rest of it is too monolithic: it fills me with absolute awe at its scope, originality, power and precision, and I love it as a pop masterpiece too, but in honesty it floors me rather than moves me. Listen again to that baroque middle eight: “Past, Present And Future” is the sound of pop turning progressive, reaching out for the elusive apple of Art, achieving and so falling. It may be as monumental an achievement as anything Costello or Springsteen or Mike Watt or Thom Yorke has ever managed, but with hindsight it’s somehow prey to all their misguidedness, too. In the final analysis, maybe it’s just not kitsch enough.

And why are the Shangri-La’s kitsch, anyway? Because love is. The eddies and idiocies of the heart, as ephemeral and destructive as ball lightning, force us to fall back on phrases, languages, and actions our critical souls would never countenance. Pop songs are the best way the twentieth century has thrown up of dealing with that: musical sublime allied to lyrical corn – or was it the other way around? Loving the Shangri-La’s, like loving every great pop band, is about asking one question: do you want a rock history that makes sense, or do you want a rock history that makes sense of you?

Jul 99

Secret Language – Brands In The Age Of Pop

FTPost a comment • 2,124 views

What is The Matrix? Mostly, an advert. The vehicle of communication, transport and ultimate liberation in this modern-and-knows-it film isn’t the dowdy, sinister computer but the telephone, specifically the Nokia mobile phone. Almost every scene is a gorgeous ballet of FX and product placement, the two often merging in luscious freeze-frames and slo-mo close-ups on the sleek black clad Nokia casings; moments of branded calm before further explosions and expositions rack the celluloid. Is this deplorable? Hardly: the sheer, callous open-ness of the in-movie ads is part and parcel of the deliciously knowing fun we’re meant to be having. How gauche it would be to feel offended.

You’d think Jean Baudrillard would agree, given that The Matrix advertises him, too (Keanu keeps some unspecified drug/disc thing in a hollowed-out hardback of Simulacra And Simulation. I chuckled, anyway.). Actually, nowadays he probably would, who knows, but in front of me I have a cutely designed and impractically oblong copy of his 1968 The System Of Objects, reissued by Verso, which includes a stern meditation on the inadequacies of advertising, and specifically branding, as a language. Branding is a “language of mere signals”, without syntax and reliant on “infinite repetition”, and brand loyalty is forever “a conditioned reflex of manipulated emotions”. So much for Nokia.

I work with brands a lot, though, and the more I thought about it the more it struck me Baudrillard had a point. The marketing profession tends to think of brands as things the consumer has some kind of relationship with, a relationship which the people managing those brands would love to believe is as nuanced and intimate as interpersonal relationships. It’s become absolute anathema for marketers to admit that their products don’t actually possess ‘brand personalities’ or human characteristics when out on the supermarket shelves, so the poor consumer is forced to jump through ridiculous hoops until they admit that Persil is ‘sexy’ or Daz is ‘fun’ or that Ariel would, if it were a person, most certainly be a trapeze artist.

These learnings, which say a great deal more about the producer’s fetishistic relationship with their brand than they do about the consumer’s, are noted down and treated as sacred. The consumer goes home and generally buys the same product they always have. Brands aren’t people. But only the most pig-headed would claim that branding is meaningless, or blithely go along with Baudrillard’s youthful indignation that brand-loyal consumers are victims of emotional manipulation. (Name me an unmanipulated emotion. Exactly.)

His treatment of brands as a language is much nearer the mark. Baudrillard talks of brands “devour[ing] one another” and of “the basic lexicon that covers our walls”. The educated reader immediately thinks of one thing: graffiti culture. And Baudrillard’s evocations of syntactical war and magically resonant power-words are reminiscent of New York art-rapper Rammellzee’s visions of alphabetical battle, city streets turned into apocalyptic linguistic hot zones as the lexicon we know is infected and overrun by military-spawned secret letters. Graffiti, the reinvention of the self as a brand, is the key both to Rammellzee’s word-war and to the evolution of branding since Baudrillard first considered it.

Advertising in the 1950s and 1960s was basically exoteric: the barely-concealed connotative meanings that so delighted and repulsed a generation of cultural studies mavens were powerful because they were instantly comprehensible to all readers and because their meaning did not shift. The malign power of the brand for Roland Barthes, for example, lay in precisely its insinuations of the eternal: the Guide Bleu‘s evocations of a transparently false French golden age, or a pasta brand’s assumptions of a ‘natural’ Italian-ness. Everybody seeing a Rolls-Royce would have been instantly aware of the owner’s societal status, just as everybody would have been able to read the broad cultural implications of a taste for Coke, or a preference for the Beatles over the Stones.

Or would they? The Beatles and the Stones give us an early example of a shift in the meaning of branding away from this universality. Their rivalry introduces an initiatory element into pop branding: between a rock fan and a rock non-fan, both bands would have similiarly represented threat/noise/banality/rebellion/youth….whatever. But to the rock initiate, being a Beatles fan (black pop/Liverpool) was a very different thing to being a Stones fan (bluesy aggression/London). Branding becomes fluid, capable of fractal intricacies of meaning depending on the level to which the observer has penetrated the mysteries of the category. In this sense it runs considerably deeper than verbal language. The acceleration is rapid: the Stones themselves pave the way for Mod, whose urban peacocks embody these infinite refractions of meaning.

Cut forward to graffiti, and you find a language gone completely underground – tags interpretable only to a select minority, and fully comprehensible only to a tiny few within that: a language-system organised on a cellular basis, understanding strictly need-to-know. No wonder hip-hop culture caught on so quickly among the postmodern intelligentsia, no wonder so much blather was talked about the sampler aesthetic and its inbuilt irreverence (as a matter of fact hip-hop sampling tends to be Catholically reverent, and it’s mainstream rave culture which has really detonated the fixed-meaning ethos of the brand, as a generation of metropolitan mums grow up associating Johnson’s Baby Powder with cocaine, but that’s another story entirely). No wonder, also, hip-hop has been so ignored and disdained since it went absolutely overground sometime around the turn of the decade. But it’s in mainstream hip-hop and R & B that we see the fullest flowering of branding as surrogate language, and pointers towards the way brands and culture will continue to evolve.

Pick up an issue of The Source or Vibe and you’re pitched into an ocean of consumer sophistication. The debates on the surface address issues of consumption and reality directly, the images and adverts, soaked with labels and name brands, that swirl around them tell the real story, presenting a code which yells nothing but ‘class’ and more importantly ‘cash’ to the outsider, i.e. me, but also contains layers of micro-meaning that the regular reader can interpret (and crucially, can aspire to interpret further). Incidentally, ‘sophistication’ is still represented by many market researchers with pictures of ballerinas and the like, which will be less than useful to a generation growing up on Ma$e and Foxy Brown.

Understanding branding as a language is understanding it as a way in which people communicate with each other and with themselves, not with the things they buy. The purchase of a Ford rather than a Volkswagen is in itself meaningless until it’s observed by somebody (maybe just the buyer) with a level of understanding able to assign the brand its social meaning. With a lot of consumables, things stop there, but as graffiti culture showed, the potential levels of understanding, of brand initiation, are without limit. This is true in part because the linguistic value of brands derives from the play of meaning between the items in a consumer’s ‘repertoire’ – you could make a broad generalisation about what Rolls-Royce ‘means’, but it’s completely useless since the individual experiences Rolls-Royce not in a vacuum, but as part of a network of choices. The meaning of RR to an individual is completely defined by everything else they consume: coca-cola, Smirnoff, protestantism, high opera, sado-masochistic sex, Danish bacon.

(Language is still very much a sledgehammer metaphor for branding, of course: a better one might well be memetics – the meanings of brands to the individual knotting together with all their other beliefs, ideas and received wisdoms, forming a skein of mental RNA one might as well call ‘personality’.)

So branding, like language and like music taste, is a flux we present to the world. Nothing is fixed – companies throw brands out into the market and at best hope we get the right idea (being a fairly unimaginative species, we generally do). The sharpest brands nowadays have that flux built into them: the very malleability of Boyzone allows it to both sell itself on a sweet dream of teenage desire and adapt instantly and successfully to the coming out of a key component: the Stones would not have been so lucky. Boyzone, like consumerist hip-hop, ain’t nuthin’ but hype (i.e. they have better marketing people than, say, Pavement). But most popular culture that gets critically raved about lacks such sensitivity: it’s still reliant on fixed-meaning, top-down imagery of the authentic, the real, the honest. Even The Matrix relies on that stuff in the end (Keanu is guided by wholesome wisdom learned in a homely tenement kitchen, in a possibly intentional homage to Monkey Island). One hopes Nokia know what they’re doing.

Jul 99

It’s All Right

FTPost a comment • 883 views

The Chemical Brothers – Surrender

There’s very little that’s tougher to write about than enjoyable music. Should you blunder across a record that harrows your soul or corrodes your skull or scrapes your brainstem with iron claws, well, that’s just fine: a great opportunity to put on your Serious Critic’s Hat and call that record Art, as a way of making sure your dear readers know that you suffered for it as surely as the agonised soul who made it. But The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender is not such a record.


Jul 99

The Best Of Funny Folk

FT + The Brown Wedge/Post a comment • 662 views

This is a selection of the Funny Folk cartoons which ran on Freaky Trigger during 1999. Script and Art by Al Ewing except * where Script is by Al and Tom Ewing.

“Choke – it’s predicted DOOM – for ME!”
“I’ll ‘beef’ seeing you – IN GAOL, ME OLD PUB!”*
“Do you think I’m a STUPID FOOL?”
“I’m teaching my dog to sue.”
“Could this be BEATLESMAN’s FINAL “Day In The Life”!??”*
“I’d drunk EIGHT CANS of TANGO and it WASN’T ENOUGH”*
“Does man have a TRUNK? NO!!”