Posts from 23rd August 1999

23
Aug 99

94. WORLD OF TWIST – “Sweets”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

“To the sound of the World of Twist, you leaned over and gave me a kiss….”. They coulda been contenders? Well, possibly, though there’s something a bit playful and wilful about WOT, something which prevents you seeing them as chart heavyweights, no matter how ticklish that idea is. On the other hand, you’d have said much the same of Pulp, back then. And if any band has to stand here as a representative of indie flash-in-the-pandom, there are few more likeable candidates than the World Of Twist.

As the Saint Etienne lyric above implies, World Of Twist were scenesters of a kind, fitting into that referential, reverential skein of English pop which combines the standard retro indulgences with a richer seam of metropolitan eccentricity and ennui. In the 60s, they’d have ended up Joe Meek proteges. In the 80s, they’d have fitted perfectly on to Tot Taylor’s Compact Records. Which is to say that beneath their odd costumes and biographical games beat devoted pop hearts. That’s not necessarily enough, as the foppishly tedious career of late-90s equivalent David Devant has oh-so-amply proved. But with WOT – ghastly acronym – there’s a synthed-out motorik sweat to take the ironic edge of things, courtesy of the band’s baggy-era Northern Soul revivalism. On the CD Single of “Sweets” , for example, you find the urgent, dippily sinister “The Storm” , a floorfiller for a phantom Casino.

“Sweets” itself is gorgeous, one of the great lost Britpop singalongs, bouncing along on a then-modish, now-quaint beat, sung in a preposterously breathy fashion: terrific fun. It’s dead clumsy, a grinny, enthusiastic rush of bongos and echoes and tacksome keyboard strings. It’s like the Happy Mondays made out of balsa wood and sticky-backed plastic, and it works a charm. The whole song is corny, and the corniest and very best bit is the half-beat gap as we swing into the last chorus – “When I look at you, I get – ba-bom – such a feeling”: when Saint Etienne’s hipster lovers kissed, that’s what they were listening to.

No Revolution

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“Where’s Your Child” is a 12″ record by Chicago House act Bam Bam, long out of print but available on compilations occasionally, including one called Acid Flashback, where I heard it. It’s a clammy, tauntingly hostile dance record, where a grotesquely distorted baritone moans warnings to parents who don’t know where their children are. Screams echo behind the gibbous acid bassline; the beat is repeatedly overtaken by sounds of shattering glass. “Curfew! Curfew!…..Where’s your child?” oozes the voice, viscous and repulsive. It dates from 1988, part of the last great ‘pop revolution’ currently being celebrated in a Sunday supplement near you. It’s lost none of its darkly comic appeal or its power to disturb.

What music criticism loses in its giddy pursuit of the Now and the Next is a sense of the way records like this accrete meaning over time. Just as a house, once lived in, can’t ever be seen as simply a set of rooms, so favourite records change their character in fundamental ways with the experiences they soundtrack. This is such a basic part of the way we listen to music that talking about it feels like stating the obvious, but it’s surprisingly difficult to incorporate this subjectivity into writing about pop. Without it, though, pop writing becomes something like plotting a graph: fixing new bands, records and movements in history, sternly calibrating the significance of the present and the influence of the past. That, or popcrit turns into just a chilly parade of rehearsed critical truisms and glib parrotting of fashionable attitudes.

Pick up a copy of the NME and you’ll see what I mean – lots of unseemly squabbling over what pop music is or is ‘about’. The music is ‘about’ youth, or ‘about’ rebellion, or ‘about’ innovation or ‘about’ attitude or ‘about’ sex, and it’s all complete nonsense: you could say the same of any product, of anyTHING in fact and it would still sound vaguely hollow, like a piece of ad copy rather than something felt. What pop is, is an eighty-year old system of parting people from their money, a system with a nose for what’s happening that any marketeer would sell their liver for. Ideas of youth and rebellion and innovation are part of what makes being a pop fan fun for most people, though: for those people, the HISTORY OF ROCK is a history of intense mass peaks, carnivals of volcanic creativity, 55-66-77-88, and inbetween we enjoy the fallout and play seismologist, waiting for the next shock.

There’s an immense romantic appeal to this, and a certain truth also – the most cynical revisionist couldn’t write Elvis or Shoom out of history entirely. Part of its appeal is that right now almost everyone in the business of rock criticism seems to think something big is on the way. There’s no earthly reason to think this, just superstition (the absurd notion of an eleven year “cycle” in pop) and hope, and the fact that revolutions are addictive. If you “were there” when acid house or jungle exploded, you want something like that to come down the pipe again, badly. And if you weren’t, you want a riot of your own. In the general rush to proclaim pop dead (again) so that something fiery and terrible can rise from its corpse, nobody’s mentioning that there’s almost no room for a revolution, so intense is the scrutiny almost every corner of music-making is under. I’m not convinced the gestation time exists for another pop revolution to explode – the key factor in pop’s mytho-historical Big Bangs isn’t that they won over the kids, but that they baffled the biz, and the biz isn’t being run by amateurs any more.

But then I’m not convinced it matters. What counts isn’t pop’s increasingly cast-iron chronology, but everyone’s personal pop timeline. The punk and acid house revolutions seem very clear-cut to armchair historians now, but to a consumer, even a committed one, things are never that straight. I was 16 and living on the M25 in 1989, and I hated Acid House. So did everyone I knew. So that’s why I heard Bam Bam’s “Where’s Your Child?” for the first time a few years ago, not in 1988, which is where it slots into pop history. I heard it again recently, a week or so after being attacked and beaten up by a young gang on a train, the drug-scare context of the record dovetailing with my own bad experience to create an urban-paranoia statement of extreme personal intensity.

The only pop history worth the name is the one you write yourself. If there was to be another ‘revolution’ in pop, one of the things it would have to contend with is being the first real post-CD music explosion. The arrival of the CD as medium of choice meant the aggressive remarketing of the majors’ back catalogues, but it also meant an archeological boom in obscure reissues of old krautrock, soul, punk, avant-garde, you-name-it records. We live in a blissful perpetual present of pop, where what’s actually contemporary seems never to have mattered less: how else to account for the perverse mass-appeal of swing records (and that’s the Glenn Miller “swing”, not the Jodeci one) among American teenagers?

As the Oasis phenomenon showed, ‘youth movements’ in the CD Age are as likely to be reactionary as progressive, so the traditional role of the pop critic as prophet seems to be over. No revolution after all. What do we do instead? Leaping into subjectivity, randomly and joyfully detailing the ups and downs of your own pop life, regardless of contexts or ‘movements’, seems like one way to go. It’s why Chuck Eddy, the great flaneur of rock lit, is so good, after all, weighing up the detritus and drawing the connections Rock History would insist aren’t even there: lazily finding Damascus on a daily basis just by turning a dial.