Posts from 9th October 2000

Oct 00

One of the crucial questions for mankind

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 274 views

One of the crucial questions for mankind over the coming century will be the ethics and dangers of Artificial Intelligence. Are we about to become extinct, crushed under the metal heel of a race of super-robots like in the films? Well, I can’t tell you that, but I can prognosticate upon the growing wiliness of a lesser breed of machine, though also no friend to man, the pub quizzer.

To take an example: Strike It Rich used to pop up in various Oxford pubs, and was, roughly speaking, a pushover. You would answer a million questions, all easy, you’d get your mates round to memorise bits of the slow-moving hot-spot conveyor-belt mazey thing (these may not be technical terms), and your 20p would magically turn into a few quid. Those were, indeed, the days. Now SIR (an ominous acronym, you’ll agree) is back and costs 50p. It is much faster and stingier, but it also has the facility to cheat hugely. To progress to a prize game, you need n gems: such is the central tenet of the game. The machine will regularly get you to n-1 and then simply stop, no matter how many questions you answer. This is a blatant con, and symptomatic of a growing tendency to snake-bellied behaviour on the part of quizzers. Hopefully the new Strike It Rich will face as much disfavour from other pubgoers as it has from me, and will go the way of the outrageous Snakes And Ladders, which would often just take all your points away on the ‘random’ roll of its computerised die.

X is for….”Xylophone Track”

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X is for….”Xylophone Track” by the Magnetic Fields. When people write about this band, the emphasis tends to fall on Stephin Merritt’s songwriting, but one of the reasons 69 Love Songs is such a favourite – and one of the reasons his throwaway tracks and pastiches anooy me not one bit – is the sound of the thing. Exact and brittle, Merritt’s arrangements are as well-constructed as his lyrics, with ukeleles, banjos, kayboards, drum machines and spun-glass guitar falling politely into place to the listenership’s delight. With his strings and loops, snatches of odd instruments and relentless analogue experimentation, he’s like an indie pop RZA (excepting that no doubt he couldn’t make a beat to save his life)

And, of course, there’s Merritt’s treacle-and-tarmac voice: the deeper it gets, the better it sounds. A lot of people hate it, but it’s not just his phrasing which makes me shiver, it’s the wonderful, thick noise of his drawled vowels and clucked consonants: his delivery on early Magnetic Fields tracks was hesitant and his tone didn’t come across so well, but in this regard 69 Love Songs is a revelation, pointing Merritt up as the best non-singing singer since Gainsbourg. On “Xylophone Track”, apparently recorded at 6 AM to ensure maximum bass in the voice, Merritt sings like he’s just been dredged up from a river. A spatchcocked crossover between musical theatre and blues, “Xylophone Track”‘s meaning is all in the singing, the way Merritt plumbs impossible depths of voluptuous vocal sludge, stretching the word “blues” from a mere croak into a dark, funny death rattle, while around him finickity movie keyboards filigree away. Gorgeous.

POP-EYE 8/10/00

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POP-EYE 8/10/00

One of the good things about the BBC’s pop footage archive fest, Top Of The Pops 2, is that it reminds us of an era when pop stars weren’t afraid to dick about in front of the cameras. Virtually any performance from the late 70s will have ridiculous costumes, absurd mugging to camera, goofily ‘rebellious’ gestures, and a general air of staginess which contrasts very well with the balletics and sincerity of today’s mob. I’m often told that I should appreciate the skilful dancing as part of the pop package, and in a theoretical sense I suppose I agree, but let’s face it: someone got up in stupid facepaint snarling at the camera is a lot more interesting than Westlife doing a fucking tap routine.

Which is why Friday’s Top Of The Pops was so marvellous. Kernkraft 400, authors of the mighty doom-trance hit “Zombie Nation”, went on the show to do a turn, and galumphed around in Evil Dead gear, playing a severed leg as a guitar, trashing their equipment, harassing audience members and pelting the presenter with missiles as she tried to announce the next tedious acts. You couldn’t hear the song for shit but it hardly mattered: this was the best music television of the year. “So Kernkraft means ‘nuclear power’. What does Kernkraft 400 mean?”, my friend Magnus foolishly asked.

Kernkraft were followed up by the Architechs, who did a moderate UK Garage thing with the help of one Nana. Why you would call yourself such a name eludes me, but he’d clearly worked out its embarassing implications and so was referred to as “Nay Nay”. It didn’t wash, particularly when Nana turned out to be the worst dancer in the world, dancing, as Pete said, like a man who had never danced before in his life, or like your dad at a wedding, before assuming a half-squat and stomping up to various members of the audience. Nana was no fool, though, for this absurd posture left his head exactly at cleavage level. There ought to be a law.

This week’s chart, meanwhile, has Mariah-Westlife thankfully booted off by All Saints and “Black Coffee”. “Coffee Table” might be nearer the mark but this does its job smoothly and well and I can find no fault with it: how unlike the doubtful glitterly new logo and uncomfortably pally niteklub-sofa poses on the sleeve. All Saints fight off a bunch of other entires, many horrible (anything “featuring Sarah McLachlan” is a bad idea), some not (Eminem‘s “The Way I Am” hits a disappointing 8, due probably to retailing for full price). But with Sarah, the Saints, and Texas notching up entries, measured tastefulness seems to be the week’s theme, so it’s no surprising Eminem’s whinge can’t catch the public attention.

Lower down the charts things get messy. I’ve not heard the Vengaboys‘ “Cheeka Bow Bow (That Computer Song)”, but people, look at the title. And Rolf Harris‘ unspeakable “Fine Day” getting a Top 30 entry! Can’t the old goat stick to drawing shaky-edge pictures of Yosemite Sam and leave our ears alone? It has a didgeridoo on it. Of course. It also comes out on Tommy Boy, the last humiliation for a once-fine label.

All Saints – “Black Coffee” (1)
Kernkraft 400 – “Zombie Nation” (5)
Eminem – “The Way I Am” (8)
Sugababes – “Overload” (15)
Robbie Williams – “Rock DJ” (28)