Posts from 11th November 2003

Nov 03

From Tomorrow’s World’s 1975 report on Kraftwerk and ‘Autobahn’

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From Tomorrow’s World‘s 1975 report on Kraftwerk and ‘Autobahn’ (rebroadcast on Top of the Pops 2): “Last year they dispensed with the last conventional instrument, the violin. Next year they hope to get rid of the keyboard as well, in favour of musical suits where they play their music on their own lapels.”

Context is everything

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 577 views

Context is everything, so it was interesting to find my old copy of Something Beginning With O by Kevin Pearce on top of a cupboard in my mother-in-law’s house. Unlike said cupboard, the world has changed a lot over the ten years (or thereabouts) since this book was published. How much has the book itself had to do with those changes?
I don’t know how many books about mods existed before this one (does Moon the Loon count?), but there are plenty now. Books like The Sharper Word: A Mod Anthology, edited by Paolo Hewitt, which contains an extract from Pearce’s book. Other books, such as Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties, by Ali Catterall and Simon Wells, are wrapped in eye-catching mod iconography.
The music referred to in Something Beginning With O remains largely underground, but its influence, fed through the kaleidoscope of Paul Weller’s ever-changing, yet curiously ever-so consistent, musical moods, has been a dominant factor in the last ten years’ Britpop explosion and the Campaign for Real Music led by Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene. A much frowned-upon movement, it seems to have died down and been swiftly and safely anthologised, again in mod-inspired packaging. Weller’s work, the kernel of it all, stands up pretty well, the supposed sloppiness and excess largely imagined by panicking popologists. Perhaps his bare-chested free-form festival jams veer slightly away from the mod aesthetic, but the singles seem to me to fit in nicely with the Weller chapter in Something Beginning With O. Or at least they did three weeks ago, when I started writing this. Now as then, Weller’s the odd-one-out in a bunch of odd-one-outs. Kevin Rowland is back (in the company of Mick Talbot, excitingly enough). Post-Punk is back, sort of.
Mod clobber has been commandeered by the clothing companies, from haute couture catwalk calamities in the Sunday supplements to the remarkable transformation of Lambretta from iconic scooter status to a vaguely pricey, vaguely mod-styled corner in Top Man. The pop-art union jack threads of The Who have been reduced to the cultural flaccidity of union jack dart flights. Then again, Kent’s Mod Jazz series of CDs would have us believe that the original modernists liked nothing more than to shuffle their loafers to Andy Williams’ ‘House of Bamboo’, so perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much.

D is for… The Darkness

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New tv ad for Woolworths last nite: two OAPs cooing over the cd of Permission to Land: ‘Let’s buy it, dear’ it’ll be just like the old days!’. Cut to Ver ‘Ness on the bridge of their spaceship in full stadium handclap mode. (The unintended gag is the two old folk don’t look much older than Justin — check out this month’s issue of The Face for a thoughtful interview and some truly TERRIFYING pictures’ imagine Pete Burns when the collagen goes south. [Also check out this issue for a great article by Anna F of ILx]).

The band seems to be encouraging the nostalgia. Christmas single ‘Don’t Let the Bells End’ (nurse — my sides) looks set to revive ye olde Sladeian festive bonhomie, but also settle the argument that they’re a comedy lite-ent troupe. Which is disappointing, because the lp worked when it managed to muddy the issue in interesting ways: do you get off on the guilded grandeur of ‘Love is Only a Feeling’ as a bit of a laugh or is it genuinely moving? Will a monster Christmas #1 see the band shoot their load’ or will they be the first UK rock band since Queen to successfully ride the twin saddles of rock and pop with a single pair of spandexed buttocks?

C is for… Camden Joy

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‘Camden Joy’ could be the title of some imaginary anthology of Chris Roberts reviews from Melody Maker 1987-1990, and Camden Joy the author is almost as good as that. I first came across him a few years ago when I found a heavily marked-down copy of his The Last Rock Star Book: or Liz Phair, a Rant in a Notting Hill book exchange. Masquerading as a cash-in fan-biog – along the lines of Lester Bangs’ Blondie – it actually conjures a great compelling fiction from obsession, demented rock scholarship and the ghosts of 1968.

A few weeks ago I finally managed to track down the anthology Lost Joy, which provides the back story. Joy started out publishing screeds of abuse, Frank O’Hara reveries, and wistful memories of great unacknowledged rock bands by pasting them up on the walls of Manhattan during the annual CMJ festival. The idea of the guerilla rock critic actually proves more compelling than many of the texts, but it’s in some of his longer, conventionally-published, pieces that Joy came into his own. ‘The Greatest Record Album Singer Ever’, in the form of an evangelical pamphlet praising Al Green, proposes a weird paranoid racial fantasy where white boys grow up into black men, while ‘The Launch of the MJ-97’ imagines a new Michael Jackson being launched every year, like a sci-fi Windows upgrade. Joy seems to have some pretty conventional US rock-crit tastes underneath it all (Cracker, Frank Black, CCR) but for his desperate fabulism – imagine Dave Q after a dose of Barthelme – he’s worthy of further investigation: check out

B is for… Boom! There he was

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From NewPop to… NowPop, and what are we to make of Green Gartside hovering around ‘Someday’ like a very discreet but expensive perfume on the imminent Kylie lp? From the minimal techno of first single ‘Slow’ to the impeccable art direction of the lp sleeve, it’s as though someone in the Minogue team actually read Paul Morley’s Words and Music and decided to fulfil his fantasia of Kylie as immaterial pop icon of the post-Now and post-Here. Except ‘Slow’ didn’t really grab me in the same way as ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ and on ‘Someday’ Green is airbrushed out of all existence, worn like a designer label.

It feels almost mandatory here for me to quote Roland Barthes. In his crypto-biography he wrote of artworks whose ‘most obvious quality is of an intentional order: they are concerned to serve theory. Yet this quality is a blackmail as well (theory blackmailed): love me, keep me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you call for…’ Like a lot of ZTT product towards the end, nu-Kylie is pushing all the right critical buttons, bells and whistles, yet — at the risk of coming over all Marcello Carlin — there isn’t much in the way of punctum, nothing of the order of that ravishing minor key bridge from ‘CGYOOMH’: ‘there’s a dark secret in me…’

A much more interesting reappearance of the Scritti signature is the bootlegendary mix of ‘Absolute’ with ‘Like I Love You’ I downloaded by chance the other day, which makes vivid the premonitory beauty of Cupid & Psyche – Green anticipating the silk and steel of Now Pop all the way back in 1985.

A is for… ArtPop, Actuellement

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Ahead of forthcoming greatest hits album PopArt, the Pet Shop Boys have put up a streaming preview of the token unreleased track ‘Paris City Boy’. If you were expecting a return to the Desireless/Princess Stephanie francophone glories of ‘I’m not scared’ (Eighth Wonder version, pur-lease — listen to it closely and you can hear St Etienne being conceived) you’re out of luck. A better joke by far is the new b-side ‘We’re the Pet Shop Boys’ which is some kind of reductio ad absurdum of the P.S.B. M.O. : over mournful synthstabs Chris Lowe recites a litany of song titles:

Being boring
It’s alright
It’s a sin
I’m not scared
In denial
I want a dog
I want a lover
Can you forgive her?
Do I have to?
What have I? What have I?
What have I done to deserve this?

Tom’s epic PSB post on ILM seems to have established a consensus that the band’s first twenty singles remain unsurpassed in modern pop. But much as I loved the band in the 1980s, I find something a bit off-putting about their sheer consistency. They hit very early on their model of melancholy hi-NRG, acedic house, refining it with subtle variations through the years, and new single ‘Miracles’ is no great advance on anything from Please. Where the first wave of NewPopsters — Human League, ABC — had a vestigial punky romanticism, mistrusting their Top 10 acceptance to the extent of recording ‘The Lebanon’ or Beauty Stab, the PSBs were always cool classicists. And while this makes them a model of pop reliability, isn’t there something a bit unloveable about their reluctance to make a mad folly of a mistake?

Despite the increasingly obsessive reporting of the BBC News Technology section

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 230 views

Despite the increasingly obsessive reporting of the BBC News Technology section, I don’t believe that we’re overwhelmed by information pollution. Adverts, spam, pop-ups and so on are a matter of technique rather than overload. In fact, one might argue that the BBC website wants to find a more intrusive wealth of redundant information, they don’t have far to travel.

It is, however, a mark of prescience in science fiction writing to predict this abundance, and the sheer weight of searching involved. Its going to be recognised as one of the things that the past got wrong about the future, in the same way that right up to the seventies, writers tried to impress with stories of ever larger computers filling vast buildings. This happened, note, while simultaneously suggesting that intelligent robots would be the size of humans.

Some did see this far, though. Much of the plot of 2061, Arthur C Clarke’s ‘missing’ second sequel (dropped from the cannon by the publishers so that 3001 could be declared the conclusion of the trilogy, and to improve its chances of moviedom) revolves around a search of a quasi-internet of information to determine what was at the core of Jupiter. In the novel, this search took several weeks and the hero’s entire research budget. I’ve just tried it now, and Google tells me that the search took 0.15 seconds. And it didn’t cost a bean.

Is it our fault subversion is dead?

Do You SeePost a comment • 430 views

Is it our fault subversion is dead? If our interaction with the media of derision (I’m thinking Graham Norton here) is causal, rather then symbiotic, then the prognosis for satire is bleak. Researchers and developers of reality humiliation have looked straight into our soul and given us what we have ever more noisily told them that we want to see. There’s no point in trying to stay one step ahead – we were leading the way anyway.

Where can you go after this? Its easy to assume you know how to second guess the medium, until some savvy soul – Ricky Gervais, Chris Morris – points out otherwise. The Office and Jam throw us new ideas that leave us squirmingly uncomfortable, yet are compelling, aesthetic breakthroughs that we come to see as genius, like being forced to eat some hideous vegetable until becoming proud of a sophisticated new taste. Remember how awkward I’m Alan Partridge used to feel? That’s passe now.

What’s left? Standard fayre sitcoms like Absolute Power, that’s what. The envelope remains untouched, but its still desperately cutting away at what its sure must be the edge of something. It was engaging rather than funny, but Stephen Fry is always good value, and there’s something satisfying about a formula that promises a similar kind of a resolution in each episode, with the characters marching to their inevitable fates and the audience giggling at the pantomime.

But is this a trick? Perhaps we are witnessing a deeper subversion than has been let on. Fry is, among other things, a terribly clever man, and this might be his ploy to mire us in a genre, only to leap out from behind our screens later and laugh at us all for falling for his brilliant joke. This would be astonishing, of course. But unless there’s something more than the tradition of the first episode, this is going to disappear into a glossy vault, with a short afterlife on DVD. But that’s the convention, isn’t it?