Posts from 8th April 2005
On Saturday April 10th 1992, The Guardian published a results special. It had a full page Steve Bell cartoon that remains the most powerful piece of cartoonery I’ve ever seen. I’m no big fan, and get slightly annoyed by the Bell-love if truth be told, but this one hit the spot.
It had an almost obscene pile up of animals, gargoyles and Tory cabinet Ministers, who’d stretched a song across the various lines of their tower of filth and sleaze.
We tax you
We sacks you
We thicken you
We madden you
We sadden you
And at the bottom, John Major peering our of bin, bearing the words
But you still vote for us
It had it all – my disgust with the government, my despair at the result, and my anger at the 14M people who’d only bloody gone and done it.
I kept it and used to look at it regularly, until it was part of a set of personal affects stolen in 1996. I’ve since tried the great god google, but no luck. If anyone has a copy, or knows of where I can easily get one, I’ll be grateful if you’d let me know.
Jon Kutner’s 1000 Number Ones tells a story about “Get Off Of My Cloud”. The song was played on Juke Box Jury, and host David Jacobs complained that he couldn’t hear the words properly. Told of this, Keith Richards remarked that perhaps he was going deaf, and maybe he should “stick to songs like ‘Tears’”
The list of number ones is a series of snapshots, different moods flickering across the face of pop. Sometimes the moods seem to be in sharp contrast, even conflict. But is the conflict something genuinely felt in the lives and tastes of the people buying the records? The list reflects different audiences, different markets. Often those audiences must hardly give one another a second thought. When Eminem sits next to Bob The Builder on the list, there’s no sense that their respective buyers were locked in combat. In the early 90s though, when I started liking dance music, there was a sense of conflict about the charts – resentment of older stars clogging them up, suspicion and fear of the ‘faceless’ newcomers.
How far do the worlds of Ken Dodd – a Liverpool comedian with a line in old-fashioned ballads – and the Rolling Stones – a London group with a line in outrage – overlap?* The Stones were notorious. Their series of well-pitched gestures (a surly JBJ appearance, an arrest for pissing against a wall) were downpayments on a greater breakdown their music and performance promised. They had infected the wider consciousness, and part of their message was that the ideas of a ‘wider consciousness’, of ‘public opinion’ were fragile and phoney compared to an individual’s will.
And Ken Dodd? Ken Dodd was an entertainer. Hardly any Stones fans would have bothered with his record. But Dodd represented something else: ten years after rock and roll it was obvious that being an ‘entertainer’ was the acceptable ambition for pop musicians – doing showtunes and ballads, working the variety hall circuit, enjoying a comfortable income and a respectable degree of nostalgic fame. It had happened to Lonnie, it was happening to some of the Merseybeat guys, Cliff Richard was still having hits but the hits were wholesome all-ages stuff. George Melly, in Revolt Into Style, suggests that the Beatles broke the mould but it seems to me that in 1965 this was up in the air: they were Royal Variety darlings, and behind the scenes they were talking about comic songs as a way forward. Ken Dodd and his ballads and even his tickling stick were still a believable endpoint for a pop career.
The conflict between Dodd-ness and Stones-ness seems real to me, and not limited to these two records, or acts. The charts are one place it would play out; Juke Box Jury another; the radio, the music press, the shops, others still. By 1965, radio in the UK had already fractured, with Radio Caroline and fellow pirates representing Stones-ness and the BBC Light Programme holding out against it. By the time I was aware of pop music the fracture was official, had become the resolution of the conflict: light entertainment, still including Ken Dodd, did this stuff. Pop and rock, still including the Rolling Stones, did that stuff. It was hard to imagine that they had ever been opposed.
“Tears”, the best-selling single of 1965, is a 1920s tune reverently performed. Designed to send an audience home content at the end of a show, it is unashamedly nostalgic – Dodd, whose voice is unexceptional but not grating, takes no risks and there’s never a hint that this might be a pastiche. The arrangement is stately and courtly. Clearly “Tears” could have been a hit when the charts started, though as it happens the fashion for lavishly arranged ballads helps it sound not entirely out of its time. And Keith Richards is right – Dodd’s enunciation is smarmily clear.
“Get Off Of My Cloud” takes the blueprint established by the Stones’ last two Number 1s – smart-mouthed, hooky embellishments on a riff – and muddies it. The murky vocals that offended David Jacobs are deliberate, of course: mumbling is a classic threat tactic, it puts you on the back foot, forces you to let your guard down, ask what someone means, enter their world a bit more. And once you’re in Jaggers world? He kicks you out. “Don’t hang around cos two’s a crowd” – “Get Off Of My Cloud” is a second episode of the “Satisfaction” sitcom but this time Jagger’s negation is all-encompassing. So what’s a Jagger fan to do? Sympathise and pretend that he’s not in the ‘you’ Mick wants off? Worry knowing he is? Or kick Jagger off his cloud and sing the song himself? The band are having a fantastic party but the song isn’t a call-to-party, because it’s someone else’s party that keeps Mick awake. Maybe yours.
*(A question for informed readers: would the retail outlets for these singles have been the same?)
Can it be judged as anything else? The first stab at Hitler by a German film, and it’s Hitler at his lowest point*. But this film is not really about Hitler, or even the Nazi’s that surround him. It is about Berlin, about the complete and utter destruction and how horrific that is, no matter who the people are. The middle section of the film, which deals almost exclusively with the final hours in the bunker, seem almost like a country house farce: with the exception of the constant sound of bombing. When we get back out into a ravaged Berlin, the effect is quite clear. The madness that lets any situation get that far is ideology, pride and a dose of personal fear. You will not see a film chock full of so many suicides again I’ll wager.
That the film is therapy is clear from the choice of protagonist. Hitler’s young secretary, herself exonerated for being a “young follower” is seen as both naive and ridiculously loyal. Oh, let’s not forget pretty too as this is a film and these things matter. Sympathy and attractiveness are unfortunately linked in the movies which is why oddly Eva Braun ends up being the most sympathetic character in the film. Everyone likes the boss who is nice to the staff. But the secretary represents modern Germany, well aware of its awesome history: but not really responsible. The film is meticulous with its role call of the fates of the surviving characters: and that fate is mostly imprisonment and death. Those who do not die in the film.
It is an interesting addition to the Hitler industry, and a fictionalised account does take you places a mere documentary cannot. Who would have thought the Goebbels family, as well as being tragically murdered by their mother, also turn out to be the Nazi answer to the Von Trapp family. It is impossible to see them all singing in unison in the bunker and not think of The Sound Of Music. But then it is possible Rolf is in this bunker, or the decadent parties or the murder squads on the street. Downfall is probably miles from what actually happened in the bunker, but that does not matter. What we get is pretty grim, and that is probably a good step for Germany to remind itself of whilst moving on.
*From Hitler’s point of view. There are probably other times when Hitler stooped pretty low from a wider perspective.
Professor Ed Witten gave a series of talks in various departments at the University of Toronto this week. He is arguably the most famous physicist in the world. That is, he is the most well-known physicist amongst physicists, for I doubt that the general public (or even other scientists) know who he is (for instance, as far as I know, he’s never written a popular science book a la Hawking, Weinberg, etc.). Witten is the principal architect of String Theory, which many believe is our best shot at a formalism toward a Theory of Everything — describing all the fundamental forces in the universe using one theory. In other words, the long sought-after melding of the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. The field of String Theory expanded rapidly following Witten’s pioneering work some 25 years ago, and today his papers are cited more than any other physicists’ in any other field — by a long shot.
One day, it would be nice to get some experimental verification of String Theory so that Witten can get his Nobel Prize (unless ST is wrong, in which case, never mind). His talk to the physics department centred on exactly this topic, i.e. what do we look for with the next generation of particle accelerators? He prepared this particular talk for a general physics audience so it was very non-technical. Anyhow, to summarize: Higgs particle, supersymmetric particles, Higgs particle, supersymmetric particles, what if we can’t find the Higgs OMG no let’s not even speak it. His talk was a bit dry (a lot of it was just him reading text from his slides) but he’s a patient, calming speaker with a sharp sense of humour.
Since Witten is a physics rock star, the room was packed. Talks by guys of his stature often attract people from other departments, and talks on sexy subjects such as particle physics also tend to bring in the freaks. These are non-physicists who have been to Chapters to read a few books on the subject and always blow their cover by asking esoteric questions that have nothing to do with what the speaker talked about. “OH YEAH, WHAT ABOUT NEGATIVE ENERGY, SMART GUY? WAS HAWKING RIGHT ABOUT BLACK HOLES?”
Most surprising thing I learned: apparently nobody believes in the existence of magnetic monopoles anymore.
Turns out that flophouses don’t exist any more either. Frankly the sooner I get out of the US the better. It is not like the movies. Except from the fact music is playing all the time. We managed to wangle a room at a lodging house near the train station about a bar. It was fine while I was drinking, but the thudding sounds of nu-country kept me up feeling nauseous all night. Which is probably why, when I finally did fall asleep, I was too tired to hear the door being kicked in. Indeed it took two bottles of smelling salts and a playing of Your Arsenal to finally rouse me.
“Tanya Headon. You thought you could escape?” It was Agent Turner. Still with those damned sunglasses on.
“We haven’t done anything. Leave us alone.”
“Haven’t done anything. You have a rap sheet as long as my arm, and I have pretty long arms.”
“Is that the list of all the rap artists I hate. In which case I don’t think anyone has arms that long.”
“Enough. You will tell us what you know about that space creature on the moon. You will tell us how you got hold of this alien technology. And you will tell us how you plan to utilise it in a terrorist attack.”
The first two I can’t help you with. If you call waging a war against all musicians terrorism then fine. I call it freedom fighting.”
“We will torture you.”
“I think you will find I am made of sterner stuff.”
“I can inflict unimaginable pain upon you.”
“I’ve heard a Spaceman 3 album, I know all there is to know about unimaginable pain.”
“Alternatively – we could take you to the Grand Ole Opry.”
He had me there. I was strapped down, put in the back of a specially converted ambulance and driven to Nashville. The rest is too horrific to talk about.
THE NASHVILLE TEENS – Tobacco Road
Not from Nashville. Not Teens. Not any good.
Why did the Nashville Teens exist? Well it appears that in Germany in the early sixties there was a shortage of idiotic beat combos. Apparently the German youth were too busy getting educated, working and precipitating an economic comeback to waste their time with drums and guitars. And so we filled up the clubs of Hamburg with British beat combos whose had no desire to be educated or do anything useful with their lives. Pace The Beatles, pace The Nashville Teens.
A minor German club band then until a too loud cover version of country yawner Tobacco Road propelled them into the stratosphere of the charts. And like any projectile propelled in such a manor, once Tobacco Road went out the charts, so did the Teens.
There is nothing more embarrassing than people trying to reclaim the success of their youth: so there is really nothing more embarrassing than reclaiming very minor success. The Nashville Teens are still out there gigging, well into their sixties. Still not from Nashville. Still not teens.
Still I do like the line in the song when the ask for dynamite. Blowing the bastards up certainly would have been more merciful.
Hands up who knew there was a tiki bar in Kennington (caution, site constructed entirely using flash)? And one that puts indie bands on, at that. It is a truly mental place, big coconut-related cocktails on cheap (on a Thursday at least), bartenders in Hawaiian shirts gamely attempting Tom Cruise in Cocktail impressions, a pinball machine older than me and loads of HUGE TIKI MASKS and BAMBOO and EVERYTHING. I spent most of the evening having flashbacks of the Butlin’s Beachcomber Bar in Skegness (or possibly Filey), particularly wondering if there was about to be a tropical storm (no seriously, they used to have this son et lumiere jobby where they would re-create a tropical storm, it had a particular name, but I can’t remember (no, not tsunami) I’ll have to ask me mam). I’d love to know more about the history of the place, it feels like it’s been there donkeys years, but brief interweb research seems to suggest this probably isn’t the case…
Anyway, if you happen to find yourself in this bit of London at a loose end, it’s certainly worth popping in (although opening hours seems a bit restricted).
Pumpkin Pielog would like to apologise for the lack of pie in this entry, normal service will be resumed shortly