British Bubblegum Pop 1968-1972
“Sunday morning, up with the lark,
I think I’ll take a walk in the park,
Hey hey hey, it’s a beautiful day …”
Daniel Boone, “Beautiful Sunday”, 1972
British bubblegum pop, circa 1968-1972 – as distinct from its more worldly and sophisticated American equivalent – is a pure insight into a country long gone. It’s simplistic, childish, over-excited, innocent, full of absolute certainties and safe knowledges.
It’s fabulous stuff.
It essentially bridged the gap between the poppier end of the mid-60s beat boom and glam rock
CORNELIUS – “Perfect Rainbow”
He plays games. And nothing else. And your tolerance of Keigo Oyamada’s tactics depends entirely on your tolerance of artists whose entire raison d’etre is to play about with past music and come out with lavish synthetic pastiches. Often it works: “The Micro Disneycal World Tour” was, for me, last decade’s finest example of “la-la-la-la-la” sounding like the most profound lyrics in the world, and “How Do You Feel?” was possibly its finest Beatles appropriation. But the downside of J-Pop is, of course, the way it defines “perfect pop” as something entirely classicist, which places more importance on playing games with the past than defining the loose, elastic, indefinable spirit of the moment; the way its fanbase seem to consider their chosen music to be the most innovative pop extant, the way they tend to look down on genuine modernist pop masterpieces (whether Timbaland or Daphne & Celeste), an entire ethos which is not that different to the jangly 60s idea of “perfect pop” beloved of the indie boys that British J-Poppers so often disown.
Sometimes this misleading process – revivalism disguised as modernity by playing the post-modernists’ card – works: Pizzicato Five’s “World Is Spinning At 45RPM” is aesthetically indefensible, but affects despite itself: the chord changes, and the air of lost innocence and wistful reminiscing over pop past, do the trick. But that’s pop revivalism: Cornelius’s “Perfect Rainbow” is actually rock revivalism, more heavy-handed than he has seemed in the past, and hence devoid of the lighter touch that runs through all his best work, sounding rather unexciting and uninspired. Oddly reminiscent of (but inferior to) the Style Council, it runs through the cliches of 60s and 70s US pop efficiently, but J-Pop has now been around long enough for the same sense of wonder in these “naive” appropriations to have disappeared. The ostentatious “naivety” now sounds irritatingly contrived, and the joy of “How Do You Feel?” is absent here. It’s Cornelius-by-numbers and, while it’s grown on me, it still feels oddly empty and academic, as though he knows what he’s expected to do; harmonica here, shuffling Motownish rhythm there, ostentatiously happy summer mood title on top. It doesn’t necessarily work, and it certainly doesn’t here.
Keigo Oyamada was clearly the one really great talent to emerge from the mid-90s’ Shibuya-kei scene. He’s shone in the past, and will again. Not this time, though.
MADONNA – Music
First things first: Garry Mulholland’s Guardian review of this album that Tom blogged last week was absurd and unintentionally hilarious, exemplifying all the worst aspects of the paper’s pop coverage. Familiar by now, the title song is far better than any song called “Music” has a right to be, and its descriptions of what music is, and what it can do, are merely observations (and, though glib, very accurate ones) rather than a complete dramatisation-of-the-self and ridiculous sweeping statements (cf that other song called “Music”). That said, Mulholland’s “naff” description applies perfectly to the second track in, “Impressive Instant”. It’s hideous; the vocoders are indescribably cheesy, and the treatment of her vocals generally is very dated. It’s faux-contemporary in the worst sense, the only song here to fit the hack’s idea of this album as a middle-aged grasp at What The Kids Are Into. I can’t listen to it without cringing, and it’s an embarrassment on a par with her worst mid-90s efforts at chasing clocks (the appalling cod-swingbeat “Human Nature”, which remains probably her worst ever single).
But then there’s “Runaway Lover”, which is absolutely unstoppably brilliant. Remember the rush of “Ray of Light” last time out, the way it seemed to announce her return from artistic / commercial exile, its fearlessness and exhilaration? This has the same quality; it plays much the same production tricks as its predecessor but never touches that cheesiness. She’s rarely sung better. And “I Deserve It” might just be her best ever slow / reflective moment; it’s a defiant semi-autobiography with an edge of sadness but devoid of all miserablism, and ultimately defiant. It’s that rarity; a reflection on her life without being remotely self-obsessed or self-mythologising (cf her fearfully, horribly cloying “This Used To Be My Playground”, from the period when her original myth was beginning to collapse and her years of apparent irrelevance were approaching).
Apart from a few of the production touches, “Amazing” is mediocre by comparison, and “Nobody’s Perfect” is pretty bland (that vocoder returns, along with some nasty synth twiddling that recalls an amateurish Vince Clarke). I don’t think I’ll ever particularly want to listen to “Don’t Tell Me” again. It’s early days yet, but I think “What It Feels Like For A Girl” could grow on me – it has virtually no significant content, but something in its succulent, meringue-like production could well draw me in on repeated listens, though the edge of blandness might make it a guilty pleasure.
“Paradise (Not For Me)” continues from here, and confirms the downbeat, thoughtful feel of the concluding part of this record, perhaps more melancholic than any previous Madonna album. But it sounds curiously dated to my ears – the sound is quite specifically mid-90s. “Gone” is the ideal conclusion, confirming the reflectiveness which is the most “uncommercial” thing about this record, rather than the much-vaunted “strangeness” of the mostly quite ordinary production. Timeless and classicist in a very good sense (perhaps because the sound is quite classicist, therefore lacking the distinct air of the recent past of the track that comes before), and it’s quite beautiful. Will Madonna always be here? Might she disappear, even retire? How will she sustain ageing? What and where will be she be at 50 or 60? Questions unanswered for the moment, and “Gone” gives us no clear answers, all for the better. Rather it has us wondering “where next?”, and if that “where next?” applies to Madonna herself rather than her music, it’s a reflection of her significance and importance.
I’m only reviewing “American Pie” along with the album out of a sense of duty (admittedly, I’ve never described it before and have wanted to since release), because it’s clearly nothing to do with the album onto which it’s been inelegantly tacked on in the UK (though not the US). I couldn’t believe myself loving it on release, the way its enticing arrangement and, perhaps most importantly, its distance from the place and time that originally lapped it up, along with all its worst implications (the cynical, depressed America of the early 70s) made me love a song I’ve hated as long as I can remember, as though something wonderful was lurking beneath its hideous disguise all the time (I still can’t quite believe that anything was, but am increasingly coming to feel that, beneath Don Maclean’s odious nostalgia and hatred of any complexity, edginess or uncertainty entering pop music, there was always a decent song). It’s totally unconnected to “Music”, but it can only be described as a miracle of a single.
And as for “Music” itself? All Madonna albums have fillers; there is one embarrassing track here, three that are pretty uninspired, one already familiar, three very good, and two I’m unsure of. Fairly par for the course, but this is perhaps the first record where she’s introduced regret and melancholia as the key themes, specifically in the second half, without tugging on your heartstrings or going MOR. She may still sink into mediocrity from time to time, but her fascination is still great, and this album is all the better for the lack of certainties and the open-ended questions it leaves.
VAN DYKE PARKS – Song Cycle
I’d heard so much about this album that I was actually nervous about hearing it, some years after it acquired a personal status as a kind of masterpiece of the mind. And the thing that immediately strikes me about it is how unfinished and incomplete it sounds compared to Discover America. They were clearly created at different stages in VDP’s artistic evolution – in ’68 he was expressing exactly how he felt, and putting it into shape was no priority. In ’72, everything was thrown into shape, every moment was indescribably affecting, there were no lengthy indulgences in between.
It certainly has weak links in its sprawl – both instalments of “Laurel Canyon Boulevard” are unnecessary fillers, and his version of Donovan’s “Colours” (titled, of course, “Donovan’s Colours”, an early example of the man’s charmingly outmoded reverence-without-forlock-tugging for those he appopriates, as though Donovan owned the song and had to receive a formal tribute) doesn’t come off as well as he must have hoped. But I think Tom was underrating it when he said in chat that it has “none of the warmth” of its successor … for sheer charm, the first and last 25 seconds of “The All Golden” outstrip virtually anything else he’s ever recorded, but the difference is that, on “Discover America”, *the whole song* would have that quality, and the magic of the harp sequences, fading out into that fuzzy recording of “Nearer My God To Thee”, would be sustained throughout the song, rather than lost in a rather unsubtle pastiche-production.
What is it about Gayle Levant’s harp sections on this record? They elevate the first minute of “Public Domain” to greatness, evoking by their very presence the kind of relationship a strong society has with its past, affectionate without drowning in reverence. Indeed it’s always elements and sections of songs that move me here, not the entire songs themselves (the orchestral flourishes that drive “The Attic” are better than the song itself, clearly). Even the album’s centrepiece / statement-of-intent – “For The People” – is constructed from its components rather than as a complete song; the “strike up the band” gospel chorus anticipating “Ode To Tobago”, its slow sub-1940s orchestral builds leading up to “G-Man Hoover”. Nevertheless, the trick he turned in every moment of “Discover America”, the evocation of joyous sentimentality without a hint of cloying or reductionist nostalgia, is already coming through here.
Not a masterpiece. A succession of sketches for songs, slightly incoherent ideas thrown together, one man’s fixations and obsessions with the interrelations of history thrown together, without which “Discover America” could never have been made. It was necessary, I think, for VDP to let his imperfections show before imperceptibly ironing them out.
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN – Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
So it’s my turn. And what strikes me about the album as a whole is that the closest B&S get to their own favoured classicism – however much they can sound isolated, innoculated, in their own little world – the better they are. Their triumph is to make me – a globalist who yearns to flee that hidden, disowned parochial Britain, with its fear of sexuality and restrained, buttoned-up emotions – find glamour and attraction and fascination in what I ultimately despise. At their best (which is only half of this album, maximum) they ring true emotionally and rationally, to such an extent that they remove themselves completely from the repressed world they grew up in, and which they’re chronicling.
Apart from the utterly excruciating cod-country “Beyond the Sunrise” (easily the worst song B&S will ever write, and one which I actually find somehow offensive in the way it tries to force home its message of cod-religious devotionality, as though they’ve gone Christian rock) the first half of this album is far superior to the second. It’s telling that it arrives in the most definitively B&S way imaginable – “I Fought In A War” is one of their best songs ever, and after so many years of extended peace and removal from serious threat to our liberties, which have all but removed the idea of “mortality” and “survival” from pop, it’s all the more necessary to hear. What time and context is this? A genuine war in the distant past, or something modern, mental, imaginary, and indescribably necessary? Is the “bedsit infamy of the decade gone before” the poverty / hedonism (delete according to social class) of the 1930s or (more likely) the complacent student culture of the 1990s, which now *has* to be swept away by some kind of full-scale conflict (the shadow of the Second World War contributed directly to the freshness and excitement of the 1960s, because it made everything that had happened before a certain date seem untouchably distant, the stuff of another world, and we now lack that definite turning point in our recent past)?
Whatever, it’s brilliant, and “The Model”, which follows, is perfect. There’s something about the chord sequence that moves you in itself – it’s quintessential B&S romantic melancholia. While “Waiting For The Moon To Rise” and “Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby” don’t reach those heights, they still manage to sound sensitive without being sentimental, ineffably sad without wanting to drown in their own misery.
“The Chalet Lines” has grown on me – initially I found its plain, unembellished account of a rape overtly straightforward and baring-his-soul, but listening to it now it’s one of Stuart Murdoch’s best vocal performances ever, in its plaintiveness and utter refusal to sound particularly distressed or angry (and, therefore, a distillation of the band’s entire ethos). But you have to balance it against its appalling predecessor, the bland 60s pastiche “The Wrong Girl”, and its unspeakable successor, the unashamed knock-off “Nice Day For A Sulk”. Their previous ability to hold a mood and sustain it throughout an album has been utterly lost, in favour of thrusting, obvious “mood changes” like this.
Apart from the closing “There’s Too Much Love”, which shows their recurring subject matter of loneliness, isolation and social embarrassment at its most affecting, they never again manage to capture the heights of the first half of the album (“Woman’s Realm” is just not that interesting, while Isobel Campbell’s “Family Tree” is dislikeably cloying). And there’s a sense in which Belle & Sebastian’s best years are behind them, in which they’re more likely than ever before to descend onto autopilot, to sound embarrassingly middle-of-the-road, lost in pastiche, or in doomed attempts to appropriate styles like devotional country or jaunty 60s pop. At their best, they’re still untouchable, but you definitely get the feeling that the wheat-to-chaff ratio is worsening enough that the album after next will sound like a poor imitation of the Beautiful South.
Yeah, “attitude problem” is the wrong phrase. I exaggerated. It’s 90% indifference and only 10% contempt, I’d guess.
Greg, I see all your points. Maybe I’m obsessed with national differences (I was once told that my specialist subject, as it were, was “national identity seen from the perspective of a diehard internationalist”, which was spot on) but I think enthusiastic, forward-looking globalists such as ourselves can exaggerate the way expectations for records to sound instantly “of” the country from which they came are declining. Even in the first “internet generation” (for want of a better phrase) there are people with little or no experience of the net, and if you don’t have that experience then the much-vaunted mass popular globalism of this era will be infinitely less likely to form.
Also, if Americans had such a stereotypical view of the British in the 60s compared to now, why did the Rolling Stones achieve so much there? The writers and target audience of the “Violent Britain” scare stories are actually of the generation which embraced them so enthusiastically, which kind of interrupts a linear interpretation of history. National identity is still intertwined with pop music – maybe not for the likes of us, but for a significant enough proporiton of the audience.
But if anything the problem to my argument is that the music in question doesn’t stress aggression or abrasiveness in the way I seem to imply. You’re right about Craig David not suffering at all from those attitude problems – quite the opposite, in fact, there’s something about his presence that could give him star status *anywhere*. Indeed it does remind me of the (at the time) totally unexpected US breakthrough of Soul II Soul – I’m drawing mental comparisons as I write, and part of me can very strongly imagine “Fill Me In” achieving what “Back To Life” did. Having said *that*, though, the US pop charts in 1989 / 90 were still dominated by AOR and pop (it was before the great commercial breakthrough of R&B and hip-hop, along with Nirvana, broke down the 80s consensus for good) – there’s an analogy there to be drawn with the dull, safe nature of the US charts in the year or so before the Beatles exploded there.
But, as you say, ultimately too much of this kind of discussion can remove us from why we’re here – enjoying the music.
Is there some connection between the enjoyably overblown and absurd “concept” for this record and the bizarre way it sounds from time to time like late 60s acid rock at its most self-indulgent, with organ reminiscent of the Doors? Probably not, actually, but it’s an intriguing connection … the basis for this Mike Ladd-helmed collective effort is that there’s a battle for hip-hop between the Majesticons (allies being the Nostalgicons, “a crew in downtown Manhattan who thinks everything from the 70s and 80s was cool no matter how bad it sucked at the time” … hmmm, why do the initial J and the number 5 come to mind?, and the Jiggidons, “the record exec secret society”) and the Infesticons (allies including the “rejecticons”, “electicons” and so on). While these concepts are all good fun, I find the whole idea of music having to be “saved” or “battled for” inherently flawed, because it implies that music can be defined in timeless, changeless terms (the hideous idea of “quality control”, as somebody else might put it). Plus, the choice of betes noires can become outdated very quickly – the originator of the Jiggidons is one “Poof Na Na”, with Mr Combs now an impotent, meaningless target, and it’s an unpleasantly homophobic “pun” as well.
That said, much of this album is excellent, and it mercifully avoids the outmoded ideas of “soulfulness” that let down so much undie rap. “Precious Theme” is terrific, fizzing with brassy funk, “Cave Theme” is very good (even the cliched operatic vocal just about works) and “Hero Theme” has a power redolent of the best 80s hip-hop (the riff and chorus have that certain effortless, commercial memorability that most undie deliberately avoids). It begins to fall down in the second half of the album, though, and then you get that bizarre muso rockism utterly removed from the sound this album achieves at its best – Rob Smith’s “Chase Theme” and Liza Jessie Peterson’s “Figurine Theme” suffer from poor, indulgent emceeing over incongrous organs and electric guitars, and Saul Williams’s “Monkey Theme” doesn’t at all live up to the best of his 1998 work on Rawkus. The “Night Night Theme” is brilliant to start with (memorable computer game sounds, unnecessary but memorable reference to Vic Reeves) but then fades out and comes back as yet another sub-acid rock workout, for no reason at all.
The whole set of values on which this album is founded – a battle for the “soul” of hip-hop – are illusory, but if you can leave that aside there’s some pretty good music here.
I’m as keen as Greg to see UK Garage get exposure in America, but I can’t realistically see it happening – because (and I know this will seem like a sweeping and, to some, offensive statement) it just doesn’t fit into the portrayal of Britain that mass American audiences want (if they care about this country at all). The so-called “furore” this past week over the claims that Britain is a more violent society than America is simply the byproduct of a slow, pained realisation of the fact that Britain, for all its faults, is not some quaint, crime-free little island.
When “British but un-British” records *have* succeeded there, though, it’s interesting how they stand out for wildly varying reasons – the global stereotype of the British has been that they don’t calmly and naturally relax, but also that they never get *too* excited, they don’t lose all self-control. It’s a potent cultural myth based around a perceived emotional avoidance of extremes – and that explains why “Get Off Of My Cloud”, one of the Rolling Stones’ three or four worthwhile efforts, sounded “un-British” because of its unstoppable rhythmic aggression, while Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” sounded “un-British” because of its possessing the opposite mood, immaculate relaxation. When “Get Off Of …” topped the Billboard chart in 1965, the sheer force of its instrumentation, the way the words “Hey” and “You” are then viciously repeated to force the message home, and (especially) its use of the drums as a virtual lead instrument, shocked American audiences used to the post-war ideal of the polite Englishman. “Back To Life”, meanwhile, at the tail end of the Thatcher era and after Reagan had gone, transcended all ideas of the English being uptight, and the very fact that it was a black, urban British record was subversive in certain quarters. These two brilliant extremes of un-British Britishness both stood out in America because of the way they perfected particular feelings at opposite ends of the emotional scale, coming from a country almost universally associated with an avoidance of emotional extremities.
But I still reckon that, while UK Garage *will* suffer from media underexposure, it will also suffer from a certain attitude problem which does not look like changing in the foreseeable future.
For so long, as a matter of moral principle, I despised DMX. Hated the blatant simplicity of his music’s production values, hated the way his every emotional response was intoned as a blood-red tabloid headline, hated the way he played into the hands of the shocking and disgraceful racism of the British media (half the time he *does* sound like an orang-utan to *me*, and if I can think that then what would the average Telegraph reader think if *they* heard him … ?).