(Prompted by a great post about designer Barney Bubbles over at Feuilleton.)
The Warrington Hotel was the first pub I visited after moving to London in the summer of 1994. As such, it skewed my expectations of the city’s hostelries: not only was the bar itself a gloriously over-the-top shrine to art nouveau glass, carved mahagony and ornate ironwork (installed in a 1900 refurb to rebrand the establishment from its knocking shop reputation), but Martin Gore of Depeche Mode was holding court at the bar (the BBC’s nearby Maida Vale studios ensured a steady supply of once and future popstrels). Tragically few of the London boozers I have visited since have lived up to this initiation.
Considering its chi-chi environs, the Warrington was still a remarkably unaffected and welcoming pub – you get the impression that many of the local Wood and Vale residents weren’t keen to frequent a place that resisted makeover and gastrofication. But it was evidently only a matter of time. Paying a visit last week, we noticed a sign on the stairwell notifying us that the property had recently been purchased by Gordon Ramsay Holdings (supposedly for £5.2 million ) and was shortly to be closed for refurbishment.
The sign suggested that this would take place at the end of January, so if you’re inclined you still have a week or two to pay your first visit or your final respects to a beautiful pub before it’s gone, in spirit at least, forever.
Actual, real live pub science promised this evening at London’s Dana Centre with their Pub Guide to Genetics.
“Find out why DNA can be delightful with genetic blonde Portia Smith, who will be introducing genetics with chromosome cakes and some proteinaceous gene recipes.”
Tragically, closer inspection reveals that at no point does the event involve a real pub, though apparently the Dana Centre’s d.café does sell booze.
Meanwhile… Back to lists and stats! The dementedly thorough everyhit.com should provide ample entertainment for those of you missing Tom’s Popular blog these last couple of weeks. Among other things, the site has pleased us greatly by noting that the record for the longest note held on a UK top 40 single is held by Morten Harket for ‘Summer Moved On’ (no. 33, June 2000) — one of great lost single of recent years – beating Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ by a whole 2.2 seconds.
G is for… Goths
This week is your last chance to see Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s exhibition ‘Happy Victims’ at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. Tsuzuki’s photos illustrate a kind of consumerist version of the Vermorel’s Starlust book, featuring ‘individuals who have turned the act of shopping into an indefinable obsession, lying somewhere between artistic expression and an unusual kind of fetishism’. Maybe this kind of thing should really be blogged over on DYS, but isn’t pop just as much about emotional investment in fantasy worlds as it is about the boys-own world of lists and stats? Among the label victims and style slaves are: ‘the three young Osakan girl-goths who share their lives, their apartment and their love of Jane Marple, a designer who defines the Japanese Goshiki or gothic style.’
F is for… FEAR OF A FULLER PLANET
Last nite’s two-hour prime-time binge of The National Music Awards was, in its own sweet way, even freakier than anything Xtina’s stylists could dream up for last week’s MTV beano. Produced by the Granada team behind Pop Idol, the event felt like a very, very long trailer for the day, coming soon, when Simon Fuller is unanimously elected Emperor of Earth (via 25p per min. phone lines). Gates, Young, Stevens and — bless — even the Cheeky Girls, accepted awards from GMTV presenters, smiled sweetly and thanked their mums. Awards were presented for ‘Favourite Theme Tune of the Year’ (Ant and Dec’s ‘Saturday Night Takeaway’ — A&D wisely accepted their gong via videotape) and ‘Favourite Music in a TV Ad’. This all might have been campy fun had the event had one scintilla of the hysteria of, say, the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party. The high point of the evening may have been the dawning horror on the face of Ronan Keating as he realised that this new MOR makes even him seem left-field.
Meanwhile, Ananova reports:
Pop Idol creator Simon Fuller is reportedly planning to screen an international version of the show. World Idol will feature 12 winners from around the globe in a giant Eurovision-style talent contest.
…from the band Metric, whose new lp, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, has just been promoted to the A-list on the radio station in my head. On first listen you might peg them as skinny-tie, keytar new wavers, but Haines has got a smart mouth on her, with the infectiously withering tone of an Algonquin liquid-lunch-party. ‘Succexy’ (sample lyric ‘all we do is talk, sit, switch screens / as the homeland plans enemies’) could be the first indie pop song I’ve heard this year that acknowledges a wider, wilder world beyond genre pastiche and schmindie womance. It’s certainly the best.
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?
‘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 http://www.camdenjoy.com
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.
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:
It’s a sin
I’m not scared
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?
1) Can I begin with a footnote?1
It makes sense to do so, since for all intents and purposes the Strokes are a footnote – that least sexy of paratextual props2 – a scribbled quibble in the margin of pop history, not even parasitic (since that would imply some independent existence), but entirely reliant on the source they reference. Sad sacks of all ages would have you believe that this is the condition we’re condemned to in the belated 21st century – that even the gleaming nonplusUltraDisko of Daft Punk is a mere digest of all our dancefloor days. To exclaim, like some nineteenth century Romantic, ‘let us establish an original relationship with the universe’ is these days a little gauche, since the universe, like the stars, was lost to us long ago amid all this light and noise. Nevertheless, we should at least expect some caprice or cunning from our thieves. Daft Punk are jackdaws, their principle of selection whatever glitters most, be it a Shannon bassline, a Satriani solo or a Trevor Horn orchestral flourish, and this indiscrimination creates odd equations, strange constellations of feeling and flavour. The Strokes, on the other hand, are one of those shameless birds that squats in somebody else’s nest.
2) And this nest, needless to say, is ‘CBGBs’ – now just as much a historypark nexus of avant-garde glamour and bohemian ambition as, say, ‘Paris in the Twenties’, the Cabaret Voltaire or the Warhol Factory . In truth, there are few greater fans of this milieu than myself. Back in my poppuppyhood, when I first rolled up in Manhattan with all the city open to me like a book, I insisted my hosts escort me to the orphic motherlode that had given the world Television, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, The Ramones. They looked at me in the way I might look at someone who wished to make a pilgrimage to the Camden Falcon. So I can see the appeal. And the Strokes certainly have the look down cold: ragged, tousled philanderers, dandified streetpunks (after manners, the Oxfam suit jacket still maketh the man). There is the attention to detail one would expect from a fashion stylist expensively artschooled in the flot-jet of twentieth century subculture. In a sense, The Strokes are an old-fashioned new kind of pop group – one that Aspires to the Condition of a Face Fashion Spread. And I can applaud this – America needs an artfag haircut guitar band right now, if only to piss off the Joe Carduccis of this world.
3) But what do The Strokes accomplish in making history their playground? As I say, they make for diverting fashion, and they have the choppa-chops – hearing ‘Hard to Explain’, ‘Last Nite’, ‘The Modern Age’ in the upstairs room of a pub disco, there’s an economy and drawly drive that sounds fresh and thrilling, and makes one’s old geezer gripes (that ‘See No Evil’ or ‘Lust for Life’ might sound just as good) seem like some very sour grapes. The Strokes exist for now in the peachykeen pop present, not yet archived and soundtracked and Mojofied. You’ve played it for them, Mr Casablancas, so why don’t you play it for me?
4) Here’s why: In his introduction to ‘In the Fascist Bathroom’, putting back all he left out of ‘Lipstick Traces’ (ie the music), Greil Marcus keeps it real: ‘I played favourites, devoting a lot of space to bohemian bands from the UK and scabrous groups from Los Angeles, ignoring New York, where most punks seemed to be auditioning for careers as something else’. This is Marcus’s tough-minded Berkeley put-down of all the poncified pretensions of the wicked sinful city of the east, and it has some truth. Look at it one way and the CBGBs scene is all slumming: lyricists who would rather be poets (Smith, Hell), groups who would rather be installations (Talking Heads), singers who would rather be filmstars (Deborah Harry). And maybe it’s this pretension (or to be more charitable: ambition) that made the scene so astonishingly fertile – in artistic terms, if not the world-historical socio-cultural terms that Marcus would prefer. What astonishing bounty there is in these careers! To pick at random: ‘Marquee Moon’, ‘Horses’, ‘Remain in Light’, ‘Parallel Lines’, the first four Ramones singles – all enlivened by the desire to be something else… the Charlie Parker of lead guitar, the Rimbaud of the lower East Side, musical ethnographers, the girl group of Andy Warhol’s dreams… Ultimately, it’s this absurd admirable gusto, that means the most to me – as though the shabby friction between the desperate dreams of artistic-literary glory and the mundane possibility of being in a pop group caused the spark that brought something new into the world. And, oddly, it’s the one thing the Strokes have left out of their historical re-enactment society. They have proceeded, as though guided by the dictum that ‘god is in the details’… yet missed out on some central mystery. The Strokes look and sound like a pretty sharp powerpopgroup and seem pretty satisfied by that: nowhere in the sound or in the words do I hear the stifled desire to be a lysergic sage, ghetto fabulous flaneur or expressionist guitar symphonist. Whereas the groups they pastiche often seemed like they would rather be anything other than a popgroup, The Strokes don’t want to be anything but…
5) So in a sense, The Strokes remind me of one of those early Cindy Sherman photographs of a painting. What happens in the space between the two frames? Is it a space for dismay or irony or sarcasm or reverence or goofing around? All of these attitudes are possible and permissable, yet I don’t get any of that, any sense of The Strokes bringing something of themselves to the party. They’re not even a tribute band, where there’s some joy to be had in the slippage between intention and execution. Instead they remind me of something closer to home, our own aimless, witless detour through the airless rooms of the museum. What I’m saying, I guess, is that The Strokes are closer to Suede or Blur than they are to the bands they might eulogise. The Strokes are…. YankPop? Yes, that feels right.
1 It’s worth stating that although I come here not to praise The Strokes but to bury them, I applaud the audacity of argument that, through intellectual backflips and critical judo, manouevres The Strokes into position as a disco band, or as R’n’B stylists. The point is to set the trifle of mental excitement flying through the thin air of received opinion, and –as someone wise once said – have fun starting arguments.
2 The footnote may enjoy a postmodern vogue, but let us remember that the experience of reading the footnote is like leaving the arms of one’s sublime and inventive lover to run downstairs and answer the door for the mailman.