Jul 07

The Freaky Trigger Top 100 Tracks Of All Time: No. 57 ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS – “Oliver’s Army”

FT//74 comments • 5,944 views

I semi-remember just two lines from the NME’s (Charlie Shaar Murray’s?) review of “Armed Forces” (secret unused title “Emotional Fascism”). One was that one of the other songs resembled ELP “jamming in the bottom of an oil drum”! The other — more germane to this post, as well as being true — is that “with the boys from the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne” is a brilliantly compressed evocation of a nation’s sense of itself (if “a nation” = England obv), the disparate togetherness of an army abroad. The other thing I recall from the time is this: watching EC&tAs play this on top of the pops, and someone sitting near me — who was iirc an organ scholar — saying in sudden surprise (as he watched Steve Nieve play the triple-stabbed piano chords of the bridge passage into the second verse), “Oh! He can actually play!”

Craft — the mastered techniques of ordinary pop, word AND music, from a sprawling and unusually broad clutch of decades — is Costello’s thing: his focused strength and his limitation. And at this moment (early 79) — when punk was revalorising the 3-minute single, and “getting into the charts” was considered (by everyone except the bleedn Clash) a radical act, a reignition of a latent power — the compacting into one another of a song built round an Abba riff and a lyric exploring the states of a soldier’s mind, — this was an announcement of thrilling potential. LOOK WHAT WE’RE OPENING UP! Where we’re going is just so RICH, pop but deep, pretty but dark, direct but clever, we can sing about ANYTHING NOW etc etc.

I don’t want to take away from that feeling — it’s my own youth and idealism and excitement, and I’m not going to repudiate it — but I do want to look at how it became a problem, how openness went closed. Costello today is imprisoned by his gifts, and I think all of why is on show already here, in this his biggest hit.

OK what I like about the words are, yes, the compression, the perspective shifts — I don’t know exactly when this device became part of rockand/or expressivity, but of course the Pistols had just pushed it to a kind of dizzying limit, every line of every Pistols song a different idea in a different mind — and the resultant ambiguity of cryptic image-collage and POV in OA achieves sympathy as well as critical distance. Only push a bit further in, and I think the crit begins to blur: the Mersey/Thames/Tyne couplet, in full, is as follows: “We could be in Palestine/Overrun by the Chinese Line/With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne.” Actually google and lyric-sites have “Chinese Lion”, but that doesn’t make much sense either, in terms of geopolitical precision, or cliches about world affairs we know and love [any better ideas or explanations, put em in comments]. I’m not sure that’s such a weakness in this song — it’s just a line that’s never quite parsed — but the punning, rhyming crossword-puzzle density would turn into a shtick, a habit, a way of staying away from the centre of some of (a lot of?) his later material.

The song was written after Costello — real name Declan McManus — visited Belfast, and experienced for himself what it was like to be in a militarised zone, the British Army — descendent of the professionalised forces, loyal to Parliament, fashioned in the English Civil War by Oliver Cromwell (a blood-soaked figure justly loathed in Ireland, whose rep in England is on the whole far more complicatedly positive, precisely bcz the political revolution he set in motion, the ending of the divine right of kings, the establishment despite er hiccups of modern democracy, also established Britain as the hub of an Empire) — wielding guns which pointed, as he suddenly saw it, at himself and those like him: “All it takes is one itchy trigger/One more widow,/one less white n!gger…”

Verses one and three are about the romance of the military — wanting to join up (“My mind goes sleepwalking/While I’m puttin’ the world to rights”), and the sheer vivid energy of possibility, of escape into exotic glamour, of swift-sketched peoples and cultures shimmering and clashing: Kipling said that Empire was great for the British because it encouraged them to escape from their ingrained fubsy parochialism, to encounter the teeming variety and imagination of all humanity. Verse two, the reality from an outsider perspective, recalls the then-famous takedown joke of a Army Ad Campaign of the era: “Join the Army, Travel the World, Meet Exciting, Interesting People — AND KILL THEM!”

And verse four — well, I don’t really get verse four. It mentions Churchill and Johannesburg, and closes the song down in a somewhat formless hint at more knowledge than it delivers: it may be an attempted portrait of how the would-be squaddies are kidding themselves, about how it works when they join up: out of luck, out of work, join up, hey presto you’re side-by-side with the Historical Greats of empire, a tourist in other culture’s energies. I don’t know. What I do know is the perfectly balanced fusion of polar opposite pulls in the chorus: “I would rather be anywhere else than here today” — this is Costello the working-class Irishman, seeing himself as a restless native and thus potential target on Murder Mile, hating it and wanting out; and the unwanted teenager in the Recruitment Office, dreaming of warrior nobility in the world’s dazzling troublespots, and wanting out. I wonder if verse four is there as a wised-up counter to the extraordinary — and I think daring — chorus link: to reassure the punkier, more insecure punters — viz me then — that we’re not being led into WRONG THOUGHT by this linkage, that we DO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS, and so on and all…

This is getting a bit long, but bear with me two and a bit more paragraphs. The second embedded flaw — which at the time seemed such an enticing portal — is Costello’s commitment to “clever pop”. The problem being — tho this wasn’t clear at the time, indeed I think he was bending the stick in the correct direction — that his rehabilitation of despised craft technique, whether from Cole Porter or Stax or Nashville or Abba, was underneath it, a kind of a revised stands-the-test-of-time announcement, that here were a bunch of ways of approaching the song which deserved to enter the pantheon of deeper intelligence; that complacent rock culture could be opened up. And yes, along with this opening up, we get to rescue pop from being shunted over into the “mere brash ephemeral stupidity” column, where pre-punk rock had shunted it. All of which seems like a great idea — except (over the long haul) it undermines that other thing chart pop provides which considered art is much less good at, that idiot flash of energy and insight (the two inseparably yoked) that you get from a line or a hook or a bodymove: Johnny Rotten’s scornful laugh, Mel and Kim’s hair, Adam Ant’s [select and insert from list too long to include]…

[Threes near-subliminal examples of such flashes in this song: the odd way he pronounces “Arabs”; the way the chorus goes “Oliver’s Army is….”/Oliver’s army are…” — another perfect economical statement of an army as both a group and a unity, as disparate unity; and of course Steve Nieve’s triple-stab piano]

Oliver’s Army — maybe Armed Forces as a whole, it’s a long time since I listened — is an impacted sketch of ambivalence, of the lure of bad things, ugly emotions and desires, and “I would rather be anywhere else than here today” is the posterchild motto of this, memorably and chart-toppingly both-ways-looking as we reach for escape from the mundane into, well, something maybe much worse (worse for others, if not for us). This was his highpoint — the ebullient, slightly overpumped and convivial fullness of sound, singalong anthemic pubrock punctuated with these startling flashes of otherwhere, seizing the attention of coach-potato poets and organ scholars– and gradually Costello went with his best skills, and why shouldn’t he, except it was a step away from something also. Heroic workrate, enviable facility in wide range to styles, persistent fascination with complex states of mind and nasty states of life assembled themselves into a large, detailed lego-palace labyrinth of work which exactly muffles exactly this kind of WTF this-here-now surprise inreach, into ourselves (artist-audience) when wide open and maybe unalert, ourselves when undefensive and undefended.


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  1. 31
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Top of my head thoughts:

    1) I’m still junior enough in the skronk game that sometimes it still surprises me just because it is what it is (this is a path of diminishing returns obv)
    2) The Klinker at Nunhead is (according to those who know) (i.e. Julio) an unusual skronk night because it has a very accommodating ethic, which is to say you’re as likely to see the first show by a teenage Emo covers band as you are to see Lol Coxhill, which is GREAT obv
    3) the proper improv stuff, when it works best, manages a level of intensity which far exceeds the sum of its musical parts, in itself something of a free lunch. Poss the best act I’ve seen there were the extraordinary Primal Fruitcake, who include in their number someone who does improv expressive dance* for them. When describing them to people I’m always met with sceptical looks because I don’t know how to explain how engaging and (again) intense the experience is.
    4) The whole affair doesn’t really fit into my self-imposed pop aesthetic and the fact that I find enjoyment and intensity there feels free lunchish. If I thought of myself as the sort of person who liked that sort of stuff, it might be different.
    4) the Plain People of The Ivy House Nunhead are often around and about, playing pool, watching telly, having a drink (also serving a drink). The look on the barstaff’s faces quite often reintroduces reality into the proceedings, redefamiliarises (sorry) the affair.
    5) when none of that happens it’s still good to go because it’s funny and it’s always good to hang out with Julio.

  2. 32
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    There’s enjoying the noise for its own sake, too: if I can just enjoy it, which sometimes I can, then the surprise stops being obligatory obv.

  3. 33
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Living in Streatham I really have no excuse not to visit the Nunhead Klinker more often, except that it’s in Nunhead.

  4. 34
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Oh and er:

    *I’m sure expressive dance is the wrong term, but then I know less about dance than I do about skronk.

  5. 35
    Tim on 20 Jul 2007 #

    Streatham -> Nunhead isn’t easy using public transport (err you could get the P13 I guess but I wouldn’t want to be relying on that to get me home late at night). So that’s a good excuse.

  6. 36
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    The litmus test for true improv commitment is to go to one of Maggie Nicols’ Gathering evenings at the Betsey Trotswood where there is no audience and if you turn up you have to participate and improvise, in whatever context!

    (see also the Esemplastic Evenings at the Royal College of Art except I’m not too sure the latter are still running; there haven’t been any updates on Militant Esthetix for yonks)

  7. 38
    Tom on 20 Jul 2007 #

    That Trotwood thing sounds weirdly far less intimidating to me than being in the audience at a standard skronk night – probably my ex-Goblin side surfacing.

    Not that I’m planning on doing it!

  8. 39
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Jul 2007 #

    I remember that thread well. But where oh where is BEZ?

  9. 40


  10. 41
    xyzzzz__ on 21 Jul 2007 #

    Thanks for yr kind words, tim! It has been really nice hanging with you and other people you’ve happened to bring along. I don’t know the attitude of the current bar staff – they seem weirdly non-plussed by any of it. Not exactly the case with that barmaid when you first started going there, who became a part of the performance at times.

    Speaking of Trotwood I’ve actually been to one teatime improv sesh that I thought ws a gig but it turned to be a kind of rehearsal. The people there got me to bang some drums for a bit. Maybe I should go that BT night, if only to get a badge saying how committed I am :-)

    See, re: p^nk s’ ‘attending’ gigs I feel I need to attend every now and again (and not just to learn or feel surprised) BUT I don’t feel like listening to improv on record ever again – I feel as if I’ve learnt all I can by re-listening to what I have or not at all, which is foolish, bcz I think there is something in that whole electroacoustic improv lark (the stuff that isn’t played much at the Nunhead).

    But that’s the splits in improv land for ya :-(

  11. 42
    fivelongdays on 22 Jul 2007 #

    ““with the boys from the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne” is a brilliantly compressed evocation of a nation’s sense of itself”

    Blimey, that’s the second brilliant thing I’ve read in the same number of minutes.

    I may be extrapolating things here, but it seems that Britain (OK, FTPOT song, England) is a land that partially gives itself identification through its rivers, especially those which add to it’s maritime heritage.

    I suppose that’s a long winded way of saying because no one really knows what rivers flow through Birmingham and Manchester* they can never truly capture the imagination** some other places can.

    “The Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne and the Severn and the Humber and the Trent and the Thames again and the Severn again…”

    *Oh, alright, it’s the Irwell
    **Manchester’s High Profile status in contemporary British Popular Culture has more to do with THE MEEEEEJA than anything to do with the city itself. But that’s for another day.

  12. 43
    Tom on 24 Jul 2007 #

    Mark have you (or any other commenters) heard “Tank” by the Stranglers, which I almost put into the Pop Open? It’s a contemporary but uh less nuanced shall we say take on the motivations of army recruitment (the chorus: “I can drive my very own tank”)

  13. 44
    Marcello Carlin on 24 Jul 2007 #

    We used to do a cover version of it!

  14. 45

    i dimly remember it — i am by NO MEANS a glers fan

  15. 46
    Tom on 24 Jul 2007 #

    Nor am I (he sez hastily) – this was on one of those young people’s eclectic mix CDs but I thought its thuggish brio wd be apt for the Violence group (I went for something quite different in the end).

    It makes an unsubtle companion piece to this tho. :)

  16. 47
    Marcello Carlin on 24 Jul 2007 #

    Bothwell’s leading punk band even went to the trouble of having their picture taken in the middle of Uddingston Road in the Black And White album pose, much to the amusement of passing motorists.

  17. 48
    koganbot on 25 Jul 2007 #

    it undermines that other thing chart pop provides which considered art is much less good at, that idiot flash of energy and insight (the two inseparably yoked) that you get from a line or a hook or a bodymove: Johnny Rotten’s scornful laugh, Mel and Kim’s hair, Adam Ant’s [select and insert from list too long to include]…

    I think you guys have all discussed what is problematic about this sentence pretty well. Seems arbitrary to say “considered art” rather than “considered pop” or “considered craft.” Also, don’t see any reason to think that Johnny’s scornful laugh and Mel and Kim’s hair weren’t “considered,” or why you’d think that flashes of energy and insight (what’s “idiot” doing modifying that phrase?) aren’t there due to someone constructing song or situation so as to put them there. (Not that they have to arise from forethought, but they can.) And getting the flash often depends on knowledge on the part of the flashee. That is, the flash I got from “I look pretty young but I’m just backdated” in the Who’s “Substitute” came from my having previously heard “Hope I die before I get old” in “My Generation.” And the shocks from the Stones’ “Lady Jane” and “Back Street Girl” come from knowing the genre conventions that Jagger’s using and simultaneously defying (the sound is of a sentimental ballad, and “I don’t want you to be high/I don’t want you to be down/Don’t want to tell you no lies…” could be the setup for a romantic declaration of love, or, though less romantic, a happily rambunctious “I don’t want you ’cause I’m sad and blue/I just wanna make love to you”; so the shock comes from the dawning realization that what we’re listening to is a rich married man telling his mistress where she needs to curtail her behavior if their financial relationship is to continue). The reason I still get a lot of insight and energy from Ashlee Simpson is that I’ve listened to a lot of Ashlee Simpson: “I spilled my coffee/It went all over your clothes/I gotta wear mine now” tells you a lot about the relationship in a very few words, and the song’s about how her bad days prove her life and love are going well. But it also then associates the bright and happy line from her introductory song – “Got stains on my T-shirt/And I’m the biggest flirt” – with the hazy density of a good-bad day. The thing is, I don’t see how knowing these things, making these associations – getting these flashes of energy and insight – is different in kind from getting flashes of energy and insight from Finnegans Wake (which I’ve never tried to read, but I assume those who’ve read it profitably are getting similar buzzes, and those buzzes are not a different species from the buzzes in pop).

  18. 49
    koganbot on 25 Jul 2007 #
  19. 50
    koganbot on 25 Jul 2007 #

    So you’re making “chart pop” seem something mystical, as if “pop” somehow makes the flashes of energy and insight happen, in an especially “pop” way, by “pop” methods (or by no methods; the energy and insights just pop up).

    If chart pop does do this especially well, you have to say why. It seems to me that disco ’75 to ’80 did this especially well, and that Cleveland-New York punk-no-wave-whatever did this especially well ’75 to ’80 but that nondisco chart pop was generally mediocre in this period. And New York post-punk-no-wave-whatever was blah in ’85. So good environments, like good Joyces and Ashlees, can create rich worlds that help everyone to insight and energy – grow rich in association with each other – but that chart pop at a particular time isn’t guaranteed to be this good environment. Specific musical events have to happen, that other musical events can feed off of.

  20. 51

    the fact of rotten’s laugh may indeed be pre-decided and structural; the manner of it isn’t

    the word “idiot” is there to push the continuum of possibility out beyond anything that can be called “considered” — i mean it to mean not just unthought or unthinking, but done in a way that the doer couldn’t (convincingly) justify or explain in terms of their grasp of their own craft skills as they understand them: in the sense it’s used in this sentence — “idiot love will spark the fusion”

    you’re right that it’s entirely possible to use the word “considered” for a much wider range of things than the habits of any given discipline are comfy with; you’re wrong if you’re arguing that everything anyone does ever is “considered”; and you’re wrong if you’re arguing that everything that’s GOOD is “considered”

    this seems a very weird thing to say, to me: “why you’d think that flashes of energy and insight … aren’t there due* to someone constructing song or situation so as to put them there?” —
    the joke “[insert joke here]” would have no meaning if it weren’t the case that the flash DOESN’T always happen, and CAN’T just be assumed reliably to be along when needed and inserted at will. “Here’s the song Johnny, but you will need a flash of inspiration to kick it off” “OK Malcy will do!”

    i don’t think this idea’s remotely mystical — it happens all the time, as when a possible joke (say) hits someone as they’re saying something — but yes, i do think the difference between when it’s exactly right and when it’s inspired is mysterious sometimes, and when it is, the word i appear to reach for is “idiot”, meaning a capability common to all of us — ourselves when ordinary — which expressively trumps the power of crafted expression (i didn’t reach for it in a considered way, it just fell out of my fingers, but on the other hand, i can “justify” it acc.the laws of my craft heehee)

    from the greek: idiotes
    1. a private person as opposed to a magistrate, ruler, king
    2. a common soldier, as opposed to a military officer
    3. a writer of prose as opposed to a poet
    4. in the New Testament, an unlearned, illiterate, man as opposed to the learned and educated: one who is unskilled in any art

    in shakespearian english, people later called idiots were often called “naturals”, interestingly enough — as if to argue that ALL intelligence was cultivated: i don’t think it is, we develop some of it by other means than schooling, such as how we sound when we laugh (obviously you can teach yrself to laugh another way, or fake the sound — equally obviously rotten isn’t doing either, but it ISN’T his natural laugh either, it’s acted but there’s more than just imitation there)

    *[shd be OWING there, acc.my mum]

  21. 52

    yes i’m being vague and imprecise about “pop” (what pop? when?) but i don’t think that narrowing it down helps the point i’m making: OK, disco 75-80 did it well, but it didn’t all do it well, and some of the places it was done 75-80 wasn’t in disco (the sex pistols aren’t disco, unless alex in nyc is reading this, in which case, the sex pistols ARE disco)

    i think i’m hunting for a manny-farberish point, that in particular eras, particular zones of pop were free to be much less “white elephant art” than other artforms (or else had holes in them where the non-elephant elements could poke through): maybe this is bcz their makers didn’t think it mattered, or bcz they only thought it mattered to amuse themselves and their friends, or bcz they were going all out for full-on white elephantism but weren’t any good at it, or _____, or _______, or _________

    (Here is Manny, in the essay “White Elephant Art vs.Termite Art”: “Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidor and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. The the sins of white elephant art (1) frame the action with an overall pattern, (2) install every event, chracter, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.”

  22. 53

    it’s interesting that you fight so hard to get the incidence of knowledge as the condition of flash-possibility back in: cz it’s actually the part of it that’s less contested

    i don’t even know what the insight is that mel and kim’s hair imparts, and nor do they! but i know that there is one — which also means that i know that, if i (or someone) thought about it clearly enough, we COULD get it into shareable words (at which point it would become craft)

    (i assume there are haircut theorists who could help here — but i am also more than sure that there are haircut theorists who would only hinder)

  23. 54
    the pinefox on 26 Jul 2007 #

    This is an impressive thread!

    Crikey, you people are still going, after all these years.

    I hoped Mark S might say something about FW.

  24. 55
    Anthony on 28 Jul 2007 #

    10 comments sort of related

    1) the barely linked, random historical infulences where ordinary people have no real control is a genere, isnt it? is olivers army fit somewhere b/w sympathy for the devil and we didnt start the fire.
    2) does the word clever suggest you got away with something…(ie the duplicity of using “pop” to convey ideas of “art”
    3) elvis costello doesnt really seem like pop to me, though i cant quite figure out why.
    4) I am in the middle of reviewing Rhianna’s new album for left hip, and its pleasures are difficult to pin down, to analyze, to write about–its so slick, so musical, so anti-logophillic, like much pop, so the critique of it comes from singing along or dancing along, and doesnt come from writing about it.
    5) speaking of costello and cleverness, nick lowes interview in this weeks ew is so bitchy, and so pure rock and roll bile. i have been listening to lowe a lot recently, because of his balance of earnestness and toxic irony.
    6) i wonder, if words lead to words. if the rockist/mid 70s writers who wrote about rockism, were lead into thinking about the wordiness of it all. why we get girl pop talked about in terms of gender as opposed to musical innovation is that lots of girl pop was not about words. why the canon we have, is the literary refences, an the poetic tropes as opposed to anything corperal (possible exceptions: tosches on lewis, but he makes it a theological tract, bang on anything, but bang still got all goopy about how language was used)
    7) just b/c its me, two theological thots
    a) i keep maintaing that the catholic churches refusal to engage in lirtugical dance, or the violence it comes down on it with, is related to the body doing the minds work
    b) when i was a wee guffin, in church, we used to sing these action songs, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0u3-yyn-w0) in order to keep us calm for the lesson, and i wonder if things like ring around the rosie or london bridge, were intended for vaguely the same purpose? maybe thats why we assume pop songs are for children?
    8) speaking of dancing, hairspray is all about this, all about how dancing (as a metyonomy of fucking) allowed for the intergration of pleasures, sexualities, gender, size and races, one of the reasons it was so good to have divine in that role, was that she destabilized and introduced the notion of gender, its weird to see john travolata and queen latifah, with something hidden about both of them, in this sanitized musical about non sanitized things. its even weirder to listen to the travolota interviews about edna turbold, and have him think that she was a real woman, as opposed to a carnivesque disruption (i think lane or denby make this point in a recent new yorker) (and the musical had firestien, who was always kind of safe and kind of dangerous at the same time, but who was always in control of his body, and often other people’s bodies)
    9) i wonder how the discussion of idiots relate to the romantic obsessions with them in england and france, like the picnics in bedlam or the gericualt drawings of idiots in the instutions around paris.
    10) i hope this connects to somethnig

  25. 56
    koganbot on 29 Jul 2007 #

    Mark, I don’t think you answered my two main points. (Evidently would’ve helped if you’d read my posts twice before responding; e.g., you tell me “you’re wrong if you’re arguing that everything anyone does ever is ‘considered’; and you’re wrong if you’re arguing that everything that’s GOOD is ‘considered'”; well, I explicitly said that I was arguing something different: “Not that they have to arise from forethought, but they can“; I even included italics; jeez!).

    (1) The flashes we get can be the result of forethought on the part of the people making the music or film or hairstyle etc. (right, there’s no guarantee that the forethought will result in our getting flashes; not every arrow hits its target; duh! and jeez again). You’re the one who set up a distinction between considered art and chart pop, not me, and you haven’t said why flashes are more likely to be unplanned than planned (and how do you know what’s planned and what isn’t anyway?).

    (2) You haven’t said why the flashes are more likely to happen in pop than in art (“maybe this is bcz their makers didn’t think it mattered, or bcz they only thought it mattered to amuse themselves and their friends”; all right, (1) why is not thinking it matters more conducive to flashes [obv., given what I wrote in the early Why Music Suckses, I’m sympathetic to this line of thinking; but e.g., I think that right when rockers figured out how much rock did matter and that rock was art, 1963-1967, was when it produced the most flashes], and (2) why is not thinking it matters more a feature of pop than of art [supposed timelessness of art on the one hand, but money invested in pop on the other]) – and you haven’t said why you attached the adjective “considered” to “art” but not “pop,” especially given that you’re talking about a pop singer. So what you’re making seem mystical is CHART POP, not the flashes (“you’re making chart pop seem something mystical”). Right, there’s always something mysterious, and I can’t totally explain why a joke is funny; nor can I justify to someone who doesn’t get my sense of humor that a gag has to be set up just this way (nor explain why my choice of notes makes a melody beautiful, etc.). But surely you’re not saying that Costello went on to make art that he could thoroughly explain and justify in advance. (Or if you are, you’re making a much narrower point, which doesn’t really have to do with art and pop but just with Costello going on to attempt pathological control over his craft.) And, once again, why would chart pop be freer than art of the need to explain and justify (especially given all the money invested in pop)?

    Seems to me that flashes can be planned and considered, and conversely that flashes can be serendipitous. Seems to me that flashes can be in art and flashes can be in pop, not to mention that flashes can be in a lot of other places. (I think that exhausts the universe of possibilities; and my point about Ashlee and Joyce is that I don’t see the two inherently functioning in different ways; not to mention that I consider Ashlee and her co-creators artists.)

    None of this necessarily means that you’re wrong to say that the flashes occur more frequently in chart pop. But – to repeat myself – there’s no “poppiness” that guarantees the flashes, so if the flashes are more frequent, we have to say when, where, and why.

  26. 57
    koganbot on 29 Jul 2007 #

    Farber might apply to your overall point about Costello, if later Costello (which I’ve paid no attention to) is overcontrolled. But I don’t think Farber applies to my point, which is that you can ponder how to set things up so as to create your flashes – like giving thought as to where to put the banana peel (which doesn’t imply that you’re trying to create a well-regulated space that is nothing but banana peels).

  27. 58
    koganbot on 29 Jul 2007 #

    OK, here’s a different point, I’m not sure how relevant: in Kuhn’s story of scientific revolutions, the scientists who create the shifts from an old paradigm to a new one are those who have mastered the old paradigm but are usually young enough so as not to be irrevocably married to the old paradigm (obv. exception, good ole Copernicus). The analogy (which is kind of iffy, I admit) is that (1) a scientist has mastered his “craft” so well that he can see when the expected results don’t match up with the actual, but is innovative enough to use this mismatch as a reason to create a different model; (2) songwriter-musician-hairstylist is devoted enough to her craft to notice subtle variations, but is innovative enough to see variations as an invitation for a different and unexpected effect. (Not that all flashes must be different and unexpected, but unexpectedness can certainly make a flash effect more flashy.)

    Music is a different game from physics, of course.

  28. 59
    koganbot on 29 Jul 2007 #

    So it might be the skilled craftsmen going for reliable (if not fully flashy) effect A who notices the possibility for new flash effect B. So: forethought combined with improvisation.

  29. 60
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Jul 2007 #

    Some possible replies to Anthony’s post:

    1. All of these, though, have a certain level of reportage about them – viz. “I killed the Kennedys” came out a couple of months after a Kennedy had been killed and you can tell that Billy J is indulging in SEE WHAT I DID THEREism when he manages to crowbar “China’s under martial law” into his world-history-is-me self-encomium – which again leads to the Moebiusism of history turning into a mirror even though its primary aim is to run a marker pen over the individual involved, whether to prove their supremacy (“Devil”) or powerlessness (“Oliver’s”). If we see Britpop as Drabble’s Ice Age then “Oliver’s Army” sits midway on the anti-exponential curve between “Say It Ain’t So” and “Two Tribes.”*

    2. Only in Britain, I suspect, would that happen; cleverness as an illegal drug to be smuggled past Customs officers of Hornbyism and other manifestations of grey standardisation masquerading as masses-inclusive socialism.

    3. I don’t think EC is very pop, except when (at his best) he reacts in a vinegary avant-gardey way against what’s surrounding him in the best sellers; that’s why “Watching The Detectives” worked so blatantly OTHERly in the context of Ruby Winters and Barron Knights and “Pills And Soap” could only have worked in the decimated post-New Pop lists of ’83. Note how in ’82 when everyone else caught onto/bettered what he was trying to get up to in metapop terms he released six singles, all of which peaked between 41 and 60, when really he should have walked it if he was going to talk it.

    Add to that the regret that EC hasn’t had more hits with his songs sung by other voices; listening to POTP yesterday (July ’79) Dave Edmunds doing “Girls Talk” (and Nick L again producing) and I knew that had EC been singing it would have been insufferable, yet astute old trouper Edmunds somehow managed to sound bang up to date in a Numan/Dooleys/Chic universe (and immediately followed by Janet Kay’s beyond-sublime “Silly Games,” which reminded me of what EC might have and still could achieve if he just LET GO of history and allowed himself to feel and breathe, esp. when the probable truth was that “Silly Games” was one of maybe a dozen sides which would have been routinely cut at whatever JA studio it was recorded at in the space of one day…pop which feels before it thinks > pop which has to think about how it should feel).

    4. I too spent a long time working out how to write about Good Girl Gone Bad until Lena pointed out a trope which proved so logical that I immediately realised the best way to approach it (go and look it up on CoM; it won’t be too difficult to work out how I did it)…

    5. Got a link to that EW piece? In his defence, Nick L has always been like this, viz. thinks/interviews negatively but acts positively, as per his new album which is every bit as good as Laughing Lenny’s recent stuff.

    6. Stock and partially inaccurate but serviceable for now snap answer: Patti Smith…longer answer: unexpectedly but comprehensively and succinctly summed up by CSM somewhere in Crosstown Traffic.

    7. Interesting that the two examples you give began life as very EC-like period protest songs, so it’s a progressive conduit towards neutralisation (if that’s not being oxymoronic), i.e. kids won’t understand it and that nullifies any threat but what THEY forget is that kids ABSORB it before they understand about understanding (see also Van Morrison passim about turning back liturgy into polite damn-the-brimstone carnality).

    8. The attendant irony of Travolta having already been knocked off all senses of balance at the end of Grease by a real woman in the context of carnivalised disruption need not be underlined here.

    9. Actual “idiots” as classically defined above or perceived idiots in the John Clare vs Lord Liverpool sense?

    10. To quote 10cc (original, or as sampled by J Dilla): we’re working on it…

    *The Ice Age seems particularly relevant here and not just because Lester B dug it or because it predicated Thatcherism to such a painfully accurate and minute degree but because in its final reluctant upward arc it is only too aware that this pattern is going to be repeated forever.

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