Posts from 9th May 2000

9
May 00

THE ENGLISH TAPE, SIDE 1 TRACK 2

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THE ENGLISH TAPE, SIDE 1 TRACK 2
XTC – “Beating Of Hearts” (from the album Mummer)
XTC’s early 80s albums are thick, soupy affairs, full of knotty post-punk songwriting and an obsessive concern for England past and present. 1983’s Mummer was their first record without drummer Terry Chambers, whose departure allowed Andy Partridge to open up his band’s sound some, bringing folk influences and traditional instrumentation into the tricksy mix. At the same time, though, Partridge upped the thematic ante, and Mummer is a sometimes impenetrable journey into a ruralist, rough-hewn English vision. It sold apallingly and signalled the end of the band’s chances of becoming commercial heavy-hitters, but it’s one of my favourite XTC records. “Beating Of Hearts” is its manifesto, sung out over a drum tattoo in Partridge’s broad Wiltshire accent, a dream of a country run aground, but redeemed through – XTC’s other favourite subject – the power of love. Partridge’s curious diction, the archaic instrumentation, and the deep, soily chanting which runs through the song all contribute to the sense that this eccentric pop band somehow tapped into something ancient, huge and formidable. English romanticism never sounded this profound.

THE ENGLISH TAPE, SIDE 1 TRACK 1

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THE ENGLISH TAPE, SIDE 1 TRACK 1
THE KINKS – “Village Green Preservation Society” (from the album, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society)
The Kinks are where pop “Englishness” starts, as a definable – and therefore marketable – thing. Ray Davies’ witty, affectionate portraits of dandies, lovers, and loafers leading their small English lives are as charmingly iconic as any 60s snapshot you could mention – and have just as little relevance to England today. Even the famous Kinks’ songs tend to sound stiff and a bit quaint, and while it’s not Davies’ fault that his lightly ironic tone was ripped off so much in the mid-90s, it hasn’t exactly helped his songs either. All that said, “Village Green” is cracking stuff, a jaunty procession of idiotic conservative quangoes scrabbling to protect the English way of life. We know – and Davies probably knew too – that this Bufton Tuftonish tendency would in reality preserve all it holds dear by gutting all that the rest of us hold dear. But for a song’s length at least it’s possible to half-sympathise with them.

An explanatory word

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An explanatory word: as part of every themed issue, Freaky Trigger catalogues an imaginary mixtape. This month (The English Tape) I’m going to blog it first before collating it into an archivable article. So expect more reviews than normal!

ANDY PARTRIDGE – Candymine

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ANDY PARTRIDGE – Candymine (Demo)
ANDY PARTRIDGE – Prince Of Orange (Demo)
One reason XTC took their business from Virgin to Cooking Vinyl was Virgin’s rejection of a bubblegum-pop concept album Partridge had cooked up. The label – and you have to sympathise with them – clearly thought that a record full of Kasenetz-Katz tributes would sell like very cold cakes indeed. Nowadays, though, the hipster-held division between proper powerpop and base bubblegum is flimsier than ever, and while a record packed with stuff like “Candymine” still wouldn’t actually sell, it might turn a few critical ears.

“Candymine” is ridiculous, just as you’d hope. A big part of bubblegum’s appeal was its out-and-out idiocy, and Partridge easily recaptures the lunatic blatancy of knock-offs like “Captain Groovy And His Bubblegum Army”, with a dreadful Mid-Atlantic accent, ample nonsensical yelling, and vast thuggish hooks. And of course, in the finest tradition of XTC past, it’s all about genitals. For fans less taken with Partridge’s conceptual whimsy, “Prince Of Orange” might appeal more: an off-kilter chorus, enigmatic lyrics and wayward keyboard lines make it tantalisingly difficult to pin down, like one of the odd and lovely B-Sides they used to knock out. In fact, if XTC would put this kind of thoroughly charming stuff on their B-Sides now, instead of interminable lectures about Andy writing songs in his shed, their singles would be much better buys.

steal this blog!

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steal this blog!: steal this idea, more like! as erstwhile nylpm contributor Fred Solinger launches into his 20 best songs of all time. I have it on good authority that he is part of a shadowy organisation that has pop in its iron grip, so you should take his opinions with the seriousness they deserve.

Some Excursions into Sonic Fiction

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Some Excursions into Sonic Fiction: from Mediamatic magazine, a long interview/discussion with Kodwo Eshun, author of ’98’s firestorming More Brilliant Than The Sun – check the bits on the new R&B, Hype Williams, etc – exciting ideas from a man who understands how important and thrilling this particular musical movement is. And the stuff about Springsteen chimes synchronistically with the post below, I realise!

Metallica, how could you?

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Metallica, how could you?: romantic nonsense c/o Salon, a hymn to the good ‘ol days of tape trading. While I treasure my mixtapes I’m far more enlivened by MP3 swapping and the instant-discussion options opened up by e-mail, and what’s more my record collection is too, given that I tend to go out and, y’know, buy stuff I like, which wasn’t the case back in my taping days.

The notion that the more effort it takes to get something, the better that something is, which is pretty much what the writer here is saying, strikes me as a bogus application of the Work Ethic to leisure pursuits. Leisure is meant to be easy, damn it!

Anyway, Napster vs RIAA / Metallica grinds on. Cybercoverage of this story has been pretty one-sided, with most opposers taking a post-copyright, cant-buck-the-future position. My position? Undecided. I’m not an economic libertarian, but I’m no fan of big record companies; I think artists should earn money for what they do without having to flog T-Shirts or slog round the live circuit to get it, I don’t use Napster, but I find MP3s a convenient way to hear new music and judge it. Maybe one sensible thing to do would be to find a way to fit a 30-day self-destruct button into the format, a la Shareware. It’s interesting to speculate on whether the online reaction would have been any different had it been a sainted alt.outfit like Pavement taking this particular ‘stand’ rather than faintly naff metalheads. It will also be interesting to see which-if-any alt.folks rush in to get their damages should Metallica win their suit.

(Here’s another thought: there’s been a lot of talk about bands finding ‘alternative revenue streams’, which tends to involve playing live a lot. But all this will lead to is a return to the good old rockist orthodoxy where only bands who can ‘cut it’ live are worthy of respect – indeed worse, it’s only such bands who will even survive in a post-copyright climate. I’m currently listening to a bunch of XTC demos – on MP3 – and that band won’t perform live because of Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright. Had ‘alternative revenue streams’ been all they’d had going for them, I’d have been deprived of several of my very favourite records.)

Lee Hazlewood: Cowboy in Sweden

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Lee Hazlewood: Cowboy in Sweden – Fred’s been pushing tracks from this excellent country-baroque album my way, and now Pitchfork review it. There’s also a review of it at motion —+, and you can read up on “THE REAL CREATIVE GENIUS OF THE POP MUSIC SCENE” here – it seems to have the tang of lunacy required of any indecent fansite….

I’m also linking to Lee because the old B*ll* *nd S*b*st**n record I bought yesterday (“Dog On Wheels”) sounds very much like Lee & Nancy’s “Summer Wine”, so now I don’t have to blog it.

All Music Is Bad – Disco Dads and Event Reviews

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I was probably one of the last kids to grow up with parents who reckoned, unequivocally, that pop music was trash. Being liberal types they never stopped me listening to it, but there was a clear and unbreakable aesthetic line between pop music and ‘proper music’. Even now I half-believe Mum thinks I’m going to wake up one morning and think, “Oh my GOD! What have I DONE, wasting my life on POP MUSIC?”. ‘Proper music’ lived in a small record box kept near a record player so old I’d not feel pompous calling it a gramphone, and consisted of light-to-medium classics. Chronologically it went as far as an ancient Marlene Dietrich 78 (“the Marlene Dietrich”, my Mum would always add, as if there were records available by the Australian Marlene Dietrich), which got in because it might be ‘worth something’, and copies of Sgt.Pepper’s and Dylan’s Greatest Hits, my parents’ sole reminders of the decade they grew up in. But those two records were at the back of the box, and never played.

In fact none of it was ever played: when I was 15 I would regularly kidnap the family stereo and take it up to my room, and there would be protests at the unfairness of it: I was only one member in a family of four, did I not know that? When I pointed out that I was the only member with the slightest interest in music, and that the turntable top rivalled the lunar surface for dust, there was further sighing: the only reason my parents never played their records was that I was always selfishly controlling the stereo. Which was odd, since I was away from home eight months of every year. The conclusion I eventually came to was that my parents liked the idea of music very much, but not enough to ever play any. That seemed harsh and unfair, but I never saw much evidence otherwise until my Dad got a job half the country away and had to get a flat on his own: he promptly came out as a fan of country-lite and has been terrorising and wowing us with it ever since.

Anyway, like modern art and the entire output of ITV, pop music was rubbish. All pop music. Why was it? Don’t ask silly questions. Cultural debate across the highbrow/lowbrow divide was a hairsplitting waste of time: I wasn’t too bothered, since in every other sense my family was a fantastically stimulating one to grow up in, and since they’d never actually stop me listening. And, hey, that’s what parents were like, right? But it gradually dawned on me that that wasn’t what parents were like, at least not any more. My friends’ dads would sometimes go record shopping with them, or borrow their albums, or even go to Iron Maiden gigs with them. At the time I must say I wanted a Dad like that: now I think I was very lucky.

Some older music listeners may well be expanding and refining their tastes all the time, but all the parent pop fans I knew had pretty settled ideas of what good or bad music was. Maybe this: a throaty voice, a dab of pedal steel, a lazy rocking melody, production rootsy, yet classy, Steve Bastard Earle, and guitars everywhere. Maybe that: big fuck-off riffs, and men who knew how to rock, who’d paid their dues slogging it out on the circuit. Maybe the other: four cheeky young men changing the world, or a tousle-haired hipster poet, back when to be young was very heaven. And so on – I wouldn’t have wanted parents like that, not because their tastes would have ended up influencing me but because the very idea of them having tastes might have. When I started off on this whole stupid music thing the last thing I’d have wanted is the promise of ending up so comfortable with it all. I don’t want to know the answers: I don’t want to know what good music is. In fact I want to contradict myself all the time on the subject, to get confused and change my mind. Because I got told that everything was rubbish, I never learned about taste or discernment, and by the time I did I saw them as unneccessary, twin leg-irons which held your listening back if you let them.

Coming from a background where all pop music was bad put me on the back foot: occasionally I’d have to defend it, to think about it a bit. Mostly we didn’t talk about what I liked, but if something so important to you is under attack you can’t just agree to differ all the time. Maybe that wouldn’t have been true if I’d had parents who loved rock. I started admiring the writers who made the music come alive for me, and gave me the critical ammo I needed to fight back, easily as much as I admired the people actually making the records.

Gradually I got to realise something: there were reasons to like any record. You couldn’t take anything for granted as being bad or off-limits, you had to get in there and say why, and keep on saying it, keep on arguing. And of course the reverse is true: you can find reasons to dislike almost anything, too, and articulating them helps you find out more about the music, and why you listen to it in the fist place. My parents were right: all music is bad, if you look at it the right way.

Bad reviews of records fall into three categories. The first are Aunt Sallys, predictable slatings of records outside a publication’s demographic. No NME reader is going to care too much if an orchestral Pink Floyd record, or a new Elton John album, gets 2 or 3 out of ten. These reviews aren’t interesting, they’re not poking at anything much, they’re comforters for the regular readers. The second category are Disappointments, big-name records which don’t live up to expectations. These can be fascinating, though a lot of the time they pull their punches, focussing on specific shortcomings rather than asking wider questions about the artist and the context of a record. And finally there are Event Reviews.

Event Reviews are no-holds-barred demolition pieces, reviews which attack not only an album, but the people who made it, and most of all the music scene and culture that allowed such an atrocity to come into being and have to be reviewed in the first place. In the British music press, despite the build-em-up knock-em-down reputation it’s won for itself, they’re actually quite uncommon: a more common pattern is for friendly journalists to initially review a record, and then for latecomer writers to demolish said record or band, often in a live piece. As a reader, Event Reviews can be intensely exciting: willed attempts to move a debate forward and cynical reader-grabbers both at the same time, at their best they come on like thunderstorms, force you to start thinking about what you’re doing listening to this stuff in the first place. At their worst they’re petty and point-missing, but even then they might make you spend a half hour mentally composing a stinging rebuttal. “Sir, Was your reviewer listening to the same album…?”. And then you listen harder, too.

So that’s why Freaky Trigger had a Bad Music issue in the first place. To ask a few questions, bug people, put a stick in the spokes of consensus. If you read the I HATE MUSIC page and find we’ve disembowelled your favourite band, then don’t get mad, get even – suggest an attack on one of our favourites (that Stephin Merritt is due a kicking….). Bad Music keeps things lively: when you hear a song you hate it reminds you that music isn’t just there to soothe you or cheer you up, it’s there to believe in and fight about. We hate it and we need it.

And Mum, I love you very much, but I still like Neil Tennant more than Telemann. ‘Pologies.