Essays

8
May 05

It Relieves Their Conscience

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British Political Pop 1990-2005

This is the second of a pair of compilation CDs giving one potential outline of how British pop acts tackled politics. This CD looks at the post-Thatcher era, from 1990 onwards. This coincides with my own life as a voter – the first time I was eligible to vote was in the 1992 general election.

GARY CLAIL AND THE ON-U SOUND SYSTEM – “Human Nature”
“Bigotry, intolerance and racial intolerance!” Gary Clail had a long and honourable association with Tackhead, producing hard-edged, politically-themed dance records through the Thatcher years. This bizarre record, festooned with italo piano riffs and decadent diva vocals, was his land-grab on the mainstream. Its big-picture conclusions – “There’s something wrong with human nature!” – clumsy lyrics and none-more-passionate vocal ranting have made it a weathervane for cynicism about political pop, but for all the easy laughs it’s still a very enjoyable record.

CARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE SEX MACHINE – “Bloodsport For All”
“Stand up and beg for Sergeant Kirby” Like most of Carter’s songs “Bloodsport” tackles a specific issue, in this case racist abuse in army barracks. Like most of Carter’s songs it is also undermined slightly by its vaguely feeble wordplay (“The coldest stream guards of them all”??) but for eye-popping anger and cheapo drum machine pop you couldn’t beat them. Here the machines are coaxed into a glitterbeat rhythm that puts the song into a strange agitpop-schaffel territory.

SIMPLY RED – “Wonderland”
“The end of an era, our future no clearer” A quite bad record – limp melody, limpid singing – but one I feel a personal connection to. In April 1992 I was backpacking round Europe and anticipating returning to a Labour government: no luck. The friend I was with had this Simply Red song, about the fall of Thatcher, on a tape and I listened to it repeatedly and sadly on European trains as the reports of a Tory victory came through. I’m disappointed I downloaded it as I remember it as being much more forceful and incisive than it is: it still sounds like the end of something, though.

CREDIT TO THE NATION – “Call It What You Want”
“Lots of people all they need is a push!” 1993-4 saw a resurgence (of sorts) of political pop, with bands politicised by Tory harrying of dance culture making agitated hip-hop-fuelled rock, and the ‘New Wave Of New Wave’ groups creating exactly what the name suggested. Backed by the weekly press for a while, the records were fairly unpopular and when Britpop came along the media dropped ‘collision pop’ at once. The link between indie and left politics may have held, but the need to express it lyrically was gone.

The specific issue fuelling ‘collision pop’ was racism, specifically the rise of the fascist British National Party, which won its first ever council seat in 1993 in Tower Hamlets in London. This explains the anti-fascist message of “Call It What You Want”, enthusiastic hip-hop whose sampling of Nirvana grabbed student ears (like mine!) immediately. Rapping deficiencies notwithstanding this record stands up very well. Ah, the snakebite-lacquered dancefloors of my youth!

CHUMBAWAMBA – “Timebomb”
“Unattended at a railway station, in the litter at the dancehalls” The IRA bombing campaign of the early 90s saw London targeted regularly: hence this terrorist-themed dance-pop hit (maybe MIA should cover it). Despite being catchy as hell this didn’t sell, and is now just one more nostalgic anthem for me.

HUGGY BEAR – “Herjazz”
“This is happening without your permission!” The British wing of Riot Grrrl in full voice. The theme is male co-option of a feminist revolution, and on Radio 1 this sounded genuinely like nothing else. It also sounded petulant, incompetent, confused blah blah blah – none of this mattered cos modern punk scenes are always about micromarketing, one-to-one targeting, personal wake-up calls and doubtless “Herjazz” caused a few. I was no way part of the target demographic and got on with my life.

PULP – “I Spy”
“It’s more a case of haves against haven’ts” Britpop was political mostly by inference – most of the songwriters liked to try a bit of social commentary, but tracks like “Girls And Boys” are documentary, not editorial. Pulp, no surprise since they grew up as a band in the 80s, wrote some obviously political songs – eg “Cocaine Socialism” – but Different Class while never prescriptive, is all about the curdling of class and sex, and “I Spy” goes straight to the resentful, righteous groin of the matter.

D:REAM – “Things Can Only Get Better”
“You ain’t ever gonna know me – but I know you” Some songs have politics thrust upon them. D:Ream’s uplifin’ house hit from 1994 was adopted by the New Labour team for its 1997 campaign. From an eight-year distance the razzmatazz of New Labour looks staggeringly naff, and even at the time nobody liked this song, but like Bill Clinton’s sax it marked the moment at which the political establishment declared “Hey, we’re aware of pop music.” May sound a bit sour now.

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4
May 05

Even After Closing Time There’s Still Parties To Be Hosted

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Politics And British Pop, 1979-1990: A CD

Even After Closing Time…

This is the first of two CDs following the threads of British political pop from 1979, the date of Thatcher?s first election victory, to 2005. It is flawed and incomplete, due to being compiled in three hours with an MP3 collection, an erratic P2P connection and a handful of suggestions. The single biggest omission is ?Maggies Last Party? by VIM ? gmails of that very welcome.

You would no doubt have approached things differently, and I?d like to hear about that. The second disk will be dealt with in a separate essay.

THE GANG OF FOUR – “Armalite Rifle”
“I disapprove of it. And so does Dave.” In 1979 politics was part of the alternative music status quo. Bands like the Gang of 4 sang about nothing but. Nowadays bluntly political songwriting is very much a fringe activity and as likely to be mocked as lauded. How did this happen? On “Armalite Rifle” the Gof4 present argument and conclusion with an air of bleak reasonableness. Earnest, but compelling.

NOTSENSIBLES – “(I’m In Love With) Margaret Thatcher”
“She’s so sexy” Feeble jokepunk, taking liberties with the hated name in a way that dates it as much as the music. Not all political music was serious.

UB40 – “One In Ten”
“A statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care.” My first ‘political’ memory is of seeing UB40’s video for this on a pop show and being hugely affected by the lyrics. Listening back it’s a bit ‘great chorus, shame about the song’. But it’s an early example of the kind of ‘state of the nation’ records that were a feature of the anti-Thatcher era.

THE SPECIALS – “Ghost Town”
“Too much fighting on the dancefloor” The British “Blowin In The Wind” in that its genre-breaking amazingness seems by itself to have convinced every rock critic that writing political pop is a fundamentally Good Thing. (Obviously “Ghost Town” is better than “Blowin In The Wind”, don’t get me wrong). This extraordinary record is also the rod that has been used to beat bands ever since – if Jerry and Terry did it, why can’t you?

ROBERT WYATT – “Shipbuilding”
“And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday.” From an aesthetic standpoint this is probably the best anti-war song ever. In terms of giving people something to chant or learn or rally to, it’s obviously less successful. “Shipbuilding”‘s role is to condemn, not prevent, so this hardly matters.

WHAM! – “Wham! Rap”
“Well listen Mr Average, you’re a jerk!” Revolt into style! The new pop era is often described as apolitical and compared to the few years previous, it was. It’s also described as crypto-Thatcherite: here’s George M. to remind us that the reality on the ground may have been different. No such thing as society here, true, but an enthusiastic endorsement of dole scrounging which wouldn’t have pleased Central Office.

CRASS – “How Does It Feel?”
“…to be the mother of a thousand dead?” One of the most common slurs on political pop is that it “preaches to the converted”. Yes, it does. So what? A lot of the early 80s anarcho-punk hardcore are still involved in grass-roots political and community schemes which have done a lot of small goods. This kind of fierce music acted as a spur and a glue, even if the system endured.

THE HUMAN LEAGUE – “The Lebanon”
“And where there used to be some shops” On the other hand most slurs are justified when it comes to pop musicians feeling they should “do something, you know, political”. The redeeming feature here is that “The Lebanon”, pompous echoed drums aside, is a great little tune from a band at least near their peak. Its contribution to geopolitical harmony may be minimal but I’d still play it out.

THE IMPOSTER – “Pills And Soap”
“And the camera noses in to the tears on her face” Elvis Costello addresses the nation in a song rich in disgusted wordplay and poor in listener reward. Another pitfall of the political song: often it doesn’t do anything except make you feel bitter and miserable.

THE STYLE COUNCIL – “Walls Come Tumbling Down”
“You could actually try changing things!” In my opinion the best thing Paul Weller ever did. Impossibly rousing, heart-on-sleeve, danceable, unifying – the dream of Red Wedge realised in three minutes. Pity those three minutes were as good as it got. Attempts to harness pop music for mainstream activism have been one major reason the ‘genre’ lacks credibility now.

STING – “Russians”
“How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” Another major reason the genre lacks credibility now.

BRONSKI BEAT – “Smalltown Boy”
“You are the one that they talk about around town” Songs rooted in sexual and sexual identity politics were a feature of the post-punk era (neglected on this comp because I’m dense) and the occasional example hit big in the mid-80s. Good use of a video in tandem with a song, too.

MCCARTHY – “Red Sleeping Beauty”
“While there’s still a world to win” The strange tumbling rhythm of this suggests to me that there’s lots still to be written about mid-80s indie. Hopeful and bittersweet, which sums up indie’s attitudes to politics and romance, come to think of it.

SMILEY CULTURE – “Westland Helicopter”
“Life is like a ladder, Smiley” Toasting fantasia in which Smiley Culture buys Thatcher’s Westland shares in return for his villa. “I love your patter” says Maggie, or rather an increasingly shaky Maggie impersonator. The entrepreneurial culture skewered, maybe.

MICRODISNEY – “Gale Force Wind”
“Watch your friends become the kind you hate” The 87 election victory was the high watermark of the Thatcher era: the implosion of Red Wedge made political songwriting bitter, turning it away from rousing the troops and towards dissections of life in a Thatcherite world. The Pet Shop Boys’ Actually, recorded in 1987, is essentially a Thatcherite Britain concept album, as is Microdisney’s venomous 39 Minutes, from which this song comes.

THE HOUSEMARTINS – “Build”
“They came and drew us diagrams” More elegiac songwriting, this time about housebuilding: a faintly un-pop subject which serves as a more general metaphor for Thatcherism’s assault on community and social roots.

BILLY BRAGG – “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward”
“Mixing pop and politics, they ask me what the use is.” The obvious closer, this, a rumination on five years spent shouting back the tide, guitar in hand. The distilled sound of Labour’s ‘one more heave’ philosophy and still stirring despite everything.

And then what happened? Dance music, and Thatcher’s resignation, and suddenly the iron focus of opposition wasn?t there any more. Nobody was going to write a “Tramp The Dirt Down” about John Major. So what on Earth was pop going to do next?

22
Apr 05

A COLORFUL PAST COLORIZED

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Mughal-E-Azam and an example of American movieviewing 2005

‘It’s gotta be some sorta camp fest, right?’

Or so I thought as I received the invitation. Good friend Vic, enthusiast for many things in life including film, had been insistent that Mughal-e-Azam was an absolute must see in its theatrical run. All I immediately knew about it was that it was from India, where Vic’s parents came from, and that it apparently was a film classic of the country, maybe something like Gone With the Wind over here — historical epic, cast of thousands, something everyone knows even if they’ve never seen it because, well, you just know. Nothing wrong with that!

But of course I thought it would be Bollywood-like. I didn’t fancy myself an expert (and if I ever do fancy myself an expert without demonstrable proof, please feel free to hollow out my head, as it will be malfunctioning at that time). I had this, well, general idea of what to expect, because that’s what I learned about Indian cinema in a mainstream American sense, ie not much. There’s going to Indian restaurants that are playing loops and clips and bits from any number of productions, old and new, there’s memories of seeing further images of films and excerpts in documentaries years ago (if I can ever find out more about this short documentary called Juggernaut I’d love to see it again, because it was really fascinating, made quite an impression on my ninth grade self), there’s the occasional Smithsonian-style “Well here’s what it’s all like and then there’s the Sayjayit Ray stuff which is apparently much more serious” piece I’ve read. I didn’t pretend to know more because I couldn’t and wouldn’t know where to start these days, but I figured something would be up.

Vic, though, he’s a smart and proud guy, friendly and intense (very good combination), and knew that we’d be thinking of Mughal-e-Azam that way, so over lunch beforehand he took the time to tell myself and Arthur about what to expect, a bit of background and explanation. And like me, when he finds there’s a lot to say, he will, because he wants you to know about it. Much of it I could only initially file away in my memory for later reference, but the key point was that this was NOT a Bollywood film as one could generally think of it, rather that Bollywood, like any other ‘tradition,’ was as much invention as anything else. Turns out that the role model for Bollywood films resulted from the smash success of a mid-seventies movie in India that was the equivalent of Star Wars for the subcontinent, something so overpoweringly popular that the entire industry reset its sights. And similarly, the impression of what Indian movies were like to everyone else also changed, almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that didn’t change what had already happened, and what was already a thriving industry, and already beloved by millions — and so Mughal-e-Azam.

“Mind-blowing epiphanies”

As Vic said to me later, much of what he had learned and to note about the film he cheerfully plagiarized (to use his own word!) from this study hosted at the University of Iowa, so by all means read that through. In brief, Mughal-e-Azam is a blend of fact — it is set in the time of the Mughals, rulers of much of the subcontinent, specifically during the reign of Akbar the Great (the title of the film refers specifically to him) — and fable, something like how the real George Washington is conflated with the cherry tree incident, or Alfred dealt with the cakes, something well known, widespread and tied up with a certain kind of national identity, however one wants to consider it. Akbar’s son falls in love with a dancing girl, scandalizing his father, resulting in much strife and an ending which, alas, is not happy.

As Vic described it, though, the importance of the film was not so much in the surprise of the story — because, indeed, nobody would be surprised in the expected audience — but the telling of it. On the level of artists trying to follow their dreams it’s an irresistible tale about how the director, K. Asif, worked for nine years — I’m not kidding, nine! — from start to finish to get it all made, how it was his last work, how he reserved technicolour for two astounding set-pieces, how it never quite lived up to what he had hoped before he died. And, frankly, the money, time and talent is all on the screen, though I jump ahead a bit. The music became as legendary as the movie (equivalent — “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, say?), the screenings were uncounted…it was just one of those films that hit and hit hard, and stuck with everyone or so it seemed.

So I was already intrigued, but now more so. But part of the intrigue was going to be how and where I was seeing it — namely some place I’d not been to yet. One reason why I love LA is how many people from all over the place are here, which combined with the weather brings the world to your doorstep but without snow. It’s my kind of life, I admit. So after a false start with one theater, Vic found that a copy was being screened at the Naz 8 in Artesia, one of three such complexes in California specifically catering to an Indian and South Asian and South East Asian film market, and in this case located in a strongly Indian immigant community in both Artesia and Cerritos. And so we went, and in a theater where the popcorn was good and cheap, the posters were to my untrained eye a wonderful difference from the expected (doubtless to more regular filmgoers it was all too familiar, maybe!) and it seemed like only Arthur and I were the sole non-Indians and Indian Americans, we watched the three hour film — and I should note as well that when there’s no series of blaring commercials and ten minutes of “In a world…” trailers preceding a film, there’s simply a dimming of lights and the film begins, then I’m already in a much better mood to enjoy something.

“u can never guess how ppl are going to react to them ‘foreign cultures'”

Or so Vic said later after Arthur and I had talked about and heartily approved of the whole good time we had. He was almost apologetic beforehand, you see — at one point saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if we laughed a bit at some of the more melodramatic moments. But there was nothing to laugh about at the film since it was so easy, so involving to enjoy — as was the whole experience in the theater as the film started.

Surrounding me were people of all ages, generally an older crowd but by no means entirely — and some certainly had to have been old enough to have seen the film the first time through. Something I don’t like in general at movie screenings, namely audience chatter (or at least the audible kind — quiet whisperings between friends and all, that’s more than cool), made perfect sense here, because it was mostly near the start, and was gentle, considering — it projected comfort. How many people were seeing it for the first time like I was, I don’t know, but doubtless many were used to where things would go and were perhaps talking about past memories, familiar scenes or lines or perhaps simply some more prosaic about daily life, a quick last question or catching up before things fully settled down. As the movie was subtitled, this perhaps helped — I didn’t think I was losing anything to the conversation, instead I was getting the basics of the opening narration down while enjoying what was beyond the movie on a tactile level.

Cultural tourism, I must admit. Hopefully not negative, maybe that act is by default if you talk about it that way, but I was perhaps consciously enjoying the experience of something generally OUT of my experience a little too much, I don’t know. But I hope not, because I simply wanted to enjoy the sensation as it stood, a combination of interest in the movie, in the people, in the atmosphere I found myself in. It was heightened by the words on the soundtrack, as the narrator, taking the voice of India as an entity, depicted geographically on the screen, introduced the story after the opening credits. That nationalism should have played a specifically strong role in the movie I perhaps shouldn’t have been too surprised by, given how recent the colonial past would have been in everyone’s mind upon its creation and release, but certainly it’s no requirement for a historical film.

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12
Apr 05

All Politics is Local

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The 2001 Election by Dave Boyle

I was on pins for the 2001 election. For most of the country, it seemed a foregone conclusion, but the marginal I was working in, we didn’t have a clue. We knew that ultimately, the ability to form a government wasn’t dependent on holding seats like that. It was knowing that the MP was a good guy, that he’d made a difference and he was a bloody good constituency MP and deserved another 5 years.

It was always going to be tight. Lancaster was one of those that wasn’t in the wildest dreams of 1997 party planners. It had only ever had one Labour MP since 1832 – from 1970-1974 – and had briefly achieved fame through the efforts of the insanely bigoted dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman, who commented that it had was good to see ‘an intolerance of evil’ when the offices of Capital Gay had been firebombed in the 1980s, and before that, the flamboyant tory Humphrey Berkeley, creator of the electoral system for the Conservatives that eventually proved Thatcher’s undoing in 1990.

It was an interesting place, sociologically and demographically. The urban parts of the seat where Labour, whilst strong, had never been as strongly Labour as many an industrialised town. Lord Ashton, the local Baron of Industry, was the classic paternalist; he gave banquets for 1000s but threatened to close the factories if anyone had the temerity to vote Labour. There wasn’t as great a Trade Union tradition in the place, which surrounded by villages and hamlets, wore industrialisation like an ill-fitting winter coat rather than new wardrobe.

A big factor was Blobbygate. The MP had been one of the leading Councillors when they’d signed a fateful deal with Noel Edmonds to develop a scraggy park in Morecambe into a Crinkley Bottom theme park, with the theme apparently being ‘rubbish, unimaginative’ and ‘past its sell-by date’. The resulting furore had still to settle down, with District Auditor’s reports expected to be critical. The local Labour council had been routed in 1999 by the motliest crew of 1974 Local Government boundary refusenik poujadists and the Green Party.

Another factor was the bypass. Lancaster is a medieval City, with roads built for horses and carts. There’s been talk of a bypass since the thirties, and a lot of the constituents thought it was the absolute priority; an alliance of personally affected nimby voters and green voters were also sizeable. The MP had robustly held the line that it was necessary, but changed tack in the days leading to the poll. The Greens were standing a candidate and there was a fear they’d take votes from the left and let the Tories in. I recall urging green voters to split ticket when it came to the County Council Elections being held the same day, which as a Labour canvasser wasn’t something I should have done. Needs must.

Despite this, the canvassing was going reasonably well. Most were supportive, but there very much an air of one more chance; people hadn’t felt like they’d had a Labour government and wanted more, much more, for a second term. But in a marginal, reports and returns are one thing; it all comes down to getting the vote out.

Party volunteers often have to be reminded to vote themselves, so we decided to vote early. Too early. The Polling Station hadn’t opened, as the school caretaker had overslept, so the poll clerks set up a temporary station in the boot of the estate car belonging to one of them.

The school was on estate itself that was a heartland area for Labour, having amazingly (to us) gone Green in ’99. Canvassing then, I’d seen a dead body, and overdose victim, in a garden. It’d been there for longer than a good neighbourly neighbourhood would like. I’d be spending a bit of time there during the day.

That always worried me, because in addition to strong Labour voting, council house estates have a strong correlation with dogs that seem very aggressive and often not tethered. They roam placidly, until you approach the house where it lives, when it reacquaints itself with its defensive security role. And as it’s roaming around, the owners are often away or out or don’t care, and so no owner comes to rescue you as you wonder whether the dog can smell your fear, or sense your legs shaking nervously despite straining your muscles to keep them still.

According to those who’d canvassed in 1997, there were more people out during the day this time around. A telling sign of the fact that more people had jobs than in 1997, we speculated: would they draw a link between what happened in 1997 and their situation now? Or would the inflatable pink doll dominate?

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21
Mar 05

IN PRAISE OF AN UNFASHIONABLE BAND

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(Since some say Placebo is worse than the Cure)

“Absolute shit. The worst. ‘I’m depraved, me'”

Nobody likes Placebo. Except their fans, and nobody is a fan. Except the people who buy the records and show up at the shows, etc. Substitute eight million names and nothing really changes over the past few years/decades/whatever amount of time you want to mark out. So the passion of fans is no surprise and the contempt of those who don’t like them isn’t a surprise, much in a way like Placebo isn’t a surprise either, at least not when broken down to its constituent elements.

I was thinking about them the other day, though, for a very good reason, namely that I finally picked up their DVD compilation Once More With Feeling, which has been out for a few months. And so I watched it and once again I thought, “Damn, this is one of the best bands ever!” Which, again, is not one of those sentiments people are supposed to believe, etc. etc.

Apologizing for a band, however, strikes me as a bit counterproductive — not in the sense that undiluted praise is the best approach to a group in all ways when one is trying to convince others that there’s something of worth there. Rather, it strikes me as a bit of embarassment and reticence when it’s not needed — perhaps an obvious conclusion. Still, consider this:

Today I was thinking that there’s something as equally important to my long-stated belief in the primacy of radical subjectivity, the sense that what matters if one likes something is one’s own conclusions, not what other people or other sources of influences might say or convey, implicitly or overtly. This is almost a canard now, its many implications expressed in many different ways much more cohesively (and attractively) than I can. One of my favorite examples came from Tim Finney, who observed a couple of months back that there’s a difference between liking something in the charts and liking something because it is in the charts.

“Wretched, hideous, just plumb awful dud.”

My realization today as such wasn’t monumental, but it was a key corollary to this philosophical approach towards art that I don’t think I had ever quite fully grasped before, or stated to myself quite so clearly — namely, that there is no point in resisting something that is (however unintentionally) geared towards you if you enjoy it. Cynically, this could be said to be a success of marketing, namely that someone or something somewhere knows exactly how to connect with you despite your best overtly stated efforts to resist it, or perhaps more accurately be above certain things. That you make certain choices or react certain ways not because you truly believe in something’s worth but because it would be impossible for you to react otherwise, being the person you are or have chosen, to whatever extent, to be.

To me that seems to stretch the bounds of credulity. That we are consumers in a particular society I don’t question, that we make our judgments as we do on conscious and unconscious levels based in part on social conditioning (or perceived resistance to it) I don’t either, but I don’t see this as leading to the creation of drones, instead being something that makes a certain logical sense. Ultimately, the fact is that something presented as what one would ‘want’ might not be like that at all, it could be just plain trash, not worth the effort to investigate further. Something else could find the spirit or feeling one is looking for (however indirectly) further, or maybe one’s attention can be captured by something else entirely different.

But sometimes the pieces, whatever they are, however they’re assembled, connect and work, and sometimes they work near perfectly. Not always, to be sure, but if the results are enjoyable, who’s to complain? Looking at other bands of more recent vintage that have been accused of being similarly obvious as the subject in question, personally I have no problem at all with the Rapture or Bloc Party or Franz Ferdinand, where others of recent years I just don’t feel work, though I’ll spare you names here (for once). And sometimes a new band just plain flatout works — and that’s where, stepping back a few years, Placebo comes in.

“Bet they get dropped when his hair falls out.”

The self-titled debut was one of the last promo releases I got while working at the UCI student newspaper — I was soon to leave the grad program for a variety of reasons, sidestepping into the library work I still currently do at the school. I was probably feeling pretty frustrated and annoyed with my situation, so likely I was in the mood for something loud. I didn’t know anything about the band — my regular reading of the Brit weekly music press had ceased two years beforehand and while the incipient popularized Internet was helping it was far from the obvious and immediate reference source it is now for nearly anything and everything. All I saw was that the cover looked pretty good — the color of the photograph, the slightly odd pose of the boy — and that the press release probably dropped a few obvious names here and there. I looked at the promo photo, thought, “A female-fronted trio, bit like how PJ Harvey started out” (I’ve since discovered I was hardly alone in the gender mistake) and took the CD home and put it in the player and pressed play.

And I was a fan about ten seconds in. That was a really nice experience, I love whenever that happens and I love it even more when I can look back over time and still feel that rush. So I was already sold and the rest just sorta came from there, as shown six years ago here and here. There have been other places as well.

Trying to figure out why Placebo in particular seems to have attracted such venom from many corners, though, is perhaps a bit of a mug’s game. Why does any band or performer attract it? The reasons are near endless and I don’t think there’s any musician truly universally liked, not in toto at least. So singling out said Placebo reasons might seem to miss the point when one could advance reasons against almost anyone — but like I said, there should be no need to resist something that you really adore, so why not see if the criticisms are part of the reason why you like them? The amount of venom might not make the music any better, but it does provide a context, of a sort.

“Even in interviews you can just feel the utter twattishness. This is a compliment, of course.”

Placebo are, as noted, not a surprise. They are perfectly obvious. They are guitar/bass/drums at heart. They have loud songs and they have soft ones, and at points have ones that are both. They wear black clothes and makeup. The lyrical tropes are sex/drugs/angst/death/love/lust. The rhymes are almost always patently straightforward, as are the songtitles. In otherwards, they’re not only like a lot of other bands, but like a lot of other performers in general they have a particular approach that they employ without much in the way of specific variation. There might be putative variations, of course, and there are also plenty of examples of performers — famous or not — who show change or fluidity or reinvention or whatever you would like to have. Then again, does this always mean that they’re automatically better than others? No real way to measure that in the end, one might be impressed but might not be convinced.

But the point is that they push my buttons effortlessly — or so I dream, but the reality would have to be different. Like another oft-maligned band I adore, them Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo give me an idea of what a band I might have formed would be like (I wouldn’t fit the exact model, brilliantly outlined on ILM by Sundar Subramanian, as to what goes into the creation of a band like Placebo…but I suspect I’d be closer in ways than I realized). They took the loud guitar noise from a variety of bands from the late eighties and early nineties I liked — besides the Pumpkins themselves, there’s Sonic Youth in there, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, Pavement (to the point where the opening guitar part to “Texas Never Whispers” was sampled for a song, but more on that shortly) — and welded it to a keep-it-simple, keep-it-catchy approach that can be found in acts like T. Rex and Depeche Mode, Bowie and the Cure, all at their most populist. It’s so simple — indeed, so obvious — that it seems to provoke annoyance. (Of course, similarly obvious fusions via other bands provoke annoyance in me, so I know what it’s like from both sides — AND I DON’T CARE, but that’s perhaps the point.)

As much as ‘substance’ — in rockcrit terminology the actual music, plus usually something evanescent, something apparently involving sweat and grit, which feedback is often alleged to provide — there is ‘style’ — in rockcrit terminology, something horrifying, or meaning that all pleasure arrived must be guilty. Well, to hell with that, but I’ve already said that. Anyway, it’s accurate enough to say that the look is as important to the impact of the band as anything else (and again, no new surprise there), and that not everyone will feel thrilled by a short singer with a baffling array of black hairstyles and a definitely non-classically attractive face, a tall Swedish stick insect and a hairy drumming feller, sometimes bearded, all usually wearing something between bondage goth and absinthe-sipping goth clothes and almost always wearing it in black. This is in large part precisely why I like them.

“for ansgst riddled teens with spots and greasy hair who think no-one understands them”

Placebo are a perfect fantasy band for me in look and attitude (as generally described) as they are musically. It’s adolescent only if you want it to be (only one song is specifically about “Teenage Angst,” after all — and notably the words themselves aren’t used in the lyrics), and similarly dressing up and looking fabulous and louche and all that in your own way, even if it’s not the way others might prefer — well hey, sign me up! I’ve often always said that if it wasn’t for the weather around here I’d probably just give in and goth it up on a regular basis — but frankly black clothes absorb heat and my makeup would run. Be fun to tease up my hair, though (even if that’s more of a Robert Smith thing, but I digress).

So it makes sense that the videos I liked the most on the DVD collection were the fantasy ones, mostly directed by Howard Greenhalgh, noted for his line of videos for the Pet Shop Boys circa Very and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” For Placebo, after a couple of initial vidoes of implied spunk and far less implied s&m, he oversaw minifilms that veered between stories and performance videos in odd or impossible settings — the image of Placebo rocking out in the Jodrell Bank telescope dish for “The Bitter End” pleased my astronomy loving self. Either way, in his hands the band find the ‘maximum visual impact’ dreamed of by one Billy Corgan, using the (relative) variety as contrast and looking agreeably cinematic or frenetic, as desired.

At the same time there’s the lingering sense of imperfection, being uncomfortable in one’s own skin — putting on a show to put on the alternate identity, to indeed dress up. Another example of the perfect obviousness of Placebo is the tour film included on the DVD which would screen behind performances of “Nancy Boy” at one point — finding a cross between John Waters, Harmony Korine and Was Anderson, a hypergeek-nerd looking figure on grainy film dreams or appears to dream of turning himself into a drag queen par excellence. But not a glamourous one in a traditional mold, much more of a Divine one — imperfect, messing up, getting drunk, being a wreck in his room. It’s an x = x move and, again, I love it — I mean, WHY NOT? It’s not new at all and yet it works. I don’t think I was ever going to be that extreme or outre when I was growing up, my interests and fever-dream desires went different routes, but it’s a path I could have taken (and this while earning my Eagle Scout badge, that would have made for a strange ceremony in the local Catholic church where my troop was based — I was Anglican, though, so no guilt factors, happily).

“I’ve actually started to enjoy some of their stuff while fully realizing it was completely dumb and derivative.”

“Slave to the Wage” is one of my favorite songs by them, one of my favorite videos as well. When I first saw it, the setting and the extras and their look, I thought, “Oh, it’s like Gattaca” — which Molko then later confirmed in the commentary. Again, obvious, a reference to something then current and notable. The song is as direct as one can make it — working for the man sucks rocks, therefore be wild and free. To here Molko tell it again in the commentary, he got the idea reflecting back on a job he had to do shredding papers at a bank, and wanted to capture the feeling of just busting loose and leaving it all behind. Completely and utterly obvious, there’s nothing new there — but then again who HASN’T had that feeling? There are always new love songs, there are always new hate songs, there can be new songs about that subject too.

And musically, time to bring in Pavement again — so what Placebo does is play pop-Neu rhythms (again, so VERY obviously nineties, is it not? Neu and the Krautrock revival and so forth) and then slam in that “Texas Never Whispers” intro as a further addition of guitar glaze. It’s BEAUTIFUL. It’s a silvery bit of perfection that frankly equals the German source on the one hand and outstrips the American one on the other, because, again, it works — for me at least. Combine it in with, yes, that voice (why does Molko’s voice work for me where someone like his semi-contemporary Jaime Harding is a sprawling mess? who knows?) and all of a sudden my heart’s skipping a beat and the impulse to just get out and get away is…fresh. Perfect. Hummable. Even futuristic in a retro way, which is sorta the point.

I could also go on about the performance of them and Bowie ripping ten kinds of shit out of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” on the Brits — seriously, it’s goddamn loud and pretty damned great — or how the interview sequence had just enough Spinal Tap bits while also showing humor, reflection, a bit of calm. You get a sense that they’re a band who have realized that they have found exactly their particular niche and can build on it, and I wonder sometimes what that will yet lead to. I don’t think they can quite replicate the way that the Cure or Depeche took a decade to full break the States or anything, it may never happen, but they’ve got the arena-filling levels elsewhere, the rabid fanbase — I get the sense, rightly or wrongly, that they can quite happily pursue their particular path for the rest of their time together just doing nothing but refining that niche over and over again. And you know, I don’t really mind that if the buzz remains. Why worry about getting bored with a band until you actually are bored with them? It’s been almost ten years for me and I’m not bored yet.

“Placebo are actually class A stone cold fucking great, aren’t they? I mean, like, seriously. Eternal teenage angst with girly vocals, nagging guitars, and dumb as fuck lyrics. Plus Brian Molko irritates music journalists, which for that alone makes him a CLASSIC.”

Well, he doesn’t irritate me. Then again I’ve never interviewed him.

7
Mar 05

What Is A Freaky Trigger?

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Since we’re redesigning…

Freaky Trigger is a UK-based website which consists of a bunch of themed weblogs. It started life in 1999 as a music site, edited by me, as a way to get my ramblings on pop music out of my head and onto the web. I’d always wanted to do a fanzine, and this was a lot cheaper.

On its first birthday I started New York London Paris Munich, a weblog. Weblogs were relatively new back then and I think NYLPM is one of the two or three oldest music blogs still going. Its mix of singles reviews and links was a huge success and it’s still the most visited part of the site. At the time my listening habits were changing dramatically, with single tracks and commercial pop winning out over albums and more ‘alternative’ stuff. NYLPM reflected this and Freaky Trigger got a reputation for being a site which pushed a pro-Pop agenda, taking modern pop seriously and celebrating it. This ideology carried over to the message board I Love Music, which eventually became an even huger success, even though most of its earliest threads were about the Wedding Present.

ILM, and its sister board ILE, pretty much did for Freaky Trigger as an essay-based site. Why spend ages composing a lengthy piece on something when you could post working notes to a board and find yourself in a freeform discussion with some of the sharpest minds on the net? Meanwhile, by 2002 and 2003 newer, better music blogs were turning up and I felt NYLPM had lost a lot of its old fire. We certainly weren’t setting any kind of agenda any more; the sites we used to bitch about now had columns which read like vintage NYLPM (if less starchy and English); the newer players were clearly a lot more on-the-ball; I’d said what I had to say and besides I was getting married and didn’t have that much time for a website any more. Freaky Trigger needed to change, or get scrapped. We decided to change.

Time for a swift one

Also back in 2000, my friend Pete had started Pumpkin Pubs, a pub review site spinning out of a film site he’d been running. Pumpkin Pubs was mostly notable for a livid digitised Pumpkin graphic, and for turning into Pumpkin Publog, a team weblog about pubs and pubgoing which all objectivity aside I think was one of the best kept secrets in UK weblogging. I loved writing for it; I loved reading it; I loved the way it shared with NYLPM a commitment to taking tiny things quite seriously.

So we had a declining site with a big audience, and a relatively thriving site with a tiny audience. We also had an itch to write about some things that weren’t music. Or pubs, for that matter. Solution: blindingly obvious.

In August 2003, Freaky Trigger switched to its current form – a collection of themed team blogs touching on most of the vaguely cultural things Pete and I (and Tim Hopkins, who joined up as the third co-editor) enjoyed. Alan Trewartha redesigned the site and suddenly it looked good. Dave Boyle suggested a sports weblog, and Geeta Dayal a science one, and we put both ideas into practise. We kept on thinking of subjects for a seventh blog and decided to do all of them. I decided that I wasn’t sick of writing about music quite yet and started a stupidly long-term project called Popular. We bought Tanya Headon’s services with some cheap Slovenian gin. And here we are.

Freaky Trigger is not comprehensive. It will cover some things at enormous length and miss out many others entirely. We do our best to make sure every blog is interesting but even so hardly anyone reads the whole lot. It is not particularly inclusive – despite a few efforts and some magnificent exceptions we’ve not had much luck at expanding our circle beyond our social circle. On the other hand this means we sometimes feel like a group of mates bouncing ideas about in a pub. And that feels good. We are a trivial site by and large, but as a reader one of the things I like about FT is the way it will offhandedly drop really good points and ideas into the most unlikely of contexts. An acquired taste certainly, but that’s moot really, as we’ve been here six years and we’re not planning on going anywhere yet!

24
Jan 05

During The Goldrush

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Club Seal and the Indie Boom

You can tell a band has a particular grip on people when fans turn up to discos and dance only to their songs. Club Seal, on Friday in Islington, was the first ‘indie club’ I’d been to for about three years. Not counting my own, of course. It wasn’t particularly full, but everyone there seemed to be having fun, except for a table of three to the side left of the dancefloor, who sat and drank aloof for most of the night. Setting themselves apart further, they’d made an effort to dress up – one of the men in shabby hobo gear and a tilted panama hat, another in a suit-and-highlights combination that made him look awfully like a shorter Charlie Busted.

Were they here for the beer – it surely wasn’t the tunes or the company? But then why the sartorial effort? At one o clock it all became clear. “Can’t Stand Me Now” started and these scions of young Albion marched to the centre of the floor, shuffled and mouthed every word, and then sat back down again, perhaps to await another Libertines track that never came. Charlie B made the odd subsequent move, but Hat Man held the line and didn’t so much as twitch his hip again.

I’d guess back in the day there were Smiths fans who did the same – maybe even Oasis fans in their era. For their truest fans the Libs are/were top dog – no quarter asked, no imitations accepted. To even respond to other music would be to dilute the aura.

I’m projecting, of course. That kind of monomania is foreign to me and rather fascinating – but maybe they just weren’t in much of a dancing mood and got up to the Libs out of duty more than passion. They looked the part, anyway. Scanning the rest of the crowd the fashion codes of New Improved Indie are pretty oblique – Franz Ferdinand’s call to smartness seems not to have taken; anything still goes. Ian Watson, of flame-keeping night How Does It Feel To Be Loved, calls the modern groups “haircut indie” – it seems a little misplaced, the return of post-punk is a fashion thing alright but not I think a Fashion thing, if you see what I mean.

How Does It Feel keeps a tight and tasteful ship, in fact looking at the website you could be forgiven for thinking of it as an exercise in defining an aesthetic – but lots of friends of mine go and have a great time, so whatever it’s doing it works. But just waving away the new stuff as “haircut indie” isn’t good enough. If we’re to criticise the current sounds we need a better handle on them.

Look to the Libertines, then. What separates them from the Killers, or the Kaiser Chiefs, or indeed from laurelled, statesmanlike Franz? There’s all the public junkie stuff but on it’s own that doesn’t do the trick – what makes it seem to matter is the way it’s allied to manifestos and mythologising and the apparent belief that making their tumbledown racket is intensely urgent. What they share with a lot of the touchstone How Does It Feel acts, and what the other current groups seem to lack, is the sense that making DIY pop music in that particular form is culturally important. At the twenty-year distance between us and Orange Juice or the Bodines, that sense diffuses into a vague aura of integrity, but for the Liberteenies I suspect it’s still keenly felt.

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13
Jan 05

I Know It’s Crazy But I Can’t Stop

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The Honeycombs, by Dr C

I’m in love with Honey Lantree, and anyone who cares about pop should love her too. Look at the cover of The Honeycombs ‘I Can’t Stop’ – she’s above the boys, looking to the left and slightly upwards, red lipstick and dark back-comb. If you could see her body, instead of just her head, you might expect to see her seated at a typewriter, clockwatching the last ten minutes of a working week, looking forward to tonight’s club, tonight’s friends, tonight’s music. She’d be wearing a skirt slightly too short for the typing pool and perhaps a little too much make up – but there’s no time to go home to the suburbs and change before the 100 Club. No time to waste.

Well, it’s not quite as ordinary as that. Although at one time a hairdresser, Honey Lantree was 60’s pop’s greatest drummer – The Honeycombs’ one woman popstomp explosion. For a week or more I’ve been immersed in the four Honeycombs songs on Castle/Sanctuary’s staggering new Joe Meek anthology The Alchemist Of Pop . Not only does Alchemist replace the fairly difficult to get hold of ‘It’s Hard to Believe and the various volumes of The Joe Meek Story as the definitive Meek comp, but it’s also absolutely compulsory listening for any pop fan. Hang on – I don’t want to talk about The Alchemist of Pop here – read Marcello Carlin’s Church of Me article for a brilliant overview of the whole thing – I just want to talk about The Honeycombs. About Honey.

Let’s take them one at a time. First – ‘Have I the Right’ – the BIG one. Where to start? A debut Number One in August 1964 – two minutes and fifty six seconds of hormones-out-of-control pop mayhem. As with all great records, the intro sets everything up perfectly – an urgent, slightly marching-on the spot, backbeat with tambourine topping and Meek’s trademark compressed beyond belief guitar and ice rink organ. Dennis D’ell’s weird growling and gargling delivery is one of the great pop vocals, cranking himself up to a frustrated howl on the chorus (“‘I’ve got some love and I long to share it!”) over Honey’s brutal thump. The slightly off-mike ‘Alright’ after the second chorus sounds as if D’ell has fallen to the floor unable to continue, leaving it to the guitar to carry the tune while he recovers. Here, Honey punctuates with skipping end -of phrase off beats – I told you she was good. The empty-cinema ambience of the production is amazing, Meek ensuring that you have to lean in and listen hard. But still you always feel that something in the mix is still out of reach, as yet unheard.

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30
Dec 04

Freaky Trigger End Of Year Pick N Mix

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January

Death Cab: “Boo fucking hoo”
Romo: “how elastic the human mind can be when it’s decided it wants to like something”

February

Super Bowl Halftime Show: “the car commercial featuring Metal Machine Music and giant spiders”

March

“Follow Follow”: baile funk botched crossover attempt
Kids songs and hymns: “the hipsterly correct degree of witty unmovedness”
Histories of Pop: a still unanswered question

April

The state of the boyband: rock is back!
Poptimism Vs TOTP: The Cheltenham Jazz Festival??
How to swear: a taxonomy
The Wilkinsons: Nashville struggles with selling out

May

A Grand Don’t Come For Free: who do The Streets actually sound like?
Screwed And Chopped: Jess isn’t convinced.
Our First Lady: understanding Britney

June

Monolingualism of the Other: “what does Petridis’ choice of Derrida text reveal?”

July

World music: “fight branding with branding” (also features my worst mistake of the year!)
Smash Hits: a lament
Mick’s Girls: “ALL ROCKGROUPS are POLYAMOROUS GANGBANGS”
Early music reviews: Anthony time travels
A brief fumetti fantasy…
Big And Rich: This is not country. This is country.”
“Hey Headmaster”: introducing Carmodism

August

How To Do A Cover Version: including the Microhouse Pederast
Music and Shelves: “a blissful, uncontrollable mess”

September

Discos vs Clubs: Theorising on the fly
Teddybears STHLM: Dancehall goes catwalk

October

Pop Science: Smash Hits top trumps
Beatlesploitation!: three songs
RIP: “That, I suppose, was John Peel for you”

November

RIP: John Balance and ODB
Band Aid: The secret history

December

Worst of the year: caution – features Damien Rice

5
Dec 04

Down With Skool

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or Don’t Look Back in Anger

Shot during the Prague Spring and released after the Russian invasion, Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If….’ would seem to have earned its parenthetical (1968). With its violent anti-authoritarianism, long-haired hero and touches of surrealism, the film is ideal double-bill material for ‘La Chinoise’ or ‘Easy Rider’. Yet, if you can characterise a man by the marches he goes on, Lindsay Anderson was more Aldermarston than Grosvenor Square, and the hero of his film owes less to Danny Cohn-Bendit than to James Dean and Jimmy Porter. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘Look Back in Anger’. Today the two works signify a generalized discontent at the conformist Fifties. But for Anderson they held more personal meanings.

Anderson began his film career in 1947 while still at Oxford as co-editor of the undergraduate journal Sequence. Although the magazine itself lasted just 14 issues, its personnel and ethos were taken up by Sight and Sound under Anderson’s childhood friend (and future biographer) Gavin Lambert in the early Fifties. Generally credited as one of the first attempts to ‘take Hollywood seriously’, the magazine is best understood not as a precursor to Cahiers du Cinema (whose pro-Hollywood crusade commenced about 1953) but as a partial blow against puritan-left orthodoxy, whose values, chief among them ‘realism’, derived from the British documentary movement of the ’30s.

The new emphasis comprised a concern for ‘poetic’ style — a quality found in both the European art cinema of Jean Vigo and the westerns of John Ford — and a somewhat revised political-moral commitment: left-wing, but not Communist, as much of the preceding generation had been. ‘Poetry’ became the alibi of favoured Hollywood directors, but in general the Hollywood cinema was seen to debase its audiences: British directors who went there, like Hitchcock (in person), or David Lean (in spirit) were not well regarded. Attempts to discern the serious from the meretricious among Hollywood films constituted much of Anderson’s critical work, and ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, Nicholas Ray’s global sensation of 1955, was a pertinent example of the latter. Anderson’s own early films, made under the banner of Free Cinema, and like Sight and Sound, sponsored by the BFI, were not intended as calling cards for more remunerative engagements abroad. They dealt with working-class subjects and expressed, in the words of one sage, ‘a kind of exterior, poetic pathos on behalf of anything poor and old’. The movement’s breakthrough moment came in early 1956, which saw the first screenings of the Free Cinema films by Anderson and his Sight and Sound colleagues Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, and the yet more seismic debut of ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court theatre under Richardson’s direction.

While never writing off Hollywood cinema tout court, Sight and Sound generally assumed that good work was only possible by accident or by luck, and that excepting privileged figures like Ford (about whom Anderson wrote a book), popular cinema was not only frivolous but dangerous. Much of this stemmed from the journal’s patchy left-wing commitment. One of Anderson’s celebrated polemics roasted Elia Kazan’s ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954), whose anti-union bias he traced to the director’s treacherous role in the HUAC hearings. The fact that it was shot by the same man — Russian cinematographer Boris Kaufman — who was ‘man with a movie camera’ on Vigo’s films (Dziga Vertov was his brother) was demonstration enough of Hollywood’s power to corrupt. If John Ford’s ultra-conservatism somehow escaped censure, Nicholas Ray, a veteran of New York’s Group Theatre in the 1940s along with Kazan, was damned by association; if not exactly reactionary, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Anderson wrote in 1957, was ‘an obsessed film, in which the artist completely identifies with his subject, unable to show it in any sort of perspective’.

Blind to the formal brilliance of Ray’s best films, Anderson was crippled by the anti-Americanism typical of his magazine, his generation, and his class (‘energy without depth’ was, says Lambert, his verdict on the USA). But there was perhaps a more intimate reason for the attack. Early in 1956 Gavin Lambert had quit London, Sight and Sound, and his friend after meeting Nicholas Ray, and being summoned (as personal assistant and lover) to Hollywood — just as the rest of the gang were making their mark. Anderson would protest, but ‘Rebel’, symbol of a vulgar culture that habit would not allow him to embrace, was a shaping force in his life and work. The film (‘starring our favourite our favourite actor, James Dean, whom we constantly imitate with buddy-buddy talk and pretend knife-fights’) not only inspired the writers of ‘If….’; its director came close to making what turned out to be Anderson’s film after one its Oxford undergraduate co-authors, David Sherwin, having sent off a hopeful draft, was lucky enough to win a meeting with Ray. (In fact, the great man offered him a similar ‘PA’ job to that which he had given to Lambert a few years before.)

Personal ties and coincidences apart, ‘If….’ itself stands out from Anderson’s earlier work because it, like ‘Rebel’, is ‘an obsessed film’, in which there is minimal distance between its subject and its author — Anderson’s old school tie secured him access to film on location at Cheltenham College. Traces of Anderson’s other concerns as a critic emerge — the film’s surrealist edge, for example, is clear, and recalls not only the Czech New Wave (personally present in the figure of cinematographer Mirek Ondricek), whose stance against Soviet Socialist Realism mirrored Anderson’s hostility to the McCarthyite Kazan school of direction, but also Jean Vigo, whose ‘Zero de Conduite’ (1933) was itself a classic take on classroom rebellion.

Nevertheless, the film was far stronger than Anderson’s earlier work precisely because it had abandoned the kitchen-sink spirit of ’56. The Free Cinema films, like Anderson’s feature debut ‘This Sporting Life’ (1963), had traced the alleged impoverishment of working-class cultural traditions in the context of post-war affluence and the modern ‘American’ consumer capitalism of which ‘Rebel’ was a contradictory kind of product — their literary counterpart is Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’. But because this world was totally alien to Anderson (unlike Hoggart), his attitude towards it was always in contradiction his own Free Cinema motto: ‘no film can be too personal’. The success of ‘If….’ can be put down in part to the fact that it dealt with his own class experience, could not have been more personal, and that it is as a result far more anti-traditional. Fifties Anderson celebrates the anachronism of Covent Garden porters; Sixties Anderson rages against the archaism of the public school system. Within its cultural DNA is an archetype of American teen rebellion that Anderson (described by Iain Sinclair as a ‘leather-coated patrician’) could only ever consciously regard as other, giving a dissonant edge to this seemingly uber-English, super-personal film. As Jimmy Porter once said, ‘perhaps all our children will be Americans’.

Henry K. Miller