1. ‘Crumbling Pillars of Feminine Convention’ – on Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. Sex, punk, feminism, the usual.
3. Retrospective on the 20th anniversary (!) of The Holy Bible, the summer of 1994 and the travails of being a teenage girl, available in the new issue of Planet magazine. Well worth buying a hard copy as it also contains, among other things, a fascinating article on the history of cross-dressing in protest. My piece is accompanied by the photo below, taken some time in the mid-90s when I had taken to hand-spraying a glittery hammer-and-sickle onto my dress, as was the style at the time. Outfit is not currently, as one correspondent suggested, housed in the museum of Welsh folk art.
Alex Niven’s book on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe is out now and worth your time. It’s a book about working-class art, working-class politics, and the decline of both in Britain since the 90s, but there’s no denying the fact that it’s also a book about Oasis. So for the purposes of this post, which isn’t about Oasis, let’s talk about Oasis first:
Yes, it’s alright if you think Oasis were shit. Yes, Oasis went downhill fast – almost immediately, in fact. Yes, Oasis were a more ‘authentic’ version of the freewheeling should-know-better casually chauvinist Lad that, in Niven’s term, the ‘bourgeois wing of Britpop’ attempted to pantomimically portray, and no, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Music press, tabloids and lad-mags in the 90s lionised the Gallaghers’ laddishness as part of a tediously retrograde cultural discourse that was intent on rolling back the ‘politically correct’ gains of the decades before. This same discourse imposed a false dichotomy of class, in which Oasis’ supposed proley authenticity was linked with loutish ignorance and excess, while experimentation, education and glorious pretentiousness were presented as the preserve of the middle class. So yes, Oasis were damaging. But more by accident – or by deliberate exploitation by a largely middle-class cultural industry – than by design.
And yes, there was more interesting, more progressive and more worthwhile stuff happening in the 90s. The issue here is that nothing else got anywhere near as big as Oasis, as fast as Oasis, and the question is whether anything interesting can be said to explain that phenomenal mass appeal – you know, beyond the not-even-trying paradigm of “people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis; you can’t trust people, Jeremy”. The book’s background argument on this, to which I am a rock-solid subscriber, is that, as 90s politics capitulated to a post-Thatcher consensus, a more subversive, anti-establishment spirit persisted in early-90s pop culture – including early Oasis alongside the Manics, Pulp, Kenickie etc – which then got flattened under Cool Britannia, Blairism, and Britpop’s imperial stage. Overthinking it? Yeah, if you like. Better than underthinking it, mate.
(I’d like to stop talking about Oasis now. Thanks.)
The book also argues in favour of recovering a left-populist tradition, in and outside the Labour party, the existence of which the Blairite tendency attempted to wipe off the face of the earth and which now, when not entirely forgotten or overlooked, is presented in a distorted way by left and right, as mere nostalgic sentiment or as bigoted underclass resentment. That the book does this is great. What’s frustrating, though, is that this fairly mild, unapologetic call to remember, recover and revive a British tradition of grassroots socialism – more fully articulated in Niven’s debut Folk Opposition – has to appear in the form of cultural criticism, rather than in open debate in the mainstream of British politics.
It’s become almost impossible, in official political discourse, to even raise the possibility of an alternative to the currently collapsing capitalist consensus and the austerity needed to sustain it. Let’s not be mealy-mouthed here: the imposition of austerity is causing rising rates of homelessness, mental illness and (even) suicide, while the financial elite are becoming richer than ever and we are told to begrudge our neighbour their seventy quid a week living allowance. The Liberal Democrats, in their craven collaboration with the architects of this, have been worse than useless – though if you honestly expected anything more then you’re a first-time voter, a fool, or an SDP supporter manqué. But Labour, the ostensible official opposition, has been almost as bad on any alternative to austerity, clumsily planting their flag on an increasingly crowded scrap of right-wing ground while ignoring the vast expanse of room to manoeuvre that still exists to their left. The possibility of articulating a left-populist alternative is not just dismissed out of hand, but actively recoiled from with a knee-jerk fear out of all proportion to reality.
Part of the point of Nineties Revisionism, whether Niven’s or my own, is to challenge the received wisdom that the turn taken in the 90s was the only one possible, and that its ongoing negative results were regrettable but inevitable. Current austerity rhetoric is a similar kind of received wisdom, a refusal to consider or even admit alternatives, as depressingly prevalent in the Labour party as it is in the mainstream media. That the space for discussing and even recognizing alternatives exists only in the margins of cultural and political discourse is both a result of our neoliberal turn since the 90s and an indictment of it.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but, when deciding to write Clampdown – which is on one level an attempt to intervene in a left-wing politics that often ignores women, and a feminism that often ignores class – I didn’t see any viable space for writing about my particular political perspective and getting it into print. Certainly the prevailing impression, in the academic and post-academic left circles by whom I wished to be taken seriously, was that an unsophisticated, open subscription to the basic principles of socialism, and especially an unashamed focus on class identity, was hopelessly passé. Academia wasn’t immune to the 90s turn to class denial, seeing the direct articulation of class identity as not only outmoded but frankly embarrassing. I assume this distaste for discussing class stemmed in part from the end of the Cold War, and in more recent part from the erosion of working-class access to higher education. Regardless of its parts, as a whole it sucked.
The thing is, cultural studies in Britain has a proud, politically engaged history, from Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams on down. But in the 90s and after the discipline appeared to arrive at an unhelpful level of abstraction, where it sometimes seemed that any relation one’s analysis of culture might bear to the material world was an afterthought, rather than a driving-force. You could have all the theory you liked, as long as you never attempted to practically apply it. I don’t know how much of this was tied to the postmodern fear of being thought unsophisticated for acknowledging grand narratives, for remaining embarrassingly tied to ideology (but only to overtly left-wing ideology, curiously enough), or for giving credit to the continued existence of anything so vulgar as class struggle. The triumph of irony in the 90s made it uncool to even have convictions, let alone have the courage of them.
At any rate, two years ago I wrote a book, out of the wish to bring some of the vanished political aspects of my identity and heritage to wider attention (beyond the limited bounds of, like, my blog), to ask what had happened to their representation in politics and culture, and to engage with contemporary feminism outside of academia. Given the analyses I saw granted the most credence and consideration, I felt the only plausible way of doing this was through a kind of entryism. I felt the need to go undercover, to adopt a sleight-of-hand (“god Britpop, eh, what was that all about?”) through which to smuggle in questions of class and gender, and to focus on talking about pop culture as a proxy for politics, rather than talking straightforwardly about politics itself.
I managed it, of course (and sure enough, Clampdown‘s content got repeatedly described as “refreshing”, which is a highly relative term), so there’s a limit to how much I can complain. In fact, there’s an emergent set of criticism and commentary produced by those of us who came of age in the ’90s – from Owen Hatherley’s pioneering Militant Modernism to Agata Pyzik’s Poor But Sexy – which is concerned with scouring the 20th century to recover roads not taken, lost potential and missed opportunities, to point out that there were alternatives, and still can be. More power to the handful of publishers who enable such excavations. But why do you have to read a book on Oasis, or the Manics, or film, or architecture – or indeed write one – in order to see the vanished tradition of grassroots, collectivist, internationalist small-l labourism in this country even acknowledged, let alone presented positively? There is a constituency, an audience – a market, if we really must – for talking about socialism, and socialist feminism, and the interplay of class, race, and gender in culture and politics, even if the arenas of debate are small and scattered. Currently, in the absence of mainstream mass platforms, we take what we can get – small publishing deals, obscure blogs, niche music series – and we use it to lever open closed doors and closed-off discourses. This kind of interdisciplinary entryism is a means to an end, but it’s hardly helpful if the exploration of alternatives to the current regime stays backed into the cultural studies corner.
With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.
The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.
You may be wondering why I haven’t leapt into the current wave of 90s/Britpop nostalgia with all the teeth-bared alacrity of a pseudo-academic Berserker, desperate to point out that the career of Alex James highlights everything wrong with the world. The reasons I haven’t are, broadly, that a) I desire a worthier opponent than Alex James; b) Britpop isn’t, and really never was, the problem. Anything I might want to say about Britpop is wider than Britpop itself and concerns the particular intertwined development of politics, culture and society in that weird and decisive decade.
The problem with the 90s wasn’t simply that “politics” (specifically, the recognition of class as a political identity) vanished from mainstream pop culture, but that it vanished from mainstream politics too. After the Tories’ scorched-earth approach to industry in the 80s, the 90s saw a salting of the ground though privatization of the railways and the coal industry – as though by removing a class’s economic basis for existence one could somehow magically remove the class itself. Meanwhile, the Labour Party saw Blair’s ascendancy and the ditching, along with Clause 4, of its traditional base of support. In the late 90s, Blair’s rictus-grinned insistence on liberal harmony had no more room for class conflict than Major’s early-90s confected nostalgia for a pre-Sixties (‘back-to-basics’) England. In both politics and pop culture, we were held to be all middle-class now: in the swirl of postmodern irony, nothing mattered – certainly not your socio-economic position – so everything was permitted. The fact that alternative guitar music ended up mirroring this short-term hedonism and boorish chauvinism, and abandoning its early-90s countercultural instinct, makes it more a victim of the era than a villain.
The 90s cultural studies bandwagon should not be allowed to flatten the complexities of those years in the same way that commercialization steamrollered early-Britpop’s interest and potential and left us with Cool Britannia. In the strange and significant year of 1994, as Alex Niven points out, the movement that became Britpop retained a lot of chippy subversiveness, earnest optimism, and creativity, which was later lost to money-making, irony, and formulaic blandness. While capitalism has always been able to commodify alternative culture, and rebellion has always been turned into money, the 90s set in motion a wider process whereby pursuits previously associated with collective enjoyment, escapism and improvement particularly for the working class – whether pop music, or football, or the Labour Party – were sanitized and made safe for those beyond their traditional pale. This would have mattered less had it not been accompanied by the rise of networks of nepotism and the spread of unpaid interning in arts, media and politics, which not only reduced the ability to compete but began edging the working-class and/or non-independently wealthy out of the arena entirely, to an extent that is now glaringly apparent. All this alongside a relentless pretence at meritocracy and a stress on individualism over collectivism, implying that dissatisfaction with your circumstances was not a result of structural conditions, but an individual failing that only you could change – by altering yourself and not the system.
Perhaps the Labour Party’s Blairite turn played into the shape that 90s opposition to the Tories took, being scrappy and direct – Reclaim the Streets, 1994’s Criminal Justice Bill protests – and displaying an attitude to constitutional politics that was at best distrustful and at worst disgustedly disenfranchised. The turn to direct action and civil disobedience rather than parliamentary politics grew throughout the 00s’ anticapitalist (‘anti-globalisation’, in the parlance of the day) movements, reaching its zenith perhaps in Occupy.
None of which should have happened at all, of course. What reasons did we 90s children have for dissatisfaction or dissent now that it wasn’t the 80s anymore? Another of this year’s anniversaries is of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, which should in theory have rendered us with nothing to protest about. The ‘end of history’ bore as much relation to reality as ‘we are all middle-class now’, but it fitted very well with the arrogant complacency with which the West began the 90s. It fitted in too with a Britain punch-drunk and reeling from the 80s but denied the means to articulate the fact that the fight was still on. Anxiety could be expressed in the 90s, and damage acknowledged, but only if framed in terms of emotion and not economics. This of course dovetailed with the erasure of class and the emphasis on individual striving and ambition as a cure-all, without reference to socio-economic conditions which might hinder an individual’s ability to achieve. So the 90s ideology claimed: if you couldn’t achieve, you needed to work on yourself and your sense of ambition and entitlement (after all, girls can do anything, just look at Thatcher!); if you were stuck on benefits then you probably preferred it that way, otherwise you would have striven and done something about it; and if at some point you wondered about any of this, if you were anxious or unsure, then again, you needed to treat yourself kindly, to be soothed, to consume, to empower yourself through earning and spending. You certainly didn’t need to conclude that the problems might (still) be systemic, still external, still political rather than personal.
We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.
- The Miners’ Next Step (1912)
Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)
On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.
… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:
“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”
Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).
I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.
1. I wrote this piece for the Wales Arts Review on Welsh history, politics and identity. Yes, again.
2. In the next issue of Planet: the Welsh Internationalist, I have written on the relationship between Welsh artists and London in the very poor disguise of an album review.
3. If you’re at this year’s Green Man, I will be there to speak to ex-Kenickie members Emma Jackson and Marie Nixon on music, gender, class, the 90s, you know the drill. My life as outtake from Phonogram continues. I shall endeavour not to use the term “escapist proletarian-glam aesthetic” more than once but can’t promise anything.
This is the fifth AND LAST in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’.
“For a start, the very fact that we were Welsh meant that we had to try 100 times harder than any other group. Even now, in some terrible news magazine, someone’s reviewed the album and the headline is ‘Boyos To Men’. And I’m not saying it’s racist or anything: I just find it incredibly thick. In a way I’m glad I’ve got all that now: it gives me something to rail against, to use as a creative feeder.”
Can you speak any Welsh?
“We were never allowed to learn. And that’s another big bit of resentment in us: it wasn’t on the curriculum for the whole of South Wales. I’d have loved to have been able to speak Welsh.”
“Damn it all, you can’t have the crown of thorns and the thirty pieces of silver.”
– Aneurin Bevan, c. 1956
After all this, I mean, I still feel Welsh, and I still call myself it. ‘Welsh’ for me can be a residual, reserve identity, buried or submerged, but still enduring; something to cling to when adrift, rightly or wrongly; something to anchor me. What the identity consists of, though, I’ve never been sure. It’s not a national identity but a local one, and its localness – the ways in which I feel myself to be Welsh -always keeps me conscious of the ways in which I’m not. Rather than ‘yes, that’s it’, it’s easier to say ‘yes, but that’s not all it is’. Wire in that 1997 interview may well proclaim himself ‘into oneness’, but there is no One Wales. Even beyond the country’s linguistic, geographic and political divisions, there exist multiple fractured identities, defining themselves by the local not the national – particularly through being from X, rather than from Cardiff. Growing up, attributes, accents and attitudes were associated with specific areas, towns, areas of towns, sometimes pinned down to exact streets. The Wales of swords and stone circles, drowned lands, dragons and druids, Taliesin and Eisteddfodau exists in romance alongside the reality of GLC’s Newport, Gavin & Stacey’s and Simon Price’s Barry Island, the drug-soaked, politically corrupt underworld of Lloyd Robson’s Cardiff Cut, the Valleys anti-romances of Rachel Trezise, and a multitude of other identities scattered and self-contained but highly secure in their specifics. To brush under the national carpet all of these peculiarities, to smother them in fantasies of ancient racial purity, the flag, the Senedd, or MTV’s predictably execrable The Valleys, does justice to nothing Continue reading
This is the fourth in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
To be Welsh is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky…
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.
– ‘Welsh Landscape’, R S Thomas
To be born Welsh is to be born privileged
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth
But music in your blood and poetry in your soul
- from ‘In Passing’, Brian Harris
While living in London I had that second quote on a keyring for several years; if you’re Welsh, you might have done so too – or you might have had it on a mug, a teatowel, an embroidered sampler. The 1967 poem from which it is (mis)taken contains far bleaker Thomas-esque currents (‘ugliness that scars the spirit / as the earth’, ‘rivers of mingled blood and sweat’), but this opening snippet has become both tourist branding, found everywhere it can be sold, and a kind of faux-folk fetish for the Welsh themselves. With its elevation of ‘natural’ cultural creativity over material advantage making a virtue of necessity, it is our Keep Calm and Carry On – a comforter, a pacifier. Continue reading
This is the third in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
if deep enough can drown.
Never think to surprise them.
Your face approaching ever
so friendly is the white flag
they ignore. There is no truce
with the furies. A mirror’s temperature
is always at zero. Its camera
is an X-ray. It is a chalice
held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.
– ‘Reflections’, R S Thomas
Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I`m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader.
- Richard Burton
Besides the drowning of Tryweryn, Ready for Drowning also snags the idea of drowning one’s sorrows, referencing the alleged propensity of the Welsh for – what shall we call it? – a steady, a committed, a co-dependent relationship with drink. The association of Wales with a certain kind of romanticised and spectacular inclination to alcoholism – not so much in reality as in legend – still persists. Ready for Drowning compares the flooding of Tryweryn with how, according to Wire: ‘a ceaseless chain of Welsh people seek to adjust to their circumstances by drowning their synapses in alcohol. …‘it’s half Richey, half Welsh identity – about how many of our icons either drink themselves to death or run away’. Continue reading
This is the second in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
In the Bible, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a pretty good summer for Wales. That’s a hosepipe ban waiting to happen… I was eight before I realised you could take a cagoule off.
- Rhod Gilbert
O where are our fathers, O brothers of mine?
By the graves of their fathers, awaiting a sign…
The slopes of slag and cinder
Are sulking in the rain
And in derelict valleys
The hope of youth is slain.
- from Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies (1938)
Idris Davies, the coalfield’s ‘bitter dreamer’, lost a finger in a mining accident and was first radicalised and then disaffected by his participation in the 1926 General Strike. Subsequently unemployed, and having been introduced to the work of Shelley by a fellow miner, he began four years of what he called ‘the long and lonely self-tuition game’. In his poetry, as fanboyed by T S Eliot, he is notably attached to the word ‘derelict’, especially as a description of the south Welsh valleys, desolate and desecrated by industry. (They’ve only grown more apt as a pairing.) Davies has little of R S Thomas’ brutally bleak, at-bay snarling; his jeremiads are, like the landscape and land he describes, just ‘sulking in the rain’, sad and sullenly resigned. Continue reading
‘I’ve never written about Welsh identity before: these days, I’ve got to search for things to write about, whereas in the past everything would be driven by anger and all the rest of it. Now I’ve got to delve more… Ready For Drowning is the most complete song I’ve ever written, I think…’
One: All Surface No Feeling
“The submerged land of Cardigan Bay is called Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘the lowland hundred’). It was defended from the sea by an embankment and sluices. Seithennin was keeper of the sluices, and one evening when there was a great banquet he became drunk and left the sluices open. The water rushed in and drowned the inhabitants. The poet Taliesin was the only one to escape alive.
“When man first came to live on the coast of Wales (sometime between the Neolithic and the Iron Age), the sea level was still rising between Wales and Ireland, separating the two countries further and further, and the legend relating to the drowning of the Lowland Hundred probably developed as a result of folk-memory of a sudden coastal flooding many centuries ago. The remains of peat and tree trunks which are visible on the beaches when the tide is far out further captured man’s imagination. Similar traditions are connected with certain Welsh lakes [and] with other parts of the Welsh coast… The moralistic and onomastic elements in all these traditions are very obvious.”
- Robyn Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales (1989)
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
- from The Wasteland, T S Eliot (1922)
Lately I’ve been revisiting both the land of my birth and upbringing and mid-period Manic Street Preachers. The latter was a moderately painful process which has, incidentally, left me staggered all over again that ‘Tomorrow Steve Ovett has injured his calf’ was considered to pass muster as a lyric. I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that everything good about the band vanished along with Richey; I think Design for Life is, while maybe not the best thing they’ve accomplished, at least the most valedictory, the thing I remain most proud of them for doing. But yeah, they should perhaps have called a halt to things shortly after that. Continue reading
Two things I wrote recently on the music, culture and politics of that weird, desultory decade, the 1990s:
1. Up Close and Personal: Lost Girls
For the decade blogs, my Tesco Value Greil Marcus number on gender, class, Britpop and everything after, chav-hysteria and narrowing of access.
2. Rebel Music #5: Manic Street Preachers
For New Left Project, a cleaned-up and condensed version of my customary closing-time rant on the politics of the Manic Street Preachers. I know I fail to mention, eg, Soviet chic, or Castro, or self-harm and anorexia, or the band’s appeal to teenage girls, or anything after This is my Truth Tell me Yours. It’s not that they’re irrelevant, they’re just relevant to a different article. Or possibly a whole book.
There were several predictable bones to pick with this piece in which former editors of the New Musical Express select their most noteworthy covers. The feature leaves out a lot of the former Accordion Weekly’s history, notably anything prior to the late 1970s, but what struck me most about the covers chosen was the disparity between the first one and the last. Pennie Smith’s 1979 cover shot of the Slits, then a relatively obscure and resolutely uncommercial dub-punk girl-gang, mudlarking in the grounds of their Surrey recording studio, was part of a set which became a defining image of the band, notably through being used on the cover of their debut album Cut. This article looks briefly at the controversy generated by the images themselves, and how it relates to subsequent and current presentation of women in the UK music press. Continue reading
I mean, I don’t hate ‘Ill Manors’. I did at first, almost instinctively, but I like it more the more I hear it. I also find it easier to take in without the video. (Also that sample of ‘Alles Neu’ gives me flashbacks to 2008 when an ex of mine would repeatedly play it; fair enough you can never escape your past, but I don’t think anyone expects theirs to pursue them in the form of Peter Fox.) Still, the alacrity with which it’s been leapt on as the protest song we’ve all been waiting for has slightly surprised me, even though it’s more vital and switched-on than, from a year ago:
and – maybe – more accessible than, lest we forget its glory, and the possibility of ‘TOSSAH’ being the present Secretary of State for Health’s epitaph:
I’m not convinced ‘Ill Manors’ taps the roots of the present malaise with any greater degree of elegance and articulacy than, say, Dizzee Rascal did in 2003:
Something that seemed to get overlooked in the past few years’ constant referencing of a ‘lost generation’ and of ‘graduates without a future’ was that, lower down the socio-economic scale, little had substantially changed. For many with memories that stretch beyond the credit crunch, the last recession and the last UK election, attaining comfort and security has always been a struggle, prospects have never been great, and home-owning and independently funded internships, for instance, have always been implausibilities. For many there has always been poverty, precarity, petty criminality and police animosity, even if the past few years have exacerbated their reach and increased their visibility, resulting in their sudden horrified pointing out by those who might previously have missed them due to being shielded by better prospects and broader horizons.
Although ‘Sittin’ Here’ is nearly a decade old, running through it is a very relevant current of chill and clampdown. But ‘Sittin’ Here’ is not a ‘protest song’. It’s a laconic, fatalistic and very mature anatomy of socio-economic melancholy. Simmering but unspoken discontent, alienation, anomie and lacking signs of positive change have for a long time been a way of life to which many have of necessity had to reconcile themselves, not a sign of the final crisis or a spur to mounting the barricades.
I guess timing is everything, though. There’s an inescapable sense (as in, one is constantly given the impression) of right now being either turning-point or snapping-point. The recently added ingredient of a recklessly ideological government seems to have clarified and amplified things that have been the case for a while, made them more immediate and obvious. ‘Ill Manors’ does validly externalize rather than brood over its anger and confusion, and doesn’t assume some golden age of mortgages for all and paid internships cruelly wrested from this generation by everyone over the age of twenty-four. ‘We’ve had it with you politicians you bloody rich kids never listen / There’s no such thing as broken Britain we’re just bloody broke in Britain / What needs fixing is the system not shop windows down in Brixton / Riots on the television you can’t put us all in prison’ is a very hard line to argue with.
I’ve had coalmining on my mind recently. Contra last week’s Metro, I don’t think it’s accurate to say ‘the world looked on in despair’ at events at Gleision Colliery – in fact the story was predictably underreported and largely unremarked upon by my usual social media circle, until the story became a self-evidently human tragedy, whereupon it was hardly engaged with at any deeper level than that. Anyway:
As the admittedly lame title of this blog suggests, the coalmine for me is bound up with a certain sense of national identification, but also, if not more so, with class and regional associations. I feel that I have more in common with someone of my age from a post-industrial area in (say) south Yorkshire, than I might with someone from rural west or north Wales or indeed the great bright-lit sprawl that is Cardiff and the Vale. Weighted against this potentially mawkish shoulder-to-shouldering with other unemployment blackspots is the knowledge that this landscape as a functioning entity, as something that defined one as part of and in relation to a certain workforce, as the sum of one’s labour, has (been) altered out of all recognition and what it tends to be seen as generating now is dysfunction. But the mine as a symbol of shared frames of reference carries an inescapable emotional weight. Continue reading
Yeah, I’m still here, although increasingly writing elsewhere. Notably I wrote for BadRep on Why ‘Chav’ is a Feminist Issue.
Have some more songs.
Lupen Crook, Junk n Jubilee
This from oh, such a while back now. Seems like a whole other London. A cut-off video, which is all I could find, but do hear the proper version, which still makes me tense with the urge to put my fist through the window of the Hawley Arms:
Manic Street Preachers, A Design For Life
This from the band too weird to talk about when you talk about the 90s. Included half because I’ve just been back to the place I grew up (and for ‘grew up’, read ‘grew up a Manics fan’) and half because the song resonates with me right now, with reality topping dystopian visions at every turn almost faster than one can think them up:
Oh, and I went to an Amanda Palmer gig last Friday. Not to damn with faint praise or anything, but I liked her more than I did when I wrote this.
So I liked Owen Hatherley’s piece on Pulp, and I knew reading the comments would spoil it all, but reader, I read them. The majority were bafflingly wet-blanket in nature, wildly and wilfully missing the article’s point, if studded with bits of valid and interesting discussion. Specifically, though, I was surprised to encounter in both the article and the responses a lack of any mention of Manic Street Preachers. Surely you can’t reach back into the 90s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of ‘A Design for Life’?
‘We don’t talk about love,
We only want to get drunk
And we are not allowed to spend
As we are told that this is the end’
If Pulp were the last art-school band (and I’m by no means convinced of that), then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class? Continue reading
So the next scheduled Apocalypse isn’t until October. Good; I have stuff to do before October, but little to do after it, and at the current rate of Armageddon I won’t need to pay off my student loan. More importantly, Dylan was 70 on Tuesday.
One of my favourite theories/lies/facts about Dylan is that the lyrics to ‘It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ consist of titles or opening lines for other songs which Dylan felt he wouldn’t have time to write before nuclear conflagration moved these matters rather lower down everyone’s list of concerns. In similar manner – and because I’m quite aware that most of my writing is what you’d get if you fed ‘The Libertines’, ‘class war’, ‘wank’, ‘appalling pun’, and ‘cultural history’ into a Random Lyrics Generator – here is a blog post consisting of titles for other blog posts which I doubt I’ll ever get around to writing. Only about two of these are serious proposals, of course, and the rest self-parodic. But the two keep changing. Continue reading
Following my attempted rehabilitation of S*M*A*S*H, here is another song snipped from the forgotten High Agitation Pop tapestry of 1990s Britain, to which I haven’t listened for a good ten years.
Oh, remember Agit-Pop? Remember when mixing punk with hip-hop and electronica in the name of antifascism seemed like a good idea? Remember Blaggers ITA? Their Wiki helpfully did-you-knows that ITA is ’90s slang for “in the area”‘, which I didn’t in fact know at the time. There you are, that’s the 1990s for you: we made the word ‘here’ two words longer, then we developed an acronym for it.
I discovered Blaggers ITA via their short-lived support slot on the Manic Street Preachers’ 1993 tour. This was curtailed amid controversy over their singer having allegedly lamped a journalist over an alleged accusation of his past, intensely regretted, involvement with the far right. (I’m always less shocked than perhaps I should be by the number of people who switch political extremes, starting off by, when young, channelling frustration and resentment through a right-wing filter before seeing it for the repugnant sham it is. A similar trajectory was taken by the young Ricky Tomlinson, whom I like less than I like the late Matty Blagg. Maybe that’s because Tomlinson went on to do The Royle Family, which gradually decayed into a pseudo-sentimental piece of confected class voyeurism, whereas by contrast the 1991 Blaggers effort Fuck Fascism, Fuck Capitalism, Society’s Fucked is perhaps the best lairily succinct summation of a certain late twentieth-century mindset we’re likely to get.)
Anyway, ‘The Way We Operate’ was a response to the racially-inflamed brutalization of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991, and the riots which convulsed that city the following year after the defendants’ acquittal by an all-white jury. It mixed televised reportage and calls to arms with guitars that swirl like circling news helicopters, riffing on Public Enemy’s ‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ and segueing the admirable internationalism of ‘West Belfast, Brixton, Broadwater Farm, Soweto, East LA – it’s all the same thing’ into its inanely earnest chorus.
Don’t write ‘em like that anymore, do they? Not a great song, maybe. But with most of popular culture – comedy, tv, literature as well as music – currently punching downwards when it punches at all, I find it helps to be reminded that songs can have worthier targets. Even if these days this sort of thing could almost be described as fucking quaint.
‘Sexuality in Rock’n’roll is one more area weighed down heavily by its history and language. While none could or should deny the aspects of sexual interest and thrill inherent in live music, the performance space is problematically male-dominated.’ – Ian Penman, NME, 1979
‘I really wish that I’d been born a boy; it’s easy then ’cause you don’t have to keep trying to be one all the time.’ – Gaye Advert, 1977
Women in bands, when under the media spotlight, often find themselves swindled out of due credit by virtue of their gender. If they’re not being accused of clinging to the coattails of their backing boys to disguise their own lack of musical ability, they’re being judged on their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. It’s disappointing to observe how ubiquitously this principle applies. Even in the midst of punk, as girls picked up guitars, bass, and drumsticks, taking the stage alongside boys as more than cooing vocalists or backing dancers, they attracted that lethal combination of critical suspicion and prurient interest.
I love punk partly for the number and variety of women it involved and the freedom of expression it offered them. I loved X-Ray Spex – a Somali-British teenage feminist demagogue whose vocal screech swooped like a bird of prey over twisting vistas of saxophone. I loved the Slits and their slippery, shuddering dub-punk hymns to the tedium of sex and the joys of shoplifting. And I loved Gaye Black, bassist for The Adverts and widely regarded as punk’s first female star.
Oh Charlie, you silly arse. What did you go and do that for?
How interesting the story of last Thursday could have been, eh? But with grim predictability, a story which could have focused on a movement intriguing in its complex, leaderless and hydraheaded nature was swiftly simplified into a tale of two Charlies. The first, your Royal namesake, had his little local difficulty on Regent Street quickly depicted as a drive into the heart of Dickensian darkness, the heir to the throne haplessly thrown into a perfect storm of grimy underclass anarchy. And then you, Charlie, when you swung from the Centotaph by a union flag, and then giggled and gurned your way through an apology, were equally if not more unhelpful.
If you’re an easily suggestible sort, the last few weeks’ flurry of alarmist headlines on strikes, snow, and student riots might lead you to think of London as the convulsing epicentre of the end of the world as we know it. In fact, it’s still perfectly possible to work and play on the streets of the capital without detecting any signs of the collapse of civilisation, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same
And it’s “nice one, geezer” -
But that’s as far as the conversation went.
Last weekend was notable for a mass rave held in the heart of London’s West End, in the shadow of Trash’s last resting place. Inevitably, this ended up breathlessly reported in the Guardian as having marked ‘the return of rave culture’. Did it bollocks. Rave culture is, like the poor, always with us, and free sub-legal gatherings are scattered over the country like the unspeakable flakes shaken from a white boy’s dreadlocks.
Last Saturday has, like several other online-organised mass Doings of Cool Stuff, both social and political, set an interesting precedent for the relative power of a sufficiently large group of citizens to dodge, outstrip or overcome police opposition or obstruction through the power of social networking. But that’s as far as my positivity can stretch. I was dubious about the article’s claim that it marked the return of alternative culture – specifically, the free party – as a channel for political opposition, and perversely heartened by the similarly-minded cynicism swamping the comment section. The article has things arse-backwards: a confrontation between the law and people having a good time is a side-effect of the event, not its objective.
As shown by Emma Goldman’s frequently misquoted maxim and, I’d like to think, this blog in general, music is inherently political. Any song retains the imprint of its conditions of production, and you’d be a fool and a Ramones fan to think otherwise. But the question of whether a particular form of music and culture is inherently radical or revolutionary is much murkier. Continue reading
While the 1990s weren’t the greatest decade for feminist comings of age, as a small-town girl who loved her music, I didn’t do too badly. I’d grown up on the leftovers of punk, awed and enthralled by women like Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up and Gaye Advert. Closer to home, I had Shampoo’s deadpan, dead-eyed bubblegum-punk and Kenickie’s bracing uber-proletarian blend of grit and glitter.
Marx’s Europe was haunted by a single spectre, but the furthest shores of the Welsh cultural psyche are stalked by two figures as powerful as they are petrifying: the Mam and the Missus. Such well-ploughed dichotomies as that of Madonna/whore are wholly inadequate as explanations of this particular view of feminine duality. Here I shall focus on the Missus, a figure who inspires both hypersexualised fascination and visceral dread of her destructive powers. This delicate divide between titillation and terror is nowhere more suggestively straddled than in Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s seminal release ‘Your Missus is a Nutter’. A full transcription of this sadly underexplored work is available for reference here. Continue reading
At a point where contemporary bands have as much edge as a beachball, the Indelicates have proved indispensable. Julia and Simon Indelicate have been in the vanguard of artistic response to new media, following the release of their 2008 debut American Demo by shaking off the coils of their label and founding the musical workers’ collective Corporate Records, on which this album is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. Their guitar and keyboard folk-punk owes something to the murky margins of the Nineties, notably Carter USM’s winning twinning of righteous sociological skewering with a lyrical patchwork of cultural references and wordplay, as well as the Auteurs’ and Pulp’s cerebral chic and puncturing of airy pretensions.
Recorded in East Berlin, Songs for Swinging Lovers is appropriately imbued with similar cabaret stylings to those of the Dresden Dolls. The pervading Weimar atmosphere draws implicit parallels between the present culture deconstructed here and a past culture gone softly dissolute and succumbing to totalitarian creep. An entire continent gets it in the neck in opener ‘Europe’, a stop-motion stagger of drunken piano, cymbals that clash like wine glasses smashed on bourgeois floors and piled-up images of queasy cultural decay. ’Be Afraid of Your Parents’ is a cautionary tale of entrenched liberal hegemonies, a nervy, tottering quickstep of Derrida-quoting dinner-partiers leading a fatuous and self-satisfied dance round the ruins of the decadent west, oblivious to the insinuation of encircling uniforms. As a metaphor it’s typically bold, and as arresting as the visual pun on the album cover.
Full of ferocity, disgust and frustration, its meat bloody and raw, Songs for Swinging Lovers seethes with the wish to be cleansed. ‘Flesh’ continues Julia’s cutting critique of contemporary feminism (“Hey girls, ain‘t you heard we‘re more concerned about the hegemony than the women?”), her voice a deceptive lilt with Simon’s sinisterly silky backing vocals beautifully conjuring up an appeased patriarchy breathing down her neck. The savagely sleazy ‘Your Money’ sticks it to the corporate world and the wide-eyed singalong ’Jerusalem’ lampoons private education’s gilded youth.
Elsewhere, the frenetic riffs, contemptuously drilled Rs and Julia’s hammered keyboards give way to reflection and yearning, making the album as much barricade as battering-ram. Contemplating flight to the border in ’Sympathy for the Devil’ or envisioning the calcified grotesques of ’Europe’ drowned by rising tides, Julia and Simon sound as if they’re bunkered against zombie-like hordes of encroaching socio-cultural horrors, both the last gang in town and the only lovers left alive. Their outsider stance is burlesqued in ’We Love You, Tania’, the insistent siren-song of Patty Hearst’s terrorist seducers, and critically examined in ’Savages’, a celebration of social rejection shot through with fatalism and self-doubt. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ closes the album with a gently mocking lullaby for a generation whose short-sighted solipsism has elevated post-adolescent angst to an art form.
Songs For Swinging Lovers has a dark depth and complexity, not only providing the satire and savaging modern society requires, but also supplying its own self-questioning critique which acknowledges rebellion’s own pretensions and built-in obsolescence. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to the Indelicates – it never will, in a country that coined the phrase ‘too clever by half’ – but the remains of today should.
[Written for Wears the Trousers which is currently down for maintainance, hence this reposting of my latest. Longer and more rambling piece on the band to follow when I have the time.]
Last week I went to the Barbican Centre to see the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Rarely has a film-showing had a more appropriate environment: the Barbican is stunningly early-70s, a symphony in brown and orange inside its concrete Brutalist exoskeleton. By the time the opening credits rolled, my hair had developed a Farrah Fawcett flick and I was fully expecting to be served a prawn cocktail by someone complaining about the three-day-week. Anyway: I enjoyed the film. It’s an accomplished pinch-of-salt portrait of Dury as child, father, husband, bandmate and musician, peacock-strutting his way from a semi-Dickensian institutionalised childhood to an adulthood spent in raucous and truculent self-actualisation. Andy Serkis is immense, as are the quietly cool portrayals of Dury’s long-suffering first wife and his largely unsung girlfriend, jobbing bassist and general muse Denise Roudette.
How punk was Ian Dury? Speaking musically: less so than his ubiquity on punk retrospectives might suggest. His closest association is with the big-band sound of an earlier generation. Into this mix his band stirred sinuous, sinewy funk, jazz and reggae in a brew that anticipates much of 2-Tone and later white-boy ska. The Blockheads’ sound has the confrontational physicality of early rock n roll, too, dextrous and muscular and thuggishly full-on. The opening verse of ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ is a rare gem of moonlit delicacy in a barrowload of brutalising rhythms, terrace-chant choruses and that glorious, swaggering, leering, brandished clenched fist of a voice.
Dury’s other big influence is music-hall, traceable in his arch delivery, left-field rhymes and the maudlin lost-world sentiment of ‘My Old Man’, and peaking in the posturing of his Essex swell Billericay Dickie. The chancers and romancers who populate his songs are sometimes indistinguishable from his stage persona, but Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll efficiently unravels the layers of performance inherent in this: Dury’s wideboy geezerisms are adopted, transposed on a background of art-school bohemia which he memorably describes onscreen as ‘[not posh;] we’re arts-and-crafts’.
Despite his musical distance from it, there is an edge to Dury which aligns him squarely with punk and its particular anti-aesthetic. Not only did punk’s appreciation of the vulgar and iconoclastic dovetail with Dury’s own, but he also embodies empowerment through the owning and reclaiming of one’s own social marginalisation, which Lester Bangs identified thus:
… one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power.
Punk allows you, if you can’t emerge butterfly-pretty and slide smoothly away from your shell, to fight your way half-out and carry on, dragging the smashed and broken pieces with you as an integral part of yourself. An uncomfortable, uncompromising process made spectacular. Punk’s gifting of defiant and unapologetic visibility to the powerless, and to those socially excluded on economic or aesthetic grounds, swirls in the venom with which Dury injects his music. It found particular expression in his 1981 commercial swansong ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, a reclamatory refusenik anthem which achieves a dignity of its own through refusing to accept it in its patronising, socially-ordained form. The song’s conception and subsequent banning are explained in this clip:
‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll’, with its exhortations to reject the ordinary and take sartorial and aesthetic pride in oneself, is a manifesto that should be nailed up in every schoolroom and recording studio in the land. Dury was one of our last great originals, a genuine outsider resistant to external definition by background or ability, quintessentially punk and unmistakeably English, whose absence highlights the threadbare, barren and character-free state of contemporary music. As a national treasure, he gives every other contender an unsteady run for their money.
So, the planet’s on fire and our former Prime Minister appears to be an unabashed war criminal, but let’s turn our attention to what really matters, shall we? Namely, the controversy currently raging over whether this year’s UK Christmas number one will be a stage-managed triumph of mass manipulation, or whether it’ll be the winner of this year’s X-Factor again.
Over 700,000 of you so far have pledged to protest at the X-Factor’s stranglehold on the festive music scene by sending Rage Against the Machine’s debut single to number one in time for Christmas. ‘Killing in the Name Of’ is an uncompromising, monolithic beast, rearing its head from the mists of the early Nineties. In a world that also contains the Muppets’ version of Bohemian Rhapsody, it seems an odd choice of challenger. Rage Against the Machine’s chosen vehicle was rap-rock, a clumsy Heath Robinson contraption that eventually collapsed under the baggy-shorted bourgeois weight of Limp Bizkit. As a genre it was never that appealing past the age of criminal responsibility, and I wonder to what extent the pro-Rage campaign is imbued with as much affectionate nostalgia as indified indignation.
That said, I would love to see the seething boiling whirlpool of chips on the shoulder of the British public wash Rage Against the Machine to the top spot, there to earnestly quote Franz Fanon at their enemies until they give in, sobbing, and promise to buy Fair Trade. What I would point out, however, is that the same record label, Sony, is behind both acts. So it’s a purely cosmetic exercise – but okay, let it be one. The principle stands that getting Rage Against The Machine to number one is a symbolic stretching of the standing-up muscles, a semi-Situationist prank, and also that rarest of commodities: a laugh. I can’t do better than this here post at explaining why. The pro-Rage campaign mines a deep seam of appreciation for throwing a spanner in the socio-cultural works. And if it’s possible to harness this collective urge to act purely in the interests of what is known as the lolz, then I’d rather it were done for a purpose more amusing and less terminally embarrassing than, say, the election to Mayor of Boris Johnson.
‘Killing in the Name Of’ has been validly criticised as sludgily, tinnily adolescent, and yes, the massed uniform stomp in defence of self-determination that makes up its petulant chorus is indeed a contradiction in terms. Well done. Enough joyless fuckers have stressed that latter argument, in the same smug and point-missing manner as people so pleased with themselves for having spotted the ironic double-negative in ‘We don’t need no education‘ that they mention it every single time they hear the song, like Pavlov’s dog doing A-level English Lit.
Rage are, of course, much more than their most irritatingly and counterproductively lowest-common-denominator work might suggest. You wouldn’t judge Radiohead on ‘Creep’, or the Manics on ‘A Design For Life’, or poor brave Kylie on ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, would you? Oh, you would? Fair enough then, I’ll see you at the Damon Albarn Country House theme park. The Phil Daniels novelty wheelbarras of condescending moribund Mockney cliche are on me. If you wouldn’t, there’s always this or this or this or this.
A disclaimer: at a formative age, I caught Rage’s 1993 appearance at Lollapollooza, where the band’s response to censorship of music by the batshit-insane Parents’ Music Resource Center was to appear onstage naked but for some strategically placed strips of duct tape. That sight made such an impact that, for ages afterwards, I confused righteous political indignation with near-unsuppressable sexual attraction, to the equal bemusement of my previous boyfriends and the local Revolutionary Communist Party by-election canvassers. Speaking less self-parodically and more seriously, I have also spent a streak of my previous New Year’s Eves in a sticky-floored, damp-ceilinged dive deep in the bowels of Cardiff known as Metro’s, a club more grot than grotto. Metro’s would redeem itself for this one night by a) handing out free tea and toast in the early hours when not even our hardest Valleys Commando could face another triple JD in an indelibly-smeared glass, and more importantly b) at the stroke of midnight, segueing ‘Auld Lang’s Ayne’ into ‘Killing in the Name Of’. It was glorious.
So, at least half of my Rage associations are seasonal, and I have what might euphemistically be termed a soft spot for them. How do I feel about the prospect of their being the Christmas number one? I really don’t think I feel any way at all. Anyone who believes the end-of-year charts to be anything other than a cesspit of cashing in and brand consolidation, a cold-eyed tying up of old rope left dangling by the previous twelve months’ worth of cash-cows, is so touchingly naive that I’d like to have them round to dinner and watch It’s A Wonderful Life. If Rage Against the Machine are made the Christmas number one, it will prove nothing and convert nobody, and Sony will make a killing either way. The collective impetus to make one’s voice heard in this particularly pointless arena is sadly unlikely to translate into participation in, say, next year’s general election. Or at least not unless some enterprising soul decides to exhume Screaming Lord Sutch.
What it will do, however, is demonstrate that there still exists a demographic which clings limpet-like to the hull of bloody-mindedness, prepared to momentarily stir themselves in the interests of nudging the seat of mainstream popularity with a heated toasting-fork. And that, in a society of spectacles and an age of diminishing expectations, is about all we can hope for. Do your duty.
My first encounter with Odetta was as a jewel in the crown of Scorcese’s documentary on Dylan. This clip of her 1959 performance still packs an astonishing punch: she whacks out echoing notes on her guitar that drip like water off a deep-cave stalactite and she sings like she’s carving commandments in stone:
Discovering the rest of Odetta’s work was no less of a revelation for me. Her talent and influence are both remarkable. Besides Dylan, she inspired generations of folk, blues and rock musicians and lent weight to the civil rights movement. She’s an eye-opening individual whose presence and contributions, like those of many women in music, are too frequently overlooked.
In an attempt to address this, the good folk at Wears the Trousers have come up with a tribute album which ‘reimagines some of Odetta’s signature tunes, underlining how her wide-ranging and enduring influence transcends any perceived boundaries of age, race or genre’. It’s both a brilliant introduction to an under-known artist and an accomplished paying of respect.
Beautiful Star: the songs of Odetta is out next Monday on CD and download, with all proceeds going to the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Resource Centre.
Right Here is New Zealand star Boh ‘sister of Bic’ Runga’s US debut, and boy, does it depress. Scrupulously inoffensive, nod-along nonsequiteurs waft from every groove. Miss Runga is possessed of a decent set of pipes, and ably backed by collaborators including Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly and System of a Down’s Greg Laswell, but, technical aptitude aside, track after track here soars blandly, balladically by with no apparent desire to distinguish itself.
Okay, there’s the barely interesting ‘Evelyn’ (bemoaning a manipulative best friend) and the moderately affecting ‘Home’ (intervening in a friend’s emotional trainwreck), but the rest of Runga’s material proves that the only thing worse than a broken-hearted break-up is an album full of half-hearted break-up songs. It’s perfectly possible to do justice to this sort of subject matter, but Runga handles it with no hint of Jenny Lewis’ acerbic edge or Amanda Palmer’s scalpelsharp powers of dissection. The production ranges from plodding to watery to dreary to overblown, quite often in the space of a single song as a subsitute for genuine emotional expression. This is a soundtrack for slow-motion sighing by women who might like to fling themselves full-length on the carpet and howl out their shattered soul but fear messing their hair up and putting the boys off. And nowhere on this album, possibly pace ‘The Earth and the Sky’ – a watered-down ‘Origin of Love’ sans the subversion or originality (and Christ, wasn’t a heteronormative version of Hedwig just exactly what the world’s been crying out for?) – does Runga come close to capturing the heart-clenching, fist-pumping joy of the kind of love that would justify all this Vaseline-lensed moping in the first place. On the evidence of Right Here, our heroine’s better off without him, but nowhere near as better off as you’ll be without this.
I wrote a version of the above review about six weeks ago, and its memory has haunted me every day since then. The star and a half I felt moved to award the album at the time – the participants had, at least, turned up – have come to seem like a calculated insult to all other music ever made. The more I think about this album’s existence, the further down I slip towards baffled despair. I deplore the time I wasted on it, and the time which I am powerless to prevent being wasted by any other misguided listeners. I weep for the innocent instruments used to perpetrate this horror. I can only shrug in sympathy towards the good people of New Zealand, doomed forever by association with this, as if Crowded House weren’t already misfortune enough. I mourn the talent, work and opportunity so casually sucked into the creative void that this album represents.
There is, after all, no obligation for an album to be good. And there were so many ways in which this album could have been bad. It could have been an opus of obscurity, boasting a lyric sheet produced by flicking ink over twelve pages of Thus Spake Zarathrustra and giving what remained visible a couple of runs through Babelfish. It could have been a splendidly solipsistic splurge of grimecore performed by a credit-crunched Cambridge graduate convinced that the necessity to downsize to only one car imbued him with ghetto authenticity. It could have featured CIA-sponsored basslines designed to cause spontaneous involuntary defecation in the listener. These types of badness would at least have given me something to bite on. But no, Right Here doesn’t care enough about its audience or its critics to be anything other than boring, barren, and bland, bland, bland.
Round about the seventh spin of this album, I began to imagine Boh Runga off-record as some cackling demonette, hellbent on damning by association every woman thinking of picking up a microphone. But then I read the album credits and realised that the blame has to be more widely, and predictably, spread. Those involved with Right Here include the hack responsible for Meredith Brooks, one in a long grey line of string-pullers and script-hoisters in the mechanically effective marketing of artists – more often than not, female artists. Now, again, the creative method which sees songs written for singers needn’t invalidate the end product, as evidenced by gems as disparate as Joan Baez and Girls Aloud. Or even ‘…Baby One More Time’, the toxic genius of which loses nothing by its having been composed by a sparsely-bearded Swede. But this, the meagre going-through-the-motions of a boring, bland puppet whose strings are blandly and boringly pulled by the boring and bland? It may seem harmless, but make no mistake: this sort of music is a minor irritant, a piece of grit barely worth brushing away, but around which can coalesce a pearl of purest counterproductivity. The job of arguing for the agency, credibility, and even the necessary presence of women in music is still a depressingly difficult one. It’s hardly helped by this sort of pseudo-empowered postpostpost-feminist slop that ‘The Jeep Song’ should have seen crushed under Amanda Palmer’s chariot wheels.
Why do these people bother? What earthly use or ornament do they imagine they’re providing? I can think of no explanation less base than the simple profit motive. This is an album geared towards that market in slick, shallow and superficial music-like substance which is designed to slip down devoid of flavour, texture and nutritional value rather than sparkling on the tongue or, god forbid, sticking in the throat. This album is raw tofu sprinkled with saccharine. It’s a substitute for music. It’s not here to be listened to with anything approaching interest or enjoyment; it’s here to sell because it’s here. These people are in the business of music and they want your money. For god’s sake, don’t give them it. Fuck technical aptitude, fuck ‘soulfulness’ without soul. Fuck everyone’s fifteen minutes if they’re going to be spent in other people’s blameless, beauty-starved earshot. Show me magic, you bastards.
A few months previous, a friend and I were drinking in a former strip-club in Shoreditch, the interior of which is a fairly accurate rendering of what you’d get if Vivienne Westwood vomited up the Court of Versailles. And it might have been a response to the nightmarish surroundings, and it might just have been the peculiarly provincial guilt that results from drinking away your Sunday afternoon when you know full well your ancestors would have been back from chapel and bringing in the sheaves by now, but my god, everything, both visible and abstract, didn’t half look like shit. We stared into our glasses (half-empty, of course), and one of the conclusions to which we came, while aimlessly sticking the scalpel into the corpse of popular culture, was that the music industry is becoming entirely parasitical. I found that particular observation nudging its way back to the front of my brain last week upon reading this article.
The good news is that, as the article confirms, online piracy hasn’t in fact been killing music, merely forcing both it and the industry to adapt and evolve. Most revenue for bands now comes from live performances and merchandise. This is as it should be: if a record piques your interest, if a sound sucks you in sufficiently for you to go and see how it looks onstage, and if after that, you’re hooked enough to have it emblazoned on a badge and bedroom wall, all to the good. But underneath the sighs of relief can be heard the clank and whir of industry cogwheels. In the eye-wateringly ugly vernacular, bands and their managers are looking “for new ways of making money from a shrinking pie”. Not just the music industry, either: global capitalism, ever-expanding, is now extending its sweaty embrace through the medium of sponsoring bands – circumventing record labels altogether and striking deals directly with artists and managers.
And again, sure, this is as it should be for a given definition of music – one that ignores all that’s great about music and accentuates all that’s regrettable. What is the point of music, after all? Is it to make money, which admittedly is the point of most industries, including those which batten on individual creativity and imagination? Or is it to express, to entertain, to forge some connection between alienated individuals? If the latter, is that really best accomplished by hawking your talent and your ambition to a boardroom’s worth of number-crunchers whose ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, and whose job depends on a product that isn’t actually music? To say nothing of the fact that bands may be choosing to associate with multinational companies whose records on ethics and human rights are decidedly grubby. Witness Groove Armada, cited in the Guardian article as having hitched their wagon to the immensely distasteful Bacardi.
Having your musical output facilitated, promoted or managed is one thing. But once you start looking to some monolithic entity outside the music industry for permission to exist as an artist you’re on very dangerous ground. Let’s be clear: it’s brands that have the power here. It’s laughable to suppose that corporate sponsorship won’t involve some process of approval and right of veto over the end product. The logic of brand-association dictates that advertisers are going to want to keep their pet artists, at the least, tabloid-friendly, and, at the most, hermetically sealed from associating with anything that isn’t bland, whitebread and squeaky-clean.
In 1993, Pepsi, who were in large part the originators of this brand/band marriage of convenience, had to hurriedly wash their hands of sponsoring the late Michael Jackson following unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse. Pepsi’s action was, in the circumstances, a fairly understandable piece of arse-covering, but, at the other end of the scale, consider the schmuck from S Club 7 who sailed close to scuppering his band’s deal with British Telecom for the singularly heinous and, for both a teenager and a musician, totally atypical and unpredictable act of smoking a joint. Without entering into the tedious can-and-should-music-exist-without-drugs debate, let alone that of can-and-should-SClub7-fans-exist-without-involuntary-euthanasia, consider the serried ranks of formerly smack-soaked musical sorcerors – Billie Holiday, John Cale, Janis Joplin, Nick Cave, Charlie Parker for starters. In a pearl-clutching world of increasingly invasive attention to the private lives of public figures, and increasingly powerful manufactured outrage, would brands be willing to sponsor any artist of that calibre if they were subject to the same family-unfriendly tabloid mercies as Winehouse and Doherty? And never mind actions, how about words: the overseers of brand-association are notoriously jumpy. Are artists going to be able to express an opinion on politics, religion or sexuality that might reflect badly on their chosen brand? Will we end up with companies only willing to wield their dark arts in the service of bands so established as to be untouchable or so new as to obediently, mutely, boringly walk the line? In which case I have seen the future, brother: it is Bono.
Questions of potential corporate control are of course less pressing than the central one: what sort of craven, tapwater-blooded and tapioca-brained cynic forms a band with a view to letting themselves be sponsored by Red Bull? Nobody wants to see a singer fearfully glancing over her shoulder for her paymaster’s approval before she puts her mouth to the microphone, and no band worth a second of anyone’s time signs up for it. Who are you, Coq Roq? Haven’t we seen enough of the unedifying collapse of culture into product placement, and of the mainstream’s more insidious cultural cherry-picking? Never forget the capacity of major labels, from consumables to clothing chains, to burst a subcultural bubble; they swoop in, magpie-like, and sell off our shiniest, sexiest symbols in a way that sucks them dry of any significance they might once have held. Sod the hippie wigs in Woolworths, man; they’re selling Libertines tunics in Topshop. Your scene turns to ruined, co-opted, demographic-targeted dust the instant the admen lay hands on.
Maybe this response is just a reactionary jerk of the knee, but it all makes me deeply suspicious, and deeply despondent. You shouldn’t be able to trust your musicians – Christ no, without exception they’ve always been a collection of the desperate, dumb, deranged, damaged and deluded – but you should be able to trust the music. You should be able to take it as read that music is more than a money-making proposition. If approval by global corporate brands is to be the hoop through which aspiring artists jump in order to gain readies and recognition, then the free publicity and critique provided by blogs and forums is going to be more necessary than ever.
As a Valleys expatriate, part of my filial duty is to call home every so often and update my mother on how her golden child is getting on in the big city. Usually this is a simple matter of concise summation, adjusted for altered terms of reference based on the fact that my mother last went adventuring in 1972, but when describing what I did the previous evening to her I ran into difficulties:
‘Well… I went to an art gallery in the bit of London where all the bookshops are and stood in an exhibit of books which haven’t been written and only exist within the fields of reference of other books – it’s called an invisible library, right – and we heard a bloke play guitar and read bits out of Dylan’s experimental abstract novel and he had to stand in the window and play to the street because there wasn’t room for everyone inside, and then he’d tell us various writers were great because they didn’t give a fuck, and then he read some more which proved that the same writers actually did give quite a significant fuck about several things, and then some other blokes played guitar but we had to wait because they were in the pub so we told each other what we were reading and then Carl Barat, I’ve told you about him, turned up and he played guitar and everyone cheered and then we went to the pub. No, no, there wasn’t anything to drink in the art gallery.’
‘…Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you went to a happening.’
I suppose I did. There’s no clearer way of describing what went down in Theatreland’s shoebox-sized Tenderpixel Gallery. For an hour before doors the queue snaked along a drizzly and damp Cecil Court – a fantastically bijou Victorian remnant full of bookshops and antique emporia – drawing curious glances from shoppers and shopkeepers. I’d stake my reputation on the bet that everyone’s here for Carl Barat. Pity the dude who strode the length of the queue determinedly handing out postcards for a private view, before asking what the purpose of the queue was. ‘Do you mean to say I’ve given these out to musos, not art-lovers?’ he lamented, watching several get used for roaching material or impromptu shelter from the rain.
Had he been talking to me and not the impossibly glamorous girls behind me, I could have pointed out the irony of his agony, what with Kieran Leonard’s Pages in Plectrums night being basically an attempt to blend music, art and literature. The gallery’s tiny space featured a windowledge as makeshift stage, scattered with dog-eared copies of Improving Tracts. As many of us squashed inside as could fit, with about half as many again left outside to peer through the window like Dickensian urchins. Kieran takes to the stage, looking fretful. An organiser hauls half the PA system to the doorway and turns it to the street. A voice from the back: ‘It’s like the Beatles!’
I’m never sure what to make of Dylan-bothering beanpole Leonard, the latest in a long line of Friends of Carlos. In the current cultural climate I’m loath to criticise someone so obviously well-intentioned and good-natured and who knows one cover of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from the other. So, to be charitable, here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is better at than singing:
1. being a compere, albeit in the manner of a trendy English teacher getting the guitar out on the last day of term
2. keeping people entertained while the rest of the bill is reportedly in the pub
3. being the only other person in the world to rate Tarantula
4. earnest rants studded with nervy swearing
5. making sudden eye contact from under his eyelashes to EMPHASISE the IMPORTANT parts of his SONGS
And here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is worse at than singing:
1. white-water rafting (I’m guessing here, and stand to be corrected).
He talks about Harold Pinter, then he does a song about Harold Pinter. Cans of Red Stripe are passed among the organisers. My lips twitch.
A voice from the back: ‘Is he here yet?’
Kieran looks troubled: ‘D’you want to give him a call? I think he’s in the pub.’
And another thing about daytime dry gigs: there are children in the crowd. Real actual children. There are children who look like cartoons of children: gap-toothed Gavroches in Converse, talking of that time they saw the Specials support the Horrors and repeatedly droning the wrong words to ‘Gangsters’. I glance around me. No, there’s still no bar.
Thankfully, we are at this point graced with the presence of Drew McConnell, Peter Doherty’s erstwhile Babyshambles lieutenant and more recently anchor of the Phoenix Drive and Helsinki. He’s solo tonight, bearing an alarming resemblance to Zammo from Grange Hill and a disarmingly sweet stage presence. His couple of songs, one new and one a Fionn Regan cover, slip down well and are a welcome reminder that in terms of Meaning It trumping vocal talent, Dylan is still the exception not the rule.
A voice from the back: ‘Carl’s here! …oh, no, okay. He’s just getting some soup.’
Third up is Mark Morris. At first I wasn’t sure why that name should strike such dread into my heart, but as he clambered on ‘stage’ it all, like a hideous acid reflux, came rushing back: the Bluetones. The mid-Nineties. The horror, the horror. I suppose if Tim Burgess couldn’t make it, someone has to play the desiccated indie casualty still smearing around the lukewarm shite of their Britpop glory days. They haven’t changed a bit. According to Kieran, much of the Bluetones back catalogue drew inspiration from the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Odd, as the only line I could previously recall of their oeuvre ran When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone / I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on, and even that was an Adrian Mitchell rip-off. See also ‘dull’, ‘plodding’, ‘quavery’, ‘utterly wet and a weed’, and ‘the reason I became a Sex Pistols fan at the age of twelve.’
Before fucking off, Morris nods to the upcoming attraction: ‘Can never pronounce his second name, but you know Carl – the hat, the hair…’
A voice from the back: ‘He’s not wearing a hat tonight!’ A visible ripple of anticipation. ‘Ooooh.’
Kieran’s back and he gets us to précis Oedipus Rex – ‘Greek tragedy, yeah, that’s some fucked-up shit’ – before doing the best song of his I’ve so far heard, setting the tragedy’s narrative in the contemporary London club scene. More flashbacks to lower-Sixth English class.
As the ‘stage’ is prepared for El Barat’s grand entrance, I think about The Sixties redux. There are inherent problems with the sort of unexamined ancestor-worship that gets Dylan to number one with his most mediocre album in decades, to say nothing of its choking-off of many aspects of progressive politics. Sure, this country’s headlong dash back into the maw of the 1980s in political and economic terms calls for a cultural renewal based around civil rights, feminist, anti-racist and youth activism, but, with the exception of Love Music Hate Racism firebrand McConnell, this evening was more Sixties-chic. The fusion of music, art and literature worked, but it doesn’t make up for the music in question being well-meaning-white-boys-by-numbers, nor for the readings being the usual roll-call of dead white modernist males – Eliot, Hemingway, Pinter. The currently pressing issues of racism and wider politics were engaged with only through the prism of readings from Thompson and Dylan and by Leonard’s (like the man himself, well-meaning and tolerable if you grit your teeth) cover of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. I suppose it’s not a bad start, but blinkers and boundaries need to dissolve if Pages in Plectrums is to be anything other than a contribution to the Scene That Celebrates Itself.
A voice from the back: ‘Wahey!’
And then Carl’s here, and my attendant privileges (white, Western, in London, employed) mean that I can stop chin-stroking for a while and start putting my hands together. Polishing off a full glass of Guinness, he kicks off with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. For the first verse, there is not a dry seat in the house. And then you’re struck anew by the fact that, Christ, the man can mumble. The misjudged nature of this cover becomes apparent when he fucks up the line that has the title in, rolls his eyes heavenwards and peels the written chords off the back of his guitar, shaking his head and muttering about only having done that as a favour. He tosses his hair back and, to the biggest – actually, the only – roar of approval all evening, he throws himself headlong into ‘What a Waster’. The song provides an accidentally apt showcase for the Libertines’ golden touch with cultural references, having that line that juxtaposes the Beano and the unabridged Ulysses (or, as Carl has it tonight, with perfect impromptu scansion, the Celestine Prophecies). Just as I’m marvelling at how a musician of Carl’s status can be unfamiliar with the Cohen canon, he reminds me that he’s also got the technological understanding of an elderly maiden aunt: glancing around at the forest of handheld cameras and videophones before him and looking baffled as ever at his own charisma, he exclaims ‘Stop Youtubing me!’.
On the set’s very brief evidence, it’s difficult to tell if he’s still got it, but this is at least nothing like the dark days of his ‘DJ’ and ‘club night’ wheelings-out. He’s in good voice, holding his guitar like a long-lost lover, and remains the only man in the world capable of giving a convincing rendition of the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo. It’s also telling that Carl’s giving up on Cohen and launching into his own intricately expletive-strewn missive gets the best reception, perhaps elevating the need to do it for yourself over the contrived sincerity of paying homage to the old masters. Though his inability to fake it for the space of a song does make me fear for his acting career.
Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.
So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.
And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.
But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.
The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.
The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!'; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.
Just a quick link, in keeping with the prevailing socio-economic mood, of possibly the best song of the past three decades. There’s a lot to be said about a(nother) disenfranchised generation left with no choice but to disengage, but you get it all here: the backbeat’s plodding fatalism, the wind howling through streets of boarded-up shopfronts, the creeping undirected menace.
I remember, back in the day, a godawful cover of this by Back To The Planet. Fucken hippies, but you could see what they were getting at: 1994 and all that was another top-down assault on youth culture, the Criminal Justice Bill suddenly getting the apathetic to sit up, shake off the comedown and take notice of the systematic erosion of civil liberties. A bit. But there’s no call-to-arms here, just mournful observation, the anatomy of market failure and government misconduct.
And oh well, here we are again, looking for something to get us in the mood (unlimited respect or something like it to anyone who gets that reference without googling). Enjoy.