I’ve just finished reading Sylvia Patterson’s book on her life as a music journalist and felt instantly compelled to recommend it. It’s very like Viv Albertine’s memoir, being full of not only the silliness and thrill of being young and loving music, but also casually devastating insight into personal tragedy and cultural shift – and how often the two are combined.
Patterson was never one of my particular favourites growing up (totally unfairly – I think I found her Smash Hits-raised pithy exuberance irritating because I was an insufferably morose teenager, and also I always tribally preferred Melody Maker to NME) but I like her writing a lot more in retrospect and it’s actually clearly been more of an influence on me than I’d realised – her deployment of incisive epithets especially. There’s something distinctly feminine, too, about both her and Albertine’s style of autobiography, and it seems to be specifically an older woman’s thing – this isn’t confessional writing so much as unassuming honesty, a certain understated wisdom and maturity, a settlement with the self that renders obsolete the need to front.
Patterson also captures the death of a particular ideal of music journalism – and of a whole approach to music – that I think people my age may be the last to truly remember. Before the internet as both community and culture/media platform, we were atomised, connected by a music press which was hugely – unimaginably, now – important as a site of cultural discovery, debate and conflict, and for feeling as though you belonged to something bigger, something beyond yourself. This way of thinking and writing about music and culture was formative for me. It was the only thing I saw any sort of sense in or any kind of point to. I grew up wanting to do the same thing, but I grew up into a changed world where the prospect of doing so no longer existed in any stable or secure way. (I mean, I did so regardless; Clampdown is (an attempt at) exactly that kind of writing and I was lucky to find the right publisher for it – indeed, the only imaginable publisher for it.)
There’s been a notable amount of 90s revisionism since that book, as though a particular generation can now see clearly enough at twenty years’ remove to try and weigh up what’s occurred as well as tell their own story. There’s a bit in this book where Patterson recalls her younger self finally recognising the NME’s transformation, round about ’98, into “the indie Heat“, and reading it made me feel, like it was yesterday, that sense of incredulity and personal betrayal that characterised the still-spectacular decline of the 90s music press. But her description is at the same time entirely aware of how absurd and inexplicable, how deeply daft it is to even care that much – about music, about bands, about magazines, about words in print, about anything that isn’t a capitalist imperative.
But we did care. For me for a stretch of my formative years – far shorter in retrospect than it felt at the time, maybe no more than four years or so – this kind of thing was everything. As this book confirms and brilliantly documents, there was a definite and decisive cultural shift to the right in the 90s, in which we lost something that hasn’t really been replaced. Things still feel poorer for it.
1. For my next trick in the arena of niche overthinking-it monographs, I am going to be writing a book on the Rebecca riots. There have already been magisterial studies of the movement which have focused on its political and economic aspects, but I am going to look at its social and cultural aspects, and the ways in which it had more variety, more politics, and more of Old Weird Wales than is generally acknowledged.
To include: why there was a bit more to the movement than hill-farmers smashing up tollgates in bonnets, petticoats and false beards; the nature of Welsh resistance to early industrial capitalism (as touched on in this post); contemporary ideas of gender and the early Victorian undermining of female social and sexual agency; how Rebecca’s image became a national ‘idiom of defiance’ – basically, a meme – and wider issues hopefully relevant to today, eg “rough” versus “respectable” protest; the traditions of masked and anonymous protesting; and how popular culture can be integrated into popular resistance.
Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that this book will be of interest to about four people at a push.
2. The last time I was in the House of Commons in any official capacity, I was taking students to lobby against the introduction of top-up fees. Our side having narrowly lost that vote, I then got massively drunk in the ULU bar, decided to give up student politics as a mug’s game, ranted at a Sky News crew and eventually had to be carried out to a taxi by members of my delegation.
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.
So: I’ve written a chapter on female post-punk musicians* for a forthcoming women-in-music book. I mostly talk about the Slits, the Raincoats, Linder Sterling, Lydia Lunch (unavoidably), ESG, the Au Pairs, Delta 5, Pauline Black, Barbara Ess, Ut., Mars, the Bush Tetras, the Bloods, Malaria!, Kleenex/LiLiPUT, and latterly Erase Errata, Sonic Youth, Scissor Girls, Karen O, Nisennenmondai etc.
Now: I didn’t include any illustrations with the writing, because my grasp of decent visual art is comparable to Boris Johnson’s grasp of his handlebars after a heavy night out. But apparently it would be nice to have some.
Therefore: I’m looking for suitable images – photographs, illustrations, cartoons – for inclusion in the chapter. Anything relevant considered especially if it pertains to the bands mentioned. Full credit given, further details on request, please pass this on if you can think of anyone who’d care. Thank you.
Also: it is my birthday. I’m going to celebrate with fresh air and daylight.
A spectre is haunting London. My daily commute, never a joyful affair, has recently been granted a further dimension of irritation by adverts on buses, hoving into view with tedious regularity, bearing the image of Meryl Streep dolled up as Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Thirty years on from her rise to power, and after a minor rash of small-screen depictions – Andrea Riseborough in The Long Walk to Finchley, Lindsay Duncan in Margaret – Streep will now portray her on the big screen, the prospect of which I could have happily lived without.
Having as I do firsthand experience of Thatcher’s impact, her government’s break with prevailing consensus and bloody-minded devotion to neoliberal orthodoxies, an objective and rational evaluation of the woman is probably beyond me. That said, her presumably impending death, although I do have a longstanding appointment at a pub in King’s Cross to dutifully raise a glass, is something I’ll be largely indifferent to. It won’t matter. Thatcher as a person has far less bearing on the current world than what she represents. The damage has been done, the battle lost, and much as I might appreciate a Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the 1980s, Thatcher and her co-conspirators are by now too old and whiskey-soaked to be held to any meaningful account.
Efforts to humanise Thatcher, even when they enlist Meryl Streep, seem discomfiting and deeply bizarre. What she means has transcended what she was, is and will be. The purpose of this post, therefore, apart from being an exercise in detachment for me, is to look briefly at some aspects of Thatcher’s image in political and pop culture, the effect of her gender in her role as a woman in power, and her political legacy. Quick, before the next bus goes past.
Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ’em like this anymore, eh? Continue reading
Also, you know what I’m bored of? I’m bored of middle-class pontificators referencing Situationism. It’s a useful analytical tool for any bedroom-bound fourteen-year-old Manics fan (hi!), but give it a rest now, you’re making it about as interesting as dubstep.
God I’m restless.
Laughter in dark times becomes necessary, providing both critique and consolation. And the nights are certainly drawing in. I mean, look at all this. Or, on what seems by comparison a light note, this surreal attempt to humanise the employees of an organisation geared solely towards turning a profit by trading in hatred and tits.
Satire has never seemed so conspicuous by its absence. It is one thing to see corruption, incompetence and venality occasionally exposed; it is quite another to see so many practitioners of corruption, incompetence and venality incessantly expose themselves with the bafflingly brazen insouciance of compulsive flashers drunk in a town park. So the news has turned horribly, endlessly funny – far funnier than any current attempt to dissect or diagnose its disgustingness. Look at this, or this, or the point at which the dark arts of spin, the erosion of journalistic enquiry, and the vacuum at the heart of the Labour Party coalesced to form a revelatory moment of pantomime androidry – and how quaint, how nearly comforting, how spot-on then but now unremarkable those past satirical visions seem, eh?
The lunatic reality of contemporary politics is galloping ahead of satire by significant furlongs, and few seem capable of or even interested in catching up. Which is where Flood Theatre come in.
Flood takes all the above into account, and styles itself ‘the new comedy for the new politics’. In soundscapes and sketches drawn with a dramatic flair for language and a fine sense of the absurd, it outlines our rats’ nest of politics, media and society with unflinching precision.
There’s a long and noble history of art that takes life in all its grim, bleak splendour and manages to wring out disbelieving laughter. There’s been Chris Morris, there is Stewart Lee, and, soon, there will be Flood.
Flood perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, August 5th-27th. Book now.
Simon Reynolds has decently condensed his new ‘un into a Guardian article:
As the last decade unfolded, noughties pop culture became steadily more submerged in retro. Both inside music (reunion tours, revivalism, deluxe reissues, performances of classic albums in their entirety) and outside (the emergence of YouTube as a gigantic collective archive, endless movie remakes, the strange and melancholy world of retro porn), there was mounting evidence to indicate an unhealthy fixation on the bygone…
The book is not a lament for a loss of quality music – it’s not like the well-springs of talent have dried up or anything – but it registers alarm about the disappearance of a certain quality in music: the “never heard this before” sensation of ecstatic disorientation caused by music that seems to come out of nowhere and point to a bright, or at least strange, future.
I don’t wish to dollop even further layers of irony on top of this particular trifle – but we’ve been here before, too, haven’t we? This is repetition, if not revival. What Reynolds castigates as ‘retromania’ has been sporadically identified throughout the past decade, most perspicaciously by several of my mates around about the point at which the third pint starts to make its presence felt, because we’re old enough to remember when revivals seemed novel, if only because this was the first we’d heard of them. 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
There are times when I think that readers of this blog are simply bearing witness to the Orwellian tragedy of someone once boundlessly enthusiastic about live music slowly having it ground out of them by the suspicion that I’d be better off reading a book than spending yet another evening squashed, skint and bored in Camden while some overindulged former public schoolboy vomits down a microphone, but oh well, on with the motley.
I was sorting through some things last night – ticket stubs, diaries, anal-retentively compiled whathaveyou – and look, these are all the gigs I went to in 2004, back when Dirty Pretty Things was still a club night named after a Stephen Frears film rather than a by-word for frustratingly pedestrian musical spin-off projects:
Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.
My belated Christmas present to you all, in the dead days before New Year, is the recommendation that you get into Half Man Half Biscuit, if you haven’t already. After five or so years of listening to their back catalogue I don’t have a particular song to recommend, but I recommend you discover your favourite yourself.
Many bands polarise opinion; with ‘The Biscuit’ (as absolutely no one outside the febrile hive-mind of the Guardian weekend supplement calls them) it’s more that people divide into those who think they might like them, and consequently do, and those who think they won’t like them and never give themselves the opportunity to discover how wrong they are.
Always a risky business, innit though, ‘comedy’ in music. I don’t know how I’d class HMHB – as comedy goes, they’re more Chris Morris than Carry On, although they’re as quintessentially British as both. They skewer pretension in all its forms – sometimes satirically, sometimes whimsically, sometimes with nailed-on bleak observation of the nation’s corpse picked clean. But there’s a lot more to them than sneering, and a hell of a lot more than self-conscious zaniness. They’re not, as their detractors often presume, the musical equivalent of that bloke in your office who thinks that owning a novelty tie and a mug with a ‘comedy’ slogan makes up for having a wit and charm deficit the size of the national debt – in fact, they’ve probably written a song about him. They also provide, more or less, a running commentary on the spiralling absurdities of the British music scene.
Their lyrics are studded with nods to Thomas Hardy, and their music is often wickedly parodic. They are much, much cleverer than you think. Nigel Blackwell employs the Birkenhead accent’s capacity for dry disdain building to banked fury in a manner only bettered by Paul O’Grady’s anti-Tory tirade last October. In a sane and well-ordered world, Nigel Blackwell would already have turned down the post of Poet Laureate.
Just occasionally, this band make me feel alright about the world and my place in it. Happy new year.
I’ve also half-inched my new tagline for 2011 from them – the old one was getting me an alarming number of hits from bemused Nietszsche enthusiasts.
A rant, minor and ignorable. I get like this sometimes.
You know one of my earliest memories? My parents dressing me up in a bloody stupid costume in order to attend the street party that my town was holding in honour of the Royal Wedding of that clot the Prince of Wales to that vacuous brood-mare Lady Diana Spencer. All the children in my town were in fancy dress. Fuck knows why, it must have been a temporary madness. We’ve still got a sodding commemorative mug.
I was born in the 1980s. I grew up to get away from them. The only good thing about getting older was, I fondly deluded myself, that at least it wouldn’t be the fucking, fucking 1980s anymore.
And now what have we got? A Tory Prime Minister, unemployment through the roof, pointless wars abroad, strikes, bankers still raking it in and now a fucking, fucking, fucking Royal Wedding that we’re all expected to take a blind bit of notice of because it’ll take our minds off how SHIT everything is. And we will, of course.
And some of you are wearing bleached denim, crimped hair and the type of horrible moustaches more usually seen on sex offenders – not because it’s the perfectly laudable Movember, but because it’s in some way ~cool. Well, screw the 1980s revival in its overstyled Thatcherite ear. What the fuck are we doing as a nation?
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
Get the fuck in. Last night I listened to the Top 40 with breath so bated it recalled the near-asphyxiating sixteen weeks when ‘Everything I Do (I Do it for You)’ held sugary sway. And, just for a very brief period, I listened to the 2009 UK Christmas Number One and I was happy enough to want to do the absurd nu-metal dance to it where you appear to be trying to stab your knees with your eyebrows. Oh to be thirteen again and able to snottily explain that it’s Actually about institutionalised racism in the police force and not just anti-authoritarianism, Actually.
I am astonished at this campaign’s success. I know it proves nothing more, and benefits nothing other, than the British public’s appetite for bloody-minded belligerence, but – and this is me saying this – lighten the fuck up. Rage’s victory is a lovely little concordance of popular discontent at the increasingly piss-taking nature of reality tv and the internet’s facilitation of grassroots organisation, and as such a highly positive note on which to end the decade. And it’s probably the best news I’ve had in what for me has been a horrible, dismal, unforgiving, cannot-catch-a-break year. Merry bloody Christmas.
The Indelicates, ‘Sixteen’ (2007)
Sussex contrarians the Indelicates have established themselves as one of the sharpest and shiniest pins to push into a popular culture gone once again smug, bloated and prickable. Their much-anticipated but little-hyped album American Demo suffered in places from a disappointing production that saw too many songs fall short of their vital and visceral potential. The band’s third single ‘Sixteen’, however, had no shortcomings. Around a po-faced piano hook and Julia’s precise lilywhite trill, the song skips along, giddy with laughing in the face of scenesterettes, before crashing to a halt in mock-terror of turning thirty. Neither the first nor the last lampooning of a cult of youth and stupidity, ‘Sixteen’ sparkles nonetheless with an accomplished irony and unashamed intelligence still glaringly absent in those against whom the band define themselves.
The Streets, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ (2002)
In the millenial fervour for a generational spokesperson, unassuming Cockneyfied Brummie Mike Skinner proved an unexpectedly engaging contender. Original Pirate Material‘s chronicles of metropolitan male working-class life supplied the deromanticised dark side of Doherty’s moon-faced adulation of urban squalor. Third single ‘Weak Become Heroes’, much more than a paean to the occasional perfection of chemical excess, was an elegiac triumph of looping piano and closing-credits strings that worked as both retrospective and epilogue. Rooted in the distinctly twentieth-century Summer of Love, and the Government vs Repetitive Beats wars of the early 1990s, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ stakes the same claims as Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ for dance culture’s transcendent and egalitarian qualities, stumbles open-handed and grinning through ‘Sorted for E’s and Whizz’ while that song’s narrator looks on in studied contempt, before meandering home, one ill-judged takeaway poorer but rich in memories, as the night’s fluorescence fades to a drizzly grey dawn. Alternating clear-eyed observation with quiet reflection, Skinner tips his cap to his own heroes and influences, and sets the cap on a fractured fifteen-year dream in masterly fashion that leaves us ready to wake up, shake it off and move on, if not up.
Jarvis Cocker, ‘Cunts are Still Running the World’ (2006)
Everyone’s favourite malcontent, ahead of the game as ever, chose 2006 to anticipate the cultural turn towards weary recognition of a present as fucked-up and fatalistic as the past. The all-conquering valedictory vitriol that fuelled ‘Common People’ and ‘Cocaine Socialism’ is still here, controlled but uncompromised. This single could have been a slurred score for the powerless and broken, bitterly swilling the dregs of proletarian consciousness around in a can of White Lightning at a dilapidated bus shelter. It’s not far off, but Cocker’s scalpel-sharp sociological skewering is enunciated with a dignified detachment. The verses roll by with reined-in rage, stately and sardonic, dole-queuing up before a chorus that weighs in with a queasy, unsteady stomp, its ragged vocals letting the blanched despair show through.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
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.