Under My Thumb is a collection of women’s music writing, edited by Eli Davies and me, in which contributors discuss being fans of politically dubious music, artists and songs. It’s out in October from Repeater Books and available to pre-order now.
Artists covered, in-depth or in passing, include: Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Carole King, The Crystals, Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, Pulp, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Pure Prairie League, Rod Stewart and The Faces, Eddie Cochran, AC/DC, Van Halen, Guns ‘N’ Roses, L7, Elvis Costello, murder ballads, Nick Cave, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Run the Jewels, 2Pac, Eminem, Weezer, The Divine Comedy, Jarvis Cocker, Combichrist, Jay-Z, The Libertines, My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Kanye West, The-Dream, Swans, Taylor Swift.
Full list of contributors: Amanda Barokh, K. E. Carver, Marissa Chen, Zahra Dalilah, Eli Davies, Judith May Fathallah, Anna Fielding, Alison L. Fraser, Laura Friesen, Beatrice M. Hogg, Rhian E. Jones, Jacey Lamerton, Abi Millar, Emily McQuade, Frances Morgan, Christina Newland, Elizabeth Newton, Stephanie Phillips, Nina Power, Charlotte Lydia Riley, Kelly Robinson, Jude Rogers, Jasmine Hazel Shadrack, Em Smith, Johanna Spiers, Manon Steiner, Fiona Sturges, Rachel Trezise, Larissa Wodtke.
Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible is my next book, co-written with Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke, coming out in February next year from Repeater Books.
My bit looks at the politics and pop culture of 90s Britain, growing up in post-industrial Wales, class and gender and the rest of my usual stuff, and how the album fit or didn’t fit into that context.
(Obviously a cultural materialist analysis of the Manics’ least commercial album is the one thing the world needs right now.)
The first Velvet Coalmine Festival, featuring the best of Valleys music, art and literature, will be happening next weekend. Like Camden Crawl, but with more coal.
Among loads of other acts, I will be talking to the excellent Rachel Tresize about the ins and outs of having been a female Manics fan.
“Velvet Coalmine aims to create a platform for music, writing and ideas in the Blackwood area that allows our voice to be heard and celebrated. It allows our stories to be told and communicated to the wider world without censorship and our cultural heritage and identity to be expressed on its own terms without interference, without suppression and without agenda. The history of the Valleys is littered with exploitation, neglect and indifference but has proved a birthplace to a myriad of thinkers and pursuers of social justice and in an era when Old Etonian privilege continues to shape and influence decision-making and politics in the UK, creating an arts festival influenced by the radicalism of the 1984-85 miner’s strike and the Centenary of the Senghenydd mining disaster feels both timely and appropriate.”
Full listings and contact details can be found here on the website. Come on down.
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 than Oasis happening in the 90s. The issue here is that no other band got so big, so phenomenally quickly, and the question is whether anything interesting can be said to explain that – 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. Continue reading
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.
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.
Last week I went to a conference at Manchester Met to speak (broadly) on intersectional feminism, alongside the excellent Reni Eddo-Lodge. The event had some useful and interesting contributions, given in an atmosphere notable for constructive and supportive discussion, and for critiquing work done previously rather than seeking to reinvent the feminist wheel. Below is a transcription of the talk I gave. It works as both a synthesis of things I’ve written previously on feminism and class, and as a step towards articulating how my own type of feminism developed (clue: this year it’s thirty years since the Miners’ Strike). It also, in a personal best, contains only one use of ‘autodidact’, none of ‘hegemony’, and no mention of the Manic Street Preachers.
The concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression, and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on the grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people. I will dispute this dismissal.
The aspect of intersectionality I’ve written most about is the tension between class politics and some of the ways in which contemporary UK feminism is expressed. I’m not suggesting that class is the only dimension of oppression, or the only one worth exploring, but I do see class as something fundamental, and as something which intersects significantly with both race and gender. These interactions are particularly visible in the debate on ‘chavs’, which I see as a point at which class prejudice crosses over with several others. I will look at that debate and at the surrounding context of neoliberalism and austerity in which it takes place. I will then look at how responses to this debate, in attempting to rehabilitate working-class identity, have instead constructed exclusionary models of class based around the idea of the white male worker. I will then finally talk about how the calls for feminism to make itself accessible beyond white and middle-class women, has tended to involve negative or condescending assumptions about working-class women and their capacity for education, political consciousness and organisation.
The long essay linked here is something I wrote years and years back, as an undergraduate, and I have finally now got round to finding somewhere useful for it to live online. It is set at a time, in the late 18th c. Britain made famous by Blackadder the Third, of a rise in popular radicalism, political organisation by artisans and labourers, and campaigns to extend the franchise. The essay looks specifically at the process, in many ways unprecedented and bizarre, whereby organisers of, participants in, and vague or occasional sympathisers with campaigns for popular democracy were rounded up and questioned by the highest echelons of a hostile, uncomprehending and paranoid state. (Think the Thatcher cabinet doggedly interrogating not only the NUM leadership but also the whole audience of a Coal Not Dole fundraiser, or, idk, the present cabinet interrogating UK Uncut.)
Like many things which can be given that kind of build-up, the actual material of the interrogations can be a surprisingly dull read, but there were several aspects that I found, and hopefully the general reader will find, of interest, amusement, and continued relevance, viz:
To begin with, despite the mass arrests of radicals being justified by panicky accusations of treason, this accusation wasn’t a comfortable fit with the evidence. Treason in 1794 specifically related to plotting against the reigning monarch rather than the government, and the societies agitating for popular democracy, despite a preoccupation with Revolutionary France, were invariably concerned more with the latter than the former. The 1794 interrogations and the trials which followed, however, were an abrupt step in a long-term shift of the legal location of sovereign power towards Parliament, in which the extra-parliamentary advocacy of constitutional change became construed as a treasonable practice. In 1795, the new Treason Act defined as traitors not only all those who ‘compassed or devised’ the death or deposition of the monarch, but also those seeking ‘to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament’.
Relevant today? Take your pick. My thanks to the John Thelwall Society, who are great.
* E P Thompson: “But for spies, narks and letter-copiers, the history of the English working class would be unknown.”
** M. Philp, ‘Intrusions’, History Workshop Journal, 65 (2008), pp. 220-7
I am in print this month, having written a chapter on women in post-punk for Julia Downes’ new history of the girl band, Women Make Noise. A surprisingly difficult part of this was establishing what we talk about when we talk about post-punk. Post-punk’s disorderly, subversive and category-resistant nature has seen it marginalised in accounts of its era, although the past few years have produced a handful of useful retrospectives, as well as the early-2000s revival of post-punk musical techniques which, if you still can’t explain what it is, at least make it easier to explain what it sounds like.
For me, a large part of post-punk’s significance was that it seemed to involve an unprecedented amount of women as artists, fans, critics and ideologues. Extending the gains of punk’s emphasis on DIY culture, accessibility and amateurism, post-punk women were able to take their bands in experimental and innovative directions. Post-punk’s ideological concern with the politicisation of the personal, and with identifying and promoting authenticity in the face of popular cultural stereotypes, lent itself to exploration from a feminine and feminist angle, resulting in lyrics which demystified and deconstructed conventional femininity, love, sex and romance, and which analysed social and cultural pressures on women or the tensions of personal relationships in implicitly political ways. Continue reading
This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica. Continue reading
The last time I wrote that yes, I did like American Psycho, and no, that wasn’t because I’d only seen the film, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that other women felt similarly, but I’m aware that we’re still a minority. American Psycho proved controversial even before its release, its unedited manuscript pushed from publisher to publisher, leaked extracts from it incurring public outrage, and its eventual appearance leapt upon by critics with the single-minded speed of a rat up a Habitrail tube. In terms of people judging the book without having read it, not a great deal seems to have changed. Continue reading
I had only one real beef with the excellent Paul Mason’s most recently printed reflection on ‘the graduate without a future’, but it’s the same beef I have with almost every recent lamentation on the state we’re in: lack of attention to class as key. Given Mason’s interesting and not especially privileged background, it seemed a particularly surprising omission. While of course I appreciated the article’s update on how there’s still no future, but there might be some putative entrepreneurial ‘survival in the cracks’, stringing beads together on a collective farm then selling them through The New Inquiry (I paraphrase) – it’s still the case that all graduates are not created equal, and some are still more equal than others. Correct me if I’m wrong (really, do correct me if I’m wrong), but while very, very obviously, it’s still shit to be a graduate right now, surely it’s marginally more shit to be a poor graduate?
Take the Coalition’s recent wheeze, the proposed cut in Housing Benefit for those under 25, which has been widely predicted to herald jobless or low-paid graduates being thrown back to live on the largesse of their parents, or failing that, on their settee. Is there really no discernable difference in the future that awaits a graduate returning to a post-industrial unemployment blackspot, and that awaiting one whose family are able and willing to subsidise their rent and support them while they work unpaid internships? Those graduating with wealth and connections are surely likely to retain their privileges? Take, too, the withdrawal of EMA and cutting of university funding, which is serving to entrench the idea of education as something undesirable because unaffordable, not something which can serve as a route out of poverty and a broadening of horizons.
Also, as several people stressed below the line on Mason’s article, this focus on the plight of the graduate – pitiable, emblematic, and potentially revolutionary as it may be – is part of a broader narrative whereby conditions which have always been likely for those at the socio-economic sharp end are becoming something to which the middle class, and their graduating sons and daughters, are increasingly exposed. The resulting shrieks of indignation are amplified in the media. While it’s true and valid to note that the current economic model is visibly failing, there are those for whom it has never really worked, and whose struggles with it scarcely ever receive broadsheet coverage. In the grand scheme of things, and especially right now, I’m not sure whether this is too insignificant a complaint to make, or whether it’s the only complaint worth making.
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.
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.
You’re all joking about the roads being next for privatization, aren’t you. Aren’t you. Oh, you’re not.
It’s just that in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, I did my whole thesis about a little local difficulty which centred around privatized road networks: the ridiculous/amazing “Rebecca riots”.
Part of what I liked about the study of history was that it did occasionally seem – by no means always, of course – as though society in general wasn’t too disparate, atomized, hopelessly confused, thick, or arrogant to learn from its mistakes.
For example: ‘Wow, at least private roads wouldn’t be an option /these days/’, I’d often muse, back in the day, having conducted hours of research and written thousands of words about how badly it had all worked out in the face of popular insistence upon public utilities being kept for the collective good rather than left to the profiteering of incompetent private companies.
(The Rebecca riots were a lot more complex than that, obviously, hence my studying them in the first place, and my bringing in their use of masking, cross-dressing, ritually smashing stuff, inter-class cooperation, liminal states, gender essentialism, and the disparity between lived experience and political and media discourse – don’t worry, neither the Taxpayer nor Hard-Working Families were paying for me to study any of this – but the general resentment of private ownership as leading to general neglect and profiteering holds true as a contributing factor – as indeed it holds true over two hundred years on.)
I’m sick of saying we’re being taken back to the Victorian age, but this? Is the government just trolling, now?
Or, with less (or perhaps more) conspiracist fervour: RT @bengoldacre Wouldn’t it be a shame if this distant roads nonsense distracted you from the Lords’ final vote on #NHSbill.
So little allure does contemporary music hold that I forgot the Brit Awards were taking place this year, and spent last Tuesday evening in the bowels of a club in that odd hipster-troubled enclave north of Oxford Street, watching Tim Burgess launch his autobiography. Well, we all have to pay the rent somehow.
You recall the rash of soi-disant Minor Indie Celebs which infested post-Libertines London? If you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you; they were peole like the Queens of Noize, or The Holloways. But if you do, you might also recall that a secondary feature of this period was the reemergence of several 90s indie also-rans (now there’s a tautology for you), lurking in support slots and at DJ sets, most often in the vicinity of Barat and less frequently of Doherty. Apparently the 90s are now officially back – finally! The 90s revival has been ‘impending’ for at least four years – which at least means the 80s aren’t back any longer, unless you count things like politics, economics, society and culture. But the 90s never really went away, their cultural detritus over the past decade continually bobbing to the surface like something unflushable.
Tim Burgess is harmless enough, of course, and to criticise him feels akin to cudgelling a seal-pup. The book, like the Charlatans, is probably a perfect example of its inoffensive, tolerable, un-vital type. After exacting dissections of Blair and Britpop, the 90s as the subject of memoir and history doesn’t even have the shock of the new, although a wider perspective on the music of the period does show what an odd time it was, post-Thatcher and pre-Blair, briefly and freakishly fertile before the greywash. And even afterwards: this happened at a Brit Awards ceremony in the 90s, and so did this. Privatised and atomised examples of protest, sure, but you know, if I somehow missed Adele making a Bastille-storming speech on Tuesday about the scandal of government money being siphoned off by private companies who maintain their luxurious lifestyles off the backs of the unemployed, then do correct me.
Anyway, the only point I vividly recall about Tim Burgess’s autobiography was the repeatedly-mentioned chapter entitled – and I haven’t checked the spelling here – ‘Cocainus’. ‘It’s a portmanteau word’, explained the author, with no great necessity, ‘formed from the words “cocaine” and “anus”‘. Rarely have the 90s been so succinctly summed up.
My resolutely unromantic Valentines Day playlist this year consists of:
– Robots in Disguise, ‘Chains’
– Einstürzende Neubauten, ‘Jet’M’
– The Bush Tetras, ‘Too Many Creeps’
– The Slits, ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’
– Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’
– Pulp, ‘Bad Cover Version’
– Magazine, ‘Permafrost'(apocalyptic version off one of their Peel sessions)
– Super Furry Animals, ‘Juxtapozed With U’
It can be listened to here on 8tracks, if you like.
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.
I have an essay in this month’s New Welsh Review on the impact of digitization on publishing as compared to the music industry. I wrote it without anticipating FutureBook’s overview, which does commendable spade-work explaining the situation’s background, present and future, whereas I mostly just snark from the sidelines.
In essence: big publishing houses have, like velociraptors, watched and learned from the music industry’s floundering and are now primed to do better out of e-publishing. My piece also covers the Indelicates’ ‘post-internet’ site Corporate Records, the pros and cons of self-publishing, the unpleasant prospect of e-books becoming the new disposable mass-market paperbacks while physical product becomes concentrated on luxury hardbacks, and why Hodder’s dubious flipback format is the literary equivalent of the MiniDisc.
Perhaps ironically, it’s unavailable online, but the print copy is accessible in all good stockists, or at least all Welsh ones.
Last winter’s wave of student and youth protests held many points of interest, but one of the most amusing was the Daily Mail’s pearl-clutching front page on what it chose to call Rage of the Girl Rioters, in which it claimed that ‘rioting girls became the disturbing new face of violent protest’. While the article betrayed anxieties about social protest in general, the inclusion of visible female agency occasioned a particularly salacious shock. Continue reading
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.
With Cheryl Cole having reached the apex of her particular fairytale upon her elevation to international pop princess, spare a thought for her Girls Aloud colleagues still at home raking the embers. While Cinderella’s Eyes is by no means a game-changer in the pop world, it succeeds at least in making a more engaging claim to the pop crown than either Cole or Coyle. After a so-so opening with the admirably obnoxious ‘Beat Of My Drum’ and the disjointed ‘Lucky Day’, Roberts lets the veil fall. Listing a litany of woes – her own insecurities, displacement, resentment at being subject to the whims of others, an endless parade of ‘fakers’, mean girls, industry executives, backstabbing, vaulting ambition, superficiality, disingenuousness and the inability to speak openly and honestly – against a relentless, incongruously chirpy off-kilter electro pulse and drum machine pounding, studded with the odd stab at Feminism 101 (“Makeup is make-believe”), it’s like finding extracts from The Bell Jar slipped inside a copy of Heat. Continue reading
I’m loath to compare anything to a box of chocolates, but Amanda Palmer gigs do come close. The choice as to what you might get ranges from the likelihood of a soft-centred collaboration with her husband Neil Gaiman, to the slightly bitter aftertaste of something from 2010’s ill-advised Evelyn Evelyn project. Continue reading
The past few years have consolidated Patti Smith’s position as godmother and high priestess among women musicians. Following her induction into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, last year saw Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, receive a National Book Award and a future stage adaptation, and just last week she was awarded the coveted Polar Music Prize by the King of Sweden. Where this leaves her as an artist who once proudly and profanely proclaimed her position “outside of society” is anyone’s guess, but the establishment’s recent embrace of Smith appears to have been the spur for the release of this collection, a primer or sampler of her work aimed, presumably, at those discovering it for the first time. Continue reading
After her virtuoso debut Marry Me and 2009’s nicely disorientating follow-up Actor, singer and guitarist Annie Clark returns with this itchily anticipated third album. Recorded in her pre-Manhattan hometown of Dallas, Texas, Strange Mercy enlists the assistance of several musicians, including Beck’s musical director Brian LeBarton on keyboards, but Clark has no problem asserting her own musical, lyrical and vocal presence here. Her original concept for the album was to “redefine the idea of the guitar hero, utilising the instrument as a pointillist artist might wield a brush,” and it’s an approach which translates into a glistening, lush and luxuriant listen, full of digital cascades and string-laden crescendos, underpinned by an unsteady percussive stomp. The overall effect evokes a more fragile mid-period Blondie, or Goldfrapp with less of the sledgehammer sleaziness. Continue reading
Chav, n. British slang (derogatory). “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”
– Oxford English Dictionary
1. The C word
If ‘cunt’ is reportedly losing its power to shock or offend, don’t worry, other c-words are available. ‘Class’, for instance, appears to have become unsuitable for use in polite society these days, while ‘Chav’ has never been so commonplace in the respectable parlance of those who would never dream of using any other c-word so blithely. Owen Jones’ book Chavs, a welcome and necessary analysis of the latter phenomenon, identifies it as a culture ‘created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists’, and examines the word’s place in current political and cultural discourse in the context of a simultaneous narrowing of socio-economic opportunity. Continue reading
The wave of musical experimentation which took place in the wake of punk generated many new and startling sounds, some of which endured and grew in influence while others became lost to musical history. The Raincoats, a London-spawned, ever-shifting collective based around the partnership of Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, are now firmly in the former category. Their self-titled debut was described by Vivien Goldman as “the first woman’s rock album” to emerge, its lack of musical or vocal hierarchies or focus-pulling solo virtuosity pioneering an arresting and persuasive kind of rock without the cock. In 1981, Odyshape continued to shift the rules of the game. Continue reading
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
Written for Wears the Trousers 19.07.11
Dee Plume and Sue Denim return with their fourth studio outing, another of the increasing number of albums funded by fans through the Pledge Music scheme. It’s a testament to the enthusiastic loyalty that Robots In Disguise can command that they have a following prepared to keep the faith when the mainstream industry isn’t. And, you know, why should it be? The pseudonymous duo are an intensely idiosyncratic band, still ploughing their furrow of superior electro-punk, with occasional shades of a sharper-toothed, steelier Shampoo, faux-naif femme fatale Claire Grogan, or a Fisher-Price Kills. Their music is curiously compelling more than it is kitsch or cutesy, though, and their chosen personas are insouciant, no-nonsense and utterly unafraid of independence. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 11.07.11
You can argue that the Devil has all the best tunes, but the Bible at least occasionally does a nice line in storytelling. Melodrama and metaphors for human existence pour off the scriptural pages etched in blood and tears. For Brooklyn poet, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alicia Jo Rabins, stories from the Hebrew scriptures contemplate the complexity of women’s lives in a way that remains relatable today. Her attempt to demonstrate this is Girls In Trouble, an ongoing art-rock project undertaken with her partner and bassist Aaron Hartman, wedding an interest in ancient scriptural stories to expertise in string-led indie and folk-rock. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 21.06.11
Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday a few weeks back was marked, in part, by reflections on the essentially blokey nature of his observable fanbase. While largely true, this has done nothing to lessen the appeal of his songs as cover material for women from Mae West to Sheryl Crow, not to mention Cate Blanchett’s turn as the man himself in the 2007 biopic ‘I’m Not There’. This re-recording by Thea Gilmore of Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding then, isn’t a revolutionary move, but not a foolish one either. It follows Gilmore’s performance at a Dylan tribute concert earlier this year, as well as, all the way back in 2002, her acclaimed recording of his ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’. That song appears again on this album, as do guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, along with Thea’s longterm collaborator, bassist and producer, Nigel Stonier. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers 14.06.11
There always was more to Emma-Lee Moss than the flimsy whimsy of many of her contemporary dabblers in the rapidly evaporating pool of antifolk. This album confirms that she has greater things to offer. Virtue, written and recorded with Younghusband’s Euan Hinshelwood, released on the band’s own imprint, and financed through the Pledge Music fan-funding scheme, is a very different animal to her 2009 debut, First Love. It’s luxuriantly and smoothly produced, assured and accomplished, its ten tracks forming a cohesive whole in contrast to the debut’s collection of endearingly raw and disparate songs. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers, 13.06.11
Given how quiet they’ve been since 2008′s This Gift, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sons & Daughters had called it a day. Not so. The Scottish quartet are back on the road and back on record this summer with third album Mirror Mirror, a record that not only marks a change in direction for the band but also offers Optimo Music’s JD Twitch his first role as producer, making it something of a gamble. But it’s one that pays off. Continue reading
Music books written by women, list of. Go, compare, question, critique.
Why don’t more women write about music – or do they? And why don’t more women write about Dylan? It can’t just be me and Sady Doyle.
Also, with due apologies for more self-promotion – I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here yet, but I’m currently writing a chapter on female postpunk musicians for a forthcoming anthology on that shy and elusive creature, the girl band. This book will be a contender with or without my contribution though. Watch this space.
Written for Bad Reputation, 8.6.11
Another week, another women-in-music controversy, and another hotly debated video from Rihanna. Having ticked domestic violence and sadomasochism off the musical list, she’s responded to recent accusations of being a major player in the oversexualisation of pop by upping the ante, making her latest offering a blend of sexual violence and violent retribution. The video for Man Down, which opens with Rihanna shooting a man who is later revealed to have assaulted her after they dance at a club, has kicked up a predictable media dustcloud. It’s all a far cry from ‘Pon de Replay’. Continue reading
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.
Written for Bad Reputation, 1.6.11
Poor old millionaire superstar Adele, eh? No sooner has the dust settled on the furore over her objections to being a higher-rate taxpayer, than she gets thrown into the vanguard of another of those putative Real Women in Music revolutions. A mere three years after she started out, and after just seventeen weeks of her second album at Number One, it appears to have suddenly dawned on Richard Russell that Adele exemplifies all that’s healthy and hopeful in the otherwise dire and overheated state of contemporary pop. Continue reading
Some of my juvenilia, from when I lived south of the Thames. I wrote this in 2005 for the much-missed marvel that was Smoke, A London Peculiar, and I was inspired to dig it up by reading this post on Transpontine, the compendium of south-east London life. It’s an elegy on my favourite ex-pub in London, which I still miss. Now only the Montague Arms keeps a remnant of the dream alive.
Number one on absolutely no one else’s list of Good London Pubs is the sadly defunct Goldsmiths Tavern. When I lived in New Cross as a student I didn’t go near this place for months – it was open past 2am but was extremely dodgy in look and reputation, you heard various stories about plans hatched and deals done that would’ve made Guy Ritchie come on the spot. Continue reading
The word ‘provocative’ retains about as much meaning in contemporary art as the word ‘revolutionary’, but I’d still like to think that the Indelicates’ latest enterprise deserves more than a wearily raised eyebrow. Earnest, arch and irreverent by turns, their concept album on late cult leader David Koresh and the 1993 Waco siege is an achievement along the lines of Luke Haines’ Baader-Meinhof or Jerry Springer the Opera, and while I realise that only a certain demographic will regard that as a ringing endorsement, it is. Continue reading
Written for Wears the Trousers.
You might recognise Sukie Smith from various acting roles, but her background on the small screen has little bearing on the widescreen feel of her current musical project. Madam are a six-piece band fronted and produced by Smith, and this is their second release after 2008’s In Case of Emergency. Smith is an accomplished composer who provided the music to the 2007 thriller Hush Your Mouth, and much of this album has the air of a similar kind of film score. The album’s title is indicative of its overall atmosphere: it brims with clandestine deeds done under cover of darkness, cryptic confessions, and regretful departures pre-sunrise. Continue reading
A now outdated post written for Bad Reputation.
Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.
– Jacqueline Susann’s verdict on Portnoy’s Complaint
Last week was a busy week in the book world. Sainsburys found itself anointed Bookseller of the Year to the chagrin of actual booksellers, the beleaguered Waterstones chain was saved from the asset-stripping abyss, and the Man Booker International Prize went to the veteran novelist Philip Roth. The last of these events made the biggest splash in the mainstream press, due to the consequent resignation in protest from the judging panel of Carmen Callil, the redoubtable founder of Virago Press, who – cue shock, horror, and the frantic ordering by booksellers of Roth’s backlist – disparaged Roth as a writer and disputed his worthiness to win. Continue reading
Whenever I listen to a lot of Lupen Crook songs I can’t help (affectionately) picturing Poor Tom, the displaced nobleman in the guise of a beggar capering upon the blasted heath in King Lear. I realise this is unfair to Mr Crook aesthetically and stylistically, and in any case has hardly happened at all while listening to his latest. Home-produced and recorded in the months just before spring, Waiting for the Postman is a still and contemplative record of domestic claustrophobia, comedown and loss and their ultimate transcendence.
‘The Domestic’, low and lugubrious, starts things on a bitter and hard-bitten note, but the album’s darkly groovy self-laceration – heartbreak and paranoid withdrawal on ‘Cold Alone’, fame anticipated as soul-sucking pull on ‘Tale of an Everyman’ – is leavened with rippling rainy-afternoon melancholy and gently melodic reflections on friendship, love and their loss. ‘Chasing Dragons’, heartfelt and warm, is straightforwardly gorgeous. So is ‘Where the Crow Flies’, so is ‘Arts and Crafts’, and so is the intricately self-referential ‘A Little More Blood on the Tracks’ (and the chutzpah of giving it that title, unusually, didn’t even tickle my Dylanist gag reflex). ‘Hard Times’ is some kind of madly gleaming apocalyptic eurodisco that’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Just an all-round awesome album. This record sounds like a long-held breath let out, like the aftermath of trauma, and it feels like balm applied to wounds.
Lupen Crook, Waiting for the Postman is available here.
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
Holly Golightly – real name, no gimmicks – has worn a variety of hats in her almost twenty years as an iconic and inspirational recording artist, taking in styles from three-chord garage to R&B. Since 2007 her chosen outfit has been Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs, a country-infused collaboration with her longtime bandmate Lawyer Dave. Continue reading
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
My review of the new Indelicates album is now up at WTT. I couldn’t find a non-clunky way of including the fact that Jim-Bob of moderate Carter USM fame is on it, singing the part of Timothy McVeigh. So, uh, he is, and he does it well.
One thing which didn’t really merit a mention in the review is that the opening lines to ‘Ballad of the ATF’ fit perfectly with the opening lines of ‘Bad Romance’, which gives me a disconcerting mash-up of both in my head every time I hear either.
I also excised a paragraph of dubious necessity which ended: ‘You’d have to be an idiot to take offence at anything on this record. But as the aspiring Congressman said, there’s an awful lot of idiots out there and don’t they deserve some representation?’
And I took out the description of a particular vocal as ‘a crystalline vessel belying the bitter draughts it can contain’, because reading that back was making me want to put my own head down the toilet and flush the chain.
This album, though, go get it.
In 1874, Samuel Clemens called Ambrose Bierce’s latest effort The Vilest Book in Print, writing that ‘…for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.’ I mean, it’s anyone’s guess what Samuel Clemens might have made of Bret Easton Ellis. 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:
Jesus, it’s been a bad week. 53 is no age.
This is my favourite X-Ray Spex song:
It’s been three years since the sparsely angular stylings of Midnight Boom, and even longer since the garagey growl of their early work, but the transatlantic partnership of Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince has survived the former’s sojourn among The Dead Weather’s demon blues to produce what the duo describe as their most ambitious and accomplished recording to date.
Cards on the table: I am a (very) former Labour Party member, a former unaligned-far-left hack, a former student politician, and a current jaded burn-out who’s more or less lost the faith. What I’ve regained since the last election is not the faith but the fear. Seeing this government use the excuse of debt reduction to conduct a sustained assault on the welfare state’s structures and foundation is not something I can stand by and watch. The question, as ever, is how to express this opposition. Saturday saw a TUC-organised official march, fringed with unofficial peaceful protests and unofficial direct action. The discourse after demonstrations is always varying degrees of unhelpful and unrepresentative, as reportage and analysis splinter into shards of individual experience, each of which reflect only a portion of the whole. This is in no way a contribution to ongoing debate, it is merely my own record and reflection.
The black bloc on Saturday was by some accounts the biggest since J18, which made me think that, as I’ve said before, what’s happening now seems like not a revolution but a return to the protests to which I was introduced over a decade ago – the days of carnivalesque anticapitalism and reclaiming the streets. That said, I think our critique of capitalism in the early 2000s was certainly more vague, still post-Cold War, appealing more to globalising and internationalist issues of social justice and civil liberties because less immediately rooted in financial crisis – and perhaps, for the same reasons, less last-ditch and desperate than it currently seems. I don’t know, and to have a clearer idea, I’d have to get out there and see for myself.
I didn’t do a great deal of Getting Out There on Saturday. I remained with a small group of disparately aligned friends and family, massing outside Embankment tube and then crawling through Waterloo and Westminster. There were an awful lot of us. There were gorgeous trade union banners which had seen action throughout the past century. There were Banksy-esque stencils of Clement Atlee’s image. There were official placards manually-adjusted to call Nick Clegg a variety of entirely-deserved things. The Bloody Hell, That Must Have Taken Ages prize goes jointly to those carrying the huge black cube representing the income of the highest percentile of earners, to which was attached far smaller red cubes showing the relative size of the average income (I think), and those driving the miniature tank playing the theme from The Great Escape. Both of these were the best things I’d seen on a protest since the enormous papier-maché bomb labelled ‘structural readjustment’.
The only demo of comparable size I can remember – where the front of the march had walked the length of the route and reached its destination while more people were still at the back of the march, waiting to move off – was the big Iraq protest in 2003. Then as now, those marching were not homogenous, came from all over the country, and held no obvious signs of slavish adherence to the Labour leadership. Nor did I feel alone in lacking both faith in parliamentary process and any burning desire to stand for hours in Hyde Park listening to hackneyed whistling-up from the stage. Hence, by the time of our stop-off in Trafalgar Square, I opted for the pub. When the revolution comes, shoot me.
The Chandos crouches just off Trafalgar Square, and used to be the post-rally destination of most of my comrades whenever we ended up in the vicinity, largely because, unlike many pubs on or near the route of demonstrations, it had no sign on the door banning work-boots, banners and/or placards. Once inside, an illustration of how far I’ve fallen since the early 2000s was provided by there being no one I knew there apart from my old politics lecturer, who failed to recognise me, as indeed he had during most of my time at Goldsmiths. At the bar I got talking to a bloke who, like me, was a veteran of 2003’s enormous anti-war march, to which he had taken his 12 year old daughter. According to him, she’d said, impressed by the turnout, ‘they’ll have to listen to us now, won’t they?’
He told me this and rolled his eyes, as though aware of how mawkish and implausibly convenient an ending this might make to a subsequent spiel on the pointlessness of peaceful protest. But honestly, fuck irony. Politics in the last few years has got so blatantly contemptuous, so transparently indifferent, that I doubt any kid on the march on Saturday would have had that degree of faith in people power.
The Monday after the march, back at work in Soho, I went out to see the damage done. Little trace remained beyond some indistinct scrawlings on the boarded-up HSBC on Cambridge Circus and, further up the sidestreets, a circled-A in pink spraypaint on a couple of flaking black litter-bins. The slogans written on the scaffolding outside Central St Martins – ‘Make the banks pay’, ‘ACAB’, were at least making more of a stab at focused oppositional discourse. Yesterday lunchtime, more than a week on, the slogans on HSBC were invisible under daubs of white paint, the bank was open for business as usual and pretty soon the West End will look, and feel, as though nothing ever happened.
Am I glad I marched? Yes, of course. And I’m still unaligned, and I reject the notion that my lack of a membership card matters. March 26th wasn’t an attempt at revolution, and was more than a bid for space on the front page, and more than an exercise in branding. It was an act of solidarity, an attempt to demonstrate to all who watched and all who took part that no one is alone in opposing the actions of this government. And it did that, even if that’s all it did.
Without wishing to damn with faint praise, Des Ark are very good at titles. Despite the rule about not judging a book by its cover, Don’t Rock The Boat, Sink The Fucker is a statement of militant intent which almost inevitably leads to expectations of a harder-edged musical style. Frontwoman Aimee Argote has long been steering an inconsistent course between post-punk, Appalachian folk and blistering blues-rock, and likes to keep the listener guessing. But any hopes or fears for a more aggressive direction get neatly overturned as soon as opening track ‘My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’mon Jump On It)’ announces itself with tremulous chimes and a delicate shimmer of strings.
Seen Ten O’Clock Live, then? …Yeah. Breathlessly billed as Britain’s answer to the Daily Show, a return to the satirical standard set by 1962’s groundbreaking That Was The Week That Was and the grand guignol glory days of Spitting Image, with hype like that the show was perhaps doomed to fall short of expectations.
Last week I returned to the Old Country – well, not the Old Country itself, but rather Cardiff, my land’s increasingly swish and cosmopolitan capital, with its rapaciously expanding shopping-and-eating quarter and its incongruous postmodern street sculptures making it feel a bit like a Torchwood theme park. The second most immediately notable thing about Cardiff at the minute is the preponderance of Emo kids there. I know Emo hit the subculturally-attuned youth of south Wales hard, but that was some years previously, and I was aghast to discover that the wretched thing still holds much of the city in its terrible, slappable, Lego-fringed grip. Will we never be set free?
This weekend I’m going to Southampton to be a superstar DJ. By which I mean, to hand over some mix CDs and hope for the best. I hope you all have good weekends; here are some curios to take you into it. Continue reading
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.
In recent days, the search terms leading the unwary googler to this place have heavily featured the words ‘alternative valentines playlist’. I did one of these last year, and, self-evidently, haven’t done another since. I have re-uploaded the file from last year’s post though, so if that’s what you’re after, it’s here: Happy Highly-Expensive Chocolate Day.
But what, pray, do you want with googling ‘alternative valentines playlist’ and variations thereon? Are you going to snaffle this playlist for substance or suggestion? Make your own, Madam: your other half is totally going to appreciate your own playlist more than one you downloaded from the bitterest Howard Devoto obsessive on WordPress. And if you don’t have another half, then I’m frankly baffled to learn that you spend your time doing anything other than making playlists and then playing them. I know I don’t.
In music writing as elsewhere, shortened attention spans and a craving to be spoonfed have led to the unfortunate development of lazily reductive shorthand, enabling a user-friendly pitch of a particular artist even as it simplifies and undervalues their complexity. Hence Amanda Palmer’s pigeonholing as kooky cabaret diva, Nicki Minaj as cartoonish pocket Missy, and Shilpa Ray as whiskey-soaked wildwoman, when they’re all more interesting than that. Sure, Teenage & Torture, like 2009 debut A Fishhook An Open Eye, has the requisite blues-rock base and throat-shredding vocal superstructure to justify this stylistic categorisation, but the Mad Bad Girl tag is particularly pernicious. It’s a comforting label that makes sense of the discomforting, allowing, in this case, Ray’s rage-fuelled dissections of feminine ideals, sexual mores and consumer culture to be glossed as hysterical spectacle. The more we exoticise a performer as irrational and unfamiliar, the less valid and identifiable in our everyday surroundings we render her concerns and accusations.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
The Medway Towns, just far enough away from London for it to matter, have sheltered this country’s conscientious contrarians from Charles Dickens to Billy Childish. The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is the third album from the Kent Delta’s current wandering minstrel, Lupen Crook.
I hesitated over that ‘wandering minstrel’, you know, in case the description was fast becoming a cliché (or had, I don’t know, been copyrighted by Frank Turner). If that other frequently pigeonholed troubadour, Patrick Wolf, has reportedly considered changing his name to “please use a thesaurus or a brain to find another word for ‘flamboyant’ Patrick Wolf”, I wonder if, in time, Lupen Crook might end up requiring similar measures to get rid of the wandering minstrel tag.
Not that it’s an inappropriate or unhelpful label – much of Crook’s artistic strength does lie in a picaresque sense of threadbare and ramshackle rootlessness, a commitment to collectivism, a DIY approach to distribution and a palpable desire to entertain.
Anyway, the album. The Pros and Cons… is eclectic in content and form. Crook and co-conspirators Clayton Boothroyd and Bob and Tom Langridge draw on indie, ska, rockabilly, folk and anti-folk, sea shanties, twangs of grungy alt-country and swirls of Gypsy-punk, in songs that inhabit abandoned underpasses, pirate ships and blasted heaths, full of the crooked, the feral, the raw and the hopelessly romantic. They swing from the sharply catchy, gently despairing single ‘Dorothy Deserves’, to the delicacy of ‘World’s End’ and ‘How to Murder Birds’, to the full-tilt indie-rockism of ‘Devil’s Son’ or ‘Scissor Kick’.
As a frontman, Crook seems able to caper from darkly observant court-jester (Ray Davies sketched by Jamie Hewlett) to millenarian social critic (Scroobius Pip with less of the finger-wagging). The Pros and Cons of Eating Out maintains the same dignified distance from the mainstream and the metropolis which granted Crook’s debut a distinction from the post-Libertines litter, and which continues to set him apart from his peers.
Lupen Crook, The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is available here.
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?
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
I’ve been writing here for just under two years. I write on music, London, and popular culture old and new. I tell stories, I rant, and I put a socio-political spin on things when I can. Very occasionally, I try to make sense of the 1990s.
So, take a look around. I hope you find something you like here, and please let me know if you do! <3
The Walkmen: Lisbon
The Walkmen return with their sixth studio album, inspired by two trips to the Portuguese capital. The eleven songs here are confidently, intricately constructed miniatures of life, love and loss felt on a grand and sweeping scale, deftly nostalgic rather than knowingly quaint. There’s a clean and buttoned-up feel to much of Lisbon, all neat backbeat, coruscating strings, and fluidly simple arrangements reminiscent of early Sun records, while elsewhere it revs into drum-driven overdrive or dips into orchestral plunges with a flash of gleaming brass. Hamilton Leithauser’s throatily plaintive vocals dilute the surges of surf-rock, while the lyrics, reaching their summit in ‘Stranded’, conjure up images of isolation, empty streets and endless rain against a windowpane. Beside the straightforward retro-rush of ‘Angela Surf City’, ‘Blue as Your Blood’ races like a nervous pulse and ‘Victory’ sways with punchdrunk triumph before the title track brings down the curtain in epic, elegiac style.
Written for Fashion Music Style – issue #7 out now
As Gilbert and Sullivan never quite got around to observing: Carl Barat’s lot is not a happy one. An ‘unpopular’ Home Counties childhood and ‘disappointing’ studenthood; the Libertines’ brief and glorious flicker of fame marred by burglary, breakup and breakdowns; hauling a zombie version of the band around the world on tour while Doherty languished at home pointing the finger; surgery; a solo descent into spurious “DJ”ing, club nights and generally wandering lost among Primrose Hill scenesters old enough to know better; Dirty Pretty Things – still a band of admirable, workmanlike effort but diminishing returns and an inevitable grind to a halt – and then a self-confessed ‘year of demons’. (Only a year, dude?) Even if things currently seem to have taken a deserved upturn – new girlfriend Edie Langley, incipient fatherhood, solo album and book just out – the path that got him here’s still not the sort of beat a chap would choose.
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
Masturbation is never far from the mind when surveying the current state of mainstream British comedy, besmirched as it is with the self-absorbed and self-indulgent spatterings of established onanists. Flood’s philosophy, though, is the timely and welcome exhortation: ‘Don’t just sit in and wank’.
Flood Theatre is a new enterprise representing several young actors, directors and writers drawn predominantly from the East 15 Acting School. Their first performance of The Suicide of the Rev. Lens took place in Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre before a respectably large and appreciative crowd. Boxed-in and wilting in relentless midsummer heat as we were, the venue’s incipiently claustrophobic atmosphere aptly set the tone for a journey into Flood’s unsettling, murky and merciless world.
The production’s titular creation is a fulminating clergyman equally cursed and blessed with the ability to detect the cardinal sin of self-love. Around this central conceit, the seven cast members weave a loose narrative of episodic sketches and musical interludes. Their material blends darkly surreal digressions with incisive dissections of socio-political absurdities, hitting the usual government and media targets but also taking in an inventory of irritants ranging from the Free Hugs campaign to homeopathy to the vagaries of mental health diagnosis.
Flood deftly take inspiration from the surrealist and satirical work of Chris Morris. The show’s curiously haunting arrangements of prog-rock and indie recall the ambience of Blue Jam, and his influence is visible too in sketches touching on incest, paedophilia and abuse within the Catholic Church, in which uncertain laughter is shocked from the audience rather than cued or coaxed.
The presiding tone is one of intelligent irreverence, avoiding both gratuitous puerility and the laboured haranguing which plagues much overtly political comedy, edged with a fine sense of the absurd and grotesque. Flood is an engaging and important new arrival.
A fondness for Victoriana needs delicate handling. Admiration for an era in part defined by the creation of a particular proscriptive femininity can easily imply a rose-tinted romanticising of what was an age of repression, oppression, division and hypocrisy. Thankfully, Rasputina have a sufficiently modern sensibility, and their lynchpin Melora Creager is enough of a genuine history buff for the group to take an informed and analytical approach to the epoch that inspires them rather than merely revelling in the unexamined edginess of creepy girls, corsets and consumption.
This long-awaited new studio release is a return to form after 2007’s patchy Oh Perilous World!. Now established as a ‘cello-rock’ genre in its own right, on the edge of the spidery shadows cast by Siouxsie, Marilyn Manson and, more recently, Smoke Fairies, Rasputina’s music remains defined by the swoop and scrape of sharp, spindly strings. Creager’s vocals remain effectively impressionistic, if sometimes overly wedded to the Bush/Amos/Newsom school of Breathy and Tremulous. A few songs here are touched by more traditional folk, with queasily seesawing slide guitar and an occasional Appalachian twang that recalls Creager’s work with Nirvana.
Thematically, Sister Kinderhook reflects Creager’s interest in the colonial settling and taming of a restless land, as well as attendant historical oddities like the 1844 Anti-Rent Wars explored in ‘Calico Indians’ and the discovery of giant bones in Ohio. The latter tale, ‘Holocaust Of Giants’, is shrilly piped in a vocal trill conveying childlike fervour and jubilation, the song managing to suggest a look both backwards to the Victorian dinosaur craze and forward to ironic parallels between yesterday’s doomed global giants and the belligerence and hubris of today’s. ‘The 2 Miss Leavens’ explicitly compares Victorian sentiment with modern methods of remembrance, while ‘Utopian Society’ is a tragicomic-opera in miniature and ‘The Snow-Hen of Austerlitz’ is a tale that could have escaped from Angela Carter’s clutch of twisted fairystories The Bloody Chamber.
The album is also full of varying types of captivity. Creager weaves tales of girls imprisoned by domestic or social tyranny or the imperatives of industrial capitalism – the twin support-struts of Victoriana – in attics, factories, graves or “marble dressing gowns”. In the eponymous factory of ‘Kinderhook Hoopskirt Works’, Creager reimagines its workers toiling in “privileged captivity” to produce the sartorial emblems of their age, while strings are plucked like plied needles and, in the spaces between, birdsong suggests an imitation of the twittering of caged factory girls. The elegiac closing track ‘This, My Porcelain Life’ is a cool hand laid against a fevered forehead, swelling spirals of emotional cello held in vocal check by an outwardly composed narrator aware of the implausibility of her wish for independent happiness.
Emily Dickinson, another of Creager’s recurring interests, could be the inspiration for many of Sister Kinderhook’s protagonists. This perhaps accounts for the preponderance of lines recalling her ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’: feathers abound here and – despite the dire straits ascribed to the inner lives of characters more often portrayed as porcelain figurines or painted miniatures – so does hope.
Smaller reviews written for Wears the Trousers:
Izzi Dunn, ‘Tits & Ass’ [Blunt Laser remix] (single, reviewed 11/09)
Is it unfortunate or serendipitous that ‘Izzi Dunn’ sounds like the question which follows a barely bearable mauling at the hands of an incompetent inamorato? As names to conjure with go, her latest single’s not bad either. ‘Tits & Ass’ (out now – hoHO!) is the first release from the West Londoner’s second album, Cries & Smiles, expected in March, and continues to showcase her skills as a versatile singer-songwriter, arranger, and cellist – a role in which she’s played and toured with the likes of Mark Ronson, Damon Albarn, Roots Manuva, Beverley Knight and Chaka Khan.
So, ‘Tits & Ass’, eh? Was there ever an expression so superficially glossy, giggly and glamorous, and so apt to devolve upon deconstruction into its tawdry, manipulative components, leaving it looking as flat as last week’s Page 3 and only marginally more appealing than a night with Peter Stringfellow? Arguments over sexual exploitation – particularly within the entertainment industry – have filled volumes, columns and lecture halls for the past half-century. While Dunn has no dazzlingly new take on things, her lyrics offer a succinct summation of the story so far. Her vocal soundbites scattershot from sisterly pleas for self-respect (”You know there’s more to you than tits and ass”) to Sex-Positivity for Dummies (”With her pockets full, who’s exploiting who?”).
This sloganeering slips down smoothly and soulfully between blaring brass and sharply stabbing strings, while elsewhere Dunn’s voice spikes into the insistent refrain’s slippery vocal shuffle. This curiously early-’90s musical backing is perhaps incongruously euphoric – the line “Tits and ass makes the world go round” sounds closer to ironic celebration than critique – but overall Dunn hits her targets (hypocrisy, objectification and counterproductive competition) more often than she misses. ‘Tits & Ass’ is a welcome reigniting of debate on hot-button issues, as well as a reminder that there’s little better than controversy you can dance to.
I’m sorry to prick such a bubbly artistic conceit so early on in the game, but Evelyn Evelyn rejoice in not being real. This is the latest project from punk-cabaret diva Amanda Palmer, an album which has kicked up a predictable, and, no doubt, gratifying amount of controversy. Your enjoyment of it will ultimately hinge upon how edifying or entertaining you consider the concept of Palmer and co-conspirator Jason Webley playing ‘Evelyn Evelyn’, conjoined twin sisters, whose grim history and eventual redemption is recounted in this musical misery-memoir.
It’s hard to argue for this album on its musical merits. Evelyn Evelyn is a wearily familiar imitation of the Dresden Dolls at their most by-numbers: listlessly insistent piano and vocals that murmur and sigh broken confessions. It’s evocative enough in its drawing on imagery and music from turn-of-the-century music-halls and carnivals, creaky backwoods Americana and the shlocky horror of Todd Browning, but, aside from its retro-curiosity value, it contains little of musical substance. Maybe ‘Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?’ or ‘You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister’ will strike you as halfway amusing parodies of, respectively, rictus-grinned ragtime and maudlin country. Maybe you’ll find some shred of sympathy or wonder in the tripartite ‘The Tragic Events of September’, in which the sisters pick over their story so far in spoken-word that manages the remarkable feat of being harder to listen to for how cloyingly cutesy it is than for the morbid nature of what it describes. Maybe you’ll be charmed by the closing cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, even though it sounds like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain without their comic panache. Or maybe, like the punters played to in ‘A Campaign of Shock and Awe’, you’re just happily, unironically here for the freakshow.
This project would perhaps have been better received had Palmer in particular not spent so much of her career singing – far more convincingly and movingly – from the inside of the socio-cultural cages in which she now gleefully imprisons her protagonists. Palmer and Webley’s decision to play both ringmaster and self-styled circus freak; their thoroughly unexamined ability to step between the powerlessness of the controlled and the privilege of the controller; and their appropriation of objectification for what amounts to a sniggering cabaret turn rather than the deadly-serious lived experience it comprises for others, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Neither of them appears able to sing without smirking, but there’s little sense that their creations are there to be laughed with, rather than at.
The album tackles its chosen themes – disability, exploitation, sexual abuse – with an alarming mixture of the knowing and the mawkish. Its flaws are not that it goes too far in its attempts to épater le bourgeois, or that it pushes any boundaries worth pushing; it’s just self-satisfied and slightly – not even shockingly – distasteful. So in awe of its own edginess that it loses the necessary self-awareness to rein in self-indulgence, this album is as much a study of the vanishing of hipsterdom up its own fundament as it is a critique of performance, modernity or fame. For all the overblown horror and tawdry tragedy detailed in the story of Evelyn Evelyn, the spectacle you’re really rolling up for here is Amanda Palmer jumping the shark.
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.]
When is a blues band not a blues band? When you ask Vancouver duo The Pack A. D. We Kill Computers follows 2008’s Tintype and Funeral Mixtape, and a 2009 in which Becky Black and Maya Miller played 157 gigs, gaining themselves a reputation for explosive, beer-and-sweat-drenched live performances. The band insist that this third album will prove that their music puts the emphasis less on blues and more on garage-rock. “We are not a blues band, even though people keep putting us there,” says Miller. “We both love the blues, but we are a garage rock blues group.”
So. Farewell then, Malcolm McLaren, one of the best trolls of the twentieth century. With splendid synchronicity, last week also saw the passing of the Digital Economy Bill, railroaded through in Parliament’s pre-election wash-up in front of a pathetic forty MPs. The legislative enshrining of this particularly sweeping and short-sighted sop to failing business models shows up the UK government as shills to the interests of industry over democratic debate.
Take 1980. McLaren’s chosen wheeze that year was Bow Wow Wow, a fusion of Burundi, Latin, punk and épater la bourgeoisie which saw Adam Ant’s band backing child star Annabella Lwin. Bow Wow Wow have the distinction of releasing the first ever cassette single, a gleeful paean to empowerment through home taping:
In 1980, famously, home taping was killing music, and was definitely illegal. We kept doing it. And yet record companies somehow struggled on, charging exorbitantly for CDs and picking up and dropping bands unable to generate fast enough revenue as they did so. The reactionary blustering over home taping at the dawn of the cassette era parallels today’s filesharing debates, and today’s anti-internet arguments are more transparently disingenuous. The big-money industry model which has held sway for the past fifty years has been a blip, not a fundamental cultural cornerstone without which all popular music will collapse into dust. Artists themselves are adapting to the new opportunities offered by digital distribution and online word-of-mouth – go here for one obvious and shining example – it is an industry grown bloated on its previous parasitical lifestyle that can’t or won’t. It’s more than unfortunate that the latter is where the majority of money and string-pulling power still resides.
Discovering new music, and sharing your own, is and will remain one of the most fantastic, altruistic and mutually beneficial things that culture has to offer. The Digital Economy Act is not necessary to ‘prevent Britain’s creative industries haemorrhaging money’; it is a flailing, ham-fisted attempt to prevent Britain’s creative industries advancing to their next evolutionary stage. Death-throes are never dignified.
Small reviews written for Wears the Trousers.
Chores – the subtle politics of the Public Hammock (album, July 09)
First of all: Chores? ‘Chores’? Really? Are we suffering such a drought of linguistic invention that bands are reduced to picking names which lend themselves all too easily to lines like ‘listening to them is certainly one, ho ho!’? As for the subtle politics of the Public Hammock (sic) … well, the most I can say is that it’s less of a hostage to fortune than ‘Chores’.
I really want to like the first full-length album from this Portland foursome, though: any band, especially US-based, with the anticapitalist impulse on show in ‘New New Deal’ and ‘Noinsuranceland’ gets my vote. The latter is a possible nod to R.E.M.’s ‘Ignoreland’, but suffers badly from the comparison. It’s a shame that much of what seems likeable about Chores is often hard to make out over squalling guitars and murkily thumping percussion. The band are at their most engaging when they polish up their post-punk tendencies, as in the choppy ‘Touching Can Harm the Art’ or the Television-stalking ‘My Own Private Esperanto’, sacrificing shouty rhetoric for icy, controlled impressionism.
At their best, Chores make a creditable stab at the shadows of Talking Heads and the B-52s. At their worst – yes, I’m afraid they live up to their name. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.
Cogwheel Dogs – Greenhorn (EP, July 09)
The latest EP from Cogwheel Dogs continues the Oxford duo’s experiments in anti-folk. Vocalist Rebecca Mosley does a good line in raw-throated bitterness interspersed with sudden stabs of yearning clarity, backed by the strings of her musical partner Tom Parnell. The four songs on ‘Greenhorn’ are murkily intriguing sketches of domestic horror and emotional ferocity, evocative of childhood nightmares spilling from dark places. ‘Spit’ makes a lunge towards lilting before collapsing back into a percussive pit, chased by downward-spiralling strings. Cogwheel Dogs are adept enough at creating a counter-melodic mess, although one’s immediate thought is that this particular niche has already been filled by their fellow demons of the dreaming spires, Ivy’s Itch. Closing track ‘Octavia’ is perhaps the most accessible song here, with portentous swoops of cello backing a creepily insistent vocal that just might be about a drug-addicted doll with a thousand arms. Accessibility being a relative thing, of course.
The Langley Sisters – ‘It’s Strange to be in Love’ (single, September 09)
It’s disappointing how little of the ’50s retro/girlgroup revival has seen its musical proponents concentrate on sound as well as style. Thankfully London’s Langley Sisters, currently touring with Paloma Faith, appear to be looking deeper than the regulation puffball skirts, polkadots and pompadours to ensure that their music sounds as authentically timewarped as they look.
Kicking off with rippling piano and gloopily giddy vocals, ‘It’s Strange to Be in Love’ initially feels as though it could have skipped straight off the credits of a Doris Day movie. Dig deeper, however, and its lyrical references to the brain as a broken mirror and frolicking in fields of withered poppies, suggest a more intriguing pastiche of their chosen genre. Evoking love as psychosis, the song begins to scratch at the unsustainable instability and emotional repression that boiled beneath the socio-cultural surface of a decade which, like the song’s protagonists, is “destined to be extinct” and nonchalantly steering a course towards a disastrous denouement. Any scene with this soundtrack would have to show a bored, beehived housewife blissfully tripping on vodka and Valium while her husband dozes at the country club and her lover parks his motorbike against a white picket fence.
Like a certain kind of Dad tends to ruin Bob Dylan, Julie Burchill almost ruined Patti Smith for me. I only really trust Julie Burchill’s opinion on the need to outlaw asbestos, and my early-teenage reading of her enthusing over Smith made my eyes roll like a pill dropped on the floor of Soho House. A year or so later, I listened to Horses and kicked myself. Her stark and disdainful image on the record sleeve left me as amazed as the music. To realise that not only was it okay to be female, to be queer, to be ungroomed, to read, to write, to have ambition, to want to get out, to let yourself go – it could actually be brilliant.
On Saturday I went to her book-signing at the South Bank. The book itself is interesting, not least for its function as a kind of anti-confessional, a memoir shrouded not in prudishness or desperate self-mythology but content, affectionate dignity. She also played three songs, the second of which was her cover of ‘Because the Night’. She asked the crowd to join in to cover her nerves, and we did, hesitantly and subdued, nearly reverent:
There is something in her recasting of Springsteen’s song, the swooping and quavery way she delivers ‘they can’t hurt you now…’, that perfectly captures for me the certainty of protection afforded by music and its sharing, the sense of at once standing recklessly, defiantly before the world and taking refuge from it with another who understands. Making it so by proclaiming that it is so. On Saturday, collectively participating in its singing felt like something primitive, a basic ward against the elemental world outside my head. (It’s the chorus that does it. Not that the security, trust and defiant resolve embedded in its primal thump is peculiar to this song; I’d think, and frequently have thought, the same when singing drunkenly along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’.)
Did you know Patti Smith used to work as a bookseller? She talked a bit about that, about having the permanent mark of the bookseller that means that, when in bookshops these days, she still occasionally gets asked for directions, and about the pre-fame certainty of failure and unappreciation. This led on to her method of getting over this by recalling that William Blake was an unappreciated and ridiculed failure for his entire life. I must admit, my optimism worn down to a stump, that whenever I hear variations on this theme I find it trite at best and depressing at worst, rather than comforting, but I managed to avoid thinking so for the duration of her saying so. It helped that her speaking voice is gorgeous: low, hypnotic, sleepy, vaguely like Dylan’s, chopping off the ends of words and pronouncing ‘cigarette’ without its middle syllable so it sounds like ‘secret’.
Face to face, she was astonishingly old, I thought: nerve-thin, tightly strung, beatific. Smile. Clasp of the hand. I skipped off down the South Bank in the spring drizzle, the book clutched to me like it could stop bullets.
Inspiration can spring from the strangest of places. Kenickie were three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, a band preoccupied with glitter, Grease and Gary Numan. They began in the north-east lo-fi scene of the early 90s before kicking over the traces and high-tailing it to London in a blur of lipstick and leopardprint, attaining industry fame around the time I was sitting my GCSEs. Two albums and a trail of metropolitan mayhem later, Kenickie split up live onstage with the parting shot ‘We were Kenickie… a bunch of fuckwits’. In this piece, I’ll be speaking against the motion.
The last time I saw Carl Barat, he was still playing a rock star. Dirty Pretty Things’ final gig brought down the curtain on a part he played exceptionally well. A year on from their demise, out in the wilds of west London, Neil Sheppeck’s production of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love sees Barat audition for a different role. He’s always been a performer, with the Libertines’ and DPT’s gang mentality a fairly transparent protection against chronic insecurity and fear of isolation. There’s a similar protection afforded by having a part to play – a costume to wear and a script to follow which relieves the worry about being judged on your own merits. Doing so for a living seems a logical if precarious next step.
Most of my favourite bands are in some way preposterous, with an awareness of their own absurdity as their biggest saving grace. One of the best things about Magazine is the fact that a band of such glacial heights and dour, majestic melodrama were also perfectly capable of keeping a straight face and playing for laughs. There are productions and performances too at odds with expectation and image to be taken entirely seriously, while at the same time constituting serious brilliance.
Take Magazine’s Peel Session of 1978, which includes a version of ‘Boredom’, the song written a year earlier for Howard Devoto’s only official, trailblazing recording with the Buzzcocks. The original goes like this.
Although boredom found a natural home in punk neurosis, it is a concept that belongs to an earlier generation of existentialist philosophy. The Buzzcocks’ original took the 50s-rooted sense of isolation and imprisonment in spectacle and distilled it in subversive, snapped and snappy couplets, undercutting its pale and intense intellectualism with that gleefully amateur two-note guitar solo as sharp as an ironically raised eyebrow. Magazine’s cover sees this subversion break the surface, spilling over in an obnoxious psychedelic froth of keys and manic drum fills that swirl around a dry but sugar-high vocal burlesque. Giddy and exquisitely piss-taking, the song of a bubblegum pop trio composed of Sartrettes in white gloves and ponytails smoking candied clove cigarettes, it abandons both punk’s blank-eyed minimalism and philosophy’s aching po-face to twirl its black beret around one finger, kick up its circle skirt and turn cartwheels across genre boundaries.
Like all good covers, this makes no sense until the moment you hear it and afterwards makes all the sense in the world.
When I first got into music, in the moribund middle of the 1990s, not only was I living in a godforsaken postindustrial blackspot, but I was living there without the internet. The only place in my town which sold records was Woolworths, which sold the Top 20, on CD and cassette, and that was it. I once, as a thirteen year old Manicsfan, went into Woolworths and tried to preorder a copy of The Holy Bible. My enquiry was met with the same look of horror-struck uncertainty with which my mother, that same year, asked whether I’d been in a punch-up (I hadn’t; Rimmel’s ‘Gothic Miss’ eyeshadow palette and I were in our ill-advised experimental period, but the mistake is understandable). The nearest town whose emporia offered more cosmopolitan fare was an hour’s bus-ride away. In alternative cultural terms, the last one to leave my town had not only turned out the lights, but also painted the windows black and pissed on the stereo. Oh how I suffered.
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.
Patrick Wolf, ‘The Libertine’ (2005)
Pretentions to militant outsiderdom were ten a penny in the past decade, but few walked the walk like Patrick Wolf. ‘The Libertine’ takes the millenium’s tendency towards no-more-heroes melodrama, fuses it with a sense of self-belief you could bend steel around, and forges it into an unstoppable flight of righteous prickly petulance. Bleak and Yeatsian in outlook and atmosphere, the song opens with delicately poised piano and slowly-unravelling strings that bow under the weight of a thumping backbeat. Its galloping rhythms swoop and loop through outcrops of dark electro, spurred on by lyrics that scatter at swordpoint a slew of romantic and chivalric tropes before Wolf, alone in ‘a drought of truth and invention’, pulls us along through a full-throttle tilt at the darkness of a dried-up dystopia and over the edge into a better world.
The Avalanches, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ (2001)
Cut-and-paste is a dubious technique, missing more often than it hits, but when it works it’s wondrous. The Avalanches’ debut album provided a seemingly-effortless masterclass in superior sampling, with ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ as a deservedly acclaimed star turn. The dustbin of vinyl and B-movie history gets comprehensively upended in search of quality cast-offs, before these scraps are stitched together into a kaleidoscopic collage underlined with an imperious blast of brass that carries all before it like the flags of a conquering army.
Snow White, ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ (2004)
Perhaps the most defiantly runty of the decade’s squalling angular litter, the late and disappointingly little-lamented Snow White were always too good for relegation to a residency at Nathan Barley‘s Nailgun Arms. Their comparative strength lay in a Sonic Youth-derived lo-fi sensibility, song titles like ‘It’s Not Art, It’s Paedophile Porn’ and a preference for sneering over self-aggrandisement. Debut single ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ sticks out like a spike through the floorboards, the recording’s muffled and murky quality making the band sound as though they’re being held hostage in a coal shed. Full of densely scribbled white-hot guitar overwriting staticky bass and a buzzsaw vocal drone, rarely has a song done so exactly what it says on the tin with such bloody-minded and furious aplomb.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
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.
Missy Elliot, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (2001)
The best of several crossover cuts with which a bona fide goddess in hoop earrings and an inflatable binliner punctuated the first half of the decade, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ leads with a whiplash bhangra-bashing beat that doesn’t bother catching the ear but goes straight for the hips. Missy jerks the song’s strings like a demon puppetmaster, firing off smokily spare vocal rounds. Instantly infectious and a sufficiently sparkling gem as an original, its jittery genius was also picked up and polished in a glittering array of remixes that made the post-Nineties dancefloor a brighter place to be.
The Coral, ‘Dreaming of You’ (2002)
The Coral debuted in 2002 with a melting-pot of an album, bowled along on waves of retro-rummaging and sea-shanty-imbued psychedelia. Second single ‘Dreaming of You’ is perfectly structured pop that shines like a diamond dug out of a Merseybeat time-capsule, but remains sufficiently scratched with the band’s spirit of unpolished experimentation to rise above mere emulation of their influences. It’s a deceptively jaunty two-and-a-bit minutes, smoothing over the raw melancholic isolation displayed in its lyrics with a torrent of ramshackle harmonies and a restless and infectious melodic vitality. While subsequent albums would see The Coral’s envelope-pushing lead them down increasingly complex musical paths, ‘Dreaming of You’ is a slice of straight up-and-down genius whose star has yet to fade.
The Libertines, ‘Time For Heroes’ (2003)
Not the spuriously-compiled Best Of lately issued by those intent on picking clean the bones of a band long-buried, but the five-years-younger standout single from a band lean, hungry and arrestingly articulate. Its guitar-led opening clamour was urgent enough to turn heads away from the barren wastes of contemporary indie and onto the sea of possibilities and passions that swirled in the space between stumbling drumbeats and Doherty’s smoothly confident evocation of a once and future urban utopia. Amidst flashes of modern May Day folklore, ‘Time For Heroes’ forged its own mythology of young bloods, obscene scenes and stylish rioters, its lyrics rich with in-jokes, countercultural cast-offs and quietly camp wit. How long had it been since the charts were troubled by a piece of such grammatical, political and aesthetic perfection as the line ‘There are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap’? The song throws open the doors to a kingdom of self-reference and self-reverence and, with a knowingly urchinish doff of the cap, ushers you into Arcadia and urges you to consider yourself at home. The Libertines flame was soon to be extinguished in a whirlwind of smack, self-destruction, supermodels and speculation on Pete and Carl’s domestic harmony, but, while it lasted, this was a band on fire.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Saul Williams, ‘Black Stacey’ (2004)
In a just and rational world, the stunning and eminently quotable work of Saul Williams would have seen him hailed as the Messiah by now. ‘Black Stacey’ is part confessional memoir, part consciousness-raising rallying-cry, all righteous, fluid articulacy over flowing, portentous beats. Willliams’ cool, composed and self-possessed narration, refreshing as a slug of cold water, argues down braggadocio in favour of a clear-eyed self-respect. The song’s apotheosis is its languidly swaying chorus laid down over the steady piano-led pulse of an artist who knows where he’s from, where it’s at and where we should be heading. Someone get the man a pulpit and a personality cult.
Lupen Crook, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ (2006)
Reportedly recorded in Mr Crook’s hallway, presumably during one of his rare fixed-abode phases, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ is scene-savaging par excellence, flecked with spit and sarcasm. Its tune is built around a steely scrape and skitter that sounds like the malfunctioning of a music-box, and a spray of squealing laughter that makes you tense with the urge to put your fist through the window of the Hawley Arms. Lupen’s pinched-tight vocal squeezes itself through the gaps between, with all the disgusted Cassandrine despair of the only sober passenger on a nightbus home from Dalston.
Amanda Palmer, ‘Oasis’ (2008)
It’s the fag-end of the future’s first decade and, in the land of the free, darkness is spreading under the shadow of a right-wing fundamentalist ascendancy that threatens reproductive rights and freedom of information. Who you gonna call, if not Boston’s finest punk-cabaret force of nature? On ‘Oasis’, Amanda hammers out a relentlessly breezy Beach Boys clap-along, face set in a rictus grin as her teenage protagonist recounts My Rape and Consequent Abortion: the Panto Version. This satire on received expectations of feminine behaviour sees life’s little misadventures pale into dismissible insignificance before our heroine’s life-affirming receipt of a signed photograph from Oasis. And why not? Described by Palmer as ‘pro-choice but anti-stupid’, the song’s strength lies not in trivialising real and immediate horrors, but in rendering them absurd enough to laugh at, and by extension pointing up the equal absurdity of their treatment in the social and political sphere. In a predictable if appropriately head-desking twist, the song’s subject matter meant that both the single and its Palin-baiting video were subject to an airplay ban in the UK. God knows what the Gallaghers made of it, but ‘Oasis’ remains a jaw-dropping counterpunch for times when laughter is the most powerful weapon to hand.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
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.]
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.
Who’d be Paramore’s Hayley Williams? Back since the days when puddles of critical drool were wont to collect at the feet of Debbie Harry, lone women in bands have never had it easy. If they’re not being derided for a supposed lack of musical ability, leading them to cling onto the coattails of their backing boys, they’re being judged on an examination of their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. With the mainstream rock press seeming to pay more attention to William’s frequent topping of ‘Sexiest Female’ readers’ polls than to the clutch of other awards Paramore have secured, it’s unsurprising that she was recently moved to argue that Paramore should be seen as more than “this girl-fronted band”. For some potential listeners, Paramore may also be tainted by association with multimedia phenomenon Twilight (‘Decode’, included here as a bonus track, was released last year in conjunction with the novel-based film). All in all, it seems plausible to treat their new album’s title as a plea for listeners to take a fresh look at the band solely on the merits of its music.
It’s ironic that the media focus on Williams has reportedly caused the band such grief, since her vocal presence is perhaps the thing which does most to set Paramore apart from other contenders. Over the course of three albums, her delivery has become mature, strong and smoothly, fluidly melodic, skirting self-righteousness while avoiding the bratty foot-stamping common to the litter of other pop-punkettes to whom she is often compared. (‘All I Wanted’ features a vocal blast that is no less impressive for the spectre of Evanescence it raises.) Lyrically, too, Paramore are perhaps surprisingly clear-eyed and engaging: we get the deconstruction of fairytale romance on ‘Brick by Boring Brick’; unapologetic escape from smalltown frustration on ‘Feeling Sorry’; and self-conscious meta-narrative on ‘Looking Up’.
In terms of style, they sit precariously at the point where the upper echelons of emo mesh with the lower depths of bubblegum-punk. The album kicks off at a breakneck pace, the opening of ‘Careful’ erupting out of a portentous backwash of beats, before we encounter the machine-gun rattle of lead single ‘Ignorance’. Then, having caught its breath for the angst-pop of ‘Playing God’, the rest of the album divides itself between the full-throated, fast and frenetic (‘Looking Up’, ‘Where The Lines Overlap’), and yearning or reflective slowies that veer dangerously close to power ballad territory (‘Misguided Ghosts’, ‘The Only Exception’).
Ultimately, while brand new eyes makes Paramore’s case for being taken seriously as a competent musical outfit, on the same evidence it is difficult to discern much greater depth to the band. The music here comes perfectly served in bite-sized chunks, making it easy to digest but difficult to get one’s teeth into. While undeniably heartfelt and delivered with power and precision, too many songs here suffer from an overly glossy and slick production which makes them slip down easily but without much impact, leaving the listener with little appetite for more of the same.
Written for Wears the Trousers.
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.
All the ink excitably spilled over the Spiral Scratch EP, its importance to the punk moment and its surrounding DIY culture, is for once entirely justified. It is the definitive work of a definitive band – the Shelley-Devoto era Buzzcocks, rather than the melodically lovelorn troubadours, still excellent but not extraordinary, which Buzzcocks became through their post-Devoto reshuffle. It is four songs in eleven minutes of jittery speedfreak punk and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Aptly titled, the music here is at once constrained and claustrophobic, panicky screeds of guitar and frantic drum fills hemming in breathlessly gabbled lyrics, and an irritatingly insistent, needle-like pricking at the hindbrain. The gleefully amateur (two notes, or three?) guitar solo that slices ‘Boredom’ in half is pure punk minimalism. Likewise, Devoto’s stab at capturing the sub-Rotten delivery, that uber-obnoxious yammering where the vocal cords appear to be entirely composed of snot and amphetamine, comes close to producing (or pre-emptively parodying?) the definitive punk vocal. It captures, more accurately, what you think Rotten’s going to sound like until you listen and realise how inimitable and curiously feline his voice actually is, but it still happily gobs in the eye of all other contenders.
The lyrics, again, form a litany of tactics and techniques that would come to define the genre. Beyond the obvious tenets of boredom, isolation and dysfunction, ‘Boredom’ mixes all-encompassing ennui with the knowingly self-absorbed self-abstraction of ‘you see I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me’. The band are, as Devoto keeps reminding us, only acting dumb. The lyrics are, winningly, shot through with a sharp-edged wit which punk often singularly lacks, kicking off with ‘Breakdown’s laugh-out-loud understatement of ‘If I seem a little jittery…’, continuing with the dry ‘I can stand austerity but it gets a little much’, and running through Shelley and Devoto’s deadpan call-and-response dissection of relationship dissatisfaction in ‘Time’s Up’. Another of the many tensions more widely explored in punk but encapsulated here is that between an impulse towards glee in deviant pansexuality (cf also the still-astonishing ‘Orgasm Addict’), and a viscerally disgusted horror of intimacy (cf Devoto’s shriek in ‘Boredom’ of ‘who are you trying to arouse?! / get yer ‘and out of my trousers!’, like an outraged maiden aunt).
There is a sense here of there being too many words and notes for comfort or relaxation. Too many disparate thoughts and ambiguous intrigues are packed into a line like ‘I hear that two is company for me it’s plenty trouble / though my doublethoughts are clearer now that I am seeing double’ – is it discussing infidelity, alcoholism, mental disconnection or the intertwining of all three? – which neither the careering music nor the desperate vocal can stop to explain. Having too much to say in too little time is a function of punk’s peculiar certainty of built-in obsolescence and impending disaster, the impuse to throw all that you have at the world before both you and it are overwhelmed by anarchy in the UK. While ‘Boredom’ and ‘Breakdown’ write this large (‘I’m already a has-been’; ‘I just came up from nowhere / and I’m going straight back there’), the petty domestic reflection of a preoccupation with the future’s destructive ferment is nailed in the musical and lyrical impatience that has the protagonist of ‘Time’s Up’ chainsmoking and tapping his foot while his girlfriend deliberates. There is no time to waste before your time’s up. The product of a band that were over in this incarnation almost before they began, Spiral Scratch is both a document of and testament to a social and cultural moment where if you were going to do anything, you had to do it now. Everything that follows may as well be a footnote.