Great Rock n Roll Swindles: Rethinking Justine Frischmann
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 outside of everything: a Howard Devoto primer.
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
Yeah, I’m still here, although increasingly writing elsewhere. Notably I wrote for BadRep on Why ‘Chav’ is a Feminist Issue.
Have some more songs.
Lupen Crook, Junk n Jubilee
This from oh, such a while back now. Seems like a whole other London. A cut-off video, which is all I could find, but do hear the proper version, which still makes me tense with the urge to put my fist through the window of the Hawley Arms:
Manic Street Preachers, A Design For Life
This from the band too weird to talk about when you talk about the 90s. Included half because I’ve just been back to the place I grew up (and for ‘grew up’, read ‘grew up a Manics fan’) and half because the song resonates with me right now, with reality topping dystopian visions at every turn almost faster than one can think them up:
Oh, and I went to an Amanda Palmer gig last Friday. Not to damn with faint praise or anything, but I liked her more than I did when I wrote this.
Libraries Gave Us Power: notes on the Manic Street Preachers and class
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
I Don’t Like Mondays: The Third Rail, ‘Run, Run, Run’
Picture, if you will, one of the more vividly and outlandishly grisly works of Hieronymus Bosch. (Hell, in these days of Web 68.0, you don’t even have to waste your energy on picturing it; here y’are.) Now imagine that some vengeful spirit has, in a fit of malevolent magic, brought such a scene to life and has set it trundling between north and central London, twenty-four hours a day, its creatures and creative torments crammed into the stifling confines of a bendy-bus. And there you have a basic idea of what it’s like commuting on the number 29.
Gaye Advert and the Great Cock ‘n’ Balls Swindle
‘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.
Not Raving but Frowning.
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
Shock of the Newport: notes on Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s ‘Your Missus is a Nutter’
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
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.
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.