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.
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
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.]
Last night’s Indelicates gig was a welcome confirmation of their place in my heart. I was closer to the front than I’ve been for a while – front row in front of Julia, where a baffling amount of space had been left, possibly by her sheer force of charisma or possibly due to fear of incurring her imperious wrath by getting too close while being clearly inferior. Essentially I fell in love with this band the first time I saw them, and they’ve never really deviated from the impression I was left with then. As a five-piece they were interacting far more emphatically and playfully than I’ve seen before. The playing’s more tight these days and as a function of their confidence, precision and bottomless rage, the songs sometimes feel deliberately deployed like gunshots.
Something it’s taken me some time to appreciate is the band’s impressiveness in aesthetic terms. Both female Indelicates have a unique sartorial elegance and poise; where Kate remains serenely unruffled throughout, cool and almost detached in her own bass-heroic world, Julia throws herself into her role, singing with eyes-screwed-shut concentration and finishing songs with icy precision collapsing into uncomprehending, self-effacing smiles, looking half-embarrassed by her degree of accomplishment and its reception. Simon, dressed brilliantly bizarrely (cf last night’s t-shirt featuring Cher as Che Guevara), just stares and sneers and seethes. And then there’s their rhythm guitarist, bless him. A shining example of the lengths one must go to for attention when your bandmates have the stage presence of Simon and Julia, his services to swivel-eyed, spittle-flecked stagecraft reminded me of nothing so much as Steerpike playing Sid Vicious.
One new song: ‘I Am Koresh’, murky and militaristic, which in sound and concept reminded me of ‘Personal Jesus’ and is apparently from their upcoming second LP, ‘a concept album about Waco’. (Hmm.) ‘America’ was brilliantly done, dedicated to John McCain and with a crowd-baiting namecheck for Sarah Palin in place of Bill O’Reilly. (Hmm, again. As Sinead said afterwards, there’s layers-of-irony and then there’s just losing your mind. I have steadfastly avoided comparing my favourite bands to my previous favourite band, but part of ‘America’s dodginess for me is the same unsettled well yes, but – that bothered me (and them, to be fair) about ’Archives of Pain’ – by all means be blazingly angry about your conception of the vagaries of bleeding-heart liberals, but don’t let the finished article read like the Daily Mail. Not that ‘America’ isn’t vastly more subtle and superior.) At least there was no ‘Better to Know’, ‘America’s drippy cardigan-wearing cousin.
As for ‘Our Daughters Will Never Be Free’, I wish everyone with a progressive, performative bone in their body could have crammed in to see it. Julia, abandoning the keyboard, sang the first verse a capella to crowd handclaps before the band slammed in and she took entire control of the stage, tiny and piercing and wound-up with churning uberfeminist rage, disgust and despair. She concluded, slumping back down with her hair all over her face, howling pro-choice invective and the final ad-lib ‘You can be that girl or you can be my kind of girl…’ I can’t imagine it done better.
Best band around.
Camden, that boil on the neck of North London, was briefly brightened up last night by an Indelicates gig. They were the best I’ve seen them so far. Arrogant as fuck, opening with ‘The Last Significant Statement to be Made in Rock’n’Roll’ and in content and form embodying the line Anger is an energy.
The more I hear them live, the less satisfied I am with the demos and downloads I have. I like their clever-cleverness and their occasional prissiness of delivery – the concept behind a song like the girls-school madrigal version of ‘Our Daughters Will Never be Free’ makes it a practical requirement – but I can see why they attract criticism on grounds of being twee or self-satisfied or, apparently, too ‘drama-studenty’. (Sorry, she went to Goldsmiths; objectionable drama-student tendencies spread there with the virulence of memes or STDs).
But the demos lack the seeming desperation and spat-out contempt that drives the songs when live. On record, only ‘Fun is for the Feeble-Minded’ and maybe ‘Julia We Don’t Live in the Sixties’ come close to reflecting the urgency and vitriol of their onstage selves. ‘Sixteen’ is glorious live, skipping along giddy with laughing in the face of scenesterettes. ‘Heroin’ (which I was astonished to learn is not a Suede pisstake, but should be), is a perfectly sustained and poker-faced lament that pulls the carpet out from under the past decade’s eulogising of crap towns, pointless lives and pale thin girls with eyes forlorn. ‘We Hate the Kids’ is already one of our great lost singles, simplistic enough but delivered compulsively vicious with a beautifully executed swagger that renders it anthemic. Live, they mean it even more.
Lyrics like ‘Rebellion shores up the market / Rebellion keeps the nation healthy’ have been done, of course (’Turning rebellion into money’, ‘Rebellion it always sells at a profit’), but when they’re done it’s generally a sign of self-awareness rather than empty sloganeering. Being conscious of and informed by your own ultimate futility and counterproductiveness – the knowledge that your kicking against the whole corrupt edifice does nothing so much as tire you out and keep it standing – is preferable to trading on the idea that popular music currently has any great capacity for danger, subversion or originality, that the revolution is only a sponsored arena tour away. The scene has (once more) become sufficiently smug, bloated and prickable as to call into existence fierce quick creatures with sharp teeth. They are a necessary band. Best song titles since Doherty/Barat, too.
I’m quite aware that people dislike The Indelicates. Alright. It’s rare for me to find a band I’m happy to love. It’s rare that a band inspire me, and this band does. This band also make me want a badge that says ‘They don’t hate the kids as much as I do.’