The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The lyrics to "Wishing on a Star" by Rose Royce, a top three hit 25 years ago this autumn, have always puzzled me. Which people was Gwen Dickey actually wishing on? I thought for years it might be "all the people we'll never be" which would have been the most extraordinarily sad lyric ever, or, only slightly less affecting, "all the people we'll never meet." But careful research has now established that there are two kinds of people mentioned in the lyric: "all the people we've ever seen" (which indicates that she's not even thinking of there not being a future) and more generally "all the people who ever dream" which frankly is a letdown.

But the most inexplicable part of the lyric, up there with "Memories don't live like people do," must be "I feel it's time for us to get back together/Make the best of things, oh baby, when we're together (thereby implying that their relationship is less than perfect, but settling for what they can get)/WHETHER OR NEVER." I mean, whether or never what? If there never is going to be a rekindling of the relationship, then why implore that they make the best of things?

Musically, of course, all such trifle is obliterated by the seductiveness of the melody and production. And what a fadeout - strings and moog rising in hopeful expectation before settling back into reality. And the punctum comes right at the end, right at the fadeout, where Gwen Dickey suddenly gives one painful howl, just before the song itself is obliterated by silence.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

There's no doubt about it, I had to listen to the Gang of Four again. Their first three albums sit in my garage; of those, only the first (Entertainment) has seen any turntable action in the last 20 years. But I wanted to write about the Liars, so needed to see if the umbilical cord really existed, and if so how strong it was.

Fortunately, in my front room I do have a copy of A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (The EMI Compilation) - what a brilliant inadvertent duende in that subtitle! - which contains pretty well everything the Gang of Four did that was interesting, plus a definitive essay from Greil Marcus. Remarkable how fresh it suddenly all sounds, probably because rhythmically they were wise enough (at least when Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham were the rhythm section) not to be bolted down to 1978 eternal, but are instead ambling, disjointed but not disconcerting, and unafraid of silence (listen to that meaningful pause in the middle of the track "Paralysed"); all the better to balance the contained vocal rage of Jon King and the uncontained guitar rage of Andy Gill. Observe the latter's astonishing Bailey-style plectral sideswipes which finally overwhelm "At Home He's A Tourist," alternating with the most deliciously oblique chordal guitar backing since Ray Crawford on Gil Evans' "La Nevada" or Gary Kemp on Spandau Ballet's "Paint Me Down."

If postpunk can somehow be summarised as existing on a scale stretching from epilepsy to fluidity (from the in-yer-gob freeforming of the Pop Group via the bridge-building of PiL to the serenity at the core of Joy Division's doubting) then GoF were at the lower end of epileptic, but just radiating to a recognition of something above what they were trying to express. Not that what they were trying to express was not valid; indeed it remains so. "Return the Gift" nails Big Brother-ism 20 years ahead ("Give me evenings and weekends" King pleads). On the latter track, by the way, note how the whole band audibly "bends" in frustration halfway through. They could play together.

The second album Solid Gold was shrugged at disappointingly in 1981 - what, guys, you're still slaving away at the Sisyphus of Spart? Even the Pop Group have given up! The six tracks plucked from it for this compilation still sound pretty fresh to me - like Josef K on the verge of losing their Edinburghdonian cool and being prodded southwards, the funk more frantic, at least in the treble range. "Capital (It Fails Us Now)" is a hymn of self-hatred, the song's subject living on credit and now about to go bankrupt ("My credit card - oh no! I left it in my OTHER suit!" exclaims King with relish).

(Slight diversion: interesting how ruination in Western pop music is always viewed in this way. Compare the apparently carefree "Indoda Yejazi Elimnyama" by the Soweto vocal group Amaswazi Emvelo, in which they cheerfully sing about "being harassed by the man in the black coat/Every payday I find him waiting for me outside the gate/He demands all my money even when I hide it")

And what about their "proper" bid for the mainstream - 1982's Songs of the Free? Almost as bleak as OMD's Architecture and Morality, it murmurs in dark corners - that not even remotely Sumner-like melodica! - "Call Me Up" a desperate plea for salvation, King probably singing to himself; and the top 10 without a doubt had it not been for the Falklands war "I Love A Man In A Uniform" where GoF explode in their own imminent redundancy. "The girls they love to see you shoot!" whoops King ecstatically over Eurythmics-style deadpan backing vox (incidentally, musically a very clever inversion of Space's "Magic Fly"). But they were doomed. Consider the Thompson Twins, who ripped the GoF's whole schtick, tidied it down and cleaned up. Consider also the dismal 1983 let's have a hit Hard album, which wasn't (significantly only represented here by two tracks, one of which finds King sounding alarmingly like Jarvis Cocker).

So what about the Liars? Well, apart from a superficially similar interest in disjointing rock rhythms (using the same dub template), their debut album (really a mini-album with a 20-minute loop at the end of the last track) They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top doesn't have an awful lot in common with the GoF, or indeed much postpunk, except possibly for the vocals. At the beginning of the first track ("Grown men don't fall in the river, just like that" - the songs seem to have homilies rather than titles) there is a faux-Gen X Oldham-cum-Malkmus vocal ("Everybody in his or her own life should have a hobby/Stops the pains/That work and rent create") before suddenly exploding and now howling that they have their "finger on the pulse of America." The rest of the album proceeds in a similar fashion, though much closer in nature to the Pop Group than GoF (the vocals, interestingly, become increasingly Anglicised as the record goes on; very Mark Stewart). The nearest they get to a manifesto is in track five (the album's best) "Tumbling walls buried me in the debris with ESG" which obligingly samples (intelligently) the leitmotif of the latter's "UFO" where they state "Leave your work at home! Put down the briefcase!" and also that they would rather be "hurt than right, rather be sick than dead, rather be loved . . . than NOT loved" (the pause is significant). Strangely, by the final track the vocalist sounds remarkably like Michael Gira (play it next to "New Mind" by the Swans and see what I mean).

In summary, I cannot quite work out what they are trying to achieve, and suspect that neither can they, but feel that this is a good thing and there is something significant going on here which should override any preconceptions about postpunk. It existed, but has been under-exploited and underdeveloped, and there are many ways of achieving this. Similarly, a band like Interpol interest me because they are taking their cue from FIRST album Joy Division rather than the Closer template adopted by all other JD impersonators, i.e. spikier, more directly involving - and again there is something major waiting to blossom from that particular chrysalis.

Incidentally, if you want music of now which accurately expresses and develops upon what the Gang of Four were attempting back in the day, listen to Lali Puna's extraordinary Scary World Theory album, an important record which proves that radicalism can don many different sorts of aesthetic clothing.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

"We're the only ones here so speak your mind,
I feed your appetite, so you feed mine.
I sing for you, so you can find your way home.

There's nothing to fear but fear itself,
If you know how to look inside yourself.
I sing for you.

Forget all you learned from yesterday,
If you learn how to change, you'll change today.
I sing for you, so you can find your way home.
I pray for you.

And I breathe aside my impurities,
But I can't take your insecurities.
If you trust, then trust me now.
Can you trust?

Round and round together, round and round forever.
Pray for me, pray for me so I can find my way home.
Leave me now, so I can be alone.
Can you be alone?"

("I Sing For You" by Tricky, from album Nearly God)

The birhythmic undulation of this song is a wonder. Cath Coffey's caressing vocal; the sad chord descent which could have come straight from Aphex' Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. John Tradescant's palm trees reimagined astride the war memorial which arises at the foot of the Ebury Rail Bridge, going into Victoria, early 1995. Before Elias Ashmole ripped them off.

No I can't be alone, in case you were wondering, and I know you were.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Come to think of it, Ms Stone's "20 Dollars" samples the intro - and CRUCIALLY nothing more - from Al Green's "Simply Beautiful."

The reverse truth of non-sensual romance: "but nobody's helping ME."

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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