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

Monday, January 06, 2003

“Historicism stresses the importance of change. Now in every change, the historicist might argue, there must be something that changes. Even if nothing remains unchanged, we must be able to identify what has changed in order to speak of change at all.”
(Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, chapter I, subsection 9: “Essentialism vs Nominalism,” Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957)

Or does everything end up as a loop? I write this, having returned from spending two weeks in the house in which I lived for the first 17 years of my life, and feeling exceptionally enthusiastic about where music is going. In fact it is safe to say that I have not felt as enthusiastic and as directly involved in, and passionate about, music for 20 years; and this disturbs me greatly.

My chronological contributions to the “RFI: 1982” thread on ILM were significant in that 1982 was distinctly the last time when I felt this way about music. In the intervening 20 years, of course, lies a defunct period of my life which now feels like a vaguely surreal mirage; a fantasy, a dream of a life which may not actually have been lived. Have I, in essence, moved on from 1982 at all? And if not, is “not moving on” necessarily a bad thing? And if not, is my view of 2002 as a peak year for music in itself a fantasy?

One could certainly derive such a conclusion from the end-of-year round-ups and “best of” lists throughout the printed media; almost without exception we were subjected to none too profound commentary on the same few spent operatives – lots of Robbie, Kylie, Madge, Mick and Keef, little if anything about 2002 being a year of particular distinction. Business as usual; another ticking-over year, another 1974 or 1986 or 1993. Most “best of” lists were packed to the brim with the usual mediocrities and timeservers, with everything of real value either ignored or dismissed curtly and inaccurately; no change there, then. The inexplicable popularity with critics of records such as Murray Street seems to reinforce Andre Hodeir’s “grey-bearded Milt Jackson” theory that musicians only achieve popular and critical acclaim when they have run out of things to say. Or that I, in my supposed delusion, am missing a very big point and am mistaking my own involuntarily renewed passion for music for an upturn in standards – but needless to say I do not think that the latter holds much water.

Nor do we need to pay much attention to the “Hollandisation” of music being attempted by old folk who mistook High Fidelity for the Sermon on the Mount (and will similarly mistake 31 Songs for the Feeding of the Five Thousand). One glance at Jools Holland’s beyond-ghastly New Year’s Hootenanny by those not in the know would have been enough to turn anyone off music for life – a programme which might just have well been made in 1972; Tom Jones, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Plant, Jeff Beck still doing his bargain basement Sonny Sharrock impressions. Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Box 1976 had more to offer to under-40s than this did. “Youth” was represented by the officially sanctioned Ms Dynamite, the far from youthful Doves, who revealed themselves as the Big Country de nos jours I always thought them to be, and an almost dead on their feet Pulp, presumably frogmarched onto the programme by Island Records in a last-ditch attempt to flog that greatest hits album. Jarvis Cocker looked completely bewildered; “Sorted For Es & Whizz” now coming across like a rather tattered mid-‘90s cultural relic whose relevance had long since vanished. Worse by a long stretch was the attempted rehabilitation of Chas and Dave (complete with Pearly Kings) as the voices of “authentic London music”; to see the dead likes of Ben Elton and Hugh Laurie raving over them was almost unwatchable. Perhaps saddest of all was the largely chairbound Solomon Burke, brought back to be patronised and patted on the head; and from the ubiquity of his comeback album in the end of year polls we can deduce yet again that black music is only acceptable when its practitioners are too old and infirm to be sexy, radical or threatening, and especially when rich white people are hired to write the songs. The finale saw him systematically humiliated by having to sing that 36-year-old piece of dreck “Hi Ho Silver Lining” with the rest of the cast. Side by side with Tom Jones, Rowland Rivron and Chas and Dave; Burke must have felt that he had descended into Hell.

Other random observations over the season:

Yes, Will and Gareth have fine and potentially interesting voices, but they desperately need a Joe Meek or Trevor Horn-type visionary to deliver them into better musical waters.

The desperate attempt by Popstars to regress entertainment by at least 30 years; one moment we have the blissful nowness of “Sound of the Underground,” the next, both boys and girls are forced at bayonet point to render the 69-year-old “Winter Wonderland” to an MoR orchestral backing which might as well have been the Black and White Minstrels. Why is necrophilia constantly practised on this long-deceased song? What relevance can “Parson Brown” possibly have to any 19-year-old kid? Still, worth watching for Waterman’s barely concealed grimace as he said “I told you that the Cheeky Girls song would go top five!” – at the time of writing, three places above One True Voice (who also deserve much better, a Thom Bell or a Norman Whitfield at the very least) in the singles chart.

The “Hollandisation” effect which ruined the Christmas Day episodes of EastEnders; the injection of the gospel choir and Hornby-approved songs like "Stand By Me” into the wedding ceremony (and intercut with Jamie Mitchell’s death scene) was completely gratuitous. In reality Little Mo and Billy would probably have been content with a tape of Martine McCutcheon’s “Moment” or even Aaliyah’s “One In A Million,” but there you are again – the theory (only ever held by middle-class whites) that black pop music between 1959-68 is somehow “pure” and “sacred” and that all subsequent pop music has been a cheap bastardisation of “truth.” Elephant Man and/or Dizzy Rascal would have been a far braver and more adventurous choice for a soundtrack – but this is the same bunch of Tristrams who always cast the likes of Liza Tarbuck and Fay Ripley as “jazz singers”; usually Marian Montgomery-style MoR “jazz” singers, music which is spuriously applauded but which is never listened to by anyone sentient, there only to lend a smear of “class” to proceedings.

The line from the final Morse: “I would rather be ill and treated by you, than be well and never see you again.”

Two records (out of many) of whose genius I was reminded over the season:

“Getting A Drag,” the second of Lynsey de Paul’s great trilogy of 1972-73 singles – virtually the blueprint for Elastica, further distinguished by a harp gliding insanely throughout for no good reason (which of course in itself is a good reason). Appropriate that at that stage she should be on MAM Records; a very pertinent female counterpart to Gilbert O’Sullivan, one of the most nihilistic minds active in the charts of the ‘70s – it’s significant that O’Sullivan’s chart career effectively ended just as Elvis Costello’s was getting started.

And Gladys Knight’s knowingly desperate, but never theatrical, reading of “Help Me Make It Through The Night” – yet again, a plea to be allowed to remain alive, so much more touching because it is underplayed so precisely. Producer and arranger Johnny Bristol understood.

Oh, and a reissue and a compilation which I unforgivably left out of my “old music” top 50 – Amalgam’s Prayer For Peace (I listened to my father’s old vinyl copy while at home) and Lol Coxhill’s Spectral Soprano, a superb 2CD retrospective of the great English visionary saxophonist stretching from 1954 until now.

As a link, we must not overlook the soundtrack album from Buffy The Musical; the songs, isolated from the visuals, become even more striking, powerful and pertinent – a sort of post-Douglas Coupland Escalator Over The Hill, if you will; it’s that good. And Anthony Head, on “Standing,” does Elliot Smith better than Elliot Smith.

As a public duty, I must warn you about the imminent massacre of “Big Yellow Taxi.” You thought the Amy Grant cover was bad? Be very afraid of Vanessa Carlton AND Counting Crows.

But we must not be lax about nowness, so it is my duty to alert you to the first great record of 2003, namely:


A Russian lesbian duo; imagine what you would like the Cheeky Girls to be like, and moreover with Trevor Horn producing at least part of their debut album. The imminent first single (at least it’s imminent in the UK; it’s already #1 in Switzerland and in the Billboard Hot 100) “All The Things She Said” (most assuredly NOT the Simple Minds song) is produced by Horn. It’s not premature to assert that this is his best production since “Slave To The Rhythm.” On this and what I assume will be the follow-up single “Not Gonna Get Us,” Horn sounds reborn, re-enlivened, with a sparkle that has long since been dormant in his work. Hear the intro of “Not Gonna Get Us” which sounds like a hyped-up Art of Noise (not the nice-try-but-still-a-mockery that was the Art of Noise of Seduction Of Claude Debussy) and which roars unequivocally into the twin-pronged vocal attack of Lena Katina and Julia Volkova. If you wondered what Thereza Bazar and Claudia Brücken might have sounded like together, here is the answer; I’ve no idea which one’s which, but Bazaresque soft embrace is countered by Brückenesque knowing stridency. Lyrically it’s a far more urgent and relevant (because less clumsily allegorical) “Born To Run” – a declaration of undying love between two women. The sudden screaming of the lyric “Lights from the airfield shining upon you” will pierce you. “All The Things She Said,” which must surely be a number one record, is a brilliantly relentless pop assault; powered by Abbaesque harmonic poignancy – this really is Dollar reborn with a vengeance (“I’m feeling for her what she’s feeling for me”). The song’s punctum occurs at 1:13 with the scream “THIS IS NOT ENOUGH!” with another near-punctum at 2:40 as the music suddenly subsides and the voice plaintively intones “Mother looking at me/Tell me what do you see/Yes, I’ve lost my mind.” Few producers are as skilled with dynamics and the use of silence as Horn; fewer producers have passed up the chance to use these skills as Horn has done in recent years. He only produces one other track on the album – “Clowns (Can You See Me Now?),” a terrific (because still despairing) post-House stomper.

Elsewhere production duties are assigned to Martin Kierszenbaum and Robert Orton, but the good news is that it hardly matters; they adhere pretty strictly to the Horn template, if they don’t quite have the same sure grasp of dynamics. “Show Me Love” is a brutal lament for a barely expressible pain, the nature of which we only learn with the sinister whisper at the song’s close “Fucked by Mum and Papa.” “30 Minutes” is an semi-acoustic ballad about uncertainty (though the “That Black” dance remix also included on the album doesn’t really add anything to its quiet power). The love is, of course, fulfilled, and in the closing pair of songs “Malchik Gay” and “Stars” the girls surrender to each other; still with some fear, but certain that they have taken the correct road.

But the absolute stroke of genius occurs midway through the album; their recasting of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” – a redefinition as brilliant and visionary as Propaganda’s warped reading of “Sorry For Laughing” (indeed, most of this album could accurately be described as Dollar singing over Propaganda). Here Marr’s backward-reverb guitar motif is assigned to the synths; it comes at you and through you like a serrated blade through the head; a pain and frustration which will not stop recurring. The vocal here is far more assertive, but just as troubled and precarious, as Morrissey’s on the original; the ‘80s indie disco transposed to the equally loveless 21st-century clubland. In some ways this track serves as a payback; in the original “How Soon Is Now?” there is a stealth to the song’s progression and structure (explicitly so in the secondary guitar motif which Marr introduces halfway through) which is highly reminiscent of early Simple Minds (think especially “Seeing Out The Angels”).

Let’s see the angels back in, however. This entirely unexpected masterstroke/rebirth bodes well for the year.

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