The Church Of Me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Is Julie Burchill correct when she says that Girls Aloud are the most important pop group since the Sex Pistols? She may well be, if for no other reason that Girls Aloud have hit upon an uncomfortable truth about pop which only the Pistols have previously managed to express so bluntly. We ought to have known, of course, from the real “underground” of discomfiture which underpinned their debut single “Sound Of The Underground” (“Crank the bass, I’ve gotta get some more/Water’s running in the wrong direction”) which describes an addiction to music which is more clinical than celebratory. And it is now confirmed on their second single “No Good Advice.” Ostensibly another post-Shangri Las anthem in favour of not paying attention to your parents, there is something considerably more disturbing going on in this record. It is the parallel to the clenched teeth irony of Bill Fay’s “Some Good Advice” (the final line of which advises, “But don’t listen to anything that anyone tells you”), but its “My Sharona”-gone-wrong groove points to someone who is actually past the point of help, the dying screams of an incurable addict. Ms Dynamite’s “stereo” motif is echoed, but this is not a lifeforce but a needle which will eventually kill the consumer. “I don’t need no special fix to anaesthetise me” howl the singers unconvincingly. “Shut your mouth!” snarls one of them (Cheryl? Kimberley? Sarah? Nicola? Nadine? Can anyone truly tell them apart? And what would be achieved if we could?). “I’m already wasted” they go on to proclaim; and finally there’s the astonishing anonymous soliloquy at the song’s close, which culminates – in a direct echo of “Pretty Vacant” – in a malevolently grinning “’Cos frankly, I don’t even care.”

It is supposed to be a euphoric blast of teen liberation, but in fact it’s one of the most terrifying moments in pop since “Death Disco” – that point where Lydon/Girls Aloud suddenly turn to face the camera and sneer murderously at the consumer, as if to laugh, “You think that pop is supposed to matter?” It is terrifying precisely because the consumer is expected to applaud it as a masterstroke of subtextual subversion, though it is really an undisguised truth.

(Consider the closing sequence of the “Dance Of The Dead” episode of The Prisoner wherein Mary Morris, a last-minute substitute for an unwell Trevor Howard as Number 2, laughs through Patrick McGoohan, through the camera, through our screens, directly at us, as behind her the disconnected teleprinter continues to print indecipherable data. The real terror here lies in the possibility that McGoohan, off screen, is participating in, or even initiating, this laughter. As systematic and lethal as the knife which proceeds to bisect Waldo, the geek progenitor of the Velvets’ “The Gift”)

On the cover of the debut album by Girls Aloud, also entitled Sound Of The Underground, there is a pink sticker which proclaims “YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS CAN BE THE VOICES OF GIRLS ALOUD!” This turns out to be a device whereby if you plug a microphone into your PC and programme the CD correctly, you can sing into the microphone – significantly over a section of “No Good Advice” – and depending on whose name you click, your singing will be reproduced as a recreation of one of the five band members’ voices. That’s how much they matter, of course. They are pictured on the cover, lined up, straight-backed, clutching microphones, wearing silver foil outfits – a touch I can’t resist; I remember what the silver foil-clad Suzi Quatro on the cover of her 1974 single “Too Big” awakened in me as a ten-year-old – but they are unsmiling, their eyes almost entirely obscured by liner and mascara. They might as well be drawings, or puppets – they have been curiously de-sexed. On the reverse of the cover there are simply the five abandoned microphones against a pitch black background. Yes, it’s true enough, you, your friends, anyone really, could be the voices of Girls Aloud. But does it matter?

As a pop record it’s great, of course. The gilded emptiness at the core of “No Good Advice” is not sustained – could not possibly be sustained for the value of anyone’s life or sanity – but as pop it gleams immaculate and is forceful in expressing its modest pleasures. The two singles come first, of course; when we arrive at “Some Kind Of Miracle” and its opening line of “Baby baby won’t you give me a chance” alarm bells momentarily ring, but it is superb post-1981 pop (think Ultravox’s Rage In Eden if Trevor Horn had been available to produce/mould it out of its essential naffness) with a heartbreaking Brian Wilson-via-Kim Wilde descending minor chord vocal harmony sequence 2/3 into the song which both confirms and justifies the song’s worth. The brilliantly-titled “All I Need (All I Don’t)” is determinable electro, better than the similarly-titled Basement Jaxx track on the latter’s last album, if only for the necessary parenthesis in the title. “Mars Attack” and “Boogie Down Love” both essentially rejig the components of “Sound Of The Underground” in entertainingly minutely different ways. “Stop” expands from its opening staccato pulse to another sunset of a descending minor chorus, somewhere between Kim Wilde’s “Stay Awhile” and All Saints’ “Black Coffee,” while “Girls Allowed” (heheh!) revisits the always welcome world of Now! Dance 1988 with a terrific old-school pop-house groove (and how quickly or slowly did that particular avant-garde become a tradition). One notes the presence of the Beatmasters and Betty Boo among the writers and producers, and indeed “Girls Allowed” is worthy to sit alongside masterpieces like “Numero Uno” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” (especially when aligned with its rapid-fire lyric which shreds Shania’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to a twain). There are the obligatory naff ballads – “Forever And A Night” and the vaguely unsettling “Life Got Cold” with the latter’s world-gone-wrong lyric (“We smoke as we choke and snatch another Coke”) which disturbingly suggests that, as women barely out of their teens, life fled long ago (“summer slipped away”). And the chorus only just avoids being the bridge of “Wonderwall” – as well as the equally obligatory naff shot at R&B (“White Lies”) but even a comparatively run-of-the-mill track like “Don’t Want You Back” is rendered interesting by what’s going on behind it (those oscillating squiggles sound queerly like Evan Parker’s soprano – indeed John Coxon of Springheel Jack is apparently playing guitar on some of this record, though the sleeve indicates one “Shawn Lee”). “Love Bomb” is great, though, and though the rapper here sounds very much like Ms Boo herself rather than any of the group, it’s a cheerily cheesy mash-up of Kid Creole and Man Parrish. The album is generally a welcome addition to the tradition of intelligent girl-group pop last exemplified by All Saints (though, as I mentioned in Uncut, the Appletons’ surprisingly good debut album should not escape your attention either). Like all great girl-group pop, however, there’s a cancer at its centre; but the malignancy identified and diagnosed so accurately in “No Good Advice” would be hard for anyone to treat.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

After Girls Aloud’s assured destruction (“dancing ‘til the sound hurts”) it’s almost a relief to be confronted with an honest egotist like Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. I mean, Courtney Taylor-Taylor for heaven’s sake! Did he worship the Taylor triptych in Duran Duran that fervently? And how exactly did we get to the point where Rio, universally laughed at two decades ago and equally universally bought, is now the 70th greatest album ever made? Is that all we learned from New Pop? To settle for the easy option every time?

Needless to say, the new Warhols record, Welcome To The Monkey House (with its faintly dubious cover of a peeled banana against a black background), despite being largely produced by Nick Rhodes (with some contributions from Tony Visconti), is better than any Duran record could ever have hoped to be, and certainly far more fun to listen to than that boring new Blur record (the best that can be said about Think Tank is that it spends too much time looking over its shoulder to ensure that it’s patting its own back hard and long enough to be coherent or interesting. “Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club” is very thin gruel when set against the genuine adventure and emotional irreverence of the Armenian Navy Band. “Brothers And Sisters” proves yet again that Malcolm McLaren had the right idea; stop respecting African music so much and start taking it to bits. It’s the only way it can be “rediscovered”). I suspect that nothing goes on in Taylor-Taylor’s head except Taylor-Taylor, but we make the same assumption for Jay-Z, and that doesn’t necessarily preclude their making good, if not radical, music. Interesting that in this month’s Mojo, Taylor-Taylor describes the assembly of “Bohemian Like You” in a manner akin to that outlined in the KLF Manual - he is very keen to point out that the Warhols were NOT ripping off the Stones, but ripping off Kiss ripping off the Stones (the distinction is what differentiates it) together with patented Pavement drum sounds, etc. It still took a Vodafone advert to make it a hit, though.

Monkey House is as free of guitars as Think Tank, and the Warhols do seem to have taken all their luggage back to 1982 before filtering it back through, oh, 1995. One could be fooled into thinking that this is a Blur record by listening to the introductory brief title track, which begins: “Wire is coming back again/Elastica got sued by them.” A plea to forget the ‘90s? “When Michael Jackson dies we’re covering ‘Blackbird’” – presumably to avoid paying MJ any royalties.

“We Used To Be Friends” is a splendid romp, although more reminiscent, melodically and rhythmically, of Big Audio Dynamite than Duran or Blur. “Plan A” (we’re starting what Kevin Rowland finished) features Simon Le Bon among the backing vocalists, and one could be fooled into thinking that it’s his falsetto we hear in the chorus rather than that of Taylor-Taylor. In fact the latter’s falsetto is quite affecting, even when lyrically, as here, he’s asking you, the consumer, to impart the song with some meaning (“There must be some kind of message/Simple but somehow impressive/Anyone who can think of something...come on now/Just express it”). “The Dope (Wonderful You)” is powered by a fine Noo Wave/electroclash rhythm (“Pump It Up” as re-tooled by Felix Da Housecat) and is the most danceable thing here. “I Am A Scientist” and “I Am Over It” drag and sag somewhat, before “The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone” reveals itself as the Warhols’ “Song 2,” a short but insanely catchy hook, though less propulsive than “Song 2” – again Taylor-Taylor’s falsetto forestalls any danger of laddism infiltrating his divine jacuzzi. “Insincere Because I” is the album’s slow-burning ballad, the Warhols’ “Save A Prayer,” and equally as sincere a song. “You Were The Last High” is an irresistibly arrogant song (how can it not be with opening lines of the calibre of: “Now I am alone/But adored by a hundred thousand more”?) which could easily have fitted on Now 10. “Heavenly” deploys the old Surfer Rosa quiet/loud trick with more subtlety than is usual; “I Am Sound” canters along like Albarn refusing to prevent Coxon slipping on the sleeve’s banana skin. “Hit Rock Bottom” asks us to despair for the wretched and meek Taylor-Taylor by means of one of Visconti’s trademark T Rex stomper templates. Finally we have, as we must, “You Come In Burned,” a long slow burn of a song, going nowhere less than genially – the record’s “Chauffeur.”

This review might sound grudging in tone, but actually Monkey House is a hugely entertaining pop record – it doesn’t scale the same heights of sublime absurdity as the Junior Senior album (because Taylor-Taylor’s ambitions are higher) but certainly doesn’t take itself as seriously as, say, the new Goldfrapp record – imagine Chinnichap stripped of their indispensable mischief; pseudo-propulsive and ultimately leaden and sexless (that hat of Alison Goldfrapp on the cover was enough to put me off the record even before listening to it – as with Kathryn Flett’s raised left eyebrow in her Observer byline photo, it’s a clear warning to avoid undue irritation).

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

To understand fully the enormity of Girls Aloud’s achievements, you will need to listen to “No Good Advice” in tandem with “Ruthless” by the London Improvisers’ Orchestra, recorded live at the Freedom of the City 2002 festival in Conway Hall, London, about a year ago, and now released on their similarly titled Freedom Of The City 2002 CD, available now on Emanem Records. The latter is the most singularly powerful piece of music I have heard both last year and this year, as I was in attendance at the concert in question. As with most improv gigs, I was sceptical about how well the phenomenal sonics of that evening would translate to audio; in fact, the multiple puncta of the gig become considerably more apparent upon listening. Seven of the eleven “conductions” performed on the evening are included on the CD. Certainly the subtleties of some of the performances, and the sonic totality of others, are now more easily detectable. For instance, Simon H Fell’s tribute to John Stevens (whose spirit dominates practically all improvised music in London today), “Too Busy,” gains far greater depth when heard here, including the processed tapes of Stevens’ voice and a prior performance by the LIO, neither of which was particularly evident at the actual concert. The piece is very touching indeed. Elsewhere, Paul Rutherford’s concerto for orchestra and massed mobile phone ringtones “Phone In” is almost Balinese in its construction, and Phil Wachsmann’s “Fanfare For L.I.O.,” which involved cued contributions from the audience, is considerably more striking, and the interaction between orchestra and audience sounds more overwhelming than was the actual experience itself; virtual tsunami waves sweeping all around one’s ears.

The indisputable highlight, however, is the aforementioned “Ruthless,” composed and conducted by Terry Day – contemporary and friend of Charlie Watts, founder member of the People Band, sometime Crass Collective associate, one of the strongest of the invisible threads which link all the pieces in the jigsaw of post-war British music. Someone, again, who has lived. “Ruthless,” the poem which Day recites, was composed at around the time of the onset of punk, and decries both meaningless celebrity and pointless obscurity. Day has been unwell in recent years, and on the evening of this performance, looked as though he were about to expire but sounded extraordinary resonant and mischievous. From the opening frantic mantra of “Look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me” (Orphy Robinson’s vibes tolling their own death knell) one is instantly drawn to Day’s astonishing vocal resemblance to John Lydon. The same sardonic-cum-celebratory delivery, the real ancestor to the Pistols – Louis Moholo and Tony Marsh (drums) and John Edwards, David Leahy and Fell (basses) pounding away behind him. The call-and-response of “Ruthless! Ruthless! Another kind of ruthless shame” sounds like Capital Gold with Patrick Keillor as the playlist manager. “Passé prima donnas!” howls Day. “Poverty! Poverty! A pile of fucking shit!” he continues. And then…”Everybody – a great big racket!” before all 33 musicians start to scream and/or thrash as though a Gatling gun were trained at their heads; a phenomenal outpouring comparable with the equally cathartic finale of Westbrook’s Marching Song (though much briefer). And then Day calls a sudden halt. He turns to face the audience directly.

“What did it achieve? FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! WHAT! DID! IT! ACHIEVE????”

It was the sound and vision of a man delivering his own funeral oration and then ripping it up, not being dead yet. It should have been filmed and compulsorily shown to every pretender – there is no need to name any names here – who attempts to convince us that some recycled Minor Threat riffs with some sub-Bolan attitude constitutes “newness” or “rebellion.” An authentic madman? No…Terry Day is a bitterly sane man. No other sort of person could focus so intensely upon chaos. And he will not stare into that telescope for fear of the certainty that the uncaring Cheryl Tweedy will be staring right back at him. They both know exactly what “it” did achieve.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

. . .