Tuesday, February 28, 2006
This Saturday just past was one of those miraculously near-perfect days for someone like me who likes nothing better than to spend an idle day roaming freely and semi-randomly around London; although it was extremely cold (well it is winter, and more snow is expected round these parts before we’re out of it), the sky was a flawless blue and the sun fulsomely bright – it felt like the first day of spring. This is not unreasonable, since my life in general at the moment feels like the first day of spring (oh, for summer to wing her way across to me and make it wholly – and holy - perfect!).
Breakfast at South Kensington, for a change; Picasso’s is splendid, but sometimes it gets a little too crowded and I yearn for a little more space, so sometimes I venture to its sister restaurant/café five minutes’ walk to the north for my full English. It was nearly deserted, which suited me fine; observing that auburn glow of the sun and leaves falling against and kissing the lower edges of Harrington Road. Then to Knightsbridge, on foot, down through Pelham Street, the boutiques, dry cleaners and croissant shops tending their mid-morning opening; then onto Walton Street, which temporarily makes me forget I’m in London and instead transports me to never-forgotten Sundays in Stamford or Knaresborough; leafy dappled walls, shops whose modest fronts betray their immodest prices. Eventually, just before reaching Harrods, I swerve to the left, cross Knightsbridge proper and enter another maze of haphazardly formal, small, moneyed streets; I emerge from Trevor Place on the opposite side of the road from Knightsbridge Barracks, at the spot where, in October 1998, the accident occurred. However, on this occasion, I use the zebra crossing (as I should have done then) and the 52 bus bearing down on me, this time stops to let me across. This westerly part of central London is still largely vacant of people, or traffic.
Onwards, by bus and foot, thereafter, variously to Highgate, Kentish Town, Camden, the Fulham end of the King’s Road (disappearing benignly into Putney Bridge, and looking in this sunlight almost Barcelonean) and Putney itself (completing my own lopsided geographic circle) before heading back home just as the sun begins to recede; already revelling in the day retrospectively, thinking passionately of such future days where I will not be alone, about the deeper joys which await their gain.
Inevitably, certain songs and music wended their way into and through (though not out of) my mind during Saturday (not least, Nick Drake’s “Saturday Sun,” proposing a nicer future than its author was to receive), and here are some of the most prominent:
ANDREW GOLD: “Looking For My Love”
Buried deep within Gold’s third album, All This And Heaven Too (1978), are many strange and wonderful things awaiting discovery for those who choose to go beyond the hits – three on this particular album: “Thank You For Being A Friend,” “How Can This Be Love?” and the superlative “Never Let Her Slip Away” – and this is one of them; a strange and unsettled ballad set to becalmed Fender Rhodes piano, occasional abrupt guitar, tympani and harmonium (all played by Gold), which never quite resolves into a steady chord sequence; always diverting into other uncertainties. The harmonium summons up the way in which the landscape on either side of Putney Bridge makes you think of the seaside; the general tenor of the song is immediately comparable with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Miss My Love Today” from the same year, and maybe also with early David Ackles. I don’t suppose that I need to empathise with the song’s sentiments that deeply – given that I’ve found “my love” – but it’s handy to keep in mind, as with the consideration of what was lurking behind Chris Rea’s garden walls.
BARRY GUY and The LONDON JAZZ COMPOSERS ORCHESTRA: “Stringer Part II”
I was very pleased to discover on Saturday that 1980’s Stringer has finally been made available on CD; certainly its tighter connections with “jazz” curiously seem to serve Guy’s composer mode better than the indeterminate ramblings of later LJCO pieces. Though given the painterly connections which Guy made a point of mentioning in relation to his compositional structures, it’s unsurprising that “Stringer Part II” summons the spectre of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, though the formality is here defined by a steadily rising and ebbing circular line of whole tones and half-tones – not that far away in design from something like Harry Miller’s “Traumatic Experience” – over which the trumpet of the featured soloist, Kenny Wheeler, forms a proud and noble arch of lyricism. Hearing it was like glimpsing, through an orchard-blessed avenue just behind Pelham Street, the imposing front entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum; still a startling sight, even though I have known every square inch within that establishment for nearly a quarter of a century. On Saturday at about eleven in the morning, it simply felt right. Also, given that the remaining three parts of Stringer in various ways fall prey to the trap of trying to cram too many soloists and sub-groupings into a limited timeframe, the quietude and stead of Part II, in which there is but one soloist, is refreshing, like an unexpectedly juicy slice of melon purchased somewhere in Kensington Gardens.
BOB DYLAN: Not Dark Yet
None of these is an especially merry piece of music, thus far, and yet the defiantly weary ball-and-chain dragging of Dylan’s voice astride – glued to - the dual shuffling, rattling percussion of Brian Blades and Jim Keltner (“It’s not dark yet…but it’s gettin’ there”) and the phantom murmurs of Daniel Lanois’ paraphernalia make me anticipate the forthcoming summer far more eagerly than…well, whatever the 2006 equivalent of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” turns out to be (probably Corinne Bailey Rae, this year’s true recipient of the mass JESUS DO WE HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS AGAIN scream. Whatever “people” say about her, truly that’s what she’s not).
NEW FAST AUTOMATIC DAFFODILS: Big
Presenting itself in my subconscious for easily the first time in 15 years is this Madchester cut-off from the dawn of the ‘90s (sigh, what misplaced optimism). I wonder if anyone could get away with this now (among other things it helped invent the Beta Band) – five minutes of skeletal but vital drumming, a “White Lines” bassline, 1981 New Romantic funk guitar, a rudimentary sax chorale, and a doleful Northern vocal repeating a few biological non-sequiturs (“The desert grows three miles a year/It just grows/Let’s call it a garden/It just happens”). And the record, as it will be, just happens, wonderfully. I’ll be resuscitating the Paris Angels next.
KONONO NO 1: Kule Kule
Not that far away from the New FADs, really, but in other ways about as far away as you could get; an absolutely thrilling foray of hypnotic multiple drums and multiple thumb pianos which could virtually place this – and its parent album, Congotronics – as the missing link between the Miles of In A Silent Way and the Davis of Pangaea. Can’t wait to hear how this will sound in the summer (ditto the second CD of Aerial).
THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS: I Live To Fall Asleep
Not many people took notice of 2004’s Lifeblood, but I have found it to be a very wise and extremely moving piece of work, with one of its peaks being this mutant ‘70s AoR offering (not that far from Andrew Gold, either in melodic structure or lyrical subtext). But again, as the closing “Cardiff Afterlife” sorely underlines, eventually you have to leave all this sadness behind, lest you fall asleep and miss the future, smiling serenely at you through your own forgetful mists.
FUNKY MONKEY: Peaceman
There is an indestructible memory in my heart; one of walking up towards Magdalen Bridge at ten to five in the morning of May Day, 1999, listening to the Monkey Mafia’s take on Fogarty’s “Long As I Can See The Light.” In truth it was pretty ropey – as was its parent album, even though I never got rid of it – but at that precise moment it felt absolutely apt and riotously right. Beneficent, in the most productive of ways. The other piece of Big Beat-ish music which has lodged in my mind from that era is this one. I don’t know what became of Funky Monkey – they had a couple of albums out, then a strange compilation of the two with additional new tracks – but they were great in a Screamadelica comedown kind of a way, and this ten-minute epic, with Denise Johnson on vocals, slowly builds up to a gorgeous and heartbreaking major/minor melody over a beat which, if not exactly floor-filling, fills important spaces in my former dark night with blessed flashes of life-justifying light.
BILL EVANS: Peace Piece
“It’s a great piece of music,” said my dad about this, “but it’s not jazz.” Nor does it need to be. Evans, alone in the studio, working up an intro to a reading of the Leonard Bernstein show tune “Some Other Time,” gradually easing into bitonality and atonality and then final resolution over an unaltering left-hand piano motif. And it still feels, 34 years after I first heard it, like being resuscitated with kisses bestowed by the kindest of angels.
CAT POWER: Where Is My Love?
I’d meant to write about the new Cat Power record, The Greatest, long before now, but you know how it goes; there’s just so much to write about, to take into account, at the moment, and that can’t be a bad thing (and Broken Social Scene, who demand to be written about in a new and enticing way, and I’m busy working on that). Recorded in Ardent Studios, Memphis, just like Sister Lovers; and just like Sister Lovers it’s a “soul” record, not in terms of gratuitously and snidely ripping off tired memes (did someone mention Corinne Bailey Rae again?), but a record of the artist’s soul. Certainly there is discreet accompaniment from various distinguished Memphis players, but to term it “Chan Marshall goes R&B” is missing several points (and also demonstrates how some critics cannot tear themselves away from rephrasing misleading press releases). The careful, hymnal Salem Sunday School clunk of Marshall’s piano is evident from second one of track one – the title track – as is the fact that she is singing about not being “the greatest”; the silence which greets the key line “Stars of night turned deep to dust” is eerily similar to that which comes at the equivalent point in Aerial.
While lyrically The Greatest trawls the same abyss of uncertainty about life which defined 2003’s You Are Free, musically it is more expansive – but only up to a point. All the signifiers which appear on the record, be they Nashville fiddles or pedal steels, or Tadd Dameron churches of brass, or the bizarre doo wop-derived backing vocal fills on “Willie,” all materialise at a distance, as though on the other side of a gauze screen; and yet, as with the more considered Mazzy Star, the arrangements are in absolute concordance with the emotions Marshall strives to convey.
And even through all this despair, Marshall’s is a voice which reassures and comforts. Listening to her plead for the return of her “sailor” on “Islands” or defining herself against the buoyant, but unreachable, whistling on “After It All” (“With your back to me against the wall/And make demands with your angry hands”) I hear not an urge to die – for, on the solo “Hate,” she counterparts the “I hate myself and I want to die” motif with the aside “Can you believe she repeated that?” – but a lagoon of a voice waiting for me to dive into it, to swim in it, to absorb its waters of love, to catch the welcome under the pauses in her breath and stay in that dwelling evermore.
Eventually she comes through on the side of life, on the admirably ferocious closer “Love & Communication” which mixes Peter Buck guitar and Badly Drawn Boy electric piano with an unstoppable, ascending (half-tone by half-tone) staccato string arrangement and reaches the conclusion “Love and communication you were here for me/At this very moment cuz I found you on the phone/You called me/And you were not hunting me.”
But the most miraculous moment of The Greatest is its epicentre, “Where Is My Love?” – such a simple song, played on an elementary piano and underscoring synthesisers, such complex passions, such yearning and such fulfilled hope.
“Horses running free/Carrying you and me…/Safe and warm/So close to me/In my arms/Finally/There is my love…” And you can feel the smile forming on her lips as she sings the word “There,” so close upon the sigh of exhausted contentment with which she pronounces the word “Finally.” I know that others have commented on the mothering qualities inherent in Chan Marshall’s voice, and that’s what I feel too; her voice promises, flows with streams of, nurturing and healing; and somehow this is what last Saturday intangibly communicated to me, in ways only one other Reader could truly understand – the pain is done, the penance has long since been paid; now open up joyfully and let her come to you, and into you, and you into her, and allow both souls a further lifetime of happiness.
. . .
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
NEIL DIAMOND – CAN YOU BELIEVE HIM?
Is it only me who feels a little nauseated at the alacrity with which Leo Sayer is currently chasing his own ambulance? There is a record entitled “Thunder In My Heart Again” at the top of the charts, but it is credited to Meck, the hapless DJ who actually put the thing together; and while it is good that Meck should see the potential of what was already a great record, and while you wonder where he conceivably could have got the idea from, it is unbecoming of Sayer to grasp this “success” with claws newly sharpened, and worse, to use it as a pretext to become a spokesman for something called The Campaign For Real Music, the man who owes his comeback to a track based on a radically rejigged sample of a 29-year-old song now absurdly crying for Real Music Played On Real Instruments With Real Spirit And Real Soul. Especially since the same man, when younger, delivered one of the bitterest diatribes against looking back as a substitute for living in 1973 – go past the hits and check out his debut album Silverbird if you doubt me.
So everybody gets older, but some have more sophisticated strategies to deal with it than others; even if, like Neil Diamond, you’ve constantly been denied credibility because of a very Sayer-ish shotgun marriage between naffness of dress and unquenchable sincerity of spirit, based in stupidity or in wisdom – it’s your shout. But then the best of Diamond’s songs – the escalating tubular bells which cascade into ecstasy “Cracklin’ Rosie”’s ode of undying love to a cheap bottle of wine, the genuinely uneasy truce between anguish and menace that is “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” the simple but telling emotional architecture of “Sweet Caroline” – are in my view every bit the equal of the best songs by Jimmy Webb, or Lee Hazlewood (indeed, “Song Sung Blue” might have been the work of an unusually happy Hazlewood – that same damn-you baritone razor drawl) but lose out on credibility because they are seldom anything other than optimistic or happy. Happiness is cheap to barter in the elevated pop-rock canon. Especially when mixed with that sincerity, and even more particularly when the sincerity is drenched in faith. Consider Diamond’s first big hit as a writer, “I’m A Believer”…
To paraphrase Larkin, by 1967 the Beatles had won the world but lost the typists and the cloakroom girls in the Cavern. For everyone who thought that the Beatles were pushing envelopes as fast as they could be manufactured, there was at least someone else lamenting the loss of the cuddly, funny old Beatles, the ones you could sing along to and scream at on stage, as opposed to the crusty, unfunny new Beatles, the ones whose songs weren’t so easy to sing these days and don’t even bother touring any more, and if you ask me they’re getting a bit up themselves…and for all such people, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson hit on the idea of bringing that old screaming magic back. Except that this group would be entirely owned by them with no opportunity to grow up and grow difficult; a television show recapturing the symbiotic daftness of A Hard Day’s Night (including a Genuine Brit!) but with all of the script already written.
It worked, if only temporarily; and then it worked for far more important reasons. Yes, Mickey Dolenz was the only Monkee present on “I’m A Believer” (if you don’t count some subsequent dubbed backing vocals from Davy Jones) despite Tork and Nesmith being more than capable musicians, but then Brian Wilson was the only Beach Boy present on “Caroline No.” And I’m afraid that if you plan to damn the Monkees, then you also have to say no to the Sex Pistols and maybe even the Beatles – all manufactured to a greater degree. The Beatles were a roughneck Toxteth bar band whom Epstein gayed up in Pierre Cardin collars. The Pistols were put together to promote a clothes shop and comprised a roughneck Shepherd’s Bush bar band who thought they were going to be in The Faces Mk II except McLaren hired Ornette Coleman as the lead singer. And certainly no pop lover worth their love would say no to a second of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” or “Daydream Believer” or “The Porpoise Song” or “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” – immortal records all, all written by hardened Brill Building professionals and performed by hardened veterans of Spector’s Wrecking Crew.
Or indeed “I’m A Believer.” From its dual intro of coy Farfisa organ and slightly more forward guitar (the latter very cleverly reorganising the chordal components of the intro to “A Hard Day’s Night”), Dolenz whispers his way into the song with his tale of previous woe (“Seems the more I gave, the less I got,” “Disappointment haunted all my dreams”) before a reluctantly ecstatic smile broadens his face and voice to intone “And then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” Now, this could well be another example of old gospel memes being translated into pop currency – yet, despite all the aura of manufacture, there is a strangely sweet and serene sincerity which shines through this record like an early summer sun in January. And the middle eight sees the singer growing into puberty – note the fuzzed-up electric piano pounding out the “Wipe Out” riff – before exiting in some kind of spiritual/carnal rejoicing. It’s like a renewal of pop.
Inevitably, if temporarily, the Monkees themselves won through; by the summer of ’67 they were playing on their own records, and via Dolenz were responsible for one of that year’s most avant-garde hits, “Randy Scouse Git” (a.k.a. “Alternate Title”). By the summer of ’68, Schneider, Rafelson and Jack Nicholson had decided to throw them into the sea (with Head) and they duly dispersed. But then, the killing irony lies in the fact that the money which these producers had earned out of “The Monkees” was sufficient to bankroll this film in which Nicholson was interested, about these two hippie bikers -–and thus the first unapologetically manufactured pop group literally paved the way for the opening shot in the second, gloriously independent golden age of American cinema (Repo Man, which Nesmith executive produced, is the meeting point where the two made their truce).
BACK TO THE DIAMOND
That Godhood persists in Neil Diamond to this day – on 12 Songs there are two curious numbers which deal specifically and not so specifically (respectively) with where the singer stands in relation to his creator. “Man Of God” is a straightforward gospel waltz, though some may blanche at Diamond’s assertion that “When I hear my voice, I believe that it’s His!” Whereas the less restful “Create Me” seems to be a prayer for God – or his unrequited love? – to will him into being.
Such tactics remind us that Diamond, whatever his songwriting genius, and however quiet Rick Rubin managed to get him in the studio, never quite shakes off the concept of the Big Idea, the Big Finish. Much of Diamond’s music would be unimaginable without the songs’ crucial Big-ness. So even on a quiet(ish) acoustic (mostly) album such as 12 Songs, Diamond can cut epics; most explicitly in two songs. Firstly, “Hell Yeah,” which you realise about halfway through the second verse is Diamond’s attempt to do a “My Way.” No “what have I become?” terminating anguish for Neil! No, he SAYS IT LOUD that it WAS all worth it and that he knows damn well he’ll be MISSED when he’s GONE. And despite all of this genteel grandstanding it’s still hard for my heart not to be touched in a silly, sublime way by his going up an octave in the final verse and screaming with pure joy that he’s “found the life he was after! Filled it up with love and laughter! FINALLY GOT IT RIGHT!!” Even though the concept of “getting it right” recurs in several of these 12 songs, that “FINALLY GOT IT RIGHT!!” pierces me like – well, like a passionate kiss of YES.
But Diamond can do tragedy as grandly as happiness, and thus the record’s big setpiece “Evermore,” which starts with some studio chatter – “Let Neil start it by himself” says Rubin in the control room and you immediately know this is going to be Cecil B DeMille. Up to a point. Nevertheless “Evermore” IS a great song, one which Roy Orbison should have been alive to sing, and while it might build up in a vaguely obvious way (i.e. this is something Bono would try, and get so NOT right) its “Bridge Over Troubled Water” assault (complete with Larry Knetchel at the piano!) is beautifully timed – and when the orchestra and timpani finally come in, it actually sounds organic, as though they performed it live, in the room; and there’s the crucial difference between something like “Evermore” and something like “Green, Green Grass Of Home” – on the latter, the strings and choir were tacked on gratuitously (but to what results! – the launch of an unfeasibly successful international career for its singer which four decades later still shows no signs of closing down), but on the former, they breathe symbiotically (not to say, of course, that sometimes the other way doesn’t work – Larry Fallon’s string parts for Astral Weeks were overdubbed, but the arrangements are so sensitive and generous that you still feel they are rising and falling in complete tandem with Morrison’s voice and Richard Davis’ extraordinarily singing bass).
But 12 Songs works best, I think, on a smaller canvas; thus the genuinely heartbreaking simplicity of “Save Me A Saturday Night,” which with its descending celeste seems to have come straight from an early ’66 Diamond session – hear how his voice falters carefully at the words “save me” and “baby”; the touching tenderness of the straightforward devotional love songs “Oh Mary” and (my favourite) “Captain of A Shipwreck” (“If you’re captain of a shipwreck, I’ll be first mate to your shame” – soundtracked by some lovely, delicate guitar from Mike Campbell which sounds exactly like the breeze of my fingers gently running through your hair), and – in complete contrast – the unapologetic sexuality of “Delirious Love”; even though the song is sung slightly regretfully, in the past tense, there is something truly majestic and subversive about 65-year-old Diamond exulting “I can feel it!” as Campbell (again) swoons his guitar into a lovely bend, like a renegade bedspring.
And there is also some mordant dark humour which almost conjures up Leonard Cohen in Rubin’s studio by mistake – the sneering “I’m On To You” which comes across as Lambchop singing Morrissey, with the Carla Bley Band in the background trying to play “Milestones” as quietly as possible, and its half-partner of a song to an uncertain (physical) lover “What’s It Gonna Be.” Eventually the whole thing bows out with the stoned bar-brawl shuffle singalong “We.” Thus 12 Songs is a fine record, almost despite itself (I’m not so sure about the straight-faced Sufjan Stevens comparisons though – there is a mournfulness which balances Stevens’ pranks, and Diamond doesn’t really touch either end of that particular spectrum), but catch that very angry statement by Diamond on the briefly harrowing eve-of-break-up song “Face Me” – “What is insanity if not a cry for the truth to be truthfully told?” Now there’s some Nietzschean pop food for your thought.
TIGA – SeXoR
There’s revivalism and there’s revivalism. Sometimes I think it simply comes down to which sort of revivalism we prefer as individuals, or the fact that we usually want to be reminded strongly of certain things and not at all of others. Take the new Tiga album (which, as far as I can tell, is unbelievably his first bona fide album as an artist). Every one of its 15 tracks could have been written, recorded and produced before 1989 – and that’s a big part of its charm. But what separates Tiga’s imagined ‘80s from those of the Arctic Monkeys? They’re both revisiting a past they never really lived through – but you end up with two entirely different stories. Two equally valid stories too, in my view; but then over the last month or so Tiga has been getting the lion’s share of plays on my stereo, and I cannot give a coherent critical opinion as to why this should be, other than his ‘80s speak more to me than that of the Arctic Monkeys; an ‘80s of steel cube synthesisers fit for idolatry, for distant, muttered vocals, for a Big-ness which might be the polar opposite to that of Neil Diamond.
Perhaps it’s Tiga’s extensive sleevenotes, from which I quote: “The past years have been very strange and hard and painful, experiencing the greatest loss and in the process losing a part of myself and watching some of the color fade from the world and wondering if life could ever shine again…” Well, then, it’s no wonder I keep going back to SeXoR, because even at its bleakest and gloomiest it still issues breaths of fascinating fire and (doomed?) futurism.
There’s always been something of the grievous night about Tiga’s music, and especially that trembling baritone of a voice of his, right through his imagined ‘80s of “Sunglasses At Night” and “Crockett’s Theme” – but here it, and he, make especial sense. So you could say that “(Far From) Home” in the first of its two versions is like a slightly more cheerful Air, or that its extended, insanely danceable reprise later on in the album makes me think of LCD Soundsystem with smugness replaced by humanity.
Also, as songs, the songs on SeXoR are immense; the shivering minor string synth chords which come in towards the end of “High School” and the ominous tenor monotone which underscores the wasted “Down In It.” Elsewhere, “You Gonna Want Me” and “The Ballad Of SeXoR” recall a reborn Human League (truly – I ended up singing along to them and found I sounded exactly like Phil Oakey! Oh yes…), “Pleasure From The Bass” is breathlessly enticing, and as for Tiga’s take on Public Enemy’s “Louder Than A Bomb” – well, he takes it down to an even more menacing basso profundo stream of conscientiousness which, set against the spiky West Cromwell Road electronics, actually sounds like the Eric B and Rakim of Follow The Leader meeting the Public Enemy of Nation Of Millions; and for personal reasons I don’t need to go into here, that kind of makes my today.
And then there’s “Brothers” which is so obviously a New Order wannabe – right down to Tiga’s guileless Sumner vocals and logical non-sequiturs of lyrics, that blissful chord change and even the Peter Hook suddenly-shove-your-arm-up-an-octave bass – that it comes close to overturning my entire critical viewpoint on music and its relationship to the past; that sometimes, even after all you’ve lived through (and all you’ve outlived), you just want to sit down and listen to an expert pastiche of ‘80s New Order. Except it’s Tiga, who clearly has his own story to tell, and that’s what keeps you listening. Right through to the extra track, the devastating “Sir Sir Sir,” which is like John Foxx’s Garden overrun by refugees from Renoir’s Les Regles Du Jeu (“And now I tend this hearth alone/And so take hold of these carriage reins/And drive me away”) with those gruesomely gorgeous descending minor semitone chords which conjure up the desolate Lanarkshire of that summer of 1981, just before I was to desert it for good; abandoned mineshafts set against brilliantined blue skies in the middle of the countryside, somewhere on the long road between Blantyre and Tollcross.
But then another excerpt from Tiga’s sleevenote, and a reminder of why I’m living in 2006: “…when I needed you most you proved yourself a million times over, and I will never forget. You are my world, and I cherish and love you so much, for never letting the lights go out and showing me that life still sparkles.”
I could not have said it better.
. . .
Friday, February 17, 2006
THE 1965 BRIT AWARDS
One of their huge tuneful hits is called “Midnight In Moscow” – but even the most devoted fans of the kings of Trad, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, would find that easier to imagine than their shocking victory in this year’s Brit Awards, where the loveable, cleancut lads have scooped the award for Best British Act ahead of highly-rated fellow nominees Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Shadows, The George Mitchell Minstrels, and, most surprisingly of all, the self-styled “Fab Four” themselves – the Beatles!
In a stormy, fun ceremony held live at the Empire Pool, Wembley, north-west of London, even compere David “Juke Box Jury” Jacobs seemed to be stunned by some of the night’s results. “My goodness, were we to gainsay that all the fashionable youngsters of enterprise would express their preferment for that which many still call The Merseybeat Sound,” he asked a star-sudded audience estimated at 15,000 in number, “yet would be bested by Our Kind Of Music?” Even trumpeter Ball, leader of Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, looked startled as he tenderly accepted his award from comedy legend Tommy Trinder. The Beatles could only look on helplessly, on a film specially shot in San Francisco three weeks previously.
And that wasn’t the only surprise in this year’s never-failing-to-surprise Brits, as legendary fun pianist and entertainer Mrs Mills won the Best British Female Artist trophy, ahead of much fancied rivals Julie Rogers, Alma Cogan, Vera Lynn and Annie Lennox. “This just goes to show,” quipped Mills at a press conference after the fun-packed ceremony, “that proper music with proper tunes never goes out of fashion, no matter what all those long-haired layabouts say! Now, who’s for a tiddly at the milk bar?” she quipped to gales of laughter from the press reporters present.
You’d need to wear a thick scarf to protect yourself from the gales of laughter that arise whenever cuddly, cheeky all-round entertainer Kenny Lynch is in town, and the star was in particularly fulsome fun form as he scooped the Best R&B Act award, having gleaned more votes from the all-star music business panel (“This’ll show everyone us oldies are – as they say – with it!” chuckled the Brits panel chairman Billy Cotton) than fellow contenders Adam Faith, Emile Ford and the Checkmates, Swinging Blue Jeans, The, and hot purveyors of what the kids in the street are calling “Souls” music – none other than Liverpool’s finest, Wayne Fontana with his Mindbenders. “Funny you should say that,” quipped star Lynch, “but I was playing a round of golf with Adam [Faith – Ed.] at Weybridge the other day, and we got to the eighteenth hole and Tarby and I said to Adam: ‘Hey Adam, you’ll never pot that eighteenth hole in one!’ And do you know what – he didn’t!” Lynch quipped, doubtless warmed by the warm reception he got from up and coming comic legend Jimmy “Tarby” Tarbuck, who happily was on hand to present “Lynchie” Lynch with his richly-deserved award at the ceremony yesterday.
But even “Tarby” Tarbuck couldn’t hold a candle to the King of Knotty Ash, the tattifilarious, madcap Ken Dodd who walked home from Wembley, near London, with the Best British Male Artist award, despite strong competition from male artists of the calibre of Frank Ifield, Michael Cox, David Whitfield and the late Michael Holliday. “Only I wouldn’t have walked home missus,” quipped comedy star Ken “Doddy” Dodd, “because I live in Knotty Ash!” The loveable wild man best known as “Doddy” won for his happy hits like “Happiness,” but Mr Tickling Stick himself certainly looked more than happy after the ceremony, having been snapped in the company of TV’s glamorous “Vernons Girls”! Quipped Cliff Richard, who specially attended the ceremony although won nothing, “Obviously I’m disappointed not to be amongst the winners, but let’s face it, Ken Dodd’s worked hard and long to get where he is and frankly I’m a little bit sick and tired of the long-haired layabouts you see hanging around the streets these days who expect pots of gold for hanging around the streets and doing nothing at all, these days. It wasn’t like that when Tommy Steele and I were singing for fungal crusts at the Two I’s in the early days of rock and roll!”
The star-studded ceremony got off to a “swinging” start thanks to a touching and poignant tribute from one generation of entertainers to another as Dame Anna Neagle and Gerry Marsden of Gerry and The Pacemakers performed a “Mod” rendition of the old Fred Astaire and Judy Garland classic, “We’re A Couple Of Swells.” Soon the audience were rollicking in hysterics of hysterical laughter from the forays of comic purveyed by the legions of legendary entertainers who came on stage to present the much-coveted “Brit” Awards, including amongst their number up and coming comic comet Bruce “I’m In Charge” Forsyth, Kenneth “Round The Horne” Horne, “Carry On” stars Sid James and Raymond Huntley, screen legend Ted Ray, and the reunited “Band Waggon” comedy duo of Arthur “Big Hearted Arthur Askey” Askey and Richard “Stinker” Murdoch, who seemed especially thrilled to be presenting the award for Best International Act – though this was controversially won posthumously, by the late, great “Country and Western” entertainer Jim “Gentleman Jim” Reeves, in recognition of his stunning hit parade successes, which sadly he never lived to enjoy, the award was accepted on the late great’s behalf by a visibly tearful Dorothy Squires, 53. Other international stars in contention for this contested award were loveable, cleancut Irish trio The Bachelors, cleancut, loveable Irish entertainer Val Doonican, star Bert Kaempfert and the Beach Boys. Indeed, the self-styled “Kings of Surf” the Beach Boys flew in specially for the ceremony and raised a slight how-to-do when they protested about “having come all this flipping way for a phoney flipping ceremony for old people,” as their leader, Mike Love, was heard to quip on his way to the “Exit.”
But the most emotional emotions were saved for the emotional final Cyril Lord Carpets Lifetime Achievement Award, which a visibly tearful Norman “Don’t Laugh At Me” Wisdom presented tenderly to that legendary duo of a double act, Flanagan and Allen. Bud and Woody thanked the audience, estimated at 20,000 strong, for supporting them throughout their 60 years in the business before launching into a medley of their showstopping hit. Onlookers in the all-important “VIP” front row, including Stanley Holloway, Brian Poole and Max Bygraves, were visibly tearful to see those loveable rogues of old strut their stuff once more, in defiance of an age which has washed away all nobility, decency and respect in favour of long-haired layabouts. You’ll find none of these at the Brit Awards – where “Real Music” is rewarded!
When quizzed about comments from disgruntled “Left-wingers” – probably “Communists” – about the Brits being an antiquated, ridiculous ceremony which studiously ignored everything that was interesting about that year’s music in favour of constantly playing safe and rewarding mediocre time-servers for the act of still breathing, BBC chief Lord “Reithy” Reith quipped: “Well, what one has to remember is that the BBC paid a substantial sum of money for this ceremony to be broadcast live on our colourful new “Colour” channel BBC2 – and one has to remember that the potential audience for that includes young children and also old ‘pensioners,’ many of whom fought in two world wars so that long-haired layabouts could have the freedom to hang around the streets these days – those so-called “Moderns” and “Rockists” we see getting caught up in dreadful scrapes at the seaside of an Easter, you wouldn’t have that, I can tell you, if we hadn’t abolished National Service – and the BBC has a remit to please all of its audience, not to offend all of its audience. So it would have been inappropriate for us to give out awards to the scruffy likes of the Roaring Stones, the Kings, the Whose and Cilla Black, for the BBC certainly doesn’t play any of that long-haired layabout tommy rot, no matter how many long-haired layabouts hang around the streets playing this so-called ‘music’ on their Dansettes these days. Also one has to remember that this ‘music’ is most commonly made popular on illegal pirate radio stations, and the BBC and the Brits committee certainly cannot be seen openly to endorse ‘music’ which becomes popular by virtue of criminal gain. Think of all the brave lads in the Army and Navy out there on the high seas, fighting for our freedom – Jerry would blow them away in a trice were their important communication wavelengths disrupted by scruffy long-haired layabout so-called ‘pirate’ ‘music’! As I said to Rab Butler over our fourteenth Scotch at the Carlton Club the other e’en – one has to take a stand. This ‘music’ will not last and will be eventually and thankfully superseded by genuine music. One never knows – some distant day in the future, one of our own brave squadron leaders fighting in foreign lands for our freedom may win a ‘Brit’!”
Quipped a spokesman for the Brit Awards, “Forget it, Jarvis. It’s Chinatown.”
. . .
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
GHOSTS MADE OF SCARCER VOICES
The talk now is of “hauntology,” and it’s a subject with which this weblog should feel immediate empathy. After all, The Church Of Me has for the last four years or so been primarily concerned about ghosts; about learning to live with them, about extracting new life from their pale, glum shrouds – and maybe, eventually, learning to let them go. Because the aim has been to invite ghosts to live again, whether it’s a forgotten record from 1973 or 1993, or even this writer, who for long periods could have been classified as a ghost writer. Certainly there have been many times when I have felt like a ghost when writing for CoM; a non-living person stranded in some kind of post-bereavement limbo with only recalled memories for colder comfort. But I think it fair to say that I currently feel less like a ghost than I have done for half a decade (is it really coming up for five years? Who knows where the time went?). The journey out of the tunnel is nearly complete; and yes, someone in particular has been excavating at the other end to let the light in, and that necessarily (re)colours everything. Thus the return to a living, inquisitive state, a shrugging off of shadows (if not The Shadows, but more about that in a moment); the gladsome turning of the mind towards the now very real notion of starting again.
The ghosts persist, and I suppose as long as I continue to maintain record and book collections they will always do so. Nevertheless it’s time, for me at any rate, to ease them gently into the background. There are worse ways of doing so than to consider a 2CD compilation which I recently picked up at a competitive price in one of my many forays into charity shops (establishments which are virtually by definition ghost homes; sometimes one might walk into a Cancer Research shop, for instance, and see a lovingly assembled, thoughtfully organised CD or tape collection, knowing instinctively that it has all come from the one person, but then be chilled by the strong possibility that this collector is in all probability deceased from cancer. Yet the urge to keep this gallery of thoughts alive is the same urge which prevented me from torching our own collections on the tormented afternoon of Sunday 26 August 2001. Let’s, however, keep all of that at a distance now. It’s vital). This particular package, however, was from the record company direct, as proven by the blue and white label on the cover: “THIS RECORD HAS BEEN DONATED TO CHARITY BY VIRGIN RECORDS.”
The collection is entitled Instrumental Memories…Are Made Of This (subtitle: 54 Timeless Memories) which is the most recent episode in a series which perhaps should have been entitled Now That’s What I Called Music – compilations of hits for people too old to look forward to many more hits; hits in most cases older than me; specifically, hits for people who cling fearfully to the Sunday schedule of Radio 2. The chill of death is indeed tangible in the echoing output of that station on Sundays; a pocket simulacrum of how Radio 2 used to sound all the time, every day, with carefully ageing presenters, gradually bowing out to nature (Charlie Chester, Alan Keith, Hubert Gregg, Cliff Adams…all now gone) with cold reminders of what life used to be like, as now witnessed from the terminal waiting room. Indeed, listening to something like The David Jacobs Collection, which is broadcast very late on Sundays, makes me feel I am already in the afterlife (try segueing with Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide on Radio 1, or Nick Luscombe’s Flo-Motion on XFM, while half asleep, for truly surrealist sound art).
I don’t propose to discuss all 54 tracks, as some I have already discussed at adequate length (Telstar, Apache) or don’t have too much to say about at this, or any, moment (the James Bond and Pink Panther themes, On The Rebound). But it is worth taking a sample to demonstrate how Instrumental Memories…Are Made Of This could rival Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light as a graceful bridge towards another, darker world.
MR. ACKER BILK Stranger On The Shore
PERCY FAITH Theme From “A Summer Place”
Two early examples of courtly nothingness, suggesting that only suggestion is required; both number two hits in Britain with lengthy chart runs (55 and 30 weeks respectively). How did the lugubrious vibrato of Barney Bigard find its way into a Cornish waterscape of footpads and murder? The Sunday teatime serial which gave “Stranger On The Shore” its name went out before I did, and it was never repeated, so I can only guess. Neither is the film A Summer Place frequently, or even rarely, broadcast on Saturday afternoon television. Yet the signifiers remain, abstract in their benignity; and now, divested of their childhood associations with refreshments at intermissions in the cinema, when cinemas still had such things as intermissions, they suggest only a blank afterlife. “Theme From A Summer Place” now only conjures up the spirit of David Lynch, the cast of Twin Peaks forever doomed to wander the labyrinth of a mythical 1962, or was it 2002? The high-pitched, serene violins could well be the sober sensors of electrodes, there to bind us in our involuntary peace.
BERT KAEMPFERT AND HIS ORCHESTRA A Swingin’ Safari
WHISTLING JACK SMITH I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman
Even when ostensibly “uptempo” and “major key,” mono-mood music still comes across as slightly forced; yet it was and is loved by millions. So, while Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes were busy storming the stuffy citadels of British jazz in the mid-‘60s, the general public’s idea of kwela music was to iron out all the roughness (all the blackness, maybe?), so we end up with a facsimile of otherness viewed with joy and welcome, just like prides of lions in the safari park when we don’t have to get out of the car.
And did Whistling Jack Smith ever exist? “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” was authored by Rogers Cook and Greenaway, and in all probability was a throwaway bit of mucking about concocted in ten minutes of studio downtime; yet it was a top five hit in 1967 when the Doors’ “Light My Fire” could only make #49, and “White Rabbit” and “Incense And Peppermints” not even register on the lists. Sometimes the continued acceptance of twelfth-best can make one vengeful, if one isn’t careful.
KENNY BALL AND HIS JAZZMEN Midnight In Moscow
A number two hit in 1961, produced by the 22-year-old Tony Hatch, and now it sounds like a chart hit from 1761; something which, with its dulled and distant echoes, really does come across as a piece of music performed by ghosts, even if Mr Ball and his Jazzmen persist unaltered to this day. Of course, releasing a record entitled “Midnight In Moscow” in 1961 invited the possibility of the Apocalypse (recall how “Telstar” might, had the Cuban missile crisis gone the other way, have been the last number one record ever) and it’s difficult to scrape away this supratext from the performance. Although it was merely the first example of Ball taking unlikely source material (it was based on a Russian folk song) and turning it all into a Dixieland-via-Bexleyheath rave-up (and later in their career they were the house band on The Morecambe And Wise Show; how avidly did Eric wish for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble instead?), it does retain an element of guilty motivation (it worked surprisingly well when I tested it on the dancefloor, as a DJ, just before Christmas) even if the CND backdrop presumably occurred to Mr Ball never at all.
BRIAN FAHEY AND HIS ORCHESTRA At The Sign Of The Swinging Symbol
Better known as the theme tune for Pick Of The Pops, once the key Sunday afternoon chart show, now a mausoleum for old charts; listen to it on Radio 2 of a Sunday, hosted by a pre-recorded, neon-hearted Dale Winton – a museum whose keepers have long since fled, and it’s a programme which I try to avoid, for it has the unenviable ability to extract every last drop of life out of every record it broadcasts, particularly when Winton is compelled to skip rapidly over a 1973 listing, say, where Gary Glitter is inconveniently situated at number two, or three.
NELSON RIDDLE AND HIS ORCHESTRA Dick Van Dyke Theme
THE CHARLES WILLIAMS ORCHESTRA Devil’s Gallop
SIDNEY TORCH AND HIS ORCHESTRA Barwick Green
RAY ANTHONY Dragnet
BILLY MAY The Man With The Golden Arm
JOHNNY KEATING AND THE Z MEN Theme From Z Cars
Three American theme tunes and three British ones, and they sound as though they come from two different planets. The jackboot tympani of “Dragnet” creak with their determined pitilessness where the distant rumblings of “Devil’s Gallop” (the Dick Barton theme) practices its façade of franticity at a respectful distance; it’s like watching a car chase through a telescope in a lighthouse in Arbroath. The Dick Van Dyke theme is suave, assured and vaguely 1962-echt-hip in its tromboning tantalising, while the theme from Z Cars jumps epileptically on the spot, like an Orange Lodge march stranded on a traffic island. And then there are the screaming trumpets and bitemporal drums of Elmer Bernstein’s drug-addicted film score set against – well, the theme from The Archers, significantly lacking either trumpet or drum, or indeed sex. Much like Radio 4's UK Theme (like Z Cars, penned by Fritz Spiegl) it persuades its stalwart listeners not to be dead.
MOOD MOSAIC A Touch Of Velvet, A Sting Of Brass
KEN WOODMAN AND HIS PICCADILLY BRASS Town Talk
And when Tony Benn forced pirate radio off the air, and the BBC had to come up with a face-saving Kwik Save substitute, these tunes became prominent; “A Touch Of Velvet…” as penned by Mark “Teenage Opera” Wirtz and sung, wordlessly, by bemused session singers, was used on about four different early Radio One programmes, and later became an unlikely staple of Northern Soul playlists with its mock-Tudor promise of a cooler tomorrow. Whereas “Town Talk” persisted for decades as the theme to the Jimmy Young Show; but divested from its “ar-har Denis Healey you see” environment comes across as a surprisingly punchy, forceful post-Mod orchestral stomp with the solo altoist (Peter King?) clearly happy to get his eight bars’ worth of improv in the middle.
WINIFRED ATWELL The Poor People Of Paris
Seven years before “Telstar”; a musical saw harmonising an octave above Atwell’s jolly piano melody, and Joe Meek in the engineer’s booth. And you think it came from nowhere?
FLEETWOOD MAC Albatross
THE SHADOWS Sleep Walk
The second was, of course, the begetter of the first, in both ways; the Shadows’ take on Santo and Johnny dates from 1961 and clearly demonstrates Hank Marvin far in front of the rest of his band, who don’t even bother to follow his ingenious re-harmonisations (maybe they couldn’t?). But how the Shadows of 1969, dissolute and on the verge of extinction as they were, must have viewed the vision of “Albatross” reaching number one. What did we do wrong?
(Although Hank Marvin did return to the top ten later in 1969, as author and co-credited performer of Cliff Richard’s “Throw Down A Line,” where his irritated-sounding guitar betrays more than a little Peter Green influence)
CHRIS BARBER’S JAZZ BAND FEATURING MONTY SUNSHINE Petite Fleur
JOHNNY DANKWORTH African Waltz
SOUNDS INCORPORATED Cast Your Fate To The Wind
The punters wanted a certain kind of jazz in the charts of the late ‘50s and early-mid ‘60s. Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz notwithstanding – and Brubeck does turn up on CD1 of this compilation with “Unsquare Dance” – it tended to be MoR with signifiers of “jazz” (and one looks at the album chart of 2006 to establish how this has changed not a jot) or jolly-good-try-Roger British attempts at jazz. Thus, while Cannonball Adderley stormed the Billboard top ten singles chart in 1965 with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” we made do with Dankworth’s bland reading of Adderley’s “African Waltz” (actually Galt McDermot’s “African Waltz,” but Adderley, with David Axelrod as arranger, did record the definitive version), where A Love Supreme, and eventually even Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma, went gold in the States, we settled for Johnny Pearson’s cheerful stop-start ambient romp through Vince Guaraldi’s proto-Charlie Brown tune, or Monty Sunshine’s wobbling vibrato paying tribute to Sidney Bechet and sounding like the perfect soundtrack for the club scenes in the Goons’ film The Case Of The Mukkinese Battlehorn.
RAY MARTIN AND HIS CONCERT STRINGS Marching Strings
A staccato, imperiously jaunty military tattoo of major key melody used for decades as the theme tune to the schools’ quiz show Top Of The Form, which if you study hard at school Marcello you might appear on (My Blighted Youth, part 323), and which inadvertently joined the dots between the concepts of school and barracks. As if they weren’t the same concept.
THE JOHNNY PEARSON ORCHESTRA Sleepy Shores
ERIC COATES By The Sleepy Lagoon (Valse Serenade)
The two closing tracks on Instrumental Melodies…Are Made Of This, inevitably so, as we reach the shoreline. Perhaps it’s just my age and upbringing, but something like “Sleepy Shores” – the theme to the early ‘70s medical soap Owen M.D. – brings the reality of my 1971 back to me far more readily and lushly than the collected works of Led Zeppelin, in the same way that I can listen to a chart from 1970, hear “Ride A White Swan” and busily nod yes yes, but then be torn apart by, say, “I Don’t Believe In If Anymore” by Roger Whittaker – and suddenly I’m six years old again, alone in the bedroom sunlight. And “Sleepy Lagoon,” a.k.a. the theme from Desert Island Discs, brings us to…Ballard’s Terminal Beach? Or, perhaps, and hopefully, away from all of these ghosts, signifying a sea which I must cross, because when it comes down to it you’re there on the other side of that ocean, waiting patiently but eagerly.
COLDCUT: SOUND MIRRORS
And then I thought, where’s the place for Coldcut in 2006, where do we put them, what do we do with them, and then I looked at the sorry Brit Awards shortlists, but don’t look at me, I didn’t get a vote, and then I remembered that Coldcut actually won a Brit Award, in 1990, or was it 1991, for Best Producer(s), and then I remembered that everything about Coldcut was encompassed by those brackets, and this was when they were all over the place, in a 1944 Charlie Parker as well as a 1994 Dale Winton sense, up the charts, down on mainstream radio, with their febrile follies, in Smash Hits and in the Wire, and then I remember that a huge part of the destructive follies of 2006 lies in the fact that we can never deploy that phrase again, even if the Wire could be said in an incurious sense to have beaten Smash Hits, outlived them, won “a war,” even if it meant becoming Uncut for 44-year-old industrial heads as opposed to Jazz Monthly for 24-year-old Pet Shop Boy fans, which is what it was when I was 24 years old, but really, the lack of Xenomania and Mr Agreeable in the Wire indicates how wrongly, or how strongly, the Wire has turned, but then again, were it not for the Wire, where else would you put Coldcut in 2006, because then I turned to the radio, and once Coldcut were on Kiss FM, then they were on GLR, and now the Solid Steel show survives, but on Resonance, so they have been painted out of a multipop corner and seethe in quiet fury, even if that Journeys By DJ mix CD wasn’t quite as transformative or deliciously delusive as what they could produce on some of these late ‘80s/early-mid ‘90s Solid Steel programmes, many of which I still have on tape, but even then this was a time after they had actually been Number One in the Actual Charts, and part of the hopefulness of 2006 is that they might be Number One in the Actual Charts again, and why not, really, since the sheerest delight of 2006 is that I appear actually to have been given a chance to live my life over, so you never know, except what your heart truly knows, but anyway.
And then there is this new album by Coldcut, Sound Mirrors, and listening to side one I can almost be convinced that this is going to be a big event, in that people will actually notice it, instead of waving the mouth and quipping I didn’t know they were still going before yawning, but yawn they shouldn’t, not yet at any rate, but what I like about it is that it continues this underused practice of record-as-magazine, that is, turn the page and read a different but connected article, or move on to the next track and there’s an entirely different attitude, a different voice, a differing story, but still united by this one (or dual) underlying vision, not quite an Operatic thing, not like War Of The Worlds, a bit more like Escalator Over The Hill, a lot more alike to Robert Fripp’s Exposure, and then obviously BEF’s Music Of Quality And Distinction, and somehow we get on to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines - via the Golden Palominos - but somehow we don’t get past Future Pilot AKA’s A Galaxy Of Sound – oops, did I skip Kish Kash? - yet we end up at Gorillaz’ Demon Days, nimbly leapfogging UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction, except we should be neither so nimble nor so quaint, but coming to a point, Sound Mirrors is something of a missing link between Psyence Fiction and Demon Days, in that it deploys many voices to depict a none-too-optimistic perspective of humanity as the 21st century prepares to anagrammatise itself and turn back into the 12th century, in fact listening to all three in quick succession would constitute a triptych of doomy doom and all rights, but then again Demon Days has what Psyence Fiction lacked, and Psyence Fiction, despite some uncanny moments, really brought whole new worlds of meaning to the term “trying too hard,” and one minor universe of demeaning to the motif “enormous resources he hasn’t yet learned to marshal,” but then Demon Days has good humour as well as black comedy, and sometimes you just want the headlights afront Thom Yorke’s rabbit to blast out “Feel Good Inc.” or the glutinously glorious fuck-it-ness of “Dare” in order to prepare the world for Radiohead’s forthcoming 1974 tribute album, Your Baby Ain’t Your Baby Anymore, and if Sound Mirrors doesn’t quite make you fall sideways, side one made me jump and not skip, not quite anyway.
So there’s “Man In A Garage,” sung and strummed by one John Matthias, sounding very like Kevin Ayers (especially those “slide over”s), on his way to work, but calling for help “with a ‘phone book on my knees,” so this jollity is all superficial, but then the truly jolly Roots Manuva rolls into pole position with “True Skool,” and the stoned eagerness of his “cooler than cooler than cool” yet again makes you wish it were 1995 or 1988 again, as though they’ve restarted that crazier thing, well who else is doing it at the moment apart from the Jaxx, and they must be feeling pretty lonely out there in the solitary sunshine, and then fuck me if it isn’t Annette Peacock (how did they get her?) banging on about hollow celebrity and flirting cameras and it all sounds the same but Coldcut interpret her “Just For The Kick” literally, and they set her against a fantastic hard(y) house rave-down, and it’s Annette Peacock gone House, and someone please put this out as a single and play it so Annette can finally get on Top Of The Pops as she should have done 34 years ago (which reminds me, nobody’s done anything yet, so they certainly need reminding), and the house fractures in the middle before violently, seductively slamming itself together again, and it’s magic anyway.
Then the house gets deeper with “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” which is suitably, soberly and sobbingly sung by Robert Owens (the singer of “Tears,” aptly), with its fantastic, subtly scolding string line, forever ascending but never losing sight of rock bottom, but then if Coldcut wanted a number one, they would have slung a jackhammer beat under the song, as opposed to glide with grace, which is what they actually do, just as Joe South intended when he wrote the song in the first place, because guessing the centre of rhythm is so much sexier than having it spelt out to you, wouldn’t you feel, and if it only got to number five hundred and one, well, whose fault would that be, but “A Whistle And A Prayer,” gives us a different ‘90s from the one Larry Heard inhabited, the now nearly lost lo-fi electronica indie thing, let’s say Future Bible Heroes, Lizard Music, maybe even some Primitive Radio Gods, you know where this is going, and someone called Andrew Broder sings this brilliantly (sidewalk) cracked lament (“Tell me when the water is sheets”) with wandering but morbid synths and guitar and this whistle, which might come off “Utopia” by Goldfrapp, but it’s the same spice of poignancy one gets when Scott Walker or Bill Fay sings dolefully of those old, tramping war veterans, as if there weren’t a war on now, but anyway.
Side two, though, more or less gets a little too Gilles Peterson, if you get even a little of what I mean, for example “Mr Nichols” which is an entreaty not to commit suicide, and indeed even if you know only a little of the whole Coldcut story you’ll realise that entreaties not to commit suicide on Coldcut records are to be taken seriously, even if you don’t know what actually was going through the minds of Coldcut when they made those thumping, uprising records such as “The Only Way Is Up” or “People Hold On,” but unfortunately the speaker on “Mr Nichols” is Saul Williams, the George Galloway of rap, and he starts with suitable humility but, as usual, quickly becomes a hammy hector, commanding the unfortunate titular hero to turn his back on all that lethal gaudy capitalism “turned away from the East,” ah yes, that’ll be the wise, consoling, inspiring East of Tiannamen Square, Indonesian business parks, endemic avian ‘flu and fatwas, if you wanted to be as crassly generalising as Mr Williams, and I hope you don’t, because then we get “Everything’s Under Control,” which sadly justifies its title, featuring those very 1998 characters Jon Spencer and Mike Ladd, and nice to see you chaps, hope you got paid for the gig, as they revive the good ole days of Rage Against The Machine, half-heartedly informing us that “Big Brother ain’t a TV show,” “Murdoch Pop look (sic) top for consumption,” “Vatican taps on the Texas Mafia,” and other things we didn’t already know, though I did catch that “hang on now” ad lib, or was it, at the end, and then we get Amiri Baraka (how did they get him?), though it may be a sampled Baraka, telling us he’s the Boogieman, and then everything he is and everything he’s not, as if Amiri Baraka were suddenly the new lead singer with the Arctic Monkeys, and wouldn’t that be an unlistenably novel thing if he were, but then there are curves and curlicues in young Alex which make me envisage a future Albarn, and then thinking that makes me re-realise that Dennis Hopper’s cameo on Demon Days is so much more elegant, so far more cutting, but then it cuts to “Aid Dealer” wherein Soweto Kinch proves that, as a rapper, he’s a great saxophonist, well a sort of David Gray to Dudu Pukwana’s Peter Hammill really, but anyway.
Then “This Island Earth” which rambles boringly like the Platinum Pied Pipers don’t (I’ve only just gotten around to listening to the Platinum Pied Pipers’ thrillingly askew album, evidence that sometimes even Gilles Peterson gets it right), that is until the halfway mark when singer Mpho Skeef suddenly dissolves into abstract ecstasy, cutting up giggles of “Hit me!” like Kelis hijacking Ian Dury, and then the mirrors sound a little deeper as the record veers towards its end, the ambling flaming lips of “Colours The Soul,” nice enough except when you’ve just been tickled into 57 pieces by Broken Social Scene, experimentation which makes you laugh and live, after all, this is our future lives we’re talking about here, and then the broken, sodden guitar of the titular closer (not that far from Closer, really) which stumbles in the mud until an orchestra majestically arises out of the burned glades, and it’s nice, even if only as a stopgap before the next Massive Attack record, so Sound Mirrors is half a sublime album, half an album sub-lime (as in: sticking far too close to its roots to flourish and colour), and at least it tells you that Coldcut still count, even if only their thumbs, and if I tell you that Xenomania are not on the shortlist for Best Producer(s) in the 2006 Brit Awards, then maybe we shouldn’t have so keen and so gradual to shake off Coldcut, because now we couldn’t even get away with the doped, diplomatic dipso rave of Underworld circa 1993, but fuck it let’s get away anyway.
. . .
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER – AUTOPSY OR PROLOGUE?
Of course Chantelle had to win; she recognised her designated role very early on, and the public theirs. After all, if Celebrity Big Brother were to present us with a test case of how a perfect and mutually equal human society could exist – an ideal life where, as in ideal art, every person should be the same size – then its experiment would have proved untenable if the non-celebrity had not tugged herself up to the level of the celebrities, or the celebrities not dragged themselves down…but you see the fatal flaw in this argument already.
A “normal” Big Brother assemblage could not have sustained this Platonic mirage of an ideal, for there it has repeatedly been demonstrated that contestants, or inhabitants, will do anything to make themselves “bigger” – to sweat, or cook, or fuck their way to fame, as opposed to questioning the point of fame. Does the megafascism of “worship me, your idol” outweigh the microfascism of “that was my coat” or “coffee, anyone?” as demonstrated daily in the workplace of your communal choice?
“You are not going to win support or respect by placing yourself out of the ordinary…You need to be approachable but you also need to be yourself. That’s what young people respect.” That’s a recent quote from one Alex Folkes, the speaker for a pressure group named Votes at Sixteen, apropos George Galloway, and it’s the kind of exhausting, fatuous anti-philosophy which tempts me to form a pressure group called Votes at Thirty. Nevertheless it is (un)pretty fitting for an age bereft of desire for godhood. Where once we assembled in front of screens or stages to gasp in awe at people doing and achieving things we could never hope of doing or achieving ourselves – but how we luxuriated, carried ourselves afloat, on the dream of doing so – now all we require is a humbling mirror. This is the sort of thing which stops dangerous people from gaining power, but also the kind of closure which would ultimately forbid all art.
In any case, how can we hope to “be ourselves” except when we’re by ourselves? In the office, in the shop, on the bus, in the front room or the bedroom with our partner, we are obliged by not unreasonable laws of rationalism to “act,” to play a role, for if we didn’t – if we really took the adage “this is me, take it or leave it” – then everybody would have been left a long time ago, and probably destroyed into the bargain. Live life in front of witnesses as you really are, and you risk losing job, home, money, family and possibly sanity. Raise the spectre of widespread public racism, as Faria Alam did when commenting, justifiably, on how black and Asian contestants never stood a chance of winning any Big Brother…and you are promptly voted out and heralded by boos and jeers, thereby proving your point.
Even – especially – Chantelle learned the value of acting. Those series of rapid fire “Omigod”s were a little too rapid to be spontaneous, the posing already scripted. Little wonder that Jodie Marsh – who, after all, is Chantelle half a decade hence – was so keen to bond with her, even if only to warn her not to end up like “me” – you’ll be jeered and sneered at by old men, just as I am, and you won’t have the screen of “non-celebrity” as a free pass any more. Chantelle’s smile was as big as her 2006/7 balance sheet will be, and as pulsating and palpable as paper. Because it would be uncomfortable to think of Celebrity Big Brother 2006 as a glorified X-Factor, constructed for the benefit of allowing one more working-class earth salt through the narrow portals for instantaneous patronisation and minimal reward, is why I prefer to think of it as a Robert Owen societal model, albeit one defined by models. Models, after all, can be snapped in two, but there are no hearts as obstacles to their perpetual life. Even if they start out with hearts, society quickly corrects them of that lonely misapprehension.
Moreover, CBB was the product of a specifically British mindset, so it’s hardly surprising that the two connected Americans thought it best not to say much of anything (save occasional involuntary eruptions from Dennis Rodman). Rodman realised his rehearsed redundancy almost at the point of entering; after all, you can have a two-year affair with Madonna, or turn up for a book signing session dressed as a bride (accompanied by several women dressed as groomsmen) – but what could he produce against the Atlantic-striven inexplicability of Pete Burns or Maggot? Not to mention the Ordinary Boy of a pop “star” – doubtless Endemol considered it a waste of effort even asking Alex Turner – or the Goldie Lookin’ Chain maggot, both of whom could justifiably claim to be less famous than Chantelle, even if measured only by the continued abundance of their oeuvre, competitively priced, in second-hand record shops up and down the country.
But if CBB were an exercise in human equality, then it was more or less a reductionist exercise, the house a vortex into which every atom of independence is semi-wittingly drawn and sucked. Again, this is part of the ideal – to look at the ridiculousness of these people and wonder how we could ever have hoped to idolise them, to turn their base papules into golden chalices. Stripped of their repertoires, the residents had no alternative other than to act their deeper selves – and the depth turned out, by and large, to be shockingly shallow. Rula Lenska, for instance – unquestionably Endemol deemed it a squandering of resources barely telephoning the agent of Joan Collins – drier of face and harder of spirit since the Rock Follies of three decades ago, wanting so much to be a mother figure but blatantly in need of mothering. In 1977, aged thirteen, purring on all fours at the feet of Rula Lenska was not an unfamiliar feature of my dreams; in 2006, aged far too wrongly, one saw her manoeuvres as the Actors’ Studio (Beaconsfield branch) staples they always were.
Or Pete Burns, who once threatened to be the Rula Lenska of 1986, reminding us wittingly of how much Paul O’Grady copped from him, but also of that long-gone Melody Maker era of mouthy Northerners – Wylie, McCulloch, Hussey, Almond – with four-page interviews in which they ranted splenetically and sometimes hilariously about the shortcomings of their peers as shoved up against the unquestionable, if improbable, greatness of their selves. Funny how little of that greatness was visible or audible in most of the music they actually made, but then…Burns talks that way of, and about, and to, everybody, even the twentysomethings who didn’t know who the fuck he was other than track 2 on CD2 of School Disco: This Time It’s Benzedrine, and ultimately they realised that he was talking to, and about, and of, nobody except himself. Perhaps “You Spin Me Round” will be reissued and get to number one a second time, just like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “My Sweet Lord,” and Burns won’t even have had to die to do it, which will cheer him up no end and also prove something eerily fathomable about the permanence of pop music.
And that leaves just George and Michael.
And indeed although George proved again the immutability of Billy Bragg’s law – viz. I agree with everything he says but why did it have to be him saying it? – as well as the ultimate uselessness of politics. When Paxman brandished the tabloid front page on Newsnight, inviting coherent explanations of what “Chantelle beds Preston” could possibly mean with the kind of anxiously non-roving eye which spelt out that he was watching every second of the programme – why else did he end up making a cameo appearance? – it laid out, not so much a Berlin wall between Newsnight Britain and Big Brother Britain, but a Moebius strip; after all, why is “Chantelle beds Preston” less valid or less equal than months of “Quinn beds Blunkett”? Why worship politicians when all that broadsheets and sympathetic media do is hide the fact that they are behaving exactly the same? Believe me, Galloway seemed to warn the viewers, and you are in danger of believing in politics; in danger of taking for granted (and elected) the phenomenon of David Cameron, who is either a very dangerous fraud or a very smart double agent. Ridicule me and excuse Simon Hughes, whom Peter Tatchell should now be suing for 23 years’ lost income – who’s the deadlier operator?
So, yes, look at me, I’m a cat, because the producers asked me to be, because what are producers other than glorified Chief Whips? I’m in a leotard pretending to be bemused at the slowness of an imaginary laggard puppy, dancing to electropop like a robot from 1984. Now I’m Elvis, looking pretty much like I did in 1972. Now I’m crouched invisible beneath a cardboard box with a photograph of me covering my own mouth…
…and weren’t those talking, silent boxes a wonder of surrealism? Wasn’t that the greatest, least reasonable thing you’d seen on television, maybe since the pilot (and only) episode of Freddie Starr’s Madhouse, featuring amongst others Michael Barrymore? Not the most frightening thing you’d seen on television, like the last surviving Dalek – and wasn’t that the true final episode of The Prisoner, the real Number 1? – but certainly the most luxuriantly great thing. It made me think that perhaps the residents should have been kept there on a lifelong basis, Truman Show-style, so that we might have something to aspire away from (to despire to?)…
…now I’m making a 55-year-old man cry, now he’s making a daft pro-America speech so full of empty platitudes as Peter Sellers’ old "Party Political Broadcast" routine…and now here’s my less-than-daft anti-America speech, and here’s where I’ll get the politics in, and the trouble is, viewer, dearer reader, that he was ridiculed, or ignored (“And your point is?”), and they were practised riffs which I’ve seen and heard him deliver in Hillhead and Hoxton, and all points in between, but unfortunately what he said in that speech was 100% true and rational and stark and sensible, so actually he was the only person in that house really speaking the truth, and I could go all Colonel Jack Nicholson here and roar about “your” inability to handle the truth but then what if that “you” is Michael Barrymore?
“He tickled my cheek a little too much on the Left, whereas my cheek leans more to the Right”
(Barrymore’s debriefing interview after exiting the house)
Did we expect Barrymore to be otherwise? Recall the smartingly lucid description in Gordon Burn’s novel The North Of England Home Service, where his hero, the ageing Geordie comic Ray Cruddas, looks back at his days as “virtually the court jester” to the Thatcher administration: “Like Jimmy Tarbuck and Ted Rogers and others who had also grown up in the old industrial regions…Unlike Tarbie, who was squat and perspiring and still carried the authentic whiff of a working class she had made no secret that she regarded as idle, deceitful, inferior and bloody-minded…” And just as Ted Rogers fell out of fashion with TV producers, went bankrupt and shortly before his death was reduced to making a series of McDonald’s commercials, looking so ill that he resembled Boris Karloff; just as Tarbuck is out in Weybridge golfing limbo, and may even have defected to New Labour (if that can be termed a “defection”); so the unambiguously Essex working class Barrymore exiled himself out of showbusiness to a life of psuedo-lontananzo in New Zealand, acting in school pantos but otherwise doing a lot of not very much except a lot of hiding. With Celebrity Big Brother, he saw a clear way back from being the next Tony Hancock (though by the time of his suicide in 1968, Hancock’s liver was so fucked by drink that in any event he would have been unlikely to see in the seventies).
And the problem with Barrymore is that he is a brilliant improviser, as droll in his own way as Paul Rutherford, as knowingly, eclectically dismissive as Eugene Chadbourne. Play back any of his ‘90s ITV shows and you will see a brilliantly elastic and instinctive mover – he is almost Robert Helpmann reincarnate – a quick and (aesthetically) radical wit. The studio, though big, seems to cramp into a corner in his shadow. On his “My Kind Of People” shopping centre karaoke expeditions he ridicules the doomed hopes of would-be singers with far more finality than Cowell or Osbourne could ever muster; always standing behind or in front of them, aping them, impersonating them, jumping on them, burying their forlorn belief of individuality – see, you’re nothing special, I can do it. It’s a giant palisade of egotism disguised as beneficence. And it’s executed with such speed and grace that all one can do is marvel. Remember that Barrymore was in, to a degree, on the alternative comedy boom of the ‘80s – he was one of the rotating presenters of Friday (and later) Saturday Night Live, as much a part of the show as Elton or Mayall or French or Saunders or Enfield. And usually he was a lot funnier. In the ‘90s, some complained that he was merely doing a mainstream, watered-down Vic Reeves, which seems to me to miss his point mightily (even if his point is that there is no point) – Reeves’ work, even at his best, is an extended cod-surrealist sneer from someone you know has Stockhausen and Beaver and Krause records in their collection; in other words, Reeves is continually demonstrating how far above all this music hall/Saturday Variety muck he is. Whereas Barrymore, with his background of Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club and Seaside Special and Central Pier bottom-of-the-bill summer seasons, comes from that tradition to begin with. Even his egotism (as per “My Kind Of People”) comes across as forgivable – he’s having such a whale of a time you forget any notion of subtext. So his genuinely surrealist television ballet/ballast has much more to do with what ropes he might have learned from Bernie Clifton and Norman Collier rather than the refectory of the University of East Anglia.
(Furthermore, when I lived in Chiswick in the mid-‘90s, I shopped at the same local record shop as Barrymore, and even saw him in there on a couple of occasions. I clearly recall him purchasing, amongst other items, the first Pan Sonic album)
Thus did Barrymore come across the most genuine of the participants in Celebrity Big Brother, and pretty much the default winner (“The Public Forgives Barrymore” will I suspect sustain a lot longer than “Chantelle, The ‘Nobody.’ Wins”) just as we recall “Common People” and “Wonderwall” and not the Robson and Jerome records which, statistically, kept both from the number one slot. He duly wept, he duly improvised and he duly moved, and when he moved, regardless of what he was dressed as (a Frenchman taking the piss out of Cassette Boy taking the piss out of Jamie Oliver!), I couldn’t take my eyes off him. When viewing the “Big Brother Movie” wherein all the participants impersonated each other (if you want to talk about Bunuel’s Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie), Barrymore sat in the audience, in tuxedo and bowtie, his face creasing up in genuine laughter and enjoyment, and he looked the only real star amongst the lot of them. Maybe that’s the lesson to be taken away from Celebrity Big Brother; however much we pretend to strive to become the same size, some people just can’t help having been born bigger – in every way – than others.
Thinking about the late Derek Bailey, as I have been doing quite a lot recently, set me to thinking about Sheffield – a city I have only ever seen from the inside of a car or a train carriage, en route to somewhere else, even though one of the best friends I ever had moved there over a decade ago; the hecticity of my life at the time prevented me from paying a visit, and thus did we inevitably drift out of touch – and similarly it’s impossible to think about the Arctic Monkeys without thinking about Sheffield, and all of the other music which has been written about the city, sufficient in quantity to make me believe that I know its desolate steely streets in depth. So one cannot listen to their album – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not; what a defensive title for a debut record, yet what a typically Sheffieldian title – without remembering that it forms one part of a sociogeographic map which also takes into account The Lexicon Of Love, Dare, Red Mecca, Different Class and Coles Corner; all differing perspectives on the same place.
Thus there was the initial and long-lasting industrial boom out of which arose proud, steely and smoky voices such as Joe Cocker, Tony Christie and (towards the end) Joe Elliott; then the enforced collapse of British Steel which left a wasteland, or a playground – a graveyard or a space for reinvention. The gradual encroachment of the leisure and service industries set against the death of old dust was at the centre of that great Sheffield quartet of 1981 records – Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca and Clock DVA’s Thirst rubbed our noses in the blackness, but permitted surreal perspectives to sneak through the Thatcherite cloak; Heaven 17’s Penthouse And Pavement mocked with steamroller irony the technophilic rush towards 2000 which would necessarily entail the proportional push of the working population back towards 1815; the Human League shrugged their shoulders with Dare, grinned and kissed a lot, and invited us to believe that the long yearned for Jetsons future could still be ours, provided our wits and blindfolds were both proportionally represented. Consider the inner sleeve of Hysteria, the Human League’s seldom-venerated 1984 follow-up album, which sees the “family” of the group pottering about benignly in the front room of a Sheffield suburban semi – but note how the room is otherwise almost entirely empty, save a television broadcasting Norman Wisdom’s 1965 film The Early Bird, as though the bailiffs had already stripped it bare.
As the uncertain ‘90s came into existence, however, the distance between old and new had widened and the passion of imminent death dissipated. Jarvis Cocker, an occasionally noticed sideline of a figure in '80s Sheffield music, suddenly became the city’s leading aesthetic spokesman – even though he had long since done a flit to London, epics such as “Sheffield Sex City,” “David’s Last Summer” and “Live Bed Show” conjoined erudition, hurt, sex, mischief, profundity, trivia, studium and punctum with a faith so flinty that it could only have been imagined in (or out of) Sheffield. Apart from the strangely ethereal murmurings of Babybird, the major Sheffield songwriters of the last decade have remained Cocker, and later Richard Hawley (who periodically added his lap steel to Pulp records and gigs when required) – apart from their own work, consider other Sheffield-based operatives such as The All Seeing I, Relaxed Muscle and I, Monster, projects in which either or both men have been deeply and indispensably involved.
As great as Cocker and Hawley are, however, theirs is necessarily a middle-aged perspective on Sheffield – even if Jarvis could make Tony Christie, old enough to be his dad (just), giggle at the inbuilt absurdities of “Walk Like A Panther.” And this, inevitably, is where the Arctic Monkeys come in. Think of Whatever People Say I Am… as the viewpoint of Richard Hawley in his younger days when “our clothes were so wild,” or even of the protagonists of Pulp’s “Joyriders” grown up; although the latter is unlikely, given that Alex Turner is the son of two teachers (note that Jarvis’ mother is also a teacher). So we can conclude that the exasperated sigh, which could only be borne out of love, that he offers in the direction of his friends at the end of the album’s closer “A Certain Romance,” is benevolent but also the sign of someone who knows that he has to flee this landscape quickly rather than slowly (“But you just can’t get angry with them in the same way”) for he has already seen the same scene perpetrated by those he doesn’t know (“broken bones”). Consider the white-shirted gentleman (already pinpointed as The Enemy by Pulp on “Mis-Shapes”) on the album cover, smirking as he smokes a cigarette; then cut to the CD illustration of a gigantic ashtray filled with butts; and finally to the rear cover with the same man wiping his eyes with his right hand, still clutching the cigarette – and is he crying?
Much has already been made of the notion that the Arctic Monkeys represent a new peak in mish-mash of elements of the unlived-through ‘80s. Actually there are several seldom-revisited elements of ‘80s music in their work, and by that I mean elements which maybe aren’t revisited enough. On one side, there is that uniquely stubborn, and now nearly forgotten, faction of guitar pop which briefly came to the fore in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, exemplified by the likes of the Wonder Stuff, Kingmaker, Cud and Leatherface (with the same treble-heavy drums). That in itself is a quadrant of music which I rarely, if ever, am tempted to sample again in the 21st century. But where and how the Arctic Monkeys make it curiously work is that they fuse these elements to approaches and tactics which seem to have been learned from forward-looking American guitar rock of the late ‘80s. Specifically, side one of Whatever People Say I Am… might well be the British Surfer Rosa we’ve been awaiting these last eighteen years; six songs which come in, flash and exit quickly, but always with proportion and areas of unexpected deviations – the way in which they seem to abandon “The View From The Afternoon” halfway through and restart it again, but more obliquely, makes me think of, say, Blind Idiot God attempting Coltrane’s “Alabama” (which original recording, you may remember, similarly stops halfway through one take and restarts with a second, neither half quite fitting with the other), not to mention the way in which they frequently take a song down to its end, with a modest George Harrison major-sixth flourish, rather than batter their way to a climax, and seem to know enough about group dynamics to alter their intensity when the song emotionally requires it – thus the very noticeable guitar reinforcements which separate the “San Francisco/Hunter’s Bar” and “New York/Rotherham” lines of “Fake Tales Of San Francisco,” and the shattering hammering coda of “Expressions! On! Their! Stu! Pid! Faces!” which ends “You Probably Couldn’t See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me” (very 1987 SST, those titles). These exercises alternate with a kind of running plot which involves Turner standing, petrified, in a club, looking at the intended Other but scared shitless of approaching her. So the bemused cry of “1984” at which “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” peaks denotes, not condemnation of her ‘80s electropop fixation (and she’s probably dancing to Laura Branigan’s “Self Control”), but desperation to get involved. Similarly, while more than enough has been said of Turner’s very pronounced Rotherham accent, his voice reminds me, of all people, of a young Bowie – listen to how he sings “You’ve seen your future bride” or “you sexy little swine” on “Dancing Shoes.”
Sometimes, though, Turner can tend towards Gallagherism, usually when he’s got his ire up. On the otherwise thoughtful side two, the most ostensibly adventurous song, “Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But..” sees him roar “Your stories are stale!” in an otherwise rather unworthy potshot at record company types, bandwagon latecomer “fans” and so forth. Coupled with the track’s slightly overdone attempts at eclecticism – taking in everything from bebop to arsequake to Britfunk, and coming across as a curious fusion of the Higsons, Big Flame and fIREHOSE (with a hefty dollop of Black Flag circa My War thrown in towards the end), it nevertheless raises the slight suspicion of a portentous, self-righteous second album whose subject matter would be the impact aroused by its predecessor. That is a trap which they will need to work hard to avoid (I also note the similarly over-defensive comment on the sleeve: “They can all say what they want now but they’ll never do what we’ve done.” Or you could see that as a simple continuation of the plea to be left alone in peace familiar from the sleeve of Different Class – whose bleakly comedic song-by-song photography is echoed strongly in the CD booklet of Whatever People Say I Am…- “Please understand. We don’t want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That’s all”).
Throughout side two in general, however, the Arctic Monkeys demonstrate a pleasing flexibility (when set against the stark stolidity of so much contemporary British guitar music) with frequent dub-like dropouts and a superb telepathy in particular with the rhythm section – bassist Andy Nicholson is especially impressive; note for instance his raised eyebrow flourish which closes “From The Ritz To The Rubble.” Also, very cleverly, given the “Roxanne” reference in “When The Sun Goes Down,” the song propels itself forward in a manner very similar to the early, hungry Police (Matt Helders could almost be Stewart Copeland here), yet it’s a Police song parenthesised by a balladic muse worthy of Half Man Half Biscuit. And, like the Police, the Arctic Monkeys are the kind of group which only really makes sense when they are number one in the charts – even a wretched middle-aged instinctive sceptic like me was impressed by their appearance (though it was a transposed live clip) on TOTP performing “Dancefloor.” It really did seem like samizdat bootleg footage – so clandestine-looking, as if somehow it hadn’t been planned for them to be number one, ahead of the briskly clean pop which comprised the rest of that week’s top ten. As with the video for “Message In A Bottle” a quarter of a century earlier – performed, lest we forget, by another group generally scoffed at as a bunch of ambulance chasing chancers – the spectacle once again became all, and consumed all.
More impressive, though, is how adept they are at turning the volume down on their music when the songs demand it. Thus side two’s opening gambits of “Riot Van” and “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” (you don’t have to put on that red light!) act as a painfully necessary counterbalance to “I Predict A Riot.” Where the latter song chooses to highlight its targets as unsubtle signifiers – you can almost hear Ricky Wilson’s stick hitting the blackboard as he ticks off all the contenders (“HIT BY A POLICEMAN!…MAN IN A TRACK SUIT ATTACKED ME!”), “Riot Van” and “Red Light” are resigned observances of things seen from the inside (“cou’n’t give a toss” as the would-be rioter is bundled into the van and gets the shit kicked out of him). Even the taxi rank scrap reappears in “Red Light” – “Calm down! Temper, temper! Young people get so angry!” – but the protagonist is far more worried about having to pay £2.50 when “you’ve only gone about a yard.” Sometimes Turner takes a surprisingly moral tone – he criticises taxi drivers (“He didn’t have to be rude!”) and bouncers (“Why can’t they be pleasant?”), not to mention the “scummy man” who regularly uses prostitutes in “When The Sun Goes Down” and the same song’s concerned codicil of “I hope you’re not involved” – he almost outdoes Tony Christie in the Politely Outraged From Sheffield stakes!
Best of all, perhaps, are the weary love/hate song “Mardy Bum,” which sounds very much like Morrissey, but with an openness and genuine closeness from which Morrissey generally tends to swerve away in his own songs; I can’t imagine him coming up with a couplet as plaintive as “Remember cuddles in the kitchen – oh! – just to get things off the ground,” especially not when coupled with the lovelorn fatigue of the way in which Turner sings the word “argumentative” in a basso not quite profundo and the band leans in with him, all the better to listen to him; and the aforementioned closer “A Certain Romance” which the group clearly intended to be their epic “I Am The Resurrection”/”Slide Away”-style album climax but which trumps both because, instead of going for the candle and fist waving which the frantic guitar forays at the song’s beginning seem to indicate, the Arctic Monkeys instead opt for a semi-jaunty skank, with chord changes descending straight out of Gracie Fields, as Turner turns the eye of his telescope towards the Sheffield of 2006, sees the hurt and the grime in full close-up but can’t help loving the place and the people he knows there, even if in the end he’ll have to get a hundred miles away from it to love it, and them, all the more fully.
Thus you see how the Fiona Apple lyric I quoted last week apropos this record was not a condemnation of it, but rather a reflection of the very thing which it is condemning. And I hope that the somewhat cautious and tentative tone of this review might do more proper service to the music, as it has been an attempt, not to analyse how the Arctic Monkeys got here, but rather what the Arctic Monkeys are getting at. On an emotional level I think I still prefer Coles Corner as a representative portrait of the Sheffield of now – Richard Hawley is, after all, more or less my age, and there are things, words and emotions in his music which only experience can make accessible – but I find myself going back to Whatever People Say I Am… more and more, not for analysis, but for daft pleasure. Which is as it should be.
(And here’s an incidental closing thought for you: nothing against the anti-popists’ favourite pop star, Ariel Pink, but doesn’t “I Wait For Kate” sound to its bones like a 1983 Pulp demo? Note: in the world of The Church Of Me, this officially qualifies as No Bad Thing)
. . .
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