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

Monday, June 18, 2007

The cover of this month’s Observer Music Monthly – “THE TEEN ISSUE” in big, slanted capitals – is emblazoned with the hopeful “Meet the bands and the fans kickstarting a youth revolution.” One’s instinct immediately leans towards wondering whether a real revolution would ever make it to the OMM’s cosy pages, let alone be championed within them. The issue boasts nine teenage guest editors, one of them black and all the rest looking comfortably middle class, and indeed the acts publicised in the “OUR GENERATION” (more bold capitals) section are, with one (token) exception, exclusively white, all of whom fill their predestined roles as future fillers of existing gaps in the market rather than creators of new ones.

Maybe that already sounds shockingly cynical and I would trust that enthusiastic music fans young enough to be my children would treat it with complete contempt. In the issue’s two major bookend columns the main anxiety appears to be a worry over old and middle-aged people’s continued control of things which should the exclusive premise of youth. In his Sounding Off column, teenage promoter Sam Kilcoyne (quite a worrying number of the prime movers here are named Sam) talks with disgust about “ageing suits without a clue and misguided priorities” apropos what he rather misguidedly refers to as “this new teen scene.” You can understand his frustration, though, as he speaks of his embarrassing dealings with “a major national pop music radio station” (well, there’s only One, isn’t there?) who commissioned a survey of teenagers to determine their playlist. It transpired that said teenagers were obliged to select from a very narrow shortlist of acts, such that the likes of the Klaxons and the Horrors did not make the playlist and the two most popular groups turned out to be Green Day and the Kooks. Depressing and predictable, but naturally ageing misunderstandings play only a partial part in this – while there is understandable angst about forty-year-olds favouring acts who sound like acts who were around when they were teenagers, such affairs also have to do with the real disease strangling British music at present, namely the eternal nepotism which means that playlists and exposure continue to rely on known industry contracts, backhanders, favours for favours (you don’t playlist Newbies A, you don’t get an exclusive on Global Act B), yet other favours called in, Buggins’ turn, and so forth. This practice also incorporates mainstream music magazines and music sections of major newspapers – I know of at least one senior broadsheet music writer who is in the paid employ of a PR company and is contracted to write only about their acts. Anyone, for instance, puzzled by the sudden accession of certain long-standing music business sideliners and also-rans to “the future of music” would find much clarity if these lines of communication were followed and dissected.

But anyway, back to Mstr Kilcoyne, who says: “It’s clear that teenagers have never been so important [certainly that is always the case when one is a teenager], but no one can grasp that times are changing, that to understand them better people have to change with them.” Cue any teenager with a gripe – and that’s most of them – over the last fifty years. “If marketing people are going to make money out of us,” he cries with the assurance of a future marketing person, “they need to have a rethink. We’re not going to be spoonfed safe rubbish off their surveys.” By way of illustrating this he signs off with a defiant “I’m 15, I can’t use MySpace properly and I listen to Ornette Coleman and Serge Gainsbourg.”

Well, good for you, lad. Flip back through the serrated back issues of Musics, the former journal of the London Musicians’ Collective, in the mid-to-late seventies – they are, sadly, not yet available online – and you will intermittently find me, at more or less the same age Sam is now but deploying a battalion of unlikely pseudonyms, uttering strikingly similar sentiments. And while it is reasonably viable to argue that with all music now at everybody’s fingertips on the internet, anything can be found and discovered, or rediscovered, with the minimum of effort, such that there’s no real work involved in doing so, no need to get one’s feet cold walking the streets trying to find The Light, The Truth and The Way, and also crucially no chance of serendipity, that stumbling across something or someone of which or whom you had never previously been aware but goes on to change your way of walking through the world irrevocably (since if you decide to investigate Ornette Coleman or Serge Gainsbourg’s music it is because it has already been cited by your favourite band), it is equally unarguable that the situation when I was fifteen, in the context of late seventies Glasgow, was the complete opposite of ideal. Back then, if you wanted to hear any Ornette or Serge, it was close to impossible; their records, as with so many important artists, were long out of print, jazz and “world” music were forlorn, dusty corners at the back of dusty, forlorn record shops (jazz of any stripe was the least fashionable of all musics in 1978/9), and any search would necessitate long trawls, your arms half-buried in cutout bargain bins, or scrabbling around in verminous basements, poking through the very limited selections on offer in the very few secondhand record shops in Glasgow at that time, eventually extending your search out to places like Edinburgh (coming across places like Ezy Ryder in Forrest Road, for instance, was like stepping into an Aladdin’s cave, though no doubt by contemporary standards it would look extremely superficial indeed) or relying on the happenstance of everyday occurrences – one highly regarded British free jazz issue from the early seventies, for example, which has not been reissued on CD and now commands absurd prices on ebay, I found in pristine condition going for 20p in the semi-derelict racks of a perfectly ordinary newsagent in Cambuslang Main Street. Exhausted, you would finally rely upon mail order, ringing up places in London like Mole Jazz and Honest Jon’s requesting copies of this or that, or writing to Derek Bailey in Clapton or Hazel Miller halfway up Haverstock Hill for the latest Incus or Ogun release. Sometimes HMV in Glasgow’s Union Street would hold one of its periodic stock clearout sales and you’d suddenly see the racks flooded with improbable quantities of supposedly impossible-to-get things from the FMP or Impulse! labels; and I still cherish wasting a bucolically hot Saturday midsummer afternoon in 1978 trudging through the basement of Listen Records in Renfield Street and coming across tons of Sun Ra (Saturn label, some with hand-painted covers) cutouts retailing for 49p a throw – said bargains now constitute an important part of my pension plan.

However, enough of this waffling; the point is that much key music, access to which is taken for granted by everyone today, was effectively unavailable and ostracised from the marketplace throughout my teenage years, and artists gain no royalties from secondhand sales. So it would take a particularly iron-headed rationalist to argue that the old way of doing or finding things was better. But then taking music for granted is an equal and opposite danger.

The other major column in the current OMM comes from Maddy Morley, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Paul Morley (who I note in passing has recently turned fifty). It’s a remarkable piece of work which makes me wonder (unless her dad had a big hand in writing the column, but that’s Grandad MC being cynical again) whether she shouldn’t just take the column over, but then at fifteen I suspect she’s got more than enough work to be getting on with. Anyway, she muses about the habit of going to gigs with her dad, or seeing her dad at gigs to which she’s gone with her friends, and she sounds somewhat worried about all this, although she eventually falls on the side of enjoying it, the artful aesthetic table tennis of influencing each other’s tastes back and forth. As someone whose own dad (who died eleven days past his fiftieth birthday) was apt to spin Stockhausen, Beefheart and the aforementioned Ornette Coleman into my toddler ears, I felt this dilemma with near-equal acuity.

But punk solved that. My dad was never likely to get into the Pistols or even (though he tried) PiL or Alternative TV or the Pop Group and the Slits or anyone else who cited Miles or Ornette as an influence; he had a thing about musicianship, which is why he was one of the few people in this country to buy Nick Drake albums when Nick Drake was still alive and needed people to buy his albums since they had on them people like Ray Warleigh and Chris McGregor and Lyn Dobson who “legitimised” the music. Everyone else was just faking it. So the roads, though still linked to this day, were bound to diverge, and the divergence was treated by my dad with something approaching sadness.

But then again glam also solved that, since my dad hated glam thoroughly and I had to keep my love a fairly painful secret. T Rex just about passed through his gates (he liked “Hot Love” because it reminded him of the Archies!) but as for Bowie the Bisexual…forget it. So I empathise more than somewhat with Maddy as she talks about persuading her dad to like Arcade Fire (“I had to play them a few times before he admitted they weren’t just a retro band”) and then he’s the one who flies off, interviews them, has breakfast with Win. It reads like carpetbagging.

“What was worse,” she says, “was watching the Arcade Fire documentary on television and seeing my Dad all the time and other older journalists. Where were the younger people?” Where indeed? They’ve all gone straight into blogging, or onto MySpace or Facebook; no more arduous apprenticeships reviewing the Edgar Broughton Band in a soggy pub in Kidlington. But since those in charge of music magazines and music sections of newspapers never, or can’t, read blogs except to rip them off periodically, and their eighty-word reviews inclusive of ratings, emoticons and “a letter – that’s a piece of paper you write on and put in an envelope” levels of explanation are hardly conducive to the decreasing pool of “journalists” still willing to suffer all of this, then such enterprises are always going to be full of people my age, or worse, telling you about how music fifteen-year-olds love now remind them, or copy, music they loved when they were fifteen.

The cycle cannot be excused. What forty-plus writers are prone to forget is that for many fifteen-year-olds, to paraphrase Maddy, Win Butler is their Bolan, their Bowie, their love, their hope, their inspiration, their nowness – and because of a peculiar and well-documented twist in my own fate, I find that at forty-three Win Butler is perhaps now also my Bowie, my Bowie, and I will not be slow to qualify those “my”s by turning them into “our”s. How should people whose lives are slowly and gradually being changed by the music of Arcade Fire and others be expected to react when other people old enough to be their dad sneer and spit? Well, with any luck they’ll take no notice of Green Gartside, or Simon Reynolds, or Jarvis Cocker, or any of the other ageing, self-appointed Customs officers at the gates of music in whose personal economic interests it is best for them to pronounce and pretend that it’s all over (or, if precedence speaks for itself, this is simply another chapter in Green’s one-sided war against Rough Trade for promoting Funeral more fulsomely than the highly rebellious-sounding Gerry Rafferty and Al Stewart pastiches which characterise the last Scritti album)…but the gates still need to be rushed and trampled down.

You’ve probably long since given up wondering when I’m going to start talking about Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, a Swedish duo who are not mentioned at all in this month’s TEEN ISSUE of OMM. From the cover of their new album (labelled #3; someone please contact me with regard to availability of the first two) they are clearly teenagers, or very recently teenagers (although only just released in Britain, the small print reveals a recording date of 2005), but still young enough to be swayed and stunned by magic; on the cover they gaze in awed amazement at a 12-inch vinyl record, from which emerges a golden ray like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Certainly a song like “Loop Duplicate My Heart,” briefly a single (and a Record Of The Week on Mark Radcliffe’s show, which is where Lena and I first heard [of] them at Easter), could only really have come from teenagers; the song joyfully dots and loops over the joys of playing with the singer’s home computer. Unrefined by “production,” the song is free to career in all directions, stylistically and harmonically, and usually all at once (“So many interesting effects – I want to try them all on you”). The singer’s (I’m not sure whether it’s Johan Hedberg or Peter Gunnarson) “Damn”s (as in “Damn, it feels so sweet tonight!”) are in their own lo-fi way as profound as Amerie's. Best, perhaps, is the gleeful line where he sings, “The neighbours can’t complain ‘cos I’ve got my headphones on!” Only in 2007, and only, I suspect, from someone under twenty.

While the album gets a little tiring (but not necessarily worse…there is so much going on in each song that tracks 10-14 should ideally be heard at a separate setting) as it wears on, its songs are fresh and energetic. A song like “Trees And Squirrels” is almost worthy of Jonathan Richman with its “Trees are wild and undisputably (sic) beautiful today” opening line, though the air of suburban defiance becomes clearer as the singer pronounces, accompanied by military drums, female backing singers and bullring trumpets (a touch of the June Brides there), “I don’t know what you’ve been told but I’m gonna have some fun tonight.” And “Noodles” is maybe the album’s triumph, a new “Bad Seeds” (the Beat Happening one) for our time with its thrashing chant of “Noodles taught us smell of denial, you will never grow up!” Through its sublime jungles there is a cocky denial of “logic” or “adulthood.” When the singer sings “I’m out of here, as soon as my will disap…” he disappears, to be succeeded by deliberately out-of-tune marching band flutes. “What matters is I don’t have to talk about the weather with some DJ dude with his shining boots of leather” is perhaps as concise and cutting a putdown of older, soggy attitudes you could find in the present age. “Don’t trust anyone or anything,” concludes the song, and I’d trust that any day.

Where love songs are concerned, Suburban Kids have an enviable knack of getting straight to the point. Thus “Funeral Face” with its merry Afropop backing, finds them demanding that “I’m the one that you want, and you want me now” and declares “So cut the crap, stop that shit dumpy-dum (stop that shit dumpy-dum! Genius!!), I will love you forever,” with a nod of approval from the accompanying banjo and tuba (banjo and tuba meet Afropop!). “The sun will murder the snow,” they confidently warn. But on the other hand they are capable of the plaintive poignancy of “Marry Me” with its Osmond-like pledges of fidelity and commitment – “Any old chance I’ll get I’m gonna marry you…/Put down a deposit on a nice little flat/Get my finances together and show where it’s at.” Extremely touching in its naïve faith, especially when a mandolin steals in at 1:31, though there’s a nice touch of petulant spice at the end with their “Why won’t you marry me? I want your love!” protests.

Musically they have the knack for lovely Saint Etienne atmospherics and High Llamas unexpected chord changes; see for instance “Peter’s Dream” with its gruff Hank Marvin lead guitar and mocking Greek chorus of “blah blah blah blah,” or the gorgeous instrumental “A Couple Of Instruments” with its Sunday afternoon in the park acoustic guitars and running waters. My favourite track, though, is “Parakit,” where the singer revisits his hometown, reminiscing about skateboards, cheap beer and old accordions, ruminating that he “didn’t do that much” when he was there, but then observes “And the tags are still there – Meat Is Murder and Pavement.” Upon which there’s a sudden pause of silence which lasts for a few seconds before the song restarts: “I used to wonder when I went out for a walk/If they named the pavement after the band or whether it was just coincidence.” You would have to be truly unspoiled to come out with a couplet of lyrical art like that, and perhaps beyond redemption if you aren’t charmed by it, or by this duo.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the Meat Is Murder citation is first-hand and they’re really 35-year-old accountants. But somehow I doubt it. Like They Might Be Giants, they inhabit their own self-made world with complete, innocent confidence. Hauntology? Been there, came out the other side; these days I’m far more interested in what’s happening next, since by definition it must be “bigger than everything I have ever done before.”

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