Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Kaotic Harmonizing

If there be more, more woeful, hold it in;
For I am almost ready to dissolve,
Hearing of this.

This would have seem'd a period
To such as love not sorrow; but another,
To amplify too much, would make much more,
And top extremity.
Whilst I was big in clamour came there in a man,
Who, having seen me in my worst estate,
Shunn'd my abhorr'd society; but then, finding
Who 'twas that so endured, with his strong arms
He fastened on my neck, and bellow'd out
As he'ld burst heaven; threw him on my father;
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received: which in recounting
His grief grew puissant and the strings of life
Began to crack: twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him tranced.

This is a brave night to cool a courtezan.
I'll speak a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors' tutors;
No heretics burn'd, but wenches' suitors;
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues;
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i' the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
Then comes the time, who lives to see't,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Ich Bin Nicht Europa

Yugoslavia was a uniquely independent and multi-ethnic, if imperfect, federation that stood as a political and economic bridge in the Cold War. This was not acceptable to the expanding European Community, especially newly united Germany, which had begun a drive east to dominate its "natural market" in the Yugoslav provinces of Croatia and Slovenia. By the time the Europeans met at Maastricht in 1991, a secret deal had been struck; Germany recognised Croatia, and Yugoslavia was doomed. In Washington, the US ensured that the struggling Yugoslav economy was denied World Bank loans and the defunct Nato was reinvented as an enforcer. At a 1999 Kosovo "peace" conference in France, the Serbs were told to accept occupation by Nato forces and a market economy, or be bombed into submission. It was the perfect precursor to the bloodbaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That is how the shock doctrine works: the original disaster- the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane- puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much like the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners. Like the terrorized prisoner who gives up the names of his comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up things they otherwise fiercely protect.
Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine 

  • incapable of charting an independent course of self-development;
  • a shattered economy and natural resources completely accessible to multinational corporate exploitation, including the enormous mineral wealth in Kosovo; 
  • an impoverished, but literate and skilled population forced to work at subsistence wages, constituting a cheap labor pool that will help depress wages in western Europe and elsewhere;
  • dismantled petroleum, engineering, mining, fertilizer, and automobile industries, and various light industries, that offer no further competition with existing Western producers.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Billy Corgan vs Nick Cave, Lollapalooza 1994

Pulped Life

[responding to the call for female contributors, I'm reposting this thing I written on Pulp and Polish (music) culture I posted on my blog Nuits Sans Nuits, which was a slightly changed translated version of an article I've written a year ago and published in a Polish magazine called Lampa (issue 1/2/2010). at its origins it was largely inspired by this piece, of course. So now, when Owen publishes his book on Pulp, hopefully no one will tell I nicked my ideas from him. As it is mostly on how a girl from a different than the British context sees and was seeing the whole phenomenon, I take full responsibility for any possible comments...]

Polish pop & punk bands were journalistic, Polish bands were not excelling in great lyrics. This text seeks to overcome this general opinion, and maybe come up with some new views. In the history of popular music of single countries there’s their history written, social, political, intellectual, it conserves the cultural momentum, the language, style, views, customs, morals and consciousness. I initially started writing this text in a reaction to Owen’s two part essay on Pulp - where he was overtly stating this was the best UK band of the 90s and why it was so special – but it was probably the article’s cheekiness and general flamboyancy that made me to rethink whether and why my country, Poland, never had its version of Jarvis Cocker. Because it was probably this band who captured, better than anything from that period, the zeitgeist, drowned in the Brit-pop’s crassness and cockiness, and left victorious this embarrassment that Brit pop was, without fraternization with Blair or participating in the Blur vs. Oasis thing, still topping the UK charts with Common People in 1995.

Through they style-jangling, eclectic, nonchalant (I thought at that time!), but very accessible music they were the most exciting and moving band at the time, touching upon the themes of the class war, patriarchy, inequalities, and managed to do so through very private and idiosyncratic obsessions of its frontman and lyricist, the one and only Mr Cocker. Because really, the lyrics were the most important in this band, although all of us were dancing to the ‘hits’ from Different Class.

Because there they were – and I remember very well when I bought my first of their albums, it was "Different Class" of course, and it was a cassette, and I was thirteen, 1996, initially prompted to buy it allured by the cover and the artwork of it, pictures of the family events, weddings, communal life and this whole ridiculous slogan ‘We just want to be different’ – wondered, why exactly did they mean? I remember the initial awkwardness of my acquaintance with Pulp very well. For a girl who at that time just started reading music press – and it was a good time for the press in the still freshly free Poland, just a year before a first real popcultural magazine started, called “Machina”, a mixture of Face, I-D and Melody Maker, where I first read about William S. Burroughs, Afrika Bambataa and pop art probably – it was quite something. Don’t remember whether I even read a review of Pulp, just there they were, and I remember just being seduced by the title – Different Class. At that time I already knew and was listening to, among others, Portishead, Bjork, Blur, had few important soundtracks, like (forgive me) Trainspotting, after which I started listening to Joy Division and New Order, and at that time, in Poland, believe me, listening to (Whats the Story?) Morning Glory didn’t condemn you to the social inexistence. Au contraire, no one were interested in this music in my school or among my friends. There were just me and tons of cassettes in my room.

After that there was dozens of British bands in my life, discovered and rediscovered. The moment when I realised how much a context of a place from where the band was was decisive. If you’re from Sheffield you don’t play like guys from Glasgow, and definitely not like blokes from Liverpool or Manchester. Pulp were from Sheffield, famous for its industry and brutalist architecture, with the great social experiment that was the Park Hill complex at its front. It was to be the city of the future, there the dreams about the final industrialization were supposed to fulfill, it was a fine transposition of futurist ideas into the every day life. Cabaret Voltaire, Human League (who first performed as the Future!) or Comsat Angels were from there, among others. But Pulp does not wear significant traces of an influence of the local scene. Cocker founded Pulp aged 15, and his natural references were Roxy Music and (I guess) some influences of Bowie, with a vision of a sexy, feminized but not gay, vocalist, inclination to frocks and luxury, and refined pop.

Who is usually founding bands? Funnily enough, unlike Britain, in Poland it was rather kids from intelligentsia, with an access to family libraries and at least small financial security. Not in UK, as we know. But Cocker was hardly a working class hero. He had it written on his face he was a good student, a well read teacher’s favorite, who attended music lessons and were active in the school theatre. But he clearly wanted a success. And where the hell is a success and the access to the ladies if not in the realm of rock music. If you watch the very early videos of Pulp with Jarvis, included on the post-split Hits dvd, what you see is an incredibly tall, eccentric, quirky, nonchalant, black-humoured but perfectly aware of his uniqueness pretty boy in oversized glasses, whose every gesture, every whim on his face, seem to be perfectly directed, so perfectly it suggest his fragile and embittered ego. He desperately wants to be different, fucking Andy Warhol, combined with Bowie, and more Scott Walker than Bryan Ferry, and what not, and he will be restless and ruthlessly focused where he only wants to. He is like Cary Grant in Bringing Up a Baby – but whereas there only we, the audience knew he may be clumsy, but he’s pretty fucking hot, he’s a bloody Cary Grant after all! – this boy already is perfectly aware how bloody charismatic and special he is and how he will use it to his advantage in the music world. And what a spectacle of a man he is - and he knows it, even when he’s doing his grocery shopping. But look at him again, and then look at him a few years later. Jarvis wasn't a typical frontman, with his carefully staged video and gig persona, with his ridiculous height, thinness, overly long arms and legs...it may have appeared as even grotesque. (then we learned there was some heroine involved to this thinnes later). He looks like a Daddy Long Legs, isnt he, so fragile he would be thrown with a slight blow of a wind. If you look like that, you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, you stand out. There's no easy option for sexiness for you, you have to invent yourself. Hence the queer-but-straight, peculiar stage motion of Jarvis, his cabaret, theatrical characteristic "pointing" hands gestures, his studied as-if drunken/stoned manner of dancing, that seem like a parody of conventional male sexiness, but delivered together with this deep, baritone voice becomes Ueber-sexy...
On the "Sheffield Bands" video from the "Pulp Hits" dvd, sitting together with his band mates, he seems very uncomfortable. They all, the band, love Sheffield, they really do – isn’t Sheffield a beautiful place? he asks rhetorically, equally rhetorically admitting he will never move to London. Ha bloody ha. His mind is already nowhere else.

I’m unfortunately not patient enough with describing frocks and style, if you want this, go to Jon Savage and England’s Dreaming – let me then focus on the message. The message was truly ambivalent. It is hard just to put Jarvis strivings into the box of a prole resentment, because it was so much more. Pulp is a band of oppositions. Yes, of course, he was perfectly interested in making a career and fucking other bands’ chicks, but show me a 90s frontman actually more interested in the destinies of women? And with an equivalent of the quiet, but assured presence of Candida Doyle on the keyboards (somewhat a balance to the Jarvis’s flamboyancy). Another paradox is of course the nostalgia. Cheap nylon outfits, general atmosphere of tawdriness, that later was changed for the more expensive, but still far from luxurious 1930s-meet-1970s colorful shirts, velvet suits and pencil skirts. Nostalgic salubrious sound vs the epic rock, mechanical motorik referring to the Sheffield bands tradition and the sentimental balladry; cockiness and shyness. The sentimentalism, self obsessed and sexy, reeking with boredom, disappointment, resentment, inequalities, decadence, ennui, deviations, alienation, hedonism, despair. And compassion. All those girls and women dwelling those songs, from the early Little Girl, repeating the theme of a young woman, pushed into a marriage & children, and then deteriorating in a house in the suburbs. My favorite song from the early underrated 1987 Freaks album is I want you, with a metaphor of an old lover, who wants to “keep her and throw himself away” (is there a more beautiful metaphor of love?). “You could look like anyone else, If that’s what you want to do”, but she cant, he can’t look at her in any other way. Guilt, frustration, sick love, fear of love, are leitmotivs of the early Pulp. In Life must be so wonderful Jarvis continues over the sad destiny of his ex, who left the town and didn’t quite gain the success elsewhere, who he is mocking, bored to the degree he need not to even pretend anymore.

I have a quite unexplainable liking for Freaks, which are relentlessly bleak, one-note, monotonous album on boredom, unsatisfying sex and title’s “death of emotions”. Unlike other Pulp albums, there’s no playfulness, nearly no skips (apart from I Want You and What You See maybe) toward any other form or other kind of human interaction. There’re certainly pieces of art that doesn’t bring any hope, but the songs on Freaks are also badly written and produced and there’s perhaps no forgiving for that. Still, I can’t fully recover after subsequent listenings of Life must so wonderful, where there’s clear there’s something genuinely wrong with the world and our relationships. There must be a difference between sheer wallowing in our unhappiness and real unhappiness, which is total and absolute shiteness. There’s certainly a difference between acknowledging that your relationship or lack thereof is shit and eg., that people are cruel, and eg. rape and kill each other. Because one can just leave said relationship, paying probably with a few months of feeling shit or having a depression, but surely, things like politics fucking over generations after generations or mass murder are worse.

But the catastrophe of relationships in Cocker’s lyrics are not only a fault of the imperfect nature of an individual, not only of the male desire, which in the end must say “goodbye” even to a nicest and most sympathetic girl and look for another conquest, to avoid the suffocating emptiness. Or rather this emptiness takes place in a specific space: in cage-like, stuffy flats, without perspectives, among stupid and insignificant dreams, among passive women and frustrated men. The characters are usually from the lower social classes, who had a chance to have/taste some of a “better life”, which often ends in a total failure. All this is filtered through an openly misogynistic, self-ironic, monologueing hero, who is mocking his own pretension to grandeur and megalomania, which is also a side effect of a class-induced resentment. There’s no, apart from the Freaks, real misogyny in Jarvis’ lyrics, who was raised by and surrounded by women, the father left the house, and Jarvis frequently admitted he’s actually more interested in a woman’s psychic life. The misery, lack of chances and helplessness of women is a frequent theme there.

Jarvis also were fascinated by Scott Walker, who produced finally the We Love Life, album “nobody bought”, as Jarvis later said, and the whim, mysteriousness, grandiosity of his music is definitely present there, if not the most in the fragmented, whining, painful baritone of the frontman, nonchalant and full of authentic despair. These are lyrics about sex in a smaller city, like all that joyful forgetfulness of Razzmatazz or Babies. But no irony – irony was a clichéd du rigeur of the past few decades and enough of that. Jarvis’ hero may be truly a bastard, when he’s blagueing that “I wanna give you children and you might be my girlfriend”, but aren’t the alternative destinies of those girls actually much, much worse? All those stupid things, they don’t work anymore, leave hope you who cross the line of growing up & entering the society. The thing is all that is raconted from a proper perspective of time (“well it happened years ago”), and is actually told by a slightly lecherous thirty year old man, who really probably doesn’t give a fuck since a long time. Sweetness is still there though, and real sympathy.

My favorite album or rather group of songs come from This Is Hardcore recorded after the astonishing success of the Different Class. This is one of the saddest albums ever, also an album of the lost chances – made more commercial than intended, it has become a spectacular band’s suicide. Its really like in this Frederic Beigbeder book, 99 Francs, the peak of the celebrity culture, this is a nightmare of a fulfilled dream of money and fame, drowned in drugs and alcohol, with incredible 30 minutes opera (masterpiece!) of the title song and written as if from the other side, hilariously funny Help the Aged, with Jarvis flying on a wheelchair to another galactic, like in Tarkovsky's Solaris mixed with Monty Python Flying Circus. Fetishism, crime, suicide, hardcore pornography, drugs (there was heroine around, so did Jarvis get a near-death overdose or a nasty trip?), jokes about death (but you're dead already, aren't you?). Yikes indeed. This is hardcore is a post coital, post sexual, post libido, post mortem pure dreadness, that gives me shivers & a serious twist in my stomach.

Moreover, it's everything Freaks wanted to be but could never become. This is an album of an unmatched power, a hangover & existential haze encapsulated, it’s freak Hollywood drama, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, Hitchcockian thriller with his women fixation (the projection of desire specifically Hitchcockian here!), cinema noir, showered with modern decadence, vanity, emptiness that can only come with a career in show business. This is a depiction of Jarvis Cocker’s state of mind after a year or two of taking advantage of finally getting on the top, of constant shagging anything that moves and partying hard. It nearly killed him, psychically, but there’s something great in the way he’s subliming it. Interesting, how eg. Bowie was embracing it (although it nearly killed him too, as we know at the end of the Station to Station there's nothing short of a goodbye-to-life declaration) and found himself much more inclined to hedonist pleasures, and actually never produced anything as dread-invoking as This is Hardcore - there's never such a menace, such desire-turned-something-terrible thing. It’s truly spectacular, pushed to the utmost degree, Twin Peaks/Mulholland Drive luxurious atmosphere of dread, like you were on a Eyes Wide Shut party, going straight to hell.

Truth is that is has to come to that, and it requires shitloads of hard work just as much as partying and immense self confidence, which comes after years of giving way too much fuck. And then you realize it doesn’t matter.

Pulp - Help The Aged
Załadowane przez: Pulp. - Odkryj inne klipy wideo.

Then Cocker got married, left for Paris, had a child, recorded a weak solo album, got divorced, produced among other things, Charlotte Gainsbourg album, recorded another solo album, whose highlight song is called I Never Said I Was Deep. Slightly disappointed by the first one, I actually begun to find the joyful embitterment of the second one fun. Well, he didn’t lose the classiness or sense of humor, naturlich, but the erotic neurosis of Pulp is long passé.

Funny, how seen from the today's perspective, 90s seem so much another, distant era (in the sense to write songs like that seems impossible now) and how to date they are at the same time, showing that our fucked-upness only deepened...

But if I mourn something lacking within Polish (music) culture, is its not enough literacy. The absent striving to express frustration in a more sophisticated way. We too often limited ourselves to one-dimensional punk screaming/whining "how special-but-nobody-knows-about-it we are" songs that mostly sounded like cheap plagiarism of the Western bands. We seem condemned to the musical secondariness. Why not some lyrics experimentation? Sure there was frustration, tons of it, but no one cared to put them into an artistic, poetic way. Yes, Im more than furious with how things went in Poland, because we have such a wonderful poetic tradition, such original literature, especially after 1945. What has happened with it, why it didint infiltrate the popular music?

Do we need and why, a Polish Jarvis? why do I miss such a figure in Polish cultural landscape? Why don’t we have equally nonchalant, whimsical, eclectic music, non-stripped of emotions? I’ll pass the general esthetical dependency of Polish popular music from the foreign, which condemns us to be eternal epigones. Lets focus on the layer of expression, ideology even. All music has its own esthetical ideology, Jarvis’ ideology was some projects from the past, filtered through his personal obsessions. Well, it is better not to mention our ideology. Polish bands, in result of those, and not the other, historical conditioning, had to, first of all, fight with the mythological SYSTEM, ‘komuna’, and didn’t have time or possibility to develop the esthetical or lyrical issues.

There’s also too big difference between our perception of socialism, obviously. Big assemblies, tradition of militancy, “classlessness” of the 30 years of the after-war period in UK, and then Thatcherism, strikes, when the industry was being destroyed are quite a different thing than the assemblies in Poland, under a quite different flag, or a general atmosphere of hopelessness, bleakness and greyness, especially of the last two decades of Peoples Republic. Maybe comparing the histories of our countries is idiotic in general. But hey, when I listen to Pulp, I still regret not having this chance. That the most popular songs in Poland have to necessary be bloody protest songs; and that we always, as a nation, preferred Clash to Sex Pistols. [well, a book called Generacja by Robert Jarosz, dismantles this image, but it came out a year after I’ve written this]. Class war, well, was something completely different here, was incorporated within the rotten ideology of late communism. Polish artist just couldn’t look at the socialist equality with hope. We also do not have a strong working class artist tradition, very few of the artists, maybe more among writers, belonged to the working class, art always being a domain of intelligentsia, who had privileged access to knowledge, books, education.

Funnily enough, when another self-proclaimed dandy, Paul Weller of the Style Council, wanted to show the bleakness of Thatcherism, he came nowhere else than to the grey Warsaw and shot Walls came tumbling down there in 1985.

Now we watch this clip on youtube and proudly show it to our foreign friends, because Warsaw has become this really hip place. To me Warsaw is real, true punk. Ian Curtis knew what he was doing (although he probably meant Bowie’s Warszawa more). But funny that there’s no a Bowie song called “Berlin”, but there’s Warszawa. Still, people treat us as a living museum of communism (but people, go to neighbouring Ukraine for this purpose), whereas an ideal of contemporary Poland is a fucking small entrepreneur. Because maybe one of the problems of the culture in Poland under communism is that obviously it wasn’t socialist enough, and was basically as divided as anywhere else. Also dandyism as a way of life never actually found its way or tradition in Poland and died with the romantic poets.

Another thing is our level of consciousness. Young people coming to the festivals like Jarocin dreamed mostly of getting pissed and having sex in the bushes, they thought of the freedom and emancipation as well, but not knowing how it actually should’ve looked like. Punk in Poland was still v much about filth and vomiting, there were Solidarity, but all that was immersed in the omnipresent Polish Catholicism, and the progressive or anarchic circles already were seeing it all going toward right winged nationalism and capitalism. If we had lyrics about love, sex, unfulfillment, maybe paradoxically it only happened in the texts of one band, simple Teenage Love Alternative, then T.Love, whose frontman, Muniek, born in the same year as Jarvis (1963), is one of little working class born musicians in PL, who wasn’t ashamed to write about love.

[only now it occured to me, that "1996", coming from the T.Love's album with the same title, may be perceived as an especially cheap version of "Disco 2000", where the failed inter-class romance is replaced by a tragicomic story about 90s Polish capitalism, gangsters and its other beneficiaries and their typical lifestyle, interestingly, put into a 70s tawdry disco entourage]

Muniek emancipated himself and gained a success comparable to Jarvis. Some also say that the more contemporary, 00s band, Cool Kids of Death (named after St Etienne song, of course!) was a late heir of Pulp. Their songs are fulfilled with similar resentment, unfulfilment, aspirationism. But whenever Pulp wanted to get there (and was getting there), CKOD were singing songs of self-hating slackers. T. Love and CKOD sung a wish about collectivity, that never really happened, about failed youth collectivities, refusal, hopelessness – CKOD coming from Lódz, a fallen working class city, no wonder etc etc.

We never loved life, or ourselves, for that matter. Pity. Because this comparison between cultures and histories shouldn’t go towards revengeful or regretful jealousy really. But there was and are cultural complexes in us Poles that we unsuccesfully are trying to heal through similarly inept methods, like shock capitalism, privatisation, self denial or denying that the previous system had anything worthwhile in itself.

This is a far more complicated story and I'm not going to finish it right now, the story continues…

Monday, 23 May 2011

Toxic Subjects

More early-'90s footy consumer porn.

I can't help thinking there's something Parnell-esque about this current "bringing low" of Giggs. It reminds me of that Zizek thing about the enforcement of "human, all too human" characteristics on people, the removal of a public figure from their collective significance by subjecting them to ridicule for private misdemeanours.

For what it's worth, Giggs's public "meaning" - I reckon - was that he communicated a sort of anachronistic model of permanency, poise, and quiet articulacy, just as the corporate interests in the modern game furiously attempted to get rid of all those qualities, to drain the game of value and turn footballers into risible, self-interested monsters.

Now Giggs is just another one of those monsters, and who wins? Certainly not the fans.

And the fact that Cameron was apparently in favour of revealing his identity is perhaps telling, isn't it?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

No Encore: The Sequel

Continuing this theme. When the track below came out (on the comp Macro Dub Infection II), I was young and stoopid enough to want this to be the last 'choon' I ever heard. The kind of idiot male melodrama appropriate for a go-nowhere recent graduate, reluctant to abandon habits he shared with people who now had places to take their scrolls. Let's just say its one-sentence lyric spoke to me. Autobiography: the night I chose this as my anthem, I decided not to show up for my crappy barman job and 'pah-tay' instead. It was an - ahem - somewhat illuminating evening. However, upon returning home the following noon, I discovered that the actual tenants of the flat had returned (no one mentioned that wee matter to me when I moved in that summer), replacing my pah-taying flatmates who had dispersed in an overnight panic. So, technically homeless and very much jobless, there was no other option but to keep the pah-tay going without pausing for a wink of sleep. I at least learned that with little more than newsagent deoderant and a decent toothbrush, one can survive anything with enough grace (cue the the theme to The Wonder Years). The morning after that, I awoke to news of Princess Diana's death; spending a drizzly Sunday rigorously pondering the ashen, laminate complexions of newsreaders, over a warm bottle of Irn-Bru. Go figure. Space restricts discussion of the 'problem-solving skills' I utilised for the peculiar week that followed. Well at least the rest of the country had gone insane by then...

Friday, 20 May 2011

His Card Was Posted Late (3)

Continued from here and here. But by no means concluded with the above...

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Chugging through 1991

It was a baffling and lazy juxtaposition even by BBC 4’s standards. After letting the quality shine through with a doc on Scream’s Screamadelica, they then ran Movin on Up, an hour’s worth of the runts of the indie-dance litter performing on TOTP and undermining the charmed wizardry of Don’t Fight it Feel it, Higher than the Sun et al.

This cheap compilation of TOTP appearances from mostly one-hit wonders did serve to highlight the change in indie’s sensibility to ‘baggy’ along with its new-found commercial considerations (basically everyone wanted at least No 3 in the indie charts and a showing on ITV’s Saturday lunchtime music show, and a cool No 18 on the main chart). This was a time to claim street cred, forget about paying their dues and get paid. Post Roses and Mondays, the less cool kids were tuning on to the more interesting music championed by the NME and the other media in their droves but they had to get past this deceptive gateway first. Sadly many remained stuck with this mediocrity; as at least they could claim opposition to this.

The TOTP2/Chart Show-style gentle mockery in the notes halfway through the song was standard, but the format of picking bands’ most well-known hits from that years undermines any notion of Circa 1991 being some kind of a breakthrough period of creativity. There’s far better work on 808’s Ex:el album (though as Cubik shows they were already behind the curve in trying to assimilate the toughening sounds of Belgium and Detroit), Ride had done three or four better EPs and What time is Love cant be touched by the rest of the KLF oeuvre – certainly not 3AM Eternal (bleeps a year or two late). And some hits were re-releases from a year or two before when the nation wasn’t quite ready for this kind of vague positivity, such as the Mock Turtles’ Can You Dig It? (originally a B-side to Lay Me Down) or Shamen’s Move Any Mountain, which is a desecration of the earlier Progen.

The over-riding sensation I get from most of this music is CHUG – chuggy beats, chuggy riffs, a kind of half-arsed catalyst to drop the pint and dance, but way too short of energy to keep you there. It’s the kind of spirit nicely alluded to by Electronic’s performance, by a set of lads who have done enough drukqs to genuinely feel the flow – and to feel the benefits of space in their sound. The CHUG mantra of the others meant there was always something going on in the sound, be it half-arsed ‘funky’ drummings, enthusiastic and barely funky riffery or some lightweight ‘ravey’ synth signifier. Stylistically, Ride tried too hard on Unfamiliar, drummer Laurence feeling that he had to continuously punctuate with rushes of expressionistic fills and rolls when motorik would have been enough to offset those descending ‘sonic cathedrals’.

And the dancing! Well I guess the shapes I was throwing were oversized too at the time but Oceanic’s diva appears lost in her 'dream trip' And I stayed clear of the cycling shorts in the rave. Then there’s Damon and his flailing limbs betraying his inherent disinterest in the baggy sound foisted upon them, and Mr C’s ‘starting to rush’ style. All deeply out of fashion in these largely non-dancing days.

And the clothes! With the prevalence of simple bright sweatshirts and Ts, Schott-type rave jackets (yeah I know the score, extra pockets for your stuff and/or save on cloakroom bills), grandad tops and two-stripe student sportswear, it’s no surprise we ended up back in the high street with a ‘casual’ look that, bar minor changes in the fit of jeans and a bit more accessorising in the noughties (hats, beards, belts), proves hard to kill off. Too many of these performers were hitchers of the rave ethos – perhaps another argument in that period being a mere interlude in wider developments – when what we needed is a genuine change in mood. Culturally, it’s a short walk to egotistic Oasis beer boys fighting at gigs, and the bland end of sartorial revolt.

(Insanity seems to have been performed at least three times on TOTP; this wasnt the one I had in mind but the lycra and bad dancing r still present)

One song stands out a mile in this compilation – Unfinished Sympathy by Massive (as Gulf war diktats crazily demanded) and Shara Nelson’s heartfelt string-backed delivery (at the time TOTP had a mixed policy on live performance) and this was definitely other in the context of 1991’s chuggy litter; music that had not had a genre invented for it (and trip-hop would not do justice), music defined by a place other than northwest baggy or west midlands sweaty (Gary Clail with his soon to be Snub riff song also comes out of it with some merit for the Bristolians).

West Midlands sweaty, I said. And that’s a pigeonhole for shoving in and shutting the post-Grebo heroic beery dumbness displayed here by PWEI, the Stuffies with Vic Reeves (Big Night Out’s catchphrase craze put me off Vic and Bob for years) and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. These guys, coming correct with their indie band long-sleeved T-shirts and their excessive drinking were a permanent feature of our small-town pubs. All these bands sold shitloads of records in 1991, culminating in the Stuffies’ gig at the Walsall ground. It was eminently danceable if your idea of a dance is a mindless mosh.

Reflecting on this mostly dire music, it’s really no surprise that the original ravers of 88/89 wanted nothing to do with the emergent ‘indie-dance’ (neither indie enough, or dancey enough) and fled to glammier house, hip-hop manna, the good vibes of acid jazz or nihilistic rock, and why so many people on the cusp such as myself disavowed the same sounds and took refuge in three types of harder independent (though hardly full-on alternative) music; grunge (hardly sold by a pisstaking Cobain here), the harder end of shoegaze/noise pop and rave. And it’s also no wonder that the Britpop of a few years away sounded a lot more ebullient, more assured of its (more easily assimilated) reference points and with more ability to deliver when compared with this.

I know, it’s only a selective documentary but one mean-spirited and sarcastic enough to smash already damaged rose-tinted (and probably Lennon-shaped) specs. I was 18 in 1991. Those who were born in ’91 are 18/19 now. If Movin On Up was any guide, the young turks must be looking at ‘our’ music and laughing. A lot. Then making a brew and coming back to laugh some more. Then tweeting their schadenfreude.

Although significant major works got released that year (Screamadelica, Nevermind, Blue Lines, Loveless) there was also a massive waste of misdirected, follow-the-trend energy in British music . BBC iPlayer are taking this offline within days and I don’t anticipate a clamour to bring it back.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Jeans 3

Warning: this video might ruin your day

Jeans dropped from high fashion in the 90s and Calvin Klein and other designer jeans manufacturers (actually, this is the 90s, so the proper word is brand) changed their focus from jeans to underwear and perfumes. Jeans were out and khakis and combat trousers were in. It seemed that America – and by extension everywhere else – thought of war rather than work as representing the blank reality of cool.

As jeans were nudged aside in the mainstream, they again became a subcultural uniform. This time it was the hiphop and skateboarding subcultures that took them as their own. Jeans were worn loose and became progressively baggier, as if they were some kind of evolutionary defence mechanism designed to make the scrawny teenager seem larger and more menacing than he really was.

At the other end of the spectrum was Steve Jobs. The computer world believed – and still believes – that they somehow exist outside normal society, that they transcend capitalism. So it is fitting that Jobs’ standard outfit was blue jeans and a black polo neck: he can’t be an evil businessman because he doesn’t wear a suit. Because the computer software and hardware industry made and makes so much money, this informal look spread to other industries.

As always, politics followed the people making the money. For photo opportunities Bill Clinton tended to wear chinos indoors and jeans outdoors. Ever image-conscious, Clinton’s choice of jeans was meant to show that he was both cool and rugged in a sensible way. After Clinton, jeans became a staple of the political ‘business casual’ wardrobe. As a Yahoo! Finance article puts it, “jeans are now a legitimate part of the global power-dress lexicon, worn to influential confabs where the wearers want to signal they're serious—but not fussy—and innovative.”

In 2001, the oldest surviving pair of Levi’s jeans, dating from the 1880s, was sold on eBay for $46,532. That year would mark another come-back for the classic Levi’s blue jean in high fashion. The Strokes, representatives of a new Me Generation, were a fashion sensation, changing the cut of trousers and bringing jeans back as signifiers of rebellious cool. The band was like a glossy photo shoot brought to life, full of the stock gestural rebellions of smokes, booze, scruffy hair and jeans.

The fussy look of The Strokes’ ripped Levi’s started a craze for decorating jeans with any old tat to make them seem new. Sequins, bleach, gold scribbles, embroidered dragons, dyes, studs, washes – anything to justify the price tag. And the price just keeps going up. While cheap jeans are still sold, the trend for hugely expensive jeans seems only to exist because rich people won’t feel comfortable paying a low price for them.

The range of jeans styles available is enormous. Jeans are a perfect example of the limitations of consumer choice: You may choose to wear what ever you want as long as it’s jeans.

part 1
part 2

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Poem of the '90s

Pearl's Poem of Joy and Treasure (1995)

Spout, pout, spout. Put my spittle all about.
Bare feet pressing down wet upon the glamorous
deciduous rugs of gold. Otherwise
needles and cones, sheep bones, crisps
and ox-cheek for tea.
Dark despair around benights me.
Above the burn I listen for the turn
of the water against the tumblestones,
wag my tongue like a wand
in the law wind. Fierce light
invades my eyes and shut face, closed for the night.
Unable to sleep, despite the hardness of the day,
I cluck and purr.
Why am I ashamed of my permanent silence?
In the brilliant heather, shin deep, I am
a good lass, purring and foaming, friend of green breasted
plover, keen listener to the wind in the wires; all
the bees and beasts understand
my milky fingers and palms.
I whet my whistle in the same pools -
at one with the world.
This white water upland empire, hidden
moss grows in the cracks.
I felt my way there when climbing
the bank, press my head there, soft emerald cushions,
when summer sleep takes on.
The wind runs and roars from the west, from the ferry landings
long and long until tears almost drown me
for consonants and vowels, sentences of good measure,
for an understanding of the very word syntax, brought
to my cavernous mouth, practising the words Appleby, Penrith, Shap.
Rosehip plucker, mitts needing repair,
here mam, on the sideboard, longing
for the words capital letter, Ordnance Survey map, to
read the true height of the law, emphasise my longing.
Twine my tongue and ease its itch.
Make the sky so borage blue.
Let the argent stars shine on my upturned smiling face
and furnish me with hope.
I need all the love I can hold.

Barry MacSweeney (1948-2000)
[post on him to follow]

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Goodbye To All That

I've wondered what happened to this guy. Nice to see he's still writing. Looking back on when I was following this stuff and reading about it, I think he had a quiet influence on how I listened and talked about these things. His actual style wasn't quiet, mind. If I recall correctly, he got his break after a writing a long ranty letter to Melody Maker about racial bias in music journalism (the things that stick in the mind... I dunno). I quite liked the way he was willfully subjective about these things. There can be uncomfortable connotations to classifying pop music too much (HMV shelves can have a sense of apartheid to them). Being so based on emotion and personal meaning, its impossible to boil music down to simple aesthetics, never mind 'science'. Surely pop's 'x-factor' is the space opened (not conquered) between consumer and producer?

The most interesting, fruitful aspect of British pop in the 90s was when it was, well, mixed race; if not physically at least sonically. Any innovations (however minor), and the sense that you were hearing something said differently,  related to this (Two Tone had a more important social impact than punk: discuss). Considering this, Britpop was even more hideously reactionary than many assume, which may be why Gorrilaz are more listenable and inoffensive (in a good sense) than Blur. The chronic social/racial stratification of British pop since the end of the 90s sealed the lid on its coffin as anything relevant. If experience is anything to go by, 'the kids' are now more starkly divided into 'indie' (white) or 'urban' (black), with all the class division that implies. Once those terms weren't as racialised as they are now. Even the Great White Hopes of trad soul just re-sell costumes* without context, to the relief of those oblivious to the 'other side' (I bet Adele et al have a fair few EDL/BNP fans. They'd see no contradiction). The wares of Simon Cowell are even more ominous - a kind of state schlagermusik, a degrading caricature and consolidation of neoliberal pieties. 

The effect is that music fans over 40 tend to have more omnivorous tastes than teens now, which I find very sad. It may have something to do with the distortions of the 00s housing market, with its knock-on effect on education (but time prevents elaborating). However, Blairism's deliberate murder of subcultures (long story) has a lot to answer for. It may be no coincidence that the Vicar was so closely associated with the white identity movement** known as Oasis (the last time I was at a festival, we had to pack the car and do a runner as soon as their identikit fans conquered the territory - a terrifying mob). It wasn't the end of history, but the end of a history. The relationship of pop culture to reality has become an irresolvable divorce. It lost its ability to speak to life.

*Pop has also seen a restoration in gender and sexuality. The empty tableaux of a Lady Gaga are just repackaging pre-sold approaches used by glam, disco or even Madonna - herself an agent of desexualisation and decontextualisation.
**Oasis rewrote the meaning of the Beatles and Stones into something far more narrow and ignorant than those bands ever intended. It's somewhat creepy that many regard Britpop's non-event as an affirmative cultural epoch.