Friday, 27 December 2013

Come Down to the Station House

As well as musical, there are also spoken (and sampled) intros broadening the spectrum of really great intros, of which this must be one of the best.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Terrible Music of the Late 1990s

A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I went to Cornwall for a late summer holiday in a caravan park, the kind where there is a round of bingo every night and an Adele tribute act as a "special treat" on a Friday.

It being September, the weather was ambivalent, to put it mildly. One day we found ourselves in Newquay in the middle of a rainstorm. Sheltering in the local Poundland, I came across a rack of CDs priced at a quid each, nearly all of which seemed to be from around 1996-'98. Aha! I thought. Here's my chance to turn this veritable cliche of a miserable British holiday into something truly lugubrious.

When the rain cleared (briefly, as it turned out) we walked back to the campsite with a fiver's-worth of terrible late-nineties music in a thin red-and-white stripey bag, and the way was prepared for an afternoon of painfully frustrated in-caravan boom-box listening that went some way towards curing my nineties nostalgia itch once and for all.

A couple of years back, we surveyed the years 1999-2002 on this blog and judged it to have been some kind of peak for something or other. Whether or not this is the case, my Cornwall koshmar made me think that the preceding period was unquestonably a great cultural nadir of incomparable shitness. Indeed, in comparison with '96-'98, the later "noughties nightmare" we have discussed elsewhere seems like a time of heady artistic flowering redolent of the high years of the Florentine Renaissance.

Yes friends, these may have been the years of Mogwai, Beta Band, Timbaland, Underworld, Stereolab, and all manner of diverse EDM artistry, but this was also the heyday of bands like Ultrasound and Dawn of the Replicants.


Those Poundland purchases were as follows ...

Arnold, Hillside (1998)

Creation Records folded the year after this came out.

Marion, This World and Body (1996)

Somehow, this manages to combine the worst features of Suede, Oasis, and, err, Mansun, which is no mean feat.

The Unbelievable Truth, Almost Here (1998)

Wow. To think I was once envious of my bezzie pal Graeme for owning this.

Delakota, One Love (1998)

Wait, this is actually really good.

Tricky, Pre-Millenium Tension (1996)

And this is clearly awesome. What was I trying to argue again?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Brand A

The oldest kind of branding the nation knows, to paraphrase.

Britannia reaching towards reclaiming a genre that was ditched a hundred years ago, only that Military Wives tune despite marking a sea-change (when else could it have reached Christmas No 1?) is a bit of an outlier. In the British experience at least after the First World War, war songs came pre-packaged with melancholy and a different sort of sentimentality: that British society of boundless optimism and great-game playing was to a degree 'destroyed' as Paul Fussell has it here.

Of course since the Second World War there hasn't been a war of enough magnitude to require uplifting songs, and this seems to have stuck for a time: unlike in the US everyone from country singers to rappers didn't immediately make their contributions. Post-2008 this gradual re-branding of the nation with it's base components has accelerated faster than it would have done otherwise: it is two of the oldest British (English) institutions that have found themselves doing the most well, Army and Church. One has found itself become a beloved public institution able to dodge most of the criticism in-coming by appropriating emotion and anti-war critique along with the usual dogma; the other has found itself in it's 19th century role as most-often heard critic of the ills of the poor, a role that Robert Tressell and Joe Hill skewered around the same time.

The audio of the patriotic hymn comes accompanied with a pre-packaged "sort of controlled despair" that is as much a selling point as John Bull-ism. A youtube subgenre however exists consisting of jocular squaddies larking to pop tunes in the desert, gritty in-action footage, and video montages set to either ethereal melancholia or blood-thirsty dirge depending on temperament.

What happened this week is unremarkable in the history of the British army. The audio recording however is, something feeling very odd about both the awareness and performativity of what's being done, and the indifference to which it was treated by those who years before would have had at least something to say.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Dangerous Ideas, Dangerous Men

Something which seems to rapidly becoming lost in the recurring arguments for and against Dawkins and rational/scientific rationalism is that this is probably an evolutionary adaptation of what has come before (indeed check our William Shockley, who went from crucial scientific innovation, to popular speaking, to racism: some fairly strong parallels there). The living legacy of scientific racism has never truly been discarded or buried, either in practice or in thinking:

Here Charles Murray, one of the most influential standard-bearers of the Right's campaigns against the post-1960s developments in regards to race and the family, echoes more or less everything the Left has said about 'The White Working Class Community.' Our current elites are too distant and too disconnected to understand 'our decline', and the rest of the populace is too lost without guidance, solved in Murray's view by having the wealthy elite re-instruct us in the grand old ways of the pre-60s. What Murray and the left believe in unison is that the decline of the white working class is a problem of genetics and the passage of time. In 1984 Murray's Losing Ground would advocate reconstruction of welfare in the US; in 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act
attacked those groups Murray and his ilk felt were the cause of the country's decline: mothers and African Americans. Murray has experience in managing what he might call unruly populations: for a time Murray worked in Thailand on behalf of the US government carrying out counterinsurgency studies.

One of Murray's coups and a once ubiquitous for a time in US discussions was the publishing with Richard Herrnstein of The Bell Curve in 1994. Bravely the authors declared they could not ignore the wealth of IQ data which they had accumulated suggesting that America must face the facts: compared to whites, black people were possibly genetically less intelligent. Never-mind the distorted route by which intelligence testing came to find itself perfectly situated at he heart of American scientific racism, how it at the very best should be considered pseudo-scientific, or how it has been one of the most valuable footsoldiers in maintaining hierarchies. The genetic inheritance of intelligence is an area well-worth sniffing around because you never know who'll turn up. Putting their names to 1994's Wall Street Journal article “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” endorsing the views of the Bell Curve were respected intelligence researchers such as Raymond B. Cattell, Thomas J. Bouchard, Hans B. Eysenck, and Robert Plomin: these are not obscure backroom people but (Cattell and Eysenck especially) you will have encountered their ideas in some works training or seminar. Steven Pinker, to whom the world has already been pacified by liberal capitalism with the exception of some unruly outposts, approved this missive.

A figure who hasn't enjoyed a resurgence in popularity along with science pron nerd favourite Carl Sagan but is from the same era is the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould wasn't a prolific skeptic-buster, eager to throw himself into the industry that developed in the wake of Sagan and now has its avatars in Dawkins and co. In some of his last work Gould seemed to find a much better course in the friction between science and religion than his contemporaries preach. What Gould did in books such as The Mismeasure of Man was apply skepticism to ruling doctrines within science and psychology, and came away with what added up to the collusion and deception on a mass scale by eugenicists to forge the data to support their theories. Gould faced criticism for being ideologically driven in the face of the blistering destruction he delivered to the academic racists; usually, when the ideological biases of something are brought up (as Gould himself honestly does in the work) it is to distract from the fact that the entire body surrounding it is being driven by an opposing ideology.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Do You Recall

Nearly two decades of research on memory distortion leaves no doubt that memory can be altered via suggestion. People can be led to remember their past in different ways, and they can even be led to remember entire events that never actually happened to them. When these sorts of distortions occur people are sometimes confident in their distorted or false memories and often go on to describe the pseudomemories in substantial detail. These findings shed light on cases in which false memories are fervently held – as in when people remember things that are biological or geographically impossible. The findings do not, however, give us the ability or reliably distinguish between real and false memories, for without independent corroboration such distinctions are generally not possible.

Loftus and Pickrell, 1995, Psychiatric Annals.

When I was 9 years old I was convinced for the space of an August afternoon that my dad had died in an explosion. Memory became tangled up in a strange way with ongoing events producing a dramatic but incorrect version of reality. What had happened was a major electrical fault at a local power station had caused an explosion, killing two workers, and leaving another to die of his injuries. Some time before, my dad had told me dramatic stories about working in the town's steel foundry: the deafening noise; the light and heat given off from the forging process; the indifference of the workers to being so near, and coming into contact with, molten metal. My dad hadn't worked at the foundry for many years, and I knew this, but somehow this information was scrambled into a narrative where my dad was one of the workers killed that day at the power station. Reality asserted itself when my dad came home from work that night alive. I can't really remember how I reacted to this, and its such a trivial incident my dad probably won't remember it at all. I don't even remember if I said anything; but I do remember that build-up of dread on the afternoon after I came home from school.

((Interlude – One of my first concrete cultural/political memories is the death of Princess Diana. I can remember it well for the simple, selfish reason that her death meant her funeral took up an entire day's worth of the television schedule and had to get my parents to program several videotapes worth of stuff (I can't concretely remember what, but variously, an early learning programme, a lot of clunkily produced daytime children's factual programming that seems to have been wiped from present scheduling, a deep sea nature documentary (I had/have an obsession), cartoons, something about dinosaurs, and curiously an American-imported Biblical cartoon series – eclectic stuff for daytime children's television). We sat down and watched the funeral. Partly I remember I spent some time playing with Legos and recreating the funeral procession out of hapzard brightly-coloured bricks; as was my way I likely proceeded to then smash it all up. Recounting this memory a few nights ago I stumbled on the adjacent on of visiting the town's war memorial with a friend and his family and laying a wreath or flowers with the many others commemorating Diana. Going further into the memory, I suddenly realised it was false: I hadn't placed a flowers/wreath at all but had instead waited while my friend and his family placed on annoyed that I didn't have one of my own. The Diana images completely obliterate what are now only traces of what must have then been a stronger memory: my parents elation at the election of Blair and New Labour.))

More than one month later. The television has been turned off since I came in, but there's been a strange sort of general disquiet. A lot of the teachers at school were rushing around but I’m not sure about what: this being just another day I can't pick out many specifics from the general blur of school-days. My dad comes home from work, into the room, and says:

“Turn it on, something’s happened in America.”

Days after this, the company that owned the power station where I imagined my dad to have died, and where three workers really were killed in an industrial accident, implodes in one of the most costly scandals in history. Enron, United Airlines, Bin Laden, Bush, Blair, Osama, Tora Bora, Afghanistan, CEO, KSM, Taliban, Saddam. Nursery rhymes. Night-vision footage. The Millennium and walking to the front gate to "see in the new year" and tear-arsing back into the house when everything suddenly exploded.

In the playground, we played a game. We would pretend to be planes and run around making plane noises. I think, although I'm sure everyone's memory is as faulty as mine and can't be sure what did and didn't happen, that we would pretend we were planes hurtling into the World Trade Center, and every 'crash' would be accompanied by a dramatic "whoosh" and a flinging out of arms.

We all fall down.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Friday, 30 August 2013

An Army Marches

"I'm not judgmental, but I've spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in [a previous series] Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn't weigh up.

"The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods."


She famously enraged Jamie Oliver by selling junk food to children through a school fence as he battled to ­improve menus.

As pictures showed ­“Sinner Lady” Julie Critchlow ­shovelling pies, ­burgers, chips and fizzy pop through the bars in defiance of the chef’s healthy school dinners campaign, she was called “the worst mum in Britain”.

Jamie himself branded her a “t**t” and a “big old ­scrubber” before they later met and made up.


In an overhaul of public health, said by campaign groups to be the equivalent of handing smoking policy over to the tobacco industry, health secretary Andrew Lansley has set up five "responsibility deal" networks with business, co-chaired by ministers, to come up with policies. Some of these are expected to be used in the public health white paper due in the next month.

The groups are dominated by food and alcohol industry members, who have been invited to suggest measures to tackle public health crises.Working alongside them are public interest health and consumer groups including Which?, Cancer Research UK and the Faculty of Public Health. The alcohol responsibility deal network is chaired by the head of the lobby group the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. The food network to tackle diet and health problems includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies, and Compass, the catering company famously pilloried by Jamie Oliver for its school menus of turkey twizzlers. The food deal's sub-group on calories is chaired by PepsiCo, owner of Walkers crisps.




Henry paused absently wiping gravy from his plate with his finger. 'Put it this way: did you know that over the next five years we were planning to scrap free school meals for more than half a million children?'

'Not calculated to be a very popular move, I would've thought.'

'Well there'll be an outcry, of course, but then it'll die down and something else will come along for people to get annoyed about. The important thing is that we save ourselves a lot of money, and meanwhile a whole generation of children from working-class or low-income families will be eating nothing but crisps and chocolate everyday. Which means in the end, that they'll grow up weaker and mentally slower.' Dorothy raised an eyebrow at this assertion. 'Oh, yes,' he assured her. 'A diet high in sugars leads to retarded brain growth. Our chaps have proved it'. He smiled. 'As every general knows, the secret of winning any war is to demoralize the enemy.'

The meal concluded with apple-quince bread pudding, smothered in a honey and ginger sauce. The apples, as usual were from Dorothy's own orchard. 

Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Welcome to Liberty City

Addendum to this because how the hell could I have forgotten there's a genre actually called vaporwave!

The memory/The virtual

Reality - the actual

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Still seem like rock's last gasp/highpoint 20 plus years later.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Britpop: a case of mistaken identity?

A friend of mine has started listening to mid-90s NOW! albums in the car. The NOW! series was the epitome of Capital Radio, chart pop. I was surprised then, looking through the track lists, about how much Britpop is on those CDs. I shouldn't have been as Oasis et al scored plenty of Top 40 hits. More than that, you realise (or remember) how these songs fitted very happily alongside boy and girl bands, one hit wonders, and those 'grown up' pop groups that don't really exist anymore, like the Beautiful South.

'Don't Look Back in Anger' isn't a world away from 'Back for Good'; it's a thin dividing line between Supergrass and Hanson. Sure, the boy bands were pushed for a specific female market, but its two sides of the same coin really.


So maybe the angst about Britpop stems from a misunderstanding that it was for the 18 to 24 crowd. Surely, the core record buying public for it were 10-14 year olds and their mums, united by a need of breezy pop you can sing along to in the car.

If it was part of a 'push back' it wasn't against American alt rock or Penman n' Morley era NME, but against dance music (and to a lesser extent hip hop). A handful of sixth formers at my school were into 'serious' dance music or rap. Those were adult music scenes, which a 13 year old couldn't participate in.We all need a gateway drug in, and for most early teens it was never going to be 'Terminator' (although I reckon most of the audience for 'Scatman' or 'I Like to Move It' were kids.)

It IS strange that men in their mid - 20s with art school educations started making singles for children, or magazine editors in their 30s were pushing this stuff. But that is, unfortunately, something of the dark thread running through the British entertainment industry.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The "playlist" from Two Fingers' Bass Instinct (96) is up here, starting with "Forget I was a G" and ending with "Brown Sugar".

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Sundry banalities

 "It might seem odd to begin a book on nationalism with the Gulf War. The term 'nationalism' invites us to look elsewhere for exemplars. In both popular and academic writing, nationalism is associated with those who struggle to create new states or with extreme right-wing politics. According to customary usage, George Bush is not a nationalist; but separatists in Quebec or Brittany are; so are the leaders of extreme right-wing parties such as the Front National in France; and so, too, are the Serbian guerrillas, killing in the cause of extending the homeland's borders. A book about nationalism is expected to deal with such figures. It should be discussing dangerous and powerful passions, outlining a psychology of extraordinary emotions.

Yet, there is something misleading about this accepted use of the word 'nationalism'. It always seems to locate nationalism on the periphery. Separatists are often to be found in the outer regions of states; the extremists lurk on the margins of political life in established democracies, usually shunned by the sensible politicians of the centre. The guerrilla figures, seeking to establish their new homelands, operate in conditions where existing structures of state have collapsed, typically at a distance from the established centres of the West. From the perspective of Paris, London or Washington, places such as Moldova, Bosnia and Ukraine are peripherally placed on the edge of Europe. All these factors combine to make nationalism not merely an exotic force, but a peripheral one. In consequence, those in established nations - at the centre of things - are led to see nationalism as the property of others, not of 'us'. This is where the accepted view becomes misleading: it overlooks the nationalism of the West's nation-states. In a world of nation-states, nationalism cannot be confined to the peripheries. That might be con-ceded, but still it might be objected that nationalism only strikes the established  nation-states on special occasions. Crises, such as the  Falklands or Gulf Wars, infect a sore spot, causing bodily fevers: the symptoms are an inflamed rhetoric and an outbreak of ensigns. But the irruption soon dies down; the temperature passes; the flags are rolled up; and, then, it is business as usual.

If that were the extent of nationalism in established nations, then nationalism, when it moves in from the periphery, only comes as a temporary mood. But, there is more. The intermittent crises depend upon existing ideological foundations. Bush, in his eve of battle speech, did not invent his dismal rhetoric: he was drawing upon familiar images and cliches. The flags displayed by the Western public during the Gulf War were familiar: Americans did not have to remind themselves what this arrangement of stars and stripes was. The national anthem, which topped the US music chart, was recorded at a football final. Each year, whether in peace or war, it is sung before the game.

In short, the crises do not create nation-states as nation-states. In between times, the United States of America, France, the United Kingdom and so on continue to exist. Daily, they are reproduced as nations and their citizenry as nationals. And these nations are reproduced within a wider world of nations. For such daily reproduction to occur, one might hypothesize that a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices must also be reproduced. Moreover, this complex must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times" 

Michael Billig - Banal Nationalism

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Triumphing Over Stupid Bureaucrats

Die Hard 2 continues the pessimistic view developed in the first film in the series, but to much more incisive ends. In the first Die Hard Bruce Willis's solo cop John McClain goes up against terrorists, hindered by the stupid, greedy, or willfully malicious. The film is built around the notion that the USA in the 1980s might be a land in terminal decline that can only be saved by a few good guys who know the ropes and don't take shit from nobody. As deadly as the terrorists are dimwitted cops, FBI agents used to treating the USA like Vietnam, duplicitous yuppies, moral-less newshounds. The vital forces of action shown actually getting things done are New Women (gutsy like men, in business, although Bonnie Bidelia's Holly is defined mostly by her marriage to McClain and her family), the Japanese (the action takes place in what feels something like foreign soil, or an everyplace, a chunk of California signed off to Tokyo), and a gang of multi-national/racial terrorists.

Die Hard 2 of course repeats this, unhelpful cops and conniving bureaucrats and so forth, although actually the air control staff are depicted as resourceful and courageous: possibly, like Billy Elliott, a segment of the workforce that had struck a blow against neoliberalism, and becomes its victims (the PATCO strike of 1981), was being rehabilitated. If anything the film's failure at being as wholly enjoyable comes from repeating the first film on a vastly smaller scale (also Willis wanted out by this point, asking for his character to be killed off). What is more pointed here is that the film draws direct links between the USA's overseas wars and the military-industrial complex. The backing of a Latin American drug dealer leads to a team of US Special Forces turning rogue in a bid to free him from prison: such as links are well established and still being raised.

Though 90s action films are largely fluff, some seem very remarkable when looked back on.

Either in their vision of the 1990s as a grim near-future, or chaotic distant 'dark age':

Or in fairly critique/contempt for the government from within the military:

Something of a 'Praetorian guard taking over the republic' feel to all of it really.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

"Here's a revolutionary thought for you. Music should be free. You shouldn't have to pay for it. It's too important to be owned by the few, it should be readily available to the many. Music plays too big a part in people's lives. Whatever that is not food, clothing or heating is a want not a need. Music is a need, through music we construct definitions of ourselves, rebel, rejoice and articulate our deepest fears and  desires. The ability of music to encapsulate a moment, a feeling, an emotion and transcend race and class is beyond measure. The ability to change a day from shite to glorious within four minutes is something that should be free to everyone."

Two Fingers, Bass Instinct, 1996.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A post all about Rap Metal


A peerless tune from Gunshot, remixed by Napalm Death. Rap and metal but not rap metal if you get me.

Britrap, one of the lesser 90s Britthings.

And since this post was a little thin on the ground, here's some more 90s Britrap.

(really good this one)

These are less interesting for various reasons: the Hijack tune formidable but owes a bit too much to Public Enemy; whilst Killa Instinct sound a bit indistinct, although seem to prefigure the sound of Gravediggaz a little.

(The obvious entry here is Anthrax/Public Enemy's Bring the Noise, but it didn't fit with my loose thing about heavy sounding UK hip hop. It's largely pointless: too cluttered; too sped up; Public Enemy had already incorporated metal quite convincingly into their sound. Were any of the thrash lot besides Sepultura, and to a lesser degree Slayer, actually any good? So tedious and uptight about it.)

And several years later, from a not immediately obvious quarter

Will rap metal ever get it's day? Some scholar to chart it's obscure inlets and undiscovered plateaus of meaning?

Nah. None of it was very good.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Before last weekend

the largest ever crowd at Glastonbury was for The Levellers in 1994.

Musically, Mumford and Sons could (if they had a bit of wit about them) fit this in their set quite happily. But just as leaders are made by their followers, so some songs are made by the audience. It just wouldn't work, the meaning having dissipated long ago.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Nigel, champion of the world

[a belated response to digital ben's post]

Boxing has always divided opinion, but the '90s offered up plenty of evidence for the prosecution. Money dominating even more that ever, ludicrous 'faces offs' and puffery. More seriously the very ugly side was in plain view: the terrible ends to Michael Watson and Gerald McClellan's careers, and, of course, the deterioration of Mike Tyson (and its racial framing) ending in the ear biting scandal.

Tellingly, it began one of the most successful periods in UK boxing. With honourable exceptions such as Barry McGuigan, during the golden age of the American fighters the UK had to settle for national or European titles. No shame there, but also not the pinnacle of sport.

British fighters now won and defended world titles. Lennox Lewis unified the heavyweight belts (the last man to do this). The promotion of Frank Bruno as a Henry Copper figure was a bit of a misstep therefore. From the Eubank/Benn fight on British boxers showed that they understood the coming pay-per-view era all too well. They didn't want to be plucky contenders; they wanted hype, big money and titles. This included the managers, especially Barry Hearn and Frank Warren. A touch of the Harold Shands about both men (Warren survived a shooting in 1989) they were now doing the business with Don King et al.

This success was embodied best by 'Prince' Naseem Hamed. American fans (and the British old guard) never really trusted him and, in a classic boxing narrative, were relieved when he finally got his comeuppance against Barrera. However, Frank Warren and TV knew they had found an entertainer: not just an arrogant, showboater in press conferences but actually in the ring.

But as British boxing Americanised itself, so outward expressions of Britishness increased. Benn vs McClellan, Hatton vs Mayweather etc. became UK vs USA. The overlap between boxing and football fans, encouraged by the promoters, produced increasingly fervent atmospheres. Significant away support began to turn up in Madison Square Gardens and Vegas.

Both the Prince and Chris Eubank were rather glam even camp figures, in what is supposed to be the most straightforwardly masculine of sports. Unlike Frank Bruno, they didn't wait till retirement to do the panto work, but took it into the ring with them. The involvement of British sports entertainment was vital then in killing off the idea of the 'noble fighter', which American sports writers and Hollywood had invested so much in. We helped to remind modern boxing of its true origins in aristocratic gambling and the music hall.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Hollow Men

The image of the gangster began to undergo changes in the late 1980s: the salt-of-the-earth crims popular in the 60s and 70s were no longer viable, perhaps because the class antagonisms which favoured these working class boys made alright wasn't as potent anymore. Kenneth Noye was possibly the most indicative big-time gangster of this era, involved in theft, protection, and the nascent market of smuggling ecstasy into the country. Implicated in cop-killing and murders, Noye gained notoriety when he murdered a bystander on the M25 in a “road rage incident”, although this more likely revealed the nature of Noye’s life underneath his skin. There was also Terry Adams who “made the Krays look like clowns”, involved in drug importation and numerous murders. The point could be made that more characteristic were dozens of faceless individuals quietly setting up the coming tragedy of the 80s-90s heroin and crack epidemics, making no waves, quietly trousering the profits and moving on. The British depiction of the gangster subsequently faltered and retreated into nostalgia (the Kemp brothers starring The Krays).  America would be hit harder by this wave of nostalgia for good old-fashioned criminality: retro Mafioso in Goodfellas; central casting gothic villains in Silence of the Lambs. More indicative was the 1986 arrest of ‘Ice Man’ Richard Kuklinski, a mafia-hired serial killer able to shift easily from unconflicted murder and torture to family barbecues and Christmas mornings with the kids. Unlike the Mafioso caricatures Kuklinski is an eerily dead and empty presence, calmly and factually explaining that day’s brutality, rather like the Six O’clock news.

A bit like the heritage politics being kicked around at the moment by people concerned about legacy and this that and the other, the “community gangster” has a tendency to come back. The popularity of the Krays was a warped sort of sense of working class solidarity. The popularity of the lad gangster movies of Guy Ritchie were to a degree getting to the heart of this change: actual class experience became cultural experience. Irony, knowingness, the whole Loaded-era mess that marked out how regressive the 1990s were becoming. Not to say the Krays actually were a positive class-based thing: much like the Spirit of 45 crowd the attachment to heritage politics is dubious (oil talk: the possibility of postwar reform was guaranteed by the backing Attlee gave to toppling Mossadegh in Iran and crushing the political movement, therefor securing Britain’s colonial holdings in the Iranian oilfields). The East End of London was “a much nicer, safer place”, in the words of Kray friend and BNP supporter Eileen Sheridan-Price. Simpler times.

The film Gangster No. 1 (2000) directed by Paul McGuigan is a worthwhile examination of what gangsterism and the brutal mentality necessary to sustain neoliberalism/capitalism are related. Behind every Cheery Cockney or Jack-the-Lad there awaits a Kenneth Noye to erupt in anger, a Richard Kuklinski prepared to core-out their humanity. It contradicts much of what follows in the wave of Pulp Fiction: gangsters, retro-shit, and irony are not cool. The characters in Gangster No. 1 are either cruelly blunt about their ambition or refreshingly sincere about their romance. The retroscape is something sick (the final scene of the film takes place in a room hermetically preserved with late 60s, the last preserve of a damaged and dangerous personality). Gangsterism is analogous with what lies beneath fun funny neoliberalism: cold hatred and ambition.

Gangster No. 1 (2000) tells the story of a low-level hood who rises to the top of the London underworld by gradually taking over his old boss's territory. Gangster No. 1 is a contradiction in terms of the British gangster film. The 1990s wave of Pulp Fiction-inspired  British filmaking was driven by cool and funny characters; 60s, 70s, and 80s, gangsters were similarly honourable, hard-done-by, and honest, rarely purely monsters. Gangster No. 1 presents the audience with a gangster character divorced of any personality, expect cruelty and ambition: so anonymous is the film's main character he is never referred to by name, credited only as Gangster. Gangster (played in 1999 by Malcolm McDowell and Paul Bettany in 60s/70s flashback sequences) is a tall, thin, young man who begins anonymously dressed in denims and long-hair until he is contacted by career criminal Freddie Mays (David Thewlis). Gangsters only ambition at this point is to undergo a metamorphosis into a Mod through copying Mays' fine-cut Italian suits and tie-pins singling him out as a somebody (transforming from proletarian drudgery to proto-tycoon chic). After demonstrating his usefulness as a 'business associate' Gangster decks himself out in the sort of clothing then adorning The Who, giving him a faint resemblance to Sting in Quadrophenia. From there on Gangster puts in his time with the usual set-pieces of British gangsterdom: debt collecting, dangling people off tower-blocks, dropping a car on somebody's head.

What Gangster is really after, and the goal he is working towards, is the total consumption of Freddie Mays: his clothes, his flat, his empire, his girlfriend. Mays is depicted as having a suaveness and openness that Gangster will never have: Mays visits fancy clubs and eats haute-cuisine; Gangster is repulsed by Mays' joking about the homosexual insinuation of two men dining alone, misogynistic towards most women he meets, and seethes with racist abuse when murdering a black associate. Gangster learns that Mays is about to be murdered and does nothing about it: Mays and his girlfriend Karen are cut down by rivals whilst Gangster watches from afar with plain relish as Mays is shot down and Karen’s throat is slashed. Gangster subsumes Mays’ empire, symbolizing this total absorption by occupying Mays’ flat and wearing his favourite tie-pin gifted to him by Mays. Not only does Gangster take up Mays’ criminal empire but also begins to take on his hobbies; Gangster becomes a keen player of horses and finishes the horse fresco Mays starts but was unable to finish before going to prison.
Later in the film Gangster, an aged Malcolm McDowell, learns that Freddie Mays has been released from prison, poor but contented, still with Karen and now possessing an art degree. Gangster invites him to his (Mays) flat, completely unchanged since Gangster took it over in the 60s. Gangster interrogates Mays on what it is that he’s got that Gangster hasn’t: Mays fails to be impressed with the expensive clothes, decor, and artwork on display. Gangster is infuriated and gives Mays a gun, ordering him to kill him and end his misery: Mays resists the temptation and walks out of the flat. Later, Gangster stands atop his block of flats, tosses a cloud of money into the air, and leaps into the night, unable to accept that he can’t imitate his way into feeling like a success.

How Gangster No. 1 subverts cultural trends is in its depiction of maleness and criminality. Laddish Guy Ritchie-ism and ironic distance are suggested to be a thin cover over deeply held sexism. It is no coincidence that Malcolm McDowell returns to play a gangster here; McDowell played a similar character once before in Our Friends in the North (1996). The character of Benny Barrett is somewhere between the Krays-style community villain and the Noyes/Kuklinski psychopath spectre. Barrett looks after his people, spends lavishly in Soho, and acts in a decent manner; there is the suggestion that without Barrett more violent gangs would drift into the Soho vice game. Through close cooperation with the police he even becomes a pillar of the community sort of figure. However in scenes with his accomplice Geordie he reveals a deep cynicism and loathing towards women; he tells Geordie that he is not bothered when he finds he has been having an affair with his girlfriend: “Women are shit, Geordie.”

As Paul Bettany, Gangster reveals his deep loathing of women when he and Mays meet Mays’ future girlfriend Karen (Saffron Burrows) in a club. Mays’ homosexual jibes have already unsettled Gangster’s sense of masculinity: he is harsh and abusive when the club owner sends over Karen and another woman to provide company. He has no interest in playing the flirting games that Mays and Karen engage in once they’ve hit it off, after a brief misunderstanding that allowed Gangster to pretend to Karen he was Mays. In later encounters there is a definite sinister vibe projected towards Karen as she takes more and more of Mays’ time away from Gangster. A repressed homosexuality angle could be read into this (the Krays’ sexuality was not clear-cut either) but a consumerist reading perhaps works better. Karen interferes with the consumption of Mays and his lifestyle as Gangster No. 1: the erotic charge Gangster has for Mays is in his consumable image of sharp suits and smart interior decorating. The prime industry of McDowell’s previous gangster Benny Barrett is in pornography, where the thrill for the watcher is to imagine themselves performing the acts they are witnessing. Gangster is hanging around with Mays like a porn addict with a shelf of rancid VHS: unlike the porn watcher however, Gangster knows he has the stamina and smarts to stop imagining and step in-front of the camera and become the performer. 

Beyond readily consumable images of capitalist porno, sexuality and eroticism become sickening and horrific. It has already been established that Gangster regards women and romantic relationships as something inherently detestable. Two of the film’s most powerful scenes are distortions of sexual and romantic encounters that further the point that hateful sexism and capitalist porno gangsterism go hand-in-hand. Mays and Karen are heading down the street towards a taxi; Gangsters knows that rival criminal Lennie Taylor is about to ambush them. He watches with barely contained glee as Lennie and his men corner the couple and shoot down Mays: he is forced to watch while Karen’s throat is cut in front of him. They crawl into each other’s embrace under the street lights. When Mays encounters Gangster in 1999 he is mocked over his love for her and his wounded gesture. Gangster does make a case that Mays was a love rival who deserved what he had coming, but the way in which he describes Karen is as a collection of body parts, eyes, hair, mouth, belly, blood, like when he describes the way Mays’ suit is tailored earlier in the film. There is no real love here: romance when conceived of is something biological and categorical and commodified.

(a sub-point: two British cultural figures of the era who are evoked in the film are J.G. Ballard and Francis Bacon. Ballard is less strongly felt but large, modernist tower blocks and motorways make up a lot of the screen locations. A mechanic is forcefully introduced into congress with his car when it is dropped on his head. Also a sense that the luxury flat where Mays and then Gangster rule their empires becomes a cell, as Ballard’s characters tended to find high-rise living problematic, although really Ballard was all about how this liberated people so the point is maybe a bit too laboured. The retro use of tower blocks is interesting in terms of retro comparing its bleakness to the All Your Favourite Sweets, Records, and Haircuts route of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes.  Francis Bacon is evoked in one particular way: at points in the movie the picture becomes distorted and Gangster is screaming to himself, mouth hideously agape. The tortured screech appears unheard by his fellow characters and Gangster reverts to ‘normal’ as if it were a sudden intrusion of something dark and evil. It resembles particularly Bacon’s 1954 painting Figure with Meat. Bacon appears concerned with the inner putrescence of daily living and all human behaviour, something rotten and horrific beneath the skin-line. Bacon was also a resident of Soho.)

The films second perverse scene comes as Gangster breaks into the flat of rival gangster Lenny Taylor, who has just near-fatally wounded Mays and Karen. He is shot down by Gangster and is left immobile on the floor leering and making come-ons at Gangster (“Finish it now you bastard!”). Gangster slowly removes his clothing, piece by piece, leaving it neatly folded on a table. He loving lays out his tools. He strips down to his vest and underwear and sets to work slowly mutilating Taylor with a knife. There is a queasy erotic charge to the scene as Gangster hovers over Taylor penetrating with him, making confessional small-talk, passionately arguing with him. Only in this intimate state can Gangster speak candidly and emotionally with someone. Taylor after a long ordeal is dispatched and Gangster collapses covered in blood (repeating Mays’ bloodied gesture of crawling to his stricken girlfriend leaving a trail “like a snail” as it is later put).

Further charge is added to the scene when it is considered Taylor is played by Jamie Foreman, son of Freddy Foreman, helpfully on-hand to dispose of Reggie Kray’s victim Jack McVitie. That this link to the community gangster is so brutally, thoroughly, and humiliatingly dispatched suggests the film is well aware that one ideal has been crushed by another. Much like the myth of the gangster, by 2000 there was little doubt several years into New Labour that culturally one trend had beaten another. The cynical obsessive view has become a dominant one and the country (remarkably so in the past month or so) has become a harsher less-caring place. Gangster is a warped and grotesque shadow-image of the consumer. Gangsterism is the default mode of the country’s swindling politicians, bankers, coppers, and reporters.

“'93. Maggie’s children suffer the effects of the 80s. Do we fuck! Business is as good as ever.”

As good as ever.