Friday, 25 February 2011

The Unlikely Lads

I’d like to offer a small but heartfelt tribute here to two men who kept me sane during the Nineties.

Vidz was the best T.V. programme of the decade, a combination of stand up, sitcom and review show, set in dismal video shop on a grim council estate in Glasgow and hosted by a short, punkish Welsh bloke and a lanky Scottish crusty both with impeccable tastes. Childish, surreal, splenetic, potty mouthed, inventive, sharp, Nigel and Steff were a refreshingly angry antidote to the mawkish celebration of the mainstream that made the Nineties such a suffocating time. Regional, heretical, masters of the rant, remorselessly focused on the sheer shitness and vapidity of most contemporary film-making they maintained a strong, critical outsider tradition, the voice of dissent thumbing it’s nose at the pretensions of metropolitan media elite. Who the fuck gave these two chancers a job was beyond me.
I mean, just look at them....

I mean, honestly...

What they advocated and primarily focused on was the real reason Video existed, for the whole range of pulp, cult and B-movies (from The Shaw Brothers to Sam Fuller to Jodorowsky) that have subsequently become essential fashion items, along with marginalia like extreme sports and naked yoga videos. In this sense they understood Video: its purpose was oppositional, it was there to help form, foster and disseminate an alternate canon of pulp, trash and esoteria on the one hand and also to connect this with a more highbrow European Arthouse tradition. This is why the video shop, especially the independent video shop was such a charged space, it carried a subcultural, subversive vibe. The video shop, after all, was where the infamous video Nasties had resided, the video shop was where there was access to the X rated underage, to mysterious foreign language films and forgotten underground classics ( I remember rather blasely picking up both James Tobak’s Fingers and Hopper’s Out of the Blue on a trip to my local video store in Leeds, imagine trying to do the same in Blockbuster.) There was the weekly anticipation of Monday’s new releases and if you were lucky, sympathetic store owners to chat to who shared your obsession. The video shop was the place where the mainstream, the middlebrow, Hollywood was elided and new compacts were formed. Video shops had buzz.

We should also factor in here of course the satisfying heft and seriousness of those big old video cases, there’s something monolithic and grandiose in the early ones, great sharp edged and ornate monuments in moulded black plastic.

But I digress.

Vidz world then was instantaneously recognizable to me: it looked and sounded a lot like my own life, no money, too much drink and drugs, rotten living conditions and clapped out cars, shitty pubs, boredom, economically depressed backwaters, no prospects. All we had for entertainment was our wit, our critique, our imagination, bands, books, videos. Steff and Nigel were largely just an extension of the people we already knew, but mysteriously on T.V. It was hard to keep track of the show, which was bounced around the schedules, but it was an oasis in a desert of dull commentary and witless comedy. Steff and Nigel encouraged you, sustained you in the belief that UnCool Brittania had all the imagination and brains on its side, and in this they were indispensible.

Someone of extravagant patience and great taste has posted all the series here. For which the entire nation should be grateful.

update: online petition here

Nige here.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Costner's Folly in the Age of Aquarius

The nineties were the water decade. From the submarine turquoise of Nevermind’s front cover, to all those pop songs built around river and waterfall motifs, to the popularity of washy flanger and reverb FX in shoegaze (and grunge, trip-hop, Britpop, trance, dub-pop etc) the spirit of the decade – or its surface sound at least – was one of saturation and baggy, liberal fluidity. In no other decade would a novelty pop act have had the temerity to call itself simply: Aqua.

The water trend was in part a dialectical shift, a reaction to eighties muscularity (see Carl on this). The previous era had emphasised toughness, ambition, and achievement; the world of Thatcher/Reagan was still riven by rigid polarities and grid-like power vectors.

But when the nineties arrived, oceanic feeling descended. The big British cultural events of the period – Diana, Oasis, Blair – were all about loose, engulfing religiosity. Nebulous waves of collective hysteria were the new cultural norm. Sharp ideological edges were softened and blurred in the whirlpool of neoliberalism.

As such, the runaway success of Titanic in 1998 seems apt. But it pays to remember that the greatest filmic failure of the nineties was also a vast oceanic epic.

Where did Waterworld go wrong? Obviously partly because it wasn’t very good. But then neither was Titanic. Neither were the blockbuster sci-fi fantasy epics of the early noughties: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (both, astonishingly, released just six years after WW in 2001, both monstrously successful).

How did Waterworld fail to capture the aquatic zeitgeist? Perhaps it was a case of being late to the late-capitalist party. Put another way: maybe Costner’s folly bombed because it clung to a modernist oceanic ethos when it should have offered a postmodernist one. The nineties’ obsession with H2O had a lot to do with excess and profusion in an economic boom time. Water was expressive of a newly swamped consumer culture, and a climate of overflowing hedonism and alcoholic indulgence. So it doesn’t quite fit that in Waterworld’s flooded planet plants are rare commodities and the people are gasping for lack of “pure hydro”.

This emphasis on scarcity and barrenness was a misjudged throwback to the austerity of the mid-twentieth century. And with hindsight, WW seems to have more in common with the dystopias of post-war sci-fi than with the hypertrophied CGI monsters of the post-LotR era. Yet even a post-war work like Ballard’s Drowned World (an obvious analogue) had the prescience to see that the future lay in foregrounding themes of over-abundance. In Ballard’s book, plant and animal life has reclaimed the earth, and the artefacts of capitalism are abundantly collectable. Danger lies in the primitive pull exerted by the jungle of objects – both the man-made relics and the wild intrusions of the organic world.

But in contrast to the seductive too-muchness of the Ballardian drowned world, the world inhabited by Costner’s “Mariner” (natch) is an obverse of the classic Eliotic wasteland. The ocean is a desert. Animal life has largely vanished. Objects of the pre-disaster world are rarely encountered. A film this contradictory of market myths of plenty was always going to crash and burn, not least because it was itself a product positioned in the market, created in a spirit of extreme financial excess, its success judged solely on criteria of hype and sales.

Waterworld was a film of profound melancholy and failure, released in a year when the big mainstream hits struck notes of bland heroism and sunny optimism (Braveheart, GoldenEye, Apollo 13, Toy Story, Clueless). Perhaps this incongruous dysphoria is noteworthy in itself. Yet for all its bleakness, the film’s final disclosure is utopian. Unlike Titanic, which is actually quite a gothic, sinister film underneath all that suffocating (Celine) Dionysian schmaltz, Waterworld ends with biblical hopefulness and the rediscovery of “Dry Land”. As in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, fertility and the safeguarding of a child are achieved in a way that suggests a way out of the excessive-wasteland end of history nightmare. Waterworld’s nineties fable of profit and loss is at least interesting because of this basic commitment to imagining a far-flung future, even coming off the back of so much waterlogged meaninglessness.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Musical revolutions

Big emotive tunes are back and with them the hands in the air. But unlike the first rave awakening of the late 80s/early 90s that led to the various utopian and dystopian futurisms of techno and jungle, the rave experience is now taken for granted. And with music so often soundtracking every other aspect of our life, the hands in the air are often in another place, remonstrating as the tunes take on a hyping role at protests and marches against another ideological assault that threatens to take even more away than Thatcher did.

The rave was a utopian site, the thing-in-itself that had been delivered to the people by the people themselves. Many may scoff at the idea of rave being a youth movement in any political sense but not if you understand it on those terms. This mass awakening, as naive as it sounds, was the endgame, the immanent state back then. We were living in and to some degree had willed a post-political world to come along (our ‘spaced out’ youth barely noticed the 90-91 recession). It was like a na├»ve version of the communications/gadgetised utopia we’ve since thoroughly welcomed in the new millenium, where the main drug is staring at the screen, sharing and interacting for hours and hours of every day and don’t dare take it away, this is the New Life. All this has to be understood in a context where the past had far less licence to impinge on any 'new' scene and where there was no cornucopia of dance music, altered zones and modes as there is now (different scenes, different genres, different vibes or even all this hauntologically layered into one track).

Rave had fed on many of the chief attributes of many 80s subcultures – the manic buzz of the football hooligan, the crusty anti-capitalist/anarchist alternative, the left-leaning aspirations of 80s protesters in general – and assimilated all of this into a euphoric defiance of Thatcherite anti-society in a development which was almost universally recognised as essential for the soul of British youth. Orbital and warehouse raves and drug were returning for us our lost, atomised society. By the time rave had really expanded we’d had our last big protest spectacle – the poll tax riot in 1990 a culmination of 80s dissent against Thatcherism – but sound systems were not part of the protests in those days. So to join such an alluring autonomous zone was almost to acknowledge the slightly cultic stature (despite its nationwide scale) of the movement, and one after one we came over and assumed the slightly glazed-over look of converts. The first time I walked into a full-scale do in early 91, at the Park Prewett psychiatric unit in Basingstoke no less (the rave was called Evolution), the intensity and subversion of normality were clear. Your pints of lager with the pub-rock on the jukebox really don’t interest me now at all; you’re still a mate but I have wider connections.

The main factors of any scene constantly change their role and relationship in its structure – music does not always lead and the people follow. At times the set and setting, what people want from the society and where they want to get into their head, predominated. Rave’s initial burst in 1988/89 was not led by upfront music – most of the classics were made in 86 and 87 so old in dance culture terms. After the first-generation ravers frantically caught up with Chicago and Detroit, British guys began to produce but initially added little to the sound.

So the pre-90s tunes represented nothing so much as that thing-in-itself, the desired state. May’s Strings of Life had the euphoria, and of course would later be endlessly adapted by whatever scene that wanted to appropriate it, but in Britain such epiphanic tones became insufficient. The tunes had to start playing catch-up to this fast evolving alternative reality that the rave offered. In 92, I could be in east London one week rocking down the warehouse or driving round the home counties the next, looking for the do (I swear we would have reached Castle Morton if it wasn’t for bursting the tyre on my mum’s Metro). We needed more going on the beats, more outright madness in the vocals, not everything uplifting. This it did, evolving into the stylistically uncanny jungle – where rapture and rupture combined. The following excerpt from the Pump Up the Volume dance history doc is great for Beltram talking about Energy Flash going beyond right-minded definitions of house, and Goldie talking about the mindfuck that was Rage, how Terminator took that up another level and how the producers wanted to exceed not emulate the by-now bewildered Detroit elders.

Hardcore dance music was now in constant mutation, its producers barely able to keep up with the direction. For a few years more, perhaps up to ’95, the underlying sentiment was perhaps ‘can this music keep getting any better?’ (looking back now, take this with a pinch of salt and understand it as a typical 90s indulgence). And in a sense this was true, the ‘spirit of the rave’ or maybe even the drugs could not actually keep up with how deranged the music had become. Techno joined jungle as the main musical strand feeding this – two worlds where some respect was had for the other although not until mid-decade was there any trading of methodology. The former, and I’m talking here really about its Orbit/Knowledge phase, offered a very protestant, functional sonic template for the deliverance of utopia. Rhythm was everything – it had none of the sense of destabilisation of jungle. Much of this overall manic spirit was acknowledged and probably helped inspire the fruitless fight to keep the warehouse and field dos alive, in the protests against the Criminal Justice Bill.

But when we had to accept the hegemony of the controlled environment and the true acceptance of what, if anything, we had achieved (the weekender lifestyle basically, not a great legacy) – many sonic elements of those rave/techno/jungle years returned in more compromised, functional genres such as handbag house – the tunes playing second fiddle to the subcult again.

Now the playing field is acknowledged to be far, far different. The postwar possibility was being taken away in the 80s, but with none of the crazed marketisation (join up if you believe in living life riven by debt, if you don’t mind being just seen as a ‘consumer’ with ‘assets’ to ‘trade’ in a ‘market’) with which the sons of Thatcher are now delivering. In the 80s too her reckless divide-and-rule socio-economic strategy meant people could opt out of society, take the Vurt and discover zones of possibility in Britain’s broken cities while picking up their giro. This is not to deny the legitimacy of many of the strands of protest but arguably it gelled with a kind of indulgent cheap hedonism (just think how dance-able so much of the 80s agit-indie is). These are the preconditions that 80s protesters had been fighting off in aiming to deliver the promise of rave.

[If much of 80s ‘alternative’ music was eminently danceable, as people have been continually rediscovering from the late 90s, it had aims other than mere danceability and its weakness on these terms was that it was cultic, not populist, something rave then jungle often aspired to be. Techno was a bit more esoteric for most tastes but everybody understands the impetus of a 4/4 and its rhythmic base recombined with the hardcore from which it had split to make the many variants of happy hardcore/4-beat/bounce which prevailed in predominantly white poor towns].

Nobody would predict that then this cultural revolution of rave would lead to a fully corporatised and assimilated culture, but in the end not enough of its constituents fought to take it to the next level and its reliance on market supply for conspicuous consumption (all of the varied scenes never lost their dependence on the narco buzz, though drugs of choice did change) meant it slipped back overground. Firm prods in that direction came not only from the CJB but also from Radio1 types desperate to buy in to the culture. Maybe the veneer of subversion on ready supply from the legitimate urban club environment was actually enough.

Big dance tunes are just as important today, and the shock of the new sound probably just as intense in youthful minds as it was back then. But people are not fighting for the right to dance, very far from it – it’s the least of their worries and why would they anyway when delicious next-level line-ups are just a stroll off Kingsland Road away. Having a big dance in a field is not a political statement now, and all the warehouses are full of creatives chilling out in their think-zones between projects while the iPod plays whatever song you want from the cradle. They’re also in the fields, at those heavily branded festivals (aargh). There’s a sense that as far as our technologised society is concerned there is too much out there to enjoy to spend time bothering to react against. We buzz off the click. At the dance, we’ll blah-blah about our latest connections and blogs, share some shit virtually or otherwise.

Not so on the political front, where causes are legion and defending them seems more vital than ever before. Whereas the well meaning Generation Ravers and left-leaning sympathisers of the era liked a bit of a party with their protest and occasional anti-capitalist kick-off, leading to the ultimate mass surrender of the anti-Iraq war march, now there is much more urgency, and more diversified tactics, thanks in large part to 'Web II'.

Thus youth movements do not focus on escapist, delirious, uncanny music (though this exists in good, healthy and unclassifiable quantity), they’re looking for stuff that represents their disaffection, disenfranchisement and the making use of negative energy for creative force – think Tempz’ next Hype and of course Lethal’s legendary Pow!, even the contorted rage-inside of bro’step. Direct protest music is seen as a bit gauche and a bit too much of a fixed statement to really work in the current context (and while Guardian journos look for the next Clash/Bragg/Redskins-esque ‘voice of the generation’ none has stuck with the diverse movement, and neither are they likely to). That music which abounded in the 60s, 70s and 80s led to the climax of the ultimate revolutionary band – Public Enemy – being seen rather tragically as a white middle-class man’s plaything.

So in 20 years we see music playing a variable role in youth movements. Sometimes it affirms, sometimes it represents, for a few years way in the 90s it was beyond the party and almost beyond producers’ control.

The author blogs on music and other ephemera at Sonic Truth and tweets here

Friday, 4 February 2011


Our finest reporters are often the ones we listen to the least...

Having said that, this series was effectively banned upon transmission, the victim of a sustained campaign by pro-Israeli state pressure groups. It has never been repeated.

What is most striking about this, the first of three episodes, is the degree to which Fisk is embedded. Not within the confines of a media savvy military unit, but within the everyday culture of the people whose suffering he documents.

During the second Iraq War reports about events in central Baghdad, delivered from the rooftop of a plush hotel always seemed to jar, ramp up the cognitive dissonance of Baudrillard's TV Wars. Conflict as just another manifestation of the Big Other.

Beirut To Bosnia offers up no such disconnect, no easy answers.