Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Mint Deville

I should do a post on the 70's blog about Mink DeVille. They're the kind of band that interest me these days - the kind that fall awkwardly between the "official" and "alternative" histories of pop and rock. Willy DeVille was a Seventies rock'n'roll revivalist with a difference; his aim was to repopularise the oft-forgotten hispanic, cajun and gitano roots of popular music. Coming from the wrong (ethnic) side of the tracks, when he sang about his girlfriend's parents not allowing her to see him, there was always an uncomfortable truth to it.

Here's a late(ish) gem from his solo days. It's just a great song.....

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Beats, Rhymes and Cod-Psychology

The new Tribe Called Quest docu-film is a timely reminder of just how insanely remarkable and unique the whole Native Tongues project was. If ever there was a lost cause in need of defending and resuscitating, this is it. Unfortunately, the film as a whole succumbs to the vogue for tiresome human-interest biopics, and concludes with the unfortunate spectacle of two middle-aged men squabbling over nothing very much at all, a whimpering descent into farce with a timeliness of its own.

I'm going to dismiss accusations that Tribe were merely wussy, white-boy hip-hop out of hand (isn't it incredibly racist and sexist to imply that only white people would "get" this sophisticated, cerebral strand of the genre, that really authentic hip-hop has to be macho and martial?). The Tribe narrative, documented in the scintillating first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life, is quite literally one of the most inspiring and interesting in the history of popular music. Intelligent, funny, funky, and politically engaged, Tribe and their milieu were the most hopeful thing in early-nineties pop culture by far.

It's depressing then, that just as Tribe's trajectory was interrupted as apathy and careerism intervened in the later part of the decade, this film should follow an opening story of consciousness, collectivism, and scarcely plausible musical brilliance with a second-half narrative detailing a somewhat inexplicable extended argument between Q-Tip and Phife during the 2008 reunion tour. We all fall out with our friends and retreat into our families is the banal, boring ultimate message of this half-brilliant film. This may or may not be true, but it's certainly a hackneyed way of treating a radically, anomalously affirmative episode in the not-too-distant musical past.

But anyway, here's to the memory and continuing legacy of those abstract, literate, world-expanding choons ...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

This Is What We Have Come To

Here's nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman proposing that the global economy can be revived via faking an alien invasion. It's proof that the system of economic thought known as Keynesianism has gone far beyond John Maynard Keynes' original proposal to maintain surpluses in times of prosperity in order to boost aggregate demand during recessions, and has simply become another form of Faustianism, our underlying yearning for expansion into infinity.

It's also proof that there is no hope. Our civilisation's delusions run too deep to be challenged and/or reformed. History's maw awaits us as we dream ever-wilder dreams of salvation.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Suburban Knights

Hard-Fi are the kind of "landfill indie" band that we're all apparently supposed to mock. Quite why this is so I've never really understood, as they seem to me to be clearly unrelated to any of their British peers of the noughties. For a start there isn't the slightest element of nostalgia in their sound, which seems to have been ruthlessly excised of any sentimental cues or knowing quotations. Only the heavy dub of Lee Perry (from whom they took their name) seems to linger recognisably at the edges of their music.

Originally from Staines in Middlesex, what the band documents is the minutiae of contemporary working class life found in the particular milieu of mid-sized, light-industrial southern English towns - a world of industrial estates, replica football shirts, Sky TV, modded Peugeots, vertical drinking and the kind of unsteady work that intersperses periods of scrimping with periods of low-rent decadence: the Saturday night millionaire syndrome.

The dinosaur-vampire super-ego coterie of exhausted rock-crits charged Hard-Fi with two contradictory crimes: the first being the age-old canard of them being somehow inauthentic (there were endless attempts to prove that singer Richard Archer wasn't really working class), and the second that they were simultaneously too wedded to a narrow provincialism to be of any wider cultural significance. In many ways the band inconveniently documented a lumpenised proletarian culture that many metropolitan liberals wished wasn't there, a world in which the likes of News Corporation and Chelsea Football Club and Max Power and Carling lager constituted the staples of cultural life - England as it really is (was?), not as how their denigrators wistfully believed it should be.

As someone who has spent most of their life in a middle-sized southern English city, I have to say that Hard-Fi's curiously inorganic music does ring awfully true - you can almost smell the stale fags and lager-sodden carpets in their sound. But ultimately any authenticity they may possess is superceded by the fact that they write great songs, and rock them hard. Alas, as has been pointed out before on these blogs, there's nothing the tastemakers hate more than something that is just too easy to "get".

Monday, 15 August 2011

1999-2002 (And Ensuing Spenglerian Decline)*

There's always a risk of nostalgia with these blogs, but I think for the most part everyone has done a pretty good job of avoiding it, perhaps largely because backward-looking is so obviously The Problem Right Now, and utterly devoid of all negative potential. I say this to make clear that the following post is written without any conscious nostalgic sentiment, and by a determined, fundamentalist hater of past-worship.

This disclaimer is necessary because I want to suggest that part of the reason for the moribundity of contemporary pop music is that, at some point in the early-to-mid noughties, lots of incipient, potentially great musical movements were jettisoned, thus depriving us of the modernistic alternative culture which peaked around the turn of the century and that should have carried on growing.

This is an idea some of us have touched on lightly in comments boxes, and it seems to be gaining currency elsewhere as we approach the 10-year "point of objectivity"; namely, that the period 1999-2002 was in some senses a golden age for pop, or at the very least, a sort of window of possibility that was subsequently closed and bolted shut by an unspecified combination of Bush/Blair/Iraq/9/11/nu-rock/neoliberalism-on-autopilot/Jo Whiley/Justin Lee Collins/Heat Magazine/Zane Lowe/Pete Doherty/the internet/climate change/good old fashioned cultural-economic decline.

Owen talks about this idea of an early-noughties "opening" in his Pulp book [I've already quoted this on my own blog so apologies for the repetition if you've read it there]:
... in the early 2000s, the NME made a swerve into coverage of electronic music, R&B and hip-hop, but covers for Aphex Twin, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Destiny's Child and Missy Elliott did not go down well with readers; as is well known, the NME's circulation has always plummeted when a black artist is on the cover.
And today, in Pitchfork, Tom Ewing offers similar sentiments:
The summer of 2002 was studded with so many terrific pop, rap, and R&B singles that it now feels like that time was the peak of something. And as new ways of distribution break down old musical habits, there are calls for us to revive past ways of experiencing music. It's easy to become reactionary. But the snowball excitement of a leak was something new and giddy then-- tens and hundreds of people, first friends then strangers, discovering and thrilling to a track all at once. Pop waxes and wanes, but that communal joy stays with me.
Ewing advocates a Whiggish, "poptimist" view of pop, a somewhat apolitical perspective that opposes "reaction" with the optimistic assertion that technological progress (in his case social media and internet downloading) is essentially a positive force that will create more and better musical results. Nevertheless, he seems to be suggesting something slightly different here: that the "communal joy" which initially presided over internet culture in the early part of the 2000s was something new and exciting (past tense) and that, ten years on, this "peak" seems like a time of lost opportunities since reneged upon. 

Again, nostalgia must be avoided at all costs. The period in question was hardly a modern Renaissance. The pop and r'n'b of the time was often riddled with appallingly Thatcherite lyrics (cf. esp. Destinys Child) and used to promulgate a very-un-radical culture of consumer hedonism. But how about this for a broad-brush theory of what has happened to pop culture: its increasing obeisance to technology and the shift to ultra-individual consumption has actually completely severed all connection between contemporary music and "communal" contexts, has completely obviated any way of linking pop production to a collective history. At some point in the mid noughties, pop ceased to be joined to the world in any meaningful sense.

Another reason why this seems accurate is that, in many ways, you can so easily imagine an alternate history in which this cultural impasse hadn't descended, in which r'n'b, grime, and dubstep had continued to flourish up to the point that, in 2011, with an African American president installed in Washington, and with radical oppositional feeling burgeoning in the UK, pop and politics would have coincided in the way they have done in the past, and music might have soundtracked and enabled a wider reform movement founded in positive emancipatory sentiment. Wouldn't Miss E ... So Addictive have made so much more sense if it had dropped this year? Wouldn't 2011 rather than 2003 have been a much better year for Boy in Da Corner to win the Mercury Prize?

The most salient question arising out of all of this should be: how are these moments of possibility closed down? How did the noughties come to be dominated from 2003 onward, not by the innovations of Missy Elliott, Aphex Twin, and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, but by a completely ethically and artistically bankrupt, retromanic (*nods at SR*) pop culture with absolutely no relation whatsoever to the historical moment?

Maybe the simple, obvious answer to the belated, harebrained question posed by the editor of NME this weekend ("Punk spoke up for angry kids. Why won't today's bands follow suit?") is that, when organs like the NME abandon an alternative position and start championing The Strokes, Razorlight, and Kaiser Chiefs over Dizzee Rascal, So Solid Crew, and Destinys Child, sooner or later relevant pop culture is going to dry up. If the progressive modernism of the turn of the millenium had been given continued mainstream coverage and representation, and if we hadn't all retreated into atomistic microcosms from which it's increasingly impossible to agree collectively on what new and meaningful even mean, right now the musical tendencies of 1999-2002 might be reaching near-deafening, revolutionary levels of volume.

*"The Speng" seems to have become a sort of mascot for these blogs hasn't he? Bonza.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


London is a city few people understand, and those that are least likely to understand it are its residents and its proselytisers. The reason so few understand it is because hardly anyone knows that London possesses a deep, dark secret. It's a secret I found out quite by chance in the mid-nineties, and have kept to myself ever since, largely because so few people I could tell it to would recognise it, and, even if they recognised it, would be prepared to ever admit it.

The first job I took after I left university in 1994 was as an engineer installing escalators on the London Underground. This was a time when London Underground Limited was well into a programme of refitting every single escalator in its stations subsequent to the King's Cross fire of 1987, in which the old wooden-step escalators were (erroneously) suspected of contributing to the conflagration that had resulted in the death of 31 people, and were to be replaced with brand new units, such as the ones my company manufactured, that featured steel and aluminium steps.

When you step onto an escalator on the Underground, what you may or may not realise is that underneath your feet is another large room, at least as big as the concourse in which you are standing. This underground room is where the escalator is maintained, which is why you never see anybody working on a stopped escalator - all the maintenance is carried out underneath. This underground room possesses an upper chamber, where the escalator controls are mounted (that regulate the escalator's speed, the co-ordination between steps and handrail etc.), a concrete staircase that leads down between each pair of machines, and a lower chamber. Behind the lower chamber, sealed off with a dividing wall, is the pump room, where a water pump operates to ensure the chamber is not flooded by ground water.

We were never allowed to enter the pump room, which was the responsibility of a different company, but what struck me at the time, in every station that I worked, was just how noisy the pumps were. Rather than a slow, muffled thump, the pumps emitted a rapid dakka-dakka-dakka, as though they were at the very limits of their operation. One night, however, while I was in one of the lower chambers at King's Cross, the maintenance engineers for the pump turned up for a scheduled inspection. I took the opportunity to peer through the open door of the pump room, and was amazed to see that not only was the pump indeed operating at an almost manic speed, but that the sunken floor in the pump room was under about six inches of water. Despite my alarm, the pump crew assured me that this was "normal".

The reason why the pumps in the Underground were all working flat-out, I was to subsequently discover, was that the water table in London was rising, and had been since the end of the Second World War. Surprisingly, far from this raising of the water table being the result of human "development", it was quite the opposite - London's water table was returning to its natural level. What had kept it well below its normal level was the fact that up until the 1950's, the ground water had been heavily utilised by London's extensive manufacturing industry. Nowadays we are unfamiliar with the idea of London being a centre for industry, but it was in its heyday one of the great industrial cities of the world, all be it mainly specialising in light and medium industry (the most profitable kind, it should be said).

The disappearance of London's industry was partly a sympton of the general decline of British industry in the post-war years, but it was also partly due to the decline of London as a port with the adoption of freight containerisation - there was no longer any point in locating a factory in proximity to London's docks if you were actually importing and exporting via Harwich or Felixstowe. It was this realisation that the capitol had lost it's two main raison d'etre's - its function as a port, and its purpose as an industrial city, that lead me to comprehend its deep, dark secret: that London is obsolete.

Which is another way of saying that London is dying. It is dying in the same way that Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Sunderland, Liverpool, Sheffield, Belfast and all the other major British industrial cities are dying. And once I understood that London was dying, everything that happened there started to make sense: the inner-city riots of the 1980's, the chronic under-investment in transport that had led to the fire in the room in which I stood, the Big Bang that tried to breathe new life into the metropolis via unhinged credit expansion, the bizarre obsession with "vibrancy" that revealed the underlying fear of cultural death.

London had become a city that no longer made anything of substance; it only made words and images. It's proselytisers would speak of the "culture industry", but ultimately what it was making was simply guff.

The underlying reason for the riots of the last few days is the same underlying reason for the riots of the 1980's - absent any viable industry, London cannot provide secure, well-paying jobs for its people. If it cannot provide secure, well-paying jobs for its people, then it will precipitously decline. Unlike the 1980's there will not be any more adventures in the financial industry to give the illusion of economic viability. You can also be sure that the one thing the authorities in London will not do, regardless of political stripe, is encourage the return of industry to the metropolis. The best that Londoners can expect is perhaps an angry play that "confronts" the "issues".

And so what we have seen over the last few days is simply the first murmurings of London's long-overdue Detroitisation. Over the coming decades, London will no longer be encroaching on the Green Belt. Rather, the Green Belt will be encroaching on London.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Blue Thunder

Behold the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, an attack helicopter that was sadly shelved by the U.S. Army in 2004, despite being their "new quarterback for the digital battlefield".

This stunning machine came with the following features:

* Made of composites for lightness and stealth characteristics
* Added $34 Billion to budget deficit
* Mounted rapid data transmission technology
* Maintained delusional belief that war doesn't require sacrifice
* Quiet rotor system facilitated deep-penetration into enemy territory
* Could be shot down by a single gunman with an AK-47
* Utilised infra-red target designation system
* Allowed enemy to confirm hopeless decadence of the USA

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Two Swords Technique

Why, the homeless are left on their own with out help from the government or the public at large. Few are those that volunteer to help those in need and organize soup kitchens for them or closing. We have about 20 NGO working with the Homeless and the unemployed here in Tokyo and surrounding areas, trying to provide meals and shelters. Those NGO's receive about 90 per cent of their revenue in form of donations from abroad. The aid given by the NGO's is often undermined by the “Guardian Angels”, a paramilitary group of sorts, that is closed in combat pants, boots and military like beret. They are patrolling the streets to keep order and cleanliness on behalf of the "good" citizens and businesses that support them. Those “Guardians” give the NGO’s much grief at times, for they do not want to see those NGO's setting up in their part of town to help the homeless. Ironically, the NGO’s best ally against the "Guardians" are the Yakuza’s also known as gokudō (極道), they do provide a social function along their better know other activities. Of course one does try to stay away from the Yakuza, still every now and then they are the only thing that stands between being able to help the homeless or being hindered by the "Guardians" to do so. 
Alarmed at the prospect of the last Japanese pensioner switching out the lights, probably sometime in the 22nd century, the government – made up mostly of older males -- has swung into action, with sometimes comical results. In a gaffe-strewn foray into the marriage and fertility debate, Welfare Minister Yanagisawa Hakuo recently said Japan had a “fixed number” of “baby-making machines” aged 15-50 and recommended “healthy” youngsters should have at least two children. The political message – that women and not government policies are responsible for the lack of babies – infuriated opposition Social Democratic Party leader Fukushima Mizuho and many others. “Yanagisawa’s remarks were tantamount to telling women to give birth for the nation,” said Fukushima. “The [ruling] Liberal Democratic Party is to blame for this problem itself for not creating the environment where women want to have children.”

"I see a serious problem," says lawmaker Takuya Tasso of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "Japanese society is dividing into winners and losers, rich people and poor people. The middle class is being destroyed." The trend is troubling in a country where just about everyone considers themselves middle class and where no one is supposed to get left behind. 
"There is an expression in Japanese, ichioku-sohchu-ryu, which literally means, '100 million completely middle class' (or) more naturally, 'a nation of middle-class people," says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of Japanese at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Newspapers are now asking, 'What happened to ichioku-sohchu-ryu?' "