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Give me music and give me noise....

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Ohhh! There's an amp in camp

The enduring significance of camp in music deserves a very long post (but I've only got a short one for you!).

Actually I should probably just refer you to the work of people like Jon Savage (but where's the fun in that?). So dear reader, allow me to tease and delight you with a few random spurts of my very own.

Pete Shelley, Mick Jagger, Selfish Cunt, David Bowie, the withering deadpan of John Lydon or Terry Hall, “Blitz”-era New Romanticism, Marc Bolan, Wayne County, glam rock, Boy George, Morrissey … The list goes on.

Attitudinal campery has been at the festering heart of some of the best music for years. Course it has.

Being gay is not the key point. (OK, it’s fairly important for those concerned or those that identify with them. Boy George talking/singing about gay rights is significant, but it's not what I'm talking about here).

So for example, Jon Savage says punk rock was "wild, outcast, vicious and protective". "It wasn't boring, and it wasn't straight." By the latter he means it wasn’t exactly straight sexually and, maybe more importantly, it wasn’t "in a perceptual sense" either. Hence you get film-maker Derek Jarman's early interest in punk, neatly bringing together personal sexual orientation and his auteur’s way of seeing and representing the world.

Hmmm. Heady stuff. If the typically gay-baiting lot with their punk pin badges at my school had comprehended this back in '78-'79 I can't help thinking it might have been a helluva lot less cool to put food dye in your hair or wear (ahem) figure-revealing drainpipe trousers. But then again, The Clash, The Jam and The Stranglers worked the other, far more bloke-ish end of the spectrum to counterbalance and obscure things. Go even further in that direction and you get to Sham 69, with their Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels theatricalised cockney hardboy nonsense. Gawd almighty, it's a right bleedin' mix-up, ain it? So, if my school was anything to go by, on the one hand you had insecure teenagers spitting out their disgust at John Hurt's much-talked-about TV turn as Quentin Crisp (some of the exaggerated vehemence doubtless betraying a bit of hetro anxiety), while the same kids loved the almost-as-camp comedy of Graham Sessions as Jilted John (presumably the fact that this gay-sounding weed was pining for "Julie" was sufficiently hetro to make it safe to enjoy).

Quentin Crisp springs to mind again these days when I see the excellent Leeds band The Rent Boys. For one thing the singer appears to be on a mission to reinvent the defiantly queeny limp-wristedness of Crisp in a rock music setting. He’s got that bored-with-everything lassitude of some of the best camp acts, including a nice line in “Ooooogh!”, “Aaaggh!” ejaculations (Kenneth Williams + Stooges rock stomp). The band’s also partly frocked-up, so it’s also the New York Dolls fronted by Frankie Howerd (you get the picture).

Meanwhile, jumping back again to the late '70s, I'm reliably informed (thanks Wikipedia) that one of the drummers with the excellent London art-punk band The Homosexuals left the group because he couldn't handle being in an outfit with this outrageous moniker. On reflection it's actually not too surprising. Doubtless plenty of present-day musicians would also struggle with exactly this little problem (band splits because of naming differences...)

I tend to think that the modern music scene - especially the live, guitar-based "rock" one (indie, grunge, art-rock, whatever) - can only cope with camp in limited, quarantined doses. So, someone like Gregory Webster of (the excellent) Sportique goes down well among the twee-indie fans (twee's feyness has already got a foot in the "camp" camp anyway). And Hunx of Hunx And His Punx can get away with his libidinous gay writhings partly because it's similarly pitched at a "liberal" indie audience and in any case the band's strong Spectorish soundbase and tough gum-chewing Divine-like "Punx" act as sort of “reassuring” foils for Hunx's leering performance. (BTW: I particularly like the way that one of the women in the band when I saw them - the keyboardist? - had a pencilled-in fake moustache. More cross-dressing please!)

Meanwhile I can hear camp elements in (say) 1930s comedy songs or the superb vocal-jazz of Fats Waller, and it's probably no exaggeration to say that camp has always been an ingredient in any music with edge or humour.

As it happens I also like the macho thug-drone of (say) The Ramones or The Stranglers. And a contemporary band like The Love Triangle can similarly do dunderhead bluntness with very pleasing results. But I think we definitely need more camp in music. The late great camp maestro Larry Grayson used to drive his Rolls Royce past the top of my street when I was a child (true story). Thinking back I'm almost sure I could hear snatches of punk rock escaping through the Roller's tinted windows. Yes, of course. The sweaty star of The Generation Game was bound to go weak at the knees for Stiff Little Fingers. Ooh yes! Of course he was, Everard.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Fascist DJs

It's only the forgettable filler between the bands, isn't it, so who cares about the DJs at gigs? No! Quite wrong. The people putting on the music between er, the music, are important. Of course they are.

And it is my opinion that by and large they're a pretty mediocre bunch. Predictability seems to be their watchword. They’re DJs from Dullsville!

If you're at a twee-indie gig, for example, it's going to be wall-to-wall Belle And Sebastian, Ballboy and other gently tuneful bands beginning with B. A garage gig and you're in for plenty of garage grind, new and old (The Stooges being a particular favourite). Oh it does get tedious.

Very occasionally you can hear some invention and effort entering into the proceedings. One gig last year threw 1930s dance-band tunes into the mix. It was one of the very few interesting between-set selections I can recollect.

It's worth remembering that some gigs don't even have DJs, just a CD or something. A few years ago I used to go pretty regularly to a DJ-less free jazz night, noted for its self-consciously “eclectic” programming. Totally missing a trick, they used to just have a CD with stuff like Jimi Hendrix on it which would get plonked on every week. My friend, in a moment of rare enterprise, asked the promoter if they’d be interested in having him DJ. They agreed. Once a fortnight he’d appear with a different, carefully-thought-out mini-disk-only set: choice dub, bebop, Herman Dune, strange children’s songs. Needless to say after a few weeks they got rid of him for reasons never made clear. That’s the live music scene for you. Effortlessly conservative even when it’s supposedly cutting-edge.

As the long-forgotten Glaswegian punk band The Exile used to put, Mr DJ, Fascist DJ, won't let us play, don't like us at all ...

Friday, 11 February 2011

Please please me: shut up about the Beatles

“If you heard the Beatles at the Cavern, you knew they were the greatest kickass band ever, with a raw, Southern, joyously angry, black vein.”

Blimey. It’s Willy Russell, the playwright, waxing very lyrical about the Fab Four on the much-hyped occasion of it being, wait for it … EXACTLY 50 YEARS SINCE THE BEATLES PLAYED THE CAVERN FOR THE FIRST TIME.

Yes, you’ll probably need to go and lie down somewhere to absorb the full momentousness of these hallowed facts. John, Paul, George and Ringo on home turf, fresh off the boat from Hamburg and ready to rip it for all the Liver birds and Liver boys. Such absolute fabulousness.

A few months back I was reading about how, somewhat surprisingly, Ozzy Ozbourne says he takes much of his inspiration from the Beatles. Fair enough. They made a huge impact, influenced thousands of musicians (good and maybe not so good) and, yes, I’ll go so far as to say it, recorded some decent music. From Love Me Do to War Pigs in only seven years: like it!

I also quite like the fact that the first Cavern gig was a lunchtime slot, something I’d be pleased to see revived in 2011. Less Beatles reverence, more 12.15pm gigs, I'm saying.

I’ll freely admit that over the years I’ve enjoyed a lot of music that’s been indebted to the Beatles (and I’ve even listened to the Beatles), but this band must surely be the most over-praised and actually - when you think about - the most overrated musical outfit of all time.

One question. Did Willy Russell ever see the mighty Uncle John And Whitelock? Because, if he had, I reckon he’d have really experienced a band that knew something about angry, energetic rhythm and blues. (You may want to susbtitute any number of "kickass" combos of your own for my relatively random - but I'd say totally valid - UJAW example). Actually, when Russell thinks of the supposedly peerless Beatles  I wonder how many groups he's comparing them to when he gives us his “greatest kickass band ever” throwdown. Half a dozen? Twenty? One hundred? Has he been seeking out some of the great live performers of the last 50 years, finding some quite exciting but coming away shaking his head at how they just couldn't match the mighty Liverpudlians? 

No, it's gone beyond all that of course. We've entered a land where only the superlative is worth anything. It's more about religiosity and faith, bound up with not a little nationalism, Merseyside heritage tourism and crude till-clanging commerce. Hey, the Beatles deserve their own shrine. Let's call it ... oh, I don't know, how about the Cavern?

Or maybe we can refuse to genuflect on demand whenever J/P/G/R are mentioned. Actually, when is this ritual sanctification of the Merseyside moptops gonna stop? 

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Rugger buggers: the White Stripes

It probably came a good five years too late, but I reckon it’s a good move that the White Stripes have slipped away to the little red and white land of retired bands.

It was a good act … at first. I liked those early Led Zep/Beastie Boys/Son House stompers as much as the next blues-rock revivalist. Stop Breaking Down, You’re Pretty Good Looking (“for a girl”!), The Big Three Killed My Baby, Hello Operator, Jimmy The Exploder: great, yomping stuff that, at its best, was actually quite thrilling, sharp and explosive.

But, I dunno. Those Jack White supergroups. His empire building. The increasing fetishisation of all things analogue. It was getting a bit tiresome.

It was nice to hear the midnight news report the band’s demise on Radio 4 tonight. After a final burst of a tune from Elephant the newsreader counted his two or three pause-beats perfectly before intoning in slow deadpan tones “rugby union”. Another long pause. Yes, how to follow the 2000s rock monolith that was the White Stripes? Maybe Meg and Jack should take up rugger.