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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.

1 comment:

  1. Dear N.

    I'm contacting you on behalf of Prof R Wilson. I'm his Phd student. Please get in touch is you get this.

    My email is gregoryj@cardiff.ac.uk

    Many thanks,