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Give me music and give me noise....

Friday, 29 April 2011

God save your mad parade

I could be totally wrong about this (no, really, I could!), but I don’t think so-called royal “pageantry” in the UK has worked successfully since it was skewered by the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen in 1977.

OK, that was just one pop music moment, more than three decades ago. Royalism is obviously not so unstable that a bit of mockery from some media-savvy punk rascals is going to undermine the whole steel-clad House of Winsdor. No, not at all.

But for the generation who grew up on punk, and for those who came later and absorbed its iconography and its messaging, the Lydon-McLaren-Reid satire of GSTQ has surely made the royal family and it all represents … well, faintly ridiculous.

Yes, the cult of Diana was genuinely popular. But that was Elton-John-and-George-Michael middle England stuff. It wasn’t relevant - to say the least - for millions of 20-50-somethings who listened to Never Mind The Bollocks when they were young (and hopefully when they were not so young as well).

Re-reading Jon Savage’s chapter on the Silver Jubilee and GSTQ it’s decidedly eerie to be re-immersed in the near-hysterical pro-Jubilee media saturation of June 1977. There are scary passages about how Lydon, Reid and Paul Cook get physically attacked by tooled-up patriots (and Teds!). Yet, though it was a painful, paranoid time for the band, their symbolic assault on the symbols of power was, as Savage insists, genuinely significant. If anything, though, it was too freighted with meaning and hidden energies for anyone involved to really understand or cope with.

Writing about the recently-deceased Poly Stryene in the same chapter, Savage says that X-Ray Spex’ “chaos of symbols” was typical of much of punk and reggae’s revolutionary millenarianism - and I think that’s exactly right. As I recall, it’s also very much Greil Marcus’ point in his Lipstick Traces. Here was a DayGlo world turned upside down. (Apocalyptic, end-of-times material like this was … er, heavy heavy manners, and Lydon’s friend Jordan comments, rather movingly, that by mid-’77 Lydon was finding it difficult to sing such “powerful words” over and over again).

This is the point. Charged symbols and raw emotion. They’re surely at the heart of punk - and other powerful music forms.  

The simultaneous high- and low-point of the Pistols-Jubilee episode is the famous River Thames boat trip gig on 7 June ’77, like today a Bank Holiday granted to celebrate a royal pageant. Tellingly Savage only gets on the boat (genuinely named the “Queen Elizabeth”) because he worked at Sounds and used his media status to force his passage. He ended up in a little media/acolytes scrum, crammed in tight with other journos like Tony Parsons and future style writer Peter York.

York, he of the rather wondrously acid-drop phrasing, must surely be the only person doing broadcast media commentating today on William and Kate’s do who was also onboard for this Thames version of God Save The Queen. I wonder if he still listens to Mr Rotten’s little pearl of bile-soaked wisdom?

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Atrophy and other wasting diseases

I’ve mentioned before my habit of parting company with musicians who seem to be “going places” (they go, I stay) and of course it will always sound snobbish to remark that you’re no longer interested in them precisely at the moment they start getting into the Sunday supplements and so on.

C’est la vie. I’ve even tried to check back on myself sometimes (see how scrupulous I am!) by returning to see a band I’d given up on a year or two before. The results, I have to say, have been unvaryingly disappointing.

Why’s that? On the one hand I reckon it’s simply that I’m so used to the small-venue scene that the behaviour of bands at bigger places (more on-stage showmanship, louder sound systems, more lighting, more rapture from the audience) is just not to my taste. So that’s it, fine. I won’t go, others will, we’re all happy.

But also I reckon that the music itself is deteriorating in this environment. Once excellent tunes get flattened out, start sounding like “rock” songs when they’re not. Everything is being pulled into the middle ground, with subtle stuff being performed at a higher decibel rate and what could have been a heavy noise barrage in a confined space sounding … well, like everything else in the set.

Funnily enough a couple of times that stand out in my memory as occasions where a band’s artistic atrophy was absolutely clear occurred in those venues that are de rigeur on the small-to-media rock circuit. Two-hundred-and-fifty-punter rooms with black-painted walls, industrial-chic design, walls adorned with corporate rock tour posters and … wait for it, actual metal barriers between (elevated) stage and groups of 25-year-olds on a night out watching from below.   

Yep, the band’s already behind a barrier and that’s where they’re going to stay. See you in the VIP area …

Saturday, 9 April 2011

He's just a suit

You’re not going to wear THAT are you?

Yes, how to dress at gigs. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll conundrum that dare not speak its name.

It’s obviously deeply uncool to discuss this, among men anyway. Indeed, how many men even admit to caring about clothes at all?

What one wears when wigging out …

Personally I wear a suit. Not always, but mostly. I like suits. I wear ‘em for work, wear ‘em at the weekend, wear ‘em ….all the worrisome time. At most gigs this just about works, though I’ve had my difficulties. For a while I was barred from a west London venue on the grounds that they had a “no suits” policy, despite the fact that I’d been going there for about eight years prior to this without a murmur of complaint. “But what if a band member’s wearing a suit?”, I asked the venue manager. “Er, well we’d let them in”. Hmmm. Meanwhile, I find that thing where people use "suit" as a term of abuse while dressing like everyone else from their particular music scene is ... well, not so smart.

Once (at a Sex Pistols gig in 1996 actually) I heard people around me commenting (none too positively) on my rather fetching dark-green thorn-proof suit worn with braces. It was a timely reminder of the deep conservatism of most “punks”, indeed of most music fans.

It’s a statement of the obvious to say that people at gigs generally dress in a venue-appropriate or music-appropriate fashion. Black t-shirts or hoodies at grindcore bashes, leather jackets and Converse at garage gigs, checked shirts at alt-folk gatherings, etc etc. For much of the time a venue doesn’t even need to apply a dress code, the audience internalises it anyway. And, by the way, ever since the glorious days of Nick Kamen, how we’ve loved our Levi's …

It was ever thus and I’m not trying to berate people for buying and wearing what’s more or less fashionable or expecting them to strike out with wildly individualistic sartorial inventions. It's rare for this to happen at the best of times. An old acquaintance of mine once described what it was like when he went to a Sex Pistols gig during their first incarnation. Certain people, he said, had felt empowered to improvise. “One person had a light bulb dangling down as an ear ring." He personally wore a black donkey jacket  with white trousers tucked into Wellington boots - all daringly non-conformist in a mid-70s Midlands town.

But conformity is deeply entrenched in all of us. It wasn't long after this time that Mark Perry’s “How much longer” was puncturing the self-admiring 78-era punks in their codified clobber. These days seeing the mohican’d throw-backs with studded leather jackets reminds me of the ageing Teds of my own childhood, blokes who’d become so deeply immersed in the threads of their formative years that they'd effectively tried to keep the fifties going right into the 1970s. Brave in a way …

So, while I’d like to see a bit more invention and less scene-cloning at gigs, I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, what the hell am I going to wear at tonight's gig. "Punk clatter" says the online blurb. Er, I know. What about a suit ...

Monday, 4 April 2011

None shall sleep: music and sport

The Michael Jackson statue outside the Fulham football ground is a nice reminder to me of the gear-grinding awkwardness of trying to mix music and sport.
Usually, sticking on some pounding rock or techno as the theme music for a sports programme or when a team comes out onto the pitch seems to be about the extent of the interface. Tacky, predictable and … fairly harmless. I seem to recall (in the dim distant days when I still had a flicker of interest in sport) a football programme using Blur’s Song 2 to jolly things along.
It doesn’t really work though. If the music’s halfway decent it’s soon going to suffer from this kind of exposure. Even the clever and much-applauded trick of the BBC using Nessun Dorma during its 1990 World Cup coverage began to grate over time.
As a callow teenager I noticed the oil and water nature of music and sport. Once, watching a Coventry City football match at Highfield Road in the late 70s, the public address played Generation X’s King Rocker at half-time. It was just an innocent three-minute time-filler song from the charts, or so the person doing the music at the ground must have thought. But to me it sort of “exceeded” the moment, calling me (as it were) away from the terraces and the “Who aaaaare you?” herd behaviour of the football crowds.

The same dissonance occurred with cricket. On one occasion, when I was about 14, I was with some cricket fan mates hustling for autographs from a group of Dennis Amiss-era Warwickshire cricket players at my local Midlands cricket ground. The players were just getting into their flash Ford Granadas and MGs in the car park. And what do you think we heard coming from their car radio cassettes when the players leaned out to sign our little signature books? Could these cool cricketers have been listening to the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, or maybe just Squeeze or Joe Jackson? Nope. It was stuff like Supertramp and Genesis. Oh dear. Even as a 14-year-old I knew something was wrong.

Never the twain. John Peel tried hard (too hard) to bridge the gap sometimes, banging on about Liverpool FC, bringing on Pat Nevin to talk about music. It didn’t work. Occasionally – very occasionally – it did. So Colourbox’s Official Colourbox World Cup Theme in 1986 just about passed muster and we could all sleep easily again for a while. And, as we did so, the yawning gulf opened up once more … Just the other day the Guardian’s April Fool’s piece about Derek Dougan and psychedelic 60s music exploited the divide quite cleverly (though April Fool’s media jokes are a big bore themselves).
So I agree with the Fulham fan who says the Michael Jackson statue has nothing to do with Fulham or football. If I were a football club owner I’d leave music well alone. Except  - obviously - for hiring out the ground for Take That gigs during the summer.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

My music's better than your music

"You're only saying you don't like it because it's popular."

It's the usual charge. If you get any kind of reputation for liking "obscure" or "underground" music sooner or later you'll be accused of being a snob who affects a dislike of the mainstream on principle. You're "biased" against it. You say you don't like Radiohead or Franz Ferdinand because you want to strike a pose, to be "superior", an elitist.
Shame on you. Shame on me (yes, dear reader, for this has happened to your poor correspondent on more than one occasion).
The mainstream strikes back! And the mainstream is nothing if not powerful. An element of this is that there always seem to be those who'll voice something close to resentment if you don't like what they like. Years ago I once "admitted" to someone I worked with (in a record shop no less) that I regularly listened to John Peel. "You don't really like that! You can't. That's not music, it's just noise."
Yeah, that's right, I was just pretending to like the programme, name-dropping Microdisney and Big Flame but really liking INXS and Tina Turner. What a faker! Amazingly, my accuser was actually angry as she said this. What a nerve I had, living this lie and (presumably by implication) attacking her far superior musical tastes.
It's the same with cinema. Dare to ignore the big new releases and you're subtly marked out in the middle-class workspace as a wilful outsider. A (gulp) non-team player. Dangerous ground this. Next you'll be cornered into admitting you didn't watch The Killing or The Wire! What are you? A weirdo?
But so what, you might say. Just carry on listening to your crappy music and watching your miserable arthouse films and stop going on about it. (Which I will).
But it's not quite as simple as this. Few people like being labelled elitist. Even I'm uncomfortable with it! Witness the Gordon Brown Artic Monkeys affair. (Why didn't he just say he didn't have time for pop music because he was, you know, kind of busy running the country?)
So, anxious not to be aloof and judgmental, one ruminates on these matters, as one looks through the french windows at one's rather nice (but "nothing special") two-acre garden. Yes, one likes to be fair to all sides.
And what does one do? That's right. You give in, go down the bloody record library, get the bloody Razorlight/Interpol/Antony And The Johnsons CD out and bloody well play it. You do this not because you genuinely think it's going to be especially good but because you say to yourself: "Well, they've got a point. It's true. I haven't actually heard their stuff. I shouldn't write them off." And of course, it's totally underwhelming. Or worse. From numerous examples of doing this the one notable exception for me has been the Missy Elliott Respect M.E. CD, but there was a lot of chaff to go with this wheat.
Is genuinely popular music ever actually any good? Course it is. But not very often in my opinion. And what else is there to go on really, other than our own biased, judgemental, reductive and blinkered opinions?
OK, someone like Paul Morley can pull off the rare trick of appreciating Kylie Minogue right alongside Alvin Lucier, but it's not my style and not what I actually like or listen to. (I do harbour a strong affection for Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U, but that's a different story ...).
Meanwhile, the heavy artillery of the mainstream can batter the best of us into submission. It's fairly common to hear denunciations of "Shoreditch types" and "hipsters" even (or especially?) among people who are fairly hip (in some sense) and do actually hang out in the bars in Shoreditch in east London. The age of the self-hating hipster is upon us.
Snobbery affects us all and I'll admit to my share of it. It's true, I probably find it slightly harder to like (say) the Pixies' music after they reformed and everyone starting talking about them all over again. And when a band I enjoy and go to see fairly often "graduates" from the 50-person, £5-in venue to a bigger KOKO-type place then ... well, I part company. Snobbery maybe, but also a dislike of bigger auditoria, over-enthusiastic lighting, large PAs, crowds ... and a strong intuition that the band will begin to soften the edges, fill in the gaps ...
LCD Soundsystem's Losing My Edge brilliantly nailed a certain kind of competitive hipper-than-thou-ism that certainly exists. I'm probably guilty of it too. But in the end I say: to hell with the mainstream and let me listen to my elitist music in peace.