Saturday, 26 February 2011

Days Of Future Passed

For the British aviation industry, as with British industry in general, the 1970’s were to prove a traumatic period in which the all the hubristic schemes of the previous decades were to unravel in a nemesis that they had long sought to avoid.

Throughout the Second World War, Britain had managed to maintain a slight technological edge over her American allies in aviation, but with victory in Europe achieved, it became clear that Nazi Germany was almost in another league when it came to advanced aeronautical design. The months subsequent to the surrender saw teams of scientists and engineers from all the major Allied countries scouring the former Reich in order to scavenge whatever facilities, tooling, and finished or part-finished designs they could get their hands on. The Americans, with their almost limitless funding, took the cream of the Nazi scientific and engineering personnel for their air and space programmes, while the British, French and Russians hoovered up whatever was left over.

Aviation held a privileged place in British Government economy strategy throughout the post-war years. Partly this was pragmatic, and took into account the contribution aerospace made to the national defence, but it also had an undeniably irrational aspect. Aviation was romantic in the sense that it had deep roots in the mythology of progress and expansion, and in many ways was a projection of the national need for greatness as it experienced the loss of empire, and the sense of impotence and decline that this engendered. If Britannia was no longer to rule the waves, then at the very least it could rule the skies.

The aviation industry itself entered the post-war years full of optimism about its capabilities and destiny. Certainly the giant American aerospace industry offered daunting competition, but British engineers felt more than confident that they could surpass any innovations the Americans could offer. In many ways they were proved correct, for the Americans rarely offered anything technologically superior to the British, despite their vast facilities. What the Americans did do better than the British was to understand the market requirements for new designs, and offer sturdier, less innovative designs that were more tailored to their customers’ expectations. The result was that the British commercial airliner designs would often be spectacular technological successes, and yet equally spectacular commercial failures.



Perhaps the first example of this trend was the Bristol Britannia. Like most commercial aircraft of the period, it was designed to a specification issued by the Ministry Of Supply to service designated imperial routes flown by the British Overseas Air Corporation, the nationalised carrier that had been formed from the pre-war Imperial Airways. This method of procurement, in which BOAC was always the lead customer for new British designs, was problematical in that British manufacturers were ultimately designing to a Government requirement that was often idiosyncratic, and not translatable to the needs of other commercial customers. The aviation industry did itself no favours in offering its services to almost any Government project, no matter how outlandish, that came its way, meaning that it was invariably overstretched. This resulted in many projects being completed long after their scheduled in-service date, and such a delay in the Britannia ultimately proved fatal. Easily the best turboprop airliner in the world when it arrived in service, its era had already been superceded by the jet age.



The next debacle was to be the world’s first jet airliner, the DeHavilland Comet. The DeHavilland company was in many ways the darling of the British aviation industry. It’s designs were noted for their experimentalism and flair, but they were also frequently dangerous. When the Comet entered service it was seen as the first step in a world-beating export drive. It wasn’t long though before Comets were disintegrating in mid-air. The problem was traced, after much expensive testing, to the corners of the square "picture windows" that the company had installed to give passengers a better view, acting as stress-raisers. With this problem solved, the Comet proved to be an excellent design with a long service life, but the precious early lead had been lost to Boeing’s capable 707.



The next important indigenous airliner design was the Vickers VC10, and it was with this aircraft (along with the military TSR2) that the relationship between the Government and the aviation industry began to sour, and become increasingly mired in political strife. Designed to an exacting BOAC specification, the production of the aircraft was delayed when in 1961 BOAC itself requested a reduction in the order number due to an undershot in their predictions of revenue growth. The Government took over part of the contract, and bought VC10’s as liaison and transport aircraft for the RAF, while BOAC chairman Gerald d’Erlanger and managing director Basil Smallpeice (sic) resigned in protest at having to accept even a reduced number of VC10’s. Their rationale, that the national airline was there to make a profit and not support national industry, was an early manifestation of what would later be termed Thatcherite sentiment, and a significant harbinger of events that would enfold over the ensuing decades.

Finally, of course, we come to Concorde. By now the British aviation industry was entering its rationalising stage, as the smaller companies were merged into two large conglomerates, Hawker Siddeley and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). Concorde was developed jointly by BAC and the French Aerospatiale company throughout the 1960’s, and was subject to the usual process of delays, technical problems and vertiginously escalating costs. Indeed it was this uncomfortable marriage between Britain and France that kept Concorde on track, despite on occasions one or other of the partners wanting to pull out of the project, just as the Americans and Russians had perhaps sensibly pulled out of their own Supersonic Transport (SST) projects.



When it was finally ready for delivery in the early 1970’s it emerged into a market scarred by the 1973 oil crisis. National airlines that had initially shown an interest in the machine backed off one by one, encouraged by local movements opposed to the alleged danger posed by the aircraft’s sonic booms as it broke the sound barrier after take off. Localised banning of the aircraft at key U.S. airports up until the late 1970’s was a source of severe diplomatic friction between America and the Europeans during this period, with the French in particular suspecting that this was a jealous attempt to destroy the aircraft’s prospects. Nevertheless, regardless of being a technological marvel, Concorde was to remain a grevious commercial flop.

Although in hindsight there is a temptation to regard the history of the British Aviation industry as a characteristically gallant failure, the reality is that a great deal of money was ultimately squandered that could have been better spent on health, education and welfare. The aviation industry was cosseted while other key industries were allowed to go to the dogs, not least shipbuilding. These vainglorous projects were a major part of the reason that areas such as Clydeside, Wearside, Merseyside and Belfast are mired in poverty to this very day. There was an air of unreality in the dreams of the UK’s aerospace engineers, dreams that governments, both Conservative and Labour, were far too keen to indulge. The final result was a severely diminished aviation industry itself, with BAC merging with Hawker Siddeley to form the unloveable British Aerospace (now the even more unloveable BAe Systems), and BOAC merging with British European Airways (BEA) to form the mean organisation we now know as British Airways. True to the spirit of their long-lost ancestors, both BAe Systems and British Airways frequently give the impression of being far more trouble than they're worth.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Back To The Future



For those of you of tender age the device above is called a Slide Rule. It is a mechanical device that was used to make complex calculations before the age of computers, and, unimpressive though it may appear, it was these contraptions that put men on the moon and built Concorde.

I was a member of probably the very last generation of schoolchildren who were taught how to use a slide rule, but even in our day they were seen as a curiosity, as the new-fangled pocket calculators started to appear. Nevertheless, quaint as this item may appear, not only is it the technology of the past, it is also the technology of the future.

As the world's oil resources enter the depletion stage, there will be greater pressure to convert other types of fossil fuel resource, such as coal and natural gas, into forms suitable for the maintenance of our transport infrastructure. This increased demand burden will be felt most heavily in the domestic sphere, especially with regard to heating and electricity production, and the tariffs charged for their provision. We're starting to see this even now, although the trend is partly hidden by private monopoly price-gouging.

This crisis in the provision of energy will also result in a re-assessment of what aspects of our complex society we can safely jettison and still maintain a reasonable quality of life. Almost certainly the first victim will be the internet, as Western civilisation will reluctantly recall that such trivial activities as sending thank you letters, ordering bargain clothes and perusing pornography can just as easily be done on paper. Home computers and even business computers will follow thereafter, as our spheres of activity necessarily become more localised, and the economies of scale needed to build and ship these items make their production prohibitively expensive. Eventually, this squeeze will even reduce the availability of more utilitarian plastic items such as the humble pocket calculator.

If you're a gadget fan, or rather what Morris Berman terms a techno-buffoon, you are going to find the future at best somewhat disappointing, at worst an incomprehensible nightmare. If you're the sort of person who likes collecting antiquated machinery and putting it back in working order again, you are going to find yourself very much in demand in the years to come.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

LOTTA TALENT OUT THERE....



Woebot’s “Chunks” is a tremendously great, deeply mysterious record and for all its use of samples it feels original, elusive, new. Much of it is sourced from 70’s rock and so I thought it would be appropriate if I asked Matt a few questions about the record and the general drift of what I perceive to be his aesthetic/approach. I had a go, but I’m miles off track and for all the diplomatic thoroughness of his answers no closer to pinning his slippery sensibility down. Curse him.

It’s available here.





Woebot: Argos from Matthew Ingram on Vimeo.





TUME: First off and very generally, "Chunks" is a good-humoured record in lots of ways. There’s a kind of colourful, ludic exuberance informing the whole thing (as there is with your other work, too). Is this a conscious reaction against the “seriousness” and “darkness” of a lot of recent trends? (dubstep, witch-house, hauntology, black metal, etc)

BOT: It is quite moody in parts but certainly I know what you mean. It is warm rather than cold and there are bits that are silly and funny, and stupid of course..... Though naturally in music that is “warm” there are frequently lugubrious qualities. You only have to listen to Hank Williams.
To answer your question, not really to be truthful, I didn't/don't have a conscious strategy to react against “the darkness”. I mean, that sounds like quite a good idea on paper, and if only I had been so ingenious, but no. I don't know about the other Dark stuff stuff you mention, you're probably right, but there are playful qualities to things like Moon Wiring Club and The Focus Group....
However, I do suppose I am trying to go against the grain generally. In trying to re-orient or re-point musical history, I suppose there is an aspect of that that is corrective and by extension the assumption is that I believe there is something wrong with the status quo. Not that I'm implying there's anything wrong with Francis and Rick! (Drum roll)

TUME: You’ve suggested that the post-punk idea that rock needed to get it’s groove back essentially ignores the fact that there was plenty of groove in rock prior to punk. The first track “Roger “seems to hybridize blues rock and ‘Ardkore. Is there some kind of lumpen-continuum being posited between critically reviled/ ignored genres?

BOT: Er, there are definitely microscopic traces of Ardkore on the record, however I think they're an inevitable product of using samples, but in fairness to your question, ones I haven't avoided. On “Roger” or “#sattc” those sped-up vocals, most people would probably shy away from doing that. Ardkore was pretty much an extension of Hip-Hop anyway, and that mid-period of funk sampling Hip-Hop is probably the most obvious analogy to what I'm doing with “Chunks”. A lot of Ardkore was made on MPCs. Gerald used an MPC60 for all his Juice Box stuff, and Roni Size I know did too.
There is that nice way that Ardkore would sample hoary rock like DJ Seduction's “Sub Dub” with its June Tabor sample, Baby Kane's “Hello Darkness” - a likkle bit of Simon and Garfunkel or D-M-S's “Love Overdose Remix” with its Fleetwood Mac sample. But really I suppose they weren't making a strategic point just rifling through their parent's collections, not that I'm valorising making “strategic points”.

TUME: Would you say that “Chunks” wants to elide punk and the critical discourses that privilege it?

BOT: The now widely-derided “earthy” quality of music came a cropper at that point in time. It might have been to do with the encroach of globalism, but Punk was merely the harbinger. Kraftwerk were equally central.

TUME: Thinking about ‘Ardkore and blues rock, do you see similar sensibilities and sonic strategies at play (I’m thinking here about the high pitchedm orgasmic wailing in blues rock, the emphasis on the rhythm section, the extreme treble of the harmonica, the drum breaks and drop, all of which seem to have a sonic analogue in ‘Ardkore) ?

BOT: There's probably more emphasis on the mid-range and that's a characteristic of Hip-Hop too.
It's become quite problematic to compare things with Rock because people's association with it is with its visual totems. Whenever you heard a guitar on a nineties piece of music it always sounded like it looked exactly like a guitar. Indeed a great deal of Rock music now sounds like it should look.

I think you're right to focus purely on the sonics though because understanding music in terms of instruments is deeply misleading.

TUME: There is the question of how sampling produces a particular effect, there’s something in the ragged edges of a sample, the way they burst in and out that is antithetical to “flow”, and again is this a reaction to the slickness of digital product? In other words is sampling in some ways an attempt to recapture the looser “authenticity” of a live band? Does sampling carry a trace of the physical that adds something to the kinetic effects of a track for example?

BOT: I think I'm more interested in musical “events”. The thing with a lot of computer music is that it can become like an “audio trickle”. The temptation when working within a DAW, even working with samples is always to smooth, to refine – and it definitely has a place in music – but yes, working with the MPC where you literally punch in a sample, there is immediately a sense of drama to that. And yes, the sample itself is the result of a musical gesture.
The furthest I've got production wise on this album is “Blues” where I've used samples which slightly sit at odds with the meter (nothing to do with the quantising). When you hear a band play, there's that thing where not everyone hits the head of the bar at the same time, the drummer and the guitarist are grinding away in their own separate universes and the music lurches back and forth. When everything does align you get a bit of a rush. It's the same thing that you get in those old disco mixes where it was impossible (or very difficult) to mix them perfectly but then magically they slip into one another.

TUME: Can you give us some idea as to what the source material of the samples was? It seems to me that your work is both kind of investigative, they take on particular era/ideas about music and research them in a way, trying to pull out what’s best in genres and align them with later developments, yet they seem to be joyful records, fun to listen to, not dry or self-important, or calculated.

BOT: Oooh! Trade secrets I'm afraid. As long as I can keep from being sued the better.
People have let me know they've worked out what such and such is – and I try and gag them from going public, ha! Quite often, like with “Stagger” it's about two seconds of music which I've chopped up in hundred different ways – and a certain amount of stuff is actually played. The lead Moog line on “Rusticle” and “B612” is little old me. The Moog is a great synth because it is THE Rock Synth – I love that about it.
A lot of the original records, shameful to admit, can be quite spotty. I wish I could say they were all unknown stone classics. However, they ARE all records where I appreciate the vibe and all of them fall in this weird region where you'd imagine people would know what they were but they've been forgotten.

TUME: Do you think there’s too much “sonically-correct” stuff out there, too much obscurantist crate-digging and too little focus on unfashionably straight mainstream goodtime tunes?

BOT: I'm not really in favour of the mainstream of old music per se, but it seems weird that whole spectrum has been turned completely upside down. It's sort of sad that people have heard, say, the Vashti Bunyan's “Another Diamond Day” LP but not, Donovan's “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” LP even though the latter vastly outsold the former.

TUME: Your work generally strikes me as partaking of a kind of deep Englishness, and I feel it connects, with its genteel surrealism and its wryness, to a long tradition that goes back through the Canterbury scene, the Goons, Music Hall and beyond. How English do you think your sensibility is?

BOT: Indecently so. However a bit of the fun with this record has been riffing on the Trans-Atlantic thing. I like the way that before Punk it was a perfectly acceptable mode. For years I thought damn fools we've got to be English, but then suddenly I thought gosh that's really funny and surreal. And you never know, might open new markets ;-)

I could talk about the Trans-Atlantic thing all day. Which I'm not going to.


TUME: Obviously there’s many more things than just blues rock going on in "Chunks". Does “#sattc”or example suggest the next Woebot album might take World music as its subject?

BOT: Ha. No, I'm really wary about being seen as doing pastiches actually – though to some degree I can't get away from it. My thoughts on the next thing, which will take me a very long time to make, couldn't be further from that.

“#sattc” was having a bit of fun with that 1970s strain of Tropical Rock – Of course it all comes out a bit garbled. You know that Emerson Lake and Palmer LP where they are all in Hawaiian shirts?* And the Marimba which was quite a bit instrument for those bands. Also there's that thing in Lyndsey Buckingham's aesthetic which is quite like that – you know all those safari pictures on the “Tusk” inner sleeve! Ha ha ha, makes me laugh.

Ken Reid's City Hobgoblins


Before Neoliberalism and its products, the world could appear as a huge, nerve-wracking, fleshy mystery to many kids; and British cartoonists were willing to keep up that appearance. Here's some comics by the brilliant Ken Reid, creator of Faceache, Roger the Dodger and Jonah (the inept lowly sailor forever sinking ships - an allegory for the decline of Empire?). From the pages of 70s British comics like Smash, Buster and Whoopee! In comics, everyone's dad had a moustache and adult characters actually went to work (albeit to piss about or have fights for most of the day). Where there was only one overweight kid in school (simply named 'Fatty') and it was considered cool to burp creatively, or do something disgusting with your face. From the days before British comics settled into cynical TV/toy tie-ins, the punky brutalities of 2000 AD et al, and the knowing deconstructions of Viz - all responses to the shock of Thatcherism in their own way. Now British kids are trained to demand more expensive entertainment (with the resultant difficulty in singling anyone out as 'Fatty'), comics are as dead as our mining industry. 


Above is The Nervs, a variation on a recurring 70s theme of body-as-industry; seen also in the strip The Numskulls, a few Sesame St. sketches, and the final segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex. This being the 70s, the functions of the body politic were subject to industrial unrest, class-based rivalries and frequent malfunction. The threatening ointments and medicines introduced (by management/brain) may have been an allegory for necessary trouble-shooting, but readers were generally invited to root for the entire body, even its germs. IPC Publications, a notoriously exploitative employer, wasn't so benevolent to Reid himself. In 1987 he dropped dead while drawing his long-running Faceache ("The Boy With The Bendable Bonce!"), an already-ugly kid who could change into monsters to ward off snobs, bullies and pompous, cane-happy teachers. Like a class-war version of The Incredible Hulk (no nuclear physicists for 'brain drain' Britain). I can't help but wonder if Reid popped his clogs to Faceache's own wonderful sound effect: "SCRUNGE!" 

(click on Faceache to enlarge)

Not as well-known as Leo Baxendale (some of who's strips he took over), I'd say Reid was better; not least for the queasy aura of violence and bodily trauma that permeated his nevertheless chirpy work (an unease present in much British comedy). His style still makes me laugh, with its oddball language and general tone of working-class insolence. He's been cited as an influence on po-mo comics polymaths (and IPC alumni) Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, especially for his surreal body-horror and defiantly malformed  characters. Maybe he was even an (unconscious?) influence on fellow Mancunian Mark E. Smith. Back-page fillers 'World Wide Weirdies' (below) were almost Lovecraftian; with an added layer of subtle satire. As suggested by the name, there was a general theme of human hubris adrift in a sinister, unknowable world. Had he been American, I expect his grotesque, agitated style would have thrived in underground comics like Robert Crumb's Zap or Art Spiegelman's ArcadeEven with the decline of British comics, he would have found an outlet for his considerable talent.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

To Our Childrens’ Childrens’ Children


Pop history is a fickle creature in whom she chooses to remember and not to remember, but there can be few bands considered so mighty in their time and who evade contemporary consciousness so thoroughly than The Moody Blues. I can only think of one reasonably recent band that might conceivably have approved of them, and that would be the equally reviled Cast. Even the synthesised kitsch-hounds who resurrected the likes of ELO and Supertramp have given them a wide berth.

The Moody Blues were huge in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, and a genuinely fascinating phenomenon. Looking like time-travelling Edwardian TV detectives, in many ways they are the closest any rock group has come to approximating a real religion - they were more of a gestalt therapy cult than a band. They’re also difficult to "get" nowadays - their vision was as cosmic and grandiose as that of their fellow Brummies Black Sabbath, and yet it was as different as it was possible to be. If the Sabs imagined a universe of pain and suffering ruled by a morose, indifferent God, the Moodies evoked a cosmos saturated with meaning and love.



This is where the difficulty with The Moody Blues begins. There’s no "attitude" about them at all. Their fundamental aesthetic was one of healing, and their music quickly brings to mind the pastel-coloured walls and crayoned pictures of rainbows that one associates with Evangelical churches and centres for recovering alcoholics. What they make you realise is how much, since the ‘60’s, and especially since punk, listening to music, whether Metal, Hardcore, Hip-Hop or Grime, has become a punishing experience. Listen to "Tuesday Afternoon" below (their fan videos invariably consist of fractals or etherial pictures of nature). You’ll hate it. It’ll feel like being drowned in saccharine. You’ll curl your lip and understand just what inspired Johnny Rotten. And then, within a couple of days, just when you least expect it, the melody will sneak back into your memory and you’ll realise how magnificent it is.



In many ways The Moody Blues’ aesthetic was based around a simple refusal to acknowledge the end of the Age of Aquarius and the birth of the squalid Seventies. The band had bought into flower power more heavily than any other British band, recording tributes to Timothy Leary ("Legend Of A Mind"), Yogic meditation ("OM") and telepathy ("The Best Way To Travel"), and perhaps because they hadn’t actually involved themselves with the accompanying drug culture, thought it a great and worthy cause to live their lives by.



It’s easy to see how the damaged burn-outs and drops-outs that spilled into the desolation of the ‘70’s could find sanctuary in their music, but the literal worship that they received from their fans was disturbing to the band themselves. People attended their concerts to heal physical ailments and witness miracles. A core of their most ardent fans firmly believed that the band were benevolent aliens from a faraway planet. Certainly they possessed an almost inhuman capability to avert their gaze from the filth of human existence, and conjure up a lovely melody. 1970’s "Question", inspired by the Vietnam War, was perhaps the nearest they got to acknowledging the confusion that surrounded them, and the nearest they got to expressing anger. Other than that though, their music was pure balm.



You should start off by just dipping the occasional toe in it, though……

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Other Vietnam War




James Monaco opined that had Francis Coppola released a low-budget Apocalypse Now in the late 60s (as originally intended) its impact would have been "revolutionary". Instead it became the unwieldy, merely interesting, spectacle beloved by generations of student stoners; more notorious for its hazardous production than any relationship to history. Somewhat taboo as it was actually occurring, Hollywood was said to have finally 'got to grips' with Vietnam during the Carter years. It did this the only way it knew how: through familiar tropes of genre, romance and redemptive personal journeys. For films set 'in country' (at war) it fell back on the western or imperial quest, often with irony and added pain, but never far from racial arrogance. Back in 'the world' (at home), it was through the groovy Californian prism of therapeutic love, emotional epiphanies and self-actualisation: war as encounter group. Coming Home (Hal Ashby's worst film) overcame the agonies of military mutilation and domestic servitude through the liberating, healing powers of emotional intelligence, marijuana and cunnilingus. As castrated warrior cum sexual dynamo, Jon Voight offered a gentle intermission between the anguished, sensitive drifters of the early 70s and the anguished, sensitive killing machines of the 80s. Hanoi Jane, feminist firebrand, Commie traitor and imminent aerobics guru, led the nation in learning to love itself again (later reconciling with uptight, reactionary Old Hollywood in On Golden Pond). She would later marry Ted Turner, just as his CNN helped America regain its hard-on for wars spectacular, winnable and brief; with a minimum of foreplay.


After re-imaging the heist as homoerotic courtship with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Michael Cimino further inverted the male gaze for The Deer Hunter. Christopher Walken teased Robert Deniro from pillar to post, tormenting his declarations of love; to pursue the least promising sporting career imaginable. Lacking the beach side congruence of Coming Home, its working class characters fumbled through longing glances and three-word sentences ("This is this."). As with Cimino's previous film, and true to Hollywood rules of gay love, the 'bottom' inevitably had to die from a brutal brain injury (see Brokeback Mountain for further confirmation). Deniro reluctantly settles for the quiet desperations of domestic life, as his romantic yearnings drift elsewhere. With Meryl Streep as his consolation prize, they drown their sorrows in method acting for the healing to begin. Its closing rendition of 'God Bless America', brings men, women, 4-Fs and amputees together for the emotional, supposedly ambiguous finale (as much as The Searchers, to which it pays almost obligatory homage). It is perhaps best read as a Douglas Sirk melodrama with flame throwers. Both films' Oscars were received as a kind of national group hug. American manhood was ready to win one for the Gipper again; as shame, domesticity or castration anxiety recovered through narrative therapy. The long dark night had been endured. Morning In America was on its way. Lurking around all this were the Vietnamese themselves, who had little to say for themselves but an animalistic "Mao!" As base, cruel, and easily disposable as any number of Hollywood Commanches - who cared how they felt? The white man's burden was at stake here. Never again would Hollywood let defeat be cause for national therapy - the dreaded "Vietnam Syndrome". It had to move on.



As these stirring emotional arcs played out in Hollywood, war just kept on coming to Indochina. Ravaged by Nixon's bombing campaigns, Cambodia entered a new, darkly metaphysical, level of agony (a "skull-based economy" as the Onion memorably coined it). Those dastardly Vietnamese, so insensitive to America's self-esteem and masculinity issues, ended up taking on the Khmer Rouge. An enemy for whom 'just war' is surely applicable, if applicable at all. After millions of deaths, blanket bombing, defoliation, napalm, agent orange, economic chaos, mass displacement, and the combined weight of two retreating empires, they could still humiliate Pol Pot's powerful allies. Having prevailed against the techno-industrial mass killing of Rolling Thunder and Death From Above, they had enough energy left to defeat the most populous nation on Earth. China has never really won a war. In past centuries it's managed to absorb defeat, but as invader or defender in the modern sense its been distinctly unlucky. Turning a different spin to the U.S., they re-staged their 1979 defeat into glorious victory (see below). Method acting, the clitoral orgasm, or blue collar gay romance was yet to catch on as a propaganda tool in the People's Republic. As for the Vietnamese: heroic vanquishers of the Khmer Rouge, victors over three powerful empires in a row, supported by the Soviet Union but hardly its puppet; arguably the most successful, sustained resistance against imperialism in the late 20th century... what can I say? They're as hard as fucking nails. They survived. They never needed Jane Fonda. Nor did they need their very apparent national pain to be validated at the Academy Awards. They had faith in reality.

Friday, 18 February 2011

I Wanna Cleave a Capitalist!


Bruce the Barbarian was a cartoon by New Zealand-born cartoonist Murray Ball, apparently well known for a series called Footrot Flats, about a farm. It ran in Labour Weekly, an official Labour Party publication that was closed down in 1988 - and given the year, and the tone of this cartoon, it's not hard to imagine that the weekly was being run by a cabal of those who, as official Labour Party history has it, ran the Party into the ground - macho, workerist, class warring, hairy. A book was published in 1973 collecting the strips, all of them dating from the Heath era, and it's as vivid and expression of polarised, oppositional politics in the British '70s you could possibly want. It's also quite funny.



The premise is a little peculiar, but once you've accepted it, the cartoon is not exactly complicated. Bruce, a Barbarian from the East - specifically, New Zealand - comes to invade the (falling) British Empire to 'RAPE and LOOT and PLUNDER', but, says the blurb, 'he found the Tories had got there first!' So he sets out to 'save the British from Ted the Tory and grab a fair share of the looting, plundering and raping'. This should give you some sense of the somewhat complex allegiances of the strip, particularly with respect to sexual politics. Various forms of disbelief have to be suspended - most of all the portrayal of Edward Heath, or rather, 'Emperor Tedius Heath', as a proto-Thatcherite Roman Emperor bent on class war - but the lack of pissing about occasionally makes for extremely sharp political satire, which the hint of wrongness only helps. It's Up Pompeii-goes Class War, with Frankie Howerd replaced with an Antipodean barbarian armed with a 'pig-sticker', which gets regularly plunged into sundry toga-ed plutocrats.



It's just a little a bit startling to find an official Labour Party publication advocating, via Roman/British Empire alternative reality or otherwise, that shoving daggers into the bellies of the ruling class is the means of changing society.



Reading it, it becomes obvious that this is the very thing itself that the Blairites wanted to change about their Party, not just in terms of politics but also of machismo. Bruce, barbarian and defender of the British proletariat, is as you see above a bit workerist. The workers themselves are usually a bit shorter than him, but usually in flatcaps and somewhat more downmarket togas.


The more things change, etc.



What is especially fun about it is how much it advocates things which would surely not have been official Party policy even at the time. Private Healthcare, which Bruce encounters after being impaled in a Gladatorial bout, is fit not just for nationalisation but also for avenging via pig-sticker.



Private education, similarly. Here you get the impression that for a lot of people in the Labour Movement, Thatcherism - in the sense of a concerted attack on unions, the Welfare State, etc - was seen coming a long time before it actually arrived, which leaves some of the attacks seeming a little odd. Thatcher as Education Secretary basically continued Labour policies (save for that heavily symbolic milk-snatching), much as Heath failed to make any real break with the social democratic consensus. That's what it seems like at this distance, anyway - but reading Bruce the Barbarian, the war is already here.



Yet lots of the things he opposes are Labour Party policies anyway. Only four actual politicians are encountered by Bruce in his travels through Britannia - Heath, Enoch Powell, Thatcher and Harold Wilson, who Bruce casually encounters in the street. In the strip above, Bruce stands against the construction of motorways, something the Wilson government did a lot of. They didn't exactly curb Private Health or Private Schools, either.



Being a barbarian, Bruce takes a dim view of Empire, and of its leading apologist in the ruling party.



That said, the strip is relentlessly unreconstructed. In terms of anti-racism, it's all fairly impeccable, if very un-PC in its use of inflammatory language. What is less so, is the sexism that runs through the book. He is a barbarian after all, and the scheduled raping, looting and pillaging doesn't leave much room for reading Spare Rib.



Hence the Up Pompeii! comparison. Bruce the Barbarian, despite being quite magnificently left-wing by today's standards, is still identifiably in the same world as the sex comedy, as George & Lynne, even, with a fair bit of bouncing bosoms and titillation. Bruce, maybe like the Labour movement itself on its Hard Left, Class War side, is not quite sure what he thinks of the women's movement.



So large breasted ladies are a sign of plutocracy as much as anything else.


The strips above and below encapsulate quite well the fact that Ball evidently wants to support feminism and take the piss out of it at the same time, to be a male chauvinist and supporter of equality at once. Ken Livingstone claims here, 'Old Labour culture was quite sexist and racist'. It probably was. But it was also perhaps vaguely, dimly aware that it shouldn't be, before the 80s New Left rammed the point home.



In its premise it's weird, as politics it's almost equally strange (Wilson as friend of the Marxist barbarian), and sometimes (well, rarely) it isn't funny - but isn't it great to see all the anger and violence and unadulterated class rage in this strip all there, all out in the open, and not just that, but celebrated? And more to the point, can you imagine the editors of any Labour publication looking at it now with anything other than aghast horror?

(click on pics to make larger)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Man Machine


A relatively obscure figure today, Jeff Beck was one of the great sonic pioneers of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. Whereas for most musicians the possibilities of the electric guitar lay in its ability to conjure rebellion and carnal heat, Beck’s approach was coolly technical - he played the guitar like a precision machinist, as though it were a milling machine or a lathe. A notorious perfectionist, he once asked his record company to withdraw a released album from the shops so that he could add some more overdubs to the mix.

Beck first came to prominence as Eric Clapton’s replacement in The Yardbirds, and who, during his tenure, became the most aurally adventurous group of the pre-Hendrix era. Their masterpiece, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" was a modernist vortex that seemed to suggest almost endless possibilities, though it marked Beck’s departure before Mickie Most destroyed the band and Jimmy Page rebuilt it in his own image.

During 1967/68 Beck recruited his own group from the roster of established and up-and-coming musicians that constituted the British R'n'B scene, including Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Nicky Hopkins, and even on occasions John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Keith Moon. The two albums he recorded with this first incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group, "Truth" and "Beck-Ola" were awesome explorations of the possibilities of stereophonic sound - the lost midpoint between early pioneers such as Joe Meek and Phil Spector and later dub magicians such as Lee Perry and King Tubby. His version of The Yardbirds’ "Shapes Of Things" is a veritable Spaghetti Junction of a recording, with great arches of phased guitar whizzing over the listener's head from every possible angle. "Beck’s Bolero" is similarly mindbending, alternating as it does between fuzzbox-distorted riffing and a clear, echoing slide guitar that recalls the vintage modernism of The Shadows or the soundtracks to Gerry Anderson shows.



"Beck-Ola" was heavier than "Truth", and is often cited as a precursor to heavy metal, but even amongst all the thunder, there’s a precision to the playing and the recording that is so characteristic of Beck’s work. Perhaps that is what is so anomalous about his music to post-punk attuned ears - the sounds that he created weren’t accidental to what he was intending - Beck left nothing to chance, and recorded exactly what he wanted to record, no matter how abstruse the original sounds in his head. Indeed, this is what separates us from all the early sound pioneers and renders them marginal and slightly kitsch: they had full authority over what they recorded, and so what they have bequeathed to us is rarely fortuitous, and can rarely be explained by the picaresque rock anecdote.



With the break-up of the original band, Beck formed a new group with a collection of virtuoso unknowns, and moved in the direction of jazz-rock. Although his music of this period is often criticised as being self-indulgent, my personal objection to it is the opposite - that it’s far too restrained and tasteful. That said, when they did rock out, the results could still be jaw-droppingly impressive. In truth, we are less likely to see another Beck than we are to see another Hendrix; the values of dedication, temperance and modesty being generally scorned. Nevertheless, if there are few post-war British musicians who really merit the attribution of the accolade of "genius", then Beck should really be considered amongst the foremost candidates.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Breaking Glass (1980)



Released in 1980 but written and made in 1978, Breaking Glass is a not-major but under-rated and now almost completely forgotten youthsploitation movie. Like Rude Boy (similarly under-rated and much more interesting to watch than many better put-together, "fully realised" films) it captures--just through involving cameras and locations--the crapness of late 70s U.K.

Breaking Glass, it's always seemed to me, is obviously based on the Poly Styrene story (songs about anticonsumerism and anti-youthsploitation, turn their singer into popstar product, who then has a crack-up on account of the contradictions). (The honking New Wave sax is the give-away, there weren't that many bands who had that specific sound and instrumental line-up). (And 1978, when the film was written, was the year of Germfree Adolescents). By the end of the movie, though, the band's sound is edging towards Tubeway Army and Hazel O'Connor does also have a whiff of Toyah about her.

Always wondered who the reclusive prog-rock star producer is meant to be (Peter Gabriel? Roger Waters?). C.f. The Wall/"Welcome to the Machine"/"Have A Cigar", and in different way "Hotel California", why is that the rock market is so powerfully attracted to musical/filmic representations of the inevitable recuperation of rock's rebellion? How does the triumph of the spectacle/alienation become entertainment?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Ned Kelly (1970)


"What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag, as it is all Irishmen that has got command of her armies, forts and batteries? Even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the colour they dare not wear for years, and to reinstate it and raise old Erin’s isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, which has kept it in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy's coat? What else can England expect?"

Edward "Ned" Kelly, The Jerilderie Letter, 1879


Undoubtedly one of the most derided films of the 1970’s was Tony Richardson’s biography of the legendary Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Dismissed by both its director and its leading star, it functions nowadays as a kind of mysterious void in the story of The Rolling Stones, as though all the dark forces that Jagger played with in his debut feature film Performance came back to torment him in his second outing. Almost from the start the production was dogged by problems, including a protest by Australian Equity at the importation of Jagger, numerous injuries to cast and crew, on-set fires, and the attempted suicide of Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, who was originally intended to play Kelly’s sister.

Ned Kelly himself is Australia’s greatest folk hero, and a figure who still today invites no small measure of controversy. The Outbreak of his gang in the Victoria of the 1870’s remains fascinating because it was as much fuelled by an anti-authoritarian nihilism as it was by criminal opportunism. The episode has all the qualities of a small war, something emphasised by the iconic suits of armour the gang fashioned for themselves in their final shootout at Glenrowan.

Mick Jagger was always a curious choice to play Kelly, being neither Irish nor Australian nor even an actor, and his performance invited scorn in any number of ways. Australians were outraged at his adoption of an Irish accent for a man they considered to be a true-blooded Australian. The Irish scoffed at his curious brogue that seemed to wander all over the Bush in search of an authentic tone, while the critics derided his attempt to adopt an accent at all, and noted that it frequently fluctuated between Irish, Cockney and modern Australian within the space of a single sentence. What nobody noted though is that we simply have no idea how a second-generation Irish-Australian spoke in the mid 19th Century, and so Jagger’s accent in Ned Kelly didn’t invite the same authenticity issues as, say, James Coburn’s in A Fistful Of Dynamite.

Jagger’s slight build was considered to be inappropriate for the role of a burly bushwhacker, and this is reflected in his interpretation of Kelly’s character, which is shifty and distracted rather than blunt and forceful. It is in this respect that we can start to understand why Richardson cast him in the role. Nowadays it is difficult for us to recall that Jagger was once considered to be a very dangerous individual indeed, but a great deal of that antinomian charisma is preserved in Ned Kelly in a way that it isn’t in archive footage of The Rolling Stones or even in Performance. There is something in his gimlet eyes and distracted smirking that suggests that Jagger, as Kelly, really is capable of stirring up a hornets’ nest of trouble for those in authority. Perhaps Richardson saw this in Jagger’s portrayal of another Irish reprobate, Oscar Wilde, in the promotional film for the Stones’ We Love You. There’s a sense in Jagger’s performance as Kelly that he is always thinking, always looking for a means to finesse his ever-deteriorating circumstances.



In many ways the opportunities that the critics had to poke fun at Jagger were advantageous in that it meant they didn’t have to engage in the film’s uncompromising politics. Ned Kelly contains some of the most open Irish Republican proselytising in 1970’s cinema. Beyond the Jerilderie Letter, there is continuing debate about the extent to which the real-life Kelly’s actions were politicised, with persistent rumours that his bank-robbing activities were ultimately intended to establish a Republic Of Victoria. The film reifies these rumours and depicts Kelly as a solid class-conscious Republican with the rhetoric to match, turning him from an outlaw to a revolutionary, and makes no attempt at "balance" in portraying his struggle within the colonial authorities. It was plainly a film as much about contemporary Northern Ireland as about Victorian Australia, and like Paul McCartney’s Give Ireland Back To The Irish, was an example of popular Republican sympathising that was quickly and conveniently consigned to the memory hole. Despite the exaggerations of the film, underlying the real case of the Kelly Gang were, however, genuine issues of land ownership and distribution in the Victoria of the mid-19th century, and it’s interesting to note that one of the indirect results of the irruption of the Kelly Gang was reform of the State’s Land Selection Acts and police force.

There are few countries whose landscape is more sympathetic to cinematic photography than Australia, and Ned Kelly is up there with the best in terms of its rapturous cinematography. Richardson was an excellent director, and keeps the story moving along efficiently, effectively, and often with considerable flair. More than any Rolling Stones record, however, Ned Kelly marks the end of Mick Jagger’s days as a bohemian nonconformist. Undoubtedly stung by the hostile reception that greeted the film, he would return to acting only gingerly in the ensuing decades. The Stones themselves, who had become predictably dissipated in his absence, would be whipped back into shape and turned into a lucrative touring business. The film had been a disaster in both his personal and professional lives, and he would no longer be taking any risks with his career. Ironically, Ned Kelly, an excellent film, was to turn Jagger from an outlaw into an entertainer.