Thursday, 20 December 2012

Privilege checking 1973

Saturday 29 September

I got buttonholed in the bar by Tommy [Lord] Balogh, who is such a bore ... 'Moreover, Tony, we must see to it that we never have any more lower middle-class Ministers like Dick Marsh and Roy Mason who are just bullied by these fascist civil servants. We need public school boys like you to stand up to them.' That just about sums up his view of politics. You put in your aristocratic friends, who then are able to down the civil servants. I said, 'If this country changes, it won't be because of public school Labour Ministers beating public school civil servants. It will be because the people at a Conference simply won't accept the explanations given from the top and will just go on demanding change until they actually get it.'

Tony Benn, Against the Tide: Diaries 1973-76, p.65

Friday, 14 December 2012

Give The Punky Drummer Some

When it comes to (post) punk drumming, one can crudely identify two 'traditions' at play: A harsher variation on Bo Diddley's 4/4, or the elliptical wonkiness of Captain Beefheart. The more versatile (or expensively produced) bands of the era often combined both, retaining an air of 'primitivism' either way. Purists stuck with the 4/4 well into the 80s, and the more adventurous weren't averse to indulging electronics by the next decade. Being the late 70s, the influence of 60s garage, reggae, Krautrock, disco, and to a lesser extent Afrobeat (not really funk that much - although acts like Talking Heads pulled it off by hiring in the creme de la creme of session musicians) was all over the place. The end of the 70s was arguably the high point of pop as melting pot, just before neoliberalism reconfigured that as multiculturalism (for niche marketing) with respective corners of fundamentalism, in which I'd include the unashamed gloss of New Pop. More mainstream 'new wave' acts frequently referred to 70s Stones and funkier Bowie. But in accordance with the ethos of the time, enthusiasm took precedence over virtuosity. The grandstanding of prog and fusion - though never quite erased - was drastically downplayed by a newer generation. When it came to drumming, it was a process of weeding out. Not so much back to basics as establishing further basics. Hiphop would do the same with drum breaks, sometimes to the point where hearing originals after samples could prove frustrating and/or disappointing.

Below are examples of a striking variety of styles and rhythms from the period. All of them are tracks I'd return to again and again. I know the lyrics to all of 'em by heart, even when I don't know what the hell they're talking about. Despite Simon's initial rule of no electronic beats or sampling, some were nevertheless enhanced at the mixing desk; perhaps difficult to reproduce with as much force played live. For purposes of space, I've left out tracks which were more overtly dancefloor - orientated (like the Ze records/August Darnell axis, for example). I'd consider them under the rubric of 'disco' rather than 'punk', and plan to discuss that mini-movement at a later date. But anyway, the beats here are so distinctive, that it's impossible to imagine them played any other way. Glorified tribute acts like Nouvelle Vague really do lose something in translation. As Greil Marcus noted, the point when key tracks of the punk era lose their power is the point we know popular culture has moved onto something more exciting. I'll leave it to the reader to judge whether or not we have yet.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Protect And Survive

I was never very impressed with Cabaret Voltaire when I listened to them during my early teens. By the mid-eighties their grainy, early stuff sounded outdated and cheap, and by the time they'd upgraded their synths for their entryist phase, they just sounded a bit bland. That said, I've recently come to appreciate what they were philosophically pointing to.

What I hear in them now is the connection between the Cold War and institutionalised child abuse, that connection being one of pathological secrecy. The Cabs intuited the bond between the redbrick public toilet and the nuclear bunker, between the North Wales cares homes and Porton Down. Compulsive habits reinforced and looped through rationalised institutions, veils being drawn over what the public didn't need to know. Gagging orders and D-notices reining in a torrent of psychic effluent. Power digging deeper and more byzantine channels through which it could enact domination.

And yet, toxic fumes were continually emitted and settling over the landscape. Like News from Nowhere, the culture of silence meant nobody could quite intuit where they were coming from. As with shortwave radio signals from a foreign propaganda station they crackled in and out of consciousness, leaving a distant trace of menace that was impossible to pin down to a physical location.

You could hear the screams, but you couldn't see the victims.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Freakbeat (Slight Return)

Just as the original sixties mod scene generated its extreme fringe of bands who journeyed further into noise and psychosis than hitmakers like The Who and The Small Faces, so the Mod Revival of the late seventies also produced its avant-garde shadow.

A prime example were The Cigarettes, who bore the same relation to The Jam that The Eyes and The Creation did to Townshend and co. They took Weller's Spenglerian domestic dramas and added a distinct post-punk chilliness. If Weller was absorbed with the personal battles of psychic survival that afflicted the working class of his era, The Cigarettes depicted the inevitably bleak aftermath, as the overpowering forces of the market and the state crushed any individual resistance.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The little caesars of the welfare state

The late Sir Rhodes Boyson openly admitted that during his time as headmaster he dealt with misbehaviour in the following ways. With a boy who had climbed onto a roof: “I climbed the drainpipe, collected the boy and we came down the drainpipe together. I held him by various parts of his anatomy, thumping and kicking him all the way down.” With a group of girls smoking in the bogs: “I instructed my caretaking staff to obtain lengths of fire hose and connect these to the water hydrants.” And then hosed them down. These stories are repeated in his Telegraph obituary.

As they say, you don't need to be a Freudian to think something odd was going on there. Boyson was, in his prime, a representative type: a mid-ranking functionary of the welfare state. Short back and sides, clean collar and ties, polished shoes. People of little humour or small talk. Total belief that their own correctness and in 'the rules'. They expected the children, patient or tenants they oversaw to know their place.

These people were reliable servants of collectivism and sincere believers in public service. Boyson began his political career as a Labour Councillor and was head of a comprehensive. (His father was Christian Socialist.) But it's not hard to see how some public servants became supporters of Thatcherism, especially the appeal to restore social discipline in face of open challenge to their authority. Phil has suggested that the left in Britain believes in a 'myth of neo-liberalism' - we were all happy collectivists until an elite group of monetarists took over and ruined it. This is why the current nostalgia for the post-1945 period, extending even to calls to bring back factory work, is myopic. Both the left and the right currently conspire to not understand what all the unrest in the 1970s was actually about. 
In Jack Rosenthal’s drama about prospective London cab drivers trying to pass 'the Knowledge', Nigel Hawthorne plays a terrifying examiner, Mr Burgess. It is a perfect distillation of this social type and made me think of Martin in Brimstone and Treacle. Or perhaps he is a public sector cousin of Basil Fawlty. 20 years later a BBC documentary about 'the Knowledge' focused partly on the creepy Mr Ormes, who clearly enjoys toying with the pupils. The class hierarchies are very starkly drawn in the both the drama and the documentary. The little Caesar types were still going strong in the Public Carriage Office and perhaps elsewhere too.

Friday, 1 June 2012

High on his own supply

"Simon Heffer ... came to see me about his book on Enoch Powell. At the end I asked, "Did Powell ever talk to you about the death of Mountbatten?"

"Oh yes," he said. "He thought the Americans killed him."

I said, "Powell had told me that but I thought it was so way out, I didn't want to mention it to you."

"Oh yes," Heffer said, "he thinks the Americans killed Airey Neave as well, because they wanted to get a NATO base in Northern Ireland."

[Tony Benn, Free at Last! Diaries 1991-2001, p.370]

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Like A Naughty Schoolboy

I was just thinking about one of my pet peeves the other day, and it's that people think that "The Eton Rifles" is actually about Eton School and its braying inmates' barracking of the Peoples' Right To Work march. I suppose it's because there's always been a certain kind of writer who thinks it's clever to make out that Weller is rather dim and a bit humourless and literal. But what the song is actually about is how hard it is to present working class protest; the difficulty of maintaining commitment, of keeping people motivated, especially in comparison with the way the well-drilled Ruling Class appear to effortlessly display a united front.

The difference is in the disparity of self-interest. The Elite's class interests generally coincide with their individual self-interest, whereas for the working class, especially those with ambition, class interests and self-interest are often divergent, and it's frequently that those who make the most noise, who whip up the most protest, do so in the knowledge that the most convenient way for them to be silenced is to be welcomed into the fold. Watching those who you trusted the most, who showed the greatest capacity for leadership, whose rhetoric had the most fire, quietly sell out at the first opportunity is always a bitter, deflating experience.

And that's where we come to the song's other message; the necessity of having to dust yourself down and start again from where you've been abandoned. Because some of the lads said they'll be back next week, and Eton School won't be there forever, whatever illusion of permanence it likes to spin. David Cameron flattered himself when he thought that Weller was singing about the likes of him.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Actually, while I am in a musical mood I have to say that another great record from the 70s (though rather different from those posted below) is Armand Schaubroek‘s pretty extraordinary, epic “Ratfucker" a claustrophobic, gummy, misogynist peak into a decaying mind stuck in a collapsing city. As a portrait of the urban and psychic malaise of 70s' inner-city America it is a kind of sonic analogue to something like William Lustigs’ Maniac or Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. And someone has kindly posted it on youtube in its entirety. Enjoy

At some point in the last ten years as crate-digging, re-discovering lost classics and forming alternate canons reached a pitch, several rock albums/bands from the early ‘70s were held up as being just as good if not actually better than Sabbath etc. Pentagram were one such etc, but personally I think they are a bit over-rated. The three bands that really seem to have been unfairly excluded (but have now been brought into the fold) are May Blitz, both of whose albums are also tremendously unrock in fascinating ways, Sir Lord Baltimore, and Leaf Hound.

Phil Zone reckons Leaf Hounds “ Drowned Myself in Fear” is the Holy Grail of Seventies’ rock and he may well be correct, but I thought I would post something by the the other two bands for your (and my own) delectation and I welcome any corrections/ invitations to explore further in the comments’ box below.

(or any additional posts in this thread by fellow bloggers.)


Phil also nominates this;

Further update and riposte.

Phil also points out this.

and I remember this...

that's a lot of wah-wah.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Perhaps the Most Perfectly-Titled (If Not Perfect) Song, Ever

I remember Tom Waits saying in an interview many years ago, "A lot of music sounds better when you're hearing it on a shitty speaker from several blocks away."

This is one of those songs. It's a song that's followed me throughout my life. A number of times over the years I've heard it off in the distance while it was pumping at some party from a block (or two, or three...) away. You know it as soon as you hear it, because it can't be mistaken for any other tune. The beat and the voice -- that voice -- always carry strongly. What usually doesn't carry is the dubbed-in party chatter that undergirds the track, which doesn't matter because the song usually generates its own party noise whenever it's played -- the sort that travels clearly with the rhythm in nighttime air. Each time I hear it, it prompts the same immediate compulsion -- to leave my apartment or the low-key party I'm attending, follow the groove to its source, and see if the dancefloor at the gathering in question has the same come-one-come-all policy that the song compels. As you'd expect, this usually happens in the middle of the night or in the earliest hours of the morning.

And I mention it now, because it happened again last night.

At any rate, perhaps the weirdest time this ever happened was about four or five years ago. It was about 11 AM and I was standing on an El platform on the south side of Chicago, catching a northbound train to make the 60-block commute to work downtown. And there it was -- that song, bumping away somewhere nearby. Actually, it was a house remix of the tune -- a remix that managed to build on the quasi-Latin groove that fueled the original (rather than, y'know, squashing it). The song caused a few of us on the platform to turn in its direction, quickly tracing its source to an aged three-story townhouse located about a block away, where it sounded like a party was going on.

Broad fucking daytime. Not even noontime, yet. On a weekday. Who knows how long that party had been going on. An hour? Maybe ten? Whatever the case, the song soon ended and another began, at which point a pair of police cruisers came rolling up in front of the place with their blue lights blazing atop. From our elevated vantage point, we saw the back door to the place fly open and a number of the party's attendees -- all young and able-bodied -- come scrambling out into the rear alleyway, taking flight in every direction. Those of us on the platform who'd watched the whole thing transpire turned to look at each other, exchanging variations on the same slightly bemused, arched-eyebrow expression. Each of us had turned to look, to follow the sound. Maybe we'd each had the same urge upon hearing it. No matter, our existence dictated that we had other places to be. And even if we'd gone with that impulse, it was clear that we'd have arrived too late.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

White Riot

If there’s one cultural milestone that separates the Sixties from the Seventies, I would say that it’s Jefferson Airplane’s "Volunteers", an album that anticipated Sly & The Family Stone’s "There’s A Riot Goin’ On" in two ways - the first and most obvious one being the purloining of the Stars ’n’ Stripes for the purposes of irony; the second, and only mildly less obvious, of announcing the death of the counter-culture. Released right at the beginning of the decade, it is perhaps the last pop-culture statement that can be taken genuinely seriously, being as it is an admission of total defeat; a bloody-but-unbowed acknowledgment that whatever dreams of a better world the boomer generation may have entertained, there was now no possibility of them ever being realised.

It’s an unusual record mainly for its frankness - there is no attempt here to disguise the defeat of the counter-culture in allegory or metaphor, or to pretend that there were never any serious expectations entertained; there’s also no attempt to pretend that the future offers any opportunity to rebuild the movement - it’s either "up against the wall" or a "march into the sea". In its nihilism it is strangely reminiscent of The Pop Group’s recordings at the end of the decade - there’s not only the same sense of hopelessness, but also that feint sense that there was never any hope all along. "Volunteers", its sleeve art especially, crackles with sardonic humour - the mock Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich gatefold sleeve taunting the presumed bourgeois gluttony of the listener; the parody of the archetypal rock festival report on the back cover satirising the already-visible phenomenon of the spectacle.

All pop-cultural rebellion after the release of this record was either phoney and manufactured, which could be graded on a sliding scale from Alice Cooper to The Sex Pistols, or stillborn, as in the case of Crass or the aforementioned Pop Group. Even the Airplane themselves conveniently forgot that they’d recorded it; in the Eighties their dissipated remnants declared that they’d "built this city on rock’n’roll", as though their entire generation had never been motivated by anything more than apple-pie wholesomeness all along. If they hadn’t left the archaeological remnants of their actual recordings behind, you could’ve been forgiven for believing that the whole thing had never happened.

The Beginning of the End

By most accounts, today marks the 35th anniversary of the grand opening of Studio 54 in New York City. The club's heyday would -- depending on whose recollections you trust -- epitomize either the apex or the nadir of the disco era.

Hence the clips above. Chances are you know the song, which was a big smash at the time, for what would ultimately amount to one among many one-hit wonders of the time. I remember it very well. I was in seventh grade at the time, and the tune was pretty much the tune of the autumn of 1978, having followed hot on the heels of other era-defining hits like Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie" and Heatwave's "The Groove Line." All three songs were regularly a part of my junior high school's pep rallies that season; the cheerleading squad having worked out dance routines for each, with the Foxy tune usually being the 'big finish" number that got the kids in the bleachers the most worked-up.

So it came as some surprise seeing the clips above many years later, and finding out that the artist in question was another non-African American funk outfit of the White Wild Cherry variety. In actuality, Foxy was a Cuban-American outfit that hailed from Miami and landed themselves a spot on the roster of Miami-based TK Records, the label previously responsible for giving the world KC & the Sunshine Band. The band featured -- curiously enough -- a son of Tito Puente in its lineup, as well as one member and contributing songwriter who'd previously played in Paul Revere & the Raiders.

The reason for having two clips of the same track might be obvious once they've rolled. Viewing them many years after the fact, both strike me as deeply comical -- comical in a way that vastly exceeds the usual fashion hazards of period-specific quaintness. First, there's the way the song -- upon revisitation -- pimps certain formulaic clichés to optimal, cartoonish effect. Then there's the matter of the group itself -- the ill-advised shiny makeup and overdone pouting (grimacing?) of the first clip, the overdone (if not overcompensatory) thrusting boogie moves, the fact that the bass player vaguely resembles Borat. If there's one thing that unifies the two clips, its the very sketchy charade of pretending to play along to the song; especially the parts of pantomining along to the absentee female backing vocals (the one element of the thing that went the furthest toward putting the song over, making it a hit).

In a way, the whole thing is a shambles -- deliriously over-affected in a way that seems to carry the stench of the impending death of disco all over it. Inasmuch as it reeked of decadence, it wasn't so much decadence of the debauched variety as that of the aesthetically degenerative kind. Sure enough, the nine months that followed in the song's wake would bear this harbinger out. Chic's "Le Freak" would quickly follow, shooting to the top of the charts and making the group a huge success. (The irony being, of course, that "Le Freak" song started off as "Fuck Off," originally penned by songwriters Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers as a response to Studio 54's discriminatory door policy.) By mid-summer, jumpcut to Chicago's Comiskey Park where the unintended melee that was AM radio disc jockey Steve Dahl's "Disco Demolition Night" gave testament to a growing public antipathy. Come autumn of 1979, the pop charts were starting to clutter with disco tunes by non-disco artists who were, under label duress, trying to poach a hit out of the "craze" while it lasted. But it was too late, the tide -- as such things happen -- had already turned.

Clams on the half-shell...and roller skates, roller skates.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

You Can't Stop The Music

I used to love The Village People when I was a kid, but in a way that I suppose is fairly unusual, in that I took them entirely literally. Being only eight or so years old when they first appeared (and perhaps naive even for a kid of that age), I didn't see the gay subtext (or in their case just plain text) at all. Which meant that I viewed them as a peculiarly big-hearted group who liked to write encouraging, optimistic songs about institutions that were normally overlooked by pop (homeless hostels, the U.S. Navy etc.) and to dress up in cool gear for the pleasure of us kids (because who else could they be dressing like that for?)

In fact, I even viewed the dressing up as a sign of their sincerity. When I was in infants school, the last day of term was always looked forward to partly because it was the one day we could dress how we wanted to, and this became a kind of ritual in which every kid would bring an outfit, so the classroom was invariably full of cowboys, spacemen and medieval knights in plastic armour. One of the great suspicions I had about adults was that these were people who could dress how they liked, and yet they all somehow conspired to dress as boringly as possible. And here were the Village People showing that it could be done - all you needed was the chutzpah to get on and do it.

Just think about this for a minute or two. Right now, you could be wearing a silver construction worker's helmet. Why aren't you?

Monday, 12 March 2012

It's Good Night From Him, And It's Good Night From Her

I've never been much of a fan of Elton John, as I've always regarded him as the Ronnie Corbett of the music industry - no-one's ever really rated him, but there's a kind of forced collective affection towards him nowadays simply because he's an old trooper who's been around for so long. I think this is his one true halcyon record, though. It's a shame that he didn't make the double act with Kiki Dee a permanent arrangement - her voice adds a warm lustre to his rather plywood vocals.

Elton's other problem was of course that he didn't really look like a pop star - he looked more like the kind of bloke you're likely to encounter in a specialist hobby or exotic pet shop. I can easily imagine him informing me how easy a pair of iguanas are to keep, or how the best carbon fibre fishing rods are made in Taiwan. That said, I might just be recapitulating one of his roles in his numerous guest appearance on The Morecombe & Wise show.

A strange character on the whole is Mr. John - quite happy to have himself sent up on comedy programmes, and doing un-pop star things like actually staying in the country and paying his taxes; yet, at the same time, capable of the most ludicrous caprices. Apart from the occasional record like this, though, I think for all his efforts he'll quickly be forgotten.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Freedom is a myth

Troyer: This is a kind of banal question I guess, but if you could leave one sentence or phrase or paragraph in the head of everyone who watched The Prisoner series - the whole series - one thing for them to carry around for a while when it was over, what would it be?

McGoohan: [immediately] Be seeing you.

In 1977 Patrick McGoohan gave one of only a few interviews during his career on the subject of The Prisoner, a 1960s ITV series that already had a dedicated cult following. The interview, conducted for Canada’s TVOntario by Warner Troyer, is respectful and contemplative, with audience and host both perfectly comfortable dealing with the ideas behind the series. McGoohan as usual manages to seem like he is either about to drift into an intellectual reverie or explode with righteous anger at any moment. He is always part prophet, part priest; part curmudgeon, part playboy.

While keen to emphasize the collaborative and improvisatory nature of television production, he is utterly certain of the meaning behind the programme. Passive aggressive language, mechanical bureaucracy without a single, controlling administrator, and the impossibility of escape: these are constant, he is sure of that. While The Prisoner is about the struggles of an heroic individual against the system, McGoohan’s outlook is far from romantic. "Freedom is a myth", he spits.

What is interesting about this show, apart from the old fashioned assumption that the audience aren’t morons, is how it contrasts to the reified status of Cult TV today. The Prisoner is talked about in the past tense, but there is no need to insist that it is still relevant. McGoohan mentions that he had to sign-in to be allowed access to the studio as if it was a terrible imposition. That everyone reading this now gave their details for access in some form is probably not worth remarking upon today.

Sadly, the retro process was already underway in the 70s. After The Prisoner, McGoohan worked on episodes of Columbo, very much aware that he would never be given the chance to shake off his albatross. In the 90s he said of his Braveheart co-star and director that “Mel Gibson will always be Mad Max, and me, I will always be a number”. His character in one Columbo episode from 1975 constantly uses the “Be seeing you” catchphrase seemingly well beyond the point of self-parody. McGoohan’s is a CIA operative who murders his colleague – played by a pre-PoMo Leslie Nielson – after he discovers that McGoohan is a double agent. McGoohan’s character bugs Columbo’s home and has him followed, as well as other Mission: Impossible shenanigans, but Columbo is able to make McGoohan crumble with the flimsiest of evidence. It’s striking how weak this episode is and how hackneyed the stock spy tropes and in-jokes are – it’s bad precisely because of the “Be seeing you” retro call backs. The little flourish to please trainspotting fans only highlights the flimsy and unambitious pastiche of this episode.

"blah blah be seeing you blahblahblah"

Don’t get me wrong, Columbo was one of the finest police procedurals ever made, but this episode – before VHS and PoMo – illustrates one of the points McGoohan made in the interview. The costumes and catchphrases of The Prisoner may be very important, but they are also disposable and interchangable. Authoritarianism is not neceesarily the bleak, grey, “totalitarian” harshness of a boot stamping on a human face forever. It can be colourful and polite, full of whimsy and charm – but stray outside the accepted boundaries or ask the wrong questions and you’ll see the mask slip. McGoohan knew that not only is there is no puppetmaster controlling everything in the shadows, but that social control is most effective when internalised, that even if you managed to get to the centre of the conspiracy you would only be faced with yourself – The Self.

Every episode of The Prisoner began with Number Two obliquely replying to Number Six’s question “Who is Number One?” with the statement “You are Number Six”. Is he/she avoiding the question? Or answering it: “You are, Number Six”. McGoohan himself also knew something that Number Six never found out. In response to Number Two’s deflection/answer, Six defiantly insisted “I am not a number, I am a free man!” The opposite was true. Freedom is a myth.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012