Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow. Funkadelic.

“My Cadillac and My Pinkie Ring: a Diagnoses of The Rapture of Objects in The Form of a Funkadelic Review By Ralph Dorey on Friday 13th of January 2012 in Holloway”

The Funk is physical, of this we can have no doubt. We hold this truth to be self evident, as to say “beyond representation”. The Kingdom of Heaven is Within. We need only look at the Funk to encounter its corporeal being, it requires trust and not the writing of a church.

Side One: Cock Block

“what time is this?” – George Clinton

Let us look at the body of Funk as wheeled in on the gurney. Dead on arrival but twitching (because to be truly physical, to loose one’s head and become animal, one must also become meat. To free one’s mind one must loose one’s head. The Funk is a corpse of transcendence, if the soul were to move not up to heaven but down to the crotch, down to the earth and death sex of soil-systems). The title track opens this monster, opens with the dying rays of Hendrix’s unification of church and state through the banner of stars and delivers a survey of land flattened (Holy Compression), describing space through the pan from left and right and left and right. Upon the flat landscape Funkadelic build a pyramid from a thousand parts. Thousands of pieces, thousands of instances, but only a handful of types, the [it ain’t a stab it’s a slab] of bass, organ and drum chopped tight with the (all men are) equaliser and staccato like a brick or a bar of pig lead. The funk is a flat square, existing only in two dimensions. Tight. Distortion is the sound of restraint, the head against the ceiling just as Funk is the music of repression, the repression of the self, of the head, just the body in the world (buried alive). A wriggle against the belt, the hand against the mountain, the impossibility of breaching the bounds made into a sublime act like an abstract fuck. Over and over and always now on the Plateau. Like a piston, Up For The Down Stroke.

There is no time in this song, no progression. A short while later Public Enemy would push this architecture beyond its last grasp at spacial orthodoxy. The Bomb Squad build samples like sedimentary rock free from human intervention and transcription. All time and space is now and in every moment, understanding that both history and architecture are perfected in the formation of coal (the black planet). Layers and layers pile down on now, hit all the buttons and hit record and repeat till the full black stratified mass fills all space and time. My Uzi weighs a ton.

Side Two: Science Fiction

“head ache in my heart, heart ache in my head” – Eddie Hazel

The doctor leans over us, the dead and headless and strokes us with his words of comfort and the placebo of muzak. Drifting off we find we’re in the yard behind the church and down by the riverside. Sitting and leaning against a washed out marker. Shoulders to the stone we remark at how its shape now matches that of our torso and likewise the empty space above mirrors the absence of our own skull. The gravestone is too short though, to keep our back flat to it we should sit lower, out seat touching the submerged root of flat stone which carries down beneath the surface and supports the vertical weight above. Reaching up the doctor pulls on the hanging branches of Willow and Yew. The church tree and the river tree, the painkiller and the heart medicine. 

Post-op: Freed of legs and stump-sunk to the belt we awake. Spine aligned to the stone and groin in the soil. A nothing above the nothing below and a horizon in between with a torso plugging the sky to the earth. Nearby the Willow sways a million repeated arcs of whale finger bones over the water like the infinite delay of the echo box through which pumps the snare. Repetition is to have one time at all times stacked up. The Yew just bends, denying the stability of form with a stretch while it in turn is denied the release of a break by layers of compression.

“from every head and ass” – George Clinton

Cross posted on The Institute for Spectralogical Audio Research

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Lost Ark

Almost forgotten now, one of the great public events of the 1970's in Britain was the scrapping of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which seemed to cast a shadow over the national consciousness like a Moloch through the middle of the decade. At the time it felt far more historically significant than the comparatively trivial Silver Jubilee, as, being the Royal Navy's last proper capital ship, its demise was considered to mark the last line on the page of the British Empire.

The scrapping of the vessel was in political terms hugely controversial, with the Admiralty conducting a clandestine war with Harold Wilson's government through the press in order to keep the vessel in service. In the end though, aircraft carriers are enormous indulgences, and the cost for an essentially clapped-out former power like Britain was excessively high, regardless of the "prestige", always so important to Britain's ruling class, that the ship brought. Nevertheless, the loss of Ark Royal felt like another defeat, another colony lost, another nationalised industry given over to uncontrollable unrest. Most people of the era considered the ship to be, like the Titanic, a metaphor in waiting - one day, if people remembered anything about that decade, it would be the one where the UK finally entered the breaker's yard.

Public sympathy for the fate of Ark Royal was stoked up constantly on news bulletins and even childrens' shows like "Blue Peter", where the twists and turns in the story, with rumours of a reprieve stoked up and then dashed by the Ministry Of Defence, were documented breathlessly. The BBC made a hugely popular documentary, "Sailor" which followed the ship's last operational cruise. The clip below is well worth watching, as it's beautifully shot, and gives a sense of the almost psychedelic, mind-bending aura that can surround the military - all that technology, discipline and organisation that descends into chaos, confusion and destruction the moment it goes into action; a kind of reverse alchemy that turns gold into dross.

That said, Ark Royal was never the ship that the public imagined it to be. Like all the post-war British aircraft carriers, it had been originally designed to carry wartime piston-engined fighters, and struggled through a seemingly endless series of refits in order to fly off supersonic jets, for which it was simply too small to adequately cope with. You can see from the clip the high angle of attack that the jets had to adopt on take-off, before the high-powered steam catapults literally threw them off the deck. The American-built Phantom fighters had to be completely re-engined with higher-thrust Rolls Royce units in order to prevent them dropping straight into the sea. The loss rates on post-war British carriers were generally appalling, especially with the Royal Navy's perverse inclination towards huge, complex aircraft like the forgotten Supermarine Scimitar, which would have taxed even the massive American supercarriers.

If the received wisdom of the time, that Britain was finally retiring from the world stage, was proved wrong, it was because there was another nation, on the other side of the world, that was taking just as keen an interest in the fate of the pride of the Royal Navy. The Junta of Generals in Argentina calculated that the scrapping of Ark Royal marked the moment of decline when Britain would no longer be prepared to defend its remaining far-flung and isolated dominions. The resulting war, and surprise British victory, would re-ignite the dying embers of Britain's imperial zeal, with baleful consequences over the next three decades. Ark Royal had turned out not to be a talisman after all, but just another ship.

Friday, 13 January 2012

In the Garden

The enormously expanded and integrated mediascape of the Eighties and Nineties is strung out across an increased number of nodes through the growing accessibility of portable TVs. The reduced cost of owning a TV set, the possibility of having several distributed throughout the household, always on in the background, also helps to warm up the TV, to make it a tepid medium at least, a part of the furniture, attended to fitfully, increasingly a component of consciousness itself, a prosthesis, a plug-in, whose ubiquity and multiform extension as a provider of products and entertainment slowly integrate itself into the fabric of daily life such that it is neutralized, naturalized. You turn on the TV and have it as background while you do something else, it’s a comforting presence, without the image flickering away there, without the sound, things feel wrong, something is missing. This is probably the process all “magical” technologies go through, from centralized, big-and-bulky focus of astonishment to integrated, invisible under-girding of daily life.

TVs’ full meshing into the collective psyche and the political uses and implications of this process are the central concern of Hal Ashby’s Being There. The film is an adaption of Jerzy Kosinski's last novel, of the same name. Kosinski is himself a rather mysterious, quixotic character, an escapee from Communism who married into money in the US and wrote a series of repetitive, staccato and frequently brilliant novels in the Sixties and Seventies. Controversy of all kinds followed Kosinski around and there are questions both whether he plagiarized his story from a famous prewar Polish work and whether he deserved full screenwriting credits for the final draft that made the film. But these are incidental considerations, there’s little doubt that the vision of a simple-minded gardener who understands the world only through TV and whose observations chime in with the naturalistic fallacies of American capital is highly prescient. That Chauncey is a kind of middle-aged holy innocent, lost in a semi-senile stupor in which he can not discriminate between fantasy and reality, who literally thinks and speaks TV, beautifully anticipates Reagen’s imminent Presidency.

Being There’s vision, echoing that of Network, is of the new set of relations brought about by the merging of the garden and the network, and the magical capacity that is conferred on those who have never known otherwise, in a sense Chauncey is an earlier and older version of the “digital native”, and his advantage to the elderly and declining elite scions who adopt him is his age, he is middle-aged, pliable, well-mannered, bland, talks in optimistic generalities, psychically he represents an epistemic break from the old guard, his is a new and thoroughly modern consciousness fully shaped by the most powerful medium yet devised. He literallly thinks and talks TV, yet he also has a deep appreciation of nature. This confluence between the ecologically minded and the business-minded also informs much of the alternative-culture of the Seventies, and informs another of its key films, Stay Hungry.

Being There’s mise-en-scene is appropriately wintery and subdued, it begins and ends with death, the death of the Old Man that orphans Chauncey and the death of his benefactor that allows for his possible ascension to the Presidency, and it also turned out to be Peter Sellers’ last role. Chauncey offers comforting homilies on the possibility of rebirth, a new Spring, an injection of youthful vigour and vitality, the sudden surge in potency that will be granted by deregulation and the post-Sixties entrepreneurs entering the scene. It is this sense of the Seventies as a terminal point, a generational dying-off and deregulation as a necessary pruning-back, a laying to rest of the sclerotic Fordist compact that will usher in green shoots and infuse the system with young blood that Chauncey speaks to. This is what allows the elderly Reagen to affirm a New Morning in America in his re-election campaign in 84 ( and which would allow Tony Blair to assert a decade later that England is a “young country”).

Chauncey isn’t exactly a parody of Reagen but of a whole tendency toward the idea of the natural man, whose power is precisely his uncluttered, uninflected apprehension of direct truths that the more sophisticated can never attain, dogged as they are by psychological and existential problems, their optimism ruined by experience. This lionization of the homespun, the good plain sense of a true American spirit uncorrupted by doubt and fancy European book-learning will reach its peak/nadir with Forest Gump. TV is the soul of America made visible and Chauncey is its word made flesh. This is why in the final sequence as the Elders discuss his candidature for president we see him guilelessly walk on water, he is superhuman, a redeemer, has a direct unmediated access to the Oversoul, incarnates it. Diana in Network may be “TV incarnate” for Chayefsky (indifferent to suffering and love alike, the phallic witch of the coldest of all cold mediums) but Chauncey incarnates TV as salvation, and what he will save is Capitalism.

In Network, Jensen’s speech is partly just Chayefsky flexing his stylistic muscles but there is a congruence between Jensens’ style and the emerging business-speak that is soon to inflate into the Gnostic professional rhetoric of the MBA. His speech, in borrowing ecological and environmental metaphors, helps to posit a humane capitalist teleology that then gains immense traction after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and informs the Third Way of Blairism and the Clintonite ethos of the 90s. Jensen’s “system of systems” is a new form of sublimity, a global vision of capital that supplants the natural world. In this way the rhetoric of capital steals something from the Romantics, this is both a more aggressive assertion of “ capitalist realism” and also a more benign vision, capital itself is the sheltering mother, the pathetic fallacy gone free-market, Chauncey is its avatar.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

30th Century Boys

As you may or may not know, Scott Walker and David Bowie (roughly) shared a birthday this weekend. Unsurprising, as they have quite a lot in common. David (Jones) was admittedly deeply influenced by Scott (Engel), not least in their respective capacity for reinvention, image modification, and (at their best) a lyrical yearning to step outside themselves. Both played with teenybop-friendly images to make their first splash; and had a far better grasp of using TV in the service of pop; unlike most of their peers, for whom it was the other way round. Both had an uncanny knack for appealing to very diverse audiences. They also built a mystique around conflicted sexual ambiguity, "that tearing ache of limitless desire" as William Burroughs would have it (note how many of Walker's own songs are crooned to boys). Bowie's would retract eventually, as he became fully embedded into the mainstream and a publicly happy marriage. Walker would go in stranger directions; emerging after long intervals with increasingly perplexed, inarticulate, and violently troubled statements. Tilt and The Drift appeared in accordance with an ever more uncertain New World Order, within which Bowie would settle into an incredibly wealthy (and musically conservative) old age. It was as though their eccentricities, and capacity for experimentation, went in opposite directions. 

Both of them are also very much concerned with the idea of 'Europe'; as a much darker, lonelier, uglier, perverse place than its Hegelian ideologues would have us believe. Restless children of the Cold War, the horrors that led to it lurk around their best work. A strangely passionate inertia emerging from empires collapsed, or in stalemate. Exile would become a key word in their biographies. Walker, an American, would hit heart-throb status crooning Tony Hatch arrangements in Britain. Bowie would score his first U.S. number one borrowing from James Brown and Philly Soul. They would both go into highly-publicised meltdowns shortly afterwards, before finding the distinct 'voices' that would make them canonical - as opposed to mere stars - in the ruins of an older world. Without them, British pop could have taken a very different course indeed; remaining transfixed on the other side of the Atlantic, while ignoring the other side of the Channel, and its recent history.

Literary, theatrical and cinematic influences on both would come to the fore; with themes of stunted desire, decay, decadence, alienation, totalitarianism, sexual confusion, and the irresolvable regrets of youth; common to any number of mid-century European writers and artists, from Isherwood to Fassbinder to Bacon to Pasolini to Beckett. The queering of British pop (in performative, rather than sexual, orientation) starts with Walker's bruised and haunted solo albums; before it was repackaged by Bowie with Warholian savvy (the difference between a modernist and a postmodernist, I suppose). It was always present in the business of post-war British pop, but mainly closeted behind an almost caricatured hyper-masculinity; its poses and voices borrowed from the U.S. Behind the carefully-crafted slickness of their sound, Walker and Bowie's lyrics frequently required double takes, or entendres. Walker continued to push that beyond mainstream acceptance; long after Bowie had jumped ship into safer waters. But the series of albums Walker closed the sixties with, and those with which Bowie ended the seventies, stand outside, subvert, and move ahead of the generic rock 'movements' that lazier critics defined those years with. It wasn't all working towards a collective telos of youthful abandon. The European canon was here.

(Note: Post re-edited at a more lucid hour)

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Moon Represents My Heart

"'The Moon Represents My Heart' [was] something completely new. So people of my generation were suddenly infected with this very personal, individual world. Before that, everything was collective..." – Jia Zhangke

It’s a measure of how little we know about Chinese culture – rather than the geopolitics of China – that this beautifully syrupy song is an obscurity in the Anglophone world. Rather than the gongs and zithers of kitsch TV sound libraries, the first music that comes to mind when we think of China should be something like this:

This song should be on karaoke playlists across the land, it should be murdered on every series of X Factor. It should take its place alongside Chinese Girl and Mao’s Little Red Book as totems of China as seen through the West’s 70s. We deserve to be sick of this song.

Luckily, unlike so much pop detritus, we don’t have to forget the received wisdom about it to recognise its beauty.

I’ll end with a brief biographical sketch. You don’t need it to enjoy the music, but here it is. Deng Lijun (aka Teresa Teng) – as intimated by the above quote from director Jia Zhangke – was one of the first of a new kind of singer that arrived after the Cultural Revolution. She not only sang individualistic love songs, she was also an internationalist, singing in Cantonese, Japanese, English, Korean, Taiwanese, Indonesian and Vietnamese as well as in her native Mandarin. She died young, only 42, of an asthma attack.