Tuesday 21 December 2010

Bound By Magic

Whether or not one believes in the supernatural or paranormal aspects of magic, there is no doubt that magic is, in the words of Daniel O’Keefe, "real social action". If there is one aspect of magic that has always fascinated the social scientists that study it, it is the phenomenon of voodoo death. In the first half of the twentieth century, it became an object of almost obsessive study by the group of French sociologists of the Durkheim school, and the British anthropologists that were led by Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard. Whereas mana theory showed that human interaction can be deeply nourishing, perhaps even necessary for human health, voodoo death, which is a real phenomenon that has been observed on countless occasions, shows that human interaction can be toxic in and of itself.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of voodoo death is the rapidity with which it takes effect. When a member of a primitive tribe has the smouldering branch or chicken bone pointed at him by the witch doctor, the tribesman will die usually within a fortnight, and often within a couple of days. Ultimately, voodoo death is socially induced death - the man has been found breaking a tribal taboo, and the witch doctor condemns him to death on behalf of the rest of the tribe. Although the actual physical cause of death is still somewhat a mystery, the psychological mechanism of death is an attack by the super-ego, the component of the mind that Freud identified as ideally containing the parental and societal influences needed to compel the ego into controlling the unruly urgings of the id. In reality, the super-ego often works as what Christopher Lasch called "society’s agent in the mind", and this is especially so in modern societies where parental authority has given way to dissipated bureaucratic and corporate structures whose exigencies are disparate and often contradictory. In such circumstances, the super-ego, rather than functioning as the severe but measured moderator we know as "conscience", often takes a harsh and punitive form.

Mostly nowadays we individually experience the super-ego as a minor but persistent nuisance. It’s the voice in our heads that tells us we’re bad if we haven’t done an important task, or done it to a lower standard than we know we’re capable of. It also likes to throw up embarrassing or guilty memories, forcing to us to close our eyes and curse in order to send them away. The phrase "I could die from embarrassment" contains more than a germ of truth - the super-ego that punishes us for social misdemeanors is perfectly capable of killing us (or encouraging us to kill ourselves) under the right circumstances.

The politics of class are probably the area of greatest concentration of magic in modern society. Ultimately it can be said that class is magic. Perhaps the most urgent purpose of any ruling class is to cast binding spells on the lower orders, to force super-ego pressure downwards on those below. I would speculate that one sure definition of class is that the lower down the class structure you are, the more thoroughly you are bound by limiting magic, by the more firmly you have convinced yourself of what you are capable and incapable of doing. Ruling class magic is enhanced in its power by a number of tricks and props, the most important being:

* The symbolism and arcana of authority

* A clear, portentous, priestly manner of speaking, involving the incantatory repetition of key phrases ("there is no alternative", "we’re all in this together" etc.)

* Euphemistic and obfuscatory in-group terminology, expressly designed to preserve the magic of authority from coming under detailed scrutiny.

* Terrifyingly convoluted etiquette intended to focus enormous super-ego pressure on the uninitiated

Margaret Thatcher was particularly masterful at the rites of ruling class magic. Her haughty tones, so redolent of the priest (that modern descendent of the witchdoctor) always make me think that she should have started her speeches with the phrase "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…". Her mastery of this kind of performance is probably the basis of her reputation for competence, which her short-sighted economic programme would belie.

For all the ramifications of economic relations, it is important to note that the class system is ultimately maintained by magical ritual and symbolism, by what Wittgenstein called an "agreement to agree". Essentially we all agree to agree which class we belong to, and to the social relations that result from membership of that class. Whatever privileges or cultural cringes we inherit from this agreement we accept ontologically, as "natural facts". Ultimately however, for all its pretense of sophistication, this is really an old compact that goes far, far back into the primitive realms of witchdoctor-magic, from which contemporary magic is descended, and which has evolved far less than most of us would like to believe.

Monday 20 December 2010

Fail Again, Fail Better

Anyone with an interest in the 70s will no doubt find themselves obliged to read books on the era. At the moment there’s a glut of them, the most recent and heftiest being Dominic Sandbrook’s “State of Emergency” which focuses on but two years (at woeful length) and largely seems to be an attempt to justify the ways of Heath to man or perhaps even less nobly, restore the reputation of Enoch Powell on the basis that he was a monetarist prophet without honour and therefore an unacknowledged force-for-good. Enoch must be alright, he paved the way for Thatcherism!

Effectively “State” feels like a synthesis of two vastly superior books on the seventies Alwyn Turner's “Crisis, What Crisis?” and Andy Beckett’s “When the lights went out”. It probably feels like this because that’s exactly what it is. Reading the three books in rapid succession it will strike home quite forcefully just how derivative of the other two author’s work Sandbrook’s is. Turner gets the occasional nod in the main body of Sandbrook’s book but he has the audacity not only to plagiarise Beckett but then suggest that Beckett’s take on the Seventies as a time “when the lights went out” is the kind of clichéd conventional wisdom about the Seventies that should be overturned.

If he’s getting it wrong stop nicking his stuff then you cheeky cunt! Is the obvious response, which as a humble blogger, I can make with impunity.

So the message is effectively I’d dodge that Sandbrook book if I were you. I mean not just because he’s a Tory, or because he’s obviously a lazy, plagiarising careerist but because it doesn’t give you anything you can’t get elsewhere. Were you to read “When the lights…” which stays away from popular culture but digs deep into the lost possibilities of the Seventies, “Crisis..” which takes on the popular culture of the time very broadly and John Savage’s “England’s Dreaming” which is exhaustive on the counter culture, you’d have a pretty comprehensive road map of the times.

AHHH. Yeah. I love blogger impunity. Sandbrook, you’re wasting my time and money you thieving, lazy, Tory dullard! Will I be reading the second volume? Ho-ho! Whadayathink?

An additional and important contrast between Beckett’s and Sandbrook’s books, and one that makes his “correction” of Beckett even more grating, is that hoary old trope about Making History Come Alive. Sandbrook’s Seventies are a tedious museum piece compared to Beckett’s for a number of reasons, firstly because the Seventies seem to be important enough to Beckett for him to get out and do a bit of wandering around and wondering aloud, interviewing key people and asking pointed questions about the nature of and direction of the time, whereas with Sandbrook’s book you feel he’s basically racing against a deadline cutting and pasting other people’s work in furiously. There seems to have been a deep investment of time and thought in one, a sense that the Seventies matters and matters on a personal level as opposed to a maniacal, impersonal ploughing on through the post war decades ( Sandbrook’s already done the Fifties and Sixties) to keep your publisher happy on the other.

Secondly and most significantly, what’s both haunting and Hauntological about Beckett’s book, and the real sense in which it makes history “come alive” is its own aliveness to and quiet insistence on the possibility that it may all have gone some other way. Beckett’s book isn’t a “counterfactual” in the normal sense but it invites the reader into all kinds of speculations and reflections on alternate paths out of the Seventies: dusty inevitabilities are broken open into moments seething with latent possibility and as a result the text itself is ghosted by a whole series of alternate and parallel histories. In this sense Beckett’s work is packed with political energy, is “inspirational” not because it’s directly polemical but because it enlists the reader’s imagination, because it believes that there was and always is an alternative and that history is shaped both by chance and by the judgment and commitment of social agents at all levels. It’s a superb work of anti-Realism in other words, and as such, irrespective of the fact that it’s a book on the Seventies it is certainly a key book of our increasingly fractious times.

Saturday 18 December 2010

We need facts!

Interesting the amount of mileage they get out of the idea that even The Queen will have to complete a census form (I expect the Queen Mum filled it out with a betting shop pen) but then these were the days when the Royal Family still had a totemistic, cap touching appeal to the majority of the public who watched the telly.

I'd like to see the results of the work of the army with light blue satchels when it's finally made public but, sadly, I'll be dead. What I do know is that 2 year 11 month old Paul lived at 79 St Andrews Avenue, Colchester, Essex with his bricklayer father, Keith (25) and his factory worker mother, Vicky (23).

By Unmann-Wittering.


Although the Seventies saw the rise of J.G. Ballard as the bête noire of British fiction, they also saw a revival in the fortunes of a previous enfant terrible of the literary world. Colin Wilson, a working-class autodidact from Leicester, had risen meteorically in the 1950’s as the author of "The Outsider", a biographical examination of the visionary impulse within Western art, and had fallen just as quickly, as a series of highly public sexual escapades and a realisation that some of his ideas were deeply idiosyncratic saw him being dropped by the gatekeepers of Hampstead literary life like a hot pentacle.

Wilson’s response to personal and professional ridicule throughout the 1960’s was to release a torrent of work, both factual and fictional, encompassing biography, philosophy, detective fiction and science fiction. Voluminously well-read, he enlisted the ideas of such varied thinkers as Bergson, Nietzsche, Husserl, Jung and Abraham Maslow to support his central idea; a kind of anti-existentialism that posited that reality is what we experience in "peak moments" of involuntary visionary wonder, rather than the listless banality that we experience in our daily lives. Although this idea has a long history in Eastern mysticism and Christian esotericism, Wilson went further in speculating that the task of human consciousness was not to mediate and interpret reality, but to narrow and compress it, to block out rather than gather in.

Following the social ructions at the end of the 1960’s, the Seventies, perhaps not coincidentally, saw an explosion of what we would now call Fortean phenomena: UFO sightings and abductions, poltergeist hauntings, appearances of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. In 1971, Wilson published "The Occult", which fortuitously coincided with this deluge of psychic arcana, and revived interest in his work, but perhaps the strangest and most perplexing adventure he became involved in was documented in the book he co-authored with "cryptozoologist" Ted Holiday, "The Goblin Universe".

Holiday was convinced that the Loch Ness Monster, along with other denizens of what he called "the phantom menagerie" such as the Yeti, the mystery big cats of the English home counties and extra-terrestrials, were not real creatures, but what he called "thoughtforms" - manifestations of the human collective unconscious that have a tendency to form when certain highly charged locations are visited by highly sensitive individuals. Holiday, who claimed to have seen Nessie on several occasions, regarded these manifestations as being irretrievably evil, the product of the more grotesque aspect of whatever unknown power organises the universe.

In 1973, in what Wilson considered to be a dangerously reckless move, Holiday enlisted a Presbyterian priest by the name of Donald Omand to accompany him out onto the water to exorcise the loch. Although the exorcism passed off without apparent incident, within a few days Holiday and his accomplices were to encounter a bewildering array of bizarre phenomena, including mysterious flashing lights, and sudden tornados that would shake the walls of their homes before abating in seconds. Holiday himself would come across one of the notorious "men in black" while attempting to investigate an alleged UFO landing site. It was to be a fateful meeting - he would suffer a heart attack at exactly the same spot a year later. As a keen student of Jung, he himself would observe: "Synchonicity and the forces that control it never give up".

In an unusual postscript, in 1983 The Police would record this song, which would seem to have a curious resonance with Holiday’s account. Any literal connection would be impossible though - Holiday completed his manuscript just before his death from a second heart attack in 1979, and the book itself wasn’t published until 1986, meaning that at the time the song was written no-one other than Holiday’s mother and Wilson would have known his full story.

The Humour Market

Some of you were barely alive in the 1970s.

Some of you would have been in nappies, and in nappies in the late Seventies.

Speaking as someone who turned seven half way through 1970, let me tell you what the British Seventies were really about.


Pretty much every decade since the Seventies, there's been this whole "comedy's the new rock'n'roll" palaver. But in the Seventies, comedy really did give rock'n'roll a close run for its money.

Monty Python's Flying Circus was like the Beatles.

It spawned an entire industry of spin-offs, cash-ins, solo careers, imitations.

There were books.

Paralleling the boom in TV comedy books was a thriving market for collections by humorists and satirists, many of them spinning off Punch magazine (which I bought every week between the ages of 10 and 12).

Disappointed not to be able to find an image for Willie Rushton's Super Pig, his guide for male chauvinists spoof on a pop-feminist best-seller of the era called SuperWoman.

Then there was Private Eye's micro-industry of books...

American humor books is a whole other area I'm not qualified to comment on

Books of cartoons, that's a separate topic really. Giles's annual collection distended Christmas stockings across the nation, but he's not a particularly 1970s figure, although you can imagine the conflicts, crises, foibles and national humiliations of the day provided plenty of fodder for him.

Back to British comedy: the big TV series spun off records. Just as me and my brothers aquired all the Python-related books, Python-spin-off-related books, and Python-imitator-related books (i.e. Goodies) at the top of this post,so too did we own all of the following:

I didn't own the following ground-breakingly obscene platters, but a few years after they came out, I had friends who'd got hold of them, sometimes through their older brothers.

The whole realm of records made by the big up stand-up comics of the time, vaguely edgy seeming and coming out of folk clubs in some cases--Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot--was not something I was into particularly.

And then there was National Lampoon. Mostly known in the UK for the frat-boy retro-comedy Animal House and perhaps for the winsome and innocuous Vacation movies starring Chevy Chase, this was a satirical magazine initially (some of the people involved went on to do Spinal Tap), that quickly spun off into records and stage shows (some of the people involved went on to Saturday Night Live). For all I know there were National Lampoon related books too.

As a teenager I managed to track down a single issue of the magazine, in some kind of specialist store in London.

But this album wound up in the local record store in Berkhamsted. My brother bought it in a sale they had of records damaged in a flood. I can almost picture the stain on the cover, the ripples in the cardboard caused by its drying out.

This one came out of a stage show, a satire of Woodstock and the squalor of rock festivals. I recently picked it up for $2 but I have yet to play it.

But American comedy records, that's a whole other mega-zone in itself that I'm not equipped to discuss. There's people who talk about the life-changing impact of Richard Pryor's albums for instance.

Of course comedy records existed before the Seventies... My parents had records by Tom Lehrer (singing what for their time were blackly humorous songs) and Pete Sellers (Songs For Swingin' Sellers, produced by George Martin I believe), as well as a couple of episodes of Hancock's Half Hour in vinyl form. There were recordings of the The Goon Show , albums of Woody Allen doing stand-up, etc etc

Still, as I recall comedy LPs were a big part of Seventies British adolescence.

An obvious point to make is that before the age of the VCR and video rental stores, the only way to get a permanent and replayable document of your fave cult comedy show was to buy the records. Most of the early Python records consisted not of new material but of the most beloved sketches from the TV show, rerecorded in the studio, without the interruption of studio audience laughter, which drowned out some of the best lines. Replayable is the key point: you listened over and over, until you knew every line and every inflection by heart.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Flowers Won't Grow, Bells Won't Be Ringing

"The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego -- what I have been calling the waning of affect. But it means the end of much more -- the end, for example, of style, in the sense of the unique and the personal, the end of the distinctive individual brush stroke (as symbolized by the emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction). As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling."
- Fredric Jameson

Soul is now a rare term of appraisal in music discourse. When discussed as a genre, it is usually as nostalgic totem, the distance travelled from Ray Charles to contemporary R'n'B, but nominally regarded as a sound of the 60s and 70s. The great labels Stax, Motown, Philadelphia etc. have long vanished into corporate takeovers, along with the local identities that defined them. Ways of life, classes and struggles that soul once inspired have formed different shapes in recent decades. Traces of gospel in Afro-American pop have all but vanished, and even the pastiches of 'neo-soul' are largely secular. Performance arts schools have overtaken the church in nurturing talent. Unlike the soul music that emerged from churches, the locus of success relies more on lyrics or production styles. Not the voice that vocalists distinguished with their cry of "please!", as they extended emotion outside the boundaries of song. Marvin Gaye was particularly distinguished in this, among other things. As an artist who bridged the era from doo-wop to MTV, his career rose, innovated and died with the genre itself. His 70s work was somewhat emblematic in its struggle with war, urban decline, sexuality, family, faith and personal expression. When the 'death of the author' rubbed against a new 'permissiveness' (creative or otherwise), he was also symptomatic of a time when the 'me generation' tentatively lumbered from the social ruptures of the 60s to the face-lifted restorations of the 80s.

As with most of Gaye's 70s work, What's Going On synthesised all the strands of post-war Afro-American music - blues, jazz, gospel, doo-wop, soul and funk (he would later make disco his own: a No. 1 hit about his fear of dancing). As a song cycle, it begins with greetings to a party and ends with a prayer. The ongoing crises of Viet Nam and economic insecurity loom large, where faith struggles with apprehensions of impending apocalypse. It plays as an extended hymn, to western society as much as God, a plea to "find peace sublime" by spiritual or secular means. The album is also a document of his struggle for autonomy in Motown's production line (he always sounded just a little too mature for 'the sound of young America'), shortly before the label abandoned Detroit ahead of heavy industry. Such assertions of "the individual brush stroke" were common in the early 70s, with many black performers attempting to transcend industrial limits. As with society in general, hard-won 'permissiveness' wasn't without its pratfalls. Without road maps, the 'dizziness of freedom' could result in unaccountable indulgence or crippling anxieties, as much as it could lead to innovations in social relations or modes of expression. It could also lead to a loneliness that the culture wouldn't absorb, a disquiet that ego, faith, or indeed 'soul' may be unable to compensate.

Deciding not to repeat What's Going On's success by recycling its subject matter, Gaye moved from The Waste Land to Eliot's dictum of: "Birth, copulation and death. That's all the facts when you get to brass tacks." Let's Get It On was a manifesto of sorts, but not as clear-cut as the liner notes suggested. Gaye was plagued by sexual neurosis, reputedly a result of his harsh fundamentalist upringing. Compared to the previous album, God is barely mentioned. This is a hymn to the body, where faith in its pleasures nevertheless remain open to question. The desperate fear of rejection is of course a common motif in soul ("please!"), but the album still aims to seduce. Along with soul, Gaye foregrounds his roots in doo-wop, arguably the prettiest of post-war pop genres, that seductive crossroads between blues, gospel, soul, rock'n'roll and the Great American Songbook crooners that Gaye longed to join (he eventually did, posthumously). Yet as with his other songs of the period, background harmonies were provided by Gaye himself. Without the camraderie of doo-wop's backing singers, it leaves his serenades sounding all the more anxious: Scared that if I close my eyes/When I get ready to wake up/I might find you gone. Desire on the verge of splintering into duality and doubt, widening the gulf between serenader and his object of seduction, but paradoxically creating more intimacy with the listener. This is also the case with its more cavernous and fragmented follow-up I Want You. For all of Let's Get It On's erotic charge as the 'luurve' album par excellence, there's an overwhelming sense of absence to it.

After its sequence of sexual and romantic longing, Let's Get It On ends on a note of sadness and regret. 'Just To Keep You Satisfied' dispenses with the funk and doo-wop; and harks back to the more desolate work of Frank Sinatra, particularly his post-Ava Gardner song cycles of the 50s. The song had several versions, originally written for second-tier Motown acts like The Originals, but here Gaye edited out the percussion and rewrote its promise of devotion into a meditation on separation and loss. The bittersweet irony is that his departing wife Anna (Berry Gordy's sister) co-wrote the original song. Appropriate to this act of erasure and reappraisal, the album closes on a far more ambivalent note than its opening anthem:
Now it's too late to live and love and it's too late baby
It's too late for you and me, much too late for you to cry
Ohhh it's much too late
Well, all we can do is, we can both try to be happy...

Their separation would form the basis for an entire double album in 1978. Here My Dear was a flop upon release, but its reputation has improved considerably. Made to raise money quickly (for alimony and child support), at a time when Gaye was already living beyond his means, it was intended as a "lazy, bad" album to appease both his ex-wife and Motown. With declared despondency, its stream-of-consciousness vocals and fragmented collage of moods sound strangely compelling and immediate today. It's an album of disillusion, where passion is not so much an open question as avoidable error. The ugly, perplexed emotions that divorce brings - not least its awkward sense of alienation - are arguably more au courant with our contemporary mores than the frank expressions of desire of his earlier albums (which now seem more suitable for solitary listening). The bitter humour and references to financial quarrels were also ahead of their time - few soul singers of the time would foreground money as a component of emotional heartbreak. After further disputes with Motown, another divorce and exile, the 80s brought radio-friendly success with In Our Lifetime and Midnight Love. Even with greater polish and sales, his haunted duality and anomie remained.

Baby, your life and mine is grooving on the danger
Revelation's prophecy is nearly fulfilled
We are blessed to experience a changing world
So let's love before our fate is sealed

The implications of Gaye's classically tragic fate could be the subject of a whole other chapter. After his death, soul (as genre, as affect) would fade. As with many musical genres, it survived by retreating into subculture. Something to be curated (specialist radio and nightclubs), borrowed (a badge of 'taste' for white and/or British performers, a source for samples), or rented out to other merchandise (fashion, film, advertising). There are still soul survivors of the 60s and 70s who carry on regardless. Yet despite any continued commercial appeal they may have, they are as marginal to 21st century pop as those delta blues legends revived in the 60s. It's difficult to speculate which musical path Gaye would have taken had he lived; especially when we consider how Afro-American pop has changed in the past thirty years, not least market expectations of its performers. Popular culture - and the economic circumstances informing it - now communicates in a different emotional register.

The all-consuming success of Motown baby Michael Jackson - the commercial, sexual and racial disturbance that he (dis)embodied, the face of neoliberalism - effectively put the brakes on emotional (and textural) 'authenticity' in Afro-American pop. Jackson and the dominance of video (not least MTV's racism) resulted in widespread compromises of image and attitude that still reveberate. 'Realness' was reserved for the downsized alienation of hip hop, a genre so austere it even forsakes the comfort of song.  The 'real' became acknowledgement of socioeconomic pressures, not emotion or 'soul'. That in turn influenced the timbre and temperament of R'n'B, and any number of 'urban' genres (Joe Carducci's reactionary warning that repressing live 'heat' would "come back to haunt black music" may yet prove correct). It was as though production methods became a way to establish boundaries on desire. Lyric-wise, collective and emotional aspirations congealed into an emphasis on individual wealth and fame. Mention of marriage or work became increasingly rare in pop, and 'urban' charts are dominated by hymns to callow status. Vulnerability is defeated by impervious declarations of strength, yearning by the paranoid maintenance of impregnable ego. Songs of love finally surrendered to songs about fucking. And God? He's just another celebrity to thank at the MTV Awards.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Don't Blame It On The Sunshine

I'm a dancin fool
Youwsa, youwsa, youwsa
I got it all together now
With my very own disco clothes, hey!
My shirts half open, to show you my chains
And the spoon for up my nose.
- Frank Zappa, 'Dancin' Fool'

“You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.” 
- The Last Days Of Disco (Wilt Stillman, 1988)

"Musically, disco developed out of the main styles of early 70s black music: the polyrthymic funk inspired by James Brown and George Clinton, and uptempo soul music, especially extended versions of Philadelphia International hits. Socially, its primary sources lay in the gay rights movement that gathered momentum follwing the Stonewall Riot of 1969"
- Craig Hansen Werner A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America

“The tone of the place is sufficiently gay that a woman can protect herself by adopting a fierce gaze to indicate dykishness, or by staring fixedly at herself in a mirror, for self-absorption is respected here.” 
- Harpers magazine article on disco, 1976

"Disco... was a beautiful artform. It made the consumer beautiful. The consumer was the star." - Barry White

“Studio 54 was the embodiment of the most decadent social period of any city in modern history. By 1978, Dionysus had hired a press agent and New York was headlong into an era of staggering permissiveness.” 
- Steve Gaines Simply Halston: The Untold Story

"I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB's bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit - put on soul records so everybody could dance - I began to hear this: "What're you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?" 
- Lester Bangs, 'The White Noise Supremacists'

"Disco seemed to arouse something like castration anxiety in rockers."
- Alice Echols Hot Stuff: Disco And The Remaking Of American Culture

"It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word 'disco'."
- Nile Rogers, Chic

Tuesday 14 December 2010


"In the first half of the ninth century, Baghdad enjoyed its high noon as the greatest and richest city in the world. In 861 however, the reigning Khalif, Mutawakkil, was murdered by Turkish mercenaries, who set up a military dictatorship, which lasted for some 30 years. During this period the empire fell apart, the various dominions and provinces each assuming virtual independence and pursuing its own interests. Baghdad, lately the capital of a vast empire, found its authority limited to Iraq alone.

The works of the contemporary historians of Baghdad are still available. They deeply deplored the degeneracy of the times in which they lived, emphasising particularly the indifference to religion, the increasing materialism, and the laxity of sexual morals. They lamented also the corruption of the officials of the government, and the fact that politicians always seemed to amass large fortunes while they were in office.

The historians commented bitterly on the extraordinary influence of popular singers over young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality. The ‘pop’ singers of Baghdad accompanied their erotic songs on the lute, an instrument resembling the modern guitar. In the second half of the tenth century, as a result, much obscene sexual language came increasingly into use, such as would not have been tolerated in an earlier age. Several Khalifs issued orders banning ‘pop’ singers from the capital, but within a few years they always returned."

Sir John Glubb, "The Fate Of Empires"

Saturday 11 December 2010

Social Sitcom

Steptoe And Son (1962 - 1974)
Rag and bone men Albert (father) and Harold (son) live together in claustrophobic poverty. Harold daydreams of escaping his lonely situation via love, culture and 'bettering himself'. These attempts are doomed to failure, and undermined by his father, who nevertheless wishes to protect his son from disappointment and rejection.

Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em (1973 - 1978)
Accident-prone, well-meaning Frank attempts to hold down a job to support his young family. Despite his enthusiasm and good nature, he always encounters catastrophe at the workplace. He inadvertently inspires outright hostility from employers (sometimes at interview stage), and repeatedly returns to unemployment.

Porridge (1974 - 1977)
Repeat offender Fletcher shares a cell with naive first-time offender Godber. Taking the younger inmate under his wing, Fletcher tries to encourage Godber's attempts to rehabilitate and 'better himself'. However these attempts are frequently undermined by the inherent limits, corruption and brutality of prison life.

Rising Damp (1974 - 1979)
Lonely, petty landlord Rigsby rents out to tenants Ms. Jones, Philip and Alan in his dilapidated boarding house. Despite racial, political and sexual tensions between them, they are united by an acute sense of personal failure; desperately veiled behind fantasy and facade.

Only Fools And Horses (1980 - 1991)
Orphaned, unemployed brothers Del and Rodney (assisted by Grandad/Uncle Albert) aspire to escape their miserable existence in an overcrowded council flat; through farcial, semi-legal business ventures that inevitably end in failure. Yet at the end of the 80s, Del marries and becomes a father; while Rodney secures a well-paid job at a successful IT firm and marries into the upper-middle class. Then, upon randomly discovering a rare antique watch, Del, Rodney and Uncle Albert become multi-millionaires.

Monday 6 December 2010

Running Up That Hill, With No Problems

"The character structure of modern man, who reproduces a six-thousand-year-old patriarchal authoritarian culture is typified by characterological armoring against his inner nature and against the social misery which surrounds him. This characterolgical armoring of the character is the basis of isolation, indigence, craving for authority, fear of responsibility, mystic longing, sexual misery, and neurotically impotent rebelliousness." 
- Wilhelm Reich

I've never been a huge fan of Kate Bush, but she's certainly intruiged me since an early age. Stars who maintain such a long, incredibly successful career while retaining a key element of mystery often do. In our age of wall-to-wall gossip, pop punditry and celebrity saturation, Bush has managed to remain low-key over three decades (rarely giving interviews, never touring); while somehow making every album release an event of sorts. This is rare for any pop star, but it's practically unheard of for modern female performers. It also fascinates how universal her appeal is - black or white, male or female, gay or straight, she's retained a global fan base loyal enough to ensure Platinum sales since 1978. Is there anyone else who could inspire devoted plaudits from Rufus Wainwright, Outkast, Ariel Pink, Rolf Harris, Tricky, Charlotte Church, Prince and John Lydon? If anything, she's as inclusive as a pop star could be since the 70s.

There are superficial elements of prog, folk and MOR in her 70s records, but it remains difficult to categorise Bush in those genres. Her creative autonomy and studio mastery are widely admired, and it's striking how she continues to remain 'outside' music industry trends. David Gilmour's patronage - and early, crass attempts by EMI to exploit her sex appeal - are little more than footnotes to her biography now. Barely out of school, she burst into the charts with one of the weirdest 'novelty' singles to ever top the charts around the world. There were inevitable spoofs, but watching them now it's apparent how wide off the mark those parodies were. For all the dance moves, mannered vocals, and undeniable hamminess, she's avoided the contempt shown towards many venerable pop stars. 1978 audiences didn't quite know how to take her, but 'Wuthering Heights' and subsequent album The Kick Inside established a persona that has grown while remaining remarkably consistent. She is an unashamed European romantic who emerged at a time when the romantic 'project', and by extension modernism, was assumed dead everywhere, from the pop charts to academia to politics.
The novel Wuthering Heights itself maintains a mysterious appeal. Has there ever been a more popular love story with such vile characters at the centre of it? The love depicted in Wuthering Heights is one of resentment, cruelty, misery, betrayal, claustrophobia and slow, early death. It's doubtful any of us could bear a short introduction to Heathcliff or Cathy, much less ruin our lives in their names. Yet despite canonisation as a classroom text, it still strikes a chord with readers to this day, with endless film versions and predictable popularity in 'big read' surveys. Not quite 'gothic', its savage l'amour fou was a major inspiration to the surrealists, with Luis Bunuel releasing a version after several aborted attempts. The layered, conflicting perspectives on this nightmare couple are arguably as much a precursor to modernist narrative as Tristram Shandy. But it isn't Sterne drawing tears from housewives and informing unforgettable songs. There's a certain something - never quite captured by most adaptations - haunting the novel, its readers, and Kate Bush's music.

The vocals of the song were re-recorded by Bush in 1986, and the production 'beefed up'. It was a curious move to change her most recognisable hit. This time it was sung with more aggression and frustration, less vulnerability; cries growing up into a howl. It came after the success of a series of albums leading to Hounds Of Love, the singles of which worked towards a general theme (elaborated on the 'Ninth Wave' suite, on the album's second half). Consider the chorus of 'Running Up That Hill' - what was this song actually about? The sound of it - infectious as it was - is telling. Promised crescendos never quite arrive, but are alluded to in ghostly vocal overdubs lurking in the background. It gains coherence in light of other songs like 'Hounds Of Love', which continues the imagery and movement of the above (also in 'Babooshka', 'Suspended in Gaffa', 'Wow' and 'Sat In Your Lap'); of an invitation to something, moving towards it with open arms, then retreating in frustration at the crucial moment.

From nothing real
I just can't deal with this
I'm still afraid to be there

The real clincher comes with 'Cloudbusting', a Radio 2/MTV hit about... Wilhelm Reich? Both song and video focus on his more bizarre experiments, and the equally bizarre suppression of  his work (not only was Reich jailed until his death, the government destroyed all his scientific papers, to the indifference of other scientists). Unlike her contemporaries, Bush has never been one for impotent political postures. 'Army Dreamers', 'This Woman's Work' or 'The Dreaming' deal with themes that could have been touched on by 18th century romantic poets. But Reich, pariah of the psychoanalysts, lapsed (but unrepentant) Marxist and progenitor of the 'sexual revolution', was very much a 20th century figure; less easily assimilated than Freud, more outre than Jung, and an eccentric embarrassment to the left. Despite relative obscurity, changing sexual attitudes have made many of his ideas commonplace since the 70s. 

Although Reich's writings found favour in more occult circles, mysticism and hippy platitudes get short shrift in Bush's songs. Images of trees, mountains, skies and waves - romantic cliches on the surface - are militantly material. For both her and Reich, nature in all its chaos and danger is the energy required to be fully human, from the kick inside to Aboriginal 'dreamtime'. This theme has been explored since 'Them Heavy People', her 1978 tribute to Gurdjieff and whirling dervishes. As with the momentum of so many of her songs, the modern subject tends to retreat from this energy under the fragile armor of contrived personae ('Wow', 'Babooshka') or technological hubris ('Breathing', 'Experiment IV'). Since the industrial revolution, unmetered energy has been treated like some ineffectual ghost, yet her lyrics often read like open invitations to it. The Red Shoes alludes to the dangers of unleashing dormant ecstasy as much as Wuthering Heights. However they may be the kind of energies that don't need to be harnessed so much as embraced, the knowledge that is "sat there in your lap": 

I hold a cup of wisdom
But there is nothing within.
My cup, she never overfloweth
And 'tis I moaneth and I groaneth

Bush has always been open about her cultural influences. Unlike the reference points of David Bowie or other art school dilettantes, she's also remained true to a consistent preoccupation. Previous ecstasies are now more sanguine with motherhood, personal grief and maturity; but even the title of Arial betrays ideas of another world lurking below. Not a world promised by God, but another kind of holy ghost - one that haunts the biological human body itself (it was her physicality that comedians attempted to mock, but looking more embarrassed than their target). This ghost continues to haunt western culture. From Greek tragedy to modernism, the romantic ode to the guitar solo, the Holy Roman Empire to fascism. The bete noire of scientific, religious, political and domestic authority; acknowledged as an invisible battleground by feminism. The unnameable, irresistible but monstrous element that dragged Cathy and Heathcliff to the moors. The great terror that doomed Wilhelm Reich and his research to a lonely grave. The dreamtime lying outside measurable space, unlocked by the key she kisses to Houdini on the cover of The Dreaming. It's Molly Bloom's joyous, restless, delirious climax to Ulysses; as honoured in The Sensual World. Throughout Kate Bush's music and imagery lurks yet another spectre haunting Europe: the orgasm.

Down In The Sewer

'"Ladies want to weaken us", a lay yogi told me. "They want our semen - they will not say so, but they will rob us of our only power."'

- Agehananda Bharati, "The Light At The Centre"

"It’s only the children of the fucking wealthy who tend to be good looking"

- The Stranglers, "Ugly"

The Stranglers are one of those bands who, if they hadn’t existed, would probably have to have been invented. Spectacularly malignant even by the standards of their day, their viscous, visceral sound provided the backdrop for the most fetid of lyrical concerns. If misogyny was a commonplace amongst 70’s rockers, with The Stranglers it was ontological. Indeed, to accuse The Stranglers of misogyny is much like accusing Liberace of kitsch.

However, it would be wrong to place The Stranglers in a continuum with what had come previously in the decade. With their debut album, 1977’s "Rattus Norvegicus", there was something very new in the way they portrayed men’s relationship to women. Rather than being cocks-of-the-walk in the Mick Jagger/Robert Plant mould, men are relentlessly portrayed as the weaker sex. Instead of having a whole lotta love, The Stranglers gape into the Mersey Tunnel equipped only with a sausage.

Flaccid and post-coital rather than priapic and anticipatory, the misogyny of The Stranglers was not that of the braggart who treats women like dirt, but of the sexual failure who is reduced to voyeurism and violence. Whereas The Rolling Stones could casually jettison ex-lovers as "Yesterday’s Papers", in "London Lady" it is Jean-Jacques Burnel who is raging about being used and discarded. Underlying all of "Rattus Norvegicus" is the tremendous melancholy born of impotence. "Goodbye Toulouse", "Princess Of The Streets" and "Hanging Around" take us through rain-washed streets and piss-stained alleys with their throngs of love-addicts. Hugh Cornwell is forever pushing his nose up against the window of the brothel and contemplating his next dose of humiliation, while Burnel’s bass rumbles around the back of your skull like a resentful memory.

"Peaches" takes us to the seaside for more heavy-duty ogling, but again there’s no contact, just deluded fantasising. "Ugly" is an extraordinary eruption of inchoate rage, Burnel seething that he can be sexually out-competed by an ugly old fart who happens to have money. The Stranglers understood too well the cord that connects sexual failure with violence.

Finally, The Stranglers take us to where all bodily fluids eventually end up. "Down In The Sewer" demonstrates why they identify so strongly with the rat, enough to make it their mascot. For The Stranglers, sexual desire turns men into rodents - inquisitive, instinctive vermin. Depicting the male sexual experience as one of envy, frustration and humiliation, "Rattus Norvegicus" is the most thorough demolition of masculine conceit ever recorded.

The follow-up "No More Heroes" album, released the same year, was even more combative, though focused more on settling scores with those, real or imagined, who had crossed them. It featured two remarkably offensive tracks that were both inspired by pornography. "School Mam" follows the example of the kind of imported magazines such as "Color Climax" in which the same group of models would perform the same implausible sexual scenario in a variety of mundane social settings. "Bring On The Nubiles", perhaps still a little bit too strong for daytime Radio 2, depicts an equally implausible pre-pubescent orgy, this time given extra brio by the juddering bass-line and Dave Greenfield’s whooping organ, which almost blows a gasket, like an orgasmatron going into meltdown. However, the pay-off line ("I’m high beneath my zip") once more undercuts the song with its revelation of voyeuristic fantasy.

The Stranglers could probably have flogged this attitude forever, but something very strange was happening to them. The first inkling of this was the b-side to the single of "No More Heroes". With "In The Shadows", The Stranglers bypassed 1978, and made the sonic leap straight into 1979. Featuring dub-spacey production, bass as lead instrument, guitars as scratchy ambient accompaniment, and keyboards as synth-alienation effect, they had effectively abstracted their sound, and leapt far in front of their peers.

This new space was explored further on 1978’s radical "Black And White" album, in which their sound was strung out even further. Lyrically too, their vision had expanded. Awash with dread, the songs on the album primarily addressed the Cold War, but also the alienation induced by technology, the relentlessness of time and the atomisation of the individual. Even the remaining misogyny became abstracted, mythical, in the bizarre quests of "Nice’n’Sleazy" and "Toiler On The Sea". As well as being spacious, it is also a remarkably physical record - only Gang Of Four’s later "Solid Gold" can match it for metallic muscularity. Burnel’s bass playing still invokes awe in it’s mechanical suppleness - like pipelines creaking at the bottom of the ocean, or heavy machinery changing gear. Dave Greenfield is a one-man Radiophonic Workshop, equally capable of beaming in sounds from Alpha Centauri or the massage parlour next door.

By the time contemporaries such as Joy Division and PiL had sonically caught up with them, The Stranglers had already moved on. Their last album of the Seventies, 1979’s "The Raven", although considered to be their last "heavy" album, in fact laid the template for the rest of their career (notwithstanding the occasional concept album about alien abduction). Tight, professional, thematically diverse and pop-orientated, it prepared the way for the gradual softening of their sound. The Stranglers would continue to produce great records well into the Eighties, but the days when the Earth would tremble beneath their feet would be long gone.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Death Of A Princess, Birth Of Enemies

"On April 9, 1980, Associated Television showed Death of a Princess to an estimated 10 million Britons. Although "rejecting Saudi pleas that the film be amended or scrapped..." ATV agreed to include an introductory comment that said: "… The program you are about to see is a dramatized reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world. …" And the next day, the British Foreign Office released a statement saying: "We profoundly regret any offence which the program may have caused in Saudi Arabia. We have, of course, no power to interfere with the editorial content of programs, still less to ban them."

"On April 11, the Saudi Embassy in London called "Death of a Princess": "… an unprincipled attack on the religion of Islam and its 600 million people and on the way of life of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of the world of Islam." On the twenty-third of April, the government of Saudi Arabia requested Great Britain to withdraw its Ambassador to Jeddah, James Craig. Although a serious step, it was thought to be temporary. The British Foreign Office said that the Embassy staff would stay in Jeddah and the Embassy would remain open."

"The decision to make this request, reached at a meeting of the Council headed by then Crown Prince Fahd was, according to the government-owned Saudi press agency: "… in the light of the British Government's negative attitude toward the screening of the shameful film." At that time, the Saudis also issued a statement saying it had carefully examined economic relations between the Kingdom and Britain, and especially the activity of British companies in the Kingdom. …"

The Myth Of Autonomy

"Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the result of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels - all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything. It all happens.

To establish this fact for oneself, to understand it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions about man, about his being creative and consciously organising his own life, and so on. There is nothing of this kind. Everything happens - popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes of government, all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as everything happens in the life of the individual man. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire - all this happens.

But no-one will ever believe you if you tell him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and unpleasant thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth."

- G.I. Gurdjieff

Ramble On

A big question about the 70s is “was the period up to late 1975 part of the same artistic, social or political era as the period post 75?” If the answer is “no” then it undermines the whole idea of a Decade as a meaningful construct [which, I suspect we all knew it wasn’t anyway]. In asking the question one is also simply replacing one artificial division of time with another of course. Is the question worth asking as a way of provoking thought about the sorts of things that were happening? Arguably, I’d suggest.

It seems [subjectively and in retrospect] that there was a consensus that social mobility was possible through education and that educational opportunity was equally distributed. I took my eleven plus [in 1976] passed and went to a boys Grammar School and was expected by that school to take A-levels and go to University with the sons of Doctors, Teachers, MPs, single parents and unemployed parents who were my peers. Ultimately, of course, by the end of the seventies there was a strong sense because of high levels of unemployment and the apparent probability that we would all die in a nuclear holocaust, that there was really no point pursuing any form of “betterment” save for the short-term merits of personal artistic expression.

Carl’s essay on Martin gave me pause to wonder how the British sense of frontier was expressed in the 70s. The archetypal liminal figure of the American frontier is of course the cowboy / sheriff / cavalry officer. This dramatic space is variously replaced by Space [more dead end than “final frontier” ] the afterlife [ zombies, vampires, ghosts etc] and it’s treading very much on Carl’s territory to venture that the peaking of social mobility in Britain in the mid 70s is reflected in the way that Class might be the British Frontier.

It intrigues me therefore the wonder why when such American concerns as The Wild West, Space Exploration, the Mafia seemed so readily transferrable and why, when the myth of transcending social boundaries is evident in the representation of sport, why is there so little apparent transferability from American to British sport.

Nowhere is the class frontier so potently embodied in sporting culture as the popularity of Welsh Rugby Union in the seventies. Essentially this was class war -Wales v England in the annual Five Nations Championship was The Miners from the Valley v the Public School toffs. Every right thinking English person supported Wales. Max Boyce was the mythmeister in chief. However, reviewing prominent players - Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, The Pontypool Front Row's- biographies on Wikipedia and expecting that they were all secretly posh [Williams, for instance was a practising surgeon whilst playing in the then "Amateur" team] - It turns out that, by and large, they were all actually fairly authentically from the mining valleys.

This may say much about why American sport never caught on, because no easy transformative myth can be attached to it. Football manages to be international in this sense as the story of Brazilian street kid endures [again with some validity]. American Blues music by contrast to sport exploited and exported this trajectory beautifully and perhaps this gives us a clue. Basically, British musicians and fans bought into the stories of the poor delta blues singer making good because they were fundamentally untroubled by the skin colour of the protagonist. Anybody could see that Pele was black, but somehow he wasn’t once he became the world’s best footballer. Nobody seemed much to cared either that West Indian cricketers were black, because again class affiliations trump more superficial differences.

In American sport particularly baseball and Am Football these issues were just too difficult to cope with in the sense of the American media feeling empowered to sell American Sport through this message. Did white Americans in the 70s embrace Mohammed Ali in the way the British did?

Not to say of course that British sports media weren't complicated in this way, getting themselves into a right pickle about Apartheid and unable to engage effectively with it's own non-white or non-posh sports personalities whilst working itself into a lather about the meagre attainments of, for instance James Hunt whilst relatively neglecting the mighty Barry Sheen

Returning then, to our original premise...

To look at the album releases from any year in the early 70s is to be absolutely staggered by the quality of the output globally, week on week. Can't help but feel there's been a rapid decline to match the decrease in social mobility.

It’s hard to tell whether my subjective feeling that the pre-1975 era was something completely different from the post 1975 era is based on my age – events in the latter part of the decade feel like part of my life, stuff from the earlier period seldom does- or has some objective existence that can be supported by tangible artefacts. Radioactivity is one such artefact.

United in my Brother-in-Law’s [not Carl btw] record collection in my late 70’s first-ever encounter with a proper Hi-Fi were Straight Shooter [see below], Autobahn and ELO's Face the Music. There were a lot more besides, but these were the three that I listened to whilst babysitting that night.

Why these three? Well, it wasn’t 1975 – I would guess it was about 79 – so ELO had become much bigger- I was aware of them. I didn’t have a clue who Kraftwerk or Bad Company were, but their albums had appealingly big, simple, symmetrical designs. I felt very comfortable with Autobahn, having previously mostly been exposed to Classics for Pleasure Beethoven Symphonies at my Nanas’ house.

Had the Kraftwerk album been Radioactivity then I would have been able to remark on the curious coincidence that all three albums were released within a month of each other [ish]. There’s probably a lot interesting to say about ELO, but for the time being I’ll settle for the further coincidence that, according to Wikipedia,

"Fire On High" contains a backwards message in the beginning. When the song is played backwards, the message voiced by drummer Bev Bevan can be heard stating, "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back."

Twaddle, of course, but perhaps in some ways a summary of where aspects of the American – British – European cultural/political/social axis could be located and expressed through these three albums.

One of the things that may have compelled musicians on both sides of the epochal watershed to adopt occultist tropes was the need to position themselves as liminal figures, able to transcend the physical and spiritual world.

Zeppelin,as has been noted, were "well into that stuff " [Check out Page's fantasy sequences in "The Song Remains the Same" if you fance a laugh]. Physical Graffiti [also 1975]– recorded in a manor house to give Swan-Song stablemates Bad Company access to a proper studio- has little competition, particularly in In My Time of Dying and Kashmir as the most monolithically and mystically massive creation of the rock era. It is the apotheosis of the blues/ rock project.

It was always a fundamentally nostalgic project, this blues based stuff though. It’s creators were always looking backwards whilst stomping onward. This is what pioneers often do, becoming more entrenched in the rituals of the old country whilst advancing the frontier in the "New World."

Kraftwerk on the other hand were looking forward and moving forward but at an uneven pace. The contrast between the euphoric galactic onrush of Kometenmelodie II and the haunted static of Radioland couldn’t be more pronounced. But if you were propelling yourself forward to the edge of the universe, you might occasionally pause to explore the wreck of an abandoned space station. And if you want to know what that sounds like Radio-activity has the answers.

So is 1975 the point at which the Anglo-American and European projects diverge? Look at the Graph