Monday 29 August 2011

I Heard A Rumour.....

So there we were on the 90's blog, discussing antecedents to Hard-Fi, as you do, and not coming up with much of a consensus, when the other day, while inspecting a refrigerated packet of Polish sausages in Sainsbury's (because I'm classy, like) I suddenly thought "ahhhhh, Graham Parker And The Rumour".

Almost forgotten today, at least in his home country, Parker was considered a seminal figure in his day, and, along with Dr. Feelgood was seen as one of the crucial antecedents of Punk. Emerging from the Pub Rock scene, his career preceded the likes of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, whose fame would eventually far outstrip his own.

With his rasping vocals and bug-eyed sunglasses, Parker looked and sounded like an angry wasp. Fully equipped with chips on both shoulders from a background of dead-end jobs (he was once, famously, a petrol pump attendant) his gnarly, class-conscious lyrics were at times almost sneered out, ever in danger of tumbling over themselves into incoherent rage. On the other hand, when he slowed things down, he sounded pleasingly like Dave Angel, Eco Warrior.

It's a shame posterity hasn't found a place for him alongside his better-known peers. That said, they're probably making a film about him even as we speak....

Friday 26 August 2011

Nothing Is Forever

Through a series of "projective" psychological questions, meant "to draw out a respondent's innermost feelings about diamond jewelry," the study attempted to examine further the semi-passive role played by women in receiving diamonds. The male-female roles seemed to resemble closely the sex relations in a Victorian novel. "Man plays the dominant, active role in the gift process. Woman's role is more subtle, more oblique, more enigmatic...." The woman seemed to believe there was something improper about receiving a diamond gift. Women spoke in interviews about large diamonds as "flashy, gaudy, overdone" and otherwise inappropriate. Yet the study found that "Buried in the negative attitudes ... lies what is probably the primary driving force for acquiring them. Diamonds are a traditional and conspicuous signal of achievement, status and success." It noted, for example, "A woman can easily feel that diamonds are 'vulgar' and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry." The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both her innocence—and the diamond.
For advertising diamonds in the late 1970s, the implications of this research were clear. To induce men to buy diamonds for women, advertising should focus on the emotional impact of the "surprise" gift transaction. In the final analysis, a man was moved to part with earnings not by the value, aesthetics, or tradition of diamonds but by the expectation that a "gift of love" would enhance his standing in the eyes of a woman. On the other hand, a woman accepted the gift as a tangible symbol of her status and achievements.
By 1979, N. W. Ayer had helped De Beers expand its sales of diamonds in the United States to more than $2.1 billion, at the wholesale level, compared with a mere $23 million in 1939. In forty years, the value of its sales had increased nearly a hundredfold. The expenditure on advertisements, which began at a level of only $200,000 a year and gradually increased to $10 million, seemed a brilliant investment.
Except for those few stones that have been destroyed, every diamond that has been found and cut into a jewel still exists today and is literally in the public's hands. Some hundred million women wear diamonds, while millions of others keep them in safe-deposit boxes or strongboxes as family heirlooms. It is conservatively estimated that the public holds more than 500 million carats of gem diamonds, which is more than fifty times the number of gem diamonds produced by the diamond cartel in any given year. Since the quantity of diamonds needed for engagement rings and other jewelry each year is satisfied by the production from the world's mines, this half-billion-carat supply of diamonds must be prevented from ever being put on the market. The moment a significant portion of the public begins selling diamonds from this inventory, the price of diamonds cannot be sustained. For the diamond invention to survive, the public must be inhibited from ever parting with its diamonds.
In developing a strategy for De Beers in 1953, N. W. Ayer said: "In our opinion old diamonds are in 'safe hands' only when widely dispersed and held by individuals as cherished possessions valued far above their market price." As far as De Beers and N. W. Ayer were concerned, "safe hands" belonged to those women psychologically conditioned never to sell their diamonds. This conditioning could not be attained solely by placing advertisements in magazines. The diamond-holding public, which includes people who inherit diamonds, had to remain convinced that diamonds retained their monetary value. If it saw price fluctuations in the diamond market and attempted to dispose of diamonds to take advantage of changing prices, the retail market would become chaotic. It was therefore essential that De Beers maintain at least the illusion of price stability.
In the 1971 De Beers annual report, Harry Oppenheimer explained the unique situation of diamonds in the following terms: "A degree of control is necessary for the well-being of the industry, not because production is excessive or demand is falling, but simply because wide fluctuations in price, which have, rightly or wrongly, been accepted as normal in the case of most raw materials, would be destructive of public confidence in the case of a pure luxury such as gem diamonds, of which large stocks are held in the form of jewelry by the general public." During the periods when production from the mines temporarily exceeds the consumption of diamonds—the balance is determined mainly by the number of impending marriages in the United States and Japan—the cartel can preserve the illusion of price stability by either cutting back the distribution of diamonds at its London "sights," where, ten times a year, it allots the world's supply of diamonds to about 300 hand-chosen dealers, called "sight-holders," or by itself buying back diamonds at the wholesale level. The underlying assumption is that as long as the general public never sees the price of diamonds fall, it will not become nervous and begin selling its diamonds. If this huge inventory should ever reach the market, even De Beers and all the Oppenheimer resources could not prevent the price of diamonds from plummeting.
Selling individual diamonds at a profit, even those held over long periods of time, can be surprisingly difficult. For example, in 1970, the London-based consumer magazine Money Which? decided to test diamonds as a decade long investment. It bought two gem-quality diamonds, weighing approximately one-half carat apiece, from one of London's most reputable diamond dealers, for £400 (then worth about a thousand dollars). For nearly nine years, it kept these two diamonds sealed in an envelope in its vault. During this same period, Great Britain experienced inflation that ran as high as 25 percent a year. For the diamonds to have kept pace with inflation, they would have had to increase in value at least 300 percent, making them worth some £400 pounds by 1978. But when the magazine's editor, Dave Watts, tried to sell the diamonds in 1978, he found that neither jewelry stores nor wholesale dealers in London's Hatton Garden district would pay anywhere near that price for the diamonds. Most of the stores refused to pay any cash for them; the highest bid Watts received was £500, which amounted to a profit of only £100 in over eight years, or less than 3 percent at a compound rate of interest. If the bid were calculated in 1970 pounds, it would amount to only £167. Dave Watts summed up the magazine's experiment by saying, "As an 8-year investment the diamonds that we bought have proved to be very poor." The problem was that the buyer, not the seller, determined the price.
The magazine conducted another experiment to determine the extent to which larger diamonds appreciate in value over a one-year period. In 1970, it bought a 1.42 carat diamond for £745. In 1971, the highest offer it received for the same gem was £568. Rather than sell it at such an enormous loss, Watts decided to extend the experiment until 1974, when he again made the round of the jewelers in Hatton Garden to have it appraised. During this tour of the diamond district, Watts found that the diamond had mysteriously shrunk in weight to 1.04 carats. One of the jewelers had apparently switched diamonds during the appraisal. In that same year, Watts, undaunted, bought another diamond, this one 1.4 carats, from a reputable London dealer. He paid £2,595. A week later, he decided to sell it. The maximum offer he received was £1,000.
In 1976, the Dutch Consumer Association also tried to test the price appreciation of diamonds by buying a perfect diamond of over one carat in Amsterdam, holding it for eight months, and then offering it for sale to the twenty leading dealers in Amsterdam. Nineteen refused to buy it, and the twentieth dealer offered only a fraction of the purchase price.
Selling diamonds can also be an extraordinarily frustrating experience for private individuals. In 1978, for example, a wealthy woman in New York City decided to sell back a diamond ring she had bought from Tiffany two years earlier for $100,000 and use the proceeds toward a necklace of matched pearls that she fancied. She had read about the "diamond boom" in news magazines and hoped that she might make a profit on the diamond. Instead, the sales executive explained, with what she said seemed to be a touch of embarrassment, that Tiffany had "a strict policy against repurchasing diamonds." He assured her, however, that the diamond was extremely valuable, and suggested another Fifth Avenue jewelry store. The woman went from one leading jeweler to another, attempting to sell her diamond. One store offered to swap it for another jewel, and two other jewelers offered to accept the diamond "on consignment" and pay her a percentage of what they sold it for, but none of the half-dozen jewelers she visited offered her cash for her $100,000 diamond. She finally gave up and kept the diamond.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Package Tours In The Sun

(Note: This post was kindly submitted by regular reader Mr. Carl Morris, who blogs here at Quixotic Quisling)

Public Image Ltd.'s seminal 1979 album Metal Box is a landmark record for all kinds of reasons. Obviously there’s the music itself. It puts the disco into discontent. Like anything described as “ahead of its time” it is, in truth, a direct influence for later artists. It’s the source of a throb and pulse which goes through a surprising amount of music which follows it. (For instance, listen to the tune Death Disco with bands such as LCD Soundsystem in mind, or for that matter certain other bands on DFA Records.) I’d hesitate to call it “experimental”, as that might put you off. Let’s just say that, unlike most things which carry that word, it’s in no way an artistic dead-end.

Metal Box dates from a time when ALL recorded music had tangible packaging. And wow, what packaging. Even though these were the days when physical media had a hope of being sustainable, this was a brave move. Virgin Records (at that time a maverick independent label) released it in the UK as three separate vinyl records in a metal film canister, hence the title. The whole thing has a heightened sound quality. Six sides in total playing at 45rpm certainly did justice to Jah Wobble’s cavernous basslines, as well as each scraping guitar sound and every shriek and wail from Lydon.

Once you managed to prise the thing open, that is. Metal Box, in its original form, celebrates the awkwardness and clumsiness of the vinyl format. You can’t listen to it on your morning jog, nor your daily commute on the train. Listening to it is a fully engaged activity. You can’t even do things around the house because the need to flip it over or change the record will keep interrupting you. Although not too difficult to track down, it’s a cherished item for record collectors. (Overheard: “I just scored an original Metal Box on eBay!”, “Cool. How oxidised is yours?”)

Since the original, there have been several ways to listen to Metal Box. For the USA version, the track list was rearranged and remastered it on to just two records in a cardboard sleeve. This made it look like any other album. Sound quality also suffered. Then in the compact disc era, we were treated to a single CD housed in a little version of the metal box. Cute. But that’s not really a word you use when discussing anything associated with John Lydon.

At some point in recent years it made an appearance on iTunes. (And DRM was probably not the kind of contempt-for-audience the band originally had in mind.) Now we can dip into it on Spotify, the licensed free music streaming service, adverts and all. Often the music formats debate can come down to which is the more convenient. CD or vinyl? Or digital files? No question, digital is ALWAYS more convenient. But so is looking at the Wikipedia page for any given work of art, when compared to actually visiting a gallery. The original version of Metal Box is a perfect marriage of content and packaging. And who said content and packaging were even separate things?

Tuesday 23 August 2011

New Maps of Purgatory

Since Phil's Carl's yet to pipe up with his unpacking of Zardoz, I thought I'd kill off a few lower-tier candidates in the meantime. So here's a random selection, in no particular order...

Logan's Run (1976)

We've seen the future and it's a shopping mall in Fort Worth, Texas. And yeah yeah -- it's better to burn up than to fade away. Effectively what we have here is the previous decade's generational war slogan of "Never trust anyone over thirty" extrapolated in to an extreme, resulting in the dystopic dénouement of the premise for Wild in the Streets.

Yet how humbling, how Romantically fatalistic -- in this, the year of the American bicentennial -- to see the nation's capitol as ruins, strewn with vines and all sorts of flora, patinaed by the elements to which they've returned. And Sir Peter Ustinov's wrinkles are a marvel to behold and to touch; the very embodiment of nature itself, if not of the authority and experience so thoughtlessly discarded by the cult of youth.

But nevermind the ageism angle, because Richard Pryor has the last word: "Looks like white people aren't counting on us being around."

Rollerball (1975)

The excesses of empire, sans vomitoriums. Key concept: Blood sport.

Westworld (1973)

The excesses of empire, alternate take. One of the advantages of this empire being that -- artificially, and merely for the sake of leisure -- one can colonize the past. Key concept: Hostile objects.

Phase IV (1974)

Effectively this borrows a premise that was put forth some years earlier in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that the human race is overdue to make an developmental leap, and that it need help from an outside party -- of extraterrestrial origin -- in order to take that next step in its evolution. And as in 2001, it puts that thesis across in a confusingly oblique way.

Exactly what the nature of this impasse might be, who can tell? But noted that the mathematician believes that everything can be quantified in numbers, and the ants -- in their own way -- prove him correct by demonstrating the power of collectivity. But don't look to a movie that pilfers much of its "action" from a nature documentary for any sort of clarity or coherence.

Silent Running (1972)

In which Deep Ecology meets deep space. With all plant life on earth being choked off by (we're to assume) pollution, Freeman Lowell would sooner kill a man than a tree. This of course is bound to stretch the borders of pathos for most viewers, as much as the plot stretches those of scientific plausibility. For starters: The spaceship survives a passage through the rings of Saturn with all but the most minor of damage. Which is ridiculous enough to start with, exponentially moreso when you note that the spacecraft bears the American Airlines logo.

Day of the Dolphin (1973)

Directed by Mike Nichols, directly following the warm press he'd received for Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge. The only interesting thing is about this film is that Nichols took the project after (reputedly) Roman Polanski was slated to helm the project. But Polanski, who was dealing with the aftermath of Sharon Tate and his unborn child's murder at the hands of the Manson clan, decided that making a screen adaptation of Macbeth was more suited to his mood at the time. Discuss.

The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

With which the director, having missed out on a pile by turning down the first film in order to make Zardoz, doubles back and tries to recoup his losses by agreeing to tackle the sequel.

Should we be surprised to learn that the forces of the Prince of Darkness directly link back to the heathen hordes of the "Dark Continent"? Or should we be more surprised that, in a supposedly more enlightened age, such a plot twist was expected to go uncontested?

No matter. The result was universally ranked as one of the decade's worst films. Still, between its gloriously unenlightened post-colonial confusion, its jumble of popular paranormal phenomena, and its bizarre efforts at glamorizing its pubescent female lead, it's also one of decade's most perversely & hilariously enjoyable movies.

Friday 19 August 2011

If Any One Can, Cannon Can

Of all the Seventies TV detectives, my favourite show is probably the one I last saw the longest ago. I was rarely able to get past the answerphone intro to The Rockford Files (the concept of the answerphone being so cool, you didn't need to see the rest of the show), and Kojak, well, for all Telly Savalas' awesome mana-charisma, it was just a bit too pedestrianly-paced for us under-tens. Fortunately, we had the action-packed Cannon to compensate.

Frank Cannon was the original fat, middle-aged gazelle. Combining the acceleration of Usain Bolt with the staying power of Paula Radcliffe, no athletic young hood could expect to escape his clutches for long. Undoubtedly the inspiration for The Bill's beer-bellied cheetah DC Tosh Lines, the Los Angeles private detective has suffered from the fickleness of fate, (or rather fickleness of licensing rights) and been away from our TV screens long enough to fade into the barest fringes of collective memory.

A shame.

Preservation Acts (or: Retromania, Take 1: The Unpromising Pilot Edition)

Despite the fact that he hadn't been able to convincingly pass for Mexican, Charlton Heston had become something of a top-tier American screen icon by the early 1970s. Yeah sure, there were his wonderfully overwrought deliveries in those revelatory moments of Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green; but personally, I was always more fond his performance in The Omega Man. As the second of three attempted screen adaptations of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, it is one of the decade's most deliciously WTF films.*

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is the part where -- between taking time out from grilling steaks in his townhouse fortress to casually mow down encroaching vampire-zombies with a machine gun, never shedding his smoking jacket the entire time -- Heston's character decides to take in a matinee. With the vampires dormant during the daytime, he breaks into a movie theater, spools a film in the projection booth, and then sits back in the best seat in the house to take in a viewing of the documentary Woodstock. And as the film slogs on, he sits there gnashing his teeth and weeping. O, what might've been, is the anguished sentiment we're meant to take from this. We were on the brink of paradise. If only things hadn't gone so horribly, unexpectedly wrong.

Knowing what we do about Heston's own politics, it makes for -- among Omega Man's many surreal and nonsensical moments -- the film's most ironically enjoyable and deeply bizarre scene.**

* * * * * * * * *

The Kinks didn't have the most stellar commercial run in the 1970s. Among their many efforts that floundered in the marketplace was the band's Preservation Acts 1 & 2; a pair of albums released in 1973 and the following year in which Ray Davies attempted to revisit and expand the group's 1968 masterpiece The Village Green Preservation Society.

Village Green may arguably be among the top five most perfect pop albums ever recorded, the result of Davies hitting his stride and fully finding his voice as a songwriter. All of that aside, the album didn't meet with the hugest success in its day, at least not when stacked aside the mind-blown accolades that were heaped on, say, Sgt Peppers or Beggars Banquet. It especially didn't fare greatly in the U.S.. One reason being that The Kinks couldn't tour stateside to support the album, on account of being banned over alleged business disputes. The other reason being that the album's lyrical content was just way "too English" to register with many American listeners.

But there also were issues of form that probably counted as strikes against the album. Part of Davies' maturation as a songwriter meant branching out into a number of different styles, a good many of which harkened back to the popular music of years gone by. As Davies would later admit, he never saw anything wrong with writing a song his parents might like -- in fact, it's something he ften aimed to do. In the context of the youth culture of the 1960s, this was probably one of the most egregious act an artist could commit. How "counter-revolutionary" could you get? Pure anathema to the temper of the era, and to many of its criterial imperatives (or whatever).

* * * * * * * * *

The Who played Woodstock, and they reportedly loathed every minute of it. Apparently there was one moment they did enjoyed -- that being when Pete Townshend planted a boot in Abbie Hoffman's ass and sent him sailing headlong into the photographers' pit.

By some accounts, Woodstock was hardly all it was cracked up to be; a far cry from the "Paradise Now" that its later enshrinement would have many believe. Among other things, there were a fair number of crap acts shoved onto the bill, padding out the roster and marking time between the scattered greatest-hits highlights. One such aspiring act was a group that would actually go on to have a modest career in the 1970s was the doo-wop revivalist group Sha Na Na -- a novelty act and admittedly odd choice as last-minute bill-filler, especially seeing how they'd yet to record an album and wound up playing directly before Jimi Hendrix. To hear some tell it, the group's act didn't go over so well with a number of people in the audience, who booed throughout the band's set.

Nostalgia was, to a certain degree, an uncommon sentiment at the time. The 1950s and 1960s had little use for it. If you were born before WWII, what did you have to look back to -- the Great Depression? If you were that generation's offspring, why look back to the previous decade, to a time of bomb shelters and not being allowed to view Elvis from the waist down? Modern life, as typified by the 1950s and 1960s, meant just that -- it was all about the present, and about the future that was being made in the present, a future that could only be better, brighter, faster. All the promises and potential of today coming to full why bother looking back?

Sha Na Na would a fairly popular act, having --- for a time -- a "wholesome" and moderately successful syndicated TV show, a handful of albums to their credit, and the group's frontman Bowzer making the rounds as a guest celebrity on Hollywood Squares and a number of other afternoon game shows. All of which makes sense perfect sense in a certain context. As the country's postwar industrial boom waned and the economy went to shit, nostalgia became a central figure on the cultural landscape -- American Graffiti, Happy Days, Grease, etc.

An ironic fantasy scenario: If only the members of Sha Na Na had returned a little of the atavism they'd received from those disapproving members of the Woodstock audience, perhaps slipping into the attitude of the New York blue-collar street tough costumes they'd later adopt, and heckled back: "Oh yeah? Well how 'bout you all go fuck yourselves? You people think you know where it's at? You don't. The future ain't now, the future was buncha fuckin' morons."

If only. But hey, I guess we'll always have Altamont, right?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* Admittedly, competition is a bit heavy in this category.
** But Heston got to carry an ace gun around through most of the movie; so I reckon as far as he was concerned, it all balanced out in the end.

Saturday 6 August 2011