Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Thoughts on the Manics

On hearing the Manics announce another 'indefinite hiatus' recently, I thought of one of the many reasons why Bono is a tosser. On the release of one of their many interchangeable, pleasant albums, Bono remarked that he was "re-applying for the job of the Best Band in the World'. The thought that this role is something that one can apply for sums up everything that's wrong with Bono. You can imagine him, sat in some neutrally decorated reception somewhere, running over his just-affecting-enough lines, smoothing his sensible hair and polishing his rebellious shades (hinting at the morning after) before entering to a panel of elder statesmen and listing his merits. The Manics, in contrast, wanted nothing more than to be the Best Band in the World and failed. If only they'd not mentioned the Holocaust repeatedly in the interview, they might have been ok. The Manics really wanted to be the Best Band in the World, whereas Bono wanted to get the job to pad his CV when he applies to be Pope.

The Manics wanted to be the Best Band in the World because rock music really mattered to them, as it does to millions of people in derided backwaters all over the world. The openness and freedom matters when your horizons feel very near, the chord hangs on long enough to suggest a future and a far-away, a happy-ever-after. They added to this, a resolute refusal to patronise their listeners (which is why their fans adore them, and I'm writing this now).

Think of Bruce Springsteen, and the words he puts into the mouth of the protagonist of Thunder Road. Addressing his beloved, he mumbles "You ain't a beauty/but hey, you're alright". Now, the Manics' protagonist responds: "Life is full of cold made warm and they are just lizards"; "Anxiety is freedom"; "Rock and roll is our epiphany/of culture, alienation, boredom and despair". The mode remains the same, now weaponised by intellect, fortified by reading. The refusal to accept that living in a back end of arse-nowhere meant a focus on your own bubble, an ignorance of the rest of the world.

Of course, for Manics fans, the period where they meant that is long gone, and the above paragraph is mere jumpers for goalposts stuff. But even when the Manics changed course and turned inward, it was done with a lacerating lack of self-regard, another reason why they couldn't be the Best Band in the World. Their last truly great album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, dealt relentlessly with the possible suicide by drowning of their hitherto most important member. The perversity of naming songs "Ready For Drowning and "Tsunami" in this context is admirable. The specificity of this album makes it a fucking miracle it ever got the Number One. Everything must go, never say goodbye, drift away and die.

Except they didn't, and wouldn't. The Manics have trundled on for more than ten years making songs that sound a bit like ones that they made when they were great. The best album was based on the work of their departed comrade. Their best songs, Indian Summer and Postcard from a Young Man, have sounded like goodbyes. So, goodbye.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Album of the Week: Community Music

Perhaps it wasn't the best idea to go on holiday the week leading up to the Royal Wedding. Watching BBC World on hotel television was like viewing a distant, strange culture. On my return, my workplace was filled with bunting and minature Union Jacks, like the inside of William Hague's mind. But unlike William Hague's mind, it was in no way uncritical, self-satisfied and smug. Cynicism was, as always in these instances, the default reaction of my collegues and most folk. An astonishment and grinding irritation, bourne of the entire media reminding you that you are, in actual, legal fact, lower than others. If a millionaire a commoner, what the fuck is someone on minimum wage?

Perhaps it doesn't help to live in one of the Kingdom's peripheries, where notions of national identity are dual, making an idea of a national celebration a conflict at least. Whatever it was, the Royal Wedding made me angrier than a lot of more justified causes. The Wedding seemed like the horseshit cherry on top of the bullshit sundae of a decades long handwringing panic on the part of our rulers.

Whether it's Thatcher's migrant swamp, Blunkett's concern that immigrants continue to speak other (oh so other) languages at home, Tebbit's cricket test, British jobs for British workers, old maids cycling past village greens pissed on warm beer etc. etc. etc., our rulers express continual concern that the British, or, whisper it, the 'British', aren't trying hard enough to be British. This is proposterous, in no way their role, and should be spat on whenever it rears its grotesque and in no small part racist head.

This absurd spectacle, with its preemptive arrests for anyone who dares criticise it in an excessively visual fashion, marks its high point. After a near half century of spurious attempts to define Britishness as based upon human rights, democracy, fair play and the like, the wedding of an unelected posh bellend (as opposed to all the elected ones), visited by war criminals and autocrats and paid for by commoners has supposedly united and defined us all as British.

Pass the sick bag, and if you can hear over the sounds of my wretching and ranting, listen to this, this, and this. It may, for a fleeting second, make you feel glad to be British.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Album of the 'Week': Graceland

When does politics interrupt music? The short answer to that is: when you're listening to it in my presence. The interaction between politics and music fascinates me, and bad politics in particular. On hearing a bar of Billy Joel's 'Just The Way You Are', I will, regardless of circumstance or propriety, explain how it's a sexist Trojan Horse, sneaking in controlling impulses and a heavily gendered idea of what women are for under its calm-sea sheen ("I don't want clever, conversation/Just cook my dinner right you bitch). As for 10CC's 'Dreadlock Holiday', well, the problems with that really shouldn't need explaining.

However, those songs are politically dreadful AND shit. Graceland by Paul Simon is one of the first albums I ever loved, but on listening to it recently, it was interrupted by politics. A low level buzz of wan, patronising and ill-judged politics defines the album as much as beauty and lazy refinement. For the best example, see 'Under African Skies', a haunting melody, an earworm beyond compare. Now, take its lyrics. A protagonist named Joseph is introduced and it is established that he is black and African. That is all. "The roots of rhythm remain" indeed.

Yes, this is Paul Simon's Black Album. The international legal issue around its creation is less problematic frankly - the sheer amount of hairshirted gesture politics that followed his seemingly ignorant breaking of the UN Cultural Embargo on South Africa (playing gigs outside of SA with the cream of exile talent, playing for the ANC in exile in Zimbabwe, ending all shows with the ANC anthem - check, check and check) surely made up for that. The problem more the embedded power of going somewhere with the intention of picking its talent like the coolest kid in class, and the idea of specifically yoinking players on the basis of their cultural/racial heritage. Not exactly wrong, but disquieting nevertheless.

This disquiet pervades the album. The disconnect between Simon's aging hippy lyrics, a thoroughly different musical tradition and the now laughable hi-tech of yesterday's tomorrow creates an extra queasyness and leaves behind a genuinely uncanny music. 'The Boy in the Bubble', with its dislocated pump of accordion and bass, drums synthesised and shifting volume without logic, and a lapsed idealist straining for a political point, ranks #1 in my Oddest Records of the 20th Century. And that century contained 'Ride A White Swan'.

Of course, this is criticism masquerading as praise. The real reason why I love this political and musical experiment (apart from the fact that it's a political and musical experiment) is its humility. From 'Graceland', a rare break-up song that doesn't idealise or despise either party, to 'You Can Call Me Al' - wherein a person undergoing a mid-life crisis is redeemed by the horror of the Third World ("scatterings and orphanages") - the whole album is deep structured by the lack of confidence of its narrator, their crippling fears and very timid hopes. For that, and the bass playing, this album repays listening by anyone who may be put off because of 'Scarborough Fair', the subsequent hi-jinx of Bono and Geldof and the undignified parp of synth brass.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

On Colonialism

An upcoming cricket match has reminded me of a deeply illustrative bit of commentary from the 2009 test match series between the West Indies and England. In a West Indian innings during a limited overs match, the Windies were having one of their sadly all-too-rare periods where they surpass what is expected of the game, and begin scoring and hitting wildly for no loss. These are also the moments where cricket becomes the most entertaining sport on earth.

The English commentary team shifted in their seats for a few overs, audibly strategised, and decided that this was frankly disrespectful - to the bowlers, of course, but most importantly to the game. Grumbling continued, then, in one over, Kevin Pietersen achieved three successive wickets. The commentators could not have been more delighted. Order had been restored, and the underdog lay beaten.

Friday, 8 October 2010

It Gets Better: 'Left To My Own Devices'

Mildly irritating and occasionally amusing US sex columnist Dan Savage has recently initiated a project named 'It Gets Better'. Basically, fully grown gays, lesbians and celebrities (including Paris Hilton) create videos boasting about how comfortable adult life is for the benefit of LGBT teenagers. This has the rare distinction of being smug and wonderful, a sacrament of boasting in the face of oppression.

Which brings me onto the song that has plagued my mind for much of the past few months, 'Left To My Own Devices' by the Pet Shop Boys. It's extraordinary. Firstly, the vocals. Johnny Rotten was famously happy to declare that he didn't care, although the tone of this pronouncement belies his actual level of care. Neil Tennant is unique in all of pop music in being able to sound as though he genuinely doesn't give a thr'penny fuck about all of creation. Languid, bored, lazy, distant - it's all there.

Why doesn't Neil care? Well it's hinted at in the music - a cold fusion of musicals, opera and early house - and suggested in the lyrics - "this friend of mine - he's a party animal", "maybe if you're with me, we'll do some shopping". Neil doesn't care because his Pink Pound and Wildean mind have transcended all limitations placed on him, all fetters on his artistic production and impeccable taste. Finally, he is everything he meant to be and anyone who disagrees can fuck themselves and enjoy it. It's a wonder, and anyone who finds this irritating or distasteful has their bread buttered on the wrong side.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Label of the 'Week': Warp

This week, coming home from a job I hate, with a government being decided that I was sure to hate, I decided to indulge myself with something I love. And indulgence it was. Using Spotify's label search function I searched for 'Warp' and hit random. Given the much vaunted death of the record label, it's a miracle that I could think of a record label, but Warp sprung to mind

Warp is less a record label and more a style of music in itself - easily identifiable. Drum beats skitter, overlap, cut and stretch - none of the melodic instruments sound organic. Vocals, if present, are heavily distorted. In short, it's warped. Unlike the abacus experimentalism of 12-tone music, or the shapeless mass of free jazz, the vast majority of Warp's music offers just enough structure to box you in, then spends most of it's time bending the walls, wrapping space and time, unsettling. It is a music made almost entirely on computers, and in an era when every job seemingly involves staring at an often malfunctioning computer system for 8 hours, then travelling home past detritis (organic and man-made) it's a music made exactly for our time. Thom Yorke was not wrong in describing Autechre's grotesque and detailed masterwork 'LP5' as "the sound that's in my head". It's in all of our heads, whether we accept it on not.

The gateway to Warp is the music of Aphex Twin, who serves as a kind of Weird Al Jankovic comedy record producer and totem for the Warp ethos, having evolved from making slightly odd music for raves to making ludicrous drum'n'bass and pretty piano music. A lot of the music on Warp follows this pattern - this is a label that used to put out records by the cut-up artist Cassette Boy (who used famous people's words to make them say inappropriate things, a comedy trope surpassed only by old people swearing in its satiric power) and the avant-garde composer Mira Calix, who once performed live 'collaborating' with a tank of insects.

In short, childish and modernist, which is where the idea of the holy label comes in. Warp, for me, fits. This was the idea behind the independent music movement - to have a label that catered for a specific group of people - a social and musical sectarianism. Warp is my sect, and its haunting, fucked music speaks to me as Sub Pop and Rough Trade spoke to its secret following.

Well, I say 'speaks', it's more 'spoke'. In recent years, Warp has succumbed to what China MiƩville refers to as the "idiot logic of capitalism", the drive to expand, the drive to accumulate. It has broadened its musical palette, taking in flesh and blood bands with actual instruments, Americans and becoming involved in film production. So once again, I'm left in a corner, demanding ideological consistency, barking at the moon.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Democracy Ration

It's hard not to get depressed around election time. In 2005, the choice was between an overtly racist party led by a vampire, a flapping husk of a party led by a war criminal, and a party led by and supported by over-earnest students. Little has changed since then, although to believe the papers, everything has changed. The nearly unconstitutional TV debates (well, in so far as Britain has a constitution, they seem to be at least against the spirit of the thing) have flipped many people disillusioned with the Husk Party and the Racist Party to support the Earnest Party, or so hype would have us believe. Behind all this looms a giant recession the size of which the majority of people have never experienced - with the concomitant 'necessity' of mindblowing cuts. It's enough to make you emigrate, either to some politically dubious nation where your accent might render you charming (Australia, the US...) or to another astral plain altogether.

Why is this the case? My argument would not be that politics is inherently worse than it was. Many politically engaged people hark back to the days when the parties were really parties - when the Tories were openly racist, rather than tacitly, when Labour supported strikes and provided free silver spoons to every poor unfortunate in the land, and when the Liberals were so bland that you had to take speed to prevent yourself sleeping whenever they opened their mouths. This is bollocks.

I would wager the reason it's depressing is that the act of voting, in Britain particularly, actualises your powerlessness. This is your democracy ration, handed out every 4 to 5 years. It won't really do anything, but it will do more than the other elections you vote in every year or so - Assembly, Council and European - which are, scientifically, less important than votes cast towards X Factor contestants. You can vote for the people you agree with, but it's wasted. Go home, watch Dimbleby for a few hours, sleep, then go back to having less than no power, just as before, but with a different monkey dancing on the organ.

Or you can agitate, educate and organise. It's the only real political choice you ever have to make, and the only one that matters a jot.