Wednesday, 29 July 2009

They know more than you think they do

Why would a McDonald's ad use a 50-year-old song? The answer comes when you remember that it's those 50 years and that summer, the summer when - more than any other - the groundwork was laid that would eventually let them through, and when - coincidentally enough - an Old Etonian laid the groundwork for other more obvious leaders of consumerism to exploit during the comparatively egalitarian interlude, but ultimately keep it safe for another one to come back. There could be no more auspicious time for their ads, or anyone's ads, to use Jerry Keller's "Here Comes Summer", which - suffering from the usual transatlantic time lapse of the day - actually didn't take off here until the autumn (admittedly one of the warmest of the 20th Century, along with - heartbreakingly - 1978) and ascended to joint number one on the Light Programme, shared with an Isle of Wight native slaughtering Sam Cooke, two days after the 1959 election. They may not know. But I think they do.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

A harbinger, I fear

"This week on the BBC" trailers on BBC Four. "Part of the thousands of hours of Arts and Culture programming the BBC produces every year." (I suspect there are variants for other fields, on the relevant channels.)

The last time the BBC ran promos like that was in the early 1990s. There can be no better indication of the political times coming.

Friday, 17 July 2009

there is a fourth, at least

The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (February 1974). Especially "Modern". Absolutely astonishing.

There is so much more waiting to be discovered. To be honest, I've only just started.

Massive autobiographical / pop as of now (and possible recovery thereof) piece coming this weekend, you may or not be thrilled to hear.

How do we read the 70s and what followed?: two different worlds

I know I've always lived in one.

Let me begin by stating that I'm well aware I'm not a prog fan as such, I'm just someone who likes some music that could be considered part of it, just as I like large swathes of other music. I know entirely that this poll comes from a world other than mine, and that I'm not the man most qualified to comment on it. I know that my ideal poll would take a few cornerstones from this, redefine its criteria around art rock and genuine experimentation and Anglo-weirdness rather than prog (art rock inherently a more flexible genre because it's based around its own criteria of art, which anything can theoretically be, rather than someone else's idea of "progression"). But all the same, fuck it, and concentrating on British music alone so only touching the tip of the iceberg: the three most redundant and overexposed Floyd albums all in the Top 10 and no mention whatsoever of any of their 60s work or even Animals, the absolute heart of the 70s - cynicism over the machinations of business and the exhaustion of a crumbling elite tempered by genuine hope that an upsurge to overpower them is possible, the same bitter ennui we're living through today only now without that hope - and far and away their most satisfying, because most direct and least absorbed in the dead end of "hanging on in quiet desperation", post-weird work? More appearances for innumerable revivalists and pasticheurs than for Peter Hammill in any incarnation? No appearances whatsoever by Soft Machine or Matching Mole? A Genesis album from as late as 1980? Truly, even in an age when - as is commented on that thread - many of the old divisions (which were undoubtedly once necessary but in the end had become the death knell of ambition and an unintentionally conservative force) are no longer communicating themselves in the same way to the young, there are still two different worlds (one way of putting it - and certainly another way of expressing m the g's post in that thread - is that musically it's a little too Alan Freeman and not sufficiently John Peel, or in US radio terms too much what AOR radio became, with too few hints of its roots in freeform).

If Geir Hongro has served no other purpose, he provides a useful anti-me in terms of my assessment of almost any music - whatever he thinks was the peak I am likely to find desperately overplayed, canonical, pseudo-classical and drunk on notions of someone else's respectability rather than creating your own (in the case of prog), or pathetically deluded in dreams of mythical summers before you were born and justifying a certain leader's pseudo-politics rather than keeping an independent voice and capturing the tensions of your own time (in the case of 1990s British music), whatever I think is genuinely innovative, powerful, the epitome of all that is best about pop and that only pop can do, an expression of the actual Britain rather than his own heritage fantasy world he will consider to be "tuneless", degenerate, overtly "experimental", just plain worthless or, most worryingly, not even British at all. To say that he should simply not comment on hip-hop or latterday pop, and stick to the music he knows, would still be legitimising endless tedious anti-thoughts - he is the man who thinks King Crimson's best work was under Lake/Sinfield, that the "psych sound experiments" on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn should have been replaced with "more nursery rhymes", that Ummagumma is worse than A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and that the 1970s' greatest achievement - rather than, say, Red or Rock Bottom or anything from Germany (a country unsurprisingly wholly unrepresented) - was the entire territory of "symphonic rock", something that for all its occasional high points (the concert-hall hush of the second half of "The Cinema Show" does have something very special about it, the fields and farms of the shires huddling together and wishing the unions away, bonfires blazing in fear of coming socialist revolution) is ultimately a dead end, and could not have been anything else, because it was playing by someone else's rules.

The key albums in that poll undoubtedly are The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Rock Bottom and Red (gratifying that that is so high, not so gratifying that its two predecessors and USA aren't there). They have more in common than all being from 1974 and all being invoked here: all, in their wildly opposing ways, capture the feeling of a moment when everything seemed up for grabs, and thus have something to tell us about our own time, when everything should be but seems dispiritingly as though it isn't, and that a discredited elite will merely retake power through the most cynical and dishonest of means. They all show us, as little else before or since, that something else could have happened (something like Station to Station, which is at least as good as all of them and may be better than any of them, doesn't work in quite the same way, so internalised beyond the rest of the world is its very construct). The first of those albums is to me the most complete answer to the post-imperial dilemma of a certain class, and perversely weaves a wholly personalised art out of a state of desperate confusion so well that I'm not sure whether any of those involved, or the vast majority of their caste, should have tried again (unfortunately they would, on all fronts), the second - amid its many other dissolvings of sound, its unashamed loss of self (all you can do when half your self is gone, something which - I know from bitter experience - may equally apply when that loss is mental rather than physical) contains my favourite song of all time. But I think, if I wanted to take any part (I know now why I must not) I might well vote for the third. Because it rages within and without itself like precious little rock music before or since, because it desperately fights its own impotence and somehow manages to create its own fraught self-justification (which was all I could have in my own life, before edging tentatively closer to what Wyatt somehow managed to find for himself), because it's a band, and a world, on the brink of imploding for good. And because of Wimborne Minster, and the private armies, and the plots that lurked behind the Hallowe'en wall. All prog comes back to that in the end, maybe, even the bad stuff. But this, without question, was the good.

(and - I must now add - the poll went pretty well, and thankfully anti-Hongro)

The romanticism of pop commodities: a few thoughts

It's clear that at least one of my old sparring partners will miss the CD single, but I cannot help thinking this is Pure Sentimentalism: The Next Generation, as those who fell in love with pop in the 1990s are steadily overtaken by the yearnings of age and the internal mythologisations of early discovery. The question is: will this ever be as endemic, as widespread, as the romanticism of vinyl clearly still is? I personally doubt it.

CD singles were pretty much the quintessential 90s pop product: taking off early in the decade as vinyl steadily became a niche for romantics, pretty much dead in the US by the decade's end, lasting longer in the UK but nonetheless beginning a rapid decline at the turn of the century, squeezed at one end by Napster and its successors and at the other by the chart rules introduced around that time restricting the length of CD singles and numbers of formats, a futile attempt to return to a vanished era of scarcity which rapidly killed off the collectors' market for rare tracks and remixes which by then made up a very significant part of the format's appeal - you no longer needed to buy a single simply for the lead track, that song was now absolutely omnipresent and unavoidable through countless other means. And that I think is the reason why the CD single will be very largely unmourned - by the time it became dominant, pop as a medium - at least in the form of its biggest hits - had become universal, no longer rationed by lingering echoes of austerity, puritanism and old-elite fear of loss of national power. The generation who grew up in the 1990s - and thus on CD singles - simply did not, on the whole, feel the same level of romantic attachment to the pop that captured their hearts the most in the way that earlier generations had. Music obsessives did, probably (and still to a greater extent than now, especially if - like Nick and myself - they felt the romanticism of geographical isolation in the last years before the internet became almost universal in our generation), but the wider audience did not. Once, almost everyone's experience of pop had been, to some extent, romantic (and thus much more likely to place within the audience a yearning for the specific methods by which they first discovered it). By the 1990s, multiple factors had greatly reduced the romanticism of pop, and those factors I suspect will make it far easier for those who grew up with the CD single to leave the format behind with few hankerings.

Nick comments about songs you love being "hidden and a bit inaccessible" which makes it "a bit more precious". He may not have meant it, but he sums up the entire experience of pop pre-mass media saturation, pre-elite approval, pre-celebification of politics, and everything else he was not old enough to truly be part of himself. I would suspect that comparatively few of our generation feel that kind of attachment, which is why we have been able to take the transition to mp3s without any particular sadness. This is also the reason why vinyl sales have increased in the last couple of years, to the point where the 45-rpm single, as a niche product, may well outlive the CD single as any kind of product - vinyl carries within it the mythos and the memories of the romanticism of scarcity, and can appeal to those who never experienced it themselves but wish they had. This is an appeal that the CD single will, I think, never be able to attain - by the 1990s, after all, we were already most of the way to where we are now.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Never forget ...

... that The 11 O'Clock Show was both the Blair and the Britpop - and specifically the Oasis - of British comedy, in the sense that it pushed out every shibboleth of the cultural Left, every principle that had been more or less retained since the comparative simplicities of "oppositional" culture in the 1980s, and left a legacy which would take on a far greater scale, to the point where it would become ineradicable. As a series which was viewed with general contempt in its own time, and achieved little ratings success, whose alumni and general spiritual influence nonetheless seeped through into so much that followed, it is almost without comparison in British TV history. Basically, if you've ever laughed at anything that's built around deliberately nervous laughter and "ironically" saying the unsayable, you've laughed at its offspring, even if you've never heard of it.

One of the key newspaper articles of the last 15 years - not in terms of what happened in response to it, but what didn't - appeared in The Daily Telegraph (which was still pretty much non-celebified to an extent unthinkable for any newspaper now) in the final week of 1999. Praising Ali G - at last, I thought at the time and still think, Baron Cohen's natural fanbase showing themselves - it made one particular reference which sticks in the mind: that the physical movements of rappers were "ape-like". In the early weeks of 2000, it became known that David Irving - about to be permanently discredited even to the mainstream-right figures who had never previously felt able to unreservedly condemn him - had chanted a poem to his daughter in which he equated black people with apes. As little as five years earlier, such endorsement would still have been enough to destroy Baron Cohen's career in the world where he was then operating, and thus prevent him from going any further. But suddenly what had once been the cultural Left seemed unmoved, and continued to play along. It was at that moment, perhaps more than any other, that the legacy of both Blair's erosion of the political principles of the Left and Britpop's abdication of any sense of obligation to keep up with developments in black pop became clear.

I think we should remember that this week, and keep it in mind.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Should the below sound too much of a Jeremiad ...

these two 2009 UK number ones are the kind of pop that still speaks to me, somewhere within (Guetta/Rowland especially). And although it is very, very easy to get tired to death of it and it's obviously a miniscule fraction of what he's capable of, there is something about hearing Dizzee Rascal up there expressing precisely the state of permanent confusion so many of us feel (which is also, I think, what makes so many of us in England feel that Scotland or Wales, once so isolated and provincial and removed from where the action was, may be a better place for us not so long post-2010).

(It is significant, I think, that none of the main protagonists in the above songs are white and English ...)

And there's also this. It is strange to think that Jay-Z was ever the voice of relentless commercialism and self-promotion against the legacy of 1980s hip-hop (but oh, he was, and oh I hated/loved/hated/loved him for it). Perhaps he has become a reactionary, merely defending his territory. But all I know is that "Death of Auto-Tune" is as lacerating a six minutes as I've heard in aeons, and that it absolutely has to be heard.

Michael Jackson: now the dust has settled

A few thoughts:

- Jackson's initial potency in Britain (much less so in the US, where everyone always knew that pop had been created on their own doorsteps and it was always much more omnipresent) was born out of the romanticism of pop (a concept which I think is absolutely central to much of what I have written about pop and its slowly-dying emotional hold, but which like so much of my work is emotionally alien to most Americans, with the exception of those who really do understand the wider world) and yet it was his own success which did more than almost anything else to crush it. It is certainly not coincidental that the Thriller phenomenon - gathering more strength and making more converts with each week that passed - was pretty much concurrent with the decisive defeat of "gentlemanly capitalism" by the style of business which shamelessly jumps on whichever bandwagon it thinks will make it the most money. And yet, even as Thriller monopolised all it saw, it was still one step removed for the British - we still had parents who wouldn't let their children watch ITV, and if you confined your radio listening to Radios 3 and 4 and your TV viewing to certain fixed points on BBC2 (and to some extent Channel 4, but even early on it was always a lesser extent) you could pretty much avoid any reminders of his existence in a way that is not the case with pop today. Its individual stars may be smaller, but its cultural reach is greater - the very process which Jackson pushed to the limit grew beyond his control and rendered him irrelevant. It could well be that the biggest pop stars we have left are those who have grown up with it and now have the greatest geopolitical power of all.

- perhaps the sense in which Jackson is most comparable to Presley is that, like Elvis, his greatest impact combined with political shifts to scupper the European cause in Britain. Presley's initial emergence coincided almost exactly with the brutal realisation that the US simply would not allow Britain to make common cause with France against US interests (an assertion of global dominance - just on the edge of the first flowerings of post-modernism, as well - which also decisively pushed France to ally itself with a Germany only just tentatively re-entering the international stage, and pretty much froze Britain out of the nascent EC), and the Pelvis seemed to subliminally crush the plans for Anglo-French union which had been seriously discussed immediately before Suez. Similarly, Thriller danced on the grave of the simultaneous hopes for a One Nation Tory (and thus much more European-minded) coup against Thatcher and for British pop to take a serious turn to its nearest geographical neighbours and beyond (via Visage, the Associates, Japan, Kraftwerk getting to number one, even one-hit wonders like the Mobiles and a huge pop group like the Human League). While Thriller's impact on mainstream US music as measured via Billboard was, unlike that of the directly comparable Star Wars on mainstream American cinema, overwhelmingly positive - it blew away lots of MOR and country dreck (Crosby, Stills & Nash and America even had Top 10 comeback hits in '82!) - its impact in Britain was much less overwhelmingly positive, and seemed to merely set the tone for a second quarter-century of ever more pathetic chasing of someone else's imperial shadows, precious little of which would have a fraction of its joy of discovery and sense of life (and, with the universalisation of pop culture through the new capitalism, nor could it have), after a brief period when it seemed, as never at any other point in the last half-century, as though the wrongs of Suez could be, if not wholly geopolitically reversed, at least culturally rebalanced to something more conducive to what Britain should have been.

- Jackson's greatest impact, viewed objectively, was probably in countries where English was not the native tongue, and especially in countries nobody would have considered part of "the West"; Britain and Australia had been primed for something like this over decades. In a China and an India slowly opening themselves to international trade and setting their stall for what they now seem poised to become, an Eastern Europe grasping a new future as the force which had dominated it for so long withered under its own contradictions, and to a lesser extent a Western Europe coming to terms with the economic winds blowing around it and the associated forces pushing Schlager and its equivalents largely off the charts and airwaves, he really was what Elvis was to post-Suez Britain - the decisive force sweeping away the dusty pages of the native culture. So much of world-changing political import happened in his peak years that it was as if Jackson and neoliberalism made each other happen faster, especially in Eastern Europe (where, if anything, he peaked with Dangerous). The question remains as to whether the latter will die in tandem with the former. I'm not optimistic - ethnic nationalism in Europe is merely a dead end which makes it easier for the market to carve up the continent while posing as a "people's" force which will make it harder.

- Momus suggests here that the era of narrowcasting will see a major return to high/low divisions and a decisive shift away from cross-class pop dominance. It may be different in places where pop has not been integrated into latterday patriotism - that whole "we may have lost our power, but at least we can still do this!" rhetoric that surrounded the Beatles - for so long, but I can't see such a change happening in most of the UK to a great extent (although it may happen to some extent in Scotland, should it secede from the Union). As I suggest in the comments to that thread, though, the whole Coldplay-to-Blunt axis of middlebrow pseudo-pop - aimed precisely at an audience which has always been suspicious of both the genuinely highbrow and the unashamedly brash and populist, a sort of modern-day equivalent of light classical - may be a British manifestation of such a reassertion of class distinctions. Obviously, it is a wholly negative one, but we couldn't really have expected anything better. We will need to look beyond these shores for genuinely interesting hybrids to be born out of a possible reconciliation with higher culture on the part of those who would have slummed it with Jackson, to places which are not stunted - and confined to an ever narrower mass experience of pop - by the specific timing of their grand imperial eclipse, by the reactionary legacy of the class system and by the cultural memory of ELP and Rick Wakeman, whose undeniable absurdity, point-missing and tedium nonetheless would not represent such an albatross in a country more at ease with its cultural self. Even on the level of pop at its most instant, there is a genuinely great pop single at number one at the moment which is over and done within a little over two minutes. Unfortunately, it's number one in Germany and is nowhere to be seen in the UK Top 75. We have further to go than ever.

Friday, 3 July 2009

So he didn't do it ...

... but, fuck, he came close.

Maybe it might have been different if Murray had held his lead in the first game of the third set, or if he'd taken that set point. The Union may well crumble, even if he does win next year. But he should not be ashamed. He should take no heed to those who will bash him as a "loser" or a "choker". Murdoch need not bother him. It was a great match, and he could have done no better.