Archive for 2000

Saturday, November 11th, 2000

What If . . . John Lennon Had Never Said The Beatles Were Bigger Than Jesus?

(Part of a short series which ran in the NME speculating about the divergent course history might have taken had certain pivotal events not taken place)

MARCH 1966. A cocky John Lennon, is interviewed by a young female reporter for the Evening Standard. “So just how big are you?” she asks, false eyelashes fluttering innocently. “Oh, I’m big, love,” he retorts, roguishly. “I was thinking of The Beatles generally,” she says. “Oh, aye. We’re all big. Even Ringo,” he comes back with the Scouse wit that has made him the toast of the discotheque “scene”.

“But . . . commercially, as a pop music phenomenon, just how big are the Beatles?” “Oh. See what you mean, love. Yeah. The Beatles are big. Dead big. In fact, I’d say The Beatles are bigger than Jes -” Here, Lennon checks himself. He remembers the words of manager/counsellor Brian Epstein. (“We’ve got a good thing going here. Don’t go putting your big blundering Scouse foot in it!”)

“Sorry, what did you say?” asks the reporter.

“Bigger than cheese. We’re a bigger phenomenon than cheese. Yes. That’s right.”

“That’s good because I thought you were about to say The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.”

“Good Heavens, no,” replies John piously. Somewhere, Brian Epstein is nodding with approval. “The Beatles are big, by Gosh but of course, we’re not bigger than Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Remember kids, Jesus is gear!”

The interview goes down well, despite a minor outbreak of Beatles LP-burning by US cheese manufacturers. However, a Japanese performance artist named Yoko Ono reads the piece and, disappointed at her hero’s non-revolutionary tendencies, returns to Japan where she eventually makes a fortune marketing her brand of vegetarian Sushi.

As for Lennon, having made his pro-Jesus remarks, his Scouse working class stubbornness won’t permit him to back down. At his instigation and despite McCartney’s misgivings (“What did you have to go and say that for?”), The Beatles spearhead a new Christian tendency in rock. They visit America and come under the influence of evangelical guru Billy Graham. His message, “Turn on, tune into to the Christian Channel, WBNC-Jesus” sweeps the States. George Harrison leaves the group in 1966, his interest in Eastern cultures incompatible with the band’s new direction but nobody notices.

Lennon’s new songs immediately reflect his Christianity. A song originally called ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is rewritten as ‘I’m Only Praying’ (“When I wake up early in the morning/Go to church/I’m not yawning”). ‘All You Need Is Church’ is broadcast worldwide and provokes a mass return to Sunday worship, with chapels bursting with young people getting off on the joys of hymn-singing and frequent genuflection.

Even The Rolling Stones are spotted at mass, though the impression is marred when Keith Richards urinates into the collection plate. The Stones’ career is over, though in the Nineties they make a comeback, playing Wembley – the Wembley Arms, just off Neasden High Street.

A newfound mood of piety and no sex sweeps the youth of Britain and America, to the dismay of their parents who find themselves in the position of being the first generation to be more interesting than their juniors. Crazed kids deliver soup to elderly people, sit in fields reading each other passages from the New Testament and swigging orange squash. The zeitgeist is captured on the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lovely Salvation Army Band, featuring Lennon’s ‘A Day In The Life’ (“I went to church today, oh boy/The sermon preached there was most interesting . . .”). In the late Sixties, Lennon even releases a somewhat unconvincing solo album, One Virgin (Me).

However, while Lennon’s songs on LPs such as The Trite Album reflect his unwavering pro-Jesus stance (“You say you want a Revolution, well, you know . . .I don’t think you should, Our Lord would be cross”), doubts arise about McCartney’s contributions. Fans play his seemingly unassuming ditty ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ backwards and hear the message, “My arse is sore from this friggin’ pew”. A rift ensues after Paul McCartney speaks out on the war in Vietnam. With young people too distracted by churchgoing and hymn-singing to protest, America has won the conflict, nuking the entire area till every last “gook” is fried and, unaffected by domestic opposition to war, decided while it’s out there to nuke Russia too.

With the Red Menace obliterated but a third of the world’s surface irradiated by atomic bombs, McCartney remarks, “I can’t help thinking, like, if we pop stars had launched some sort of free-thinking peace and love movement, this might not have happened.” The Beatles split, with Lennon going on to record solo singles such as ‘Warm Turkey’ (about a Christian Christmas) and ‘Imagine’ (“Imagine there’s no Heaven – fortunately there is and we’re all going there, except Paul”)

Meanwhile, the prog-rock movement has blossomed, taking the Beatles’ experimentalism to extremes, with bands writing 587 verse-long “concept hymns”, developing elaborate genuflecting techniques and, in the case of Genesis, setting the entire bible to music across a 30LP multi-gatefold sleeve collection. Only when punk arrives with its “back to basics” message is sanity restored. Punk icons like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer outrage Britain by only going to church once a week, with Rotten declaring in a shock TV interview to Bill Grundy, “vicars can be boring occasionally”.

However, with the rise of Oasis, led by two Manchester monks, Brother Noel and Brother Liam, comes a new mood of Beatles revivalism. They surprise journalists by holding hands in interviews. “Not that we’re a pair of fookin’ cissies – that is to say, we wish to transmit our Christian fraternity to young people everywhere”, says Brother Liam. Following the Beatles’ template closely, they release a series of albums, Definitely Definitely (God Exists), For Thine Is The Kingdom (The Power And The Glory) and Pray Here, Thou.

As for Lennon, in 1980 he was standing outside his New York apartment block when a young fan, Mark Chapman, rushed up to congratulate him on his pro-Jesus stance. Unfortunately, as he stepped forward to greet him, Lennon was caught in the crossfire from an armed New York Spiritual Control Officer, firing at a man suspected of having left Evensong early. Lennon took the bullet, died and ascended to Heaven which, he discovered, is like sitting in church 24 hours a day – true happiness.

Saturday, November 11th, 2000

I’m Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge has come a long way since his earliest incarnation as sports reporter on The Day Today. Unfortunately for him, it’s a long way down as his creators have taken pleasure in peeling away that glued-on, thin formica layer of smarm that coats his persona to see what terrible things lie underneath.

On Knowing Me, Knowing You, it didn’t take much teasing to bring out his small-minded prejudices and neuroses fuming to the surface, nor his shameless, ultimately disastrous desperation to be on TV. I’m Alan Partridge sees him humiliatingly reduced to the pre-Breakfast shift on Radio Norwich, playing T’Pau records and offending local farmers, with all too much time on his hands between dreaming up new programme ideas to get back into TV (“Yachting mishaps – some funny, some tragic . . . . inner city Sumo? . . . . monkey tennis?”).

I’m Alan Partridge is darker than Knowing Me, Knowing You, in that it deprives Alan of the oxygen of the “Chatosphere”, the medium of TV glibness which he needs like a fish needs water. He’s a permanent guest at the hellish (or is it heavenly for Alan?) 2-star Linton Traveltavern, whose Olde Worlde buffet, orange pine decor and perma-smiling manageress epitomises what vast tracts of England have become since the Seventies. Alan, a Wings fan (“the group the Beatles could have been”) approves of this synthetic new world. He can lose himself for – ooh, seconds, in contemplation of the astroturf at an owl sanctuary, a mini-Kiev or an inertia-reel seat belt but deep down, none of this really satisfies him.

He’s profoundly bored and embittered, not just because he isn’t on TV but because he’s Modern Middle English Man, trapped in the air-conditioned misery of the car he’s chosen for himself. Just the way he bares his front teeth sums up an entire cultural malaise. Though standout moments include his encounter with his one fan, unfortunately a King Of Comedy-style obsessive (“Mentalist!”), his promo video for a boating agency and his woeful attempts to fake sorrow to the widow at the funeral of the deceased BBC Commissioner (“Do you mind if I – go and talk to somebody else?”), I’m Alan Partridge is best and truest in Alan’s lowest, idlest moments, buying screws from a DIY store for no reason or just . . . “talking, talking, talking”, as he puts it, a la Beckett. Embarrassing yet strangely unembarrassable, Alan Partridge is a monster of English smallness, the finest British comic creation of this generation.

Friday, November 10th, 2000

The Beat Poets

Imagine. Your nation has just emerged triumphant from the most devastating global conflict known to mankind. Might has been matched by right as you’ve vanquished the Nazis, liberating the concentration camps and subdued the Japanese threat in the East. While most of the planet lies in ruins, your nation’s economy is booming. You’re young, American and facing a tremendous upsurge in your cultural and material fortunes that will be envy of the rest of the mankind. You’d be basically pretty happy, right?

Not if you’re a bunch of spoiled, druggy dropouts hanging around campus at Columbia in 1945. The beat poets, led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were not “beat” in the sense of upbeat but “beat”, as in “beat-up”, done for. In The Town And The City (1950) Jack Kerouac looks upon his fellow American citizens and surmises that “everyone is dead, locked up inside the sad psychoses of themselves”. Sorry, Jack, you mean actually dead? Well, er, no, but existentially dead, y’know, man? Listen, moron, it was 1945, if unlike 30 million Russians you weren’t actually dead that was worth at least a couple of cheers, don’t you think?

Though zillions of miles from any danger zone, the beat poets felt traumatised by the impact of war, especially its atomic dimension. Allen Ginsberg lamely explained that the reason he and his little “generation of furtives” took to drugs, ranging from Benzedrine to heroin (for which they all turned to lives of crime, either robbing drugs or harbouring stolen goods for scum like beat poet affiliate Herbert Huncke) was because they were “gripped by a fear of radiation sickness”. Needless to say, the courts of the day weren’t sympathetic to that line. It might be laudable if these poets recognised and empathised with the anguish of victims of global oppression but they seemed oblivious to everything except their own autobiographies. The whining arrogance of Ginsberg’s Howl still rankles. “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” (I hope the “negroes” beat the shit out of them). Self-indulgent, undisciplined, slaves to their own cravings, vague about the source of their perceived woes they forged a “new vision” of art in which they were “free” of any obligation to curb their worst habits or excesses. Grab a toilet roll, upturn a bucket to tap out a rhythm on and you were a beat poet.

This being America, and these guys being so pathetic they couldn’t even hack it in this most privileged of places, they hit the road. C’mon, guys, let’s go to Mexico. Hey, why confront and come to terms with society when you can run away from it? Justified by the woolliest talk of “breaking through” to “something spiritual” on the “other side”, they set out with dreams of meeting their own, distorted version of “real” people, finding a place “where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside”.

Of course, no such place exists and On The Road is in fact about as exciting a read as “Memoirs Of An RAC Officer”, which would benefit from mucho editing. Except, first rule of beat, man, no blue pen. It’s argued that the beat poets were 20th century originals, delineating out on left field the margins of disaffection that would guide the permissive culture of the Sixties. But they were not original. All of their methods – Burroughs’s cut-up technique, spontaneous writing – had been conceived and executed with more dazzling panache by the Dadaists back in 1916-20.

So what are we left with? Cod-Romantic guff about being “real”, about people who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous Roman yellow candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (On The Road). PG Wodehouse brilliantly parodied this “new” school of literature 40 years earlier in “Carry On Jeeves”. Bertie Wooster’s American friend “Rocky” Todd produces the following:

Be! Be!

The past is dead, Tomorrow is not born.

Be today! Today!

Be with every nerve, With every fibre, With every drop of your red blood!

Be! Be!

For this, Rocky gets paid $100 and stays in bed till four in the afternoon for over a month. That’s the beat poets in a nutshell.

Their own lives were less than unimpeachable. Subconsciously enacting the misogyny among the “best minds” of his generation , Burroughs accidentally shot his wife to death and ended his years as an extra in U2 videos. Kerouac became a drunk and, in the Sixties, a right wing bigot. Ginsberg, the subtext of whose entire output was “Where is my man” lived on to spout drivel such as “It’s Nation Time”. He was better behaved but is justly ignored by all but a few thousand old hippies who, incapable either of humour or of keeping pace with the 20th century infest Ginsberg websites with their own priceless, “free-form” bilge. These poncho-clad, saucer-eyed fuckheads are Beat’s true legacy.

Thursday, October 19th, 2000

Roxy Music

Roxy Music’s recent decision to hitch a ride on the revival bandwagon and get back together inevitably triggered a warm wave of nostalgic appreciation. Roxy Music, it’s understood, are one of Britain’s national treasures, a musical equivalent to the sort of stately home in which Bryan Ferry currently resides, a repository for style and class. Anyone in British pop who has ever aspired to a certain suavity, be it Japan or ABC, or later in their own way Pulp or Blur, is said to owe a debt of thanks to Roxy Music.

Scrape beyond their gloss-deep exterior, however, listen harder to them and stare a little longer at their photo and album cover archive and you realise that Roxy Music are a mere appendix in the British body pop. If they hadn’t existed, it would not have been necessary to invent them. Far from standing out in brilliant contrast to their times, Roxy Music were creatures of them. Even by the all-time-low sartorial standards of the Seventies, Roxy Music looked as mouldy as last year’s cheese, a clumsy riot of half-mast flares, space-aged winged collars and garish rhinestone. They look like what they were – a bunch of muso heteros got up in the garb of the day ‘cos that’s what the birds seem to go for, like.

Had Ferry and co really possessed a unique sense of style, they might have dressed more like Kraftwerk – in elegant, provocatively conservative tones, or recreated themselves as singular superfreaks a la Bowie. Instead, they look too much like a Spiders For Mars tribute band for comfort. Musically, too, they were informed and infected by then typical, now obsolete traits. The coarse blasts of Andy “the mullet” Mackay on sax and oboe could easily have sat on a Wizzard, Mott The Hoople or later a Boomtown Rats record. Phil Manzanera, meanwhile, conformed to the standard fretboard virtuoso conventions of the day, without even the idiosyncratic methodology of contemporaries like Robert Fripp. Brian Eno, for whom being in Roxy Music was the least interesting thing he ever did and the most interesting thing about Roxy Music, realised early on that his own strain of sonic experimentalism would have no place in the band and quit.

Which leaves Bryan Ferry, the arse and soul of Roxy and the most ridiculous pop character ever undeservedly to be dubbed a knight of Cool. An ageing Lothario before he even formed Roxy Music, he taught pottery at a girl’s school (“with my reputation?”), his most hideous and inexplicably widely imitated bequest to pop is that strangulatedly bombastic vocal style of his, which, depending on whether you’re listening to “Street Life” or “2HB” sounds like the Indian geezer singing “Land Of Hope And Glory” at the end of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum or Bernard Bresslaw badly impersonating Sir Alec Guinness respectively.

With his insinuating sneer and sweeping mane, Ferry’s aristocratic pretensions were an ineffectual distraction from what he truly was, what his bog-plebby name told you he was – an unreconstructed Geordie lad on the make. His lyrics are full of the most banal hankerings, vacillating between fantasies of the metropolis or of rural idylls culled from dentist waiting room copies of Country Life (cf “Mother Of Pearl”).

When not palely apeing Warhol in his trite ruminations on Hollywood iconography (“2HB”, “Virginia Plain”), his body of text is one long, unrequited hard-on, expressed in hackneyed terms of infatuation as on “Beauty Queen” (“Maybe some day (you’ll) be a star/ A fast mover like you/ And your dreams will come true”) or on “Ladytron” (“Lady if you want to find a lover/Then you need look no further”).

Most pathetic of all were the Roxy album sleeves, generally featuring Ferry’sgirlfriend du jour, pouting and bursting out of her lingerie or clutching her tits. Beyond tacky, beyond offensive, beyond laughable it is only extraordinary that in their day these sleeves enhanced Roxy’s reputation for “sophistication”. Sid The Sexist more like.

In the early Eighties, Roxy Music’s career revived somewhat with hits like “Dance Away”, “Jealous Guy” and “Angel Eyes”. Ferry still played the melancholy old roue and albums like Flesh + Blood were staple fare in Yorkshire wine bars and in only half-decent record collections but by now Ferry in particular, with his Falcon Hairspray ad looks and penchant for red trousers was becoming a byword for naff. Which is what Roxy should have been recognised as from the start. What were people thinking in the Seventies?

Monday, October 2nd, 2000

Gary Oldman

Gary Oldman? Geezer. Grew up in Sarf London but went on to show those RADA stage school mincing boys what it was abaht. Spanked that blond geezer in The Firm. Er – nobbed Alfred Molina in Prick Up Your Ears. But then went to Hollywood and nobbed some actual birds, including Uma Thurman and Isabella Rossellini. Then made Nil By Maaaahth with top geezer Ray Winstone. Then, er, went back to Hollywood and starred in Lost In Space as evil Dr Zachary Smith. Still. Geezer, eh?

The resistible rise of Gary Oldman has to be one of the most outrageous wide boy strokes ever pulled on Hollywood. Still more outrageous is that he has somehow managed to blag a reputation as a prestige character actor, based on little more than a line in unlikely foreign accents and the odd psychotic twitch. That, plus a shameless, whoreish eagerness to do absolutely anything offered to him, however hackishly preposterous. How grateful Quentin Tarantino must have been that there was an even bigger twat than him prepared to play out his scripted fantasy of a white rasta patois-spouting pimp in True Romance; (“Guys, we need someone or I’ll have to wear the damn fake dreadlocks myself and – oh, Oldman says he’ll do it? Great!”)

As a child, doubtless to escape the harrowing realities of his upbringing, Oldman developed a penchant for fancy dressing. This desire to retreat from his (non) self into the extravagant, otherness of acting has never left him, not even after he quit a lifelong escapism into booze. In 1995, he went to to Ritz dressed as a female, deceiving the waiters as he quietly took his tea. Even when Oldman hit paydirt playing Sid Vicious, it was fancy dress. He was most thrilled at getting Vicious’s mother’s permission to wear his studded leather bracelet and padlock and chain necklace during filming. He startled critics with his brio and aggro but face it, Vicious was a far less complex character than he is romantically imagined – a pathetic junkie halfwit. Oldman hardly needed to draw on his reserves of reflectiveness and humanity to portray him, which was just as well.

In further roles, Oldman brought a distracting penchant for aggressive campness to bear. Odd, how interchangeable are his depictions of Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (“Nice arse!”) and the gang leader in The Firm (“Do you want your spanking now?”). Both roles are smothered in “ooh, get her!” -type cracks and lashings of pouting, both of which have the effect of hampering any real glimpse into the true hearts of the characters. In The Firm, Oldman even opts, inexplicably, to sport a David Seaman-type moustache – something else to hide behind.

It’s no surprise that rather than delve the sort of social Brit realism in which he was mistakenly considered a master, Oldman took flight for a career camping it large in Hollywood, where they love a good fruity Brit. He would lose himself further in every role, overpraised at every turn – as a chillingly inaccurate Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, for instance. However, his worst was yet to come. First, in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), a triumph/disaster of make-up, in which he comes across first as a cross between Granny Clampett and one of those anus-headed aliens in early Star Trek, then in Victorian garb looking like Andrew Eldritch reluctantly donning grey top hat and tails to act as usher at his brother’s wedding. His breathy histrionics; “(It’s no laughing mattaaaghh!!)” made the average WWF wrestler seem suavely understated by comparison. It was a “laughing mattaaghhh”, however. Critics panned Dracula as a Gothic pile of bilge.

Since then, he’s deteriorated further. His corrupt DEA enforcer Stansfield in Luc Bresson’s Leon, all absurd, queenly posturing, silly suit and ostentatious drug addiction, ranks among the most ridiculously ineffectual screen villains ever. He seems to think he’s an arch-villain in a Batman movie, as opposed to a tense, low-key Euro-thriller.

Further opportunities for crass cartoonism occurred in Air Force One in which he plays a Russian villain called Ivan with an accent borrowed from an old Two Ronnies sketch. His playing of the emaciated victim/foe in Hannibal saw him disappear entirely behind make-up but his attempts to chill merely came across as a risible reminder of The Simpsons’ Mr Burns. Pure affectation and crude disguise – without them, Oldman is nothing. Granted, he directed Nil By Mouth but with that overrated, inconsequential, claustrophobic slice of autobiography, he’s shot his single grey bolt of authenticity. He was soon back doing a voiceover for Warner Brothers’ animated The Quest For Camelot. Oldman – you are a tart. Shut it.