Archive for 2002

Monday, November 11th, 2002

Spike Milligan

For a change, I thought I’d start off this month’s column with a few jokes of mine I’ve been working up. Ready? . . . “Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion!” “Anybody can be 52 but it takes a bus to be 52b!” “I’m a guerrilla!” “Did you say gorilla?” I know – rubbish, aren’t they? Sorry. However, I have a confession – they’re not mine at all. I stole them. They are the work, in fact, of the Founding Father of Modern Comedy, Spike Milligan, culled at random from throughout his career.

Spike Milligan is the century’s most over-rated comedian. Granted, it’s understandable why the nation guffawed at The Goons – in the lightheadedness that followed World War II, folks were prepared to laugh at anything, even Arthur Askey. With Milligan, however, there was supposedly a difference. His characters, from Private “hello dere” Eccles (“his economy drive consists of only wearing one sock”) to Major Bloodnok to Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (“subject of a police investigation on homosexuality”) and sagas of batter puddings, atomic dustbins and Mongolian bagpipes bequeathed England its cherished tradition of “zaniness”.

However, while lines such as “A glass of fish and chips, please” are unaccountably bizarre, that’s all they are. Critics used to marvel at how quickly Milligan used to write his Goons scripts – but given that they’re just random forays into the looking-glass world of nonsense, it’s hardly surprising. What’s more – and this is more evident when seeing Milligan on TV on the unlamented Q series – beneath the superficial layer of unfunny surrealism, his comedy is rooted in every stock device, old costume and archaic stereotype known to chuckledom. His “mad” universe is populated by pompous colonels, dimwits, scantily clad girls, batty professors, African chiefs. His methods are shamelessly crass – “silly” names, going cross-eyed, appearing from behind a desk with no trousers, false noses, pulling your hat down over your head.¬†Far from establishing the first principles of avant garde comedy, he embodies every basic pratfall any half-decent comedian should avoid.

What’s doubly annoying is that, like Robin Williams, his face is permanently etched in a self-congratulatory half-chortle at his own mirth. Ah, they say, but both Python and Peter Cook are indebted to Milligan. They are – but only for their crap bits. They were always funniest when there was a logic to their absurdism, a scathing point, as in the Parrot sketch or Beyond The Fringe. With Spike, there was never any point – that, “hilariously”, was the point! That Milligan suffers from depression is evidence to some of a dark, serious side underpinning his comedy. But Milligan’s political pronouncements mark him as a thin-skinned misanthropist (his aggressive animal rights stance animals and hatred of “noise pollution” are giveaways here). His comedy is an escape from, not an expression of, his morbid broodings. The bulk of anecdotal evidence suggests he was a rude and unpleasant individual. His ambiguous and certainly unreconstructed obsession with race took the (needless to say), haplessly laughless form of the sitcom Melting Pot, in which he wrote and starred as a blacked-up Pakistani. The series had to be pulled.

Milligan’s legacy is in every “You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!” sign, every pub bore talking in a Bluebottle-style voice, that tediously “bonkers!” strain of comedy that keeps the British stinted, makes icons of Chris Evans and Noel Edmonds. Milligan may be universally venerated but while Hancock, Bilko, old Ealing comedies are endlessly rerun, The Goons, the Q series, Down Among The Z Men never are.

There’s a reason for this. They’re funereally unfunny. Z-Men is particularly dire. Q became so bad that once again, the Beeb had to reject a series from Milligan so as not to embarrass the old man. A recent film version of Puckoon sank like a stone. To say that it was a waste of Sean Hughes’s talents indicates the whiskery, arthritic paucity of the source material. Programmers know the truth about Milligan but dare not speak it, for fear of being labelled heretics. Now that the miserable old sod is six feet under, however, the truth can finally be bellowed. NOT FUNNYYYYYY! ! ! ! ! !

Tuesday, October 8th, 2002

Muhammad Ali

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian)

Since 1996, when a trembling, 54 year old Muhammad Ali grappled manfully with an Olympic torch that at one point threatened to engulf the sleeve of his sweatshirt in flames, he has become the subject of a welter of retrospective affection.

Literature has abounded, from The Tao Of Muhammad Ali to David Remnick’s King Of The World. There was Leon Gast’s long-delayed documentary When We Were Kings and reissues of classic Parkinson interviews.

It wasn’t always thus – in 1992, I was among just a handful of fans outside London’s Sportspages, where Ali had finished a booksigning session. He shook our hands, demonstrated that, Parkinson’s Syndrome notwithstanding, he was still capable of a lightning fast Ali shuffle. His travel budget, however, was evidently incapable of stretching to anything more extravagant than a black cab, flagged down on Charing Cross Road, to whisk him away.

Retrospective affection for Ali at 60, however, is huge and has been marked with the release of Michael Mann’s ambitious but turgid and unengaging biopic of the champ. Mann seems a little embarrassed by Ali’s twinkling showmanship, prefers to depict him as a soulful, troubled figure.

Truth is, Ali was brave, brilliant, beautiful, hilarious, an undoubted hero. He was not, however, statesmanlike, not perhaps especially deep, not, by his own admission, academically smart. He made dumb choices, let bad and bizarre things happen to him. And yet, that was all part of the huge fun and fuss that surrounded by the Great Man, the ridiculous jumbled spontaneously with the sublime.

Here, then, are 12 things you never (or forgot) you knew about Muhammad Ali . .

* When Ali encountered a distinguished, ninetysomething English fellow prior to his fight with Henry Cooper, he asked him his opinion on the outcome. “Our ‘Enry’s capable but I think you’ll win.” Ali responded with the same line he threw John Lennon among others; “You’re not as dumb as you look.” He had no idea at the time he was addressing the eminent philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell and later wrote to him to apologise. Fortunately, the author of Principia Mathematica took no offence at Ali’s backhanded compliment and the pair exchanged correspondence until Russell’s death in 1970, with Russell writing Ali letters of encouragement concerning his stand on the Vietnam war.

* Perhaps Ali’s strangest fight took place in 1976 in Tokyo against a Japanese wrestler named Antonio Inoki. Dubbed “the martial arts championship of the world”, it was supposed to be a fix, in time honoured wrestling fashion, with Inoki as the bad guy doing a “Pearl Harbour” on the champ. However, Ali’s conscience forbade him to enter into such deceit and, to Inoki’s horror, he decided to fight “for real”. The terrified wrestler spent most of the fifteen tedious rounds in a crablike, virtually horizontal crouch, occasionally kicking Ali in the legs, causing him serious blood clots, worsened when they brought in a Turkish masseur to try to assuage them. The “fight”, broadcast worldwide, was declared a draw.

* Few people have enjoyed the cordial admiration (often reciprocated) of the world’s less savoury dictators as Muhammad Ali. In his time, he has met Castro, Idi Amin, Colonel Ghadaffi, as well as former President Mobutu of Zaire, who put up the money for Ali’s fight with George Foreman and Ferdinand Marcos of The Phillipines who graciously hosted the “Thriller in Manilla” with Joe Frazier. Ali’s affable way with such despots paid dividends in November 1990 when he travelled to Iraq to meet personally with Saddam Hussein and came away with 15 of the 300 or so Americans then being held hostage prior to the Gulf War.

* Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier was his hardest. His subsequent fight, however, in 1976 against one Jean-Pierre Coopman, was his easiest. Risibly dubbed “The Lion Of Flanders”, Coopman was a Belgian journeyman so grateful to be in the same ring as Ali that he treated himself to copious amounts of champagne in the dressing room beforehand and even between rounds. Ali laughed out loud when his “challenger” approached him, patted him about for five rounds then humanely dispatched him. Coopman was treated as a national hero in Belgium for his courage and embarked on a lengthy lecture tour of his country recounting his exploits.

* Ali is master of a number of magic tricks, including levitation. However, to the exasperation of his fellow prestidigitators, he insists on explaining to his audience how the trick works, as Allah forbids deception of any kind.

* Although Ali earned some $50 million during his fight career, much of this was frittered away on some of the more parasitic elements of his entourage and the shysters who preyed on his generous spirit. The hardest man in the world was also the softest touch in the world. When a team of financial lawyers tried to set his affairs in order, they found that they were unable to secure him certain sponsorship deals because of previous contractual commitments he had obligingly entered into. A deal with Chrysler, for instance, had to be abandoned when it was discovered that at some earlier stage, Ali had been convinced to sign a contract to manufacture the ‘Muhammad Ali automobile’. The brand, sadly, never materialised.

* Not all of Ali’s diplomatic missions were as successful as his trip to Iraq. In 1979, President Carter persuaded Ali to undertake a tour of African nations, to persuade them to join America’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. The trip backfired, however – for all Ali’s stature, the Tanzanians were deeply insulted that the Government had sent a sports star on a diplomatic mission. “Would the United States send Chris Evert to negotiate with London?” they asked. Prior to his fight against George Foreman in Zaire, Ali had also given inadvertent offence. A poster hyping the bout reading “From the slave ship to the Championship” had to be scrapped, while other Africans took offence at Ali’s repeated jibes to white American reporters; “You come to Africa and talk like that and we’ll cook you!”

* During his lay off between 1967 and 1970, Ali appeared in a musical entitled Buck White, singing several numbers and receiving a number of complimentary notices for his performance. It could be that the critics were being kind to a great fighter down on his luck, as anyone who has ever heard Ali’s version of “Stand By Me”, one of the worst performances ever inflicted in a recording studio, will attest.

* Following an excruciatingly one-sided championship bout against a merciful Larry Holmes in 1980, in which the 38 year old ex-champ was already showing signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome, Ali astonishing fought once more – against Trevor Berbick in Nassau in late 1981. No TV network would touch the fight, for which tickets were made available in a supermarket. A cowbell had to be used to signal the end of rounds. Ali lost to Berbick, whom Tyson would later defeat to become world heavyweight champion.

*In 1970, Ali agreed to stage an exhibition fight with Fifties heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano as part of a farcical televised effort to determine which of the two was the greatest. Marciano slimmed down and wore a toupee for the bout, which was filmed with various endings. Feeding data from their sparring into a computer, Marciano was ludicrously determined as the victor and US audiences saw Marciano “knock out” Ali. However, this so enraged Europeans that an alternative version was screened for them, with Ali winning on cuts. Marciano died three weeks later in a plane crash.

* One of Ali’s daughters, Maryum, is a stand-up comedian. More famously, his daughter Laila is a boxer. In a much-touted “grudge” match, Laila Ali defeated 39 year old Jacqui Frazier, daughter of Ali’s nemesis Joe, over 8 rounds by a close majority decision.

* The last knockdown of Ali’s career was against Britain’s Richard Dunn, more of a Coopman than a Cooper. In the fifth round, Ali shook Dunn to the core with a not especially devastating series of punches. Dunn did distinguish himself by connecting with Ali’s chin while seated on the canvas. Following the fight and still in the ring, Ali presented his gloves to promoter Mickey Duff to forward to British boxer Chris Finnegan. Ali bade Duff look inside the gloves. There, Ali had inscribed before the fight the words ALI WINS KO ROUND 5′.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2002

Lenny Bruce

August 3, 1966. All is unnervingly quiet at Lenny Bruce’s home in the Hollywood Hills. No one’s seen him since breakfast, when a female acquaintance made him a gut-busting fry-up. Not, perhaps, ideal for a once lithe, puckish man recently swollen to 225 pounds. When last seen, he was typing up yet another salvo in the endless exchange of legal correspondence in which he’s become wilfully bogged down in his declining years. The law once hounded Bruce vindictively – he was busted four times for obscenity, banned in several US cities, banned outright in Australia.

Now the law is done and bored with him. The Sixties, too, are bored with Lenny. He hasn’t been funny in years – he’s reduced to taking bleary, tired haymakers at an establishment he once peppered and riled with witty, sickening jabs. He isn’t working, he’s way behind on his mortgage payments, he’s only half-heartedly recovered from an OD just weeks ago. He knows what’s next. At 6pm, Bruce’s friend and associate John Judnich pulls up into the driveway and, unable to attract Lenny’s attention, tries first his bedroom, then his office, then the bathroom. There lies Lenny, face down, jeans around his ankles, a needle hanging from his arm, having pitched forward unconscious while on the crapper.

Judnich tries to lift him up but he fails. Then, spotting the clear snot dripping from his nose, sensing the cold slab that is Lenny’s body, and finally, the unmistakable glaze in his eyes, Judnich lets out a scream. The police are on the scene within the hour, as are press photographers. They snap at Bruce’s corpse with barely disguised schadenfreude – the toilet humorist dead on the toilet. Someone deems it editorially tasteful to publish a photo of the bearded, bloated Bruce, beached on his own folly – a latterday equivalent of sticking his head on a spike.

Among the first to arrive is Phil Spector. In recent years, like Bruce, he has become victim of his own paranoia. They’ve hung out together, Spector in it for the kudos, Bruce to mooch his new buddy’s millions. Only, following a disastrous show Spector promoted for Bruce, there’s been a rift. Now, however, Spector’s distraught, standing over Bruce’s corpse in his winkle-pickers, screaming “You killed him!” at the cops. Ultimately, however, no one buys the idea that the police killed Bruce. Why bother, when he was already a dead man.

Cut back to 1961, Carnegie Hall – Lenny Bruce at his height. It’s beyond comic, it’s something like Shamanic. Marvel as he takes a theme or riff, scampers off with it at breakneck speed, spontaneously incorporating elements like a noise from backstage, digresses, quantumly leaps, free associates, lays bare the workings of a fast and furious mind. It’s reminiscent of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in its virtuosity.

One second he’s talking about old Jewish women mugging Cubans in recession-hit Florida, the next embarking on a sketch about some kidnapped guy who had to be freed to raise the money for his own ransom, the next putting down a heckler with almost pedantic aplomb, before every now and again, the shuffling footwork stops momentarily and he decks you with a killer punchline or even a serious philosophical point – “There’s no right or wrong – only my right and your wrong.”

For sure, his routines are laced with hip, esoteric jargon and Yiddish vernacular, which lurking plainclothes officers suspected to be rude words. However, by today’s standards, Bruce was sparing in his use of outright expletives. Granted, at the beginning of his club career, he was not above the odd gratuitous bit of filth, such as one joke he borrowed from Buddy Hackett: “Daddy, what’s a pervert?” “Shut up, son, and keep sucking.” Granted, Bruce was shocking and one of the main planks of his comedy was to deconstruct the entire notion of “dirty words”.

However, the notion propounded by his foes, often his victims, that he was a “sick” comedian, intent solely on wallowing in gutter language to raise a stink, was a red herring, a subconscious diversionary tactic enabling them to avoid facing up to the real obscenities Bruce was addressing.

Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925 in New York. After a wartime stint in the navy, he got his first break on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout’s show. He married a singer, Honey, a Courtney in some ways to his Kurt. To make ends meet she stripped, while he worked the local burlesque joints and undercut local gardeners by charging only $6 to mow lawns.

As he progressed, he was initially one of many comics branded “sick”. He was also audacious – one night, he mocked George Raft, suggesting that the bevy of females in his company were hookers who’d be lining up to administer blow jobs to the actor in due course. Somehow he avoided getting his legs broken but he’d shown a Kamikaze streak in his outlook Bruce’s epiphany occurred when, following a routine of regular schtick, somebody praised him for not resorting to “filthy, toilet humour”. Which got Lenny to thinking. “How dirty is my toilet?” He sensed a semantic confusion, deep-seated in the Fifties American mindset, a repulsion at body functions which, when you examined it for a second, made no sense. Bruce would make it his mission to lift up the toilet lid, not to shock but to examine.

In his routines, he would take news stories and turn them on their head – like the Genovese girl in Queens who had been murdered by her boyfriend in full public view. How much quicker the onlookers would have been to call the cops, remarked Bruce, if the couple had been making love. “If something disgusts you about the human body,” he suggested, “complain to the manufacturer.” He teased and cheated censors with one of his most famous routines, a recital based around the phrase “to come (is a verb intransitive)” which worked up to a brazenly climactic frenzy (“I really came so good)” but which, technically, was a “clean” routine.

Prior to Lenny Bruce, comedians were strictly entertainers, folks. They did a string of well-honed jokes, sketches or routines, bang went the big bass drum and you’ve been a wonderful audience. Politics surfaced only tentatively in the Fifties – when Mort Sahl made an innocuously satirical remark about the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts, eyebrows raised sky-high. Bruce went way beyond all that. Sure, he had a store of routines which he’d work in as and when he felt appropriate. But that was all the artifice there was about Bruce. His genius was to perfect the art of thinking aloud. That was his form and it matched his content, which was the myriad hypocrisies of American life and its institutions, its unconscious double standards and its indecent notions of “decency”. He wasn’t a ranter – rather the spectacle he presented was that of a thoughtful, troubled, essentially peaceable soul whose inquiring mind didn’t allow him to buy into the values of his day.

It’s appropriate that he was played by Eddie Izzard in the 1999 stage show Lenny. They shared the same modus operandi. However, Bruce never had the luxury of confining his rambling musings to wondering why Mr Dog changed their name to Caesar. He was waging a one-man war against cant, hypocrisy and censorship, one which he both won and lost. As Dylan put it in his 1981 song “Lenny Bruce”, “He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts.” Onstage, the spectacle he presented was that of a sweet Saint – that stark, cute, wide-eyed stare. But his were also the sunken, dark, hollow-eyes of a sinner.

Bruce was desperately promiscuous. One of his best bits concerned a guy seriously injured in a car crash who, in the emergency room, makes a play for the nurse. “You animal, your foot was half cut off!” More seriously, Bruce was also a chronic junkie. Peter Cook later recalled Bruce’s first trip to London, to play Cook’s Establishment club, set up to avoid the attentions of Britain’s own theatrical censor in the form of the High Chamberlain. He remembers an “absolute shambling wreck” trickling out of the airport, who managed to be evicted from his hotel two days in, after both prostitutes and syringes were found in his room. Forced to stay with Cook, he had his host run drug errands for him, among them acquiring a heroin derivative on the strength of a phoney prescription signed by a “Dr Ziglovitz.” In the end, Cook rang Dudley Moore, who only had a junior aspirin.

Bruce was a child of the bebop era and came to heroin the way a lot of junior saxmen did – inspired by Charlie Parker. “To play like Bird, you’ve got to do like Bird,” ran the refrain. It was an area of his life which he never came to terms with, one which this ultimate of confrontational comedians never really confronted. To say that smack fuelled his comedy is as much a myth as it was with Parker – Bruce achieved what he did despite being “whacked out of his skull” for much of his working life.

As his act evolved, Bruce expanded his frame of reference to take all the latterday paragons of repression and double standard – politics, religion (including epic sketches such as ‘Father Flotski’s Triumph’), the Ku Klux Klan, the law. Following the Kennedy assassination, he berated the story put out by Time magazine that Jackie had crawled out the back of the Cadillac after the shooting to assist a secret serviceman when clearly, and understandably, she was scared shitless. He saw such fictions as an attempt to make ordinary people feel like schmucks in the face of their “betters”. He did a great piece on race entitled “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties”. (“That Joe Louis was a hell of a fighter . . .”). That said, he was tough on anti-Deep South prejudice also, speculating that “If Albert Einstein tawked lakh thayat – wouldn’t be no bomb. ‘Folks, I wanna talk to you about new-clear fission!’ ‘Get outta here, you schmuck.’ ‘But I’m tawking some stuff, buddy!'”

Bruce reserved much of his animus for the Catholic church and, with the police force dominated by Catholics, this probably accounted for the close attention they paid to his shows. That, and the fact that Lenny refused to play the game. He wasn’t the only entertainer out there who broke the rules, least of all when it came to drugs. Mostly, deals would be cut and everyone was happy. However, when Bruce was arrested in Philadelphia on a drugs charge and was offered a deal by a government official, he insisted on announcing the deal on one of his sporadic TV appearances. When he arrived in San Francisco, the cops were there en vengeful masse. He was put on trial for obscenity, following an appearance at the Troubadour in Hollywood when he had let slip the aside, “Where is that dwarf cocksucker?” After a lengthy trial he was acquitted – however, so zealously did Bruce throw himself into the case that he rendered the victory a Pyrrhic one. They got to him in a way they’d never intended to. Bruce became obsessed with the law, practically invited prosecution, became saddled with needless legal debts, ruined his shows with his tedious recitals of his self-imposed legal wranglings.

“I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce,” he once said, and towards the end, this was sadly true. Lenny Bruce’s legacy is secure. Much of his work, however, is of its time. Some of his ideas, especially concerning race, might seem like old hat – we forget that this was the guy who made the hat in the first place. Bruce’s notion that words are inherently harmless, are only harmful if we decide they are, wouldn’t find favour in this era – with “fuck”, he may have been right but “nigger”, “paki”, “cripple” – he would probably be wrong. Probably.

Bruce was a Fifties jazz creature but he inspired a Sixties rock attitude. His hip insolence and loathing of double standard undoubtedly made a deep impression on Bob Dylan and John Lennon, both of whom wrote songs alluding to him. Frank Zappa’s iconoclasm clearly owed a debt to Bruce – Zappa once collared Bruce and asked him to sign his draft card. Bruce refused. Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks and most recently comedienne Margaret Cho, who caused ripples with joke about giving blow jobs to the September 11 rescuers, are among the many indebted to Lenny Bruce. Today, we can take an entire culture of free-thinking, envelope-pushing and open attitudes to everything and anything, for granted. It was Bruce and Bruce practically alone, who granted it to us – the man who never knew when to shut the fuck up.

Saturday, September 28th, 2002

The Joy Of Swearing

(First published in The Guardian)

The publishing of an updated edition of Roger’s Profanisaurus, Viz’s invaluable lexicon of rudeness, confirms the tribute paid by Ade Edmondson’s Von Richthofen to Blackadder. “How lucky you English are to find zer toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane function. For you – zer basis for an entire culture.”

Indeed, it’s a culture that’s evolved to a dizzyingly baroque level in the Profanisaurus. Who would have guessed, for instance, that “vote for Tony Blair” is now defined as “To rush enthusiastically into the cubicle expecting big things, only to get a pathetic little fart?” If you want to know what Ghandi’s flip-flops, Bungle’s finger and licking a nine volter allude to, then buy the Profanisaurus and laugh till snot dribbles down your lips.

However, the Profanisaurus, rich as it is in additions to the mother tongue, represents what you might call the maximalist tendency in obscenity. Even now, there is a great deal to be said for the minimalist tendency – the cluster of b, f and c-words which which have served us faithfully for centuries.

I once swore for a living. I wrote an iconoclastic column called Mr Agreeable for Melody Maker, It was honest work – brutally honest, in fact. Each week, I poured abuse on pop and rock stars like cow excrement from a turret. From Sting and U2 to losers like Top and Northside, to the pitifully past it like David Gedge, none were spared. The column was very popular. I liked to think this was because of my elegantly scornful turn of phrase and withering puns (“De La Soul? Dull Arseholes, more like!”). However, I realised to my initial dismay that people were only reading it for the swearing. Admittedly there wasn’t much to read in the column but swearing – the column was strafed with asterisks. And therein lay the success – the catharsis of invective, the unquenchable thirst for vituperation, the endless joy of shouting “Bollocks!” It certainly worked for me – during the several years I wrote the column, I never once lost my temper. I had an escape valve.

Today, I commence the day with a ten-minute session of Primal Swear Therapy in order to becalm myself and ready myself for the day’s rigours. It’s as futile to repress or forbid foul language as it is to repress or forbid breaking wind. We are steeped in the stuff – from the bell hooks and Shere Hite of high literature to the prole-ish world of football (Danny Shittu, Kuntz, Arce, Windass, Dou Dou), it is ingrained.

Debates about the morality of swearing are generally futile – the supposed misogyny of the c-word, for instance. Granted, in America it is deployed as an ultra-strength alternative to “bitch”. In Britain, however, it has no such connotations. Rather, along with the b and f words, which swear-ologist Geoffrey Hughes categorises as “voiced bilabial plosives and frictives”, it’s a word ideally phonetically shaped for emotional release, as is the word “a-choo!” to sneezing.

Swearing was not invented by Shaun Ryder. Chaucer deemed it big and clever to swear copiously in The Miller’s Tale, while Ben Johnson’s plays are rife with phrases like “fackins” and “Shit on your heads”. A 1601 parliamentary ban on coarse language, however, led to the apparent extinction of swearing, with the sole exception of Robert Browning’s use of the word “twat” in 1848’s Pippa Passes – he thought it was a nun’s garment. Come the groundbreaking Lady Chatterley case, however, in which the prosecutor, brandishing the expletive-ridden novel, asked, “Is this the sort of book you would allow your wives and servants to read?” a new permissive era was supposedly born.

Swearing, however, remains taboo. In EastEnders recently, a character stopped herself saying “taking the p-” – as if realising she was on a soap opera and replaced it with “taking liberties”. It is considered wrong, or inexpedient, to swear in front of your boss, parents, the children. But face it, there are times when the fuckers get your nerves. So swear – however, with discretion. A bodily function it may be but public swearing is as deplorable as public urinating. I would suggest that when driven to distraction and deadly expletive build-up kicks in, simply excuse yourself from the room. Create a euphemism. Tell your Mum, kids, or employer that your are “just going out to season the air”, perhaps. Then step out to your gazebo, potting shed or even broom cupboard and bellow, profanely and profusely. Better out than in. And swear properly. “Shoot” or “Fishsticks!” won’t do the job. Nor will whimsical infantilisms like “bottom”, “poo” or the dreadful “wee”. It’s arse, shit and piss, you hear? And they must be delivered with unbridled gusto. It has been argued, by Lenny Bruce, by Stephen Fry, by the makers of South Park (who deliberately used the word “shit” 162 times in a recent episode) that swearwords can and will, through repeated use, lose their potency, much as “damn” did.

Fortunately, this shows no sign of happening and it’s good that it does not. We need good, crisp, potent swear words and if that means sustaining a culture of mild hypocrisy, censorship and repression then so be it. The toxins of everyday life we absorb cannot properly be expelled with obsolete, once-considered-naughty phrases like “Odds bodkins” or “dash your eyes”. Fact: in the Japanese language there are no swear words. The result? Kamikaze, Hari Kiri and gameshows involving snapping turtles and exposed genitals. This cannot happen here. Long, therefore, may swearing be considered debased, disgusting, evidence of a poor vocabulary and all the rest of the fucking bullshit the Christian right drivels at us. Bring on the asterisks!

Monday, July 8th, 2002

Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

The musical journey undertaken by Talk Talk from centre-right pop to the far, far left of post-rock remains unique in music history. Mark Hollis started band life like anyone else in the late Seventies, in a post-punk combo known as The Reaction. His brother Ed was already in Eddie and The Hot Rods and when The Reaction disbanded in 1979 it looked like M. Hollis was destined to join the footnotes and also-rans of punk folklore.

When he hooked up with drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb, however, with a newer wave outfit by the name of Talk Talk and then caught the eye of esteemed arbiter of taste David ‘Kid’ Jensen, Hollis was back. EMI signed them up and divined in their smart, smooth poptones the ideal undercard to Duran Duran, then the leading lights of New Romantic. The release of an eponymous single, a shiny, synth-pop replication of the Duran sound, few imagined that this lot would be around for long, pre-destined to be Eighties, one-off curios a la Living In A Box.

Yet few reckoned with Hollis’ revulsion with the trappings of pop and his undeflected search for a “purity” in the practice and making of music. This last quality would ensure that Talk Talk outlasted the Durannies, Toyahs, Kajagoogoos and similar flossy pop flunkies. By the mid-Eighties, they’d amassed a solid international following, outranking the likes of Spandau Ballet on European bills. This, in spite of Hollis’ insistence that no photos of the band appear on their cover sleeves, only illustrations, so as to disconnect “image” from the music. Moreover, producer Tim Friese-Greene had been drafted in as co-songwriter and keyboardist, whereupon Talk Talk’s sound took on the more sophisticated hue of the likes of Traffic or Roxy Music, stylish rather than fashionable, reflective rather than glossy.

By 1986, these qualities of endurance and integrity earnt them massive sales with that year’s The Colour Of Spring and the single, “Life’s What You Make It”. Yet Hollis was visibly disgruntled. He made no secret of his distaste for fans who only came to Talk Talk gigs to hear the hits, while a truculent NME interview, in which he insistently referred to his music as “art”, demonstrated his discomfiture with having to sell his wares in the pop market place.

The NME were unimpressed but EMI were downright perturbed. In reward for the high sales of The Colour Of Spring, they had lavished on Talk Talk a generous budget for their next release, only for the band to disappear from view for a couple of years. When they re-emerged, it turned out that they had done what every megapop band talks about doing but so rarely does – i.e. what they fuck they wanted. And this turned out to be 1988’s Spirit Of Eden was a staggering, critic-pleasing, commercially suicidal foray into the amorphous arms of ambient jazz-rock. Taking its cue from the melancholy spirituality of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly”, its aqueous, oceanic odysseys into oblique spiritual introspection (ouch! – Ed’s note) blew gaskets in executive boardrooms. EMI tried to salvage something from what they regarded as the wreckage, issuing an edited version of the gorgeous “I Believe In You” as a single, under protest from the band. However, the intricacy of Spirit Of Eden’s arrangements was such that Talk Talk declared they would be unable to promote the album on the road.

Relationships between the band and the label deteriorated, especially when EMI issued an album of remixes of old Talk Talk singles in 1990, which they had to withdraw after legal action from the band. By 1991 Talk Talk switched to Polydor, who allowed them to release an album, Laughing Stock, on their reactivated jazz label, Verve. It was oblique. It further confounded the expectations of traditional fans. It sold poorly. It was the last we would hear from Talk Talk as a collective – end of story. Oh and it was brilliant. If Spirit Of Eden represented the first tentative unmooring of a band looking to go further inward/further outward than any band had gone before, then Laughing Stock saw them way out to sea.

“Myrrhman”, the opener, sets the tone, rising slowly into being from a sort of meditative silence, back into which it continually threatens to evaporate. It drifts like a ghostship off the furthermost Northern coast, with flugelhorns pealing, subdued, through the fog of indistinction and a harmonium droning in a faint echo of Shetland folk music. The odd burst of radio crackle is suggestive of the last blast of modern electrical equipment, or communication with dry land, finally petering out. The strings offer a melancholy reminder of Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking Of The Titanic as Hollis & co gravitate towards an uncertain grey area where sea and sky merge.

Our bearings are a little surer on “Ascension Day” – we’re located somewhere beyond jazz, beyond rock, beyond folk. Hollis’ tremulous, plaintive vocals are somehow so intimate, the vowels so intense that it’s hard to make sense of them (still less his lyrics as reprinted in his semi-legible handwriting on the sleeve). “Bed I’ll be damned/Gets harder to sense, to sail . . .”. There is, however, a non-specific urgency, a Beckettian determination, stressed in the single, clanging, sustained guitar chord which concludes the song before being chopped off. Fade from grey once more with “After The Flood”, whose swelling, organ-driven pulse is a thing of simple but ominous beauty, with Hollis’ vocals rising off its surfaces like mist off water. Again, the mood of the song intensifies, refusing solace, naturally broken up by an agonised, distorted “guitar solo”, running like a scratch through the track, sounding like a morse distress signal obliterated in its own crackle.

“Taphead” sets out sparingly, with Hollis almost prayerfully murmuring, “Will to wind and wander/Climb through needle neck to consent . . .”, before a brace of shrill horns and harmonica blasts arise, all squealing and agitated, like whales aroused from their slumber and communicating anxiously with one another in song. Perhaps the finest track on Laughing Stock, however, is the somehow optimistic “New Grass”. From its subdued, sublime jazz-rock beginnings, through to its concluding bars, in which it reincarnates from near, dead silence, replenished with new colour and rising joyously again, it’s late Talk Talk at their finest. This isn’t “jazz-rock” in any pyrotechnical sense but “uncomplicated”, ebb, flow, overlap and retreat, as simple yet profound as the sea.

Finally comes “Rune II”, skirting the edges of silence, observing to the end the sheer naturalness, the musical correctness of Talk Talk. Of course, to those who were trying to flog the thing, it was just a bunch of exasperating, incomprehensible rock bollocks showing all the advanced symptoms of career death wish. As far as the bloody-minded Hollis was concerned, however, this was simply his own, unique extension of the three-chords-or-less punk ethic.

He sat out most of the Nineties, perfecting the studio conditions to release his first, eponymous 1998 solo album, a further, magnificent retreat from the “centre”, an Aeolian instrumental interplay of wood, metal, wind and strings. As for Laughing Stock, now at last available once more on CD, it may not be lyrically easily understood but that’s not the point. On a subliminal, emotional, musical level it’s one of the most cogent records ever made, blissful yet troubled, oblique yet desperate to connect. It offered a sonic template to a host of subsequent post-rockers, from Bark Psychosis to Spiritualized, to Labradford. It showed that there is a vastness of possibility out there to anyone who wants to do more than just flog their product. It’s renegade albums like Laughing Stock, slipping through the commercial nets, which end up making the whole sordid music business worthwhile.