Archive for July, 2003

Sunday, July 27th, 2003

Britpop Hubris

This piece first appeared in The Guide in 2003

There are many reasons to see Live Forever, the new documentary about the Nineties Britpop years. Mostly they involve Noel Gallagher and Damn Albarn being funny, the former intentionally, the latter unintentionally. They also include Liam Gallagher reminiscing on his scallywag days when he used to steal lawnmowers from gardens and sell them on to interested parties, which begs all sorts of questions we shan’t go into here.

However, it’s also a reminder of the gormlessly patriotic hubris which swept the pop nation during those years, a Falklands-style dementia in which it became unironically fashionable to flaunt the Union Jack at every opportunity. This was Britpop and all those who experienced that bizarre rush of blood to the head should not be looking back fondly on the episode but wincing with bowel-curdling shame.

The thesis of Live Forever is that, following an early Nineties period when music was in “the doldrums” (Radiohead, Suede, Massive Attack, My Bloody Valentine, rubbish like that), British pride was reasserted, Albion reawakened with the emergence of those Colchester cockney cocksparrers Blur and those mad for it mad bastards from Madchester Oasis. Now music was great again (Sleeper, Menswear, Now Way Sis). Key to this transformation was Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. This was not an entirely unfortunate event because it meant British music could emerge from the regime of transatlantic dominance over which the hollow-eyed grungemeister unwittingly presided. With Cobain dead, American music went into decline. Now it was the Yanks’ turn to look on with helpless passivity from the sidelines, like those superfluous CIA agents in James Bond films, as Britain strode to the fore and did its bit. Sadly, explains the film, the death of Princess Diana had a direct knock-on effect on Britpop – otherwise, the likes of Louise Wener would surely have gone on to become world superstars.

It’s possible that the causes and effects of Britpop weren’t quite as outlined by the makers of Live Forever. Britpop did, however, surge on a crest of super-confidence as, following the nadir of the 1992 ERM debacle, the UK economy picked up and suddenly Johnny Brit had a couple of quid in his pocket and a spring in his step. There was a new, lagerish, Laddish, lairiness in the air. Numerous things conflated – Loaded, Gazza, Chris Evans, Euro ’96, Trainspotting. Keith Allen seemed to feature a lot, in a host of minor but noisy roles. Americans might have thought that their overwhelming dominance of the global market share gave them a certain edge but how wrong they were. When Michael Jackson came over for the Brit Awards, Jarvis Cocker usurped him, leaping onstage and flapping the bottom of his corduroy jacket at him. We showed them.

Looking back, one’s depressed at the retro-reactionary air of it all. It wasn’t so far off the world conjured up by Mike Myers (a Liverpudlian by birth who in the grand tradition of that town, got the fuck out of it the moment he could) in the Austin Powers movies. It was as if we all wanted to be bit players in The Italian Job, a Sixties world not of peace, love and counter-culture but dollybirds and cheery chancers like Michael “The Dog’s Bollocks” Caine. It was the world of The Kinks! The Moptops! Guitar bands with tunes the milkman could whistle! Memories of 1966 and Jules Rimet still gleaming! Blokes shouting “Oi”! Hardly any black people! (Sadly, in what purports to be a wide-ranging survey of Nineties British culture, only two black faces feature in Live Forever – designer Ozwald Boateng and the kid from S Club Juniors.). Indeed, you could ascribe the entire success of Oasis to a collective subconscious desire to agree upon the one band “we” all gathered together and got hysterical about, the way “we” used to about The Beatles.

Brit-pride was by no means confined to Damon Albarn ranting against “Americanisation” leading to his local pub being stripped of its horse brasses and photos of the village cricket team circa 1902 to make way for themed bars. Each year, the presenters of BBC Breakfast News would smilingly abandon their neutrality and urge viewers to “keep your fingers crossed for Emma Thompson at the Oscars tomorrow night.” To which my personal response was not to cross my fingers but form them into a “v” shape and flick vigorously and repeatedly at the screen.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, played the “Cool Britannia” card. He sensed a mood for change among young people, an end to the Tory years of dismal public services, fat cats licking up all the cream and a Government sycophantically following the American lead in wars in the Gulf. As a Melody Maker journo, I made some vaguely positive remarks about Blair prior to the 1997 election. I was immediately contacted by a Labour Party insider who noted my sympathy to the “leadership” and suggested a meet to take advantage of my presumably intimate Britpop contacts. These, he sadly overestimated – anyway, my assistance was hardly required. Accepting a Brit award, Noel Gallagher dedicated it to the handful of individuals giving hope to young people in Britain. These included himself, the rest of the band, including Bonehead, naturally, manager Alan McGee and, finally, Tony Blair.

Then there was Euro ’96, mooted as a retro retread of the 1966 World Cup, with an England team under the aegis of chirpy Sixties geezer El Tel in that blazing Summer. The forces of Britcom and Britpop combined to galvanise the nation – Baddiel, Skinner, Ian Broudie. 30 years of hurt about to be put right. Duly, we smote the Scots! Demolished the Dutch! Drew with the mighty Swiss! Such were the days. And today, one marvels at the quaintness of that over-sanguine era, its hip belief that we were on the cusp of showing the US a thing or two, of putting the “Great” back into Britain (strange conceit, that. France and Sweden’s self esteem doesn’t depend on calling themselves Fabulous France or Super Sweden). Sure enough, it all went arse-shaped. In Euro ’96, the abiding memory of England’s demise isn’t Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss but during Golden Goals, when a sluggish, lager-bloated Paul Gascoigne failed to connect with a cross which would have defeated Germany and put England in the final. Loser. Ginger goon Chris Evans, wankerish symbol of the mad-for-it era, went to America with a view to meeting and greeting his brother in iconoclasm, Shock Jock Howard Stern. When Evans burst in on him in his studio, Stern remarked, “Who the fuck is this guy?” Later, when Stern appeared on TFI Friday, he visibly destroyed Evans with a couple of caustic cracks about Evans’ ex-wife. Tosser.

Oasis and Blur laughingly attempted to “conquer” America but neither made Shea Stadium. Eventually, Blur did land a hit over there but was it with one of their jellied eels, mockney anthems? No. It was with “Song 2” a craven slice of cod-Yankee grunge. Capitulators. It’s doubtful the Americans even noticed how easily they repelled Cool Britannia’s challenge, any more than they noticed that their “soccer” team equalled England in the2002 World Cup – both reached the quarter finals. Whereas the English went into a month-long, St George flag-waving paroxysm of deluded optimism, the Yanks were unaware a tournament was taking place. Today, Blair is nestled uncritically down the back of George Bush’s trousers. Robbie Williams has to beg the American public to find it on their hearts to make him a superstar in order to recoup his absurdly generous EMI advance. Fat chance. The Billboard top 100 is nowadays a Brit-free zone. Eminem, Britney, J-Lo, Avril, The Strokes, Beyonce trounce Will Young and The Sugababes, home and away. Cross our fingers all we like for Catherine Zeta Jones, Renee Zellweger gets the Oscar and the lead in Bridget Jones. We don’t rule. And that’s good. Ruling doesn’t become us. Rueful perspective and modesty does.

Sunday, July 13th, 2003

Music Licence Laws

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian in 2003 and met with a considerable amount of justified indignation)

On July 3, the House Of Lords failed to block Government moves to introduce a new law requiring pubs, clubs and cafes to apply for costly new licences if they wish to provide live entertainment. The measures will, reported The Guardian, “act as a powerful deterrent to small venues wishing to host live groups”. As organisations like the Musicians Union protest, the dangers this new legislation proposes to curb such as overcrowding and unruly behaviour are already covered by existing law. Loopholes allow for the exemption of, for example, morris dancers and pubs with wide-screen TV – musicians who us amplified instruments are being scapegoated. These new laws are flawed, vindictive, inconsistent and I, along with every sane person I know, back them to the hilt.

Let’s be clear about who’s hit hardest by this legislation – talentless, timewasting pub bands. Amateurs. White blues combos from Peterborough with podgy, moustached stand-up bassists, drowning the works of Howlin’ Wolf in their own sweat and phlegm. Trad jazz bands, all beards, sandals and trombones, playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” (Yeah? Well, one more peep out of that clarinet and it’ll be the police who go marching in, suckers). Bands with the word “Rockin'” in their names, who reduce rock to raucous, untreated sewage. Legions of uninspired, unashamed, unsolicited no-hopers who, even within a music industry benevolent enough to indulge The Thrills, can’t get signed and therefore resort to ruining the lives of innocent drinkers with their relentlessly, drearily competent blatherings. Bands who can’t get arrested – well, they will be now, thank Christ.

No serious lover of music seeks out pubs with blackboards boasting LIVE ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, much as no serious lover of wine seeks out bottles with party balloons on their label. It could be argued that these excremental pub outfits constitute the manure from which the roses of tomorrow’s talent will bloom. Unlikely – most new talent is hatched in back bedrooms on iMacs and tiny black software nowadays, not in back bars. Even it were, however, better that this vast swill of pestilential conversation-drowners be suppressed and, though we be denied the New Coral, punters have their peace restored. These bands are flogging us the rancid dead horsemeat of long-dead genres. Jazz. Blues (Very dead). Rock (Recently dead). So it’s intensely galling that efforts to throw out this legislation has resulted in the delaying of the overall Licensing Bill, liberalising opening hours in line with Civilisation as a whole, which would otherwise have been law by now. When I think of the convivial occasions I’ve recently enjoyed interrupted just as they were getting going by some aproned minion barking “time, gentlemen, please!”, of how such premature ejection is down to liberal hand-wringing over the rights of Bonnie Tyler-wannabes to inflict their renditions of “I Will Always Love You” on undeserving patrons, I want to firebomb the offices of the Musicians’ Union. History may forgive you over Iraq, Mr Blair, but only because you’ve bequeathed us this wonderful legislation. Thank you, sir.

Sunday, July 6th, 2003

My Bloody Valentine

Recent word that My Bloody Valentine are back together in the studio, albeit minus exasperated bassist Debbie Googe, re-recording tracks abandoned during sessions for the Glider EP prompted the sort of flurry of anticipation and speculation you might expect on news that JD Salinger was on the point of completing his follow-up to The Catcher In The Rye. 1991’s Loveless, released by Creation was feted by Alan McGee as an immortal and unparalleled work of rock’n’roll genius. That Alan McGee was wont to greet all Creation’s releases as immortal and unparalleled works of rock’n’roll genius should not detract from the compliment – on this occasion he was right. Loveless was a flaming, phosphorescent reignition of the physical possibilities of rock music, a genre which even by the mid-Eighties, many had considered defunct. It was the culmination of a quite bizarre self-reinvention on the part of a band many had considered, frankly, insipid – imagine Donovan becoming Led Zeppelin.

Loveless was the culmination and vindication of the resurgence of the rediscovery of the rock guitar as a sonically, emotionally, meaningfully and meaninglessly potent thing-in-itself, the ravages of Eighties post-modern irony and the rise of dance music notwithstanding. MBV were intensely, moltenly, anti-nostalgic. This was the future and this was an idea of what it was going to sound like. Except . . . that was that. In the subsequent 12 years, and following a lucrative transfer from Creation to Island Records, Shields and MBV have maintained one of rock’s most conspicuous silences. Apart from a couple of cameo appearances with Primal Scream, a bit of mixing work for groups like Curve, “Outro” an instrumental contribution to a 2002 compilation . . . nothing. No full-blown My Bloody Valentine product, anyway.

Many put this down to what the see as Shields’ lackadaisical prevarication – he’s fended off inquisitors over the years with vague, the-dog-ate-my-studio-type excuses and promises of imminent new material. But perhaps the real answer is more complex than that, touches on issues broader than the mere dithering of one errant guitar genius.

My Bloody Valentine started up in Dublin in the early Eighties, when Kevin Shields and Colm O’ Ciosoig met through a little punk band called The Complex. They hooked up with one Dave Conway performing vocal duties and acquired their moniker, taken from a Hollywood b-movie. In a show of determination to forge their own musical identity they left Dublin for the continent. “In Dublin, if you put a stick in the spokes, if you want to do something different, they don’t want to know,” Colm once remarked.

After a few abortive gigs in Amsterdam they became abandoned there, lapsing into the sort of helpless penury and squat living they’d have to get used to over the next few years, with Shields forced to earn a living cleaning out cowsheds. Finally, in 1985 they cut their first release, a mini-LP that was raucous but under-produced and derivative by groups like The Birthday Party. Discouraged, the band briefly went their separate ways, Shields back to Dublin, Colm and Dave to the Centrepoint hostel in London. They regrouped, however, with Debbie Googe now on board and, under the wing of Creation associate Joe Foster and their sound began to take on a more streamlined, sweeter, approach, very mid-Eighties in its mid-Sixties feel, idyllic but listless. They were one of a number of groups travelling in this musical direction including The Wedding Present. Primal Scream, The Shop Assistants, who would be gathered together on the NME’s now famous C86 compilation, a landmark moment (some might say indictment) of mid-Eighties indie. They made EPs with sickly titles like Sunny Sunday Smile. They seemed to have found their small niche. Then a frustrated Dave Conway left the band and the whole structure and emphasis within MBV began to change.

Although Conway, lyrically had shown a dark, mischievous streak (he would later attempt a pulp teen novel) this hadn’t really soaked into the fabric of the music which still seemed tentative and in keeping with the dull indie times. Even with the recruitment of Bilinda Butcher, the band did not initially metamorphose as EPs like Strawberry Wine attest. Indeed, her girly, deadpan vocals made them seem if anything, still more generic – a sad boy’s Primitives. This, however, was an awkward transitional period for the band. (Vocals had always been problematic for MBV – among those who auditioned for them were a chap from Yorkshire who delivered heavily accented raps condemning nuclear war). When Shields finally got to arrange and take charge of the band’s music, however, a miraculous implosion took place – MBV became about the sounds of the guitar.

“I’m too obsessed with what can still be done with that instrument,” Shields once said. “There’s something organic, live about it, like a living animal. I fall in love with guitars.” The first, strange fruits of this was 1987’s You Made Me Realise, an astonishing fast-cut psychedelic blur of a song, spinning like a carousel right off its axis and rolling off God knows where. It should have been a Melody Maker Single of the Week but this writer was so stunned at MBV’s metamorphosis that he could only gibber confusedly, including it as an afterthought in that week’s column. Critics had been used to kicking MBV up and down the pages of the music press but now, derision turned almost overnight into an almost embarrassing orgy of awestruck infatuation.

Live, MBV would take to extending the mid-section of “You Made Me Realise” into a ten minute, sustained peal of white noise. Shields loved it (“one night we extended it to 30 minutes”). Maybe this was a case of guitar-pissing on all those crits and doubters who’d ignored MBV or kicked sand in his face over the years. Holdout cynics did suggest that MBV were merely Mary Chain copyists, resorting to feedback to hide a multitude of inadequacies. That was a misapprehension, however. As Shields protested, MBV didn’t dally with effects for their own sake but were engaged in a far more subtle, more layered, more transformative studio process. The details of this are a little techie and unmagical – overdubs, bass distortion pedals, sampled and reprocessed feedback, channelling a tremolo through a Fairlight V2000. The cumulative drift and gist of Shields’ approach, however, was overwhelming, the implications staggering.

In an interview, Shields once said that the only guitarists he liked were Jimi Hendrix and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. That was pertinent. Hendrix had enlarged the possibilities of rock guitar way way beyond the imaginings of his merely virtuoso contemporaries, while Mascis was one of a number of proto-grunge guitarists from across the Atlantic sending a hurricane through the whimsical, tumbledown structures of indie Britrock. Shields would develop and systematise the raging, petulant, unchannelled guitar energy of Mascis and co. On 1988’s Isn’t Anything, Shields and Bilinda Butcher shared vocal duties and what was immediately striking was the wonderfully disproportionate relationship between the gargantuan, distressed sturm und drang of the guitarsound and the fragile and enervated voices. “Soft As Snow (but Warm Inside)” seems literally to groan under its own weight. It was an inversion of the conventional mode of expressing passion and power onstage musically – the singer centre stage, unleashing vibrato broadsides of heartfelt defiance, projecting and emoting in the grand manner as the musicians provided a deferential and unobtrusive velvet backdrop. From Whitney to Robbie, from Hucknall to Bono, from Celine to Sinead, this is the way it has always been done, always will be done. With MBV, however, even as the guitars sandblasted your eardrums, it was as if they weren’t all there, as if the energy invested in the sound had all but spent them.

If you wanted to get all post-structuralist about it, you might gibber something about MBV demonstrating the notion of the death of the Author (or singer, or central human presence) and the rise of the primacy and pleasure of the text (the “text” here being the music). Lyrically, this theme of was played out in sexual imagery, on songs like “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, sex, like the guitars, wasn’t an empowering force but debilitating. There’s something faintly, unhealthily sadistic/masochistic about the way in which Bilinda’s small, drowsy, concussed vocals are ravaged in these songs. “Love me black and blue”, she sings on “No More Sorry” (actually a deeply moving and emotionally pertinent account of abuse). Bilinda offers the more prosaic explanation that by the time they came to record her vocals she’d been up all night and was practically asleep.

This, also, was key to the crux of My Bloody Valentine. As well as the odd mental side-effect of a bit of grass, Shields would become interested in the notion of hypnogogia, which, he explained, is “the term for that state just before sleep when you have brief, surreal flashes of scenes, almost like cartoons”. On tracks like “Several Girls Galore” and especially “All I Need” MBV were beginning to emulate musically that fuzzy state on the periphery of consciousness – time lags, sudden starts, illusory shapes leaping out at you from the hailstorm of sound.

1991’s Loveless was a long time in the making. Earlier that year, Shields offered an ominous pointer for future difficulties when he spoke airily of sitting in the studio for hours, days waiting for guitar inspiration to strike. “And if nothing happens for a fortnight then that’s £6,000 down the drain. It’s only money.”

However, Loveless proved more than worth the wait and poor Alan McGee’s fretting. Strangely, on “Soon”, which enjoyed an Andy Weatherall remix, they slid effortlessly in with the baggy times, the riff rotorblading upward as Colm and Debbie reveal a versatile, rhythmical element that would remain tantalisingly untapped. Elsewhere, however, this was the noisenik yet evanescent MBV of Isn’t Anything, only way more so. On the ravaged “Only Shallow”, Bilinda’s vocals are as insubstantial as condensation, yet strangely the more effective for that. Meanwhile, the guitars scrape across the song like a giant chalk. The stunning “Blown A Wish” seems almost to capture the condition of infatuation in all its quivering incandescence while the sensual roar of “What You Want” seems to add a new colour to the rock prism.

It’s with “To Here Knows When”, however, that My Bloody Valentine pulled out every stop and achieved something like transcendence. As elsewhere on Loveless, the lyrical content is negligible, all but burnt up by the sonic firestorm that blows back and forth between the speakers. “To Here Knows When” floods your head with wave after undulating wave of mauve, pink and blood red, twisting and shifting strangely in pitch as almost to make you feel nauseous with joy. “There’s a lot of things going on,” Shields told me enthusiastically. “We really wanted people to check their stereos with this one. There’s things in it that even the engineers barely remember doing, tons of really subtle inflections. And yet it’s just one guitar.”

Strange connections: In 1968, Bob Beamon leapt an astounding 8.90 metres to set a new long jump record. The same year, Jimi Hendrix made Electric Ladyland, an album which seemed to launch rock way beyond the pit into the 21st century. In 1991, one Mike Powell finally broke Beamon’s long-standing record with a leap of 8.95 metres.

Similarly, that year, Loveless exceeded even Hendrix’s sonic extremism. Both records still stand. Loveless was rock music taken to a point of near-complete ecstasy/unconscious, to a point of abstraction, perhaps total wipeout. It has never been exceeded.

In the immediate aftermath of MBV’s success came a slew of imitators in the form of the so-called shoegazing scene – groups like Ride and Slowdive who offered an often fuzzily pleasant but more dilute and manageable version of the MBV sound – it was a scene which eventually evaporated. MBV did have the consolation of being a band’s band, with Shields revered on both sides of the Atlantic by the likes of Nirvana, The Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream. A lucrative deal with Island and talk of Shields constructing his own recording studio seemed to promise a future of untrammelled exploration and sonic expansion, maybe even cross-fertilisation as Shields chatted excitedly of new developments in underground dance music like drum’n’bass. Yet misfortune would hamper him. The studio he built proved defective. Eventually, an impecunious MBV were forced to sell off old equipment and move into the house where their studio was kept, a cramped commune.

Shields looked on helplessly as Britpop supplanted the avant-garde tendencies of early Nineties rock. “From a sonic point of view, English music has moved completely backwards,” he complained in 1999. “Everything is justified in terms of the past.” Meanwhile, however, Shields was unable to produce something that lived up to his vaulting aesthetic ambitions. And maybe he never can, maybe that’s the point. Perhaps “To Here Knows When” (which actually went top 30 as part of the Tremelo EP) wasn’t a new beginning for rock but an end – less a show of strength than a final, spectacular haemorrhage, the last supernova, an unconscious act of self-immolation. To attempt exceed it has meant drifting off into the more amorphous and iconically less effective realms of keyboards, sampling, electronica and sound engineering. Maybe Loveless is a compendium of the last things left that could be done with a guitar, the last hope rock music had for reinventing itself. Or does Mr Shields have one last shot in his quiver? Will we find out? The answer, let’s hope, is soon.