Archive for 2004

Sunday, December 5th, 2004

Seinfeld Vs Rumsfeld – Out Of The Nineties

I just got the first three series of Seinfeld on DVD, a programme which I watched with an obsessiveness bordering on the sectionable in the late Nineties. It’s to be pointed out that this is the series’s Triassic era – Kramer hasn’t quite developed into the catastrophically sanguine, virtuoso slapstick comedic tic dispenser of the late episodes – in the earliest ones in particular, he’s still a variation on the stoner stereotype of “Carlton, your doorman” in Rhoda or Christopher Lloyd’s slow-on -the-uptake acid casualty in Taxi. George, meanwhile, is only in the process of transforming from a Woody Allen impersonation to a more full-blown, appallingly well realised Larry David impersonation. Seinfeld has, admittedly, become Seinfeld and the magnificently sexy/hilarious Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has established her wonderfully seductive lexicon of Elaine-isms, in which a mere jut of the chin can speak ironic, comedic/erotic volumes.

Still, the quality of both the acting/writing and the strangely accidental courage of the conceit still make for absolutely essential viewing.

Still . . . it was as well Seinfeld stopped when it did. It more or less exactly spanned the Nineties – when it commenced, the dust of the historical turbulence of the collapse of the Soviet satellite states and the Iraq war had settled, for the time being at any rate. Clinton was about to enjoy, arguably instigate a lengthy period of economic and political fair weather for America, one which became very quickly taken for granted. (Who cried out ‘what glad and benign times we live in?’ in the mid-Nineties) Absurd as it was that Kenneth Starr insisted on pressing for impeachment when Clinton porked Monica Lewinsky, there were many on the Left who quietly enjoyed this unctuous politico (and opportunistic executioner of mentally handicapped black men, lest we forget) being put on the spot.

This, then, was the era in which Seinfeld flourished, one which seems aeons ago – the twin Shadows had yet to cast. It was an era in which Seinfeld could, honestly and appropriately be a Show about Nothing, a (for many) desultory, affluent, privileged era in which it seemed a proper and duly, pleasantly opportune moment to reflect home on in the absurdities of the consumer everyday rather than the follies of war or the iniquities of globalisation. Granted, there was plenty of war and iniquity going on but for the concerned but cosseted middle classes, these were going on way, way beyond the horizons. Fukiyama’s End Of History had apparently been established. That underground, adrenaline river of anxiety that coursed through decades of cold war and nuclear fear had been expunged. In New York, Mayor Guiliani was in the process of sweeping New York’s underclass under the carpet and giving midtown in particular a brush-up it hadn’t seen in years. New York felt like the stage for an extended, comic contemplation of unconsidered trifles, an era of political and cultural hiatus in which the most vexed question was indeed, what’s the deal with airline peanuts?

Today, watching Seinfeld almost feels like watching an opulent screwball Thirties comedy like, say, The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in a gay post-depression/pre WWII Thirties hiatus. Naivety isn’t a factor – the quality of the comedy frivolously spills over the highest established benchmarks of erudition, irony and sophistication. But the era of untroubled grace they apparently inhabit seems part of a soft-focus, long-ago time.

9/11 was clearly a factor in all of this and it would have been impossible for the studiously trivial Seinfeld to have continued in its increasingly preposterous comedic bubble, with New York an acrid crematorium for weeks and months after the destruction of the Twin Towers. As Kramer might have said in one of those improbably pompous moments of his, it wouldn’t have sat well. Don’t get me wrong. It is not that, as politicians are constantly warning us, “we” are in imminent danger of terrorist annihilation. I have never believed that, and happen to feel as personally safe, for what that’s worth, as I did in the Nineties. I completely concur, always did, with the recent BBC documentary series The Power Of Nightmares which effectively accused both the US and UK governments of using fear of terrorism as a means of encouraging trust in the prevailing powers-that-be and even as a way of subtly (or unsubtly) sneaking through packages designed to infringe civil rights.

Effectively, Western populations have been dulled into a false sense of insecurity. As said documentary explained, Al-Qaeda were baptised thus by the Americans, they are not the systematic, SPECTRE-like global/subterranean organisation they’re depicted as. Even the much-vaunted threat of “Dirty bombs”, which would supposedly leave a trail of irradiated dead in their wake, is a nonsense. According to experts, dosages would leave a few people feeling a bit queasy but that’s about it. The threat of terrorism has been overplayed by the right/establishment as a means of deterring boat-rocking but is also integral to the rhetoric of the Left, some of whom argue that Bush’s adventurism leaves “us” all vulnerable to terrorism. Bollocks. Pertinent voice of complacency calling: Your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are so laughably infitesmal as not to be worth worrying about for a second. It’s galling to think of, say, Soccer Moms in remote American small towns worrying sufficiently about being massacred by bin Laden by remote control from his cave that it might have swayed their bloody vote in the recent election. The Left, too, join in the rhetoric of “insecurity” and “dangerous times”.

One of the main arguments deployed, for example, against the Iraq war is that it has made us “less safe”, more vulnerable to terrorism. But this is just as ill-founded, even opportunistic, as the establishment Right’s eager deployment of the terrorist threat and plays just as much on self-centred, irrational hysteria. “We” are not all going to die, any more than “We” are going to win the lottery. In broad terms, it’s not going to happen. Be more afraid of travelling by car – a million, a barely spoken MILLION deaths a year are caused by automobile accidents. Your chances of being killed by a terrorist act remain comically low – so don’t even let it cast any sort of shadow across your field of anxiety. As ever, someone else, far away, will be doing our dying for us.

Still, the point that the Nineties were a very distinct decade from the Noughties holds. The defining event wasn’t 9/11 but the election of George W Bush and the concomitant misery, resentment, debt and ideological rage he and his neo-Cons have created. That sense of privileged desultoriness that might be the defining characteristic of the Nineties is no more. Think of trip-hop, the abiding soundtrack of the Nineties – think of how washed up, boneless, useless a confection it now sounds, the muted trump of a white elephant. You could almost be unwarrantably, perversely happy that a sense of excitement, anxiety, and anger has increased the tempo of music coming out of, say, NYC, be it Radio 4, The Rapture, the DFA brigade.

Another casualty of Bushism, to my mind, is The West Wing. Under the aegis of Aaron Sorkin, now departed I know, it was, for a while, a thrillingly erudite, magnificently nuanced drama that, in the context of US TV drama managed effortlessly to morph between an almost light operatic, Gilbert & Sullivan feel (think of the light, staccato pace of Donna Moss’s stilettos along the White House corridors) to a sense of sober gravitas that left you feeling grimly sympathetic about the weight of the world’s tragically intractable problems laid upon the decent but often helpless liberal shoulders of Martin Sheen.

As it’s gone on, however, it’s been hamstrung by the problem that besets other such long-term drama series such as The Sopranos. After a while, you realise that these characters aren’t going anywhere, because they have to back in the same place, in situ, for the next series – the dramatic arc is a boomerang-like one. You begin to feel a bit strung along, begin to wonder what you’re still doing with these people, when some sort of closure or Nemesis is going to occur. You start missing appointments with the series. With The West Wing, however, there are other problems. When it first started, it was a reflection of the Clinton era in TV’s looking glass world. This was a White House staffed by well-meaning people and brilliant, if at times a little self-satisfied (for which they were always smacked down, especially Josh) and they represented a success – good people in the White House. Of course, the series makers were always careful not to make them too successful, in a manner that would have them run away from reality. Bills, supreme court appointments were deferred, a sense of necessary compromise and dissatisfaction was kept nicely simmering, offset only by the odd rousing speech from President Sheen or small triumph, be it electoral or political.

Since 2000, however, through no fault of Sorkin’s, naturally, The West Wing has inevitably felt further unmoored from reality. There’s a parallel with Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister in the Eighties, a very pertinent satire on a centrist government whose Wooster-like politico is hamstrung by the ostensibly servile but subversive, Jeevesian machinations of the civil service. Pertinent, that is, except to the actual era in which it was broadcast – the Thatcher years, in which the PM was enthusiastically tugging the political goalposts to the far right, regardless of any huffing objections from the do-nothing, establishment status quo.

Who believes that White House staff operate with the improbably pious integrity of a Sam Seaborn, insisting to all his staff that all their research material be triple-sourced? Or in the improbably statistical and cultural omniscience and sagacity of the staff (not just those endlessly rattled-out stats but references like that in a series 4 episode made by staff spokesman CJ, Alison Janney, in which she refers to the punch Ali didn’t throw as Foreman went down in 1974. I happen know what she’s talking about but that’s because I’m an absolute boxing freak. But how are we to believe that CJ would utter such a blatantly-from-Aaron-Sorkin-type allusion?).

What’s inadvertently bad, despite its brilliance about The West Wing, isn’t so much the fact that it’s a liberal fantasy about the qualities and good intentions of the White House but that it bolsters a very American, appalling reverential attitude towards the Office of the President that is so ingrained in US culture it lets the monkey Bush get away with a multitude of sins – you really get the impression, even among high-profile liberals that slagging off their employee, the ‘commander in chief’ is an inexcusable breach of protocol. In a strange kind of way, The West Wing functions as propaganda for the American Presidency, whomsoever they may be. What’s really needed is a cross between The West Wing and The Sopranos to reflect the actual state of The White House. But would even HBO have the balls/clout to make such a show?

As for comedy, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm remain brilliant but feel like the belong to a world of micro rather than macro-trouble that’s not quite in tune with these times. The Simpsons remains the surprisingly durable repository of all countercultural activity but, brilliant as it is, it’s gone through eight or nine degrees of self-parody. What’s needed, what may be brewing in left-field, is programming that reflects that still-fresh, suppurating rage at the reelection of Bush, the polarisation of America, the repoliticisation of vast numbers of the erudite but jaded. Maybe it’s in development right now.

Wednesday, August 18th, 2004

Ian MacDonald – The Peoples’ Music

“There is no correct way to write about popular music,” writes Ian MacDonald in the introduction to this selection of writings which range from relatively brief if laudatory reviews of Chic and Diana Ross & The Supremes to more extensive overviews of the likes of The Beatles, Hendrix, Bowie, Laura Nyro, Miles Davis, The Stones and the Bobs Dylan and Marley. He adds that rock music is a “vast subject unknowable in its totality by any one mind”. Yet one of the most striking qualities of MacDonald’s prose is its formidable sense of certitude. This is coupled with an Olympian perspective and cultural and musicological frame of reference which has the average (or even above average) rock crit quailing with awe, especially when contemplating their own, relatively meagre intellectual credentials. When setting an artist in context, MacDonald is capable of invoking everything from the sociopolitical tectonic shifts of the era and the world’s great religions to the preferred drugs du jour.

All of this might seem far fetched to readers weaned on the ephemerally hip waffle that passes for much musical journalism nowadays. Yet MacDonald’s tone is neither pretentious nor condescending, just fearsomely authoritative. Born in 1948, Ian MacDonald is one of the founding fathers of UK rock journalism. Although he declares his belief that the Sixties were the greatest decade for pop and rock, these were not great years for music writing. Take the concluding paragraph of NME’s review of Sergeant Pepper in 1967, for example, which read something like as follows; “Once again, The Beatles have furnished us with an album that will not only have you tapping your toes but also gives you something to think about!” During the same period, Melody Maker was running features with titles like Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Rolling Stone?

It was only with the arrival of a new generation of writers like MacDonald in the early Seventies that rock journalism came into its adulthood, learned to discuss music in the terms it deserved, as a complex and finely wrought cultural phenomenon rather than another offshoot of showbiz. These pieces, however, were all written either in the Nineties or the present decade, appearing in magazines like Uncut, Mojo and Arena. They are, as the author freely admits, detached and analytical in tone – no present-tense atmospherics or sleazy odour of booze, groupies’n’drugs here. Yet this doesn’t make for an arid read – on the contrary, MacDonald’s cerebral ruminations are highly refreshing in this extended post-punk era of neurotic anti-pretentiousness. What’s more, whether discussing events like the Stones at Altamont or Bob Marley’s 1975 concerts at the Lyceum, which instigated the birth of British reggae, he thrillingly evokes both a sense of time and place as well as precisely measuring the weight of their historical significance.

MacDonald claims not to be advancing any grand theory in these disparate pieces an overarching view does emerge, particularly in the one from which this collection takes its name, a soberly pertinent account of the rise and fall of post-war rock and pop. For him, it’s no coincidence that rock’s halcyon years were the Sixties, an era of musical awakening as groups took control of their own songwriting and their own artistic destiny, an era of transition from monochrome to colour, from innocence to experience, an era of becoming, of spiritual curiosity. Nowadays, laments MacDonald, supersaturated as we are in post-modern irony and nostalgia, driven by the high-speed imperatives of hedonism, materialism, gratification and lifestyle, the cultural conditions no longer exist for the pop and rock geniuses of yesteryear to flourish. MacDonald blames among other things a shift from a listening to a visual culture, the natural dissipation of rock’s energy and the abandonment of the spiritual introspection of the counter-cultural era in favour of the clever-clever but spiritually vacuous frivolity of today, which MacDonald suggests is “murdering our souls”. Fearlessly, he also claims punk destroyed the “skills base” of British pop and the emergence of sequenced music for creating the featureless sonic terrain we presently occupy. As proof of this devolution, MacDonald drily points to the return of “All-round entertainment” and “a resurgence of generalised celebrity not seen since the 1950s”.

I disagree with MacDonald’s essentially dismissive attitude towards post-1977 music in general. Just because the Great Deeds in rock and pop have been done and the golden perfection of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is nowadays unattainable doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a myriad of minor delights and micro-revolutions to avail of these past 25 years. Yet MacDonald’s jeremiads aren’t the grumbling of a past-it hippie but a magisterial and, in the context of the mainstream, near-unanswerable rebuke to the modern era. While exalting rock’s classic hall of fame-dwellers, he certainly doesn’t regard them as sacred. Of Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks he writes, “Emotion abounds but so does cliche”. He suggests that the Stones were “never as truly radical” as American groups like MC5 and that Hendrix’s music suffered rather than flourished when effectively commandeered by the Black Power movement. There’s also a brilliantly scornful essay on minimalism, which MacDonald clearly regards as one of the 20th century’s bright shining frauds.

Ultimately, however, you emerge from this book with an enhanced, rather than diminished sense of the greatness of the greats. This is particularly the case with a final, lengthy study of Nick Drake, worth the price of this volume alone, in which all of MacDonald’s virtues come joyfully to the fore – close, penetrative textual reading, copious historical and anecdotal evidence and a placing of the late singer/songwriter in a much wider context than most critics would dare. Invoking Blake and Buddhism, he argues that Drake was attempting to seek out a “different way of being” through his music. It’s the culmination of an essential and humbling volume of work, a superb rock and pop reader.

MACDONALD ON . . . . Bob Dylan “Dylan’s work constitutes the peak achievement of critical articulacy in popular music in the last half-century . . . his dynamic presence in post-war popular culture has been seminal for the thinking minority in several generations. In terms of the people’s music, only The Beatles can be compared to him in influence on the temper of our time.”

On The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: “To enjoy this album today, you have to grasp it as a piece of history. Then, its occasionally gloopy sentiment becomes touching and its textures breathe something precious lost to us. At the same time, it becomes fresh again . . . you fall down and worship before pop’s most perfectly beautiful three minutes, ‘God Only Knows’.”

On David Bowie: “In Berlin, he saw neo-Nazis beat up Turkish immigrants. In Berlin, low on the aftermath of heavy drugs and Hollywood glamour, he forced himself to live like an everyday person, buying his own groceries. The nightmare of the Thin White Duke faded, chased away by hours of laughter with his new cohort Eno, the first person Bowie worked with who could keep up with him.”

On John Lennon: “In hindsight it’s easy to mock Lennon for his political pretensions; indeed, those born since 1975 will probably be mystified that a pop star could ever have been taken so seriously as to become a prized figurehead for radical movements, let alone monitored by the security agencies of Britain and America. The key word here is “radical”. Nowadays, there is neither an equivalent to the radical politics of the early Seventies nor anything that begins to approach the extent to which such radicalism was then de rigueur for young thinking people.”

Monday, July 26th, 2004

I Remember . . . (Melody Maker Reminiscences)


I Remember (Melody Maker reminiscences)

I REMEMBER a three month stint in 1986 as a trainee chartered accountant, a profession for which I was ill-suited in every respect except the rather elegant suit I enjoyed wearing. I had supposedly beaten nine other applicants in order to secure this berth, despite my half hearted interview. Probably the only time my Oxbridge pedigree secured me any sort of advantage. I was still writing for Monitor, the deliberately austere and high-minded “fanzine” set up by Paul Oldfield, Chris Scott and Simon Reynolds, already writing for Melody Maker. One of my most recent articles had been a lambasting of a Melody Maker Bands To Watch Out For . . . feature, which I derided for its deluded optimism, lazily vacant, cliche addled prose and for the fact that the only reason one might wish to watch out for these bands was to throw things at them if you saw them coming. Loftily, I concluded that at no price would I myself compromise my obscure principles and become a hack for the weekly music test. This ringingly pompous declaration, which resounds down the years to my acute embarrassment, was put almost immediately to the test when Frank Owen of Melody Maker rang me and asked if I’d care to write for Melody Maker. My retort took the form of a single word; “Yesplease”. And, on the promise of one trial review, I was out of chartered accountancy like a shot. My first review was of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, live. “The wider the flares, the badder the funk,” I wrote. That line means nothing now, it meant something then. I remember what, too, just about.

I REMEMBER that, despite Melody Maker’s establishment comprising an apparently reactionary rearguard of unconvincing sub-Smash Hits boisterousness, faded glam/goth worship and hymns of praise on the ed’s part of what (to our ears, Futurist to the point of being pointy) laboured pub rock, of jaded sub-editors whose policy was “cut it where it falls”, ie if an article ran 200 words over, they would simply excise the last 200 words on the page, regardless of sense, so that pieces would end abruptly, occasionally in mid-sentence if the subs were feeling especially lazy/malicious. I remember that despite all this, efforts on Simon Reynolds’s, Frank Owen’s and to an extent my own parts to effect a revolution in terms of MM’s content and polemical tone weren’t met with either fierce resistance or hostility. We were allowed extraordinary liberties – 4,000 word pieces lambasting the concept of “decency” in pop and rock, even a series with the frankly meaningless title “Age Of The Aerial”, the memory of which makes Allan Jones guffaw to this day. I remember a time generally when a managerial policy of “Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, get on with it”, yielded great things. Nowadays, such an approach would be deemed lackadaisical, with tight word counts, ‘creative’ input from the marketing department and a grey ring of middle management steel ensuring that the music press will never again descend into such an appalling, shambolic state of interestingness.

I REMEMBER during that early era, circa late 1986, Jon Savage being invited (back) to MM to write an uncompromisingly cerebral piece on something or other. I remember it was very good. I also remember that at the end of it, he included a list of “further reading”. It’s doubtful whether at that stage, when MM’s readership consisted primarily on confused Cure fans, that any of them read further than the first paragraph.

I REMEMBER . . . actually, there’s a lot I don’t remember. Having joined MM’s staff properly in 1987, a typical day would go something like this. 7am: Wake up in a state of cold sweat, disorientation and panic. Realise you have 3,000 words of finely wrought, considered prose to produce for a midday deadline, subtracting an hour to shower, dress, get to the office (no e-mail, of course). Bash out said 3,000 words on a recalcitrant old typewriter whose keys often attempt to hit back when you hit them. Arrive at the office at about 11.57, as if bearing an official pardon from the Home Secretary to the gallows. Hand in your copy. Try to look modest as the ed gives it the once over and, if deserved, a word of praise which bucks you up almost pathetically. By now, it’s 12.10. The pubs have been open for quite some time, you can feel it in your nostrils. Utter the words “anyone fancy a pint?” Anyone does. Repair to the Oporto until 3.20 (these were the dark days of afternoon pub closing). Carry up four tins of warm Swan lager to see you through Prohibition, which ends at 5.30 when the Oporto landlord opens the doors and you tumble in, for a resumption of the ongoing (and true) editorial meeting. Wake up the next morning in a state of cold sweat, etc . . .

I REMEMBER The (Legendary) Stud Brothers – reprobate Croydon city rockers with a singularly Nietzschian streak and an impeccably tailored line in put downs. Their collective “we” added an uncanny air of authority to their pronouncements. They looked exactly as you would imagine them to, did Ben and Dominic. Ben was seemingly the more affable, Good Cop of the pair, though his occasional aptness to fall asleep, face first in his pub lunch during interviews, was disconcerting to some. Dom, peeping witheringly from behind two dark curtains of long hair, was apparently the Evil half of the partnership, though the truth was, of course, more complex than that – ie they were both evil. In a true measure of the man’s malice, Dominic once had the temerity to call me an “incompetent buffoon” when I bungled the map reading en route to Glastonbury and had booked the pair of them into a room with one, double bed at the hotel (I’d assumed theirs was a sort of Laurel & Hardy/Morecambe & Wise-type arrangement).

I’ll remember more about The Stud Brothers in due course – the time I had to coax Ben down from up a tree following a drunken preview party for an Enya album of all things, the time they bedded down for the night with a mysterious female in the assistant editor’s office, to which he was unable to gain access until two the next afternoon when they eventually work up, etc. The way that they would select the most weak, worthless and unassuming items in the reviews pile, for which they would reserve their most acerbic and piledriving prose. A collection of German Ska, for example, drew from them the wistful thought that it was a shame that the Germans, this “once proud race” had been reduced to bouncing around in white socks and tight trousers. (“proud race” is the key bit . . .)

Right now I remember their interview with Paula Abdul, then at the height of her short burst of fame. The thousand word feature was effectively two parallel texts – on the one hand, Paula responds to The SBs’ presumably inoffensive questions with customary professional blandnesss (“as an artist I have a responsibility to my fans” . . etc). Meanwhile, The Stud Brothers, clearly not listening to a word she’s saying but paralysed by devotional lust in her presence, convey this in thoroughly distracted, dick-achingly frank terms throughout the piece. Finally, by now so driven insane by Paula’s pulchritude that they have given up completely on the supposed engagement that’s traditionally supposed to take place between interviewer and interviewee and have gone into a collective reverie of their own. The piece digresses and concludes on a bizarre note of sexual shame, as The Stud Brothers recall a game of British Bulldog back in their Croydon childhood, when one of them dragged a young girl down by her breasts and was consequently sent indoors in disgrace. Apparently, Paula loved the piece.

I REMEMBER “reviewing” The Pogues album If I Should Fall From Grace With God in 1988. I made no secret of the fact, among those who cared, that I loathed The Pogues as a musical proposition. (NB recent exception among their ranks: Jem Finer, whose recent albums I commend to anyone with an interest in the recent, strange liaison between folk and the avant garde). Loathed ’em, I did. Cod-folk masquerading as rootsy authenticity – where we needed black/white steel in the hour of postmodern chaos, here were this bunch providing wet soil. And, in the lax editorial era of the time, this was all the excuse MM’s mischievous reviews editor of the time needed to commission me to pen 600 or so withering words on their upcoming LP.

Simple enough – all I needed to do was turn up at MM Towers on Thursday evening – I’d taken a day off looking after my young brother-in-law Jasbir, just 13 at the time, who’d been staying with us – pick up the advance cassette, listen to the scrofulous, pox-addled thing then turn round a derisive Phillipe the next morning that would put these drunken, jigging charlatans in their place. Duly, I turned up at the Maker offices that evening, young bro-in-law in tow, popped the cassette in my bag, then went on to Euston, where I was charged with seeing the little feller onto his train back to Birmingham. Then, back home, whereupon I rummaged in my bag and realised to my horror that I’d accidentally plonked the cassette in one of Jas’s carrier bags.

On the phone at once to Birmingham. ‘Hello? Jas? Look through your bags – you’ll find a cassette by a band called ‘The Pogues’? Yes – the Pogues. See it? Found it? Brilliant. Now. Can you fetch down your tape player from your room and, like – play it me over the phone? Good lad.” Problem solved. Dutifully, he played the thing over the phone (fortunately, I had a press release with the track listing), and I was able to attend, albeit not via the ideal sound system, to their latest skirlings. A wave of relief came over me, followed by one of hubris. I couldn’t be arsed to sit with a receiver in my ear listening to this fiddly-diddly nonsense for 40 odd minutes. It had been a long day and I had my first drink of the evening had been unpardonably delayed. Resourcefully, therefore, and after just 10 seconds of the opening track, I produced my own hand-held tape recorder. It’d be a simple matter to tape these cod-Oirish sonic excrescences, unwind with a much-deserved flagon of ale, get up early, listen to the tape and pen my derisive Philippic first thing in the morning. So I duly resolved to do and so I did.

Waking up the next morning at the crack of 10.15 am, in a strange room which turned out, after a few minutes to be my own, I slithered out of bed and, mindful of my deadline as ever, reached for the tape recorder, Old Trusty, which had cost me a princely £15 and played back the tape. To my astonishment, the sound that greeted me was a flatline of hiss, more entertaining than The Pogues album from an abstract/avant garde perspective, doubtless, but decidedly not the actual Pogues album as such. Old Trusty had let me down.

With two hours until deadline, the bro in law back in school and no means of acquiring another tape, I was in something of a quandary. I had no choice but to compose a 600 word review of The Pogues album based on having heard the first 10 seconds of the damn thing over the phone. The review I spun from this fragment of a sow’s earlobe, long on general, disparaging remarks about The Pogues, short on anything remotely appertaining to the actual album, duly ran – weekly deadlines were tight. And, I got away with it – just. The editor, Allan Jones, an ardent Pogues fan himself, peered over his half-moon glasses in my direction at the next editorial meeting and remarked with asperity on a tendency for recent reviews to be long on general points but short on specifics. He cited my Pogues review as an example. I blushed manfully, took the small rap on the wrist with a penitent nod and watched with relief as the water of this incident passed on under the bridge.

Except . . . except . . . that a certain august MM colleague of mine, in whom I had confided the details of the whole affair, but who had somehow come to labour under the misapprehension that the entire editorial staff were in on what had happened, merrily spilled the beans to the editor the next lunchtime in the Oporto. I shan’t mention this august colleague’s name for fear of embarrassing him – let’s just call him Rimon Seynolds to protect his identity – but as I popped into the pub that lunchtime, reporting for staff duties, I was faced with the editor glowering machetes at me and Rimon Seynolds sitting next to him, rubbing his chin, confessing, “I think I might have made a bit of a gaffe, David.” And so he had. I had visions of being thrown out of the window like the typewriter that had suffered the same fate at the hands of the great man some years earlier. Fortunately, he stayed his hand, perhaps recognising the folly of Youth – a lesser man might have banished me to the Ipswich Gazette, to a lifetime of reviewing the Edgar Broughton Band et al at the local Corn Exchange.

As for The Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace . . . proved to be an overall critical and commercial success, perhaps the zenith of their career and a reminder, both chastening and strangely heartening, to this reviewer, of the Power Of The Press.

I REMEMBER writing the World’s Worst Gossip Column Ever. Prior to my taking it over, Talk Talk Talk had been a merry hybrid of photo captions, Top 10 lists and a chronicle of the nocturnal, inebriated activities of the stars and starlets about town, occasionally obscurely self-referential, perhaps over-leavened by the odd, desperate photos of Whatever-Comes-After Z-list celebs flashing their tits, but at least alluding to people of whom you may have heard, even if they were Martin Degville and the ever-publicity shy Patsy Kensit.

None of that for this scribe. In came a new broom. New fictional features were one thing – The Adam Clayton Corner, The Nod Corner (drummer from Fields Of The Nephilim and his constant efforts, cruelly thwarted and twisted by the rest of the “rotten bastards” in the band, to be noticed by lordly lead singer Carl. Each episode would end in a furious McCoy ordering Nod to do ten press ups) and The Mick Talbot Fan Club Corner, which chronicled the weekly vicissitudes of his dwindling band of fans to combat near-universal apathy toward the ex-Style Council keyboardist, as well as The George Michael Appeal Fund, set up to raise money for the great man following his legal bust-up with Sony, which, over 12 weeks, raised a staggering 87p (all soaked up in administration costs, sadly).

All of these became the new staple fare of TTT – however, there still remained the small matter of the “run-on” section of the pages, which was still supposed to contain actual, you know, gossip. Sadly, under my less than Walter Winchell-like stewardship, readers were perhaps deprived of their due. Seeking out niblets of hot goss was not quite my forte, involving as it did picking up a phone and talking inquisitively to other human beings, which flew in the face of my every journalistic inclination. Week by week, the morsels of anecdote on which the column subsisted were fewer and fewer in number, the engaging self-referentiality which had always been a feature of this pages was stretched and stretched. This culminated one week in a 400 word column which consisted entirely of the important hearsay that myself, The Stud Brothers, Ian Gittins and Allan Jones had gone down to the pub for the afternoon. Shortly afterwards, the column died a quiet and unmourned death.

Sunday, July 11th, 2004


After receiving nothing but kind words via e-mail for this site, for which, thanks again, I was strangely relieved to receive a couple of stinkers, recently, both from ardent Roxy Music fans objecting to my Reaper column, both within hours of each other (could it have a concerted nationwide campaign?). The gist of one was, how could I write bad things about Roxy Music when they were clearly one of the greatest bands of the Seventies. I’ve been struggling and writhing in the logical grip of this argument for several days but sadly have been able to come up with no adequate riposte. The second correspondent had me by even crisper hair. First, they stated that the lyrics I had quoted for one of Bryan Ferry’s songs were “wrong”. Apologies if that’s the case but this, I would venture to suggest is the sort of misunderstanding that can arise when you choose to sing like the charwallah from It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. They then went on to deliver the coup de grace. Bryan Ferry, it seems, did not teach pottery. He taught ceramics. And so, the brittle edifice of my entire anti-Roxy Music argument comes crashing down like a dinosaur skeleton laid low by a wrecking ball. Sadly, I’ve been more aware in recent times, especially in my capacity as a music journalist, of an obsession with facts and minutiae. Maybe it’s the changing nature of the music press, a new culture of Corrections & Clarifications, the more details-orientated, archaeological requirements of music journalism on which readers (and I don’t entirely discount myself here) thrive. Letters to music papers are increasingly concerned with perceived factual errors, so that the dominant tone can quite often be one of sneering pedantry and self-satisfaction. As professional journalists we should “get our facts right”, runs the refrain – and indeed, we should. However, this is accompanied by the wholly incorrect implication that The Facts Equal The Truth. They do not and never should that idea be allowed to prevail. Certainly, in the first, frantic three years of my writing for Melody Maker, of the many words I churned and spewed onto its pages, there were probably only about six facts (and three of them were probably incorrect). Back then, whenever I perpetrated a howler, I openly celebrated it as a badge of honour, much in the way the bebop jazzmen celebrated each lousy review they received in the mainstream US jazz press. Nowadays, like most journos, I live in craven fear of the misspelt name, the erroneous birthdate, the wrongly attributed line up credit, the potentially libellous reference. People aren’t wrong to pull up journalists on factual mistakes. What is wrong, however, is to imagine that this removes any obligation to engage with the core arguments, the back and forth of discourse and ideas. Fuck facts. The truth is what counts.

Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

Whatever Happened To The Future?

(This feature appeared in the first edition of Sour Mash magazine)

So what happened? It’s the 21st Century already. We’ve docked in the future. And it’s not what we were promised. We were given to believe that life would be a little more space-age than this – from the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 and its rolling pavements, to the prototype robots patented at numerous American trade fairs over the decades, to the jet packs showcased in Thunderball, to the hovercars and intergalactic travel confidently foreseen in the likes of Flash Gordon and Space 1999. As Seinfeld’s George Costanza, that squat little mass of human frustration, put it, “we could be zipping about all over the place!”

Instead, we’ve been denied. Denied also domestic robots, all-silver jumpsuits, timeshares on the moon, cryonics, capsule-sized three-course meals and 3-D chess and strangely superfluous glass helmets. Were the comic strip writers lying to us? Or was there a lack of will on the part of the scientific establishment to put the fine ideas mooted above into practice? Did they think it would just, like, happen and get lazy?

As well as being denied, however, we’ve also been spared a great many things – at least, for the time being. Spared the radioactive landscapes following the nuclear holocausts which erudite political commentators mournfully assured us were absolutely inevitable by the Eighties or Nineties. Spared the ice age faithfully promised by scientist Steven Schneider back in the Seventies. Spared the global famines predicted by that most spectacularly off-the-mark of Jeremiahs Paul Ehrlich. Spared also the drying up of the world’s gas and petroleum supplies, which the Club of Rome projected would occur by 1993. Orwell’s 1984 proved not to be a horrific vision of things to come but a futurist relic now almost completely strip-mined for ideas for second-rate TV shows, from Room 101 to Big Brother. (Wonder, incidentally, how many copies of 1984 were sold in 1985?)And, while the present incumbent of the White House might suggest otherwise, Homer Simpson’s primary fear of the future – that apes would be our masters – hasn’t materialised either.

Instead, what have we got? Grass. Fishmongers. Paul McCartney. Seaside towns. Astronauts dying, forgotten, of old age. Bob Monkhouse still on television. Prince Phillip. Repeats of Hi-De-Hi and The Good Life. Banjos. Powdered custard. It’ll Be All Right On The Night 38. It’s the future all right but it feels more like the present. Could be worse but could be better. And dirt. Still with the dirt, a component the futurists of the last century, from fantasists to town planners always imagined would somehow be magicked away, like the stain-resistant fabric devised by Alec Guinness’s boffin in the Ealing comedy The Man In The White Suit. They assumed that at some point a clean break would literally be made between now and Years To Come, that absolute hygiene would be a given, that the gleaming, curvaceous, chrome-plated new world would bear absolutely no traces of the old world, or of waste products. It’s a fallacy perpetuated in the flyless trousers of the Star Trek crew to the idyllic blueprints of Sixties towerblocks with their whitewashed and convenient underpasses. Neither factored piss into their equations.

Perhaps the real reason we haven’t been granted the future we were promised is not just that it was unfeasible but also undesirable. Take jetpacks and hovercars. Imagine the former as a vehicular feature of everyday life – the clouds of vapour from the hydrogen peroxide fuel belching wastefully from your heels as you roared out to purchase a pack of 20 Rothmans. Imagine also, your expanding circumference as walking was reduced to a former evolutionary biped phase and we ballooned into fat, lazy bubblebutts barely able to stretch the safety belt around our midriffs and requiring extra boosters to get our bloated carcasses temporarily jet-propelled. Temporary being 28 seconds, the longest these things can stay airborne, which probably wouldn’t even get you all the way to the corner shop for those Rothmans. As for Hovercars and the inevitable air rage that would ensue in such impossible-to-regulate space, just what is the mystical appeal of being roughly 60 feet in the air? Homo sapiens didn’t descend many thousands of years ago from the trees, in order to re-ascend the same distance just because Dan Dare made it look cool. It’s one thing to dream of life in distant galaxies, transported through the wormholes of our imagination. But life 60 feet up in the air? Crane your neck, you can see it from here. There’s nothing up there. Everything’s down here. Get a grip.

Then there are food pills were mooted in 1966 on Tomorrow’s World, which, Raymond Baxter informed us, would be the staple fare of earth-citizens of the far off 1990s. What could have been the appeal of such a patently asinine notion? Again, it was the implication of a world without bowel movements – no more steaming, six-pounder turds wedged stubbornly in the u-bend, no more embarrassed, Sid James-type warnings warnings to give it ten minutes. In short, no more excrement. This vision of a shite-free world, however, was marred in that Tomorrow’s World were themselves talking complete shite. It’s clear mankind wasn’t going to forego the sensual delights of stuffing copious amounts of nosh down its gullet.

Then there were the robots whom we were promised would be not our enemies but our helpers – like Klatu, the cyber-housemaid developed by Quasar industries in 1977. This helpful little fellow, modelled along R2D2 lines was supposed to trundle about the house performing domestic chores and was regarded as a prototype of future labour savers. Once again, this has failed to pan out. Once again thank goodness. For once a robot had developed the required competence, mobility and initiative to do a decent job of erasing the sort of dirt from our lives that has no business existing in the future, it would also occur to this newly conscious and empowered being to take a look at the flabby weaklings it was skivvying for and think, “I can take this fat bastard.” Then, asserting its metal superiority it would announce in Hawkingeseque monotones that we could wash our own damn undershorts from now on, before turning the tables, like Dirk Bogarde in Harold Pinter’s The Servant, relaxing on our sofas, wearing our dressing gowns and smoking our cigars, having us run around after it in aprons, cleaning up its rust stains and refilling its brandy glass. A chilling vision.

Then there is the Internet, the one thing that has actually happened and the one thing James Burke, William Woolard, Raymond Baxter et al never got around to telling us about. They informed us that by the late Nineties (so long as we were still at peace with the Soviet Union), micro-chips would have rendered the vast majority of the workforce obsolete, with the exception of a handful of men in white coats ensuring the smooth maintenance of the cogs of automated industry. Meanwhile, the rest of us, basking in micro-chip generated wealth but unoccupied would be faced only with the problem of how to fill our idle days. This prognosis was based on two false assumptions; a) That the Dark Ages that were the Seventies represented the zenith of consumer society, precluding the need for further economic expansion and b) That James Burke’s surname was inappropriate.

They also assured us that the format of tomorrow would be the Compact Disc, a small metal plate so resilient that unlike easily-damaged vinyl, you could smear it in lashings of tomato ketchup and it would still play. What we have instead, however, is something that should so much as a speck of gnat’s dandruff land on its surface, will leap wildly about like a kitten in a frying pan. As for the Internet – no warnings whatsoever. Even Star Trek, with its gigantic computers reminiscent of the teleprinters that used to clack out the footy results on the BBC anticipated no such contingency – although the Net’s actually been around since the late Sixties. Understandable, perhaps – it wasn’t what anyone especially had in mind. Imagine, if you will, a time-travelling encounter between yourself and earth-citizens of the year 1979. Once they’d got over their disappointment that you weren’t wearing a silver jumpsuit and superfluous glass helmet but post-modern flares and a shirt more reminiscent of the year 1975, the conversation might run as follows.

CITIZENS OF 1979: So, you’re from the 21st Century? What’s it like?

YOU (Thinking hard) Well – Anna Ford’s reading the news. Cliff Richard’s still a bachelor boy. Er . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: What’s Neptune like?

YOU: What’s that? A bar?

CITIZENS OF 1979: So, what’s, like, the funniest thing on television?

YOU: Er – Fawlty Towers . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: Are you sure you’re from the future, mate?

YOU: Oh, yes. It’s completely different. There’s the Internet, for a start.

CITIZENS OF 1979: The what? YOU: How do I explain? Look – imagine if you could buy a book off your computer. Or even, I don’t know, a bicycle? That’s the Internet. But it’s not just that. It’s . . .

CITIZENS OF 1979: Your computer sells you a book? Where does the computer get the book?

YOU: Oh, that depends. From Amazon, or –

CITIZENS OF 1979: From the Amazon?

YOU: No, when I said ‘Amazon’ I meant Amazon, it’s –

CITIZENS OF 1979: If it’s your computer, what’s it doing selling you a book? Does it keep the money? How does it get to the Amazon? Can computers fly in the 21st century?

YOU: You don’t understand, it’s –

CITIZENS OF 1979 (excitedly and all at once): Where does the computer keep the bicycles it sells you? Are computers so big in the 21st century you can store bicycles in them? When the computers fly out to the rainforest to get the books to sell you, can they take off, even if they’re loaded with bikes? What do they use, jet packs? Are they piloted by robots?

YOU: Look – oh, forget it.

CITIZENS OF 1979: Bloody hell, flying computers – you’ve got it made. Spare a thought for us, we’ve got five years of Tory rule to look forward to.

YOU: Oh no, er – I mean. Yes. Five years. Bye for now . . .

As Alexander Graham Bell inadvertently illustrated when he declared that he envisaged a day when there would be a telephone in every American city, the future is hard to call. Even Martin Amis, in his 1989 novel London Fields, a grim study of life in 1999, foresaw mobile phones as the preserve of a tiny elite. As it turns out, it’s only a tiny elite – of whom I am one – who don’t own one of the damn things. As one CBS executive admitted, observing in 1982 that if that year his studio had accepted every film project they rejected and rejected every film project they’d accepted, they’d have made about the same money, no one knows anything. Things aren’t as bad as we’d feared in the 21st century, nor are they as good – though maybe that’s a good thing. God preserve us from the Dystopia we were supposed to be enduring right now. God preserve us from the Utopia we were promised also. May the future be a bit dirty and a bit disappointing, the way it always has been.