Archive for 2005

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Rip It Up And Start Again – The Panel

Thoughts on April 26’s panel, in honour of the publishing of Simon Reynolds’s post-punk study Rip It Up And Start Again at the hospitable but smoky Boogaloos bar in Highgate.

– Shane McGowan was present, though “present” in the sense that the late Jeremy Bentham, deviser of the panopticon who had his body stuffed after he died, was “present” at the meetings his corpse subsequently attended. He was sitting at the bar, alone, in his brothel creepers, hair dyed jet black as if to exacerbate his embalmed air, fingering some CD compilation absently, swigging from a large cup of coffee. There was also a bottle of wine in attendance, however. He looked not so much a parody of himself as a waxwork of himself. I saw McGowan on the Frank Skinner Show a few months ago, in which he sent out an implicit call for his ex-partner to come back to him. He has that Shaun Ryder, fortysomething going on eightysomething air about him. It was hard, as I stood at that bar at his side to feel anything but a sort of sympathy; indeed, I almost leant over and whispered, “Sorry for reviewing your album over the phone that time, mate.”

– Prior to the main event, the big screen showed a selection of post-punk videos, some of which are on a new DVD collection issued by the LTM label. It occurs to me that much of the air of meticulousness, of intensity exuded by many of the post-punk players isn’t so much that they’re seized by the angst of the times but that as not-natural musicians, they’re having to concentrate and strain every sinew simply to keep time, rhythm and pace, even when playing relatively rudimentary riffs. This is by no means a put-down; it’s something I find profoundly endearing and thrilling, watching New Order’s Steven Morris, for instance, 100% physically engaged in pumping out the high tempo, looping, percussive riff on “Everything’s Gone Green”. I know I’d have had to as well, even after months of tuition.

That spectacle of non-musicianly effort, (of people in it for other reasons than the idea of being in a band and the ideas you can thereby disseminate), having to work hard, has gone nowadays with the advent of computer technology. This enables the non-musician to be able to shove together and overlay blocks of noise to create soundscapes unimagined by even the most pseudo-symphonic of Seventies prog rockers with all their banks of keyboards. But that spectacle of effort does signify a compulsive commitment that is other and better than the casual, stoner posturing or mock-effortlessness that has prevailed before and since.

– The panel. It wasn’t really so much of a point/counterpoint debate as no one was present to suggest that post-punk was an awful idea, an eggheaded betrayal of the spirit of the Adverts and the Boomtown Rats. With SR as chair, it comprised Richard Boon, punk indie label pioneer and Pistols tour manager, Gina Birch of The Raincoats, Paul Morley and Jon King, lead singer of The Gang Of Four, who replaced Magazine’s Howard Devoto, indisposed due to a family illness. Simon’s opening remarks stressed the idea of “pretentiousness”, in a deliberately non-pejorative sense, which he felt characterised the early Eighties era.

I was a little surprised that the idea seemed to take most of the panel by surprise. Anti-anti-pretentiousness is one of Simon’s founding ideas, one which he and I shared back in the early Eighties at Oxford. As much as anything (certainly as far as I was concerned) it was a reaction against the studied anti-intellectualism which is such a dismaying facet of university life back then, which was as far from May 1968 as you can imagine. I naively expected to find active and buzzing This Heat Appreciation Societies at Oxford before I came up; instead, I found red jeans and Dire Straits.

Anyway, the panel. Gina Birch didn’t really sparkle, didn’t really seem to come with many prepared thoughts, though she does have the eminent excuse of presently being a mother of two young children. She also pointed out the unexplained irony of how and why Simon Le Bon, who professes to have been inspired to make music by artists like Joni Mitchell, was first inspired to put pen to paper by the sight of a waitress’s arse in some Brummy caff.

Richard Boon was as I’d expected. It seems to be a characteristic of what you might call the Triassic Punk Generation; like Malcolm McClaren, like John Lydon, he speaks very – slowly, at Mogadon pace, as if sarcastically spelling things out to a perceived imbecile, and seems just a little too pleased with his radical but antique ideas. Still, of course, respect to him for having been there and done it without the advantage of precedent.

With Morley and Jon King, however, the pace quickens dramatically. These are the Jurassic generation and no one talks quicker, or harder than them. The talking heads of other generations, other paces, are vert slow, very heavy-eyelidded, semi-stoned, in the late Eighties/Nineties as well as the Sixties. But the Jurassics, forged in the late Seventies/early Eighties are as wide-eyed, pop-eyed, ideas-driven and fluent now, as back then. The energy doesn’t abate with age.

It’s a facet I’ve noticed from interviewing people from those times – Colin Newman, Mark Stewart, Mark E Smith The Human League, even UB40, big gabbers all. As a music press reader, I imagined that all interviews with bands would be conducted at this ideologically high octane level. However, by the time I came into my own, I got J Mascis.

– Jon King was an extremely able substitute for Devoto. Although he took part in the recent Gang Of Four reunion, unlike guitarist Andy Gill, he’s not stayed in the world of music and works in some media consultancy capacity in his pop after-life. He handles the assembled audience with the absolute confidence of a seasoned power-point presenter; thoughts never trail away (a weakness of yours truly, for instance, when making spoken word presentations). One of his most telling, though oft-told anecdotes, is of of the weaselly censorship the GoF were subjected to when almost appearing on TOTP, over a line about the “rubbers in his pocket”. This, in the era of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”.

Appalled by such candid, un-nudge-nudge demystification, the TOTP guy suggested they change it to “the rubbish in his pocket”. Of course, this rendered the lyric nonsensical but the TOTP censor hoped that because “rubbish” sounds almost like “rubber” it would be hardly any concession at all. It’s the insult to the intelligence, at a time when intelligence was set at an unprecedented premium in left-field rock, that’s as telling as the repression.

Simon asked, with a hint of gentle teasing, why a band like GoF, whose raison d’etre was acerbic deconstruction of capitalist processes, should have signed to a label like EMI. King replied that his experience of the new crop of indie labels was that they were often run by crooks rather than idealists, and that, given the choice he’d rather go for “late” rather than “early” capitalism.

– Paul Morley was magnificent. He’s reinvented himself as a ubiquitous but always valued media figure. I’m not alone in thinking I can take or leave his stylised, circumlocutory prose style. I prefer to hear the guy speak, and speak with a caustic lucidity that puts the pitiful wannabe TV pundits on those 100 Best Ringtone-type shows to shame.

As ever, he wasn’t only aware of the issue but the issues surrounding the issue. He was quick to clamp inverted commas on the phrase “I remember”. He was nicely self-deprecating about the ideological mania he brought to his work in the early Eighties, how hugely important pop matters were, how appalled he was by inertia and cliche. He told a story of interviewing Mick Jagger in about 1979 or 1980, how he’d practically hammered on Jagger’s chest, loudly impressing on him just how really, really important it was that The Stones split, right now, that they just stop, because they were so irrelevant. Morley related that Jagger later commented, “Yeah, I ‘ad the NME in here last week, they seemed really wound up.”

Morley seemed visibly moved that the dialectical merry-go-round had come around full circle to grant post-punk and the critique that was bound up with it, rather than banally spectating – and that the appreciation had come from someone like Reynolds, who arrived just a few years after the event.

Once or twice little ironies were tripped over; Morley castigated fellow NMEer Tony Parsons for having praised Dr Feelgood to the skies, while his fellow panellist Jon King stated within minutes of him that they’d filched their jerky guitar style from Wilko Johnson. Mostly, however, he spoke with pith and undiminished passion about the joy of an era in which groups “actually read books”, in which something cerebral but quicksilver was in the air, a skinny, worming new spirit which he and the likes of Penman just about had by the tail, while fellow journos bumbled on prosaically.

Such times to have been in – but, like the late Sixties, another golden, 4Real age, the real excitement seems to have derived from an utterly deluded and unjustified (p)optimism. Morley was mesmerised by the glitter he found in new pop, even Dollar, which suggested that the movement of (post) punk from left to infield wasn’t just one of commercial expediency, that it would have the power to effect a wider social metamorphosis, introduce an altogether new brightness and lightness of being, in which ideas, elusiveness and allusiveness would dance before the populace in lieu of the old dullards, crusted over like fossils with outmoded ideas. After ABC and Scritti on TOTP, things could only get cleverer, the bar could only get higher. Things felt that good. The feeling, the thinking could only spread. New pop, new thing.

Of course, this no more happened than did the Sixties counterculture stop a war. Post-punk’s transitional/transformative moments were brief and few; Scritti, ABC, The Associates, Simple Minds, real all-that-Heaven-allows stuff. But then they slipped back, or in the case of Simple Minds, pitched right over the top into stadium rock bombast. When Reynolds and I arrived on the scene, one of the many things we found ourselves doing was survey the congealed, washed-up remains of post-punk’s propulsive thrust, pour scorn like salt on slugs on creatures we’d venerated in our youth but who simply couldn’t live in the new dialectical conditions of the late Eighties – Siouxsie, Lydon, Scritti’s Green among them. That, or lambast the chancer who’d taken advantage of punk’s entryism for straightforwardly commercially expedient ends, their spiky hair a flag of convenience.

Maybe I/we wouldn’t have been so harsh if we’d foreseen just how precipitous and irreversible a decline has taken place since the mid-Eighties. In 1981 you had Grace Jones; today, you have Jennifer Lopez. Corporatisation and devolution have occurred, hand in hand squeezing out the leftside margins of ambiguity, romantic (as opposed to commercial) ambition. Few coming through no even think to think the way a Morley or a Fry did, not even the post-punk imitators, not really, not quite. No one believes platters matter in quite that way. People talk about a ‘dumbing down’ but in the way it’s different. Intelligence levels don’t shift from day today, nor does talent inexplicably dry up from one era to the next. It’s just that nowadays, reality has taken a grip. No one would be dumb enough that the excitement pop or rock music can generate has magical, society-changing properties, any more so than can the buzz of a few lagers. Kids were fooled once, fooled twice; won’t get fooled again. But oh, to be fooled again . . . .

Sunday, January 16th, 2005

Bob Dylan Contemplated From A Position Of Semi-Ignorance

A position of professed semi-ignorance is not one from which one is allowed to contemplate Bob Dylan in the contemporary world of letters and music journalism (though Dylan himself might protest to the contrary). Dylan is an elder case apart, not an artist who needs to abide the question of snotty, impertinent up and coming journos, youngsters in their late thirties in some cases. An established and closed school of Dylanologists dominate discourse on the great man, shoring up a formidable school of wisdom with each successive study and review. Which is no bad thing. Dylan is indeed someone you can’t flippantly toss a casual critical eyeball at. But semi-ignorance has its virtues and its own valuable perspective. So the following comes entirely without reference to any of the texts, is transmitted entirely from the top of my head to you, the multitude.

It’s prompted by my having recently read the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs. I really enjoyed the book, and, while it left me none the conventionally wiser regarding him – I believe he’ll come away from this series still guarding all of his secrets – it instilled in me a different opinion of him and a new layer of respect.

And disrespect, too. The text isn’t without its howlers. An allusion to Moby Dick reveals that Dylan is under the George Costanza-like impression that a whale is a fish, he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “quintessential” (he refers to Mick Jones as The Clash’s ‘quintessential’ guitarist). You wonder if whoever edited this volume failed to spot these blemishes themselves or felt that to correct them would be like amending “The Times They Are A-Changing” to the more succinct “The Times Are Changing”.

Moreover, a section on Bono reveals how remote his cultural perspective has become as he has splendidly isolated himself. Dylan contemplates the world from a position of semi-ignorance. He writes of Bono in semi-mystical terms, as if being in possession of a sixth sense, able to detect the glow of the special amid the grey throng. I mean, it’s the lead singer of bloody U2, for God’s sake, whatever you think of them, a man like Bono is going to carry an aura, a self-possession and confidence that might come from deluded egotism or justified pre-eminence, depending on your opinion. Moreover, it’s only a figure like Bono who’s going to have the clout to pierce Dylan’s secluded sanctum nowadays. But if Bono’s your only point of contact with popular culture, especially in these complex and tinily fragmented times, you’re gonna be missing out on a lot, to say the least. It reminds me of Miles Davis’s biography when he starts singing the praises of Sting. Something’s happening but you don’t know what it is . . .

Other things that made my lip curl a little was the odd astrological reference, vast generalisations about the temperament and psyche of individuals according to their geography (Daniel Lanois, apparently, is the way he is because he’s North American. North Americans are like that. It’s a nature thing). All of this bolsters the suspicion that Dylan is not a rationalist. Certainly, I’ve never been remotely regarded him as a seer or leader of any generation since his dalliances with religion in the early Eighties, first Christianity and then Judaism – and a brimstone-based reading of those religions at that. The fact that he dropped them so quickly didn’t particularly point to any great strength of mind or character either – Christ, the man was in his forties. Would you want this man as your moral guardian or compass?

His truculent mumblings in 1985 at Live Aid about all the attention being paid to the plight of the Ethiopians somehow coming at the expense of the hard done by American farmers didn’t indicate a largeness of mind or spirit, either. But back to the book, which as I say, misgivings apart, I enjoyed. Primarily, Dylan has a beautiful way with words, even if does at times use them to weave a miasma around himself, rather as a means of unlocking the chamber door to his inner life or as a means of exposing cold, stark, graspable truths. A bit like someone in old age, (which Dylan hasn’t been since he started out) he can paint vivid and detailed pictures of events and scenarios from his youth, from his days hanging round the New York folk scene in particular, while his most recent memories are a little foggy by comparison (these memoirs, by the way, leap about achronologically).

Other things impress too. There is a candour and a vulnerability about Dylan I like. He depicts himself at the end of a Traveling Wilburys tour, hanging out with/hanging onto ex-ELO leader Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty, aware that he is nowhere, has no clue as to what he’s about, has become disconnected from his oeuvre, his past.

The epiphany he experiences, having wandered out to a jazz club and watched a performer in full, unabashed flow, is one which has eluded most, if not all of his Homeric rock peers, all washed up in their pagodas of privilege. It’s what enabled him to rescue himself from being abandoned to the laughing stock and enabled him to enjoy the resuscitation of his reputation and an artistic rebirth. This isn’t something he’s done the way Bowie tried and failed to, by injected himself with samples of the fresh blood of each new wave of activity, from The Pixies to drum ‘n’ bass, but . . . (well, actually, this is where semi-ignorance kicks in. I haven’t bothered to listen to any of his recent, much-lauded albums. But where all those crits are blowing smoke, I suspect there’s some fire).

Moreover, when he goes into the studio with Daniel Lanois, you realise he isn’t this formidably impervious legend whom no one can gainsay. From Dylan’s account, it’s Lanois who dominates the climate with his temper, with Dylan all but feeling a little pushed around at times. There’s a sweet anecdote when Lanois flies into a rage and one of the female assistants bursts into tears. Dylan feels sufficiently for her to include the incident here.

What’s strongest, however, and it’s the strongest impression one gets from Dylan’s most recent utterances, is his horror at ever having been regarded as a spokesman for a generation. It’s become a cliche now but it’s still felt. And when you read in the memoir of The Band’s Robbie Robertson here asking Dylan “where he was going to lead” his Sixties followers you can understand his mortification. Dylan is as aware as anybody that he was never good enough, and always too good to be, such a leader. Consequently, his entire career has been spent in flight, it seems, from his most ardent admirers and would-be decipherers. There’s been a mute plea of Brian Of Nazareth-style desperation to the world at large not to saddle him with a soothsaying role in which he’s always been patently uninterested, but his decision to opt for a life up in the hills, rarely communicating with the media, maintaining a meaningful silence, that of course has only enlarged his mystique and exacerbated his oracular/guru status. (Though I’ve often wondered if Dylan secretly enjoys this, basks coyly in the egotistical satisfaction of this game he plays with his aficionados).

Perhaps Dylan’s shrewdest move, though there were doubtless many reasons for it, was in 1968 to make his ‘rural’ retreat, at the height of urban foment, electric psychedelia and rock-fuelled revolutionary optimism, with the pointedly austere John Wesley Harding LP. In some respects, it might have appeared a reactionary, agrarian gesture, ironic given the furore when he went electric but in keeping with that crack about the American farmers. However, like Brian Wilson, who took flight from the end of the Sixties, Dylan has benefited retrospectively in that he now seems a figure outside of rock time (the way that Smile, lately restored now seems like a no-historical-strings masterpiece, outside, above and beyond rock music). More significantly, at that high, sanguine tidal moment of rock, when it was truly believed that it could have some sort of transformative power, there was(n’t) Dylan, quietly shaking his head, communicating, on tracks like “All Along The Watchtower” in oblique lyrical utterances expressed in a tarot card-like idiom. But then, a part of me resents the exclusive elevation of Dylan – the way he’s appropriated by academic outsiders like Christopher Ricks, who took flak by daring to compare him to Keats.

My beef, however, is that the Rickses of this world propound the notion that close attendance ro the Dylan text is the only thing of ‘worth’ to be extracted from the sordid puddles of rock history. In an age in which rock music is being reduced ever more reverentially to a pantheon you can almost grasp in one hand – Beatlestonesbowiedylanyoung – this ostensibly superior mode of thinking in which, at sheer iPod random, Rhythm & Sound, The Blue Nile, 23 Skidoo, Mantronix, Buck 65, Thomas Leer, Eric B & Rakim – are infinitesimally trivial and dispensable details, sticks in the gullet like a swallowed figurine. Dylan, and Dylanology, then, has always been problematic to me as one who goes for texture over text as a rule (though one resolution of this was a fine essay in The Wire by my colleague Chris Bohn who waxed on the too little explored topic of the grain of Dylan’s vocals).

More out of a sense of cultural duty, I did go through my own Dylan phase in my mid-teens, acquiring, by pooling dinner money, birthday and Christmas requests and paper round wages, most of his albums from 1978’s Street Legal backwards. There was a parallel with my churchgoing around the same time. Both listening to Dylan and attending mass were spartan affairs, involved poring over the enigmatic utterances of exasperatingly remote figures. However, I assured myself, if I could only rack my brains sufficiently, stop my mind from wandering and stiffen the sinews of my faith, keep grinding those twigs together, the spark of ecstatic revelation would follow. I couldn’t be distracted by cracks from Philistines like Danny Baker, who compared the brass backdrop to “Is Your Love In Vain?” to the sort of music that strikes up as the contestants walk onstage for Miss United kingdom – although, it kind of did. I had to understand that there was a Higher Reason that “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” sounded like a carousel being cranked round at half speed. I had to learn that when Dylan did reggae versions of his old classics, this was the sublime playfulness of the age’s great Harlequin at work, and in no way to be compared to Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” or 10CC’s “Dreadlock Holiday”.

I swore that one day, I would crack encrypted, Rubrix cube lyrics such as “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”. And when he embarked on those shambling harmonica solos, I piously expunged images of old geezers outside Tottenham Court Road tube station with 18p in their caps. I never formerly forsook the quest but, around the time I gave up religion, I quietly sold most of my Dylan albums for the equivalent of about 30 pints of lager.

Still, even from the potshotting, obscured range of semi-ignorance, I can glimpse enough to realise the value, the genius of Dylan, that he isn’t some monstrous fraud dreamt up by our deluded elders. His reluctance to take up any sort of leadership role does not mean that he hasn’t shed light, in his own poetic and circuitous way, or that he hasn’t been an inspiration. Then there are lines like “to live outside the law you must be honest”, or “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Or being asked by a reporter how many protest singers there were in the USA and replying “134”. And there’s the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, the documentary made circa his fateful tour of the UK. It’s a profoundly superficial thing – that pale, pinched face, those clamped, unforgiving shades, that shock of hair – this pose he struck signified that he was the author, the inventor of rock attitude. He was the one, he was the first. Still, I did enjoy those lagers.