A trove of sundries, whimsical old blog entries, bits, bobs and assorted trifles which defy easy categorisation. I consider these just as special as all my other children, Freddie Feature, Ronnie Review, Mickey Match Report, etc…

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.

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.

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.