UNFAVES OF 2001
(now incorporating Over-Rated of the Year, Gripes 'N' Bugbears, Minor Twinges of Irritation, Worries & Puzzlements, Revolt Into Bile, and Random Non-Positive Thoughts)
THE ALARMINGLY PERVASIVE AND ABIDING POP LEGACY OF JAMES HETFIELD, BALLADEER
Trying to fix the rock-historical coordinates for those Staind ballads (as if working out where they came from would somehow contain the horror) it dawned with slowly mounting dismay that all could be traced back to Metallica: specifically, to the glutinous dirge-croon vocals, harrowed earnestness and leaden tempos of "The Unforgiven" and "Nothing Else Matters," the hit singles off their 1991 mainstream breakthrough Metallica.
With maybe a bit of Queensryche thrown in.
Altogether less heinous--in fact weirdly enjoyable--is the fact that Depeche Mode circa "Enjoy The Silence" appear to be a massive influence on a lot of these nu-metal power balladeers. Groups like Linkin Park and Flaw do this weird thing where the verses are all wan and wussy Anglo-Euro melancholia, and then the chorus blasts out with hoarse barking grindcore. (There's a similar disconcerting shift with Kittie, who oscillate back and forth between All About Eve/Clannad sister-of-the-moon wispiness to a grisly roar of Satan's halitosis). From the hairstyles to the voice-styles, nu-metal is the first generation coming through for whom MTV was as formative as hearing the stuff on radio or buying the records. The Hetfield/Gahan hybrid suggests other strange composites will come through based on the incongruous adjacencies of early Nineties MTV play-lists: Lenny Kravitz meets C&C Music Factory, Blind Melon crossed with Dr Dre.
BRITNEY SPEARS: NEW IMPROVED ROBO-HO
"Slave For You" is a triffic song (the best since the first single --which, come to think of it, also had a domination/masochism subtext). The ace Neptunes production and the droney chorus-hook remind me of Prince at his mandroid/sex-machinic best--Sign O' The Times robo-ditties like "Hot Thing" and "It". But watching the orgiastic sweat-stippled video the first time I had this involuntary reaction (no, not what you're thinking), on the lines of: "hmm, the Taliban have kind of got a point, haven't they?" I mean, what kind of a culture have we built here that pimps our teenage daughters so shamelessly/shamefully? Britney's no longer under-age, but the cusp-between-girl-and-woman, nymphet/nympho thing is still so much blatantly her sales shtick (those increasingly absurd and unseemly protestations of virginity). Then there was those cola ads: Bob "'Viagra" Dole ogling the scanty-clad cavortings of Britney on his gogglebox, says "down boy" but he's not reprimanding Fido at his feet, he's talking to L'il Bob in his boxers (and just to spell it out real explicit, the TV remote in his hand is stiffly angled upwards). Euuww, gross!
2001 was a tough time for the aging Anglo vanguard of first-wave IDM: Squarepusher reduced to parodying 2step garage to achieve even a mild frisson of novelty, Autechre alienating even their hardcore devotees with the ultra-abstruse Confield (which I actually quite enjoyed). Meanwhile Richard D. James had reportedly retired from music-making in order to probe the deepest recesses of computer programming, in the hopes of total aesthetic rejuvenation. Which made it doubly disappointing how so much of Drukqs sounds merely like a slight extension of the Aphex sound --- pretty splintered melody colliding with hyperkinetic breakbeats---circa 1996's Richard D James Album (which wasn't especially groundbreaking anyway). Tracks like "omgyjya switch" offer the same old drill'n'bass caricature of drum 'n' bass, whiplash beats evoking the torsions and impacts suffered by crash-test dummies. Clearly we too are meant to be stunned, concussed, by the splattery extravagance of ideas here. But the useless protean energy contorting these songs just reminds me of The Boredoms. When James slows the pace and attempts minimalist simplicity, though, the results are equally unimpressive: witness the series of short interludes in which he drops the digital arsenal and plays inane chord sequences on various acoustic keyboards---piano with reverb-pedal on full, a wheezy harmonium with clacking foot-pedals, and so forth. Let's just say he's no Erik Satie, no Harold Budd.
There's a fab four-track EP languishing within this double-CD's busy bloat: "gwely mernans" is a gloomcore crypt of ambient gabba, the distorted kickdrum sounding distant and suppressed, its frantic pulse overhung by a spectral synth-melody that lingers like a pall of luminous vapor; "bbydhyonchord" glows and clanks like prime Boards of Canada; "gwarek 2" brilliantly pastiches avant-classical composers like Stockhausen and Nono with a collage of agonised shrieks, insectile percussion, swarming sounds, and quaint tape-effects; the madcap electro of "Taking Control" sees a robo-voiced James using his personal superlative "decent bit!" to herald a particularly demented segment of drum machine mayhem. And doubtless there's probably a fair few other "decent bits" scattered across this double-CD, if you can be bothered to excavate them. But like the legion of IDM producers he's influenced, James seems paradoxically trapped by the "infinite possibilities" offered by today's software and plug-ins (the computer-music equivalent of guitar pedals), resulting in infinitesimally detailed tweakage, but no song-shapes or moodscapes that actually leave an imprint in your memory, let alone your heart.
Things ain't right from the name on downwards. The Nelly is bad enough, but the surname sounds like some kind of dubious Latin American comestible: ground meat stuffed in a bull's pizzle, maybe. Something you'd be wary of putting in your mouth. Beyond that, this girl is just so fucking full of beans. She needs to be suppressed, stifled.
NME, The Face, Vibe, and Rolling Stone all put Destiny's Child on the front cover this year. Mainstream pundits like The New York Times seriously assessed Beyonce Knowles's credentials as postfeminist icon. Give or take a few stubborn hold-outs, just about everybody---lapsed indie types, electronica fiends, non-aligned pop fans--joined the unbroken consensus that nu-skool R&B is the bomb. Owing to the timelag/folks-who-are-slow-off-the-mark syndrome, Destiny's lame follow-up album Survivor gleaned the benefit that should have accrued to the brilliant debut The Writing's On the Wall (c.f. Rooty getting the praise that Remedy deserved). There's two big problems with Survivor: no Shek'spere, and Beyonce's self-conscious sense of herself as icon and issuer of "statements". The debut communicated its ladies-first sass through story-songs and real-seeming scenarios ("Bills Bills Bills," "Bugaboo", "Say My Name"), but Survivor replaces that with bald declaration.
The stiff, harsh beats of "Independent Women Part 2" (not a sequel but a remake/remodel) bring out the true coldness of Destiny's take on modern love: after making the bootie call, and having her itch scratched, Beyonce dismisses the spent stud with "when it's all over/Please get up and leave... Got a lot to do/ I am my number one priority/No falling in love, no commitment for me." Likewise, the bombastic arrangement on "Survivor" matches the histrionic lyrics. The album credits salute those who've made it through "bad relationships, health issues, discrimination, being abused, death of a loved one, loss of a friend, not being popular, low self-esteem...". Beyonce, by contrast, appears to have "survived" a coup d'etat in her favor instigated by her manager/father (and involving the downsizing of two of Destiny's original four members) and.... fame/money/adulation beyond her fan's wildest dreams. Tough life, eh?
Vibe's Destiny's cover had the trio dressed as the Supremes. But the Motown-style separation of singer/songwriter/producer roles that worked so brilliantly on Writing is junked on Survivor, with Beyonce credited as co-writer/co-producer on every song. Although the results are uniformly inferior, it's a shrewd move in credibility terms: being an spokesperson for female empowerment but not writing your own songs wouldn't wash, really, would it? As a self-portrait, though, Survivor is incoherent, cutting from the coquetry of "Bootlylicious" ("I don't think you're ready/for this jelly") to the prudish "Nasty", which reprimands a scanty-clad tramp for flaunting her flesh. And even when the bump'n'grind is rhythmically in full effect---the almost-great "Sexy Daddy"--the raunch is sabotaged by tame, lame lines like "sweety pie/I think it's your lucky night". A crap Christmas album and the departure of the new recruits to DC point ahead to a failed solo career for Beyonce.
Don't really have anything intelligent to say about this lot but it sorta behoves one to join the chorus of repugnance. The devil really has got the best tunes, eh?
THE NEW GARAGE PUNK
Let's start with the names: what is it with all these short sharp-sounding monikers? Strokes, Stripes, Hotwires, Hives, Vines, the Beatings, Yeah Yeah Yeahs... A lot of them seem to have some connotation or hint of pain, irritation, discomfort, abrasion.... The semiotics of it seems to evoke bands who play "blistering" sets and "punchy" two minute songs. Or perhaps it's just a Sixties-evocative thing (the uniform "The ---- [short staccato noun]" construction is very Pebbles. Also very mod-revival). The one major exception I can think of, Black Rebel Motorcyle Club, is worse, though.... Just those words, before you even hear the music, are mentally exhausting: please no not this again. Pundits reference Mary Chain circa Darklands for this band (too kind: I'd say Automatic. Maybe even John Moore's Expressway). Some wag on ILM tagged them as Telescopes copyists (ouch!!).
How many of these groups end their sets with feedback, I wonder? Isn't this the fourth or fifth garage punk revival already? The thing about all these groups, though, is how clean and groomed and stylized their scuzz looks. If they looked like Canned Heat or Tad or even just as dorky and unprepossessing as your average garage punk band of the Sixties like, say, Shadows of Knight, I'd probably be less suspicious of them. But they're so pretty, so photogenic and fashion-shoot-able. It's like some Dazed & Confused style editor's notion of 'rock'n'roll'.
It's not like loud noisy upset-yer-parents guitar music went away or something, there's not exactly a shortage of the stuff: the kids have Slipknot, System of a Down, P.O.D. (the latter actually sound fresher to these ears than any of the garage-ists: check the weird but doubtless accidental echoes of Geordie/McGeoch/Theatre of Hate in their "Youth of the Nation" with its nu-metal rapping jostling with tom-tom-heavy tribal drums and dub-spacious production).
Anyway we already have garage-punk--what do you think So Solid Crew are?!
THE ETERNAL RETURNS OF KYLIE MINOGUE
Like Haley's Comet, Kylie Minogue always come around again, takes another pass at being hip. Is this her third or fourth stab? (There was the Nick Cave duet, and that whole cover-of-The-Face, Kylie-goes-clubbing-and-may-even-have-done-an-E stuff-hooray! phase). This seems to have been her most successful bid to be cool, though: even fairly sane people of my acquaintance are raving about by "Can't Get You Out Of My Head". Insidiously catchy it undeniably is (but then so are Andrew Lloyd Webber and Celine Dion). Tell me though: when exactly did our demands of pop music become so small that this sort of efficiently crafted aural contagion becomes a sensation and cause celebre? "Fabulous pop music" like Kylie or Britney is a bit like good weather: it comes along and brightens our days, but (perhaps because it all occurs on such a impossibly remote and out-of-any-of-our-hands plane) it seems beside the point to get worked up about it. There's no food-for-discourse there, unless you're a metereologist or Billboard columnist. NY Times did a whole piece on Kylie and the secret of her success, the grand conclusion being the single was very catchy and she was quite personable. Actually, the striking thing about the video is the way it plays up Kylie's essential grotesque hideousness as glamour-- how very iD fashion spread of them---with (I might be imagining this) a weird subtext relating to the erotic-exotic potentials of Kylie being able to dislocate her own limbs.
LAMENESS ON THE HORIZON
I was enjoying the Avalanches show at SOBs, NYC, late 2001: not the full band playing live, but the two DJs doing their mesh-it-up back-2-back across four (or was it six?) turntables thingy. Really enjoying it, actually, but somehow through the pleasure I could sense what I can only describe as "lameness on the horizon". The set was consistently surprising and clever, full of delightfully incongruous-yet-apt juxtapositions and montages, all executed with consummate turntablist skill. You couldn't help smiling when "Like A Rolling Stone" surfaced out of the midst of some banging house track, like nothing could be more natural.
But as I say, there was something vaguely disquieting at the back of it, a premonition of disappointment, ennui, sort of "is that all there is?" mixed with "how much longer can this kind of thing carry on being exciting/worthwhile/surprising." At the end of the day, everybody's got cool records, everybody's got interesting taste and provocative ideas about links and secret connections. (Well, not everybody, perhaps-- but most people I know, and most people reading this, I suspect). In a certain sense, everybody could do what The Avalanches do--maybe not with anything approaching their degree of flawless dexterity, but then again, seamlessness is over-rated, donchathink?.
I felt a similar split response to Gold Teeth Thief, DJ Rupture's highly-regarded three-turntable mix-CD, which mashes up a taste formation that's right on the money vis-a-vis my personal audio-erogenous zones (post-Timbaland R&B, street rap, dancehall) spiced up with some Ambush-style splatterbreaks and bhangra for nice non-obviousness. It's a great selection, and technically dazzling, but once again, doesn't quite transcend the hey-I've-got-some-wicked-tunes-wanna-hear-em? syndrome. (Coldcut's celebrated Journeys By DJ mix-CD of many seasons ago, always left me underwhelmed for similar reasons. i.e. the ultimate lameness of "eclectic" as concept/praise word).
Sort of on the same tip, and inducing a similar ambivalence, are all those Kid606-and-friends homage-through-defacement/dismemberment jobs on Missy Elliott, NWA etc: these are well-intended expressions of genuine enthusiasm for mainstream black pop, and because that music is often underestimated and patronised within IDM circles, there's a certain heretical-polemical edge to these releases. And yet in the end all they're really saying is we really REALLY like these Missy Elliott records. Plus there's a certain pathos to the tribute-cum-desecrations: if only we could be this cool, if only we could pull off the avant-garde yet massively popular/potent balancing act too.
Now wouldyabelieveit, in the interval between starting Unfaves early in the New Year and actually completing the bugger, an entire subculture, nay movement, has sprung up that gives my premonition of lameness-on-the-horizon all-too-solid form. I'm talking about the bootleg/"bastard pop" craze, of course.
Well, that was my initial knee-jerk reaction, and having checked out some of them, it's only been slightly tempered: reams of poor man's plunderphonia, cackhanded and so-very-far-from-alchemy (ie. the kind of transubstantiation which the Avalanches's actual album achieves), leavened by the occasional mass-cult chimera (The Normal + Missy Elliott = Girls On Top's "Warm Bitch") that sounds genuinely striking and even makes an interesting meta-pop critique by linking two apparently remote yet secretly compatible artists.
It's tempting to speculate wildly on the phenomenon. Bootlegging as the expression of subconscious ressentiment on the part of the peon-like punter, a desire to somehow cut down to size the tyrannical uber-pop that invades our consciousness, literally fucking with it by forcing pop stars into kinky congress (a preview of the inevitable D-I-Y movie-remixes to come: Cameron Diaz fisting Brad Pitt while he reams a donkey, etc). Bootlegging as a reversal of the monologic vertical structure of the music industry: the force-fed consumer answering back, with regurgitation. Or (a more positive punk interpretation, this) bootlegging as an attempt to participate in pop, which is otherwise delivered from on high, totally out of reach and inaccessible; the DIY impulse achieving that million-dollar sound the only way it can, theft.
Actually, the fad seems driven by little more than the age-old phenomenon of fandom: people who like music, all sorts of music, and the only way they can think to express that all-gates-open (a nice way of saying "uncritical"?) enthusiasm is through arranging it into different patterns, except now they have the technology to do it in a much more extreme way, and live in a time more inundated by pop past and present than ever. Bootleg as more compressed form of the mix-tape-for-your-mate, in other words. Take Osymyso's "Intro Inspection"--a witty and expertly executed montage of hundreds of famous pop intros, from "The Message" to "Love Cats", Sinatra to Spice Girls. It is possibly the zenith of the bootleg phenomenon, if only because in 12 minutes it manages to cram in all the enjoyment and all the incipient-lameness-ahoy! that the Avalanches DJs mustered across a three hour set. It's impossible to listen to "Intro Inspection" without a fat grin creasing your face for most of its duration, and also impossible (for me at least) to not feel a certain shame tainting the glee. Cos that Cheshire grin is a smile of recognition ("oh, yeah that's X... isn't that Y... ah!...nice!"...) and as sensations-that-pop-music-can-induce go, it's all a bit cosy and self-congratulatory and selling yourself short.
Not wishing to resurrect some ancient notion of creativity ex nihilo, but underlying and unifying all the above, I sense a tendency towards entropy: indistinctness, inertia, ultimately indifference. Whether it's good (Since I Left You) or bad (most bootlegs), what we're witnessing is the kind of sonic grand bouffe only possible during a late era. Could it be that the age of retro-mania/file-sharing/sampladelia--where time has effectively been abolished--enables us to use the abundance of the past to obscure the failings and lacks of the present? Well, it's a thought...
Early 1996, a club in Meinz near Frankfurt, a Vauxhall-Arches-style catacomb carved into the concrete foundations of a bridge over the big river (whose name I forget). That's where I fell in love with house again, after a long period of thinking it the lightweight option c.f. jungle. Accompanied by Force Inc/Mille Plateaux boss and lager connoisseur Achim Szepanski, I'd came to check out a set by Chicago DJ Gene Farris of Relief/Casual/Force Inc reknown. Helped by copious alcohol intake and a contact high from the killer vibe in that murky crowded cavern, a revelation began to unfold: just how much fantastic music I'd missed out on through being such a monomaniacal junglist patriot, and the extent to which house had a rebirth of creativity in the mid-Nineties after a long null lull of tribal tedium and handbag hackwork. Farris played so much great stuff--from early filter-house/disco cut-up stuff to Relief-style nu-acid to stuff so techy, tracky and abstrakkk it was essentially what we'd today call micro-house. But if a single song can be said to have opened my ears it was when Farris dropped "Flash" by Green Velvet. When those double-time snares kicked in, it was one of those whatdafuck?!?!?!?! see-the-light moments.
I get the impression quite a few other folk who'd gotten drawn into this dance music/electronic area either through rave, or through drum'n'bass a bit later on with its more cerebral and self-consciously innovative credentials, or through the proto-IDM of Aphex et al, also went through a similar process of waking up to house music: maybe pulled into it through the submerged "jack" element in Chain Reaction, or via the intermediary role of Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx. Suddenly a whole universe of music opens up, vistas of diversity and abundance that are at once awe-inspiring and daunting. A pantheon of auteur-maestros---Masters At Work, Mood II Swing, the two Todd-is-Gods (Terry and Edwards), Pierre, Wamdue/Ananda/Chris Brann, Deep Dish, et al --plus mavericks like Herbert and St. Germain, plus cherishable minor talents beyond counting.... all with endlessly unfurling (nobody ever seems to retire, in house) and endlessly pursuable discographies/remixographies scattered across innumerable labels. A lifetime's worth of passion and pleasure, right there, for the embracing.
Still, house's vastness can be a drag, a real turn-off. There is so much merely adequate stuff (all those semi-songs and over-singing vocalists), resulting in that sensation of 'muck' you get when sifting through house 12 inches in a store: the glutted excess of vinyl, the nondescript sleeves, the pro forma track titles. Even the accredited auteur-gods put out way too much sub-par stuff, the need to keep their profiles visible and the cash turnover going outweighing quality-control and pride in your name.
You can say much the same about most genres of dance and non-dance, though. The real problem with house, for this listener, is that as a culture it moves so fucking slow. House doesn't really have peak years, it never goes through surges of accelerated evolution/mutation. Instead it just chugs along, reliably churning out its small harvest of classics and landmark tracks per annum, along with a much larger proportion of quality but unspectacular tunes. This quality of non-explosiveness is mirrored at every level of the culture, in yer classic Levi-Strauss/Hebdige homology syndrome: from the non-revolutionary stableness of the macro-culture down through individual DJ sets (which involves sustaining a slow-burn plateau of mild tension) right down to the micro level of individual tracks which mostly tend to eschew climaxes.
I think a hefty and crucial element of house's appeal and resonance is always going to bypass you if you're not gay and/or black-Hispanic. The very aspects that are vital to this original core audience (the culture's resilience and abiding, enduring permanence; its perennial role as sanctuary/haven/surrogate family versus an intolerant, hostile, cruel, uncaring outside world; its ethos of pleasant-ness and easy hedonism), all take on a totally different quality when transposed to a white heterosexual audience. So in Britain, house becomes this smugly snug, complacent, bland, nullifying thing -- the mature option for a post-rave, young adult, affluent 'n' aspirational crowd. A song like Masters At Work/Barbara Tucker's "Beautiful People" has an entirely different resonance on the black gay New York "underground" than when it's played at a white British straight club.
The other thing about house that is frustrating pour moi is its lack of neophilia and futurist aspiration. Quite the opposite, in fact: people who get into house often seem to take on/buy into this suffocating sense of inheritance and heritage--legacy, tradition, the notion of a noble past that is long-gone, of declining musical standards. The culture is always looking back and honoring its ancestors, rather than looking forward and desecrating them. Connected to this is the curious way that house has become one of the absolute last bastions of muso-dom (solos! 'feel'! light jazzy inflections! swing!) with all its attendant hippy-dippy fusionesque tendencies towards mysticism and "it's all music, man" drivel. Think Joe Claussell's Spiritual Life label, Ashley Beedle's Black Jazz Chronicles, all that awfully dreary Afro-Brazilian influenced house....
At some point this year ---it was probably that moment in the Union Square Virgin Megastore when my fingers poised to pluck the import-but-still-amazing-bargain-price 4-CD Part Two of Master At Works life's oeuvre, poised and then suddenly retracted--I just came to this sad understanding that this stuff, good as it can be, is never going to matter as much to me as jungle did, or be nearly as thrilling. And, moreover, that I might be "correct" to feel that way. Because at the end of the day, house music is just... house music. It's not going anywhere and, because even its believers believe its best days are behind it, house has an in-built thing holding it back from renaissance or self-resurrection. Which explains why all the new amazing things that have happened to house have come not from yer stalwart insiders, yer Roger Sanchezes and Erick Morillos and Danny Tenaglias and Kings of Tomorrow (god the names alone make my soul yawn)... but from outsiders heisting the form and fucking wid it: ex-junglist rude-boys with UK garage; disenchanted and vocally-famished IDM-ers with micro-house, and so forth.
UK DANCE MAGAZINES
I only bought one issue of a UK dance mag this year: the Muzik with So Solid Crew on the front. Every other mag picked-and-flicked off the shelves was very swiftly returned to them, often accompanied by a slight shudder. The UK dance press has never been that hot, never enjoyed a golden age a la NME in the late Seventies/early Eighties. But there was a nice little period in the mid-Nineties when Mixmag, say, was pretty good: it had a couple of really excellent writers in Bethan Cole and Tony Marcus, people who knew their stuff, did well field-researched pieces, and brought an opionated, critical edge to their writing (and in Marcus's case, an enjoyable hint of gonzo: a sense that these were dispatches from the frontlines of dance-and-drug culture). Muzik too had the more trainspotter end of the spectrum well catered for, with informative and well-written pieces.
Today Mixmag is rivaled only by Ministry for its vulgar vapidity. I suspect market research done by its new owners EMAP played its part in the magazine's tabloidisation: the discovery that most punters don't want exhaustive, in-depth coverage of music qua music, but instead a massively expanded club guide, photos of people off their tits, gossip, and endlessly rehashed articles about drug use (all those 'biggest survey yet of the chemical generation' type--similar to the way Cosmo has a new 'sex' article every month). So the album reviews shrank to 100 word capsules, and there's page after page of pix of furry-bra'd and microskirted glammer babes and grinning gurning revellers (complete with admittedly pretty amusing captions). This shift coincided with Human Traffic and all those 1998/10 Years Anniversary acid memoirs and oral histories like Once In A Lifetime. (Muzik tried to latch onto this with its excruciatingly embarrassing back page where readers sent in their yarns--few of which contained sufficient narrative structure to qualify as anecdotes--about the stupid feats of baseness they'd pulled off when monged out of their minds).
The other dismal symptom of this refusal or inability to write about music in itself is the dance press's cult of pseudo-personality: instead of scene or genre-based pieces, you get profile after profile of DJs, gossipy and breezy and brand-name littered glimpses of their super-jock lifestyles, padded with step-by-step accounts of the career moves that led them to their current eminence, and barely alluding to the one thing that might actually be relevant---their taste in music, and the craft of DJing.
But then again maybe all this just reflects the parlous state of club culture: stagnation, fragmentation, a lack of a really new and galvanizing sound. When the alternative is trying to get people excited about Kosheen or the latest sub-sub-flava-strand of superclub floor fodder (""funky-chunky twisted house," "tribal-tech"--yum!), who can blame them for avoiding addressing the actual music at all costs. Talking of which...
DANCE CULTURE'S LOWEST EBB
It really does feel like we're stuck in a perpetual 1975 here, with the devoutly-to-be-wished Rave-Punk present only as a painfully palpable absence. It was starting to feel like 1975 as early as 1998 (Big Beat as pub rock) but here we are, four years on: things are worse than ever.
If you think this is just jaded-raver syndrome on my part, in its Xmas Round of up of 2001 the normally boosterish Muzik dared to voice a truth it claimed everyone in the dance industry was scared to admit: that UK club culture was in dire straits, attendance at clubs dropping, record sales sliding, the only real boom being in chill-out compilations. People are sick of the expense and the impersonal, sterile, shopping mall-like atmosphere of the big clubs, the bouncers with their walkie-talkies.
Another proof that there is an objective deficit of some vital intangible: the old skool revival, the boom in back-to-92 raves and 'ardkore pirate stations (there's even a handful producers making "new 'old skool'", because the past's seam of legendary anthems and lost classics has already been mined-out). The fact that that the old skool scene is stocked as much with kids too young to have been there back in the day as it is with nostalgic veterans, shows that it isn't just a trick of memory. Rave, hardcore, early jungle, that whole 90-96 continuum produced music that was simply inherently more exciting, more explosive, more creative, more thrills-per-minute than virtually anything that's come since.
Nostalgia gets a bad rap, but it can be creative. Fact is, certain periods in the life of an individual or a culture are more intense, exciting, plain "better" than others; the impulse to go back there may be counterproductive, but it's understandable. Nostalgia-driven movements can also function as ways of getting through doldrum eras, keeping faith until the next "up" phase. The past can be used to critique what's absent in the present. One root of UK punk, Malcolm McLaren's first boutique Let It Rock, rejected all things hippie by paying homage to 1950s rock'n'roll: its clientele was largely Teddy Boy revivalists. In America, record collectors helped lay the aesthetic foundations for punk, from Lenny "Nuggets" Kaye to trash fiends The Dictators to Greg Shaw of Who Put The Bomp magazine (which popularized the term "punk" and published Lester Bangs's proto-punk manifesto "James Taylor Marked For Death").
One of the interesting things that emerges when reading the Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt and Paul Gorman's music press history In Their Own Write (mega-rant on this coming up real soon) is the fact that for about five or six years before punk really happened, people were calling for something punk-like to happen, and even using the word "punk" to describe this sorely felt lack of populist aggressive/primitivist raw-power oriented rock. And there were various contenders, from The Stooges and the New York Dolls and Dictators and Flamin' Groovies to Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Kilburn & the High Roads and Deaf School, none of whom for whatever reason quite made the grade: they never transcended being mavericks or isolated cases, never managed to catalyse a scene into existence around them. For punk to happen, the conditions had to be just right---essentially people had to feel utterly dissatisfied and disillusioned and lacking all hope of regeneration-- before the whole thing could re-ignite. Maybe this last year was the absolute nadir, the null lull before the storm. Maybe it needs to get even worse.
Not sure what would turns things around in America, though: dance culture here is in an unhappy position, it's no longer underground, but it hasn't broken through to enjoy the fruits of mainstream hegemony either. The heavy-hitters of 1997 (year of electronica's false dawn in the USA), the Daft Punks and Chemical Brothers and (a bit later) Basement Jaxxes, all underperformed with their most recent releases (Rooty sold less than 90 thousand here). Despite the rock-friendly moves on Discovery and Rooty, American radio programmers are sceptical or hostile; the video channels are looking for stellar faces and heavenly bodies. As a result, this music---chart topping pop in Europe--suffers from a Stateside sales ceiling, while its blocked pop-ness backfires in terms of hipster perception, making it seem middlebrow. As for the subterranean end of US rave/club culture, it's a sort of Worst of All Worlds deal: it's no longer got that cachet/buzz-factor of the New Thing (indeed for most hipsters, house/techno/D&B are probably considered uncool or passe; the cool thing to be into now is electroclash/nu-wave) yet the scene is being persecuted by local authorities, and by "quality of life crimes"-conscious Mayors and police forces like the one here in New York City.
BOB AND SIMON: A SERIES OF LOST ENCOUNTERS
I was all set to launch into a vitriolic tirade against Dylan-worship and tyrannical consensus, but curiosity got the better of me and I finally prised Love and Theft from the shrinkwrap. And it's good. Even an un-fan like myself can tell, instantly, that it's someone on darn good form. And if--for reasons that I could never fathom or empathise with in a million years--you happen to follow this guy's creative vicissitudes with a keen ear, I can well imagine how you'd be over the fucking moon at the renewed gusto and joie de vivre of the ornery and horny old codger. It's like he's discovered some Viagra-for-the-soul elixir.
But I'm an un-fan, so this doesn't resonate for me. The equivalent would be, 15 or 20 years down the line, if Morrissey suddenly got "it" back and got it on again. If Omni Trio suddenly started making music like he'd "never lost his hardcore" in the first place.
Talking of which.. and I'm not copping an attitude here, or trying to be deliberately sacrilegious, it's just straight-from-the-heart autobiographical fact: the Foul Play remix (the first one, not even the VIP one on the album) of "Renegade Snares" means more to me than the entire Dylan oevre. I know this is "incorrect" but I'm happy in my wrongness. This is my truth. There, I feel better for saying that.
I'm not claiming Dylan is over-rated (although on a certain purely arithmetical level, he could hardly fail to be, given the cosmic preponderance of approbation) or refusing to recognise an objective eminence, just 'fessing up to a curious, incurable lack of interest. Somehow I've semi-consciously avoided hearing his music as much as humanly possible. Quick inventory: I taped Highway 61 Revisited in 1984, played it twice. I've had possession of David Stubbs's copy of Blonde On Blonde for at least 15 years (sorry David!) and never got beyond Side One. A friend once made me a tape of great vocal performances taken from Dylan bootlegs, in order to advance, quite persuasively, the thesis that ('orrible voice notwithstanding) he's got amazing phrasing, cadence, and delivery; I was persuaded but at the same time never enticed to replay the cassette. Erm, what else? I thought the 1966 live thing of a few years ago sounded glorious, but, again, never played it again.
That's it: a series of lost encounters. There's something off-putting about Bob Dylan, and it's not entirely down to the immense width and breadth of verbiage accumulated in his exaltation, or the donnish Dylanologists with their annotations and interpretational zeal. Somehow, from the very earliest moment I became aware of Bob Dylan's existence, some embryonic (or even zygotic) form of critical perception sensed there was something stuffy and pious and un-rock'n'roll/un-pop about the Dylan Thing. The miasma of exegesis surrounded and interpenetrated the music to the point where whatever the original buzz or thrill or magic was so buried it was impossible to extract.
Well, that's my gloss on it now: probably initially it was something as rudimentary as a gut non-comprehension of how anyone could bear to listen to that aggravatingly nasal and goaty vocal timbre, even if the lyrics were as amazing as cracked up to be. And then beyond that--a notch up the scale of critical sophistication--an intuition that in this ability to hear through the surface un-pleasure of that weathered leathery bleat, and find the truth or word-magick embedded in the lyric---that right there was the residual puritanical streak and scriptural bias (in the beginning, there was the Words) that underpins rock's elevation of text over texture.
Curiously, the other Canonic Eminence I've largely managed to avoid engaging with, oeuvre-wise, is someone I became aware of at almost exactly the same time (1978, when I was first getting into pop music) and whose first name is also Robert. Give or take a "Stir It Up" or "Exodus", I have a similar anhedonic reaction to Bob Marley.
Perhaps it's related to this idea of Dylan as improving, good for you; work at it, and the rewards are rich. People have life-long relationships with Dylan, it's a bit like marriage: a better-or-worse, richer-or-poorer deal, where you persevere through the dry spells, through the Born-Again Christianity stretches and the Slash-on-session-guitar lapses, wait 'em out, in the hope and the confidence that before long he'll get it back, he'll deliver.
I liked something Barney Hoskyns wrote a few years ago about Dylan as a bit of a con-man who hides behind Cool (watching Don't Look Back, I always sympathise with the earnest studenty reporter with glasses who quite stoutly stands up to Dylan's cooler-than-thou bullying, with sycophant Alan Price joining in the jeers). The gist of the piece, if I remember correctly, was that Dylan made great-sounding records and is an amazing vocalist, but gets away with opacities disguised as oracular wisdom: someone with hidden shallows, in other words (the Michael Stipe of his day). Needless to say I haven't done the listening legwork to know if this argument is tenable, but it was nice to see such a heterodox opinion appear in a national newspaper, voiced by an old hero of mine whose ideas about music were extremely formative and inspiring.
Conversely, I'm disappointed when someone I admire turns out be a crypto-Dylanite: one more joins the opposing team. Like, Ian Penman saying nice things about Love and Theft in Uncut, and Greg Tate raving about the record in the Village Voice (ultimately making it his album of the year, in fact) AND doing that irritating thing of reading prophecies-of-9/11 into the lyrics. In both instances, I couldn't have been more surprised, more gutted. (Unless it had been Kodwo Eshun).
WASTED OPPORTUNITY OF THE YEAR
Paul Gorman, In Their Own Write
In the interest of full disclosure I should mention upfront that I was interviewed for this oral history of the music press and not one word made it into the book. BUT even if I hadn't had 90 minutes of my time wasted I am confident that I would be just as disgusted by this shoddy, sloppy effort.
The point of an oral history, one would have thought, is to allow for a multiplicity of opinions, a panoply of angles and takes; it is predicated upon the absence of an omniscient authorial voice, an overbearing slant or bias. But In Their Own Write is hopelessly skewed by Gorman's disproportionate veneration for one magazine during a four or five year period in the mid-Seventies---the New Musical Express of Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons---and his unbudgeable conviction that by and large it was all downhill after that.
Now that's a tenable point of view, for sure, but it's a long way from inconstestable historical truth. Personally speaking that mid-Seventies NME seems terribly dated, from what I've read---both stylistically (the mock-demotic, pseudo-hep writing full of "aints" and nudge-nudge references to reefer or powders) and in terms of its intellectual underpinnings (such long-since-problematized notions of rock'n'roll- as-male-misbehaviour, of genius-as-madness, of real-ness, authenticity, street-cred, raw passion etc which run through the work of Kent, CSM, Parsons et al). Doubtless, it was revelatory at the time; a crucial intervention. But times change, and by 1978-9 that style of writing, that matrix of received wisdom, already seemed, even to me as a 15 year old music-press neophyte flicking through the papers in W.H. Smiths, distinctly stuffy and old-guard.
Amongst people of my generation, it is widely accepted that the late Seventies/early Eighties NME represented a distinct golden age for the music press in its own, er, write. The fact that this notion is not even allowed admittance into Gorman's book suggests active suppression on the part of the author (I'm certain that I can't have been the only one of Gorman's interviewees to have voiced that opinion). Instead, all the quotes marshalled on that period of the NME reiterate the tiresome, surely-should-be-long-discredited version of the Penman-Morley-Hoskyns era as a miasma of indulgent and pseudo-intellectual verbiage that brought down a once glorious paper; as the tyranny of the pale theory boys who drove away the readership (actually NME's circulation was at its highest even during Morley's ascendancy). Penman and Morley aren't quoted, but Barney Hoskyns is--perhaps because he "recants," describing his work of that time as "pretentious bilge of the highest order" that he only got away with because of IP and PM's own prodigious feats of bilge-production. (All these many hues of bilge changed my life, of course: and let's not forget all the other great writers the NME had back then like Andy Gill, Angus MacKinnon, Chris Bohn, Richard Cook, et al). More to the point, the old jovial 'n' breezy rockwrite of "classic era NME" was simply no longer adequate, ideas-wise and language-wise, to deal with post-punk and new pop; new styles and new tones, new modes of analysis and speculation, were demanded to deal with the challenges set by the new music.
Less widely accepted, but still established enough to merit inclusion, is the idea that Melody Maker in the late Eighties/early Nineties was a golden age (perhaps the last golden age) for the UK music press. This notion is again a casualty of the pervasive anti-intellectualism running through this book, surfacing passim as jibes against "the academic school of rock criticism", Greil Marcus, theory etc. Not that MM during that period was entirely about Kristeva-quote-adorned messianic thinkpieces by yours truly---it was also full of hilarious, high-spirited writing by Chris Roberts, Jonh Wilde, Stud Brothers, David Stubbs, and a number of other writers, none of whom were particularly academic in approach, and quite frequently the absolute opposite. More than intellectual penetration or being well-read, what the magazine had going for it was rabid enthusiasm, an open ear to new sounds, self-belief, and a certain swagger. Plus editors who were prepared to take a risk both with their hires and with the bands they put on the front cover.)
The more grievous symptom of Gorman' anti-intellectualism is a failure to engage with the actual ideas of rock writing--the different schools and camps of thought, what's at stake, what all the fuss and fervor and fighting is all about in the first place. Essentially this is a book about music journalism with emphasis on the second word (so you get endless tedious accounts about magazine start-ups, hirings and firings, circulations, internicine office politics, who slagged/shagged whom) as opposed to a book about music criticism. It is about a certain sector of the periodical publishing world; it has nothing to say about ideas, or even music itself.
So what is shored up is the idea of the music writer as a sort of reporter-cum-groupie, with Nick Kent and Lester Bangs held up as exemplars: the rock crit as drug buddy to the stars, as a sort of rock star himself. But the least interesting thing about either Bangs or Kent are their debauches (who they threw up over, who puked on them). The world is full of fuck-ups, drunks, junkies, pillheads: it's utterly commonplace, so deeply lacking in interest. Besides which, if living the rock'n'roll lifestyle is essential to the rock writer's authenticity, then "pale theory boy" Penman was just as much a shall we say bon viveur as Kent. (MM was itself hardly a stranger to heroic, even suicidal, levels of alcohol consumption).
(On the subject of theory boys/girls, pale or otherwise... I reject the notion of "theorist" as a separate category, a notion rather fondly cherished by those who imagine what they do as rockwriters is somehow natural, organic, uncontrived, and therefore somehow more honorable. Everybody who takes music seriously is a theorist on some level: "common sense is just sedimented theory (obvious example: the earth goes round the sun was once a far-fetched and pretentious hypothesis). So the difference here is only between consciously choosing and organizing your own ideas versus inheriting them in an unexamined way. As for the cliche of the rock theorist as cold... seems to me that the potty excess of scrutiny and analysis involved in going to the bother of building a theory around rock or any part thereof testifies to an extraordinary emotional investment in the subject, to the point of amour fou.
It's a fiery thing. (Just anecdotally, some of the most merry-spirited, exuberant, laugh-like-a-drain types I know in "the profession" are yer brainiac theory-mongers. Whereas your just-the-facts-m'am/musn't-take-things-too-seriously/non-stop-wisecracking-scared-to-seem-earnest levity merchants, by contrast, are often quite sour'n'dour sorts in the flesh. Funny that.)
Beyond these specific beefs with eras dear to my heart being unrepresented or actively misrepresented, In Their Own Write is extremely lopsided and patchy: virtually nothing on American music journalism post-Bangs (nothing on Spin, on the Village Voice in the Eighties and early Nineties); hardly anything on important if small and/or shortlived UK magazines like Let It Rock, Street Life, Collusion, ZigZag. The Nineties whizz by in a few pages, mostly taken up with an exhaustive account of the rise and fall of Select; nothing on Lime Lizard, the Wire, Mixmag. Quite outrageously large chunks of it aren't from interviews conducted by the authors: rockcritics.com has been ransacked, and much of the book is derived from memoirs (Julie Burchill's I Knew I Was Right), essays (Peter York's Style Wars), biographies (Jim De Rogatis's Let It Blurt) and even other oral histories like Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me.
Verily, a missed opportunity.
THE BNF DEFICIT
The greater part of the work being done today--musically, critically -- strikes me as gap-filling. A band like Clinic, for instance, have found this tiny strip of terrain to call their own, a thin patch of sonic possibility bordered on every side by precursors who enjoyed much more room to manoevre.
Now, you might feel inclined to lend Clinic your support, praise them for doing the best they can in a tricky predicament. Or you might feel inclined to turn away with a soft sad shake of the head, wondering how people can get worked up over such miniscule increments of novelty. It's probably a generational thing: if you came of age in an era of Giant Steps and Bold New Formulations (BNFs), the present age with its micro-genres and Next Medium-Sized Things is going to be increasingly frustrating. People born after, say, 1977, of necessity have grown up with a more detail-oriented appreciation of smaller measures of innovation and idiosyncracy.
One thing's clear: whoever comes in the wake of Clinic will have an even more circumscribed space in which to operate.
The same syndrome applies to ideas-about-music. When was the last BNF? By my count, nearly five years ago, with Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant Than The Sun. Before that you'd have to go back to the turn of the Nineties, and Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Before that, the approach and sensibility hatched by Chuck Eddy and Frank Kogan in the late Eighties. Before that, the BNF's start coming too thick and fast to enumerate. This suggests that thinking-about-music parallels music-making: a sort of thermodynamic model that starts with a Big Bang and a flaming surge of creation, Giant Steps and BNF's galore. The possibilities for formal breakthroughs and striking Thought-Stances get progressively used up as time goes by, though. It's getting mighty crowded out there: more and more folk chasing smaller and smaller options. From galaxies to solar systems, from planets to space-dust.
The non-appearance of BNFs isn't due to a deficit of capability (there's more than enough brain-power out there). Is it just a lack of will-to-power and sheer determination, then? Or are people simply no longer interested in making that kind of totalizing macro-approach, find it unseemly or naff or just uncalled-for nowadays (these times of smaller shifts and evolution-not-revolution). Perhaps it's simply that there's nothing around musically/subculturally that would warrant and justify such an effort (with all its risks of making a fool of yourself).
For there's a grandiosity to the BNF; unconsciously, perhaps, the formulator is asking for the edifice to be torn down, its unsound foundations exposed. All BNF's are lopsided, and some are more wrong than right. But I can't help but admire the determination and guts that go into their construction, appreciate the starkness of intellectual contour. A prime example is More Brilliant Than The Sun, much of which I disagree with but which I can only salute as a heroic contribution to the, erm, dialectic. As with Carducci's BNF (whose premises I ultimately reject) the sheer contentiousness of More Brilliant is hugely valuable and galvanizing---responding to its challenges has sharpened up my own thinking no end.
It is disheartening that in five years since its publication, no one, to my knowledge, in the English-speaking world has mustered the resources of hubris and gall to attempt something of similar scope and ambition.
BNFs tend not be genial things, of course. There's an aggressive aspect, a tyrannical impulse (this sort of book is often praised along the lines of "it will change the way you think about XXX forever", which, if you think about it, is a rather despotic ambition: a putsch on people's minds!). The formulator usually wishes, implicitly or explicitly, to invalidate all other ways of looking at stuff. And every BNF becomes a set of blinkers, blinding its creator to new possibilities, unforeseen pleasures, unexpected shifts; the cardinal blunder of looking in the same place for your rapture/rupture. Pop music's protean on-rush will always outwit, outflank, outmode every BNF, leave this monument of thought standing there looking slightly ludicrous; stranded, no longer applicable to the new conditions.
Perhaps we are better off without BNFs, better off finding more affable, humble, non-polarising ways of looking at pop. As someone who gets off on messianic fervour, though, I can't help finding this kind of unassuming approach ultimately lacking some vital buzz-factor: it's too mild in temperament and temperature. Where's the fiyah?
MILD SPASMS OF MINOR VEXATION
RECORD REVIEWERS READING POST-SEPT 11 RESONANCE INTO SONG LYRICS WRITTEN LONG PRIOR TO SEPT 11
I know it's been on your minds, but please....
PEOPLE TAKING GWEN STEFANI SERIOUSLY
This label really had something, a few years back--but not long after the gorgeous compilation Lily of the Valley, they lost "it": feel, flow, funk, whatever vital bodymusic factor it was that had originally osmosed into their sound from Miami bass. They lost it somewhere in the labyrinthine mazework of their own software (c.f Aphex Twin). As a result, everything I've heard from them in the last year or so -- Richard Devine, Phoenicia, Otto Von Schirach, Dela & Rossa---has been like clambering through a Cubist briar patch: this dense bramble of sonic singularities/angularities, all groove shattered through endlessly micromanaged idiosyncracies Like that similarly irritating single by Mouse On Mars, the results are as uncomfortable as mohair Y-fronts
Supreme niftyness of that single apart (and is "coming up" a sly E reference?), I'm consistently unnerved by her striking resemblance to a young Sharon from Eastenders.
FASHION, STYLE MAGAZINES, STYLE CULTURE, SUPERMODELS...
A pox on them all.
Definitely way over-rated as tool for jimmying open the mysteries of pop,
The Unfathomable Appeal of.....
This year, let us ponder the unfathomable appeal of....
like flax seed for the ears
IS THAT ALL THERE IS, THEN?
I mean, 's pretty 'n' all, but...
**NEW RETRO FEATURE**
THE MOST SKIN CRAWLINGLY EMBARRASSING VIDEO EVER MADE
[sponsored by VH1 Classic: "the best 46 cents a month you'll ever spend"]
Elvis Costello & the Attractions featuring Daryl Hall -- "The Only Flame In Town"
FOR CRIMES AGAINST CULTURE: LEONARD KRAVITZ
charge: consistent/persistent near-cosmic naffness
FOR CRIMES AGAINST CULTURE: DAVID NAVARRO
charge: consistent/persistent near-cosmic naffness
In a reversal of the conventional way of celebrating such occurrences, it suddenly struck me that "Where's Your Head At" and "Digital Love" aren't great because they're inspirational one-offs; that in fact they're diminished somewhat by their isolation. It would be so much more exciting, so much stronger, if they were hundreds and hundreds of similar tracks, extracting every last permutational twist and thrill-sliver from the song. Imagine "Where's Your Head At" as a entire genre/scene/subculture (tekn-Oi! ?), complete with styles, rituals, drugs, slang, the whole caboodle. I suppose the model at the back of my mind is "jungalistic hardcore" 91-93: diversity-in-unity, a weird combo of total anything-goes possibility and rigid format (whatever that week's b.p.m. for breaks was); a phenomenon of bounty and endless surprise that Frank Kogan has called "a context of abundance" (not talking about 'ardkore, though). As it is, "Where's Your Heat At" and "Digital Love" are all too easily contained, as isolated instances of quirky auteurist risk-taking/genre-mashing/diversity. I guess what I'm talking about is how I'd always ultimately take a monolithic scenius vibe over an eclectic DJ/producer who "creams off the best" that loads of different genres provide; it's just that most monoto-vibe scenes are based around bad music; what I'm trying to imagine is a music that's great enough to withstand and live up to being monolithically presented. And that doesn't happen that often.
"Digital Love" and "Where's Your Head At?" are examples of a rare breed-- tracks that seem to demand the building of an entire subculture around them (other examples: Scud/I-Sound & Errorsmith's Roots, Rock, Ravers EP, and Something J and DJ Maxximum's "Mercedes Bentley Vs Versace Armani": although the latter is more an hallucination of an already existing subculture (2step) based on having being exposed to only a few examples of it). Imagine a song so potent that everybody was forced to answer its call, drop whatever they were into, change their affiliations. It's not unprecedented.
THE YEAR'S MOST INEXPLICABLE PAGE-TURNER
Dave Cavanagh's My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For the Prize: the Creation Story
Not at all inexplicable early on (there's fascinating stuff on early independents like Postcard, Rough Trade, and Cherry Red) or indeed for prolonged patches midway through (Lawrence from Felt's peculiar Howard Hughes-like obsession with hygiene; the tortuous gestation of MBV's Loveless; Guy Chadwick's bizarre penchant for stripping naked at parties when off his tits; the shocking rock'n'roll-ness of Primal Scream). But for Magpie Eyes's bulk (that being the operative word for this doorstopper), I found myself increasingly puzzled by the rapaciousness and rapidity with which I was devouring the thing. Why so rapt by the tribulations and career vicissitudes of bands I'd never cared a tinker's cuss for, like Weather Prophets and Ride? What was the fascination? Sheer incredulity at the sheer number and diversity of crap records Creation has put out? (Releases and signings a surprising number of which I, someone "in the business" and on the front lines during most of the period covered by Magpie Eyes, had never even heard of.). The mere fact that many of the names -- press officers, minor bands, journalists--were people I'd rubbed shoulders with during this era?
"Thoroughness" has never been that high on my scale of writerly virtues, but Cavanagh's sterling effort ("well reported" is the phrase reviewers reach for) almost changes my mind on this score. Such unstinting behind-the-scenes detail has two main effects. Firstly, all the nitty-gritty of deals, contracts, promotion and marketing strategies, etc is effectively demystifying, stripping away all the rock'n'roll romanticism that Creation has always trafficked in (which is why McGee, who loathed Magpie Eyes, sneeringly described it as "the accountant's story"). Secondly, the cumulative impact of all this demystifying data as it grinds on and piles up is to create an almost Adorno's-eye-view structuralist-yet-mystic sense of the record industry as a gigantic machine for generating misery; almost everybody loses, gets burned and embittered (for even the few who realize their dreams and achieve the highest heights must always reckon with the difficult of maintaining, the inevitable slide, the Herculean challenge of the comeback, the "didn't you used to be" comments). It's just amazing the way people simply persevere, hang on in there: doggedly reforming bands, or starting new ones, having another crack. Lifers, all. Rare indeed the ones who creep away into dignified seclusion. (And what, I suppose, are they supposed to do with the rest of their lives?).
THE MOST OVER-RATED SCENES/GENRES OF ALL TIME
Part Two: THE MOD/SOULBOY CONTINUUM
Thoughts prompted by three near-simultaneous irritations: seeing the video for Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" on VH1 Classic (Weller and Talbot as Tour De France cyclists); reading Kirk De Giorgio's Invisible Jukebox in the Wire; perusing the suspiciously dapper and small-faced Paul Gorman's In their Own Write, with its excessive number of quotes from Paolo "Cappucino Kid" Hewitt.
I'm using "mod" here to signify not so much a specific period in the Sixties, or even its revivals and explicit echoes, so much as a UK youth cultural continuum, a perennial space in the sociocultural field of possibilities. And it's something whose appeal almost entirely bypasses me; it consistently non-resonates. And obviously in this respect I'm just as much trapped in my own class identity (middle middle class, as opposed to lower middle class). What irks? Mod's non-Dionysian, neat-freak retentiveness? Its refusal of both "revolution" (mod is essentially about resignation: youth as brief burst of energy and hope before capitulation to the humdrum) and "bohemia" (which as someone wise said, basically replaces politics with art as solution to/salve for the contradictions of late capitalist society)?
The mod/soul-boy continuum occupies a thin strip of sociological terrain--basically suburban upper working class/lower middle class--and is defined on one side through its disdain for the "studenty" (that bedrock of all things "progressive", Floyd to Radiohead) and on the other through its recoiling from the base pleasures of the un-sussed plebs (your proper proletariat). Caught between these two equally unattractive prospects and with the dire fate of suburban mediocrity staring it in the face, Mod escapes England through a massive projection towards Black America (never, crucially, rock'n'roll America) and through its flirtations with European-ness. As per Style Council's Our Favorite Shop, what's imagined is a utopia of perfect consumption: transcendence achieved through the details of a lapel, the iconicity of a label.
At the core of the mod self-conception is the idea of being one of a select few white boys who truly understand black passion and black style, simply through strenuous self-education in all its crucial details. The original mods were at least dealing with contemporary Black American music, but by the Seventies, with Northern Soul, the mod continuum became increasingly and paradoxically opposed to Black Modernity--it was equally horrified by white misappropriations of black music and by black musician's own deviations from the true path.
For Energy Flash, I was interviewed by Robert Elms on his GLR show, and during a desultory interrogation, with one eye kept on the Test Match playing on a little TV above the studio console, the former doyen of the style bibles opined that as far as he was concerned, house and techno had been the death of the British working class's love affair with black dance music. Like everybody else from a certain mid-Eighties moment in style culture/London clubland, Elms seemed to have imagined that rare groove/"the jazz revival"/go-go should have just have extended itself in perpetuity: a Thousand Year Reich of refinement and righteousness.
Elms's inability to accept house and techno as "proper black music" (let alone all the things that followed like jungle and 2step), then gets weirdly echoed by your Terry Farley types who went a bit further than Elms, falling in love with deep house, but stops there. Read his house review column in Muzik and you sniff the tell-tale neo-mod whiff of "we are the custodians", signaled by phrases like "proper black dance music" and "this is real black house music for those who know". Then there's Kirk DeGiorgio with his historically confused insistence that Detroit techno came entirely out of black synth-exponents like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Bernie Worrell, and owed not one whit to Kraftwerk/New Order/Depeche. DeGiorgio operates some kind of web-site project dedicated to documenting early Seventies black music year by year down to every last record released---so far as he's barely got to 1971!.
I've strayed a bit far from mod here (DeGiorgio is probably as much a case of a jazz curator or Steve Barrow-style archivist type as anything, he certainly doesn't look terribly dapper from the pix I've seen) but the syndrome is essentially the same: what typifies the mod/soul-boy mentality is this weird self-effacing relationship with black music, where the best one can aspire to is to emulate/simulate black music as closely as possible. These white people are continually complaining about other white people ruining black music, making it too "white boy."
Like the house bods referenced earlier, these guys always seemed destined to become curmudgeons, disenchanted by the direction that their beloved black music has gone. Because their attitude to black music is so reverential, conservationist, and purist, they cannot comprehend black musicians own impulses to be faithless and heretical, to miscegenate. Your actual black musicians, on the whole, give or take a few real cultural protectionist/Afrocentric/black power sorts, don't think like this: in fact they think as musicians first, responding to excellence wherever it comes from. The examples are too numerous: southern soul singers who loved the plaintiveness and everyman's-woes aspects of country, George Clinton loving the Beatles and Vanilla Fudge, Ice T's penchant for Phil fucking Collins and making bad hard rock records, jungle with people like Goldie being into The Stranglers, David Sylvian and PiL as much as Loose Ends, Maze, Marley Marl; Jeff Mills's digging post-DAF Euro Body Music and actually playing in an industrial band called Final Cut.
For your mod/soulboy types, this sort of swerve is a real headfuck. And so electro and the hard, drum-machine driven rap of the early Eighties totally wrongfooted the chaps at Echoes and Blues & Soul (some journalists from these mags even formed an entity called LADS: League Against Disco Shit), and most of your style bible clubland guru types consistently backed the wrong horse, rallying to go-go or rare groove rather than rap or house. All hand-percussion and call-and-response, go-go corresponded to their received ideas of proper blackness; Troublefunk's shows in 1986 were wall-to-wall white hipster funkateers, barely a black face in sight.
Black music has an inherent mutational drive that is continually pushing it into directions that are "un-black"--in the process challenging and complicating the reified notions of blackness ("swing", "funky", "soulful", "warmth" etc) cherished by the white believers. (And sometimes the black believers too: in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George's ideas lead him towards the paradox that, post-electro, the true conscientious custodians of black music, the people who really cherished and had a gut-understanding of its principles, were all white and mostly British: your George Michaels, Phil Collins, Daryl Halls, Mick Hucknalls etc.) Time and time again, a younger, upstart generation of black musicians will find themselves attracted to some new white music and embrace its qualities (hard attack riffs, distortion, machinic angularity), and the result is the next quantum leap for black music. Time and time again, the white soulboys huddle in horror and disdain, holding tightly onto models of black innovation that have become essentially antique.
And here's the truly perturbing twist---quite often it's been the "pale theory boys", the studenty, art-school, pretentious twats that your mods and soul-boys love to mock--who are not only the first to grasp the new cutting edges of black music (I'm thinking here of your Cabs, New Orders, Mark Stewarts) but who even occasionally have reciprocal influence back on black music (DAF and Throbbing Gristle with the Chicago house pioneers; Pop Group deeply shaping members of Massive Attack, etc). Standing to one side of this fruitful dialectic of funklessness and refunktification, the mod/soulboy types condemn themselves to irrelevance and redundancy. Can you imagine any black musician being inspired by, or finding some re-deployable element worth stealing in, the music of Kirk De Giorgio, Jamiroquai, or the Style Council?
after all that negativity... Faves of 2002 So Far!!!!!!
The Streets -- Original Pirate Material [UKG's Maxinquaye]
Boards of Canada -- Geogaddi [more of the same only more so]
Something J/DJ Maximus -- Mercedes Bentley Vs Versace Armani [digital hardcore meets
Various Artists--Montreal Smoked Meat [Canadian click-house]
BaBa Zula -- UC Oyundan Onyedi Muzik [Turkish neo-psych]
Swayzak -- Groovetechnology V1.3 -- [impeccable micro-house mix-CD]
Req -- Sketchbook (Warp) [old skool beatz meets gamelan]
Ian Dury & the Blockheads -- Ten More Turnips From the Tip
Position Normal --- Goodly Time (Rum Records) [same as in Faves of 2001 only slightly different tracks, different title, and delayed release date]
Blectum From Blechdom -- Fishing in front of people: the early years 1998-2000 live album (Pthalo)
Blevin Blectum -- Talon Slalom (Deluxe)
Kevin Blechdom -- The Inside Story 3 inch CD (Tigerbeat 6)
Kevin Blechdom--Bitches Without Britches (Tigerbeat 6 forthcoming)
[blectal overdose, plus they've kissed and made-up so a proper BfB album is on the cards!]
P.O.D - "Youth of The Nation" [p-punk echoes as discussed]
Liars--They Threw Us All In A Trench and Stuck A Monument On Top (forthcoming on
[more p-punk echoes: Gang of 4 played with the "Loose"-ness of Birthday Party]
The Rapture--Out of the Races and Onto The Tracks" (SubPop)
-- "House of Jealous Lovers" (DFA)
[even more p-punk echoes--"At Home He Feels Like Tourist" meets Josef K suavefunk, maybe. Tasty Morgan Geist NYC-1981-vibed remix of "House of Jealous Lovers" too]
Euphone -- The Lakewood [enuff p-punk echoes awreddy!]
Soul Center III (Novamute) [best track here--#5 if memory serves--is like the long delayed sequel to Deep Blue's "The Helicopter Tune"]
The Chemical Brothers--Come With Us (Astralwerks) [woooooooooooosh!!]
AntiPop Consortium -- Arrythmia (Warp) [life begins at the glitch-hop] [sorry!]
Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau (Ghostly International)/
American Gigolo: the Best of International DJ Gigolo Records [all roads lead to Romo] [really sorry!]
Zero 7 --Another Late Night mix-CD [for its long sequence midway of balm-like soft slow 70s soul]
The Specials--Specials/More Specials [timely reissues on account of The Streets 2-tone-meets-2-step tracks--it's a Midlands t'ing, seen)
Wu Tang Clan -- Iron Flag [extremely funky]
DJ/Rupture -- Gold Teeth Thief mix-CD (www.negrophonic.com) [epi-eclectic]
De La Soul --AOI: Bionix [randy]
NB. What you have just read is the monstermix of UnFaves 2001-- there is actually a near infinitely shorter version available