Sunday, June 30, 2019

Not about Morrissey

Just as it happened 35 or so years ago, while I watched Johnny Marr’s Glastonbury set I gawped at his dexterity, musical imagination, effortless cool and implausible absence of body fat. Of course, in 1983 his serviceable singing didn’t come into the equation, because someone else was handling those duties.

Ah, yes, Mr Morrissey. What started out (apparently) as arch, subversive flirtation with the trappings and iconography of the far right has tipped right over the edge into full-on Faragerie and worse. He is, officially, no longer charming, and people are lining up either to agonise over the delight they once took in him and his mots (bon and mauvais alike), or to crow that they never liked the preening bigot in the first place. I’m in the first camp, but I guess you’d worked that out already.

So, when Marr trawls through his old band’s songbook, what reaction should we expect from the woke crowd? Awkward shoe-gazing? A mass turning of backs? A petition on Or ecstatic bellowing along from thousands of sunburned people who know all the words and the B-sides and probably the messages etched on the inner grooves as well, which contrasts with the polite response accorded to the guitar hero’s own solo work. (Note to self: remember that in the real world, Smiths fans always resembled the rowdy lads on the inside of the Rank gatefold more than they did Alain Delon or even Yootha Joyce.) Hate the singer – or at least express disappointment in how he turned out – while still loving the songs; that would appear to be the best option. Of course, the spirit of Morrissey still lingers over everything Marr does; at once there and not there, Schrödinger’s lyricist, Banquo at the vegan feast. This was meant to be a blog post about Johnny, but it’s not, is it?

The singer/song divide does appear to be an increasingly popular tactic, whether it’s Quincy Jones playing lots of Michael Jackson songs without ever mentioning Michael Jackson, or Nick Cave’s calm response to the misdeeds of Morrissey himself:
I think perhaps it would be helpful to you if you saw the proprietorship of a song in a different way. Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song. It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener.
Which, the two or three loyal readers of this blog will know, is pretty much what Roland Barthes (a French theorist who never heard the Smiths but died a beautifully Morrisseyesque death) argued in The Death of the Author. As soon as the author publishes, or releases, or presses “SEND”, he or she leaves the party. I’ve often deployed this as a critical get-out clause; for example in my book about Radiohead’s OK Computer (all good bookshops, etc), I pointed out that the fact Thom Yorke hasn’t read Philip K Dick’s Valis, or can’t remember that the poem that inspired ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ was by Craig Raine, doesn’t invalidate those works’ relevance to consideration of his own music. I never thought it would also allow us to skip gaily over the sexual or political misdemeanours of our fallen idols, and I doubt old Roland did either – which rather proves his point, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

About self-Googling

In a word, don’t.

About Walter Benjamin (yet again)

Obviously, it’s easy to trawl through the work of writers from decades past and find that they’ve (presumably accidentally) had the core idea for some phenomenon that only came into being in our own time. Going back over The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, though, I realise Benjamin leaves the competition standing. Writing in 1936, he comes up with social media...
For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers — at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. 
And then reality TV...
In cinematic practice, particularly in Russia, this change-over has partially become established reality. Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves — and primarily in their own work process. the space of a couple of paragraphs. Nice work, Walt.

PS: Edward Ward asks, Where’s Walter?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

About Norman Stone

The Telegraph has for many years boasted the finest obituaries in British newspapers, with its emphasis on interesting people who led interesting lives, rather than those who were merely famous or useful or even pleasant. But every now and then the DT’s competitors come good, as in Richard J Evans’s piece for The Guardian on the truly ghastly historian Norman Stone. Evans is scrupulous in pointing out Stone’s gifts as a writer and scholar, but is clear that they were seriously outweighed by his flaws. A small selection...
On one occasion he collapsed in front of [Margaret Thatcher], drunk; but she was well known for her indulgence towards alcoholics so long as they supported her politically.
Knowing that he did little research, never bothered to check his facts and relied on his literary flair to mask his mistakes, the publishers got serious historians to go through the text: one of them sent in a 20-page list of errors, but it was impossible to spot them all and so it was left to reviewers to point out the many further inaccuracies.
And, for dessert:
Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”
PS: And, just to be fair, the heir to Stone’s throne as monarch of the right-wing rentagobs pays tribute.

PPS: And here’s Stone’s own hatchet job on another historian, EH Carr.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

About Good Omens

I rather enjoyed the TV adaptation of Gaiman/Pratchett’s eschatological bromance Good Omens, and I suppose the fact that 20,000 Christians have petitioned Netflix to have it cancelled (one of their complaints is that God is depicted as having a female voice) is something akin to a badge of honour.

Especially since the show was actually made by Amazon Prime.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

About masters

An extraordinary story by Jody Rosen in the New York Times, about a fire at the Universal Studios in Hollywood in 2008 that destroyed the masters of sound recordings by, among many others, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Bo Diddley, the Andrews Sisters, Etta James, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Captain Beefheart, Al Green, Iggy Pop, Nirvana... essentially, a massive chunk of 20th-century American music ceased to exist in matter of minutes. I’m not sure what’s more astonishing, that such a calamity was allowed to occur, or that its full extent is only now being revealed, more than a decade on. 

But does it matter that much? I mean, it’s not as if the music is entirely lost, is it? Well, some of it is: it turns out that some of the material lost to the flames had never seen a commercial release, had never made it off the tapes in the first place. There’s a bigger point, though, as Rosen argues:
But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs. It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” [producer Andy] Zax said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.” 

Friday, June 14, 2019

About etcetera

Back in the olden days, when I’d get nervous if I hadn’t blogged for 48 hours, I’d often end up with half a dozen half-finished, half-arsed posts, all entirely unrelated to each other, that I’d crunch together into a single slab of incoherence. Inevitably these would usually turn out to be more popular than the finely crafted single-issue bits.

In that spirit, but with considerably less bang for your digital buck: a fascinating look at the Tokyo that nearly was; then a slice of urban strangeness that actually happened, with Simon Reynolds interviewing the late Andy Gill about the Sheffield music scene in the late 70s/early 80s; and this:

and this:

PS: ....aaand how we feel when we realise exactly how bloody old our favourite music is.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

About Cohen and Radiohead

I’ve written two proper books about popular musicians (and, if you haven’t had the pleasure, you really should, no, really), and I reached a similar frame of mind by the time I’d got to the end of both of them; that the music was ultimately less interesting than the people creating it.

I recently had my prejudices reinforced, twice over. First, I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Nick Broomfield’s upcoming film, which tells the tale of Leonard Cohen and his long, complex relationship with his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen, which lasted from 1960 to 2016, the year they both died, just three months apart. At first, I thought it would appeal only to die-hard Cohen fans, a strange bunch, as I’ve discovered. But ultimately Cohen’s music fades into the background of a narrative that’s really about love and loss, death and ageing, and the search for personal peace. It’s gruffly tender and drily romantic, like the best of Cohen’s work, but exists beyond that oeuvre.

I have a similar attitude to Radiohead; I haven’t been particularly swept away by anything they’ve recorded since the Amnesiac album in 2001, but I still find them weirdly, awkwardly fascinating, not least in their constant awareness of the paradox they embody, a band that forges its identity through its opposition to global capitalism, but can only feasibly exist thanks to the operation of the same capitalism.

And that paradox bubbled up again this week when, after someone hacked into an archive of sessions from the OK Computer period, and held them to ransom for a six-figure sum, they made the whole lot available for £18, with proceeds going to Extinction Rebellion; the glumly realistic – and very British – sales pitch being that the sounds are “only tangentially interesting”.

PS: The Guardian rather misses the point by confusing what’s essentially a spontaneous reaction to digital skulduggery with a proper album.

PPS: Also, this.

PPPS: Then, through the letter box, comes this:

PPPPS: And in further LC news, the Leonard/Marianne letters sell for vast sums.

PPPPPS: Are you still here? I get a mention in Drum! magazine.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Not about Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson fans, we are told, are annoyed that a forthcoming Quincy Jones concert appears to have shifted its emphasis from being a tribute to the King of Pop, to a non-specific trawl through music from the 80s, with occasional nods to Jacko.

But what’s more interesting is that the posthumously disgraced Jackson himself barely seemed to figure, even in the original marketing. Sure, there was plenty of emphasis on his three most important albums (all of which Jones produced) but his tarnished name is conspicuous by its absence. Which is, I guess, a way to get around the whole problem of how to appreciate Great Art By Bad Men; we are allowed once again to appreciate a sculpture by Eric Gill, a film by Roman Polanski, an album by Michael Jackson, without any moral awkwardness, simply by dropping the Bad Man’s name from the credits. I’m pretty sure that this is not what Barthes was thinking of when he posited the Death of the Author – but hey, he’s only the author anyway, so who cares?

PS: And Judi Dench says much the same thing about the works of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. And she’s a national treasure so it must be OK.

PPS: And on Twitter, the trauma that ensues when someone decides JK Rowling is A Bad Person.

PPPS: Nick Cave, who dealt with this a couple of months ago, returns.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

About Wefail

I’ll have to admit that I’ve only just become aware of the art collective called Wefail, the schtick of which seems to be pretending that Francis Bacon is alive and well and still gloriously aghast at the horrors of the world (and also discreetly forgetting that Bacon voted Tory). Nice work, though.

PS: Swift response from Wefail: “Of course Bacon was a Tory, he was a masochist.”

Saturday, June 01, 2019

About the 80s

The latest iteration of the unkillable NOW franchise would appear to be something called Forgotten 80s, a collection of 100 songs that a) were originally released in the 1980s and b) would appear to have been forgotten by someone or other. It’s this last bit that confuses me; who’s supposed to have forgotten them? And at what point are they remembered, if at all? When you read the titles? When you play the songs? Or are they buried so deep in the subconscious that they feel like entirely new songs, thus perfecting the music industry’s preferred tactic of re-issue/re-package to infinity?

I am, presumably, the target market for this sort of thing, having spent the entirety of my teenage years in that strange country we call the 80s. Unfortunately, when I looked at the track listing, I’d stubbornly refused to forget pretty much any of the songs included, whether they were loved (‘Louise’, ‘Da Da Da’, ‘Zoom’, the fabulous ‘Sonic Boom Boy’) or despised (‘Every Loser Wins’ by thin-tied wide-chinned Nick Berry). Which means, I guess, that I’m not the target market after all. The only exception was ‘Living on Video’, a 1983 hit by the Canadian band Trans-X. When I played it, I thought I vaguely recalled the flutey synth riff, but then again that could have been from 20 or 30 other songs of the time. And as I watched the video, which is so quintessentially 80s (The Hair! The Computers! The Earrings!) as to be veering into Lufthansa Terminal territory, I did briefly consider whether it might be also be a gloriously arch spoof, a recent concoction crowbarred into a decade-specific compilation to play games with critics who claimed to remember (and hate) it from the first time round.

And now I wonder if there are other people of my generation, hoping against hope that the one or two tracks they’ve tried and failed to retrieve from their own decaying hippocampi (Transvision Vamp? China Crisis? Sydney Youngblood?) are just tawdry postmodern japes and that in fact, their memories are as pure and clear and entire as they could ever be. Too Good To Be Forgotten, or Not Bad Enough To Be Remembered?

PS: And if you really can’t remember F.R. David or Haysi Fantayzee, you’ll probably have trouble with this as well.