Thursday, 31 March 2011

Last Words

From Philip K. Dick's final interview, 1982 (via here, continuing from here):
"We’re not seeing the clock turned back to 1912, before the graduated income tax was enacted; we’re seeing it turned back to Imperial Rome, where I think it was Seneca who said, “There’s no use giving food to the starving. It’ll just prolong their miserable lives.” Rabbi Hertz quotes him. The Roman attitude was that being hungry, poor, and sick, you deserved to die anyway. Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, Seneca and all of these people, don’t even include it as a virtue — they actually include it as a vice, that you would help the needy. We’re now seeing a return to the old imperial system of, “Let the disadvantaged sink to the bottom, let ‘em die.” This is so tragic and so inhumane.

“But I can’t work up any animosity toward Reagan. I see him as caught up in historic trends that are so powerful, he was literally brought to power, the way Hitler was, which was legally and by a very large majority. And look what happened last week with Tip O’Neill’s fight against Reagan’s budget cuts. Did you see Tip O’Neill standing there at that microphone? The guy was ruined. His face was sagging, he was shaking. You didn’t even have to have the sound on.

“There is one thing in Deuteronomy where he says, “You must always pay the hired man before sunset. For he is poor and has his heart set on it.” And in the notes Rabbi Hertz has for that, there is: “The workman is so poor that unless he is paid by sunset, he will not be able to buy food for his family.” I just lay there thinking about that, “For he is poor and has his heart set on it.” It is so incredible that we have fallen away from something that was so basic to our civilization, for maybe as many as 2,000 years.
“We are in a time when there is a cruel spirit across the land, and it seems to be gathering momentum. I have some very close, personal friends who are showing symptoms of great cruelty…”

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

To Be, Or...

The structural similarity between much advertising and much modern art is not simply copying by the advertisers. It is the result of comparable responses to the contemporary human condition, and the only distinction that matters is between the clarification achieved by some art and the displacement normal in bad art and most advertising. The skilled magicians, the masters of the masses, must be seen as ultimately involved in the general weakness which they not only exploit but are exploited by. If the meanings and values generally operative in the society give no answers to, no means of negotiating, problems of death, loneliness, frustration, the need for identity and respect, then the magical system must come, mixing its charms and expedients with reality in easily available forms, and binding the weakness to the condition which has created it. Advertising is then no longer merely a way of selling goods. It is a true part of the culture of a confused society.
- Raymond Williams, 1980

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Wicked wierd

A north Hampshire town in 1984, the usual Saturday traipsing shopping streets behind mum. I was waiting outside one shop when three or four older, harder, cooler, more confident boys surged past – one carrying a huge ghetto blaster blaring out these taut rhythms, icy synth lines and robotic voices. It was a moment, and I had to have that sound (the tune was Man Parrish’s Boogie Down Bronx). This was my first ticket out of the suburban quotidian: electro music had entered and would never leave. I had no real idea of its provenance other than it was American but to an 11-year-old lack of details were no barrier to imagination. Only superficially was it dumb party music bragging about girls, and it laid the groundwork for my perceptions of popular music, and particularly the divide between dance and rock, years before I was ready to process those ideas.

A Damascene moment it may have been but electro was no early stage, esoteric cult. After punk had razed the ground but also made yet more variations on rock ‘n roll palatable to the wider world only as pastiche, a New Pop which the newer, cheaper synth technology facilitated had arrived. With real instrumentation less in favour, the funk quota that most bands still strived for was also more easily achievable through this route. Many a rock outfit had a makeover and descuzzed their sound. Blondie rapped about Flash and Fab Five Freddy. It was also well served on film with the likes of Breakdance Electric Boogaloo and Wild Style. So any near-adolescent wanting to appear a la mode had to have a passing acquaintance with it, just as any with-it band – say The Clash – would pay respect to the culture and dabble in the sound.

My own causal, if very tonally different, link was the beguiling sights and sounds of synth Britons such as the Human League, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode on Top of the Pops in 80-81. Turned out these groups were also enormously influential among black Americans too. Paradoxically getting into it when I did would save me from the worst stylistic excesses of the New Pop which would begin to lose its way; I’d leave the Now tapes to my elder sister and her cronies.

As legacy I would take just the music from this era, but this was a well rounded culture encompassing the four corners of breakdancing, graffiti, MCing and DJing. We were in a ‘crew’ of course, with the hi-top boots, jeans with decorative zips in, the fat laces and the (rarely unfashionable since) two-tone Nike cagoules, although only one of us had any real skills on the lino. For a while all this completely took over – I’d write long graf lists of all the words associated with the genre (smooth/tuff/wicked/etc); tap my pens a lot on school desks in mimicry; adapt Whodini’s Freaks Come out at Night to our tent’s travails on our school camping holiday; spend way too much time with my mate in the hi-fi shops checking out the nice eject actions on blasters we couldn’t afford. I boldly pronounced to my mum that this electro-breaking lark was the future, ‘here for ever’ or something. Well not quite, but while all the elements reduced in relevance most of them have refitted and resurged more popular than ever.

The chaotic scratching, blunt industrial beats and MC reportage would offer fitting representation of the Bronx and other districts being torn down. What passed for the banner of ‘Electro’ was a much wider genre encompassing the escapist post-Soulsonic forces stuff, Run DMC’s stripped back bluntness or the even more basic drum machine minimalism of Roxanne/UTFO. In ’85, as this DJ Revlution comp would attest, synthesised riffs were losing out as virtually everyone was rocking hard bass kicks and snares backed up with electronic handclaps, scratching and riffs broken down and exploited for pure rhythmic import – when much of the subject matter being spat was still quite prurient such force could seem a little bewildering. And though there were gritty tales as made most obvious by the likes of Grandmaster Flash’s The Message I was pretty much out of there when the stuff started going gangsta for reasons I’ll explain later. Yes there was also shit like the Fat Boys giving it a bad name, and all manner of prurient eccentricity before that became uncanny and hip. There were a few popular long-running themes such as the welter of battle rhymes/answer records between Roxanne with UTFO and Roxanne with Roxanne Shante; apparently there was a version with swear words on it which had to be tracked down. For my own part, I was also on a quest to find the most perfect scratch sound, and I located it in NYC Cutter’s DJ Cuttin’s licks contorting the sounds of brakes being slammed on.

This was a shortlived spell like the most intense obsessions; I was on the sound probably from late ’84-late ’86. Enthusiasm for playing and watching football dropped as my interest in hanging round crappy precincts listening to music and talking about breakdancing – but never having actually any burns – increased. Crucially, this would be an early sign that in any such scene the music would be my over-riding concern. That did not mean I would slip into fanboy obscurantism – to have the prime cuts from each act would be enough.

Handily, for at that time I had neither financial or logistical resources to deepen my knowledge, this was a music well contained by Mike Allen’s shows on Capital Radio and the ‘Electro’ compilations, straight outta West Acton and regular enough to be fairly definitive (although looking back they did seem to flip back and forth between older and newer stuff). Mates would tape compilations complete with photocopied and badly coloured in covers. Some stuff got into the UK charts giving us a chance of direct ownership (Mantronix, Doug E Fresh, DMC). Generally outré acts like Chris ‘the Glove’ Taylor with his Itchiban Scratch stayed as eccentric one-offs in my mind, enhancing their weirdness. This was a street music before the tiresome ‘reality principle’ was enforced on music either as willed expression or theatrical gesture, so it was tuff but often dead weird at the same time.

What stays with me from this scene today? Almost embarrassingly so, much of it is note-perfect thanks to regular trips back to the sound (a friend ripped me a CD-rom’s worth of all of the Electros), but the ones I offer up as examples are:

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde were a double act in at the start of the scene, and therefore not totally transformed by the takeover of drum machines and Bambaata type electro. ‘Fast Life’ is a Kurtis Blow production with live bass and synth sweeps offset by the electronic handclap machine on random, a fine background for Andre Harrell and Alonzo Brown to divert from the usual rock the party rhymes to deliver a cautionary tale about a kid who ‘grew up much too quick’. Harrell went on to form Uptown records where the duo’s corporate livery was more suited to its New Jack Swing.

Marley Marl is deservedly cited as a leading light. With his cousin MC Shan here, we have ultra tight beats, big ups to self, not a chord or melody in sight. As head of the Juice Crew, Marlon Williams’ style was an arrogant and assured anti-music. He also led the late 80s evolution of hip-hip with his work for Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap & Polo, Masta Ace and others. That DJ Cuttin record is his too. And you must check his harsh brutalism on MC Craig G’s Transformer – a late appearance on Electro 10 but a bleak and ugly slab of shifting sledgehammer beats, shock instrumental stabs and the shapeshifting daemon himself coming through the vocoder.

Then there was there more straight-up electro bounce LA sound – the pre-NWA explorations of Dre in the World Class Wreckin Crew and Professor X as the Arabian Prince, as well as the Unknown DJ. And the guy who stands out with his consistent Pharonic concept was Egyptian Lover. These days those pitch-bent riffs, queasy voices and druggy beats are the meat and veg of the fidgety pop world; back then I used to find Greg Broussard’s material dangerously exciting and disturbing as I’d listen to a tinpot tape-player or radio under my sheets.

I also retain big love for Aleem – twins Taharqa Aleem and Tunde Ra Aleem with 70s soul-disco man Leroy Burgess who peddled emotionally charged electro soul that through its energy sat better with the Electro compilations than the slicker, high-tech soul of its Street Sounds cousin (one of which actually I got in error after I instructed mum, obviously shopping alone in Aldershot that Saturday, to come home with any Electro she saw in Our Price). They also produced for acts such as Captain Rock.

More well known than all of these with his highly distinctive electrofunk, it’s hard to avoid Mantronix as a considerable auteur. Kurtis el Khaleel epitomised the rise of the singular producer who like Marley Marl would release under different guises/styles and work with a range of rappers and vocalists. I choose Ladies, standard girl-talk for sure but with a weird atmosphere catalysed by slower than usual polyrhythmic drum patterns with real percussion, minor keys and echoed MC Tee rhymes.

If 82-84 saw the emergence of this futurist thrust, then 1985 was the year of take-over, certainly that DJ Revolution comp would suggest it was a big year. That meant consolidation was round the corner; by ’86 the purer electro sound was getting overexploited (Paul Hardcastle’s 19, anyone?), while the industry had seemed only to raise the profile of the dumber stuff (Fat Boys, LL Cool J – anything past Rock the Bells is cack), get behind acts past their sell-by date (Roxanne, Kurtis Blow) or usher others into more soulful, rockier or mainstream material such as Run DMC or Mantronix, in stark contravention to where the culture was actually going. With New York repurposed as a city of service and finance capital, those industrial slabs of rhythm, wreckin shop scratching and block rockin lyrics that purveyed a tumultuous city with considerable heterogeneous cultural force were out of place – it was now the job of rappers to talk about the crack zones left behind. For that true ‘hip-hop’ itself was coming to the fore. Boogie Down Productions was one of the first of the new school – and as with so many KRS-1 would soon have his own tale for summary inspiration after Scott La Rock’s death. The braggadocio of the frontman gripping his johnson had been replaced by an in-your-face bad boy with deadly intent. Either as preacher man, griot or grisly celebrator of the life, rappers (no longer just plain old MCs) had stories to tell beyond girls about using guns and selling drugs and for this his ‘cadence’ was all-important and the return to musicality served that – sampling took over and the real funk of the 70s was plundered – I’m tempted to think because you needed a fun counterpoint to all the lyrical brutality.

By its twelfth edition it was ‘Hip-Hop Electro’ 12, and by 17 it had lost any mention of electro at all – while nominally the term did not fit everything in this wide range of emerging sounds it had been accurate enough; by now it was outdated. The modern shapes and blocks of colour were also slowly edged out, and with this loss of consistent corporate identity the game was over. Or rather it had changed. The strictly entertaining party elements took a back seat until consumer capitalism was ready to re-embrace them. I corresponded by having a period out of the game – a spiritual penance if you like away from other people’s hyper-reality (the music I chose for this interlude was mostly U2, the Minds and Jean Michel Jarre! Oh what scars in my collection!) before Public Enemy and others such as Eric B bought me back in time for hip-hop’s golden era to follow. But that’s the music of another decade.

25-30 years on electro music’s legacy is strong. The reliance was still on the ever fertile production line from America but for Britain’s multi-culti teenagers always so achingly keen to be on-trend, this was the first visible subculture to explicitly refute live music and be all about DJs, producers, labels, the latest up-to-the-minute beat (a more visible cousin to the necessary occlusive soundsystem-based dub reggae culture). The notion of the b-boy still has a very strong hold on how up and coming British producers present themselves. You can view it as pre-nuum in this respect, possibly with even more direct linkage than the more naively utopian, therefore less streetwise, rave.

Personally, electro/hip-hop goes far beyond being my first window on the black American world and a companion in my adolescent stirrings – ‘Electro is aural sex’ they used to print on the inlay of the tape covers. I still exercise an over-reliance on the compilation method of accumulation Electro introduced me to – picking the best artists with no particular need to discover the full blown artist album where your loyalty is frequently let down by lack of quality/overindulgence. And while Rubin and co were introducing elements of rawk as it collided with the MTV generation, these few years precluded any liking for metal/rock/indie and coloured my perceptions of those genres for years afterwards. Hearing this blunt but emphatic anti-music as my source material would make my inherently distrust the vaunted ‘emotion’ of the troubled rock artist, or the value of all the ever diminishing repetitions of musicality the bands behind him present. Since I have realised the pointlessness of relativity in relation to disparate musics I have opened up my ears, but in many respects it’s still all about the beat. And yeah sad to say I still annoy a lot of people by beatboxing too often.

In terms of the music itself, well from Dizzee’s bite of the Roxanne/UTFO beat on Fix Up, the Chemical Brothers’ use of the Roof is on Fire or any number of wholescale lifts from those Brighton Go! Team merchants who wear the influences very visibly on their chests – very little of it that was any good hasn’t been appropriated. On one hand the pulse beat seemed to served the rather dull breaks genre, on the other austere and enlightening Detroit electro from Aux 88, Mike Banks’ various guises, Drexicya and the broadening out from electroclash artists like Peaches. Bear in mind what was called electro-house very rarely had that pulse-beat but still traded off the genre’s schlock value. The breaking, popping, graffiti and so on are so thoroughly re-entrenched in a now officially sanctioned Street Culture that for originals like me to call its bluff and claim it’s nostalgic would be nonsense. A kid (or more likely, a student wearing a rucksack into the scene) can immerse themselves in this life more completely than we ever could and, with ever more distance from the original Bronx explosion of the late ’70s, questions of cultural theft seem much less relevant.

With any retrospective of a once vital culture we have to be careful not to lurch into nostalgic soft focus or use it as a validator of once vibrant lives, like the way pissed Dads attempt the moonwalk, the body pop or, no! please don’t!, the crazy legs at a wedding. Or the way Vernon Kay endlessly evokes the spirit of rave as if he’s a Haciendia veteran. But if you deghettoise the sound – not necessarily think of it as childish electro but straight-up dance music – then much of it competes with all the myriad disco/funk/early house stuff of the Dance Decade. Generally, all the genre’s trademark sounds have been back in vogue for a good 10 years so the more pertinent question is when will it stop being so influential.

An Electro 10
MC Craig G – Transformer
Imperial Brothers – We Come to Rock
Aleem – Release Yourself
Captain Rock – Cosmic Blast
Cybotron – Clear
Egyptian Lover – My House on the Nile
Marley Marl ft MC Shan – Marley Marl Scratch
Man Parrish – Boogie Down Bronx
Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde – Fast Life
Roxanne Shante ft Biz Markie – Def Fresh Crew

Monday, 28 March 2011

Witness (1985)

Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller "Witness", while in many ways a conventional Hollywood thriller, was notable for introducing to the outside world the insular culture of the Pennsylvania-based Christian Mennonite sect known as the Amish. While the major plot elements of the film are familiar, it is the contrast between the homeostatic, rural culture of the Amish, who voluntarily arrested their social development in the late 19th Century, and the violent, unstable world of the "English" (the Amish term for all other Americans) that provides the crux of the film.

When young Amish boy Samuel Lapp witnesses the murder of a police officer in Philadelphia station, while in transit to his aunt in Baltimore with his recently widowed mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis), he identifies the killer to investigating detective John Book (Harrison Ford) as being fellow police officer John McFee (Danny Glover). After Book is betrayed by his corrupt boss, the predictably silver-haired WASP Schaeffer, and shot and wounded by McFee, he flees with the Lapps to their farm in the Amish heartland of Lancaster County.

The wounded English with a gun (the Amish are resolutely non-violent) causes deep concern among the be-whiskered Amish elders who, realising the danger to the Lapp family, allow him to stay and be cared for by both Rachel and her father-in-law, the irascible but decent Eli. Weir attempts to portray the Amish life as a kind of Rembrandt-esque dreamworld of muted browns and yellows, as oil lamps highlight the Amish characters in their traditional hats and bonnets against the bare walls of their dwellings. Maurice Jarre’s tentative score, that seems to suggest an awakening that will never materialise, highlights the dreamlike ambiance, as though Book can live in, but never quite "get", the foreign-yet-familiar world that surrounds him.

At the time of the film’s creation, with the New Morning in America, the Amish really could seem a curio, a fossilised culture whose resistance to change was both quaint and ultimately hopeless. Nowadays, this assumption seems far less secure. Indeed their decision in the 1860’s to favour tradition over progress, and homeostasis over metastasis, seems rather prescient and shrewd. After all, there are few communities in the Western world more thoroughly prepared for peak oil and the collapse of credit-based Capitalism than the Amish. The values that the Amish cherish, such as fellowship, honesty, stability and humility, are among the ones that our own moronic culture most despises, which is no doubt why they’re subject to the occasional missile and mocking documentary. Nevertheless, the barn-raising scene in "Witness" shows the awesome potential of collective human organisation, and demonstrates why anyone still hanging on to the cult of individualism when the energy subsidy of fossil fuels is withdrawn will only be hastening their own extinction.

Book recovers and volunteers for work on the farm, allowing Ford to demonstrate his real-life carpentry skills. Book’s continuing presence is a source of tension within the Amish world, his hand gun a metaphor for the violent potency of Anglo-Saxon America, and the sexual potency that draws Rachel ever closer to him. Eventually he gives himself away when, joining his Amish fellows on a trip to the local town, he engages in a fist fight with abusive local yahoos who don’t expect an Amish to hit back. When the local sheriff hears of it, it is not long before Schaeffer and his accomplices arrive to silence Book for good.

Rachel fails to consummate her love for Book, and so loses her only chance to leave the narrow Amish world for the expanding consumer realm of fad diets, granite counter tops and Wal-Mart salad shooters. Alas, that realm is disappearing before our very eyes now. We will have much to learn from people like the Amish in the harsh decades ahead. We had better hope that they are willing to teach us.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Daydream Nation: Back To The Velvet

Critically and commercially, Back To The Future (1985) and Blue Velvet (1986) continue to be influential and popular in a way that so few hits of the 80s are. Frequently placed on 'all-time favourites' lists, the former continues to entertain school kids with frequent TV broadcasts, the latter still finds an enthusiastic college-age audience on DVD. In retrospect, what is most striking is how very similar both films are. The main difference may be their respective genres' terms of reference, but they have far more in common than first impressions indicate. Both films hark back to the 50s, not least the persistent myths of lost purity and cohesion. These myths even extend to their use of 50s pop music. The only non-white people visible in either film are 'Chuck Berry' and his band - taught how to play rock'n'roll by white Marty. For all of Blue Velvet's borrowings from Kenneth Anger and its sexual 'subversion', homosexuality is solely suggested by a camp rendition of 'In Dreams'. Women serve as battlegrounds, over which 'family values' struggle against fathers abusive or weak. Blue Velvet's kidnap plot takes a back seat to its sexual violence. Compared to symbolic flourishes and dream imagery, its crime 'mystery' is the least memorable aspect of the film. Similarly, Back To The Future's sci-fi trappings are largely there to open, close and advertise the film. The real genre connecting both is the fairy tale, where the hand of the princess and the keys to the kingdom are earned by overcoming demons external and internal. Both films' 50s genre adornments are mere 'McGuffins' to that most ancient of dramas: the Oedipal triangle. The real 'meat' of both stories concerns the affirmation of patriarchal authority, won via young men's journeys into an underworld (of dreams, dangerous curiosity, sexual turbulence, or the unknowable past). What makes them highly relevant to the 80s is their restoration and empowerment of the 'good' family, of traditional gender (and implicitly, class and race) relations.

As with most fairy tales since Grimm, both films are as conservative as they are perverse. Both screenplays cunningly exploit the thrill of taboo, while also working to repress the curiosity and traumas of the Primal Scene. By not hiding behind the symbolism of the Oedipal triangle, making the blood relations at stake explicit, Back To The Future was arguably more risky. This is a kid-friendly blockbuster where Marty McFly spends most of the film trying to discourage sexual advances from his own mother. It's rare to see any mother in a 'family' film portrayed as sexually assertive, especially when the object of desire is her youngest son. As with Blue Velvet, the story was years in gestation, tinged with autobiography and childhood nostalgia; 'personal' projects that rescued the director's reputation after a notable flop. Blue Velvet's characterisation is built around David Lynch's childhood memories of small-town life (including the traumatic sight of a bewildered, naked woman walking the streets). Back To the Future screenwriter Bob Gale stated that his story emerged from speculating on whether he would have been friends with his father had they attended school at the same time. It is perhaps logical that director Robert Zemeckis added further speculation - over the desirability, and indeed availability, of one's own mother if she also attended the same school. It may be its dreamlike tone and environment that allows Back To The Future to get away with this central conceit.

Although controversial, Blue Velvet got away with its 'outrageous' scenario by presenting an America removed from any recognisable reality. 70s crime thrillers and neo-noir often focussed on the degradation of 'the excremental city' or town, where patriarchal order was hideously abusive (Chinatown, Serpico, Gloria), subject to mockery (Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon, The Long Goodbye) or tragically ineffective (Night Moves, Cruising, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). Left, right or liberal; the city was always corrupted, with varying emphases of blame. In the 80s, noir increasingly presented a hyperreal 'America' - a country in inverted commas where story, environment and performance became more overtly 'plastic', as in Body Heat, Blood Simple, Body Double, Trouble In Mind, Down By Law and Something Wild - moving towards stylized black comedy and away from urban realism. Complementing this noir trend, science fiction moved away from its earlier (and far less profitable) litany of doom, towards childlike optimism and renewed faith in family values. Again, comedy played a big part. Unlike the 70s, the Disneyfied America was no longer a niche - it was common parlance, as mise-en-scene turned away from 'realism', back to the fairy tale and its comforts.  

Along with the traditional hero, the 70s was a period when the cinematic father was thrown open to question. Despite the death of the western, its narrative set-ups moved into the suburb, the city or even outer space. The restoration of the father's Law and legitimacy can be charted over the first Star Wars trilogy; but came to dominate many genres like the Teen movie. Teens adjusting to social norms by asserting aspirational values over the indulgences and 'failed' authority of their Boomer parents was a common motif in 80s film (Exhibit A: John Hughes). Flattering the ideology in which its young audience was growing up, it was youth bringing the Law to town. When making Back To The Future, Michael J. Fox was starring in the popular sitcom Family Ties, a key show of Reagan's 80s. Where previous sitcoms played off the conservative father against the more progressive son, here roles were reversed. Fox played the right-wing yuppie, fighting against the hippy liberal values of his father (that's all I can remember about the show, apart from the distractingly youthful Meredith Baxter as the mother - herself adding a layer of Oedipal tension). In Back To The Future, it's not so much a conflict of values as attitude. Marty's family, especially father George (played by the very 'Lynchian' Crispin Glover) are a source of comic embarrassment, losers that disappoint the ambitious, energetic Marty. Their domestic discontent, their failure to keep up with the Joneses, is the desperate situation in need of narrative remedy (later continued into the following century and, somewhat appropriately, the wild west).

If the McFlys begin with a failed patriarch's impotence (and ensuing lack of domestic discipline), Blue Velvet opens with two versions of patriarchal castration, true to Lynch's usual approach of painting symbolism with boxing gloves. The red, white and blue of the idyllic suburb is disturbed by a sudden stroke, the father's hose out of control, punctuated by a dog that snaps away near his crotch. For the rest of the film, the 'true' father will be absent; as will the owner of the severed ear Jeffery Beaumont finds on the way back from his hospital visit. The rest of the film will be loudly dominated by the monstrous, obscene father (veering between 'Daddy' and 'Baby'); using his power to violate the Law in the absence of idealised, silent fathers. Compared to the difficult but well-judged performances of the other leads, Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth is as hammy and cartoonish as Christopher Lloyd's Doc - performances from the school of Robert Newton's Long John Silver. Like Silver, they are dangerous substitute fathers, unpredictable 'wizards' reliant on artificial enhancement, leading our young heroes into perilous (but ultimately containable) dreamworlds. The 'dream' being a hyperreal, mythologised America that must overcome temptation and confusion. Frank also incorporates the role of town bully (as goblin or fire-breathing 'dragon'), like Biff in Back To The Future. Both bullies must be destroyed, physically and/or economically - in the interests of hygiene: to cleanse the town, the home and the mind, a threat to be exterminated as decisively as the insects populating Blue Velvet. In accordance with 80s economic ideology, the first battle for social redemption is within the family.

In the interests of 'surrealism', Blue Velvet preys upon infantile anxieties and adolescent fantasy. Complementing those mysterious noises that emanate from mommy and daddy's room, Lynch adds imagery redolent of animal sex: reminders of why parents hastily lead children to the next cage at the zoo. The voyeuristic Primal Scene that introduces Frank has been analysed to death elsewhere. His 'bad father' sadism usually garners the most attention, Dorothy's 'bad mother' masochism less so. Why does she accept her 'punishment' so willingly, even encouraging it from a reluctant Jeffery? Despite his wilful violation of patriarchal order, Jeffery is still presented as the 'innocent' throughout. His response to Dorothy's abuse is foregrounded, as much as his own beating is given greater narrative weight than the regular violence Dorothy is subjected to. Instead of punishment or condemnation, his voyeurism is rewarded with a plot device familiar from any number of porno films - the virginal peeping tom 'punished' with fellatio (sex-with-stepmother also being a porno staple). Even the first-time viewer knows that the castrating knife she holds won't be used - being more of a Hollywood taboo than incest, or sexual violence encouraged by its victims. Jeffrey's position in the fairy tale (as son, as 'apprentice') allows for a license that Dorothy can't claim. 

Sex without family is presented as the instincts of beasts, like the snarling dog or writhing insects of the opening scenes. As much as Back To The Future, Blue Velvet is very much concerned with 'taming' female sexuality. The casting of glamorous Isabella Rossellini, her relative youth compared to Hopper (or even the man playing her husband) throws her into the thankless position of mother as sexual being without domestic purpose; a guilt that seems to haunt Dorothy until the film's final shot. As with Back To The Future's Leah Thompson, she is written and played as more sexual (and disturbingly sexy) than the protagonist's 'real' girlfriend. Marty's mother's desire is subject to the demands of narrative and biological destiny (he has to procure the Primal Scene to exist). As 'mother', Dorothy bears the brunt of punishment, for the absence of supposedly stabilising influences of husband and child (whose hat, fascinating to Jeffery, could be read in similar terms to the severed ear, as severed/castrated from patriarchal coherence). Although Dorothy is often described as a 'femme fatale', Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Bennett were never this willingly victimised; but then 40s noir rarely added 'failed' motherhood to its locus of betrayals (a notable exception being Mildred Pierce). Their characters also had a far greater role in manipulating events, a luxury brutally denied to Dorothy.

Lynch's highly acclaimed career would continue in a similar vein, with stories of women in trouble. The look and manner of his heroines echoing a re-imagined 50s, their agonies and mutilations a punishment for 'modern' sexual transgression. Even TV's Twin Peaks sold itself with the fetishised image of a young girl's corpse. Its film spin-off gloated upon the torture that led her there. The actions of Lynch's abusive father figures or murderous cuckolds are frequently explained away by a supernatural presence (deus ex machina as convenient as the Force, Superman's time-reversal, or opening the Lost Ark). Zemeckis would go on to be one of the most financially successful directors of all time, notably with Forest Gump: a celebration of political ignorance and revisionism, with historical punishment for counter-cultural discontent, particularly for women. The mid-80s may be the turning point where the Hollywood blockbuster and American 'art' cinema found a common ideological ground. As 'independent' film increasingly become an exercise in style and pastiche, it was a decade in which the post-modern condition closed the gap between notions of art and commerce, mainstream and counter-culture; all under the vigilant watch of neoliberal hegemony. Although social reality continued to move further away from domestic idealisation, American film pushed the family fairy tale as the only social 'unity' worth working towards. As with the 80s police procedural or war film, father knew best again. Hollywood made fundamental demands of faith from an increasingly juvenile audience. 

Reagan and Bush I were fans of Back To The Future, both citing it in speeches (the murderous presence of "Libyan terrorists" probably helped). Its idyllic treatment of the 50s, with a previously irreversible outcome available for correction and revision (history be damned!), had obvious Republican appeal. This attitude was even apparent in the making of the film: "We decided to shoot all the 50s stuff first, and make the town look real beautiful and wonderful. Then we would just totally trash it down and make it all bleak and ugly for the 1980s scenes." However, lifelong Republican Lynch's (very 50s) Lumberton sees its nocturnal, inarticulate inner city 'cleansed' by suburban outsiders; as Jeffrey's righteous resolve kicks in when Dorothy's violated, naked body 'violates' the wholesome space of his idyllic, retro suburb. It is also a journey to the new Morning in America; the restored strength of the white bourgeois family to which both films awake at the end, in blinding sunshine. A gentrification of the soul. Although some ambiguity persists (for the benefit of sequels... or critics), memories of urban degradation, sexual transgression or moral failure are conveniently devoured by the Law, nature (the robins), science (time travel) and right-wing family values. The patriarchal family is not only consolidated, but enhanced. 

For all the contradictory impulses and sexual dread of their protagonists, both films' denouements come after the most American of solutions. As manipulated by Marty, George McFly earns the right to be a father (the right father) as his trembling hands transform into well-timed, well-aimed fists (at a dance event called 'Enchantment Under The Sea', emphasising the fairy-tale Freudianism). With this, the family rapidly fading from Marty's photograph returns to visibility and future invincibility. Jeffrey enters sexual maturity (exiting the 'dark underbelly' of moral and sexual confusion) by blowing out the brains of the obscene dad of nightmare; and with that blowing out the 'dark' side of himself, foreshadowing Fight Club years later. This time the camera emerges from an ear free of insects and mutilation. Oedipus has completed his journey with both eyes intact. Initially meek, our suburban mother fuckers have enforced the Law; using the last resort of all politics, sexual, domestic or otherwise. Rescued from sexual coercion from 'undesirable' elements, both mothers return to their rightful role in the magic kingdom, after male violence is placed in the 'right' hands. If both films are about entry into (and escape from) dream worlds, it is physical force that has final say before the family can return to an acceptably altered reality: The 80s version of the American Dream.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Guitar Soloing: Blood from a Stone

For a brief spell there is the early 1980s, things got a little peculiar with the major record labels in the States. Having over-invested far too much of their product line in disco and glutted the market in the latter half of the prior decade, it was as if they were in a frenzied scramble to diversify after the post-1979 backlash. All those A&R guys, one imagines, scouring an array of clubs and cornering various scenesters, beating all the bushes in order to find out what kind of new music people might actually wanna hear. The end result was -- for a short spate of time, at least --  that some of the major-label rosters got oddly "pluralistic." In some instances, a few artists who would've otherwise never gotten a major contract at any other period in music history suddenly did. As one would expect, they'd get their three-disc run, often putting out albums that were widely and well-reviewed in top-of-the-rack publications, only to slide into obscurity and the discount bins a few years later.

One such artist was South Carolina-born blues/jazz guitarist James 'Blood' Ulmer, who briefly ended up on the Columbia label. Ulmer had come to New York City some years earlier, looking to play in the big metro leagues. He'd already spent the latter half of 1960s gigging around the rustbelt cities of the Midwest as an itinerant member of a number of funk combos, and had also recorded as a sideman with 'Big' John Patton, Larry Young and a number of established jazz musicians. By the time he arrived in New York, it proved to be auspicious timing, as the city's "loft jazz" scene was gearing up its 1970s hotbed furvency. He soon fell under the tutelage of Ornette Coleman, learning to apply the free-jazz pioneer's theories of "harmolodics" to his own repertoire of jazz, blues and funk licks.

Soon enough, he was playing with Ornette, David Murray and a broad array of the downtown avant set. By decade's end, he'd released Tales of Captain Black, and formed -- alongside Murray and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson -- the Music Revelation Ensemble. He also put together his own large ensemble, which wound up playing at the Mudd Club and the Knitting Factory, frequently wedged onto the bill with the likes of James Chance & the Contortions, the Lounge Lizards, or Kid Creole & the Coconuts. It was about this time Rough Trade took note, signing Ulmer and his group for the album Are You Glad To Be In America? It was about this time that Columbia Records came calling.

{     Here it is we've been talking about guitar solos for a week plus, and if the name of Jimi Hendrix has come up, I've somehow managed to skim past it. No matter, and perhaps just as well. We all know how it goes, what with the excessive reverence heaped on Hendrix, and those esteemed mega-titans (Carlos, Clapton, Garcia, Cosey, McLaughlin, whoever & etcetera, amen) who fall within a tight orbit in the grand cosmology of such stuff. But hell, even Ulmer reputedly claimed that modern guitarisms hadn't evolved a single step post-Hendrix -- which probably played no small part in the why & how of Mr. Blood himself seizing upon the whole harmolodics thing and busting his own balls to take his instrument apart, hoping to put it back together in some new, jarringly freakish reconfigurational way.     }

Ulmer would get the standard run of three albums out of his deal with the label. Freelancing (1981) and Black Rock (1982) were each an extension of the sort of material the guitarist had been exploring with his big band in the past few years -- often serving up a dense, multihybrid funk-fusion mutation that at times sounded like On The Corner being fed through a woodchipper. Heady moments were plenty, but it was perhaps of the more scaled-back moments of Freelancing in which Ulmer dazzled the most. At a few points on the album, Ulmer performs in trio mode with bassist Amin Ali and drummer G. Calvin Weston, and it's at those moments that his guitar takes the foreground -- with Ulmer charging up and down the frets and summoning up spikey clusters of notes that erupt like glass-slivered blossoms...

With the release of 1984's Odyssey, however, Ulmer lost a few listeners. The album found him slipping into a largely rhythmic mode throughout many of the tracks, leaving the lead to the improvised soloing of violinist Charles Burnham. While Odyssey was deemed Ulmer's most accessible album, it prompted some to ask, "What happened to the funk?" Fact is, the funk was still there, albeit it a (once again) different mutational form. It was as if the guitarist was starting to take it back to its Delta origins, by way of an extended, meandering sojourn through the Appalachian foothills.

It was a return to roots that Ulmer would follow in the years to come; first narrowed his focus to more standard avant-jazz outings, than narrowing it further to concentrate on playing and signing in a strictly traditional and unadorned Delta blues style. Talking to a magazine many years later, he recalled the days of the late 70s and early 80s when he and his group had played for crowds at the Mudd Club. "There's no way a person could keep playing that way -- the way we did, with that kind of energy -- night after night for very long," he said. "That would've killed us."

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Great Riffs, Great Solos... Wrong Genre?

For a short while there, I thought these guys were the coolest motherfuckers around. In the mid-80s, critical consensus wasn't afraid to describe them as 'the future'. The marketing genius of Def Jam and/or Rush Artists Management knew the value of a grinding riff; to shove that previously-dissed 'fad' onto MTV and the front pages of the music press. I've left the obvious choice off this post (surely we got sick of hearing it at the 100th student disco?). Lest we forget 'Rock Box' posed a serious challenge to 'The Message' as the first and last word in hiphop (the aging hippies/thrusting yuppies at Rolling Stone certainly paid attention). The racial politics of riff-value are beyond my caffeine-addled comprehension right now, but the below tracks had a lot more riff/solo moxie than so much poodle metal of the time. Not only a producer with the golden touch, Rick Rubin was a damn fine axeman. Although pricking the ears of white America to open its wallet, the rock metal crossover was (thankfully) the road less travelled. But late 80s hiphop always supplied something bigger and deffer to make sucker MCs of last month's kings (its continuous discordinant shifts a suitable soundtrack for the growing pains of 80s adolescence). With the arrival of Schoolly-D, Public Enemy, NWA, etc. RUN-DMC's star faded fast: Now familiar to teens as reality TV fodder, if at all. But in terms of establishing hiphop as an album genre, as an international top ten staple - they were the Kings of Rock. They certainly made the summer of '86 more fun for yours truly.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Palombella Rossa

What does it mean to be a communist? It’s a feeling, a feeling of totality. But what is this totality? It's a field, a playing field… a pool. It is surrounded by angels, the supporters, and they look at you, they scream, they see you, but you keep silent… goal!

(Raoul Ruiz, Palombella Rossa)

I can't remember anything that happened before two weeks ago.

(Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity)

I was in time to vote for the Italian Communist Party, but only just. I turned eighteen in February of 1989. The European Elections were held in Italy on the 18th of June of that that year. So on that day, which was a Sunday, I walked down to my old primary school and did what over nine and a half million of my fellow citizens did: I voted communist. The PCI returned 27.56% of the vote, second only to the Christian Democrats on 32.91%. It would never compete in another nation-wide election.

Then, on the 9th of September, Nanni Moretti's Palombella Rossa was screened at the Venice Film Festival.

The usual explanation for why this film has garnered so little critical attention internationally compared to Moretti's later work is that it requires extensive knowledge of Italian politics, its sub-affiliations and its vernacular in order to be understood. I've never been entirely convinced by this. I think that too much has been made of Palombella Rossa's historically specific references to the identity crisis of the PCI, and that to the extent that this is in fact the overt subject of the film, its reflections are applicable to almost any decade in modern Italian history, and I suspect across borders as well, at least within Europe. But in fact the film is about personal/political identity in its wider sense, how it is constructed and maintained, how it is refracted within culture. It is also quite surreal and very, very funny.

Michele Apicella is a young member of Parliament for the PCI and a veteran water polo player. He has a car accident on his way to a game that leaves him physically unharmed but suffering from memory lapses. People make repeated mentions to something he said or did during a nationally televised political appearance earlier that week, but he has no recollection of it. He travels from Rome to Sicily along with the rest of his team and his daughter Valentina for a season-deciding game, and there he finds a young and clueless journalist, two politically motivated stalkers, a fascist he once victimised at university, a young Catholic and two old comrades, all eager to talk to him about his TV appearance.

Almost the entire action of the film takes place during the water polo game, while the television in the café of the pool complex shows David Lean's Dr Zhivago. But there are other timelines as well: the flashbacks from Michele's beginnings in water polo as a child, and those from his beginnings in politics as a young man (which take the form of an actual film that Moretti shot in super 8 in 1973 entitled La sconfitta – the defeat); the excerpts from Michele's recent televised political appearance; the excerpts from Dr Zhivago; and, woven amidst all of these, an intricately modulated filmic time, with extensive use of slow-motions, frequent intrusions of the musical score into the diegesis (for instance, when Michele wakes up on the massage table after the accident and tries to remember the melody of Nicola Piovani's piece for the opening credits) and the even more frequent overlapping of the timelines. Like in the sequence below, when Michele answers a possibly imaginary question by one of his interviewers in the middle of an offensive play.

The clips are not embedded. Click here to go on a new page with the YouTube video and subtitles of sorts.

The timelines come together in the film's protracted climactic scene, which lasts almost fifteen minutes. Michele's team, down by one goal with a few seconds to go, is awarded a penalty. Michele is going to take it. But first the players and the audience relocate en masse to the adjoining café to watch the ending of Dr Zhivago, cheering the preordained outcome as if it was a sports match and it could be influenced.

Click here to watch the clip.

Back in the pool and poised to take his shot, Michele has one last flashback and finally gets to remember (or possibly reimagine) what it was that he had done during that television programme: it turns out that in the middle of his answer on the way forward for the Communist Party he had broken into song, morphing his rote-learned speech into the lyrics of Franco Battiato's 1984 romantic pop hit E ti vengo a cercare (And I Come Looking For You). When the action returns to the pool, the audience joins him in the bellowed rendition, which segues in turn into the chant of support for the home team.

Click here to watch the clip

A little digression: After the release of Palombella Rossa, Moretti toured several branches of the PCI country-wide for a 40-minute film entitled La cosa, the thing, in which he documented, cinéma verite-style, the discussion amongst members following the proposal by then secretary Achille Occhetto that the party should transition into a new entity, whose working name, believe it or not, was actually 'the thing'. It was a lacerating process that I remember very well – I was in my first year at university when it took place. Eventually the party split in two: a minority component founded the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, aspiring to refound the party of Gramsci on the old revolutionary principles, whilst the majority – which held on to most of the property as well as the membership – moved on to create the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, the Democratic Party of the Left. In the process the party's symbol went from this.

To this.

The hammer and sickle, significantly shrunk in size, now lay at the foot of a majestic oak tree, symbolising wisdom and renewal. Then in 1998 the PDS dropped the P and became Democratici di Sinistra – Democrats of the Left, as it if had somehow stopped being a party. In the process, and for no apparent reason, the hammer and sickle disappeared from the symbol altogether, to be replaced by the red carnation of the European Socialists.

Then in 2007, in another genius move, the party dropped the S and regained the P! So now it's the Democratic Party, but no longer of the Left (demonstrating once again that when a term is omitted on the grounds that it's implicit, it actually never is). On the botanical side of things, the carnation and the oak tree were replaced by a single olive branch, symbolising the definitive end of any residual attachment to class warfare or indeed to struggles of any kind.

At this rate the next symbol will be a dozen red roses and a blowjob. But the reason why I mention all this is to illustrate to what extent the process of transition from the old Communist Party to a modern and broad-based centre-left party was predicated on deliberate acts of amnesia, and the gradual deletion of old symbols and ideas, as if in order to reclaim modernity the Left had to get rid of its past wholesale first. That is the sense of the shrill, desperate-sounding slogan of the Partito Democratico at the national election of 2008: Un'Italia moderna si può fare, A modern Italy can be achieved. Standing for the united centre-left, as a broad coalition and no longer the mass party of old that was always marginalised when it came time to form a government, the Democratic Party at the European elections of last year garnered 26.13% of the vote – less than the PCI in 1989.

What Palombella Rossa does is dramatise this process of unbecoming, in a modality that I would suggest is applicable to many other places and times in history. Ultimately, asking who we are is the same thing as asking who we were, and this has always been true, or at least it certainly has been in my lifetime for the militant Italian Left, whose foremost preoccupation has always been the very problematic affirmation of its own identity. In 1989 the party counted almost one and a half million active members, and seemingly every one of them was a theorist, as La cosa ably illustrates. Those endless and fiercely historicized discussions, that sometimes appeared to exist in an entirely self-referential plane, never prevented Left-wing activists inside and outside the party to operate in very concrete ways to change Italian society; inhuman utopia rather than humane pragmatism was in fact arguably the lifeblood of all those mass movements and organizations.

And so Palombella Rossa's main preoccupation is not only with loss of memory but also with loss of language. The nonsensical title (palombella is the lob shot in water polo, hence 'red lob') is the distorted mirror put in front of Michele's insistence that 'words are important', and all of the film's competing and patterned voices, each with its highly specialised armoury of tropes, gradually lose their capacity to mean things, including the protagonist's, until political speech turns into pop song lyric, albeit a highly literate one, and ideology is reduced to the choice of which corner to aim for.

To the right... to the right… I must look to the right and shoot to the right… the goalkeeper leaves me room on the left but I'm going to shoot to the right… NO! Maybe it's better if I shoot to the left!…

The penalty, naturally, results in a save. But Michele's trembling incoherence, which two decades later must strike us as acutely prescient, has far more catastrophic consequences: and so, on the way back to Rome after the game, he ends up driving off the road and down a steep bank whilst obsessively repeating the words 'We're like everyone else, but we're different! We're like everyone else, but we're different!' As he and Valentina climb out of the car, preternaturally unharmed, the cut-out of a sun is raised at the crest of the hill, and the assembled crowd – which turns out to comprise many characters from Michele's past, including his childhood self – spontaneously form a tableau, their right hands outstretched towards the old socialist symbol: il sol dell'avvenire, the red rising sun. Fittingly, in a sequence that is pure symbolism, the last line of the film is non verbal, and belongs to Michele as a young boy:

This laughter is a sardonic summation of the kind of spectacle that was the end of history in Italy: played out more as farce than as tragedy, animated more by confusion than by despair. Having lost its memory and its voice, the Left whimpered off the stage. And it had all been carefully mapped right here, in this curiously neglected film, oft-cited but seldom watched, whose highest praise is that it speaks so much more clearly now than it did back then.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

World Machine

"….in the business of life a man’s disposition and the secret workings of his mind and affections are better discovered when he is in trouble than at other times; so likewise the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way."

- Francis Bacon "Novum Organum"

"See how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted with folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad."

- Ochwiay Biano to Carl Jung, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections"

"Here it comes again
Chugging like a train
Round and round
An impeccable groove"

- Level 42 "Hot Water"

It is a little-known fact that all our popular culture today owes its existence to Francis Bacon’s philosophical work of 1620, the Novum Organum. This document was instrumental in the development of what we now call the "scientific method" in its empiricist declaration that nature is best understood not from general observation, but by the manipulation of it in artificial settings, by its "vexing" in a laboratory. It was this insight, combined with the insight of Rene Descartes’ Discourse On Method, that mathematics was the purest form of reason, that gave birth to the modern scientific consciousness that both shapes our society today, and provokes the antinomian forces that set themselves up to oppose it.

We may find the world view of the medieval peasant, in which for example an object fell to the ground because it loved the earth which was its home, impossibly quaint, but what we fail to understand is that such a view filled life with an intensity of meaning that we can barely begin to appreciate from our modern atomised viewpoint. Until the Scientific Revolution, man belonged in the world. The adoption of Cartesian dualism, in which we are subjects in a world of objects, and the adoption of Baconian empiricism, in which all of nature exists to be manipulated for numerically quantifiable advantage, are the roots of our deep alienation. Capitalism, far from being a Ding an Sich, a thing in itself, was merely the new scientific rationalism translated into the social sphere, and that in turn is why it has always proven such an elusive foe to those who would oppose it.

The rise of this "new science" in the early 17th Century, was not, as is popularly believed, due to it "disproving" the magical-alchemical world view through rational falsification, but because the established church needed a political tool to counter the proliferating heretical movements that were rising against it. The attack against alchemy was conducted by a Minorite friar, Marin Marsenne, via the Collège Royale in Paris and the Royal Society in London, utilising Cartesian dualism and a philosophy of atomism to posit God not as immanent in all things but as an external director, inaccessible to independent religious or political thought. Hermeticism was so effectively suppressed and discredited that it wasn’t until the investigations of Carl Jung in the middle of the 20th Century that it was tentatively recognised as a systematic psychological worldview rather than merely an abortive, bungled form of early chemistry.

As the historians Christopher Hill and Keith Thomas pointed out, much of the tumult of the English Civil War revolved around sects such as the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Ranters who wanted to maintain their animist and alchemical beliefs against the rationalising forces of the new science, which was seen as the acquisitory ideology of the rising Protestant bourgeoisie, whose credo of elevation through wealth or good works denied salvation to every class below them. It was this linking of alchemical beliefs with communistic sentiments, known at the time as "enthusiasm", that led to its proscription by the governing establishment. The reason why Sir Isaac Newton, who had far less faith in his mechanical conception of the universe than his modern-day apologists, kept his extensive alchemical work secret was more through its explosive political ramifications than through potential professional embarrassment.

Today of course, the rational-scientific world view sits squarely in the middle of our culture, apparently politically neutral, its tenets unquestioned even by those who are most opposed to its social manifestation as Capitalism. And yet for all this, modern Western man, like his 17th Century forebears, still carries with him a nagging sense of emptiness, of the deep alienation that results from a world that has had its meaning deliberately extracted by a rationalising ideology that has sunk itself so deeply into the culture as to be almost invisible. It is no surprise that Britain, perhaps the country that was most deeply rationalised by the Enlightenment, has also been the home to the most magical revolts. These revolts have been almost endlessly diverse in their form, from drug cults and druid revivals to incursions of Eastern mysticism, but perhaps the most visible recent revolts have been those that have been provoked by the arrival of black musical styles from the USA. It is no accident that many of the post-war youth cults have more than a passing similarity to the outbreaks of "enthusiasm" of the Civil War period.

The official myth of the huge impact that jazz, rock’n’roll, soul music and the blues had on post-war Britain is that they somehow offered a sense of release from post-war austerity and a stiff-upper-lip emotional constipation. It’s a convenient myth because it contradicts any idea that there are any deeper issues with how Western society projects its version of reality. It’s an easily contradicted myth as well - the "sexual revolution" of the 1960’s did nothing to meliorate any deeper sense of alienation, and indeed it’s reasonable to argue that the Britain of the 1950’s was in many ways a more socially coherent and balanced society than that of today.

It is also fairly clear that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of young Britons experienced their first encounter with Black American or Jamaican music as an almost religious moment, and ultimately this is because it to all extents and purposes it actually was a religious moment. What they experienced was, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a colossal infusion of mana, of the sense of wholeness that the feeling of the world being inherently full of meaning provides. In essence, they had temporarily become medieval peasants. Filled with "enthusiasm", what could they then do but gather together, open clubs, dress and talk like their heroes, and even try to replicate the music themselves?

However, all British youth cultures, once they became established, would eventually face a moment of schism - between the "trad" purists and those that want "to take the music further". Often characterised as a fission between luddites and progressives, it was really a debate on how best to preserve the mana, the magic, because when British musicians got hold of a black American musical form, they inevitably subjected it to a process of rationalisation. What happens if we make it faster? Slower? Increase the level of amplification? Combine it with another form? Eventually the result would be something like Led Zeppelin. If a blues singer such as Willie Dixon was like a pharoah, a great king who radiated magical mana, then Zeppelin were the great pyramid built around his tomb. The musical relationship between America and Britain in the post-war period was not just between "black" and "white", but between irrationalism and rationalism, and the eventual fully-rationalised final form meant that the mana was exhausted.

The jazz-funk scene that emerged in the UK in the late 1970’s was in many ways an archetypal example of this cultural process. Inspired by the usual canon of revered records imported from the USA, it went through the familiar pattern whereby a small band of "legendary" proselytising enthusiasts started hosting "legendary" one-off events that turned into "legendary" established clubs, and in turn into a thriving subculture. If there was one major difference, it was that many of the initial movers and shakers in the scene were black Britons, and their musical response offered the possibility that Britain could create its own self-sufficient and fruitful dialogue between black and white musicians; between irrational and rationalising aesthetics.

It was within this early scene that Level 42 emerged as an instrumental-only band, and as the original scene faded around them, were to become its great rationalising force throughout the 1980’s. The band, driven by Mark King’s relentless, machine-like slap bass, replaced the original fluidity and trepidation of jazz-funk with an almost grid-like rigidity. Level 42’s records were enormous constructions, and it was no doubt their sheer propulsion, their sense of going somewhere, that made them so appealing to the yuppies and travelling salesmen of Thatcherite Britain.

Nevertheless, despite the vertiginous awe that robo-funk like "Hot Water" and "The Chinese Way" could induce, Level 42’s lyrical concerns were generally humane - boy meets girl, growing pains, childhood memories. Their rather modest subject matter and personal conduct contradicted the kind of wine-bar upward-mobility with which they were often associated. "Something About You", perhaps their best song, was a love song worthy of Barry Gibb in the way that it used plain, simple language to express eternal verities.

Level 42 were one of the most significant British band of the 80’s because they were the last great rationalisers of African-American music, the last great ziggurat-builders. By the mid-80’s the channel of irrationalism that was supplied by black America was closed off by hip-hop, whose hyper-rationalised cut-up structure and atomised worldview were resistant to white appropriation, mainly because it began where white music usually finished up. White British music, its major source of mana closed off, could only decline into the sterile pattern-work of indie. Ultimately though, popular music has only carried us along, and distracted us from our real duty - to find a way to reinvigorate our world with meaning, which for 99% of human history has been the normal condition of existence, but which for us still appears a paradise far beyond our reach.