Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Now That Fits Nice

In close parallel to the 1978-83 post-punk renaissance (as documented in Simon's Rip It Up And Start Again), funk, disco and the poppier side of side of soul was also having a damn good run of it at the same time (covered in Peter Shapiro's equally excellent tome Turn That Beat Around). With a vicious backlash, and fatigue at the cultural hegemony of Saturday Night Fever, the dust of disco settled into all kinds of interesting shapes - from the first stirrings of hiphop to hi-concept New York punky funky disco eccentrics like James Chance, Arthur Russell, the Was Bros. and Kid Creole/August Darnell. Punk, Afrobeat, reggae, fusion, electropop and Latino music were cheerfully appropriated for dancefloor use. Add the ominous dynamics of Reagan's victory and the constituencies he came to destroy, it made for a heady, implicitly political brew. It was perhaps unsurprising that new wavers like Talking Heads and The Clash hitched along for the ride. It was also apt that Bowie would end his run of greatness with Nile Rogers instead of Brian Eno. The integration of the audience was frequently as seamless as its collage of musical styles. It wasn't so much mutant disco, as hybrid; lending it a frequently unpredictable pizazz.

Of course, the arrival of Thriller, its almost totalitarian commercial impact, and the (arguable) backlash it provoked in the form of hiphop, swept this mini-utopia away; leaving dancefloors between a desexualised, deracialised, deradicalised Disneyland and the harsh admonition to 'keep it real' (until rave, itself a different kind of Disneyland, albeit existing largely in the head). Funk was eventually pushed to the margins, but for a while there the influence of George Clinton could be heard all over the place (yaoww!), and not just among his own P-Funk collective. This was before the horrors of AIDS and conservatism, when sexuality was openly celebrated; unlike the paranoid disgust of Jacko and his many imitators, or Material Girls insisting the only thing going on was the rent. Disco was assimilated into the default pop mainstream by the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman and Hi-NRG-lite like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys (their one true classic 'West End Girls' - the source of this blog's title - emerged from the New York scene mentioned above, but itself riddled with noirish sexual dread). The only Utopia Madonna pledged allegiance to was her own neoliberal success story. Jellybean Benitez served his instrumental purpose many movers and shakers ago. Despite her (increasingly desperate) bumping and grinding, the actual tracks sounded as sterile as any other by the late 80s. Disco vets like Prince stood out for the idiosyncratic niche he carved, but he was a rarity; reliant on MTV and Hollywood to make his mark. There were still somewhat anomalous exceptions, like Sly and Robbie's awesome 'Boops (Here To Go)'; but rather than prove influential, they ultimately suggested lost possibilities. 

Anyway, all the above is just an excuse to post some great tracks from the period. Ironically, the songs below are now most likely to be heard (if at all) in the twattier kind of hipster venue. Places that are far from sexy, integrated, adventurous, politicised or remotely Utopian. Where "fuck you" is the soulful refrain replacing "let's do it!" At least musically, things were a little more open then. Michael Henderson was an in-demand session player with fusion superstars, proving he could funk with the best of them, coiling his mighty bass around a filthy double entendre. Arthur Russell's deeply personal, spacious, spiritual style now has its due recognition. Rick James' Street Songs is the rare album that's excellent from beginning to end, and in a more just world, would have outsold Thriller to much healthier social and commercial effect. The production credits of Sly and Robbie speak for themselves, being in demand as producers with good reason. They eventually settled into the increasingly conservative and enclosed world of Jamaican pop. Frankie Beverly's Maze were relatively 'trad', reflecting the short-lived optimism of an emergent black middle-class; but never quite entered the mainstream with their lack of video glitz and high reputation as a live act. The last track (one of the greatest dance tunes ever, IMHO) is a lovely example of August Darnell's pop genius, and could be a manifesto for the whole milieu I'm lazily attempting to describe. Of course, with the exceptions of mighty Rick and Grace (for obvious reasons - look at 'em), none of these tracks had the pop videos that would be de rigeur by mid-decade. History was indeed made at night, but the Spectacle was closed to its potential; as pop (and nightlife) carried out its slowly gentrified, neutered facelift and eventual irrelevance. But whenever I hear this stuff, it can't help but evoke thoughts of a warmer world.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Mother’s Little Helper

Ludus are perhaps the most unfairly overlooked band of the post-punk era. The brainchild of artist Linder Sterling, their daring, imaginative music is less known than the outrages they performed in their stage shows - Linder having worn a meat dress long before Lady Gaga.

Ludus’s music is like a doll’s house with doors that open into the cosmos - at one moment intricate, precise and formal, and then suddenly giving way to vast currents of sound. Linder is forever presenting domestic constrictions taken to the most absurd limits, such as being trapped inside a refridgerator, or dutifully cooking herself for an imagined husband.

The drug that seemed to inspire Ludus was Valium, a prescription drug that was sold over the counter to millions of housewives in the Sixties and Seventies, a sleeping tablet that was used overwhelmingly to stifle the neuroses that resulted from the contradictions of a political culture that told women they were liberated, while at the same time a media culture expected them to achieve a submissive domestic perfection. Ludus suggested that domesticity consisted of an almost limitless profusion of exquisitely delicate traps, a torture chamber where though the body may have been reduced to meat, it was tender and succulent.

In this honeytrap world, escape can only be by daydream, and this is where Ludus’s sound opens up to reveal yearning vistas, like Priit Pärn’s "Hotel E", where the grey, fly-ridden Easterners find a door into the soporific, paradisical West. It’s a heartbreaking vision of the impossibility of fulfilling relationship roles that are dictated by nebulous social pressures. As easy to fall into, and as difficult to escape from, as Valium itself.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

You have no individual mind. You’re an Amoeba.

I’ve spent most of my life in Peterborough, a city (and it’s only just a city) that for all its flaws, always remains just about interesting enough to keep me here. Too far south to be considered authentically northern, it's also too far north to be comfortably southern. Historically divided between two counties, it’s also awkwardly not quite positioned in either the East Midlands or East Anglia. A home to countless immigrant communities, it remains stolidly Anglo-Saxon. Usually Tory, but frequently Labour, it’s an old working class town in a sea of gentrified suburbs.

It’s really a kind of English everytown, with every social and economic trend of the last fifty years making a mark on its fabric. If anything, what makes it so unusual is its remorseless usualness. That, and the fact that it has managed to keep most of its industry - indeed during the Seventies and Eighties, one of its claims to fame was that on a per capita basis, its export earnings were reputed to be greater than Japan’s.

The Seventies and Eighties were times of great dynamic change for the city. Peterborough had been designated a "New Town" in the 1960’s, and the following decades were the era when the Peterborough Development Corporation set to work laying out the housing estates and business parks to house and provide work for the "overspill" populations, mainly from London, but also from as far afield as Manchester and Glasgow. As most of its historic centre was preserved, the city, far from being a modernist Year Zero in the manner of Milton Keynes, became a strange mixture of the ancient and modern, and this is reflected in its social life. One of the remarkable aspects of the place is that if you go to any of the town centre pubs, the accent you are still most likely to hear is the old local Fenland accent. Visit any of the new estates that ring the centre, and you’ll find them eerily quiet. What do these people, the incomers, do with themselves? It was this strange gulf between the traditional life of the old town, and the weirdly disembodied unlife of the new one, that no doubt inspired Peterborough’s greatest gift to the world of pop.

Nobody understood Sudden Sway during their active period in the 1980’s, and it’s easy to see why. Heavily conceptual, always obscure, their career was marked by what seemed to be bizarrely self-defeating marketing initiatives that appeared to explode in their faces. What wasn’t apparent then, but is obvious now, is that Sudden Sway possessed an unusual prescience. During the dawn of neoliberalism, they had already seen through it, and into the incoherence that it masked.

Sudden Sway liked to portray themselves as a corporation. This was nothing new for a post-punk band of course. Public Image Limited and the British Electric Foundation adopted corporate veneers as a means of intimidatory self-aggrandisation; to project a kind of world-conquering invulnerability (however ironically). The Residents had utilised the idea of the corporation to suggest secret-Masonic infiltration into everyday life. Together these bands saw the corporation as a power-multiplier, as a hidden army that gave them artistic leverage. Sudden Sway on the other hand saw the corporation as a locus of confusion and purveyor of incompetence. They understood that the corporate lexicon of acronyms, buzzwords and futuristic sounding product names (full of x’s and z’s, like the medieval magical grimoires, as English Heretic would no doubt point out) was there as a smokescreen, to obscure the fact that most corporations produce useless or detrimental products via an impenetrable cloud of bureaucracy, the whole melee being kept together only by marketing (the only really important part of the organisation) and political lobbying.

After a couple of unconventional post-punk singles, the first outing of their new corporate sensibility was their Peel Session track "Let’s Evolve". The song mischievously draws the links between classroom listen-and-learn radio shows, New Age self-improvement tapes, aerobics lessons, pharmaceutical innovation, corporate growth strategies and their ur-principle, the theory of natural selection. One of neoliberalism’s great tricks was to adopt Charles Darwin as one of its godfathers, to pretend that "market forces" were simply the inevitable social and economic compliment of his theories. After all, you can’t argue with nature. Sudden Sway’s subsequent career was aimed at demonstrating that neoliberal capitalism, far from being a red-blooded hyena, was in fact a lumbering megatherium plodding towards extinction.

Following their second Peel Session, which introduced another bizarre self-improvement technique, the "hypno-stroll", they were signed to major label WEA’s "indie" offshoot, Blanco y Negro, who no doubt possessed the worst A&R team in the history of the music business. The band’s first release was the "Sing Song" single which was recorded in eight different versions with a promo that was intended to be given to record shops to explain to them how the concept ran together. Each version of the single could only be differentiated by its catalogue number, which meant that the band’s small number of fans had to drive to and fro across the country to track down all the versions if they wanted to hear them. It was the first of incident of what was to become the band’s signature - the disastrous marketing ploy.

Next came the farrago that was "Space Mate", a double album housed in a large, flimsy box that was purported to be a board game. The packaging, which seemed to be deliberately designed to inconvenience both WEA’s distributors and the record shops that sold it, came with a bewildering array of inserts, instructions, wall charts and stickers. I’ve no doubt that there are still warehouses in the south east of England that are full of them.

Sudden Sway were swiftly ejected from WEA and signed to Rough Trade, with whom they released "Autumn Cutback Job Lot Offer", a 7" single that included eight one-minute advertising jingles for products that the band themselves invented. The recording was accompanied by a performing stint at the ICA, and an appearance on "Whistle Test", in which Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw, (the Jeremy Clarkson and Richard "The Hamster" Hammond of the music biz) could barely contain their authenticist disdain for the group.

For their final release, the concept album/pseudo-West End musical "76 Kids Forever", the band returned to their youth in Peterborough, and lamented how Britain had changed in the mere ten years up to 1986. Remembered nowadays, if at all, as obscurist failures, they were among the very few people of the time who really understood the changes that were happening around them, as well as the ephemeral nature of the ideas that were driving those changes. As neoliberalism starts to wither and contract all around us, Sudden Sway will no doubt emerge inviolate as the prophets without honour that foresaw it all along.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Une Autre Vie

For me, "La Folie" is the very greatest of all The Stranglers’ singles. The album of the same name, from which it was taken, and of which great things had been expected by their record company, had yielded two flop singles before the unexpected success of "Golden Brown", which itself had been tardily released almost as an afterthought. Presumably selected under the notion that pot luck was proving a more reliable guide than their own instincts, the record’s chances were effectively killed off by the refusal of Radio 1 to playlist it, their reasoning being that nobody wanted to buy records that weren’t sung in English.

The inspiration for the song came from a particularly gruesome murder that had happened earlier in the year that it was recorded, 1981. Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student of French Literature at the Sorbonne, had killed a beautiful Dutch fellow student, Renée Hartevelt, and then had sex with her corpse, before cutting pieces off it and eating them. When caught attempting to dump the mutiliated remains, he explained to the French police that he not unreasonably felt himself to be a "weak, ugly, and small man", and had hoped to acquire some of Hartevelt’s health and beauty by consuming her flesh.

Despite their name and ominous reputation, The Stranglers generally avoided the subjects of rape and murder, their misanthropy usually being more everyday, more mundane, more realistic. Instead of approaching the subject matter with the sort of priapic glee typical of some of their (oddly more acceptable) punk peers, they instead evoked a stately European grandeur - what Ultravox had attempted and failed to achieve with the camp fiasco that was "Vienna"

"La Folie" isn’t an attempt to glorify or condemn, but rather to understand. The tension within the song is that between the solemn, dignified flow of the synthesized melody, signifying the gravity of a young life taken, and Burnel’s lyrical attempt to summon within himself the kind of personal and social stresses that might provoke such madness; to understand, and perhaps identify, by feeling. The record resigns itself to failure - madness is inherent within the flow of life, perhaps within us all. But then again, perhaps not. We shrug our shoulders and look to the night sky.

Good Evening
Your vehicle doesn’t seem to have an occupant
Could you, would you let me in?
Or would that be too much trouble?
My boots won’t echo too much in your passageway
No noise accompanies my parting
No wasted moments for us
Waiting for an uncertain reunion
Because I’m mad, yes it is madness

There once was a student
Who had a great desire, as they say in books
His girlfriend was so sweet that by eating her,
He was able to reject all vices, repulse all evil,
Destroy everything beautiful
Which up until then, had never been known to him
Because he was mad, yes it is madness

And if sometimes you can confess to it
To whom can you reveal all?
even God himself has deserted us

Another life, another place
And of course, another story
But to whom can you open your heart
In the shadows of the night?
At dawn, at dusk
How may crimes have been committed
Against the deceits and so-called laws of the heart?
How many are here because of madness?
Because they are mad?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

This is New Zealand: Asian Edition

One of my favourite literary genres is the promotional book. It might have something to do with my dear godmother, who for a number of Christmases in a row gave me books that her husband picked up at trade fairs, including a monumental - and in so many ways, absolutely delightful - History of Methane, a relic of a not-so-distant time when the word emissions had almost exclusively scatological meanings.

Of special and more recent interest to me is the subset of this genre that promotes whole countries and their ways of life. I talked briefly a while ago about this particular gem

but neglected to make the dutiful point that nationalistic propaganda sprouting from a rich compost of lies and embellishments is hardly the sole domain of totalitarian governments. Everybody does it. You’ll find as much self-criticism in this type of offering as you do in the average national anthem. Nonetheless, these books generally make very interesting reading, precisely in fact because of their lies and obfuscations, as well as the occasional truths that filter through the promotional message.

There are some reassuring constants: the people of all nations, we are told, are uncommonly resourceful and ingenious, hard working and interested in pursuing a variety of interests. Sports and the arts play important roles in their lives, as does family. I am looking forward to a book professing that the citizens of, say, Latvia, are a slothful and tedious bunch who loathe children and are really letting themselves go in the fitness department, but it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming (at least not from the Latvians themselves). Also, most countries whose literature I have come across are 'a country of contrasts', which apparently is a good thing.

Predictable niceties are also written about each nation’s great artistic beauty and its rich and colourful traditions. But these aren't ordinary guidebooks, and a reminder of their mercantile aims, often on a very large scale, is never far behind. Here is a page from G. Selmer Fougner's A Good Living Tour of Italy (1955):

The advertisment goes on to say, in case you were wondering, that 'graving and floating docks can handle supertankers'. And who didn't tour Italy with his or her supertanker, in those days?

Another point of difference is that these kinds of books invariably project an uncritical and cohesive image of the country's political structures and policies. Look in particular for the ideological statements that underpin the sections on government, welfare and society, if you're into the comparative literature of propaganda. Case in point: the About New Zealand booklet published by the country's Ministry of Foreign affairs and Trade in 1999 - at the tail end of nine year of Tory rule - which reads as a manual on the virtues of neoliberalism. We learn for instance that
[s]uccessive [New Zealand] governments have shaped an environment for a leaner, more productive economy by championing reform, deregulation and sound financial policies at home, while pursuing open and liberalised trade and investment policies abroad. (p. 27)
We all know that ‘leaner’ means ‘employing fewer people’, but whatever repercussions this transition might have had on the securing of welfare provisions is left unsaid. In fact, the myth of the smooth, harmonious operation of the state machinery invariably espoused by these books can complicate things a bit when it comes to boasting a nation's historical achievements. About New Zealand needs for instance to accommodate both the pride in the pioneering role played by the country in the areas of labour relations and welfare entitlements, and the idea that getting rid of such entitlements was a good thing. Here's what the book has to say about health services:
In the 1930s, New Zealand made history by being the first nation to establish a comprehensive welfare system. The aim was to provide people with security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ through assistance for the sick, the unemployed and for families. A wide range of medical care was also provided free of charge. Almost 70 years later, the cost of providing social welfare has grown. Welfare benefits are now more tightly targeted at those most in need. Today the emphasis of the social welfare system is on providing income support to ensure those facing difficulties can be helped back to self-reliance and well-being. (p. 34)
Deftly, neatly, this paragraph bridges together a far poorer, less advanced New Zealand which yet believed that it should care for its citizens as a matter of duty, to the contemporary, far richer and more advanced New Zealand, where ensuring the people's well-being is just too darn expensive. And naturally none of this is allowed to interfere with the notion that by crossing this particular bridge the country has experienced anything but progress.

As it happens, I am the fortuitous but nonetheless proud owner of a precursor to that booklet written in 1986, at the very time when this significant change of ideological course was being charted. I say fortuitous because there was never a time when you could buy or pick up this very lavishly produced book, which was intended as a gift for Chinese businessmen and government officers.

This puts the fantastically entitled This is New Zealand - Asian Edition in a particular sub-category of nation-promoting books, those specifically aimed at encouraging foreign investment and trade. This is a tricky and elaborate exercise that requires a certain amount of grovelling to go along with the requisite pride in the display of the nation's treasures to the chosen bidder. Hence the seemingly peculiar decision - given the overall politics of the book's authors and sponsors - to open with an appeal to the ambassadorship of Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who dedicated his life to the cause of Chinese communism. But do not be fooled: as the contribution of stockbroking firm Renouf Partners makes clear, the book is firmly aligned with the Douglas manifesto and its 'major restructuring of the economy'. In an especially welcome development, we are informed,
a growing financial sector is blossoming, helped by rapid and bold moves to free the economy from a mass of regulations and controls that had developed over the years. It has been said that the "New" is being put back into "Zealand". (p. 113)
(I couldn't find a lot of information about Renouf Partners, by the way, other than in a document by Chris Lee that lists it among a number of firms that went belly up under Douglas' tenure as a result of having been 'perhaps honestly, but incompetently run'. It sounds like they might have put the "usual" back into "bankruptcy".)

For all the talk of restructuring and radical innovation, the book still boxes New Zealand in its traditional role of primary producer, declaring it from the outset 'a well stocked farm in the Pacific' (p. 17), capable of such feats as - in what is possibly my all-time favourite caption - 'integrating forestry and farming':

The image below of a refrigerated container full of fresh produce opening onto a pristine landscape encapsulates the idea of New Zealand that is being sold to the reader by a list of major players: the Meat Board, Owens investments, National Bloodstock, Feltex, Wattie Industries, Tasman Forestry, the State Coal Mines and a number of companies servicing the primary sector - even the lone representative of the electronics industry, AWA, turns out to be involved in the production of fruit grading machinery.

One contributor stands out and may at first seem a little puzzling: the Justice Department. It appears that the export envisaged here is expertise on how to deliver a Western-style justice system, should China ever be interested. In the relevant section the reader is helpfully informed that
[o]ne of the dilemmas in any democracy is the tension between the desire to strengthen and extend government powers to provide and effective government, and the need to uphold and protect the rights and freedoms of the individual. (p. 125)
For all the condescension in this particular snippet, the book is deferential towards China and studiously avoids topics that may offend or complicate the picture of what the country has to offer. Therefore it skips directly from the 'ancient times' of Maori settlement to 'today's lifestyle', without so much as a mention of the arrival of the Europeans or the Treaty of Waitangi. It name checks the presence of Chinese immigrants from the second half of the eighteenth century, but glosses over the sorry race relations record that accompanied it. It even contributes to the time-honoured tradition of using Asian as a substitute for Chinese (no other nationality is mentioned). Its Māori content, including some stunning artwork, sets a picturesque scene, but is never placed within the easily domesticated concept of the Māori renaissance, let alone the harsher realities of persistent socio-economic differentials. Moreover, none of the businesses promoted through the book have an explicit Māori dimension, making the customary exploitation of iconography and lore that much more grating.

None of this, however, is altogether untypical. As I suggested above, these kinds of books are often more significant for what they leave out than for what they include. Lacking as they are in critical perspective, they cannot be regarded as documents of a nation's changing modes of self-examination, but rather of the ways in which myths and fictions of nationhood are constructed. Also, they generally have very pretty pictures.

This is New Zealand - Asian Edition. Wellington: Sheffield House, 1986.
An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog.

Friday, 3 June 2011

History Lesson Cancelled, Class Revision In Progress

The “loony left” were responsible for torpedoing Labour’s reputation and sinking the party’s chances with their puerile antics in Labour councils up and down the country and through their reckless control of the party’s policy-making machinery. Fringe causes were put before mainstream concerns, with many in the party seriously accepting the flawed logic that stapling together a collection of special interest groups would create a counterweight to Thatcher’s electoral coalition of aspirational voters.

However, he conveniently overlooks a number of facts. Firstly, that the most obvious cause of Labour’s defeat in 1983 was not the left, but the cynical disloyalty of those who split from labour and formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and which boosted the Liberal/SDP alliance to 25% of the vote in 1983. There is an exaggerated folk-legend in the Labour Party about how dangerous the Militant Tendency was, but it was the centre-right group within the Labour Party, the Social Democratic Alliance, who went to the Tory press with lurid accusations that eleven members of the NEC were communists (including Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot), who campaigned against Labour in the 1979 European elections, and who announced that they would stand candidates against Labour in the next general election, leading to their expulsion in 1980.

The snarl behind the smile comes as no surprise to some old acquaintances. There are Labour MPs who have never forgiven Kilroy-Silk for the way he abandoned his seat of Knowsley North in 1986 at the height of the party's bruising battle with the Militant Tendency. As a rightwinger who held lavish parties at his grand house in Burnham, Kilroy-Silk was an easy target for the Trotskyite group, which launched a bitter and bloody battle to deselect him as the Labour candidate in the seat he had held since 1974. The Labour high command, under the direction of Neil Kinnock, piled resources into Merseyside to help him. The party's efforts saved his neck, only for Kilroy-Silk to announce that he was leaving Westminster to present his own television programme.

Neil Kinnock is widely seen as having done much of the groundwork to make the New Labour project possible. As Labour leader he fought hard to remove the left-wing Militant tendency from the party and attempted to modernise its image and policies.
He hired TV producer Peter Mandelson to oversee Labour's next election campaign. Under his guidance the red rose symbol - rather than the red flag - was adopted. Mandelson also talent-spotted Blair and Brown, to whom he became a friend and mentor.