Monday, 26 September 2011

Malcolm In The Middle

Despite its bad press these days, through a perspective that binds it so closely to the ravages of neoliberalism, at the time I could feel the appeal of postmodernism. With youth and receptive innocence being so important to how we respond to pop music, the records below may represent the best examples of its overtly self-conscious, postmodern 80s variety. High-concept po-mo pop (including short-lived sensations like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but mainly miserable failures like Sigue Sigue Sputnik) reached saturation point around mid-decade, with a plethora of acts borrowing their template for marketing gimmickry from Malcolm McLaren. The British music press between 1983-87 was full of talentless chancers armed with nothing more than a slogan, a haircut and gaudy graphic design. McLaren's role in the great punk swindle has been over-documented to death elsewhere (not least by himself), so perhaps it's time to view his entire career for what it actually was: a risky celebration of play for its own sake; the basic lesson any clever art school kid learns. It was all a game to McLaren and it was obvious that, unlike more famous contemporaries, he thoroughly enjoyed playing the overgrown child. The staged battles over his little pranks, the cod-situationist aphorisms, his many daft interviews, and his somewhat unsavory fixations (namely, a recurring focus on pubescent girls' sexuality) didn't take away from his cunning pop smarts. He acted as role model to all kinds of of zeitgeist-chasing wannabes, the vast majority of whom fell flat on their faces trying to emulate him. Maybe it was because they lacked enough conviction in their silliness.

Although already familiar with rap, watching the video for 'Buffalo Gals' on kid's TV or Top of the Pops brought home the (then) disconcertingly alien aspects of hiphop as a subculture. For everyone who saw it as a particularly annoying novelty hit, there just as many who saw it as heralding an important cultural shift. It paid more attention to hiphop's more avant-garde aspects than earlier attempts at appropriation by trad-bands like Blondie or The Clash, who couldn't escape obedience to the 'rock band' superego. With so many different voices moving in and out of his solo records, McLaren didn't feel as much need to constantly claim centre stage. He presented himself as just another character, leading the dance. True to the historical mix-n-match of late capitalism, the rhythmic juxtapositions and lyrics of 'Buffalo Gals' placed it in a continuum of earlier American folk-forms - pop culture as rest and recreation from matters of manifest destiny (the inherent violence of which played as much a role in hiphop's later development as it did in country and western decades earlier). To UK audiences at least, it briefly 'made strange' American popular culture; something that's rarely happened in the charts since the 80s. To many a young ear, it piqued our curiosity. It's still as oddly compelling as it was three decades ago.

Of course, a true postmodernist like McLaren didn't just use history for his box of Lego. He did similar with geography too. 'Double Dutch' brought together strands of the Black Atlantic diaspora, from the urban playgrounds of New York to the brutally oppressed townships of Soweto (the colonial allusions to both places are in the title). It used South African styles with less morose vanity than Paul Simon's more celebrated Gracelands, and with arguably more sensitivity to the political struggles at stake. Unlike more pompous 80s performers (some of whom are sadly still with us), it didn't wave these struggles around as flags of convenience. That would have been too redolent of grown-ups too self-important or pretentious to be 'in' on his big punk prank (I liked to imagine him using a hand-buzzer to shake hands with Richard Branson). He simply acknowledged that those struggles took place in a world we all shared. Despite the horrors of this world, there was still fun to be had in the most unlikely of locations. After all, kids can be skipping in South Africa as much they can in North America. In contrast to the 80s, we're now less likely to accept what po-mo sometimes justified its own existence with: The (perhaps vain) attempt to s(t)imulate empathy via the use of play between divergent cultures and time periods, that may otherwise have seemed distant from - or opposed to - each other. However limited this approach may have ultimately been, it was certainly less offensive than stadium pop turning clear and present political emergencies into promotional pieties, and much less pseudo-aristocratic as a creative space. Not so much we are the world as you are the world. It was a respite from cultural and historical context into something less antagonistic, stratified or burdensome. 

This was the stated purpose of McLaren's concept album Fans. It attempted that most po-mo of tricks; dated in the obviousness of its concept, yet an approach now commonplace beyond all novelty: Harmonizing the highbrow and lowbrow, by applying pop R'n'B production to opera classics. A gimmicky move, sure, and perhaps distasteful to more devoted fans of either. However, it managed to serve up one of the most sublimely ridiculous, memorable and weirdly touching confections to grace the 80s pop charts; while doing it on the safe side of embarrassment or pretension. It granted opera more dignity than FIFA ever did, anyway. When I hear 'Nessun Dorma' nowadays, images of a drunken Paul Gasgoine wearing plastic tits to entertain the lads are sadly unavoidable. McLaren's 'Madame Butterfly' conjured up something altogether more beguiling and evocative; fusing high'n'low with more panache than so many other 80s attempts. The knowing world-weariness of the lyrics worked well, emerging as they do from the cheeky innocence of its conceit. For all of McLaren's unashamedly gauche childishness, moving on from the confrontational aspects of his earlier projects was his way of growing up in public. He learned the basic lesson that so many of us do past a certain age: Pop music should be fun, it should be inclusive, and all the rest is propaganda. It's not there to feed the world, but it shouldn't heave-ho its partners either. What the listener takes from it is what matters. McLaren just wanted to play, and anyone was invited to join in if they so wished. You'd have to be a pretty sour old punk to object to that, really.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Desecration Acts, Continued

Part Two: Highway 61 Revisited as an Emergency Evacuation Route

New York City's a good "working musician" kind of town...if you know how to hustle, you can always find a gig. Such was the case with the members of Shockabilly. As the world would come to know them, Shockabilly consisted of guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, bassist Mark Kramer, and drummer David Licht -- all three of whom had played in differing capacities throughout the eclectic and more "avant" quarters of the city's music scene. The band had originally been started by Chabourne and had a revolving personnel (including at various times John Zorn and cellist Tom Cora) for a few years before finally simmering down into a trio. The group's formerly diverse set had by that point settled into that of "covers" act -- a lounge act whose repertoire most involved running the Nuggets songbook through the shredder. "Psychotic Reaction," "Eight Miles High," "Purple Haze" -- it was all fair game. Eugene brought the amplified garden rake to up the noise factor, while Kramer brought along some tape machines that allowed him to punch up random snippets and "samples" culled from the detritus of the media landscape.

The trio had a nice run out of it for a while, even landing a couple EPs out of it, mulchifying a number of "classics" and having a long and gleefully noisy romp on the grave of the Age of Aquarius. When the opportunity arose to record a full-length album, however, it seems the band decided that the schtick might wear a little thin over the duration of a long-player, and decided to augment the outings with a larger share of their own original tunes. The result was a pair of albums -- Vietnam and Heaven (1984 and 1985, respectively) -- that amounted to a dark, surreal, and often bleak and nightmarish plunge into the country's recent history. Popping up in the middle of the "Reagan Years," some of the songs sounded less like a cry of protest than a resigned and bitter croak drifting up from the bottom of a well.

YYes, there was a new round of hippie-era favorites being lined along the trenches for a hearty mowing-down. "Born on the Bayou,""Instant Karma,""Lucifer Sam,""Life's a Gas," et al make an appearance, but they only served to thread the narrative like recurring brown-acid flashbacks, mere bric-a-brac adorning a revisitation of the American Dream -- a waking dream now strewn with shrieks and howls from monster movies, the babble of TV commercials and political speeches, the aforementioned croak, and the rumble of cognitive dissonances bubbling up through the socio-economic substrata. In the end it amounted to scattered scenes from a road movie, one where the journey's a scrambling flight from an impending apocalypse. You pile all your belongings and essentials into your car and getting the hell out of the city, away from the vulnerable coast…punching across the FM spectrum for some driving music, only to find a selection of "oldies" that now sound mockingly confident and alien to your ears…all of which is overlaid by news reports and howls of the damned bleeding through the transmissions and following you as you drive inland, as you try to get as far from it all as you can in search of refuge…driving into the landlocked depths of the country, away and into the heartland, the sounds of a nation's recent cultural history folding back on itself, swallowing its own tail, chasing you -- a reprise of John Lee Hooker protesting "(I Don't Wanna Go To) Vietnam," Charles Manson ranting from prison that he's "your lost son, America," and beatnik poet and former Fugs frontman Ed Sanders stepping in to offer a plaintive critique of U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Eventually the signal fades into static as you approach your destination, which turns out to be a wasteland littered with missile silos and long-abandoned gas stations.

Either that, or the the two albums can be listened to as some sort of evil, bipolar, quarrelsome conjoined twin for Springsteen's Nebraska. You be the judge.

Within a couple of years, the nostalgia industry had stepped to reclaim the 1960s. Some would claim that this revival involved looking back to the decade's idealism, but mostly – some argued– it mostly just amounted to the "Baby-Boomer" generation selling its own past back to itself. Amidst it all, the Grateful Dead experienced a huge resurgence in popularity, their audiences swelled by the ranks of a new generation of fans who followed the band around on tour. The Dead lyric what became something of a recurrent slogan in the years that followed. That slogan eventually becoming the title of a gloating TV special in which Rolling Stone magazine took a gloating 20-year anniversary rewind on its own history..."What a long, strange trip it's been."

To which any number of people probably wanted to reply: "Motherfucker, you don't even know the half of it."

[   <<<   Part One   ]               [   Part Three   >>>  ]

Sunday, 11 September 2011


I suppose I should get round to a post about the Falklands War at some point - one of the strangest conflicts in history, and one which had nothing to do with Imperialism and everything to do with the curious metaphysics of national vitality (on both sides).

Anyway, here's The Fall's pro-War record, a satire on the kind of left-winger who sympathised with the Argentine Junta out of an anti-patriotic negative solidarity. Mark E. Smith would follow this act of political incorrectness by openly voting Conservative in the 1983 election, an act that has been mysteriously forgotten by all those snarky critics that like to hammer on at the alleged Tory sympathies of Paul Weller and Gary Numan.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Word Up

There can't be many bands who have balanced so delicately on the edge between grandeur and absurdity than Cameo, whose aesthetic came over like the Benny Hill Show soundtracked by Ennio Morricone. They were simultaneously glacially cool and cheekily humorous, making some of the most elegant funk music ever recorded, and then coating it with the pucest lyrics.

They meant it as well. Singer Larry Blackmon genuinely couldn't understand why the media made such a big deal out of wearing a bright red codpiece on Top Of The Pops. From his flat top haircut and handlebar moustache to his spandex pants, he challenged you not to find him cool, knowing that it was impossible not to.

Their music sounds even better now than it did then. Never in a hurry, they always took as much time as they wanted. If only we could return to a time when funk was so ludicrously laid back....