Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Let's get commercial!

I'm just back from a two day trip to Hiroshima! Work actually. And I notice  no-one  has blogged this. Why not? Face it, it is awesome...

You know you love it!

No Copeland. Embarrassment of riches that geezer's work for The Police.

Social realist bemulleted heartland rock synth drum attack!


Monday, 17 December 2012

Bring the Beat Back (Drums Along the Potomac)

Despite all the good things that came out of the music of the 1980s, by and large it was a fairly dismal decade. Or at least it was as far as mainstream music went, with a lot of what you'd hear on FM radio or in clubs. Lots of shitty guitar solos, no shortage of triffling go-nowhere trends.

Main beef being with how the beat got simpler. In many instances starkly, minimally -- almost metronomically -- so. I dunno how or when the trend actually started -- it seemed to gradually creep in at some point around 1982 until in gained damn-near complete hegemony. Maybe it had something to do with how the later phase of disco had simplified the beat, and then again with how dance music that came after the post-disco backlash stripped it down even further. Or maybe it was Prince's "When Doves Cry" (known in some quarters as, "Where'd the fucking bass go, homes?") that violently unended the scales, that made it official as the musical trend of the decade. Not sure, but things got pretty stark for a good long stretch after that. Yeah sure, this was all concurrent the hip-hop's gradual steps toward mainstream acceptance. But the mid-school era of mid-digitally sampled of breakbeats and loops was still several years away (mainly due to the affordability of the equipment). Most rhythm tracks for hip-hop cuts either being laid down in the studio by a session drummer laying down a steady beat, or programmed on a drum machine -- most often an 808. The Roland 808 could be a marvelous thing -- capable of complex patterns of the polyrhythmic "Latin" variety, but why put that much effort if you didn't really need to? If there was anything that characterized the sound of "true" hip-hop by the decade's midpoint, it was the punishing jackhammer kick of the 808, pummeling away with inhuman severity.

There were the odd exceptions to much of this, of course -- like Sheila E and her timbales, or the occasionally more-intricate-than-usual rhythm track on some popular "Latin freestyle" number. But as far as what dominated a lot of dancefloors and much of the airwaves -- it was likely a policy of rhythmic austerity had been put in place, or merely decreed the sound of the zeitgeist. Like ridiculous big hair or parachute pants, it was what was in fashion.

Which is why go-go was such an incredible thing when it first began to circulate, was greeting with some sets of welcoming ears, and almost -- but not quite -- became the Next Big Thing.*  Hailing from the city of Washington D.C., Go-go was a locale-specific, homebrew affair. It clearly hadn't kept up with the times, had chosen instead to shoulder its way against the tide of the crowd. It had actually been around for a good many years in gestational form, with some of its key contributors having been veterans of the 1970s funk scene. In fact, the 1970s had seen a couple of proto go-go tracks make it onto the American charts -- Black Heat's "No Time to Burn" in 1974, and then Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers' "Bustin' Loose," the latter of which briefly became a #1 hit on the Soul charts in 1978. The sound of go-go proper wouldn't start to emerge until around the end of the decade, right about the time that disco was being shown the door.

Go-go remained an isolated scene throughout the early years of the 1980s, was limited to the release rosters of small D.C.-based record labels. But in the middle of the 1980s some major labels were taking notice and the music started to gain national attention. Musically, it was clearly a whole 'nother thing entirely -- something distinctly apart from what else was going on. For the marginally-attentive, the music's trademark call-and-response vocals had them thinking it must've been part of the "rap thing." To anyone with memory of the prior decade, it may've sound like mid-period P-Funk, but streamlined and re-tooled and tilted into polyrhythmic overdrive. To others, the extensive percussion section of your average go-go outfit might've brought to mind Afro-Cuban rhythms. To someone else it may have sounded like the music had a strong "Southern" connection, specifically to the sort of drumming often heard on the streets of New Orleans. Whatever the case, it was clear that the music was as live and as loud and as deeply funky as things could get. I was like something lots of people had been missing, had hungered after, without having realized it until it came along and smacked them upside their earholes.

But as far as national exposure went, go-go's popularity turned out to be peripheral and brief. Yes, for a brief while, a number of commercial hip-hop acts (Salt-n-Pepa, Kid 'n Play, et al) would include a token go-go track on their latest album -- maybe as a way of paying tribute to the music, maybe just as a move for hopefully selling a few extra units in D.C. record stores. And of course there was the appearance of the band E.U. in Spike Lee's second feature film, School Daze.

Full-page magazine advert for the Good To Go soundtrack,
which most likely didn't  feature Art Garfunkel (c. 1986)

There was even, at one point, an attempt to do a film about D.C.'s go-go scene. Titled Good To Go, and with Don Letts as one of the production's instigators, it was originally conceived as a movie focusing exclusively on the music. But a short time into production, a number of the film's backers reputedly got cold feet and backed away. In order to salvage the thing, it was quickly transformed into a crime drama set in D.C., with -- get this -- Art Garfunkel playing the lead role. The music portions of the film were quickly benched, or relegated to the sidelines of the movie's story. (The film itself, after release, would come & go without notice, and would for a few years circulate on video under the [re-]titled Short Fuse.)

If anything, go-go commanded attention because it was a groove that asserted authority. The music's brazenly insistent, exhortative horn-yness, its density, the occasional Clavinet cameo in the mix were all signifiers of a funk 'nuum that refused to die, of a party that never ended. Add to this that a fair number of the music's central figures -- Chuck Brown, et al -- were veterans who'd been working the D.C. circuit for years. Even a gaggle of relative newcomers like Trouble Funk exuded seniority -- partly because of the tightness and expertise of their rhythm section, but also because the raspy vocals of bassist Big Tony Fisher projected a wordliness beyond its years.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* SIDENOTE: True, there was plenty of action and alternatives in the occurring along the margins -- garage, house, techno, etc. But for the most part, many of these developments didn't travel widely, took years to gain broad exposure or acceptance. (Or that was the case with much of the U.S., anyway.) I, for instance, was living in the Deep South at the time, and heard very little of it. What I did hear though, on the radio and elsewhere, was a lot of booty-bass, "quad" type fare. Electro-funk had been big with a certain audience in the South, and once it waned it was kept alive (and refitted with some extra swing) in the South by way of the so-called "Miami Bass" sound -- an indie cottage industry of DJs and trackmakers scattered throughout the region, from the Atlantic side of Dade County all the way over west to Houston. Isht was everywhere providing you went to certain clubs or tuned to certain stations, crowding out most hip-hop that might've filtered down from the East Coast. And it wasn't until about ten years later that I'd learn what a marginal and region-specif phenom the thing was. 

 Relatedly, just uproad from the D.C. of the late 1980s, a set of associates were crafting the beginnings of their own new sound -- starting to kick around the first "doo dew" beats that would eventually morph into the sound of Bmore club" music years later. All of these scattered heterotopias of the groove might be viewed as home-turf DIY remedies for the vagaries that arise from the physical limits of how the entertainment industry operated at the time -- a way of filling the many gaps left by shitty distribution of material product, lazy radio programming and bookings. But more often, however, these localized or regional responses arose from a shared affinity or sense of dissatisfaction, and from a mutual agreement that other motherfuckers just ain't bringin' it, or may have missed the point completely.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Origins of the hipster cyclist

 “A bicycle is the young Sloane girl’s method of transport in London, for four reasons:
  • ·         It is archaic.
  • ·         It has a basket.
  • ·         It is a horse you don’t have to feed or groom.
  • ·         It is dangerous
Bicycling in towns is one of those slightly mad, rather jaunty things Sloanes do. It’s a point of conversation at parties – comparing routes and horror stories with other cyclists or explaining to non-cyclists why you aren’t scared. The reason why you aren't is similar to why Sloanes shouldn’t be scared out hunting. It’s outdoors; you love the feel of wind in your face, the element of risk and the superiority.”

Ann Barr & Peter York, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook (1982), p.121.

Friday, 27 July 2012

When Logic And Proportion Have Fallen Sloppy Dead

Brock Vond's genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds and most viewers were accepting this story, Brock saw the deep -- if he'd allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching -- need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family. The hunch he was betting on was that these kid rebels, being halfway there already, would be easy to turn and cheap to develop. They'd only been listening to the wrong music, breathing the wrong smoke, admiring the wrong personalities. They needed some reconditioning.
Thomas Pynchon Vineland

Friday, 20 July 2012

All The Frightened People Running Home Before Dark

The last glimpse of a mainstream political party not assuming that Britain’s future lay in ‘the service economy’ (in general) and the City (in particular) was in 1988 when the Labour Party was doing its policy review after the defeat of 1987. The economic part of that review was done by a committee chaired by Bryan Gould MP. Gould represented a current within the Labour Party and wider labour movement at the time which was hostile to the bankers. It had concluded that the key structural conflict in Britain wasn’t between the classes, the Marxist view, but between the interests of the domestic and overseas sections of the economy; which in shorthand boiled down to the City on the one hand and manufacturing on the other. 1 This group included Neil Kinnock, as his 1986 book, Making Our Way, shows, and Bryan Gould, who was appointed by Kinnock to chair the committee on economic policy. Gould’s committee duly produced a detailed analysis of why the bankers had too much power and how to reduce it. 
We still don’t know why the Gould report was dumped. My guess would be that the group around Kinnock wanted to get elected more than they cared about the state of the British economy or the fate of its citizens; and having lost two general elections, decided that the bankers were too powerful to challenge. By this time – 1988/9 – the City had been largely sold off to American banks in the so-called big bang of 1986 and was well on its way to being an extension of Wall Street; and thus to be anti-City of London increasingly meant being perceived as anti-American. But for a while a Labour Party which was explicitly an anti-City of London party did seem a real prospect. For whatever reason, the policy review document on the economy was abandoned and Labour began the long process of making itself acceptable to the City of London – even though the City then was only about 2% of the British economy.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

"is it a false emotion?"

"The atom bomb" performed a double duty in early 80s culture, as both the object of a ubiquitous, obligatory terror and a figure for the terrifying thing that had already happened, was already happening in slow motion. No-one was allowed to forget that the world might end tomorrow; but there was also the sense that it had already ended yesterday; that the post-apocalyptic unraveling of customs, institutions and even language depicted to such horrifying effect in "Threads" was already somehow underway, and gathering pace. Not for nothing was "atomisation" one of the watchwords of the era1.

Alongside the fear, then, that the time remaining may be limited, was the feeling that whatever was still standing was already damaged, fragile, weakened by the blast of whatever it was that was sweeping so violently through the contemporary moment. And pop songs of the time registered these feelings, responded to them by throwing a variety of affective shapes, some more overtly "political" than others.

Level 42's Sun Goes Down combines a kind of abstract aspirational positivity ("though I live on the edge, time is on my side / all the doors of my life are open wide") with an alert sense of temporariness, of getting what you can while you can:

Mark King's protestation that "I know what I want, and I don't wanna go to war" is seconded by the weary "soldier standing in a bar", presumably recently returned from the Falklands, who says, "I need to love someone / before they drop the atom bomb". At the same time, love itself may be too long-term, may be too great an attachment to risk: "I get kind of scared when love's around". What will fill up the time that remains is "the groove", which keeps on grooving for "just as long as the wheels keep turning round".

Is the groove, the uplift of funk, an adequate object of devotion, something one can live for? At first, King seems to think so: "I'm married to the the music I gave the heart I could've given you". But there is the nagging question of whether its "forward motion" is really enough to carry one through: "it it a false emotion?". And behind it all, the singer is stalked by a nameless anxiety: "I get kind of scared when I turn around", when forward motion is interrupted by retrospection. Having "time" on one's side, being in step with the time, entails a certain vertiginous ungroundedness, an ever-present risk of falling back.

Things are complicated somewhat by a female dancing partner, initially rejected in favour of the groove but accepted in stages, firstly as an object of admiration embodying "the shock of the new", then as a potential social trophy ("I want my friends to see me standing next to you"), but finally as a putative alter ego ("there's something about her reminds me of me") and temporary "soulmate". If love as mutual fascination, the game of making eyes at each other and getting bewitched and hooked, is too binding a proposition, then moments of occasional solidarity with a generic fellow-groover ("there must be one like her in every club in every town") at least serve as a respite from nervy atomisation.

It doesn't seem terribly adventurous to stay out dancing only "until the sun comes down" - ordinarily that would be when you'd start partying. But I think the metaphorical associations here link the groove to work rather than play, with sundown being the time when tools are put aside and activity ceases (remember that Level 42 were always a hard-working band who could really play their instruments - King's celebrated slap bass style is especially machinic). Sundown is also, of course, the time when darkness falls, and the apocalyptic overtones would be present even without the passing squaddie's ominous mutter.

Nik Kershaw's I Won't Let the Sun Go Down On Me vanished ignominiously on first release, but had a successful second run on the back of Wouldn't It Be Good. The lyrics are much more explicitly about the imminent threat of nuclear war ("forefinger on the button"), with a sort of protest-song-lite flavour:

Here the proffered counter to nuclear terror is personal indignation, a refusal to countenance the affront of annihilation: I won't let the sun go down on me. There is an appeal to the listener's conscience and political agency - "break your silence if you would / before the sun goes down for good" - and I guess the song might have got some play at CND social events, but the political mode it anticipates is precisely that of Live Aid: the problem of solidarity with others, whether organised and practical or transient and affective, is set aside in favour of striking, and exhorting others to strike, a morally impressive individual posture. I remember an awful lot of 80s "politicalness" being like this: already irrevocably "atomised", and seeking collective articulation through synchronised slogan-chanting - the imagined apocalypse being "as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced".

1 I also remember a high incidence of vaporisation in sci-fi TV dramas, including a young Patsy Kensit being threatened with the "obliviator".

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

"it's fast / it's wrong"

Estrangement, intensity; the dream that our separate abjections and ecstasies might be reconcilable - if only in the manner of a verse melody in the relative minor playing over a chorus in the relative major. Why do they appear as separate in the first place? The lyric personae of Wouldn't it be Good stand in for two directions of social mobility - for the "downwardly" and "upwardly" mobile, for those thrown out into the cold and for those consumed by the white phosphorous of financial conflagration.

The patterns are more established, their ideological reflections more secure, by the time Microdisney come to address them - in 1987, with And He Descended Into Hell, and in 1988 with Gale Force Wind:

"If a power was to lift him up / and make him rich / would he admit it was luck?". Again we are making deals with God: the force driving us apart is nameless, sublime, possibly malevolent. It deals in anarchic reversals of fortune, in uplift and sudden ruin. If Kate Bush tries to confront this anarchy with erotic solidarity, Cathal Coughlan takes stock of the human relationships it has destroyed and the pathologies generated by nostalgia for a stable moral order:

"He believed he was right to ask for things / to be his and for him alone / and the world was not right with him unless / his wish was the world's command". How, without reimposing rights of ownership over others, tying them to us so that they cannot escape or be blown away, is the world to be made right again?

"with no trouble"

Another song about wanting to change places with someone else:

The underlying conceit is the same as that in Nik Kershaw's Wouldn't It Be Good: intensities (freezing/burning) are exchangeable, substitutable. "Running up that Hill" is about the ascent towards ecstasy, a troubled and turbulent ascent ("there is thunder in our hearts") which Bush imagines could be made smooth and easy ("be running up that hill / with no trouble") if only a deal could be struck which would render the lovers interchangeable, each having direct knowledge of the other's tribulations ("don't you want to know that it doesn't hurt me?").

The problem in both cases is one of empathy. Kershaw's lyric personae get into a kind of contest about who's got it worse ("I'd stay right there if I were you") while the song (from the position of Bush's "God") withholds from both the knowledge that they're in the same existential fix. Bush embraces intensity, without desiring to escape from it, but wants to know how it can be converted into an upward spiral of mutual fulfilment. At the same time, the song itself seems to enjoy its own swirling languor, punctuated by occasional lightning-flashes within the clouds. In spite of the underlying rhythmic pulse, it's not actually in a hurry to go anywhere in particular.

When I was a child, songs like this always raised the troubling and unresolvable question: is she singing about sex here? The answer is fairly obviously "yes, and...", but it's determining where the "sex" stops and the "and" begins that's difficult (perhaps the sex never does stop: when is Kate Bush ever not singing about sex?). Dramatic and troubling, this song always seemed to me to present an aspect of grown-upness that I wasn't sure I'd ever quite be ready for. I'm not altogether sure I've got the hang of it even now.

Monday, 25 June 2012

"don't wanna be here no more"

Nik Kershaw's Wouldn't it be good is fairly compositionally sophisticated for a pop song, with a dramatic harmonic transition (from relative minor to major) between verse and chorus and a neat bit at the end where the verse and chorus melodies run simultaneously. Neither of these tricks would be too surprising in a competently written showtune, but together with the "thick" production (crunchy guitars and synths filling up the available sonic space) they give the song an unusual sense of scale.

The video, enlivened with some advanced Quantel magic, adds to the drama, although it's difficult to believe that handsome Nik is really as miserably down-and-out as he has to pretend to be for the first verse. Metaphorically, the lyrics work the conventional Petrarchan opposition between freezing ("the cold is biting / through each and every nerve and fibre") and burning ("the heat is stifling / burning me up from the inside") into a sort of pretend social commentary - the "pressures of modern life" or some such produce two different kinds of unbearable affect, forms of life from which one would dream (with a cruel, condescended-to optimism) of escaping.

There is a sense of both of the song's lyric positions - despairing loser and cracking-under-pressure high-flyer - being tried on like costumes; the assertion the song wants to make about their interchangeability ("wouldn't it be good to be on your side / grass is always greener over there") comes off as glib.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Stoke Newington Calling

Stoke Newington dwellers of the 1980s: the 'right on' antecedents of the '00s hipster?

Monday, 26 March 2012

Return of the Cockney - playlist

After publishing the 'Return of the Cockney' post I realised that I hadn't included any music which seemed an oversight, so after some prompting from Alex here is the 'playlist'.

80s cockney music has its roots in pub rock and punk, with their deliberate deployment of London accents (real or acquired), songs and imagery about London ('Down in the Tube Station at Midnight', Kilburn and the Highroads) and importance of local venues like the Hope and Anchor in Islington, which attracted loyal followings.

It was Ian Dury and the Blockheads, though, who set up the key elements for 80s. Obviously, through their frontman they kept the vocals and imagery side, with Dury's art-school twist. But they also added funk and soul to the music, and this took them into proper pop hits territory. These two elements are, I think, in tension with each other for many London working class bands through the 80s.

For Madness, it would be ska and reggae rather than funk and soul but the balance is similar. They also cemented the saxophone into London music of this period.

Like Chas and Dave, Madness combine lyrics about child/adult relationships ('Baggy Trousers'// 'Sideboard Song') with catchy choruses, and it this nostalgia for all age groups that explains something of their long lasting appeal.

Alternatively you could drop the vocals side entirely (and indeed any humour or playfulness) and concentrate on being a slick, modern soul band, as with Islington's finest Spandau Ballet:

As Squeeze moved into the 80s they also went in this direction - there would be no more 'Cool for Cats'. The video for 'Black Coffee in Bed' is a rewrite of the narrative of 'Up the Junction' but instead of ending on the sigh of the everyman, Glenn Tilbrook is now more cynical. 'Oh well on to the next one' his eyes say to us. What these bands seemed to particularly value in soul music (and we could include Sade in this) was not just a modern sound but also a grown-up sexuality: "listening to Marvin all night long".

Curiously given Paul Weller's love of black music, 'modernism', and class politics, the Style Council should been the best of all these bands. Although they had 7 top ten singles, which are as good as anything he did with The Jam, the mix between the elements never quite convinces. Despite his supposed love of style, Weller is responsible for commissioning some of the oddest videos of all time. Without these they probably could have had some success in the US, but MTV viewers would simply have been baffled by the mix of homoerotcism, Eastern European chic or, er, northern Town Hall chic:

Unlike Spandau and Squeeze, Weller was too prickly just to let go and fully embrace slick pop. Perhaps unexpectedly it was those who never attempt to have a modern sound, but kept the vocals/imagery side, who have lasted best. But they did this either being being half-outsiders like the Pogues or as with Billy Bragg deliberately trying to undercut the assumptions of his own time and place. His best songs are not his big political numbers, but his love and everyday life material. 'A Lover Sings' is far more 'grown up' about sex, than hanging by the nightclub bar with your sleeves rolled up. His unpicking of male life on 'Like Soldiers Do' or 'Its Says Here' is particularly strong, perhaps why Morrissey was a fan at the time. 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' could be seen as the flip side to 'True' or 'Smooth Operator': a very different mix of soul music, sexuality and London life.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Springtime For Joseph

"We shall not conceal from my lord that the silver has run out and the animal stocks are my Lord's! Nothing is left for our Lord but our carcasses and our farmland! Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our farmland! Take possession of us and our farmland in return for bread, and we and our farmland will be slaves to Pharaoh. And give us seed, that we may live and not die! And that our farmland not turn to desert!" 

And Joseph took possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharoah, for each Egyptian sold his field, as the land became Pharaoh's. And he reduced them to servitude, town by town, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other.
The Book of Genesis, Ch. 47 

In primary school, our Headmistress would tell us stories from the Old Testament with a fair amount of pizzazz (I also enjoyed anecdotes about her colonial experiences - shooting elephants, 'house boys' and all). Although obviously religious, she wasn't insistent that we accepted those wild tales (or British hegemony for that matter). To my impressionable mind, they were as believable as Marvel comics; but no less interesting for that. All that domestic skullduggery, apocalyptic punishment, imperial cruelty and confusing morality was just what the doctor ordered after an hour of maths. The stories were often a cue to work on some DaDa-esque mural, or papier mache installations soaked in glitter, red paint and PVA glue. Being an 'arty' kid, that part was easy. It was the 'moral' of the stories that was the tricky part. As we cut out fuzzyfelt Assyrians or sellotaped a Tower of Babel together, my mind would wander; frequently confused about God's peculiar hang-ups and hissy fits. Like if He was so annoyed with "the wickedness of the Human creature", why did He have to drown all the other creatures too (even the kittens? A bit harsh, surely...)? And if building an Ark was so urgent, why did He make old Noah do it by himself? Or, why were those angels so incensed about the Sodomites dropping by, merry and keen to 'know them'? Talk about unfriendly! Unfortunately, our Headmistress ruined my mental picture of Jacob's wrestling match - he didn't look like Giant Haystacks in the book, and he was definitely wearing the wrong boots. That said, it didn't prevent some of us from chanting 'the countdown' when it sounded like Jake was on the ropes.

Anyway, my mind's wandering again; so I'll get to the point. The Bible character who irritated me the most was Jacob's son, Joseph. He of the Incredibly Boring Coat; whiny spoiled brat and apple of his father's eye, fulfilling his part of the bargain by snitching on his fellow shepherds. Frankly, I don't blame his nasty brothers for throwing him in a ditch. His 'righteous' career made Jacob's youthful con-jobs appear benign in comparison. After being sold into slavery, he ingratiates his way into his master's affections by behaving like the most irritating prefect to ever patrol a bike shed. Piously rejecting his master's wife's sexual advances as an "offense to God", she promptly has him thrown in prison; where he follows a supposedly inoffensive trajectory of back-stabbing and arse-kissing: "... and God was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison-house warden" - he's definitely not Spartacus. Joseph manipulates his fellow slaves with some tabloid horoscope mumbo-jumbo, while driving up their productivity as an unpaid foreman ("are not solutions from God?" - do any recruitment agencies use that motto, I wonder?). He even gets a hapless inmate impaled, currying favour with Pharaoh. In short, he is the ultimate scab.

After Joseph brown-noses his way into being Pharaoh's personal trouble-shooter, reassuring his neurotic boss with further mumbo-jumbo, he emerges as a Biblical prototype of Milton Friedman. As the populace suffers devastating famine, Joseph seizes the opportunity to expropriate the 'best value' from the plight of Egypt and Canaan; a hostile takeover to consolidate a rentier monopoly and accumulate maximum surplus value from widespread starvation. Financializing the livestock, stockpiling the grain to increase its market value, demanding all the silver the starving populace can carry, enslaving the entire labour force, bonding them in inescapable debt, and confiscating their humble means of production: He's God's own 'shock doctrine' neoliberal. Even on his own terms he's a shitty economist. "Seven years of plenty" followed by "seven years of famine in all the lands" would make Norman Lamont look competent. Correctly predicting further famine doesn't let him off the hook either. It only confirms his insufferable smugness (making another nice little earner from it, it's his fault famine returns!). His claims to 'divine guidance' are dubious from the outset. His 'prophecies' have the smarmy, scheming, empty humility of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. The Big Guy Himself is tellingly muted throughout these chapters. Which may be why Joseph makes a point of keeping the Priesthood sweet, despite fucking over everyone else. They probably had the fraud's number before his balls dropped.

After gaining even more power from his trans-national 'shock treatment' solution, Joseph goes on to play creepy emotional games with his desperate, starving father. Then, as Jacob and kin hit absolute rock bottom, Joseph has the sheer gall to expect a grateful hug from them, and a blessing from the ailing father he's humiliated to exhaustion. I was disappointed the legendary wrestler didn't remind his son that he wasn't too old for a world-class ass-whuppin'; giving him something to actually cry about (Joseph's ostentatious tears of self-pity occur quite regularly). If Jacob 'got Biblical' on his son's ass, instead of rewarding him with a colourful coat, he could have saved the Egyptian working class years of agonising poverty. To add insult to injury, our 'hero' dies at the ripe old age of 110; surrounded by wealth, slaves, and needy relatives - decades after dramatically asking them "I'm not God, am I?" Did he even make it to human? For a character from Genesis, Joseph is curiously asexual. One can only hope it was due to him being a eunuch. With a career like his, the little shit definitely had it coming...

So, despite being a junior 'Bible-buff', I can't say Joseph was worth my crayon labour. Besides his odious character, it was quite a boring saga anyway. Why does Genesis devote twelve whole chapters to this twerp - more column inches than the creation of the universe? As people, moralistic business gurus are hardly interesting. They could sum themselves up in three sentences: I'm rich. I'm a cunt. The end. Which brings us to the 1980s. Along with my 'unorthodox' (?) appetite for Bible stories, I was also partial to musicals; an apparently rare taste among heterosexual males under 60. For all the film-buffery of the male blogosphere, you'd think the history of Hollywood was largely made up of cowboys, gangsters, noir, sci-fi or horror. But that merely reflects an outlook of frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails. As a child, I'd lap up any movie on TV; and back when very old movies dominated schedules, quite a few show tunes embedded their way into my consciousness. However, by the 80s, the musical - be it stage or screen - was in the doldrums; and no one was more responsible for this degradation than Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber: Anti-Christ Superstar, Vampire of the Opera. Even 'West End' became an ominous term following its conquest by the most tone-deaf songwriter of the late 20th century. He turned the most Utopian of genres into the stuff of nightmares.

In between celebrating Fascist regimes (from a country then having thousands 'disappeared' by another Fascist regime), and vandalising modernist poetry or The Greatest Story Ever Told, Baron Webber was quite vocal in his support for Mrs. Thatcher. Like any number of plutocratic creeps, claiming "she did wonderful things for this country" easily translated into "she did wonderful things for me". His generous Conservative Party donations are his own grateful tribute to Pharaoh. This of course was honoured in kind with a peerage, though as one of the richest people in the UK that would be inevitable. It's not just Tory tax policies he represents. Rupert Murdoch's recent problems remind us of the cultural 'contribution' that Thatcherism (and moreover, neoliberalism) made to society: The lowest common denominator for the maximum amount of profit, floating on a bubble of empty hype, inherited privilege, labour oppression, lazy conformity, market terrorism, and aggressive self-importance. Their class wouldn't settle for anything less. 

Loath as I am to judge a society according to taste, it's unavoidable considering Baron Webber's astronomical success. From the mid-70s onwards, his 'songs' were everywhere. Even people who could sing did versions of them. During the 80s, they flooded our ears like a Biblical deluge; as though we were suffering divine punishment for privatization and the Miner's Strike. That his cheap, nasty exploitation spectacles could be sold as a 'big night out' (on both sides of the Atlantic), laden with Tony and Olivier Awards, hundreds of millions in (tax-free) profits, and still turn big moolah via that most powerful medium - television - is too depressing to contemplate. Now he's maintaining theatrical hegemony via the sadistic bread and circuses of 'reality' TV, it's positively Dystopian. Those who wouldn't go near a theatre can watch desperate wannabes vying for his approval, as he sits in solemn judgement, upon a throne funded by regressive taxation. Theatre might be dying, but Baron Webber's tat certainly isn't. He too may make it to 110, surrounded by weeping slaves and the spoils of ill-gotten Empire; with the BBC's Grovel Correspondent tearfully reporting the funeral proceedings of a Great Briton.

Baron Webber's definitive 'boffo' sensation was Joseph's Technicolour Dreamcoat: An idiotic title for an idiotic show, about the most frigid creep to worm his way into the Old Testament. A character so tediously craven and sanctimonious, we can forget how ruthless he actually was. Dreamcoat sung to a decade when enclosure, neo-primitive accumulation, cronyism, profitable famine, illusory prosperity, financial imperialism, self-help snake oil, labour subjugation, legislated dispossession, moral fraud, and devotion to power for its own sake became openly celebrated from corner to corner. And make no mistake - like Baron Webber, it's still being celebrated. Somewhere right now, the career of the God's first management consultant is being reproduced with gaudy lights, tacky costumes and sub-literate hymns sang to packed auditoriums. It's happening in quite a few schools too (over 20,000 school and amateur productions); even in those too overworked for any other kind of storytelling. The show has proven to be so profitable, its institutionalization may be more assured than that of health, welfare, libraries, or any other public utility.

Lavishly depicting the authoritarian - but sycophantic - acquisition of power and wealth, paying lip service to dynastic 'family values' as an afterthought, Dreamcoat is the ideal tableau for an ideology drunk on its own bankruptcy; representing a class that encloses farmland into deserts and forces the peasantry into 'grateful' servitude. Render your wealth, resources, dignity, community and autonomy unto Pharaoh. If you're lucky, you can get a matinee, a hotel room and a ride to Oxford St. for a hundred or two. Who cares if you actually 'enjoy' Baron Webber's senile, inert pantomime? His side served it up; so consume it or go hungry - it's there. No Utopia on (or at) this stage. With bigger fish to fry, the ruling class washed its hands of any 'cultural responsibility' decades ago. That was just another pretension they downsized in the name of productivity. Let them eat Webber, Tory soothsayer of stage, screen and sickbag. The market's knackered 'invisible' hand carries on regardless, with a masturbation marathon of its own spectacle. They have no need to justify their mess either. Any dream will do.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Ten Twenty-Five

This might as well be the story of a clock. It is a clock that stopped at ten twenty-five in the morning of August 2, 1980, and then again some time in 1995, and then again in August of last year. Always it returns to that time: ten twenty-five.

It is the clock on the top right corner of this picture. You can’t tell from a photograph if a clock has stopped, and since it looks undamaged you may think it fixes the time when the photograph was taken. But it does not. It fixes the time when the bomb went off.

23 kilograms of nitro-glycerine, T4 and Compound B stuffed in a suitcase abandoned in the second class waiting room of the west wing of the train station at Bologna. A bomb designed to have the maximum impact, not only on the building – the entire wing was destroyed in the blast, along with the Ancona-Chiasso train waiting to depart by the nearest platform – but also in terms of the number of victims. A Saturday morning at the beginning of the holiday month in one of the busiest railroad hubs in the country, and the second-class waiting room, where you would find the highest concentration of people. The bomb killed 85 of them and maimed or wounded more than 200. Such was the force of the blast that of one of the victims, Maria Fresu, no remains were found. She had been travelling with friends, whose bodies were recovered. So was her three-year old daughter’s. But all that was left of Maria Fresu were a handful of scattered fragments. She had been disintegrated.

Clearly this isn’t the story of the clock that stopped at ten twenty-five on the morning of August 2, 1980, as if it too was in shock. It’s the story of the people involved: those inside the train station when the bomb went off; those who came in to join the rescuers, outnumbered and unprepared; those who assembled the bomb and those who planted the bomb (who aren’t necessarily the same people); and later those who fabricated the evidence to derail the investigation, and then the investigators who slowly and laboriously sifted through the evidence, both actual and fabricated, and eventually found some but not all of the culprits. Because finally this is a most Italian story: a story of obfuscation, deception and collusion, a story of institutions parallel to the State or hidden within the State whose job was to ensure that the truth, the whole truth, would never be known. And without truth, without justice – as was said in the first anniversary of the bombing – history itself is rendered meaningless.

It took fifteen years to secure the convinctions of two of the three people who materially carried out the bombing – neofascist terrorists Giusva Fioravanti and Francesca Mambro – along with operatives of the military intelligence service and the leader of the Masonic lodge P2 responsible for a series of progressively more elaborate and, in the final analysis, successful smokescreen operations. It is thanks in no small part to those efforts that we know who and we know how, but we still don’t know on whose orders and why. The Bologna bombing is in this respect the culmination of what chroniclers and historians call the strategy of tension, but also its most perplexing and horrific example. This was not 1969, the year when the strategy was inaugurated. By 1980, the Italian state appeared no longer vulnerable, and the need to strike fear into the population in order to placate revolutionary movements and workers’ struggles on the one hand, and foster the demand for authoritarian measures on the other, had lost almost all of its urgency. Yet it was at this time that the largest scale mass murder was committed. The Bologna station bombing killed more people than those of Piazza Fontana, the Milan police headquarters, Gioia Tauro, the Italicus and Piazza della Loggia put together. It was the atrocity that contained all other atrocities, and yet lacked their political motivation, that is to say a connection – however deranged, however criminal and appalling – with the present.

Murder for murder’s sake: that is perhaps the only form of terrorism deserving of the name. And this above all else I remember of those years. Is there anything more profoundly unsettling for a child than to see fear on the faces of his parents, of the adults in his life? I was nine years old when the Bologna bombing took place. We were holidaying in Yugoslavia with friends. We got hold of an Italian newspaper, perhaps it wasn’t even the next day but the one after that. But the consternation and the fear of my parents and the others, I remember them well.

This is not the story of a clock. It couldn’t be. It’s the story of Maria Fresu, who at ten twenty-five of August 2, 1980 simply ceased to exist, and we may never know why. It’s the story of her three year old daughter and of the other victims and of the wounded and of their loved ones, who for over three decades have fought and continue to fight for the truth and justice that they were denied. The association of the families of the victims of the Bologna station bombing is a microcosm of the Italian society of those years, formed by people whose commitment arose not out of a shared political or ideological background but in the most tragic and random of circumstances (almost literally any of us could have passed through that station on that day). And out of those circumstances grew the determination not to let the bastards get away with it, to pile the pressure on in those early years when the investigation had came close to being abandoned, and then again after the grotesque verdict of acquittal of 1990, which the Court of Cassation judges who ordered the re-trial later called ‘illogical and incoherent’. But still there is so much that we don’t know about that massacre, as well the ones that preceded it. Almost the only thing that has been established to a forensic certainty is the involvement of sectors of the State in the cover-ups and the sidetrackings. So perhaps that is the closest thing we have to a motive. Raison d'├ętat. For the good of the State.

And so this might as well be the story of that clock, for if you must imagine that for the members of the association time really stopped at ten twenty-five of August 2, 1980, then perhaps the same can be said for our democratic institutions. Not that it was always that way for that clock itself. A few months after the bombing it was fixed, yet most people thought that it hadn’t – this is where the story gets a little peculiar – and the station administrators kept being asked to set it at ten twenty-five so that pictures could be taken or for the commemorations, which apparently was a rather difficult business, so that when the mechanism broke down, in 1995, the opportunity was taken not to fix it, and the hands were put back at ten and five, where they remained until August of last year. It was then that the clock was fixed a second time. Somebody had complained, although there have always been complaints: there is no plaque underneath it and so some people quite understandably trust the clock, and occasionally they miss their train. But this time the administration relented and so the clock was put back into service, which generated even more complaints from the association of the families of the victims and from all the people who thought that it shouldn’t have been, and so about a month later the hands were put back at ten and five one more time, and there they remain. At least for now.

The clock is a reluctant, accidental memorial, thus a fitting metaphor for the manner in which these crimes of our history are remembered: that is to say intermittently, hesitantly, and so long as it isn’t too inconvenient. Fioravanti and Mambro – who even before the events of August 2, 1980, had already been directly responsible between them for a dozen murders and for ordering the assassination of investigative magistrate Mario Amato – are out of prison and live very respectable lives, writing books and working for the NGO Hands off Cain, which opposes torture and the death penalty. They never admitted their role in the bombing, let alone named its instigators, and served sixteen years in prison plus 10 more on probation each out of a sentence of 8 consecutive life sentences plus 134 years and 8 months of detention (Fioravanti) and 9 consecutive life sentences plus 84 years and 8 months of detention (Mambro). These almost comically hyperbolic convictions, too, and the gap with the actual time spent behind bars, suggest a most elastic notion of time on the part of our justice system. The clock above the west wing of the train station at Bologna is not the only one that operates in fits and starts.

But I’m not upset that these two loyal foot-soldiers walk freely, not as such. The far greater outrage is that the historical and political conclusions were never drawn from all that bloodshed, and that what we all knew, what we had ample evidence for, was never officially acknowledged: namely, that there were some in positions of power who saw those murders as necessary for the preservation of the State; and that therefore our public institutions as they exist today can be said to be founded no longer on the principles of anti-fascism, nor on a civic, democratic response to the left- and right-wing terrorism of the Seventies, but rather on a series of acts of repression and state-sponsored murder designed to protect and cement the existing structures of power. The bombing of the train station at Bologna was the last and most spectacular of these acts, it was the final object lesson in the brutality that is demanded in order to maintain the peace. Eighty-four bodies had to be mangled, crushed or torn to pieces. The eighty-fifth had to be disintegrated. A blast. A freeze-frame. For all those lives, and in our history, it is always, it will always be ten twenty-five.