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.