Saturday, June 3, 2023

RIP Martin Amis

The fiction has receded for me (with the possible exception of Time's Arrow) but I loved his Kingsley-and-dentistry memoir Experience and enjoyed a lot of the reviews IN The War Against Cliche

Here, however, is a sniping Arena piece I wrote in 1991 comparing Amis with Elvis Costello (who'd just released the awful Mighty Like A Rose), arguing they WERE both in the dubious game of the Novel of Our Time / The Album of Our Time and had a tendency to rail bitterly and impotently against "the moronic inferno" of pop culture.

Check out also this piece by the missus comparing Amis favorably with his chum Christopher Hitchens.

Elvis Costello / Martin Amis

Arena, 1991
by Simon Reynolds

Listening to his new album, "Mighty Like A Rose", I had an abrupt insight: Elvis Costello is the Martin Amis of pop. For the people who don't read many books and/or don't listen to many albums anymore, Amis and Costello are the only ones left who dare to go for the grand, over-arching vision of our time. They take the pulse of the age and diagnose the malaise. Nobody else has the ambition or temerity to take on this task, which is why Amis/Costello are seen, by some, as saving graces and solitary saviours.
Amis has made two magnum opus stabs at encapsulating the shittiness of the Eighties in "Money" and "London Fields", with their Dickensian anti-heroes John Self and Keith Talent: repulsive incarnations of the era, pimples on the zeitgeist's backside. Costello, too, has been lunging for the Big Picture's jugular for over a decade. Songs like "Pills and Soap", "Beyond Belief" and "Tokyo Storm Warning" are dystopian panoramas in the tradition of Dylan's  "Desolation Row". His albums are cross-sections of a diseased British body politic, drawing the dots between personal and political squalor, between the husband's brutal fists and the election-winning war ("Armed Forces" was originally titled "Emotional Fascism"). 

 Against this backdrop of degraded private and public language, Amis and Costello dramatise themselves as solitary bulwarks against the "moronic inferno" of popular culture. Amis flinches and shudders at the masturbatory nature of 'remote control' culture (TV, porn, video games). Costello has perennially diatribed against the 'bread and circuses' of tabloid culture, the "chewing gum for the ears" of conveyor belt pop. On his new album, "The Other Side Of Summer" is a predictably vituperative blast against rave culture:  "the dancing was desperate, the music was worse". In Costello's jaundiced eyes, the post-Aciiied scene is merely a culture of consolation, an anaesthetic/amnesiac refuge from an intolerable reality. "Invasion Hit Parade" similarly dramatises Costello as one of the few who refuse to collaborate with the new regime of "non-stop Disco Tex and the Sexolettes".

 For Amis/Costello, one of the reasons the world is in such a state is precisely because no one reads books or listens to albums anymore - or at least the kind of books and the kind of albums that tell you what a state the world is in (precisely the kind they write/record). Both mourn the disappearance of depth in a world of surfaces, slogans and cliches, the withering of attention spans thanks to blip culture. For Amis, the role of the author has been usurped by soap opera, gutter press, even style mags. For Costello, the problem is the decline of the songwriter in the face of a pop culture organised around videos, 12" remixes, the sampler and the dee-jay. In the embattled Amis/Costello worldview, the kind of reader they demand is an endangered species: people who've absorbed a lot of literature, who are schooled in the rock canon, and are thus well-versed enough to get the references that riddle the Amis/Costello ouevre. The prospect of a 'disliterate' population (technically literate, but who never bother to read anything) or, in Costello's case, a rock culture no longer based around the reverential interpretation of lyrics, is terrifying. A future based around TV/video/12 inch rather than novel/album bodes a nightmare world of emotional illiterates, like John Self in "Money" who doesn't have the self-analytical skills to know why he's fucked up, or the teenage girl in "The Other Side of Summer" who's "crying cos she doesn't look like like a million dollars", but "doesn't seem to have the attention span" to work out how media and advertising have messed with her mind.

 In the Amis/Costello universe, stuff is always dying: love, language, truth, the planet are all on their last legs. America has a particularly diabolic status; it's the leading edge of the apocalypse, the original "moronic inferno". The replacement of politics by advertising, the castration of rock'n'roll, a junk culture where porn is the biggest grossing leisure industry, mugging, yuppies, MTV - you name it, the US trailblazed it. Amis and Costello document a Britain slowly succumbing to the crappiest aspects of US mass culture but without the space and the naivete that is America's saving grace. In America, the born-to-run reflex is a safety valve for class antagonisms: people just move on. In Britain, rage festers and turns to bile. Amis/Costello have a vivid grip on the stuffiness of English culture: Amis is good on the modern British pub, stuck between the  fustiness of tradition and the plastic tackiness of the future. Costello could have been a Springsteen, but, growing up in more confined circumstances, became a poet of claustrophobia rather than of wide open spaces.

In their early days, both Costello and Amis were regarded as bitter and twisted misanthropes. Costello talked of how he only understood two emotions, "revenge and guilt"; Amis was reknowned for stories that left a bad taste in the mouth. Although both have mellowed somewhat with age, matured into a more compassionate and humanist outlook, their forte is still the banality of evil and the evil of banality: portraits of bastards, brutes, cheats and crushed inadequates, vividly etched with an insider's insight into what makes a shit tick. Revealingly, neither of them can "do" women. Whether manipulative or manipulated, their female characters are ciphers. Nicola Six, the 'heroine' of "London Fields" is even compared to a black hole, the ultimate misogynist metaphor for the femme fatale/vagina dentata.

But ultimately this misogyny is just a facet of a generally misanthropic worldview. Amis and Costello belong to a peculiarly British strain of the satirical imagination, a tradition that includes Evelyn Waugh, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies and Private Eye. In this fallen world(view), there are no heroes, only shits and shat upon - an odious, privileged minority and the loathsome, downtrodden multitude. "Good' characters aren't admirable, but despicably unwordly and naive, weak and gullible fools like Guy Clinch, the amorous fall guy in "London Fields".

 Amis and Costello give this black, bilious brand of satire an apocalyptic, fin de siecle twist. "London Fields" was at one stage  entitled "Millenium"; new Costello songs like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Up Doomsday" are panoramic panic attacks. Through Amis's  paranoid uppercrust eyes, the Portobello Road is transformed into a  hellzone of lowlife iniquity. Costello's distempered gaze pans across a culture rank with the stench of mendacity, rife with "professional liars" and "perpetual suckers", zombies and bloodsuckers. Like all apocalyptic visions, the Amis/Costello worldview is prone to overstatement, over-ripe imagery, a certain stylistic overkill. And one problem always looms for the professional prophet of doom: how to keep on upping the apocalyptic stakes. Both Amis and Costello's future would seem wedded to further deterioration of the social fabric, to the continued viability of 'The End'.

While "Mighty Like A Rose" suggests Costello is condemned to spurting exquisitely crafted bile in perpetuity, Amis has taken a sideways step towards an obliquer angle on the Big Picture. His work-in-progress "Time's Arrow" (previewed in Granta 31) borrows its premise from science fiction: the protagonist experiences time running backwards through the eyes of an American doctor called Tod Friendly. This has the salutary effect of making our everyday human procedures and transactions seem eerie and absurd: all power and energy mysteriously originates from the toilet bowl, kind-hearted pimps give money to whores who then squander it on old men, doctors make their patients sick and ambulances rush victims from their hospital beds and painstakingly insert them into wrecked cars. Although the device has been used before in science fiction and comics, Amis does it well: after reading the Granta excerpt, it takes a couple of hours for the uncanny feeling of time running in reverse to wear off.

Abandoning the omniscient, God's eye view for a baffled and bemused first person is a smart move for Amis, and timely too. The judgemental gaze (seeing through facades, looking down on folly) is too sneery and know-it-all for these dazed and confused postmodern times. In rock, fewer and fewer people look to a Big Figure, a Dylan or Lennon, to tell them "what's goin' on"; instead of a counter culture, there's an array of undergrounds orbiting a lost centre. Contemporary literature offers not The Truth, but a plethora of worlds each with their own singular truth, partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Still fatally hung up on the notion of author-as-oracle, Amis and Costello ply their magisterial trade in an ever-expanding void. 

The leading edge in contemporary fiction and music aims to mirror chaos, not offer salvation from it (the kaleidophrenic whirl of Don DeLillo's writing, My Bloody Valentine's neo-psychedelia). But this cutting edge can be hard to grasp for those who cling to an oldfashioned idea of art as reinforcer of values or source of guidance. These people still look for an angry voice of sanity. Deploring the waning of literacy and the craft of songwriting, but lacking the energy to keep up with the state of the art, these middlebrow types look to Amis and Costello for reassurance: firstly, that the culture is still deteriorating; secondly, that they are on the side of righteousness. In reality, they're part of the problem.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Hardcore! - New York Times, January 1993

 For over a year, the most vibrant dance cult in Britain has been "hardcore".  The term originally came from "hardcore techno", a style of electronic rave music that's faster and more brutal than its melodic cousin, house.  A year ago, "hardcore" meant bombastic synthesiser-riffs, programmed machine-rhythms, and a clinical but crazed vibe.  But during 1992, hardcore has evolved into a mutant hybrid of hip hop and techno, merging the former's grit with the latter's futuristic weirdness.  Dee-jays and producers started to take breakbeats from rap records and speed them up. In the process, they retained hip hop's funky syncopation, but at tempos (140 - 150 beats per minute) far faster than any flesh-and-blood drummer couldsustain.

     Like most rave music, hardcore (or 'ardkore, as it's sometimes misspelt in order to exaggerate the subculture's delinquent aura) is brazenly druggy, both in its sound and its lyrical allusions. Hardcore's manic pace has been influenced by the fact that Ecstasy, the raver's stimulant of choice, has become steadily more adulterated with amphetamine. But beyond its function as the soundtrack to the frenetic club-going of a dissolute subculture of speed-freaks, hardcore has been a strong force in the British pop charts in the eighteen months, attracting large numbers of teenyboppers too young to attend raves.  Hardcore is music for the Nintendo generation.  Its hyper-kinetic aesthetic provides a sexless exhiliration similar to that offered by computer games.  (There was even a hit single based around the theme from the game "Tetris"). The music's non-stop barrage of samples and sonic gimmickry appeals to reduced attention spans.

     Like other dance cults, hardcore thrives on a rapid turnover of tracks. Dee-jays search out the latest and most obscure 12 inch singles in order to stay ahead of the competition.  This lack of brand loyalty makes for a climate inimical to long-term careers or artistic development.  Nonetheless, some figures have emerged out of the faceless morass of one-hit wonders.  The most consistently successful of these groups - The Prodigy, Messiah, Eon, Bizarre Inc, Utah Saints, Altern-8 - have recorded albums, and these are now being picked up by American major labels.  The problem is that hardcore works best in 12 inch single form, as mixed into a 'total flow' by a club or pirate radio dee-jay.  The next best format for the music is the 'various artists' compilation, as put out by "hot" labels like Kickin', XL, Rising High, and others.  It's not clear yet whether the scene has generated artists capable of sustaining the listener's interest over the duration of a CD.

     If anyone has come close to achieving this, it's The Prodigy, a techno unit from Essex, near London, whose tally of four consecutive UK chart hits in eighteen months is a feat of longeveity quite remarkable by hardcore's standards.  The Prodigy's creative core, 21 year old Liam Howlett, originally began in the hip hop field, but was drawn into rave culture by its celebratory, socially inclusive atmosphere.  In The Prodigy, he combines the turntable-manipulating skills of rap, with a flair for melody derived from a classical training in piano.  The album "Experience" (Elektra, 9 61365-2) is a breakneak onslaught of bustling beats, soul vocals sped up into shrill chipmunk histrionics, and stuttering synthesisers. Everything in The Prodigy sound is designed to heighten the sense of rush, of headlong, goal-less acceleration.  Like much rave fare, The Prodigy's music is self-reflexive: the songs celebrate the transitory but real communion of the dancefloor ("Everybody In The Place"), the Prodigy's prowess ("Out Of Space", which promises to "take your brain to another dimension"), and the sensation of speed in itself ("Hyperspeed").

     "Experience" includes The Prodigy's smash hit, "Charly", which incorporates a cartoon cat's 'miaoouw' and a toddler's voice from a public service announcement aimed at kids.  Tapping into an infantilistic strain in rave culture (gaudy clothes, dancers sucking on pacifiers), "Charly" inspired numerous imitators, who sampled bygone children's TV themes and playground refrains (Urban Hype's "A Trip To Trumpton", Smart E's "Sesame's Treet", Major Malfunctions' "Ice Cream Van").  On the stand-out track "Ruff In The Jungle Bizness", The Prodigy responds to the hardcore scene's vogue for "junglist" rhythms (dense, roiling percussion and seismic basslines taken from reggae). Throughout the album, there's frequent recourse to another hardcore fad, sampling "ragga" singers.  Ragga is reggae's equivalent to rap, a patois chanting style whose insolent, uproarious quality ('ragga' comes from "raggamuffin") fits perfectly with hardcore's rough, rowdy rhythms.  "Experience" is a perfect document of the hardcore state-of-art. Mr Howlett's genius is his ability to take underground idioms and combine them with the hooks and structure of pop. Similarly, he uses samples not as tacked-on novelty effects but as integral, functioning elements in his songs.

     Utah Saints pull off a similar trick on their hit single "Something Good", the opening track on the debut album "Utah Saints" (London/PLG ------). The song's principal hook - a sample from Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" - is at once gimmicky and gorgeous. Utah Saints take the first syllable of Ms Bush's chorus, "ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen", and modulate it on a sampling keyboard, distending this single vowel like a glassblower shaping an intricate bauble. In the process, Ms Bush's wide-eyed anticipation is amplified into a spine-tingling shiver of euphoria. This little masterstroke of sampling sorcery is the jewel that elevates an otherwise basic hardcore anthem, complete with raucous chants and octave-hopping piano riffs. On the rest of album, Utah Saints try to pull off the same trick again and again, with diminishing returns. "What Can You Do For Me" is totally dependent on its samples (Annie Lennox, Gwen Guthrie), while "New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)" is a pointless remake of the Simple Minds song of the same title.  Too often, Utah Saints don't rework their samples or frame them in a new context, like The Prodigy does, but rely on them to make their songs memorable.

   Like "Something Good", Messiah's "Temple Of Dreams" (Def American maxi-single, 9 40655-2) is another fine example of chart-friendly hardcore (both songs were hits in Britain).  Indeed, the track's focal sample is a sped-up incantation by Liz Fraser, whose ethereal style is not too many mystic moons away from Ms Bush. Taken from This Mortal Coil's "Song To The Siren", Ms Fraser's enquiry "did I dream, you dreamed about me?" floats over a locust-swarm of synthesier noise.  Other stray squiggles of noise resemble massively amplified gastric rumblings.  In the UK, Messiah's records are released by Kickin', one of the country's top independent dance labels.  But in the US, Messiah have signed to Def American, whose supremo Rick Rubin is convinced that techno is the new punk. Judging by "Temple Of Dreams", Messiah are more like purveyors of bubblegum hardcore.  Their debut album, to be released this spring, will doubtless reveal more about Messiah's balance of pop appeal and hardcore frenzy.

     Where Utah Saints, Messiah and The Prodigy rely, to varying degrees, on a collage aesthetic, Eon's version of hardcore is based more on pure electronic textures.  On "Void Dweller" (Vinyl Solution/Columbia CK 52472) Eon (London-based DJ-producer Ian B) plays with the idea of disco as a sinister form of possession or mind-control.  Starting with a line hijacked from a science fiction movie ("we will control all that you see and hear"), "Inner Mind" elaborates eerie ripples and vortices of synthesiser drones.  It sounds like a brainwashing machine.  The track that cleaves closest to the contemporary hardcore sound is "Basket Case (White Coat Mix)", whose title chimes in with hardcore's imagery of psychosis, disorientation and catatonia (good records are praised as "mad" or "mental").  The track combines horror soundtrack motifs, spooky laughter, deranged screams and eerie electronic pulsations to create a bedlam of sound.  If "Void Dweller" is successful as an album-length experience, it's because it's mood-muzak, establishing a chilly, creepy atmsophere. This is techno as isolation chamber, rather than party music.

     Rave music has provoked much hostility from rock fans. Ironically, its critics often use the same kind of derogatory terms with which alarmed adults in the Fifties lambasted early rock'n'roll: as mindless, repetitive, barbaric, nihilistic in its pursuit of sensation and kicks.  Veterans of punk, in particular, are offended by hardcore techno, accusing it of "not saying anything", of being apolitical, escapist and nullifying.  Certainly, hardcore is one-dimensional music.  But it commands that dimension with a singleminded intensity that's as close to the primal essence of rock'n'roll as you can get.  It's a techno-pagan celebration of dance, of staying up way past your bedtime, of the sheer kinetic exhiliration of rhythm. Perhaps hardcore techno is the new rock'n'roll - it's certainly erected a new generation gap.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

RIP Kenneth Anger


Melody Maker, 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

When they get around to unpicking the tangled threads that connect The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Psychic TV, somewhere at the web's centre will lurk the tarantula figure of Kenneth Anger. Aleister Crowley fan, ex-chum of Jimmy Page, and chronicler of the psycho-sleaze behind Hollywood's glittering facade, Kenneth Anger is also the maker of a series of films whose themes uncannily prefigure the abiding fixations of leftest-field rock. Pass beyond a certain limit, and you enter a realm where magic and ritual, S&M,Crowley, Manson, Nazism, bodypiercing, tattooing,hallucinogenics, mytho-mania, voodoo dance, all interconnect as facets of the same quest: for the ultimate transgressive,transcendent, self-annihilating mystic HIGH.

Both "Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome" (1954) and "Invocation Of My Demon Brother" (1969) are about this search for supreme bacchanalian release. ("Inauguration" was inspired by taking acid, "Invocation" by the counter culture created by acid). Both are a kaleidoscopic montage of images grotesque and bizarre, with all the key Anger motifs (cocks, pagan ritual, bikers, Swastikas, cabbalistic symbols) brought into play. "Inauguration", with its strident Janacek soundtrack and vampily made-up actresses, is simultaneously camp and disturbing; "Invocation", with its maddening moog soundtrack by Mick Jagger, captures the apocalyptic vibe of the bitter end of the hippy daze, and must surely have influenced Nic Roeg's "Performance".

"Lucifer Rising" (1970-80) shares much the same pre-occupations as the other two films, but expresses them in less histrionic fashion, through images of serene, stately beauty, set to a beatific soundtrack by Bobby Beausoleil (an acolyte of Manson's). "Lucifer Rising" is a rehabilation of Lucifer, reclaiming him as the Light god, a Rebel Angel whose "message is that the key to joy is disobedience". Anger's biker movie, "Scorpio Rising" (1963), on the other hand, is a "death mirror held up to American culture". The biker represents American myths of Lone Ranger individualism and Born To Run freedom, taken to their psychotic limit. "Scorpio Rising" is a giddy miasma of death's-heads, Iron Crosses, cocaine and blasphemy, with Anger salivating over the well-stuffed crotches and leather-clad torsoes of his subjects - and all set to the incongruous soundtrack of Sixties pulp pop!

Of the five shorter films also included in this series, "Fireworks" (1947) is a blue-tinted homerotic nightmare about being brutalised by sailors (the final image is of a sailor with a Roman Candle jutting out of his zip), while "Eaux D'Artifice" (1953) is a beautiful Midsummer Night's dreamscape, with a full moon suffusing off the cascading, gushing and spurting waters of the Tivoli fountain gardens.

Sheer brilliance.