Sunday, July 21, 2024

One Funeral and A Wedding - Reynolds on the Royals

How Rock and the Royals Jostled for Britain’s Cultural Identity During the Queen’s Lifetime

By Simon Reynolds

Pitchfork, September 13, 2022

In a way, British pop musicians and the Queen have been in a quiet competition to define the image of the country for over half a century.

Some say British pop played a crucial role in the nation’s adjustment to the loss of empire: If Britannia no longer ruled the waves, it might still rule the airwaves. During the entire 1960s, most of the ’70s, and much of the ’80s, the UK shared dominion over global pop with America, despite having one-fifth the population. These days, British music exports don’t contribute nearly as much to the country’s balance of trade, but the idea of a native pop flair remains a cornerstone of national identity. If you meet an Anglophile abroad, chances are it’s the Beatles or the Clash, the Cure or the Smiths, that’s the reason for the affection, not Shakespeare, soccer, Harry Potter, or Downton bloody Abbey.

England was swinging starting in the ’60s, but that had nothing to do with Elizabeth II. The architects of the nation’s new charisma were people like clothing designer Mary Quant, photographer David Bailey, and the stream of sharply dressed, irreverent pop groups like the Kinks, the Who, and the Rolling Stones. Living in an old country, teeming with castles and cathedrals, is tough for young people trying to forge a groovy new national identity. The Sixties generation treated the imperial past as material for mischievous play. That’s why the look and sound of psychedelia involved Edwardian garments, vintage military uniforms, and the huffing pomp of brass bands. Lord Kitchener, the general who crushed the Boers in South Africa and was Secretary of State during WWI, became an ironic icon, popping up in concert posters and inspiring the name of the trendy clothes boutique I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet.

The arc of the Beatles’ evolution from entertainers to counterculture leaders can be traced through their interactions with Elizabeth II. In November 1963, they were nice boys in smart suits playing a Royal Command Performance alongside other “variety” acts, offering just a hint of cheek (Lennon famously urging the posh set to rattle their jewelry in lieu of clapping). A few years later, the Beatles trooped to Buckingham Palace to receive MBES (it stands for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) as acknowledgment for their sales impact internationally, and, according to Lennon, smoked a joint in the lavatory to steady their nerves. Then, in November 1969, Lennon returned the award in protest against British interference in the Nigeria-Biafra war, the country’s support for America in Vietnam, and, in a flippant final flourish, the sliding chart position of his heroin-inspired solo single “Cold Turkey.”

The Beatles also wrote one song about the Queen. Abbey Road closed with “Her Majesty,” a throwaway “secret track” that described the sovereign as “a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” Paul McCartney later characterized his ditty as “basically monarchist, with a mildly disrespectful tone, but it’s very tongue-in-cheek, it’s almost like a love song to the Queen.”

Unless Herman’s Hermits “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” counts, I can’t think of any other ’60s Brit rock songs that even mention the existence of the monarchy. All of that was part of the world being swept away by the unstoppable tide of youth culture, or so it seemed. By the early ’70s, a general contraction of possibility and hope had set in. Bitter strife between workers and management repeatedly brought industry to a standstill. The era was pervaded by a sense of national decline. Far-right political groups resurged, calling for an end to the country’s multicultural policies and the repatriation of immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent (former colonial subjects who thought they’d be welcomed to the mother country). Reactionary figures among the ruling class, including Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, flirted with the idea of staging a military coup to restore order and standards.

Meanwhile, rock in the ’70s became its own kind of aristocracy: wealthy, decadent, and wrapped up in glitzy spectacle. The emergence of a group called Queen made sense. Although Freddie Mercury’s attraction to the name had its queer aspect—a way of flaunting his sexuality without explicitly declaring it—the group’s music really did sound lordly. Take Brian May’s guitar-playing on “Procession,” the opening track on 1974’s Queen II: It’s as stately as a court ceremony. “The concept of Queen is to be regal and majestic,” declared Mercury. “We want to be a good British regal rock band.” Accordingly, the group’s logo, designed by the singer himself, is a crown resembling the one Elizabeth wore during her 1953 coronation, flanked by crowned lions, a pair of fairies, and a fearsome phoenix.

By the mid-’70s, the lifestyle led by superstar rockers seemed hopelessly remote from the experience of ordinary kids. Among the many contenders for the moment that triggered the punk uprising are the 1976 newspaper photographs of Mick Jagger hobnobbing with Princess Margaret, a friendship so warm that rumors of an affair circulated. The simple sight of a rocker and a royal in a clinch showed that the ’60s most disreputable reprobates had become jet-set socialites. Punk targeted rock’s new nobility but it also fired salvos at the actual ruling class.

The movement’s all-time iconic image is Elizabeth II with a safety pin through her mouth, created by Jamie Reid for the Sex Pistols’ single “God Save the Queen.” Timed for the Royal Jubilee celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation, the single railed against a country suffocated in nostalgia (“There’s no future in England’s dreaming”) and bedazzled by pageantry (“God save your mad parade”). A tirade pressed into wax, “God Save the Queen” represented the massive break in consensus that so many discontented young Britons craved. To buy it was a protest vote. Support was strong enough to push the single past the total bans on radio and TV and the refusal of some stores to stock it, to the top of the charts. Here’s where the conspiracy theories of Establishment conniving come into play: “God Save the Queen” halted at No. 2, supposedly held back by an innocuous Rod Stewart song.

Some punks took “God Save the Queen” and the Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” literally. Pioneers of the anarcho-punk genre and earnest believers in self-government, Crass issued aural tracts denouncing every form of hierarchy—church, state, military, monarchy. Their fans probably loved them as much for their elaborate record packaging designed by Gee Vaucher as for their basic punk sound. Her most famous artwork is a dream-like tableau in which Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher are leather-clad punkettes, while Pope John Paul II sports a “Destroy” T-shirt, for a poster sleeve wrapped around Crass’ 1980 single “Bloody Revolutions.” The song was not actually an incitement to hang the ruling class from lamp posts, but an anthem of non-violence and peaceful change.

Crass and the other anarcho groups aside, punk anti-Royalism was not really a serious political stance. I’d be very surprised if many, or any, Pistols fans joined the existing pressure groups in the UK that campaign for the abolition of the monarchy. “God Save the Queen” was more like an exasperated howl at living in a stagnant and deadlocked country, the national anthem inverted. Above all, it was an act of sacrilege, akin to punk’s controversial—and, to modern sensibilities, indefensible—use of the swastika. Rather than representing actual fascist sympathies, this was purely a shock tactic and a form of symbolic treason, deriding the idea of Britain’s finest hour, the plucky island nation holding out against the Nazis, so central to the country’s ailing sense of pride in the decades after WWII. “Always very much an anti-mums and anti-dads thing,” according to Siouxsie Sioux, who wore the offending symbol in the early days of punk—a giant fuck-you to the Blitz generation.

Like other old punks, Johnny Rotten has softened his stance towards the woman he once described in song as “no human being” and the figurehead of “a fascist regime.” Earlier this year, he told Piers Morgan that he was “really, really proud of the Queen for surviving and doing so well.” (Perhaps that turnabout isn’t surprising given that he’s also a Brexit supporter, a Trump fan, and an anti-wokeness whiner.) Another Brexiteer, Morrissey doesn’t appear to have reneged on his fervent anti-Royalism, even though his politics have shifted sharply to the right. Then again, “The Queen Is Dead,” the title track of the Smiths’ classic 1986 album, is not a clearcut denunciation of the Royal Family, but more like a weird blend of lament and whimsy. As so often in his songs, Morrissey seems at once trapped by a country where nothing ever changes yet horrified by change—fatally attached to the past, even though it was so miserable.

“The Queen Is Dead” was consciously designed to be the successor to “God Save the Queen,” elevating and anointing the Smiths as the most important and subversive band since the Pistols. But the feeling that comes off the song, the album, and the entire blemished body of Morrissey’s work is his signature blend of fatalism and doomed romanticism. As much as the lyric mentions breaking into Buckingham Palace to speak to “Her Lowness” (who haughtily declares, “I know you and you cannot sing”), “the queen” in the title equally refers to the dandy Morrissey, who’s waiting for his life to start, lost in reveries of third genders and indefinable sexualities. The title is borrowed from a chapter in Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, about a drag queen named Georgette. This perhaps accounts for the surreal fantasy of the lines that address the Prince of Wales: “Charles, don’t you ever crave/To appear on the front of the Daily Mail/Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?"

Later lines about how “when you’re tied to your Mother’s apron/No one talks about castration” strengthen the sense of a curious identification between Morrissey and Charles, in 1986 and for another three and a half decades stuck in limbo as he waited for a beloved mother to die so that he could become the man he was born and trained to be. (Now, finally, at the ripe old age of 73, he’s King Charles III.) Morrissey sings about being distantly related to the Royals (“I’m the 18th pale descendant of some old queen or other”), which may or may not be why in the earlier Smiths classic “Still Ill,” he declared, “England is mine, it owes me a living.”

Flitting between camp frivolity and aching despair, “The Queen Is Dead” is hardly a storm-the-palace rabble-rouser. Morrissey’s actual outright ode to regicide came with his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate and “Margaret on the Guillotine”—except that it’s Thatcher, the matriarch governing with an iron fist, who’s being decapitated rather than the symbolic head of state, Elizabeth. (It’s striking, though, that this method of dispatch is the one associated with the French Revolution). Morrissey’s vengeful fantasy of popular justice got him in trouble: A Tory MP reported him to Scotland Yard for incitement to violence and Special Force detectives dutifully investigated, even turning up at the offices of Melody Maker where I worked at the time to ask me about the tone of voice in which the singer had described the song in our interview. The tone was actually an unreadable blend of deadly earnest and Wilde-like quippy camp: Morrissey professed to be willing to carry out the execution himself and even to have the appropriate uniform ready.

During the Britpop ’90s, very few groups took swipes at the Royals. The exceptions are two bands who fancied themselves Sex Pistols inheritors: the Stone Roses taunting, “It’s curtains for you, Elizabeth, my dear,” and Manic Street Preachers snarling, “Repeat after me, fuck Queen and Country.” It was the Cool Britannia era, when, in an echo of the mod ‘60s, the Union Jack became a fashion component. (Besides, the Windsors were doing enough damage to themselves at that time, as Charles and Diana’s marriage disintegrated very publicly.) But by the early 2000s, as the sheen came off Tony Blair’s New Labour, Damon Albarn—older and more life-battered than the perky twat of Blur’s heyday—sang about his countrymen as “a stroppy little island of mixed-up people” on “Three Changes,” the standout track on the self-titled debut of his supergroup the Good, the Bad and the Queen. That band’s name is a self-contained poem, suggesting that through calm or chaos, periods of progressive purpose or right-wing retrenchment, one thing alone abides: the monarch, symbol of stability for some and stasis for others.

Support for the Royal Family has waxed and waned, but there’s always been a majority in favor of keeping them around. The most recent polls this summer suggest that around 60 percent of the UK population supported the continuation of hereditary monarchy, although feelings towards the Queen as a person were warmer than the institution in itself. Around one in five expressed a firm preference for an elected head of state. Since their eviction from Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, and the rest has never seemed remotely likely, the most that a progressive-minded Brit can hope for are signs of modernization, a spring-cleaning of attitudes and protocols, the faintest hint of humanity. Generally that has come in the form of brides from outside rather than the inbred tribe itself: Di, “the People’s Princess,” with her caring common touch and love of Duran Duran. Meghan Markle seemed for a moment to promise a multicultural and emotionally-irrigated monarchy fit for the 21st century. Even a non-Royalist like myself was touched by the sheer soul power of the wedding ceremony. You can see her and Harry as spoiled celebs with heads full of Paltrow-y nonsense and also feel that for a moment there, the stiff upper lip was (thankfully) loosening a bit.

Perhaps that’s why Dry Cleaning, a group otherwise unsparing in their bleak depiction of entropy in the UK, first made their name with the “Magic of Meghan,” off their 2019 EP Sweet Princess. Far from a piss-take, the song, singer Florence Shaw has said, was born of genuine, if brief, infatuation. “I had just broken up, and I was clinging to that story to distract myself from the abyss. I transplanted all my normal thinking about my own life onto thinking about their lives for a few weeks.” It’s a neat encapsulation of the way the Royal Family really do function like pop stars—permanently for some people, and for others, only in moments of weakness. Maybe one day, there’ll be no dreaming in England’s future—no need for distraction from the intractable.

A fairy tale view of Britain: The Royal Wedding and American television

Los Angeles Times, April 25 2011

 by Simon Reynolds

Strange but true: The British public is simply not that excited about the royal wedding. According to the Economist, only a third of the population is definitely going to watch the nuptials on TV, while close to half are actively uninterested. My own secret source on the English streets (OK, it's my mum, who lives in a small town called Tring) reports that "people seem much less bothered" about Will and Kate than about Charles and Di in 1981.

Here in the U.S., the situation is quite different — at least if television mirrors the mood of the nation. Judging by the blanket coverage of the wedding lined up for this week, nearly every network is banking on the belief that average Americans are enthralled by all things royal. The other side of this fascination for the quaint old Britain of pageantry and aristocracy is a lack of awareness about the gritty reality of contemporary U.K. pop culture. This is the country that pioneered reality TV, invented soccer hooliganism and whose most widely read newspapers are tabloids featuring whole-page nude pin-ups.

From the tourist trade to romantic comedies such as "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Love Actually," the British themselves have often pandered to American Anglophiles' out-of-date impression of what the U.K is like. A perfect example of this syndrome is "Royally Mad," BBC America's two-part special about five Americans competing in a contest of obsessive knowledge concerning the Windsor family. Flown to London, they're put up in an old-fashioned hotel where they're served full English breakfast in bed by a portly butler and get to stand on the very aisle in Westminster Abbey down which the royal groom and bride will soon "process." Apparently, that's the verb form of "procession."

The explanation for the American love affair with this upper-crust view of England might have something to do with the phrase "like a fairy tale," which trips off lips frequently during "Royally Mad" as the contestants describe the enchantment of gadding about London to visit palaces and cathedrals. Anglophilia is all about the romance of history. Despite having several centuries of colorful, dramatic and just plain weird history to boast of, America seems to feel the absence of castles and ceremony from its physical and cultural landscape.

Looking at the output of mainstream TV and cinema, it can sometimes feel like Britain owns the past. Britishness and the idea of "the olden days" are totally entwined. Go back to the swashbuckling premodern past and you'll find, curiously, that everybody speaks with an English accent. OK, it makes sense that historical or legend-based dramas such as "The Tudors" or "Camelot" based in old Albion would have all-British casts.

But "Game of Thrones" is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom that never existed, so there's no earthly reason why American actors can't play the parts and speak in their own voices. Of course, its cast is almost entirely British. One of the only exceptions is Peter Dinklage, wonderful as the licentious and caustically witty dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and he's obliged to put on an affected, flowery English accent. And then there are such series as "Rome" and "The Borgias," both of which are set during different eras of the country that would later become Italy but whose credits are crammed with U.K. thespians. There's something about the English voice that simply fits dramatic situations involving armor, sword fights, banquets, scheming courtiers and power-corrupted bishops and the rest.

Perhaps it all stems from America's self-conception as the upstart that's outstripped its past-its-prime ancestor. The Old Country has to be kept firmly in the past. America wants England to be antiquated and charming. Hence the popularity of "The King's Speech" and costume dramas such as "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs, Downstairs" (a revival of the Masterpiece Theatre favorite of the 1970s recently aired on PBS). These transatlantic coproductions are bonanzas for the actors of Great Britain. Who else can they get to play all those stock characters like the stern butler, the snooty dowager, the flinty cook, the plain but good-hearted scullery maid? Period dramas such as these and the endless Austen and Brontë adaptations have practically saved the U.K.'s theatrical class from destitution. (That and Hollywood's bizarre typecasting of bad guys as Brits.)

More than any other institution, PBS is responsible for maintaining the illusion that Britain is a country where everybody takes afternoon tea. Watching its period potboilers like "Cranford" with its cast of bonnet-clad gentlewomen, its mysteries involving sleuthing spinsters and its dated Britcoms that were often made back in the '80s or '70s, you'd never guess that contemporary Britain is a rather lively and dangerous place, a country with as many ghettos as stately homes.

True, most police constables still don't carry firearms, and yes, we still have those old red phone boxes. But gun crime is rising, and because Britain was one of the first countries to embrace cellphones and texting, the phone boxes now mostly serve as urinals for desperate drunks and places where prostitutes leave "call this number" stickers.
Contrary to the archaic stereotype of refinement and restraint, contemporary Britain is rowdy and coarse. Binge drinking and early pub closing times mean that on Friday and Saturday nights, the country's high streets transform into pageants of violence and vomit. The public broadcasting that was once admired across the world seems to plumb lows every year, with chat shows doused with gratuitous cuss words and "documentaries" with titles such as "My Big Breasts and Me" and "Britain's Worst Teeth."

If you look hard enough you can find glimpses of this other Britain on American TV, in shows such as the classic "Prime Suspect" or in the youth-oriented series "Skins" and "The Inbetweeners." Excessively hyper and often toppling over into implausibility, "Skins" did nonetheless capture many aspects of young Britain in the 2000s, from the routine and almost unremarkable drug use to the obsessions with clothes, gadgets and sex. The more humdrum and bathetic "Inbetweeners" follows the misadventures of four hapless, sex-starved teenage boys as they traipse through the modern-look suburbia (not a thatched roof or duck pond in sight) that covers much of the U.K. To get a shot at the U.S. mainstream, they've both had to be remade (by MTV) with American settings and characters.

And so televised Britain remains how Americans seem to like it: a fantasy land of castles and cucumber sandwiches, trusty valets and well-spoken villains, and a valiant prince marrying his fairy tale princess.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Dry Cleaning - all the thoughts

I have heard plenty of records I like since - and a few that I've loved - but nothing in the three years since has hit me like New Long Leg....nothing has taken me, taken over my listening, to anything like the same extent...  Nor provoked as many thoughts...

Here are the thoughts, all of them...



Dry Cleaning

New Long Leg

Albums of the Year, Pitchfork, 2021

One way to hear New Long Leg is as a cringe-tinged dramedy, like Fleabag or Girls, with Florence Shaw as the performer who knows exactly how to deliver her own script. This album is unlikely to win a Grammy but it really ought to get Emmys for writing and acting. The lyrics infest your brain with quotables that reverberate for days, but more than the words it’s the intonation that’s so funny and so heartbreaking: the grudging cadences, the way she can inject an unreadable alloy of earnest and ironic into an inanity like “I can rebuild.” The English expression “browned off” perfectly captures Shaw’s affect, a deadpan flatness that damps down the post-punky backing whenever it threatens to get too epic. The self-portrait painted here is of a burned-out shell drifting numbly through a life that senselessly accumulates irritations, humiliations, discomforts, chores, and interpersonal skirmishes, offset by the tiny comforts of Twix bars and artisanal treats. There’s a personal dimension to the inner emptiness (a sapping break-up), but because New Long Leg’s release fortuitously coincided with the depressive pall that swept over the world thanks to lockdown,  Shaw’s interiority synced up perfectly with exterior conditions. It’s no coincidence that the most exciting rock record in years is about the inability to feel excitement. Timing and talent converged to make Shaw not just a voice of a generation, but a truth-teller distilling how it feels to be alive right now: “Every day is a dick”. *

* a mishearing of the lyric, apparently, but I refuse to hear it any other way



A slender harvest (aka faves of 2021)

Far and away my favorite and most listened-to contemporary recording of 2021 - New Long Leg by Dry Cleaning. 

Some disjointed thoughts: 

Florence as a modern day singer-songwriter, although without much in the way of sing or song going on.  As with the classic '70s female singer-songwriters, the backing band is all-male and the music lags a little, or a lot, behind the contemporary edge of mainstream pop. Back then the singer-songwriter template might draw on folk or country... here, today, the settled style is post-punk (40 years on, as fixed in its strictures as the blues). 

One counter-critique to the retromania argument is that it fixates on sonic innovation – form rather than content. It doesn’t take into account the possibility that the innovation might  occur in the domain of lyrics, emotional expression, persona, or other non-sonic aspects of the work, while the music itself might be relatively traditional.  Dry Cleaning’s music contains familiar elements; as able or apt as the playing is, nothing really innovative happens there. What is new: Shaw's language, delivery, and the subjectivity, the portrait of self.

Pressed to characterise Florence's affect, I would go for the slightly old-fashioned English expression "browned off.”  It's an affect that speaks to the blankness of the present – the feel of life in the Boring Dystopia (to use Mark Fisher's term). This blankness is different from the sort of emptiness that triggers the imagination and stirs daydreams; rather, it's a saturated  blankness, crowded with trivia of the type that snuffs daydreaming in the cradle. The mental space of this record is insanitary with inanity. "Scratchcard Lanyard," then - a "Transmission" for an era in which vision-quest of the kind that Joy Division could undertake is no longer accessible.  

Another Fisher notion - "depressive hedonism" – threads through New Long Leg.  Small pleasures snatched, or snacked (a profusion of references to treats, fast food, artisanal goodies, splashing out on gourmet mushrooms, a favorite cafe you used to frequent).  Comforts that don’t console (a different kind of full emptiness).

I’m not hugely au fait with the late Lauren Berlant’s work, but what I've gleaned seems to have applications.  The emotional landscape of New Long Leg teems with bad attachments, hopes  that impede flourishing, impasses, interpersonal skirmishes, a perpetual low-key state of ordinary crisis. So it's what Berlant might have called a new kind of affective realism. Part of that realism relates to the way the "songs" aren't stories, they don't resolve (often the track cycles back to the opening verse and ends with it).  Each piece consists of an accretion of disjointed perceptions in shuffle mode. Listening, the overwhelming feeling you take away, beyond browned-off, is accuracy. This is the texture of everyday life today, this how the mind moves. Focused goal-oriented thinking or sustained feeling-flow constantly perforated by the relentless telemediated blip-blip-blip of alarming nonsense  from outside one's immediate lived situation. Attention flickers back and forth across the battery of implanted aspirations, desire-triggers, ambient fears,, the tragic absurd and random grotesque.  

"Emo dead stuff collector" is a great line: the artist casually defining her method.  But Dry Cleaning is the opposite of emo – Shaw is a nondrama queen.  The deadpan flatness tamps down the musical backing, which, left to its own devices, could easily take on the epic swell of a post-rock group as the term is currently (mis)understood: dramatic instrumental guitar music with quiet-loud dynamics.

Her intonation and inflection stir a kind of expatriate ecstasy in me. There's an exquisite nostalgic pull:  "this is my people (for better or worse)".  The songs clearly translate (loads of Americans love New Long Leg, and even some non-Anglophones) but I can’t quite believe that it does or that it should. Surely only someone born and bred in that septic isle could even pick up these emotional frequencies, feel the full richness of the meagreness, the mustn’t-grumble stolidity.  

Emotions so opaque they’re like the point where colors mixed turn muddy. Like the percussively exhaled “ha” at the end of “Scratchcard Lanyard” - a mouth-snort of poisoned breath, equal parts derision, defiance, exasperation, indignation, hostility, exhaustion. 

Or the “well well well well” in “Her Hippo”.

The actual Southern Mark Smith arrives, finally.

Sleaford Mods -  if the place they wrote from wasn’t the Greggs and poundshop world of the lumpen-prole Midlands, but the aimless ennui of post-postgraduates whose fresher-year at uni occurred somewhere near the end of the Coalition. The well-fed fed-up.

eMMplekz / Baron Mordant – minus the electronics, the dyspeptic mise-en-scène shifted slightly, from petit-bourgeois to middle middle-class.  “Simple pimple, stomach stab” could easily be a Baron line. And mordancy is one of the inflection flavours on NLL.

An inventory of irritating sensations (“raincoat sweat” ). A list of listlessness. A catalogue of intractabilities. 

Rock poets, then and now. Half-a-century of contracted horizons captured in the shift from “we want the world and we want it now” to “just want to be liked.”   

The heartbreaking mildness of  “I like you… stay.”

I wrote here earlier about “every day is a dick” - about creative mishearings truer than the truth. Here's some other lines from New Long Leg (accuracy not guaranteed) that speak to me. Speak for me. 

“Absolutely huge fuck-up”

“Sick of that shit”

 “Thanks a lot”

“I don’t know, what’s the point” 

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”

“So full of poisonous rage”

"Do everything and feel nothing"

 “Too much to ask about, don’t ask”

“Time to get fed up”

"It's useless to live"


Speak-Sing Me a Song

Tidal, May 10, 2022 

Earlier this year, some commentators suggested that we had reached peak speak. Latecomer outfits like Yard Act were accused of wearing thin the winning Brit formula of sarky vocals and satiric lyrics over postpunky backing. But then Wet Leg turned up with their delicious blend of deadpan and lively. Adding a tinge of Ting Tings tunefulness to the style — the semi-spoken verses are crisp and savory, the choruses sweet like condensed milk — the duo’s debut album went straight to No. 1 in their native U.K. and hit the Top 20 in America. Wet Leg’s success may well recharge the genre, inspiring a fresh wave of bands.

Why is speak-sing so popular now? Perhaps because it’s the opposite of what pop has been for so long, one of those cyclical taste shifts like when grunge chased hair metal off MTV. Mainstream pop is like froyo, crammed with artificially intensified flavors. It makes sense that palates dulled by Auto-Tuned melodiousness and emotionally engineered uplift might find refreshment in jaded tones and mundane lyrics. From Dry Cleaning’s catalog of everyday humiliations and disappointments to the bleak social landscape depicted by Black Country, New Road and Legss, the speak-sing groups offer a dose of truth: bitter but invigorating.

Speak-sing’s roots go back to post-punk. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is rightly cited as the precursor supreme, but other ancestors include his Manchester neighbor John Cooper Clarke. There’s even a song titled in homage to the punk poet by contemporary band Working Men’s Club. On tracks like “Beasley Street,” Clarke intoned vivid and darkly humorous imagery of deprivation and desolation over dreamy backdrops spun by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett and his partner Steve Hopkins. Along with the intermittent lineage of rock-poetry, speak-sing also harks back to new wave’s interface between comedy and rock: Ian Dury’s character-sketch songs and earthy humor; the fast chat of Chris Difford on Squeeze’s “Cool for Cats”; the oh-so-English halting phrasing of Madness singer Suggs.

Dury joked that he’d invented rap on his single “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Pt. 3,” while there’s an early Fall song titled “Crap Rap 2.” In a way, speak-sing does resemble an organically evolved and authentic British equivalent to rap, rooted in native traditions like music hall and comic verse. By the 2000s, artists like Mike Skinner of The Streets were merging rap’s gritty realism with the new wave and 2 Tone tradition of observational lyrics drawn from ordinary life. Skinner started out emulating American MCs like Nas, then realized he could never hope to pass for the real thing and started using English speech patterns and slang. Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods — the immediate precursor to today’s speak-sing wave — likewise initially modeled himself after the Wu-Tang Clan, but then developed his own style of rhythmatized invective on tunes like “Jolly Fucker.” Coming from a slightly different angle, Ian Hicks of eMMplekz scathingly surveys much the same panorama of social squalor over dank electronic beats, resulting in a style he wittily dubbed “spoken turd.”

This current swarm of Brit bands fronted by talkers rather than singers is likewise grappling with a sense of the U.K. as a stagnant and deadlocked country. The decade-plus rule of the Conservative Party, the hideous surprise of Brexit (an upset felt particularly by young people who had never known a time when the U.K. wasn’t part of Europe), and the fizzling of hopes raised by Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive leadership of the Labour Party — these blights have served to instill a mood of rancor and resignation. Speak-sing is the right mode for confronting the shitscape of the present and finding a sour sort of laughter in the predicament. When you strip away melody’s distracting beauty and shun vocal acrobatics, the voice becomes a vehicle for words and nothing else. What counts is not the voluptuous texture of the voice itself but the stinging tone and the mordant tales that are told.

Closer to an actress than a singer, Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw deploys exquisitely subtle nuances of intonation to deliver her lyrics: a disjointed jumble of images and incidents drawn from domestic drudgery and low-level conflict, inanities overheard in shops or traveling on public transportation, the prattle of PR and the absurdities of online life. Although Shaw calls herself “an emo dead stuff collector,” her affect — flat, numb, grudging, ground-down — couldn’t be further from emo, the genre of high-strung pop-punk.

That’s not always the case with speak-sing. Isaac Wood, the former singer in Black Country, New Road, and Ollie Judge, who fronts Squid, both gesticulate wildly with their voices over musical backing that can be as dramatic as post-rock in the Explosions in the Sky mold. Geordie Greep of the similarly maximalist experimental outfit black midi vaults between low-key recitation, fraught crooning and vocal freakouts. 

There’s a thin line between speak-sing as a rhythmically inventive alternative for those without conventionally attractive or agile voices — the Mark E. Smith path — and speak-sing as vocalists trying to hold your attention without the benefit of tunes. Yard Act cross the line for me: the sneer is smug, the lyrics swat clumsily at topics like gentrification (“Fixer Upper”) or national decline (“Land of the Blind,” “Dead Horse”). Home Counties offer a more entertaining version of this broad-strokes style of social comment. Named after the counties that encircle London and remain a byword for affluent complacency, the group poke fun at easy targets like “Modern Yuppies.” Lyrically, their EP In a Middle English Town resembles The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society with the sentimental nostalgia turned to spite. But the zany grooves and hooky arrangements of tunes like “The Home Counties” are irresistible.

Unlike Florence Shaw, too many speak-sing lyricists point fingers without implicating themselves in the malaise. Pioneers of the current wave, IDLES traffic in punky tirades like “Model Village” that can feel almost as blinkered as the small-minded provincialism under attack. Legss are probably the most interesting of the groups fronted by cynical blokes. They offer barbed commentary on the contemporary music scene in “Letter to Huw,” while in “On Killing a Swan Blues,” Ned Green confesses, “If I was an American, my experiences, they would’ve shaped me/Because I am British, they only make me tired.”

Although you can point to American precursors — the sardonic sing-song of Patty Donahue of the Waitresses, the Minutemen’s rapid-fire communiques, the tetchy rasp of James Murphy in early LCD Soundsystem, the drollness of Cake, and let’s not forget Lou Reed — there does seem to be something peculiarly British about speak-sing. The style plugs into a centuries-old wellspring of ranters and yarn-spinners. I used to think that the soul of England was crystallized in the expression “mustn’t grumble” — something you’d mutter when asked how you were doing. But the nation’s soul today is all about grumbling, whining, moaning, complaining. That festering stew of grievance is redeemed, with the best of the speak-sing performers, by rhythm, verbal panache and a dry, dark humor suited to these times.   


Dry Cleaning: It’s Spoken Rock ’n’ Roll, but We Like It

The New York Times, October 14, 2022

LOS ANGELES — At the Primavera Sound festival at Los Angeles State Historic Park, the British band Dry Cleaning played under the bright sunlight of a September afternoon. Festooned with tattoos, the guitarist Tom Dowse rocked out, grimacing and jutting out an impudent tongue now and then. A breeze wrapped the bassist Lewis Maynard’s long hair across his face, making him look like a headbanging plushie. The drummer Nick Buxton pummeled away as if in AC/DC’s engine room. But the vocalist Florence Shaw didn’t fit the picture at all.

Instead of snarling or roaring like the music would seem to demand, she delivered a jumbled sequence of alternately humdrum and surreal observations in conversational tones that shifted subtly between dismay, disapproval and daydream. Wearing a long black lace skirt and a sparkly gold camisole, she curled her fingers around the mic stand like the stem of a wineglass and pulled distractedly at the hair at the top of her head, as if having a knotty heart-to-heart with a close friend.

To twist a lyric from Dry Cleaning’s new album, “Stumpwork,”, it’s a weird premise for a band — but I like it. So do a growing numbers of others. The London group recently embarked on a world tour that will take it through 17 countries. Its 2021 debut, “New Long Leg,” entered the U.K. album chart at No. 4. That feat reflected both the record’s originality and Dry Cleaning’s position at the forefront of the “speak-sing” movement: a trend that encompasses groups like Yard Act, Wet Leg and Black Country, New Road who have little in common besides vocalists who incant barbed social commentary rather than sing.

Sitting at a garden table in Primavera’s artists-only enclosure, Shaw admitted that fronting a cult band was not on her bucket list. “It’s a very surreal turn of events,” she said, widening her eyes as if still surprised. “Totally unexpected. I like bands, but I never planned to be in one at all.”

Until a few years ago, the 33-year-old earned her living as a visiting lecturer, teaching fashion drawing and illustration at art colleges. Then her friend Dowse suggested she contribute to a new band he’d pulled together with Buxton and Maynard. The three men had a long history of playing in various hardcore punk and noisy groups, mostly as a sideline to their primary occupations. But when Shaw came along to add her spoken-word collages to their tough, clangorous sound, something clicked.

On paper, the formula looks like it ought to be irritating — pretentious, or simply awkward — but ultimately, it makes a magical sort of sense. While her bandmates weave riffs and textures drawn from across alternative rock history, Shaw doesn’t raise her voice, but commands attention through timing and phrasing, along with the shuffle-mode flow of her perceptions. Lines that could be from a transcript of a tetchy interpersonal skirmish will be followed by a pensive fragment plucked from some regretful or aggrieved interior monologue. Shaw has invented a strikingly original mode of nonmelodic songwriting that floats somewhere between stand-up, poetry and the fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies of a female comic auteur like Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

“She’s brilliant, she really reminds me of myself!” said Jason Williamson, the vocalist in Sleaford Mods, widely regarded as the progenitor of the current wave of British speak-sing groups. “There’s this mixture of extremely realistic observations with absurdism. Things that are just really bizarre. It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but then it does. She conveys meanings with just one word.”

Expertly deploying pauses and stretching out syllables, Shaw is a virtuoso of intonation. “I am very interested in small differences,” she said. “I really enjoy that game where you put the emphasis on a different place in a sentence — and it means something completely different. The same words can sound scared instead of proud.”

When Dry Cleaning was recording part of the new album in a Bristol studio, Shaw went out on foraging missions, trawling the streets for overheard remarks, shop signs and unusual sights, which she’d jot down in her phone’s notepad. Another expedition involved visiting a “car boot sale,” a flea market particular to the U.K. in which ordinary folk park their cars in a field and sell bric-a-brac from the trunk. Shaw also likes to collect words. “Stumpwork,” the title of a song as well as the new album, is something she’s been aching to use for ages.

“I like the sound of it,” she said. “It’s a type of embroidery, like the braiding on military uniforms or American sportswear. Originally it was used to described the raised characters and padded people in tapestries.”

Musically, “Stumpwork” is a conscious and concerted effort on the part of the band to show it’s more than post-punk. Leaving behind the first album’s gaunt sound and tense bass lines, the new LP shifts forward in time to the early ’90s and lo-fi “slacker” bands like Pavement. “I was thinking a lot about Stephen Malkmus when I was doing my guitar parts, that sort of wonkiness,” Dowse said, explaining that he played a Jazzmaster guitar because “it’s what all the ’90s groups like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. used.”

Compared to “New Long Leg,” in some ways “Stumpwork” is an American album. The debut felt like a wet, wintry day, a mood mirrored lyrically in lines like “it was chucking it down” and “raincoat sweat.” In contrast, “Stumpwork” has the dazed, heat-hazy vibe of a drunken summer afternoon. Although Shaw still drops the odd glum line like “looks like strains and setbacks are on the way,” the ground-down despondency of “New Long Leg” has opened up to allow for moments of carefree joy and quiet contentment.

If there’s gloom here, it stems less from personal life than from the political atmosphere. The track “Conservative Hell” expresses the outlook of the band and many of their generation. “Scandal after scandal, the levels of corruption and lying at the top of the government, and it feels like it’s almost completely unchallenged,” Dowse said. “I think it’s numbed everyone out.”

 On “Stumpwork,” Shaw gets explicitly polemical now and then. She’ll talk about seeing “male violence everywhere” or distill the U.K.’s dire deadlock into the three-line panorama “Nothing works/everything’s expensive/And opaque and privatized.” But her true forte is the micro-politics of ordinary life: petty humiliations and hassles, the way that advertising and media implant desires and anxieties in your head. “I’m not hugely well-informed about politics, really,” she said. “But I’m quite sensitive to how things feel and I know they don’t feel good!”

That remark ended with a burst of laughter. Smiles and merriment are a constant in her conversation, in marked contrast with how Shaw comes across on record and onstage. The blanket description “deadpan” annoys her because it misses the subtle shades of gray she works with. Referencing a review that described her as sounding like “a bored fashion model reading from the pages of Grazia magazine,” Shaw noted that another time, “Someone said our gig was great but we spoiled it by smiling between the songs. Like we were breaking character. You can’t win!” Cue another burst of laughter.

Williamson placed Dry Cleaning in a British lineage of groups who combined observational humor, gritty social realism and the vividness of everyday vernacular: “They’re a classic English band in the vein of the Jam, the Specials, Ian Dury and the Blockheads.”

One way that Englishness manifests in Dry Cleaning is the gap between the music’s dramatic intensity and the mildness of Shaw’s emotional palette and low-key delivery. “There can be something very tender about that,” Shaw said. “Because in a way it’s sort of a failure to express oneself at the right moment.”

“Missing the moment that you should get really angry and instead feeling it later — that’s a real hallmark of my life,” she added. “I think I’d much rather be a person who could emote functionally, at the right time. But it takes me a long time to process things and a lot of my performance is about exorcising those residual feelings. Maybe that’s a bit British.”

Spot the author in the crowd (hint: on the right side)


snippet from 

How Rock and the Royals Jostled for Britain's Cultural Identity During the Queen's Lifetime 

Pitchfork, September 13, 2022

....Since their eviction from Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, and the rest has never seemed remotely likely, the most that a progressive-minded Brit can hope for are signs of modernization, a spring-cleaning of attitudes and protocols, the faintest hint of humanity. Generally that has come in the form of brides from outside rather than the inbred tribe itself: Di, “the People’s Princess,” with her caring common touch and love of Duran Duran. Meghan Markle seemed for a moment to promise a multicultural and emotionally-irrigated monarchy fit for the 21st century. Even a non-Royalist like myself was touched by the sheer soul power of the wedding ceremony. You can see her and Harry as spoiled celebs with heads full of Paltrow-y nonsense and also feel that for a moment there, the stiff upper lip was (thankfully) loosening a bit.

Perhaps that’s why Dry Cleaning, a group otherwise unsparing in their bleak depiction of entropy in the UK, first made their name with the “Magic of Meghan,” off their 2019 EP Sweet Princess. Far from a piss-take, the song, singer Florence Shaw has said, was born of genuine, if brief, infatuation. “I had just broken up, and I was clinging to that story to distract myself from the abyss. I transplanted all my normal thinking about my own life onto thinking about their lives for a few weeks.” It’s a neat encapsulation of the way the Royal Family really do function like pop stars—permanently for some people, and for others, only in moments of weakness. Maybe one day, there’ll be no dreaming in England’s future—no need for distraction from the intractable.


Dry Cleaning -  Stumpwork

Atemporal Faves of 2022 

I feel bad for Dry Cleaning as this excellent album has barely figured on the end of year lists – mystifying to me, as it’s clear that they’ve pulled off that tricky trick of keeping everything good about a beloved debut but twisting things and adding things just enough for it not to feel like reiteration. I suppose the sheer shock impact of a new lyrical voice and delivery that you got with New Long Leg was always going to be hard to pull off again. And the musical approach last time – cold, dry,  slightly claustrophobic – enhanced that impact. Here, the backing boys really come into their own, exploring lots of other textures and feels, and instead of staying within the debut's postpunk zone they are referencing other historical phases of guitar reinvention / uninvention like lo-fi and bliss-rock. “Anna Calls from the Arctic” is gorgeously ethereal, a whole new mood and flow for Dry Cleaning. The second half of “Conservative Hell” (the escape from hell?) is a glowspace of abstract dream-noise worthy of A**l P**k’s The Doldrums. The dirgescapes of “Liberty Log” and “Icebergs” are wonderfully expansive ways to bring the album to its close, pointing to a third album that I for one am excited to hear.


Snippet from Ghosts of My Life afterword

I have nothing but a hunch to go on, but – at the risk of being misguided by my own taste – it seems to me that the most Mark Fisher-y of groups today is Dry Cleaning. It’s the one band in recent times that I could imagine having pride of place in a Ghosts of My Life 2. The music is stubby, stubborn postpunk,  turned through time into a kind of British blues, a traditional mode with perennial application. But it’s speak-singer Florence Shaw’s words and delivery – deadpan, grudging, ground down – that really cut through. Her affect speaks to the blankness of the present – the feel of life in what Mark called the Boring Dystopia, where our minds are insanitary with inanity. Turning around a hard, Hook-y bassline, “Scratchcard Lanyard” is like “Transmission” for an era in which vision-quest of the kind that Joy Division could undertake is no longer accessible. “An emo dead stuff collector”, Shaw offers the self-portrait of a burned-out shell drifting numbly through a life that senselessly accumulates irritations, humiliations, discomforts, chores, and interpersonal skirmishes. “Depressive hedonism”, another Fisher concept, threads through Dry Cleaning’s songbook: small pleasures snatched, or snacked (there’s a profusion of references to treats, fast food, artisanal goodies, splashing out on gourmet mushrooms, a favorite cafe you used to frequent). Comforts that don’t console.

I feel Mark would have recognized Florence Shaw as the arrival, after so many decades, of the Southern Mark E. Smith. Dry Cleaning as a Sleaford Mods whose milieu isn’t the Greggs and poundshop lumpenproletariat of the Midlands, but the purposeless drift of middle-class postgraduates during the era of the Coalition, Brexit, and the endless fraudocracy of Boris Johnson, their hopes raised and dashed by Corbyn and Momentum. Just like Mark wrote about Sleaford Mods, one could ask about Dry Cleaning and other speak-sing bands like Legss, “who can convert this bad affect into a new political project?” Seeing clearly is a start, but as with that old adage about mirrors and hammers, merely reflecting the shitscape of now is not enough. 

Of course, I could be completely wrong: the chances are quite good that Mark would have conceived an intense dislike for Shaw and her band, for righteous reasons of his own devising. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

RIP James Chance / James White



Off White 

Infinite Zero/American

Lost Chance 

Mojo, 1995?

by Simon Reynolds

     After the nihilism and noise of  No Wave came the era of mulatto mutant disco. For one short moment, England and New York were in sync.On both sides of the Atlantic the sharpest ex-punks were cooking up piquant hybrids of funk, punk, freeform jazz and dub. A Certain Ratio, Pop Group, Gang of Four, Bush Tetras, Defunkt, ESG--all briefly belonged to an international
avant-funk movement.

Sick muthafunker James White was a key player in all this miscegenated mayhem.  Swiftly following up the 1979 debut Buy, White changed his band's name from the Contortions to the Blacks, and released Off White on the ultra-hip Ze label.  The opener Contort Yourself encapsulates White's sonic and lyrical shtick. Over brittle funk guitar, neurotic bass and a hissing hi-hat disco beat, James spurted the infantile squall of his bebop sax and rapped nihilistic nursery rhymes: "now is the time/to lose all control/distort your body/and twist your soul".  Next came the vile misogny of Stained Sheets, a duet juxtaposing Stella Rico's needy, orgasmic whimpers with White's sadistic contempt. A blankly ironic cover of Irving Berlin's (Tropical) Heatwave segues into Almost Black, the most dubious homage to blackness since Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro.  That said, Off White's febrile funk remains queerly compelling, even if you're left feeling so soiled you have to take a shower afterwards.

Lost Chance was recorded two years later, when White had changed his name to Chance and hooked up with a brand new bunch of sidemen. Live and lo-fi, this 1981 set showcases Jimbo's unhealthy James Brown fixation, with covers of I Got You (I Feel Good) and King Heroin, alongside Contort Yourself rehashes like Melt      
Yourself Down.  As with ACR, Pop Group et al, funk figured in Chance's white bohemian imagination as voodoo possession, a cold-fever compulsion, which in turn made it the ideal vehicle for the avant-funksters themes of addiction, obsession and control.  

Of course, nobody noticed that Michael Jackson was at that exact same moment working the fascist groove thang in far more convulsively thrilling and spooky fashion, with Off The WallTriumph and Thriller, and in a million-selling pop context to boot. Now, that's really sick...

[postscript note: some errors here - no Wiki or discogs in those days - he was Chance before he was White; Buy and Off White were simultaneously released, if I recall right, to make some kind of statement]

James Chance and the Contortions

Soul Exorcism


melody Maker, 1990?

By Simon Reynolds