Thursday, October 21, 2010

Uncut, December 1997

by Simon Reynolds

I remember very clearly the first time I heard Cut – it was the summer of '79, I was staying at my aunt's in the Yorkshire Dales, and I'd sneaked off to listen to The John Peel Show. The tracks – ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ and ‘Newtown’ – sounded incredibly eerie and ethereal, partly because of the tatty, trebly transistor radio through which I heard them, but mainly because it was my first exposure to dub-wise production.

A few weeks later, Cut became the second album I ever owned. As with other records from the days when my collection was in single figures (like PiL's Metal Box), Cut's every rhythm-guitar tic and punky-dread vocal inflection is engraved in my heart.

As a just-missed-punk 16-year-old, I'd first encountered The Slits' name in a Melody Maker profile of Malcolm McLaren. After losing control of the Pistols, McLaren was offered the chance to manage The Slits and briefly schemed to make a wildly exploitative movie in which the girl-band go to Mexico, find themselves effectively sold into slavery, and are turned into porno-disco stars. Thank God, The Slits slipped out of McLaren's clutches. He went off to make skin flicks in Paris, and The Slits made Cut – one of the greatest albums of the post-punk era, alongside Metal Box, Gang Of Four's Entertainment and The Raincoats' first two records.

One of rock criticism's minor dissensions is which version of The Slits is better – the untamed, untutored rumpus of their early live gigs versus the tidied up, punky-reggae studio-Slits with dub wizard Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell at the controls.
As exciting as the 1977-78 John Peel Sessions indisputably are, The Slits sound infinitely better after they fell in with Bovell, Budgie took over the drumming (following original sticks-woman Palmolive's departure for The Raincoats), and they acquired some basic chops. On the Strange Fruit CD of those Peel sessions, you can hear the embryonic glory of Cut, but the raw tumult is closer to heavy metal bludgeon than punky-reggae sway.

Compounding the taboo-busting frisson of the band's name, Cut's cover is a confrontational classic: mud-smeared and clad only in loincloths, The Slits strike bare-breasted Amazon poses and defiantly out-stare the camera's gaze. The backdrop is a picturesque, bramble-strewn English cottage – as if to say, ‘We're no delicate English roses’. The back-sleeve has Ari, Viv and Tessa daubed in warpaint, lurking in a bush. The music and lyrical stance is just as fierce, kicking off with two jibes at punk rock machismo, ‘Instant Hit’ and ‘So Tough’ (the latter namechecking a "Sid" and a "John"). Everything great about The Slits is instantly audible in these songs: the itchy-and-scratchy rhythm guitar, the revved-up but rootsical basslines, Budgie's clackety rimshot drums, and, above all, the strange geometry of the clashing and overlapping girl-harmonies. Ari Up's harsh Teutonic accent makes her sound like a guttersnipe Nico, on sulphate rather than smack.

‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ is where Bovell's dub-wisdom makes its presence felt. It's desolate dirge-skank, all sidling bass and brittle drums. Ari's portrait of a shopaholic is truly poignant as she tries to "satisfy this empty feeling" with impulse-purchases. But if ‘Spend’ is woman-as-consumerist-dupe, ‘Shoplifting’ turns this on its head, imagining petty theft as proto-feminist insurrection: "We pay fuck-all!" Oi!-meets-Riot-Grrrl backing vocals urge, "Do a runner! Do a runner!", and the music – surging, spasming dub-funk – does exactly that as Ari unleashes an exhilarating scream of glee-and-terror, then collapses in giggles with the admission: "I've pissed in my knickers!"

The sombre ‘FM’ critiques the mass media. Ari's protagonist wonders, "What's feeding my screams?", and describes radio transmissions as "frequent mutilation... serving for the purpose of those who want you to fear". ‘Newtown’ is an Irvine Welsh-like vision of a society based around addiction and surrogate-satisfactions, drawing a disconcerting parallel between the cathode-ray junkies "sniffing televisiono, taking foot-ballino" and The Slits' own bohemian milieu numbed-out on illegal narcotics. The jittery, scraping guitar mimics the fleshcrawling ache of cold turkey, while dub-FX of dropping spoons ram home the analogy.

‘Ping Pong Affair’ is about emotional withdrawal: Ari measures out the empty post-break-up evenings with cigarettes and masturbation ("Same old thing, yeah I know, everybody does it"). ‘Love Und Romance’, scorns the very lovey-dovey intimacy that ‘Ping Pong’ craved. It's a witheringly sardonic parody of smotherlove-as-braindeath, with Ari gloating to her boyfriend: "Oh my darling, who wants to be free?"

‘Typical Girls’ – the only single off Cut – was The Slits' manifesto, a mocking diatribe against the non-punkette ordinary girls who "Don't create/don't rebel" and whose heads are addled with women's-magazine-implanted anxieties about "Spots, fat, unnatural smells". With its cut-and-dried, programmatic critique of conditioning, ‘Typical Girls’ is the closest The Slits got to the 1979 agit-funk bands. But unlike, say, The Au Pairs, The Slits sound riotous rather than righteous.

After Cut – 32 minutes of near-perfection that ends with the touching if slight ‘Adventures Close To Home’ – The Slits went all earth-mother feminist and tribal conscious. 1981 saw the belated sequel to Cut: the African-influenced Return Of The Giant Slits, whose off-kilter meters and cluttered soundscapes make it a poor cousin to The Raincoats' mistress-piece, Odyshape.

But, by '81, the post-punk zeitgeist had shifted to New Pop. String sections, suits and synths were de rigueur; anything that smacked of bohemian withdrawal from the mainstream was lambasted as punky-hippie defeatism. The Slits scattered: Ari Up became a fully-fledged Rasta, settled down and had babies; Viv Albertine eventually worked in TV; Tessa got into martial arts.

Although The Slits' attitude was clearly a crucial ancestor for Riot Grrrl and its UK chapter (Huggy Bear et al), the question of their musical legacy is more elusive. 1979-81 post-punk experimentalism – death-disco, agit-funk, ‘John Peel bands’ – is one of the great neglected eras of modem music.

Maybe, when people tire of Britpop's Sixties new wave tunnel-vision, that period will be rediscovered. But so far I've only ever encountered one band who cite The Slits as an influence: New York's goddess-and-Gaia-obsessed pagan funkateers, Luscious Jackson. Singer Jill Cunniff declared: "There was a time when The Slits were the epitome, the ultimate, the coolest of the cool. They were everything I wanted from life."

I second that emotion.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ambition (GQ Style, 2009)

GQ Style, winter 2009 

 by Simon Reynolds 

Just a few months before Michael Jackson died, I felt the urge to write about him for the first time ever. I was in a cafĂ© and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" came on and even though I must have heard it hundreds of times since first seeing the video on Top of the Pops in 1979, for some reason the song hit me like a lightning bolt. For all its falsetto-funk silkiness , the sheer aggression of the sound--the coiled rhythmic tension, the stiletto penetration of Jackson's voice--seemed to attack with the force of The Stooges or Sex Pistols . 

But what I really came away with was a vague idea, just a phrase really: "total music", the idea of a category of pop set apart from the merely excellent. Listening, rapt, I imagined the electricity of the Off the Wall sessions: Quincy Jones assembling the highest-calibre session players available, no expense spared, and pursuing perfection with an almost militaristic focusing of energy. The achievement: flawlessness so absolute that it didn't so much transcend commercialism as blast right through it, such that domination of the radio and the discotheques was merely a by-product, a secondary benefit, of the quest. "Total music" occurs through the synergy of talent, limitless funding, a really good idea… and something else: a superhuman drive, the "right stuff" that Tom Wolfe wrote about in connection with NASA's moon missions.

I imagine this intangible elan infused the making of Abba's music, or the classic recordings of the Beatles, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson. There's loads of music that I love and that probably means more to me than "total pop", records made by artists both more unassuming yet in some ways more narcissistically self-absorbed and idiosyncratic. But there's no denying the special charge that imbues music when it's made by people who know they're making history, who can be confident they're taking it out onto the largest stage available.

 In the Sixties there was a long moment where the best pop (in terms of constantly pushing forward and sheer musical quality) was also the best-selling: Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Byrds, Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors. (There's really only a few exceptions: Love, Velvet Underground). Aesthetic ambition and commercial ambition were indivisible. This folk-memory of this ideal persisted long after it ceased to apply, inspiring everyone from Bowie and Roxy to the major punk bands to the likes of U2, Bjork, Radiohead. 

But over the last couple of decades the two kinds of ambition have come to seem more and more tenuously connected, to the point where a phenomenon like the Beatles seems almost implausible, a fluke. 

 My dad had this maxim, something like: aim for the top, because if you fall short, you'll at least reach higher than if you'd aimed for the middle and fallen short of that. It's not completely true: o'er vaulting ambition can result in "EPIC FAIL", whereas a shrewd strategy of modest aspiration might lead to steady sustained successes. Still, remembering this motto led me to this thought: if you want to do great work in music or any art form, just as important as talent or imagination is the desire to be great. You might have the most refined melodic gift, the subtlest musical mind, but if you don't have that will-to-power, the balls and the gall… 

Certain bands only make sense at the top of the pop world: Springsteen and U2 were made to work in widescreen, to issue the most sweeping, speaking-for-Everyman statements. "Overbearing", "bombastic": the insults are merely the measure of their achievement, and nobody can take away those moments when they mattered (Born To Run, then again Born in the U.S.A., for Bruce; the majestic sequence from "Pride" to "Streets Have No Name", for Bono and Co). 

 Of course, there are artists who have the temperament of the world-historical genius but who don't actually have anything worth saying. Jim Steinman, the fevered brain behind Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", exemplifies this syndrome. Steinman is far from deficient in the will-to-greatness: he's got an unbridled flair for the grandiose, plus the requisite perfectionist streak (he's been known to spend huge amounts of his own private money on projects when the original budget's run out). Unfortunately his ambition is not accompanied by the filter of taste, to put it mildly. 

 Talking of finances, the rise over the last decade or two of home studios and digital audio workstations, has meant that it's possible for artists to make massive-sounding and expensive-seeming albums for a fraction of what it once cost. It's much cheaper and easier to create the illusion of luxuriant orchestration or to pull off ear-boggling sonic trickery of the kind that would have taken days of intricate labour by George Martin and Abbey Road's white-coated technicians. Artistic ambition, in the old days, had to go hand in hand with commercial ambition, just to pay off the bills. Nowadays the two kinds of aspiration have become severed. The Colossal Sounding, Colossally Ambitious Album is today a sort of specialist subgenre of rock, purveyed by groups like Flaming Lips. 

And not just rock: take Erykah Badu, who renovates the tradition of politically engaged, autobiographically personal "progressive soul" masterpieces by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye. Her vastly ambitious New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) sold pretty well but it could never hope to achieve the mass cultural impact of Songs In the Key of Life or What's Goin' On. These are different times and Badu, like her buddies The Roots and Common, is catering for a niche market of historically-informed cognoscenti who still listen out for that kind of takes-the-measure-of-the-zeitgeist Epic.

 Although a singer, Badu regards herself part of hip hop. Surprisingly, given its sketchy record with the Album, rap has been one of the main places this decade where commercial ambition and artistic ambition have remained tightly entwined, with performers like Outkast, Jay-Z and Kanye West putting out sonically adventurous, alternately self-glorifying and socially-conscious albums that sold in huge numbers. It stands to reason that rap is richly endowed with "the will to be great" because the genre is all about self-aggrandisement. What LL Cool J called "talking on myself" still defines the art's core: MCs exalt their own ability to dominate and defeat the competition, finding the most vivid, witty, unique and creatively brutal ways of describing their prowess. 

 Rap expresses and exposes the ugly side of pop's ambition: its profoundly inegalitarian streak, a drive towards status, glory, preeminence. The aspiration to greatness often comes with a certain monstrousness of personality. Look at Morrissey. Pop stardom was always, he frankly admitted, a form of revenge exacted on the world for his outcast adolescence. But when society's "mis-shapes" (to use Jarvis Cocker's term) become stars, the result can be unsightly. The retaliatory narcissism of early Smiths lyrics ("the sun shines out of our behinds", "England owes me a living") is one thing when the singer is a skinny wisp only a few years out of obscurity. But from a fifty year old pop institution with the build of a bouncer, striding across arena stages and tossing the microphone cord with lordly disdain, it starts to look like any old showbiz prima donna. 

 Rap has its own Morrissey in Kanye West. I never used to understand hip hop fans complaining about his monster ego (this is rap, what did you expect guys?). But after the bloated self-pity of much of 808s & Heartbreak and his disruption of the MTV Video Awards, I'm starting to see their point. 

 The supreme case of the will-to-be-great turning rancid is Michael Jackson, of course. Around the point he started calling himself (and insisting on being called) the King of Pop, Jackson 's output shifted from "total pop" to "totalitarian kitsch": the nine gigantic statues of MJ as a Dictator built at his requirement by Sony and installed in European cities to promote 1995's HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book 1, the fascistic promo film for that record with Jackson in full Khadaffi-style regalia amid hundreds of soldiers. Think too of the Versailles-like indulgence and corruption of Neverland, and that peculiar quasi-dynastic marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the King. When pop stars try to externalize the grandeur inside their music, to make reality match up to its utopian absoluteness, the results can be grotesque, a tragic-comical catastrophe of nouveau-riche kitsch. 

U.K. versus U.S.A.
(published under the title "Remotely Interesting")
GQ Style, Autumn 2008


I never felt the faintest twinge of patriotism when I actually lived in Britain. The political sort seemed either silly or ugly; I wasn't into sports. As for pop, I was always embarrassed when music journalists got into flag-waving boosterism, could never see the point of their quests for the homegrown version: UK reggae, Britfunk, Britrap…. that long line of underachievement. In reaction, I became almost an Anglophobe, preferring American underground rock of the Eighties to this country's scrawny indie fare. For every Smiths, there seemed to be a score of jingle-jangly Housemartins-type bands and Wedding Present-style Northern miserabilists; for each My Bloody Valentine, a couple dozen shandy-weak shoegazers of the Ride/Chapterhouse ilk.

All this changed when I left the U.K in 1994 and settled in New York permanently. Not immediately. But, in what's probably a common syndrome with expatriates, it was only upon removal from the native context that I actually ceased to take it for granted, saw it properly for the first time. The crappy mundanity that makes up so much of the UK music scene dropped away and I started to appreciate the lippy, quippy, concept-driven approach of the better British bands; the way they dedicated their energy to shaping a striking-looking aesthetic rather than mastering the craft of rocking convincingly. I missed the hype-d up metabolism of UK pop culture, fueled by the competition between the music papers and between individual journalists, motored by bands skilled at self-salesmanship and image-cultivation.

The British scene's excitingly frenetic pace contrasted with sluggish alt-America, where trends evolved at tortoise-like tempo, thanks to cautious, responsible, hype-wary magazines, and to bands full of mumbling slackers pretending to be less articulate and educated than they actually were, and who espoused a sort of anti-corporate passive-aggressiveness that made a virtue of lack of ambition. In Britain, thanks to the influence of the music papers on the record industry, Top of the Pops was a reachable target. The UK charts were regularly penetrated by scruffy indie bands (along with underground dance anthems and all manner of novelty hits), whereas in America, only corporate muscle and ruthless professionalism could get you into the Billboard Top 40.

Top of the Pops was actually one of the things I started to miss as an expatriate, along with John Peel's show. This despite the fact that I hadn't listened to Peel in ages while TOTP had become an increasingly disappointing experience during my later years living in London. Nonetheless, the existence of these channels for the mediation for the underground into the mainstream, with their distant echo of Lord Reith's vision of the BBC as the educator of public taste, seemed to explain a lot about the volatility and eccentricity of the UK pop landscape over the decades.
In the second half of the Nineties, ie. pretty much immediately after I'd left the country, there suddenly seemed to be a lot to be patriotic about, musically. Not so much Union Jack-clad Britpop, though. For me it was all about our endlessly fertile and mutagenic dance culture, from jungle and trip hop to Big Beat and 2step garage. House and techno may have started in middle America in the mid-Eighties, but there's no doubt that in global terms the UK was Number One Rave Nation. In 1997, it was thrilling to see some of that wild spectrum of sound bust its way into the US mainstream--Prodigy, Chemicals, Orbital, Underworld. By then I'd also began to feel intensely, wistfully nostalgic about a particular British approach to pop, fashioned by art school kids and petit bourgeois autodidacts. The success of Pulp (which I'd have so loved to witness first-hand but caught only an after-tremor on a rare visit home, when the DJ played "Common People" at my brother's wedding reception) reminded me of how in the UK it's always seemed possible for figures who weren't obvious heart throbs or even particularly able (in conventional terms) as singers to become pop stars: the lineage of unlikely charisma and peculiar sex appeal that runs from Ray Davies via Ian Dury and Morrissey through to Jarvis. The US pop machine has never had a place for such mis-shapes.

"Nostalgia" originally referred not to the impossible longing for "lost time" but to homesickness for one's native land (an 18th Century physician coined the word to describe a psychosomatic malady affecting soldiers on long tours of duty abroad). The pangs I felt for the UK art-into-pop tradition were obviously related to my own geographical displacement, the ache caused by the thought of the shape of post boxes, the taste of Marmite, the vocal timbre of Radio 4 announcers. But in truth, that artpop tradition was become more remote in time too: back in Blighty it was, if not fading away completely, then certainly being pushed to the periphery of the pop mainstream. The culprits were the having-it hedonism of club culture (what rave had degenerated into by 1998) and the boorish nu-philistinism of the Oasis end of Britpop. Then around the turn of the decade, UK pop culture was inundated by hip hop and R&B.

All these changes--and there's no denying that the brash, ego-maniacal energy and futurism of Black American music also had invigorating effects--contributed to a slowly building, retrospective pride about British pop on my part. Almost in reaction to the UK's subordination by American music this past decade, I've become preoccupied by the earlier phase of pop history when it was a two-way street spanning the Atlantic. Again, perhaps it's only when something is gone that you appreciate how remarkable it was. I'm talking about the singularity of the British pop achievement, how for a huge stretch of its lifespan we enjoyed co-dominion with America over global pop culture. This, despite having only one-fifth the population of the U.S.A. and lacking their organic connection to rhythm-and-blues, soul, country, etc.

"Co-dominion"? Actually, during the Sixties, it's game set and match to Britain: the Beatles and Rolling Stones wipe out everything else. The massive Dylan industry of books and documentaries that's gone into hyperdrive these last dozen years or so is, I reckon, a semi-conscious retaliation to British dominance of the Sixties, a delayed form of American babyboomer patriotism that seeks to boost the profile of the only possible candidate when it comes to rivaling the historical immensity of the Beatles. But when I were a lad in the late Seventies, Dylan seemed like an esoteric, far-from-the-centre-of-things figure, a talisman only for those fusty freaks known as Dylanologists (admittedly this was during the singer's Born Again Christian phrase, an all-time nadir in the graph line of his iconicity). Same goes for the Beach Boys, actually: they were this slightly naff surf group with castrato voices, and once again it's only sustained effort from the Brian Wilson Is a Genius industry that has subsequently placed them in vicinity to the Fab Four. No, from Liverpool in '63 to London from '65 onwards (with a slight intermission for San Francisco, but who actually listens to the records made by that fair city's acid-rockers?), Britannia ruled the airwaves even as she repeatedly waived the rules of rock.

In the Seventies, things evened out between USA and UK, but on balance I'd still give it to us Brits. We invented three of the decade's crucial rock genres (metal, prog, glam) and co-invented (I'd say perfected) the other one, punk. Without the Sex Pistols and all that followed them, punk would never have changed rock history; the New York scene was a coalition of post-Beatnik poets, junkie axe heroes, and B-movie obsessed record collectors. Give or take "Marquee Moon" the song, I'd swap the entirety of NYC punk for the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady.

The Eighties? Started well, with a Second British Invasion (what American journalists dubbed our horde of gender-bendy synthpoppers and fair-haired funkateers, with MTV playing a treasonous Benedict Arnold-type role) that echoed if not quite equaled the British beat boom's impact on Sixties America. But then things started slipping in the later Eighties and from grunge and gangsta onwards it's been downhill ever since for the UK in terms of our special relationship with America. In 1984, the peak year of the Second British Invasion, UK artists commanded 28 percent of the best selling albums in America; by 1999 that figure had shriveled to 0.2 percent and, despite a Coldplay here and an Amy Winehouse there, it's never really recovered. It's like an extremely unfair trade pact: the Yanks flood our market with their pop product but (outside a niche audience of nutty Anglophiles) they've no interest in taking our exports.

Paul Morley suggested recently that pop music--our flair for it, our prominent role in it globally and historically--has been perhaps the major force in holding the nation together during its post-imperial twilight of identity confusion. That pop was a kind of groovy surrogate for the British Empire, in fact. So what happened? How did we manage to lose a second Empire? Simon Frith argues that the 1963-84 period was an exceptional "moment," during which a confluence of historically contingent factors made the UK an equal partner with America. Rock'n'roll may have started out as purely American, but by the time the music became "rock" it was Anglo-American, and with the emphasis on the first half of that hyphenate. Just at the point--1963-66--when the music acquired a sense of artiness and literacy (while simultaneously coming into alignment with revolutionary and progressive currents within society) Britain came to the fore. And did again, with punk, recharging the fading battery of rock-as-oppositional-force. Perhaps Britain's eminence has declined in ratio to the extent that those things are no longer what rock is about? Maybe our eclipse ran in parallel with the gradual relapse of rock/pop into showbiz, a fully-integrated product within the capitalistic leisure/entertainment complex?

There are other factors that gave us our historical edge, I think. One was the very element of distance, which opened up possibilities of irony, artifice, and conceptualism, but also had sonic effects. The American theorist Joe Carducci notes how Sixties and Seventies British bands's music often had a quality of starkness, comparing the "organic", muddily-produced sound of US groups (everyone from Grand Funk Railroad to the Stooges) with the relative clarity of heavy-riffing outfits like Sabbath, Zeppelin and Free (just think of the use of silence in "Alright Now"). That led in turn to the punchy production of glam rock and the diagrammatic sound-structures of postpunk outfits like Wire and Gang of Four. It's almost as though our remoteness from the roots source allowed for a certain coldblooded detachment, an ability to stand back a little way and then open up the rhythmic engine of rock to rearrange its moving parts. Perhaps that's also why British bands embraced the studio so avidly. I've long felt that British rock is essentially about recordings, whereas Americans invariably withhold judgement about a band until they've seen them live (where sound is more mushed-up and what counts is "feel"). Compare the Beatles, tampering with the raw materiality of sound using effects and tape-splices at Abbey Road, with the Byrds, whose innovations were rooted more in the fluidity of the improvisatory jam. The Beatles were Stockhausen fans; The Byrds admired Coltrane. That difference goes some way to explaining the UK lineage of studio wizardry that takes in Joe Meek, Pink Floyd, 10CC, Brian Eno, Trevor Horn, the list is endless. There are American equivalents--Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, Lindsay Buckingham--but not nearly so many.

Another factor to consider is the special British susceptibility to Black American music (and Caribbean too--could there ever have been an American Specials, a U.S. Police?). Scan across British pop history and you'll repeatedly find black sounds of diverse sorts sparking the brightest musical minds: countless Sixties groups who studied blues recordings with a scholarly intensity; Robert Wyatt with his love of jazz and vocal emulation of Dionne Warwick; John Lydon going to reggae "blues" dances chaperoned by Don Letts; entire cults from trad jazz to Northern Soul to 2-Tone based around bygone styles of black dance; everyone from Jamiroquai to LTJ Bukem mooning over the "kosmigroove" jazz-funk of Roy Ayers; Mike Skinner entranced by Nas and Raekwon but then deciding to honor the rap dictum "do you"… Sometimes it feels like we feel this music more deeply than any other non-black people on Earth: it supplies something we need, lets loose something that would be otherwise hopelessly knotted. But at our best we've always brought something to the music, our own twist, some uniquely British content.

Why did our mutations of the Black American source sounds stop playing so well internationally, though? By the end of the Nineties, our overseas profile had slipped to the parlous point where chart-topping UK sensations as various as So Solid Crew and Girls Aloud not only failed to match their UK impact in America, they couldn't even get their albums released there! The reason, I think, is the dominance of hip hop and our failure (unlike with R&B in the Sixties and funk in the Seventies and Eighties) to come up with spin on it that Americans cared for or found convincing. Jungle, trip hop, 2step, grime: all fantastically innovative, but with a few exceptions--Portishead, riding high in both Billboard and the UK Top Forty as I write--they never got close to rivaling American rap. Not even in the UK itself. Hip hop's appeal is partly based on the fact that it is always originally a local music, rich in a sense of place, steeped in 'hood lore. But injecting exactly that sort of English parochial quirkiness into rap got UK artists like the Streets and Dizzee Rascal no more than cult followings of Anglophile hipsters in the USA.

We may no longer be able to foist our homegrown pop peculiarities on the entire world like we once did. But we still, occasionally, foist them on ourselves. Amid the latest American-made machine pop and its second-rate homegrown clones, there are always things in our singles chart that could only ever be a hit in Britain. Bassline house from Sheffield and Nottingham, all faecal-splattery low-end and deliriously treble-tastic euphoria. Wiley and his "Rolex". Daft art school chancers like the Klaxons, who modeled their career on the KLF's The Manual: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way and ended up performing a live mash-up with Rihanna and her "Umbrella" onstage at the 2008 Brit Awards. Only in the UK! For sure, there's a pathos to that. But there is also-- strangely, resiliently, defiantly--a pride.