Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Fame Monster: Trump (and Corbyn, and Clinton) seen through the prism of glam

(director's cut of piece published in The Guardian, October 14th 2016)

Glamour, noun – 1. (archaic) visual illusion, a magical haze in the air causing things to appear different from how they really are (as in “cast the glamour”). Etymology: Scottish, variant of Scottish gramayre,  “magic, enchantment, spell”.

Trumpery, noun -  1.  worthless nonsense  2/ practices that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value. 3. (archaic) tawdry finery.  Etymology: Middle English (Scots), trumpery -  deceit or fraud;  from Middle French, tromper – to trick, as in trompe l’oeil.

When I was writing my new glam rock history Shock and Awe, I kept running into things that seemed like premonitions – previews of the scary and dangerous man running for the American presidency right now.

In his mid-Seventies interviews, David Bowie kept talking -- in an unnervingly fixated way --about “a strong leader” destined to “sweep through” the Western World: a charismatic superhero who might emerge not from conventional politics but from the entertainment field. Sometimes Bowie’s tone was ominous and fatalistic, as if this scenario was inevitable. At other times, he’d make it seem like a necessary corrective to a Weimar-style state of decadence, talking with seemingly approving anticipation of “a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny” that would clean up all the mess made by the permissive society.

At his most extreme, unguarded and cocaine-addled, Bowie proposed himself as a candidate for the job, whether as British PM, as the “first English president of the United States,” or maybe even as ruler of the world. 

Another future-spectre of Trump was Alice Cooper’s pretend run for the presidency in 1972. It took the form of the single “Elected” and its hilarious, delirious video but nonetheless had a curiously convincing tone of megalomaniacal demagoguery about it, as Cooper boasted that he and his “young and strong” followers would take “the country by storm.”

On the surface, Donald Trump and the glam era’s stars couldn’t be further apart. What does Trump have in common with Ziggy Stardust, apart from orange hair?  The Donald is a bigot, a macho bully, a philistine, a proud ignoramus.  Bowie and the brightest of his peers were androgynous aesthetes, intellectually hungry and sexually experimental.

And yet there are some unlikely affinities. As signaled by his gilded tower on 5th Avenue, Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers likewise shared an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain “no time for losers” crystallises his Economic Darwinist worldview.

A mirror of oligopoly capitalism, pop is a ferociously competitive game that sorts the contestants into a handful of winners and a greater number of losers.  Propelled by a stardom-at-all-costs drive, many of the principal characters in Shock and Awe - Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, Bryan Ferry –nimbly reinvented themselves and in some cases trampled people on their way up.  They willed their fantasy-selves into existence.  This same ethos of “don’t dream it, be it” (as articulated by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Frank-N-Furter) could be seen in the type of fandom that glam inspired. It had an imitative quality never really seen before in pop: audiences dressing up like the star, copying the hair and make-up. For instance, Roxy Music’s fans - responding to the sophistication of the group’s image and artwork, to audience-flattering lyrical winks such as “sure to make the cognoscenti think” - costumed themselves as members of a make-believe aristocracy. Ferry recalled how some of their Northern followers would turn up to the shows in full black tie, as if attending the Academy Awards ceremony. 

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is clearly something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth and entitlement, who’s free to do and say whatever he wants.  Even the sexual predator boasts caught on the Access Hollywood tape - “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything” - sound uncomfortably close to the rock star / rap star fantasies of freedom and power that are so alluring to so many. Truth is, Tump is an aspirational figure as much as he’s a mouthpiece for resentment and rancor.

“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of The Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole.” That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the American saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it. Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in America: travelling everywhere in a limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t yet, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality.

Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand. As commentators have noticed, banks see him as a promoter rather than a CEO: licensed out, the Trump name gets affixed to buildings and businesses that he doesn’t own, let alone run. He’s an extreme version of what people on Wall Street call a “glamour stock”:  an investment that outperforms the market based on an inflated belief in its future growth potential or on even more intangible qualities of cool and buzz. Twitter has been described as the ultimate glamour stock, its attractive image vastly out of whack with its ability to make money.  A glamour stock is a self-fulfilling prophecy initially: a magic trick of confidence, its wins because everyone believes it’s going to win. A glamour stock will keep on winning right up until it loses: when the gulf between its perceived value and actual wealth-generative potential gets too huge, when reality finally disrupts the reality-distortion field surrounding it.   

Self-reinvention was the strategy used by glam stars like Bowie and Bolan. You can see the same chameleonic flexibility at work in Trump’s career. Once upon a time he was a Democrat, on genial terms with the Clintons.  Years ago he used Birtherism as the launch pad for a political career; now he’s dropped it as a political liability. Same with his recent rabble-rousing rhetoric about building a Wall. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer analyses the agility with which Trump evades attacks by discarding ideas: “He merely creates new Trumps.”  That sounds eerily like the way Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.

And it’s the drama that holds the public’s attention – the edgy promise of a less boring politics.  The New York Times recently quoted a voter who confessed to flirting with the idea of voting for Trump because “a dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in. There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen.”


Emerging after the earnest, authenticity-obsessed late Sixties, glam was a period in which rock rediscovered a sense of showbiz and spectacle. Pop history has repeatedly cycled through such phases of glam and anti-glam: Bowie/Roxy razzle-dazzle was supplanted by scruffy pub rock and street-credible punk, which in turn was eclipsed by the neo-glam of the New Romantics. A similar shift occurred in America when glitzy hair metal was displaced by grunge’s mud-slide sound and earth-toned clothes.  

Strangely, you can see similar dynamics at play in contemporary politics.  Hilary Clinton sits squarely in the unglam corner: a worthy but dull public servant, supremely accomplished at everything required of a politician and leader except what the public perversely craves - being an entertainer.  Hilary is the American political equivalent of a “value stock” – those dowdy companies that over time doggedly outperform the glamour stocks, but simply don’t inspire spasms of irrational exuberance in the markets.

The real anti-glam leader of our age, though, is Jeremy Corbyn.  Bearded and low-key, he’s the UK politics equivalent of Whispering Bob Harris, the presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test - who couldn’t hide his distaste when visually flashy, image-over-substance bands like Roxy Music, Sparks, and New York Dolls appeared on the program. Corbyn is viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theater, the very thing that has carried Trump so close to the White House.  Corbyn tried to change the format and feel of Prime Minister’s Questions, saying that he wished to “remove the theatre from politics”. In one particular PMQ, he responded to Cameron’s slick pre-scripted gags with the schoolmasterly reprimand “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality.”  

Oratory is not Corbyn’s strong suit: he seems instinctively averse to all those elements of spoken language - cadence, musicality of utterance, metaphor – that sway the listener irrationally, bypassing the faculty of judgement. But as Gary Younge argued recently, Corbyn’s plain-spoken delivery is taken as a token of sincerity by his following, who “have not come to be entertained; they have come.... to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.”

This is how a personality cult has built up around Corbyn, despite his honest and accurate admission that "I'm not a personality.”  It’s very indie, very alternative rock, the way that the absence of charisma has become the source of a curious magnetism. But as with a taste for indie’s lack of showy drama, it takes a refined sensibility to see past the surface appearance. The general public want a leader to look like a leader. The performance of a public image is considered as important as the actual job performance.

Once in a blue moon, a politician comes along who combines pop star allure and all the less glamorous qualifications like temperament, competence, and knowledge. Obama has both kinds of cool going for him: perfect comic timing at the White House Correspondents Dinner, calmness and clarity during moments of Oval Office crisis. Politics without any element of charisma is certainly a dry affair. But the cult of personality can be dangerous outside the realm of showbiz, its proper domain.

I could see how easy it was to get a whole rally thing going,” Bowie said in 1974, recalling the height of Ziggymania in Britain a few years earlier. “There were times when I could have told the audience to do anything.” In another interview of that era, Bowie spoke with seeming admiration for the way Hitler “staged a country”, combining “politics and theatrics” to create the ultimate spectacle. “Boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience...  [Hitler] created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like.”  Fingers crossed, the Trump show gets cancelled next month.

Further reading

"The Majesty of Trump"  by Will Wilkinson at The New York Times

Forward's Jake Romm with a convincing reading of Time's Person of the Year cover, analysing the staging of the Trump photograph (by Nadav Kander) as a slyly subversive deconstruction of his regal pretensions:

"The masterstroke, the single detail that completes the entire image, is the chair. Trump is seated in what looks to be a vintage “Louis XV” chair... The chair not only suggests the blindly ostentatious reigns of the French kings just before the revolution, but also, more specifically, the reign of Louis XV who, according to historian Norman Davies, “paid more attention to hunting women and stags than to governing the country” and whose reign was marked by “debilitating stagnation,” “recurrent wars,” and “perpetual financial crisis” (sound familiar?). The brilliance of the chair however, is visual rather than historical. It’s a gaudy symbol of wealth and status, but if you look at the top right corner, you can see a rip in the upholstery, signifying Trump’s own cracked image. Behind the bluster, behind the glowing displays of wealth, behind the glittering promises, we have the debt, the tastelessness, the demagoguery, the racism, the lack of government experience or knowledge... Once we notice the rip, the splotches on the wood come into focus, the cracks in Trump’s makeup, the thinness of his hair, the stain on the bottom left corner of the seat — the entire illusion of grandeur begins to collapse. The cover is less an image of a man in power than the freeze frame of a leader, and his country, in a state of decay. The ghostly shadow works overtime here — suggesting a splendor that has already passed, if it ever existed at all."

"'We found that reality TV stars were the most narcissistic of any group of celebrities including actors, musicians and comedians,' says Mark Young, who studies the entertainment industry at the University of Southern California and co-authored The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America. Young says a talent vacuum in most reality TV stars means they have to “act out” to stay in the public eye, while typically also losing self-awareness to paranoia and insecurity. “Reality TV has normalised outrageous and inappropriate behaviour,” he says. Viewers demand it, meanwhile, “since they are primed for this type of entertainment and stimulation”. Young identifies a comparable feedback loop of outrage in Trump’s presidential campaign. “He didn’t have skills in the political arena so … he was able to keep himself ‘fresh’ by being outrageous,” he says. He calls Trump’s victory “the greatest ending to any reality TV show in history”.

Trump's unprincipled flip-flopping and opportunistic beliefs as revealed in this 2000 interview when he tried to run as Presidential Candidate with pro-immigration, pro-health-care, pro-LGBT etc positions: "Last fall Donald Trump shook up the political world by announcing he was joining the Reform Party, a major step in exploring a run for president. The pundits laughed, claiming that the real estate mogul knew more about glamour than politics..."

Laurie Penny on the "performative bigotry", hate-speech cabaret and "pageant of insincerity"  of alt-right trolls -  "the insider traders of the attention economy," with Trump as their Gordon Gekko (Medium)  

Donald Trump as actor playing the part of "Donald Trump"  in a Goffman-esque, "presentation of self in everyday life" (psycho-)analysis by Daniel P. Adams (The Atlantic):

"As brainy social animals, human beings evolved to be consummate actors whose survival and ability to reproduce depend on the quality of our performances. We enter the world prepared to perform roles and manage the impressions of others, with the ultimate evolutionary aim of getting along and getting ahead in the social groups that define who we are. More than even Ronald Reagan, Trump seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting. He moves through life like a man who knows he is always being observed. If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so—superhuman, in this one primal sense."

"Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”"

"The similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump do not end with their aggressive temperaments and their respective positions as Washington outsiders.... They named Jackson “King Mob” for what they perceived as his demagoguery." 

"In Trump’s own words from a 1981 People interview, the fundamental backdrop for his life narrative is this: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.”....   . As Trump has written, “money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score.” The story instead is about coming out on top."...

"Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why"

Beats me really why no one has yet made the blindingly obvious point - no one that I've read anyway - that Trump's psychology - Trump's performance-mode (free associational grandiosity/fragmentary-paranoia)  is at core identical with rap's. 

Greil Marcus on Trump as Ubu Roi and Beyonce as Trump (in Tages Anzeiger)

"Her fans, her followers, the people who think she understands them.... : They are in love with her apparent power. She seems to own the stage she walks on, she seems to own the air she breathes. And we breathe that same air at her dispensation. The aura that surrounds here and that she’s created around herself and other people have created around her is very similar to the aura that has been created around Donald Trump. This sense of authority, of absolute power, a sense that one has reached a point where he or she can do absolutely anything and be beyond criticism, alone face any consequences. I don’t want this to be misconstrued. Donald Trump is a racist, Beyoncé is not. Donald Trump wants to destroy people, and I don’t think Beyoncé does. They’re entirely different, but the linkage between the two is that they worship power and the appearance of power....

"[That SNL sketch about how] anybody who doesn’t like Beyoncé is hunted down and thrown into prison. Anybody who likes her new album but not the seventh track loses his job and is attacked by the FBI...  the Beygency hunting anyone that doesn’t bow to her - this sketch actually gets to the question: What if Beyoncé was Donald Trump? And Donald Trump was a dictator? And to criticize him became a crime?" 

Trump as King - blogpost at Followers of the Apocalypse on the royalist and restorationist currents of "neo-reactionism":

"Is Trump a king? Well he does try to act like one… the royal court, the favoured children, the droit de seigneurthe whole Louis XIV decor… and [neo-reactionist polemicist] Moldbug does call for a CEO as king (he suggested Elon Musk). But on the converse he’s actually not a very good CEO (by any reasonable measure), and he’s a bit – well – common. Aesthetics and decorum are a huge deal for the neo-reactionaries: they want nobles who are truly noble (with elegant, long, royal fingers…). But he’s a placeholder. Now we’ve normalised the idea of CEO as global leader it’s easier to argue for a better CEO, using the intervening time and Trump’s love of being hated to remove democratic checks and balances as far as possible" 
Rowan Wilson on the failure of mass democracy and the triumph of Trump's theatrical politics (New Statesman)

"... an incoherent series of crowd-pleasing postures,... Trump’s real aim was not to do anything as president but simply to be president, to be the most important man in the Western world. This election represents a divorce between the electoral process and the business of political decision-making. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre, in which what matters most is the declaration of victory.
As such, it is the most cynical betrayal of those who are disenfranchised. It confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch...   The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns...  For significant parts of a population, “theatrical” politics comes to look like the only option: a dramatic articulation of the problems of powerlessness, for which the exact details of economic or social reality are irrelevant. This delivers people into the hands of another kind of dishonest politics: the fact-free manipulation of emotion by populist adventurers."

A counter-view from Sam Kriss that goes back to Plato to examine the inherent theatricality of politics and how we've always been "post-truth" (Slate) : 

"... in The Laws, Plato describes Athenian democracy as “wretched theatrokratia,” rule by the theater, a society on the precipice of tyranny... Science is a discourse in which the categories of truth or falsehood make sense; aesthetics is one in which they don’t. Politics is something strange, however: It’s far closer to literature than it is to science—disagreements over political principle can’t be settled through a practical experiment... the power offered by politics is always the power to imagine something unreal. You can dream of (for instance) a National Health Service, or an end to all war, or the liberation of women. You can dream of things that don’t yet exist and are by any binary definition untrue and then begin to bring them into being.... It’s not that facts aren’t good for anything, but a politics consisting of facts and nothing else isn’t politics, but management. This is what our politics are actually turning into: rule by experts and fatalism....Politics is where people can gain the ability to actively reshape the world, rather than just describe it. It’s as false as the Athenian theater, and this is no bad thing. Of course these aspects of politics can give rise to monsters like Donald Trump; dreams always raise the possibility of a nightmare.... "

Counter-counterview from Bernard-Henri Lévy (in The Telegraph)

 “If Trump is possible, then everything is possible... As for Le Pen it is unlikely that she wins but it is possible, and that is partly because the people have lost interest in policy, instead focusing on personality.... they even seem less concerned about whether the candidates are telling the truth or not. They are more interested in the performance, in the theatrical quality of what is said than whether it is true. And as we know, a fascist can put on a very successful performance.”

C.f.  performatism

c.f. the famous clash between George W. Bush aide versus Ron Suskind:  History's actors versus the reality-based community with their judicious study of discernible reality, the expert sifting of facts and data

Trump as Roman Emperor and maestro of "crass showmanship" as the new political norm - Katy Waldman at Slate

"He is America’s capricious kingmaker, the impish, omnipotent ringmaster of a grand circus in which he’s taming CEOs and the liberal media and Mexico and Mitt Romney and lions—big, beautiful lions—in all five rings simultaneously. The changing weather of Donald Trump’s temperament and his thrilling and sinister ability to enact his fitful will—these are the themes of a mass entertainment that has taken the place of traditional presidential politics. “One of the announcers, I have to tell you, from ESPN,” Trump told his followers on Thursday night, “he said, ‘That [election night] was the most exciting event I’ve ever seen.’ ” Every time Trump injects chaos into the system or subverts our expectations, he makes the spectacle better, and America worse."

Trumpism and the Weimar analogy / decadence>authoritarianism syndrome (Chris Hedges's "It's Worse Than You Think" at Truthdig):

"We have replaced political discourse, news, culture and intellectual inquiry with celebrity worship and spectacle...  '“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Noam Chomsky told me with uncanny insight when I spoke with him six years ago.... 'The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen....'.... The rot of our failed democracy vomited up a con artist who was a creation of the mass media—first playing a fictional master of the universe on a reality television show and later a politician as vaudevillian.  Trump pulled in advertising dollars and ratings. Truth and reality were irrelevant.... Trump is emblematic of what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” A society in terminal decline often retreats into magical thinking. Reality is too much to bear. It places its faith in the fantastic and impossible promises of a demagogue or charlatan who promises the return of a lost golden age." 

"There's No Check on Trump Except Reality" - Wayne Barrett, Village Voice man interviewed at The New Republic

From Barrett's book's Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: "His fatalism allowed him hold himself blameless; his determinism convinced him he’d be a winner again. On the public stage where he’d played out every act of his life he was too much of a showman to be embarrassed by a single disastrous performance. The cumulative effect of this life view—so deep seated it appeared to be instinctual—was the confidence that all of this would come and go.” 

from the interview: 
on Trump as gambler / speculator / fabulator:

"Donald in ‘88 and ‘89 was doing incomprehensible deals that were unsustainable on their face, thinking he could not lose. Almost every one of those deals blew up in his face. It was like one lemon after another in a manic, manic state. I thought he was on the same kind of manic run the last two years. I thought he had damaged his brand and that it was all going to explode. I thought he was like on a 1988-89 re-run. And then it turns out that he wins. In the 1990s, he was anything but manic. He was extremely subdued....  he was hiding in the ‘90s. He was just glad to be alive. And biding his time."

on his success as a triumph of optics belying the reality of failure: 

"The glamor is intoxicating. He understood that carrying this big dick, having a blonde on his arm, getting into the casino businesses where everything seemed to convey a fast life, when it’s really a dead end for so many people ... Trump Tower is really the only great project that he actually built....  It’s a triumph of a project. That can make your name. The triumphs are what last in this culture. He seemed to have it all, and that stays in the mindset. So he has a track record of bankruptcy and failure, but there’s also this narrative that he’s the embodiment of brashness, boldness, decisiveness, and that’s what people choose to see. You see that plane ... This plane is in every American living room. Night after night after night, with his name emblazoned on it. What better conveys great wealth, unbelievable success? "

Jamelle Bouie at Slate on the aspirational nature of Trump's lies

'“The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere and of every time,” wrote... Hannah Arendt///  “The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old Occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that ‘true’ which until then could only be stated as a lie.” Put in plain language, fascists didn’t lie to obscure the truth; they lied to signal what would eventually become truth."

Chris Ott aka Shallow Rewards on Trump as "The Contestant" (subscribe here)

"His only interest was in the contest itself, because he is a gambler. He did not get into the casino business randomly: his dream of owning a casino was an augmented reflection of his innate obsession with outcomes.... Trump likes to watch the wheel spin. He likes to blow on dice....    It has become clear Trump was only interested in winning. This has been suggested from the beginning: my point is that it is now incontestably clear, clear enough that he must answer for it. He has spilled his drink on the roulette table to ensure nobody wins, but more importantly, he doesn't lose.... Trump's flailing transition trainwreck is evidence of his disregard for the prize he has won. The presidency is merely a trophy to him, a ratings victory following another reality show." 

Slate's Julia Turner on Trump's Stunt Presidency:

"[Stunting like the Carrier Deal] bypasses the abstractions of administration and substitutes visceral image-making instead... To understand how fiendishly effective this tactic might be, it’s worth considering the facsimile of “business” presented on Trump’s reality show... What’s striking about the show, though, is not how phony it seems but how masterfully it presents its version of “business” as real.... The viewer comes away with the idea that running a company entails performing well at a set of random, atomized, concrete tasks. Turn an empty storefront into a pop-up bridal boutique. Develop a new menu item for a chicken chain.... The Carrier deal is the first hint that Trump may approach “governance” the way his show approached “business”: as a set of small, tangible wins to be stacked up week by week. The approach is opportunistic rather than strategic, concerned with short-term victories rather than the unglamorous work of building something enduring and strong... No matter how engaged with policy Trump turns out to be, his 12 years of presenting business acumen as a series of memorable stunts will have a deep impact on the way he governs us. He’ll serve up his own presidential prowess with similar élan. Trump’s whole campaign testified to his knack for making America’s troubles seem tangible for voters—vivid, simplistic challenges to which he offered vivid, simplistic solutions.... It’s almost as though he sees the problems facing the country in episodic narrative form. The challenge then for journalists is to become more than tart recappers of this unfolding show"

Me on the Weeknd as the king of WeimaR&B  - decadent dirges that glamorize giving in and giving up - the sonic prequel to the Trump Takeover (the Guardian)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Postpunk By Design: Metal Box (Frieze, 2007)

some of my perspectives on Metal Box have changed in the 9 years since writing this Frieze piece (which is largely about the packaging of the LP as opposed to the music). Wonder if they will continue to change over the next decades of re-listening?

Metal Box Remembered  / Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon’s Public Image Limited  by Phil Strongman

(directors' cut, Frieze 2007)

by Simon Reynolds

My most vivid memory of Metal Box is a week before Christmas Day, 1979. My parents were out, so I sneaked PiL’s album out of the airing cupboard where they stashed the presents and for the first time prised off the tin’s lid, then gingerly extracted the three discs tightly crammed inside. Aged sixteen, I just couldn’t wait to play the record that was being universally acclaimed as a giant step into a brave new world beyond rock’s confines. As a result I crossed a line myself, between innocence and adulthood.

Demystification was the whole point of Metal Box’s packaging, a metallic canister of the type that ordinarily contains movie reels. Like the band-as-corporation name Public Image Ltd, the matt-gray tin was an attempt to strip away mystique, all the “bollocks” of rock romanticism, But Metal Box, of course, just added to the mystique around PiL, the group John Lydon formed after splitting with the Sex Pistols. Drab yet imposing, standing out in record shop racks or on the shelves of a collection, the can instantly became a fetish object. And although its aura was utilitarian, the packaging was actually less functional than a normal album jacket. Instead of slipping the disc out of its sleeve, you had to carefully ease out the three 45rpm 12 inches, which were separated only by paper circles the same size as the platters. Removing the vinyl without scratching it was a challenge.

 Almost thirty years later, my three discs look in remarkably good nick considering I must have played them hundreds of times. But then I was precious about my possessions: an avid postpunk fan hamstrung by weak finances, I owned about six albums in toto, and Metal Box’s  hefty £7-45 price tag was the reason I’d requested it for Xmas, despite the delay this would mean in hearing it.

All this user-unfriendly palaver with the discs did have the effect of heightening the experience of playing Metal Box, giving it an almost ritualistic quality. PiL’s own motivations were partly malicious pranksterism and partly a serious attempt to deconstruct the Album. In interviews, bassist Jah Wobble was adamant that you should definitely not play Metal Box in sequence but listen to one side of a disc (two or three tracks, tops) at a time. Spreading an hour or so’s music across three records encouraged listeners to reshuffle the running order as they saw fit; as a result, the record became a set of resources rather than a unitary artwork.

 “Useful” was a big PiL buzzword (that’s what they liked about disco, that it was danceable). It was a term that allowed Lydon to carry on opposing himself to all things arty and pretentiousness, even as he perpetrated a supreme feat of artiness with Metal Box

Like Factory Records’ exquisitely designed releases of the same era, Metal Box simultaneously extended the art rock tradition of extravagant packaging (Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, for instance) while subverting it through its stark plainness (which ironically, cost a bleedin’ fortune). The only precedent I can think of is Alice Cooper’s 1974 album Muscle of Love, which came in a brown cardboard carton (Lydon, as it happens, was a huge Alice fan). The concept for Metal Box originated with PiL’s design-conscious friend Dennis Morris, the court photographer at Lydon’s house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, and also a member of the all-black PiL-like band Basement 5. 

Where the sleeve of  the debut album Public Image: First Issue lampooned rock’s cult of personality (Morris photographed the band in Vogue-style make-up and suits) Metal Box went one step further to a blank impersonality, the absence of any kind of image at all. Flowers of Romance, the third album, took a step too far with its desultory Polaroid of band associate Jeanette Lee, but that was long after Morris had been ousted from the PiL milieu.

Morris’s crucial contribution to Public Image Ltd is something that comes through loud and clear in the new PiL book,  Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon’s Public Image Limited (and yes, that misspelling of the band’s name – not a good augury – is maintained doggedly from the front cover
right through to the book’s end).If author Phil Strongman is savvy enough to name his book after PiL’s totemic masterpiece, he’s less shrewd in doggedly pursuing the story long after PiL ceased to be a creative force. 

As Mark Fisher has noted, every pop story, followed through to its narrative (in)conclusion, ends in ignominy or disappointment. So it is with the PiL-brand-disgracing travesties Lydon  released immediately after first Wobble (the group’s heart and soul) and then guitarist Keith Levene (its musical brains) were ejected. More disheartening still, in a way, was the mediocre competence of the PiL albums of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

Still, Strongman’s account of the “good years” is rich in new data, from deliciously incongruous trivia (Ted Nugent was Levene’s choice to produce the first album! Led Zep manager Peter Grant was mad keen to take on PiL as clients!) to more compelling revelations (the mystery of whether “Poptones”, Metal Box’s stand-out track, is sung by a murdered corpse or an abduction survivor abandoned and shivering in the woods, is settled).

As so often with rock biographies, though, quite a lot of the information tends to tarnish the reputations of the protagonists. Ironically, given their fervent anti-rock stance (Lydon derided rock as a “disease”, something to be “cancelled”), PiL’s productivity was disabled by a thoroughly rock’n’roll set of failings: drug addiction, drug paranoia, egomania, money disputes, mismanagement. (PiL actually had no manager, on account of Lydon’s bad experiences with Malcolm McLaren; the role was portioned between Jeanette Lee and another Lydon crony, Dave Crowe, with the band finances kept in a box--cardboard, this time--under a bed). Equally lamentably rock’n’roll is the Spinal Tap-like procession of drummers, five in the first two years (one of whom, ex-Fall drummer, Karl Burns, stayed in the band for just a few days, quitting after being the victim of a dangerous prank involving fire).

All the main players (and numerous extremely minor ones) are interviewed, with the
glaring exception of Lydon himself. But that’s no surprise, because he’s consciously distanced himself from PiL over the years. At some point he clearly grasped that his place in Rock History (and future income) depends on the Sex Pistols adventure and subsequently threw all his energies into burnishing the Johnny Rotten legend. 

But I wonder if another factor behind Lydon’s silence is that the PiL years are painful to contemplate--not just because of bad blood (Wobble was one of his best friends) but because the music of Metal Box, rooted in his true loves ( Can, Beefheart, Peter Hammill, dub)  meant so much to him. He really believed all that “rock is dead” rhetoric, was sincere when he dismissed the Sex Pistols as way too traditional. 

And for a moment there, rock’s intelligentsia concurred. Metal Box’s stature in 1979-80 was so immense that many commentators invoked Miles Davis’s early Seventies music as a reference point. Lester Bangs declared that that he’d stake a lifetime’s writing on Metal Box and Miles’s Get Up With It. When his apartment caught fire, the first and only thing Bangs grabbed as he fled to the street below in his jim-jams was that matt grey tin can.

It’s the music inside that counts, though, doesn’t it?  My other vivid memory of Metal Box is bringing it to school after our music teacher asked each member of the class to bring in a favourite record and talk about it. I played “Death Disco” and “Poptones,” then regurgitated stuff I’d read in NME about how PiL were radical for absorbing the influence of funk and reggae. I wasn’t able to articulate what made their  mutational approach different and superior to contemporaries like The Police or indeed Old Wave rock gods like The Stones when they disco-rocked it with “Miss You”. 

But the lasting proof of PiL’s innovatory power is their music’s ever-widening ripples of influence, which encompass Massive Attack, Primal Scream (they hired Wobble for 1991’s “Higher than the Sun”), Tortoise, Radiohead, and many more. You can trace a line from PiL via On U Sound (whose Adrian Sherwood had dealings* with Lydon, Levene and Wobble back then) to today’s dubstep, which, like Metal Box, is Jamaican music with the sunshine extracted, roots reggae without Rasta’s consoling dream of Zion.

PiL’s biggest influence though, might be their rhetoric. The idea that “rock is obsolete” (as Wobble put it in 1978) became a self-replicating meme that inoculated an entire generation against the retro-virus by directing them away from rock’s back pages and towards the cutting-edges of contemporary black music.

 In the age of downloading and dematerialized sound-data, Metal Box has a fresh resonance for me as a powerful argument in favor of the necessity for music to be physically embodied. The record was significantly diminished in its subsequent incarnation as Second Edition (the gatefold-sleeved double album it became when the 60 thousand limited edition Metal Box sold out). The CD reissue, housed in a miniature metal canister, is almost risible to behold, while its digitized sound lacks the warmth and weight of the original deep-grooved 45 rpm 12 inches. 

Most crucially, you simply weren’t meant to listen to Metal Box as one long uninterrupted 70 minute sequence. 

A 1979 pressing fetches 200 dollars on Gemm; the reproduction antique vinyl reissue of Metal Box from a few years back isn’t cheap either. But this is one record you simply must have, hold and hear in its original format. 

* not just musical dealings either, it's said...  nudge nudge wink wink say no more say no more