Saturday, May 21, 2022
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Thursday, May 5, 2022
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen is sometimes described as the invisible narrator of Robert Altman’s radically reinvented Western. But given that his lyrics are even more oblique than the storyline, Cohen doesn’t emotionally elucidate the action so much as glaze it with a layer of symbolism and parable, lending a mythic gravity to the travails of these flawed and ornery characters. Only three Cohen songs appear: “The Stranger Song,” Sisters of Mercy,” “Winter Lady”. All are from the first side of his 1968 debut (a record Altman played so often that he replaced the worn-out vinyl repeatedly). But they recur, weaving in and out of the action, staining it with rich mood-tones of tenderness, regret, gratitude, and unbridgeable apartness. They also work as aural markers for the main characters. “The Stranger Song”, first heard over the credits, is McCabe, the restless surge of its tremolo acoustic chords suggesting a man doomed to drift, uncertain behind his bravado, his existential foundations shaky. Although the title comes from an Catholic organization of nuns, “Sisters of Mercy” is about a different kind of succor: it accompanies the arrival of the prostitutes, with the psychedelic band Kaleidoscope adding tinkly turn-of-century textures in the expanded movie version of the song. “Winter Lady” is Mrs. Miller’s theme but also the heartsick voice of McCabe’s thwarted longing for her. Although lines like “I’m just a station on your way / I know I’m not your lover” speaks what the characters cannot articulate, Cohen’s songs work not so much as commenting text as complementary texture. His music sounds just like the misty-memory look that cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond achieved by “flash”-treating the film negative. Cohen becomes an inseparable formal element of the film, as unexpected and thrillingly innovatory as Altman’s overlapping dialogue and low-key naturalistic direction.
Solaris (Eduard Artemiev)
Walkabout (John Barry)
In Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film, two British children stranded in the outback are rescued and guided back to “civilization” by an indigenous Australian boy. Scare quotes around the C-word, for Walkabout is a rhapsodic elegy for Nature and our lost innocence. Because there’s only sporadic dialogue (Roeg described the script as “a fourteen-page prose poem”) and the 6-year-old brother and his teenage sister have been brought up in typically post-imperial stiff-upper-lip fashion, nearly all the emotional eloquence in the movie is supplied by the score. Waltjinju Bandilil’s eerie didgeridoo and Stockhausen’s disorienting tape-piece Hymnen conjure the unknowable majesty of the arid landscape and its scorching extremes of weather. But it’s veteran film composer John Barry who establishes the prevailing mood with his piercingly poignant orchestrations. A stirring choral theme redolent of a school song, “The Children” evokes the simple-hearted hope and accepting obedience with which kids face the world. The horn fanfares of “The Journey” conjure a storybook adventure air, mirroring the way that the youngest child in particular processes their predicament. Above all, there’s the recurring main theme, a patient pulse of plinky harpsichord over which wistful woodwinds pipe and tender violins soar and swoop, like a kite whose strings are tugging at your heart not your hands.
Blade Runner (Vangelis)
Sunday, April 24, 2022
(via Nothing Else On)
A proposal by Paul Oldfield and me to write a profile of ECM Records and its chamber-jazz on the occasion of its 20th birthday in 1989. It would have been the third in a trilogy of pieces we co-wrote for the Guardian, including a moderately infamous critique of world music and a defense of hyper-masculine music like rap, metal and Electronic Body Music (for the deconstruction of male psychology it afforded). We were really pushing it with this one though and it's hardly surprising it wasn't given the green light. Apart from the ideas in it, the length of the proposal itself is .... well, feature-length. A la Borges, it's a map of the territory that is the same size as the territory itself.
This year Germany's ECM record label celebrates its
twentieth anniversary. Because it doesn't promote itself, ECM
has always had a low profile: this despite its commercial
success in the Seventies with artists like Pat Metheny, Keith
Jarrett and Chick Corea, and a current roster that ranges
from acclaimed improviser Jan Garbarek to the Estonian
composer Arvo Part. This relative obscurity stems from the
label's founder, Manfred Eicher, who has zealously preserved
his vision of ECM as an island apart from the modishness and
market-consciousness of the music industry, whose output he
characterises as "environmental pollution".
But it's this very "apartness" that has proved so
attractive to the increasing number of pop musicians who have
fallen under ECM's spell during the Eighties. David Sylvian
left behind his glam icon past as lead singer of Japan in
order to pursue a solo career in 'ambient pop', and has
recorded several albums with musicians from the ECM stable.
'Dreampop' experimentalists A.R. Kane have explicitly cited
ECM as an influence, and other groups (Cocteau Twins, Talk
Talk, Durutti Column, Hugo Largo) have much in common with
ECM's quest for "the most beautiful sound next to silence".
As well as it's influence on the pop avant-garde, ECM is
important because of the way it illustrates what both "New
Age" music and "world music" (those buzz concepts of the
Eighties) could and should have been like. New Age music
tends to be the aural equivalent of a Radox bath: it's
therapeutic, a palliative that helps sustain the listener
against, but also within the demands of modern, capitalist
life. Like vitamin supplements or homeopathic remedies, New
Age records are little capsules of pastoralism that enable
the stressed-out executive to cope with urban life. New Age's
soothing emulsions of sound, like Transcendental Meditation
for businessmen, are a tranquiliser rather than a path to
enlightenment. But ECM's "tranquility" is debilitating rather
than restorative: it's about fixing your consciousness on
something until you lose all sense of yourself and your
separateness. The crystalline, open structures of John
Abercrombie's or Ralph Towner's music suggest not so much
withdrawal as a hyper-alert state of suspension, heightened
This "meditational" aspect of ECM music is close to
the Eastern idea of nirvana: the serenity that comes with the
cessation of desire. In his later years, Freud came to
believe in the existence of a "nirvana principle" or "death
instinct" inherent in all organic life: a drive that seeks to
return to the lowest possible point of tension. Freud
believed that human anxiety was caused by the repression of
this natural 'death instinct', resulting in a futile pursuit
of immortality through wordly achievement. 'Nirvana' is the
state-of-grace that comes with the recovery of contact with
the 'death instinct': a sublime inertia where you're wide
open to the world rather than restlessly engaged in leaving
your mark upon it.
'Nirvana' is, in fact, a kind of living death or 'life-
in-death'. So it's interesting that Manfred Eicher describes
ECM music in terms of entombment, of sound that is "burying
itself in a crypt of its own making". It's a metaphor that
connects with the very funereal/Egyptian images of 'cool
jazz' found in Miles Davis or Sun Ra. Other sources of this
meditational/monastical condition are the pervasive
Mediaevalism of ECM (its interest in liturgical, devotional
music) and also its attraction to the Romantics, with their
awe before the "sublime" and "terrible". (ECM's Russian
pianist Valery Afannasiev talks about music that should be
fatal in its beauty, such as Gesualdo's madrigals).
ECM suggest this blurring of boundaries, this blissful
oneness with the world, by their recurrent use of LP cover
images and titles that suggest immense, undifferentiated
spaces - polar landscapes, tundra, deserts, barren cliffs -
expanses that are unchanging over the millenia. ECM's
artists never seem to have any referents, no locus in time or
space. This nomadism, exemplifed by titles like "Wayfarer"
and "Paths, Prints", is based in the intuition that true
bliss is to be nowhere, bewildered in the wilderness. (It's
revealing that the root meaning of "utopia" is nowhere).
This placelessness distinguishes ECM from the "world
music" that it has supposed to have prefigured by a decade or
more. ECM do draw on ethnic music, but this is world music
without any of the Western, liberal ideologies attached to
it: there's nothing rootsy, convivial or feistily "authentic"
about it. Different cultures are crossed at will. An artist
like Stephen Micus uses instruments from every conceivable
time and place, and even invents his own. These ethnic or
ancient musics are often "inauthentic" too: where music
hasn't been written down (e.g. for the albums of Mediaeval
songs) new music is composed, or music from completely
different times and places borrowed for the accompaniment.
Nor is there world music's dogged adherence to Third World
or folk sources. ECM musicians also borrow from elitist,
court cultures, as in Paul Hillier's troubador courtly-love
songs from 12th Century Provence, or Micus' use of
instruments from early European orchestras. Or there's Arvo
Part, who gave up writing serial music, and turned to a
minimalist, neo-Mediaeval partsong. Or the improviser Keith
Jarrett playing a Bach stripped of baroque mannerism or
modern musicianly interpretation and "feeling". Unlike world
music, ECM doesn't try to rediscover pop's Dionysiac values
elsewhere; unlike "authentic" classical performers, it
doesn't try to recreate music as it was.
ECM music, then, is a quest for nirvana through the
transcending of time and place. ECM music offers the listener
a gentle apocalypse (an "end of history" and an "end of
geography"): a tiny foretaste of eternity. Perhaps this
timelessness is actually the most timely phenomenon today:
perfect rest at the heart of the pop world's hyper-active
clatter, an "endless end" to pop's relentless turnover of
Wednesday, April 20, 2022
DRAKE – RAP’S MVP
The Guardian, April 28 2016
by Simon Reynolds
If there’s a single word that describes Drake, probably it would be diffuse. It’s a catch-all that captures the way his tracks seep out the radio like glistening vapour and conveys also the slippery drift of his voice back-and-forth between rapping and singing. “Diffuse” fits Drake’s indistinct aura too: half-black and half-Jewish, he’s the all-pervading master of an American street art who’ll nonetheless always be an outsider on account of his Canadian nationality and middle class upbringing. Drake’s vagueness carries through to his unfixed lyrics: endless celebrations of his own success and stature that are almost always creased with unease and ambivalence, plus his patent brand of not-quite-love songs that combine suppurating sensitivity and emotional evasiveness.
Take his inescapable megahit of 2015 “Hotline Bling”, whose woozy lilt and hang-dog sensuality walked such a fine line (like everything Drake’s done) between addictive and annoying. What would you even call the emotion in this song? Drake pines for a former sexual arrangement that seems to have been at best undefined; he expresses mild distress that the girl appears to be flourishing in his absence, or at least going out partying a lot. As pop romance goes, it’s not exactly “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”. It’s not even “One In A Million” by Aaliyah, the Nineties R&B princess whose minimalist R&B was such an influence on Drake and his principal producer Noah “40” Shebib.
As determined as he is indeterminate, Drake has diffused himself all across the rap ‘n’ R&B radioscape this past half-decade, maintaining ubiquity not just with the steady stream of his own hit singles but with innumerable “feat.” appearances in other people’s songs, ranging from superstars like Rihanna to rising MCs like ILoveMakonnen to the ghost of Aaliyah herself. Last year’s collaborations with Future - “Where Ya At” and “Jumpman” – have remained staples of US urban radio deep into 2016.
Drake’s success at spreading his sound and self far and wide owes much to his actor-ly adaptability and seeming desire to be everything to everybody. He’ll swagger baleful and paranoid on a moody, bare-bones track like “Energy”. He’ll quiet-storm it on moist ‘n’ misty ballads like “Marvin’s Room”. He’ll put out a boppy ditty not a million miles from Justin Bieber’s recent “tropical house” hits with his new single “One Dance”, which samples an old track by UK funky diva Kyla.
But the diffusion of Drake also has something to do with the way he has defused hip hop, uncoupled it from the explosive content once at the core of the genre. Raised primarily in an affluent Toronto suburb, a successful TV actor in his teens, Drake shrewdly avoids street realities like crime as song topics. (Whenever he’s got even close to this subject matter – referencing lawyers and the prison commissary on “Where Ya At,” claiming to have “Started From the Bottom” - it’s been jarring and unconvincing). But nor is Drake a conscious rapper. As a mix-race Canadian, he probably feels it’s not his place to comment on American racial conflicts: Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, the sort of issues an MC like Kendrick Lamar can address and is driven to address.
Drake has plenty of company in rap when it comes to being resolutely apolitical. Still, even the most party-hard, commodity-fetishising gangsta rappers have still communicated some sense of the social backdrop that explains their feral drive for success and all its spoils. Jay-Z, DMX, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, T.I., Future – always there’s been somewhere in the back of their music an idea of overcoming: the rap game was usually chosen as an alternative to destructive (to others and ultimately to yourself) outlaw ways of making money and making a name. That didn’t make the tyrannical postures and gruesome threats, the callous sexism and name-brands flaunting, any less ugly, or even justify it, exactly. But it at least provided a context. Gangsta rap wasn’t about The Struggle, but it had struggle in it.
Drake’s innovation as a rapper is that the only adversity he’s ever really claimed to have faced is the adversity of fame itself. It is virtually his only subject. Even the not-really-love songs are part of this, since they stem from the fracturing of relationships that comes about when someone is constantly travelling and constantly tempted. In “Doing It Wrong” Drake croons ruefully about how “we live in a generation of not being in love and not being together”. And apparently millennials do find the lyrics of Drake’s softer songs - which have the pleading, needy tone ‘n’ texture of R&B ballads but are resolutely irresolute and emotionally non-committal - highly relatable.
Right from the start, with his 2009 breakthrough mix-tape So Far Gone, Drake was writing about the problems caused by celebrity. Whether this was an act of imaginative anticipation, or because he been pre-famed through playing disabled basketball star Jimmy Brooks in the popular teensoap Degrassi: The Next Generation, it’s hard to say. But on songs like “The Calm” Drake was already moaning about feeling over-stretched and cut-off: “to keep everybody happy I think I would need a clone.... feeling so distant from everyone I’ve known.... all my first dates are interrupted by my fame”.
Drake has repeated the same themes, the same mood (bi-polar oscillation between triumph and torment) across his subsequent albums Thank Me Later, Take Care, his masterwork Nothing Was the Same, and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He will almost certainly return to those themes and that mood on his imminent Views From the 6. Authenticity matters as much for Drake as for any rapper, and authenticity means writing about what you know. Fame is pretty much all Drake knows.
It’s a tribute to his powers of invention, his strange and grotesque genius, that Drake has so far managed to find so many compelling variations on such a restricted set of themes : the dream that turns out not be not as dreamy as you’d expected; feeling alone even in the midst of an entourage and a wild party; plaints, already fairly familiar in rap, about how money changes everything and creates mo’ problems than its absence. Haters and gold-diggers were long established in rap as inevitable accoutrements of fame about which you could whinge-boast (hip hop’s equivalent of the humble-brag). But Drake went the next step and talked about the hollow-inside feeling that came with conquering the throne and acquiring all the trophies. As he croons in “All Me”, “Got everything, I got everything/ I cannot complain, I cannot” – but still, still, he complains: about feeing empty, feeling numb. Picking up on pointers left by Kanye West on 808s & Heartbreak but pushing further ahead, Drake made having a spiritual void into rap’s new status symbol. Morose and maudlin became the mark of mega-stardom, not Maybach and Margiela.
From the Clipse to T.I., the trap was rap’s reigning metaphor during the first decade of the 21st Century, a reference to the place where drugs are sold but also the idea of that life as a dead-end (along with the related idea of luring and enslaving the clientele, mostly members of the dealer’s own race, class, community). In Drake’s decade, the 2010’s, fame itself – the escape-route alternative to crime pursued by gangsta rappers – has become a trap of its own. The godfathers of gangsta, NWA talked about “reality rap”; Drake’s self-invented genre is unreality rap, or perhaps hyper-reality rap. Both the mise-en-scene and the topics of his songs – penthouse suites, after-show parties , VIP rooms, award shows, inter-celebrity dating, internet gossip, the proliferation of the public self as an image and a meme – are remote from the life-world most of us inhabit. We gawp at it from the outside. Drake’s art is all about achieving access to this hyper-real world – a realm of front, rumour, bravado, optics, public relations – and then bemoaning how unreal it feels to live inside it. As spun by 40 and Drake’s other producers like Boi-1da, the glittering insubstantiality of the music – which resembles Harold Budd, Aphex Twin, Radiohead circa Kid A as much as Timbaland, the Weeknd or DJ Mustard – is the perfect aural match for the mirrored maze of modern celebreality. The airless sound evokes the sealed vacuum of loneliness-at-the-top.
Drake’s ascendance happened so instantly it felt effortless, achieved without struggle, almost to the point of seeming unearned. In “Thank Me Now”, Drake rapped about how he “can relate to kids going straight to the league” - a reference to high-school players so talented they skip the stage of playing college basketball and go straight to the NBA. In the same song, Drake declares “damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous.”
Drake does love his sports analogies and allusions. “30 for 30 Freestyle,” from the Future collaboration What A Time To Be Alive, is named after a celebrated ESPN series of sports documentaries. Drake even framed his feud with Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill using baseball and basketball references. He named “Back To Back,” the second of his counter-attack tracks, after the Toronto Blue Jays’s serial defeats of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993, and namechecked the basketball consultant / power-broker William Wesley in the song’s second line.
The rise of Drake shows that rap has become a merit-based system that works just like sports. The old metrics of credibility and authority – based around where you came from, your experience, “the strength of street knowledge” as NWA put it, as well as around technique and chutzpah– no longer counted as much as sheer proficiency: the skill with which an MC could manipulate the tropes of a genre that is codified almost to the point of having rules. Like sports, rap has become a self-perpetuating and enclosed system in which star players and rival teams compete for the pole position and for superior stats. We follow rap like we follow sports: as excited onlookers thrilling vicariously to the clashes, the victories, the glory. It’s got nothing to do with real life.
Monday, April 11, 2022
All The Young Droogs: 60 Juvenile Delinquent Wrecks, Rock’N’Glam (And A Flavour Of Bubblegum) From The 70’s
Pitchfork, January 29 1019
The title of this glam rock box set is a cute twist on “All the Young Dudes,” the song Bowie gifted to Mott the Hoople and that became their biggest hit. People, then and since, took it as an anthem for rock’s third generation – the kids who were babies when rock’n’roll first arrived, missed out most of the Sixties too, but come the Seventies craved a sound of their own. The Bowie / Mott / Roxy side of glam – literate and musically sophisticated - is not really what this collection is really about, though. “Droog” is the true clue – a near-future slang term for a teenage thug from A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of the Anthony Burgess novel. Scandalous on its 1971 release, the film was blamed for a spate of copycat ultraviolence and chimed with existing UK anxieties about feral youth and rising crime: soccer hooliganism, skinhead “bovver boys” in steel-capped Doc Martens brutalizing hippies and immigrants, subcultural tribes warring on the streets.
All the Young Droogs largely celebrates the music that sublimated and safely vented the disorderly impulses of working class kids in the not-so-Great Britain of the early Seventies. It’s packed with the coarse ‘n’ rowdy rock whose shout-along choruses and stomp-along drums unleashed uproar down the discotheque as records and shook concert halls from foundations to rafters when bands played live. Compiler Phil King’s focus, though, is not the huge-selling glitter bands like Slade or The Sweet, but the nearly-made-its and the never-stood-a-chancers: “Junkshop glam,” as collectors and dealers call this stuff, a term that exudes the musty aroma of digging through cardboard boxes of dirt-cheap singles.
Nowadays, some of those 7-inches sell for hundreds of pounds. Junkshop glam has followed the same trajectory as earlier cult sounds like Sixties garage, Seventies punk, and DIY - from utterly dejected and almost value-less in the immediate aftermath of its release, to the basis of a vinyl antiques market. Indeed the interest in the second and third divisions of glitter started when collectors of those earlier styles had exhausted those seams, then realised that glam - beneath the vocal hysteria and campy affectations – was raw basic rock. Another supply of short sharp shocks and punchy thrills opened up in the nick of time.
Glam as punk-before-punk is an argument convincingly made on the first disc of Droogs. titled “Rock’s Off”. Ray Owen Moon’s “Hey Sweety” launches things with a stinging attack and pummeling power just a notch behind The Stooges, although the oddly phrased title-chorus diminishes the menace slightly. Most Droogs inclusions are fairly frivolous affairs lyrically - anthems of lust, celebrations of rocking out - but Third World War anticipate punk themes with the proletarian plaint and Strummer-like sandpaper vocals of “Working Class Man.” Hustler forge a link between The Faces and Cockney Rejects with “Get Outta My Way”, which is like Magic’s “Rude” recast as pub boogie: the hilarious lament of a longhair hassled by his girl’s disapproving Dad. In Supernaut’s “I Like It Both Ways”, the bisexual protagonist’s own dad think he’s “INSANE!!”: during the middle-eight he’s confused by stereophonic propositions from a girl in the left speaker and a boy in the right. Other highlights include the chrome-glistening grind of James Hogg’s “Lovely Lady Rock” and the grating lurch of Ning’s “Machine,” akin to being run over by a bulldozer driven by a caveman.
Things stay stompy and simplistic on the second disc “Tubthumpers & Hellraisers,” but with a slight shift towards pop. On Harpo’s “My Teenage Queen,” a lithe, corkscrewing melody contrasts with a hammer-pounding relentless beat, which is interrupted by an unexpected outbreak of hand-percussion like a belly-dancer abruptly jumping onstage to join the band. Frenzy’s “Poser” sneers sweetly and Simon Turner’s “Sex Appeal” is a delicious bounce of bubblegum. Compared with the ferocious first disc, though, this radio-friendly fare often feels flimsier, stirring those doubts familiar with similar archival salvage enterprises: is this really lost treasure? Or is it deservedly obscure?
Shrewdly, on the final disc “Elegance and Decadence,” King switches gears and zooms in on what some call “high glam”: the Bowie-besotted, Ferry-infatuated side of the genre, which appealed to older teenagers and middle class students with its thoughtful lyrics, its witty cultural references and arty name-drops, and the exquisite styling of the clothes and record packaging. The backings favored by performers like John Howard, Paul St John, and Alastair Riddell are svelte and lissome, shunning the beefy power-chords and leaden kick drums of the more thumping and lumpen glitter, in favor of strummed acoustic guitar and swaying rhythms. The vocal presence on these songs is likewise willowy and androgynous: sometimes an unearthly soar above the mundane, other times highly-strung and histrionic.
The most fetching specimens here in this post-Hunky Dory mode are Steve Elgin’s “Don’t Leave Your Lover Lying Around (Dear),” with its saucy asides about how “trade is looking good,” and Brian Wells’s archly enunciated “Paper Party.” Bowie-esque themes of fame and fantasy abound, with titles like “Spaceship Lover”, “Ultrastar”, and “Star Machine” (the latter by actual Bowie offcut Woody Woodmansey’s U Boat). “Criminal World” by the debonair Metro – who described their style as “English rock music, but influenced by a hundred years of European culture… Baudelaire and Kurt Weill” - would be later covered by Bowie himself on 1983’s Let’s Dance, a well-deserved compliment. Even more genteel-sounding is “New York City Pretty,” which could be an out-take from Rocky Horror, so closely does Clive Kennedy mirror Tim Curry’s phrasing.
Like other retro-actively invented genres such as freakbeat, part of the appeal of junkshop glam is its generic-ness: the closeness with which artists conform to the rules of rock at that precise moment. In many cases, these performers were arrant opportunists: a year or two earlier, they’d been prog or bluesy-rock artists. Some would adapt yet again and adopt New Wave mannerisms - replacing fluting aristocratic tones for gruff working class accents, swapping escapism and decadence for lyrics about unemployment and urban deprivation. Indeed Droogs contains an example of glam juvenilia from a future prime mover of punk: “Showbiz Kid” by Sleaze, the early band of TV Smith of The Adverts.
Although this kind of aesthetic flexibility seems suspect and unprincipled, it usefully reveals a couple of things about rock. First, it points to a sameness persisting underneath all the style changes. From today’s remote vantage point, the differences – once so significant and divisive - between Sixties beat groups, bluesy boogie, heavy metal, glam, pub rock, and punk start to fade and a continuum of hard rock emerges. The dominant sound on Droogs is situated somewhere between The Pretty Things, Ten Years After, The Groundhogs, on one side, and the Count Bishops, Sham 69, Motorhead, on the other. I’ve picked British names but you could just as easily throw Steppenwolf, Grand Funk and Black Flag in there, or for that matter, AC/DC.
The other thing that Droogs shows is that originality is both uncommon and over-rated. Herd mentality, which is to say the willingness of the horde of proficient but not necessarily creative performers to be influenced by the rare innovators in their midst, is what actually changes the sound of the radio. It’s the arrival of the copyists that definitively establishes a new set of musical characteristics, performance gestures, and lyrical fixtures, as the defining sound of an era. Send in the clones, then, because sometimes you can’t get enough of a good thing.
Wednesday, March 30, 2022
Q + A - Chuck Klosterman
The Guardian, June 7 2016
Your new book But What If We’re Wrong? is a series of thought experiments that to try to “think about the present as if we were the past”. The concept really speaks to me, as a fan of science fiction, but also someone fascinated by discredited knowledge: things like the late 18th Century belief that infantile masturbation was a terrible, health-damaging problem that required drastic preventive measures, or the 19th Century pseudo-science of phrenology, using skull measurements to assess the character of people, their criminal tendencies... What led you to this subject - the precariousness of human knowledge, the disquieting thought that most of what we feel certain about today will ultimately be disproved and that the future will scorn and deride all our ideas and beliefs?
It happened sort of gradually and yet suddenly. Over my last few books I’ve been thinking about the history of thought, but it really came from watching Fox TV’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. I particularly enjoyed the animated clips about these hinge points in scientific history, when everybody thought a certain way but then one individual puts forward this new idea and everything shifted after that. Coincidentally I was reading about how Moby Dick got mixed reviews at the time, Melville ended up leaving the writing profession, and it wasn’t until after World War One that the culture shifted, the book was rediscovered, and it became the Great American Novel. But What If We’re Wrong? really took off from those two things.
Those are two different kinds of “knowledge”, science and the arts. With science, there are new discoveries and theories emerge around them, but it’s a much harder kind of knowledge. With changing ideas about what is valuable in literature or music, about who belongs in the canon, that’s soft, in the sense that it’s driven by taste, by fashion, by social shifts. It’s much more up for debate and revision. Given enough time, nearly everything that’s highly regarded will drop down in eminence, while once minor things from the past may get elevated. In one chapter in the book you discuss how it’s impossible to know who will come to be regarded as the defining writer of our time. And you speculate about “who will be the future’s Kafka?” – a writer virtually unknown in his own epoch but who later becomes retrospectively epochal
My thought process with that started with the idea that “whatever seems like the most obvious answer will probably be wrong”. I build that into my thinking. The obvious example that many people would give for a contemporary author that will be remembered as defining our era is a figure like Jonathan Franzen. So I remove that from the equation. So then it came down to one of two possibilities. Someone who is known and successful but not that respected - a writer who is considered a commercial hack. The other possibility is that it will be somebody who is completely unknown today - like Kafka. Someone who will be discovered later on and that discovery process itself will validate that writer. So the challenge I set myself in that chapter was trying to narrow down the possibilities of who that currently unknown writer might be - what aspects of their career, their identity, their writing. An impossible task. But I try, because that’s what I like to do!
There is an industry – in publishing, in music reissuing, in the arts generally – of rediscovery, repackaging, cultural archeology and curation. There are so many examples of once hopelessly obscure figures who are now deemed far more central and essential than they once were. Other figures who were deemed central and essential, by critics and the intelligent reading (or listening) public drop away – George Bernard Shaw, Graham Parker. And then there are whole areas of the culture that were once considered beneath consideration, but now get taken seriously. Your example of that in the book is wrestling.
The pro wrestling thing to me is a weird example of how culture works. All these wrestlers from the Eighties are dying now, like Dusty Rhodes, and they are being lionized by people who have this memory from watching them when they were in high school or junior high. When they write about them now they tend to inject them with some kind of secondary meaning – almost a transgressive meaning – and they overlook the fact that at the time, nobody took wrestling seriously – including themselves. But somehow they create the feeling that there was always a sense of it being taken seriously. And more generally this seems to be the way that obscure art becomes venerated – by generating a political meaning for these long ago things that matches what is happening in the political present tense. So if you’re trying - like I am in this book - to find out what will matter in the future, you have to project a visualization of what the future will be like, what people will care about.
Although you’re hyper-conscious about the fragility of cultural convictions, you do still muster enough certainty to make a few predictions in the book. One is that television, as an entertainment format, will shortly not exist. Explain the thought process behind that prophecy.
I started with thinking about the relationship between radio and television. It feels like there should be a continuum there, that TV simply adds a visual component. But in fact TV was a huge break – which is why we don’t aesthetically connect what television drama does and what a radio play does. I think that’ll happen again – something will come along technologically that adds another component to the entertainment format that makes it something completely separate. It could be some kind of virtual immersion, where you’ll be inside whatever show you’re watching, or it’ll relate to the mobility of it, which is already happening to some extent with watching TV on your phone, but it might be even more completely fluid, such that you can slide in and out of the program you’re experiencing. I don’t know what it will be exactly but I think when it comes it will be a cut-off that freezes television as we currently understand it as a period that goes from its inception in the middle of 20th Century to whenever the new thing takes over.
So it’s not that television is going to go extinct exactly – more that it will evolve into something so drastically different it’ll effectively be something else?
Television is already the most dynamic technological experience when it comes to entertainment. The experience of watching television now is drastically different from what it was 20 years ago. Whereas with music or reading, certain elements and aspects change but the experience of hearing a song is - from a physiological standpoint - the same as it was 200 years ago. Reading is a static thing fundamentally. But TV is taken so seriously now, it has really changed the experience completely. Joyce Carol Oates wrote an essay for TV Guide about Hill Street Blues in about 1980 and it starts with her saying how embarrassed and ashamed she is to admit that she and her smart friends find themselves often talking about this TV show. But now it’s like, Emily Nussbaum just won a Pulitzer Prize for her New Yorker TV criticism. When something becames that meaningful, it changes the experience of watching it. TV used to be relaxing. Now you have to concentrate.
Yes, watching the box used to be almost like an opiate or a tranquilizer – idle skimming through the channels. You’d have the desire, or need, to watch television in the abstract, and then look for the least tedious specific thing that was on. Now you make appointments. You manage your viewing and stockpile it. You binge an entire series. And you have to pay close attention, for fear of missing a key bit of dialogue or a narrative twist.
With TV in the past, there was no expectation you were going to have to concentrate. And if you missed an episode of a TV show, you just missed it – no big deal. Nowadays just about the only thing people watch to unwind still is sports.
Another section of the book that struck a chord with me was when you write about dreams – the way they’ve been demoted in the culture. For most of human history, dreams were considered highly significant – they had oracular meaning, they warranted being interpreted. In the early twentieth century you had Freud and Jung analyzing the symbolic language of dreams, and an artistic movement, surrealism, that drew inspiration from dreams. But even as recently as the 1970s, books about the meaning of dreams were popular. As a teenager, I kept a detailed dream diary. Maybe it’s just our family, but it doesn’t seem like my kids ever talk about their dreams. It’s just not something people pay much attention to anymore. Why is that?
Freud and Jung were the apex of looking at dreams seriously. But more recently you have scientists who map the brain, like these two guys at Harvard who came to the conclusion that dreams are just left-over thoughts from the day. There isn’t a narrative there, it’s an avalanche of emotions that we reconstruct as a story – because we can only understand things through story-telling. The conclusion of all this neurological research was that the content of dreams is worthless. It’s just an oddity of the mind and how it works when we are sleeping. Those ideas have filtered out to the secular, intelligent public and the general view now is that dreams are a waste of time to think about. The idea that they’re significant is a really fringe, borderline New Age thought at this point.
In the book, though, I wonder if this is something that we could be wrong about. It’s a third of our life almost where we’re having these metaphysical experiences. Sometimes they’re lucid and we know we’re in a false reality. Sometimes we can’t tell we’re in a different reality. Part of the problem is that we are so limited in how we can study them, there’s no way to see or hear or feel someone else’s dream. So maybe we are just going to keep on going down this path of thinking it’s just electrical impulses in the brain, just biomechanic . But I wonder if that’s a huge misstep. I understand the rational argument against dreams, but something feels important to me about them.
One thing I wondered was if the downgrading of dreams as a cultural interest had some relation to digital technology: video games, the internet, computers generally. Has the virtual displaced the oneiric? It’s hard to imagine an art movement like surrealism emerging that was invested in dreams and the unconscious as a source of inspiration. Contemporary artists are more stimulated by digital technology and internet culture. Do we no longer pay attention to dreams because we are so involved with digitally-enabled zones of make-believe and magic? And does that also affect a different kind of dreaming that we do in our waking hours – daydreaming? Overall, it feels like these interior and reflective mental activities have declined in the scheme of things - and that this must have something to do with the rise of the internet and social media.
The amount of time we’re looking at an unreal image on electronic screens is so much greater now. Just waiting in line for the bank, nowadays I would always look at my phone. My mind is attached most of the time to something specific. But once, waiting in line, I would have daydreamed - my mind was elsewhere. Perhaps those five or ten minutes of daydreaming had value.
One thing interesting about your writing style, which is unusual in arts and culture writing – perhaps more common in popular science writing – is the way you reason out an argument. You set out a proposition and then logically follow it through, methodically raising the counter-arguments, the evidence that contradicts it. Mostly in cultural criticism, the writer does that in private and then presents the results to the reader – often bombastically. But you lay out that process in real-time, almost, and bring the reader along with you.
What I I hope is that when someone reads what I’m writing, that they feel like they’re writing the piece with their own mind. The sequencing of the thoughts, the obstacles you encounter intellectually along the way – I want it to be like a real-time transfer of my mind. I want it to look like it’s easy, so that the person reading it almost feels like they could have written that. Which is kind of a trick, because that’s not what is going on! The hardest thing about doing this kind of writing is creating the illusion that anyone can do this.
Wednesday, March 2, 2022
Saturday, February 12, 2022
Melody Maker, 1989?
by Simon Reynolds
From the start, The Residents had a parasitical relation
to the pop culture that surrounded them. The sleevenotes to
"Meet The Residents", their 1973 debut, describes how they
spent the Sixties scavenging together a collection of sonic
detritus: "cassettes of soldiers in
with impromptu instrumentation... reels from second hand
shops... sound effects and bird call collections from garage
sales ... even a few bootleg tapes of well-known pop artists
going avant-garde between takes". They were samplers long
before the invention of the Sampler.
The early Seventies were a time when pop culture had
become so pervasive, so totalitarian, that its myths and
protocols began to replace 'real life' as pop's subject
matter. Glam was one version of this meta-pop practice
(whether self-consciously articulated, as with Ziggy Stardust
and Roxy Music, or brutally vacant as with Glitter). The
avant-garde vandalism of The Residents was another. "Meet The
Residents", with its grotequely defaced Beatles cover, was
the birth of what has since become practically a genre of
plagiarism and misappropriation (Culturcide, Pussy Calore,
Laibach etc). Musically, "Meet The Residents" makes me think
of The Band, of all people: a polyglot commingling of
American traditional musics (R&B, proto-funk,
jazz). But in The Residents' case, it's as though this
poly-rhythmic bouillabaise is being played on invented
instruments, or has been adapted to non-Western scales with
only partial success.
"Third Reich 'N' Roll" (1976) develops The Residents
idea of the totalitarian nature of pop's rise to the level of
this planet's Esperanto of desire. It turns Sixties pop into
the soundtrack for Hitler's Blitzkrieg. "Swastikas On Parade"
is a segue of bubblegum classics like "Psychotic Reaction",
"The Letter", "Land Of 1000 Dances", competing with
divebombing Stukas, sirens, and machine gun fire, plus free
jazz gibberish and giddy constellations of Sun Ra synth.
"Hitler Was A Vegetarian" is a more downered trek through
songs like "96 Tears", "It's My Party", "Pushing Too Hard"
and "Gloria". Imagine The Clangers aspiring to the poignancyt
of Erik Satie. "Third Reich 'N' Roll' is probably The
Residents' masterpiece. As an added bonus, the CD includes
their hell-spawn (per)version of "Satisfaction", and "Beyond
Beatles' wiggier moments are reconstructed into a wholly new
"Fingerprince" (also from 1976) is re-issued for the
first time in its full length. Along with the Hawaian guitar
pastiche "You yesyesyes" and the hilarious "Godsong" ("all
that God wanted to be/Just a normal deity"), there's two
pieces of particular interest. "Jealous Westinghouse" ,
described as a mini-opera, consists of electro pulsations
like Acid House at 16 rpm and doggerel dialogue in a Muppet
hillybilly twang. "Six Things To A Cycle" (a ballet) is an
atypically tropical suite of of crazy percussion and
"Duck Stab" (1977) is another fine collection of
25th Century nursery rhymes, conceived in the spirit of Dada
and Alfred Jarry. It's accompanied by "Goosembump", a
project undertaken with Snakefinger, whose aim was to bring
to the fore the macabre overtones latent in kindergarten
ditties. All the sounds were produced from childrens' toys,
but were drastically peculiarised by "adult studio toys". The
result is a suite of nauseatingly rubberised nursery rhymes,
that at times ("Three Blind Mice") are creepy almost
Even more unsettling is "Eskimo", The Residents' 1979
elegy for the extinct Inoit culture of the now-thorougly
Americanised Eskimo. While their relativistic tolerance for Inuit
rituals (e.g. exterminating all superfluous
newborn girls) is a tad dubious, the album is a superb sonic
evocation of the irreconcilably alien Arctic lifestyle
(walrus hunts conducted in conditions of
disorientating white-out, 'arctic hysteria' induced by the
sensory deprivation of the long winter darkness).
"Not Available" was actually recorded in '74, in
accordance with N. Senada's "theory of obscurity": the idea
that creating music in the understanding that it is never to
be heard, is the only way to avoid subconsiously pandering to
an audience. But Ralph Records slipped it out surreptitiously
in '78, when The Residents were falling behind their deadline
for "Eskimo". It's not that radical, actually: its cheapo,
pre-programmed beats making it a distant, Dadaist cousin to
shopping mall or funeral parlour muzak.
"The Commercial Album" (1980) is probably the best
introduction to The Residents. It consists of 40 pieces each
exactly one minute long. The idea is that, since most pop
songs contain a verse and chorus repeated three times within
three minutes, if you condense that span down to one minute
(the length of most commericals) you get the kernel of the
song without the extraneous matter. Here, the result is a
collection of 'jingles' as intricate and succint as a haiku
poem (one of the prettiest is called "Japanese Watercolour")
and a sound somewhere between the Human League circa
"Reproduction" and the Suicide of "Dance".
After "The Commercial Album", The Residents seemed to
lose their way. "The Mole Trilogy" and its sequels "Tunes of
Two Cities" and "The Big Bubble" amount to an impenetrable
allegory of something-or-other. Only the most dedicated fan
could be bothered to slog through through the dank, drab
textures of "The Mole Trilogy" to reach enlightenment. Then
there's the flaccid "God In Three Persons", a couple of live
albums, and a fine collection of material by Snakefinger
(their favourite collaborator, the now deceased guitarist
Philip Lithman). The "American Composers Series" (The
Residents 20 year project of tributes) has brought back a
measure of rejuvenation to their sound. It seems we can
apprehend more clearly the nature of their alien-ating method
when they bring their warp factor to bear on something we
know already. The mystery continues...
Monday, February 7, 2022
The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small… Stay As You Are
Melody Maker, October 16th 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Forget the retro-parochialism of Blur et al: this is truly English music, so English it’s barely rock. Everything about this band--from Rosie’s pure, un-American tones and junkshop keyboard, to the way the percussion (played on a homemade kit) is a decorative thread in the tapestry rather than a driving backbeat, to the name Pram (with its whiff of domesticity, mundane modesty, and quaintness) suggest that Pram are reviving that tradition of squatland anti-rockism (The Raincoats, This Heat, early Scritti and other Peel favourites) that petered out in the early Eighties.
Like their precursors, Pram refuse the simpleton satisfaction of kick-ass dynamics in favour of pleasurable perplexity, abstruse enchantment, and cerebral stimulation. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.
Pram are siblings of the American lo-fi anti-grunge revolt (Thinking Fellers etc) but without the wisecracking absurdism and overly obvious Krautrock influences. Instead songs like “Radio Freak In A Storm” (a clucking, wheezing sonic contraption, all hazy harmonium and squawking trumpet) make Pram the only band I’ve ever heard who appear to be influenced by The Raincoats’ neglected mistresspiece Odyshape. The Raincoats compositional method was closer to knitting than jamming; Pram share that homespun approach.
They aren’t always a rarefied, non-physical proposition: the eerieness of ‘Loredo Venus’ woozes around a rumbling, dub-funk bassline. But mostly, this is meditative, mesmeric head-and-heart music. After years of full-blooded, testosterone-pulsing music, Pram are valorously anemic.
Lyrically, the vibe lies somewhere between personal politics and magical realism: imagery of dislocation, dazed anomie, the kind of spooky stagnation captured by the Mekons at their most haunting and rootless. Trapped lives, festering desires, and forlorn fantasies of transcendence. The 17 minute ebb’n’sprawl of “In Dreams You Too Can Fly” does for dejection what Tim Buckley’s Starsailor did for the erection, i.e. make it cosmic. “Cape St Vincent” is kindermusik for the orphaned of this world, while “Dorothy” faintly recalls early Eighties keyboard-based acid-trance gods The Blue Orchids.
The future of British music lies in un-rocking rock, either by demoting the guitar to a bit part (the Pram method) or feeding the guitar through the sampler’s digestive tract (MBV, Seefeel etc). The Stars Are So Big suggests that Pram will have a large role in that future: a future that’s looking brighter every day.
Saturday, February 5, 2022
Fantagraphic Books, Inc
VLS (Village Voice Literary Supplement, early 2000s)
by Simon Reynolds
Cartoonist Daniel Clowes's stories are set in some all-American twilight zone of Hopper-esque diners, lugubrious motel rooms and desolate streetscapes. Time and place are deliberately left non-specific--it's the Big City, any-postwar-year-- allowing Clowes to indulge his fondness for the kind of quaint furnishings and appliances (e.g. barber's chairs) that now sell as overpriced antiques in "architectural salvage" stores. Some of the stories in Clowes' new collection Caricature veer into the full-on noir surrealism of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron (his famous Twin Peaks-like serial driven by non-sequiturs and a mystery narrative that never resolves itself). But most develop further the seedy realism of his superb 1997 graphic novel Ghost World, conjuring a world that's all the more uncanny because the blatantly supernatural rarely occurs. Caricature's most poignant stories seem autobiographical: brink-of-puberty vignettes "Immortal, Invisible" and "Like A Weed, Joe", and "Blue Italian Shit", a memoir of life as johnny-come-lately punk at the tail end of the Seventies. From the title story's fairground caricaturist to the decrepit cartoon superhero in "Black Nylon" and the pugnacious epigone in "MCMLXVI" (who believes American culture peaked circa 1966) Clowes's forte is stalled lives and blocked dreams. Nobody can rival him when it comes to the physiognomy of anomie--he's a virtuoso at jaded eyes, non-commital mouths, and the myriad facial nuances of affectlessness.
Tuesday, February 1, 2022
WithThe Observer Music Monthly, October 15 2006
Tis the season to be spooky. From the label Ghostbox to
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums, the notion of spectral music is the meme
of the moment. Last year Infantjoy’s debut Where
the Night Goes featured a cover of
With is something
of a ghost version of Where the Night
Goes, encompassing remixes of the
latter’s tracks by various kindred, erm, spirits in the electronic field as
well as all-new tracks like “A Haunted Space” (sensing a bit of theme here?).
“Ghosts” itself rematerializes in a spare, stealthy treatment by Popolous that
gives even more prominence to the gorgeous vocals of Sarah Nixey, whose uncanny
Kate Bush-like tones conjure up a parallel pop universe where the raven-haired
Sound’s insubstantiality, the way that music always elude our attempts to fix and define, is a major Morley obsession, and in this spirit With keeps hazy the question of authorship and attribution, so that you’re never quite sure who’s remixing whom. “Someone with Handshake” for instance, appears to be a collaboration between two guest producers, Someone and Handshake, with Infantjoy’s involvement quite possibly limited to having convened the encounter. Unless the track’s digitally mangled voice, which sounds like it’s covered with furry spikes like a crystal forming in a solution, is actually Morley’s. By the track’s end, its heavily-processed beats are so encrusted with gnarly texture, the groove almost grinds to a halt.
Infantjoy confirms Morley’s membership of a select group of rock writers who’ve crossed the line into music-making without disgracing themselves. A concept album about Erik Satie, Where the Night Goes formed a 20th Century modernism continuum with the Art of Noise: the Futurism and Dada coordinates of 1983’s Into Battle, the Debussy-meets-drum’n’bass of AoN’s resurrection in the late 1980s. The claims for Satie are slightly overblown (“just about every radical musical movement of the past one hundred years” traceable back to Trois Gymnopedies and “furniture music”? Tell that to Duke Ellington, James Brown, King Tubby, and a good dozen more--mostly black--innovators). But the fantasy underlying this polemic-- an alternative history of pop in which America and rock’n’soul never existed, a straight line from Russolo through Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, Kraftwerk, Eno, Oval, to, well, Infantjoy--makes for a compellingly dissident vision, with an absorbing, eerie sound to match.
reissued in acknowledgement of the return to action of the Art of Noise (can't work out if Morley is involved in this incarnation of AoN) with the just-out Balance - Music for the Eye and Dream On with the Art of Noise
Monday, January 24, 2022