Sunday, May 30, 2010

This Is Not Le Weekend, Part One: She’S hit and Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat, Tolbooth, Stirling, 29th May

Walking down from the hostel we spotted, though a window a few floors up, the red walls of the Tolbooth bar, against which John Edwards battered the living daylights out of his double bass this time last year, and against which Bill Wells took the afternoon breeze and made it his own in 2008, with his National Jazz Trio of Scotland. We were early, and could hear somebody soundchecking within. After a few seconds this noise was joined by a two tone fire alarm, and the sight of a metal grille auto-descending, sealing off the area. A frippery of pop stars meandered from the front entrance, and followed directions from the man in charge to gather across the road. Someone made the obligatory ‘thought it was part of your set’ remark to a young man with cheek bones, and Davy Henderson of The Sexual Objects paced with a mobile phoned glued to his ear, as either his very presence or possibly the alarm summoned into being two fire engines, which pulled up alongside. The front one had its engine left on, which drew the attention of a lanky fellow in a tweed jacket. Approaching it with a recording device, he stooped and pointed it, sonic screwdriver style, at its innards. The driver noticed almost immediately, scowled, and switched off the engine. As much as to say, where do you think you are? This is Stirling, we don’t want any of your field recording art wankers here. And all too soon, the fireman is to have his wish: the marvellous Le Weekend festival comes to an end in October, and this gig, billed as This Is Not Le Weekend, is a one-day prequel, representing the pop end of its spectrum. Could this be an effect of the new Tory administration’s programme of cuts? We’ve been so lucky to see bands here that it can’t possibly have been profitable to put on – in particular the Japanese ones, flown in specially, often for a single show. Hope to see you again, Nagisa Ni te and Eddie Marcon, but without subsidy it doesn’t seem very likely. If the Tenniscoats don’t come back I’m emigrating.

She’S hit [sic] came on not long after the building re-opened. Have you seen their MySpace page? It is full of horribly unappealing Mary Chain / Velvet Underground comparisons (unattributed, Chris pointed out), and instead of citing The Birthday Party as an influence (‘She’s Hit’ is a song from Junkyard), they go for that band’s earlier incarnation The Boys Next Door, presumably to generate a fake sense of insider allegiance in anyone who recognises the name. So I wasn’t looking forward to their set at all, but in the event they were so funny that it didn’t matter that they are paper thin. Featuring a slouching guitarist in a leather jacket with a silver glitter guitar, a singer with hair ‘like A Flock of Seagulls after a thunderstorm’ (© S.) and a stand-up drummer with stand-up hair who had to bend double to reach his drums (which showed off his crucifix chain to advantage), they played what amounted to covers of Beat Happening’s ‘Bad Seed’, JAMC’s ‘You Trip Me Up’ and ‘Sidewalking’, and Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’, all stripped of their vocal lines to be replaced with a constipated groan and Bobby Gillespie posing. The smoke machine was turned up to 11 and it wasn’t a great surprise, a few songs in, to hear the fire alarm again and find ourselves directed outside. On resuming, the singer removed his aviator shades to reveal eyes which were wide dark wells, hedged in by product-laden brushed-forward hair which clung to the space where the specs had been. He looked like a baby owl surprised in its nest. The chap standing in front of me sported the stance and hairstyle of a young Stephen Pastel, the whole thing seemed a conspiracy to re-create the fabled Living Room of 1984. But, y’know, time didn’t drag, it was hugely entertaining, and as long as they are not serious about any of this I don’t see the harm.

Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat are serious people, of course, but I wondered how well their different brands of seriousness would sit together. Bill tending so much towards the light, and Aidan towards the shady. They began instrumentally, Aidan brushing a cymbal along to Bill’s spaced out piano chords, and the rich tones of Aby Vulliamy’s viola knitting it all together. Then a shift on piano to a higher register, a broken-off arpeggio figure, repeated, and in came Aidan: ‘You know that I would love it, it would be such a thrill to kiss your lips,’ the word ‘lips’ dying on his, retracted as much as sung. Soon his imaginings have wandered on to the hips and he’s sliding his hand ‘beneath your dress’, wrapt with forbidden sexual tension, held suspended like a moth in front of this old flame by Bill’s sun-lit phrase. But he knows that the prospect is all, and kills the song abruptly with the words: ‘Let’s stop here.’ The song which followed was the most striking of the set: exaggeratedly spooky, hammy chords lending the implication of menace to a story about keeping the house keys when your parents move, sneaking back, being surprised by the new owner’s return, and doubly surprised by her question, ‘Have you had your dinner?’ Again the song leaves you hanging, and given Moffat’s subject matter elsewhere I think you are supposed to infer that some inter-generational sex is in the offing. Or at least that the boy (what age is he?) thinks there is. Both songs have more of a narrative, literal framework than you usually find with Bill’s music, and you wouldn’t want it limited in this way all the time, but still: the pairing does gel, to create moments of musical tension to match the words.

In part two: a virtual repeat of Foolin’ Around #1, with Peter Parker and The Sexual Objects.

Friday, May 14, 2010

P. G. Wodehouse – ‘Carry On, Jeeves’

There is little to no point reviewing a P. G. Wodehouse book, is there? They’re all the same: a tonic for the duration, then instantly forgotten. I used to read them all the time, then stopped a few years ago after Robert McCrumb’s biography put me off. It was so leaden, and then there was the business of the broadcasts for the Nazis. A bigger jam than ever Bertie Wooster faced, and no Jeeves on hand to steer him through. ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’, the first story here, is the one in which the pair first meet, and Bertie, hungover and trying to get his head around Types of Ethical Theory, a book lent by his overbearing fiancĂ©e Florence (‘a girl with a wonderful profile’) is smitten at once:
       I was doing my best to skim through this bright little volume when the bell rang. I crawled off the sofa and opened the door. A kind of darkish sort of Johnnie stood without.
       ‘I was sent by the agency, sir,’ he said. ‘I was given to understand that you required a valet.’
       I’d have preferred an undertaker; but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the door like a healing zephyr. (p. 2)
Here are some more of Jeeves’ refined manoeuvres:
‘Sir?’ said Jeeves, kind of manifesting himself. One of the rummy things about Jeeves is that, unless you watch like a hawk, you very seldom see him come into a room. He’s like one of those weird birds in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. (p. 31)

He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly-fish. (p. 79)

Jeeves flowed in with the tray, like some silent stream meandering over its mossy bed. (p. 94)

Jeeves projected himself into the room with the tea. (p. 105)

Then he streamed imperceptibly towards the door and flowed silently out. (p. 112)
There was a great one about Jeeves’ voice being like the baa-ing of a distant sheep, but I can’t find it now. There are a couple of very similar quotations online, though: ‘There was a sound in the background like a distant sheep coughing gently on a mountainside. Jeeves sailing into action.’ (from Joy in the Morning, via), and ‘That soft cough of Jeeves’s which always reminds me of a very old sheep clearing its throat on a distant mountain top.’ (from Something Fresh, via).

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Graham Swift – ‘Last Orders’

       ‘So then I thought, But I can change in another way. She won’t see me turning up at the hospital but I can have something to tell her. Something to compensate.’
       I think, you might have done both.
       He says, ‘Amy don’t give up.’
       I think, Who’s talking? (p. 84)
For fifty years, Amy Dodds has been taking the number 44 bus to visit her daughter June at a psychiatric hospital. Twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. June can’t speak, and gives no indication that she is aware of Amy’s presence. June’s father Jack refuses to go, has never been, will barely acknowledge June’s existence. He has been a butcher all his working life, and the ‘something to compensate’ he mentions above, in conversation with Vic the undertaker, is the decision to sell up so they can retire to Margate. He wants to start a new life, aged 68, meet new people. He has a fixation on the ‘new people’ part, which reminded me of Alan Bennett’s recollections of his parents’ attempts to get on in society. But the decision, much as he wants to pretend otherwise, is not a result of Jack’s resolve, or an argument won. He is being forced out of business by a nearby supermarket, and is already seriously in debt because of a loan he took out in his early 60s – clearly that would have been the better time to sell up and retire. Especially as he dies of cancer before the move to Margate can happen.

Sound fun? No, it’s not. Last Orders is about failure, in personal and economic terms. It is structured around the drive four of Jack’s friends make from Bermondsey to Margate to scatter his ashes. Chapters are named after places on this journey, apart from the ones which look back, which are named after the character doing the reminiscing. Every significant character gets a say. As the back stories are filled in, a pecking order emerges. At the bottom is Lenny, who had dreams of becoming a professional boxer, but settled for selling fruit and veg from a market stall. Jack would probably be next, but he would rather have been a doctor than a butcher – in hospital, he confuses his surgeon by drawing a parallel between the two professions. Then there is Ray, who wanted to be a jockey but instead worked in an insurance office, eventually arriving at a compromise by going part time and spending his free days betting at racing tracks up and down the country. Ray is the only one of the four men in the car (five, counting Jack) not to have been self employed. Vic Tucker, the undertaker (he tucks them in) is top for his generation, with a successful business and two sons who work for him. Driving the car is Vince, Jack’s adopted son, who owns a car showroom and is richer than all of them. He provides and drives the car, a Mercedes: ‘It’s a 380 S-Class, that’s what it is. V8, automatic.’ (p. 23). He wears a camel hair coat and for some reason kept reminding me of Vinnie Jones.

The personal pecking order closely follows the economic one. Lenny and Joan couldn’t afford to take their daughter Sally to the seaside as a young girl, so let her accompany Jack and Amy Dodds, with Vince, on their weekend outings in the meat van to (guess where?) Margate. In a round about way this leads, years later, to Sally becoming pregnant by Vince, and Vince running off to join the army to escape the consequences. Sally has an abortion and ends up marrying ‘Tommy Tyson, care of Pentonville Prison’ (p. 132), thereafter descending into prostitution. Vince later pimps his own daughter Kath to a customer he is worried might not otherwise buy the Mercedes. I could go on, but that is enough to demonstrate the point about the web of mistreatment and resentment that constitute the bulk of the novel. It is carefully worked out, and plausible enough, but I couldn’t see a point to all the misery. There is no moral order, or how could Vince come out top? Why all this fuss over the death of Jack, a man who is overwhelmingly weak and blinkered? Ray at least has some self-awareness, and is likeable enough for his misfortunes to amount to something like tragedy. His betting pays for daughter Susie’s emigration to Australia, but when his wife leaves him he stops writing to Susie because he feels it would be an imposition to tell her. He reflects:
If I’d been another man I wouldn’t have just sat there with it getting dark, but not bothering to put the lights on, as if, if I sat very still, I might fade away altogether. (p. 100)

Friday, May 07, 2010

Election Night Special

Yesterday morning, doing some last minute Googling in order to have some clue who to vote for, I found to my horror that I’d been living in an SNP constituency for the last 5 years. The Labour candidate didn’t seem to want to do much about it either – information about her pitch for office was scanty, and the only Labour name being touted on lamp posts and railings around here was that of the MP for the next constituency along, who has a massive majority. It seemed odd: this was a seat they could probably have won back. They lost by a hair’s breadth in 2005, this time it was substantially more. How silly. That was my disinterested take on the election. Over in Edinburgh, aided by a ‘crate of Delirium Tremens’, Chris got rather more into it. Here is his cracking Facebook coverage, reproduced by kind, not to say foolhardy, permission:

21 hours ago

Work out your Tory victory name by taking the name of a Tory shadow minister and adding DEAR GOD, NO! at the end.

20 hours ago

A mathematical formula:

Ben Bradshaw = Massive Cunt.

18 hours ago

Simple algebra:

Jeremy Vine = Shite.

17 hours ago

An algorithm:

Alex Salmond + oxygen = 100% unadulterated pish.

17 hours ago

Eat my shit, Jacqui Smith, eat my shit.

Only, make sure you film it so your husband can have a big wank over it.

17 hours ago

Charles Clarke has been beaten by a LibDem midget!

I hope he filmed it so Jacqui Smith’s husband can have a big wank.

Monday, May 03, 2010

James Hogg – ‘Altrive Tales’

Some more Scotlands, from 1832 but with settings stretching back to the 1680s. Following a format established by the 1829 ‘magnum opus’ edition of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, which did so much to establish contemporary fiction as a serious – and collectible – form, on a par with classic poetry and drama. Altrive Tales was to be Hogg’s collected prose works, published regularly in uniform editions which would sit impressively on the shelves of discerning middle class readers. It was to include his novels, as well as his short (and not so short) stories, and it was to dispel the popular idea of him as an erratic, uncouth, untutored genius: by its bulk, scope and accomplishment. To the failure of the series, which due to the bankruptcy of the publisher did not get beyond its first instalment, Gillian Hughes (this edition’s editor) attributes the drop in popularity Hogg’s work suffered after his death in 1835. Victorian editions were censored, the ‘Justified Sinner’ became a ‘Fanatic’; without the rough edges what was the point? If an authoritative collected works had existed, she argues, this bowdlerisation might not have happened. The books published over the last 15 years by the Edinburgh University press are to some extent an attempt to realise Hogg’s own original plan for Altrive Tales.

The thing is, though, James Hogg’s genius was erratic, uncouth and untutored: that’s what makes him so thrilling and, sometimes, so frustrating. In the ‘Memoir of the Author’s Life’ which opens Altrive Tales, he freely admits to being erratic:
I cannot make out a sentence by study, without the pen in my hand to catch the ideas as they arise, and I never write two copies of the same thing. (p. 17)
This is an enormously appealing idea: inspiration and composition are inseparable, and neither involves planning. In fact they barely involve the author, at least on a conscious level: Anthony Trollope this is not. The memoir is a practical account of Hogg’s writing career, and a lot of it turns upon how hard he found it to make money. My favourite bit is this brainwave:
I took it into my head that I would collect a poem from every living author in Britain, and publish them in a neat and elegant volume, by which I calculated I might make my fortune. (p. 39)
He did get pledges from some key figures (Byron, Wordsworth), but was perplexed that his friend Walter Scott refused to contribute anything:
He remained firm in his denial, which I thought very hard; so I left him in high dudgeon, sent him a very abusive letter, and would not speak to him again for many a day. I could not even endure to see him at a distance, I felt so degraded by the refusal; and I was, at that time, more disgusted with all mankind than I had ever been before, or have ever been since. (p. 40)
Scott comes out of this episode well, attending to Hogg during an illness despite the quarrel, and refusing to allow him to mention it once they have made up. Eventually he works it out for himself:
I can account for it in no other way, than by supposing that he thought it mean in me to attempt either to acquire gain, or a name, by the efforts of other men. (p. 49)
The other long piece in Altrive Tales is ‘The Adventures of Captain John Lochy’, an infuriating novella which follows a man of uncertain (but, it is hinted, aristocratic) parentage on the military campaigns he joins in order to get out of Britain, to avoid the murderous plots of those who want to prevent him inheriting his due. It starts well: the first attempt on his life occurs when he is a baby, and he is abducted from a farmhouse during the night and hurled by the ankle into a loch. He is rescued by his dog, Cowlan, who behaves in an appropriately doggy way:
he had me at his side, trailing by the night-gown; and though he could not then bark aloud, he was still making a constant attempt at it with his mouth shut. (p. 82)
When he joined the army, though, I started to lose interest. There is fighting and looting and Charles XII of Sweden vs. Peter the Great, and plenty of Jacobitism (Wikipedia thinks people are still trying to restore the Stuarts to the English throne?!), and it all gets a bit this-happened-then-that-happened and maybe this is my anti-history prejudice but it did seem as though the pacing was shot. The character Finlayson ‘had not one virtue but an inviolable attachment to me’ (p. 100), and is a less evil reprise of the Justified Sinner’s Gil-Martin, complete with a shifting identity that in this case is achieved by dressing up. Not to knock dressing up, but it is a less interesting fictional device than a Calvinism-inspired descent into madness and terror.

The collection ends with two great short stories, one featuring the abduction of a child by orang-utans (or ‘pongos’) who, when they realise they aren’t going to be able to teach him to speak, go back and abduct his mother to help out. The other, ‘Marion’s Jock’ (which also appears in The Three Perils of Man) is the only tale here told in Scots dialect. Marion is tired of her son Jock lazing around all day eating, and gets him a job as a shepherd at a nearby farm. Unfortunately, Jock is much hungrier than this lowly position allows for (they feed him oatcakes and hard cheese), and there’s a massive side of bacon hanging in the kitchen, and he’s got a knife, and they put him in charge of a flock of sheep… It gets messy. Unlike the longer ‘John Lochy’ story, ‘Marion’s Jock’ is tightly controlled and about as perfect a murder ballad on the theme of greed as one could wish for.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pop Will Starve Itself

This week I got sucked in to thinking, like Tim, about the debate Everett True has been following / stirring on print vs. web music criticism (that’s the messy blog version, there is also a professional journalist one). It all seemed to boil down to a post / comment I can’t even find now, in which The Hype Machine responded to Chris Weingarten’s accusations of mathematics by saying that there is nothing wrong with a culture in which small blogs write enthusiastically about small bands they like (actually, here it is). Everett thought that there was, that the role of tastemaker involves something like an encompassable zeitgeist, to which the critic responds in positive and negative terms, providing a narrative for people to follow. For instance: love Suede, hate Kingmaker, ran 1992’s narrative in his own paper Melody Maker. Glam is back, with a literate twist. Let every shiny thing crush every whiny thing. Then you know where you stand. You’re a pleb going with the populist flow, or you’re in the know, ahead of the curve, avant of the garde, these ones here are the best band in the world, in ways you never dreamed of! And, while that kind of dialectic can be exciting, it is polarising too.

But pop is polarising, isn’t it? In its time, it has been about kids vs. adults, amateur vs. pro, commerce vs. authenticity and authenticity vs. commerce. Above all it has been about mass media, and subverting (but still appearing in) mass media. Malcolm McLaren’s ghost should remind us of that. I remember seeing him on daytime TV last year, panicking the presenters in his inability to talk for fewer than eight minutes at a time, and saying, ‘I don’t think people listen to a lot of music these days’ – i.e. for all the explosion in coverage, the amount of time spent listening hasn’t gone up. And how could it? There are only so many hours in the day, most of them wasted at work. Pop was always about its own story, of how rock ’n’ roll became pop became psychedelia; how pop became glam; how rock ’n’ roll and glam became prog; how prog got trashed by punk; how punk led on the one hand to DIY and indie, and on the other to post-punk which led (with added glam ’n’ electronics) to new romanticism. Perhaps shoegazing to grunge to britpop in the ’90s was already less iconic, already drifting from the mass media into its own smaller world.

What I want to know is: can pop function away from the mass media? All of the progressions / reactions listed above (and any others you can think of) rely on the fame of their predecessors. Simon Reynolds wrote an interesting piece a while back about how the consensus of music critics melted away as the noughties progressed, and the output of music increased. There is more great music now than ever, ran his analysis, but none of it has the critical mass in terms of coverage that – say – The Beatles, T-Rex, The Smiths or Pulp had. He even identifies Arcade Fire, in 2004, as the last band with this kind of consensus behind them. (Weren’t they rubbish? Why aren’t the Tenniscoats as big as The Beatles?) Maybe this is a hopelessly 20th century idea, but if pop music is about recycling itself into endlessly fascinating forms and reacting to its own ludicrous excesses, then it is going to need a present moment to react to, and from which to draw ideas. If the only famous sounds are from the 1950s – 90s, and everyone keeps recycling the same ones, then is it even pop music any more?

But what might happen (at least for those who ignore the aggregators), is that the death of pop means the rebirth of folk. Not in terms of sound, but the way it propagates itself. Word of mouth recommendations replacing cover features, the slowing down of change (because a single band can no longer have the same influence), the relaxing of rigid divisions inspired by iconoclastic writers, listeners constructing their own narratives. Mass exposure via the media relies on there not being that many other things in the news, and Weingarten’s argument highlights the fact that music is way past that point now. There is no encompassable zeitgeist: what’s out there is too big. But that’s only a bad thing if mass media is a concern. It’s bad for pop, and it’s definitely bad for music journalists, but it might not be bad for music.

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