"Lord Fishgarlic went out on a cold December morning ..."
The most gloriously exotic music (in the traditional sense) I've heard this year is also the most desperately innoculated from now, the most isolated, the most dreamlike, the most doomed and the most seductive. But I wouldn't call it the best - it's far too much of a pastiche to deserve such a description. On the surface, though, it's probably the most enjoyable. Scarlet's Well's "Lord Fishgarlic's Last Expedition" (available at http://www.siesta.es/s11410.ram) comes from an album called "The Isle of the Blue Flowers", which relies for its very existence on all the cliches of its genre - mysterious Mediterranean islands, parchments, pirates, dragons, ravens. Essentially the creation of Bid from The Monochrome Set (http://remus.rutgers.edu/~woj/fegmaniax/monochromeset.html) it's a compendium of all the recurring styles and sounds of consciously exotic pop, but however strange it sounds it completely lacks what is surely the definition of exoticism - a feel of surprise and the shock of the new. Rather it sounds like we've heard every note and every turn before, perhaps on a children's record from 1968 or something similarly forgotten and generally discredited. Genuine exoticism - hearing something for the first time and thinking "Where is this from? What is this? How can I possibly explain it?" - is absolutely nowhere in this music.
I've been attempting to find those qualities in the sonically startling and state-of-the-art. After three years despising "street" rap (see http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/pharoahe.htm) I downloaded MP3s of Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'" and DMX's "What's My Name?" on Tom Ewing's recommendation, and found myself converted. The way such amoral lifestyles and attitudes were conveyed harshly and thrillingly, leaving myself morally despising what I heard but unable to tear myself away, addicted, convulsed, forced to run with it (the very heart of pop), has had a major influence on me. But the strange thing is that, while I can still find a smidgeon of exoticism in pure period pastiche, I can find none at all in some of the best-produced pop music on the planet right now. Jay-Z and DMX might as well have come from down the road, to my ears. I click on the mouse and there they are. Getting hold of their music has been no effort, no special event, no challenge. And hearing it feels oddly day-to-day and familiar.
There was a time, of course, when things were totally different. Forty-odd years ago in Britain all good pop music - which meant American pop music - was exotic (the bad pop music - mostly British stuff - was familiar and crap). It went with the territory. American newspapers, even the most upmarket ones, had brash headlines and pictures all over their front pages, The Times had classified announcements. They had 10 channels of colour television, we had a state duopoly in monochrome. American teenagers could wear whatever they wanted to school, their British equivalents had to wear caps and straw hats. In an age before globalisation, the British could establish their own little fantasies of how the rest of the world was - and the pop industry was founded on a desire to feed one particular lucrative dream (the American one, of course). If pop music signified what the British already knew - Adam Faith cooing tweely about that puppy nobody wanted for Christmas, Lonnie Donegan invoking a mythical London of the 1930s (but one which would still be commercially lucrative for Blur as recently as 1994) - it may still have been very successful, but it conveyed absolutely none of the newness, excitement and surprise that was (and still is) the basis of the sheer lust that fuels all great pop, that prevents the music from ossifying.
Somewhere in the extraordinary time tunnel between then and now, the never-ceasing interchange that has infiltrated all our lives in the past four decades, all that changed. We got the internet, satellite television, globalisation, deregulation. All the cultural pillars on which our structure of dreams and aspirations was built collapsed, and the concept of exoticism would reach its current crisis, still just about there in what is truthfully a museum piece, completely absent from the state of the art. But if we can build a New Football from the collapse of the old collective working class which used to keep that game together, and a New Railway (admittedly hideously slow and inefficient) from the death of the old shared nationalised trade union values that once kept the British railway system going, why can't we create a New Exoticism?
Maybe, once globalisation removes all the traditional options for escape, and turns us into a weak but still obvious copy of what we once craved and aspired towards, our only choice is to exoticise the once-familiar, to take what used to signify repression, boredom and suffocation and glamourise them, make it appear as though they are far more exciting and stimulating than they are (which is, really, exactly what the British used to do to America). Perhaps the disowned, hidden Glasgow of Belle and Sebastian (http://www.jeepster.co.uk/belleandsebastian), the Home Counties sunsets of The Clientele (http://www.geocities.com/theclientele) and the suburban dystopia of Luke Haines (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/haines.htm) are now the only things we can hold up as something strange and wonderful. A 40-year 180-degree turn has turned the old exoticism into the norm, and the old normality into a way of living and being pushed into a corner. Personally I think that's precisely where it should stay (though the ersatz crap watered-down Anglicised Americana that has replaced it is little more appealing), but the less prevalent it gets the more exciting it becomes.
There's no longer any point in searching for a warm, informal society on the American model, no longer held back by overt and excessive politeness - culturally, that is precisely what we are. Paradoxically, we're now left in a situation where the easiest aspect of British life to portray as exotic is that which all previous exoticists fought to escape, because the truth is that the exoticists have won. It may be a hollow victory, but it is there. When we walk through market towns that John Betjeman would have treasured and see them monopolised by an entirely American style of dress, design aesthetic, Eminem and Britney Spears as much a part of the landscape as Jerry Lee Lewis and Connie Francis once stood out from it, we know which way this battle has swung. But the best way out of this quandary is not to endlessly rake over old mythologisations, nor dig our own forbidden past out of the cultural closet, but to put together everything we consume and see where that leads us. The restrained yearnings of Stuart Murdoch, the unashamed funklessness and aimless but intoxicating rage of Eminem, the enthusiasm and gang mentality of Spearmint, and the way Lewis Parker somehow makes hip-hop sound convincingly rural-English for the first and, maybe, the only time. Where could you go with all those together in your head? The exotic territories of the future will not be actual physical places, but places of the mind.
Only the most creative minds will give us such visions, though. We won't be able to rely on the tired formula-creators of most chartpop, so unspecific as to make us think of everywhere and nowhere at once, a dystopian future of one global (read: American) culture. But we can hear the first flowerings of the New Exoticism in isolated pockets of creativity worldwide. There's Cornelius and his fellow voyagers of course, and the way they approach what we in the West have become tired and cynical of with an incredible joy and naivety. There's the way Company Flow and The Infesticons transform hip-hop, render it into musique concrete, devoid of all geographical associations, away in its own universe of sound where The Funk sounds like a concept from space. Another part of the key might be found in the voice of Scarlet's Well's deliberately anonymous female singer, whose clear, unfettered tone reminds me of Sandra Kerr or Hilary James in the schools radio music programmes I listened to when I was 6 ("Lord Fishgarlic's Last Expedition" itself might have been taken straight from Time and Tune or Singing Together). While the old exoticism denounced the experiences of our childhoods as parochial, regressive and shameful, the new one celebrates them as the beginning of our known lives, and the place where we will always need to return to begin our mythologisations. While this was already happening in the early 90s - the Spanish guitar of Freddie Phillips in Urban Hype's "A Trip To Trumpton" sounded impossibly poignant in the context of what surrounded it - the likes of Plone have taken it to a new level.
The traditional, cliched form of exoticism is dead. Scarlet's Well and their ilk are merely keeping it on a life support machine, in the same way Oasis kept the (admittedly much less interesting) myth of the Rock Sixties struggling on for three horrible years in the mid-90s. But a new, more interesting form of exoticism - let's call it The Other - is defiantly alive.
Robin Carmody, 2nd July 2000
The Micro Disneycal World Tour:
We Could Walk Together:
The Stars of Track and Field: