Wednesday 26th July 2000
Tom Ewing was right to place Disco Inferno's "The Last Dance" as high as Number Two in his Top 100 singles of the 90s (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/02.html). The first year or so after Major's crushing election victory was as bleak a time as Britain has experienced in my remembered life (mid-80s onwards), made worse by the way certain aspects of the long-established British media (especially Thames Television and old-school Radio 1) were eking out their final days, and the privatisation of the BBC was being seriously considered. For me, right now, it is arguably the finest single of the last decade, with its evocation of a world where nothing is new, where everything seems to have already happened, where every option open to you seems to have been taken by someone else, and all too often someone long before.
Tom's right to say that, in retrospect, it sounds like a grim anticipation for the worship of the past that would afflict British music for the remainder of the 90s. But, at the time, I'd imagine it would have been impossible to consume it without thinking of John Major's ideology of "We are, and we should be in the future, because we were", and what it would mean to be living in a country led by such a man. It feels like a nightmare of an endlessly recurring past, the most literate and eloquent way anyone has ever said no future.
Of course Britain is no longer being governed-by-nostalgia in the way it was in 1993. Of course things don't seem quite as grim as they seemed in the early days of the 1992-97 Parliament - the humiliation of withdrawal from the EMU, Heseltine's plans to sell off virtually all the remaining coal mines, and the country being almost bankrupted. But "The Last Dance" still seems like a grimly appropriate description of the way things feel in Britain, even on a sunny day in the first summer of the new century.
Meanwhile I've been listening to "Ye Olde Moog", an Australian LP from the 70s of folk / traditional songs played on Moogs ("Scarborough Fair", "Strawberry Fair", "Amazing Grace", "Greensleeves" and others) which Kerry Keane from alt.fan.momus has taped for me. It's not a bad record by any means, but it does have a certain cheesy, dated feeling about it that even the worst 70s Radiophonic music doesn't have, the sonics and the production values bearing the mark of their era, and therefore seeming more dated than what Raymond Scott, Joe Meek, Delia Derbyshire and Maddalena Fagandini were creating in the early 60s. Running through it is that very 70s guitar sound which evokes Paddy Kingsland's Radiophonic work at its best, but Greg Lake's unspeakable whinge "I Believe In Father Christmas" (the absolute nadir of prog's self-pity) at its worst. It's quite an enjoyable record, though, but doesn't withstand repeated listens.
Quote of the day is from the Tim Westwood show's message board over on BBC Online, though the words are those of Saul Williams: "Not until you listen to Rakim on a rocky mountain-top have you heard hip-hop. Take out the urban element that created it and let an openwide countryside illustrate it."
Wednesday 2nd August 2000
That highly-esteemed intellectual organ, the New Musical Express, informs us today that "America is always going to seem exotic if you've grown up in Staines." Oh, fuck off, it's not bloody 1959 anymore! The concept of exoticism was very simplistically-defined, by modern standards, back in those years before globalisation, but things are very different now, and British "nowhere towns" are now in fact totally Americanised in their aesthetic, appearance, attitudes and feeling. We should be looking for more advanced arguments than that, but we know the NME is not the place to look. This might just be (disgraceful self-aggrandisement here): http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/exotic.htm.
Meanwhile I've been listening to a lot of Nick Drake for essentially the first time in my life, and find myself convulsed. I was wary and suspicious of the man, not so much because of what I'd heard of his music (which I'd loved), but the sort of attitudes he seems to encourage and justify, the idea of burning brightly and fading young, the holy isolated distant Artist of Romanticism (a concept which I held to for most of 1998, almost killed myself with the cultural superiority and isolation it brings on, and then realised the error of my ways and turned dramatically against it), and Ian MacDonald's seductively well-written but horrendously overblown and misguided Mojo piece. I need not have worried. The music sounds very non-geographical, of no particular place and no particular time, which is fine because it's infinitely easier to take than the bombastic self-conscious Englishness that characterises much of the prog rock of the era.
Tom Ewing was right to mention last night that 1970's "Bryter Layter", with its edge of jazziness, more romantic songs, tales of poor boys and girls named Jane, and the closest he ever came to a middle-of-the-road song, "Northern Sky" (which, tellingly, I can remember both Nicky Campbell and Simon Mayo playing on their daytime Radio 1 shows, while not recalling any other Drake song ever getting played on daytime radio, anywhere) is why Belle and Sebastian always get the comparison, and the songs from it seem to be the weakest on the compilation I have, "Way To Blue". The material from 1972's "Pink Moon" is clearly the strongest, with the stuff from 1969's "Five Leaves Left" just behind - "Things Behind The Sun" seems the most beautiful of all for me right now, though it's a close-run thing.
I need to get all his full albums, certainly.
Also on repeat play here is Wookie's "Battle", which has the most striking first 15 seconds of any single this year (Tom's nylpm review yesterday was spot on) and the Ultramagnetic MCs - as we know, Kool Keith remains one of those people pop can't do without, defiantly neither street nor undie, one of the few we can describe as "a maverick" without fear of cliche, the closest hip-hop comes to Mark E. Smith. "Kool Keith Housing Things" especially remains, surely, one of the most grindingly compulsively brilliant pieces of funk recorded in the 80s.
Friday 11th August 2000
The end and the beginning.
Two pieces were on repeat play last night. One is Public Enemy's "Welcome To The Terrordome", the other is Johnny Dankworth's "Widespread World of Rediffusion". Both rank among the most awesome pieces of music ever recorded, for my money, but I can't think of two which ideologically and culturally oppose each other more. One smiles, one scowls (and think of how quaint that latter word now sounds in itself, the disapproval of a bygone age, all the more appropriate to use it, then). One celebrates, the other denigrates with indescribable fury. The Dankworth piece promises wonderful joys ahead on Rediffusion tonight, the PE track leaves you doubting whether there will be a world at all at that point in a few hours' time when your 1960s predecessors would have been watching Take Your Pick and Double Your Money. After "Widespread World", there would be everything; after "Terrordome", there could be nothing. The man who describes "Terrordome", its indescribable physicality and backed-into-the-corner paranoia, far better than I could at http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/38.html, heard it while at Winchester College, and I can't even begin to contemplate the psychological effects of such an experience, the record and the school being 100% incompatible even at the moment of armageddon.
"Welcome To The Terrordome" sounds like nothing so much as the last five minutes on the radio before war breaks out. Was it really the last record ever made, as one feels it would like to have been? No, of course not, but it was the last record, to my ears, that absolutely could never have been made in Britain at the time of its recording (perhaps Ice Cube's "The Nigga You Love To Hate" from later in 1990, another awesome Bomb Squad production, just pips it as the last great geographical record). After this, the globalisation of pop took over. It's coldly appropriate that it should have been released in Britain on the eighth day of the 1990s, for it was a grim warning for a decade which didn't produce the kind of revolution on Chuck D's mind at its start, but did produce a revolution which would make PE's total, earth-shattering impact absolutely impossible. It wasn't the commercialisation of hip-hop itself, nor their eclipse within two years of "Terrordome" by the depoliticised, and therefore extraordinarily relaxed by comparison, sound of gangsta rap (nihilistic violence-for-pleasure, rather than desperate violence-for-equality). It was, of course, the internet. That is the reason why I'm writing this now - but more than that, it's the reason why gatekeepers and cultural divisions are now meaningless, and the reason why, even when we hear a record as awesome as "Terrordome" (which doesn't happen very often, but from time to time we do hear something even better), it seems incredibly familiar and everyday. What with the last belch of reactionary hatred from William Hague and Charles Moore in reaction to the Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the right becoming more viciously hostile to multi-culturalism every day as they realise that they will be historically obsolete within another twenty years, Britain seems closer to such a civil war than it did in 1990, but the chances are still, thankfully, negligible.
"Welcome To The Terrordome" looked the 1990s in the face, and more-or-less predicted that the new decade would see a Third World War. It didn't, but it did see the slowest and quietest cultural revolution ever.
And "Widespread World of Rediffusion"? Ah, that predates everything. The confidence before the apocalypse that never happened, before the real revolution that did. It essentially stands for the quiet affluence and freedom within a certain amount of regulation of market forces, which characterised the mid-1960s in Britain. January 1990, interestingly enough, was also the month of Margaret Thatcher's Broadcasting Act, which put the final nail in the coffin of the television system that "Widespread World" and Rediffusion itself were such crucial parts of. It completely opened broadcasting to unbridled market forces and an unlimited number of channels, the completion of Thatcher's political / ideological project, and an act which had looked inevitable ever since Thatcher first expressed her contempt for the BBC / ITV and ILR duopoly, some years before. But like the post-war consensus itself, the character of the old ITV was already withering and dying in the last few years before Thatcher's election, the start-up faded away between 1985 and 1988, and the Yorkshire Television March was, anyway, even more incongrous in Rotherham during the strikes of the late 70s (whose frequency has, admittedly, been exaggerated) than the Thatcher-worshipping teenage Hague was. Like the 50s / 60s consensus it was such a crucial part of, the ITV start-up (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/startup.htm) slowly declined, and then Thatcher finally destroyed it for good.
But we'd never have had "Welcome To The Terrordome" without that collapse of confidence that characterised the Thatcher / Reagan era in both Britain and America, so perhaps there was some point to those misleadingly apocalyptic years after all.
Monday 14th August 2000
Many thanks to Mike Daddino for linking to this page. I can only celebrate by returning the compliment: http://www.epicharmus.com.
Oh and by the way, Tom, why is it that I have to agree with virtually everything you cite as "cool" and "uncool" on that FT T-shirt, apart from the criticism of John Lennon (in my opinion, still the man to whom we owe most of our cultural freedoms today), and two entries (don't try asking me, you know which ones they are) which have clearly been included simply to spite Momus?
It's a fine declaration of your aesthetic, though, and not too different from mine. I want one!
Thursday 17th August 2000
OK, I was exaggerating absurdly when I claimed that we owed most of our cultural freedoms to John Lennon. I was writing emotionally, in the heat of the moment, and feeling pissed off that I could agree so strongly with most of the dichotomies on Tom's provisional T-shirt design, but disagree so much with that one. What I meant was that Lennon was a symbol of, and a key figure in, the period of cultural history which opened us to those freedoms, and that while he was not in power, passing liberalising and progressive laws, as Harold Wilson was, he had a far greater cultural significance, and achieved far more, than Mick Jagger ever could have. My appropriation of Lennon is defiantly non-Rockist, non-Establishment, and it's very telling that my favourite Beatles recording, I Am The Walrus, is a song which, by its very nature, could never reach the canonical position that much of their other (and, in my view, inferior) work reached decades ago.
Meanwhile, Mojo magazine devotes most of its current issue to a celebration of the year 1965. Reading it is quite extraordinary, but for all the wrong reasons. If, as I assume, its intent is to communicate to those of us who were neither there nor then that 1965 was one of the most exciting and stimulating years of pop-cultural history (which it was, incidentally), it fails dismally. Reading it is astoundingly tedious, like a dull academic textbook laced with a bit of easy nostalgia. If you want the excitement of the era conveyed with an astonishingly high standard of writing (and you have every right to), ignore Mojo and read Ian MacDonald's "Revolution in the Head", not just the only Beatles book worth reading, but the closest there is to a definitive "reading" of the 1960s.
Jack Seale, whose writings for The Horse I have shamefully neglected in the past, claims in his excellent blog Esc. (http://www.uk-image.net/horse/esc.htm) that Uncut is a "60s-throwback magazine". It's very musically conservative, but I wouldn't describe it as such. For a start, it's better-written than Mojo, and when it does write about the 60s it does, at least, have MacDonald to do it.
But I have one good thing to say about Mojo's tedious reading of 1965: it isn't Peter Hitchens's reading of that particular year.
And it all starts from here: