Monday 1st January 2001
Happy New Year to anyone who visits these green acres.
And a personal anniversary for me, as well. At 8.30 pm on Friday 31st December 1999, I published the first incarnation of this site. When I look back to Elidor Mark 1 - its amateurism, its horrendous design, the desperately shy, naive, thrusting Momus-obsessed persona I communicated - I have a good sense of how far I have moved on in that time. Of course some of the original stuff is still there, and much of it I'm still proud of - the evocations of Plone's (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/plone.htm) and David Inglesfield's (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/inglesfield.htm) music, which I sweated long and hard over with a crushing sense that they weren't particularly well-written, are still here virtually untouched, and they still seem like some of my best and most descriptive writing ever. But the other stuff in the early days - far too many hymns to the glory of Our Lord Nick Currie (later condensed into http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/momus.htm), an amateurish early version of the Van Dyke Parks piece, and some weak and meandering musings on the High Llamas - reminds me just how far I've come. I've made more friends, found more fans, evolved further, and written more this year than I could possibly have imagined in those nervous days of a year ago.
The best moments? Probably the praise I got from various circles after Elidor began properly later in January, which convinced me that it could work, could thrive. The responsive emails on the Van Dyke Parks piece (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/vandyke.htm) that I got from Tom Ewing and Ned Raggett after months wondering whether I should email them congratulating them on their sites. The sheer euphoria of actually receiving my first link (which at the time seemed incredibly exotic to me) from Tom on Freaky Trigger. Publishing a huge amount of new stuff on one day in April and responding to the instant replies and thoughts, the buzz of the moment that only the internet truly provides. The sense of achievement after writing my history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/radiophonic.htm), how I felt I'd at last achieved real historical scope without seeming plodding or contrived. The emotional drive and push that I sensed in later pieces like the reviews of Stankonia (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/outkast.htm) and Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/maxtundra.htm). Of course there were many moments I'll remember, but these seem like the most resonant, the most outstanding.
And this, incidentally, is the last entry on this thoughts page. A new one - the fourth - will carry us through the early part of 2001. There were far too many of these when I first started the site, but for those suffering withdrawal symptoms, I have to offer a Momus quote, possibly my favourite:
"Ring the bells, ring the bells, ring the bells, ring them. Ring the bells, ring the bells, I can still hear them."
Elidor - in Alan Garner's awesome 1965 novel - was originally a kingdom which had to be saved for the good of all mankind, as a comment on the spiritual void of Britain in the newly consumerist late 1950s and 1960s. Elidor, the website, began as a hopeless, doomed fantasy. It's now far more realist, far more serious, far more matter-of-fact and far more committed to taking the most positive attitude possible to what is on my doorstep (rather than dreaming of some vague metropolitan paradise), far wider in its subject matter and, really, has evolved in directions and to levels of achievement that I could never have hoped for myself 12 months ago. I think that's worthy of a little self-congratulation.
Thursday 28th December 2000
Sometimes there are articles so good that you absolutely have to link to them. Hywel Williams's "Capital Offence" piece in the Guardian - a superb dissection of London's overt dominance within the UK and how we can, hopefully, restructure this country along the lines of the federal societies of mainland Europe - is one such: http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,415487,00.html. He is right in every word he utters in the article, and his dissection of the "nation" mentality of London as being much less globalist than it thinks it is is particularly accurate.
Needless to say he is right about the way that those in the British provinces have been much less empowered than their mainland European equivalents, because we have never been a federal country; a European oddity, centralised for so long, and now paying the price. Nothing could illustrate the extent to which we lag behind than the difference between our regional newspapers and theirs. In most of mainland Europe the hideous hegemony of the national papers is far less strong, and the federal regions of France, Germany and Spain can boast civic regionalist newspapers that are proud, progressive, serious, more important than the national papers, easily comparable to the Guardian and the Observer. Our regional papers are sad, blunted, conservative, parochial little things, produced on a pathetic budget and with zero ambition, that don't even stand up when compared to the Daily Mail.
Of course there are many other contributing factors to our sad state of affairs that Williams doesn't mention (though I suspect he would were he allotted more space). In the late 60s and early 70s progressive ruralism was (imagine it!) fashionable among young people; the folk-rock boom persuaded a great many people of one particular generation that their traditions could be modernised, could be fused with the reality of now, could still mean something. But the hard, tough essentialist ethos of the 80s - epitomised by the Pet Shop Boys' line in West End Girls defining London 1985 with the line that it had "got no future, got no past", where both history and building for the future were dumped in favour of greedy, acquisitive, live-for-today yuppiedom, stamped on all that. Tim Hopkins and Vaughan Simons, superb bloggers though both of them are, are products of this era; brought up in a time when it seemed as though you had a straight choice between the metropolitan sneering of the yuppie (which has led to the superiority and snobbish isolationism within London-based internet companies) and the purist revivalism and recreation of English Heritage and the Sealed Knot Society, and there was no point in between. The heritage industry boomed in the 80s - it was one of the decade's few boom industries - but it was pure nostalgia, and modernist, forward-looking provincial civic pride seemed, by 1989, to be dead. No wonder Tim and Vaughan felt that they could achieve nothing in the areas of the West Country where they grew up, no wonder both look on their home areas with disdain. Growing up in the 80s could do that to the most determined civic regionalist.
In the last decade the structure of the ITV network - once our greatest federal asset - has been mutilated, nationalised and standardised. Nevertheless, things have changed for the better, overall, in the past 10 years; while the greatest advance is not musical or cultural but technological - specifically, the internet, without which I would have given in and moved to London like everyone else before me - it can empower us all. Our gradual, painful acceptance of the EU is showing us the federal civic regionalist models we have to aspire to. Our destiny, so bleak 10 years ago, is opening up for us again.
10 years ago, we didn't even have the building blocks. Right now, at the turn of 2000 and 2001, we do. We have to take the opportunity of grasping our European future (and, with an isolationist Texan redneck in the White House, Blair will have a greater reason than ever to align this country with the rest of the EU), turning ourselves into a proud federal country, breaking the grip of London, and showing the way forward. And we must remember these words, and carry them with us, for the next decade of work:
"'Provincial' can now mean 'European', not obscure. Yorkshire, Cornwall and Devon can join Rhone-Alpes, Catalonia and Normandy in the recognition that we are all Euro-regionalists now. But metropolitan London, so long the beneficiary of a feudal dominance over England, will seem self-centred and even small-minded when its self-interest separates it from England."
Hywel Williams, you have given me a reason to live. Along with Common Ground (http://www.commonground.org.uk) we can go somewhere over the next 10 years. The future beckons us. The future begins right now.
Saturday 23rd December 2000
I'm obsessing on John Baker's Radiophonic work (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/radiophonic.htm). Why was I so mealy-mouthed when writing about it back in July?
I guess I was just listening to the exterior of each piece rather than the undertow. I was concentrating on the purist minimalism of Derbyshire, Fagandini, Briscoe, Young, all of whom of course I still love, but I wasn't listening to everything else that was going on in the pieces. Baker's approach was more cut and paste than anyone else at the Workshop, and like MBV's Loveless or Timbaland / Aaliyah's "Try Again" there are new sounds fizzing about underneath his pieces that it can take, literally, hundreds of listens to reveal. What really stands out is the interjection between the basslines and the melody lines ... take the rhythmic complexity, the squelch and burps of the bassline, the mildly jazzy swing of a piece like "Milky Way", the dread and tension of "The Chase", and the utterly darkside drive of his masterpiece, "P.I.G.S.", and you only need a small amount of rhythmic alterations to turn these pieces into early 90s hardcore, '94-ish jungle, one of those DMX backing tracks that would sound so much better were he to stop barking over them, Ghostface Killah's utterly obtuse "Stroke of Death" ... in other words, some of the most inventive music of the last 10 years. Then there's the creamy flow and Capella-like piano of "Festival Time", the shuffles in the background of "Factors", the sword-cross in tune with the whistle of "Radio Nottingham", the harsh snarl, door-knocking backing and delicate, chocolate, fade-in-out closure to his version of "Boys and Girls" (which isn't the one you're most likely to know, which is touched by the curse of the off-the-shelf analog synth) ... mind-blowing mental concept: John Baker, even if neither he nor they know it, influenced Timbaland and Swizz Beats.
Maybe the above, rather than Broadcast, Boards of Canada or Plone, are the Workshop's true heirs.
Wednesday 13th December 2000
Let us hope that the Western world survives the next four years at all. It is all we can hope for now.
Thursday 7th December 2000
What did Rakim say about "it's been a long time"?
Apologies to Tim Finney and all others who have stood the course. I'd love to say I've been a lazy-arsed student; the truth is neither of the above. Off The Telly, Transdiffusion, Confluence, worries, work, watching, listening, reading, travelling. All the above are to blame. But don't hold anything against them.
Proper updates resume at the weekend, hopefully.
Saturday 21st October 2000
For the benefit of Phil Paterson: if you're actually being barked at by rabid Tory activists, and instructed to "get down the Labour Exchange and get yourself a job" (Labour Exchange for Christ's sake!) demonstrating at the Conservative conference doesn't feel remotely like anything out of a sitcom ...
Tom's thoughts in Blue Lines (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/blueline.html) are interesting; when I first developed a website I too was concerned obsessively with making sure people didn't have the slightest idea of my personal life, my geographical location, my political views, etc., but now I think I've made sure that most visitors to Elidor are aware of, say, the fact that I will feel physically sick if seeing a trailer for Clarissa and the Countryman on BBC2, and that my politics, while less dogmatic than they once were, nevertheless hold the kind of strong ideology which is regrettably unfashionable in so many circles these days. As for my personal life, though, hmmm ... perhaps that should be kept quiet for the foreseeable future.
Monday 16th October 2000
There are people who will be thoroughly bored by this, but ...
If you were at the self-named "Countryside Fair" at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth on Wednesday 4th October, and you saw a young man with a placard saying on the one side "The Conservatives Don't Rule The Countryside", and on the other "Socialist Ruralist", finding a few people on his side with whom he had some rewarding conversations, and having frustrating conversations with a number of astonishingly combative and rude Tory delegates and activists (one of whom said that he didn't want to even see this young man's face because the dissenter didn't have "a job"), then that young man was me.
That is all.
Tuesday 3rd October 2000
Being as far to the left of New Labour as I am, I have until recently felt able to dissent from and condemn the New Labour project, aware that even the old Tory papers were behind it. Not now, though. Now, however disgusted I may feel with many of their values (especially Estelle Morris's shameless boast that the party has "learnt to love" private education, and her implication that such education is actually better because it is based so heavily around the competitive ethos of the free market), I know I have to get on their side.
The Daily Express, which has reverted to its old Tory ways as it has restored the Daily to its title, compared John Prescott's condemnation of the loathsome Countryside Alliance activists in Brighton to a speech in Nazi Germany, an analogy unrivalled for its sheer tastelessness and trivialisation of some of the most evil acts in human history. In The Sun, Richard Littlejohn described Prescott as "an ape". Enough. Some may find it amusing but, as with Bowyer & Bunbury, I find it very nearly too depressing to even write about. To dissent from New Labour and ally yourself to a more genuinely liberal and socialist cause, however tempting it may be, is in my opinion no longer acceptable. At least until the election, we have to stand by New Labour precisely because of the nightmarish extreme right-wing Tory government which certain papers now actively seem to want.
But it's worth wondering: the Express once again used the catch-all phrase "country people" to refer to the hunt lobby, which makes up a small minority of rural opinion. Can this newspaper which reduces rural Britain to that hideous level be in any way related to Meridian Broadcasting, which ignored the Tolpuddle TUC Rally on its regional coverage in July, yet endlessly reports hunting rallies and country fairs, and makes many programmes showing an utterly middlebrow, Daily Mail supplement view of rural Britain, but makes no programmes showing it any other way?
Erm, yes. At the time, both the Express and Meridian were owned by Clive Hollick's United News and Media. Meridian has now been sold to the Granada Media Group, and now the slimily Blairite Hollick faces competition for the ownership of the Express titles, but the cross-ownership is not surprising when you consider this correlation in ideology, what is considered worth covering, and what "rural Britain" is. Expect more of the same, unfortunately.
Monday 25th September 2000
The one sentence, one adjective game continued:
More albums I've bought:
Silver Apples - Silver
Apples (moments of indulgence that prefigure the worst
aspects of prog, but many songs that are genuinely inspiring and
Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown (brimming with funk, fizzing with rhythm, you can't sit still, not one weak moment; classic)
Aphex Twin - Richard D. James Album (probably his best work overall, he sounds genuinely in love with what he is doing; rewarding)
Nick Drake - Tanworth-in-Arden 1967-68 (it's a sign of how sad a completist I am that I own it, and with one exception his early songs reveal nothing of what was to come; incidental)
And albums I've downloaded in their entirety in MP3:
XTC - Skylarking
(a record of such richness that every listen reveals new
textures and elements; perfect)
XTC - Apple Venus Volume 1 (not their most varied record, nor their best, nor their most definitive, and it's more of a pastiche and more isolated from the modern world than their very best work, but it's the most joyous and sustained portrayal of a particular vision of England we've had for many, many years; succulent)
Marshall Hain - Free Ride (one eternally wonderful single, one epic ruralist utopian dreampiece, the rest quite disappointing, of-the-time, almost MOR; infuriating)
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (nothing too startling or individual, and it fits into a continuum cosily, but it's wonderful within that line of descent; reliable)
Madonna - Music (embarrassing in places, dull in others, but some of her best music ever lies within, and even the uptempo tracks don't give themselves over to pure celebration; melancholic)
Friday 22nd September 2000
Apologies to Tom for assuming that he meant his gut reaction quite literally - I appreciate his reassurance that he put it up because it simply went to the other extreme to that of the right-wing press's gut reaction, and to point out the absurdity of going on gut reactions, full stop. I can only reassure Tom that he had no foundation for his gut reaction.
The obligatory link guaranteed to make all sane people physically ill: http://www.netavision.co.uk/album1.html. Some may view this kind of bullshit with a certain indulgence, but it makes me feel sick just typing the URL. The need for positive portrayals of non-metropolitan Britain to counter this bollocks becomes ever greater. Large rural fanbase? Jay-Z has a larger rural fanbase than these people, no question. And the rebirth of popular folk? Popular folk, as they are presumably referring to it, was usually inherently left-wing, certainly opposed to oppressive rule by landowners; Guardians of the Land was the anthem of the 1st March 1998 Countryside March, which was almost entirely organised and orchestrated by those very landowners, the people who would still, if they had the chance, condemn what remains of the rural working classes (who founded popular folk music in Britain, and in most other places) to serfdom. The Countryside March displayed no trace of any "popular folk" tradition; rather it asserted the values that popular folk initially countered and protested against (and, in a different form, still does).
But the obligatory link to make your life better: http://www.gowingo.com/web/futprim002/oldtunes.html (thanks to Tim Finney initially, then to Tom for directing it to me). You will not be able to leave easily, if at all ...
Monday 18th September 2000
The thing is, Tom, that I can understand the reasoning behind your gut reaction (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/blueline.html) to the protestors who made such an impact in Britain this past week, and I loathe them and everything they stand for (their ridiculous paranoid fear of Blair's empty and meaningless modernity rhetoric, their selfish and arrogant obsession with the car culture, and their self-image as the "voice" of non-metropolitan Britain). That doesn't stop your gut reaction from being every bit as absurd, irrational and unfounded as anything Hague and his acolytes could come out with. Of course there are incidents of racism in some rural areas, but London has more than its fair share of far-right activism. To judge non-metropolitan areas on the basis of one experience in a guest house is absolutely ridiculous.
Those of us who live outside Britain's major cities, and count ourselves as liberal and progressive, have been deeply depressed by these protests precisely because of the misleading idea they give to the London-based media, which never reports the truth when a generalisation, myth, distortion or outright lie will do. I'm disappointed, Tom, that you have fallen victim to the media machine (and the liberal papers must be implicated as well as the Mail, Telegraph and Sun: remember the Guardian's claim on its front page back in June that the government faced "a summer of discontent from rural Britain" when it actually meant that it faced a summer of discontent from the hunt lobby, which makes up a minority of rural opinion and is mostly based in Kensington and Belgravia anyway).
These are dangerous times, but perhaps the greatest danger of all is posed by the press and the media generally. Tom, your gut reaction shows that even the most intelligent people can be misled this way. Ignore all such forces now.
Tuesday 12th September 2000
OK then, inspired by Tom Ewing's ten-word game for the albums of the 90s (see http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/bestlps.html) this is my not-quite-as-brief sumnation of every album I've bought so far this year:
Beck - Midnite
Vultures (the crushing irony and pastiche-for-its-own-sake
lets him down again; annoying)
Go-Kart Mozart - Instant Wigwam and Igloo Mixture (the Apple Venus of the Holte End 1975; redemptive)
Blackalicious - NIA (a record to admire without being excited by; solid)
Pharoahe Monch - Internal Affairs (as thrilling as Rawkus ever get; contemporary)
Various Artists - Word Lab: UK Hip Hop (a music finds itself; celebratory)
Air - Original Motion Picture Score for The Virgin Suicides (makes no sense outside its original context; ignorable)
Broadcast - The Noise Made By People (cold, icy, historically-aware but never pastiche; rewarding)
Asian Dub Foundation - Community Music (a terrible white liberal's cliche to say this, but a key part of Britain 2000 is in this record: important)
Hundred Strong - Strength of a Hundred (an undie fan's idea of perfection, and the antithesis of pop; underground)
Kool Keith - Black Elvis / Lost In Space (genuine modern psychedelia; essential)
Dead Prez - Let's Get Free (35% driven and compelling, 65% well-meant but desperately bland; erratic)
The Auteurs - How I Learned To Love The Bootboys (imagine Haines's response to BBC2's I Love The Seventies; necessary)
The Auteurs - After Murder Park (there is no love in this world anymore; vicious)
Common - Like Water For Chocolate (it has no faults except its dullness; unexciting)
Cornelius - C/M (wonderful despite, not because of, its consensus of cool; fashionable)
Gastr Del Sol - Camofleur (lo-fi when it acquires a modicum of aimless charm; rambling)
Kelis - Kaleidoscope (hopefully people will remember this era by records like this; modern)
Saint Etienne - Sound of Water (the thrill has gone; middle-aged)
Black Box Recorder - The Facts of Life (drowning in overt irony; disappointing)
Stereolab - The First of the Microbe Hunters (more of the same; uninspiring)
Belle and Sebastian - Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (they know who their fans are and they're talking amongst themselves; private)
Dr Dre - Chronic 2001 (we thought he was finished, we're ashamed of ourselves; defiant)
The Infesticons - Gun Hill Road (undie when it drops its constraints and goes on a journey; intriguing)
The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs (an album impossible to describe adequately no matter how many words you use; extraordinary)
Nick Drake - Way To Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake (a good starting-point but he compiles badly; introductory)
Mark Hollis - Mark Hollis (a very slight return to the middlebrow after Laughing Stock; autumnal)
Canibus - 2000 B.C. (Before Canibus) (neither appalling nor exciting; middling)
Public Enemy - Yo! Bum Rush The Show (everything was being developed, about to incite; significant)
Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle (a glorious mess hiding genuine beauty; transitional)
Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left (before the darkening, but not sunny either; fascinating)
Nick Drake - Bryter Layter (some wonderful songs still, but Drake aims in part for the turn-of-the-decade MOR-hippy mainstream; frustrating)
Nas - Illmatic (the formula of hip-hop, but raised to new levels; seminal)
Scarlet's Well - The Isle of the Blue Flowers (enticing museum-piece exoticism; doomed)
Sparks - Propaganda (what all pop would sound like if written from a thesaurus; clever)
Nick Drake - Pink Moon (when sensitivity is fighting reality and sensitivity wins; beautiful)
XTC - Black Sea (their initial edginess forced into shape; energising)
XTC - English Settlement (their vision is truly formed; definitive)
Albums I've downloaded in their entirety in MP3:
Eminem - The
Marshall Mathers LP (one man's semi-autobiography, entirely
his own work; unignorable)
XTC - Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2 (ruralism filtered through rockism and therefore, perversely and paradoxically, removed of its dangerous and worrying claims to "authenticity": euphoric)
Dr Dre - The Chronic (seemed to overpower everything else in hip-hop for a brief period between the start and the middle of last decade; era-defining)
CDs I've been sent by others:
The Sounds of Science and
Industry: The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 1958-1979 (the
most significant and important music ever absorbed into Britain's
Official Culture Industry: vital)
James Lucas - Trapped Under The Tor (wilful and compelling songs, inspired wherever you don't expect it; individualistic)
James Lucas - Momusissus (an intriguing dissection of the pop process over and above the Momus-tribute elements; worthwhile)
Lord Nasty - Glory Whorealluia (the joke wears thin very quickly; tedious)
Saturday 9th September 2000
It always seems to me that the more pressure on your time there is, the more you feel motivated to write. The lazier my life becomes, the more my opportunities disappear into the past, the less likely it seems that I'll be resuming academic work in the near future, the more free time I have, and the less I'm writing. Maybe it's just because my late-teens phase of melancholia, slowing everything down, this period of wandering about mentally within myself, is still going on 17 days after that period of my life ended (in linear terms, at least). I know it will end, I know it won't hold me forever, but it's certainly the way I'm feeling at the moment.
Nevertheless: as far as retro-activity goes, thanks to Tom for directing me to XTC's English Settlement and Black Sea, and to Ned Raggett for leading me to Sparks's Propaganda. More 80s singles to come this weekend, if I can jump out of this protracted mild melancholy ...
Wednesday 30th August 2000 (about 22 hours later)
Thanks to Tom for this link concerning the new Supremes box set, poor though it is: http://www.ocregister.com/search/20000825/entertainment/poplife.shtml. Tom's right to say that it assumes that boxed sets are meant to be listened to at one sitting, which they clearly are not, and puts too much emphasis on Diana Ross's vocal limitations (she was never the strongest singer on the Motown roster, but reading this piece it's almost as if the lead singer's qualities, or otherwise, are the only things that contribute to pop records). But most objectionable is the rockism that runs through it, and clinging to the concept of "authenticity" and "soulfulness". It's telling that Motown's reputation suffered in the UK during the rockist mid-90s (as much other 60s music was being obsessively celebrated), when it was being judged against the mods' fundamentalist idea that it somehow lacked the "realness" of Atlantic and Stax. Now I'm not one to fight battles (especially not this long after the fact) but I couldn't live wholly on brass, sweat and beats (ha!). As Tom says, the whole point of Motown was that it transcended received ideas of "soulfulness". Like Dr Dre or Swizz Beats, it was absolutely never in fear of pop. With You Keep Me Hanging On playing right now, I'm in heaven, I'm living in a world where the destructive and restrictive idea of being "real" has never been invented (and we are all the happier for it), and anyone referring to the Supremes' "sacrifice of purity" and calling them "the Tiger Woods (but not the Muhammad Ali) of their day" can go to hell, or at least stop fighting battles that ended in about 1974, as though they were still on Japanese islands in the 70s, pretending that the Second World War had never ended.
On the other hand, the downside of Motown's entryism is manifested today in the odious Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn endlessly invoking it (to be fair, he does go on about Aretha and Otis as well, though that only shows that his hypocrisy and double standards go even further), and the hideous use of the Dancing In The Street-inspired phrase "Every thug, grab a girl" as the headline to a letter on the Daily Telegraph's website. How can the Telegraph invoke a record that stands for celebration, joy, unity, black-owned businesses earning the most money, the antithesis of its own values? The answer is six words that sadly define the British mainstream media today: Because It Was In The Sixties. Anything that happened then is OK, apparently, because it was such a cosy, innocent age, and everyone was in together, and there was no real racism, and those nasty black people didn't try to stand out so much then, did they? The tabloids defend the Kray twins by bleating "They only killed their own" ... yes, but so did the protagonists in the so-called "gangsta rap" wars a few years back, the subject of such vicious incomprehending hatred from the populist British press. Ah, but I forget, if you write for the Daily Mail it's somehow acceptable to commit such crimes while listening to The Tremeloes, but if you committed them while listening to Dr Dre: bring back crucifixion!
But I've always suspected that Diana Ross and Martha Reeves would have no problem with people like Littlejohn liking their music, while Aretha Franklin would probably want the man to keep his dirty, discrediting hands off it. That would, however, have nothing to do with the actual sound of their respective music, and everything to do with the differing attitudes of those who surrounded them: Motown clearly wanted the support of as many people as it possibly could, even if they'd prefix their admiration with the phrase "I'm not really comfortable with black people ... but that Stevie Wonder's alright", while Atlantic and Stax would rather have had no fans at all - or at least, fail to make the great "crossover" - than have the backhanded compliments of such people. Echoes of this dichotomy can be found in the current hip-hop debate: there is no right or wrong, there are no certainties, but it is a fascinating subject for this column, and however poor that article is, at least it's got me thinking about it again.
Wednesday 30th August 2000
Looking back through my last entry I notice, in horror, that I used the word "ruefully" twice in one sentence, plus again at the end of the piece. Memo to self: always read through everything you've written before publishing.
OK then, why does turntablism so rarely sound good? Downloading five tracks by DJ Q-Bert last night was a great let-down, for the sheer self-indulgence throughout, the tendency to play sonic tricks without showing anywhere interesting you can go with them, the vague belief that "unusual" sounds are enough in themselves, the silly fake-adverts in between the tracks, the lame "space" concepts, that justify the view that turntablism is the prog rock of hip-hop (for lazy analog synth twiddling read lazy scratching and mixing, and it all becomes so much clearer).
But just as prog gave rise to some fine music beneath all the distancing imagery, turntablism is not all so bad. Peanut Butter Wolf's A Tale of Five Cities single last year was a cracker, and the X-Ecutioners have had some very good moments. But the problem with turntablism, on the whole, is its insistence on staying true to the alleged "fundamentals" of hip-hop, the way it seems in fear of pop, suspicious of letting anything new in and even partially breaking down the cosy air of hip-hop community, and the sense where its perpetrators are more keepers of the flame than pop modernists. Outkast, on the other hand, know nothing of this. Their Bombs Over Baghdad - probably my favourite single so far this year - is astonishing as sheer sound. While the set of influences - the rhythmic dexterity of Timbaland, the hysteria of the Bomb Squad (which is recreated by means closer to the contrived screams in early 90s hardcore than the genuine passion and anger of PE themselves), early 90s rave, Prince, P-Funk, and Southern US hip-hop as a whole - can be listed easily, the sound of the record itself requires greater investigation. It all goes in, there's no purism, no gatekeeping, just five minutes that leave me on the floor, gasping for breath, wondering how I can possibly describe this in words. The divide between the two reminds me of Simon Reynolds's dichotomy that prog said, indulgently, "Look how fast we can go", while Krautrock said, inspiringly, "Look how far we can go". The difference between Q-Bert and Outkast is remarkably similar - Q-Bert ostentatiously draws attention to himself, Outkast just get on with making the single of the year.
For all the alleged experimentation, the sound of Q-Bert's music is defiantly, seemingly deliberately retro, failing to expand much on a 15-year-old template, essentially little different from mid-80s electro. If the failure of so much turntablism to achieve its supposed ambition teaches us anything, it's that it's impossible to be successfully "experimental" in pop while still clinging to a classicist, long-established definition of the music in which you're recording.
DMX's "Party Up" is a great single in terms of its sheer physicality, though, in common with most Ruff Ryders material I've heard, it recalls the machinic compulsion of early 90s UK hardcore more than anything else, without a trace of the sweat of James Brown or any traditional black American ideas of funk, which I'd say is the root of the deep antipathy towards this sound from hip-hop's gatekeepers (who then endorce the likes of Common's Like Water For Chocolate, a fine, solid emcee, and granted a couple of good tracks, a record with which I can find no fault other than the fact that most of it is so dull and unexciting). The only problem is the utter disparity between the incredible production and the awfulness of the emceeing, to such an extent that it's as if the Bomb Squad had collaborated with MC Mikee Freedom. That's not a bad thing, just an acknowledgement that, if these are the great modernist pop records that Tom has weaned me off my sneering undie contempt for, they hold that status entirely because of the frequently astonishing production (this record has such bounce that it's virtually impossible to keep still while it's playing), rather than because of the poor and inadequate emceeing (DMX has an unfortunate tendency to use phrases like "Act the fool", "Get you hit" and "Meet you outside", weak and weedy, strangely redolent of an English school playground, the absolute antithesis of Chuck D's authority). But suddenly, and miraculously, DMX's vocal limitations are no longer the point with a producer like Swizz Beats.
Oh, and the wonders of Napster have finally introduced me to The Fifth Dimension's version of "Up, Up And Away", which I'm surprised to find is in fact more MOR than (and not as good as) the Johnny Mann Singers' recording of same, having spent years assuming it was less MOR and better. Jimmy Webb, then a session pianist, saw a hot-air balloon by chance one weekend, wrote the song, and instantly became a full-time songwriter. Within two years, he'd written at least five songs that I still find unbearably, indescribably affecting every time I hear them. Which is approximately five billion times more difficult than the plainness of the last two sentences makes it sound.
Tuesday 29th August 2000
The last few years before Margaret Thatcher's election - the event which surely far outstrips all others in terms of importance to Britain's direction in the last quarter of the 20th Century - seem more auspicious now than they did then. Apart from punk and new wave (which this piece is most definitively and completely not about, though that doesn't mean I'm not fascinated by much of it) much other music of the period was ruefully looking back at past cultures, attitudes, ways of being, ruefully aware (though never letting the awareness show) that they were living through their last days. Brian and Michael's Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs, routinely voted one of the worst singles ever, is actually bizarrely (and indefensibly) affecting and meaningful to me, for this reason if nothing else.
Marshall Hain's Back To The Green is the epic conclusion to their album Free Ride, and stands as the comedown to the euphoria of their one-off hit single Dancing In The City. That song had offered metropolitan life as the cure to any depression, any spiritual low, any feelings of isolation ("If you're feeling dull and rundown / We can really make you shine"), while Back To The Green sounds tired, exhausted ("Here in the city everything's bright / Sucked in by the neon lights / Living in main street must be someone else's dream") and desperate for a return to tranquility, but with a touching faith that it can provide the spiritual succour that she once thought the city could give her. The song is meant, passionate and beautiful, but the most striking thing, however, is that it can say without fear of sounding outmoded that the countryside has "Little room for change" and is "A world apart". The boldness of such an assertion consigns it instantly to another era.
Both the urban and rural hymns are intensely, almost religiously, utopian, and it's that quality that seemed to almost be drained out of Britain during the Thatcher era, before Saint Etienne miraculously revived it and made the most inspirational pop records of the first half of the 90s. Mario's Cafe, Girl VII, Avenue, Hobart Paving, Urban Clearway, Western Wind, miraculous late shafts of light such as We're In The City and Heart Failed (In The Back Of A Taxi) - all have many sources, but they all owe something to Marshall Hain, just stripped of the distancing period production values and the very slight orange-and-brown sheen that hovers over their music, but should never put anyone off it.
The ruralists of '78 were missing presumed inactive by '99, and the ruralists of '99 - XTC - had been presenting a totally different vision back then, something skewed, panicking, angular, more concerned for the then-conceivable wipeout of the entire planet than for its past (listen to 1980's Living Through Another Cuba, and feel the paranoia and sheer survivalist desperation). But the difference was that what would, only 20 years before, have been reality had been reduced to fantasy, and its perpetrators knew it. The difference between two songs, and the vision they're - of-the-time symphonic airbrushed post-post-hippy pop for Back To The Green, shamelessly pastiched mock-ruralism for Greenman. The earlier song is searching something that seemed to still be there, the later one is celebrating something, finally, gone.
In the context of 1999, Greenman had to be as much fantasypop as anything on el Records ever was. A set of events had happened - quietly, unnoticed, unobtrusive, not seeming significant until they'd faded away - to make it impossible for the song to be perceived as anything else. The feeling of British life has just altered so much, with the romance and significance of distance and travel now confined, if you're going to be taken seriously, to the past tense. A train journey from London to Cornwall now seems an utterly insignificant, everyday event. There's no drama around it, no surprise, when you get to the other end you could still be where you started. Nowhere now seems that far away from anywhere else, and everyone will admit that in the end. 1978 was, perhaps, the last year something like Greenman could have been pulled off successfully, as something living and contemporary.
3rd May 1979 was not, strictly speaking, an accident, as Momus ruefully described it in 1987's Sex For The Disabled. OK, so it was unfortunate that things happened that way, but something was so clearly going to happen in the mid-late 70s, and the only question was what was going to happen, rather than whether or not something was going to (and the "accident" of Thatcher's victory did at least spell the end to a far worse possibility of the time, the chance of the National Front becoming a major political force). Clearly technology has also played a massive part, but it's clear that, had we experienced another, less violent and dramatic accident in the late 70s, the changes since then would have been less dramatic, less complete and, probably, less far-reaching and total.
Saturday 26th August 2000 (revised Thursday 12th April 2001)
The Daily Telegraph letters page is infamous for its short, curt letters making a point in the most aggressive, defensive way ("SIR - It is time for another Countryside March", "SIR - Thank God for a churchman with guts", and such). Given that it has recently indulged in yet another hysterical, unashamedly racist, and ludicrously generalised attack on "black culture" as the basis for the intellectual denigration of Britain's youth, both black and white, and written a succession of untrue and unrepresentative scare stories about hip-hop (after it saw its values being, partially, endorsed by someone who would not be expected to share its worldview - the left-leaning black academic Tony Sewell, who attacked the "street" culture for adversely affecting black British students' academic success), I am going to respond in the shortest and curtest way I know how:
SIR - Why is it that you associate this
"evil, obscene, violent culture" exclusively with
supposedly inferior and "uncivilised" black people,
when the most extreme, and the most commercially successful,
purveyor of all you demonise is white?
Charles Moore was last seen suggesting the "cultural repatration" of all music made by black American artists after 1980, modelled on Enoch Powell's views on the repatration of immigrants, but applied to cultural products rather than the movement of people. When asked how that could possibly work in the age of Napster, the Old Etonian editor replied "Erm ... Amstrad ... Commodore 64 ... was it 1987 this morning? ..."
He was last seen checking the year in deep conversation with Sion Simon.