That's a very apt phrase for Plone, really, because "For Beginner Piano" doesn't sound confined to a certain era or sensibility, although it definitely evokes one particular time and view (the future day dreams of the 60s and 70s, as soundtracked by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) more than anything else. But it isn't pastiche, nor is it a by-the-numbers "poignant" reflection on the passing of those visions. It may be somewhat restrained at times, but it flies.
This is childlike music, for sure, but it's a million miles from your "They must have been on drugs when they made ..." territory (Caitlin Moran, I mean you). Rather, it evokes the quiet moments of childhood, acknowledging "innocence" but also its downside, the fall towards a state of painful self-consciousness that is, for most of us, the first real transition of our lives. This isn't a music of violent, dramatic lurches from one chord to the next, rather it's a music of subtle, unobtrusive chord changes which quietly drain the mind, make you realise what has changed since your childhood. In "Marbles" and "Be Rude To Your School", simply the chord changes can almost make me cry.
It somehow seems more appropriate to discuss this music in terms of cultural suggestions than musical influences (although, apart from the ever-present ghost of Delia Derbyshire, John Baker et al, I can detect Joe Meek, Raymond Scott's "Soothing Sounds for Baby", a sincere early 60s attempt at perfecting and improving the lives of middle America, mentioned by Simon Reynolds (http://members.aol.com/blissout/faves99.htm) and even early OMD circa "Electricity" / "Enola Gay" ) and in terms of these three young men's background (Birmingham, apart from that I know nothing). This music seems to fit more into a general litany of cultural change than simply a pop sense, although the abandoned cities-in-the-sky of Birmingham must have inspired Plone somewhere. What I think they're doing is taking the litany of a perfectly-ordered society where everyone works and everything fits together (just look at those titles: "On My Bus", "Busy Working", "Press A Key") and all the children are getting on at school ("The Greek Alphabet") and either reflecting on the failure of those dreams or subverting them by setting them to much more unsettling, edgier music ("Press A Key" especially evokes something altogether less simple).
The emotional mood varies throughout - Plone can be playful ("Bibi Plone", with its eerie approximation of post-Open University, pre-Bod Sunday morning music on BBC1, summer 1984) or achingly melancholic (the closing "Summer Plays Out", in which innocence finally seeps into experience). "Retro-futurist" is too broad a term, and too much of a cliche now - it's a sign of its maturity that it's split into retro-brutalism and retro-utopianism. Add N To (X) are the best representatives of the former, Plone the most perfect example of the latter. Seeing them live supporting the High Llamas was no letdown - from a bank of analog synths to die for, we were hearing music which stands to the Old Future as Sean O'Hagan's tales of pilgrims and pioneers stand to the Old Past.
In a sense, appreciating this music involves as great a subversion of the rock-hero process as does Stars Forever, because in loving it we're identifying not with some mythical rebel-rock past, but with the optimism we once had, with its ultimate failure, and with the unacknowledged cultural background to our lives rather than with the Great Rock Events and Great Events more generally. But this is how it really was, and still is, for some of us - as children, the See-Saw caption and the orange-and-brown BBC2 ident had greater resonance in our lives than Thatcher or Red Wedge. Hearing the Radiophonic Workshop's music on schools' programmes (even the music of their more predictable and less distinguished later period) had an infinitely greater effect on us than hearing the Stone Roses. And these songs aren't just cod-Radiophonic doodlings - they are symphonies.
No wonder "Plock" turned up in Episode 1 of the generally substandard Series 3 of Chris Morris's lavishly subversive Blue Jam (http://cabinessence.cream.org). "For Beginner Piano" has a similar feel to that programme - it can be played in the background, but it keeps rushing to the forefront of your mind whether you want it to or not. And once you've heard it, whenever you simultaneously feel exhilaratingly happy and drainingly sad, it'll be playing in your heard. Believe me.
Robin Carmody, December 1999
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