Thursday, December 31, 2009

Three kings for Christmas 2009

The three that I am talking about are, of course, Elvis, Michael... and Orson. Elvis is enjoying his usual festive attention, with an upcoming night of television shows and celebrations on January 8th of what would have been his 75th birthday. Michael Jackson's name has been prominent on TV schedules too, with retrospectives and concert re-runs. Finally, BBC 4 have been having an Orson Welles season.

So what do the Kings of rock'n'roll, pop and film have in common? I will start with Welles, the portly genius whose kingly presence both fascinated and scared Hollywood. It is clear from the documentaries that his downfall was his obsession with control. Perhaps because he began his career as an actor who got into directing, his interests extended into over-seeing the whole process of film making. The studio system, with its ornate division of labour, was not in tune with someone who took so long to edit his own movies.

Welles is always painted as an artist, his hefty weight reflecting his huge appetite for life. In that respect his his vehicle was his own build; something that his personality and screen image always played upon. Whether he was acting as a media mogul, hustler or corrupt police officer, his larger-than-life presence authenticated the role in question. (He wanted to play in 'The Godfather' - can you imagine how great that would have been?)... Welles was therefore a kind of opera singer who happened to be working in the movies, a king-pin.

What is interesting here is to compare Welles' obesity to that of Elvis', because Elvis's portly physique was always seen as a stumbling block - in part because of his nimble youth and in part because he was never quite seen as a genius. Elvis was seen as a phenomenon, sure, but not an artist. What the two kings had in common (apart from their success with younger women) was that they were both reduced to playing cameos of themselves, disappearing into their own weighty parodies.

Michael Jackson, meanwhile, was a king without the weight, as he too was a phenomenon. One commentator on a retropective by BBC2's Culture Show noted that the journey of black identity was always from object (of white fears and desires) to subject, and that Michael made everyone else - black or white - into pawns in his world. He was like Welles in that sense - a king-pin - but one could also see him as a dandy, a flaneur, perhaps the ultimate American consumer, isolating himself in his own selfish kingdom, disregarding the norms and mores of his own society. He had certainly been taking notes off Elvis about how to grow your legend.

When Michael died, it was only about six months after Barak Ombama had been inauguared. The striking thing about coverage of Jackson's death was the extent to which the black community claimed him as their own. Back in his 1980s heyday, in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, disappointment with the lack of change sometimes meant that those with separatist agendas questioned any cultural icon that seemed to represent assimilation. Elvis had a (posthumous) tough time, and so did Michael. He was lightening his skin (if verbally claiming an Afro-American identity) and selling out black music, turning it into acceptable white-bread pop. Yet years later, the grounds for debate have shifted. Musically, Michael Jackson inaugurated an era of urban music which featured the message that it was a black-led party anybody could join. This played into an agenda of black embourgeoisment (which had begun as far back as disco, if not before). With the election of a distinctly non-separatist black president (and a sufficient time-lapse since any mention of child abuse), Michael Jackson was distinctly "in"... Ironically, so now is Elvis: The Guardian have just published confirmation from his childhood friend, Sam Bell, that they would go and see movies at the Lyric theatre. The mixed race pair would ignore the rope that separated the races and sit on the black side of the room: a point taken as evidence of Elvis's proto-typical race mixing.

With this as the preview, 2010, one hopes, will be a year of cultural assimilation endorsed by people of both races.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The end of the noughties

The BBC recently published its portrait of the decade. As the first segment of the new millennium draws to a close, what is interesting about such retrospective bouts of listmania is how little individual music performers or acts figure in the discussions. It is as if the likes of the Kaiser Cheifs never existed. They have disappeared because the notion of popular music being homogenized "content" to be squeezed down the cyber-pipeline is truely with us. Sure, rock acts still have their magic, but much more praise in the noughties has gone to the consumer technologies that deliver them: iPods, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify.

The means to digitally replay and manipulate music have now been 'democratized' more than ever. These means help us feel that popular music is almost all the same, available at will, easily mixed and matched, no longer groundbreaking or unique. Arguments about the talent of contemporary artists seem to be redundant. Musicians are no more or less talented than before; it is rather that their talent inevitably means much less. The engine of commerce has switched focus from the phantasmagoria of music performance to end platforms that now deliver it. In association with that, popular music - though popular as ever - is somewhat sidelined in the public imagination.

If the noughties was a decade in which geeks were the new rock stars, it was because they were the gate-keepers of the technology that defined social relations. Witness the rise and rise of nerdy film characters; a phenomena listed by Empire film magazine as the second biggest movie trend of the decade. In an era where big advertising made gadgets cool and U2 hustled iPods, no Puff Daddy or Jay-Z could hope to be a mogul like, say, Steve Jobs.

It is as if the death of popular music has been a bloodless coup, different from the more obvious horror facing television. Consider some media history. In the 1950s, cinema was usurped by television, so it found ways to reinvent itself. In the noughties, television, too, has been usurped (by the net), and has already reinvigorated itself with things like reality TV, 'The Wire' and a revamped 'Dr Who' (making David Tennant into an unfeasibly successful UK celebrity). Popular music, on the other hand, is content: a maleable cultural form, rather than a specific media technology. It is not in need of rescue, but is now spread across the mediascape like a ghost in the machine, an absentee crew member rattling round a ship being steered from elsewhere. Piracy has become endemic and shrewd synergists like Simon Cowell have taken over what's left of the asylum... If I was starting a band right now, I would call it Facebook.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Public Image Limited - Manchester Academy, 19th December 2009

Well, I guess it all began in '78 when Johnny Rotten morphed back into John Lydon and decided that he would stick true to the artistic values of romanticism: pushing the musical envelope and staying true to your spirit. The result was Public Image Limited, and the music became a challenging brew of post-punk influences. Johnny, however, could never be post-punk like, say, The Pop Group, or even like Howard Devoto; Johnny would forever be Johnny Rotten. That was his albatross. As for PIL: how could they be anything more than an indulgence?? Would an unknown act have been allowed to release what they did? If Johnny was using his name to float something edgy and different then that was great, but how useful was the difference that PIL made? Albums in metal boxes? Okay. Chugging guitars? Passable. Attacks on religion? Hmmm, more Pistols-style than anything else...

That was the thing: in Rotten, Johnny had created a persona that was more a more powerful an English archetype than he ever imagined. He has doomed to live in its shadow. At best he could inflect it, like he did for the cover of PIL's initial album First Issue. This is, I think, Johnny at his finest. The combination of his famous "thousand mile stare", suit and combed down hair makes him seem like an insane, repressed member of the Warhol family - holding it all in (for a change), ready to detonate... He also used what he learned from the Pistols in this excellent early interview with a surprizingly patient Tom Snyder:

Don't you just love how Johnny an a faint, bohemian Keith Levine play good-cop/bad-cop there? Doo-dah! After the Pistols, John was still a Pistol precisely because he still inhabited that most English of archetypes: the rebellious teenager. In a Western democracy deferentialism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Having a dysfunctional teen about the place is as English as eating a cooked breakfast, drinking tea and saluting the Queen.

Some thirty years on, Johnny is no longer a teen. He may have lapsed into pantomime mode as the English squire - a poster boy for Country Life butter - yet here he still is, coming on like a carrot-topped demon, telling us that Guy Fawkes should be our national hero. The audience knows that it is, ironically, now watching history make a stand. And when we ask ourselves how much we should endure from PIL in the name of art - Johnny's art - the answer comes at the end of the set, with 'Rise': the band showing that despite their angry meanderings, they still managed a perfect, melodic, sing-a-long pop song... For 'Rise', we will forgive all the abrasive guitar marathons. We will forgive the guy who played his banjo with a cello bow. We will forgive the bass player's kilt. And we will even forgive the embarrassment of Johnny never leaving his awkward teenaged years. It is his nature, and ours.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mark's posts on Geography

The Tragically Hip (Canada's house band link fandom and nationhood)

Don Cherry: Canadian Patriot (The hockey commentator who has become a national icon)

New York Dolls - Liverool Academy, 9th December 2009

The New York Dolls are living (off their) legends as the most depraved specimens to terrorize early 1970s New York. Somewhere in the evolutionary chart between Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler, there was their lead singer, David Johansen. Johansen had an inauspicious beginning as the son of an insurance salesman and a librarian, but that doesn't matter here. For He was a creature of the Grand Guignol, a phantom of the rock opera who piloted his ill-fated Dolls into a welter of drugs and lipstick. The Dolls main crime was that they had the bottle to slap on make-up. Their white trash performance aesthetic and r'n'b protopunk legacy lived on in everything from Iggy to Morrissey to Michael Stipe, to long forgotten 1980s metal glamsters like Hanio Rocks, Poison and the Quireboys. Yet the Dolls faded away, at least until the 2004 Download Festival. Perhaps it was better that way. Now they are back, touring everywhere from Southampton to Leamington Spa to Prestatyn, or to put that another way, the UK's secondary markets.

Dressed like someone acting the role of a Bowery pawnbroker, the diminutive Sylvanian Sylvain still weilds his axe with phallic aplomb, while Johansen himself comes across as an unlikely elder stateman of trash, a specimen of spectacle with a large mouth but somewhat more mature ego. The rest of the band are probably young replacements, stalked by the ill-fated spectres of bassist Arthur Kane and guitarist Johnny Thunders. Unfortunately, the sound in the Academy, which is tucked behind Limestreet Station, is poor and muddy. The Dolls soldier on through various hits and a contrived attemp at 'Ferry Across the Mersey' (presumably so they don't seem to imperialist). Does rock'n'roll age that well? In my experience it depends on the performers and the genre, not on their sheer will to continue. Living legends are one thing, aging rebels are another. As Johansen says, "If we don't come back, you can contact us on the ouija board."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The The Tragically Hip - Manchester Academy 3, 2nd December 2009

You've got to love the Canadians. They say, "aboot" instead of "about", love ice hockey, have names like "Gord" and drink Molson's beer, so that we don't have to, but - as I found out from doing my masters degree at UBC in 1991 - they get a bum deal from their cousins south of the border. In the music industry that translates into a lack of international recognition. Delighted I was, then, that Canadian rock veterans, The Tragically Hip, got squeezed into the tiny Academy 3 last night and bought the house down. Every ex-pat in the North must have been there, knowing that they would have to have had lined up for days just to get the chance of a ticket to see these guys back home.

I'd first seen the Hip play Vancouver as part of my studies in the early 1990s, a decade after they had formed (check my article on the cultural politics of sponsorship at their Canada Day performance here). Lead singer Gordon Downie echoed that episode when he explained yesterday that beer and nationalism don't mix. What was really amazing about his performance last night, though, was how well he was holding up.

In his younger years, Downie, a film studies graduate of Queen's University in Kingston (home of Canada's finest scholars), came on like a tranced-out hippie, spiritually lost in his own music. Perhaps he was channeling something. Now in his mid-forties, he affects a neater appearance, the hair gone but the look no less demented. He kept was mugging, aping around like a gorilla and playing with an endless supply of hankies thrown at him by his roadies. His glowing eyes belied a strange combination of distance and intensity, like Kevin Spacey meets Michael Stipe doing a mime act, all the while backed by the Eagles gone a bit punk! Yes, the mad genius of Gordon Downie has not gone; it has just changed. His band have matured and mellowed to include material like the magnificent, rapturous country-folk of 'Fiddlers Green' alongside classic rockers like the snakey, bluesy 'New Orleans is Sinking' and the tense 'Cordelia'... Like so many good bands, the Hip seem able to soak up rock influences from across the board. What they give back is uniquely their and subtly Canadian.

Ever the outsider, from a nation of outsiders, Downie summed up global culture by saying, "We didn't invent the gift shop, but we live next to the people that did." By the end of the first half, his shirt was saturated with sweat and I realized what a rare treat it was to catch the Hip so intimate and so unbound. Unfortunately my injudicious combination of cider and fast food left me feeling just rough enough to forego the end of the set. Now I feel a little cheated that I didn't catched their grand finale... I guess there is always Youtube.

Design by Free Wordpress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Templates