Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Adventures in a record collection (part 5)

This was a long time ago. Half a lifetime ago, in fact. Back when the world was somewhat different, but, in many ways, exactly the same. It was in the run up to the end of school. Not just the end of a school year, but GCSEs and the moment we’d walk out of the school doors for the very, very last time. The time of being isolated and miserable by puberty had passed. It was the point at which life could start properly.

On Radio 1, which still mattered then, Chris Evans was kicking the establishment away. We hadn’t quite figured out what a nob he was, but compared to the traditional Smashie and Nicie DJs he was a rebel. He was cool. No less than when he extolled us, the young and empowered, to buy a record, to buy a single that was new and exciting and dynamic about us and them and life and the perils of vanity. We had to buy this record to prevent the housewife’s favourites, TV actors Robson and Jerome, from sitting pretty at number one with their bland cover of Unchained Melody.

It seemed as though music that was something more vibrant than Australian soap stars or novelty pop records that reeked so vilely was gate-crashing its way into the mainstream. Bands with guitars and drums who sang about the things that mattered rather than death cults or Nazi memorabilia had arrived. Or returned. Or, to be strictly accurate, simply drifted onto our cultural radar, previously blinkered by childhood. Anyway, they were bands for whom it was cool to part with our hard-earned cash. Money we’d gained stacking shelves in supermarkets, swiping credit cards in petrol stations and humping sacks of compost around garden centres. And so we bought the record, but it still only made it to number two. The nice chaps, with the big smiles and the chiselled chins and the safe, unchallenging material, who were managed by Simon Cowell, had triumphed.

See, things change. And then again, they don’t.

The song? Pulp’s Common People and that record along with its parent album, Different Class, was the sound of coming of age.

Britpop was a media phrase, something to sum up what it meant for Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit to appear sprawling on the cover of Time Magazine endorsing Cool Britannia. It was a handy way to clunk together bands from the UK who played guitar, but it was ineffectively narrow. Pulp were never Britpop. They were never Menswear or Cast or Sleeper or the Bluetones or fucking Shed ‘we’re so cool we can piss on the floor of the Cardiff Student Union Bar’ Seven. Which isn’t to say I didn’t, at the time, like those bands. I did, for I was young and they were a genre that I could associate with. Something cool I actually liked, that made me part of a socially acceptable herd.

Sorry, but I was sixteen.

Yet, it was a fleeting thing. The majority of Britpop bands have faded. Their music was of that moment at the end of the century when for the first time in twenty-five years it seemed that youth might be worth living after all. In 2011, Blur’s Damon Alban seems to have turned himself into some sort of twenty-first century Renaissance man dabbling in everything from pop-hip-hop to dub and Chinese opera, keeping each new release interesting at least. The Manic Street Preachers are in some sort of late-period revival, Radiohead continue to hide in their own little bubble and Oasis have finally realised that they’re never going to write a song as good as Don’t Look Back in Anger and have, thankfully, gone away. And that’s it. All the others, the one-time new generation, have become the past and either given up or are hawking records on their own labels and playing gigs to nostalgic thirty-somethings.

But, Pulp? Pulp were always too smart to be real Britpop. Their music was informed by disco and the need to dance rather than to give surly nods of the head. They were from the North yet not blokish; they were a little bit cheeky but not from Essex. They had been together over ten years and were already in their thirties. They defied all the metrics that should have placed them in the Britpop camp, but still lazy journalists dumped them in there all the same.

Despite tunes that now feel irresistible, at sixteen I was still too morbidly self-conscious, still too concerned what anyone else thought about me, to swing my hips without serious inebriation greasing the way along. So whilst the music did have that physically buoyant lift to it, the real reason I feel hopelessly in love with this album was – oh, how delightfully teenage, how typically Holden Caulfield of me – the lyrics. Jarvis Cocker’s wry observations of mid-nineties Britain’s with all its shams and hidden perversions and delighted oblivions of sex and hedonism were eye-opening and, instantly, it was as though I’d been waiting for someone to explain so succulently how the world worked.

The belter of an opening song, Mis-shapes, summed up the teenager suburban experience perfectly: “Oh, we don’t look the same as you/We don’t do the thing you do/But we live round here too…/…the future’s owned by you and me…/…we want your homes/We want your lives/We want the things you won’t allow us/We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs/We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of/And that’s our minds.”
It’s about knowing you’re cleverer, more grounded to the masses than those in power with wealth. It’s about resentment. It’s about none of those things. It mocks anyone who thinks it might be.

Cocker sneered at society’s divisions and, in particular, the Britpop trend of slumming it in a safe way, of pretending to be down and out when the reality of a council estate would probably have terrified the members of Space. And in-between he took the album’s brain and gave it a heart, albeit a disturbed one. He mixed in hefty doses of confused sex. In Pencil Skirt, I Spy, Live Bed Show and Underwear he doesn’t sing about making love or wooing a girl, but about the sordidness of affairs, how to wield control in relationships and the way sex fades from love over time. At sixteen, I don’t think I really understood any of this, but was content to snigger then scowl when he warned “I’ve had your mother twice and now I’m working on your Dad” or “take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse.”

Indeed even the more conventional narratives are anything but: Disco 2000 is a tale of teenage romance unfulfilled and the lingering obsession preventing future relationships from being successful setting to a thrusting guitar that guarantees the dancer going airborne at the final “Oh let’s meet up…”. Something Changed is about two people ending together by chance and then being, possibly, too idle to change again; people smothered by the easy option.

Leaving aside Cocker’s particular perversions, the charting of society’s hypocrisies is the staple of much great music. Disillusionment with the norm, as we’ve previously discussed, pushes people into bands, but it also appears in the writings of great novelists. Sometimes they are young and sometimes they are looking back across life with the experience of years, but the scope of the novel allows deeper and broader examination of the world’s ills than a three minute pop song.

I think that when I first wanted to write this was the sort of thing that passed through my tiny brain. I wanted to change the world with words. I wanted to draw people’s attention to the flaws in society that only I could see.

Sorry, but I was sixteen.

Instead, I am, I think, on more solid ground with the twisted complexities of relationships. Of course, being currently unpublished, I am far from the great novelist I once daydreamed of being, rather than revise for my exams.

Charles Dickens, however, probably was a great novelist. I remain hesitant since I’ve always struggled slightly with Dickens' tomes, but it isn’t arguable that he carved an immensely successful career out of informing society of its forgotten children and the peril of the wealth divide. The myths he painted still hang over London. Dickens’ reportage, or his invented archetypes, have dug their way into the city’s fabric.

Evelyn Waugh played it more for laughs, but his humour was bitterly sharp and double-edged. Those lampooning were as fallible as the lampooned. George Orwell kept it straight, but even he corrupted his work by deliberately seeking out the scummiest, seediest elements to report upon. The scandalous misery he found amongst Wigan life was highlighted by the big authorial finger pointing down from the heavens.

Kingsley Amis kicked the class system in the nuts until it puked, but in Cocker’s lyrics little has changed since the days of Lucky Jim. It’s just been rebranded; people born to positions still sit at the top of the pile. And again, little changes sixteen years later.

In the twenty-first century writers such as JM Coetzze, Aleksander Hemon and Caryl Philips address similar issues. They offer less all-encompassing visions than, for example, Leo Tolstoy who tried to map the entirety of Imperial Russia’s inequities. Instead, they spike their target and take a piercing outsider’s view as they drift through life; seeing with clarity the puppet master’s strings of society that those on the inside can all too easily ignore. Their texts are elegant framings of the world, less trying to force change, but content to shine a great big searchlight on it and let the gaps speak for themselves.

Similarly, Different Class’s finest moment is in the gap between songs. At the frantic futility of the penultimate track’s “Now, now that you’re free, what are you going to be?...Is this the light of a new day dawning? A future bright that you can walk in? No, it’s just another Monday morning, you got to do it all over again” when the song’s energy collapse in on itself and from the burnt out ashes of dreams torn down by reality, Cocker turns and says: “Hey, you made it.” The world is crap. To borrow a phrase from another band, Modern Life is Rubbish, but once you realise that and once you find people who feel the same then you can start to rebuild. You can find the fights that are worth winning and change, at least, yourself for the better.

You can grow up.

Or just waggle your bottom at Michael Jackson.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Adventures in a record collection (part 4)

The law of averages always meant I was going to roll dice and come up with a tricky one.

Which isn’t to say this is a bad album or even a remotely embarrassing one. Musically and lyrically it is sensational, it’s just that, well, maybe everything that could be said about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has already been said.

Gaye started his musical career as part of the Motown machine churning out lover-man ballads in the suburban Detroit studio basement owned by Berry Gordy. Motown’s plan to rule the American airwaves was going to plan and singer after singer, fuelled by the Funk Brothers tight grooves, laid down vocal s in the snakepit. Gaye was just another cog. His voice was just another instrument, no different to bass or drums.

It was just another way to tell stories about juvenile love and quickly forgotten heart-break that would appeal to the wallets of the young.

But it was his talent for duets that made him stand out. Big swelling, rhythm and soul numbers with lyrics that went to and fro declaring everlasting adoration for a succession of female partners propelled Gaye up the charts time and again and none so powerfully than as with Tammi Terrill.

When Terrill died of a brain haemorrhage in 1970, Gaye sank into a black depression. Already a surprisingly reserved man for a pop star (he hated performing live), he tumbled through a funk markedly different from the sort the band used to jam out. Demons chased his soul. His brother was in Vietnam. The murder of Martin Luther King and the subsequent riots in Chicago and Washington and Baltimore, Boston too were it not for only James Brown’s passionate performance keeping the crowds in the auditorium instead of out burning the streets down. All these wounds were raw. The USA was adrift and Gaye, depressed and confused, found its pulse.

I have no personal anecdotes to tell you about What’s Going On. It hasn’t intruded in my life in that way. The only thing I can think of is around the time, possibly even the same day, I first bought it and played it on repeat whilst stripping down my bedroom, preparing to leave the city at the end of University. Maybe that’s why. Maybe, somewhere in my subconscious, I automatically associate it with the end.

Influenced by the troubles around him, Gaye wrote a state of the nation address with a smooth funky back drop. His vocals are slick and yet catching on his heart at the same time. They soar over lush strings and swaggering bass that even today sounds the right side of dated. The emotions the record explores are complex; the narratives deep and far reaching, each song can touch the listener in a different way. It is both intensely personal and universal. And yet it was only released after protracted disagreement with Gordy who felt it was too political, missing the point that really the album is about Gaye’s grief for a world that wasn’t proving to be as wonderful as it had once promised.

In many ways, I think, this is the better way to write about real events, to make it personal and push the listener or reader or watcher to find themselves or the life they know in there too. William Skidelsky, writing in the Observer recently, bemoaned the abundance of films recreating real events: The King’s Speech, 127 Days, The Social Network, the upcoming Jack Kerouac biopic, Where the Road Ends. Or rather, to be more accurate, not that they exist, for vibrant insightful biography is a crucial part of our wider culture, but more he despaired at the instant and universal acclaim they seem to get. As though, by being truthful they are automatically more worthy than something which just makes shit up.

Whilst, I think they’re good films, he has got a point and it happens in literature as well. Indeed it can be traced all the way back to Shakespeare’s histories, political arse licking and spin doctoring each and everyone. But outside of violent regime change myth making, ever since Truman Capote’s toweringly brilliant In Cold Blood novelists seem to have been increasingly poaching narratives from real life, as though not having to concentrate so closely on plot will release them to explore the human dynamics. Simon Mawer in the Glass Room doesn’t have to worry about the setting for his narrative since he borrows a real Czech art deco house to place it. Jonthan Littell’s research heavy The Kindly Ones can focus on incidental detail without having to worry about the logistics of how the Nazis might lose the war. John Banville can focus on his characters’ failings in The Untouchable rather than whether their secrets will have to come out or not.

Okay, so it may not be as overt as in the films mentioned. Banville even changes the names involved (although we know it’s the Cambridge spies). They are all very admirable books, but somehow I can’t help but wonder if they’d have been even better with greater invention. Just going with the narrative flow; trusting the audience to have faith in the creator.

Besides, where does it stop? Capote’s experiences of writing In Cold Blood even became a film in their own right. Circles around and around constricting our knowledge and understanding spheres.

Yes, it’s important to examine these building blocks of our existence; these examples of the extremes of humanity’s triumphs and failings, coupled with the microcosm of self, there is much we can learn from them, but not at the expense of pure invention. The ability to conjure something out of nothing, to externalise our own individual concerns, hopes and failings into a mythic construct is a precious talent. It enables people to see beyond the simplistic, the straightforward narrative and to search out their own reflection from within.

After all, the reason that What’s Going On still sounds relevant forty years later is its lack of specifics. Urban strife, financial meltdown, ecological catastrophe, hopelessness in the soul of a country, distant war few want or understand? It could be tomorrow, couldn’t it?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Adventures in a record collection (part 3)

Another London park; another hot summer afternoon only this time the sunshine comes after the morning’s thick clouds have been stirred away. Like the crassly spoken words that came too, they have crashed under their own weight, been eased to one side by the music and now all that remains is the dried up remnants in the air. Over the afternoon the music will crank up, build through stages towards the crescendo, but at that moment it was still preparing its ascent, still yawning in the golden light.

The main attraction was elsewhere, somewhere down by the bars and the cluster of people, just in sight of the main stage, easing back into the cracked grass to receive the tightly wrapped cigarette papers. I was among the outskirts. Just me and a couple of dozen other keen souls, entrapped by the stripped back sound of hard heels on wooden floors.

At the end of the set the two lead singers, sisters, came down amongst the crowd and autographed copies of their albums. I handed over seven quid for a copy of their debut and they duly scrawled their names on the front. I walked away starring down at its strangeness. Written in tight red biro, as though from a scratch, needled in between the half cut face of the artwork, it said: ‘To Dave, love Rachel and Becky’ as though it was a joint present from my sister and an ex-girlfriend.

The dice haven’t chosen that record. They’ve chosen the one which was the reason I was there in the first place: Rachel Unthank and the Winterset - The Bairns.

It’s another folk record, but a very English one. Or, to be more precise, a Northumbrian one. The songs resound with the north-east’s lost past. They echo a clich├ęd mix of abandoned mines, coasts where the wind could carry you out to sea or crash you against the footholds of a castle and gruff hardy types who like a drink and the things that are best left to the dark. In many ways, everything about them is deeply unfashionable. The girls in the group refreshing defy the televised notion of a female music star yet still there is something beguiling about the Unthank sisters. The flushed out toned down photography of Becky Unthank stiffly seated in what could be a corseted reinforced dress atop a renaissance chair reflects the music they make: Beautifully aching music filled with remote longing.

The album is filled with songs of domestic violence and lost virginities; stories woven with sex and the demons found in drink, all sweetly harmonised over piano, fiddle and the occasional rhythmic stomp. These are songs with subject matter timeless and sung in voices that sound like they come from beyond, but are simultaneously lush and hallowed so they could be either from above or below. They are mixture of whole songs and concocted lullabies, snippets of traditions caught on a dusty old tape on the final breath of the drunk in the corner by the fire.

The only girl group thing about them is that they mainly play cover versions. Or, to be more accurate, aside from two group compositions, one written for them and a cover of Bonnie Prince Billy, the rest are traditional folk songs arranged by the group. Reinterpretations of songs sung for generations, but not as radical reworkings as, for example, the Pogues did to Irish country music. The songs are still grounded, still sunk deep into the earth. Rather than gut, they remodel with craft, they restore glory. They inherit.

Indeed why should they feel the need to write new material? When the music is as rich, unexplored and deeply satisfying as this, there could well be no other songs ever crafted than the fifteen on this album. All music, in the end, derives from itself. It’s all just progression built upon what has been before, all the way back to sticks on stones in the dust.

Classical literature tradition also suggests that all narrative comes from itself.
After all, there are only seven truly original story types. Not plots, but pure story types: The Quest; Voyage and Return; the Rebirth; Comedy; Tragedy; Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches.

A touch simplistic? Well, maybe, and certainly comedy and tragedy are pretty wide spheres. Aristole defined comedy as showing people to be worse than they are and tragedy as showing them to be greater. PG Wodehouse’s books are called comedy not just because it is hilarious, but because they on focus Bertie Wooster’s failings, even though in doing so they accidentally reveal his strengths too. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a tragedy because Valjean, when he strides through the barricades to catch the collapsing world, is more than we could ever hope to be.

But still, these are building blocks rather than absolutes. We can blend recipes to concoct new dimensions of the originals, yet the core remains. The irrefutables.
These are the parts of life worth writing about.

Let’s take some random examples from my bookshelves:

William Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa may be very funny, but technically it’s a rebirth story – taking the central character as broken as they can possibly be and allowing that moment of epiphany when they start to return. Anne Enight’s The Gathering is a probably a tragedy, but it could also be a voyage and return. The family spreads far and wide and only stumbles home in mourning. Graham Greene’s the Power and the Glory is a quest for salvation. The whisky priest grapples with his own soul over that of his nation. Will Self’s Great Apes is an overcoming the monster tale, only in this instance is the beast within. Michael Chabon’s Kavlier and Clay, despite its flaws, is a rags to riches and back down to the gutter and finally up to the spires again story with doses of comedy and tragedy to boot.

Curiously, browsing through my books for this exercise I notice a couple of things. Is it just me or have rags to riches stories gone out of fashion in the Western world? Or, at least, outside of America? Is there so little mileage to be gained from people inching from one level of comfort to a slightly more squidgy version? Or have we decided that writing about wealth and the acquisition of it is nothing more than crass? I suspect that this is more a British embarrassment over discussing wealth. We’ve too much of a tendency to be equally jealous of those both above and below us, too focused on illusionary green grass, to consistently enjoy such stories.

I appear to own a prevalence of rebirth novels, which possibly reflects my own interests and writings. The novel that I can currently touting around is a rebirth of sorts. There’s certainly the crushing finality of realisation where we all went wrong. Or at least, I hope there is. The work that I’m trying to cultivate into something greater, an action that appears to be tragic in itself, is perhaps a mix of rebirth, voyage and return, rags to riches and overcoming the monster. Perhaps one will exert its dominance over the others, but which will only come clear in the writing of it.

Short stories are, perhaps, harder to categorise. Their brevity, their necessary focus on the moment, the turn, means that they struggle to take more than one story element and indeed there is insufficient space for enough emotional development to take on the entirety of, say, a quest story. All they can do is hint. Paradoxically bigger more complex works fit more easily into one of these silos.
But maybe that’s the big bluff. Maybe the complexities are just in our imaginations; what we expect from two hundred plus pages. Once you strip out the narrative twists, the self-consciously stylised imagery, the slight-of-hand literary thesis all we’re left with is the story. One of the seven moulds, waiting to be cast; to be turned into something new. Strangely, despite all the traditions bled into The Bairns, it is on the composition written especially for them that I found the most emotionally satisfying. Fareweel Regality is perfectly placed as the penultimate track. It follows on the back of the dusty wail for Ma Bonny Lad. There’s a half breath of a pause and then an almost, dare I say it, gleeful in its own melancholy fiddle strikes up before Rachel raises her head from the beaten ground and softly sings something new from something familiar.