Thursday, 24 February 2011

Golden Years

Some of the best music of the early '80's, and also some of the most forgotten, is the bright funky pop that came from a number of eccentric British soul bands. I suppose much of the reason it has fallen down the memory hole is that this stuff has never been genre-ised, which seems to be the ars memoria by which music critics fill their elephantine memories.

So I hereby invent the genre of "British Pop-Funk". I suppose the grand-daddies of this genre were the mighty Hot Chocolate, one of many 1970's hit machines whose reputation has gone from kitsch to genuine appreciation. Among their successors were Linx, whose big hit "Intuition" brightened up a miserable 1981. The personable frontman was David Grant, who is nowadays employed, along with his wife Carrie, as a hard-nosed bastard who tells people that they can't sing.

Imagination were fronted by the impish satyr Leee John, one of the early '80's great pop characters, and surely one of the inspirations for Red Dwarf's The Cat. Their hits, such as "Body Talk" and "Just An Illusion" were seductive epics that seemed to lie at the midpoint between the American soul greats and the weirdness of the New Romantics. It was this kind of crafted oddity that made these bands identifiably British, and not just carbon-copies of their American peers. Like Adam Ant and Kevin Rowland, Leee John would keep up the act in tabloid interviews, telling journalists that if he didn't make love five times a day he was in danger of exploding etc.

Loose Ends were genuinely highly rated at the time, and talked about in the kind of reverential tones that augured future greatness. They were one of the few British bands to make an impact on the U.S. R&B chart, and in 1985 it appeared that the world was their oyster. Alas it wasn't to be, and they appeared to vanish as quickly as they appeared. Doesn't mean we shouldn't recall them now though.

The only band who went on to build any kind of career out of this sound were the excellent (though terminally unfashionable) Level 42, who deserve their own post. This is a shame as the rest of the pop-funk bands of this era were chronically under-appreciated, not least in the UK itself, which always considered its own R&B music as ontologically inferior to that produced in the U.S., despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Ah, we can only look back on what might have been....

Thursday, 17 February 2011

what's up wi' you? swallowed a dictionary or summat?

There were a number of extravagant furores in the Eighties as the moral-majority whipped itself into a frenzy over everything from Minipops to Cannibal Holocaust. One of the strangest was over the televising of Tony Harrison’s “V” by Channel 4.
The outrage was ostensibly over the number of “fucks” and “cunts” though more left-wing commentators suggested it was down to the poem’s and the programme's anti-Thatcherism. This is also something of an overstatement, there is a heavy-handed montage before the reading starts that may have been the reason why Harrison later moved into film-making himself as a way of exercising more control over the contextualizing of his work, but the poem is about divisions of all kind and certainly isn’t a straightforward polemic. To be frank it would be better if it were just the straight reading itself, and to further the frankness, I’m not sure HOW great a poem “V” is in retrospect, though I have been something of Harrison fan ever since.

More than anything on first seeing it, the quote that stuck in my mind was the epigraph from Arthur Scargill, just as the translation from Cornish that ends “National Trust” reiterated and re-affirmed it to me.

Harrison V Part 1

Harrison V Part 2

Harrison V Part 3

Harrison V Part 4

Tony Harrison - National Trust

Tell You All About Myself / And Let My Knowledge Be Born

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

No Limits To Growth

Watching the Alien quadrilogy again recently I was struck primarily by the shift in tone between Alien, easily the best of the four and Cameron’s Aliens, a film that now feels horribly dated in a way the first one doesn’t.

The most striking distinction, the ways in which they seem very much films of their respective decades is in the shift from Alien’s dramatic naturalism to Aliens’ heavy handed, All-American myth-making. Alien also boasts an extravagantly great cast (Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto together at last!) and what seems to be a lot of loosely improvised dialogue and character work on the part of the actors. There are all kinds of tensions among the crew, tensions of class and gender, tensions of hierarchy and role, lots of overlapping dialogue, the camera and lighting unfussy. Compared to what comes next Alien almost feels like Altman-in-space, a low-key set of reflections on the dynamics of having an Alien on board.

In Alien Ripley’s survival is arbitrary, she’s not an especially heroic or tough character, none of them are. In Aliens she has become an action hero (ine). This shift, from a complex, “downbeat” Seventies realism through to a hyped up and remorseless, but also ultimately dumbed down and reductive spectacularism can be directly traced through a couple of film series that span the two decades/ develop through the Eighties. Aliens, the increasingly ludicrous pretension of the Rocky movies, the shift from the relatively credible First Blood to the Rambo films, from Saturday Night Fever to Staying Alive for example (clearly Stallone is a key figure in all this*.)

The Seventies, as I’ve mentioned before, is a kind of killing-ground for the mythical figures of American Film, and also a period in which the great post-war stars themselves died or stepped out of the limelight to wither with as much dignity as possible. The sense of an ending, of terminal decline, of an unbreachable limit reached, informs many of the films of the time, the frontier spirit has died (the endless number of elegiac westerns that kill off Oldies, from the Wild Bunch to Ulzana’s Raid) and what remains of American rugged individualism or crusading small town decency is hopelessly outmatched by the power of Government and the shadowy and nefarious institutions who really run things ( The Parallax View, Twilight’s Last Gleaming etc).
America looked like it was on the ropes in the 70’s taking a beating from the Japs, the Arabs, The Ruskies, but it is going to bounce back stronger than ever. The new era demands new heroes, not the doomed, all-to-human anti-heroes of the Seventies but larger than life figures who can re-mythologize the country, not just men of especial fortitude, tenacity or courage but something more akin to the superhero.

This is where steroids come in, and not metaphorically. The shift to the more-than-human figure of the action hero, most significantly in the figures of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, is untenable without them. Anabolic steroids may well have been used in sport from the Fifties onward as part of the Cold War’s jockeying for Olympic supremacy and in bodybuilding from the Sixties but it’s only really in the Seventies with Schwarzenegger’s arrival (and the documentary Pumping Iron) that superhuman size seems to become not just attainable but desirable. In 1975, when the film came out, Schwarzenegger’s attitude, one which he’s subsequently distanced himself from, was: do anything to win no matter how underhand or disloyal, break the pain barrier, focus remorselessly on your goal. His sheer size and unrelenting self-discipline along with his immigrant background and his refusal to ever come second serve to identify him as the kind of new-man America needs.

If there are two drugs that can convince you that you have superhuman powers, they must be coke and steroids. This is the American ego reborn. Even those who critique the system are not immune to its seductive power. A look at Bruce Springsteen’s album covers from the Seventies and the Eighties, most superficially at least in their shift from black and white to colour, or even Springsteen himself, from greasy and pale on the cover of Darkness to bulging muscles and a Ramboesque headband circa Born in the USA is revealing. As is the contrast between the opening sequences of Schrader’s Blue Collar and American Gigolo: even if the content is in some ways “critical” in American Gigolo** the affective identification with the juiced up, coke-bright sheen of the Eighties new Can-do ism and hyper-individualism is clear. Big, bold, brash, hedonistic, ever-ready.

Steroids are crucially there in sport too: bigger hitters in Baseball, faster sprinters in the Olympics, harder tacklers in the NFL. Huge, even more cartoon-y bodies in the WWF. Records tumble, revenues soar, the upward curve is always maintained. In Eighties' film the muscle-bound are the big money-earners with a repeated and systemic focus on their bodies as spectacle. The films themselves get bigger and more importantly, longer. Cameron’s Terminator in some ways sets the template for cinematic hypertrophy. Watching the act of sheer self-importance that is the vastly unnecessary Aliens’ directors cut again the endlessly, inexhaustibly extending peril for Ripley/Newt becomes both comical and boring ( Oh no! Now it’s grabbed her boot! Now Newt’s being sucked toward the air-hatch! This has been going on SO LONG!)

Of course one of the reasons steroids continue to be demonized, and their pandemic use consequently hidden, is precisely because admitting to it undermines a core late capitalist belief, that there is an infinite transcendent capacity to the will that can surmount all obstacles. Schwarzenegger is the living proof that there are no limits to growth as the Seventies had feared. Will is absolute, will can drive forward a kind of spontaneous mutation, in a sense Late Capitalism believes in Creative Evolution, it is the mystical and holy soul of America that produces such transcendental miracles as Schwarzenegger’s biceps and Carl Lewis’ Olympic victory. The film that best sums this up is of course Rocky Four, a celluloid embarrassment of world-historical proportions. The Russian takes drugs and trains in a high-tech lab while Rocky is all-natural, primitive even, partaking of some holy All American over-soul that guarantees his success. This victory is a work of Spirit, not massive gonad-shrivelling doses of synthetic testosterone. The magical thinking, the fantasy, must be maintained.

The legitimate question as to what extent the economy of the U.S. directly ran on coke and steroids in the Eighties and Nineties and continues to do so is best left to the as yet unformulated practices of Narco-economics. Though the equally compelling question of how these drugs synergized with the politics and popular culture of the time, what they added to the aesthetic, the look and feel of that mysterious decade also brims with possibilities.

There is also a class correlation between steroid and coke use: the majority of steroid users, at least in the US, tend to be college educated, non-professional body builders who use it for cosmetic purposes, buff and super-confident chasing down the next “opportunity”. The two great middle-class drug revolutions: the Sixties and the Eighties. Acid, weed, free love, the commune, versus coke, steroids, porn-star performance fucking , the condo.

*Let’s not be too hard on Sly, he has made a couple of decent films.

** Maybe the remake of Breathless is the great 80’s movie from a purely visual standpoint.


Tuesday, 1 February 2011


"I've been abused, I've been confused and I've kissed Margaret Thatcher's shoes/ I've been high and I've been low and I don't know where to go."

One on level The Godfathers were both twenty years too late and ten years too early. In the mid Eighties they seemed far too conservative and backward looking in the face of the wave of American guitar bands already beginning to make serious inroads into the British indie charts (Sonic Youth, Swans, Husker Du) and too spiky and straight for the whimsy of C86 or the brief and unlovely resurgence of ironic biker rock under the name of Grebo, (GBOA, Zodiac Mindwarp, PWEI, Crazyhead etc). Ten years later, the particular British anti-hippy lineage they asserted: in music the Stones, The Who, The Faces, Dr Feelgood, The Pistols, in film: Get Carter, Villain, Performance, John Barry soundtracks, sartorially: snappy Italian suits and Kray Twin’s cuffinks, would all seem to have made them natural co-conspirators with much of Britpop and Britfilm.

But here again the Godfathers simply wouldn’t have fit in. Britpop’s largely simpleminded celebration of Britishness, it’s mockneyism, its lack of questions or conflict wouldn’t have suited the Godfathers at all. It’s hard to imagine any Britpop band releasing an album called “Birth, School, Work, Death” or selling T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Thatcher with a Hitler moustache. What the Godfathers have is anger and conflict, a chippy, working class pride that is crucially shot through with all those contradictory desires, for escape and belonging, defensiveness and derision.

“Every day’s a thrill when you’re living like me. Don’t read Baudelaire’s poetry. And I don’t need no PHD. ‘Cos I’m ten times smarter than you’ll ever be.”

The Godfathers are the face of the boys smart enough to make it big in the new-money world of the Eighties, who want power, wealth and women but can’t bear to sell out or turn their back on their roots, who want to learn but hate the pretensions of the educated: who want not to betray or abandon their sympathies but who are also stifled by them. The perennial conflicts of the working class boy or girl made good wondering where they belong, who they are now.

Love and hate, desire and rejection, are deeply intermingled in the Godfathers, the pull of tradition both real and imagined and an attempt to hang on to it the face of change. Self-assertion vies with admissions of failure. The Godfathers were clearly neither Thatcherites nor Labourites, suspicious of everything. Individualistic, but not in that way, filled with class solidarity, but not in that way, either.

The single from their first and best album, “Hit by Hit” produced by Vic Maille of Ace Of Spades infamy, “I Want Everything” tells the story succinctly enough as Coyne’s demands point up the sheer emptiness of his existence, pivoting between assertive claims for ego gratification “instant coffee, instant sex. I want pleasure, I want fame, I want everything that goes with acclaim” and the acknowledgement of greater social and personal needs “someone to love, someone to talk to, something to do, something to look forward to.”

The song titles and the lyrics, the tense, despairing cockyness, the vulnerable underside, the razor sharp, unreconstructed R and B and the reference points all imply a kind of poignant, proto-Britpop, one which resists its easy homilies to having-it-large and the uncomplicated singalongs. A Britpop uncomfortable with its times, that sounds so much more interesting in 2011 than any (bar Pulp) of the Britpoppers do, and more interesting perhaps than many of the more radical bands with whom they were contemporaries and whom they, doubtless, thoroughly despised.