The Blueprint for Sham Ruins: Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists Revisited

Manic Street Preachers - Generation Terrorists

For the past seventeen years, the Manic Street Preachers have been repeating their trauma, not only in the context of their songs, but also in the re-telling of their story. Particularly in the last seven years, via interviews in various media, anniversary edition DVD features, retrospective boxsets, and Nicky Wire’s Polaroid collection published by Faber, they’ve been reinforcing their history and legacy. More than most bands, they were born to do this kind of reminiscing and cataloguing. Their entire essence is built upon reflexivity and myth-making. Now twenty years after their debut album, Generation Terrorists, they are returning to the beginning. I’ve already written about my emotional and intellectual experience of the Manic Street Preachers’ first record at The Vinyl Villain, and I’ve written a bit about the band in the context of memory, archive, and monumental ruins, so I hope to achieve something slightly different in this post. On its twentieth anniversary, I want to revisit Generation Terrorists, my second favourite Manics album after The Holy Bible, and deconstruct the extravagant blueprint from which James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Sean Moore, and Nicky Wire built. There’s an element of the trümmerfrau in this work.

Unlike their two “masterpieces” The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, which both received anniversary edition treatments one decade after their respective releases, the Manics’ debut album had to wait twice that amount of time. Most don’t consider it a masterpiece; it’s too long, it’s too ambitious, it’s too naïve, it’s too uneven. In his mini-essay, “Assassinated Beauty – An Appreciation of Generation Terrorists” for the twentieth anniversary collector’s edition, band biographer Simon Price observes: “The album you hold in your hand is not a ‘classic debut,’ nor anything so monolithic or museum-ready. It does not stand as an engraved marble edifice, immaculate and immovable, facing us down across the ages with its solemn, intimidating certainty.” In recent radio and online interviews, Nicky Wire has referred to Generation Terrorists as their folly. The architecture of Generation Terrorists is definitely on the side of absurd extravagance, but it’s purpose-built despite its hyperbolic ornamentation, perhaps fooling listeners into thinking the Manics were just another trashy hair metal band. Sham ruins that are, nonetheless, “4 real.”

Nicky Wire also lately stated that the Manics wrote their myth before they lived it, an element I alluded to in my observations about The Holy Bible. At the time of Generation Terrorists, they formed an ethos that took the idiotic idiom of cock rock hair metal and turned rock ‘n roll into something worthy of epiphany. They created a rock album and an image that paraded the iconography of the iconoclast, showcasing Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Liz Taylor, crucifixes, and Marlon Brando. They were autodidacts in excelsis, and romantic nihilists. Their soundbites in those first interviews came at you like parallel telegraphing fragments, spoken like some sort of poetry slam contemporary art performance by disaffected zombies who had eaten too many brains—those of Guy Debord, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Karl Marx—and eventually spat out Plath and Pinter. They managed to fit so many aphorisms into the songs themselves, including the phrase that was originally the title of the album (culture, alienation, boredom, and despair) that their songs actually emulated the pithy style of their interviews:

All we love is lonely wreckage
Nagasaki dolls are burning
Classified machines die misunderstood
Everywhere death row, everyone’s a victim
The only free choice is refusal to pay
Death sanitized through credit
You’re going to pay for my intelligence
Too much comfort to get decadent
Lips I kiss just another plague
Repeat after me, fuck queen and country

Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire melded the sloganeering of groups like the Futurists, Situationists, and Vorticists with the taglines of the globalized branding age. Whilst The Holy Bible is a challenge to memorize and sing along with, Generation Terrorists fully allows for breathless collective moments. Many of the songs from their debut are still in the setlist, and they often provoke the largest reaction. Perhaps this enduring appeal is because their first album is the one most built upon youth, and it’s the one with which the band seemed to have the most fun. Though they delivered the same adrenaline rush as Guns ‘n Roses, their rebellion felt more meaningful, more substantial. As much as the musical content is perceived as secondary to the cut-up lyrics, manifestoes, and DIY glam messthetic, it provides an essential backdrop for the incendiary ideas and internal logic of the band. James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore proved to be more than competent musicians, creating anthemic music that preached anathema. Their sound wasn’t that of the defeated, nor was it the sound of perfection. It was the necessary emotional appeal to support the lyrical appeal to intellect. They were just as profligate in their music as in their ideas and objectives. For musical ambition gone nuclear, listen to the epic album conclusion “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll,” which features one of the best howls of existential angst and one of the most blistering guitar solos.

Putting Generation Terrorists into its 1992 context sheds more light on why it was a significant anomaly. The Manics appeared to come through a wormhole that bypassed the Second Summer of Love. If you agree with Joshua Clover’s thesis about music post-1989, music began to reflect a brave new world in which capitalism and the West triumphed as Jesus Jones’s vacuously jubilant “Right Here Right Now” played over top of endless footage of the Berlin Wall coming down. Clover argues that the political rap of artists like Public Enemy, which had aimed at external powers, was shifting into the gangsta rap genre that turned anger and violence in on itself; grunge took the anger of punk, and too, focused it inwards, documenting a more solipsistic struggle; and acid house kept revolution inside the head, producing at best apolitical resistance. I think it’s quite telling that the Manics chose to model themselves off Public Enemy and The Clash; they were wholly out-of-step with their times. They also clearly came out of the decade of Thatcherism and the post-punk/C86 genres it provoked, conveying independent ideals in a commercial package. “Motorcycle Emptiness,” arguably the album’s best track, seems like an uncanny hybrid of The June Brides’ “Josef’s Gone” and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “April Skies.” Straddling the gap between Madchester and Britpop, which I would contend were also navel-gazing in their parochialism, the Manics were hardly celebratory, especially about their own country. Coming from a working-class, Welsh background and performing a less normative masculinity, they were outsiders, and championed underdogs of sexism, racism, and classism. In Generation Terrorists, the success of capitalism was not met with self-satisfied merriment. The Manics were kicking out in as many directions as possible with the desperate energy of those who may never get another chance.

Prostitution. Democracy. Suicide. Capitalism. Deception. War. Religion. Disease. Anesthetization. Debt. Discrimination. Incarceration. History. Impotence. Censorship. Alienation. The Manics covered an astonishing amount of ground in Generation Terrorists, using the rhetoric of the jaded and degraded to empower themselves. In the mesmerizing lilt of his Welsh accent, Edwards declared: “Our romance is having total power in that we’ve just got nothing to lose ‘cos we’re secure in the knowledge we already lost a long time ago.” This preemptive strike gave them the upper hand, and allowed them to oscillate between two seemingly opposite postures. They performed as spectators and aggressors, the useless generation and generation terrorists. Impulsion and repulsion alternated throughout every track, articulating imagined audiences and alliances, and drawing you in with inclusive pronouns whilst simultaneously addressing a second person enemy: “You are pure, you are snow, we are the useless sluts that they mould,” “We are not your sinners/Our voices are for real,” and “Find your faith in your security/All broken up at seventeen/Jam your brain with broken heroes/ Love your masks, and adore your failure.” The interesting tension extended to the friction between their decadent performance through meticulously crafted, self-conscious semiotics, and their naïve DIY authenticity and aspirations. Their stance was carnivalesque, but genuine. Working-class bright young things.

When I first started listening to the sprawling eighteen-track album, I found the lone cover song “Damn Dog” to be jarring in its simplistic, stripped down lyrics and riffs, and believed it to be filler. But then I watched the 1980 cult film Times Square from whence it came, as befits the typical education arc of a Manics fan (there’s an extensive reading list as well). The film, which stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as teenage runaways in New York City in the advent of the Times Square clean-up, is just as significant an influence as the myriad theorists and writers the Manics favoured. Conceived of as a punk rock Saturday Night Fever, the film seems easy to mock, along with the earnestness of the two main characters, Nicky Marotta and Pamela Pearl, the former, a street kid with a criminal record and a passion for electric guitar, and the latter, the depressed daughter of the city official who is spearheading the regeneration of Times Square. With its offbeat spoken word poetry, scenes of urban decay, use of bandit eye stripes, escape from shiny consumerism into a fantasy world of rock ‘n roll fame, and gestures of glamorous (self)destruction, it becomes easier to see the connections between the film and the Manics’ early incarnation. There is definitely more to mine in Times Square, not least the lesbian subtext, which was subsumed and suppressed in the final cut. In addition to pushing boundaries of gender, sexuality, and class, the film interrogates the representation of young people, especially girls. It depicts attempts at their containment, and the pathologization of youth itself (the two protagonists meet at a hospital where they are being monitored for mental illness). Another invented disease, indeed. Nicky seemingly poses a threat and challenge to the status quo because she willfully breaks down the division between private and public spheres, toting a boombox rather than a walkman, living on the streets rather than in a house, playing guitar solos in back alleys rather than attending school. Dubbing themselves the Sleeze Sisters, Nicky and Pamela are essentially generation terrorists. Nicky, who sports a haircut reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust and prescient of Nicky Wire’s, says, “Once you’re famous, you can’t just disappear.” It’s a sentiment that the Manics would come to embody in more ways than one. The final scene of the film in which Nicky Marotta gives an illegal rooftop performance of “Damn Dog” to her adoring female fans, who have dressed themselves in bin liners and excessive make-up, echoes the kind of effect the Manics had and have on hardcore fans, who are very often female.

The twentieth anniversary collector’s edition of Generation Terrorists features four discs, including the original album, b-sides, demos, and a DVD, along with other bonus material like a replica backstage pass lanyard and a photograph of Richey Edwards’s “You Love Us” collage. In my opinion, the most valuable items in the box set are a vinyl 10” of their BBC Radio 1 Rock Show Live Session, and the DVD, which includes a documentary about the making of the album; the rest of the material is another case of underestimating the dedicated fanbase. I would think that many fans would already have collected these b-sides and demos as I did. The DVD itself also features a fair amount of re-packaged material, including official music videos and television footage that most fans would have likely already seen, purchased, and/or recorded. In fact, fans probably have a larger, more diverse archive than Sony would ever release. At this point, the more interesting material might be what those outside of the band collect and create. Maybe there needs to be a sequel to Jeremy Deller’s The Uses of Literacy.

The Manics often say that they inspired more dissertations than bands, which is apt, but also unfortunate. I desperately wish for a contemporary band that could match the kind of intelligence, outrageousness, naïve passion, and self-belief that Manics espoused in 1992, but it seems that newer bands who strive to build a more complex, intelligent musical concept either fade into obscurity before they get anywhere, or they struggle on without even a cult following. There are some interesting bands with cult followings and distinct, eccentric images, including the likes of British Sea Power, who has swapped politics for nature obsessions and a quirky antiquarian sensibility. However, the closest to a current band who can offer a lifestyle choice, so to speak, is The Indelicates, who combine intelligence and politics with accessibility, producing a complete world and set of ideologies unto themselves. Interestingly enough, they are in the process of releasing their own musical commentary on social pathologies: Diseases of England. A recent interview with Saint Etienne highlights the lack of contemporary bands to come with an entire worldview, manifesto, and aesthetic. The boring bands who could only talk about their effects pedals have been replaced by the boys in their bedrooms hitting keys on their laptops. You would expect that the current climate of global economic crisis, rampant neoliberalism, mind-numbing, patronizing entertainment, and ongoing threats to freedom and access in the digital environment would produce more bands with an overreaching agenda of anger and passion. Where are the regeneration terrorists? I don’t want an innocuous rock band named after inoculation. I don’t want bands to sing about the fact their generation has nothing to say. In the landfill indie landscape of the recent decade, the Manics’ rubbish looks positively beautiful.

Generation Terrorists wasn’t about being wise and mature, it was about youth and stillborn energy. It was absurd madness proselytized in public. Folly can be defined as mania and rage, sin and harm, glamour and foolishness. Folly is most often associated with the young, and unnecessarily discounted or excused for that reason. Despite this, follies also often remain timeless attractions.

Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers

Generation Terrorists (Live at Hull Adelphi, 1991) – Manic Street Preachers (earlier version of “Stay Beautiful”)

Damn Dog – Robin Johnson

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Myxomatosis #17 – Head to Iceland with Jaz Coleman

With the end of the world looming, it feels like we’ve been here before. If we believe Francis Fukuyama, history already ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. If we believe Arthur C. Danto, art already ended in 1984. And if we believe Prince, the world should have ended in 1999 when the sky was all purple and people were running everywhere. Otherwise known as the sealed weather chamber in Paisley Park. I can’t even possibly include all of the religious sects who thought or think the end times were and are nigh.

I’m more persuaded that we will hit the Singularity before any other types of Armageddon or apocalypse, Mayan-predicted or otherwise. The Singularity is described in Stewart “information wants to be free” Brand’s book The Clock of the Long Now as “a shorthand way of referring to impeding technology acceleration and convergence.” It comes about via Moore’s Law of exponential advances in technological hardware and Metcalfe’s Law of exponential growth of networks, including the Internet. The Singularity, or techno-rapture would lead to a world “comprehensible only to those near the leading edges of technology.” You shall know us by our velocity: our brains will look like taffy.

In case you’re bored of building bunkers and watching television programs in which other people are building bunkers, here are some alternative activities you could do just before the end of the world:

  • Submit some writing to Public journal for their call for papers about The End. Presumably, they’re counting on the end not arriving quite so soon since their publication date is Fall 2013.
  • Read Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’s Rapture of the Nerds, a novel which uses the Christian idea of the rapture for the techno-rapture, when all of those who embrace technology disappear.
  • Take a ride on the Euthanasia Coaster. This should actually be the last activity.
  • Eat all of the cake and cheese.
  • Download Myxomatosis #17 and dance.

Countdown to Armageddon – Public Enemy

Rapture – Killing Joke

We Want War – These New Puritans

Can You Promise Me the Sky Won’t Fall – The Very Sexuals

No Lucifer (live at Whelans) – British Sea Power

Race to the Self-Destruct Button – The Samuel Jackson Five

Apocalypse Blues – Colorama

The Last Song Ever Written – Stars

End of the World – Anika

The Last Day – Crime + the City Solution

Degeneration Street – The Dears

John the Revelator – The Indelicates

Armageddon Days Are Here (Again) – The The

Tiny Apocalypse – David Byrne

Apocalypse Song – St. Vincent

Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun) – Phoenix

The End of the World – Are You Real?

A Perfect Day to Drop the Bomb – Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

Conversations at the End of the World – Kishi Bashi

Yawny at the Apocalypse – Andrew Bird

When the Lights Go Out All Over the World – The Divine Comedy

Last Night on Earth – EP’s Trailer Park

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Public Service Announcements with Guitars: When Rock ‘n Roll Becomes the Cause

public service announcement

Throughout the neoliberal heyday of the 80s people became accustomed to musicians performing for a cause or endorsing a particular charity ostensibly to raise funds and awareness for “others,” whether they were “thank God it’s them instead of you” Africans, war children, or AIDs victims. Spectaculars like Live Aid, its nostalgic damp squib of a successor Live 8, and numerous charity albums and singles dealt in high emotional appeal to make you feel like you were making a historical difference and that you were a hero. More importantly, just for one day. It’s quite apt to use music as the impetus for feel-good charity since the collective experiences of live music are often already charged with uncanny sensations of solidarity and goodwill. It feels powerful to be gathered with other fans who share your love of a band or musician, belting out anthems, and that feeling can be easily transposed to a belief that you’re fighting for a common righteous cause. The more charismatic the performer, the more the crowd loses themselves in the tide of togetherness. We are the champions if only because Freddie Mercury convinces us that we are.

Though there are still fundraising performances involving musicians for disasters of all kinds (oddly enough, even tracked at Music for Good), and some charity albums and singles still get made on behalf of the “helpless,” passive Other (see cringe-inducing songs like K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag”), there just doesn’t seem to be the same resources for extravagant ego mash-ups anymore. Perhaps now that the music industry itself is in “crisis,” it doesn’t appear quite so eager to splash out for causes in the same way or with the same regularity. In fact, some artists are now endorsing their own existence as a cause.

I was prompted to think about this context of rock ‘n roll for a cause after observing two crowdfunding campaigns of relatively different scope, but similar rhetorical strategy. Ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer made headlines earlier this year when her Kickstarter campaign raised over one million dollars, smashing through her intended target (see Laura’s review of Palmer’s Theatre is Evil album). Last month former Sneaker Pimp Chris Corner was pleasantly surprised (“fuck me outrageously” were his precise words) when his PledgeMusic campaign to raise funds for his next album as IAMX reached, then exceeded, his goal within an hour. There are many similarities between these artists: they both used to be on major labels; they are multimodal artists, engaging in other art forms like visual art, video, and fashion; they have theatrical, spectacular personas, often hearkening back to a different time of cabaret and burlesque entertainment, erotically using their bodies to imply intimacy and transparency in their relationships with their fanbase; and they are both vocal about their love for their fans, calling a familial, cultish public into being. These aspects may play into their success, or at least partially. Of course, crowdfunding isn’t new, and it’s becoming quite commonplace in the art and technology worlds. I’ve written about crowdfunding platforms and their relationship to digital music files a bit before, so I won’t get into that here, except in reinforcing how crowdfunding platforms enforce an artificial scarcity in order to produce monetary value for musicians’ labour.

I ended up being most drawn to the videos Palmer and Corner made to promote their campaigns:

There are many similarities. They are both handmade by the artists (and the artists’ collaborators) and feature direct appeals from them, meaning you see them quite prominently. They offer you glimpses and samples of what you are being persuaded to support, hopefully enticing you and convincing you that they’ve already begun their labour. By invoking other well-known names–whether the visual artists working for Palmer, or Corner’s use of Jim Abbiss as producer and Danny Drysdale as filmmaker–they associate themselves with quality whilst also demonstrating their collaborative spirit and justification for more money to be used for additional labour. Their rhetoric assumes that we as fans and they as artists have converging needs and goals, and characterizes potential funders/fans as people of distinction and taste, who will become activists by contributing to the future of music and making history simultaneously. Replace “music” with “this starving child” and the message seems more familiar. In previous blog posts, Corner has referred to his music as his child, so perhaps the comparison is apt. Palmer reinforces the thread of potential activism and public agitation to improve the future by using the public space of the street and title cards reminiscent of protest placards. In these videos, there is, in fact, a real focus on futurity, but aware of the demands in the speedy digital world, there is also a balancing of investment with immediacy in the form of updates and exclusives along the way. In both videos, the onus is on fans to determine the level of success and project execution by how much they will give. Palmer and Corner project identities that are bound up in authenticity and autonomy, projecting the same qualities and values on their fans who will presumably agree that their causes are real and meaningful.

In both campaigns, fans are expected to fund dissemination and mobility, specifically allowing the artists to distribute, promote, and tour, in addition to promoting the message of the campaign itself. Their campaigns and rhetorical strategies speak to notions of access, the public, and participation, which are all quite popular topics in the context of the digital economy, which is definitely overlapping with concepts of cognitive and communicative capitalism, immaterial labour, the attention economy, the multitude, and the commons. Amanda Palmer states: “I hope you will join our rock ‘n roll cause. . . . We are the media.” Chris Corner declares: “We need you hand in hand, mouth to mouth intertwined for this survival of art.” The implication is that we are more powerful in numbers and that we are truly participating in their art. In a recent Guardian article, Yancey Strickler, one of the co-founders of Kickstarter, said, “When I’m supporting some band [through the site] I love, I’m not ‘shopping’ in the record store, I’m creating alongside them. I get to see the thing happen and be part of the process and know that I made a contribution. I think the emotional resonance that comes with that is huge.” Though crowdfunding platforms imply that fans are creating in collaboration with their favourite artists, there are differing degrees of actual engagement and reciprocity. Amanda Palmer’s digital music is already free, she crowdsources onstage musical support, and provides multiple venues for feedback, which all seem in line with ideas of the commons and multitudes. In the case of IAMX, a distance between artist and fan still exists despite the repeated invocation of “we.” Corner says in his video, “You can give. I can create,” quite clearly delineating the artist and fan roles. You may pay for engagement, via email or in person as a guest at a soundcheck, but contact is otherwise limited. However, Corner’s campaign isn’t unique in this respect—most of the crowdfunding campaigns I’ve seen for musicians have offered similar constraints on participation. In a way, the supposed voice and participation allowed for fans is wrapped up in communicative capitalism and its pretence of a democracy that it doesn’t actually create. Despite the rhetoric of participation, collaboration, and access, these campaigns are still fundraisers looking for public donations.

The hierarchy of the pledge menu mirrors the structure of typical arts fundraising gift charts and pyramids, anticipating a few gifts at a very high level and many gifts at a minimal level. These campaigns aren’t unlike fundraising for public art projects or institutions like galleries. Can you call Amanda Palmer’s and IAMX’s music public art? There seems to be a bias in thinking of public art as mainly or solely visual, such as the display of street art or museums. Whilst there are forms of music related to public space and access, including busking and audio installations of the Eno kind, they aren’t as readily apparent or discussed. Even musicians are essentially looking for visibility, especially in light of the necessity for an online presence; Amanda Palmer and Chris Corner want you to watch their videos, not just listen to their music to encourage you to pledge. The so-called post-scarcity economy is abundant with information and art, thus attention is often perceived as the scarce commodity in this late form of capitalism, and often, the attention economy is linked to visual “noise” and the public spectacle, which implies visuality. Despite being an ostensible commodity, attention has also become a form of work on the part of those obliged to “pay” attention and to participate. In the words of Jonathan Beller, to look is to labour. Could we also say to listen is to labour? As someone who became exhausted and slightly mad in the face of an endless stream of available music online, feeling compelled to listen to and blog about as much of it as possible, I would say yes. Jonathan Sterne has argued that the MP3 is a format that favours distraction, not attention. I agree, but I also think that the same kind of hyperabundance and hyperavailability that is producing multitasking distraction is demanding ever more cursory attention, and thus, creating a heightened feeling of unsettled agitation linked to the an irrational need to hear everything because you can. To me, SXSW would be as overwhelming as Nuit Blanche.

When I watch Palmer’s and Corner’s campaign videos and look at their reward menus, I’m also reminded of the fund drives for public service broadcasting, where the more you pledge, the more you receive as a “gift,” and where you are repeatedly told that you, the viewers, are responsible for the range and quality of the programming through the level of your monetary generosity. PBS emphasizes the service they are providing: cultural, educational, and independent of commercial advertising and interests. Can you call Palmer’s and Corner’s music a public service? Although they promote themselves as culturally beneficial and independent of the kinds of corporate controls PBS would also eschew, they are still not really acting in the same public venue, nor are they attempting to reach the same kind of broader audience. Perhaps it would be more helpful to view them as a public narrowcasting service. Their art is potentially publically free and accessible via free downloads, sanctioned and otherwise, but access to the material goods and tickets to concerts is still restricted to those who can afford to pay, and concert tickets are often not included in pledges. In a way, they end up involved in the same conflicted situation as publically funded arts institutions like museums and galleries that also have to charge the public for admission. I suppose the most significant contention here is how public and access are defined. In a way, these campaigns appear to be asking for funds from the publics they’re shaping through their rhetoric with the ultimate goal of private consumption, barring the later, paid-for collective experiences of concerts. Though Palmer and Corner utilize many of the same rhetorical strategies as public arts/service fundraising, they are ultimately still selling commodities, referring to their music as a product, and in Palmer’s case, calling her work a business. So, like the causes endorsed by musicians before them, are theirs actually non-profit? It’s a complicated question, including such tangles as Amanda Palmer entertaining the idea of an interest-free loan from wealthier supporters and Chris Corner’s intention to donate a portion of the funds raised to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. And these aren’t the only concerns and reservations involved in crowdfunding music.

I agree with many of the points in Chris T-T’s recent argument against crowdfunding. There’s definitely a chance for things to get a bit tacky and cynical, and the use of services like Kickstarter and PledgeMusic is similar to creating a new middleman. However, artists still have a choice to use crowdfunding or not, and some artists do flourish on such a platform, especially those who already have a cult following and/or are already creative in arts beyond music. Amanda Palmer and Chris Corner are hardly unknown entities—in fact, they come in with quite a cult following already, and it’s to these established fans that they are appealing. They are also both involved in other forms of art, allowing them to offer items or experiences they would have likely put labour into anyway. Finally, I could dispute Chris T-T’s point regarding the lack of creative freedom in the face of fan investors by saying artists always answer to fans at some level if they’re selling their art; sales and support will depend on the fans’ enjoyment and interest.

Perhaps the traditional exchange of music for money really is no longer enough. What people are asking of musicians is what many already ask of themselves: affective labour. Many people, including myself, labour outside and beyond their regular jobs, especially to create things that are otherwise not financially sustainable. The controversy that came out of Amanda Palmer’s use of fans for unpaid labour on stage points out the affective labour already inherent in the fan experience. Activities such as fan-created zines, sites, fiction, blogs, and record labels, along with participation in street teams or sharing of links through online social networks, are generally unpaid, emotional labours, and in many ways, similar to the types of affective labour that does get paid, such as public relations or advertising.

I, myself, did pledge towards both of these campaigns, among others. I wouldn’t even say the exclusive offers necessarily attracted me – I can’t afford the truly one-of-kind experiences, and am quite satisfied with a good vinyl copy and digital download. My personal reason for pledging is a genuine desire to ensure that my favourite musicians are able to produce their next projects, so I view my pledge as paying for the art up front. Very recently I contributed to of Montreal’s Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the documentary they’re making. The idea of seeing more footage of a band that is so unique live is hugely attractive and important to me. I wouldn’t say I feel like I’m more involved in the musicians’ processes by funding them. I usually don’t even have the time to keep up with the exclusive updates.

Do Amanda Palmer and Chris Corner manage to precipitate the same sort of tide of togetherness and goodwill that used to be the province of fundraising rock ‘n roll spectaculars? I think that there’s a bit of virtual togetherness and celebration when these types of campaigns succeed, but that the gathering in a space in the real world is more persuasive and powerful by being more visceral. These campaigns are also on such a smaller scale, yet across such wider space and time, that they don’t have the impact of a single collective entity, nor a single collective moment. They are diffuse, but also intense in the specific public they are generating and addressing. And that’s not a bad thing. Spectacles for the masses aren’t terribly trustworthy and are becoming more of an anxiety-inducing, screaming demand in a noisy world. If music itself is now in need of aid and CPR for its survival, then it can surely be another cause. Just as long as we recognize the capital and labour behind all of the “love.”

Strength Through Music – Amanda Palmer

Music People – IAMX

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Myxomatosis #16: Happy 1st Birthday From a High Horse!

Here’s to another year of sporadic posting!

Download Myxomatosis #16

Altered Images – Happy Birthday

Andrew Bird – Happy Birthday Song

Blur – Birthday

Cibo Matto – Birthday Cake

Imperial Teen – Birthday Girl

Junior Boys – Birthday

Microdisney – Birthday Girl

Modeselektor – Happy Birthday!

Pet Shop Boys – Birthday Boy

Spearmint – Happy Birthday Girl

Sufjans Stevens – Happy Birthday

The Desperate Bicycles – It’s Somebody’s Birthday Today

The Smiths – Unhappy Birthday

The Sugarcubes – Birthday

The Twilight Sad – That Birthday Present

The Von Bondies – 21st Birthday

They Might Be Giants – It’s Not My Birthday

Ween – Birthday Boy

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Nobody Actually Wants a Fucking Martyr: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra’s Theatre Is Evil Reviewed

Amanda Palmer hasn’t released a proper full-length studio album since Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008.  Since then she has left her former record label, Roadrunner Records, released albums of cover versions of Radiohead and Velvet Underground songs, comprised one half of conjoined twin singing sisters Evelyn Evelyn, released a corresponding album and book to go along with the Evelyn Evelyn project, formed a new Melbourne-based band called the Grand Theft Orchestra whose name was coined via twitter crowdsourcing, made a bunch of new enemy/critics due to crowdsourcing musician/fans for her current tour who weren’t initially to be remunerated with anything other than “hugs, beer, and merch”, released a combination studio/live album with an Antipodean theme which was inspired by a tour and much time spent in Australia and New Zealand, reneged on her decision to not pay her crowdsourced bandmembers, and likely made several times as many fans as enemies due to her positivity and generosity and enthusiasm and high rate of output and fucking incredible work ethic.  Maybe that’s why it took so long for me to write this review.  She did all those things and I got mildly tired writing this paragraph.  She kind of exhausts me.

What is definitely clear in all of this is that not being on a proper record label suits Amanda Fucking Palmer.  It suits her very well.  Despite the fact that Who Killed Amanda Palmer was one of my favourite releases of 2008 and that I like it better than her output with The Dresden Dolls, she has blown that record out of the water with Theatre Is Evil*.  The people who talk about Palmer becoming more famous for funding her album through Kickstarter than for the album itself don’t seem to have taken a very close listen to it.  I mean, the Kickstarter experiment was spectacular.  If you haven’t seen the video she posted in order to promote Theatre Is Evil and gain backers, please take a look at it below.  Palmer is absolutely at the forefront of selling independent, interesting music and art in a post-music business world.  She believes in digital files to be shared as widely and freely as possible, she promotes beautiful and collectible physical copies and art objects as supplementary to the music, and she uses the internet to actually engage with her fans and get a sense of what that market wants.  She is now doing precisely what it is she wants to do in both artistic and business senses and succeeding wildly at both.  Of course, we are here for the music first and foremost, so let’s get to that…

Cabaret performer Meow Meow introduces the whole shebang, with a grainy, practically sepia-tinted flourish auf Deutsch, of course.  “Smile” is immediately distorted and maximalist and sounds very much like it was made on the cusp of the 1990s.  Not just an invitation to enter the world of Theatre Is Evil, “Smile” acts like an eddy into which the listener is pulled.  It’s magnetic.  Also it’s about partying and living in the moment and just living.  It captures the paranoia of being stoned and worried about the end of the world which could maybe happen at any time and the magic of being alive at the same time as other people who are alive and being alive together.  It is smeared and distorted and swollen.

If we’re going to continue to talk in years and decades and nostalgia which I think maybe we will, “The Killing Type” is the new wave of 1979 done AFP style.  A personal treatise on what a person who’s “not the killing type” would kill for, it was released as a single on Theatre Is Evil with an accompanying video a couple months back that crystallises the kinds of passion that can quickly turn violent.  Likewise, the self-aware control of the song’s beginning gradually gives way to angry aggression and complete loss of control.  “I just can’t explain how good it feels” is overlaid with “die die die die die” while a short burst of machine gun noise signals the end and climax of the song.  “Do It With a Rockstar” picks up in the same violent vein.  Pianos crash, drums and guitars squelch, and voices echo as Palmer contrasts the supposed glamour of being a “rock star” with the reality that is so much more boredom and loneliness than dancing, drinking, and making out.

“Want It Back” is Theatre Is Evil’s first single, released way back in spring, and it’s one of Palmer’s best songs to date.  She has said that it’s about the expiration date on a relationship and how it would be nice to rewind and re-experience the best parts of that relationship again, but the joy of this song is its walls of words and the way they tumble and conjoin and roll around with the bouncing, jubilant piano.  Again, the video clip for “Want It Back” is a perfect visual expression of this, with inky animated words scrawling themselves all over Palmer’s body to form curlicues that migrate to the band and then outside the house she’s in, decorating red bricks and pipes before returning to her body and to bed.

“Grown Man Cry” may be the only song here that’s of a lesser calibre, but it nonetheless has something to say.  It’s a criticism of fake sensitive dudes that are only really trying to get laid, and while musically it’s a good song, the subject matter is perhaps a little juvenile for my taste.  This is potentially because this song reminds me strongly of an old article from Bust magazine that maligned said dudes and coined the term ‘wimpster’ to describe them and their whiny, ultimately vacuous attempts at feminist sensitivity.  It’s not an irrelevant or even unnecessary topic, but it feels slightly beneath Palmer to approach it in this literal way.  “Trout Heart Replica” is another song that other people seem to like more than I do.  It’s again on the literal and sentimental side for me, but the whirlpools of piano that accompany the verses are lovely.  Accented with claustrophobically close string lines and Palmer’s raw voice, shifting less than seamlessly between registers and ranges, the music to me is more triumphant than the words.

“Lost” is loud, jumpy, rhythmic, and textured, with stabbing piano knives, occasionally shifting into beautiful harmonies that never last for more than a few bars.  Its delivery is joyful, though primal and brutal, and it promotes a more nuanced reading of the lyrics, which are about moving on with life after losing someone.  “Bottomfeeder” is more minimalist, a synth- and piano-driven song with a subtle but unmistakeable strut that makes it addictive.  It breaks halfway through for a country-tinged guitar solo that slides and swoops while the beat stays cool and sharp.  Palmer’s imperfect voice is particularly beautifully showcased here, catching on the jagged edges of larger intervals and quivering with emotion.  The mix even works well when all the instruments rise in volume and intensity and her voice is swathed in echo, overdubs, and noise.

Reverting back to Dresden Dolls and vintage AFP territory, “The Bed Song” is old-fashioned and terribly sad.  The piano part sounds like sun, filtered through clouds and dusty curtains, into a bedroom with a hardwood floor.  Palmer’s voice inhabits the story, becoming sweeter and softer or darker and bitterer as each scene dictates.  The scenes progress from content and happy to hopeless and confused while the corresponding beds move from tiny and filthy to luxurious and overlarge to six feet under and topped by headstones.  It is fraught with feelings, many of them contradictory, but it stays away from sentimentality with its fixation on honesty and reality.  “Melody Dean” is, in Palmer’s words, “my first out and proud song about being bisexual” and it’s breathtaking.  It’s a tale of being caught under someone’s thumb and revolting against that with every fibre in your being except the part that actually makes you cheat.  When she’s not shrieking about her sexuality (“I like to spread her out on different crackers, yeah, I like the way she looks”) Palmer becomes more solemn, repeating “I get torn to pieces for the stupidest reasons.” Perhaps strangely, my favourite bit is immediately after the first refrain, when the punky guitar is replaced by a buoyant classical-influenced synthesizer that tumbles through an interlude and is shortly joined by blindingly bright horns.  It is magnificent.

“Berlin” is full-on melodramatic piano wallowing.  It starts slowly and poignantly but in the second part becomes full and stomping and resentful.  Palmer shouts “WHAT?” as the song then becomes an exquisite cabaret finale, swaggering so heavily that it has no choice but to return to the heartbreak of the opening.  It cries into its own arms in the rain.  “Olly Olly Oxen Free” reverses all of those things and instead wallows in joy, freedom, and letting go.  She sings “olly olly oxen free, all the people you will never be, see no evil, hear no evil, capture me and throw the key away” like it’s a manifesto, and it really is.  Art doesn’t have to kill you.  Art doesn’t have to be serious.  Art doesn’t really matter that much if doing it makes you miserable.  Art is about pleasure and joy and sharing things and confidence and bringing people together.  This is sometimes explicitly stated but largely between the lines of every single note and word on this record.  It really couldn’t have been expressed better.

*A quick and nerdy note on the album’s title: when Palmer announced the title on twitter, fans from all over the world were quick to query as to whether the word ‘theatre’ would be spelled the American way or the British/Canadian way.  A twitter poll was quickly dispatched to help answer this question, and it seems the answers and final decision are rather evident from Theatre Is Evil’s title.  This makes me even more glad than I’m willing to admit, and I’m willing to admit quite a bit.

 

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Want It Back

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Lost

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Melody Dean

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Myxomatosis #15: Quiet Batpeople

I’m so happy that The Thick of It is back for another series. It’s one of the best shows on television, and from what I know of public relations (I had to take some courses for the communications program I was in), it’s fairly accurate in all its absurd logic. I love the grasping cast of always pathetic, occasionally sympathetic, characters, who usually end up racing down a corridor in an ungainly fashion to save their own careers. I love the barrage of ruthless, soul-destroying insults amidst the landmine of f-bombs and twisted mind games. And of course, I love the watery-eyed sociopath, Malcolm Tucker, the Alistair Campbell of Armando Ianucci’s carefully crafted circles of hell.

One of my favourite scenes for this series is during a brainstorming session for a name for good everyday citizens:

Ollie Reeder: You know, the people who deal with the little stuff… um… Wombles, Honest Wombles. Everyday Wombles?
Malcolm Tucker: Sorry, I’ve just got to take a call…
Nicola Murray: Um, ‘straights’ –
Ollie: No!
Nicola: No… no, of course, sorry.
Helen: Commuting champions.
Nicola: Interrailers, human interrailers.
Ollie: Human interrailers? That’s interrailers. Uh, everyday superstars, all… all British supremes –
Malcolm: That sounds like a racist tribute band.
Nicola: Ordinary people, with s-… with… something special about them. With a special power.
Ollie: Please don’t say special. Don’t say special.
Nicola: No but – you know, but like sup… uh… people as superheroes.
Ollie: Iron People… Spider People –
Nicola: They’re just regular citizens, but they have this… p – that one special quality that makes them like Batman, Batpeople. Um… Quiet Batpeople.
Malcolm: [Glaring] Quiet Batpeople?

In honour of this brilliant piece of satirical television, I’ve made a mix of “spin” songs. I could never do the show justice with a description, so I’ll just include this handy YouTube video compilation of the various nicknames bestowed upon the characters.

Download Myxomatosis #15.

Original Spin – Mother Mother

Spinning Top – XTC

Tailspin – The Divine Comedy

Spin the Bottle – The D’Urbervilles

Spin – Darling Buds

Spinning Around – Kylie Minogue

My Head is Spinning – Pet Shop Boys

Spin Spin Sugar – Sneaker Pimps

Sangria Spin Cycles – Flying Lotus

Spinning Away – John Cale and Brian Eno

Spin – Anthony Adverse

Spinning Wheel – Shirley Bassey

Der Spinner – Nina Hagen

You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record) – Thea Gilmore and Mike Cave

Spin That Girl Around – Euros Childs

(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister – The Stone Roses

A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace – Bright Eyes

As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins – Dead Can Dance

Spinner – Brian Eno and Jah Wobble

Like Spinning Plates – Radiohead

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Planned Obsolescence and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Shut Up and Play the Hits and the Story of LCD Soundsystem

Shut Up and Play the Hits

After seeing the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits for the first time in the dark of Cinematheque last week, I can see why audiences at SXSW danced in the aisles and applauded each concert segment. The Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern film, which records James Murphy and Co.’s last performance at Madison Square Garden in 2011, utilizes the immensity of sound and camera shots to immerse you so deeply in the music that you forget you’re not actually at a live show. You feel every slow motion bounce and crush of the crowd and every shake of atomized perspiration from the band and fans alike. LCD Soundsystem’s signature locked grooves become deliciously long dance parties as the band rocks and hustles in equal measure. The film even captures that numb moment that comes after a monumental gig where you can barely move your adrenaline-drained legs, blinking in the house lights made hazy by the last vestiges of dry ice drifting to the rafters like the gunsmoke of a particularly intense battle, or the incense in a particularly mind-altering ritual. Despite the mesmerizing atmosphere of this footage, the film captures something else quite specific to LCD Soundsystem. When Murphy’s hands come down to instigate the descent of a giant disco ball for “Us V. Them,” his face is filled with a beatific satisfaction that somehow mocks its own self-assured performance. It’s as if he cannot let himself get too earnest about the enormity of the event he’s created. It’s like he’s thinking about how much he’s orchestrated this. It’s a show, and a documentary for that matter, that draws attention to its own obviousness and intentions.

A pre-farewell Chuck Klosterman interview provides a thematic framework for the film as it is interspersed between concert performances and over the scenes of Murphy’s post-LCD Soundsystem mundanity, adding meaning and depth to scenes of Murphy shaving, making coffee, rolling about on his swivel chair, staring out windows, and walking his French bulldog. Offstage, Murphy’s spectrum of emotions seems to be comprised of wry, bemused, or asleep. These down moments provide a contrast that makes the concert portions buzz with a preternatural quality. The continuous rise and fall of the energy heightens the effect of both moods whilst commenting on its own meta-state. At the beginning of the interview, there’s a great moment of doubling self-awareness: when Klosterman asks if it’s okay if he records this interview, Murphy replies with “sure, do you mind if I record this interview?” The film has been most often compared with The Band’s The Last Waltz, but this final recorded performance can also be seen as the death of Ziggy Stardust without the loophole. At one point in the interview, Murphy does mention Bowie as an untouchable idol, whilst casting himself as the everyman, greying anti-hero. Klosterman interjects by saying that Murphy has become an idol in spite of, and perhaps just as much because of, his commonplace, unglamourous image. His is still a performance, which I think attracts just as much scrutiny to itself as Bowie’s satin and tat. Klosterman quite rightly points out Murphy’s most prominent characteristic: self-consciousness.

The LCD Soundsystem oeuvre is dominated by the meaninglessness of repetition in the postmodern condition or the self-aware ennui and pose of New York City parties. The idea behind this last performance and its deliberate self-documentation isn’t that far away from a Flickr stream of ironic Polaroids. From penning the so-called hipster anthem “Losing My Edge,” to raiding older musical references in the manner of a one-man cultural capital bazaar, to creating a “pretentious version” of “Yeah,” to receiving a full discography analysis by Pitchfork, LCD Soundsystem is of the early-twenty-first-century hipster moment. Some may argue that the seppuku of LCD Soundsystem coincides with the “death of the hipster.” However and whenever the hipster may or may not die, it seemed to be born in the socioeconomic and cultural stew, which includes the rise of the so-called “creative class” of a late capitalism running on its own fumes, the dissatisfied middle class’s realization of its own stagnation and uncertain footing at the turn of the millennium, and the exhausting infinite present in the Internet age of globalized connectivity. The hipster is a hyper-controlled performance of supposedly empty signifiers, Baudrillardian simulacra in impossibly tight, ultimately impotent, trousers. The hipster is self-aware, building an artificial authenticity or an authentic artifice in an attempt to preclude taste judgements and clichés that move at the speed of light. In the accelerated proving of credentials, hipsters eat themselves as much as pop does. They are part of a self-defeating identity group that fosters belonging by denying belonging to the group. In recognizing hipsters, you are somehow already implicated in their miasmic stigma. What happens when you ironize arguably the most ironic subculture? James Murphy has come to embody the anti-hipster hipster, or an aging hipster, which seems automatically to negate hipsterdom, in which novelty and youth are its defining qualities, even if the novelty is nearly always filtered through retro lenses. Murphy and his band concept are a hipster paradox. He is ironic about pretension and knowing about his knowingness. His seemingly ironic detachment appears to come from a seen-it-all-before world weariness because he is actually older, not because he could Google everything on a phone. I think it’s too easy to apply the hipster tag, which gets bandied about a fair bit; however, I’m starting to think that the dissonance I feel about LCD Soundsystem, and by extension, Shut Up and Play the Hits, is related to Murphy’s ethos, which allows for the simultaneous existence of the romantic nostalgia of the person who thinks too much and the cynical retro of the hipster who has access to too much. He creates music infused with timelessness and faddishness, two sides of the same youth ideology.

That tension is perhaps the magic of the film and the LCD Soundsystem story: mythologizing the demythologizing. You can view Murphy in a context other than hipsterdom, including the power of music fandom. Focused, meticulous people are also often the most obsessive-compulsive fans/critics; think of some of Murphy’s musical heroes, like David Bowie and The Smiths, who were also scrupulously controlled in their performances, images, and artistic “packages.” Murphy is musically referential as Morrissey was lyrically referential, retaining a fastidious interest in presentation down to the Hatful of Hollow blue used on the cover of This Is Happening. Murphy is a compelling performer in his own idiosyncratic right. The concert footage of Shut Up and Play the Hits reminded me just how much I love his sardonic half-talking bits and his wild, desperate yelps that become frantic leaps into hysterical falsetto. I couldn’t keep my legs from bouncing during the “Homosapien”-aping “North American Scum,” which featured back-up shout-chanting from members of The Arcade Fire, and the infinite rock-out of LCD Soundsystem’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” melted me into my movie theatre chair. On the related flipside to scenester party anthems like these, the live entity of LCD Soundsystem brings the same ardent presence to the low-key melancholy. As I feel both the anxiety and relief of aging and mortality myself, I’m particularly drawn to these songs along with Murphy’s comments in the film about his fears and needs as time moves on. The bittersweetness that pervades songs like “All My Friends,” “Someone Great,” and concert-closer “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is connected to a sense of loss and the relentlessness of time. “All My Friends,” which creates one of the biggest moments of the documentary, takes the insistent piano of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and strings it out into a nostalgic middle-age wasteland that is both triumphant and tired.

The crux of the film comes close to the end of the Klosterman interview. He posits that people are remembered for their successes but defined by their failures, and pushes Murphy to articulate what LCD Soundsystem’s biggest failure will be. After much evasion, it transpires that Murphy thinks their biggest failure may be stopping. In that admission, he turns his canny preclusion into wistful heartbreak.

As Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” kicks in at the credits, I couldn’t help but smile at how even this choice was perfectly orchestrated. The song is at once so terribly funny and so terribly sad, which seems to sum up Murphy’s persona quite neatly. It’s a self-fulfilling failure narrative and pre-emptive break-up strike with those brilliant synth honks that sound like a clown’s nose. The theme of borrowed time and planned beginnings and endings is more than apt for the LCD Soundsystem story: “This is one scene that’s going to be played my way.” At the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that Klosterman has already articulated the fact James Murphy can’t completely control others’ perception and level of engagement with what he does. In the end, perhaps in spite of Murphy’s attempts at detachment, LCD Soundsystem was clearly not a meaningless pose. If only because of that weeping teenage boy in the last shot of the film. Shut Up and Play the Hits shows that you can actually dance yourself clean notwithstanding the elision of vowels in hipster electronic vernacular. This is not a film for aloof head bobbing. Murphy and his backing band played the hits and they spoke louder than the best laid plans.

The Shut Up and Play the Hits DVD set is available on October 9.

Dance Yrself Clean – LCD Soundsystem

Jump Into the Fire – LCD Soundsystem

New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down – LCD Soundsystem

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Myxomatosis #14: Your Chariot Awaits

*Pokes head around corner*  Hello there!  It’s me, Laura: FAHH’s resident delinquent and all around hooky player!  I do feel quite self-conscious about being MIA from High Horse land for so much of the summer, but hopefully that will now change as the days are getting shorter and cooler and the weather is less conducive to lying on blankets in parks.

This car-themed mixtape is meant as a sort of sequel to my mixtape for summer road trips: said road trips generally don’t happen without them.  Of course, there’s also the freedom that cars represent that makes them such a frequent source of inspiration to artists of all kinds, not just songwriters.  They’re as much a symbol of American nationalism and capitalism as they are symbols of restless wanderlust the world over.  Seeing as how this is a mix by me, though, the songs here don’t focus on cars in their American, cross-country road trip and representation of freedom sense of the word.  Instead, they’re often potentially dangerous status symbols, symbolic of 20th century advances in technology, or metaphors for the loose, nomadic lifestyles favoured by countercultural heroes.  As much as the possession of a vehicle adds another level of staid reliability to mainstream living, cars can serve as little mobile homes, making touring and adventure possible for bands with very few resources to otherwise get out on the road.

Download Myxomatosis #14

Arcade Fire – Keep the Car Running

Associates – White Car in Germany

Beat Happening – Drive Car, Girl

Big Star – Big Black Car

Black Tambourine – Black Car

Buzzcocks – Fast Cars

Captain Beefheart – Dali’s Car

Dalis Car – Dalis Car

Desperate Bicycles – Cars

Eugene McGuinness – Japanese Cars

Gary Numan – Cars

Keith Levene – Very Fast Cars

Kenickie – In Your Car

L’Trimm – Cars That Go Boom

M83 – Car Chase Terror

Neon Neon – Dream Cars

Paul Weller – Fast Car, Slow Traffic

Queen – I’m in Love With My Car

The Cure – Mint Car

The Dirtbombs – Cosmic Cars

The Divine Comedy – Your Daddy’s Car

The Raveonettes – Breaking Into Cars

The Wave Pictures – Long Black Cars

UK Subs – I Live in a Car

Violent Femmes – Gimme the Car

 

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FAHH Dream Theatre Episode 1: David Bowie in the Library with a Cookie

From a High Horse Dream Theatre

I’ve had quite a few strange dreams involving famous musicians, with or without consuming cheese before bedtime. I’ve decided to start documenting them in comic strip format.

If I’m Dreaming My Life – David Bowie

The Last Thing You Should Do (featuring Robert Smith and performed live at Bowie’s 50th birthday) – David Bowie

Dream StaticDavid Bowie Panel 2David Bowie Panel 3David Bowie Panel 4David Bowie Panel 5David Bowie Panel 6David Bowie Panel 7David Bowie Panel 8David Bowie Panel 9David Bowie Panel 10Daivd Bowie Panel 11David Bowie Panel 12David Bowie Panel 13David Bowie Panel 14David Bowie Panel 15David Bowie Panel 16Colour Bars

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Myxomatosis #13: Home of the Brash, Outrageous and Free

I’m not much of an Olympics spectator. As someone with an aversion to sport and to grand displays of nationhood, I’m not primed to be an audience for them. My parents enjoy them. They are also retired and might otherwise not know which day of the week it was. As Canadians, we tend to pay considerably more attention to the Winter Olympics, regarding it as a chance to alleviate our country’s inferiority complex for a few weeks. No one knows who our prime minister is, but we own hockey. Because this past summer’s Olympic Games were in London, I became marginally more interested. At the very least, I was getting to gaze longingly at shots of London cityscapes and busy streets during primetime television. The BBC also added more London-specific documentaries and “cultural Olympiad” programming to their schedule, including more than I ever needed to know about Shakespeare. Admittedly, I’m nerd enough to have enjoyed the documentary on London’s bridges.

Being the anglophile that I am, I took more than a passing interest in the controversy over Olympic construction in the East End, the mounting costs in the face of a double-dip recession, the kinks of the lottery ticket system, and the security debacle. And I was mildly curious about what Danny Boyle would come up with for the kick-off. I can’t remember if I have ever watched a full opening ceremony before, including that of my home country for the last Winter Olympics; however, this time I was actually sat at home during the live broadcast, which aired in the mid-afternoon where I live, because I was off my head on painkillers two days after my bottom wisdom teeth were extracted. I couldn’t be bothered to move, nor focus on anything more stimulating, so I had time to watch and then think drug-addled thoughts about national identity over the course of the three-hour global show.

To be fair, organizing the opening ceremony is an unenviable position; you have to take account of what the rest of world knows of your country, what you think the rest of the world knows of your country, and what people of your country know and/or believe of themselves. And somehow you have to make that into a spectacular, positive experience for all of them. Spectaculars don’t really tend to work in more than one dimension. Bearing that in mind, I think Boyle was pretty ambitious, and he did make some interesting choices, showcasing a film director’s sense of storytelling alongside the various facets of the English national myth, and to some degree, London mythology itself. The manic film presentation that raced from the arcane source of the Thames to the cheeky aerial view referencing East Enders was an apt introduction to the themes that followed. Through a series of vignettes, Boyle took in aspects of national identity, high and low, serious and ridiculous. You got choreographed entertainment that had a go at synthesizing an overwhelming amount of ideas about England: the island mentality confronted with immigration; the dichotomy of arcadia and industrialization; blitz-proof stoicism; the inexplicably resilient, nostalgic token that is the monarchy; the hardy pliability of the English language, made richer by The Bard; the significance of cultural exports, including England’s pop music legacy; and the swinging 60s, that urban utopia that just won’t die. Even the fairly weak attempt to include all countries of the realm via choir ensembles said something quite telling about margins and centres, and British identity and its fraught relationship with the power of the capital. I could have done without Mr. Bean (where’s Blackadder when you need him?), and the James Bond/Queen scenario, the latter evoking an awkward drama exercise with an octogenarian android. The reveal of Tim Berners-Lee from beneath that house was somehow even weirder.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and noted events of the opening ceremony was the celebration of the National Health Service, which featured a dancing number of actual NHS employees and hospital beds full of children. The conflation of children and the fantasy stories written for them with the socialist ideal of universal healthcare was actually quite savvy. With the army of Mary Poppins swooping in to save the children representing Great Ormond Street Hospital from the fantastical villains of English kiddie lit, I can’t help but see the satirizing of the conservative disdain for a “nanny state.” As other lefties have argued, this gesture isn’t actually going to produce a revolution on its own, but as a bit of subversion in front of a massive audience, it was at least as good as some political sentiment slipped into a pop chart hit. In equating the vulnerability intrinsic to the Victorian conception of “the child” with the more recent vulnerability of the NHS under the coalition government, Boyle made a connection that also seemed to echo even larger themes of English identity. The cultural invention of what childhood should be—Edenic, thus natural, innocent, and good—is a trope found throughout English culture since the threat of industrialization. It is manifest in the children’s literature, including the likes of The Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan, sometimes descending into downright barmy and creepy regression; it is present in the antiquarian fetish for collecting and recording the past; it runs all the way through the tradition of folk, pastoral, and psychedelic music and their outdoor festivals (read Rob Young’s beautifully researched Electric Eden for more information about this last point). As an ancient nation, England appears to rely on heritage both to relive past imagined glories and to stay forever young through rebirth, or more cynically, regeneration.

Turning to a truly younger nation like Canada, we don’t really have the same mentality of child-like arcadia. Perhaps because we still essentially live in the garden of vast wildernesses and seemingly endless space. That’s one of our own myths, mind. The ancient history that we truly have is often ignored because it wasn’t written down and because colonialism tried to destroy it at every turn. We don’t have a lot of broken down abbeys and castles; our ruins are in the people. The difficult, ongoing truth and reconciliation with First Nations peoples is already greatly misunderstood or ignored within our own country, so I suppose I shouldn’t find it surprising that other countries don’t have an inkling of the context. I find myself physically flinching when Stephen Fry off-handedly refers to aboriginal peoples as “Red Indians” on QI. Thankfully, the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony did, at the very least, acknowledge the First Nations people of the region in a rather respectful way.

I think that the Vancouver Olympics had another particular challenge for their ceremonies because we tend to deny nation and patriotism most of the time. Canadians are hyper-conscious of multiple cultures and identities, an attitude grounded in the complicated, contested concept of multiculturalism; we are everything to everyone and thus a less straightforward spectacle. Between an obnoxious faith in hockey and a brainwashed necessity for Tim Hortons, we’ve developed some sort of innocuous, plastic patina of nationalism. In some ways, I feel safer knowing that. In other ways, it makes for the abysmal segment of the Vancouver closing ceremony that included giant Mounties, beavers, maple leaves, voyageurs, and hockey players. Then again, London’s closing ceremony was also a broader caricature than the opening one.

My own experience of London is still as very much an anglophilic outsider. Last summer I stayed in the capital for an entire week in addition to one day on the way back home, and I feel like I needed another fifty years, if only to feel completely nonchalant on the bus system. Unlike the previous six trips I took to London, I visited a bit longer, and tried to pack in as much as possible this time. Whilst I loved the Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and The British Museum (though the latter also made me feel mortified and uncomfortable to around that much cultural theft), unsurprisingly, I found some of the more valuable, fascinating moments to be outside of the tourist stops. Granted, Laura and I aren’t the type of tourists to zip in and out of cultural institutions to say we’ve seen them; we quite methodically take an entire day to explore any one gallery or museum. However, the flaneur in me got more out of wandering through Hackney, Highgate, Camden Town, Islington, and Vauxhall, most of which I’ve never had the time to get to before. I find myself missing details like the particular sound of the subway trains clacking over the tracks, indie disco nights, Gloucester Old Spot sausages, purchasing my weight in used vinyl at the Music Video Exchange, and marveling at the sheer chaos of the A to Z map book whilst getting repeatedly lost.

It’s that overwhelming unknowability of London that captures my imagination. There are just too many possible routes and too many secret places. I suppose these qualities are what make London a particularly peculiar psychogeographic space, spanning the mysterious occult vibes along the Hawksmoorian ley lines of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Alan Moore, and the equally dark, but surreal urban wastes tread by Will Self and J.G. Ballard. The parochial past haunts even as it is transformed by dreams of sprawling cosmopolitanism.

There are particular songs referencing London that come to mind quite easily and quickly, some of which were used in the Olympic ceremonies: The Clash’s “London Calling,” The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” The Smiths’ “London,” Blur’s “London Loves,” The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” and The Pogues’ “London Lullaby.” I chose to make a compilation for which I had to work a little harder. I hope it’s a little more nuanced than it might have been. Kind of like the London Olympics opening ceremony.

For more London-based songs, visit the comprehensive The London Nobody Sings. If you want slightly different kind of music, visit the London Sound Survey site. Lastly, for a previous mix about London, see my old blog. Of course, it was more of a mix about London-based bands rather than songs about the city specifically.

Download Myxotmatosis #13 here.

Euston Station – Betty and the Werewolves

London My Town – Anthony Adverse

Up to London – Phil Wilson

Holloway Aviator – Animals That Swim

Up the Junction – Squeeze

Harrow Road – Big Audio

Towers of London – XTC

London Bunker – Simon Bookish

Klub Londinium 20-30 – Sudden Sway

The Aspidistra House – Band of Holy Joy

Berwick Street – Loaded Knife

St. Paul’s Cathedral at Night – Trembling Blue Stars

All the Umbrellas in London – The Magnetic Fields

I Love Lambeth – The Monochrome Set

Love Letter to London – Luke Haines

London’s Brilliant Parade – Elvis Costello

Crossing Newbury Street – Roddy Frame

Trams of Old London – Robyn Hitchcock

Hymn to London – Bishi

London Belongs to Me – Saint Etienne

Emptily Through Holloway – The Clientele

Highgate Cemetery – Roy Harper

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