Guest post by David Stubbs. His next book, 1996 and the End of History, will be published by Repeater in 2016.
The first time I didn’t meet David Bowie was at a junior school village hall disco at Barwick-in-Elmet, the small village near Leeds, in which I grew up. This would have been in 1973, I guess. The polish of the parquet tiled floor lingers palpably in my distant memory, as do the sea of flapping corduroy flares and stomping pop sounds of the stereo system they’d wheeled into the hall. Chief among them was “The Jean Genie”. Pop meant everything to me then; I kept an exercise book in which I would list in different felt tip pen the Top 20 singles charts rundown each Sunday. If an entry had gone up in the charts, it was listed in green, if it had gone down, red; if it had held its position to me, grey. I felt distinctly the schism in the charts. There was the stony rubbish, the mouldering crooners who still held sway into the charts appealing to an audience some of whose tastes had formed in the Edwardian age. Oh, and there were The Osmonds and David Cassidy but they were for girls and therefore beneath contempt.
And then there was our gang, our gang. The boys. There was Glitter, of course, Slade, The Sweet, Bolan – but even I recognised that Bowie was the Queen Bitch of them all. And I wasn’t the only one. All us boys, all us little hard boys, thought Bowie was the cock. No more so than on the minimal “Jean Genie”, which, though we didn’t know it, harked back to a tradition that stretched to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”. All we Dennis The Menaces who were anti-Walter, anti-softie, loved David Bowie. He was the juvenile delinquent in extremis.
Apologies. It would be nice to report that he effected an epiphany in our young minds with his unabashed androgyny, his deliberate effeminacy, the way he put his arm over the shoulder of his guitarist on “Starman”. It would be nice to report that this sort of behaviour confounded the macho bully boys in 1970s English primary and secondary schools, but that wasn’t my experience. Somehow, it made him more über-male. After all, we were used to long-haired blokes; we had them on the wrestling every afternoon, blokes like Adrian Street; we had them running rings round defenders on Match Of The Day, blokes like Tony Currie, Charlie George and George Best. We didn’t really know what homosexuals were, with The Naked Civil Servant still round the corner in the mid-70s but we knew what puffs were and David Bowie wasn’t puff’s music. There was too much hard guitar, wham-bam percussion and fast, honky-tonk piano for that. Puff’s music was Donny Osmond. Your Granddad might think Bowie was some sort of nancy boy but he didn’t get it, did he?
Of course, David Bowie was implanting all kinds of ideas about maleness and being that would flower later but for boys my age, he was simply a magnificent pop animal with whom we could somehow identify and root for; he made the out of reach seem slightly less out of reach. He mysteriously and disappointingly ascended out of the glam pop orbit in the mid-70s for reasons we couldn’t quite understand. In his place came the likes of Alvin Stardust and David Essex, the sort of ersatz poppers who, unlike David Bowie, would do shows like Seaside Special. Sightings of Bowie became rarer. His value only increased.
Then came Cracked Actor, the BBC documentary about Bowie broadcast in 1974. I watched it avidly; even though I only had access to a black and white TV, Bowie’s presence seemed to colour up the screen nonetheless. What enchanted me most about this bizarro, glamorous, scary monster, diamond-hard rocking man’s man was that he was very much an Englishman. He spoke in the broad, affable vowels preserved from his South London upbringing; he was milkman-matey, even as he tottered around in stacked heels and multi-coloured, flesh-revealing androgynous garb. This impressed me deeply. You could be this and you could be English.
I later went through a phase of deep Bowie scepticism in which I dismissed this manner of Bowie’s as nothing more than a pretence of unpretentiousness, the empty tones of a poseur who had no originality about him, was merely the sum of his chameleon colours. I got past that, fortunately. Today, it seems clearer than ever that, despite his worldwide peregrinations, gender fluidity and shape shifting, Bowie was at heart doggedly English and that being male and English, this somehow meant a great deal to me, to a degree that is almost shameful.
You sense it at the very beginnings of his career; those flickering colour images on YouTube of him as a young, dapper mod, seeking out the camera’s eye. Or the huge influence exerted on him by Anthony Newley, who combined acting and songwriting and despite his jetsetting success was very much the dapper Englishman, a Bond-like international emissary.
Much is made of Bowie coming from Beckenham, as if it is an ironic absurdity that he should have come from a staid, South London suburb but I’m not sure if Bowie himself felt that way. He wasn’t quite JG Ballard, with his seemingly improbable and perverse attachment to his suburban semi-detached home but he kept on a large place in Beckenham as late as 1971. The extent of his fame, the mania and collective, pent-up existential energies it exploded on the world meant that he had no practical choice but to remove himself, place himself in exile, in New York, Switzerland. However, as interview footage with my ex-colleague reveals, he maintained at all times impeccable English manners and courtesy, well above and beyond the call of PR duty. There are countless anecdotes of encounters with him which reveal that his natural instinct was to be matey, helpful and egalitarian, rather than diva-ish or stand-offish.
Of course, he didn’t make England his subject, a la The Kinks or Blur. And, although he politely took a lifetime achievement award from Tony Blair at the height of Britpop in 1996, in which his contribution to British pop was eulogised, the strand of British music that was taking his fancy at that point was the progressive, futurist reconfigurations of drum’n’bass, not the retro homage of Menswear. And yet that attachment to England pops up all over the place, in small but telling places, whether it’s a photo of him on a train chuckling over a copy of the British-as-it-gets Viz magazine, or a picture of him taken in Greenwich Village, NYC on his 50th birthday by Kevin Cummins, in which he’s clutching a Union Jack tea mug and a fag.
Even when he was going through his Young American phase, despite the transatlantic vocal patterns he adopted, you always felt he maintained a consciousness that he was playing a (temporary) role, rather than lapse inadvertently into the faux-Americanisms of some of his peers. When he decided, as he unabashedly put it, to be the soulman, he made no bones about the fact that it was a premeditated pose, thereby avoiding some of the more embarrassing wannabeblack tendencies of 80s and 90s pop stars. And when he went to Berlin, he went very much as an Englishman, a neo-Isherwood, rather than someone determined to become an honorary Teuton. There was always that distance, that thespian consciousness. Finally, the very last photos of him see him just days before he died looking absolutely dapper in a perfectly tailored suit, a poignant echo of those early, Super-8 images of him as a mod about town.
Is this important? Surely the “essence” of Bowie is his existential departure from any sense of the “essence”. That you do not have merely to “be”, that you can become. However, I think of the words of my friend Phil Ramsden, who wrote that Bowie helped “to forge a new definition of what it meant to be a British man: something that wasn’t a City Gent or a chirpy Cockney or even a louche, lock-up-your-daughters kind of Jagger figure. Something that was a touch mysterious and non-self-explanatory.” That is important. The sliver of freedom Bowie on TOTP in the early 70s was one of freedom from a Britain still caught in the staid, repressive pall of a postwar Britain in which glimmers of a future beyond were relatively few and far between. Bowie wasn’t a departure from the dreary hegemony of English maleness so much as an expansion. Those of us who were male and English in his time are, in this respect, particularly privileged.
2015 is looking like a pretty good year for Christmas music – there have been some good new xmas songs, Stormzy’s Shut Up might be xmas number 1, and no-one has released a cover of Fairytale of New York. So we’re pleased to present the Repeater Christmas playlist containing some brand new festive bangers, some old classics and not one but five versions of the best xmas song of all time, All I Want For Christmas (FONY is no. 2, don’t @ us). First of all, though, an exclusive and very christmassy track from our friends Petwo Evans (check out their Electronic Explorations mix)
Xmas in Ynysmeudwy – Petwo Evans (exclusive)https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/237852833
Here’s a couple of great brand new 2015 xmas tracks by RP Boo & Fetty Wap:
Three undeniable christmas classics:
Feeling down at xmas? Wiley’s got you, just go and have a dance with Shirley…
…& if that doesn’t help we’re even including a couple of tracks especially for lost-cause bluesy Scrooges
This 2010 Vybz Kartel & Sheba track is probably the filthiest xmas song ever (the official/ clean version here is basically a different song)
& finally a selection of versions of the greatest Christmas song ever made:
An excellent 2013 DJ Q remix…
The cute 2012 live version with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon…
The super-kitschy Justin Bieber duet version:
This is just weird:
& this MIDI version is even weirder, and brilliant:
But let’s face it, nothing beats the original:
Merry Christmas from Repeater!
When future historians come to make sense of our peculiarly disappointed moment (and good luck to them), some will no doubt wonder where the anger was. Every decade of the 20th century had its Marx-quoting middle classes and placard-bearers hailing the imminent end of capitalism. But recent political events have outstripped the imaginations of even the most jaded pessimists. In five years’ time there may be no effective welfare system or health and social care service to speak of. Austerity is re-elected, the prime minister inserts his penis into a dead pig and retains credibility, and the leader of the opposition is called a terrorist sympathiser for opposing another ill-thought out military disaster. Strange times.
There is a prevailing sense of paralysis and defeat all across ex-industrial Britain. And this particularly effects the young, who have not known anything else. So, what is their story?
Darkstar have set out to capture something of it in their third album, Foam Island (Warp records). Washed-out, woozy and subtly groovy, it’s electronica that pulses, bleeps and sighs over twelve tracks. There is a consistency of rhythm that connotes animation and motion, a light-touch percussion of peaceful getting-by over bleeding-heart dramatics. Most interesting of all, sampled into many of the songs are the voices of young people from Huddersfield, who the Darkstar duo interviewed over the summer of 2015, around the time of the general election. James Young and Aiden Whalley present here their findings, the hopes and desires of young people in one small town, as they endure and find spaces of pleasure and communal belonging.
Let’s start with “Stoke the Fire”, one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s the album’s challenge to its subjects, beginning with a deceptively simple hooky beat and a scene-setting statement that says what it sees (‘Live in a wasteland, but hope for a palace’), one that taps into the underlying feeling of sarky resilience and dreams postponed round ‘ere. Textures cohere and take form over a building pulse. Low-key evocations match them, ‘take the challenge’, ‘the time to try has come’, ‘the hold of fate has swung’. It seeks out a truth written in the ordinary experiences and feelings written out of the mainstream media’s island story. ‘Stoke the fire, so young’ repeats the chorus. Something in that dormant energy, alive but self-contained, needing the oxygen of something to make itself known. ‘Show them where you’re from’. A mantra-like chorus follows, ‘speak or hold your tongue’, speak up, speak out, or let it pass, give up, give in, pass the baton, pass the mic.
Voice is often confused for authenticity: the voice of the young, the voice of the disenfranchised, etc. One shouldn’t forget who selects what voices, how they were edited down, or what questions they were asked. Darkstar approached young people around Huddersfield train station. Their frank approaches to strangers invited amusement and scepticism, and at times they were confused for undercover police. But it worked.
The ambitions of the album are best realised on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. They asked strangers about their lives, a question more complex than it sounds, and through building trust, established this. Darkstar’s voices, all young, a mixture of male and female, speak brightly of what they live for and their values. ‘Loyalty, kindness and honesty, just basic things’ gives the first track its title and focus, as a young woman’s voice repeats and is looped, Steve Reich-alike, as another man talks of the inter-connectedness of friends, and another young woman, of being able to feel herself. ‘I’m not a materialist person… it’s not a full thing’ says another in “Through the Motions”, bringing light to a lilting if often detached, affectless sound. ‘I’ve not experienced that much of the world’, says Javan, ‘and it’s because of that, I feel content here’. Friends, family, glimmers of hope between the ‘arrears’, ‘compromises… concrete structures’ composted into the story.
Community is a recurring motif, even a preoccupation, as Young and Whalley explore their own estrangement from a particularly Northern community. Though from Winsome, Cheshire and nearby Wakefield, respectively, Darkstar have spent the last few years in exile, working and recording in London. Both North (2010) and News from Nowhere (2013) tried in different ways to capture a sense of Northernness, a rare and possibly non-existent quality, associated with abandonment and anger. The production of the latter even involved living fifteen months in Slawaite, a village a few miles south-west of Huddersfield, in order to tap into this subterranean juice. But missing were voices, people’s actual experiences. So the summer they spent smoking and drinking with a crowd of young people, ‘like a holiday’ says Whalley, welcomed in.
One gets a sense of that intimacy in the album. ‘Ruskin Grove, we call it the Gaza’, says Daryl, tongue firmly in cheek, at the end of “Inherent in the Fibre”. We’re on a post-war housing estate in nearby Deighton, a strip where Daryl likes to sit back and watch the world. The police put a surveillance camera up, but it was quickly taken down by concerned locals. Laughter, easy times. ‘Enjoying the sun, drinking some brandy with you’.
The result is a rich series of documentary portraits that deserves praise for resisting the obvious clichés about Northern grimness or authenticity. In its focus on feeling, it does sometimes miss out the landscape necessary to contextualise these young people. The physical landscape of mass suburban housing estates and retail parks, the billboards and broken roads, is not here. The mental landscape, of underpaid, overworked inertia, being stuck in a place, or the ambient anxiety of social care responsibilities for disabled parents and friends as statutory services disappear, is only partly alluded to. ‘It sounds a bit bad, but I try to stay out of it’, says a young woman on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Her words give this island its impermanent structure. ‘If I do start thinking about it I get worried. I’m in my own little bubble’.
Sleaford Mods are another group that’ll make the Austerity Britain mixtape of the future. Whilst Foam Island was being produced, two documentary film-makers followed the band on a tour of a number of small towns around Britain, filming shows and interviewing fans. The resulting documentary by Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng, Invisible Britain, shares a common aim with Darkstar, using music as a form of documentary and expression of communities in Britain left behind, silenced or out of sight.
Interspersed between footage of Jason Williamson caustically and wonderfully berating jumped-up individuals in jobcentres, quiet streets or on Question Time, various protest causes set out their stall, from JENGBA (Joint Enterprise) to Unite the Union. Their earnestness is often out-of-kilter with the singer’s own scepticism about political change. What’s most interesting is his own meta-commentary on Sleaford Mods’ political significance to its fans. Like the young people on Foam Island, he’s capable and confident in expressing his own individual anger. But asked to give a political position he becomes awkward, resistant of the pressure to take the mantle of poet laureate for the disaffected working class. Whilst austerity and toffs in Westminster are the problem, the solution’s not clear. At one point he blames human nature for the political malaise.
Though two decades older than most residents of Foam Island, he taps into a similar current of contemporary anger, a more desperate one, ‘it’s a different kind of struggle now’, as an older woman describes, lending another track its title. One wracked with a kind of insular feeling, of being under attack. Though the inhabitants of Foam Island describe their small town as island-like, detached yet self-contained, easily overlooked from outside but with its own rich inner life, their comments seem better purposed to describing the inhabitants themselves. Under immense social pressure (‘like all councils round here, we’ll soon have less money to run local services’, goes a Kirklees council voiceover in the track “Cuts”, £83million cuts so far made, £69 million of ‘savings’ to go), the inner life of the mind remains intact, webbed in friendships and fantasies. ‘Ya distance yerself to concentrate on yer own journey’ says one girl on “Go Natural”. Such a resilient yet blinkered persistence in fantasies of individual survival and success, necessary as they are, are what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. It makes for broken hearts.
This refusal to hold a consistent and positive political idea is often lauded. John Harris in the Guardian praised Foam Island for not sounding like protest music, and heralds its representation of ‘deep political disengagement’. His social journalism, a beacon of light in a sea of chinless mediocrity, is at times hamstrung by an unexplained contempt for ideas. It’s as if they’re some kind of rabbit-shit wholefood, foisted onto the dinner-plates of ordinary decent folk by a minority of highly-strung lefties, with their iPads, haircuts and intersectionality (cue tittering). This is not the case. There is something patronising and self-defeating in this attitude, one that at times strays into Jason Williamson’s talk. A hostility to being so pretentious as to have an idea and want to do something with it. ‘Jumped-up’ and ‘being pretentious’ are other ways of rendering having ‘ideas above your station’. In taking up the mic or the pen to simply narrate the futility of intellectual and political change, the effect is not unlike that of a sermon by the medieval clergy: passion, catharsis, emptiness, empty hope.
Darkstar were invited to perform last week at the Barbican on a bill with Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods, and others, as part of a series of events on social (im)mobility in the arts. The event was commendable in its political focus. Subjugation by Oxbridge toffs and private school bores has now been extended to music and the arts, and the only media channel now presenting working class lives is Channel 5’s regular slew of benefits misery entertainment. But many invited speakers on social class were either regular talking heads or leading academics, or involved in PR agencies. There was still the problem of the working class not speaking, of the term ‘class’ not even being said. Ordinary people were still out of shot.
This comes at a time when depictions of class are unclear. The traditional bastions of the organised Left have fallen short on description: radicals talk of the ‘multitude’ or ‘the 99%’ or, after the late Laclau, ‘the People’ (in a non-nationalist, empty signifier way, obviously), or ‘the count of the uncounted’. Yes, there are some valid theoretical reasons for this. But it’s effectively consistent with the popular narrative that class doesn’t exist, that the working class disappeared sometime in the 1990s. ‘We’re all middle class now’ – think on that famous line by Lord Prezza of Two Jags. It doesn’t matter that John Prescott never actually came out with it. Around 1996, the dawn of the Blair project, it was essentially true, it indicated a changing structure of feeling. You didn’t know any of them, and it didn’t apply to your friends, but probably everyone now was middle class, and if they weren’t, something was wrong with them – they weren’t working enough, were scrounging on benefits, not paying their way.
In this new world order, class is now something to be ashamed of, a sign of failure. It also explains why political movements that can speak the language of pride, fairness and community, whilst giving vent to its frustrations, are succeeding. The Left isn’t getting it, I hear talk of ‘rainy fascism island’. When I travelled around the island interviewing people, collecting their voices, it blew my mind how much courage, intellectual boldness, dreaming and disappointment I found. Island Story is intended as a barometer of this changing structure of feeling, one that makes the contemporary experience of working class like nothing else in history. That shame, that buried anger, there is nothing comparable in the 1980s or before. Young people are being brought up in it, breathing the air, taking on its shape and norms. And we don’t yet know what the effects of that will be.
Mike Savage and other sociologists have recently attempted to update our notions of class. In Social Class in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2015), they expand what class means, accounting for social, economic and cultural factors. Drawing on a UK survey of around 161,000 people, they offer seven new categories: the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and the precariat. Yet the methodology is weak, as Danny Dorling has noted: these 161,000 people were a self-selecting sample found through a BBC online survey in 2011, which systematically over-estimated its own social status (a smaller representative survey of around 1000 was appended). Its dependence on cultural and social factors mean that, even if you’re a zero-hours care-home worker, having friends who are teachers or listening to classical music could catapult you into the middle classes. The categories themselves are weak: what retail or catering assistant or postal worker is a ‘new affluent worker’? Would you put carpenters in the lowest rung ‘precariat’, and NHS midwives in the ‘established middle class’? Most categories can be refolded back into working, middle and upper, whilst accounting for internal variables of age. But its most interesting contribution is its own inaccuracy. Who wants to be working class? Who even knows what it means?
Over the course of Foam Island there are frequent evocations of fate. ‘The hold of fate has swung’ repeats over “Stoke the Fire”. In “Go Natural” fate is said to be ‘in disguise’, the pre-determination of events unclear to us but not the gods. Later in “Pin Secure” we’re encouraged to challenge what appears as fate, self-fulfilling prophecy, with ‘you call it fate’ – perhaps it is not. Then in “Foam Island” ‘his fate is scarred’, it burdens one who believes it so. There is no better word to sum up everything at stake now than fate: the bitter acceptance of what must come, like it did in the 1980s or the 1930s. Or to fight back, kick against the pricks, bring war against the gods, not out of hope for success, but because it’s the necessary and right thing to do. It all comes down to fate, or fatalism, however you see it. The naturalisation and normalisation of defeat is one of the most powerful functions of ideology.
‘In a positive way now, it’s about how our country’s run’, says a young guy on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Seeing a way out of fate involves imagination. The idea of Foam Island came accidentally, when Darkstar watched a documentary about the Sex Pistols’ Xmas gigs in Huddersfield in 1977. They did a benefit show for the children of striking firemen. Entrance was free and the kids were given presents (all Sex Pistols merch, granted). Johnny Rotten stuck his face in a big cake and the children jumped on top of him. Now middle-aged, those kids there were electrified by it, by that show of support and the energy they brought. They recall it vividly. It indicated another possibility.
There is a value in documentary work like this: it brings to light how people feel, shows us that others feel as we do, that our grievances are common, and the cause clear. They are more limited in imagining what could happen. A voice can only relay the present spectrum of imaginary possibility, what political strategists call the ‘Overton window’. What lies next is imagining what might be possible. For that we have glimmers and stories, half-shots of memory, detached voices. Johnny Rotten in a Huddersfield nightclub narrating ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to pogoing teenagers; a member of King Mob dressed up as Santa, giving out ‘free’ toys to children in Selfridge’s; Tony Benn drawing up plans to democratise the running of the UK’s mostly publicly-owned industries; all moments, moments of something, like that revelatory vision of ‘one tone, clarity’ that ends Foam Island on “Days Burn Blue”.
That’s what makes Foam Island an interesting and worthwhile project. For all the problems of voice, they didn’t wheel out journalists, established artists and youth workers to speak for the young; instead, they asked them themselves. The resulting picture is richer for it, and the album combines occasional dabbles in melancholia (“Foam Island”) or political commentary (“Cuts”) with some light-hearted, upbeat grooves (“Go Natural”, “Inherent in the Fibre”). Whilst they might have gone further, and longer, integrating their young collaborators into the music itself, perhaps collectively writing lyrics to one or two tracks, it is a very good album.
“In putting together a brief playlist of Japanese female musicians of the 80s/90s I was surprised to discover that one of them, in fact, wasn’t a woman. Nonetheless I decided to include them simply because their work is so good. Susan appears twice, as do Midori Takada and Ichiko Hashimoto as solo artists and members of Mkwaju Ensemble and Colored Music respectively. This is a far from comprehensive list but hopefully gives taste of some of the interesting and innovative work that went on, both Yellow Magic Orchestra related and otherwise. I claim no expertise in Japan, music or Japanese music but I am an ardent YouTube trawler and know what I like. Hopefully you will find something of interest in there too.”
For all the Pet Shop Boys’ talk of having made “Electric, but more so”, Super is a very different beast from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s because the duo enjoy playing with expectations, but there is a striking disconnect here between the bright, brash artwork and the sad world lit up by the strobe lights.
The dark side of Super is not the brooding BDSM hinted at by Electric’s wildest moments, but rather the resigned grief of Elysium and Nightlife. Nowhere on Electric will you find lyrics anything like “I live every day like a sad beast of prey” or “no one understands us here/imagine how free we will be if we disappear”; nowhere else in pop music, probably, will you find the line ‘I sound quite demented’, but then this is a band that once shoehorned the words ‘Carphone Warehouse’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ into the same verse.
If we’ve met Super’s characters before, it was longer ago than Electric – they appeared in ‘To Step Aside’, ‘Dreaming of the Queen’, even ‘Opportunities’. And the flawed superheroes who lend this album its bold title are hardly the Avengers.
There’s the ageing autocrat pondering abdication on ‘The Dictator Decides’; the Shoreditch boys hoping their time at the top will last forever (‘Twenty-something’, ‘Groovy’); the star DJ, a celebrity only for as long as he can fill the dancefloor; the ‘Pop Kids’ whose romance and spark is dulled by the tedious march of time.
It must be said, though, that we visit some utterly barmy discos along the way. Oddest of all is ‘Happiness’ with its Junior Senior breakdown – so giddy, it’s easy to miss the bleak message that opens the album: ‘it’s a long way to happiness’.
And while Neil Tennant sneaks bits of himself into all his protagonists, only on closing track ‘Into Thin Air’ does it feel like he’s telling his own story: for four minutes, just like the dictator, he really does want to pack it all in. ‘Too much ugly talking; too many bad politicians’, he sings, perhaps describing the rabble to whom he has dedicated the rest of Super. If we didn’t know a third Stuart Price collaboration was already in the making, it would be tempting – and frightening – to see this as Tennant’s answer to ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the song in which Bowie laid bare his own premature flight schedule.
‘Into Thin Air’ is Super’s bewitching highlight. It has echoes of Relentless, the wistful dance album that came with Very; a flash, too, of the Nightlife dancers’ slackening subjectivity. This is what Robert Miles’s ‘dream house’ should have been in 1996: a lullaby for the ecstatic. After the sugar rush of ‘Say It to Me’ and ‘Burn’, ‘Into Thin Air’ slips calmly, unseen, out of the club. The day is so very young and instead of heading home our hero walks towards the sunrise, his head full of sound and his feet no longer touching the road, while his friends feign concern at their inability to find him in the darkness.
Piggies – The Beatles
We Are the Pigs – Suede
Pigs (Three Different Ones) – Pink Floyd
Maggie’s Farm – The Specials
All Pigs Must Die – Death in June
Stand By Your Ham – Pig Aid
(a 2008 charity song made by pig farmers to raise awareness of high feed prices)
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
Fascist Pig – Suicidal Tendencies
Ham n Eggs – A Tribe Called Quest
Itsu – Plaid
September (accidental) – Matthew Herbert
Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag – Pigbag
Piggy – Nine Inch Nails
Dear Diary, Men Are Pigs – Finally Punk
Pigs in Zen – Jane’s Addiction
Making Bacon – The Pork Dukes
And, of course, Cassetteboy – Getting Piggy With It
This is an edited extract from Smile if you Dare: Politics and Pointy Hats with the Pet Shop Boys, by Ramzy Alwakeel, which will be published by Repeater next year.
Two decades on, there’s something implausible about Very.
The Pet Shop Boys’ fifth album snuck posthumanism and panic sex into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Its arrogant title said: here is our essence; an easy reference point; a convenient definition. But once you probed it, touched its bright orange case with trembling fingers, the conceit started to unravel.
You looked at the sleeve inlay and saw giant eggs, conical hats and beach balls before you spotted any human faces.
Then there was the music. Very didn’t so much showcase the Pet Shop Boys as reinvent them. The 12 career-best songs Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded for the album glinted awkwardly like CGI skyscrapers in the artificial sun for miles – and years – in all directions. Somehow they were too near, or too large.
Even Very’s packaging was curiously oppositional. CD cases were meant to be shop windows, dressed by fancy designers to sell the silver discs’ invisible contents. This one was opaque. To date, the album has been sold in no fewer than seven different sleeves, but Very’s first edition remains one of the most recognisable items in British recorded music history.
Tennant and Lowe were bored of compact discs. Their pocket-sized artwork was a snivelling apology for the glorious 12-inch sleeve it had replaced, its pathetic scaled-down images shielded by flimsy transparent plastic. This was the conundrum they took to Pentagram.
Pentagram, which also designs buildings, gave them an orange box with three-dimensional polka dots on the front. It was a gamble – each of these unusual objects cost the Pet Shop Boys 40p – but Very’s limited edition was a success, rendering the album instantly visible in the racks: a flash of colour among hundreds of anonymous see-through cases.
The album’s vinyl and cassette versions mirrored the relief on the CD cover by arranging tiny photographs of Tennant and Lowe’s heads in the same polka dot pattern. It looked a bit like it was designed for babies, but novelty is sometimes the vehicle for genius.
As it happened, the CD case was an appropriate metaphor for what lay within: Very is rather difficult to miss. It’s a synth-pop obelisk, a wall of sound built from Tetris blocks.
After four smash hit LPs and a multi-platinum singles collection, one could have been forgiven for thinking the Pet Shop Boys had achieved everything, reshaping British pop music and surviving to tell the tale. Their 1990 studio effort, the stately Behaviour, had suggested a band whose members were growing old gracefully as they meditated on absent friends and Shostakovich.
Pop fans aren’t known for their attention spans, so by June 1993 it’s likely Tennant and Lowe’s 26-month absence from the UK top 10 had all but erased them from memory. They’d popped up as guests on a couple of tracks by Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s Electronic project in 1991, and produced a version of ‘The Crying Game’ for Boy George the following year – but in real terms the Pet Shop Boys were already a catalogue act, the stuff of TV retrospectives and pub quizzes.
This made it even more satisfying when Very’s impertinent lead single put them back on Top of the Pops. Rubbing shoulders with Lisa Stansfield, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ was an undercover policeman at a children’s party, its five o’clock shadow an instant giveaway. The song was a blinking night sky of whirring, motion-blurred synthesisers that, even when Tennant started singing, was every bit as unreal as the costumes. In the spaces between orchestra hits, he spun a cautionary tale of humiliation, innuendo and denial while – incredibly – Lowe danced with three women holding cricket bats.
The next few months would see them achieve their only number one album, make a string of iconic videos, and score a career-defining hit with a song someone else had already released.
Excellent and important piece by Adam Harper at the Fader putting some of the most exciting artists currently making music into political context:
It’s no wonder that African and Afrodiasporic artists are choosing to disseminate music in solidarity. In many cases, this creative decision is a strategy for dealing with the alienation that is so often a part of Afrodiasporic experience. As the London-based writer Kodwo Eshun puts it in his 2003 essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism: “the condition of alienation, understood in its most general sense, is a psychosocial inevitability that all Afrodiasporic art uses to its own advantage by creating contexts that encourage a process of disalienation.” And yet in the continuing environment of white supremacy, this creativity is routinely either erased, appropriated, or confined to narrow and fetishized aesthetic areas. The music in this article—which is all linked by the multifarious connective tissues of underground culture (labels, releases, mixes, remixes, songs etc)—is not necessarily of the same belief or aesthetic, but can all be seen as resisting the supremacist paradigm in its many different ways and contexts. Often, it can be seen as exploring the way in which race intersects with gender, sexuality and/or queerness too.
Needless to say, the artists mentioned here aren’t the only African and Afrodiasporic artists making challenging and beautiful music in the underground, just a few constellations—there are countless more voices out there. As it has been for centuries, since the traumatic dawn of modernity, finding such voices through music is not just a leisure activity, as it is marketed to many of us. It’s part of the urgent and fundamental search for self and identity in a world that not only erases that identity, or appropriates it, or predetermines it, or constrains it, or renders it fragmented and ostensibly paradoxical, but that also systematically commits physical violence upon people of that identity. This is why so many artists with minority status end up in underground music—this is why they are underground music. Fortunately, the underground can form spaces and networks where identity matters, is audible, and becomes visible.
Read the full article at The Fader.
#2 in an occasional series of Repeater playlists. Like #1, this is a selection of new & old tracks we’ve been listening to this month, thrown together in a list. More coherent & themed playlists/contributions from authors coming soon…
Sleaford Mods – Faces to Faces
Shura – Just Once (MssngNo remix)
D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Ain’t That Easy
Micachu & The Shapes – Oh Baby
Kurt Weill/Bertold Brecht – The Threepenny Opera (1994 Donmar Warehouse production)
Mr Fingers – Distant Planet
DonMonique – Drown
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Wanna Be Cool
Kyuss – El Rodeo
Koreless – Sun