Tariq Goddard delivers his verdict on Ocean Wisdom’s debut album
For listeners of a certain age, myself for example, who feel all of their forty-one years without yet regarding that as old, there exists an uncontrollable reflex when listening to music made by the very young. A mental registrar of the trail of influences on offer, and then a reluctant dismissal of the end product for being less than their sum. In a terrifying presentiment, or perhaps confirmation, of old age and invalidity, it becomes harder to infer what the purpose of these acts adding so little to what they love is, however blameless they are for having been born “late” in the history of musical evolution. This kind of grand reduction is an easy and cheap exercise: no one can feel venerable about practising it, and as being “positively” disposed to something is usually of no help (and the young don’t care what the fuck you think) the generational conversation dies stillborn in the traps.
Something like the reverse of this happens when encountering Chaos 93, the debut album of Brighton rapper, Ocean Wisdom. Spotting the influences is a delayed afterthought, mainly because the music is too arresting and immersive to bother doing so, and partly as where they are audible there is nothing derivative or hand-me-down about their employment. Traditionally British hip-hop has experienced many modifications, and has been at its most popular when transformed, or put at the service of another genre, be it Trip-Hop or Grime. Often playing it completely straight has drawn unflattering comparisons to the States, beginning with Derek B (LL Cool J adapted for laughs) and even the more credible Hijack (whose first album was produced by Ice T’s Rhyme Syndicate). Sharing a language with America, and rapping in it, meant there was never going to be a short cut to establishing a homegrown identity. Ocean’s trajectory, however, owes plenty to those who have tried, moving through Rodney P, Skinnyman, Roots Manuva, and his contemporaries on High Focus, a British equivalent of Def Jux, who, like that label, mentor the sort of boundary pushing hip-hop that musically and lyrically can end up anywhere.
As with his label mates Dead Players and Dirty Dike, who produces and guests on the album, Ocean combines the whispered introspection of Trip-Hop, with the speed and severity of Grime, embracing a similar Pound-Land realist approach to his subject matter. His is a lyrical universe that has emerged under the shadow of Sports Direct and reduced expectation aspiration, where Park and Ride is the new public space, and Red Bull and Vodka the refined drink of choice. Here hip-hop’s traditional braggadocio is deliberately undermined by shrill jackdaw mockery and relentless sarcasm, this is hip-hop that takes the piss. While the form is often faithful to the canon, there are cheeky nods to NWA and Dre, they’re inhabitants of a parallel universe, the weight of history all but thrown off as Ocean chatters away with confident invention, his caustic observations sharing more with The Sleaford Mods or Mark E Smith, than Jay Z and Nas.
As a rapper Ocean revels in busy and wordy compressed rhymes, flaunting his jerky erudition and quick intelligence, ‘watch me pitta pasta to different parts of a written pattern/plus alliteration a wicked blag for a sicker stanza’, while inverting the genres usual tropes, ‘fuck bench pressing, I cover my food in french dressing’ in obedience to its basic one: keeping it real. The verbal hyperactivity is deliberately out of step with the backing, which is mostly minimal, spooky and spare, the mixture of speed and space weirdly hypnotic, nowhere more so than when the music slows to an orchestral crawl. The sprawling exercise in thinking aloud that is “Heskey”, which seems to be about a kind of motorway-ennui, and not the giant striker who kept Robbie Fowler out of Liverpool’s starting eleven, is so unusual that Ocean leaves all comparisons behind.
In a year where the new isn’t always original, and the truly original not always likely to be popular, with two musical legends dead, and the pressure on those who still live to be interesting enough to deserve to, Chaos 93 is vital work in a maturing genre by a young talent, which should be as gripping a listen for those who know they’ll love it, as it is necessary for those who think they won’t.
Tariq Goddard is a British novelist and co-founder of Repeater Books.
Inspired by Matmos’ brilliant new album and live show, Ultimate Care II—made entirely from sounds created by and with their Whirlpool washing machine—we made a mini playlist of songs using or inspired by all things laundry-related.
(Hear all the tracks plus excellent suggestions from Twitter on a Youtube playlist here.)
- MATMOS Ultimate Care II
Matmos have brought the machine they used to make the album on tour with them.
2. Vivien Goldman – Launderette
From post-punk/new-wave pioneer Goldman’s 1981 EP, Dirty Laundry. The EP had Adrian Sherwood, Robert Wyatt and John Lydon on the production credits, (although apparently Lydon’s credit is down to allowing the EP to be recorded on the sly during PiL’s sessions for the Flower Of Romance album (source) )
3. Sonic Youth – Washing Machine
Very pleased to have been reminded of this ace 1995 album. 20 minute wig out, The Diamond Sea, sounds like it could conceivably have washing machine sounds in it, but couldn’t verify this so went for the obvious choice.
(Trivia: before this album’s release the band had been considering changing their name to Washing Machine, thanks wikipedia)
4. Petwo Evans – Tumble
Petwo Evans make polyrhythmic club music often using found objects for percussion. This track features Rich Thair’s drumming on the inside of an old tumble dryer.
5. Kate Bush – Mrs Bartolozzi
Brilliant character/concept track from Kate Bush’s 2005 comeback album, Aerial. Widely reported as being “about a washing machine”, when asked about it on Radio 2 Kate Bush set the interviewer straight:
“Is it a song about a washing machine? I think it’s a song about Mrs. Bartolozzi. She’s this lady in the song who…does a lot of washing! (Laughs) It’s not me, but I wouldn’t have written the song if I didn’t spend a lot of time doing washing. It’s fictitious. As soon as you have a child, the washing suddenly increases.
What I like is that a lot of people think this song is funny, I think that’s great, but, actually I think this is one of the heaviest songs I’ve ever written! (Laughs)
I like the idea of clothes, they are very interesting things aren’t they, because they say such an enormous amount about the person who wears them, they have a little bit of that person all over them, Skin Cells. What you wear says a lot about who you are and who you think you are. I think clothes, in themselves are very interesting. It’s the idea of this woman, who’s kind of sitting there, looking at all the washing go round and she’s got this new washing machine, and the idea of these clothes, sort of tumbling around in the water, and then the water becomes the sea. The clothes and the sea…
I just thought it was just an interesting idea to play with, what I wanted to get was this sense of this journey, where you’re sitting in front of this washing machine and then, almost as if in a daydream, you’re suddenly standing in the sea.” (source)
6. Neal Howard – Indulge
This last one is a little tenuous but included because a) it’s an absolute banger and b) it featured on Network Records classic 1990 Bio Rhythm compilation (Dance Music With Bleeps), which contained in the sleeve notes a brilliant and almost definitely imagined history of a Sheffield micro rave scene based in launderettes
Update: As pointed out by @skeuomorphology on twitter, the Mr Fingers track mentioned in the sleeve notes is very real and also a ? certified banger
7. Mr Fingers – Washing Machine
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” – C.S.Lewis, A Grief Observed
Of course, what you mourn at first, is yourself. Too soon to reassure myself by recounting Prince’s importance, or his place in the canon, too soon to contextualise something that feels like a personal attack, by death, upon your reason. Right now, things are a little too raw because what you recount when you hear this kind of news isn’t just the person you never met, who you’ve lost – you recall the people who you’ve been with, the nights when he saved you and the mornings he woke you, that first flush of first love when Around The World In A Day tangled you to sleep nightly for a year, the kids you lullabied with those songs, the person you were when those songs first kept you intact and kept you alive. This isn’t about adding up marks, checking the legacy, nailing anything – rather you apprehend just how concretely and spectrally someone’s art can inhabit your life, your everyday – not just soundtracking it but dwelling with you, in your kitchen and your bedroom and your living room, colouring things, taking your hand, lifting you up. You recall, with the habitual focus of an adult, times and places and specifics but more evocatively you remember how your senses flared, your synapses sparked, how prior to your current deadening you were still so up for grabs, there to be made. You recall hope seen through tears, pictures you played on a constant mind-reel, sounds that are now cellular, inside you, part of your own unique visceral balance between idealism and despair. What you’re mourning is yourself. Because you wouldn’t be yourself without him. From the off, he was too much to simply apportion affection to. He was a burning bright filament of your animus that has now been extinguished. This isn’t over-reaction. This is what music can do.
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