What's It All About, Marky?
Having been out of the UK for a few months, I find myself slightly out of the cultural loop as well. All talk is of the Hutton Enquiry and the Atkins Diet, but I'm not sure whether the New Labour hegemony is at more risk from the dead doctor who talked too freely to the BBC, or the dead doctor who saw evil in potatoes. 'I want my pie!' bawls Prescott as, one by one, his colleagues join the Scientologists of Lo-Carb. I'm also dimly aware that Big Brother was won by an extra from The Wicker Man, and that S Club Juniors now have a new name, and breasts.
This is all, depressingly, significant, because specific references are now all we have. The academics call it intertextuality, where the resonance of a text (be it prose, film, song, whatever) depends on the consumer recognising references to another text. The age when big universal themes - revenge, ambition, jealousy - could function as the engine for big stories is dead. For example, Donnie Darko, despite its calculated appeal to the nu-Goth mentality, isn't about tortured adolescence, or psychosis, or time travel, or the Messiah. It's about Heathers and E.T. and Twin Peaks. The only theme that counts now is the theme from a 70s TV show, 'amusingly' updated for the big budget remake by some twat in baggy shorts.
It was Paul Morley, of course, who crippled my head with all this stuff, who taught Postmodernism 101 in the pages of the glory-days NME and the much-missed Blitz magazine. It was Morley who taught me to (ab)use words like 'signifier' and 'metafiction', and, just as significantly, to understand why ABC were better than Heaven 17. So, on a recent, brief, dazed, return to London, it was piquant that Morley's Words And Music was in the goodie pile awaiting me. The irony was that I was a dislocated outsider again, as I had been before I first read Morley - but this time it wasn't that I needed Morley to explain the terrain to me. This time, his book was part of the terrain that I didn't know, along with the other books, music, films that hadn't made it to Bangkok. I'd read Rupert Loydell's review of it on tangents weeks before I saw the bloody thing myself.
For those of you even further behind the (yuk) Zeitgeist than I am, Words and Music has as its conceit that Kylie Minogue is driving to a mythical City Of Pop. On the way she picks up such unlikely hitchhikers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philip Glass, Kraftwerk, and the author himself, who wants to ghostwrite her autobiography. In the gaps in the narrative, Morley provides us with endless chronologies, links and lists that display his eclectic erudition (or at least his ability to use Google). The lists (99 people who might reasonably be suspected of coming up with the phrase 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture', 17 songs on the soundtrack of the movie Elvis Presley made in 2001(!), endless riffs on the 100 best albums of all time) are clearly designed to make Nick Hornby shit his pants. However, Morley doesn't expect us to be able to hum along with all the records on his list: 'if you're aware of at least twenty per cent of the following', he confides, 'then you are reading the right book.' It's an inclusive welcome to his exclusive world, and is made even more inviting by his admission that he's not even sure if he's got a copy of Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room, the key record in the book, alongside Kylie's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head'. Or if he's ever actually heard it. Or if it even exists.
It wasn't a conscious act of preciousness that dictated I read much of Morley's account of a mythical journey while on a real journey (namely my flight back to Thailand). Kylie wasn't piloting this one, but my neighbour was a similarly short and blonde Australian, who took advantage of the wonders of seatback entertainment by watching Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, then a Robbie Williams gig, then the inside of her own eyelids.
I can't really take the aesthetic high ground, though, because the first thing I watched, as it hovered over the scalp of the bloke in front, was the much-dreaded remake of The Italian Job, with Mark Wahlberg, a man whose past is so embarrassing that he apparently makes bad film after bad film to deflect our attention. The Italian Job is a perfect inflight movie, because nobody in his or her right mind would want to pay good money to watch it in the cinema, but everybody wants to see it so they can have an opinion on how bad, or not, it might be. Call it the Gigli Paradox. In fact, in the months before its UK release, the broadsheets were full of pundits arguing that, far from the remake being a sacrilegious assault on an icon of British culture, it was an improvement. The original Italian Job was xenophobic, racist ('notice that it's the black guy who gets the truck into trouble' said about seven different writers, each smugly confident of the uniqueness of their own irrelevant observation) and had Benny Hill in. In an effort to be original, not only did they all ape each other, but they just rewrote their own comments about the remake of Ocean's Eleven a couple of years before.
Of course, as I half-watched the movie, I was also half-reading the Morley book. At the same time I half-remembered the producer had said that he wanted to do the remake for the benefit of people who hadn't seen the original. Armed with this infinitely puzzling artistic credo, as well as Morley's get-out-of-Foucault's-dungeon-free card (ie 'you don't need to have read/heard/seen it to have an opinion on it'), I tried to watch with the perspective of someone who has not only not seen the original, but also doesn't know that it's on telly every few months, and also doesn't know the way to his local DVD shop. By this point I'd got myself into a state of such cerebral inertia that I almost wanted to watch the Robbie Williams gig, so I skimmed a few more pages of Morley, and watched with my brain switched back on. And I was utterly confused, because, of course, The Italian Job isn't a remake of The Italian Job any more than Justin Timberlake's 'Cry Me A River' is a remake of Julie London's. The makers of the new movie carry over nothing but the title, two character names, some Minis, and a bit where a van falls into a lake (which of course didn't happen in the original, but you get my point, unless you haven't seen the original, in which case you're the sort of person the producer was thinking of when he decided to make this film, congratulations, you have won acting lessons from Charlize Theron, and/or a signed album by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch).
In purely practical terms, I wondered how much the producers of the new film paid the producers of the old film, when they obviously had no intention of remaking the bloody thing in the first place. It takes postmodernism to a new level - actually claiming to be recycling another cultural artefact, and, presumably, paying the going rate, when you're doing nothing of the sort. One of the running jokes in the movie is a geek character who claims to have invented Napster, and then seen his former roommate make millions from the idea. The crazy thing is that The Italian Job is the anti-Napster, in doesn't download the track, but coughs up anyway. Lars Ulrich must have a new best friend.
These are the thoughts that buzzed around as the closing credits rolled. I chewed politely on Qantas's amusingly glue-like gnocchi and then listened to Phantom Power by the Super Furry Animals.
(Actually, I didn't, because Qantas are a bit iffy about you using your own electronic equipment these days, and I'd left my new CDs in my suitcase anyway. But, by the same token, Morley creates scenarios to keep his narrative going, whether it's inventing a tattoo on Kylie's neck, or quoting chunks from non-existent books that he claims to have written. So, for the purposes of this discourse, after I watched The Italian Job I played a few games of backgammon with Henry Kissinger, cha-cha'd louchely with PJ Harvey and helped, oh, I dunno, St Francis of Assisi with a few clues in the Guardian crossword. Then I listened to Phantom Power by the Super Furry Animals.)
I was as ill informed about Phantom Power as I was about the Morley book. I'd read a few online reviews that rearranged the words 'Beach Boys', 'psychedelic' and 'Welsh' to no particular purpose (pages 242-248 of Morley's book comprise dozens of phrases that all begin 'As Welsh as...'), so I got the idea it was going to be, um, a Super Furry Animals album. And yes, it's comfortingly Wilsonian, and druggy, and, OK, Welsh. But I wasn't prepared for the merciless plagiarism. 'Golden Retriever' melds Canned Heat's 'On The Road Again' with 'Spirit In The Sky' (pick your definitive version according to age and inclination). 'Slow Life' is 'Coffee & TV' with a brief interjection from 'Honky Tonk Women'-era Charlie Watts. And the Bee Gees' 'To Love Somebody' comes up for air in the form of 'The Undefeated'. I also discovered from the sleevenotes that Eddie Thornton (who was in Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, and also turns up on Revolver) plays trumpet on that track. And then I wondered if I was supposed to notice that. Was Thornton picked because he's a good trumpeter? Or because he can sprinkle a bit of Beatley retro-dust over the proceedings? But surely, for most people who buy Phantom Power, Revolver is ancient history. 'We wanted to make a very oblique reference to a 37-year album for the benefit of people who hadn't heard the original,' said the producer. Well, something like that. So, if we're really sussing out the references, where this album comes from and where it's going (and Morley devotes pages to these journeys, where Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music is the missing link between Varese and the Aphex Twin, and David Byrne is the missing link between Black Uhuru and the Thievery Corporation, and why, if you like Captain Beefheart, you will, by a process of counterintuitive logic, also like Steps) then Phantom Power by Super Furry Animals is about, ho hum, the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the Bee Gees. With bits of drugs and Welshness thrown in.
This is presuming that the listener can recognise the bits of the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the Bee Gees that Super Furry Animals deploy. Do listeners still recognise the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the Bee Gees, or are they just recognising the High Llamas and Oasis and Boyzone, and they've picked up enough background knowledge to know that, supposedly, the High Llamas and Oasis and Boyzone sound a bit Beach Boysy or Beatlesy or Bee Geesy? In the early 80s, when IPC allowed people like Morley and Ian Penman to be clever without apologising, half the bands in the NME claimed to owe some sort of allegiance to the Velvet Underground. I still wonder how many of them had actually heard the Velvets, and how many of them only knew the Velvets' grumpy simulacra, Joy Division or the Bunnymen. And I'll bet one or two of the journalists were in the same boat. Ditto Big Star - when someone next tells you that something sound Chiltonesque, put the thumbscrews on. It's a pretty good bet that he's only ever heard Teenage Fanclub, and read once that they sound like Big Star.
Of course, music journalism today is one of the few jobs where a detailed background knowledge of the subject - like having heard the Velvets or Big Star or even the Beatles - is often a disadvantage. When an editor can order that the words 'Otis Redding' must be suffixed with the explanation '(dead 60s soul singer)' this is probably a sensible state of affairs - a pop hack who knows too much about Life Before MTV might suffer untold psychic trauma under such conditions. This actually creates a win-win situation for creators of musical product, especially because the consumers of said product are just as moronic as the journalists, if not more so. They can either make a barefaced assertion of originality - a cover version is no longer a cover version if nobody's heard the original - or they're able to set the agenda by explaining, in their own terms, what the product sounds like, what it refers to, what the influences are, what it's about. A shaky grasp of musical history might well be a prerequisite for a job as an album reviewer, but the hacks don't want the readers to know that. To fill in the gap (between what the writer knows and what he wants you to think he knows) is now the job of the real creative force in the whole transaction, the person who writes the press release. I don't have the release that came with Phantom Power, but I strongly suspect that it gave highlights of Eddie Thornton's illustrious career, and those of trombonist Rico Rodriguez (Specials, Skatalites) and mixer Mario Caldato Jr (Beastie Boys). And I also bet that no freshly aware reviewer admitted that he hadn't known these nuggets already.
Indeed, what would it be like if a reviewer admitted that he was as uninformed as his reader, that his only advantage in the intellectual food chain is that he's got a promo copy of the album, and you haven't? I've seen this demonstrated only once, in a magazine published by Coventry University Students Union. The record under consideration was a tribute to Gary Numan, and the reviewer admitted that he'd never knowingly heard a Gary Numan track, and that until he received this album he wasn't entirely sure who Gary Numan was.
Maybe we can try this trick with the next album that I listened to (or didn't - see above). It's the reissue of The Magick Fire Music and Wow! by Jackie-O Motherfucker on All Tomorrows Parties Recordings. My knowledge of JOMF before I received this from the press people consists of the following:
They were on the cover of The Wire a few months ago.
They provoked an amusingly unfair review in Careless Talk Costs Lives, which argued that they're shit because their name sounds as if they should sound really raucous and violent, but they're actually rather quiet.
(I can get away with this, remember, because Morley says I only need to know twenty per cent of what I write about. I'm well in credit at the moment.)
This time, however, I had the precious press release. It told me that the albums were originally released in 2001, are now 'almost impossible to get hold of' (hint: imply that you already own them) and the double reissue is 'an essential document for fans of Sonic Youth, Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor!' A cursory listen suggests that the Godspeed reference is pretty fair, from the little I've heard of them. Ditto Mogwai. The Sonic Youth does strike me as a little odd, although there's some pretty intense saxophone abuse on several tracks, which vaguely reminds me of a track on SY's Murray Street album. The saxes on that were provided by members of a band called Borbetomagus, and I've never heard anything by them, but I suspect that if this is the only connection, then JOMF sound more like Borbetomagus than they sound like Sonic Youth. Then I notice, again from the release, that The Magick Fire Music was originally released on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label. Thurston Moore is in Sonic Youth. Whether that makes this 'an essential document' to fans of Mr Moore's band is questionable. In fact, if I didn't have the press release, and needed to describe what The Magick Fire Music and Wow! by Jackie-O Motherfucker are about, I'd say that the whole thing sounds like the Doors in that sort-of-tuning-up mode at the beginning of 'The End'. Perhaps Mark Wahlberg will star in a remake of Apocalypse Now, for the benefit of people who haven't seen the original.
Incidentally, I notice that, on page 342, Morley mentions a record called Jackie-O Motherfucker by someone or something called Liberation. This strikes me as a bit fishy I consult the plane's onboard copy of the Encyclopedia Of Popular Music (although in the parallel universe of mundane reality I wait until I get back to Bangkok and look it up on the internet). Sure enough, in 2001 Jackie-O Motherfucker released an album called Liberation. Morley has made a mistake. Or, to put it in his own terms, he's expressing a healthy wariness of what we bourgeois drones might slavishly worship as 'reality', and this is only befitting a hip young gunslinger with the Baudrillard posse. This doubtless also explains why he manages to mis-spell the names of Spiritualized, m-Ziq, Ronnie Lane, Windy & Carl, the sociologist Dick Hebdige, and the avant-garde composer Charlemagne Palestine. And Detroit. That's the city of course. And get Kylie's birthday wrong. Or maybe he's only checked twenty per cent of his facts.
Slightly narked with Mr Morley by now, since he's forced me to put on my trainspotter's cagoule, I lay down his book and summon up another movie. And, in fine po-mo style, we have Down With Love, starring someone who was in Velvet Goldmine and someone who's going out with him off the White Stripes. Which is about the limit of this movie's rock īn' roll credentials, because Down With Love is, of course, a homage (or even an hommage, which is somehow better) to all those daft Doris Day movies from the early 60s that you watch on BBC2 on Tuesday afternoons when you're ill. The weird thing is, that although it doesn't claim to be a remake of any movie in particular, Down With Love has more specific references to Pillow Talk, Doris's first film with Rock Hudson, than The Italian Job has to its own supposed predecessor. So we get the saucy split-screen shenanigans, the stylised New York, the astonishing frocks, the city slicker pretending to be a hick so he can get his oats, even a cameo from Tony Randall, who played Rock's best buddy in the original. The references become even more ingrown when we reach the scene where aspersions are made about a male character's sexuality. In Pillow Talk, it was the Rock Hudson character who, for convoluted reasons, implied to the Doris Day character that he was not as other men are. The irony of course, which didn't become obvious for about 25 years, was that the real Rock's ladykiller attitude actually was a sham after all. In Down With Love, the allegation is made not about Ewan McGregor, playing the Hudson role, but about David Hyde Pierce, filling in for Tony Randall. In the real world, McGregor is a happily married dad. In that same world, Hyde Pierce is a confirmed bachelor with a longterm male flatmate. The irony is redoubled because in the midst of an ironic pastiche, there's a reference to an original that was (ulp!) more ironic in the first place. Maybe this is for the benefit of people who haven't seen the original, or who don't know that Rock Hudson was gay, or who Rock Hudson was, or Doris Day for that matter. Or for the benefit of people who've had it up to the sinuses with fucking irony.
You see, by now I was getting a bit drowsy, and I'd actually started to enjoy the movie without really thinking what it was about, or what it referred to, or what the signifiers or the simulacra or the intertextual metanarratives were. In fact, with the aid of a large vodka and some industrial-strength antihistamines I'd got myself into the intellectual state of blissed-out acceptance that probably resembles how I was before I'd even heard of Paul Morley. To be more precise, I'd got myself into the state that hates, even fears smartarse, ironic, oblique reviewers like Morley and Penman and Marcus and Bangs and Savage and Kopf and all their weird-looking children who read too many books and prefer Doris Day to Charlize Theron. As I drifted away, the weight of the gnocchi dragging me down towards unconsciousness, I suddenly felt in need of the sort of criticism pioneered by Q magazine, the sort that tells you what a record sounds like, gives it marks out of five, and allows you plenty of time to do what's important. Like going to see the latest Mark Wahlberg movie at your nearest out-of-town multiplex, because you really enjoyed Planet Of The Apes, didn't you?
So, throwing all cleverness and irony and postmodernism and about-ness into the Qantas sickbag, for the benefit of people who haven't seen/heard/read the following (or the originals), Down With Love is quite fun, Phantom Power has lots of harmonies, the Jackie-O Motherfucker reissues have lots of saxophones gone a bit wrong, and The Italian Job is pretty shit really. Oh, and the Paul Morley book has a lot of mistakes, but that's OK, because Paul Morley says so, sort of.
© 2003Tim Footman