|MOMENTS AND WHATNOTS
Reality check. Brechtian perspective games at 3:14 on Air’s ‘Radio #1’
One of the never-ending conceptual battles in popular
music is over notions of ‘authenticity’. Having broken away from the neurotic
obsession that Western classical music has for technical accuracy, the musics
that have spawned from the miscegenation of American jazz, blues and country
seem to be more concerned with keeping it real than with playing all the right
notes in the right order.
Sometimes this is about authenticity as an essence. To be ‘real’, a performer needs to be black, not white; poor, not rich; indie, not corporate; analogue, not digital; Mississippi Delta, not Merton Park. Everyone from John Lennon to Puff Daddy tries to brush away any suggestion of a middle-class upbringing. The talking point about Arctic Monkeys is less about how good or bad they are, more about whether their extraordinary success has been as accidental and organic as they make out.
But it also appears in the music itself. Bum notes are a badge of honour, unless you’re into the dextrous but vacuous fret-frotting of someone like Yngwie Malmsteen; and you’re not, or you wouldn’t be here. Acts from the Beach Boys to the Moldy Peaches have made a virtue of keeping extraneous studio noise in their recordings; it’s a little something for the fans, a bit like the blooper reels that run alongside the credits in Jackie Chan movies.
The interesting development is the point at which the accidental becomes artificial. There’s an obvious example at the beginning of one of Elvis Presley’s Sun sides, ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’, where Presley starts singing in a hokey, Western swing style, then stops the band and says, “Hold it, fellas, that don't move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change.” And of course, they do, but you can hear why Elvis was never taken seriously as an actor.
If I can slip into drama student mode for a paragraph, it’s what Brecht called Verfremdungseffekt; temporarily stepping out of character, to remind the audience that what they’re watching is an artifice. Think of the bit at the end of Pretty In Pink where Ducky’s being eyed up by the hot babe at the prom, and he looks at the camera as if to gloat at us. But, of course, the ‘stepping out’ is just as much an artifice as anything else. It’s the difference between an actress performing in a soap, and giving an interview to Heat. They are different unrealities that inform each other.
Jesus, 400 words gone, and I haven’t started talking about the record yet. (Do you see what I did there? And, oops, there he goes again.)
‘Radio #1’ is on Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend, the one with the prog rock cover and the mixed critical reputation. It’s a sluggish, druggish, '70s-style slab of analogue synths and harmonised vox (by Jason Falkner) that starts with that old standby, wiggling radio dials finally settling on the right station. It’s fake of course, and you know it, and even The Carpenters did it it (on ‘Calling Occupants…’). In fact, it’s such a cliché that you forget about it. Until, that is, there’s an instrumental break (Fender Rhodes electric piano, I reckon; told you it was '70s) and some bloke starts singing along with the song. It’s definitely not a new bit of backing vocals; this voice sounds closer, clearer, nearer. It’s only when this other voice arrives, tunelessly warbling the title refrain, that we remember what we were hearing is fake, constructed, an artefact. Two French blokes went into a studio with some mates, and put it together.
So who is this guy? I’m not after the singer’s name; I just want to know who he is within the context of the record (as distinct from the song, which he’s outside). I’m after the character’s name, not the actor. When I first heard it, I thought he was a bad DJ, talking over the playout, the way Bruno Brookes used to do. Then I thought he was someone listening to the song on the radio, the one who’d been twiddling between stations at the beginning. Now, I think it’s probably just some bloke who happens to be in the studio. A friend of the drummer, maybe.
Whoever he is, his sudden appearance at 3:14 reminds us that, in pop music, whether you’re Air or Elvis, there’s no such thing as authenticity after all.
© TIM FOOTMAN 2006