Posts Tagged Gibberish
Of late I have become pretty much completely obsessed with Roxy Music. In the absence of the will or ability to write anything meaningful about them, and in particular Bryan Ferry, (yet), here’s a superb clip of them performing Virginia Plain on Top of the Pops in 1972.
It’s played at a slightly slower tempo than the studio version, making it a little easier to hear (if not necessarily understand) Ferry’s lyrics (“Havana sound we’re trying / Hard edge the hipster jiving, woah / Last picture shows down the drive-in” anyone? Anyone?).
What’s particularly noticeable is an in-cred-ible visual performance by Ferry. Here’s the video:
Do you ever get that odd sensation when you suddenly become aware that, for a while, you’ve been aware of something without really realising it?
Right, just me then.
Anyway, this happened to me most recently with The Artist and particularly its lead actor, Jean Dujardin. Over the last six months or so I’ve been (mostly subliminally) picking up bits and pieces about the film, and had this nagging feeling that I knew Dujardin (by name at least) from somewhere.
If you rewind about 13 years, you’ll find me in a small flat in a small town in France going through what, in hindsight, was somewhere between acute home-sickness and a mild borderline nervous breakdown, induced by a strange kind of loneliness, shyness, and inertia. I am of course making far more of this than I should, but I was very stranded in a very small town, and, with too much time on my hands, and most of that spent on my own, I turned a little eccentric. But not even in a particularly good way, I just did things like buying a house plant and naming it after France’s most recognised living cultural icon. Despite being a student at the time, there wasn’t even any smugly self-conscious ‘irony’ about this. It was genuine. Fucking hell, I’ve just remembered that before I left France I actually planted ‘Johnny’ somewhere where I thought he/it would get plenty of sunshine and rain (I don’t know whether the correct response to that sudden, unexpected memory is to blush, laugh, cry, or shudder. So I just did a bit of all four).
A couple of years later, my Mum breezily said “we did wonder if you were ok” which is my Mum’s way of saying “we thought you might have been going batshit mental”. Thing is, this was before the internet was anything like embedded in everyday life, so Christ knows what I would have been like with the facility to easily and, essentially, freely document my thoughts and ruminations at the time. Frankly, I’m quite relieved about that. Can you imagine?
So, yes, I spent a lot of time doing not very much, and a good portion of that was spent watching TV. Now, to be fair, I genuinely consider TV to be a cultural boon, and being isolated (etc etc yawn whinge whine) it was a brilliant way of exposing myself to something approaching the French way of life (much better than, say, going to a bar, buying a beer or two and saying a simple bonsoir to the locals).
In all the many, many hours of watching French TV, a favourite of mine was Un gars et une fille (A Guy and a Girl), a series of slices (dare I say vignettes? I do) of domestic life which I saw from its very first episode. Imagine a French version of Men Behaving Badly, with just one couple, without the god-awful laddish elements, and with a surprising amount of slightly-clichéd charm. Anyway, its two stars were future spouses (in hindsight, this seems inevitable) Alexandra Lamy and, yes, Jean Dujardin. And 13 years later, out of nowhere (from this uninformed idiot’s perspective, anyway), Dujardin has won an Oscar. Fair to say I didn’t see that one coming (Johnny the house plant may have done, but I could never tell what he was thinking. Inscrutable, you see).
I find it almost painful to watch these back; it reinforces my habit of allowing myself to act and think as if places and people don’t change when I leave them (for example, ex-colleagues’ children are, in my mind, the exact same age now as when we stopped working together five or more years ago). And so if I’m not careful France, to me, is still a place where they’re about to switch from one currency to another, where male politicians carry on like rutting chimps, and where the party of the extreme right is led by a bigoted fool by the name of Le Pen.
In effect, I’m instantly taken back to the time in question, and want to tell myself to get a grip, and get out of the flat.
And to stop watering that bloody plant.
I’m not sure there’s anything massively original or unique about The Hives, whether it’s their cartoonish character names, their heavily stylised looks, or the lead singer’s Mick Jagger mannerisms.
But instead of being a loose collection of dull clichés, they pitch their monochrome image, their furious, thrashy sound, and their tongue-in.cheek/so-serious-it-hurts anti-establishment lyrics in just the right way to create something loud, funny, and brilliantly, strangely joyful.
The songs are both throwaway and long-lasting, the titles alone – Die, All Right!; A.K.A I-D-I-O-T; The Hives Are Law, You Are Crime; Dead Quote Olympics – demanding attention.
They also have an interestingly contrived back story; namely that a recluse, Randy Fitzsimmons, summoned all five of them individually by letter to form the band, subsequently writing their songs for them and remaining behind the scenes. The inconvenient fact that ‘Randy Fitzsimmons’ is an officially-registered pseudonym of Nicholaus Arson’s is (a) just a means for Arson to collect Fitzsimmons’ royalty cheques on his behalf (of course), and/or (b) ignoring the fact that Arson probably isn’t his family name in the first place, and/or (c) taking all this far too seriously.
And so Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist screams his way through a range of generally disenfranchised, occasionally unintelligible lyrics (mangling their delivery as required: “This time you really got something, it’s such a clever idea / But it doesn’t mean it’s good because you found it at the liba-ra-ria“), almost unfailingly backed by machine gun percussion and jackhammer guitars.
Other songs to lock yourself in a small room with and listen loudly to are Diabolic Scheme (with its jarring, discordant strings), Antidote (“You want antidote / I got the poison” seeming to sum them up pretty well), Tick Tick Boom, and Abra Cadaver: I initially mis-heard the lyrics as “They tried to stick-a Dave Bowie inside-a me”, which I thought was taking the Jagger thing a bit too far.
What I’m trying to do, and I don’t like the jargon, is to ‘square the circle’
Sadly for all concerned, the return date of 1st September has turned out to be more of a fulfilled promise than an empty threat. Still, summer’s officially over, kids’ll be back at school soon, and the winter frost has killed a blackbird in the back garden (maybe), so what else is there?
Are we ready? Let’s do this.
But before we do do this, here’s Tony. This was his unique way of asking me if I’d had a good bank holiday weekend:
So, did you have some good social interaction?
I’m beginning to think he may have killed.
If Air achieved huge success with the ambient, relaxed, soothing Moon Safari (or “Smug Aspirational Property Show Original Soundtrack” as it is surely known within the BBC and Channel 4), they unleashed a rather different vibe on an unsuspecting audience with 2001′s 10,000 Hz Legend.
I can’t claim to love this album, and I can’t claim that it’s an all-time great, but it manages to both possess and obsess me at times. It paints an aural picture of a world which is bleak, alien, robotic, cold, and touched by ghosts, but at the same time unsettlingly familiar and comfortable. This could represent 20th century fin de siècle ennui, it could reflect my latent misanthropy, or it could just be the inevitable consequence of locking a couple of talented, arty Frenchmen away in a recording studio with a frankly obscene amount of electronic equipment.
Basically, the whole thing is weird, but in an electronic, Gallic, slightly bleak, slightly pretentious way. Which I like.
The openers, Electronic Performers and How Does It Make You Feel? set the tone with otherworldly mixes of swiping percussion, piano, keyboards, disembodied lyrics, and chain-smoking computers. Radian continues in a similar vein, ghostly and pulsating, before unexpectedly going all pleasantly flutey, while Don’t Be Light buzzes in a cheery, perky, schizophrenic kind of way.
My personal highlight is People In The City, which I’m certain is a story of daily city life being torn asunder by a nuclear apocalypse. At least, that’s the story it seems to tell me at 3 in the morning.
In France, the comic book – or “la BD”, for ‘bande dessinée’ – is considered a proper art-form in its own right. Think Manga, but without the violence or inherent cultural barriers.
Anyway. I bloody love Asterix. The story of a small village of indomitable Gauls defying the onwards march of Caesar and his men, this series of books is about the only reason I know anything about the Roman Empire, the classification of its army’s ranks, and its numerals. Illustrated by Albert Uderzo and written by René Goscinny (until his death in 1977 when Uderzo took on both roles), it’s funny, cheery, and fundamentally optimistic stuff (they do say opposites attract).
My favourite example of the wit underpinning much of the series is the way that Asterix’s dog, Idéfix (or ‘fixed ideas’) in the original French books, is translated to become Dogmatix in English. I don’t know how much Goscinny or Uderzo were involved in the translations, and I don’t care. In either language, the linguistic brilliance shines through.
It also contains dozens of brilliant, playful stereotypes of different nationalities and we’re going to learn a little more about these stereotypes over what I suspect will evolve into a small handful of theme weeks.
A quick disclaimer – I don’t have one of them new-fangled scanning dohickeys so the following pictures are the result of using a good old-fashioned (ahem, digital…) camera, and as such aren’t always the best quality. The illustration and writing, however, always are.
A small taster. While not particularly addresing any national stereotypes (apart from the fundamental, ongoing ineptitude and cowardice of the Romans), I do like Obelix & Co., where Obelix becomes a business man. His untrustworthy mentor buries him in business jargon. When I first read this, probably around the age of 10, I thought this stuff was gibberish. Nowadays, sadly, I find it easily understandable, and on a very bad day may even slip into it myself.
I don’t like to subscribe to the “of course, I really like their older stuff” school of music appreciation; no matter how genuine or well-intentioned, you can’t help but come across as sounding like a bit of a purist snob. That said, I happily recognise that so often a band’s earliest recordings are among its most vibrant, vital material (who was it once said “you get 21 years to write your first album, 18 months for the next”?), and that there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as opening with a bold statement of intent.
I took this theory to a logical extreme when reflecting on the first three songs of the first album from British Sea Power (yes, them again, sorry to surprise), The Decline Of British Sea Power.
It opens with Men Together Today*, 40 seconds of Gregorian Monk-esque harmonies: however this track is intended, it manages to disarm the listener of pretty much all their pre-conceptions of what this reputed post-punk/indie/art-rock band are supposed to be about.
* this somewhat bizarre video also has Apologies to Insect Life on it – for a much more authentically bizarre video to accompany that song, please see below.
Apologies to Insect Life then takes over, its creeping bass and drums giving way to jagged, self-consciously messy guitars and lyrics which barely tumble out of Yan’s mouth in time before moving on to the next line (and which appear to contemplate Fyodor Dostoyevsky, infection-ridden prostitutes, and cruelty to insects. Naturally).
A discordant squall of noise joins Apologies to Insect Life to Favours In The Beetroot Fields, which, somehow manages to be even more breakneck and breathless than its predecessor. BSP’s periodic allusions to the military are manifest here, with talk of a “little Caesar” taking on the world and breaking all records (the title itself referring to the rumoured extra-curricular activities of soliders serving under Field Marshall Montgomery in the British Army and the local working girls).
Most intriguingly for me is the line “The universe is a record of everything you see and do”, which appeals to the most arty-farty element of my brain, in terms of the nature of ‘reality’, its social construction, and the multiple perceptions thereof (I find myself musing on these issues in a work context quite often, which, on reflection, may explain quite a lot of my ‘professional career’ (ha!) to date). By my reckoning, this is a fair amount of ground to cover in little more than a minute. The song ends in a similar way to its beginning, that is with a squall and a crash, leading to a few precious seconds of respite and relief, before moving on to a more restrained song, and the rest of the album.
In terms of an opening gambit and a declaration of intent, this is pretty heady stuff. Of BSP’s early work, I really like their older material.
“‘November Spawned A Monster’ lies at the imaginative centre of Morrissey’s writing. ‘It was a pinnacle’, he has said. ‘In its invasion of the mind of a “poor twisted child, so ugly”, trapped and unloveable in its wheelchair, it expresses me most accurately. It’s the record I have striven to make’. Why is the song central to Morrissey’s work and what is it about the song that ‘expresses [him] most accurately’?
Monstrosity is the other of normality, and in its various senses is one of the most persistent subjects in Morrissey’s lyrics. One sense of ‘monstrous’ is ‘a huge or outrageous thing’. Typically, of course, it is understood in a physical sense (Frankenstein’s monster, it will be recalled, is a being of ‘gigantic stature’, whose ‘yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath’). But it clearly applies to nonphysical ‘things’ too, such as feelings or affection. (The real tragedy of Frankenstein, to stay with this example, is that ‘monstrous’ ballooning of the creature’s emotions that results from their lack of reciprocation.) And Morrissey, more than anyone in pop music, is the chronicler of ‘oversized’ feelings – of emotions that exceed articulation but defy containment, and overwhelm the experiencing subject; of feelings, as in Frankenstein, that find no response and as a result swell gigantically to fill the space of the absent object; of embarrassing feelings that make their audience flinch and squirm, and are a scandal to ‘polite’ discourse.”
“Earlier in the chapter, a distinction was made between ‘unmarked’ and ‘marked’ interruption – that is, between utterances which are simply abandoned and etceterising gestures which describe this abandonment. Such etceterising gestures are common in Morrissey’s work: ‘I could say more / but you get the general idea’; ‘And there is no point saying this again’; ‘from difficult child / to spectral hand / to Claude Brasseur/ blah, blah, blah, blah’.
Usually, as in the foregoing examples, they play a fairly minor part in the song, ironising the song’s subject, the singer’s own practice, or the conventions of the medium. In ‘Dagenham Dave’, for example, the obviousness – which is emphasised by the singer’s litotes – belongs to the subject of the song (Dave), whose unreflective predictability is communicated by the interruption of his description. (Commentators on the song tend to criticise it for its lightness or vacuity – having first of all assumed that lightness is a fault. Rogan, for instance, characterises it as ‘tired’ and ‘insubstantial’. However, it seems to me, firstly, that the song’s foregrounded vacuity – witness the degeneration of its outro-chorus into a playground chant of Dave’s name – effectively and amusingly conveys the character of its subject; and, secondly, that this is quite an achievement. It is hard to write about things that lack depth; yet they also have their place in the world. And it is to Morrissey’s credit – and a sign of the breadth of his sympathy – that he wishes with affectionate irony to document their existence too.)
In ‘At Last I Am Born’, on the other hand, the singer’s etceterisation – ‘ blah, blah, blah, blah’ – seems to be at his own expense and a yawn at the familiarity of his own story. But, as in ‘You Have Killed Me’, it also appears to involve a metafictional dimension as well; that is to say, its yawn is partly directed towards the act of narration as such (in ‘You Have Killed Me’, this is more obvious, and ironic rather than weary, in that during the final chorus – conventionally a space of repetition – Morrissey sings (and indeed repeats) ‘there is no point saying this again’).”