Articles Modest Proposals Music

Live music vs. Playing sport

Thursday, August 28, 1997

U2 are playing back here in Dublin over the weekend, and the town is buzzing with people desperate to get tickets. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who might be able to get hold of a couple, and expectation hangs in the air like Michael Jordan above the hoop. But I won’t be going.

When you’re ten, choosing a career is easy – there are only a few options. Children want to be astronauts and deep sea divers and sports stars and doctors. Test leads, fulfillment agents or (heaven forbid) Internet content editors don’t figure much.

In the teenage years, some of these ideas fade, and others come to prominence. It’s crucial to be in a band, and being the next Otis, Elvis, Janis or Jimi seems an attainable goal.

When we’re children we think as children. But when we become adults, we put away childish things. We shouldn’t want to be pop stars any more; nor should we dream of winning Wimbledon. And it’s true that quotidian concerns about work and money keep these thoughts at bay most of the time.

However, there are two occasions when we revert to our younger selves.  Seeing a good band play live has always been and remains a troubling experience for me. As much as I enjoy the performance, the community and the time-altering effect of a great set, I can never be wholeheartedly enthusiastic – it should be me up there.

It’s not that I think I’m a great songwriter, or as good a guitarist as The Edge – I know my talents lie (or rather sleep) elsewhere – it’s just that I’ve wanted to be a pop star for so long now that I don’t know how to stop wanting it.

Rationally I know it won’t happen, and that the whole music business is full of egos, greed, suicide, depression and broken dreams. But emotionally, I’ve not got too much further than playing my tennis racquet in time to ABBA records.

The other time we relive our childhood aspirations is when we’re playing sport. My similarity to a top-class footballer (that’s football as in soccer) is pretty limited, both in ability and vocabulary, but when I’m having a kick-around with my mates, that doesn’t bother me. I know I’m not very good, but every now and again I can fool myself. A swift turn, or a volley into the corner of the net, and the commentary starts in my head – ‘Oh yes, he’s done it! Moore has scored!’

There’s no getting around the fact that this is deeply sad behaviour for a grown man, but I’m not alone. Nick Hornby describes this phenomenon frighteningly well in Fever Pitch with sport, and High Fidelity with music, and the success of the books show that it’s a common malady.

Of the two problems – not being a pop star and not being a professional footballer – the first is harder to cope with. My sports craving can be satiated with my amateur sporting endeavour, where the team spirit and element of contest mirrors the real thing whether the venue is the local park or the San Siro. (Nike’s current advertisement with famous stars playing in pub-team matches on Hackney Marshes makes this point.)

But there’s no getting round the pop star thing. Maybe it’s not too late to start. But I’m still not going to see Bono and the lads this weekend.  And it’s not that I can’t get a ticket or anything. Oh no.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 28th August 1997)

Articles Modest Proposals Music

Vinyl vs. CDs

Wednesday, July 09, 1997

Let’s see now – sound quality vs coolness quotient, durability vs authentic wear and tear. Despite the megastore’s embrace of CDs, vinyl refuses to die – is this just nerdy affectation, or is there something wrong with those shiny silver discs?

CDs are like the vision of the future we used to get on Tomorrow’s World, the BBC TV show that optimistically heralds technology’s ability to improve everyone’s life. They were supposed to be better at everything – indestructible, gorgeous and with a sound quality that meant you could hear the rustle as the guitar player’s shirt rubbed against the bridge of his guitar.

In this bright new future, vinyl was overly fragile, had sound quality that was never great and deteriorated rapidly, and came in sleeves that disintegrated with use.

So why don’t we all feel enthused now that record shops don’t deserve the name anymore? Maybe it’s because CDs are just too squeaky clean. You want your music collection to age with you, so that the time you’ve spent with an album is reflected in the dog-eared sleeve.

Just as owners and pets start to resemble each other, so a control freak’s pristine record collection starts sporting protective plastic sleeves, while the relaxed and generous person ends up with a dishevelled collection containing about half the records they’ve bought, and a vague idea of all the people that have the other half.

There’s also a sexual frisson to using records. As well as the whole Freudian stylus and groove thing, the virginal tightness of a new record’s sleeve (and inner sleeve) is an evocatively suggestive thing.  CD cases (even the slick green Rykodisc jewel cases) can’t match this.

However, a more persuasive (and frankly less weird) reason for favouring vinyl is that vinyl offers the capacity for production while CDs only allow consumption. DJs create new music from vinyl records – the deck has become its own instrument – while CDs just sit there being annoyingly immutable. Technological developments are starting to change this, but we’ll never reach the stage where DJs can gouge their initials into their CDs.

It’s possible to compare audio CDs with CD-ROMs. CD-ROMs looked to have everything sewn up, but their read-only nature means that for all their strengths, they’re being sidelined by the fragile and clunky Internet.  Just like the Internet, vinyl’s more inclusive approach guarantees its continuing life into the future.

Of course, as things stand at the moment, there’s a lifestyle choice involved. As reader Jan McIntyre points out: ‘the rarity of vinyl (supposedly) singles out its owner as discriminating and aloof from the mass market.’ Buying vinyl asserts your identity as the sort of leftfield person that either listens to things that aren’t on CD (increasingly difficult to justify), or the sort of leftfield person that still has a record player that works (increasingly easy to justify).

Maybe with time we’ll come to love our CDs, but I somehow doubt it. If and when we rely on our computers for the latest tunes streamed instantaneously over the Net, the appeal of the low tech records will be enhanced even more. Records are very like their owners – fragile, a little worn and easily marked but also valuable, individual and perfect for combining with others to create new stuff.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 9th July 1997)

Articles Modest Proposals Music

Spice Girls vs. U2

Thursday, April 10, 1997

This whole thing is about words and deeds. The Spice Girls have created a phenomenon by projecting an image of sexy misbehaviour and irreverence.  The attitude is their unique selling point, because the music itself is glitzy but essentially mundane. The lyrics mouthed by these advocates of girl power are actually simpering tributes to the values they denounce in their frequent public statements.

With the Spice Girls, the hype obscures the fact that they are at heart deeply conservative. Like a Shakespeare comedy, the exciting suggestion of chaos eventually gives way to the restoration of order: we are titillated by the thought of Ginger Spice’s antics while a ‘club dancer’ in Majorca, but end up buying the platitudinous ‘Mama’.  The music isn’t the message – the minidress is the message.

It’s scrupulously honest – everyone knows the image is at least as important as the music in pop (why else does Eric Clapton outsell Richard Thompson?), and the Girls have simply done away with the pretence that the music matters at all.

It’s a trope in the development of teen bands that there comes a time when they become ‘serious about their music’. Sporty Spice and her sisters should never fall into this trap, because that’s not what they’re about – the music is simply the hook to hang the product on.

U2 are, strangely enough, apparently following a similarly lightweight path at the moment. Their latest album, Pop, comes complete with a trashy po-mo image that has them dressing up as The Village People for the ‘Discotheque’ video, and hosting a launch event in a supermarket (Music’s a commodity?  You don’t say.). The live show is billed as a consumerist extravaganza, with Edge explaining, ‘it costs millions to be this trashy’, and everyone reflects on how the old earnest U2 are best forgotten.

Not taking yourself too seriously is crucial for mainstream success in the UK and Ireland at the moment – who’s to say if The Divine Comedy or The Lightning Seeds are laughing behind their hands? It’s especially important if you?re an established group with a track record like U2’s – honest emotion might have been fine for the late 80s but now no-one expects to find what they’re looking for.

In this environment, U2’s move shows they’re impressively light on their feet. Like the Spice Girls, the gloss surrounding the music is much more apparent than the music itself. Edge’s ‘Spun’ baseball cap on the sleeve of Zooropa was perfect – the band has spun itself in a way that would make Peter Mandelson blush.

However, let’s not start expecting the lads to change their names to Bald Spice, Hunk Spice, Weird Spice and God Spice. While the Girls are all spin and no substance, U2 are using this self-marketing guile to sell songs that are as substantial and earnest as they’ve ever been.

Wise to our current thirst for superficiality, they cunningly pretend to be as throwaway as Boyzone so they can sell bucketloads of an album that they genuinely mean. Genius. While the Spice Girls are honest about their lying, U2 are lying about their honesty.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 10 April 1997)

Articles Film Irish Times Music Television

Looking back in desperation – 80s revival in the 90s

Saturday, March 25, 1995

?Nostalgia isn?t what it used to be. Like a crew of rowers, artists have always looked backwards to earlier times in an attempt to move forwards. At the moment, however, they?re not looking back very far: there?s a 1980s revival going on.

Last year, there was a 1970s revival, and we were awash with flares and platforms, disco and Starsky and Hutch. This year, however, it?s The Human League and the Rubik?s cube. We?re running out of decades to be nostalgic about.

We have classic Eastenders and Grange Hill episodes on the BBC, and a Tube retrospective series on Channel 4. Radio stations play the classic hits of the ‘60s 70s and 80s’, and students have started having 80s parties, where dressing up as Adam Ant or a kid from Fame is compulsory.

Abba have scarcely been so popular, and the ?Strictly Handbag? night at The Kitchen specialises in kitsch tunes from the period. Record companies are releasing 80s compilations hand over fist, and even Kajagoogoo must be preparing for a comeback.

The ultimate 1980s experience, however, is the satellite tv channel UK Gold. All day every day, it allows you to relive the past by watching reruns of Blake?s Seven, Miami Vice, Every Second Counts, and Juliet Bravo.

Of course, the way earlier art and attitudes look different in a different light is constantly fascinating. Victorian mock-gothic architecture, for example, tells us at least as much about the grand ideas of the 1860s as it does about the medieval traditions on which it draws. Even the 1980s passion for Laura Ashley and Brideshead Revisited can be illuminating, when seen as an attempt to hark back to (and commodify) safe tradition in a fast-changing world.

With earlier examples of this form of cultural oarsmanship, the gap between the original and the revival allowed space for reflection and new creativity.  This time round, however, the revival is so recent that it’s beginning to seem slightly desperate. It also seems slightly misinformed, since one of the points about 80s culture is that it was itself deliberately nostalgic. What does this leave us with ? new New Romantics?

One explanation for all this is economic. It?s cheaper for tv stations to pump out re-runs than it is for them to commission new work. Another factor must be that people who grew up during the early 80s are reaching positions of responsibility in the media, and can now indulge themselves.  Chris Evans is a good example of this. Guests on recent editions of his show Don?t Forget Your Toothbrush included Suggs from the band Madness (who?s made a second career from this retro fashion), and the woman who danced seductively in the opening titles of Tales of the Unexpected.

One of the ironies of reviving so recent a period is that many of the original creators of this work are still around to reinterpret themselves for us ? at least saving us the mournful question, ?Where are they now??.

Suggs might be content just being Suggs a second time round, and The Human League are back, sounding very much like they did ten years ago.  Sting, in contrast, is constantly changing his back-catalogue. His danced-influenced cover of the 1981 Police song ?Demolition Man? was one of the highlights of his recent greatest hits collection.

However, aside from a few examples of innovation, this return to the culture of the previous decade shows a profound lack of confidence. It?s easier to listen to and watch things that you already know about. People are comfortable with Minder so why go to the trouble either of watching new tv shows, or discovering enough about a more distant time to borrow from then instead?

However, as with all nostalgia, we don?t recall what the time was really like, we reconstruct it how we want to. You remember watching Rockliffe?s Babies, so seeing it again takes you happily back to an earlier time.  It?s a shame you?ve forgotten that it wasn?t very good ten years ago.

If bad programmes taken on a new value, then good programmes suffer by being stripped of their context. Channel 4 is currently showing Auf Wiedersehen, Pet again, but watching it as a piece of personal history makes us forget the wider social and political atmosphere from which the show emerged.

This is perhaps the most worrying element of the return to the 1980s.  In reviving all this stuff, we are being presented with a very selective picture of a time so recent that its effects are still being felt. Those involved in the Celtic Revival at the turn of the century had the space to reinterpret the period they studied, to the extent of making up large chunks of ‘history’ to suit them. We can’t afford to this with the events of 10 years ago.

During the 1980s the Conservative government in the UK was criticised for reworking ?Victorian values?, but reworking that government itself less than ten years on is even more risky. Last week, for example, the London Independent on Sunday reported the increasing interest in Mrs Thatcher memorabilia. A Thatcher teapot bought for ?25 five years ago recently fetched ?207 at auction.

In all this nostalgia, there is very little reference to the recession of the early 1980s, or to the Falklands War, or to the rioting in English cities. Talking about teapots, or Tucker Jenkins from Grange Hill is much more appealing.

So far, this trend seems to be mainly a British phenomenon, and it would be tempting to say that culturally things are exciting enough in Ireland for young people here to keep their eyes on the future. However, it can only be a matter of time before we too start immersing ourselves in our recent past, so maybe it?s time for another papal visit. Then again, . . .

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday March 23rd, 1995)

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