Friday, August 17, 2007

Death And The Maiden


"When the rich die last/Like the rabbits running/From a lucky past/Full of shadow cunning/And the world lights up/For the final day/We will all be poor/Having had our say."
--Young Marble Giants, ‘Final Day’

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something you never experienced yourself? And especially for something that those who experienced would have preferred to not to have lived through? I was born in 1988, the year after Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen – the last great classic of Cold War literature – was published, and the year before the Berlin Wall fell, a transition in the history of the Cold War. Quite frankly, I find it almost impossible to believe that for the first three years of my life, the Soviet Union was still in existence, given that most people of my age have embraced the Kapitalist opiate with such fervour; in fact, if you look at kids born after 1989, that hedonic streak is even stronger – kids are being snared into work at younger and younger ages, and, indeed, into the hipster ‘counterculture’ (scoff), which is becoming simultaneously increasingly commercialised, increasingly hedonic and increasingly young. Even between my friends born in 1988 and 1989, there’s a difference; we exist either side of an impassable divide – the ‘End Of History’, the ‘Victory of Capitalism’. Most of my 1988-and-older friends have a undoubtedly ambivalent relationship with capitalism – counting among their ranks not a few socialists, visionary freaks in DIY bands, melancholics, and a few with somewhat unsavoury drink habits and dead-end jobs; the Soviet project was still alive, and socialism still a living possibility when we were born – whereas my 1989 friends tend to be yuppies through and through. For us, the end of history is a nightmare from which we’re trying to wake; the others have never known anything else.

Not that we can remember anything much of it: my earliest memory, from when I was less than a year old, is only a fragment from a period totally unremembered. It’s at this point that we begin to wonder about some kind of collective unconscious; well, if Greil Marcus could get away with it in Lipstick Traces, I don’t see why I can’t.

Far more happened in that period – the decade-and-a-bit between punk’s first flourishing and Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – than in the preceding or following decades; in retrospect, it seems like the very final flourishing of the modernist impulse: both punk and post-punk were part of a cultural heritage derived from the early modernists, and funnelled through the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals, which in turn aligned itself with the early Soviet Union, which the Bolsheviks envisaged as the first truly modern civilisation, free from the feudal and capitalist barbarisms of the Industrial Revolution.

The occasion for all this rambling is the reissue of Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, my copy of which arrived Monday morning. I first came across the band in the list of Kurt Cobain’s 50 favourite LPs – at No. 22, just behind The Raincoats and Kleenex/LiLiPut – and it seems appropriate, really: the minimal Nirvana of ‘Dumb’, ‘Polly’ and ‘About A Girl’ didn’t come from nowhere, or, I suspect, even from the early Beatles, another of Kurt’s major supposed influences. The same eavesdropping metaphor he used to describe listening to The Raincoats (mentors to YMG, "feisty feminist aunties") – "We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above" – applies perfectly to YMG: Colossal Youth is like some clandestine midnight radio station, the restrained instruments coming out of the dark silence (I seem to think of it as dark only because of the iconic cover photo, but it fits very nicely) like dulled points of light, like in the work of late-period Morton Feldman or Scott Walker. Simon Reynolds’ comments about "geometric clarity and starkness of form", and the comparison to sculpture in the sleevenotes is very astute: not merely because of the beautiful concision and preciseness of the LP itself (beautifully sequenced, less than 40 minutes long) but the songs, which are notoriously minimalist, but just right: never outstaying their welcome, never too verbose, never trying to cram too many instruments or ideas into less than three minutes, never acting out like petulant punk, rock, soul and pop. Whilst I love the mad genre-mashing energy of much post-punk (Essential Logic, The Pop Group, PIL, The Cravats, Gang Of Four, Talking Heads, ATV, Kleenex), the rush to jam so many ideas into a single song, to push the band beyond their musical limits produces stuff that’s just too… busy, too… hectic. YMG works with the exact opposite approach: subtracting, and then emphasising the few elements left.

There’s more than a question of resemblances or non- here, though: there’s something deeply disquieting about a lot the whole of Colossal Youth and the ‘Final Day’ EP. Neil Kulkarni was astute enough to pick it up in his review for
Plan B, in which he described it as being one of the "recorded totems from the Iron Lady’s anschluss that first nailed the curious silent scream of the dispossessed", alongside Metal Box, More Specials, The Raincoats’ Odyshape and The Slits’ Cut. In a sense he’s right, but I wouldn’t it put this with all of those (certainly not Cut) – in its glacial starkness, it’s more of a piece with Unknown Pleasures. One thing the album most certainly isn’t is naïve: it’s served as an inspiration to generations of naïf-pop bands, from the weedier end of C86 to the K Records crowd (especially Beat Happening), but there’s a massive sense of fatality and disillusionment running throughout the album – the resignation and blocked romance of ‘Searching For Mr Right’, ‘Include Me Out’s attack on those "Dying of boredom in your plastic home" (by her tone, Alison Statton is trapped by those same walls), the vanitas word-painting of ‘Eating Noddemix’, the Edward Albee suburban spite of ‘Music For Evenings’, ‘N.I.T.A.’’s cryptic break-up lament. The fact that it’s funnelled through a restrained, almost affectless presentation – Alison Statton’s quiet, conversational voice, the choppy, muted guitars and a drum machine that sounds as if possessed of a clockwork mechanism – mutates the sentiments into something altogether other: the tales of a world that could expect no better.

Colossal Youth was released in March 1980, in the first quarter of a year blackened by death, dread and existential entrapment: the sense of total possibility that had persisted since the nationwide breakout of punk in 1977, that had bred and spread in the End Times atmosphere of the Winter of Discontent, would soon gutter to almost nothing; the petit-bourgeois right-wing backlash had made its first blow with the election of Thatcher the previous year (a real blow for Red Wales, which would be further marginalized by Tory Westminster), and was now ossifying the political climate into one based on ‘common-sense’ mediocrity and a terrifying contempt for human life; the second wave of post-punk bands, basing themselves on the great artefacts like Unknown Pleasures and Metal Box had begun to turn the independent subculture into a swamp; two months later, the last great British post-punk record (except for Grotesque, Slates and Hex Enduction Hour by The Fall, who have always been immune to changes in the cultural climate) Closer, would be finished, and Ian Curtis would be dead. The beginnings of the counter-revolution had started the year before, with The Specials’ populist first album; by the second half of the year New Romanticism would be in full swing. Most frightening of all was the nuclear threat hanging over the Western world: "The Cold War… had plunged back below freezing point, the election of sabre-rattling conservative leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan matched by a renewed hard line from the Soviet Politburo" (Simon Reynolds), a tension stacked further by the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

It’s difficult to listen, as Neil Kulkarni does, to Colossal Youth as just "pop music in response, as some kind of magic wardrobe retreat to finer times" (except on the serene, muted disco of ‘Wurlitzer Jukebox’), not least for the fact that its minimalist construction defies the post-Spector pop tactics of sonic carpet bombing; it’s a much odder beast than that. What is so affecting about the record is the muted sense of sadness running through it, the feeling that these sensitive souls are recoiling from the sheer shittiness of their times, into a nocturnal realm from which they can gain a little control (never enough), and talk to themselves of past pains – it’s that radiophonic quality that Stuart Moxham apparently wanted from the record: "like a radio that’s between stations, listening to it under the bedclothes at 4am", something accentuated by the band’s apparent love of television music (they recorded an entire EP inspired by testcard music): ‘The Taxi’ and closer ‘Wind In The Riggings’ burble with ultra-primitive Delia Derbyshire synths and anonymous crackle, like a Belbury Poly record more than twenty years in advance. The cover captures the barest contours of their faces beaming out of the dark, suggesting a broadcast out of some private realm (and Sam Beckett’s remark about his own radio plays, "It’s all coming out of the dark."), a feeling accentuated by the use of reverb on many of the guitar and bass riffs, and very occasionally Alison’s singing itself, as if you’re hearing them down a tunnel.

This sense of privacy and removal lends a weirdly untimely feel to the music that’s upset by the disturbed texture of emotion: grounded in classic pop, but stripped back to almost nothing, alienated from pop’s traditional role as opiate to the people, stimulator of the young, propagator of soothing fake emotion (the ventriloquist act of Alison and Stuart producing an almost flat singing style; on ‘Include Me Out’ she even refuses to do the "Oh-whoah-woah"s with any rock/soul histrionics), and visibly rejecting the silliness of rock heroics and pop stardom (like the endearing fact that Stuart brought his dog Nixon to their first London gig); taking in the pure simplicity of school hymns, nursery rhymes, theme tunes for pedagogic TV, and early instrumental rock ‘n’ roll (think Duane Eddy, or an unamplified Bo Diddley), but underlaid, incongruously, by the woody beat of the drum machine, and articulating, in the most tiny and serene of voices, the substance of a world poisoned by dread, terror and greed, in which even relationships are impossible, the air simmering "with damped-down rage, jitter[ing] with imploded violence" (S. Reynolds on ‘Music For Evenings’). The band, in the last period where radicalism was possible outside of the deep underground, closed in on themselves in the face of dwindling possibility, terror and nuclear annihilation, and made, in the only appropriate voice, the only protest worth making: a document of life, not Tom Robinson finger-pointing, outside and inside time; an abstention from the vulgarities of an adult life not worth living, but not enough of one to ever really comfort.

It all reaches an apex on the ‘Final Day’ EP, released after Colossal Youth: the almost-funk of ‘Radio Silents’, half a conversation from a Pinter play; ‘Cakewalking’, which morphs from almost psychedelic phasing into an ethereal groove, Alison exploring the axes of ennui, nostalgia and regret; and the precious miniature of ‘Final Day’. The low drone and bubbling arpeggio of synth create a sci-fi atmosphere, the restraint now claustrophobic, like they’re playing in a fallout shelter; suddenly, Alison’s voice opens up the space of the song; like a Marxist-Christian school hymn combined with a minimalist apocalyptic ditty; the three different versions of The End Of History meet in three forlorn verses, before disappearing off the map. In a world where extermination is the only alternative to a life paralysed by boredom, fear, economic entrapment and lovelessness, fatalism is the only option. The terminal nature of 'Final Day' is all in the time: the shortest song on the 3-CD set, with Alison's unbearably sweet-sad voice (one made more poignant by the fact that it's emotionally restrained, leaving all the anguish bubbling under the surface of the words) singing for just over half that time. Just as Colossal Youth seems to be both trapped and free of its time, both a racked document and an escape attempt, so 'Final Day' hovers outside pop history like the catastrophe it catalogues: conflating sci-fi modernism and pop classicism; documenting something that never happened, but a possibility looming on the horizon, a potential terminus that, as K-Punk notes (writing about Nigel Kneale) "haunts the unconscious, not as a spectre from the past, but as a virtual future so terrible its shockwaves echo back through time." Nostalgia, then, for something never experienced, is just the same as the description of something that never occurred. It can only ever be bitter-sweet.

5 Comments:

Blogger Joseph said...

Even between my friends born in 1988 and 1989, there’s a difference; we exist either side of an impassable divide – the ‘End Of History’, the ‘Victory of Capitalism’. Most of my 1988-and-older friends have a undoubtedly ambivalent relationship with capitalism

I relate, though I'm a bit older than you I think. Most of the younger people I know have a less ambivalent attitude toward capitalism, and I don't think it's mainly to do with the Cold War, though. I mean, I gotta be honest, when I was a kid, the USSR were just something they talked about on news radio; the ideological fight over capitalism meant nothing to me during its existence. In fact, for many years as a teenager, I was a crazy conservative (funny how the offspring of hippies choose to rebel). I mean, I'm reading your blog now and I agree with a lot of it (especially your essay about popism), but I feel like my deep mistrust of capitalism is something I needed years of experience in the real world to learn.

That might be part of the difference, then; your younger friends just don't know as much about the world. For one example of the things you can learn: a lot of people are shocked when I tell them about my experience with scam-artists on the job search. It honestly doesn't occur to them that the long-term unemployed are the sort of desperate people smalltime predators like to pick on.

I think there's a broader cultural difference too; I think the postmodern critique of capitalism, embodied (in pop) in the alternative culture of the 90's, both overreached and exhausted its rhetorical vitality, so what we're seeing is partly the backlash from that. Pessimism and melancholia seem unfashionable too, and edge, and deconstruction. I think we're in a phase where the stars have aligned to favor tameness and a particular kind of authenticity-ploy; it sucks, but for whatever consolation it is, Zeitgeists suck and are mostly meaningless.

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