Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Energy Fools The Magician

Two films, watched the same night, have had me musing: Nowhere Boy, former YBA Sam Taylor-Wood's tasteful-not-tasteful biopic of the young John Lennon, and the long-overdue Arena film on Brian Eno (as has been pointed out, he's been doing the theme music since its inception, and is a far more interesting case than most of those profiled in recent years). Nowhere Boy was not precisely what you would expect from what was essentially a 'Beatles prequel' - there were no "hints of future greatness", save for a handful of cheering audiences for The Quarrymen and a halting exchange between Lennon (Aaron Johnson) and the scrawny, timid McCartney (Thomas Sangster) about "writing our own stuff"; much more foregrounded were the fecklessness and scabrous humour of Lennon, which would of course characterise his peak Beatles songwriting, and the crackling tension between his wiry-fierce aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his manic-depressive mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). It's through the latter that he comes into contact with rock 'n' roll, and, of course, sex - or, rather, the two are discovered to be inextricably intertwined: sex cannot exist without pop, and vice versa. A wonderfully obvious montage, after Lennon acquires some Screamin Jay Hawkins vinyl on the Liverpool docks, articulates this: the boy and his mother listening to the 45 in her sitting room, she languidly lighting a fag and lying down on top of him on the couch, intercut with Lennon, uh, trysting with a young woman in the woods. The oedipal overtones (augmented by Julia's new husband, played sternly by David Morrissey) are trowelled on so thick it's almost laughable. Compare with Eno's anecdote about hearing doo-wop and R&B records through the jukeboxes in his home-town of Woodbridge, surrounded as it was by USAF airbases: "'Life's Too Short' by The Lafayettes, which wasn't a doo-wop record... really meant a lot to me. The main rhythmic element in it is just someone playing rimshots... you have this very sparse background feeling, and this urgent singing over the top. I was always impressed by music which I couldn't penetrate the mystery of."

Lennon and Eno are, in a sense, representatives of two alternative paths through pop: both are 'working-class heroes' (although Nowhere Boy highlights the extent to which Lennon's life with Mimi was as petit-bourgeois mittelbrow suburban as could be; Eno's father, at least, was a postman); making, in part, the same discoveries, one leads to 'Love Me Do', the other to 'Another Green World' (or, alternatively, 'Remake/Remodel'). Although that polarisation isn't necessarily valid: as Michael Bracewell made clear in his Roxy book, Eno was as plugged into the white heat of the mid-60s as anyone else, probably more so than the Carnaby Street oligarchy that fed into the British hippy movement. His education at Ipswich and Winchester brought him into contact with the boiling crucible of ideas that were the new British universities in the late 1960s, and which have since been disappeared in most accounts of the decade: cybernetics, Fluxus, post-Cageian electronic music, anti-psychiatry, (pseudo-)Situationism. These are points of convergence: these ideas were not (or not by any means solely) the preserve of the British upper-middle class intelligentsia, but being thrust into the hands of working-class youths escaped into alternative education - the same ones who were buying and appreciating pop records. (Bracewell records that, at the same time, Bryan Ferry and his classmates in Newcastle University's Fine Arts Department, under the direction of Richard Hamilton, were making paintings influenced by adverts and pop-single sleeves.)

In the documentary, Eno lists 'Tomorrow Never Knows' as one of his favourite productions: the point where the technocratic forward-drive of the Wilson years reached its culmination, consciousness becoming-electricity. The studio becomes a portal, through the hidden realms of technology, into the depths of human consciousness, but a consciousness embodied in machine-sound (it's interesting that Lennon's first, distorted words are "Turn off your mind" - brain become tape-machine), ferro-magnetic roll and synapse-flash. What Eno found fascinating was that "that piece of music didn't exist before it entered the studio"; the astounding tumble of a drum loop, the cracking-star spurts of backwards guitar and vocal, the weird, wavering textures that existed outside of melody or chord progression, could not have been brought into existence without the studio - and, importantly, a boom climate amenable to innovations in recording hardware and musicians spending vast amounts of expensive time in the studio. It was an approach that would lead, via Another Green World and Music For Airports, to the exotic studio-hothouse growths of Remain in Light and My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.

It was, of course, something that had been incubated in high modern art for years - Stockhausen (whose mixing-desk inner-spaceflights would come to The Beatles via McCartney), Schaeffer and Henry; but also Cage - in Geeta Dayal's book on Another Green World, Harold Budd recalls a performance by Cage and David Tudor: "It was heavy anti-academic, anti-Germanic, anti-European modernism, which at the time we were all scared to death of; we were all scared to death of Boulez and Stockhausen"; where the high-art heroism of the Darmstadt clique closed art-making off to all but the alleged visionaries, Cage was the supreme enabler. It was through a combination of his education in cybernetics and experiencing Cage that Eno came to processes as the main focus of his art-efforts: he recalls mathematician John Horton Conway's 'Game of Life' - "you can make games that end within 6 or 7 generations, or, by changing maybe one square, a game that can create millions of cells". The joy of systems is that, from extremely simple premises, they can create, with little input, incredibly complex and felicitous results - the prime example being Fripp and Eno's two mid-70s records in which, following (unconsciously? It can't be said to matter...) the methodology of Pauline Oliveros' I of IV, tape-machine output is fed back into the input in a delayed loop, creating constellations of splintered and glistering tones.

The best argument in Howard Goodall's otherwise risible documentary on The Beatles a few years ago was that part of the band's musical importance consisted in making-pretty and making-popular the grating techniques of the unwashed and unglamorous avant-garde. Aside from the ridiculous aesthetic judgements involved - no-one could ever accuse, say, Varese's D√©serts a piece of music horrid to the ears - there is a sense in which the leap from the tape-loops of Gesang der J√ľnglinge to 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was a leap from a cloistered (but wonderful-sounding) modernism to a popular modernism that didn't know it was either popular or modernist. (You certainly can't say that the 'pressures of the market' created any dilution of the sound's daring and radicalism; in many ways, it was braver than the mere consolidation of musique concrete many electronic composers were engaged in at that time.)

In that sense, Nowhere Boy represents a kind of pre-history of all this: it takes a massive effort of imagination to jump from the Teddy Boy-suited Lennon and his ill-matched band banging out skiffle numbers to 'Tomorrow Never Knows' (and an even greater from the gangly, modest George Harrison (Sam Bell) auditioning at the back of a bus, to the patchouli-stinking Hare Krishna of just ten years later - where did it all go wrong?), and it's quite precisely that gap which represents perhaps the most tantalising potentiality. In the background of Goodall's argument is the fact that high modernism was, for almost all of the mid-century, stalked by a vernacular culture that was completely comfortable with innovation, velocity, strangeness, overlapping, in part, with the working-class culture that provided the basis of the British labour movement. It's in the background of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, in which the children of the tenement-and-factory culture he profiles are castigated for their "vulgar modernism" - smoking, listening to pop records, movies and coffee-bars, general aping of Americans. The world of Penny Lane back-to-backs nostalgically recalled in The Beatles' late singles was one in which they only partly resided - theirs was the generation that broke with the older working-class culture. And indeed, one of the fascinating things about the world of Nowhere Boy is that the lithe, dynamic young things on screen (the film is Austen adaptation-obsessed with the period detail of Teddy Boy style) were working-class - that autonomy and avant-garde status had been wrenched from the petit-bourgeois stratum that had been bohemia's breeding-ground.

If the history of modernism is a history of cross-transmission, from Picasso's African masks onwards, then 1950s Liverpool is a perfect modernist node: there's a scene where Lennon and his friend Jack (Eric Griffiths) pocket a bunch of jazz 45s, brought into the shop via the city's position as an import hub from America, and wander down to the docks, where they trade for a Screaming Jay Hawkins single apparently originally gotten from an American GI. The docks, the gateway to the black Atlantic that birthed the R&B they crave, swarm with people, including several Teddy Boys. The internationalism of the previous generation (dockers refusing to unload arms ships, 'Aid For Spain', the International Brigades) transmutes into a particular amenability to cross-fertilisation. What's floating in the background, as Lennon watches newsreel footage of Elvis Presley at the cinema, girls' screams drowning out the commentary, is Suez and the death-knell of the old Britain of the century's first half: Presley's debut album and the British retreat arrive within 7 months of each other. And what's lurking round the corner, as Lennon, newly enrolled in art-school, prepares to set out for Hamburg, is Macmillan's reluctant concessions to global political reality and the white-hot technocracy of the Wilson years - no coincidence that Wilson would, in 1965, present The Beatles with MBEs. Modernism, both films suggest, was always up to things that none of its alleged pilots really knew about: possibilities more widespread and wondrous than any of them guessed at - possibilities we can still learn from, take hope from.