Music

The first cut is the deepest, and Radiohead’s Creep cut me in a big way. It was one of my first experiences of a rock band. I watched the film clip, mesmerised. The picked tremolo notes rang like a macabre musical box while the chorus cut through like a chainsaw. Who were these pale, effeminate men, slinging and scrunching their way through such a pretty tune? In the stage lights Thom Yorke looked alien. His face contorted in ecstasy and angst. Johnny Greenwood hid behind a wall of noise and fringe, revving his guitar like a lawnmower.

When asked about Creep in 1993, Yorke said, “I have a real problem being a man in the ’90s. Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem. To actually assert yourself in a masculine way without looking like you’re in a hard-rock band is a very difficult thing to do.”

Until then my poster boy for masculinity had been Lenny Kravitz, strutting his way through 70’s pastiche glam. Radiohead sat brooding in the corner of the charts party, showing how vulnerable rock could be. No more Party Uncle, this was Arty Dad sitting me down with a bag of minor chords and telling me the birds and bees of sexual emotions. My world was ready for the juxtaposition of self-loathing in popular song. John Lennon had sung I’m a loser, Henry Rollins I’m a liar and Dennis Leary I’m an Asshole but they were all delivered behind a front-line of irony. Thom Yorke was compellingly exposed. An anti-hero who didn’t ask you to believe in him. His karaoke-slaying falsetto and crooked-eye weirdness gave the impression of a long suffering schoolboy – a life spent reading in shady rooms, sticky with illness, never getting enough sun.

Creep was a song for a generation of boys lusting clumsily through the schoolyard of life. Yorke said: “It is one of the things I’m always trying: To assert a sexual persona and on the other hand trying desperately to negate it.” Repressed sexuality was something that would define my school years. On one hand I was trying to be nice and Christian, and on the other I was feverish with hormones, keeping a diary of which girls had looked at me that day and taking too many baths.

Drying up in conversation, you will be the one who cannot talk
All your insides fall to pieces, you just sit there wishing you could still make love

When I first heard this lyric I nearly cried with embarrassment. Any closer to the bone and I’d have a heart attack. When asked what inspired the songs on The Bends Thom Yorke replied “Impotence.” While he was probably referring to a more general feeling of powerlessness, I clung to the word like a life raft. I’d just spent a bleak Australia Day home alone not having sex with my girlfriend. My Oasis poster wasn’t helping. I could hear Noel and Liam dissing me, back with another one of their cock-rocking bleats. The Bends was audio balm – gentle medicine for my collapsed soul. Someone felt as sad as I did.

* * *

Kid A is my favourite Radiohead album, and in my opinion the last musical masterpiece. I remember bringing it home in second year Uni – my flatmate Adam and I turned off all the lights and lay on the lounge-room floor, swimming in sound. A few days later I was home by myself listening to the vocal crescendo of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack.’ The CD skipped, causing Thom Yorke to hold the note indefinitely. Perfectly.

I’ll see you in the next liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…

I stared at the stereo in disbelief. It was bizarre and beautiful. A moment created just for me.

I remember Triple J’s Morning Show first playing my favourite track The National Anthem.
“It’s a long way from Creep isn’t it?” Said Francis Leach, with a sense of respect and trepidation, as if he still wasn’t sure which camp he belonged to. The disc dropped like a buzz saw, cleaving the world in two like great art. There was no sort-of liking Kid A, you were either saluting their inventiveness or mourning the lack of guitar songs. On writing the album Thom Yorke said he’d “completely had it with melody” and just wanted rhythm. He liked the idea of his voice being used an instrument rather than having a leading role.

The National Anthem is menace and finesse. Ominous and tough. Haunted and defiant. Entrancingly simple and deftly layered. It’s strut-prog drone-funk that flutters the subconscious and churns the stomach like butter.

Death jazz.

At 0:01 we hear an electro glitch, the delay of a switch – the mother ship of malevolence warms her valves. The bass lays cables of dark fuzz, the stunningly primitive three note loop lurking down the scale. (Yorke wrote the riff when he was 16). The cymbal smashes in like white sun on ice, leading a galloping drum pattern, swinging and bowling like an eight legged kinetic road horse.

At 0:22 the cymbal is robbed on the first bar – delectable editing from Nigel Godrich. The percussion jumps a ravine before picking up on the fifth. It’s dropouts like these that add funk to the fury. At 0:54 there’s lashings of ride cymbal smacking. Beneath it synth lasers spiral and howl like remote space stations shooting digital comets into the lunar abyss. Snippets of ghostly brass warp and warble. The song paces back and forth like a horseman.

When I listen to The National Anthem on public transport, I feel tough and fucked up at the same time. It’s the soundtrack for my loner superiority. If I were a professional wrestler it would be my themesong. I’d be called The Ultimate Worrier. My signature move would be The Schitz. I’d wriggle my limbs uncontrollably, psyching out my opponent.

Synths and cymbals stop. Vocal begins.

Everyone (bassbassbassbass-bassbassbass)
Everyone around here (kickety-snarity-kickety-snarity)
Everyone is so (smasssshhhhhhhhhhh) near
and so alone.

Thom Yorke’s voice has a metallic echo on it – half robot / half ghost. We are treated to a Theremin trail and the wack-tableaux of a child’s la la la. It’s an eerie nod to the patronising monotony of city living. The lobotomy of misspent intelligence. The kid in the back seat of the car, young and free, poking his tongue out as your blood boils.

Everyone / Everyone is so near / Everyone is ? fear / It’s all a lie / It’s all a lie.

There is no song more audacious. From it’s very title it runs a dark claw beneath the stiff upper lip of modern day Britannia. It’s the Kraut-rock opera for a traffic jam, a pummelling hymn for those encased in the metal coffin of capitalism. The spiritually constipated. The Ok Commuters. It’s an unromanticised, unapologetic, undiluted musical army barnstorming the restrained recesses of popular music and turning over tables like Jesus in a temple. Charlatans! Hypocrites! It cries. Your pomposity and saccharinity has stagnated. Where’s the show don’t tell?

At 2:38 horns become weapons. Radiohead show us what blood and guts sounds like. The microscopic screech of a life half-lived. Amplified. Contorted. Mutated beyond human shape. Alarm wails for the professionally world-weary. Rails buckle under artificial heat. Trains of thought rattle and tip. Dreams lay crushed in stagnant ambulances. Unapproachable wounds. The blunt reality of our unpublishable selves.

Nick Drake sang I am the parasite of this town, while Trent Reznor wrote You could have it all / my empire of dirt. REM’s Everybody Hurts film clip features human traffic stepping out of their cars and moving on. The closing three minutes of The National Anthem is a furnace of sonic distress. A brassy black hole where sentiments melt down to their base elements and erupt with backlogged, unresolved emotion.

It’s all a lie.
It’s all a lie.

At 3:46 there is respite. The song stops to breathe, like a crazed man tired from self-rumpus. Voice and trumpet are one. Blood flows. Traffic moves. At 4:03 a string is tightened. Nerves pull taut. At 4:08, a death scene. A lone trumpet speeds out of control. A poisoned wind-nymph spiralling through death throes. It’s musically graphic. The sound paints a thousand pictures.

The horns are wonderfully ugly, like the creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a labour of love in their ghoulish design. They bleat like sheep, wail like children, harrumph like Roald Dahl characters, zigzag like autistic etch-a-sketch, compete like sperm, jostle like chimps and clog up the void like orchestral off-cuts. As with an audio Jackson Pollock, strips of colour have been thrown on the canvas with such precision of vision that the final mix, as messy as sin, convinces the audience it is as much and as little as it needs to be.

It’s busy.

Like life.

By 5:00 the song’s been going for dog days. No more ABAB. This is alphabet soup. I want to cry. Sympathy for the demons. The subconscious hits and conscious misses. A booklet of bruises. At 5:15 the song runs out of steam. In the studio Johnny Greenwood orders the players to choose a random note, waving his stick like a wizard. “Just blow. Just blow, just blow, just blow.” There are two such ghastly blasts. The sword is driven into the dragon. Swirls. A chilling vocal sample. Man caught in limbo. Falling awake.

Delay is sped up and sped down – the Godrich signature.

Finally, there is end.

The National Anthem is compelling, disturbing, offensive and exciting. An anthem that hammers the dimensions. Each play, a moment in history. A personal revolution.

* * *

To off-set their overblown presence, Radiohead are often met with a teenage aloofness. “I kind of stopped bothering with them.” They dwell in their own chamber – off the mainstream radar but alternatively popular beyond scale. I like to think of them as The Beatles of my time. Too often they are the round peg for my holy soul.

First published Mess+Noise 2011.
Illustrations by Leigh Rigozzi.

* * * 

As Video Hits aired its final episode last week, I asked myself – how will our children learn about sex? Primary school assemblies won’t be the same without a generation of tweens emulating Rhianna’s pelvic thrusts and singing Sex in the air I don’t care / I love the smell of it. How will young boys find black misogynists to aspire to, so they can learn about honeyz in the club and that it’s okay to wear sunglasses inside?

Advertising is about catching folks with their guard down, and every Saturday morning it was a massacre. The dowdy crowd, armed with pyjamas and cereal, were probed by strobes, sprayed with hot-synth and force fed Freudian imagery by a slick snake with a gold megaphone. Cameras spread the legs of feminism, milking an obsession with the female form – oiled like a lamb roll and tied up with bikini string.

I’d reminisce to 1989, a time when pop songs went for five minutes and singers like Madonna were decently dressed. One of my first sexual encounters is attributed to ‘Like A Prayer.’ For a ten year old, the song was like being allowed inside an adult dream. It was all so solemn and dramatic. There’s a sexual tension that permeates the track, from the suppressed gospel harmonies to the brooding organ. ‘Like a Prayer’ is the soundtrack for Catholics lost in their lust and little boys ready to add emotional layers like Lego.

Somewhere in my robust child psyche I processed the scenes of Madonna, wide of eye and heavy of bosom, kneeling before a wax black Christ. In between ‘Kokomo’ and ‘The Right Stuff,’ the song was a conceptual baptism, finding its power through sex as metaphor. The lyrics struck a duality between religious and sexual meaning, as one writer described it “a mix of the sacred and the profane.” Exploring a psycho-sexual relationship with a black Jesus figure strikes me as more outrageous than anything Madonna’s successors have done.

Two years later Prince would deliver ‘Cream.’ I was eleven at the time, an age where my friend would lie on top of me on my trampoline, and water damaged porn mags would turn up on bushwalks. As a music video, ‘Cream’ is European soft-core dinner theatre, at odds with today’s skittish editing and cold CGI backdrops. In what is typical of the era, the stage exhibits a live band seething with choreography. One of the most striking features is the use of guitar as phallus, Prince treating it as an extension of his body. In this diorama of the male Id, it’s a hedonists paradise where politics is dissolved in sweat. Skinny girls dance while a portly woman sings; men get on top as lasses go down; two Latino’s per Prince. In its defence, ‘Cream’ brings colour and life to eroticism, the carnal images in sync with the carnival guitar and parlour organ.

Girlfriends have said Prince used to terrify them. They couldn’t quite understand what he was. The chest hair, spidery legs and purple suits – for children he was a kind of fun scary clown; a beguiling villain, so charismatic you couldn’t help being drawn into his fluro orgy. Prince’s last number one would be lucky to survive today, the BPM’s too slow for radio or clubs. As a mood brushstroke it’s perfect – there’s a soft lensed shuffle that slinks into your subconscious like sensory sub-bass.

The same year, 1991, The Divinyls set Australia on fire with ‘I Touch Myself.’ I remember Hey Hey It’s Saturday banning the title, Molly Meldrum referring to it as “I touch…” In a bed of deceptively breezy soft-rock, Chrissie Amphlett slathered female masturbation in the nooks and crannies of the mainstream market. While Nick Cave may have topped her in shock value, he couldn’t match the feat of dragging such a controversial song to number one in conservative Australia. I remember mulling the song over in my head, imagining a woman’s fingers moving down to where a blank space was, like a section of a computer game not yet unlocked.

Recently my friend sent me a link to ‘Bombay’ by Spanish artist El Guincho. At the time I was freshly single and stable as a wet tissue. I watched the video, a cataclysmically evocative and sexually idiosyncratic tour de farce, depicting full frontal juxtapositions, psycho-sexual metaphors, porn-culture satires and a stylishly twisted summation of the sexual clichés media has punched into our subconscious.

A clean look at our dirty minds.

I remember high school games where you’d realise how easy it was to make things sexual. “I’m sucking my wet juice from this long, hard straw.” Porn talk comes so easily, it’s a currency that’s laced in our language like a magnetic strip. Beneath our defensively sophisticated façade we are carnally designed and lousy with hormones. This is something advertising exploits.

The fast food sign is red.
I am salivating.
I want to put things in my mouth.
A girl is near-naked.
Where I can buy the deodorant?

I watched ‘Bombay,’ groin buzzing and heart racing – anxious and titillated. The director had juxtaposed porn culture with the Indie aesthetic, dealing it a Michel Gondry / Wes Anderson dose of Pomo finesse. It was a bombastic mash. Porn, once VHS dodgy, had ridden the online wave to infiltrate our culture, happy to have its dark underbelly masked in ironic appreciation; while Indie, a crochet of gleamed nostalgia and cutesy aloofness, was yet to assert an overtly sexual side. ‘Bombay’ may have marked a retro-sexual revolution – half a century on and girls were once again ditching their vintage 50’s dresses for a 60’s mini.

While the results were stunning, I wasn’t able to enjoy it at the time. It just made me sad. I felt like the lame boy in the Pied Piper story, left behind as the gates closed on the magical kingdom. As an advertisement, ‘Bombay’ was flogging a hamburger to someone recovering from food poisoning. I was a relationship dropout, now being teased by an electro-relevant musician and his hipster-cool art clip, full of glamorous beauties that I couldn’t even speak to in fantasy French. A combination of Catholic guilt, rural prudishness, porn damage and over-sensitivity left me once again world-weary and defenceless, forced to absorb someone else’s idea about sex, out of context and alone.

There’s a Neil Hamburger joke:
Q. Why is Britney Spears so popular?
A. Because everybody’s horny and depressed.

During the zeroes, the commercial pop booty corps marched onwards, cocks and knockers at the ready, while Indie music retreated up into the clouds. Balladesses donned the flowing silks of British-folk, while Dylan-heads hid in flannies and beards, feisty as chamomile. The Indie genre can be defined by its apolitical lyricism, Pro Tools polish, pseudo-tribal obsession with animals and a regression to innocence via storybook nostalgia. Indie was a generational swing against the crassly anti-establishment 90’s and sexually provocative Alternatives like Hole, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Machine Gun Fellatio. Coupled with the post 9-11 climate being ‘too real,’ it seems logical for Gen-Y to escape to an idealised 80’s via 60’s dreamland. While commercial pop was a shotgun of fishing hooks, Indie was soft as river mud – dangerously low on visual or audio handholds.

This year there’s a been a run of provocative videos, suggesting that small-label songsters may be coming out of their closets. In Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ the camera pans up his bare body, intricately patterned with tribal paint. In Canadian band Stars ‘Changes’ a girl finds herself naked in an empty theatre, and after growing a tail, embarks on a feisty dance monologue. Amanda Palmer’s ferociously feminist ‘Map Of Tasmania’ dares girls not to shave their squished mittens, while JJJ Unearthed band San Cisco’s ‘Girls Do Cry’ is two minutes of lasses in lingerie nibbling Dinkum Dogs and wiggling their bums at the camera. (The footage doubles as an ad on the director’s lingerie company website.)

In 2010 Washington cut through the pack of Kate Bush-rangers to bring some ‘Madonna Monroe’ back to the Australian music video. In ‘Sunday Best’ she set hearts racing with a sassy appropriation of the iconic dance scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Bande’s A Part. In the French original, the routine is a metaphor for the dichotomy of youth, outwardly cool yet inwardly frenzied – each character fretting over what the other thinks of their body. Washington on the other hand is a model of extroversion, carrying herself (and being carried) with a confidence bordering on brash in the context of her peers.

I start shaking when you shake it / Holy shit, you sure can turn it on
Do you, do you, do you know / What’s in my head when I’m below you?

With lyrics as salacious as her video, Washington is part of a wave of artists defining a new sexuality – injecting it with a sense of style and playfulness. The legs are out, but they’re too busy dancing to be splayed around a pole. The performer is shown smiling – a friendly flag amidst the dazzle and grind. It’s a welcome reminder that looking hot can be fun; not just a self-important expression of power. The overblown starlets of Video Hits, just like the grimacing aggressors of porn, are rarely pictures of ease.

I once received a lap dance at a friends bucks night. It remains to this day one of the least sexy things I’ve done. As I sat there, frozen and bemused, watching the girl go through her paces, a familiarity came over me. I’d been in this situation before – on my couch at home eating pancakes, micro-seduced by a conveyer belt of divas. With the strip club addition of noxious perfume, I was reminded how far away from sex I really was.

Video Hits will leave behind a legacy of over compression. From the music, crushed into a hot, sharp nugget; to the lyrics, tightly packed with clichés, to the videos, shaved smooth and cold pressed of coarseness. The most compressed thing of all is the idea of sex – reduced to a series of thrusts and oral fixations – a lowest common denominator digested by adolescents. Between pop music, porn and religion they’re in for a cocktail of confusion it can take decades to sober from. Somewhere amidst the smoke and carnage of the raunch culture assault, we should, in the words of The Shamen, draw on Love Sex Intelligence, (coming on like a seventh sense) to remember we are authentically sensual beings, who shouldn’t have to suppress ourselves to off-set the corruption of others.

First published Mess+Noise 2011.
Illustrations by Leigh Rigozzi.