Music

TREBLE TREBLE – RADIOHEAD

 

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 theme song. I’d be called The Ultimate Worrier. My signature move would be The Schitz. I’d wriggle my limbs uncontrollably, psyching out my opponent.

ultimate worrier

Illustration by Leigh Rigozzi

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.

Mess+Noise 2011

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TOURING

 

Whenever you see a biopic or documentary about a band, they make it look like one long rollercoaster of gigs and parties. Having been there I can say that life is the documentary footage that gets edited out. When it comes to touring, the rocking out bit accounts for 10% of your time, the other 90% is spent faffing, snoozing, grizzling and playing angry birds (not the iphone app, trying to impress girls). Filling tour downtime is a skill every musician must possess. It’s not all coke and hookers, it’s not even coopers green and groupies, it’s more like warm fruit juice and watching a woman get into her car at the servo. Imagine hanging out with the same five friends for 12 hours a day, five days a week in a small room with three CD’s, two magazines and a packet of sour worms.

Mission one is getting to your destination. Gone are the days of a hand-drawn map on the back of a Centrelink letter. Google Maps has revolutionised navigation, but isn’t immune to failing. During 2010’s national tour it suggested we take a shortcut through the Tasmanian midlands. We nodded off in the back of the van, safe on the main highway, and woke up an hour later on top of a mountain surrounded by fog with the petrol light on. Robot neglected to mention the shortcut included 65km of unsealed road.

Everyone loves the band at an airport. You get to hog the queue, take fifteen minutes to check-in and give the double-denimed impression you might actually be famous. If you see a band at the airport, go up and say ‘I love your stuff.’ It will do wonders for their esteem. Alternatively, you could whisper “I thought your last album was a bit overdone,” and watch them wilt like leather flowers.

Once you’ve put your back out loading into the venue it’s soundcheck time. This involves listening to the drummer hit his snare a hundred times while the soundguy looks at your with ashtray eyes. After a tinnitus inducing, confidence shattering jam, you retire to the band room, usually a condemned cellar with zombie bar parts and a biker grade couch. The band sit around planning a dinner heist on the back of a coaster. There Will Be Thai.

Pre-show rituals are different for every performer. I like to relax with a spot of yoga. The sullen standing pose Downward Dag is best, given the one square metre of space available. Real privacy is non-existent on tour, and small bites of alone time are cherished. The toilet is a good place to collect yourself and unwind with some quiet graffiti. I’m a discerning connoisseur of venue bathrooms, comforted by the lemony tang and dim lighting. It’s the small touches you appreciate, such as toilet paper or a door.

By this time the rider will be available. For most bands, the rider request is no more exotic than ‘anything.’ If your career is going well, you will be brought a tub of expensive non-twist European beers and no opener. These will be consumed by the support band while you’re on stage. Some like to loosen up with a few drinks before a show. I prefer to subside on a cocktail of water and nervous energy. This helps me maintain a cat-like state of awareness and cat-like state of curling up in some jumpers.

Performing is a huge hit of adrenalin, which needs time to subside. It’s important to find a space to carefully reclose the floodgates of your soul. I prefer a quick cigarette in a urine tinged stairwell. If the gig went well, it’s a good form to hang by the merch desk and bask in compliments. If the gig went poorly, then it’s like the hiccups. There is no known cure for disappointment, but you can try drinking while upside down or getting someone to scare you with the attendance figures.

Touring is like taking a working holiday with your sharehouse. It is the single greatest test for the band relationship. Those in possession of patience, a sense of humour and a working credit card will be able to ride the epic highs and soul-crushing lows. From blowing away tens of adoring fans to begging the venue manager not to charge you for toilet paper, it’s one of the most exciting experiences life has to offer. I couldn’t recommend it. Enough.

 

The Big Issue 2012

 

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UNIVERSITY ALBUMS 101

 

University isn’t just a time of experimenting with alcohol and paraphrasing Wikipedia – it’s also about expanding your music collection. Chances are you’ll start the academic year with an ipod as questionable as your haircut. Counting Crows, Jamiroquai & Lenny Kravitz aren’t going to cut it here. You’ll come across fellow students older and wiser than you with dazzlingly eclectic tastes. These people will most likely bore you to tears with references to late 70’s New York punk bands and/or Joni Mitchell, but bare with them, they may adorn your Glee pocked memory stick with some life changing albums. Here are four that I only discovered after leaving school.

 

NICK DRAKE – BRYTER LATER (1970)

In 2003 I dated a mentally interesting girl ten years older than me. She had a friend who was in a Beatles tribute band and nine times my age. At a party he showed me a simple album cover of a lavender background with a long-haired, leggy recluse posing on a chair. I can’t remember his exact words but “before Nick Drake / after Nick Drake” was the sentiment.

Drake suffered a whole lot of depression, barely performed or gave interviews and left behind a three album legacy of guitar tunings and arrangements that are the musical equivalent of crop circles. Bryter Later is his happy album. Happy in the ‘I’ve taken my Prozac and enjoyed a nice bowl of jelly’ way – his voice softer than the ghost of a cartoon butterfly.

Hazey Jane II is a smooth, rollicking journey through late 60’s musical countryside, while At The Chime of a City Clock is a swift acoustic jazz number. It unfortunately falls victim to a disease of the time – Sax Crimes! (Same thing that kills Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Through The Night and Bowie’s Young Americans.) It is a fine example of the glorious string arrangements and subtle backbeats provided by producer Joe Boyd.

There are two types of people. Those that find Nick Drake hopelessly depressing – and those who see him as a profound comfort. A graceful woodland nymph whispering pretty truths about pain and beauty.

Please give me a second grace
Please give me a second face
I’ve fallen far down
The first time around
Now I just sit on the ground in your way

This from a man who ‘accidentally’ took an overdose and slipped softly into the ether. A folk messenger far too sensitive for the harsh exteriors of the people scene.

BOARDS OF CANADA – MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN (1998)

I attempted a relationship with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl musician who had this in her collection. The morbidly haunting synth chords of An Eagle In Your Mind, like slowed down panpipes, evoked such cavernous woe that I had to turn it off. Even though I was fascinated by electronic music, I wasn’t quite old enough to enter this haunted house.

Boards of Canada, a duo from Scotland, are now pretty much my favourite band. They build downbeat soundscapes using warbly synths that resemble early 80’s educational shows. The results evoke a majestic sense of nostalgia and longing. To me, they are the natural evolution of electronic music – from Popcorn through to Guru Josh, Fat Boy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. While these artists feel dated, BoC are maestros of emotionally intelligent retro futurism.

Sharp, rhythmic beats drive past like highway lines. The synth bed is a holographic backdrop of green screen glow. The fuzzy blue atmosphere of harmonisers, glitches and bleeps draws your third eye toward the sonic horizon and beyond. The precipice between consciousness and dreams, where logic turns abstract. An emotional kaleidoscope.

Telephasic Workshop sounds like an audio tour of a comatose brain, where electro pulses have been turned into vector diagrams and fed back into a laboratory Moog. Vocal samples are spliced with precise silences, creating an eerie strobing effect, as a chugging beat pounds rhythmically over a lava phaser of minor pulses. At the height of the intensity they drop a robotic voice pronouncing “Boards of Canada.” For a band who have since refused to tour or do interviews it’s an oddly self-serving DJ watermark, reminding us who is responsible for this atomic deconstruction of melody and sounds.

It’s not all queasy-listening. Roygbiv is the closest thing to a single. There’s something instantly recognisable about it, like the themesong to an children’s sitcom about a crime solving robot and her wizard apprentice. The thick, ominous synth is dusted with a naïve, warbly jingle and 80’s hyper-cheese jazz piano. It’s like audio déjà vu, your brain is sure you’ve heard it before but has no record of it. While The Campfire Headphase is my favourite album, Music Has The Right To Children heralded a decade of ’80s fascination.

MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW (1970)

I remember when I first saw a Miles Davis album in my muso mates CD collection. On the cover was a very cool black man playing a trumpet. I was scared. This was music for people who studied music.
“Oh man….Miles,” they say, on a first name basis and everything.
“Yeah…” you reply…turning the CD over and nodding as if gaining further understanding. “…just wanted to make sure….yep it’s got….oh love that track….classic….”
“It’s like….man…it’s rock and jazz…it’s loose and totally structured at the same time…. so ahead of it’s time…”
“yeah…like Lenny Kravitz.”
“….?”

Bitches Brew is regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time and probably is. But it’s too far out for me. I’m from Tasmania and am white and grew up in the ’80s and don’t take drugs and I really like choruses. I’m more Kinks yeah? Like, I’m so uptight I can’t even listen to that much Hendrix. I’m just not invited to those kinds of parties. I ruin it for everyone…standing in the corner with that look that says ‘when does the singing start?’

I guess I could take everything I just said about Boards Of Canada being meditative audio balm for people who like to think themselves into oblivion and apply it to this – but I can’t. This is music for your stoner housemate to vacuum to on a Sunday afternoon. It’s important, but not necessarily…riveting…like musical quinoa. A super music.

THE KINKS – VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY (1968)

There is no band less served by their ‘Best Of’ than The Kinks. For years I thought of them as nothing more than the You Really Got Me and Lola guys who probably invented distortion according to my Uncle Ken. Like The Ramones are just a t-shirt, I only knew this album from the badges. Village Green is a cult classic generally regarded as The Kinks best, although in the year of its release it was a critical success but commercial failure

Frontman Ray Davies was all about social commentary, writing songs about old friends settling down and places he missed from his childhood – a refreshing change from the ‘I’m sad / I’m sorry / I love you’ lyric school. It’s a playful album for people who have long left home and are finding the real world kinda disillusioning.

“We are the Skyscraper condemnation Affiliate/God save tudor houses, antique shops and billiards/Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do”

Perhaps Davies was forty years ahead of his time, predicting the nostalgia obsession of Gen-Y (who helped kick-start a Kinks revival in the early 2000’s led by badges.) Through the course of the album Davies takes on Religion:

“Big Sky looks down on all the people who think they got problems/They get depressed and they hold their head in their hands and cry/People lift up their hands and they look up to the Big Sky/But the Big Sky is too big to sympathize”

Growing up:

“Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago/If you saw me now you wouldn’t even know my name/I bet you’re fat and married and you’re always home in bed by half-past eight/And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and you’ll have nothing more to say”

Faster Louder 2012

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TREBLE TREBLE – SELLING OUT

 

In 2002 I wrote a song called Mcrock about the commercialisation of music. It included the lines:

Band names are brand names
Hit singles are radio jingles
Listen to my pitch
To scratch the advertising itch.

The rest is a list of sponsorship wordplays suggesting a reality where bands could be branded like sporting teams.

Limp Biscuit think Arnotts
Weezer Quit Australia
Lucksmiths think The Dicksmiths
Pink think Crayola

And so on. I’d just read The Sell In by Craig Matheson, a book about the commercial success of Australia’s alternate bands in the 90’s. It introduced me to the business side of music, and took some gloss off my idolised image of rock gods, painting them as real people, battling within an industry, existing long after the gig had finished.

I wrote ‘McRock’ to satisfy my clinical addiction to puns and as a response to the catchcry of bands Selling Out. It was a term born in the 90’s, with Gen-Xers revolting against the corporate glam of the 80’s. It most fittingly sums up the rags to riches story of Grunge, with Nirvana becoming so popular that designer boutiques were selling $300 flannel shirts. An irony so awkward it eventually proved fatal.

Since the 2000’s the term has become more ambiguous – disempowered through the parody of those who over-wielded it. This is coupled with a newfound empathy towards the hardships faced by the post-Napster musician. The criteria for selling out is an interesting sliding scale. While it’s most easily triggered when a band lease their music to a commercial or film, it can also mean accepting corporate gigs, signing to a major label or just playing any venue bigger than The Tote.

I remember an anecdote from the early 2000’s where David Bridie fans were outraged to hear one of his songs on an Australian TV commercial. In his defence he stated that the money he was paid allowed him to record an entire album. To his fans it was like letting the national flag touch the ground – he had sullied the sacredness and purity of his music, letting it be molested by the filthy paws of corporate enterprise.

There is always an assertion that music groups and companies are at opposite spectrums of the commercial world. Bands are denimed Gods while businesses are chinoed leeches. With ‘Mcrock’, I was suggesting that the line separating the two could be as thin as the money its printed on. In some ways, aren’t bands just small businesses with a trusted name and product to sell? I’m always bemused that the ABC aren’t allowed to promote corporate brands (or feature films), yet they can plug bands all they want.

At Uni my best mate Adam was a muso who despised the idea of ‘the business side of things.’ Just the idea of charging money for a gig gave him a headache. Most musicians start off writing songs in their bedrooms for spiritually organic reasons, but by the time you’re reading about them in the papers, they have usually crawled into bed with a subsidiary of the corporate world – the media machine. Everyone uses publicists, from Big Tobacco to Little Red.

In the mid 2000’s, Starbucks started Hear Music. It behaved like any other record label, but one with its own chain of coffeehouses to spin and stock their artists. This year Starbucks will release a Sonic Youth compilation, with tracks selected by celebrities such as Portia DeRossi and Michelle Williams. As Thurston Moore said in a Pitchfork interview “Starbucks is the new record store, right?” In 2008 Hear Music released Sia’s Some People Have Real Problems. Was this selling out or selling in? Perhaps Craig Mathieson should write a follow up about the rise of Indie, or should that be Die (Dependent music.)

It seems to me that Gen-Y are more comfortable with entrepreneurial musicians fraternising with the business world. A combination of social networking and reality TV has pulled back the curtains of the industry and made consumers less wary of the mechanisations. When Feist’s ‘1-2-3-4’ was featured in an Apple ad, the media seemed mostly excited for the positive flow-on for songwriter Sally Seltmann. Savvy advertisers have made the pill easier to swallow, enlisting designers to on-sell the Indie aesthetic so that the ads end up looking more like film-clips.

Compare Cabury’s original Favourites Ad from 1998 to the recent one featuring a soundtrack by Broken Social Scene.

VS

There seems to be more acknowledgement of musicians running a business and not necessarily sucking capitalist cock. This is coupled with a (worrying) acceptance of advertising culture, as if we’ve been bombarded for so long our brains have evolved (or devolved) to stop fighting it. Our current obsession is with ad craft, from Madmen to The Gruen Transfer. We’re not as cynical about being advertised to, but it had better be cool or funny.

As record labels tumble and bands learn to support themselves, income generated by commercials is not only a vital source of revenue but a valid form of airplay. We all know Jose Gonzales’ cover of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeat’ from the Bravia Bouncy Ball ad, but in Australia few have connected Melbourne band The Triangles’ ‘Applejack’ to The Jetstar Song. ‘Applejack’ has also been featured in a Spanish beer commercial, where it spent 14 weeks in the Spanish charts. Indie has been devoured by the corporate sector, with a vast array of ad soundtracks consisting of ukuleles, handclaps and Torrini-esque voices.

In the early zeroes, there was naivety about how much money musicians made. I remember being shocked to hear that while Sunset Studies had sold around 20, 000 units, most of the members of Augie March still had day jobs. I also heard that JJJ favourites Superheist were ridiculously in debt and Ammonia had quit the music business out of disgust for how poorly Eleventh Avenue had sold. As a sheltered suburban boy I couldn’t fathom it – didn’t being played on JJJ mean you were rolling in it?

I can safely say that this isn’t the case. After ten years of trying to live off what I do, I never fail to be amazed at how little money there is to be made in music. Last year I embarked on a 21-date national tour with a song on high rotation, national profile and highly regarded supports The Boat People. I sold out Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart, had 200 payers in Sydney and Perth and still managed to lose several thousand dollars. Publicist, airfares, accommodation, van hire, petrol, posters, advertising, booking agents and Pad Thai’s added up like Greece’s economy. (And that’s not to mention Shock going bankrupt last year, erasing the royalties of 3000 single sales.) I should have stuck with social work.

Last year I was offered a suitcase full of Cash (rare Johnny Cash 7-inches) by Metlink to write and perform in an ad promoting their ‘online tools.’ My initial reaction was trepidation. My indie-cred was everything to me, and I’d made a career painting myself as an independent misfit with grandparents for a record company. I went ahead, largely due to my ethical approval of the company and the poetic symmetry of promoting a public transport based album. Playing irony as a get out of jail free card I wrote a parody of my own song, Northcote (So Hungover). It might have been more effective if the video hadn’t come out before the original. To quote Humphrey B Flaubert I was paid “fairly close to the amount that Radiohead spends on buying friends” and used it to fund the real Northcote video. Of the 41 YouTube comments for Metlink only two mention selling out. “Man, he sucks now, his old stuff was awesome. Sellout corporate whore” is countered with “starving for your art is so 1800s. Cut a hipster some slack. Fat doesn’t give away skinny jeans for free.”

As an independent (or signed artist) to be given a large sum of money that you don’t have to pay back is a gold chariot on struggle street. Mike Edwards, front man of 90’s band Jesus Jones, wrote an article on selling out for the Guardian. He says: “like other teens, when I was younger I formed a notion about the purity of art versus payment for art (this correlates inversely with the number of 15-year-olds paying mortgages) that made it an Offence In Rock to accept an honest month’s pay for an honest three minutes’ work. Even then there seemed to be some contradiction between punk ideology and the Great Rock’n’ Roll Swindle.”

Sometimes the problem is the fans themselves. In our secular society music is religion and musicians its deities. Bands are placed on sky-high pedestals and then cursed with an almost sexual fervour when they fall. The fan / musician bond can be as unhealthy as any one-sided relationship. The band is compacted into a status symbol and worn as a personality patch. Songs become hymns, holding a lifetime’s joy and pain in their peaks and valleys. When a band starts out the dynamic is like the movie Misery. The fan wants to keep one of their legs broken so they can have them all to themselves. When the band have the audacity to become successful and escape the fan becomes a cranky martyr, moping around like a cockney mother who’s children have abandoned her.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the security fence. Musicians must be living the dream, making lots of money, sleeping with groupies, running around fields in music videos that they don’t have to pay for, right? Under this idealised payload the band are entitled to zero exemptions. No crying poor. No gigoloing their songs out to commercials – punishable by street-cred death. While the mechanical ownership lies with the songwriter, the spiritual ownership is split between thousands of consumers, judgemental as anything and representing themselves in the court of hard knocks.

The offending band’s spiritual assets will be frozen, their airbrushed image forced to sit in a court of emotional law, copping a self-righteous spray from the prosecuting fan, a furious torrent of ash, beer, snacks and tears gushing like stormwater – years of daily frustrations projectile vomiting on the offending set of All-stars. A jumbled alphabet soup of pop culture fridge magnets expressing a shakespearean cocktail of lust, jealousy, class-hatred and self-loathing. Like a child yelling at a cheating Dad. I BELIEVED in you! I NEEDED this!

They are some of the most brutal lessons in life:

People are not gods.
Everything comes back to money.

As one frontman I spoke to said “Sell out? We wish.” If any publicity is good publicity then perhaps any airplay is good airplay. As we plug ourselves further into the sold-out Internet, the line between single and jingle, band and brand continues to blur. I foresee a future where bands list themselves on the stock market. Finally, fans can go full circle and stake financial shares in their acts. Gigs become general meetings where they can yell their criticisms directly to the tight-pants CEO.

To quote the closing lines of ‘McRock’:

PJ Harvey World Travel.
Taco Belle & Sebastion
Midnight Oil of Olay
And I couldn’t think of one for Eminem.

Mess+Noise 2011

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TREBLE TREBLE – IS INDIE BRINGING SEXY BACK? 

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.

Mess+Noise 2011

 

SEE ALSO – FROM POPCORN TO INFINITY AND BEYOND (2020)

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  1. Pingback: From Popcorn to Infinity (and beyond) | Justin Heazlewood

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