Tuesday, 30 June 2009
Troy McClure-type smoothie in a sports jacket who nobody in England has ever heard of is hanging out for no reason on the set of a low budget action movie in Hollywood, California. To camera:
"Hey there! I'm here on the set of Final Death Blow 3: The Deathening. Since the earliest days of Hollwood, movies have had stars. Sometimes these stars are real people, like Steve Gutenberg or Fatty Arbuckle or Free Willy. But these days the real stars are the stunts, the hold-on-to-your-popcorn feats of expert engineering, precision timing and all-out GUTS that really reduce an audience to a mindless mass of gibbering automatons willing to go see any old piece of crap just as long as there's a helicopter crashing into an oil tanker at some point in the trailer. Join me now as we go behind the scenes of...HOLLYWOOD'S MOST DANGEROUS STUNTS!"
Cue credit sequence consisting of multiple explosions, bearded men with walkie-talkies, buildings collapsing, heavy stars 'n' stripes action, more explosions, guys on fire, and HOLLYWOOD'S MOST DANGEROUS STUNTS spelt out in huge metallic block lettering. Which then explodes.
And I'm like: 'awesome'.
Monday, 29 June 2009
They appear in the sky like this bubble of magical Victoriana floating across suburbia. You hear that deep, rumbling woosh of the burner, and your eyes instinctively turn to the heavens. You tell other people in the house which is the best window to see them from. When they're real close, it's super-exciting. They're without purpose. They're not going anywhere in particular, except up and down. They're populated by people who, for the duration of their dreamy basket-ride, have left the buzz and fuzz and noise of society far below. Those are lucky people, you think. They're just drifting.
Sunday, 28 June 2009
"The five-day retreat is being subsidised by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, and is intended to provide an alternative to faith-based summer camps normally run by the Scouts and Christian groups...Dawkins said it was designed to "encourage children to think for themselves"...instead of singing Kum-bi-ya, they will sit around the embers belting out 'Imagine there's no heaven...and no religion too"...there will also be a £10 prize for the child who can prove the existence of the mythical unicorn."
Ugh. Apart from sounding like the wackest 'holiday' ever, this project just seems like a major own-goal for Dawkins and his disciples. Critics of hardcore atheists often accuse them of essentially making a religion of atheism itself, pointing to the inherent hypocrisy of demanding that people reject the dogma of religion while insisting on the primacy of their personal credo. Rational sceptics typically respond that rational skepticism does not represent a point of view, it suggests a method for arriving at one - atheism is the position arrived at at on the issue of religion having followed that method.
For a number of reasons, the foundation of an 'Atheism Camp' can only serve to undermine the credibility of the Dawkinite claim on a genuine 'think for yourself' policy. For starters - you've founded a camp. A space where children are sent by parents to have their children sold on a particular way of looking at the world. How can a situation where kids are removed from society for a period of time and gathered together to be told there's a right way of engaging with the world and a wrong way of engaging with that world not damage a legitimate culture of free-thinking? And the idea is so cute. Like the Atheist Campaign's 'There's probably no God' posters, the Atheist Camp concept is sort of based on a pun, like - 'Hey. Christian kids get sent to God Camp and sold on God. So get this - we're gonna run an Atheism Camp and sell kids Atheism. And instead of Kum-bi-ya, they're gonna sing Imagine.' The whole thing is bunk. It's self-defeating and disingenuous. Finally, kids are gonna resent being sent to this dork academy just as much as they would any faith camp you could send 'em to. They're gonna leave and run straight into the arms of Jesus.
Saturday, 27 June 2009
I cannot claim, as so many millions can, that Jackson made a major impact on my conscious in my youth. I was aware of him, of course, because it was impossible to not be. I had 'Bad' on cassette, but it didn't get played nearly as much as the first Kylie album or my 'Collection Of Beatles Oldies' tape. I never practised moonwalking or sang Beat It into a hair brush. It seems to me, like so many things, that if you didn't get into MJ when you were a kid, you probably never really got into him. That sense of wonder, of magic...it puts a kink in your mindspace that never gets ironed out. If he got you, he got you early, and never let go.
So I can't honestly say that I've ever been a Jackson 'fan', much less a fanatic. There are elements of his career that I actively have a problem with, and his music - unlike the music of Elvis or John Lennon, whose careers are equally pot-holed with highly questionable behaviour - never held enough sway with me to temper those reservations. I am, in all instances, naturally allergic to reverence in pop culture, the deification of artists, and few artists have inspired more unquestioning, blind obsessives than Jackson, while even fewer did more to actively encourage this particular type of fanaticism, through iconography, symbols and signs, than Jackson. I find this difficult to excuse.
It is pointless, however, to judge Michael solely by the excesses of his adulthood. History shows that international fortune and fame on the scale experienced by Jackson is something which simply cannot be coped with entirely successfully by a child. Judy couldn't handle it, Michael couldn't handle it, and Britney is currently not handling it. The process damages people, and it is fair to say that it clearly damaged Michael, for various specific reasons I'm not going to rake over, more than most. One can only understand the excesses of his adulthood with reference to the excesses of his childhood. It doesn't make Earth Song acceptable, but it does mean many of his adult accesses were just sorta sad, pitiable, the product of a warped sense of reality and a shocking lack of self-awareness, rather than deliberate, manipulative megalomania. Look at what he did to his body, his skin, his face. These are not the actions of a well-balanced individual.
Michael Jackson was a fragile, unhappy man. He wasn't a criminal - no court ever convicted him-, and he wasn't a saint. He made some wonderful pop music. He made some awful pop music. He was a hell of a dancer, maybe the greatest ever within the pop arena. He was black, he was white. He made the biggest selling album of all time. He revolutionised music video, but made terrible movies. He was a beautiful young man, but paid surgeons to cut and slice away at his body until it became unrecognisably ugly. His band's first hit replaced the Beatles at Number One in America, and eventually he became so rich and powerful he was able to buy the Beatles. He was 50 when he died, but ageless by any regular standard. He altered the fabric of pop music at an elemental level. Where he went, millions followed. Michael Jackson was undeniable.
Thanks to my fiance Rebecca and her sister Claire's childhood obsession with MJ, my indie-snob issues with Jackson have thawed in recent years, and I'm happy that when he passed away on Thursday, I had already made my peace with his place in pop history. I've always loved the Jackson 5's 'ABC', and a chance encounter with it on the radio last year ("Man. Does pop music get any better than this? Those voices. That fuzz-bass. That drum-break. This is awesome.") prompted me to start digging around his J5 material, and early solo work. I found lots to enjoy; Philly soul, pop-psyche soul, like a junior Al Green, or a mini-Temptations. They even cut some great straight soul stuff before joining Motown. For what it's worth, here are my...
Top 5 Old School MJ Fave Raves
.1. ABC (The Jackson 5, 'ABC' LP, 1970)
.2. Ain't No Sunshine (Michael Jackson, 'Got To Be There' LP, 1972)
.3. Big Boy (The Jackson 5, pre-Motown debut single, 1968)
.4. I'll Bet You (The Jackson 5, 'ABC' LP, 1970)
.5. Euphoria (Michael Jackson, 'Music And Me', 1973)
So here's the pre-Motown Jackson 5, with 'Big Boy', from 1968
Thursday, 18 June 2009
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
So the weird thing is that when I started writing about how the Aesthetics Of Imperfection influence popular art I actually had no intention discussing 'art' at all, but rather how the banal, practical limitations placed on the production of purely functional things can engender in that functional thing a powerful, iconic aesthetic the rival of any cultural artefact produced with an artistic intent. The reason I was thinking about this subject was because I'd been digging the rogues gallery of celebrity mug shots at thesmokinggun.com, and generally thinking how cool they were, and what a strong visual presence they have. (But mainly: "oh, man! Look at Yasmin Bleeth! Cocaine possession? Wow. And check out Shia LaBeouf! 'ignored a security guard's demand to leave a drug store?' What the hell kind of crime is that?!")
The photographs above were taken, as you can read, in Cleveland Ohio, on November 3rd, 1970. The lady throwing a defiant radical fist in the air is movie actress and political activist Jane Fonda, who had been arrested for assaulting a police officer. The main thing about these shots is that Warhol himself couldn't have done any better. Some dumb Ohio cop with an instamatic blasts off a couple of ultra-cheapo black and white snaps, and produces an image packed with more drama, sex and history than any 60s mod artist could ever hope for. Hollywood-noir? The Dark Side Of Celebrity? Pop Art? You got it, and it's the real deal, not some double-thinking post-modern pose. Check out the Man In Black, pictured here on a drugs bust in El Paso Texas on October 4th, 1965:
In some ways I guess these images capture popular figures at their lowest ebb, unguarded, un-polished, un-airbrushed, the rock-bottemest of rock bottom, as real as these unreal people get, and in an age obsessed with The Celebrity Meltdown, these images resonate strongly. On the other hand, if the celebrity's persona fits, mug shots are potentially as legend-defining as any image of them could be, brimming with outlaw romance. The man whose most famous performances were held in maximum security prisons, the man who sang that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die...could a criminal mug shot, especially a mug shot in which he looks impeccably bad-ass (that quiff! That suit!) be any more perfect? And Fonda's reputation ('Hanoi Jane!') as bone fide queen of radical chic could hardly be better served than it is by that steely stare and the defiant, fuck-you right-on fist. No posed glamour shot could ever say more than this image.
The dimensions of the image, the grainy black & white photography, the face-forward and side-on portraits, and the criminal record board combine to produce a unique look, a consistent, instantly recognisable visual aesthetic. The repetition of the image (albeit from different angles) is I think particularly visually satisfying, and I'm sure I won't be the first to see a parallel here with Warhol's screen print repetitions.
It is not inevitable that The Mug Shot will become the definitive image of a celebrity-criminal tabloid story; there is no internationally famous OJ Simpson mug shot, for instance. But where the mug shot and the story come together perfectly, the mug shot, a picture not taken by a member of the paparazzi or Annie Leibovitz, can come to define not just the particular incident it records, but an individual's entire career. Just ask this guy.
Sunday, 14 June 2009
Dig that break at 0.41. Makes me wanna rumble. This whole soundtrack is absolutely killer, coming fully loaded with bags of everything you want out of a 60s hammond/fuzz/breakbeat biker movie soundtrack LP. Which is basically loads of hammond, fuzz guitar and breakbeats. Check Jeff Simmon's 'Naked Angels' LP for similar fuzzy biker-flick kicks.
I was 21 years old when I bought 'em, and people will baulk, but I'd never heard 'Dark Side Of The Moon' until I dropped the needle on it that morning. I'd heard Pink Floyd...lots of Pink Floyd, infact, including 'Echoes' and 'Relics', and treasured my VHS copy of the hilariously overblown 'Live At Pompeii', but for whatever reason had never come into direct contact with 'DSOTM'. It pretty much wigged my mind for the next couple of months. 'Parallel Lines' is practically a perfect package, as neat, vibrant and bright a summation of American pop music from the early 60s to the late 70s as one could hope for. And Bush's 'Hounds Of Love'...is simply as good as any record released during my lifetime. It's pop, but it isn't. It's oddball, I guess, but never alienatingly so. It exists in it's own parallel dimension. Some artists make music so individualistic, so beyond any reference points other than their own, that they become a genre unto themselves. Kate Bush is like that. There's music, and then there's Kate Bush music.
Kate Bush is stupidly cool.
Saturday, 13 June 2009
Early in my Film studies it was drawn to our attention that the development of sound, and then colour, were treated by many serious-minded filmmakers with suspicion. They argued that the lack of sound, or the monochromatic nature of film, were what gave cinema it's otherness, were precisely what made cinema a unique art form. Colour and sound were advances only good for making film more like real life - and this is an engineer's goal, not an artist's. On one hand, the attitude is almost unarguably wrongheaded, surely informed by sheer reactionary snobbery as much as anything else. But on the other hand, in a broader sense, I can see there was a legitimacy to their fears. I would point to video games as a perfect example of how a relentless, single-minded emphasis on making the product more life-like has robbed a medium of its drive towards...anything else? Space Invaders is iconic, it has a look all of its own. The reason it has a look all of it's own, and thus the reason that it is iconic, is that it was made using bullshit technology. Clearly it was cutting-edge at the time, but that isn't the point. The point is that it is distinctive, unique, and looks un-real, because available technology permitted nothing more / less. As consumers, we have been encouraged to base our criteria for how impressive we consider a video game's graphics to be on how 'realistic' they are - "wow! It looks just like a movie!" In painting, photorealism was a particular genre largely defined by a handful of American artists operating between the late 60s and mid-70s; in video games a focus on photorealism has come to define the entire medium, at least in the mainstream. Space Invaders is abstract by default, I guess in the same way that hieroglyphics were abstract by default. Are we waiting for a Playstation Picasso to break open the medium?
So on principle, I agree that an all-consuming desire for photorealism is unhealthy for any visual art form, just a desire for sonic perfection is potentially misguided in the field of pop music. Money and time and energy can be spent just as well on other aims. But I would argue that ultimately the anti-colour film brigade actually had little to fear, just as my concerns about video games are unnecessary. At every step of technological evolution, the gap between perfect life-likeness and the technical limitations preventing perfect life-likeness exists, and wherever that gap exists, however slender, a particular aesthetic is produced. The engineer's ideal of photorealism is, I would argue, inherently unachievable, it is doomed to failure, and therefore this window of aesthetic possibilities will always be available, even unavoidable.
Finally, I think it is worth noting that the imperfections of one artist's work often become models of perfection for subsequent artists. Contemporary pop musicians can spend their entire lives trying to make records that sound the same as Strawberry Fields Forever, and this cannot be achieved by exploiting cutting edge technology. It can only be achieved by being wrong, in precisely the right way. A young garage band who want to make a record that sounds like The Velvet Underground's Sister Ray must aim for gonzo, bug-eyed sonic imperfection on a grand scale. A recording session conversation is likely go along the lines of "No! The organ isn't distorted enough! The vocals are too coherent! I don't even wanna be able to tell if there are drums on the track at all! Muddier! Muddier!" The imperfections have become fetishised, idealised. What has persisted is the abject wrongness of the Sister Ray sound.
So these things go full-circle. The Jesus & Mary Chain, for instance, may have aimed for the perfect imperfection of Sister Ray, but they missed, they fell short of that ideal. In doing so, they minted a different sound, one filtered through their own experiences, talent & technology. Now kids are trying to sound like JAMC. They will also fall short, and so it goes, around and around, ever onwards - the Aesthetics Of Imperfection is an on-going dialogue between the present and the past.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
So, there's a ton of mighty tasty stuff on every album he made between 1969 and 1973 - but I particularly dig his first LP, 'Black & White', and two cuts in particular. 'Willie & Laura Mae Jones' hits a home run with awesome, swirling 'Ode to Billy Joe' strings, flute flourishes, clattering drum fills, a heavenly gospel-soul choir an utterly deranged fuzz guitar coda. 'Don't Steal My Love' is a wild, all-chugging, all-frugging wah-wah wig out monster, pure menacing drone, definitive swamp rock, with added tambourine. With due respect, this is '69, and if Tony's sound was setting the benchmark for funky, get-live populist roots RnB, The Beatle's 'Let It Be' missed the mark by a mile.
Like Ike & Tina Turner, Tony has a back cat so good and so varied and so damn danceable that I can imagine going out on a DJing gig armed only with his records in my box. It would appear that he's been re-recording a bunch of his stuff recently, and good luck to him or whatever, but the new versions are lame, and it's the originals you want. If you haven't hooked yourself up with Spotify yet, do so, and treat yourself to Tony.
Monday, 8 June 2009
Mr Knievel was a one-man merchandising machine, establishing the modern cross-format marketing blueprint of ruthless, exploitative, shameless, ubiquitous product endorsement - if Krusty the Clown's empire of junk ("I heartily endorse this event or product!") has a precedent, it is Knievel's. He practically invented expanding-the-brand, and he was very, very good at it. Crucially, he was able to replace words, or his own image, with a logo - the Evel Knievel italicised star-spangled '1'. This is true branding genius. How many sports stars have achieved this? A universally recognised symbol...Michael Jordan maybe? But even the Nike Jordan logo is silhouette of Jordan, so that doesn't really do business in the same way.
And still the brand sells. Even while I've been Googling Knievel this evening I've seen about a dozen different new & original '70s products (t-shirts, mugs, records etc etc) I really want, and that's beside the pinball machine, and despite the fact that I know he was basically kind of a macho blockhead, and wasn't really any sorta 'sportsman'...but he looked cool, and his merchandise looks cool, and really that's the point. You buy into an image, a concept, a look, rather than the man himself. Evel might have wanted to be remembered as a great daredevil, but his real pop cultural legacy has been Krusty Burgers.
Sunday, 7 June 2009
"I'm an old Kansas man myself. Born and bred in the heart of the Western wilderness. Premiere Balloonist par excellence for the Miracle Wonderland Carnival Company until one day while performing spectacular feats of stratospheric skill, never before attempted by civilized man, an unfortunate phenomena occurred. The balloon failed to return to the fair."
I'd also like this logo to say 'Est. Kansas, 1939' beneath it in smaller lettering. That's right.
Sampled by...amongst many others...
Public Enemy - 'Louder Than A Bomb'
Eric B & Rakim - 'Eric B Is President'
A Tribe Called Quest - 'Jazz (We've Got)'
EPMD - 'Strictly Business'
Pete Rock & CL Smooth - 'Return Of The Mecca'
Rolling Stone journalist's account of his time embedded with US marines during the 2003 Iraq invasion - NOW A MAJOR HBO SERIES OR WHATEVER
Hyped on the cover as operating on the same level as Micheal Herr's Vietnam War record 'Dispatches' - pretty much the highest accolade anybody could apply to any work of art as far as I'm concerned - I was, perhaps inevitably, sorta disappointed with Wright's book. The publishers are right - 'Dispatches' is the bench-mark for this book, I just don't think it meets that bench-mark. It's a good book, but it ain't a permenant brainscape demolisher like 'Dispatches'.
Wright had a much tougher war to write about than Herr did, no doubt about it. Both literally and figuratively Iraq is a much drier war than Vietnam, with a much smaller palette of colour and experience for a writer to draw on. I'm not a war-freak, so when I read about 'Nam I'm reading about it in terms of social history, in terms of having some sense of what the war meant both for those fighting it in the jungle, and against it America. You cannot understand Muhammad Ali, James Brown, the Chicago riots, Kent State, the MC5, The Wild Bunch etc etc without understanding the Vietnam war. It defined the tone of western popular culture, and western popular culture defined the tone of the war. As Fancis Ford Coppolla says, 'Nam was "a rock and roll war."
The Iraq war, on the other hand, is not a 'rock and roll war' on any level - WW2 was clearly way more rock and roll than Iraq, and Richard Hooker's wonderful and vastly underrated 'M*A*S*H' makes a strong case for Korea as a pretty swinging scene. This lack of rock and rollness simply makes a story about the young men fighting the war a harder sell, particularly to somebody with my particular dumb, low-brow sensibilities. There just ain't enough kicks here - and I guess that's the point. Wright's combat troops aren't hunkered out in the field for months on end smoking drugs, preparing for the black power revolution back home and grooving to Jimi Hendrix. The troops of Wright's novel have no access to alchohol even, radical politics are nowhere to be found, and the major pop music touchstone is Avril Lavigne. Instead of actual Playboy Bunnies to entertain them, they have one copy of Playboy. Clearly the lack of an energised popular culture back home, and the political vaccum the troops appear to be operating within, is kind of the point. Like - 'at least the guys out in 'Nam had The Temptations; these guys have to make do with Avril Lavigne. It's a bunkrupt culture - what are they even fighting to defend - MTV?" There's a real blankness here, and while I appreciate this is precisely Wright's point, it doesn't make it any more satisfying to read about.
The Vietnam War has been dangerously over-fetishised in books, pop songs and movies, I suppose to an ultimately unhelpful degree...but godammit, I woulda just dug it if Wright had decided to do a little myth-making of his own. He is a Rolling Stone journalist afterall. Perhaps there just isn't the latitude, the freedom, for any journalist to do this now, and moreover, perhaps the material simply isn't there, and military-press relations are just very different today etc etc. I guess I was just left thinking...how would ol' Hunter S have faired out in Iraq? That's the story I was hoping for. Fear And Loathing In Baghdad.
"We were somewhere around Basra on the edge of the desert when the drugs started to take hold..."
The bottom line is that Iraq is either still waiting for its 'Dispatches', or else it is simply not possible to write a 'Dispatches' about Iraq, it having been fought and lived so fundementally differently to previous international conflicts invloving US troops. I'm still hoping for the former, and in the meantime, 'Generation Kill' makes for an adequate stop-gap.