Monday, 28 September 2009

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Now! That's What I Call A Post About Pop Music

I basically believe that we close out the Noughties with chart Pop Music in an exceptionally healthy state, having emerged fully and finally from the spectacularly dire early to mid-Noughties Atomic Kitten / Westlife era. While my taste in old music has become ever wider and weirder and more esoteric as I've gotten older, my taste in contemporary music has solidified in recent years into an unashamed love of good mainstream pop music, and a general disinterest in, and suspicion of, middle-of-the-road 'alt' rock.

Maybe this is due to a greater sensitivity to (and distrust of) marketing & packaging, and a greater difficulty accepting the cynically disingenuous marketing of 'high art' rock product as 'authentic' or 'serious' or 'real' than the relatively accurate marketing of pop product as 'sexy' or 'fun' or 'new'. All (perhaps not all - certainly most) pop music is presented by its accompanying media in such a way that it appeals to a particular audience, playing on that audiences sense of identity, politics, sub-cultural allegiances etc. This is as true of The White Stripes as it is Cascada.

So I guess at some point you realise that the only real, worthwhile pleasure one can take from listening to a piece of pop music is via a willingness to go with an honest, gut-reaction to it, and that an honest reaction to a piece of music has nothing to do with style or politics (either personal or global) or what subculture you identify with, or who produced it, or what type of drums they used on it, but some impossible-to-fathom, incomprehensibly complex arrangement of experiences and your DNA that generates in your soul an undeniable sensation when presented with that sound. It's entirely arbitrary, and once you've accepted that it makes life much easier. "This person looks cool / sexy / exotic. Their song has a great melody / beat / sound. It makes me want to sing / dance / cry / fight." Is it really any more complicated than that? Madonna has spent huge swathes of her career trying to 'matter' in a variety of 'serious' arenas, but her instruction of 'And you can dance!' from the beginning of 'Into The Groove' is a more important statement than anything she's ever had to say about gender politics - it is a license to let go, permission to indulge unselfconsciously in the almighty power of pop music. Maybe even a timely reminder, a nudge to po-faced Mojo Magazine orthodoxy "...uh, you can dance, y'know. This is meant to be a party."

British pop music reached the millenium in a dire state, and wallowed in this depressed funk throughout the late 90s and early Noughties. Dudes on stools ruled, and it wasn't cool. Westlife remain the single most hateful pop group of my lifetime. Indeed, one cannot describe Westlife accurately as a pop band at all, lacking as they do any of the basic qualities common to that formula, ie: exciting songs, charisma, style, a sense of humour, relevance, ideas, etc etc. They just sucked, and continue to suck. They are anti-pop.

Elsewhere we suffered through endless hi-NRG Abba covers and tinny re-hashes of the Max Martin /Jive Records sound, so effective on Britney ('Oops I Did It Again', 'Crazy') The Backstreet Boys ('Backstreet's Back') & NSyncs ('Pop!') best records, but copied so weakly by British producers, and fronted by entirely talentless, pre-programmed popbots (Billie Piper's 'Day & Night' was one notable exception to this rule, being a pretty convincing British Britney rip-off.) Many of these boy/girl groups mighta had one or two acceptable records (S Club 7 had a couple of fine Motown pastiches, and 'Don't Stop Moving' is a pretty good disco track. All Saint's 'Never Ever' was a very effective 90s redux of that old girl-group sound. Rachel Stevens put out a couple of good Goldfrapp rip-offs), but overall they churned out vast amounts of garbage. The Spice Girls & Take That were genuinely powerful pop acts, vastly exceeding the limits of their formula through force of personality and the occasional great single, but the dozens of dozy Spice-Lites & Fake Thats that appeared in their wake were largely brainless, cynical business exercises exhibiting no love of pop music whatsoever. The top pre & post millennial US acts were hugely creative RnB / Hip-Hop performers like Missy Elliott, Eminem & Destiny's Child, undeniable talents, artists producing wildly original and exciting work. We had Steps & Atomic Kitten, non-singers dancing badly to cheap sounding music.

At some point in the last two - three years British pop has shook itself off and re-energised itself as a world-leading market force, back where it should be. The emergence of MOR Alt Rock - Foo Fighters, Green Day, the diabolical Red Hot Chilli Peppers - as the preeminent mega-selling unit shifting genre of choice gave pop a kick up the allowed room for pop to be the alternative choice, to be the place where the real creativity and excitement was happening. Enter Dizzee Rascal, Amy Winehouse, The Streets, Klaxons, artists making monumentally catchy, smart, NOW music. Acts ticking lots of boxes instead of one, or none, and existing on the fringes of the mainstream seemingly for a matter of minutes before being absorbed into the charts and the tabloids. After a shaky couple of years dominated by the horribly un-cool Pussycat Dolls, the US has produced Lady GaGa, whose shtick is more provocative off-Broadway drag-act than teen pop puppet. She's like a twisted, bizzzaro-world cartoon caricature version of the Blonde American Pop Princess, like if Britney Spears had missed out all the early cheerleader stuff and cut straight to the drugs and sex breakdown bit. GaGa is the perfect End Of The Noughties act, equally at home on the main stage of Glastonbury as she is performing at some LA hipster industry hang-out, a calculating, fame-obsessed suicide blonde train-wreck, lassooed to a thumping, buzzing electro-pop beat, whose career thus far is framed more like one of those semi-scripted Mtv reality TV shows than something approaching actual reality.

I'm not here to defend mainstream pop music, because it doesn't need defening, and anybody prepared to ignore or dismiss it on principle is a moron. There have been many, many great pop singles released in the past year, and it's simply worth noting that we appear to be in the middle of a genuine golden age for exciting, intelligent, fun mainstream music. These things go in cycles, and it won't last. A new Westlife / Atomic Kitten era will inevitably befall us within a couple of years. Maybe even a couple of months. So enjoy this pop era while you can...and remember: you can dance.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

LL Cool J Performing 'Mama Said Knock You Out'. On Mtv Unplugged. In 1991. And it's really good.

So back in 1991 they did this MTV Unplugged Hip-Hop Special, featuring De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J. I guess any hip-hop fan has a sorta wierd relationship with the Rapper + Live 'Rock' Band set-up. It smacks a little of making a concession to rock orthodoxy, like there's tacit admission that until a rapper ditches the DJ and gets a real band he still has something to prove to Mojo Magazine or whatever. I'm not a purist by any stretch, but I don't like seeing daft rock prejudices pandered to, plus live band-based hip-hop usually translates as terrible jazz-funk anyway.

This video, however, is undeniable. Forget the absence of two turnatbles. This is just a stone cold killer live performance. LL tears the roof off the suckah. And check out his insanely lame looking band...who absolutely nail the heavy Marley Marl funk of the original. With acoustic guitars. And not enough clothes. And stupid hair. And a guy at the piano who looks like a biophysics student. Apparently these guys were called Pop's Cool Love, and according to their Last FM bio had 'most in common with the short-lived 'funk metal' scene'. Of course they did. Anyway, whatever, they play the hell outta this so good luck to 'em. It's all so brilliant, and brilliantly unlikely. You can find videos of the other groups performances elsewhere on youtube, but none come close to matching this fearsome rap-rock throw-down.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Chillin' With Charles Addams

I've been an Addams Family fan ever since I was a kid. It's a franchise which, over 50 years, has rarely put a foot wrong; wonderful original cartoons by the mighty (and mighty spooky) Charles Addams, a brilliant TV show with a Top 5 All Time theme song, an ok-ish Hannah-Barbera adaptation, a couple of genuinely great family movies, some well-loved video games, and The Best Selling Pinball Machine Of All Time. They used to show the live action TV series 'round 6-ish during the week when I was in my teens, in that time slot which was home during the nineties to so many great cult US imports on BBC2 (Def2) & Channel 4; Mission:Impossible, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Eerie Indiana, the Waynes World sketches from SNL, Daria, Blossom, Boy Meets World, Ren & Stimpy, cartoon showcase Liquid Television etc etc. During the Summer Holidays in my late teens they'd sometimes show it mid-morning-ish on BBC2, 'round the same time they'd show re-runs of The Fugitive. I'm quite sure much of this stuff was regarded solely as cheap filler by the British networks running them, but the chance to watch classic US television shows or weird new cartoons (from that nineties Golden Age first-wave of postmodern cartoonery - you remember how good The Animaniacs was? Or The Tick?) was one I treasured greatly as a kid.

And I always thought The Addams Family were particularly cool. I've been reading alot about Charles Addams recently. Mostly his work appeared in the New Yorker (the first in 1932), occasionally in TV Guide and a couple of other publications. The creator of the the all-together ooky family was quite a character himself, living a life fogged with bizarre myth and legend. Certainly the 'wyrd', macabre Addams persona was partly an affection, but even so there enough freaky facts to satisfy a dirt-digger like myself. Addams had a tombstone for a coffee table and collected crossbows. He was known to dress for dinner in a knight's suit of armour. His last house was nicknamed The Swamp, and he used to shoot at rats from his bedroom window. He dated Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jackie Kennedy. (How crazy is that?) He got married to his third wife in a pet cemetery and wore sunglasses throughout the service. Brilliantly, he was known to his friends as 'Chill'.

The image at the top of the post is of an album packaged in Addam's artwork, a supernaturally-themed folk LP from 1957, by Dean Gitter. I have no idea whether the album is any great shakes, but a Charles Addams sleeve makes it a must-have piece of Americana. The haunted house depicted is a typical Addams image. It seems that as a kid growing up in New Jersey, Charles had a bit of a thing for sneaking into old abandoned houses, and was infact once arrested, aged 9, for doing so. The creepy, broke-down, boarded-up suburban spook-house remains a resonant image in US pop culture, from Psycho to (one of my faves) The 'Burbs...the idea that some awful darkness might be lurking behind the white picket fences and sunny Sunday bake sales of Elm Street resonates within our society still. Addams tapped into this troubled fascination, and 80 years after his first New Yorker illustration, the durability of his work suggests we remain suckers for the creepy and kooky side of the American dream.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

"We're off to see The RZA..."

So I just booked my tickets to see The Duchess in York. That's right. RZA. From the Wu Tang. Playing at The Duchess. In York. I guess you could say I'm pretty psyched. To put this in context, The RZA isn't a regular Duchess booking. A regular Duchess booking would be, say, 'The ELO Experience: A Tribute To ELO' or 'Henry Priestman (Ex-Christians)'. It's that kinda place. RZA playing The Duchess is just nuts. This is a musician, a rapper, a producer, an author, a soundtrack composer, a...thinker... whose weight of influence on hip-hop culture - and by extension all pop culture - is second to none. The Wu Tang introduced a whole new vocabulary to rap music; Eastern philosophies, chess, Kung Fu movies and martial arts...they just came to the game with tons of new, interesting ideas, and The Kids & The Critics both loved 'em for it. This man produced every significant Wu Tang release, from the Clan's mind-wigging debut to solo joints like GZA's untouchable 'Liquid Swords'. He produced the soundtracks for Tarantino's Kill Bill double-feature, and Ghostdog: Way Of The Samurai, maybe my favourite movie of the Noughties, and a film totally indebted in style, tone and subject matter to the world created by RZA and the Wu Tang. He starred in Coffee & Cigarettes alongside Bill Murray. He's still putting out dope material - the recent (and strangely under-promoted) Chamber Music LP (most of which is performed live by New York soul group The Revelations) features some of this years very finest old-skool flavoured hip-hop. Few individuals have contributed more to my musical and cultural education than RZA, and I can't wait to be in the same room with him. Wu Tang Forever.

RZA's 'Tao Of Wu Tang' tour lands at the York Duchess on the 5th of October.