Friday, September 19, 2003

Having made it (as far as Simon's Blogs of note, anyway). I'm stopping this blogging lark. Work's getting busy, and I want to focus on film stuff. I know - I've always known - I'm good at reaction and consumption of culture, but it's the trap I always fall into, talking about other people's work instead of working myself. Blogging, for me, is the highest form of consumption I can imagine, but I should start producing...

If you desperately need to know what I think about the next Dizzee Rascal release or next year's Oscars or the Booker noms (big up, BTW, my Lympstone homegirl Clare Morrell), feel free to email me.

>Comments [] 5:09 PM

Friday, August 29, 2003

I was going to write a thing about Martin Amis when Yellow Dog comes out, but this interview gives the very strong impression that it'll be so knickerwettingly embarrassing a read that it'll taint my views on the rest of Amis's work. Night Train was fucking awful (did he think no-one would notice that he stole all the dialogue from Homicide?), but YD sounds unbearable - txt spk? The greatest living british prose stylist using txt spk, 4 years after everyone on the planet got predictive text? That's like Phillip Glass dropping a funky drummer sample into his next symphony.

So I'm writing the Amis piece now, while I still have some distance, and in the weeks after reading Experience and remembering why I idolised him in the first place. Rachel Papers was probably the first "grown-up" book I discovered on my own, at about 12, and it had a profound effect on me (not all good, incidentally - scabrous satires on adolescence should probably read after it). Amis, along with Gibson, Reynolds and, later, Foster Wallace is one of the key influences that shaped how I write. I devoured the rest of his books over the next few years, but none of them are as wholly satisfying as RP. It's the fact that he's writing from his own life, for probably the only time until The Information, that brings that incredible prose style to life - the last characters he wrote that aren't just puppets are in RP. It's what I noticed in Experience - going back to writing about the one subject he really loves, the endlessly fascinating experience of looking at himself in the mirror (because writing about your father is the same as writing about yourself, surely) that make it so much more satisfying than his other books.

Anyway, I guess I'd have called myself an Amis obsessive until my early 20s - I spent a week's dole on the hardback of The Information, waiting outside Gower St Waterstones for opening time the day it came out and reading the whole thing in Russell Square over the course of the day - and I wouldn't hear a bad word said about him. It's a very late teenage thing, confusing nastiness with truth, and one that Amis never seems to have escaped. As I got further away from that life, stopped living in East London, got a job, got a life, took some E and started to realise that pleasure was in itself valid, Amis' relentless wallowing in the dirt started to feel a bit, well, fake.

Seeing his house on Primrose Hill didn't help. I'd always known the Amis joke - "what's the shortest book in the world?" (incidentally, he should have called Experience My Struggle; it would have made him seem self-aware) - but it was seeing the extreme high bourgeoise comforts he lived in that made me pause. There's something vile about his picture of the "working class" - Keith and his darts - it's so full of real dislike, more than his attacks on middle class tagets are. This was, of course, around the time of the first stirrings of Britpop which was hugely Amis-influenced (Justine gave Damon a copy of London Fields yadda yadda yadda) and shared that joint fetishisation/disgust towards workingclass men - workingclass women don't appear - that Jarvis Cocker skewered in Common People, the finest piece of social criticism in a pop song I know.

So I drifted away from Amis. I gave my hardback first of Information to a girl (a book about misogyny, self-hatred, failure and impotence as a pulling tool? What the fuck was I thinking?), hardly bothered to read any of his later books. Now I'm half-interested to read his new book, but sure it'll be awful. The sheer fuckheadedness of his "I don't read critics" pose infuriates me - in what other field but the arts would the commentary of experts in the field be routinely responded to with "la la la I'm not listening"? - and I can't abide his constant invoking of Nabakov and Bellow and Roth. It's like he's not content with having a famous father, he wants every great writer to be his father.

But that's Amis. He's still Charles Highway, still an adolescent, constantly writing draft after draft of the "Letter to my father", examining his spots and his top ten anxieties. Still locked in the sweaty basement wank-pit of the teenage boy.

>Comments [] 12:23 PM

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Arse. I'd just got around to thinking enough about dizzee to write about him, and now I'm supposed to be listening to the Junior Boys? Will I never catch up? It's like the day all the indie boys in Exeter cut off their bobs after Bobby Gillespie showed off his bowl cut and white jeans on the cover of NME. I hate missing the memo. (Like the JB's, btw. The mellow bits of ar kane, flashes of Ultra Vivid Scene. Like el records' version of 2step. But they'll need to sound less like Japan if they're gonna last).

Where was I? Oh, yes. Of the Mercury nominations, the only albums I've bought and kept are Boy in Da Corner and Permission to Land. So I'm going to talk about them together. They're diametrically opposite, of course, but they both sound like they're based on a schoolroom sense of exclusion. Dizzee Rascal (and what a fantastic, dickensian name that is! He should be the leader of a Flash Mob, which should be a bunch of ragamuffin situationist thugs roaming East London like something out of Malcolm Mclaren's wet dreams) still sounds like he's just been expelled. That bright resentful kid who just didn't give a fuck.

His vision of London, paranoid, heartless, broken down and hopeless, is a voice we're used to hearing from the US, but I've never heard it on record from over here before. he sounds, all the time, sullen and nervous. Even when he's showing off (and he's got a great line in diss rhymes), he sounds more defensive than agressive. The flow is wonderful, too - it's as flexible and muscular as the best US rap, but utterly, authentically (a word I wanted to avoid, BTW) London.

The music is wonderful, of course. Although the noises on I Luv You sound like bits of Pretty Hate Machine, which is a worry. Those echoey bell-like vaguely gamelan-like chimes all over the place and the crushing beats underneath. It's also, by the way(and I don't want to sound like the recent crop of celebrity Morrissey-endorsers), hilariously funny. Both within the rhymes ("Sweet like Tropicana!") and in the sampledelica around the song - the pinky and perky MCing in 2 Far, that flat Northern rewrite of Ice-T's "Dopest, Flyest, OG pimp hustler gangsta playa hardcore motherfucker living today" boast - it's shot through with sly wit. Which seems to have been missed in the rush to hail his grim urban reality-porn (which I don't think it is, honestly - the street vignettes strike me as exaggerated noir stories rather than Ice-style "reality").

Speaking of reality, are The Darkness kidding? I thought so, at first, but I think I was dead wrong. They don't help themselves by opening the album with the silliest, most Tap/Tenacious D track, "Black Shuck". It's funny, I guess, but the joke's at the expense of a genre I know absolutely fuck-all about, so it loses some of the impact. But then you get into the run of singles - "Get your hands off my woman", "Growing on Me" and "I Believe...", and it all changes. These are just brilliant, brilliant pop songs. There's something heroic about expressing the furious, heartbroken gawky naivity of the teenage nerd (see, exclusion again) in the music they actually listened to. Lyrically, they could be on Sarah records (yes, even "Get your hands off of my woman, motherfucker" is self-effacing and shy enough), but very few school nerds actually listened to twee-pop. Metal was much more their bag.

The basic pleasure of a great idea for a band (metal expressing the real emotions of classic metal fans), though, would get me through about three listens. There's far more going on here than a Gay Dad-style concept band. They rock, obviously, and I never had a soft metal phase, so just cranking them up and grinning isn't a nostalgia thing. But it's Justin's voice that gets me. There's something of Billy MacKenzie, and lots of Kevin Rowland in there - those singers who just pushed weak voices to the edge of hysteria and beyond.

Of course, they look bloody stupid. And Jen may decide to divorce me now - her reaction on my confessing buying Permission to Land was along the lines of "Look, I put up with Tatu, but you're not telling any of our friends about this. You're a freak. Seek help." So if anyone has a cure for the Darkness, I'm willing to listen.

>Comments [] 5:24 PM

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

And anyway (talking as I was about Ellis) CCRU do that whole thing much better. Or I think they do. I've always found their stuff incredibly fascinating but borderline incomprehensible, I must admit. K-Punk I read and enjoy and get almost all of, but ever since I first started reading Sadie Plant (about when The most radical gesture appeared) I've had this feeling that this is something I must and should get, but somehow fundamentally don't. Ah, well.

>Comments [] 5:37 PM

On reflection, This isn't much good. I've read Transmetropolitan (Ellis's legendary comic) and I enjoy most of his email updates (see his site), but his tone here is just dated and too gonzo for me. I seem not to like the Great Comic Writers that are raved about. Ellis, Moore, Gamain, Morrison, Stephenson, Meville, Marshall Smith. All of them Moorcock's children. I can see the appeal - I loved a bit of Goth, and combining it with cyberpunk is all very well - but it all reads like 1980s Ministry lyrics translated to literature. Except Neil Gaiman, who reads like All About Eve Lyrics translated to literature with a few shallow references grafted on. It's boring. It's the literary equivalent to...There was a short film, "Goths" on Channel 4 last year, in which Mark Heap played Balfour, the sinister black clad Lord Goth, living alone in a scary mansion with skulls and sacrificial equipment everywhere. At the end, it was revealed that he was an accountant called Dave. That sums up the whole cybergoth scene, for me. As Gibson put it, the least dangerous people are the ones who make a big show of their studded leather rabidity.

Of course, the fact that Ellis attacks, in passing, the infinitely superior Ken McLeod, whose Star Fraction sequence are about the only essential and relevant "cyberpunk" works I've read since 1990, also puts me off.

In fact, I have a new name for this stuff. If the tight, short, allusive, political sci-fi writers like Gibson, Sterling and Womack, who took Ballard and Chandler and used them as a prism to look at the brutalist 1980s , were cyberpunk (and it's a wonderful term - it sums up everything great about them), then this lot, baggy, indulgent, smugly "experimental", self-congratulary, hugely influenced by the far superior Moorcock, in love with the technological trappings of modern life but, really, saying nothing about the state of the world now (and if SciFi isn't about now it's bullshit, isn't it?) are CyberProg.

>Comments [] 12:17 PM
Standing in the Shadows of Motown

This is the first of the sequence of excluded musician reunion documentaries (Buena Vista, One Day in Harlem) I've managed to see, and I loved it. The Funk Brothers were the Motown house band from 1959 to 1971, and played on everything from Please Mr Postman to Ball of Confusion before being unceremoniously dumped when the studio moved to LA. This documentary is aimed at redressing the widespread ignorance of their role - an early sequence shows how music fans simply have't heard of them, despite owning dozens of their records.

The band, now in their 70s, were local club jazz players recruited to add swing and virtuosity to the Motown sound, and the film is at its best when they describe their early days and rave about each others talents. Reconstructions work less well, but the anecdotery is top notch throughout.

Unfortunately, the makers were obviously unable to get the rights to use Motown recordings or much archive footage, so the majority of the music is recorded at a contemporary reunion gig. The Brothers are still ferociously tight, but some of the guest vocalists seem to have been chosen to prove the films thesis that, because the musicians were so fantastic, "Deputy Dawg could have made those records hits"

. And this is the weakness in the film - yes, the Funk Brothers are incredible virtuouso musicians. But the reason those hits sound so incredible isn't just that. It's the songwriting, the vocalists, the arrangements and, most of all, the discipline that subordinated all those elements to the goal of creating a perfect three minute pop song. Virtuosity on its own isn't enough to make brilliant pop records - Ynwe Malmsteen is a virtuoso. It takes virtuosity, great tunes and the willingness to submerge one's ego to the needs of the song to create something of real genius. Chaka "Khan, Chaka" Khan's closing butchering of Whats Going On shows how relentless showboating, even by a truly great singer or player, can make even the very greatest song into an endurance course for the audience.

>Comments [] 10:31 AM

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

This is just because I need to pick this link up from home. But if you need to record Realmedia streams to MP3s on a Mac (like for BBC radio outputs...) this is the feller.

>Comments [] 2:11 PM
This isn't a linky blog, but a new Warren Ellis book is worth linking.
It's quite good, if you like gonzo postcyberpunk stuff. Which I do.

>Comments [] 12:07 PM

Monday, August 11, 2003

Film of the Week

Pirates of the Caribbean.
I love pirates. The idea of these suave thugs dressed like 1980s pop stars, sailing huge ships around robbing stuck-up naval types of their stolen gold in between drinking heavily and flirting wth barmaids - and that's what pirates were really like - is immensely attractive. For some reason, however, Pirate films tend to be awful. OK, I love the Burt Lancaster one, and I have happy memories of Swashbuckler, the deranged 1970s attempt, but since then there's been a drought.

Until now. POTC is, without doubt, the silliest and most entertaining film I've seen this year. The basic setup - kidnapped girl, rivalry, dastardly villain and swaggering amoral hero - is basic swashbuckler stuff. But it hasn't been done this vigorously or with this much style since Richard Lester's Musketeer films (more of which, later). I'm not going to precis the plot, because that's dull and irrelevant - this is all about characters and setpieces. And what setpieces. From a balletic sword duel to a proper broadside-and-boarders sea battle to the most audacious rescue from the gallows since Robin Hood, each one is a little gem. A film hasn't enjoyed its own action sequences this much since Spielberg's '80s.

But the characters make or break a film like this. Fight scenes are great, but the great action movies are based on character and relationship. And this is where POTC beats all comers. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush are one of the great epic pairings in film history. They take a film which could be a mechanistic FX ride and humanise it by sheer overacting and force of will. From Depp's unforgettable entrance he's fantastic, preening, swaggering and staggering through the movie, a glam rock take on Errol Flynn. Rush brings Long John Silver alive - by the end of the film you almost pity him - and tears into the role with equal relish.

This, finally, is the answer to all the drunken conversations about "what happened to the great kid's films? Why does no-one make Goonies or Raiders or young Sherlock Holmes or Star Wars any more?". They do now.

Oh, I forgot - Keira Knightley does an OK Kate Winslet impression, and Orland Bloom manages not to bump into anything.

>Comments [] 1:36 PM
Record of the week

(Oh, and Nick, seeing as you read this, why doesn't the style sheet work on this page?)

All the talk of Dancehall/Ragga/Bashment has led me to pick up my first compilation of the stuff since the early '90s when i used to get anonymous mix tapes from friends in South London. And "Real Badman" by Buccaneer, Bounty Killer and T.O.K. is the most deranged pop single I've heard in months. Based on a tinny synth riff on the Imperial March from Star Wars, they pull the masterstroke of chanting along. It's a brilliant effect - genuinely funny and a bit frightening at the same time. You can see armies marching to it. Then the flow rips in and out in between military drumbeats and lo-fi synth stabs. It's ace.

>Comments [] 1:01 PM

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Morrissey again? I'm a little bored of thinking about him (see below) but as I said before, what's amazing about him is howhe prefigures so many aspects of '90s britculture, but his version of them is so much more complex and problematic than Blur's or Ritchie's. He recognised (OK, embodied)all the nasty confusing feelings behind Cool Brittania (the blatant sexualisation of tough guys, the desire to go back to a time before all the blacks and the asians messed things up) a decade before the cleaned up version happened. Look at Blur for a minute. They were, circa Parklife, Madness and the Specials bleached, the social comment stripped of its multiracial dimensions.

Anyway, Orange Juice were always better than the Smiths.

>Comments [] 5:31 PM