Being older - and 36 is a pretty advanced age for a person as young as me to have reached - doesn't feel to me like advancing along a linear, logical path into deeper wisdom, experience and complacency. It feels more like what I'd call the experience of Random Access.
Random Access is what replaces memory and experience in the post-modern world. Because I don't really look or act my age, because I hang out with very young people, and because I've never really made much of a mark on the world, I lack the manner or the aura of an elder statesman. The fact that I have an honours degree, have made 12 albums or travelled all over the world tends to come as a shock to people, who assume I'm about 23 and just arrived from some suburb. As Franz Kafka said about himself (before his tuberculosis had the last laugh), I'm sure I'll go straight from gawky adolescence to white-haired old age with nothing in between.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
To paraphrase Mick Jagger's devil, show me any city or any pop group and I'm probably there, somewhere just beyond the borders of the official photograph. I'm implicated, and in the parallel universe that is the Scene, a person bearing my name with much the same face I have now is thinking the Scene's thoughts, playing guitar in the style favoured by the Scene, getting in with the Scene, falling out with the Scene, drinking beer in the art school bar with the future stars the Scene exists to launch.
But because I was never quite trapped in the glare of the flash, or preserved as a cultural specimen between layers of newspaper in someone's cuttings collection, I was free to slip off and be part of the next movement, the next Scene, in the next city, the next year. That's Random Access too, knowing when to slip away from the party. (It's a sad feeling, slipping away, but you've got to be a bit Buddhist about it, and remember that nothing lasts forever).
I will never be the star any particular Scene launches, I know that. But generally the star will respect my work, and we'll meet again a long time later when I'm fellow-travelling with another Scene and the Star will drink a little too much and start reminiscing about the old Scene that made him famous. He'll still be talking about Holly Johnson and David Sylvian, and he won't know much about Citrus or Baby Fox because he stopped reading the music press when they stopped writing about him.
But the star doesn't need to worry that his nostalgia will isolate him. One of the most interesting things about the original yet conformist blocs we call Scenes is that they never really go away. They have their moment, and that moment appears to be eclipsed by others that follow, but if it was clear and sharp-edged and full of integrity, a Scene hangs in space indefinately, waiting to be revisited. That's Random Access too. I'm thinking of the Sex Pistols tour or the Velvet Underground reunion or the Warhol / Factory Scene, which will always be with us, or the remastered CD of early Fire Engines that's playing on my CD-ROM drive right now, teleporting me back to Edinburgh 1981, a scene I was very definately part of.
I've been a fellow traveller with a lot of interesting Scenes and known a lot of very cool people who were at least six months ahead of their time, and were rewarded with six years of fame for it. So I thought it was high time I made a list of the Scenes I've winged past, like Voyager using planetary gravity to wing past perfectly habitable planets on a trip to god knows what wilderness or infinity of silence.
I probably shouldn't count seeing the Flower Power documentaries on TV in 1968 and instantly becoming a flower child, with a sticky postage label on my forehead marked 'Love', flowers in my hair, and a little guitar and bells my dad brought back from a trip to Poland. I was 8, suddenly rabidly susceptible to the virus called culture. And I shouldn't count my mod phase, when I used the word 'modern' all the time and had union jacks up on my bedroom wall, and, on a trip to London, saw Carnaby Street and a member of The Tremeloes on the street.
I was also still just a consumer of other people's Scenes when, at boarding school, Glam Rock hit me between my eyes like a painted thunderbolt and I fuzzed my hair back Ziggy Stardust style and dabbled with bisexuality in dorm orgies.
No, I really started joining Scenes when I dropped out of Aberdeen University (where I hadn't really fitted into a weird Bah'ai Creative Writing Group Scene) to form a band with the people from the Postcard Records Scene. The 'Sound Of Young Scotland' was the amphetamine guitar buzz of The Fire Engines and Josef K (and for once I actually took the Scene's drug-of-choice, speed, if only to stay up for all-night Monopoly games with Malcolm Ross) crossed with the wistful romanticism of Aztec Camera and Edwyn Collins' Orange Juice. We hung about in the Edinburgh art college, or the Tap O' Lauriston nearby, Paul Haig dressed in dark suits with the jacket tucked into the trousers and a hand effetely slipped into a side pocket. I was in utter awe of them all. I remember once running to a rehearsal with Josef K, who had suddenly become my band and tripping in my frenzy, ripping my baggy waiter-style New Romantic trousers. Will music ever be so exciting again?
We signed to 4AD but, despite supporting The Cure, never really made the Goth Scene, since we were doing high concept Socialist rock operas. It all fell apart quite quickly, and I went back to university.
The next Scene I joined was an odd one. It was centred around a label called el Records, an offshoot of Cherry Red, and it was all about fantasy and luxury with a bit of bossa nova thrown in. This was a scene of mavericks like the King Of Luxembourg (tangentially involved in both the David Bowie Beckenham Scene and the Derek Jarman / Andrew Logan gay Scene, therefore a very cool person) and Louis Philippe. We all adopted the names of gods, kings or emperors. We were utterly ignored at the time, but later scored big in Japan, a Tsunami I'm riding to this day through my work with Kahimi Karie. I think el was also a precursor of today's Easy Listening Scene, in somewhat the same way as Adrian Sherwood's experiments turned years later into the Trip Hop Scene.
In late 1986 I rather prematurely left the el Scene. I got headhunted by Alan McGee of Creation Records. The funny thing about the Creation Scene was that it was a chameleon or ghost scene. It simply duplicated the trappings of various past scenes: 60s Psychedelia, the New York 70s rock world of Patti Smith, the New York Dolls and Television, the Warhol Factory (of course), McLaren's version of Punk Situationism (McGee is a watered-down genius in the Warhol / McLaren mould). For that reason it was the perfect post-modern scene, if a little frustrating to be part of. It was all about recycling. For a year or so, when ecstasy and house music hit, Creation came up to date. Then they got bought out by Sony, McGee got toxic shock syndrome and discovered a pension fund called Oasis, and I got dropped after some heavy stuff from my personal life spilled over into the by-now not very bohemian Creation offices.
The Creation Scene was reverential and conservative in some ways, but it's probably the Scene I'm the most wistful about leaving. I was so different from them, but somehow I feel we all need each other. They need my intelligence, frankly, and I need their leather, their sweat, their rudeness, their sex. Without Bobby and Alan pressing their drugs on me I feel a little constrained by my own middle classness. (Even if I did always say no).
I didn't really feel part of Britpop, although St Etienne, Pulp, Elastica, Blur, Suede and Denim were all either my friends or palpably influenced by certain things I'd done (for the first time I felt that bizarre feeling of being respected and even copied by people who were themselves soon to be idolised).
Britpop was a middle class movement, safe and tasteful even in its attempts to mimic the working classes. I should have fitted right in, but somehow I needed more contrast, more conflict, more ideological guerrilla warfare than these pale careerists were prepared to risk. Where we came closest is probably in our common love for the French pop music of the 60s and 70s, something I'd been evangelising on behalf of (very much on my own) throughout the 80s. Suddenly people in Britain stopped laughing when you mentioned Gainsbourg, Hardy, Birkin and Dutronc. In the meantime I moved to Paris, which oddly enough put paid to my membership of the French pop appreciation Scene. Here you live and breathe the stuff, championing it is a waste of time. Here it's the mainstream, it's inescapable, and therefore dull.
I was never, ever, in any way a part of the New Lad scene, although I've seen Irvine Welsh read and once went to a football match. But I continue fellow travelling, as excitedly as ever, with Scenes.
Just now I'm participating in three. The Easy Listening Scene I treat with some detachment, since I've basically been into the stuff for years (but so, I suppose, has Mike Flowers). Count Indigo is a jolly nice chap, and it's a shame (but also a relief) that Rhythm King turned down my cocktail singer, Laila France, with her lush Francis Lai melodies. The Easy Listening thing is a good example of a scene that gets stifling because it's defined its formulas too clearly.
The Shibuya-Ku Scene is where I earn all my money. It's kind of peaking right now, so who knows how much longer it can go on. To those of you who haven't been to Tokyo recently, Shibuya-Ku is a phenomenon of west Tokyo centred around Cornelius, Kahimi Karie, and the Trattoria and Toy's Factory bands. It's very stylish and superficial, consuming all the trendiest things from the west and spewing them back all punky, pinky cute and surreal. I'm one of the superstars of Shibuya-Ku, Japanese tourists are always recognising me. It's weird, though, because I'm just a writer and producer for Shibuya-Ku, which is not the same as being an artist. And it's happening thousands of miles away, so there's nobody to buy me a drink and tell me how wonderful I am.
The final Scene I'm in is stranger, since it has no physical location at all. It's called the Digital Revolution, and you're participating in it right now. But really it's not so much a Scene as a new medium, all moist and hot like topsoil, in search of Scenes to mushroom in it. This is just the beginning, I tell you. We are entering a frenzied century of Scenes, Cults and Viruses. There's going to be so much Random Access it'll drive you insane. Take it from me, an experienced fellow traveller and timelord. It's going to be great.
Momus, Paris, July 1996
Previous Columns:On Columns, On Flatness, On The Couch, On The ROM, On Quality and On Image.
Footnotes and Asides
Scenes are also businesses. A lot of the Scenes I'm talking about here revolved around record companies. Scenes exist to launch stars. They also exist to make entrepreneurs rich. Andy Warhol, Alan McGee, Ivo Watts-Russell of 4AD were all entrepreneurs. When they threw parties it wasn't just for the joie de vivre, it was also essential promotional work. Creation Records was very much a case of 'Scots On The Make'. Alan McGee may have red hair and a flamboyant reputation, but he is surrounded by marketing people and accountants. As companies grow, they become less credible as Scenes. So it was that in the early days at Creation I was the party pooper who used to pester them to employ strike forces and get a better accounting system, but by 1993 it was my truly bohemian behaviour which shocked them, by now obsessed with efficiency and security in the office, into dropping me (I'd by then loosened up into a louche swinger). A more extreme example is the transformation of the Warhol Factory scene, at first a literal orgy of sex and drugs, into today's rich, respectable and highly conservative Warhol Foundation.
Johnny Come Lately. Your trajectory within any given Scene depends a lot on how close to the beginning you joined it. For instance, I 'joined' the Postcard Records Scene after it had imploded. Although I'm much the same age as Roddy Frame, Edwyn Collins and Paul Haig, they'll always see me as a Johnny Come Lately, an epigone, a camp follower, the same way they see Lloyd Cole. I was in at the very beginning of el Records, and therefore one of the draftsmen of its blueprint. Maybe that's why I'm working with Mike Alway to this day. On the other hand I reached 4AD and Creation a crucial two years into their lifespans. Record companies two years old are just past the first flush of credibility and trendiness, still young enough to take risks, slightly too old to have a single clear formula, more interested in expanding in new directions (McGee signed me at a time he was consciously emulating the Elektra label, trying to escape the formulas of 'indie music'). By year five or six, if the company is still going, it often reconsolidates around a simplified, commercially enhanced version of its original premise - in Creation's case, the second coming of 'indie' in the 90s, and the signing of Ride and Oasis. This is a conservative time when true originals start getting a bumpy ride.
Other Scenes I Made.I left out a lot of Scenes I'd group together as Gatecrashed Scenes, Scenes I was dragged along to more or less willingly by friends or partners.
The Troubadour Coffee House scene of London's Earls Court, where I flirted with the New Routes Acoustic Music scene through a club called God's Little Joke and the poetry scene by way of Terrible Beauty. Thanks, Tammy!
The Smash Hits Scene, which involved a lot of glitzy ligging in the 80s and the removal of my blinkers about the chart music of Stock Aitken & Waterman and the Pet Shop Boys. Thanks, Vici!
The Italian Eurocommunist Scene, in which me and my student friend Babis took many trips to Rome and talked about the Revolution a lot. This was largely a Posthumous Scene, since Gramsci was long dead.
The Gay Scene, which I've often cruised at second hand thanks to innumerable gay friends. At last Friday's Bal Gai, a techno rave on the Seine, for example, or at Amnesia in Le Marais, I fit right in (and get recognised and hailed, which is nice).
The Quick End Scene, revolving around a group of writers and musicians like Michael Bracewell, Lawrence Crane, Graham Fitkin, Don Watson, Kathy Acker (loose connections here with the William Burroughs / Paul Bowles Scene in Tangier), publisher John Calder, art critic Andrew Renton (who, as the organsier of the original Frieze exhibition, connects with the Goldsmith's New Minimalist Scene, which I connect with thanks to some Goldsmith's students called Words And Pictures. I wrote a manifesto for them called 'This is Ultra-Paranoid (Extra Spatial) Portable Art!'). I thank my friend Thomi for getting me into this Scene, which was pretty cool in the late 80s (even if rather too many expensive suits and black Japanese clothes were worn).
I could go on, but I don't want to sound like the world's biggest name-dropper and boast, so I'll leave you, dear readers, to go off and form your own clique.