On Unsuccess

'Civilisation ought to be superficially pigheaded, suspicious of all subversion, so that rarity can leap in with her accordion and startle the anatomy lesson. If the sadly underrated is kept sadly underrated, righteousness and a sense of urgent mission stay on the side of the deserving.'
Nicholson Baker, 'The Size Of Thoughts'

'Fucking middle class wanker!' exclaims Creation's Ed Ball when the Japanese researcher, in the middle of interviewing him for a 10,000 word dissertation on independent labels for the University Of Liverpool's Institute Of Popular Music, shows Mr Ball print-outs of opinion columns from the website of Momus, a former Creation artist now consigned to an oblivion of unsuccess.

When the researcher reports this reaction to Momus, comfortably perched on the balcony bar of his favourite middle class progressivist institution the ICA (sponsored by Toshiba), he spends a moment or two wondering whether he really has overstepped the mark. Has he offended key people in the British music industry with his attacks on Oasis? Will he ever eat lunch in this town again? Is his searing indictment of irrefutable popular taste not in fact the kneejerk reaction of a lonely expatriate ex-public schoolboy, the whimpering lisp of a sissy English Literature graduate? Isn't Mr Ball (a Creation recording artist whose latest single, 'Love Is Blue', was very widely advertised) correct in ascribing these opinions to the pernicious reach of British social snobbery, of which questions of style and taste are mere extensions?

And in wondering this, Momus exhibits the defining trait of his species, the split nature which makes him sing, with some conviction, 'I'm wrong, the world is right'. By signalling his self-doubt so publically, Momus opens himself to attack, and indeed joins in all attacks upon himself with hearty abandon.

He can, in fact, imagine himself liking and finding invaluable this firey-tempered and controversial Mr Ball, a person radically unlike The Flatterer he remembers, on stickily uncomfortable Creation afternoons, comparing him to Antonioni and Polanski while, in back rooms, his ejection from the label was planned.

In his odd identification with his enemies, he is willing to go so far as to agree with the criticisms of those jewish friends who advise him that in claiming to be a jew without having suffered the persecutions of jews, he is stumbling dangerously close to anti-semitism. Both jew and anti-semite? Why not?His self-loathing attains Kafkaesque proportions, and as a result he feels more jewish than ever. (Perhaps now, though, he has learned to keep his racial identifications to himself).

But like a wandering jew, no, strike that, like a minor greek god, banished from the Mount Olympus of his Creation recording contract, forced to live in endless exile in one country after another, hated by all but the Japanese for his fidelity to the insights of his uselessly superior intelligence, it seems only right that Momus should be denied easy fame, snubbed and dissed, omitted from awards ceremonies, made unavailable at retail outlets, and remain unmentioned in the popular music press.

For someone of Momus's somehow immensely arrogant self-doubt, such things are no doubt the bittersweet source of a perverse pleasure. (See the Momus entry in the Guinness Guide to Indie Rock for the first published advancement of this theory).

The critics who believe this apparently see Momus as an agent provocateur, a canny marketeer of moral outrage handing out obscenities in much the same way as Mr Ball, to promote his not-entirely-successful single, handed out free blue flowers to women outside tube stations. True, albums like 'Hippopotamomus' lacked the dialectic of balance, and conservative critics, waiting in vain for that whiplash moment when long-internalised guilt reasserts the social order the perverse provocateur has overturned, rolled up their sleeves, waded in, and did the hatchet job themselves.

But mostly Momus has not been a provocatuer (the misspelling, a freudian slip of the finger, can stay, I like it: the tuer or murderer who kills, like Raskolnikov, in order to provoke moral debate). He has been a hydra, a many headed monster, with each gorgon mouth a method actor pronouncing a different opinion, and several bending across to bite a brother's head off. He is neither in favour of nor against necrophilia, he is neither left wing nor right wing, he is not an advocate or a jeremiah but a many-headed hydra, gabbling and bickering in a corner, copying the voices he hears around him, trying things on, trying things out, articulating everything and believing nothing.

We must imagine him happy in his schizophrenia, content in the knowledge that his failure is the inevitable result of the complexity and originality of his methods.

How then do you hurt a Momus? If even his unsuccess (sweetened, it is true, by a string of hits sung by beautiful oriental girls) strikes him as a sign of his pertinence, his unspoken and unspeakable importance, his utter danger to civilisation, his fascinatingly complex self-doubt, the basis of a whole new aesthetic of perverse breast-beating self-accusation? If you are gorgon-slayer, how do you hurt the bastard?

Quite easily, actually. You can hurt him with friendship, with hope, with accommodation.

First, be his friend. (Enemies can never hurt him, since they are enemies). Secondly, adopt some of his style and his concerns, either fortuitously or by some odd, greedy symbiosis. Finally, gallop in triumph to the top of the pop charts with the formula, proving that there was nothing really subversive or indigestible about Momus, whose unsuccess was just the result of:

-bad timing

-a limp will

-the wrong haircut

-the wrong accent

-a dubious jawline

-being 'agitated, organised and over-educated'

Above all, you must say to Momus, as did Jyoti Mishra of White Town, 'If I can get to number one, so can you!' (Ouch! You mean I've been wasting my time all these years devising ingenious reasons why I will never, ever have a number one single, get my face on the cover of the NME, or be the featured guest in a Radio 1 session?). Or you must promise Momus, as did Anthony Reynolds of Jack, that his mission now is to become globally famous in order to put his underrated heroes firmly on the map in every interview. (You mean you can make people listen to these themes when I, their inventor, couldn't?).

Oh, the sweet pain of it! Slain by my friends, after years of stony indifference to the attacks of my enemies!

1997, a year in which Momus seems to be coming back into fashion, but which may well prove to be his utter undoing, has brought a final savage jab at his idea of his own vindicating invisibility. Manfred Mann have covered his song 'A Complete History Of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17 - 24)' on their nightmarishly polished and techno-funky new album.

Momus is rumoured to be in hiding in London. It is perfectly possible that, overwhelmed by this too-sudden acceptance, he has committed seppuku.

Momus, London, March 1997

NOTE: Since posting this column, I have been deluged with E mail saying 'Don't do it, Nick! Life is good!' I would like to thank everyone for their concern. I am fine, perhaps a little spiky this month but basically happy and well. Please remember at all times that Momus is a game with masks played by Nick Currie and others. Momus is art-play, and even the name-calling and the verbal violence that happen in a Momus column happen without real insult being intended or real blood being shed. I, Nick Currie, have nothing but affection for Mr Ed Ball, the Creation artist, and sometimes in fact listen with pleasure to the songs of Oasis. Momus, however, speaks with a different voice. Momus is an avatar, a political figure, an 18th century man of letters writing a 20th century 'Dunciad'. Momus is shadow play, a piece of art. And art, as Eno said, is where you can crash the plane and walk away. Life is much more precious, but much less free. I love them both, and I don't intend to abandon either just yet.

Nick Currie

Previous Columns:On Columns, On Flatness, On The Couch, On The ROM, On Quality, On Image, On Oasism, On Scenes and On 1996.