On Shopping


It's Friday. I'm going shopping. I wake up early, my eye is throbbing, so I take 60 milligrams of steroids and a couple of codeines. The doctor has just told me these are highly addictive, so I experience a small thrill taking them, imagining myself a few months down the line issuing pathetic press releases declaring myself 'addicted to pain killers'.

Michael's Wonderland

Speaking of which, Michael Jackson was in Tokyo at the same time I was earlier this week. He told the press that Tokyo was Michael's Wonderland then announced that he would be opening a new theme park and leisure complex there. Several Japanese friends of ours saw him shopping with a couple of bodyguards in Tower Records, Shibuya.

Momus's shopping wonderland on this trip was La Foret, the complex of teenage clothes shops in Harajuku. They were having a sale, and every couple of metres people with loudhailers wearing T shirts saying 'Fuck' were bellowing the incredible bargains of this or that little shop, like the trendy Milkboy, where I tried on a pair of hairy combat shorts. On our second visit to La Foret we ducked in to avoid torrents of late hot rainy season rain, and the Decora-chan girls were all wet to the skin. It was too sexy for words.

Decora-chan

Decora-chan is the current teenage style in Tokyo, and its icon is Tomoe Shinohara, the gap-toothed actress and singer. I wrote a song for her earlier this year, a planned duet with Julio Iglesias called 'Happy Together'.

'Cling to me, I will escape in you,' sang Julio to the little squirt who has made wearing your underwear on the outside the height of fashion, 'the world's ugly morals are melting like ice cubes in gin'. The song was rejected as 'too delicate', and Julio and Shinorer are yet to meet.

Japan Is The New France

The reason my musician friend Gilles Weinzaepflen and I were in Tokyo was to launch several months of activity with Kahimi Karie, whose KKKKK album has just been released by Polydor. Later this year we'll be touring the States and Japan as her band, but this time it was a TV show and a sold out instore performance at HMV.

Japan, the British press solemnly informs us, is 'the new France'. In other words, trendy bands like Daft Punk and Air have now been replaced by even trendier bands like Cornelius, Kahimi Karie, Yukari Fresh, Takako Minekawa, Boom Boom Satellites, Pizzicato 5... Every major newspaper and magazine, from the New York Times through The Guardian and i-D, has run an article about Japanese pop within the last few weeks.

This was news to the Japanese, and they seemed pleased. To them, right now, Japan is more like the new Korea. The bubble has burst again.

But as we mimed our way through Kahimi's new single 'One Thousand 20th Century Chairs' on pop show Music Station (ten million viewers per show) alongside new romantics like Arc En Ciel (the Bowie-styled singer is an ex-boyfriend of the gorgeous actress and model Hinano) and a boyband dressed in satin jackets whose dance routine resembled some sort of gladiatorial combat performed by monkeys in a Chinese circus, it was hard to see the future of pop music. Just like anywhere else, Japanese pop is 90% crap.

Shopping

I'm not a big shopper. This time in Tokyo, despite the best exchange rate ever, I only bought a pair of traditional Japanese wooden sandals, a few Baroque records, and the complete works of Aranzi Aronzo, the manga sisters whose characters, cute stuffed animals, are photographed in real locations. (Typical plot: Mr Kappa, a kind of river creature, meets his friend Mr Fish, gets drunk in town, decides he must visit the ocean, falls asleep on the train, has an odd dream, looks once at the sea, then goes home to his humble tatami mat).

The best things I was given free: the complete works of Escalator Records group Yukari Fresh (from Mr Yukari himself), a tape of Takako Minekawa's remix record Recubed (from Takako herself), and of course a finished copy of the Kahimi Karie album with its immaculately-curated collection of songs by Stereo Total, Horie of Neil and Eliza, Katerine and me.

In fact my own Symphonies Of Beethoven (said to be Cornelius's favourite track on the album), a tribute to Kubrick's Clockwork Orange with Moog contributions from Add N To (X), the excellent new Mute signings, sets the tone for my forthcoming album, The Little Red Songbook.

Please Enjoy Anarog Baloque!

Today's shopping in London was geared around my album's guiding style, Analog Baroque. Since Riho Aihara will be shooting the cover photos tomorrow, and since I'm already doing interviews and talking about the record, I thought I should research all things analogue and baroque.


So I went out into London with the idea of buying:

An analog synth like a Korg or a Moog
Books about the Baroque in art, music, architecture
A wig like J.S. Bach's
The Epigrams of Martial
The records of Klaus Nomi

I've got so excited about this new style that I'm kind of sad that the record is finished. Maybe I can do another one in the same style. Maybe I'll make it a tryptich or trilogy, a kind of Analog Baroque Low-Heroes-Lodger.

A Short Account Of My Creative Procedures

I'm using digital snapshots of primitive analogue sounds (the drums are a beatbox I recorded on my digital camcorder from a home organ in Gilles' dad's house, mixed in with some samples from Cornelius and Neil and Eliza, the bass is the slowed down sample from a Nintendo Gameboy starting up, and the rest of the instrumentation is harpsichords and ARP analogue synth samples). I'm making the analogy between the early days of synths and the early days of tonal music in the western classical tradition.

The first song sounds like a troubadour air, and almost every song quotes some well-known classical theme like Beethoven's 5th or the 1812 Overture. This pop-classical kitsch is what makes me draw Klaus Nomi into the basket of references, which at the moment looks like this...

A Shopping Basket Of Shares In A Pantheon Of Forebears

Lyrics are indebted to Martial, the Latin epigrammist. Songs are all under two minutes long and tell a story in its barest outline, usually in the form of an anecdote or a joke.

Epigram is defined as 'a short poem ending in a witty turn of thought' and Martial is the master and originator of the form, which was also much practised in the Baroque period. Here's one I like:

All Rome is mad about my book:
It's praised, they hum the lines, shops stock it,
It peeps from every hand and pocket.
There's a man reading it! Just look -
He blushes, turns pale, reels, yawns, curses.
That's what I'm after. Bravo, verses!

I hope to say this about my record one day.

I was also thinking of Boccacio's Decameron, the epic of erotic stories set against the backdrop of the Florentine plague. And very definately of Pasolini's film The Canterbury Tales (a big influence on Monty Python's Holy Grail), a very muddy and bawdy take on Chaucer.

The adjective Rabelaisian should also be used of this record, which, in songs like Coming In A Girl's Mouth, sets new records of gentle explicitness, even for me.

And, like all my records, this one is also Brechtian. Think of his unfinished film script The Business Dealings Of Mr Julius Caesar for that classical mix of cynicism and imagination, not to mention his armoury of alienation devices.

And I should add the influence of shows like Hair (the American Tribal Rock Opera, one of my earliest influences, especially in songs like the splendid 'Sodomy') and Mary Poppins.

Parappa The Rapper, the Playstation game by Rodney Greenblatt, influenced tracks like MC Escher.

And the Danish Maoist sex manual The Little Red Schoolbook, which I pestered my parents to buy me at the age of ten after reading about its prosecution for obscenity in the British courts, and which was confiscated at boarding school because it starts with the phrase 'All adults are paper tigers', lends the album its title. A friend recently found me a copy, and it was like meeting an inspirational old teacher again.


What Exactly Is Baroque?



I'm glad you asked me that.

This interpretation of the Baroque sensibility owes something to Jeff Koons, who was the first person I ever heard championing Baroque in a sort of ironic way. And the cool and mysterious artist Matthew Barney counts for a lot here, with his latest film Cremaster 5 delving deep into the oddness of, say, Poussin's take on classical themes.

Baroque was the last purely European style. Musically it's defined by its adoption of the tonal rather than modal, which means that melodically it's usually quite simple, with a bassline and a single melody. The instrumentation is strident and relatively vulgar, the themes often secular. Monteverdi is perhaps the greatest baroque composer.

And as for Analog Baroque, which is simply any electronic take on Baroque music, there's Klaus Nomi, whose songs 'Death', 'The Cold Song' and his reading of Dowland's 'If My Complaints' are exquisite, and there's Cornelius, who does a drum and bass version of Bach on 'Fantasma'. And, perhaps, the Beastie Boys, who have a bit of a harpsichord thing going on in 'Hello Nasty'. And we mustn't forget the recently-deceased Falco, whose 'Rock Me, Amadeus' is so memorably quoted on the baroque Mr Beck's 'Stereopathetic Soul Manure'.

And now there's me. Please tell me if you know of any other examples.

Coming Home With A Heavy Bag

So, the results of my day's shopping?

A lot of these things are out of print and hot, so I didn't have much success. There are no Korgs or Moogs to be had in London shops, although the Turnkey Shop on Charing Cross road sent me down to their museum, which has a MemoryMoog on display beside an AMS. I gazed with the same reverence tourists reserve for the crown jewels.

At the Record and Tape Exchange at Notting Hill Gate I ended up buying Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene and a most interesting library Moog record by a Munich-based group called Logo 2000, from about 1972. It's called Mediteranee, and the sleeve categorises each track: one is a 'melancholy Tunisian theme, desert, caravan', another a 'strange combination of french musette waltz and Bavarian 'Landler'. Brilliant graphics too.

The inauthenticity of Mediteranee is important: just like Japanese pop, which is an inauthentic reading of western pop, these Munich Moogsters were making a kind of ethnic wallpaper music about as authentic as the restaurant decor in a supermarket food court. Is that good? Yes, that's good.

(I'm interested to see a little cache of el Records in the Collectors' section of the Record and Tape Exchange, with prices all above twenty pounds. I am now also a commodity in this odd thing called Retro as well as one of its consumer / curators. Who knows, perhaps Cornelius and Kahimi Karie see me as an interesting fossil they can curate and reassess for their own greater glory?)

Books

While buying Martial's Epigrams I read a bit of Angela McRobbie's article Second-Hand Dresses And The Role Of The Ragmarket, which begins: 'Several attempts have been made recently to understand 'retro style'. These have all taken as their starting point that accelerating tendency in the 1980s to ransack history for key items of dress, in a seemingly eclectic and haphazard manner... the act of buying and the processes of looking and choosing still remain relatively unexamined in the field of cultural analysis'.

The word Retro seems to have replaced the embarrassing term postmodern. Whatever word we use, none of us can avoid the fact that we are all curators now. And, as witnessed by the Conran empire, the Turnkey Shop, or even the humble Record and Tape Exchange, museums and shops are becoming the same thing.

As a trainee curator, I purchase a Taschen book called Painting Of The Baroque, which has a very interesting account of the Baroque fascination with the 'ephemeral monument', something as grand and yet temporary as a firework display. It's odd, because one of the best songs on my album, Tragedy And Farce, focuses on the symbol of 'the unfinished monument' on Edinburgh's Carlton Hill, where, as a teenager, I went to weep over an unrequited love affair. Without doing much research, without really knowing much about the Baroque sensibility, I have got a lot right.

I also buy a standard Thames and Hudson guide to Baroque and Rococo. I love books which define a sensibility, especially when they cut across disciplines. A little book entitled, simply, Classicism, by Dominique Secretan, has been an influence on my records since Circus Maximus, just because it seemed so liberating to me to think that pop music doesn't have to be a belated branch of the Romantic movement (as people like Radiohead seem to suppose). Pop can also be detached, urbane, witty, and gently deviant rather than 'aggressively normal', in Susan Sontag's phrase.

Dissenters

Not everyone will get my new style. My German label Bungalow rang me the other day to say they wouldn't be releasing this new album. They loved Ping Pong, but found this one 'too Baroque'. That's the whole point! But it may well be an acquired taste. (A few days later, they changed their mind).


It should also be said that this record is embarrassing to listen to in public. It just goes so far. Headphones or solitary in-car listening is recommended. As Martial would say, 'Hoc volo: Thank you, verses' for those blushes and cold sweats.

Elton John's Wig

Next on my shopping trip it's a theatrical costumier in the most Baroque of London's shopping districts, Covent Garden. They have various wigs which they describe as Georgian, but I'm not tempted. I want something that looks like the wig Elton John wore at his 50th birthday party, but that probably cost several thousand pounds. (By the way, Elton John would be the coolest Baroque star in the world if he used analogue synths, could write decent melodies, and had the voice of Klaus Nomi).


Visa And AmEx

Across the road in the Japan Centre they don't have the new Kahimi Karie album, although I am intrigued by an artist (probably abominable) called Heath, whose album is entitled Gang Age Cubist. One of the great joys of my life is the Japanese Space Age Baroque, which includes not just the fantastic ornamental dress style of the girls in magazines like Cutie, Fruits and Barf Out, but also the baroque Japanese use of English. What is a 'gang age cubist'? I don't know, but it's delightfully suggestive.

At the ICA, listening to Klaus Nomi on my CD Walkman, I look at the paintings of LA artist Lari Pittman. At first sight they're slick, postmodern and decorative, like groovy retro wallpaper. Then you notice the S&M, the decoratively ripped flesh... and the Visa and AmEx logos in the corners of the canvases.

I guess money can buy you anything these days...




Momus, London, August 1998
nick@momus.demon.co.uk

Birds do it, bees are buzzing about it... all the rest of the media have run their Japanese Pop Explosion features. Here's mine, Shibuya-Kei Is Dead.



Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job
On Hong Kong
On Ghosts
On The NME
On Transgression
Index