Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
The Nightmare Centre For Popular Music


Sometimes, when I meet people who love my music and have been buying it for years, I'm asked whether I'm not just a bit jealous of people like me who've made it in the music industry. People like Divine Comedy, Pet Shop Boys, Scritti Politti.

The answer, in all honesty, is that I'm not. Not in the slightest. These people can afford to record with the best producers, be photographed by the best photographers, and have their videos made by the hottest names in the business. And yet, to be perfectly honest, I'm rather sorry for them. It must be very difficult, surrounded by such professionalism, to stay fresh.

In fact, the musicians I'm jealous of are people like Daniel Johnston, Klaus Beyer and Doorag. Why couldn't I have had the idea, like Johnston, of narrating a capella the plot of King Kong? Why couldn't I, like Beyer, have thought of cutting up the instrumental sections of Beatles songs and making backing tracks for my own bizarre translations with them? Why couldn't I have come up with the idea of playing folk music very fast into a microcassette recorder, as Doorag did?

I'm jealous of the mad, the poor and the dead. They smell so fresh, you see.

Centre For The Dull

Last week I was invited to Sheffield to take part in a conference about pop music called Soundtracking. A paper entitled 'Momus: Monster Or Maverick' was read, then I performed across the road in the newly-opened National Centre For Popular Music.

I have pretty mixed feelings about the academicisation of pop music. On the one hand, I welcome the fact that intelligent people are giving pop the attention it deserves. On the other, I doubt whether this cluster of musics will be improved by being designated a legitimate subject for media and cultural studies.

'Don't make my life so respectable!' I wrote to A.C. Webber, the academic presenting the Momus paper. In fact, he began his dissertation with a big chunk of Chaucer's 'The Miller's Tale', and his thrust was more to prove that 'serious art' can be just as disreputable as pop. Later, over the road in the cafe of the saucepan-shaped Centre For Popular Music, I sang 'Coming In A Girl's Mouth' and several equally scurrilous songs with the uneasy feeling that even such risky bawdry doesn't stop you being stocked in HMV or compared to Robert Burns.

In between the lecture and the performance I had a quick look round the National Centre For Popular Music, a cross between a museum and an indoor theme park. It reminds me of what Morrissey said about CDs -- it has a nauseating Shake'n'Vac feel about it. It even looks like four industrial vacuum cleaners pushed together to hoover up the messy detritus of pop music and make it into something neat, tidy, categorisable, marketable.

You enter the silvery pleasure dome between a cafe and a gift shop selling music-related tat. You pay at the desk, push through the turnstiles and climb the stairs. It's much smaller inside than it looks from the outside. The four 'buildings' are in fact just rooms. The first is a chaotic succession of rooms presenting The Pop Experience with a cacophony of different soundbites competing for your attention (one star-spangled video monitor has Ian Curtis singing 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', another Vera Lynn singing 'White Cliffs Of Dover'). There's no text, and no context. Nothing in this star-spangled womb room matters. The artists all leave their best-known soundbite behind them, but their competing voices eventually cancel each other out.

The next room is a large interactive space where you can listen to the sounds of rock instruments, remix tracks by Texas and Garbage, sing along with T. Rex, edit a Phil Collins live video, design a record sleeve, and make a dance remix by dancing on lit pads on an interactive dancefloor. Since I've just finished an album which involved almost all of these processes, it's interesting to see what the differences are. What's missing here is the most essential thing: the choice of an original style, the ability to make 'forbidden' combinations of elements.

Here, no matter what buttons you press, you basically get the same conformist shit. The most subversive thing I could do was take the guitars out of Garbage and Charleen Spiteri's voice out of Texas. I tried to design a rap album sleeve with hippy clothes and a punk band with turntablist style, but it was all in vain. No matter what I did, everything came out looking like The Cramps.

Outside, there were listening posts provided by HMV (with the nasty pink and grey HMV logo in big letters on them) and a simplistic history of pop music on panels which totally ignored vaudeville but paid a lot of attention to Elton John's sales figures.

The National Centre For Popular Music was, in fact, my worst nightmare. A glorified shopping centre, a feebly educational day out for the kids, it represents a preview of the premature death of popular music, a scenario in which all creativity, all rebellion, all originality have been co-opted by a horrible consortium of music industry people (recommeding stylists and citing export figures) and tame academics (repeating weary soundbites about Elvis and his hips, the Pistols on Grundy, and how Pink Floyd became Radiohead and The Rolling Stones Primal Scream).

It's hypercapitalism in league with the government and academia. It stinks.

Primal (By Strategy)

It got me thinking about the kinds of things that keep me working in pop music, and why I think it's not dead yet.

More and more, I'm interested in what's raw, what's primal, what's poorly-made. The conference was screening the BBC documentary 'Dancin' In The Street', and the programme on the birth of metal made me think that it all started going wrong when people took those John Lee Hooker riffs, recognised something plaintive and great in them, and set about pumping and tidying them up, correcting the odd timings, the messy harmonies, recording them 'better'. Everything goes wrong, in other words, when professionals move in with an idea of how things should be done and build a genre, an industry.

I was thinking about this today listening to Daniel Johnston, the insane Texan primitive whose 'Speeding Motorcycle' was covered by Yo La Tengo. What makes Johnston so great is his genuine rawness, the way he bashes on the organ in his basement so that the clicks sound like percussion. It's the 'incorrect' recording techniques that keep him intriguingly fresh, as well as his insanely simple song ideas, like telling the story of the King Kong movie in twelve unaccompanied stanzas.

Daniel Johnston fits into a great American tradition of primitive luminaries and idiots savants which also includes Harry Partch and the illustrator and writer Henry Darger.

I've been listening recently to my favourite Brian Eno album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), which I think shares certain features with the new Momus record, Stars Forever. Eno's originality on Taking Tiger Mountain comes from the sense you get listening to it that he threw away all the manuals when he made these faux-naive and surrealistic narrative songs. It's as if he simply doesn't know what pop is, or what an arrangement is supposed to do, and as a result puts a typewriter solo here, an out of tune orchestra (the Portsmouth Symphonia) there, a bit of doo wop somewhere else. It's radical disobedience, strategic impurity. It's what Tibor Kalman called the importance of being bad (meaning disobedient as well as technically uninformed). It's also evidence of a highly eclectic and yet childlike style of listening, fostered in Eno's case by an attention to the ideas of John Cage, but which people like Beck and Cornelius arrive at when they earmark the best bits of all the different music they hear and stick it together almost haphazardly, in fresh ways.

The End Creates The Beginning

The search for the 'pure origins' of things is doomed to end in failure or fascism. But we can still search for impure or imaginary origins. For instance, getting into analog electronics has led me not just to the pioneers of the Moog, but also to Alec Empire's Nintendo Teenage Robots, a music made up of the tiny sounds of Gameboys. The kind of music you imagine being played aboard a Space Invader while it bombs the cities of earth. It's a putative purity, the kind of thing you construct only when you've decided to fetishise a disappearing tradition.

(You know the analog synthesiser has changed its status in culture when you hear people saying about the sounds that only twenty years ago were putting the cold into 'Cold Wave' 'Oh, that old analog synth sound is so warm!')

I've also been listening to a lot of sea shanties, forebitters and folk songs, and to the groups (mostly 70s folk rock bands like Steeleye Span, Griffin and The Yetties) who tidied or rocked them up. (If anyone knows of any bands who played folk music on Moogs, please tell me immediately!) Every age traces its own lines back to an imaginary Golden Age, realising to varying degrees that they are in fact constructing the past they seek. Some are more aware than others that the most honest approach to this unknowable past is to remake it shamelessly in your own image. In other words, the way to be honest is to be as inauthentic as possible. That way you avoid nostalgia for something that never was, spurious claims to authenticity, and any temptation to reinforce that conservative myth, the fall from a putative Golden Age of purity.

But that knowledge doesn't stop us turning in disgust from the Shake'n'Vac sheen of the music industry towards music that seems to come from a more spiritual, or rough-hewn, or simple age. My current fascination with Early Music (medieval dance music played on sackbutts and crumhorns, like the stuff I was listening to last month in the Musical Instruments Museum in Berlin) comes from a feeling that somewhere at the edges of the history of music, far away in space and time, I can discover rough, honking sounds made by inspired, primitive people untouched by the tentacles of capitalism or academia.

The Missing Link

Which is precisely the dream of every ambitious capitalist and academic who ever lived. But my advantage over those people is that they're looking in the wrong place, making field recordings in Papua New Guinea or raiding the blues archives. They should be looking for the pure and the primitive closer to the heart of the modern.

I just received the masters for The Sensuous Man by Mister Swenson, a New York multimedia consultant turned Analog Baroque recording artist. It's the first time Eric has made a CD of music, although he's been at the cutting edge of multimedia with his CD-ROM magazine Blam for most of the 90s.

The Sensuous Man contains some of the most primitive and alien-sounding music I've ever heard, like a tape of the lost tribe of Borneo, like the missing link himself screeching for blood and sex. Somebody met the devil at the crossroads, and it turned out to be the corner of Avenue A and East 3rd.

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