The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

The P2P revolu­tion is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly com­pressed file, by Mark Simpson

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 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listen­ing to music more con­veni­ent and less irk­some: it actu­ally does part of the tire­some job of listen­ing for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 — mer­ci­fully shortened to MP3 — is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very pos­sibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic com­pres­sion of sound files that uses “psy­choacous­tic” mod­els that account for what listen­ers actu­ally notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as pos­sible to facil­it­ate easier stor­age or upload­ing and down­load­ing. In other words, MP3 anti­cip­ates and inter­prets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actu­ally hears it.

Of course, this job used to be per­formed by record com­pan­ies, with their A&R men and mar­ket­ing depart­ments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been auto­mated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bed­rooms. A whole class of inter­me­di­ar­ies and author­it­ies have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been com­pared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after read­ing John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolu­tion, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘com­pressed’ form.

Thanks to the per­sonal com­puter and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The cor­rupt, uncool suits and cas­socks who used to inter­cede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed dir­ectly and free from dis­tor­tion, com­pressed by pure, clean math­em­at­ics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believ­ers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, any­one who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fas­cist re­gime. And of course this means any­one who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record com­pan­ies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their fright­fully expens­ive CD print­ing presses, dis­tri­bu­tion deals and back cata­logues melt at the press of a but­ton in someone’s bed­room. If indul­gences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the tem­poral wealth and power of the record busi­ness to come from?

For the record com­pan­ies, the lead­ers of the MP3 revolu­tion are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that oth­ers may not be temp­ted to stray. Against the cries for info free­dom, their law­yers invoke the Mystery of copy­right. Digitising music, just as print­ing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the lead­ers of the Counter-Reformation, they see them­selves as act­ing in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exag­ger­ate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation meta­phor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am war­ring against the cul­ture of the Internet, threat­en­ing to depop­u­late Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street law­yers to lit­ig­ate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its cul­ture but for its bene­fit and to pro­tect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nine­teen foun­ded Napster, the fam­ous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online ser­vice, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accel­er­ated cul­ture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls pray­ing in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 mil­lion registered users and Fanning was a very fam­ous young man indeed; his crim­in­ally young, beatific face shin­ing out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideo­logue or evan­gel­ical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his soft­ware could fill. From his time spent chat­ting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the prob­lem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than him­self, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster pro­gram, which allowed users to share files by plug­ging their com­puters, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hos­ted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s com­puters and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blas­phemy and heresy in the form of copy­right viol­a­tions. They were very wrong. In the open­ing blast of what was to prove a mer­ci­less bar­rage, the fear­some Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copy­right law­suit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a dis­aster of, well, bib­lical pro­por­tions. Practically a whole gen­eration of col­lege kids who didn’t even have to pay for the col­lege com­puters or the Internet con­nec­tions they down­loaded the MP3 files with, stopped buy­ing CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than order­ing CDs online. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giv­ing away MP3 play­ers (worth $150) to any­one who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of vari­ous law­suits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who fam­ously dis­covered that three unfin­ished ver­sions of a song he had been work­ing on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back cata­logue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record com­pan­ies to respond to the MP3 revolu­tion with any­thing other than pub­lic burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, main­stream, subscription-only ser­vice which, cru­cially, paid roy­al­ties to performers.

The issue of intel­lec­tual copy­right and reward­ing artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dis­miss as “record com­pany greed.” Ulrich is cer­tainly not the only pro­fes­sional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “crimin­al­ity” of online file trad­ing. Ultimately though, the feel­ings of artists or even record com­pan­ies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trad­ing is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to sur­vive some­thing even more destruct­ive than a music com­pany law­yer: nuc­lear war.

There is per­haps a tad too much jar­gon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the nar­ra­tion doesn’t always quite match the raci­ness of the title or the import of the revolu­tion it docu­ments, but it’s a valu­able, insight­ful book for any­one inter­ested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself con­tin­ues its onward march undaun­ted. Napster and Fanning may have recan­ted, but most of his 50 mil­lion dis­ciples that Bertlesmann hoped to con­vert into more ortho­dox cus­tom­ers have left and are now pray­ing at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more con­vin­cing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehe­mently that inform­a­tion should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to con­vince you with words; he’s won the argu­ment already with code by design­ing a sys­tem called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with com­plete anonym­ity. Unlike Napster, there is no cent­ral server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose con­greg­a­tion is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell report­ers that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street law­yers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001

Little Richard’s Big, Glam Legacy

Next month, on December 5th, Richard Wayne Penniman, bet­ter known as Little Richard, The King of Rockin’ ‘n’ Rollin’ Rhythm & Blues Soulin’, turns 80.

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Whether or not Mr Penniman inven­ted rock ‘n’ roll as he has often loudly and boldly claimed – and, to be sure, he’s got a bet­ter, pret­tier claim than most – it’s as obvi­ous as the eye­liner around his lips that this son of a boot­leg­ger from Macon, Georgia inven­ted glam rock. Way back in the ‘uptight’ 1950s.

The King-Queen of Rockin’ ‘n Rollin’ may pos­sibly have been inspired in his style by the early 1950s ton­sured ‘bad-boy’ TV wrest­ler Gorgeous George (who also influ­enced James Brown and Muhammad Ali), but wherever he got it from he def­in­itely stole, to quote Oscar Wilde — he didn’t waste his time bor­row­ing. With his imper­i­ous pom­pa­dour, his sequinned capes, his out­rageous ges­tures, his shrieks, his full make-up and false eye­lashes, he chan­nelled a fun, furi­ous, flam­ing effem­in­acy that bore down on the charts like a scream­ing, squeal­ing steam train.

Wisely, the charts sur­rendered, uncon­di­tion­ally. From 1955–57 he had four­teen hit singles and three num­ber ones.

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Lu-CILLE! You won’t do your sister’s will!” came blar­ing through the house like a pack of rabid dogs. It was as if a Martian had landed. My grand­mother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, bey­ond com­pre­hen­sion. The antiques rattled. My par­ents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white fam­ily had been laid bare: an unin­vited, scream­ing, flam­boy­ant black man was in the liv­ing room. Even Dr Spock hadn’t warned them about this.’

– John Waters

Unlike Gorgeous George, how­ever, the queer­ness of Little Richard wasn’t just a pose. According to Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell the pro­du­cer behind his first hit ‘Tutti Frutti’, the ‘min­strel modes and homo­sexual humour’ of Richard’s ori­ginal lyr­ics had to be bowd­ler­ised for the main­stream. “Tutti Frutti, good booty”, for instance, was replaced with the slightly less sod­om­it­ical “Tutti Frutti, aw-rooty”. (There’s also spec­u­la­tion that the hits ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ may have been about transvestites.)

Little Richard didn’t though bowd­ler­ise his private life, at least not dur­ing his 1950s hey­day. According to his author­ised bio­grapher Charles White in The Life and Times of Little Richard on tour he would host swinging parties that were so swinging they were orgies. He would invite men back to his hotel and enjoy watch­ing them have sex with his girlfriend.

So when racist groups such as the North Alabama White Citizens Council alarmed by his enorm­ous, unpre­ced­en­ted pop­ular­ity with white teens put out state­ments on TV, warn­ing that “Rock ‘n’ Roll is part of a test to under­mine the mor­als of the youth of our nation. It is sexu­al­istic, unmor­al­istic and … brings people of both races together’, they weren’t entirely wrong.

Little Richard, like many people, had a com­plic­ated sexu­al­ity. Complicated by both his self-described ‘omin­sexual’ tastes – he has had affairs with both men and women – and also by his devout evan­gel­ical Christianity, incul­cated by his adored mother, which has led him to, ahem, turn his back on his homo­sexual side for much of his post 1950s life. Unsurprisingly, many gay people regard him with resent­ment as a result.

He gave an uproari­ous inter­view in 1987 to uber­fan film dir­ector John Waters – whose fam­ous pen­cil mous­tache was inspired by Richard’s own iconic lip-fur – in which he announced, not without found­a­tion, that he was not only the archi­tect of rock and roll but ‘the founder of gay’:

“I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who star­ted to be so bold tel­lin’ the world! You got to remem­ber my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s cur­tains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wear­ing make-up and eye­lashes when no men were wear­ing that. I was very beau­ti­ful; I had hair hanging every­where. If you let any­body know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.”’

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In the same inter­view he con­fesses the source of his inspir­a­tion for his unortho­dox use of his mother’s cur­tains. Not Gorgeous George, but rather His Holiness:

I idol­ised the Pope when I was a little boy,” he says rev­er­ently. “I liked the pumps he wore. I think the Pope really dresses!” But there were other, more low-down eccle­si­ast­ical fash­ion cas­u­al­ties who seemed a big­ger influ­ence. “There was Prophet Jones of Detroit – he used to walk on this car­pet. They would spread this car­pet out of the limo and he would walk on it. When I got fam­ous, I had the guys just spread­ing car­pet for me to walk on, and they would kiss my hand… and I used to like to live like that.”

Happy birth­day, your Most Royal Magnificent Rockin’ Holy Highness!!

 

 

 

At Muhammad Ali’s 50th birth­day cel­eb­ra­tion in 1992. Ali: ‘The king!’ Richard: ‘I love you. Happy birth­day, baby’:

Check out the full length packet shot at beginning:

Update 5/12/12:

BBC Radio 2 today aired a doc­u­ment­ary about Little Richard with lots of (archive, I think) inter­view foot­age with the great man him­self. It also revealed that his friend the late 1940s jump blues singer Billy Wright, who helped arrange his first record­ing ses­sions, liked to curl his hair, wear make-up and some­times threw his panties in the audi­ence. So Gorgeous George is right out of the window.…

It also repor­ted that a fourteen-year-old David Robert Jones — later known as David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust — atten­ded one of Little Richard’s UK gigs in the early 1960s, at which the show­man pre­ten­ded to die on-stage, before resur­rect­ing him­self with: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!”

The Prettiest Punk

Definition of PUNK (Mirriam Webster Online)

1

archaic : pros­ti­tute

2

[prob­ably partly from 3punk: non­sensefool­ish­ness

3

a : a young inex­per­i­enced per­son : begin­nernovice; espe­cially : a young man

: a usu­ally petty gang­ster, hood­lum, or ruffian

c : slang : a young man used as a homo­sexual part­ner espe­cially in a prison

 

Pretty Vacant’ (or ‘Vay-CUNT!’ as Mr Lydon sang it in his best Richard III) is my favour­ite Sex Pistols track. Because it advert­ises how punk rep­res­en­ted above all an aes­thetic rebel­lion, even and espe­cially when it told us, with a face care­fully dis­tor­ted by a stage sneer, it was anti-fashion, anti-beauty. It was really glam rock again, but after hav­ing been to art school – and with the lin­ing turned inside out.

Because the Sex Pistols were very pretty. In a Dilly meat rack kind of way.

Punk the­at­rics aside, it’s also just a very good pop song. Glen Matlock wrote ‘Pretty Vacant’ after hear­ing Abba’s ‘SOS’ (which hap­pens to be my favour­ite Abba song too). Matlock’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Sex Pistols has often been under­es­tim­ated – cer­tainly his pop sens­ib­il­it­ies and work ethic seemed to embar­rass the rest of the band.

So he was given the boot and replaced by John Lydon’s best mate Sid Vicious for the ‘Pretty Vacant’ promo. Sid’s job seems to have been mostly to stand around flash­ing his cheekbones and look­ing… pretty vacant. Which he did very well. (Though I per­son­ally would have saved my fat­test, most appre­ci­at­ive pro­jectile gob for the fine-featured blond drum­mer Paul Cook ham­mer­ing away reli­ably at the back.)

This clas­sic promo clip of ‘Pretty Vacant’ was included in a line-up of punk era tapes from Auntie’s vaults in ‘Punk Britannia at the BBC, part of BBC4’s ‘Punk Britannia’ doc­u­ment­ary series – provid­ing some­where for old punks to hide from the Diamond Jubilee.

To be hon­est, I’m get­ting almost as tired of doc­u­ment­ar­ies about punk rock as I am of Royal Jubilees. Punk is begin­ning to be like ‘The War’ that Johnny Rotten et al com­plained hear­ing about all the time when they were grow­ing up. But I still watched it.

And I was struck again by how male (and how white) punk was. Only three or four of the twenty or so acts col­lec­ted here have women in them at all, let alone female leads. Part of the reason why the great late Poly Styrene per­form­ing ‘The Day the World Turned Day-Glo’ and Siouxsie Sioux’s ‘Hong Kong Garden’ seem like such stand out songs here. Perhaps because they weren’t try­ing too hard to be punk and weren’t afraid to be poppy they were actu­ally bet­ter punks.


For all the revolu­tion, anarchic energy and DIY cre­ativ­ity of punk — which did ulti­mately help open up the ‘industry’ to women — there was also a lot of con­form­ity. Very phal­lic con­form­ity that looks even more dated now than the prog rock it was rebelling against. On stage, young sweaty skinny men jump­ing up and down shout­ing and urgently strum­ming their gui­tars. In front of the stage, sweaty skinny young men pressed against one another, jump­ing up and down and ejac­u­lat­ing phlegm at the sweaty skinny young men on stage.

Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. And if I’d been old enough I would have had a whale of a time in the front row. But after a while it does get a bit tired. Especially when we now have web­sites for this kind of thing.

Anyway, get­ting back to the theme of my favour­ite Pistols track ‘Pretty Vacant’… it would prob­ably have been faintly heretical to some to ask it at the time, but who was the pret­ti­est punk?

Since punk was mostly a boy thing — and Siouxsie Sioux for instance was more mag­n­fi­cently ter­ri­fy­ing than ‘pretty’ - I’m really ask­ing of course who was the pret­ti­est boy punk (or ‘young man used as a homo­sexual part­ner espe­cially in a prison’ as the dick­tion­ary defin­i­tion of punk has it).

So, was it:

Billy Idol, with those extraordin­ary pouty, envel­op­ing lips that invited as much if not more than they snarled?

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Orgasm addict Pete Shelley, the (openly gay) boy next door whose beguil­ing, big, brown Manc eyes fol­lowed the cam­era as it dol­lied round him?

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Or Dave Vanian, whose heav­ily made up slicked back look seems to have pre­figured New Romanticism (and whose name sounds like a mannered ana­gram of ‘vain’)?

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Or Paul Weller, who had the angri­est, most appet­ising Adam’s apple in the busi­ness and a beauty spot on his lip?

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Or how about Ian Curtis, the spas­ming James Dean of punk?

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One thing’s for sure. It def­in­itely wasn’t Bob Geldof. (I’m not post­ing a pic­ture of him here as that would only spoil the enjoy­ment of the others.)

It’s all a very sub­ject­ive busi­ness this pret­ti­ness thing, isn’t it? And I’ll bet you will have your own nom­in­a­tions, pos­sibly writ­ten in felt-tip pen or carved in your school desk. But on the basis of the TOTPs per­form­ances cap­tured in ‘Punk Britannia at the BBC’ I’m strongly inclined to give the Prettiest Punk prize (a fiver and a cheese bur­ger at Wimpys) to Bernie Masters of Eddie and the Hot Rods. ‘Do What You Wanna Do’ is a great and time­less song. It’s also ‘pretty’ instructive.

As he jumps around, bar­ing his defined torso, thrust­ing his groin and wig­gling his butt, Masters is chan­nel­ling Mick Jagger of course, per­haps with a little Iggy Pop thrown in – but, as that great con­tem­por­ary Svengali Louis Walsh (that’s punk sar­casm by the way) likes to say over and over again on ‘X Factor’: he makes it his own.

And it’s the most fetch­ing, most sexual, most Dilly-esque per­form­ance in this line-up.

Teeth and everything.

Long Hot Punter: Paul Weller’s Topless Video Revisited

Scourge of The Eton Rifles Paul Weller was send­ing out quite a state­ment to his die hard Jam fans in this video for his 1983 Style Council single ‘Long Hot Summer’, shot on the River Cam in Cambridge. Acting the big posh poof­tah in a punt.

Like almost every­one in the UK in the early 80s the young Modfather had fallen madly in love with the beautifully-shot 1981 ITV adapt­a­tion of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – much like today’s Downton Abbey, but with believ­able, inter­est­ing aris­tos, a script, and an actual point.

Oh, and a seduct­ive homo­erotic storyline in which two young hetero men fall for one another sur­roun­ded by the Baroque splend­our of Castle Howard, Yorkshire. Charles Ryder’s long hot sum­mer with the dec­ad­ent Sebastian Flyte opened up a whole new realm of sen­sa­tion for a gen­er­a­tion emer­ging from the con­crete rubble of 1970s Britain. Even for the son of a taxi driver and a cleaner from Woking like Weller.

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I some­times won­der, con­sid­er­ing the bathetic com­par­ison between Brideshead and Downton, and the gen­eral, glor­i­ous queer­ness of early 80s pop cul­ture, whether the notion of ‘pro­gress’ is just a illu­sion we cling to make the dimin­ish­ing returns of life more bear­able. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’ of course.) Though much less tech­nic­ally soph­ist­ic­ated, Weller’s Brideshead trib­ute video ‘Long Hot Summer’ video knocks LMFAO’s ‘Sexy and I Know It’ into a banana hammock.

Rather won­der­fully, wank­ing seems to be the focus of this promo, along  with the attend­ant nar­ciss­ism and homo­eroti­cism of Paul’s dis­play of top­less, oiled-up self-pleasuring for the cam­era – lying on his back for most of the video whilst his fully-clothed chum labours behind him. Thirty years on, and after all the slutty, spor­no­graphic advert­ising cam­paigns of the last dec­ade, Paul’s petu­lant passiv­ity in this video is still jaw-dropping.

Understandably, Style Council gui­tar­ist Mick Talbot is driven to play­ing with his pole and gnaw­ing passing wil­low trees in frus­tra­tion. Fortunately for him relief is at hand — a little later pretty Paul allows him­self to be spit-roasted in his punt by the drum­mer and the guitarist.

Whether lolling on his back, fin­gers trav­el­ling down his flat abdo­men, or dan­cing bare­foot, Weller’s whip­pet thin body reminds us of what British young men looked like before Ronald McDonald and Mens Health redesigned them.

Or maybe I’m just fall­ing prey to the intox­ic­at­ing nos­tal­gia for a bet­ter, more golden time that per­meated Brideshead.

What Happens When a Giant Brain Meets Kylie?

Genius, pop Svengali, the­or­eti­cian of cool: Mark Simpson gets to grips with the man who really listens to ‘La la la, la la la-la la…

(Originally appeared in Independent on Sunday 03/08/2003)

What do you hear when you listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’? This is a bit of a trick ques­tion as you prob­ably don’t listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Not because, like most hit pop singles that are played end­lessly on the radio, in shops, pubs, hos­pit­als and clubs for a while, it is now some­thing that you would never actu­ally play your­self, except maybe at a drunken New Year’s party. But because it was never meant to be listened to in the first place.

It was pop music assembled with fiendish cun­ning and cal­cu­la­tion out of over-familiar cliches (rather like Kylie’s voice, and rather like Kylie her­self) to be a hit. By being some­thing you hear but don’t listen to, don’t need to listen to. Background music to dance, drink, shop and die to. If you find your­self actu­ally listen­ing to a pop single, then it has failed. Pop music today is some­thing people hear while doing some­thing or going some­where more interesting.

Unless your name is Paul Morley. Mr Morley has actu­ally listened to “Can’t get you out of my head”. And as the begin­ning of his new book ’Words and Music: A his­tory of pop in the shape of a city’ (Bloomsbury) makes clear, he was not dan­cing, drink­ing, shop­ping or dying to it, but sit­ting in his room. Alone. Mr Morley, to be sure, is some­thing of a genius; he is also a very strange man. He appears to have actu­ally listened — not heard, listened — to almost all the music you might file under “Popular”. This is no mean achieve­ment; argu­ably it’s a very per­verse one. What’s more, Mr Morley has done it with a very large brain indeed.

Here’s just one of the many, many fecund para­graphs in Words and Music about what he hears when he listens to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’:

The song is a fluid thing of deep, deep­en­ing mys­tery, per­haps because what could be so corny, a pop song about love and desire, which doesn’t mean any­thing bey­ond its own lim­ited world, has become some­thing so pro­found. A pop song about love and desire that suc­ceeds in com­mu­nic­at­ing mil­lions of unique things about the unlim­ited worlds of love and lust. It’s about how every­day life and love are a shift­ing set of com­prom­ises between the ordin­ary and the extraordinary…”

I’ve always admired Paul Morley, and for that reason I have never actu­ally, prop­erly listened to Paul Morley before. I have often heard him and been very glad to hear him while I did some­thing else more inter­est­ing, but I’ve never really paid close atten­tion before. Words and Music is the first time I’ve sat alone in my room with him and really listened. Unlike Morley’s jour­ney with Kylie, I’m not so sure that this has only enhanced my affection.

It isn’t the way that he writes — which is all too fre­quently stun­ning. Or the inex­haust­ible con­nectiv­ity of his mind, which has more ideas per sen­tence, per phrase, per comma, than most writers have in their entire lives. It’s just that, like the mean­der­ing nar­rat­ive and delib­er­ately über-pretentious con­ceit of this book, I’ve lost track of what the point of Morley is. Perhaps though, this is my fault. You see, I have also lost track of what the point of pop music is.

Once upon a nos­tal­gic time, pop music was inves­ted with far too much mean­ing. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, Morley’s hey­day as a rock critic, when he coined the phrase New Pop to describe a kind of pop that was smart and super­fi­cial, pro­found and com­mer­cial all at once. In other words, pop music at that time was made in the image of Paul Morley. Little won­der then that he actu­ally entered the Matrix, via pro­jects he was involved in to vary­ing degrees such as Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and trans­figured him­self into a pop star/Svengali/theoretician of cool.

However, since then pop music, which once seemed so import­ant, so pre­cious and so other-worldly at the same time as deli­ciously vul­gar, has swal­lowed everything and become the world, and has inev­it­ably become, like us, rather less inter­est­ing than we thought. Like Kylie, it is bland, shiny, ser­vice­able, very pro­fes­sional and for the most part entirely undeserving of ser­i­ous thought.

Morley knows about this prob­lem. It is after all his prob­lem. Hence the poser on the back of his book: “Has Pop Burnt Itself Out?” Hence the book is (very) loosely based around the (delib­er­ately über-pretentious) con­ceit of Morley driv­ing in a Smart car with Kylie towards “a vir­tual city built of sound and ideas” while try­ing to con­vince her to allow him to write a book about her. It’s all very ironic, but it is also, I’m sorry to say, ulti­mately a bit pathetic too.

Morley of course knows this as well. His very large brain under­stands everything, but it most par­tic­u­larly under­stands that writ­ing about music is as stu­pid as “dan­cing to archi­tec­ture”. In fact, it’s rather easier to ima­gine Morley dan­cing to archi­tec­ture than actual music, which would be really ridicu­lous. Actually, the trouble with this book is not that it’s like watch­ing someone dance to archi­tec­ture, but that some­times it’s like watch­ing your dad dance to architecture.

Music is a form of archi­tec­ture. Especially the kind of pop­u­lar music that Morley is most inter­ested in: the cool, struc­tured, math­em­at­ical elec­tronic music which began with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and which influ­enced his favour­ite bands New Order and Human League. And also ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, which steals from all of these.

As Morley puts it in his groovy archi­tect boogie:

It is an eleg­ant demon­stra­tion of the way that all great music is about a rela­tion­ship between sound and silence, between hold­ing and let­ting go, between motion and pause.”

The archi­tec­ture of Morley’s own book is, how­ever, a mess. Even the blurb has no struc­ture: “part novel, part cri­tique, part his­tory, part con­fes­sional, part philo­soph­ical enquiry, part ulti­mate book of musical lists”. If it were a build­ing, Words and Music would be con­demned. As a piece of pop it would not be reques­ted on the main dance­floor, but it might pos­sibly make the chill-out room.

Of course, this is delib­er­ate too. Words and Music is ambi­ent, often dazzling prose that never really arrives any­where, least of all a “vir­tual city built of sounds and ideas”. Morley is Eno via a word­pro­cessor rather than a syn­thes­iser. As Morley writes on his hero: “Eno, to edit a long story short, coined the word ‘ambi­ent’ to describe a kind of intel­lec­tual easy– listen­ing music. An easy-listening music that has cer­tain levels of dif­fi­culty in its make-up. A back­ground music that you could take — as a weighty pro­voca­tion — or leave — as a sound drift­ing around its own pretty pointlessness.”

Likewise, to edit a long, long story short, Morley’s prose drifts around its own pretty pointlessness.

 

 

 

 

 


Sexy and I Show It: Parading Cadets (& Olympic Divers)

Last year metrodaddy declared the LMFAO dance hit ‘Sexy and I Know It’ an anthem  for the Jersey Shore/Geordie Shore/The Only Way is Essex/The Hunks/Men’s Health Magazine gen­er­a­tion of met­ro­sexy young men and the meta­phor­ical (and not so meta­phor­ical) spangly Speedos they’re flaunt­ing them­selves in.

But I have to say I was a tad ambi­val­ent about the heav­ily ironic hip­ster promo video.

Fortunately, it’s been remade by non-hipsters. In shape non-hipsters. Cadets from the USAF Academy, no less. Now, in case any­one objects that this is con­duct unbe­com­ing future officers (and appar­ently some kill­joys have) per­haps we should remem­ber that one of the lesser known mean­ings of ‘cadet’ is ‘pimp’. Though here of course they’re pimp­ing their own bod­ies. Like the rest of today’s young men.

grey Sexy and I Show It: Parading Cadets (& Olympic Divers)

Not to be out­done, US Navy cadets have also taken up the chal­lenge (see below). Which do you think is sex­ier? And which one knows it most? Air Force or Navy? Or neither? So far I haven’t been able to loc­ate an Army or USMC ver­sion — but some­thing tells me it won’t be long.

Tip: Roger Clarke and  Towelroad

 

UPDATE

UK Olympic diver Tom Daley and his chums have recor­ded their own Speedo-tastic ver­sion (I espe­cially like Tom’s Carmen Miranda moment):

The Breathtaking Beauty of Rod Stewart’s ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II

I recently chanced upon this clip of Rod Stewart singing (or lip-synching) ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II’ on a late-night BBC4 re-run of a Top of the Pops from 1976. I was com­pletely trans­fixed. Not by nos­tal­gia though, for a change. Bizarrely, scan­dal­ously I don’t recall see­ing or even hear­ing this well-known clas­sic before.

I have a bit of a blind spot about Rod Stewart. As a kid I hated bal­lads. They were bor-ing. Like the kissy-wissy bits in films. And by the time I got into pop music in a big way Stewart was the Bawling Balladeer. I did go to see the Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night with a friend when it opened in 2003. Alas, it was writ­ten by Ben Elton and so I had to leave at the first interval.

But I found myself utterly mes­mer­ised by Rod’s per­form­ance here. It’s undoubtedly one of the best to-camera per­form­ances I’ve ever seen by any artist. Literally breath­tak­ing. And although the song per­haps owes a debt to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, pro­duced by David Bowie four years earlier in 1972 (the gay/outsider jour­ney to New York on a Greyhound bus, the doop-doop back­ing…), I think David would give his non-dilated eye to have done this.

The song tells the story – remem­ber when songs did that? – of a gay friend of Stewart’s who, rejec­ted by his fam­ily after explain­ing that ‘he needed love like all the rest’, moved to New York where he ‘soon became the toast of the Great White Way’ – but was cut down in his prime dur­ing a ran­dom mugging.

It’s not so much the subject-matter (a true story, appar­ently) that got me. It’s the aston­ish­ing per­form­ance itself, which in its fear­less extra­vag­ance and beauty seems the per­fect trib­ute to his fallen friend. It’s as if Stewart, the work­ing class foot­balling lad and lady-killer, is show­ing you with his drag queen ges­tures and shin­ing andro­gyny what Georgie the show queen gave him, what he lib­er­ated in him.

It’s there in the lyr­ics, of course:

He said “Never wait or hes­it­ate
Get in kid, before it’s too late
You may never get another chance
’Cos youth a mask but it don’t last
live it long and live it fast”

But it’s much more ‘there’ in Rod’s ‘gay aban­don’ in front of the cam­era and Marlene Dietrich eyes.

I’ve watched the clip sev­eral times now and the final line to ‘Part I’ – ‘Georgie was a friend of mine’ – delivered with arms stretched out open-palmed towards the audi­ence, towards the world, and that unswerving, heavy-lidded gaze gets me every time.

The ‘Part II’ coda is a frank, almost embar­rass­ing expres­sion of love and loss, mourn­ing and mel­an­cho­lia. Rod weeps for his lost friend:

Oh Georgie stay, don’t go away
Georgie please stay you take our breath away

But by tak­ing our breath away too, at the height of his youth, his beauty and his tal­ent, Rod ensures Georgie – and the glam­or­ous gay­ness of the pre Aids 1970s – also lives forever and never goes away.

No mat­ter what Rod him­self was to turn into, as the mask of youth slipped.

The MetroseXY Movement

Hip hop has its own Andrej Pejic. The rap­per DPhill Spanglish Man is rebelling against the rap-ismo dress code with some­thing he dubs the ‘XY Movement’ which accord­ing to this report, ‘encour­ages men to get in touch with their fem­in­ine sides by don­ning lip­stick and other items, like floral print tights, typ­ic­ally worn by women.’

A lot of people feel like a lot of col­ors or tight clothes is homo­sexual. I feel like it’s more of an expres­sion of me,” said Philips, adding, “The only obstacles are in your mind, that’s the way I feel. I had to break down those bar­ri­ers in my mind to where I was just con­fid­ent enough to do it.”

And Philips’s girl­friend, Joy Nguyn, is just as con­fid­ent, even though she hears neg­at­ive com­ments all the time.

I get mostly neg­at­ive com­ments, ‘Oh, he gay… That’s not cute. Guys shouldn’t wear lip­stick or tights,’ but I really don’t care,” she said, adding, “It’s fine. I wear lip­stick. He wears lip­stick. We share lipstick.”

Or as Pejic put it:

It’s not like, ‘Okay, today I want to look like a man, or today I want to look like a woman,’ ” he says. “I want to look like me. It just so hap­pens that some of the things I like are feminine.”

Tip: Paul

Metrosexy & I Know It

Finally, a party anthem for the Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore, The Only Way is Essex, The Hunks, Men’s Health Magazine gen­er­a­tion of met­ro­sexy young men and the meta­phor­ical (and not so meta­phor­ical) spangly Speedos they’re flaunt­ing them­selves in.

Tip: Elly

Eric de Saade’s Swedish Leather Act

Alas, our boys in Blue didn’t quite con­vince enough view­ers last night in Düsseldorf that they are beau­ti­ful enough to wear the Eurovision Crown, and des­pite their lib­er­ated lyr­ics they looked very, er inhib­ited — frozen with fear, actually.

But they did man­age a much bet­ter show­ing than the UK has done in years. Even man­aging to occupy the top vot­ing spot for a brief tan­tal­ising moment (prompt­ing a messy snog from Lee Ryan on an alarmed cam­era lens that couldn’t back away in time — I of course fain­ted on the spot).

Eurovision 2011 ended up being a con­test between warb­ling Azeri chintzy bridal romance and leathered up Swedish fist­ing. I was sur­prised that Sweden got as many votes as it did since even I was a bit scared by the up-your-arseness of their act.

It was reas­sur­ing, in a way, that chintzy bridal romance won the offi­cial com­pet­i­tion in the end. After all it was silly old Eurovision. But Sweden’s ‘Popular’, a song about the irre­press­ib­il­ity of a young leather boy’s desire to be desired, was the one that people will actu­ally remember:

Spread the news
I’m gonna take the fight
For the spot­light, day and night

Eric Saade nearly rep­res­en­ted Sweden at Eurovision last year with ‘Manboy’, a song pos­sibly even more met­ro­sexy than ‘Popular’.

I Can. I Will. Be Bluetiful.

James Dean, the lost bisexual love-object of the 1950s, fam­ously denied being homo­sexual, but explained that he ‘didn’t want to go through life with one hand tied behind his back.’

Probably it’s just because I have a weak spot for Lee Ryan, the cheeky blue-eyed Essex boy who sings in a dreamy fal­setto — and I know this makes me deeply unhip — but I rather like Blue’s ‘I Can’, the UK’s entry for next week’s Eurovision Song Contest. I hear in it a kind of met­ro­sexual anthem, about men express­ing things and hav­ing exper­i­ences that they really weren’t sup­posed to until recently.

Untying that hand — and wav­ing it around a lot in time to the music.

 

I can

I will

I know

I can untie these hands

Boybands played an import­ant role in the spread of met­ro­sexu­al­ity, with Take That most fam­ously evan­gel­ising the male desire to be desired in the 1990s, turn­ing a gen­er­a­tion on to the charms of pierced nipples, leather har­nesses and eager male sex-objectification. It seems none of Take That were, des­pite the many rumours, gay. But Take That as a band were very gay indeed. Their gay man­ager took the gay male love of the male body and sold it to mil­lions of teen girls – and boys. All that baby oil helped loosen up ideas about masculinity.

London croon­ers Blue were in many ways the slightly more bor­ing Noughties suc­cessor to the tarty Manc lads. Duncan James fam­ously came out as bisexual a couple of years back, mak­ing him one of a very small club of out celeb bisexual males (so small I can’t think of any oth­ers off the top of my head).

But it’s not as if the oth­ers, espe­cially Lee, are act­ing par­tic­u­larly hetero in this video for ‘I Can’. At the begin­ning Lee appears to be shag­ging Duncan from behind, though never los­ing eye-contact with the cam­era of course. And in fact a year ago he admitted/boasted to hav­ing had MMF three­somes with Duncan, whom he ‘loves to bits’.

When I first began writ­ing about the sub­ject in 1994 I talked about met­ro­sexu­al­ity being the male com­pli­ment of female bi-curiousness (then called ‘les­bian chic), but quickly shut up about it when I real­ised no one wanted to hear that. And while met­ro­sexu­al­ity did in some ways cul­tur­ally stand in for male bi-curiousness — it’s his jeans not his ass I fancy — by encour­aging an aware­ness of male beauty and attract­ive­ness amongst men in gen­eral it ended up mak­ing the expres­sion of male bisexuality/bi-curiousness much easier. ‘I can’.

Blue recently did a homo­erotic, Du Stade type nude shoot for Attitude magazine (with Lee look­ing by far the most saucy), and have prom­ised another one if they win Eurovision. Those hands have been untied already.

So much so that when the foxy ladies join them at the end of the video, and the heav­ens open, sug­gest­ing per­haps some kind of pan-sexual gang-bang, they don’t really con­vince as objects of the camera’s gaze – next to the full-wattage met­ro­sex­i­ness of Blue.

grey I Can. I Will. Be Bluetiful.

 

POSTSCRIPT

I’m obvi­ously a bit slow this week. It’s only finally dawned on me what’s going on with the lady dan­cers in the video.

They’re Blue’s ‘fem­in­ine side’. All tied up in bond­age at the start of the video they end up ‘untied’ and freely mingling/merging moistly with the boys.