So I checked the register of historical facts, and was shocked and ashamed to discover The Queen is Dead was released thirty years ago.
To commemorate/commiserate three whole decades of vicars in tutus and boys with thorns in their sides – though we’re still waiting on Charles appearing in his mother’s bridal veil – the Kindle edition of my ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey is available to download for the next couple of days from Amazon US/UK for just 99 cents/pence.
From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Human League, was there ever, asks Mark Simpson, a more spectacular time for music?
IN 1983, THE YEAR that McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a new Barbarossa.
More ominously, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much worse: the end of pop music.
Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music ever.
1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED and LCD equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.
But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s “Love Is a Stranger” that its cunning salesman slapped on at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:
“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”
Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride. This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king.
Eurythmics recorded their sophomore album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)
This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single “Relax,” a siren call to closeted young gay teens if ever there was one. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)
Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.
The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.
Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track “Blue Monday,” which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a transporting track like “Your Silent Face,” whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album). It became the bestselling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-“Blue Monday” world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.
Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death either in the common room or in my bedroom included the deliciously silly “Blind Vision,” by Blancmange; the surprisingly political “Bad Boys,” by Wham!; the sublimely whiney “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky “Rip it Up,” by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious and pompous “Visions in Blue,” by Ultravox; the hair-prickling “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song “Soul Inside,” by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping “Too Shy,” by Kajagoogoo; the plaintive but insistent “Come Back and Stay,” by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of “Electric Avenue,” by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of “All of My Heart,” by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delightfully absurd synth-goth of “The Walk,” by the Cure; the stolen kisses of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet “Church of the Poison Mind,” by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure “Burning Down the House,” by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash “Let’s Dance,” a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.
With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?
Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.
The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day version” was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”
The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)
It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.
For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — there was definitely a sexual ambiguity in the sequenced air.
Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the heartfelt yearnings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”
But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single “Calling Your Name.” Finally the pop charts had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”
But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted “Victorian values” were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the “Evil Empire,” as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.
The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was sometimes known — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.
Marilyn’s second single, “Cry and Be Free,” a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the ironically prescient “You Don’t Love Me,” stalled at number 40 on the U.K. charts. The career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over.
And so, essentially, was new wave, banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing on the U.K. charts in 1984. Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track “Relax” finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes,” which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with “Relax.”
My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also doomed. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.
I ended up playing the Smiths on it a lot — and their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’s The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.
In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame today, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s, barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay.
The Smiths were semi-underground new wave, otherwise known as indie.
And while it would be hideously indecorous of me to review it – especially since Morrissey was kind enough not to mention my biography of him – I will say this:
It certainly didn’t disappoint.
In lieu of a review, here are some especially cherished lines. Because of course, everything that he says ringstrue-oh-oh-oh.
On his hometown
…we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago.
On his big head
Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, but soon it is I, and not my mother, on the critical list at Salford’s Pendlebury Hospital.
On being Irish Catholic
…we Irish Catholics know very well how raucous happiness displeases God, so there is much evidence of guilt in all we say and do, but nonetheless it is said and done.
On school punishment
‘You touch me and my mum’ll be down,’ I warn Miss Dudley. I am nine years old.
On Myra Hindley
Tormentedly, everyone appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth; that a woman can be just as cruel and dehumanized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion.
On George Best
My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apocalyptic disturber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remember my father’s rasp as he dragged my twisted body through the crowd and out into the street, causing him to miss the rest of the match.
On Lost in Space
Dr Smith’s voice is the caustic cattiness of a tetchy dowager rising in pitch as each line ends, hands a-flutter with away with you, my child intolerance. Major West, on the other hand, will kick to kill. My notepad resting on my lap takes the scribbles of unspoken truth: effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.
On being caught by a teacher with a New York Dolls album sleeve
‘LOOK AT THIS!’ she demanded of everyone, ‘LOOK AT THIS!’ and everyone looked at this. ‘THIS is sickness. These are MEN making themselves sexual for OTHER MEN.’
On delicate boys and rough girls
In King’s Lane a sporty Welsh girl lands me such a powerful clenched-fist blow that I fall to the ground deafened. ‘What was THAT for?’ I said, sightless with soreness. ‘Because I like you and you won’t look at me,’ she said – as if what she had done might improve the situation. It didn’t.
On 1970s teenage sex
Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their owners doing nothing at all other than letting you. The call of duty is all yours – to turn on and get off; to hit the spot and know the ropes; to please and be pleased; as the owners of such Bermuda Triangles do … nothing.
On 1970s porn
Female nudity is generally easy to find – if not actually unavoidable – but male nudity is still a glimpse of something that one is not meant to see. In mid-70s Manchester there must be obsessive love of vagina, otherwise your life dooms itself forever.
On Top of The Pops
All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.
On AE Housman
Housman was always alone – thinking himself to death, with no matronly wife to signal to the watching world that Alfred Edward was now quite alright – for isn’t this at least partly the aim of scoring a partner: to trumpet the mental all-clear to a world where how things seem is far more important than how things are?
On Patti Smith
In a dream state I watch her explode as she takes on the lesbian contingent at the front who are calling to Patti to ‘come out’ (where to? from what?), and they heckle her in almost every song.
Ron Mael sat at the keyboard like an abandoned ventriloquist’s doll, and brother Russell sang in French italics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree.
On being banned by his best mate’s mum
I ponder on how I could possibly be considered a bad influence, since I am neither bad nor remotely influential. It is not as if, at this age of 18, I designed dresses under the name Violet Temper. It is not as if I sought a career in exotic dancing, or read jokes aloud at funerals. I had never even once been drunk. My main concern in life was to find somewhere that could make spectacles in less than an hour.
On Sandie Shaw
I had collected all of Sandie’s slap-bang singles of the 1960s, and thought that they perfectly traversed the cheap and loud sound of east London skirty jailbait.
On the North
…the north is a separate country – one of wild night landscapes of affectionate affliction.
…there is Paul Newman, sitting quietly at the door of his Sunset Marquis villa; there is Patricia Neal, frail but smiling at La Luna restaurant on Larchmont; there is Paul Simon, sitting with Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the unemployable Stretford canal-bank cleaner is introduced. This all could be a dream, yet it is not sad enough to be a dream.
On Rough Trade Records
These are the days when almost any unsigned artist that I favor instantly awakes to find Geoff Travis sitting at the foot of their bed, a short-form agreement between his teeth. It’s a compliment, of sorts.
On David Bowie
David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.’
On life with the boxer Jake Walters
…every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhilarating, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone.
On Jake’s belly
I am photographed for Creem magazine with my head resting on Jake’s exposed belly. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ asks new manager Arnold Stiefel. ‘No?’ I say in a small voice. ‘Well, that’s a very intimate shot.’ ‘Oh?’ I say, baffled. ‘A man doesn’t rest his head on another man’s stomach,’ Arnold goes on. ‘No?’ I answer, all adrift on the cruel sea.
On that November Spawned a Monster video
Tim had asked me to do the entire November spawned a monster video naked. I explained to him that this would be impossible since my entire lower body had been destroyed by fire in 1965. His expression remained wide-eyed with belief as he replied, ‘Oh.’
On his fans
As I watch and study, I am mirrored by a handsome legion of the tough and the flash, and with this vision all of my efforts succeed.
MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pompadoured front man of The Smiths – and loudly rejecting everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that success was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on everybody,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”
Right now he must be chuckling so deafeningly the neighbours are complaining to the council. Wherever it is he lives these days.
His much anticipated, much delayed, much-discussed eponymously titled autobiography is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest? Before even its existence was certain? Before anyone seems to have read the thing?
Whatever its contents – and your guess is as good as mine – Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trademark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pictured), offering the world his not insubstantial chin. The apparent absence of review copies, ensuring his critics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth – and everyone and my mother has an opinion on Morrissey.
But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t matter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s written: Morrissey has succeeded in getting Penguin to put his memoirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is somewhere between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turning himself into a “living sign” (and the Amazon blurb mentions the word “icon” twice) – is now officially an instant classic. Penguin say so. So there.
A flabbergasted literary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual historical fact he already has.
Before he found something much more rewarding to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted nothing so much as to be a writer. From his box bedroom in his mother’s council house in suburban Manchester this autodidact who left school at sixteen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamphlets about his twin obsessions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a librarian, and he famously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”
But Johnny Marr came calling and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most literary of popsters – using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insisting that his lyrics, which often “borrowed” from the writers he admired, be printed on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if – and part of me hopes – his memoir turns out to be just his collected lyrics, with some hand-drawn titivation in the margins.
And what lyrics! Morrissey is unquestionably the greatest lyricist of desire – and thus of frustration – who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writing plays. He’d have formed a band.
But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that provokes such curiosity from all sides, is that despite turning it into great art, and becoming a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained resolutely private. Which is a shocking, almost indecent achievement in a culture as sure of its entitlement to know everything as ours is today.
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but having created this mystique, this cherished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obsession with old skool stardom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I wonder, survive confession? Can prose compare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?
But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for stealing away the hearts of a generation?
Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.
Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.
They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.
But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.
Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that immortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.
So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.
Demented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.
Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.
So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)
The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:
“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’
As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate….It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.
Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.
‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’
What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.
Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.
You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”
Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.
But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.
A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainlyto pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. Apparently the response was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.
Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!
IN THE EARLY YEARS of the 1980s stretch jeans were all the rage. Stretch jeans and The Human League’s Dare. Both were revolutionary but practical and, when wrapped around youth, snugly-smugly invincible.
I was sweet 16 when Dare was released in 1981 and it confirmed all the psychoses of teenagerdom. We thought the future belonged to us and our arrogant thighs, with our denim/spandex mix and new-fangled dance-orientated synth-pop. We thought we were so fucking clever. So fucking fuckable. And we were so fucking right, even if our future didn’t turn out to be quite so cool and snug and fun as we thought it would be.
Dare had the effrontery to stretch the sparse, avant-garde, electronic dreams of the early, pre-1980 split, art skool Human League around pop music, disco and everyday desire. It was a perfect, thrilling, highly sexy fit. There’s a simple, timeless test of whether pop music is any good or not: can it be played really loudly at a fairground while you’re being spun around by a tattooed lad on the Waltzers?
To this day, whenever I hear the opening bars of ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love)’, the bit which sounds like flying saucers talking to one another before the hip-wiggling bass line kicks in, the hairs still obediently rise on the back of my neck and I’m all giddy and spotty and about to spew up my Merrydown again.
Dare is one of the greatest pop albums ever made, and quite possibly the greatest UK dance album. It changed what pop music could be. It changed what the world was going to be. This thrice-platinum album was wildly successful and influential, cool and high street, arty and commercial, on a scale that has never really been repeated and can never be, now that pop music is essentially a spent force. And this cultural colossus (with a little help from Virgin Records) came out of the post-industrial wreckage of ‘Steel City’ aka Sheffield. Not London, not Manchester, but the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Tyke pop.
The Vogue-styled album gate fold cover, with The League’s devastatingly pretty and provocatively made-up lead singer – and now unchallenged creative director/dictator – Phil Oakey as front-cover girl, with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, the pretty schoolgirl dancers/backing vocalists famously recruited by Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub called Crazy Daisy’s, barely managing to compete on the inside. (Philip Adrian Wright, the only surviving non-Oakey member of the pre-split Human League, was not given the Vogue treatment.) It was a work of pop art that Factory Records, just over the Pennines, might have envied – if they weren’t so post-punk puritanical.
Listening today, over thirty years on, almost nothing has aged about this album, recorded at the very apogee of synthpop and its analogue daydreams of a digital world – this, after all, is what ‘synthpop’ was before digital technology actually finally arrived years later, and ruined everything. Those Korgs and Rolands were analogue. It is much, much easier to make synthpop music now, and almost everyone does. But none of it has any heart.
The first track, ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, an anthemic invocation of desire, exhorts the listener to ‘do all the things you ever dared’. The stirring football chant chorus—‘These are the things! These are the things! The things that dreams are made of!’—is undercut by the almost banal modesty of the detail of those dreams: ‘New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times’. But that’s the intoxicating drama of Dare: a utopian soundtrack with a down-to-earth, suburban ‘good time’ vibe. ‘Everybody needs love and affection. Everybody needs two or three friends.’ By the austere, highly political post-punk standards of a Thatcher-ravaged, deeply recessed 1981, Dare demanded the impossible.
The new, purged Human League’s first offspring was very much Oakey’s baby. It really was Phil talking, having rid himself of dissenting voices of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who went on to form Heaven 17 (and take on that fascist groove thang). Phil’s inimitable baritone suffuses the album – a voice as distinctive as the sound and the look. A voice so distinctive, in fact, that like many from that era, it’s impossible to imagine it succeeding today. Except perhaps as a novelty act to be voted off before the semi finals.
Martin Rushent, the synth-pop producer brought in to make good the loss of the technical skills of Ware and Marsh, should almost be credited as a fifth band member on Dare. His virtuoso deployment of synths and sequencers effectively adds another lead vocal to the tracks, while the introductory bars are micro overtures that instantly announce the irresistible genius of each song. Is there an album anywhere that has better, hookier, more outrageously sashaying intros? ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘The Sound of the Crowd’, ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘Love Action’, and the Sheffield nitespot operetta of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’ – da da da-da dum da da da DUM! You know exactly what’s coming and you can’t wait. Much like love itself.
The final track ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ became of course the Human League’s best-selling single and 1981’s Xmas Number One, selling over 2 million copies worldwide. It is also the most perfect pop song ever made, running the sublime gamut from epic to trashy and back again, with a sing-along chorus that is the purest distillation of all pop lyrics ever: ‘Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, OHHHHH!’
After that there really is nothing more to be said on the subject.
‘DYWM’ brings perfect ‘closure’ to Dare’s theme of pursuing dreams. Oakey plays a Svengali figure spurned by his creation, voiced pitch-perfect by Susan Anne Sully, and threatens: ‘Don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now and I can put you down too.’
She’s ‘dared’ – and doesn’t need him any more. But the biggest Dare of all was Oakey’s. Everyone thought boffins and band founders Ware and Marsh were the brains of the outfit and Oakey would fall flat on his pretty-boy face after the 1980 split. Phil was working not as a cocktail waitress but as a hospital porter when Ware found him in 1978, and turned him into someone new.
But his worst turned out to be better than their best.
The intoxicatingly talented DEE, alias Jonathan Paul Hellyer, is performing his last ever Sunday show at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern this Easter weekend. Fame has finally found him, possums, and he’s moving to America. To salute him, his new life and the end of an era for London’s gay scene, I thought I’d post this appreciation from the early Noughties
(Independent on Sunday, 23 September, 2001)
By Mark Simpson
I have a confession to make. I’ve been having an affair. For some time now I’ve been sneaking off to a slightly smelly Victorian drag pub in South London every Sunday afternoon to see a performer called ‘The Dame Edna Experience’. And every Sunday I’ve experienced… well, this is very embarrassing. True Love.
What does the Dame Edna Experience, aka Jonathan Paul Hellyer, do? Well, he tells a few dirty jokes, and then he sings some cheesy love songs, which he often makes fun of as he’s singing. In a black Basque, stockings horn-rimmed glasses and a blue-rinse wig. But somehow, he takes you from the base to the sublime to the ridiculous and back again leaving you bewitched, bothered and bewildered and wondering what Barry Humphries did to deserve the accolade.
Everyone in the place – and it is sold out every week – is transfixed by him. Even the shirtless gay clubbers coming down from their weekend’s raving stop chewing their gum and stare, slack-jawed.
To say he’s merely ‘funny’ or ‘has a great voice’ would be a libellous misrepresentation. Hellyer has a talent that seems to encompass the entire range of human emotion – and gender. He doesn’t just sing songs such as ‘Angels’ and ‘Think Twice’ note perfect, and in a voice uncannily like Celine Dion or Robbie Williams. He breathes something into these ponderous ditties that transforms their cheapness into something dangerously potent in a way that Baz Luhrmann would envy. Distilling Robbie-ness and Dion-ness into something intoxicating that the artists themselves could never quite be bothered to do.
So when he performs the irksome charity version of ‘Perfect Day’, rendering everyone from Lou Reed to Tammy Wynette, Bono to Ronan, Elton to Heather Small so intensely the originals seem counterfeit, you find yourself absurdly moved and amused – as much by the power of your own response as anything else. And when he finally pulls off that blue wig and those glasses and lets us look into his eyes you notice that this divine trickster is young and attractive too, those legs rather shapely in those stockings.
Such a perfect Sunday. I’m so glad I spent it with you. You made me forget myself – I thought I was someone else. Someone good.
The P2P revolution is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly compressed file, by Mark Simpson
(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.
Next month, on December 5th, Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard, The King of Rockin’ ‘n’ Rollin’ Rhythm & Blues Soulin’, turns 80.
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.
“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.”’
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:
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!”
a: a young inexperienced person :beginner, novice; especially: a young man
b : 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?
Orgasm addict Pete Shelley, the (openly gay) boy next door whose beguiling, big, brown Manc eyes followed the camera as it dollied round him?
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’)?
Or Paul Weller, who had the angriest, most appetising Adam’s apple in the business and a beauty spot on his lip?
Or how about Ian Curtis, the spasming James Dean of punk?
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.
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.
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.
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 uber-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 uber-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.
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.
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
UK Olympic diver Tom Daley and his chums have recorded their own Speedo-tastic version (I especially like Tom’s Carmen Miranda moment):
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.
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.”
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.
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’.