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The Smiths is Dead – Long Live The Smiths!

“The Smiths are sooooooo depressing!” said every naff twat you knew in the Eighties – which was millions upon millions. But, annoying as it was, every time you heard that lazy dismissal it confirmed something deeply, almost sexually satisfying: that most people simply didn’t deserve to be Smiths fans.”

I wrote an essay for Rolling Stone celebrating the 30th anniversary of the demise of The Smiths, explaining why we’re really lucky that they split in 1987.

Dear Hero in Prison – Quotes From Morrissey’s Autobiography

Well, I’ve read that book. You know, the fastest-selling music biography ever.

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 rings true-oh-oh-oh.

Morrissey Reading

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.

On Sparks

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.

On Success

…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.

Will Morrissey Have The Last Laugh – Again?

 ‘Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest?’

Mark Simpson on the most eagerly-anticipated music biography ever.

C4 News, 14 October, 2013

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?

Morrissey Hasn’t Changed – We Have

Morrissey is always going to disappoint those who want him to be some kind of ‘singing Stephen Fry with a quiff’, argues Mark Simpson

 Originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog

Because the 80s is the decade that actually ended the 20th Century – the 90s was just an after-party clean-up operation – it’s also the decade that never came to an end itself. In fact, the 80s is the decade that just won’t die.

Economy in (‘Big Bang’) recession. Tories in power. Cuts on the table. Riots on the streets. Royal weddings on the telly. The Falklands becoming a fighting issue. And my mother complaining about Morrissey: ‘I see that chap you like so much has been in the papers again. Ridiculous man! And he still can’t sing!’

As Madonna might put it, it’s all a bit reductive.

In fact everyone has been enjoying moaning about Morrissey lately – just like the good old days. In case you somehow missed it, at a performance in Argentina last week, his band appeared in t-shirts printed with the charming message ‘WE HATE WILLIAM AND KATE’ (remember 80s protest t-shirts?).

Perhaps worried this might be overlooked back home, the former Smiths front-man also offered this bouquet to his Argentine fans about those bitterly contested, sparsely-populated rocks in the South Atlantic: ‘Everybody knows they belong to you’.

The Times, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun and Mail all dutifully denounced Morrissey’s big mouth. The Guardian for its part ran an earnest discussion between two music critics titled: ‘Is Morrissey a national treasure?’ (The answer seemed to be ‘yes – but a very naughty one.’)

Not bad for a 52-year-old crooner currently without a record contract. But then, just like that other 80s diva keen on hairspray and frilly-collared blouses, we’ll never entirely be rid of him.

The British experience of the 80s is forever dominated by two very difficult personalities. Both from the north, both unafraid to speak their mind, and both possessing a gender all of their own.

And while one was a working-class militant vegetarian anarchist Sandie Shaw fan with a flair for homoerotic imagery, and the other a bossy petit bourgeois social Darwinist and devotee of General Pinochet who famously outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, both of them were radicals on a revenge trip.

But if Margaret Thatcher owned the 80s, Steven Patrick Morrissey stole its youth. Or at least, the youth that didn’t want to be a part of Thatcher’s 80s. The Smiths were not just an‘alternative’ band: they were the alternative that Maggie said didn’t exist.

In fact, The Smiths were reviled by almost everyone at the time – Fleet Street, the BBC (they were effectively banned from daytime Radio 1), the record business (they were signed to a teeny-weeny Indie label), and indeed most of the record buying public (their singles struggled to even get into the top 20).

But they have become the heart of a decade that didn’t have one. They are now the band that everyone liked – two or three decades after the event.

Including, most famously, David Cameron, who used The Smiths and Morrissey as a Tory re-branding and detoxifying tool at least as important as those melting glaciers he went to gawp at. Declaring The Smiths his favourite group not long after gaining the leadership of the ‘Nasty Party’, he was even pictured, if memory serves me right, with a copy of Morrissey’s 2005 album Ringleader of the Tormentors on his desk.

But Morrissey, whatever you may think of him, isn’t a man to be assimilated lightly. Especially by a Chipping Norton Tory.

When, in 2010, his estranged former Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr tweeted that he ‘forbade’ David Cameron from liking the Smiths, animal rights activist Morrissey endorsed him, adding:

‘David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence.’

No-one can be genuinely surprised that someone who called an album The Queen is Dead is fiercely anti-Royalist. No-one can be shocked that the man who sang ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ is no fan of the remnants of the British Empire. And let’s not forget his famous 1984 quip: ‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed’, or the track ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ for his 1988 album Viva Hate.

Unless, that is, they hoped that Morrissey had mellowed with age and become some sort of singing Stephen Fry with a quiff. Morrissey’s views haven’t changed. Morrissey hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t grown up. He’s still an adolescent curmudgeon, an otherworldly prophet from Stretford – he’s just older and thicker around the middle, and with a bit more cash to spend. He did, after all, promise us again and again that he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change.

It’s we, his fans, who have changed. If we’re embarrassed by his antics it may be because we’ve finally become the people we used to hate.

Download Mark Simpson’s acclaimed ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey on Kindle

The Persueders: Mark Simpson rubs Suede the wrong way

Attitude

(Attitude, 1994 and collected in It’s a Queer World now available on Kindle)

I have something to confess. When I listened to Suede’s eponymous debut album last year I was disappointed. Disappointed that it turned out to be as good as the hype had trumpeted it to be. This was an album that went gold on its first day and sold 100,000 copies in its first week, by a group whose canny PR people secured them no less than nineteen magazine covers. Suede were everywhere, and everyone was hailing them as the greatest thing since The Smiths. So I’m sure you can sympathise with my frustration on discovering I couldn’t loftily dismiss them as paste imitations and actually had to admit that Suede, at once savage and tender, sleazy and sublime, was one of the greatest first albums ever.

Suede, the bastards, they had it all. They had the press; they had the material; they had the success. And to cap it all they had a dangerous, scandalous edge in the form of seventies androgyny queered up for the nineties. It was there in their songs—”We kiss in his room to a popular tune” (“The Drowners”); “In your council home he broke all your bones and now you’re taking it time after time” (“Animal Ni­trate”)—and an album cover that featured two disabled lesbians snog­ging. Most of all, it was there in the sissy shape of front man Brett Anderson. With his irritating girlish fringe, weedy pointy shoulders, and pigeon chest, his swinging, childbearing hips (to which he insisted on drawing attention by banging the microphone against them), and his big-collared blouses baring a waspish waist and nibblesome navel, Anderson was the most offensively, delectably un­manly pop star since Morrissey. Damn him, damn them.

But I needn’t have fretted. Even as Suede were being feted, a backlash was brewing that would unmask them as fakes. What finally unleashed it was Brett’s remark that he considered himself “a bisexual who had never had a homosexual experience.” So Suede were frauds after all! All that mincing of hips and meeting of same-sex lips was phony, a sham! How satisfying.

Gay critics fired the first salvos, denouncing Suede as shameful exploiters of their culture. “Is there any real difference between what Brett from Suede is doing and what the Black and White Minstrels once did?” demanded one furious gay music journalist in Melody Maker.

Meanwhile, those straights who had been discomfited by the queerness of Suede, were given a green light to ridicule them for being big girl’s blouses, now that they had no fear of being called “homophobic.” After reading one gay critic’s attack on Anderson, “comedians” Newman and Baddiel included a typically witty sketch in their last tour that derided him for his poofiness.

Now, more than a year later, as Suede prepare to release their second album, Dog Man Star, they seem as cursed as they were blessed last year. Second albums are always a test, but after such a debut album as Suede, it becomes a trial. Gone is the honeymoon with the press, and gone also is Bernard Butler, the band’s guitarist and Marr to Brett’s Morrissey, in an acrimonious and very public separation. What does the Posing Sodomite have to say about that remark now?

“It was completely misread,” he says, the annoyance registering in his voice. “I was talking about the way I write and the way I generally feel about life. I don’t feel 100 percent akin to the male world or 100 percent akin to the female world. I was trying to express in a sexual perspective something that was more spiritual. Lots of things I write about are third person but written in the first person. Basically it was about not wanting to be pinned down.”

Brett Anderson is perched awkwardly on the arm of the sofa opposite, his body angled slightly away from me. Is he afraid of being “pinned down” as Someone Sitting on a Sofa? Is he, in fact, occupying some more artistic, ambiguous space between sitting and standing? Simon Gilbert, the band’s drummer, who came out as gay last year, is also here, facing me with his knees apart, apparently happy to surrender to the definite, fixed position of sitting on the sofa (albeit in the middle).

Brett continues in his fast-talking, surprisingly laddish South Coast voice: “I don’t think that anyone should have to be pinned down, even if they are definitely in a category—definitely gay or definitely straight. Because you happen to engage in certain sexual practices you shouldn’t have to be that and nothing more. I was trying to state something universal while everyone wanted to read something specific.”

He has a point. OK, so the refusing to be pinned down, “I-don’t- want-to-label-myself” thing is, in a sense, laughably adolescent. But isn’t that what pop is for? To be wilful, self-absorbed, self-important, pretentious? To refuse the definition, the certainty, the common sense, the maturity, the lifelessness of grown-ups? However hopeless such a resistance might be? But gays and straights did not appreciate Suede’s irresponsibility.  Like most who advocate the possibility of a third position in the Sexual Identity War, Anderson was caught in the cross-fire between the two camps.

“The gay side thought it was a cop-out and the straight side weren’t happy with it either,” he complains.  “Everybody wants you as a figurehead for their party: the world is just a series of tribes that want you to speak out for them but I’ve never felt myself part of any of tribe.  I don’t intend to be a spokesman for any of them in particular.  I’d like to think that individuals have got a bit more intelligence than to be happy with belonging to a glorified football team.

“I was seen as a whipping boy for people who wanted to be right-on as well.  I happened to lay my defences open.  Before I did people had thought: he probably is homosexual so we can’t criticise him on those grounds because we won’t be seen as right-on.  Newman and Baddiel wouldn’t have dared do the same sketch about Andy Bell – although I’m sure they would like to – because they know they would have been slated as homophobic.  I think men who are perceived to be gay but who aren’t actually don’t have the political defences to fall back on that gay men do.”

But then you were a rock star making this statement.  Wasn’t it a rather cynical thing for someone in your privileged position to say, exploiting for your own ends the good old-fashioned “ambisexual” appeal of rock ‘n’ roll?

“Perhaps, but that would only be true if it were a charade.  I think it would be impossible for me to act any other way.  It’s not a ploy.”

So you refute the accusation that you were appropriating gay culture by “posing as a sodomite”?

“I wasn’t appropriating it – that sounds like stealing.  I thought I had a kinship with it. My own sexuality aside, I’m quite deeply involved in the gay world because a lot of my friends are gay and because of this feeling of kinship.  But like I said, I didn’t actually feel as if I was part of any particular group and didn’t want to be, so I didn’t feel a fraud at all.  I wasn’t ‘posing as a sodomite’ – I felt completely justified in what I was doing.”

“I think it’s more to do with the way the press decide to portray us that caused the gay community to turn against us. In the NME there were cartoons representing us as limp-wristed Lord Fauntleroys. We weren’t trying to come across that way at all; that was the way the media decided to perceive us. Now I think we’ve gone beyond that – but that’s not to say that I’ve turned my back on what I was talking about then; it’s just the way my mind works.”

But surely you can’t just blame the press for your images as effete fops?

“Look, any pop band can get some success by wearing pink feather boas and some makeup – ‘Ohmygod, they’re outrageous‘ – we’re doing the opposite. We never felt we fitted into any categories. I think the music we make is a metaphor for everything including our sexuality, the way I’ve always tried to avoid barriers.  Simon’s the same…”

“I have to say that I really sympathise with Brett’s position,” Simon chips in on cue. “I come from the other side of the fence if you like. I’ve called myself a bisexual person who’s never had a heterosexual experience. I never wanted to fit into the stereotypical image of what a gay person is. I think that it’s a lucky accident that brought me together with Brett because we really do share a similar outlook. Of all the bands I’ve been with, it’s only with Suede that I felt able to be honest.

“But I don’t want to be defined by my sexual preference, to be put in this category which is, to all intents and purposes, a clubby crowd. I never felt like I belonged in the straight world before I came out. After I came out I didn’t feel like I belonged in the gay world either.”

Actually, Simon doesn’t exactly look like he belongs in Suede. His hair – which is short, spiky, and an angry red-purple – is somewhat at odds with the louche Suede-boy coiffure. Apparently, people often think that he must be “the straight one” because he has short hair. As he continues talking, it becomes apparent where his image comes from. Like many young outsiders growing up in the late 70s, Simon had found a home in punk.

“It seemed to express something about me and I really enjoyed the ambiguity of the lyrics – like The Clash’s ‘Stay Free,’ which I interpret as a love song from one man to another. I’d never identified with politically gay bands and performers like Jimmy Somerville. I think that a song should speak to whoever’s listening without hitting them over the head with rhetoric that’s bound to turn some people off.”

But all the bands Simon had belonged to had displayed sufficient casual homophobia to persuade him to stay firmly in the closet.

“They all had their puerile antigay banter which I had to sit through without saying anything. Suede were different. One day somebody asked if I was gay and I just said, ‘Yeah.’ For a moment I thought, Oh shit, what have I done? I’m out of the band now I fact, the way everyone reacted was brilliant. It felt so right .ill that. I think it has a lot to do with the similarity between his outlook and mine.”

Have either of you consummated your “bisexuality” since last year?

Simon: “No.”

Brett: “Not physically.”

Simon: “I’d say the same.”

What does that actually mean, though?

Simon: “It means that I can relate to a woman without actually getting into bed with her. In the same way as Brett does with men.”

So superficially there’s a neat symmetry between you in that you both want to avoid categorisation, aspiring to be something more and less than what you might be seen to be…

Brett: “… yes, there is …”

Simon: “. . . I’d agree with that. . .”

. . . but perhaps only superficially. Some might argue that you, Brett, were claiming a certain credibility without actually putting your iron in the fire or, probably more to the point, allowing someone else to put his in yours.

Brett: “Mine’s a kind of active statement and Simon’s is a kind passive statement? Yeah, I know what you’re saying. There’s a huge history here which I’m kind of attaching myself to, or port assume I’m attaching myself to. I don’t really see how to get away from it—I’m not saying that I never said it, but….

Now Brett is swallowing water. I throw him a line: Perhaps you were attacked for merely putting into words what has been the unofficial formula for truly great rock ‘n’ roll all along?

“Yeah, I’d agree with that.”

Does he think that his crime was more explanation than exploita­tion?

“Yes, I think that’s been my problem all along—giving too much away. It would have been very easy for me not to mention my sexuality at all and people would draw their own conclusions. I’ve been incredibly honest. I’ve never said anything that wasn’t true.” As a result of Brett’s honesty, some sections of the indie press slated Suede for being “inauthentic” poseurs—possibly the worst crime in the indie universe. Perhaps this had something to do with the notion among some sections of the music press that masculinity is equivalent to authenticity, and both are equivalent to working classness?

“Yeah,” Brett agrees. “Indie does have this huge emphasis on authenticity: everyone has to play and it’s a case of all the lads together. But the whole indie thing is so much a fucking fake itself!” he exclaims with real vehemence. “It’s actually the children of the landed gentry with guitars! I can name quite a few names—but I won’t—people with extravagantly rich parents who have decided to go for this scruffy image.

‘None of us have ever been part of that sort of gang at all. We made music from the other direction: we’re from a scruffy background and aspired to something much more . . . ambitious. I’ve always wanted to make pop music; I’ve always wanted to have hits; I’m always had a really pop ethic and loved the bands who were out-and-out Motown. These other people are the reverse: they’re coming from successful backgrounds and want to have this authenticity and avant-garde appeal by slumming it. I want to make pop songs that everyone can understand and really . . . shine.”

This is the moment to mention those lovable dog-racing cock-er-nee geezahs (or so they’d like you to think) who have risen to fame since Suede’s disappearance from the scene. Brett pauses at the sound of their name-—maybe bristles would be a better descrip­tion. “Ummmm … I don’t really have anything to say about Blur.” He looks at Simon.

“No, there’s not much to say,” concurs Simon, almost spontaneously. “A lot’s been made of our supposed spat with them but it’s all crap really.”

Brett: “They do their thing and we do ours. The press make out that there’s this big rivalry between us, when there isn’t really.”

I try to explain that all I want is a kind of “compare and contrast” angle on Blur. Brett shifts uneasily, moving even more of his body line away from me, flicking nervous sideways glances in my gener­al direction, head close to his chest as he speaks—like a painfully shy boy making his first pass or telling the police where he hid the body.

“Look, any of these bands that have been getting all this attention lately have made it because we haven’t been around [flick]. That sounds really big-headed I know, but I don’t think that anyone has had the track record that we’ve had. Most people only know our singles—that doesn’t reveal the depth to our musical style [flick]. Things like our B sides. We’ve never made a duff B side. Some of our B sides are better than our album tracks. Without being really, y’know, conceited [flick], I don’t think that there’s anyone who has produced such a body of work in such a small amount of time. Not even some of the great British groups of the past [flick, flick], I think that the next album will completely ground everyone else [flick]. I think.”

His speech over, Brett shifts his bony bum around on the sofa arm a teensy bit more towards me.

“I hate all this big-headed crap, y’know?” he confesses. ” ‘We’re the greatest,’ blah, blah. We’ve never gone around with this atti­tude”—now his voice is almost plaintive—”we just happen to think that our music is great and that it has real depth to it.”

Did he face away from me because he was embarrassed at having to sell himself; or was it because he was embarrassed by the “real” Brett Anderson—someone fiercely ambitious, competitive, and egotistical? Whatever the reason, there’s more than a certain amount of truth in what he’s saying. It wasn’t until Suede came along and showed that the body of pop wasn’t quite as cold as everyone had taken it to be that groups like Blur had any chance at all.

The few tracks I’ve heard off the new album suggest Suede have indeed taken a new direction. Toned down is the raw energy of the first album; anger is here replaced by melodrama, and, astonishing­ly, it comes off. Emotions are painted on a larger canvas with more unabashed extravagance than British pop has had for years. Some will denounce it as self-indulgent and pompous. But at least one track, “Still Life”—a ballad that grows into a breathtaking orches­tral production—is going to be huge. It’s so expansive, so gorgeous that no one will be able to resist its goosepimpling embrace. It will be played on Radios 1 and 2; housewives will hum distractedly to its bittersweet melody in kitchens while their sons weep disconso­lately to its wailing angst in their bedrooms.

“I think that we’ve successfully combined those things which we’ve always been good at before,” claims Brett. “We’ve always been able to produce those bubblegum singles like ‘Animal Nitrate’ and ‘The Next Life,’ and on this album we’ve been able to blend the cockiness of these with something more wistful. ‘Wild Ones,’ for example, is for me the most successful thing I’ve ever written. It’s incredibly catchy and poppy and at the same time, it’s something quite beautiful. I think,” he intones solemnly, “it’s really, really rare for pop music to produce something beautiful.”

Do I detect something of Ravel’s Bolero in the finale of “Still Life”?

“Yeah, we ripped it off a bit. If people just heard that track off the album they’d be quite misled because it is very orchestral. We wanted to go for something quite heroic. It’s very easy for a pop band to get a bit of money and pay for an orchestra to accompany them. I think that song justifies it because if you hear it on its own, as an acoustic vocal, it builds naturally anyway. The orchestral embellishments just suggest themselves.

“It is quite pompous, especially the end part. But pop music has always been about being pretentious—you can’t be worthy; there’s no point. That’s the crappy thing about the indie scene: it doesn’t go any further than a bunch of people slapping each other on the back going, ‘Yeah, that’s worthy.'”

Like the Manic Street Preachers, Suede are a pop group, who have that loyalty to pop music that most fans don’t have time for any more. Suede are from an era where there were only three TV channels; two were showing football and one was showing a docu­mentary on fly-fishing. They are from an era of youth-club discos and smoking behind the bike sheds, when the idea of a good time was rattling around in a battered Cortina without tax or insurance, or beating up the local queer. It’s also an England that arguably no longer exists or, if it does, is fast fading away.

Simon disagrees. “Since I came out, I get a lot of letters and I can tell that life in small towns hasn’t changed much. People tell me about getting beaten up in the school playground and stuff. Mind you, Stratford, where I grew up, is really weird. The first time I went back to Stratford after coming out I expected people to be really put off about it—y’know, ‘Oh, here’s that fuckin’ queer.’ But not at all. People were saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you used to hang around with us? It would have been cool.’

“It’s easy to say that things have changed sitting here in London as a member of the media elite. This world just carries on and on, no matter that there are smart people walking around with black brief­cases. [Brett glances at my black briefcase.] There are kids out there who desperately need something to cling on to. Yeah, it is an old- fashioned idea, but it’s what we grew up with. I think it’s easy to talk about the advancement of society when you live in a big city, but I don’t think things have moved on from 1954 once you get outside it.”

But isn’t this a rather patronising view?

“Yes, it is quite patronising, but I also think that it’s quite true,” he says rather impatiently. “It’s patronising towards the people who inflict it on the ones who don’t want it. But they deserve it. Like all my family. They’re living in a different age. It’s all lino and corned beef, like something out of Look Back in Anger.”

Brett and Simon grew up in those corners of Britain where Thatcherism, satellite TV, and Sega Mega-Drives never happened. For Simon it was the tourist/rural limbo of Stratford-upon-Avon; for Brett it was Haywards Heath, a dormitory town north of Brighton. Both men wanted to be pop stars for as long as they can remember. “When I was about four I used to imagine being Paul McCartney,” confesses Simon. No wonder he became a punk.

I put it to Brett that yes, Britain is still dowdy and desper­ate—perhaps more so—especially in those forgotten corners. But the world that produced a passion for pop has gone.

“Yes, that’s true—the world has completely changed in that sense. That’s why I think the new album is a step forward because it is not as caught up with the inverted nostalgia. Where the last album was retrogressive; the new album is much more wistful and in love with the modern age.”

Brett admits, however, that his new optimism is somewhat stifled by certain local realities. “The Suede backlash was partly to do with a reaction against success. Anyone in this country who achieves success is struck out against. You’re allowed to go only so far and no further. This or that song will be dismissed as a ‘pile of shit’ because it’s not avant-garde enough, not because it’s actually any good or not. America’s very different—it seems to be more hopeful.”

But isn’t that part of the deal? That the melancholic, repressed twistedness that your music has fed off can’t be separated from the bitterness, envy, and narrow-mindedness?

“Yes and that’s where the dichotomy lies. This band is caught up in its own history and that’s what makes us what we are. Yet there’s that desire to reach a kind of spiritual state and shed your skin and go on to another plane . . .”

Isn’t this where you end up following in Morrissey’s steps, some­one who also celebrates the mundane and the desperate in British-ness and yet tries to transcend it?

“I don’t think he’s expressed any desire to escape it,” replies Brett quickly. “After fifteen years in the music business there’s been no development in his intention, and I intend to develop. He’s found his niche and seems content within it. That’s fair enough; that’s the way he feels. I don’t want to come across like that. We want to do different things, and even over the space of the last two albums, I think we’ve made quite giant leaps.”

Brett seems rather keen to put some distance between himself and Moz. Maybe this is because he was mocked by the Glum One himself for his hero worship of Bowie and Morrissey. (Morrissey reportedly said, “His reference points are so close together that there’s no space in between.”)

But talking of “giant leaps” actually encourages the comparisons. The world gasped at the recent discovery that Morrissey liked a game of footie and now I can exclusively reveal that Brett was good at sport at school.

“Sport was the only thing I did. I held the record for the 800 metres at my school, Oat Hall Comprehensive, for five years,” he says in a studiously casual way, obviously enjoying the turbulence this fact creates in the wake of his Prince of Fey image. “They used to feed me a special high protein diet at school because I was the only one good at sport.”

Simon was not such a prized pupil. “I hated school for the first year but then I became a punk and got respect—perhaps because I was the only one in Stratford. I wasn’t any good at sport but I was very good at forging my mum’s handwriting on the off-games chits.”

Just before the end of the interview I ask Brett about his relation­ship with pigs. References to things porcine abound in his work, including the track “We Are the Pigs” on the new album. What do porkers mean to him?

“I don’t know really,” he says looking away with a half-smile on his face. “The cover of Animals by Pink Floyd is probably one of my favourite images in the world. It’s a metaphor for sexuality and brutality, stuff like that.”

I suppose that pigs are very . . .

“Human.”

Yes . . .

“And pink.”

Absolutely. And in touch with their bodily functions.

“Yes. They’re supposed to smell but they don’t.”

And so the truth is out at last: Brett’s thing for pigs and pig culture is not so much exploitation as identification.

Download It’s a Queer World

And probably my favourite Suede track, from ‘Coming Up’, 1996:

No, it’s this one!

Welcome to AbbaWorld – Prepare to be Abbassimiliated

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“NO MORE F****** ABBA!!”

So bellowed an ageing transsexual Terence Stamp in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, driven to distraction by his fey fellow bus passengers’ obsession with the silly Swedish 1970s super group.

Some hope. We’re all trapped on a Day-Glo bus full of drag queens squawking along to a loop tape of Abba Gold playing on the stereo. And that’s just watching the Sydney Olympics. The Abba revival in the 1990s turned out to be not so much a rediscovery of a critically overlooked band, as an ascension to pop cultural Heaven and eternal airplay.

Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are all our angelic friends now – and we believe in them, something good in everything they do. We hear their sweetly harmonious voices almost every day, though they stopped making records 20 years ago. And we still see their warm, smiling, never-ageing, non-aligned Nordic faces, the epitome of benignity. They just want us to be happy. In fact, Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are not just our friends – they’re our parents. Not our unconvincing, biological ones, but our shiny, postmodern ones who will never let us down, except perhaps in their dress-sense. After all, the cute acronym of their names Abba means “Our father” in Aramaic (though in Sweden it’s also the name of a tinned fish company).

Abba were a fiendishly clever and catastrophically successful Scandinavian plan for total world domination. Deploying pop singles instead of longboats, aspirations instead of horned helmets, they kidnapped pre-teen children everywhere, ultimately making the world safe for that other Swedish four- letter word: Ikea. Abba were the ultimate suburban aspirational group and the two crooning couples the ultimate aspirational parents. Now that we’re grown up, we’re all Abba now. We’ve all bought the dream of Swedish bourgeois classlessness, excellence and niceness, the soft furnishings and cool green frosted glass kitchen cabinets that scratch surprisingly easily if you’re not really careful.

It’s significant that nowhere was Abba’s strategy more successful than in Australia, where not just pre-teens, but pretty much the whole country was abducted overnight. When they performed on TV there, more than half the population tuned in. Abba: The Movie was set in Australia. The Abba tribute band Bjorn Again is Australian. Australian films are obsessed with Abba (eg Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding).

Why did Australia go “ABBAustralian” as one paper put it at the time? Unkind Poms might say it was because the Aussies identified with the Swedes’ problems with the English language, but the truth was that Australia, the former penal colony, was a “bastard” country looking to be adopted by well-mannered parents with nice teeth who weren’t sheep farmers or uranium miners.

The Abba makeover to which Australia surrendered worked perfectly: nowadays Australia is a country of nice, friendly middle-class people, dental hygienists, publicists, models, personal trainers, lawyers and cheery soap operas. In other words, once assimilated, Australia was able to go about the business of running the AbbaWorld. Hence that triumphal climax of last year’s closing ceremony at the Sydney Olympics, broadcast around the world to billions, featured AbbaChild Kylie Minogue on a Priscilla float singing “Dancing Queen”, the national anthem of AbbaWorld. (And a literally irresistible pop song – which is to say, it wrestles your better judgement to the floor, sits on its face, and leaves you free to make a complete fool of yourself.)

Britain was the first non-Scandinavian country to succumb to Abba, that Eurovision night with Katie Boyle back in 1974 at the Brighton Dome was when we met our Waterloo. It’s probably why that nice Mr Sven has had so much success with his makeover of the English football team, most of whom were born post Abbassimilation and have no trouble recognising their masters.

Scandinavian design, with its clean lines, high quality, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lack of hierarchy, is the only kind of bourgeoisdom we Brits seem willing to recognise nowadays. Those satanically clever and clean Abba hook-lines and impressive arrangements (praised now by everyone from Pete Townsend to Bono) were the product of craftsmanship and professionalism. The very things that made them deeply unhip in the 1970s and led to them being described as “cynical” and “icy” are what makes them the soundtrack to a careerist, managerial age. Those tunes may have sounded innocent to kids back then, but now that they have grown up they’re glad to discover that they weren’t – that like everything else these days, they were very, very calculated.

I’m not sure how much of this fellow Swede and uber AbbaChild Carl Magnus Palm, author of Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of Abba would agree to. The flyleaf describes him as “the world’s foremost Abba historian”, but really his book isn’t as bad as that would lead you to believe. It’s all clearly and soberly written, painstakingly detailed and incontrovertibly definitive. Very professional. Well crafted. The prose slides in and out smoothly like a fitted kitchen drawer. But there are not enough clean lines. Some of this detail and definitiveness is not likely to appeal, unless you’re the world’s No 2 Abba historian. Thankfully, his main thesis about “the Nordic angst being there all along, just beneath the surface” isn’t really borne out. So the band members turn out to be actual human beings who have rows and bust ups? Big deal. There are fewer “dark shadows” here than in an Ikea showroom. And, being an AbbaChild, the author can’t contemplate the possibility that Abba itself may have been the “dark shadow”.

As a pal of mine, a blonde male-to-female transsexual Abba fan (“Abba made me what I am today!”) pronounced after devouring the book: “There’s no dirt. No one’s ever been able to find any.”

She didn’t sound disappointed. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thing of all about Abba.

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Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday October 2001

Why Doesn’t America Love Robbie Williams? When He Love-Hates Himself So?

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Salon.com, April 2003)

It’s tough growing up British. Not just for all the obvious Austin Powers-esque reasons, such as our medieval dentistry, endemic mold problems and epidemic dandruff, but for something much more existential. The British are great and enthusiastic believers in Original Sin. In Britain, would you Adam and Eve it, we devoutly accept that we are all Fallen, all doomed before we are born, that no child however lovely and chuckly and pink-skinned is born innocent.

Of course, since we liberated the monasteries, Coalition-style, back in Henry VIII’s time, and became nominally Protestant for tax reasons, we don’t call it Original Sin anymore. We call it the class system (though in New Labor Britain you will be reported to the police if you mention it). And we don’t talk about sinners any more, just wankers.

You see, whichever class you happen to be born into in Britain, it will be the wrong one. Granted, some are wronger than others, but even the most privileged classes are the wrong ones – to everyone else. Moreover, whatever class you are born into, your destiny, your happiness, your salvation, is not your property and certainly not your right. If you try to escape your British birthright by becoming something you’re not, then you will be Found Out, and everyone will point and laugh and call you a wanker.

Probably the biggest wanker in Britain today is cheeky chappie popster Robbie Williams, or simply “Robbie,” as we like to call him here in that affectionate, familiar way we handle tossers (another word for wanker; we have as many as the Inuits have for snow – and “Robbie” is fast becoming another). Robbie is the biggest onanist in Britain, mostly because he’s one of the biggest success stories. Since going solo in 1996 after leaving Brit boy-band Take That, Robbie, who was expected at best to become a kids’ TV presenter, has had 15 solo U.K. top-10 singles, 13 Brit Awards – more than anyone else in the award’s history – and has sold 15 million albums worldwide. Robbie is British pop today. He is also the bragging, self-publicizing, self-flagellating, self-loathing symbol of the lifestyle every young person in Britain is supposed to aspire to and despise at the same time. As he puts it with characteristic modesty on his new album, he’s “the one who put the Brit in celebrity.”

Unfortunately for the British pop industry as a whole, Robbie is also a symbol of its pathetic failure, in the post-Spice Girls era, to export much more than Kylie’s bottom and Coldplay’s runny noses across the Atlantic. EMI, the ailing British record giant famously swindled by the Sex Pistols (and probably looking back fondly now to those halcyon days), recently paid a sweaty-palmed sum reported to be as high as $120 million for Williams’ next six albums – at approximately the same time as the company was laying off 1,200 employees. A sum that could only be earned out by Yank-side success. Oh dear. Best string out those final installments on that advance: Robbie’s new album, “Escapology,” debuted in mid-April at number 43 on the Billboard charts, selling an anaemic 21,000 copies in its first week. (By the end of the month, Amazon was already selling the album at a “Super Saver” price of $9.98.). For a record industry wallowing in deep water after its worst year in memory, this was nothing short of a Titanic disaster. Robbie could be the cheeky iceberg that finally sinks the British record business.

Now that’s quite a wanker.

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One reason why Robbie is such a popular wanker over here is that he was born chuckly and lovely and pink-skinned in Stoke-on-Trent, an ugly post-industrial nowhere place in the Midlands, a part of the country that everyone in the north and south of Britain can safely look down on. A place that might be described as the arse-end of the U.K. except that this would suggest (a) that there was a point or at least some kind of function to Stoke and (b) that you might if you were that way inclined, or just very drunk and confused, have some fun there.

Then there’s the fact that in Take That Robbie used to wear leather chaps and slap his arse end while singing covers of disco hits such as “Relight My Fire” for the amusement of early teenage girls, 40-year-old gay men and Lulu. There are no more humble origins than that.

As for his performance style today, I could say that he thinks he’s David Bowie and Iggy Pop but just ends up being Norman Wisdom (a 1950s British equivalent of Jerry Lewis, though more pathetic). Or, if I wanted to be crueller, I could say that his stage performance and chatter are like Tourette’s syndrome with pantomime movements. Or simply that he’s a selfish, self-pitying, self-seeking fool who has no opinions on anything other than himself – and they’re all terrible. But if I did, I’d merely be repeating what Robbie has already said about himself on national TV, beating me, the British tabloids, and Man in Pub to the punch. Robbie has told us many times that he’s “bored” with Robbie Williams and wants to “kill him off.” But Robbie’s eagerness to beat himself up for his public, although it is appreciated, is just another reason why he’s a – you guessed it – wanker.

You can probably understand, then, why our Robbie is so keen to make it in America. Why, in fact, he already spends most of his time and his European royalties in America, relaxing American-style in his big American house in L.A., sunbathing by his big American pool pulling fuck-off/come-to-bed faces at the British tabloid helicopters ceaselessly hovering over him. Why the U.S. and L.A. are mentioned – nay, incanted – often in a charming faux-American drawl, on several tracks on his new, American-targeted album, and several times in one song in the case of “Hot Fudge”: “I’m moving to L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.!” – a place where success really can save you and where no one is ever Found Out, just found overdosed and badly decomposed at the bottom of their pool.

All this might also help you understand why his album is called “Escapology,” why the artwork for the album features disturbing-absurd pictures of our Robbie trapped at the bottom of giant tubes of water or suspended upside down hundreds of feet in the air, and why the lyrics talk rather a lot about self-loathing, especially when they’re bragging and crowing about his fame.

While Robbie clearly needs the U.S., it’s by no means clear why the U.S. needs Robbie. In the U.K. Robbie is the king of karaoke pop, when the charts full of karaoke pop acts, but in his adopted home of L.A. every schmuck waiting their turn in a karaoke bar on a Tuesday evening is a better singer. In Britain his lack of great talent is seen as democratic and reassuring; in America it’s probably just uninspiring. It’s a shame, because as Robbie tells us on the AOR power-ballad “Feel,” probably the best track on this album, “There’s a hole in my soul/ You can see it in my face/ It’s a real big place.” Well, we know America’s a real big place, and since Britain is apparently no longer touching the sides, maybe the Big Country will oblige and fill Robbie’s aching chasm?

The problem for us Brits is that as Anglican lapsed Catholics we still believe we’re all Fallen, but we no longer believe that we can be redeemed. Oh yes, now we have to pay lip service to the American religion of success — thanks very much for that, by the way — but we don’t really believe in it. We may, like much of the rest of the world, be crap-Americans now, but we’re agnostic crap-Americans; we still have hundreds of years of feudalism to negotiate. It’s why our tabloids, which exist solely to torment our celebrities, frequently with flattery, sell millions every day. It’s why our boy Robbie is so “ironic,” why he goes on and on and on about His Fame Hell.

For all his transatlantic suckface on this album, I suspect that tabloid-fodder Robbie, who is very crap-American (and also Catholic: “I’ve slept with girls on the game/ I’ve got my Catholic shame”), doesn’t really believe America can redeem him, either. He’s paying lip service, too, though it’s not the kind of lip service you might enjoy. (Note: “On the game” is British slang for being a prostitute.)

One of the reasons “Feel” is the best track here is that Robbie doesn’t deliberately sabotage the professional song writing of his (now former) musical collaborator Guy Chambers as he does in practically all the other tracks, penning glib, flip lyrics which would be inoffensive and meaningless in a pop-Muzak kind of way except that they are also teeth-gnashingly, eye-gougingly crass. Robbie’s lyrics are hyperactive doggerel that won’t lie down, doing anything and everything to draw attention to themselves, including licking their balls and chewing off their own head. “Come Undone,” a big James-ish anthemic number, is utterly undone by the vain, self-obsessing lyrics full of mirrors and razor blades: “Such a saint but such a whore/ So self aware, so full of shit …/ Do another interview/ Sing a bunch of lies/ Tell about celebrities that I despise …/ I am scum.”

This perverted narcissism would be almost admirable in such a crowd-pleasing entertainer if it weren’t for the fact that Robbie is apparently singing to his drugs and rape counselor mom (yes, really) again: “Pray that when I’m coming down you’ll be asleep …/ I am scum/ Love, your son.” Robbie gives matriarchy a bad name. Another track, “Nan’s Song,” is dedicated to his deceased grandmother. This is the first song he’s penned entirely himself and he has said, “It’s only appropriate that my first song should be about someone I love.” In fact, the song is all about how much his Nan loved him.

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Once again, the problem with selling this shtick in the U.S. is that few people apart from some aging gay men in San Francisco have heard of Robbie Williams. So how are Americans expected to relate to his problems with his “massive” fame, which is all his songs are about these days? Robbie is Eminem without the hip-hop, without the wit, and without, finally, the (global) success. Robbie tried and failed to crack the American market a few years ago with a compilation album called “The Ego Has Landed” – which once again appears to be putting the apologetic cart before the career horse, “wittily” referencing a mediocre 1960s British film, “The Eagle Has Landed,” that his target teen audience has never heard of. As one American critic’s daughter said when Robbie Williams’ face popped up on MTV: “Daddy, why is that guy being so goofy?”

In truth, “Escapology” is a kind of 21st century Brit Band Aid album, a “Do They Know It’s Christmas in Stoke-on-Trent?” where the needy continent is Robbie’s self-esteem (and EMI’s bank balance), but where Robbie is impersonating almost every Brit artist who has made it to drive-time radio in the U.S. In “Something Beautiful” he’s Marty Pellow of Wet, Wet, Wet, pre-heroin; in “Monsoon” he’s post-mustache, pre-AIDS Freddie Mercury (even the tune owes more than a little to “Radio Ga Ga”); “Love Somebody” is pre-wig Elton; “Revolution” is post-Wham, pre-men’s-room George Michael (Robbie’s first solo single was a cover version of “Freedom”). “Sexed Up” could be Oasis, post-talent. There’s some Rod Stewart in here as well, but I can’t be bothered to find out where. For good measure, and to show how versatile and deserving of a green card he is, Robbie also throws in some Steve Tyler, some retro-soul and some college radio rawk.

No, I lied. “Escapology” isn’t Band Aid. It’s an entire season of “American Idol,” where Robbie is the only contestant and also plays the part of Simon Cowell. Somehow, though, he manages not to win.

Robbie may be a wanker, and he may be doomed, but he’s not an original sinner. Not only is he a karaoke pop performer (his last album, “Swing When You’re Winning,” was a bunch of covers of Frank Sinatra songs), he’s a karaoke human being. After leaving Take That he thought he was Oliver Reed for a while. Then he thought he was Liam Gallagher. Dressed as Frank Sinatra on the cover of “Swing When You’re Winning” (which includes a duet with Nicole Kidman on “Somethin’ Stupid”), or as James Bond in the video for “Millennium,” he looks like an unconvincing if alarmingly hirsute drag king. By the same token, persistent rumors that secretly he’s “really gay” miss the point that Robbie isn’t really anything.

Where Sinatra was radio, Robbie is a radio. Robbie’s voice, although versatile, is strangely constricted, nasal and distant – as if he has a cheap transistor radio stuck somewhere up his nose. Frankie had a voice that, if radio didn’t exist, would have willed it into existence. Robbie has a voice that is merely an echo of broadcasts that dissipated into the ether long before he was born.

On “Escapology,” Robbie desperately wants us to believe that he has problems. Perhaps because he thinks this will make him likable. Or interesting. Or human. And perhaps because it will make people forgive or forget the fact that he’s a wanker. Actually, Robbie’s problem is much more serious than his wankerdom, more serious even than being British. Robbie’s problem is that he’s a ghost. A ghost that has no story of his own, no life to commemorate or haunt, and no point – other than drawing attention to himself and the pantomime of life that he has become. We’re supposed to listen to the clanking chains because they’re “really professionally put together” and harken to the moaning because it’s “so ironic.”

Mind you, Robbie’s insubstantiality may be the most modern, most sympathetic thing about him. As he sings on “Feel”:

Come hold my hand
I wanna contact the living
Not sure I understand
The role I’ve been given

Is there an exorcist in the house?

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Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.