Maya learns her ABC

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There are three reasons why I reckon it’s about time for our daughter to learn her ABC. Firstly, she’s now ten months old. Secondly, I am, like Martin Fry, from Sheffield, and thirdly, my repeated experiments with ‘Being Boiled‘ and ‘Nag Nag Nag‘ weren’t encouraging, so it’s probably better to go for something a bit more accessible. As it happens, later this month we’ll be visiting my folks in Sheffield, so I can show her the former art college just around the corner where Martin Fry and, er, the others did their first ever gig. (Although when I pointed out Phil Oakey’s nearby house to her when we were last there in May, she was fairly nonplussed, I reckon if I just keep pointing at the block of student accommodation which now stands where Psalter Lane Art College used to and sing bits of ‘The Look of Love’, something might get through.)

For her, an album from 1982 is as distant in time in relation to my own birth as one from 1937. (Although seeing as she doesn’t yet possess concepts such as albums, years, meanings or words, imagine how she’d struggle with that sentence. What’s your excuse?). I showed her some photos of the group silver and gold lame suits they used to sport at the time and she seemed quite impressed, although to be fair her little roundy face does light up in a quite worrying fashion whenever she looks at a smartphone, so maybe it was more related to that.

With regard to the music, she certainly doesn’t react nearly as badly as she did to ‘Reproduction’, the cover of which admittedly features women in stilletoes trampling on babies.  One of the many joys of parenthood is seeing which music is intuitive enough to inspire a reaction. ‘Reign in Blood’ by Slayer didn’t go down enormously well, but she does have an ongoing thing for Prefab Sprout, and as for The Fall, you can judge for yourself here. The opening bars of ‘Show Me’ certainly stir my soul, but she’s too distracted by the appetising sight of my laptop’s international plug adaptor, on which she’s had her eyes for the last couple of weeks, to pay very much attention. I had high hopes for ‘Date Stamp’, very much my favourite song whenever I’m not at that particular moment listening to any of the others. Its heart-bursting but somehow also wry denunciation of the then-inchoate idea that every aspect of our lives including love itself is mere merchandise, a notion whose power has only grown to the point where my hometown’s trees are currently being smashed up by corporate hooligans and malevolent forces are trying to hypnotise our children via Youtube is, in a very literal sense, music to my ears. Unfortunately she’s too busy putting in and taking out some wild animal finger puppets to and from an empty yoghurt container to really focus on how trenchant, lush and unabashedly romantic the whole thing is.

Attention spans being limited, I decide to skip the whole of ABC’S subsequent career up until ‘Lexicon of Love II’ (which means she misses out for the moment on the jagged swoons of ‘The night you murdered love’, but doesn’t have to sit through their attempts at house music). This belated sequel to the 1982 album was released just last year to general acclaim. Contrary to what you might expect given Fry’s history of involvement in ’80s revival cruise ship booze-ups, it sounds not at all like not a cheap copy of the original album, but really rather freshly minted. It sounds, in the most positive sense, like it could have been made any time between 1985 and 1992, like one of those Paddy McAloon records whose release was delayed for a number of years. She seems to appreciate its mix of expensively orchestrated pop classicism and hard-won middle aged wisdom, bouncing around with a massive baby grin on her face to ‘The Flames of Desire’. On the whole it goes much better than our previous music mentoring sessions, especially the ‘Reign in Blood’ one, which culminated in my having to put on ‘Il cocodrillo come fa‘ in order to get her to calm down. (My wife, that is. The baby seemed to be just starting to get into it by the time ‘Altar of sacrifice’ came on.) On this occasion it’s not Chiara that complains, but the downstairs neighbour, who bangs on the door to give out about unreasonable levels of noise at 3pm on the Day of Rest. Miserable bastard. Maybe one day he’ll, you know, cheer up and, as someone once sang, find true love. Or something.

Did you know that Bob Dylan once composed a new Italian national anthem?

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Bob Dylan with Dario Franceschini in Rome, July 2015

There’s an episode in the life in Bob Dylan which I’ve never seen mentioned in any of the books I’ve read about and by him and can’t find on any of the reams of websites dedicated to his work. Dylan’s work and life is the subject of all sorts of rumours, some generated by himself, and so it makes sense to be sceptical. Nonetheless, three people I’ve met independently of each other here in Italy have told me the same story, and the basic ‘facts’ are as follows.

A few years ago a youngish (for Italy…) culture minister by the name of Dario Franceschini decided that his country needed a more global and modern image. He was sick of hearing the same old cliches about pizza, opera and the mafia, and particularly resented what was for him one of Italy’s most embarrassing symbols: its national anthem (‘Il Canto degli Italiani‘ – the song of the Italians). For all that most such songs are bellicose hymns, this one really, as they say in Italy, è il colmo – it takes the biscuit. Not only had its unofficial title (‘Fratelli d’Italia’ – brothers and sisters of Italy) recently been stolen for the name of yet another new party of the euphemistically-named ‘centre-right’. It was also aggressive, hostile, and, in the age of Isis et al, outright terroristic: ‘We are ready to die’, it bellowed, before going on to belittle Italy’s EU neighbours the Austrians and finally claim Italy as an inherently Christian nation, revealing to the world the ‘ways of the lord’.

It’s ironic, then, that the person who he thought might be willing to take on a task on such a scale was himself someone who had voiced similarly evangelical sentiments in the past: Bob Dylan. It was a tiro lungo – a long shot. But Franceschini had, from way back in his university days, been a good friend of the singer Francesco de Gregori, who had recently been in New York recording his album of Dylan songs and who had actually met the man himself at a party. It turned out that Dylan was not only a fan of Italian music, but was also quite knowledgeable about the country’s history. He didn’t speak much of the language, but wasn’t it about time, thought Franceschini, that Italy fully embraced globalisation, becoming the first non-English-speaking country in the world to have a national anthem sung in the international language?

To his astonishment and delight, the feelers he put out to Dylan’s management team via his friend Francesco were well received. Dylan was interested in the idea, although he wasn’t sure whether he wanted his involvement to become public knowledge. As it happened he had a concert scheduled in Italy just a couple of months later, in Turin. How would it be, enquired Franceschini timorously, if the great man were to come to Rome for a few days following the concert, just to see how things went?

So it was that Dylan spent the first few days of July 2015 in the heat of the early Roman summer. The two men got on enormously well, and as Culture Minister Franceschini was able to show his guest some parts of the city and its immense cultural heritage that few get to see. They bonded over a shared love of Caravaggio and of 13th century Italian poetry. That part of the trip went enormously well.

However, not everything ran smoothly. Dylan’s well-known habit of getting to know cities undercover, at street level, away from the world of five-star hotels and luxury dining establishments, didn’t stand him in very good stead in the Italian capital. Within a few days of arriving he was starting to complain bitterly about the atrocious state of the public transport network, the staggering amount of litter in the streets, the constant problems with mobile connectivity, the manifold challenges presented by the deceptively tricky task of locating a working ATM machine, the endless queues and mind-numbing bureaucracy involved in something as simple as posting a package back home, and the general rundownness of the place. Thankfully, though, his negative experiences didn’t stop his creative juices from flowing – the degradation and daily frustrations seemed to stimulate his imagination. Sadly, however, the song he came up with after the five days were up was judged unsuitable by all concerned. Franceschini gave a solemn oath that he would never share details of the project with anyone, Dylan flew back to California, and the song that he wrote has never been played or heard in public. Until now.

Eccola.

(Incidentally, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who’ve suggested replacing the photo of Dylan with Pisapia with one of Dylan and Franceschini. As far as I know the two have never met, so it would involve getting in touch via representatives of both men and trying to engineer an encounter. I only wrote this for a cheap laugh and I don’t believe it’s worth all that work. I’m not Tony Hawks.)

Why I regret that I stopped buying records and CDs

Every generation discovers music anew, regardless of the media on which it’s carried or transmitted. It just so happens that the format via which I first encountered recorded music – grooves on a plastic disc – were also those on which music was first recorded. Of course, prior to the advent of recording technology, there was notation: music was etched, scratched onto the page. Beethoven may not even have understood the concept of ‘recorded’ music. I grew up with the performance as central, the production as paramount, mostly focussed on the voice. From the early 20th century onwards, vinyl was the medium for folk, country, blues, rock, punk, hiphop, house, and so forth. Now music can be plucked out of the air, but when I listen to Bob Dylan talking about Leadbelly, there’s a frisson which comes from having experienced music in exactly the same way as he did. I can relate to that; I’ve lived a very similar revelation. I can’t conceive of (for example) hearing certain New Order*, Teardrop Explodes or, for that matter, George Michael songs, music that had a profound emotional impact on me as a teenager, I can’t imagine that without picturing the environmental context for my experiencing of the sounds. I believe that the loss of the physical format partly explains the deterioration of my relationship with music per se. Although I don’t agree with Dylan that downloaded music ‘ain’t worth nothing’, the move from physical to ephemeral shows that Marx had a point when he wrote that as capitalism develops, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

To quote another prophet of capitalism and culture, everything that was directly lived has moved away into a mediated representation. This now happens instantaneously, live, as, locked into our headphones, we view ourselves walking down the street to a private soundtrack of a film in which we are always the star and hero. I’ve pontificated previously (in relation to the documentary about Zinedine Zidane) about how in an age of intensified self-consciousness of our own performance as social actors, our experience of our lives has become more and more like the film ‘Boyhood’, with every one of our gestures immediately recounted back to us in the form of fantasised cinematography, dramatised by individually-curated theme tunes. 

This is connected to the relationship between music and advertising, particularly the vampiric dependence of the latter on the former. The role of marketing cash in financing or subsidising the lives of those who produce music has meant that music itself is increasingly obedient to an image or logo. It’s true that a lot of art – particularly popular music – benefits from and plays with the tension between the comercial and the artistic, but more than ever nowadays exposure as part of a marketing package means one’s music is experienced as a mere soundtrack to sell prospective consumers an image of themselves inhabiting the world of the given commodity. Music has, in a much more profound sense than with the advent of MTV, become evermore subservient to the image rather than defining its own purpose.

As is the case for any such diatribe against the internet, it’s essential not to overlook the affordances of technology in terms of both production and consumption. Hyper-accelerated access and avid overconsumption is made possible by downloading and streaming. When I first got an MP3 player twinned with a proper internet connection, I quickly discovered that I felt compelled to skim through my exponentially expanding music collection – the prospect of listening to a particular album or piece of music had become a more powerful experience than actually doing so. Once something becomes infinitely available, it’s hard to value a single instance of it. Value is produced by scarcity, not abundance.

I’ve written before about how hard I find it nowadays to commit to a single song, album or artist. Nick Cave Syndrome is the name I give to what I think is now a universal experience: I could, if I so chose, spend a few days immersing myself in the work of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, etc, but I never actually do. There’s too much digital distraction, too much white noise to engage with newmor unfamiliar music. I’m open to charges of laziness, but I’m by no means alone: the KLF’s Bill Drummond once embarked on a series of experiments to reconnect with music, including spending a whole year only listening to artists who names began with a particular letter of the alphabet. To get that connection back involves somehow making music finite and thus more precious.

Music dramatises space and time but also requires space and time to produce and experience. Mark Fisher and Momus have both written about the restrictions that gentrication and permanent austerity imply for young people wanting to experiment with sounds and images. Early Human League in the documentary ‘Synth Britannia‘ showed some of the abandoned industrial spaces which made their existence possible, while Jarvis Cocker in his ‘Musical Map of Sheffield‘ stressed how important dole money was to his artistic survival. The same goes for the art colleges which formed David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren. They inspired the kind of artistic invention which anyone spending three years on a desultory £9,000-a-year business studies degree course anticipating a lifetime of internships would struggle to replicate.

Of course, no matter how little physical space you have, you can nowadays make and remix music on your phone or laptop while unemployed in a slum or drinking coffee in an airport. Momus makes hugely inventive use of the internet to gather samples and images and Youtube to share it – but then he does have a fanbase built up over more than 30 years. I probably wouldn’t listen to Pillycock or Scobberlotchers if I hadn’t pored over Tender Pervert and Don’t Stop the Night as a teenager. Who’s really going to listen to new music? (Or, for that matter, find the time to read blogs?). It was actually Momus who predicted that on the internet everyone would be famous for 15 people. But what if you can only get those people’s attentions for 15 minutes? That’s a thumb-twitching epoch online.

The human relationship with music is both intimate and (as Schopenhauer argued) spiritual, both individual and social. Having long along lost or given away the tens of thousands of discs I once had, how do I recover the value that music used to have for me? The answer is, of course, to collect it in its physical form. But maybe my relationship with music is too far gone now. Maybe I’ll never get it back. While writing this, listening to an algorithmically-curated selection of tracks by Francesco de Gregori (who has released something in the order of 30 albums, all of which I can access with a tiny gesture of my thumb but none of which I will ever get round to really listening to**), we had a powercut. Although it was mercifully short, it screwed up our Internet connection for a good two hours or so. It made me think of people in Puerto Rico, suddenly deprived by a capricious climate of running water and electricity. If there’s one thing we can predict with some certainty about the future, it’s that we won’t be spending so much time online. The internet presupposes the stability of too many physical, social and economic infrastructures. Even wifi, I once learnt, is vulnerable to climate change. If the only access we have to music is via Spotify, then we will lose access to it whenever a passing storm so decides. Music is far too valuable for that.

*Incidentally, ‘Regret’ is not my idea of a great New Order song, it just tied in with the title, which may be no classic as titles for blog posts go, but is at least hopefully more enticing than the original one, which was ‘Music, technology and spectacle’, which is, let’s face it, shit, although not nearly as shit as either Bad Lieutenant or the third Electronic album.

**His album of Dylan covers is great fun. You can find it on, er, Spotify.

Mexrissey: A glorious celebration of colaboración intercultural

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It’s unlikely that even at the height of their fame any of The Smiths (Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke or Mike Joyce) would have expected to one day become the subjects of a Mexican tribute album. The Manchester trio became huge global stars in the mid-1980s with their songs of maudlin woe and overliterate self-pity striking a chord with misunderstood teenagers all over the world. On the surface it’s hard to see how their fey northern English sensibility might appeal to millennial Mexicans, but a portly deadpan genius by the name of Camilo Lara (together with the bandmaster Sergio Mendoza) has drawn on the threesome’s long-standing cult status in his country and amongst LA chicanos to create an album which mixes trip-hop and dub reggae with happy/sad mariachi trumpets and the swooning strings and tragic sobs of ranchera, all of which overlays the erudite gloom of the original songs to wonderful (and often hilarious) effect. Working under the name ‘Mexrissey’ (although the origin of the group’s name is obscure, the album’s title, ‘No Manchester’, is a top-class chilango pun), he has given songs such as ‘Cada día es como domingo’ and ‘El último del gang a morir’ (I’ll leave you to work out which is which) a new twist which reveals new dimensions of sound and meaning.

Unlike most tribute bands, who just present a photocopy of the original work and look of their idols, Mexrissey’s histrionic performances (there is little Mexicans enjoy more than drinking, singing and crying all at the same time) are a outright celebration not just of the music of the three Manchester troubadors, but also of the joyousness of such cultural interaction. They reveal the songs of The Smiths to make more sense once uprooted from the petty, miserable, post-colonial melancholy that originally inspired them. While the young (was he ever thus?) Nigel Farage might once have felt some affinity with the line ‘England is mine, it owes me a living’ or stomped along to the song ‘Bengali in platforms’, he and his dwindling fanbase would surely feel affronted to hear it sung with such typically Mexican melodrama. Music is, after all, all about interacción and reciprocidad. It puts me in mind of one of the very best gigs I’ve ever seen: UK-born Cuban and Bangladeshi musicians bashing and tooting up a storm together in East London several years ago. For all the despondency of their source material, Mexrissey make music in much the same spirit. The three members of The Smiths must be encantados.

In unrelated music news, former-pop-star-turned-political-commentator (and, er, novellistMorrissey has announced that his new single will be a cover version of the Bon Jovi classic ‘Sleep when I’m dead’. In a break from tradition, the sleeve photo of the single will not be a portrait of one of his idols (cover stars have, in the past, included Myra Hindley and Benito Mussolini), but an image of the singer himself. You can see an exclusive photo of the single here.)

(Btw, Anne Marie Waters isn’t, as media reports are calling her, an ‘anti-Islam activist’. She’s a pro-death camp wannabe demagogue.)

(Bbtw: actually, Morrissey and I have a lot in common: we both have immigrant parents, for one thing, and we’ve also both been immigrants ourselves in Rome. That’s where some of his far-right bedfellows – the ones he’s been spending all day in bed with, if you like – just put up some posters advertising a demonstration against the ‘immigrant invasion’. Sadly for them and for him, one of those invading immigrants (me) was on hand to rip them right down again 🙂

Thanks to my baby daughter, I’m used to handling other people’s shit. Time to find a bin, one fit for unrecyclable, undifferentiated filth.

Che pezzo di merda sei, Morrissey.)

Eight songs to celebrate our daughter’s eight-month birthday

Human beings only really come into existence in the own right following nine months of total dependence on their mothers. Nine months is therefore a significant enough milestone to blow up balloons, eat cake with lots of sugar and ice-cream (us, not her) and make playlists. As it happens, our daughter was actually born eight months today, but this site has a tradition of celebrating anniversaries on the wrong date, and in any case I just had the idea for creating a playlist and I don’t have the patience to wait another month. Plus it turned out that I can only (just) think of eight birthday-related songs I like*.

The Beatles – Birthday

So far she’s tended to turn her tiny piggly-wiggly nose up at the “White Album”, but this is a lot jollier than ‘Happiness is a warm gun’, plus the beat is very uniform and she loves banging her arms up and down like a totally demented  (if very young) Herbert von Karajan.

Altered Images – Happy Birthday

She’s not quite old enough to remember either Altered Images or ‘Gregory’s Girl’, but then neither is her mum. Actually, speaking of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, people did used to tell her dad (me) that he (me) was a dead ringer for the film’s star, and given that everyone who sees our daughter immediately exclaims that she looks just like me, we have the dubious honour of having a baby daughter who looks exactly like John Gordon Sinclair.

Stevie Wonder – Happy birthday 

This would make a far better US national anthem than that godawful self-aggrandizing dirge, which, let’s be honest, is more likely to make you lie down and go to sleep than stand to attention. Plus the Stevie Wonder version expresses far more laudable sentiments, with which no sane person could reasonably disagree. Also, at eight months our daughter is just getting to the point where she can actually (like Stevie himself) #taketheknee.

The Sugarcubes – Birthday

At this point in the testing of the playlist, our daughter starts actually singing along with gusto. Or she could just be in need of milky-wilky. Either way, she seems to know all the words. Maybe she’s been speaking Icelandic for the last few months, and we haven’t noticed.

The Birthday Party – Release the bats

Again, slightly before her time, and not in any sense a birthday song, but you will notice the presence of the b-word in the name of the band, and her dad’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave recently because there was a rave review of one of their gigs in The Guardian. Plus as she likes The Sugarcubes she might go for the screeching and the atonal elements in this one. Hard to tell, cos her mum took her off to her grandma’s place, muttering something about ‘torturando tua figlia con questa musica di merda’, which sounds bad.

Pedro Infante – Las Mañanitas

A change in tone from the previous one. My wife always gets embarrassed when I explain that the reason our daughter has a Mexican name is that she was conceived in Mexico. She prefers explanations which involve cicogne. If we were still living there our daughter would be hearing and singing this all the time, as it’s the Mexican version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I do know all the words, just not all in the right order.

Rafaelle Carrà – Tanti Auguri

This is the Italian birthday/wedding disco anthem of all time, to the extent we had it on our own wedding playlist. That of me and my wife, that is. Not me and my daughter. That would be…odd, even in the south of Italy.

Heaven 17 – (We don’t need this) fascist groove thang

You can probably tell that I really was running out of birthday-related favourites at this point, but then Spotify handily suggested including this, which is sort of appropriate, as she was born nine days after Tr*mp’s inauguration. On the one hand I’d hate it if his name was her first word, but at the same time I have been teaching her the word whenever she does one. Two more reasons to choose this song: 1) It is, like her dad (me) from Sheffield and 2) Current pedagogical theory suggests that it’s best to introduce the existence of (unnecessary) brackets to one’s child sometime between the eight and ninth months.

* ‘Birthday Girl’ by Stormzy was a candidate for inclusion, but on mature reflection I decided that its many references to ‘birthday sex’ were…inappropriate.

Abba in Glasgow

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The news that Spandau Ballet (who I hadn’t realised were back together) have split up again reminded me of a photo from Q magazine in c. 1990 of bandleader Tony Hadley in the company of two female fans. It accompanied one of those deeply sardonic interviews conducted by Tom Hibbert, erstwhile Smash Hits snarkist extraordinaire. Hadley was flanked by two middle-aged women for whom the encounter clearly represented the highlight of their lives, the realisation of a decade-long dream, because the expressions on their faces were flushed with unadulterated joy. It was, however, not a flattering photo of any of the three subjects. Hadley’s face didn’t express any enjoyment whatsoever but was that of a man imprisoned in anguish. In front of him stood a pint glass which was distinctly half-empty; he looked like a man who’d just had explained to him that he was Tony Hadley and that the year was 1990.

Thinking of that photo put me in mind of a story about a young girl from Glasgow who was obsessed with Abba. As far back as anyone could remember (this was the late 1970s), her bedroom walls had been festooned with images of Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn, and Agnetha (her favourite). When the news broke in mid-1979 that her idols would be visiting her hometown, her screaming was so loud it brought people running in from the neighbouring close to find out what was wrong. In the weeks leading up to the concert she was uncontrollable, talking nonstop about which songs they would play (her favourite was, naturally, ‘Dancing Queen’) and what the girls would be wearing. She didn’t sleep for a full week before the day of the gig.

It finally came: November 13th 1979. The concert was everything that she had dreamed of. It wasn’t just Agnetha’s outfit that sparkled: the whole night, inside and outside the Apollo Theatre, was filled with glitter. They started with Voulez Vous (the title track of their latest album, which she’d loved so much she’d almost worn through) and included so many of her favourite songs she felt like she would burst with joy: I Have A Dream, S.O.S., Take A Chance On Me…. Between tracks she and her friends tried hard to catch their breath and remind each other what songs they’d already done so that they could capture every moment to relive later, but then the opening bars of the next song would sweep in and they’d be off, dancing and bawling their hearts out. Summer Nights City, Does Your Mother Know, and then, just when she was starting to feel scared that they’d miss it out for some reason and that The Way That Old Friends Do would be their very last song, that ecstatic piano riff that sent her soaring above the crowd like an angel, so high up in the rafters, having the time of her fucking life, that she then spent the whole of the final number (Waterloo) in floods of tears, her mates trying to console her at the same time as dancing for all they were worth…the last words Benny said from the stage were “We love you, Glasgow!”.

Abba, man. We love you. Unforgettable. They floated home, singing and screaming and bawling all the way.

She read all the reviews she could find in the local papers and added them to her collection. In the new year she was suddenly seventeen, just like in the song. Every time she and her friends met they couldn’t stop talking about the concert. Then, in summer, they heard that Abba had a new album coming out, in November, with a single due in July! She counted down the days again, imagining the lyrics and the songs and the photo on the sleeve. She had to wait to get the single as they were away with her gran in bloody Greenock, where there wasn’t even a record shop, but when she managed to get her hands on ‘The Winner Takes It All’ it broke her heart in the sweetest possible way, it made her suddenly feel like an adult. She loved the sorrowful tone, and the fact that at the most intensely tragic moment of the song the backing singers seemed to be singing (she argued about this with her friends) the refrain ‘BIG ONES, SMALL ONES’ felt like the funniest joke she’d ever been told.

She was ill in bed the day the album (‘Super Trouper’) was released. Bloody mumps. Nae bother, because as soon as school was finished for the day her best friend rushed into town, bought the LP and then got the bus to hers, fizzing with excitement. She ran up the stairs and, giggling and shaking like loons, they put the record on the turntable, sat back on her bed and awaited the worst horror of all.

 

Stealing books from the KLF, Parts 1 and 2

Part 1

Sometime in c.1994 a fax arrived at the radio station where I worked which had me and my then drinking partner Brian punching the air with anticipatory glee. It invited whoever fancied it to Dublin’s most salubrious nitespot The Pod to hang out with none other than stadium-techno prankster Bill Drummond, who had just a short time before burned his bridges with the music industry and thrown every remaining penny it’d rewarded/bribed him with onto the pyre because whyever not. (You can see the resulting documentary ‘Watch the K Foundation burn a million quid’ here). The event was to mark the publication of a book he’d written about a trip he’d purportedly undertaken to the North Pole in the company of Zodiac Mindwarp (of minor 1980s pop fame). On the evening in question we ambled along and got stuck into the free Canadian beer, chatting with the other liggers who included minor Dublin pop aristocracy such as the erstwhile Paul Wonderful, aka the funniest man in the world, who would just a couple of years later introduce the world to his masterwork Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly. At some point a huge book started to circulate, a version of the work being launched, which was said to be bound in calfskin and to exist in a limited edition of only five copies. It was all a bit silly, and in our mounting giddiness we may have spilled a bit of free beer on some of the pages, which as I recall featured pornographic photos in which the faces of the participants had been replaced with the heads of Disney characters. Our sense of exhilaration at the absurdity of the occasion and the fact of our presence there hit new heights when Bill Drummond himself limped in, accompanied by some bloke wearing a frilly shirt and an expression of considerable self-importance. Emboldened by our or third or was it thirteenth free bottle of Molson Export or was it Big Rock, we pushed through the crowd and introduced ourselves, explaining to Bill (who, I seem to recall, had green teeth) why burning a million pounds was totally the right thing to do, displaying a indepth knowledge of his movements and motivations derived from obsessive lifelong study of the music press and generally (we thought) being uproariously entertaining. At some point it became clear that there were still some other people in the room who wanted to talk to Bill, a fact that Mr Frilly Shirt was keen to stress, but his constant interruptions only prompted Bill to utter the following deathless phrase in his uplands lilt: “Nooo, these are the only interesting people I’ve met all night!”. Confirmed in our ascendency to the position of Coolest People In The World For One Night Only, we continued to celebrate by chugging even more ice-cold free Canadian lager, which served to make the evening even more deliriously exciting, and also to disorient us to the point where we lost contact not only with Bill but with each other, and from the heights of fraternising publicly with one of the world’s hippest human beings (with whom we were, we believed, just on the brink of exchanging contact details in preparation for a joint trip to Shangri-La), the evening descended precipitously into a messy finale of fallen barstools, broken glass, heavy-handed bouncers, and an eventual fine of three thousand pounds imposed on Brian for, with catastrophically ill-judged overexuberance, jumping up and down on one or two cars in the immediate vicinity of Harcourt Street, which is, after all, where Ireland’s largest police station happens to be located. Luckily, by the time the gardaí got involved, I myself was stumbling northwards feeling like I’d been blessed by the Pope of pop himself.

The following morning, buoyed up with starstruck hubris and basically still drunk, I floated into work and bathed in the admiration of my colleagues, some of whom had no idea who Bill Drummond was but seem impressed that I’d managed to survive the whole escapade. Brian hadn’t, in the sense that he now in almost all certainty faced the prospect of having to find a proper job for a few months to pay off his debauchery. At lunchtime we staggered off down Wicklow Street towards a local greasy spoon which we hoped might soak up some of the excess blood in our alcohol streams. As we walked and tried to relive or at least recall the glory of the previous night, we were startled to be violently set upon by one of its protagonists: Bill Drummond’s frilly-shirted assistant, who ran across the street and set about trying to kick us both up the arse while shouting something about a missing book. We were nonplussed, and after some slapstick tomfoolery managed to get him to give up and fuck off. It was only when we got back to work that someone pointed to an article in the gossip section of the hot-off-the-press Evening Herald, which reported that former pop icon Bill Drummond had successfully launched his new book, but that in the process it appeared that someone has stolen a special edition of which there were only five in the world, and that he and his publishers were keen that it be returned in its original condition as soon as possible.

The whole experience was so exciting and so very odd that I promptly forgot to tell one of my very best friends (a fellow KLF enthusiast) about it for several years. When I finally remembered to do so, it turned out to be somewhat serendipitous, because he responded with the following anecdote: 

Part 2

Summer 1999. My girlfriend and I are living on a shared giro of £52.something pence a fortnight. She likes to spend much of this money on brand name suntan lotion which she applies to her entire body, every day, regardless of season. We can scarcely afford to eat, never mind go out and get drunk. She did have very soft skin, though.

We were living in a boring city in the UK where we, alongside our similarly financially endowed friends would seek out any free cultural events, no matter how mundane. So imagine my joy when I saw posters advertising a talk by fucking Bill Drummond from out of the KLF, a band I had loved since the 1980s, for free!

It was taking place in a posh and inevitably boring “brasserie” pub. The premise of the event was thrilling: Drummond had written his autobiography, 45. He was 45 years old at the time and most of the records he’d made played at 45rpm. The book was seven inches square to represent a 7″ single. But this evening, he announced that his publisher’s lawyers had said that twelve anecdotes from his text were unpublishable and as he anyway preferred the twelve inch single to the seven inch, he had decided to self-publish twelve copies of the book with the twelve unpublishable anecdotes published within, in a hardback twelve inch squared format. These twelve books were scattered around various tables at which we were sitting, and by each book was a packet of crayons.

He told us that if we wanted to, we could leaf through the book, read parts, make comments or drawings in it with the crayons, even destroy the book if we wanted to (no-one did), but that we couldn’t take the books home with us and that they were not for sale; could not be sold in fact because of the unpublishable material.

He signed my 12″ of Kylie Said to Jason with the highlighter pen that I gave him. I then had to put selotape over the autograph to stop it rubbing off because I couldn’t even afford to buy a permanent marker. As I did so I asked him what sort of music he was into at the time and he said he didn’t like music any more 🙁.

Unfortunately he then read an extremely boring passage from the book, something about the countryside if memory serves, and I remember thinking he was dressed in extremely boring clothing and glasses, a bit like the ironic country gent look that Vic Reeves wore at the time.

As I grew disenchanted with the evening’s entertainments I drank another cider and looked out of the window at the orange glow of the sunset on the pavement from the brasserie towards my house. Then I glanced at the book again, then I looked at my rucksack on the floor which was about an inch wider than the book. Then I looked at the book again.

Reader, I stole it.

A couple of months later I bought a copy of the actually published, publishing-lawyer-censored 7″ version of the book in a charity shop. I tried to impress on my girlfriend that the only way to extract the twelve scurrilous anecdotes from my … OK actually Drummond’s uncensored book would be to read the two books simultaneously, aloud to each other in bed.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what these twelve stories are because she expressed her extreme disinterest in this project as she rubbed overpriced suntan lotion into her skin on that chilly late September night.

Manu Chao and Momus: Citizens of Everywhere

I first came across Manu Chao exactly sixteen years ago, at which point I’d already been listening to Momus for around the same amount of time. Momus was an ever-present in the UK music press of the late 80s- early 90s*, and as for Manu, it was (appropriately enough for someone of my lifestyle and worldview) the Guardian that alerted me to his existence, in summer 2001. The article focussed on how surprisingly little-known he was in the English-speaking world, given what a superstar his album Clandestino had made him elsewhere, and also mentioned that its follow-up was coming out later that week. Just as it happened, he was also playing a free outside gig in Lisbon (where I lived at the time) the very same weekend. I bought and immediately loved both CDs and two days later found myself in the midst of billowing clouds of weedsmoke bouncing up and down next to the Torre de Belém for three hours (while ignoring the disparaging comments from my friend Andrew about ‘fucking crusties’). Manu himself was leaping around on the stage 200 metres away, wearing an Algerian football shirt and kicking footballs into the crowd with seemingly boundless euphoria and energy. I was enamoured.

Although in the ensuing years Momus has released sixteen albums of consistently excellent original material and Manu Chao (who was previously part of the group Mano Negra) has put out just two**, the two artists have much more in common than being born just one year apart and possessing a shared penchant for unconventionally colourful and extremely baggy trousers. In both cases they have a level of creative energy that seems to increase exponentially with the years. Theirs is making as a mode of being, reminding me of the line from Fernando Pessoa – “I get distracted and start doing something”.  It’s also, in both cases, entirely impossible to predict what they might do next. This year Manu has been posting, from who knows where, new songs (hooray!) which are a collaboration under the name of Ti.Po.Ta) with a Greek actress/singer called Klelia Renesi, while Momus has been traversing Europe by train switching between being David Bowie and various versions of himself.

On the sleeve of ‘Radiolina’ (2007) there was a reference to ‘permanent summer’. Manu seems to be always on the move, from Barcelona to Bayonne to Bogotá. He says of himself that ‘my one luxury is travel’. Both he and Momus migrate instinctively towards similar scenes and people, but while Momus is more likely to pop up at art fairs and residences, Manu is an organic superstar, an incessantly mobile global troubador. The lifestyles of both artists are thus a rebuke to Theresa May’s tiny-minded denunciation of ‘citizens of nowhere’. Their lives and work are a celebration of mobility and migration. Wherever you happen to be on the planet there is an outside chance than one or the other will at some point soon be entertaining people at the end of your street***. Youtube abounds in videos of Manu playing in cafes, strumming and carousing while walking down the street and doing the entertaining at an actual children’s party. Momus’ gigs consist of him and his laptop, so they share a spirit of ‘let’s do the gig right here!’. While Momus’ gigs are spellbindingly intense and entertaining, Manu’s concerts are characterised by exuberance. If you’re at all into bouncing round your living room, whether alone, with friends, or with a newborn baby in our arms, his live albums are a must.

The border-flouting approach of both Manu and Momus is reflected in their linguistic eclecticism. Manu has sung in Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Arabic as well as English, French and Spanish; often he just mixes it all up in what what Diego Marani calls Europanto, often based around Manu’s own idiosycratic international take on English rock n’roll grammar. Sometimes his lyrics sound like stoned nonsense. His core audience is, after all, weed-addled Spanish perroflautas, punkabbestie italiane and French whatever-the-French-word-for-crusties-is. One thing the two artists have in common, lyrically just as much as musically, is inventiveness. Interestingly, in French Manu’s lyrics have a less wacky, more literary bent. Momus is consistently erudite but, with his history of having been big-in-Japan, has a mastery of International English and a strong appreciation of the absurdity and ambiguity of the pop idiom. He’s also a pioneer of using google to write songs in other languages and (akin to Michel Houellebecq) basing lyrics on Wikipedia entries. In a recent interview about his approach to lyric-writing, he talked of using a Burroughsian cut-up approach; not too dissimilarly, Manu’s lyrics often appear to be the result of a collage.

While Manu has lived in Brazil and currently (I think) resides in Barcelona, Europe’s most Latin American city, Momus, after floating between London, Paris, New York and Berlin, has gravitated towards Asia and is now based in Osaka, ‘Japan’s most working class city’. Given that Momus has never visited Latin America, it’s tempting to think of he and Manu as covering different parts of the planet. That may carry colonialist implications -and it is worth noting that as white European men their access to mobility is enhanced – but few make such use of it, and neither is unaware of the contradictions of neoliberal globalisation. As noted, they share an interest in and are advocates of free movement. as a corrective to nationalist and imperialist worldviews. Their magpie approach to sampling is not the mere cultural appropriation that at least one artist of their generation has been accused of. Both reuse source material with irreverence, treating culture as a living, fluid thing rather than a collection of solid museum artifacts. Theirs is not the globalism of Starbucks with its slogan ‘culture is just a flavour’. Hence they have both produced snarling critiques of neoliberalism, the notion of human society as a conveyor belt which stamps price tags on everything it doesn’t simply discard. One of Manu’s most recent tracks is called ‘No solo en China hay futuro’ – it’s not only in China that there’s a future.  Their refutation of the conveyor belt world view lies in the fact that they are both fascinated by what has been or stands to be discarded.

Both Momus and Manu Chao tracks are instantly recognisable as such, despite their catholic approach to borrowing sounds. Momus has invented some genres and pastiched others and ended with something which is absolutely distinctive. Manu’s music combines head-down boogie with ska, funk, punk and reggae; both show a laudable disregard for copyright. Another feature they share is artistic promiscuity, with a constant eye for collaborations. While Momus has made albums with Anne Laplatine and as part of  Joemus and MomusMcclymont, Manu has shared his creativity with Amadou et Mariam and (more recently) Calypso Rose. They both make exemplary use of the internet to try out and diffuse new ideas****. There’s also something similar in form and mood about Momus’ hearspools and Manu’s ongoing work with Radio La Colifata, in which he riffs and quotes from his own music. Both artists also continuously remake old songs for new performances.

There’s also a sense of generosity, not just promoting other artists but also causes. Manu very regularly lends his support to campaigns against GM farming and fights against mining extraction. Momus is definitely not a protest singer (or, it’s important to point out, very much not a crusty) but can, I think, be regarded as an intellectual engagé. Both produced relatively impromptu songs in relation to referendums in Scotland and Greece; late last year Momus released an album lamenting Brexit, while just a few weeks ago Manu (who was born in Paris) posted a short clip against Le Pen.

Both artists have taught me a huge amount. Many people said of David Bowie that he was a sort of proto-google, in that through him fans discovered other artists, writers, etc. Momus’ pedagogical role is now semi-official, in that he has, after a fashion, opened his own university. As for Manu Chao, it was mostly él que me ensenó el casteyano. Gracias, Manu. Cheers, Nick.

*Although his music wasn’t always appreciated by the morons there employed.
**Here is five hours of unreleased material from Manu Chao; you can listen to and/or watch many of Momus’ last few albums here.
***Apart from Mexico, where Momus has never been and from where Manu Chao is apparently banned.
****To get a good sense of what Momus is drawing upon nowadays this is an excellent listen.

“Neoliberalism had some good points”: An interview with Momus about Europe, politics, identity and Japan

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Momus is a polymath: a musician, novelist, blogger, artist and occasional journalist and curator. Unusually for someone who bestrides different fields, whatever he turns his hand inevitably turns out to be absolutely unique and compelling.

I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, back when he styled himself ‘the third Pet Shop Boy‘. Since then he’s released over 30 albums (all of them unerringly excellent), six novels (every of one of them a cracking and often uproarious read), and several thousand consistently fascinating posts on his now-defunct but still celebrated blog Click Opera.

Most recently he’s opened his own online ‘open university‘ and continues to produce occasional soundscapes called ‘hearspools’, which frankly defy description, but any one of which could change your way of seeing and thinking about the world. Although he lives in Japan, he’s also doing a series of appearances around Europe and I caught up with him in the really quite magical setting of Swiss Institute in Rome, where he was doing a talk on sublimation in his lyrics and a concert, during which he played songs related in some way to Rome and its history.

Read the interview in full at katoikos.eu.