The West will rise again

When I first visited London I was only 13 or so, and at that impressionable age I half hoped that I’d find Neil Tennant sashaying across the concourse of St Pancras Station with a recalitrant Chris Lowe six paces behind. That video defined my image of London throughout my teenage years, and without my ever reflecting on it, the lyrics to the song firmly established the east-west class divide as the central feature of my mental map of London.

When I moved there properly (at the start of 2006, after a short-lived stint in 1993) I gravitated towards the east. It was cheaper, and in any case the west seemed sort of sloaney. It never occured to me to live there and I tended to look askance at those who did. The west was the land of chinos and jazz funk. Every country has its pijos, fighetti, betinhos or yuppies, and this was their kingdom. The West seemed, in a word, naff.

The more I lived in London the more I sensed that there was much more to the area than my lazy dismissal had acknowledged. Visiting there for any reason always felt like a trip to a slightly exotic foreign country. There was more to West London to yuppies and carnival, and that event itself revealed a working class city in amongst the refurbished portico mansions and lambroghini showrooms. I reflected on the other elements: Nick Roeg’s Powys Square, the emergence of The Clash, and the influence of reggae soundsystems, the riots of 1958 and 1976, the complex interplay of different Afro-Caribbean communities, thw downbeat parades of Bayswater and Queensway which I knew from Martin Amis’ ‘Success’, the extent of the west with all its jealously-guarded class distinctions and postcode markers, from Portobello to Knightsbridge and North Kensington to South Acton.

Last year (2016) I spent a couple of weeks in an affluent part of Shepherd’s Bush and wandering around Goldhawk Road towards Hammersmith and was constantly reminded that gentrification is never total. Even with the eye-wateringly unaffordable housing, there remains a palimpest of communities: Syrian, Lebanese, Irish, Somali, Ethiopian and Sikh.

Another less noticed feature of West London is the huge working class estates. With possibily even more intensity than other parts of London, they’ve been the site of immense battles in the last few years as new phases of social cleansing set in. As we’ve had cause to hear several times over the last few days, the area around Notting Hill and Kensington is among the most highly-prized territory on earth. The tower blocks which house hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners have become outposts of affordable life in a world predicated on aspiration or annihilation, get rich or die trying.

Under what had come to seem like ‘normal’ circumstances, in which your Boris Johnsons and David Camerons were still in the ascendant, the fire could aid the process of hypergentrification, the fate of the victims might be seen as an unfortunate charred blot on a landscape undergoing permanent enhancement. But there’s something about the national mood which will not let that happen. News channels are full of working class people who had been written out of the story of London as a successful global city. As it happens those working class people come from all corners of the globe and have made London their home even as London seems to repel their efforts, their energy and cultural inventiveness welcome only insofar as they serve as enticing images to attract yet more global capital yearning for exponential returns. Those people are West London in its purest form and their resurgence will renew it as a living and breathing place with its own proud history rather than a bland pre-retirement resort for the global elite.

This guy embodies the spirit of the true West London. It’s no accident that behind his righteous invective, honed over years at Speaker’s Corner (a place I’d always dismissed as tourist fodder/a breeding ground for mad mullahs), that he’s also a social historian. He’s spot on on the subject of gentrification and social cleansing, and in this clip is ferocious and trenchant on the role of the media in normalising such deadly inequality and dismissing out of hand the notion that there could ever be an alternative.

Two months ago Iain Sinclair, who has know more Londons than most, declared that this is the final one. I was inclined to agree. The area where he lives and where our flat is is being hollowed out of all historical and cultural content, turned into a computer simulation of the suburbs of Dubai or Shanghai. In what I’d come to think of as an encroachment of the values of West London on the working class East, the role of the yuppies is played by weekend hipsters, just as keen to amass cultural capital by snapping up everything sticking out of the ground, until every rugged feature of the terrain has been smoothed over for international investors. Few places on earth are as bland as the new East London, with its ‘international standard’ apartments and Porsche showrooms. Meanwhile, back west, the furious ashes of the Grenfell Tower contain life; local identity is reasserting itself in an area which I, unfairly, was inclined to dismiss as socially and culturally moribund. If there is hope for London as a living city, it lies in the west.

“Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?” THE 12″ DISCO REMIX featuring E-Smoove

I saw that some people were annoyed or even offended by the article I posted the other day arguing that Neil Tennant could occasionally put a bit more effort into his lyrics, so I’ve thought long and hard about it and done a version which I hope takes at least some of those criticisms on board.

The original 7″ version is here. Please do not attempt to read this if you haven’t read that.


(tsk tsk tsk)

(tsk thump tsk thump tsk thump)

(tsk thump clap tsk thump clap tsk thump clap)

(bit of housy piano)

(slightly more funky bassline)

(male voice, to the rhythm of ‘I was a male stripper in a gogo bar’: WH AUDEN AND MELLE MEL…WH AUDEN AND MELLE MEL…WH AUDEN AND MELLE MEL)

(Woman’s voice, sounding surprised: HE’S A GENIUS!)

Continue reading ““Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?” THE 12″ DISCO REMIX featuring E-Smoove”

Can someone please give Neil Tennant a hand with the words?

maxresdefaultWhen I first heard ‘Being Boring’ by the Pet Shop Boys I thought it was about me. Not that I thought they were calling me boring, necessarily; as we shall see, the song is actually about not being boring. I was at university at the time, in my first year, and I had, like Neil Tennant, left from the station (in his case presumably Newcastle, in mine Sheffield) with some luggage and a sense of apprehension about what lay ahead. Also like him I had kissed some people, some of whom I’d subsequently lost contact with. And I was listening to the song for the very first time in my room in the university residences (which was rented) in a ‘foreign’ place (well, Norwich) in the 1990s! If you add in the fact that all of the experiences I had had had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s, it was uncanny. As for ‘you’ not being ‘here’ with me, well, I suppose in a very real ‘you’ (and you, and you) weren’t. I certainly hoped I could rely on my friends, and that I would get to become the person I wanted to be. So far, so very Alan de Button. I suspect that, especially given that it features Johnny Marr on guitar, it may well be David Cameron’s favourite Pet Shop Boys song. He probably heard it at the same time as me, with the references to old photos, dressing up and never holding back bringing his Bullingdon Club days flooding back like it was all yesterday. (Maybe it even inspired his political career.) The same is probably true for everyone who has heard the song, from Robbie Williams to Basher Al-Assad. The song is essentially a succession of Barnum statements, insights that are seemingly designed for the listener but could actually apply to pretty much anyone.

There’s also a problem with the chorus. A couple of years previous to 1990 I’d, to my eternal shame, purchased and listened to the second album by (I have to bear in mind that this blog now carries my own actual name) a certain pop artist from Newton-Le-Willows. One who, and no-one saw fit to mention this at the time, looked like Billy Bragg. I shall give away no more clues. In any case, on that album there was a ballad called ‘Hold me in your arms’, the chorus to which goes:

‘If you hold me in your arms
I won’t feel better’

…which is nonsense. It’s a love song. It’s supposed to make sense because the line before that, the one that is not part of the chorus, which is the bit designed to be remembered and sung along to, is ‘….and who would be the fool to say’. Now, I’m just about to do something which in an ideal world would get me into trouble with the police, which is to google the words ‘Rick Astley discography’. Doing so I see that it got to number 10, which isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly ‘NGGYU’. (While we could use the term Tennant-coined expression ‘imperial phase’ to explain his commercial decline, I’d rather we didn’t as it has become ruinously ubiquitous).

‘Being Boring’ commits the same error, meaning that the implicit chorus to the song is actually ‘We were always being boring’. It cemented rather than challenged their growing reputation as morose. Now, it’s not that Tennant is by any means a bad lyricist. At times he’s clearly a genius. Chorus mishaps aside, ‘Being Boring’ is a very great pop song. There are countless lyrical highpoints in their oeuvre, including ‘West End Girls’, ‘If there was love’, ‘Nothing has been proved’, ‘LTEODORO’ (incidentally I’m presuming that anyone still reading this is a fan and knows what I’m referring to), YWIWM (having now made that assumption I’m now going to exploit it to the full), YOTMYLMWYD, and obviously LIABC. And it’s not just wordy ones, which do tend to be my personal favourites. There’s also songs like ‘So sorry, I said’, ‘The loving kind’, and ‘Minimal’, which take a more, well, minimal and vague approach, which is obviously fine for pop music, and also works well in poetry. There’s the allusiveness of ‘Two divided by zero’ and ‘Domino Dancing’, with the ‘you’ slipping and sliding all over the place – maybe it’s the listener, maybe it’s everyone alive today, or perhaps it’s the listeners ex-lover or perhaps their cat. ‘You choose’ is another very good example – it could be fruitfully (or, perhaps, fishfully) used in an advertising campaign for cat food. Such lyrics leaves space for the listener to fill in the details of their own life. Their history songs can also be good, like ‘The Resurrectionist’ and ‘Don Juan’. Then they can get away with songs like ‘Vocal’ and ‘All over the world’, transparent attempts to revive a flagging base. But that habit can fail them, as is the case, for example, of ‘The Pop Kids’, which sounds like it was written in the back of a taxi on the way back from a disappointing meeting with their new record company.

However, given the immense promise of West End Girls – not so much Che Guevara and Debussy as WH Auden meets Melle Mel – there is undeniable decline in the quality of their lyrical output. A thesis on this subject might usefully be called ”West End Girls’ to ‘Winner’: What Went Wrong?’. As it happens, ‘You know where you went wrong’ was the b-side of ‘It’s a Sin’, and it had something in common with other early tracks like ‘A man could get arrested’, with a clear hiphop influence in its rhyming schemes. In their early days they were famously more daring and experimental with their b-sides, both musically and lyrically: ‘The sound of the atom splitting’ and ‘Your funny uncle’ being cases in point. One reason for their relative lack of lyrical development in their more commercial products is that they appear to be still chasing chart success even though it has ceased to be relevant in and to society at large (although try telling that to these people). Having got this far, then, let’s have a look at some of the lowpoints of Neil Tennant’s career as a pop lyricist.

  1. ‘Beautiful people’

‘Buy the latest magazine
And aspire to the dream
Perfect home and perfect kids
Not a life lived on the skids’

This could have been written by the younger brother of one of the lesser members of whichever boyband came between Westlife and One Direction. There is no way that that verse took more than ten seconds to write. None. And it repeats the same theme as ‘Love, etc’: wealth and fame are empty illusions. We get it.

  1. ‘Ego music’

‘Ego music
It’s all about
vacuous slogans
innocuous sentiment
Ego music
It’s all about
fake humility
sense of entitlement’

Again, repetition! This has the same message, or at least targets the same set of attitudes, as ‘HDYETBTS’. It’s also a hungover b-side idea which should have been tossed away before they stepped into the studio and took off their expensive coats.

  1. ‘Everything means something’

‘Everything means something
yes, even our mistakes
Carelessness means something
not simple give-and-take
Everything means something
and something has occurred
Everything means something
although the meaning can be blurred’

Vapid. Has something of the Roxette about it. Estimated time to write: ten minutes.

  1. E-mail

‘Communication’s never been
as easy as today
and it would make me happy
when you’ve gone so far away
if you’d send me an e-mail
that says ‘I love you’
Send me an e-mail
that says ‘I love you”

Love the hyphen. Released in 2002, ie (to be extremely generous) seven years too late. In 2002 if they really wanted to do a song about communication issues they should have called it ‘I’d like to text you to tell you how much I love you but the limit on any individual text is 160 characters and then it automatically sends it as two texts, which is confusing and twice as expensive’, or ‘ILTTYTTYHMILYBTLOAITI160CATIASIATTWICATAE’ for short.

  1. Winner

(I do not want to be exposed to the lyrics of this song).

A calculated insult to every single human being alive in 2012. I would like to publicly express offense on behalf all their fans, my friends and family and my as-yet unborn daughter. It is humiliating to listen to and accompanied a phase in their career which was all about smiling in photographs and actual flagwaving, in other words when they went full-on Elton John. The video was good.

  1. Hold On

Look around, look around
The rain is falling from the sky
Planes taking off to fly

Why else do planes take off? To go for a fucking swim? To go to an art opening with Janet Street Porter? Your taxi’s here, Neil. Can you fax over those lyrics before you leave? Oh, wait, why don’t you ’email’ them over on your ‘smartphone’? Speaking of which…

  1. ‘Twenty-something’

In the mix
Always that
Ironic twist
Got a start-up
Good to go
When the money
Starts to flow
Oh, Twenty-something
Up to tricks’

Another title for that thesis would be ‘Smartphones, startups and ideas trending: Why don’t the Pet Shop Boys just give up?’. This is a parody of what you’d expect a Pet Shop Boys song to be about in 2016. It is the contents of an Samsung Galaxy memo written after too much champagne in yet another taxi after yet another gallery opening with Janet Street ‘yet another’ Porter. It is the draft lyrics to a potentially good song, but no more. Plus the video is inappropriate. The song is clearly about the UK, and the setting for the video is Latino LA. It’s good, but it doesn’t work. ¡Más esfuerzo!

  1. ‘Se a vida é’

The lyrics to this are actually quite nice, simultaneously wistful and euphoric as all their best songs are. That’s not the problem.

On my first visit to Rome in 1997 I banged into someone in the crowd next to the Trevi Fountain. ‘Scusi!’ I exclaimed, to which to his reply was a cheerful ‘I’m Brazilian!’. Quick as a flash, I came out with ‘Se a vida é!’ (the only Portuguese phrase I knew at the time), to which he looked at me, still smiling (he was, as I say, Brazilian) but also clearly puzzled.

As I subsequently found out when I learnt the language, ‘Se a vida é’ doesn’t mean anything in Portuguese. Even if you pronounce it correctly, which, despite (at that point) having the resources of a major record company behind him, Neil Tennant does not. It just means ‘If life is…’, which you’d assume is some sort of idiomatic expression, but it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t mean (‘That’s the way life is’). Imagine someone just saying ‘If life is…’ to you out of the blue. You’d expect a little bit more. Although if what they said was actually /aif liv ais/, which is a reasonable attempt to represent how inaccurate his pronunciation is, you’d be even more perplexed.

There are more examples below. Now, to be scrupulously fair, there are also times when Neil Tennant simply tries too hard to be lyrical, ‘Legacy’ and the one about leopardskin being good working examples. He has to be given credit for trying. There are also occasions when his lyrics are actually very good: thoughtful, moving, original, memorable. Recentish examples include ‘This used to be the future’ (admittedly a co-write with my personal friend Phil Oakey, but still), ‘The Dictator Decides’, ‘The Sodom and Gomorrah Show’ and ‘Brick England’. I suspect those are the ones he put a lot of time into and ultimately enjoyed writing. Maybe someone just needs to apply a bit of…pressure. There was a very entertaining documentary about twenty years ago in which Michael Bracewell locked Barney off of New Order in a room with some Prozac and basically refused to let him out until he’d written some good lyrics, something more along the lines of ‘I feel so extraordinary/something’s got a hold on me’ and less like ‘Is there anyone out there who cares/If a child can run free/Can a girl walk the street/will United get beat’ (NB those are the actual words to an actual Electronic song). It sort-of worked. Perhaps something like that needs to be done to Neil Tennant. His lyrics are often simply underworked. Perhaps now they get help with the music they need to call someone in and pay them a lot of money to work on the words.

In order to help address this situation I’ve decided to put in my two centavos (hey look, I’m bilingual!). That’s why I’m created a playlist with the most lyrically gauche Pet Shop Boys songs. If anyone reading this has any connection to Neil Tennant, please forward it to him. He needs to hear this. If it doesn’t work I’m going to tweet Michael Bracewell and ask him to bring over a camera crew and a new notepad, popping round the chemists on the way. Or maybe Neil just needs a gun pointing at his head. Now that might be a bit extreme.

UPDATE: I posted a link to this in a Pet Shop Boys Facebook group and I’m glad I did so because it’s starting to open up an interesting discussion about the difference between making pop music and making music to be popular. My point about songs like The Pop Kids is that they are too much the latter. You could legitimately argue that my exaggerations in the piece, the bits of devil’s advocacy, were guilty of the same (ahem) sin in that I wanted it to be read and discussed so I played up the ‘commercial’ (meaning, in the context of the ‘attention economy’ of the internet, controversial) elements. I think the Pet Shop Boys would have been an (even!) more interesting group if they had gradually lost interest in commercial success after their initial run of pop triumphs was over and the charts had ceased to matter (with the accompanying diminishment of the space in the culture for ‘pop’ music as such) and concentrated on following their more experimental interests as (mostly) expressed on their b-sides. Or maybe I’m wrong, perhaps it’s that tension that has kept them interested and interesting. It’s certainly possible that I should apply the lesson to my own writing by avoiding writing things designed to annoy people. But then, if you’re not popular, you’re no longer a pop group, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t have readers. Maybe it’s just a fruitful contradiction/unresolvable paradox/dialectical thing to be further explored and exploited /end of ramble.