Music


I just received an email from a friend living in the UK, and in the email was this brief review of a night out in London:

I went to something the other day which made me think of you – a steampunk night.  It was full of people with elaborate Victoriana/goth/cyber-type outfits.  Among other things there was a grindcore band who did a song about an otherwise delightful family trip to the seaside (Margate, to be precise) being ruined by the appearance of mythical being Cthulhu rising up from the sea and sexually abusing grandma.  The phrase “tentacle rape” featured a number of times.

Steampunk-burlesque-grindcore-lovecraft. Has civilization finally reached its nadir?

When Britpop was Beautiful

Summer is the festival season in Japan, and the music festivals come with it. My partner and I went to Summersonic this year, primarily to see Suede, and because the line up was a little boring, we went later than usual, arriving at about 4pm and missing some of the minor bands. Nonetheless, we had a good afternoon and evening. Of course the Japanese do music festivals the way they do everything – quietly, politely, and with a hefty dose of civilization. No watered-down beer and long queues for food here, because there were about 15 bars and about 50 food shops, as well as 5 or 6 stages, so that people were spread well throughout the place. The stage times were staggered so that there was no simultaneous throng of people leaving stages all at the same time, and there was a wide range of chill-out places. Unlike my disastrous experience with Snap, C&C Music Factory and “the KLF Experience” in Sydney many years ago, there was a huge amount of seating, so people were in good humour, well-fed and relaxed, with lots to do while they waited for their favourite band. This was despite the intense summer heat – it was 33C and intensely humid yesterday, and all the bands were sweating buckets, but everyone was chilled and there was no sign of violence or trouble. Ah, Japan… So here’s an overview of what we saw.

Upcoming Chinese Music at the Island Stage

The Island Stage was one of the smaller stages, and not many people were watching at any time, but it was particularly interesting because it had been set aside for a range of new bands from Asia – mainly Chinese, I think – and they were really interesting. First we saw Muma and Third Party, who I only saw one song by before they finished, but they seemed very promising. Next we saw Queen Sea Big Shark, who were like a slightly more New Romantic version of La Roux, slightly poppier and less electronic but very good and energetic. We then stuck around for the highlight, Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, who were a kind of Editors-meets-Bauhaus, frantic guitar rock goth crossover with a lot of energy and passion. Their first song, Bela Lugosi is Back, was a great reinterpretation of the classic original, a bit more speedy and with some frantic guitar loaded on. We liked these bands so much that we bought their CDs, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Chinese acts in Tokyo – the impression I got from this stage was of a lot of gothic/electronic crossover work going on in this particular music scene. Very interesting!

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Shit, stayed around for two songs. If you’re going to be a pretentious music-type wanking your guitar on stage, you have to be good.

Public Image Limited

I have my issues with Johnny Rotten, and I have my issues with bands steaming on past their old-age use by date (I saw Motorhead at another Summersonic, and they were good, but they just seemed like a bunch of old men going through the motions, and there’s something about rock that is young and stupid and at some point people need to give it up), and I quite frankly couldn’t care less if the Sex Pistols had never climbed out of their own vomit long enough to divert punk into its inevitable musical cul-de-sac (though without them we wouldn’t have the excellent Megadeth cover of Anarchy). But despite this, and a slightly doddery and past-it Johnny Rotten looking just a bit out of place in a rock gig rather than an old people’s home, PiL were good. He really can do that vibrato intense voice live, despite his age and the heat, and the guitar work was really really cool. I only stuck around for half of PiL (sorry Johnny, but I was more interested in Rebuilding the Rights of Statues and Suede) but what I saw was very nice, and I’m encouraged to listen to a little more – I didn’t realize PiL was so swirly and intense, having only heard a couple of their songs. So that was nice. But we had to flee before the end to get to the main act…

Suede

Now, I’m not so into bands reforming and doing money-making reunion tours, at least, not as a concept, but I can’t really criticize Suede for doing this. I’ve seen Brett Anderson live by himself and also in the Tears, and I know he can continue to produce quite beautiful and intense music – his creativity isn’t trapped in his youth. I also know he can produce passionate work (his solo rendition of Asphalt World at the Mermaid was amazing), and I’m pretty sure he has reinvigorated Suede for the simple reason that a whole bunch of his fans didn’t get to enjoy him live back in the day, and Suede always had a feeling of having ended before its time. So he’s not making anything new with them, just giving people what they didn’t get enough of back then. And I can’t fault it, because what he gives us is such vintage Suede, and so full of the original passion and grand intensity of the band, that one can only be carried along. Brett Anderson is intense, energetic, still astoundingly sexy (and beautiful) and if anything he’s better than he was back in the day. I’ve seen him in different guises four or five times now and every time he does this thing where, about half way through the performance, he really starts to get into it – gets transported to a different place, and really takes the crowd with him. And the crowd really were obssesively good, singing along to all the words and bouncing and screaming (and nearly crushing me when he came to touch the front rows). You can tell Brett Anderson really loves performing, and you can tell that his fans really love the attention he gives them. This was a vintage live performance, full of the classic songs delivered with the original passion, and if you get a chance to see the reformed Suede, I strongly recommend it.

So, overall, Summersonic was a blast even though I only really went to see one band. I got to find out about a few new bands, enjoyed some really solid performances, and had a good (but exhausting) day out. Next year I probably won’t be going – the line up has been declining in interest every year, from the high point (2006?) when I saw Metallica perform the 20th anniversary rendition of the album Master of Puppets, and also The Editors and Tears. But it’s worth it if one of your favourite bands is there, because you’re bound to stumble on something else you like. Give it a try if you can!

Everyone knows that Leonard Nimoy’s greatest achievement was his participation in the music video to The Bangles’ song Going Down to Liverpool[1]. This song was actually written by Katrina and the Waves, a British band, and covered by The Bangles in 1984. I have been a big fan of The Bangles ever since I first heard Manic Monday (and fell in love with Susannah Hoffs’ sly sideways glances from those smouldering eyes), but had never seen the video – my partner showed it to me this morning and mentioned that “it has that guy from Star Trek in it.”[2] Listening to the song, I was again confused by the lines

Hey now
Where you going with that UB40 in your hand
I said hey now
All through this green and pleasant land

To the best of my knowledge UB40 is also a band, but surely you don’t write a song about carrying another band’s CD in your hand? My partner told me she thought it must be the name for a gun or something, some kind of street slang of the time. So this issue got me thinking about a) what this line actually means and b) how a kid in the 1980s could possibly work this out.

What it means

So according to Wikipedia (and the song facts I linked to above) a UB40 is either a World War 2 U-Boat, the band of the same name (an execrable effort they were too), or … the name of the form that British people used to apply for unemployment benefits in the ’80s. The Bangles are a US band but Katrina and the Waves are British[3], so the likely interpretation of this is that the song is referring to someone going to collect unemployment benefit. This then gives proper meaning to the combination of lyrics “Where you going with that UB40 in your hand… going down to Liverpool to do nothing, all the days of my life.” Once again we see the collapse of the British manufacturing industry[4] pervading 80s music, in this case getting all the way to New York. The Bangles’ Kim Peterson supports this interpretation of the lyrics in her interview (linked to above), so it’s all pretty clear.

How would you find this out?

Imagine that you’re a teenager in some US rust belt town in 1986, you’ve stumbled on the Bangles and love everything they do, but whenever you hear this song the only meaning you can ascribe to the word “UB40” is the band of the same name. You know nothing about British culture and history, let alone the modern British angst about their collapsing manufacturing base or the stereotypes of Liverpudlians as dole-bludging[5] losers. So naturally, you would, like me, suspect that the Bangles are not referring to some other godawful band; instead, you would wonder what they really meant. At this point, what do you do? You want to find out the information but you don’t have access to an indexed, searchable database of any kind. You could go to your library and try and find it out, but they only have card catalogues – it’s unlikely that they have a computer database of any kind in 1986, and even if they do it won’t be searchable on the sorts of key words that pull up something as subtle as “UB40”. So you are limited to searching through the titles of the books, which if the library is big is going to be very tedious. You could just restrict your search to the Us, but this is unlikely to turn up much. You could ask a librarian, who might know what “UB40” means or might, alternatively, have an idea like my partner’s (“maybe it’s a kind of gun?”) Then you could start doing the long search through books on war, armaments and the like, and might eventually stumble on a book with UB40 in the index.

Alternatively, you could ask your friends. One of them might have heard something. But friends are as likely to be wrong as right, and there will be many urban myths about this sort of thing. Chances are your friends think it’s a gun, and you take the song’s meaning to be something to do with gang crime, which it is not.

Or, you might look through a Melody Maker magazine. If you are the proud owner of a back catalogue of these, you might remember the interview where it was discussed – or maybe your friends do. But if not, you again have to go down to the library and search the back catalogue of Melody Maker magazines – without any keyword search functionality. To do this rigorously is going to require some special search logic – first you identify the dates when the song and its original version were released, and you search the magazines published in the months after that release for any interviews with the bands in question. This is going to be a couple of hours’ work, realistically. And of course Katrina and the Waves are British so you may need to run through NME as well.

All this to investigate one line in one song.

How the world has changed

Now, of course, you don’t have to do anything like this. You scoot over to your desk, type UB40 in google, and up comes the disaggregation page on Wikipedia, problem solved. What was, in the 1980s, an afternoon or more of work with quite limited chances of success has been reduced to a couple of seconds in front of your computer. Thus it is that there is only one question in the modern age that is truly unanswerable: “How did people live before the internet?” I was there, and god knows I don’t have the answer to this question!

fn1: We like to start sentences with uncontroversial statements of fact here at the Faustusnotes Institute for the Study of Very Serious Topics

fn2: Chicks, mate…

fn3: Which could have fooled me. It’s a really California-sounding name and they also wrote the song Walking on Sunshine, which just sounds American…

fn4: Or its destruction, depending on your view of Thatcher and Britain’s long march into the GFC

fn5: for my non-Australian reader(s), this is the second time in two posts that I have used the verb “to bludge.” By way of explanation, this is an Australian word meaning “to hang around doing nothing,” to “skive off” or “shirk responsibility” and can have a good meaning (“I bludged at the beach with Kylie Minogue and a box of condoms”) or a bad meaning (“Kevin Rudd is bludging at the beach with Kylie Minogue and a box of condoms instead of visiting the flood-affected areas”).

What they are about to do to you should be illegal...

This is one for the OSR: it’s heart is in the right place but it’s production values are terrible. I was lured into watching this movie originally by hearing a sample on the Vanishing Point song A Day of Difference, and thought it must be a great movie on the basis of Peter O’Toole’s effort therein. Unfortunately, the movie is based on a musical, which is in turn based on a play. This is a tragicomedy in action. Everything that needs to be said about plays has been said by the Daily Mash; musicals are of course the worst art form ever invented; and 70s TV can be very hit and miss at the best of times, let alone if it’s projecting a projection of a projection. The result of this farcical combination can be seen in this clip, which jerks from Peter O’Toole’s superb prose, which is delivered with that strained grace one gets used to in theatre, to a truly terrible moment of song in such a jarring way as to spoil the effect of the original speech completely. In fact, I had to watch this movie over a series of 30 minute viewings, and was regularly distracted during the worst of the songs.

The basic story concerns the imprisonment of a travelling playwright called Don Miguel de Cervantes, who is captured by the Inquisition and thrown in a shared oubliette with a bunch of petty criminals along with his servant, a fat stupid American. They plan to steal his belongings and destroy his life’s work, which is some kind of book, but he demands the right to a trial before they do so. His defense at this trial is the dramatic presentation of one of his stories, which concerns itself chiefly with the importance of seeing the world as it should be, rather than as it is. The central character of the play is a mad old man who thinks he is a Knight and sees all around him glory and beauty where there is only rot and decay. In the presentation of this moral tale, he is foiled principally by the prisoner who plays the role of prosecutor, a cynical and sarcastic wit; and a debased young woman who plays the part of the prostitute he exalts as a noblewoman. The former tries constantly to find fault with his moral lesson, while the latter denies that there is any goodness to be seen in the world.

The central idea of this story is a powerful moral story about always aiming to see things as they ought to be, rather than being dragged down by the bonds of ordinary mortality, told by someone who is doomed to be tortured by the Inquisition for speaking out against the church; the story is delivered in a manner that parallels one of the tales of Don Quixote, I think, and is perhaps meant to represent one stage in the life of the author of that book. The acting is brilliant and the script combines wit, classical references and some brilliantly crafted English to produce some very powerful dialogue. Unfortunately, the whole thing is spoiled irrevocably by the absolutely awful music, and the terrible soundtrack. Consider, for example a comparison of O’Toole’s speech:

I’ve been a soldier and a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning “Why?” I don’t think they were wondering why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams – -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all – -to see life as it is and not as it should be.

with some lyrics from the song The Knight of the Woeful Countenance, which is probably (shudder) one of the better ones in the tale:

Fare to the foe,
They will quail at the sight
Of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance!
Oh valorous Knight,
Go and fight for the right,
And battle all villains that be,
But oh, when you do,
What will happen to you
Thank God I won’t be there to see!

What was the person who wrote the former thinking when they penned the latter? Or, perhaps, what was the person who adapted the former from the stage thinking when they were so foolish as to think they could do any justice to it by penning the latter? This movie is an exercise in lining up beautifully crafted, carefully developed prose and then destroying it with awful, pantomime-standard music. Like all musicals ever made, it is good in spite of the terrible job that was done with the music. The director really should have been told not to proceed with this diabolical plan.

I can’t help but recommend it though because if you can bear the music, the acting and the speech in between are at times close to perfection. Have a book, and possibly a bucket, on hand and you may have a chance to enjoy an elegant presentation of an interesting moral tale, sadly interrupted every 5-10 minutes by a pack of squawking fools. There should be laws against this sort of travesty but, sadly, there aren’t, so one just has to show some fortitude and bear it. Good luck!

How can they lose with inspiration like this?

The Autumn FrenzyYesterday I went with my partner and two friends to see this remarkable taiko group, Tao Taiko. Taiko is Japanese drumming, which consists of a group of drummers using keg-shaped drums of various sizes, from about that of a man’s chest to about the size of a small car. The drumming is traditionally done as part of Autumn festivities, or in connection with shrine festivals, and it is the essence of Japanese pagan seasonal rites: earthy, bawdy, rowdy, physical and chaotic. The drumbeat resembles nothing so much as a pulse, and the depth and power of the rhythm is compulsive. Even amateur taiko troupes have a strong effect, because the beat is so catchy, the atmosphere so infectiously happy, and the sound huge. Typically during performances the drummers will wear a type of traditional festival clothing, which is all skirts and flowing sleeves, though often the men go bare-chested and the women can dress quite revealingly. The women all look very tomboyish and everyone has a raunchy style  and manner, which is added to by the undoubtedly sensual compulsion of the beat, and the fact that the drummers regularly cry out in time to the music. Sometimes there is also dancing, and other traditional instruments. A good taiko performance resembles a pagan invocation or ritual as much as it does a musical performance, and it feels like you’re watching something old and magical.

Tao Taiko have taken this style and added some classically modern Japanese elements: a strong hint of anime style, particularly Final Fantasy; a bit of rock and heavy metal presentation and flair; a little horseplay and humour; and a dash of Chinese opera/martial arts overlap. The result is 2 hours of intoxicating rhythm and power, presented by beautifully proportioned men and women in the prime of their youth. It switches between eery, melancholy musical performances, classical taiko, displays of skill and showmanship, and music/dance performances that incorporate a little bit of martial arts dancing and a little bit of eroticism.

For example, the performance opened with a sad and beautiful quartet of drums, shamisen (a type of lute), bamboo flute and koto (a type of zither). The flute is truly evocative, with a very melancholy tone, and the drum was funereally slow. This performance faded out to be replaced by a group of drummers, and then some dancing. Later five drummers sat in a line on the stage and played a kind of game of passing the beat to each other, pretending sometimes to flip it into the air for another drummer to catch, and trying to catch each other out, with a hint of comedy bullying and posing thrown in for good measure. Later there was a very sensual performance, with a woman with a very fine body standing all sinuous and sexy in silhouette far up at the back of the stage, playing a big drum and dancing, while a man sat at a huge drum at the front of the stage in full light, and kept the main beat. There were also several astounding performances with two flutes and 8-10 drums, and it all finished up with the traditional rowdy, chaotic, multiple drum extravaganza of a normal taiko festival performance.

I’ve seen several taiko performances in Japan but up until now they were amateur groups. I think taiko captures a lot of the essence of rural life in Japan, and displays in music that facet of Japanese life that has never changed – the pagan undercurrent that ties the society together and makes it so radically different to our conservative and hypocritical christian heritage. It’s also perfect viewing for late summer, when the air throbs with cicada and the entire country is gasping in anticipation of the change everyone knows is soon to come. It’s like you’re watching and feeling the rhythm of the seasons, and Tao Taiko have turned that into a memorable performance. They’re touring internationally over the next two years, so if you get a chance, I strongly recommend having a look!

I went on a YouTube wander tonight, starting at Rupesh Cartel and ending up at Jethro Tull, who’ve been around since the 70s. I noted that in their earlier days Jethro Tull sang about very mediaeval stuff, along with the small concerns of ordinary life one might expect to associate with a peasant’s view (think Thick as a Brick and Heavy Horses here), but by the early 90s they were singing about agricultural society and the larger issues of a complex and interconnected social structure (think here Farm on the Freeway) before advancing further to the concerns of the military-industrial complex (in Broadsword) in the mid-90s. Of course, the tone of Broadsword is very much mythical/legendary, but the content – voluntary preparation for war and glory – is a much more modern (Victorian?) phenomenon. The peasant from whose view they sing in the early days would see war very much as a catastrophe that he/she has to be involved in, not as a source of mythical glory.

Is there any phenomenon in human society that Heavy Metal hasn’t covered[1]?

fn1: If you aren’t sure yet, I watched a clip from The Man of la Mancha, a 70s movie starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, based loosely around Don Quixote. I was brought to it by the Australian prog metal band Vanishing Point, who sample it. It’s all covered, I tell you.

I present this in honour of Sir Noisms’ adventures on the Inland sea, without further comment:

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