Outside the city ...

Outside the city …

I am finally away from my Greek Island and the “five star” resort with no internet access, so I am able to resume blogging. Yesterday evening I arrived in Athens for a three day stay, and as is my wont in a new city, the first thing I did was go out for a wander. My hotel has a rooftop bar with a view direct to the acropolis, which is pretty amazing, and is on the temple slopes so it’s a short walk to the old town. Walking through the old town one can catch regular glimpses of the acropolis from the streets, and also experience the pleasures of a summer night in the city. The streets were heaving with people, all out to enjoy the evening air. All the restaurants in Greece seem to be open to the sky, and alfresco dining is the norm, so everywhere you look people are enjoying eating under the stars. I passed a Suleimanese punch-and-judy show, where the puppets are dressed in Persian-style pantaloons and curled hats (but still beating each other) and the horde of gathered children scream at the villain in Greek. I passed a concert being held in an old temple ruin, all lit up with red spotlights. Every square was full of people sitting chatting and drinking; the main square was absolutely heaving with young people in groups just enjoying the night air. The weather was dry and warm, the temperature perfect, the sky a million miles away and clear and the whole balmy evening cupped within the bowl of the distant mountains, with the Acropolis the gleaming jewel set in the middle of that frame, seen occasionally between buildings and lit up against the night sky.

I found a stylish open restaurant in the old town, that served excellent food and had a massively camp Swiss host. They serve a chicken cooked whole inside a loaf of bread and cut up on your plate for you, and an exquisite lemon-flavoured pumpkin soup garnished with little cthulhu-esque octopuslets. I didn’t have my camera with me so didn’t order the cockerel; I may return to experience this strangeness this evening. I have to say, the way Greek people use lemons in their cooking – and the predominance of citrus throughout their cuisine – is excellent and commendable.

After dinner I wandered a little more, enjoying the chaos and light-heartedness of the city. I found myself in the area just west of the Syntagma square, which is supposedy full of bars and night clubs, and in front of a rock bar called Six Dogs. They were hosting an American band called The Shrine, some sort of classic heavy rock outfit that I’ve never heard of, so in I went, for my first experience of Greek punk/metal fans.

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

The band was average, I have to say, and somewhat hamstrung by the fact that their singer has exactly the same accent as the weird zoo-owner from the Mighty Boosh. They were a pacey, hard rocking classic metal outfit with a bit of skate-punk overtone, so pretty likeable overall. The crowd, however, were fascinating. First of all they were really lively and cheerful, bouncing around with way more energy than the band deserved, and managing to do spontaneous crowd-surfing efforts even though there were only about 50 of them. This meant that whenever one of their number wanted to go up, he had to get the others to lift him, and then a group of 10 or 15 fans would go charging around the room in a little chaotic loop, carrying the surfer aloft, and then drop him. It’s not quite lollapalooza, is it? But they were really into it. But the best thing about them was the way they looked so … classical.

I think every second rocker in the crowd was basically a classical Greek stereotype, come to life then covered in tattoos and stuffed into a pair of skate-punk shorts and a band t-shirt. They all had the broad shoulders and narrow waste of the classic Greek pottery or statues, and that particular style of Greek beard that you see in the classic pictures: the one that is cropped close to the skin along the jaw and near the ears, but extends to a block or point out from the chin, and merges in a perfect gradient with short-cropped hair. It works perfectly with the classical Greek profile of aquiline nose and strong jaw. The rockers also had the same classical hair style, that is neatly cropped at the back but then a little unruly or longer and forward-pointing near the front.

It was like moshing with the guys from 300, if they had bothered to put on t-shirts. It was one of those classic moments, like when a French waiter pulls a 110% expressive face, or a German man says very precisely about one of his most memorable experiences, “it was in general perfect” with German precision, or a Japanese person bows on the phone – one of those moments where the person you are talking to is subconsciously channelling a million years of cultural history and to the rest of the world they’re a stereotype of fantastic proportions, but to them it is so completely normal that they would never realize they were doing it, even if you could play them a video of the moment. So it was that these Greek rockers were moshing not to the tune of an ordinary Venice Beach band, but to a couple of thousand years of classical Greek history. The Pelopennese war through hardcore, or something. I think I will dub this style of Greek counter-culture “300-core.” I hope to see more of it as I wander this city of romance and history!

Today we heard word of a scandal overtaking the modern Tokyo phenomenon of AKB48. Their 14th most popular member, Minegishi Minami, was caught by a journalist leaving the house of a “boyfriend,” a 19 year old member of some random boy band (compared to AKB48, the boy band in question is largely irrelevant). The pictures were published in some scandal rag, Shukan bunshun (週刊文春), a magazine which basically makes its income from printing shit. As a result of this indiscretion, Miss Minegishi has been demoted to research student (kenkyusei) status, meaning a massive loss of pay and  that in the strange heirarchy of AKB48 she will have to climb back up the ranks to reclaim her position as an enormously popular public figure.

The heart bleeds, doesn’t it? Actually the apology is a beautiful and heartfelt thing, and it’s clear that Miss Minegishi is under a lot of pressure, as one might expect if one were published leaving the house of one’s lover the morning after a trist and published in a magazine read by millions of people, in a country where everyone (well, not me!) is watching you and discretion in sexual encounters is paramount. This is a nation where holding hands in public is still frowned upon by many young people, and kissing generally avoided at all costs. Being photographed the morning after a shag is obviously going to be very embarrassing.

AKB48 sold $200 million of records alone in 2011, and endorse everything from elections to instant coffee. They are the very definition of a household name, and getting into the top 48 of this weird little business enterprise is a license to print money for the young women involved. It’s also not easy: their recent documentary carries the subtitle no flower without rain, which draws on an old saying about how beauty and/or success depend on suffering. The structure of the AKB48 system is redolent of university and the early years of the corporate system: it is intended to reproduce the sense of having to strive to make it, being indebted to one’s seniors, and being vulnerable in the face of life’s challenges. In many ways, AKB48 are perfect representatives of the Japanese notion of gaman, of having to suffer through adverse circumstances to achieve: this is the same spirit of gaman that enables Judo masters to bully their charges[1], but which makes a Sumo wrestler like Takanoyama enormously popular because he tries so hard. Two sides of the same coin … I don’t know if it could be said that Miss Meinegishi is being bullied in this instance, though … what she did do is fall foul of a contractual obligation not to go on dates. That’s right – AKB48 girls are not allowed to go on dates! The Guardian article makes it appear as if this rule is based on “the strict rules to which Japan’s young pop stars must adhere to project an image of unimpeachable morals” but this isn’t the reason at all – that’s just bullshit western misinterpretation of east Asia’s so-called conservatism. The real reason that Miss Minegishi has to live a sexless (or at least secret) life until she “graduates” from AKB48 is that her band is idolized by nerds and pre-sexual teenage girls, and to both groups of fans they have to appear pure and single. These are girls next door who are struggling through a metaphorical high school/university/early corporate life, and girls like that don’t get DP’d in love hotels.

Miss Minegishi’s extreme haircut is also not forced on her by her contract: she did this all by herself, to symbolize her abasement. This means she’s going to be trying extra hard to regain the favour of her fans, and my prediction is that this little cock up is going to be a goldmine for her and for the AKB48 business: she’ll soon be returned to the top ranks, fans will love her more for having fallen and strived, and there’ll be another documentary with tears and struggle – a genre that AKB48’s fans love.

Which brings me to my William Gibson-esque point: these girls are Japan’s modern shrine maidens, the modern equivalent of western nuns of yesteryear. They’re required to swear themselves to celibacy, live lives of constant self-flagellation and torment, and simultaneously have to symbolize everything that is admired in the women of their time: chastity, beauty, sexiness, innocence and endurance. They also have to tread the line of hypocrisy that characterizes modern attitudes towards young women: at the same time as they are making swimsuit videos and soft porn, these girls will get demoted if they are caught having sex. And because it’s Japan they also have to be educated: there’s currently a TV show about some of these girls going to college and trying to get a qualification. William Gibson has a few short stories about these kinds of characters in the cyberpunk world (I think Idoru is the most apt, though I haven’t read it): women whose celebrity depends on their embodying all of the ideals of femininity of their time, and whose personal lives are warped or ruined as a result of it. So let’s hear it for Minami Minegishi, embodiment of all the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood – and of the complexities of the cyberpunk era. Ganbare, Minegishi san! The hopes of a generation, and the weight of an entire society’s sexist expectations, are resting on your skinny shoulders …

fn1: though maybe not anymore: watch the video of the coach apologizing and listen to the cameras – the girls he bullied weren’t willing to tolerate it and his humiliation is pretty much complete. These guys’ world is changing, and it’s apparent that they aren’t catching up…

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”).

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