Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"In Every Dream Home a Heartache"

I've been dropping references to art-school rock from time to time, usually to point out how punk and new wave really weren't the snotty, street-level phenomenon that we all thought they were at the time, but instead a fairly carefully choreographed effort at testing the collective boundaries of post-permissive society. Ten years after "free love", LSD and all that jazz, it seemed the only way to outrage the bourgeoisie was to swear at them. Even the hippies didn't do that...
Anyhow, I didn't really think much of the references to art schools until I rocked through the Rs on my collection and came slap bang up against these guys.
I suppose if you were looking for an exemplar of the whole idea of art students as rock musicians, you could do a whole lot worse than Roxy Music's first two albums (yes, the ones with Brian Eno).
They made a visual as well as aural statement - Bryan Ferry had his immaculate coiffure and louche elegance, Eno looked like Riff-Raff's mild cousin, Phil Manzanera like a biker who'd just had his annual shower, all very eclectic - just like art school.
And so with the sound. From the frantic joyous romp that is "Virginia Plain", the out-to-lunch weirdness of "Ladytron", on through the lively chaos of "Do the Strand" and then...this.
It's a masterpiece in two halves. The first is all menace, sullen glitter and empty wealth: "Open-plan living/Bungalow ranch-style/All of its comforts/Seem so essential." A dangerously seductive mood, half-despairing, half-drunk at the pleasures of excess, quiet and menacing. The story evolves, spins slowly in from its wide-screen view to the story of a man and his inflatable doll. And by the time anger begins to flare ("Inflatable doll/Lover ungrateful/I blew up your body/But you blew my mind"), the song has seemingly built up unsustainable pressure and all hell breaks loose.
Sheer genius. A decade before Adam Ant was pulling the whip out of his valise and getting so physical, Roxy Music had already mapped out the territory.
But because art students back then didn't swear on TV, the bourgeois didn't make a fuss. And by the time Adam Ant was a memory, Roxy were still in business.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

"Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Whenever a musical genre is born its leaders proclaim loudly how their sound is like nothing else we've heard, that they've broken the mould, that they're fresh, new and unique. And while that may be true on some level, invariably these pioneers owe their place to someone who came before, who pointed them in the right direction.
The Beatles were fans of rhythm & blues; the Byrds created a delicate fusion of folk and rock; the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones developed the blues; and Led Zeppelin took the whole damn shooting match and turned the volume up to 11.
Later on, things got a little more confused as communication developed closer to the pan-global instant access that we enjoy today, and New York and London fed off each other. Punk, though many think of it as a British phenomenon, was really a transatlantic joint venture: punk bands would later namecheck key influences such as the New York Dolls or the Small Faces.
So it is sometimes an interesting exercise to look through the last decade or so and wonder what bands the Next New Wave will be claiming as a key influence. Maybe the whole arena of popular music has become so well-connected through MySpace, YouTube and the like that influences will become more immediate, and we won't have to wait almost a generation until the next set of snotty rebellious Bash Street Kids come swaggering out of nowhere and drop names like Happy Mondays or The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
But I'd very much like to know what bands have or will cite this band, and this song as a seminal moment. I suppose it may be too soon to say what Nirvana's long-lasting impact will have been. They certainly managed to cover a lot of territory in their short time, gathering a lot of what was called "indie" and bringing it to the attention of the masses. They made it hard for kids to try to be cool by liking obscure bands, by shining a million-watt bulb on the scene that spawned them. Nirvana almost made the mainstream look indie.
They may also have been the last truly rebellious rock group. For the last fifty years, rock music has tapped into teenage alienation...
"What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" "Whaddaya got?"
...to gather the kids and their admiration and worship. Rock music offered those kids at the margins - the disaffected, the marginalised - a chance to be cool.
But Nirvana did this on a scale that meant that pretty much any uncool kid suddenly became part of something widespread, something almost comfortable. Nirvana didn't express the politicised rage of punk, the ambitions of the art-schooled, but rather the wailing confusion of a generation that had nothing left to rebel against. Increasingly permissive parenthood has meant that there's less for teenagers to rebel against, and this lack of focus, this lack of a target results in the passive rage that we see around us. There's no "Man" to stick it to these days, just gnawing boredom to lament:
"With the lights out its less dangerous/Here we are now/Entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now/Entertain us."
And that may be Nirvana's great dollop of genius: to have managed to tap into that early-21st century rootlessness and give the latest generation an anthem for their own time.