Monday, October 24, 2011

"Cigarettes and Alcohol"

Machinery is simple. People can be too.

A machine is, at its most basic, a fairly binary application of force. Like a lever. Pressure on one side is translated into pressure on the other. Complicated machines are arrays of simple ones: take the internal combustion engine. A force (the explosion that results from combustion in the cylinder) is applied to the piston, which in turn applies force to another machine, and so on.

As we humans became more sophisticated, we found ways to link ever-increasing numbers of machines together, miniaturising them to the point where the internal combustion engine can be as small as a fingernail. Even computers are nothing more than an immense accumulation of binary machines. 10101 etc etc.

Nostalgists like steam-train enthusiasts wax lyrical about the simplicity, and at the same time, the complexity of the object of their affections. They take pleasure in the engineering developments that turned Stephenson's "Rocket" into the Eurostar. And yet, at the root of their passion is still, always, that simple machine.

When we are very small children, we're exposed to machines in a gentle, cartoonish fashion, like Thomas the Tank Engine, or Cars. We don't understand what a machine represents in terms of physics or engineering, but we're taught that they're harmless, helpful, occasionally recalcitrant, and we vaguely understand that we're in charge of them.

There are times, particularly when the world is in an unusually violent state of flux, when we individual humans can feel like machines at the heart of a much bigger, much more complicated one. What with Libya, Syria, Eurodebt, wars, Tea Parties and the like, the world feels like an immense whirling cloud of machines that's spiralling out of control.

And so at times like this we revert to the simple, binary things like finding a quiet spot to drink a tall, cold glass of orange juice, or reading a book that takes us back to a simpler, happier time. When Ronald Reagan talked of the America he knew and understood, he was harking back to a time that his entire generation (and the next three or four) could readily identify with - 5-cent Cokes, Burma Shave advertisement hoardings, casual racism.

So, we come to a simple musical machine: Oasis, who always knew that less/simpler was more.

"Is it my imagination, or have I finally found something worth living for/
I was looking for some action, but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol."

Even the intro: a dull hissing, a careless whistle, and the simplest, the very most basic of guitar riffs, tells you that you're dialling the 21st century right back, stripping away the sheen and the unnecessary treatment that songs today are drowned beneath.

Liam Gallagher's vocal comes across as careless, sloppy even, but it's a statement of intent. No airbrushed American intonations here, no concessions to pop's mainstream, just an honest Mancunian slur. It's simple, it's the machine of communication he uses every day, not the more sophisticated, false one that advisors or PR consultants would have wanted him to use.

Cigarettes and alcohol, too, represent the most basic machine of leisure that we often have in the 21st century. No time to sit back and reflect, no time for contemplation. We have to cram our relaxation into the precious few hours we have between quitting time and bed time - a snatched takeaway and the last tube home.

Honesty demands simplicity and you don't get more honest than this.

I might go as far as to suggest this is the sort of song that Thomas the Tank Engine would have listened to in his rebellious teenage years.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Marshall MacLuhan was supposed to have said "the medium is the message". Well, I'm not so sure. In this era of spin and presentation, of focus groups and of carefully-crafted diplo-statements that say precisely nothing, or precisely everything depending on the placement of a comma, it's become the norm not to believe what you read, or hear, until someone has helped you work it out.
Back in the day, we took the words of the great and the good at face value. When Churchill said "we shall fight them on the beaches", you knew he had precisely that in mind. When Marie-Antoinette said "Let them eat cake", it was so preposterous that you know she really meant it.
And when the great and the good invoked the name of their, our our, particular deity, our first instinct was to believe that they believed.
These days, the media and an almighty assortment of consultants, spin-doctors, Special Advisors, backroom manipulators and bloggers are on hand to interpret, peel away the chaff and tell us what Churchill *really* meant. Every newscaster finishes his to-camera piece and then turns to the suit at his side with a "So, Bradley, what exactly did Herr Hitler mean?" And Bradley will tell us.
So, on to Nirvana.
All those years ago when I first heard this song, I took it at face value. I thought: "OK, a rather weary, rootless, cynical view of religion and its presentation of itself as a cure-all for the downtrodden." I could imagine a shiftless, bored youth reacting like this after being canvassed by members of his local congregation. They'd say "Come down to church, man. We're not out to sell you anything, just help you get some peace of mind." And he'd mumble an excuse and wander off, thinking "yeah, right".
And that's what this song is. It's a "yeah, right" to religion, a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive middle finger.
Or at least, that's what I thought it was, in Nirvana's hands.
But to hear the Polyphonic Spree sing it, takes us further, much further into the dark heart, into the Marxian opiate-addled trance.
Where Kurt Cobain mumbles and whines, where his screams of "yeah yeah yeah" in the chorus sound so bored and dismissive, the Spree sound positively diabolical. Where Nirvana's rhythm lumbers from bone-shaking thud to bone-shaking thud, the Spree give the song a lightness that is so such more seductive, and yet so much more menacing.
Maybe it's because they understand that religion, or cults, are at their most dangerous when they're not trying overtly to recruit, but when they're focusing inward on their own membership. It's the take-it-or-leave it nature, the idea that if you're so blind you can't see a good thing by yourself, then we're not interested in you joining our club. *That's* what the Spree does. It has a damn good time performing this song, and if you can't tell what fun it is, then it's clearly not for you.
Both versions of the song say the same things, but whereas Nirvana need an interpreter, a spin-doctor, to convey the full sense of what they're saying, the Polyphonic Spree give you the full Coles Notes with added context for good measure. Maybe there's room for both.