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.


Evil Minx said...

In terms of less is more, I completely agree with you.

However, with Oasis, it's less a case of less is more, and more a case of Liam Gallagher being lazy, sloppy and unprofessional. His brother was consistently the brains and talent behind the operation, with Liam showing that the majority of his abilities led to drunken antics strategically performed in front of the world media.

This is simple, but it's hardly honest.

Russell 'C.J.' Duffy said...

Never much liked Oasis but this song is the one. Your article would make me want to listen again to something I haven't given much thought to in the last 18 years.

I tend to agree with Evil Mix about Liam. He did give working class a bad name.