|FRIDAY JANUARY 10
TURN UP THE BRIGHT LIGHTS FOR THE ULTRA POLITE:
Wednesday night we made a trip across the Hudson to the famed little club Maxwell's, in Hoboken, New Jersey, to see Interpol. This was my first time witnessing the band on stage, and probably the last opportunity to do so in such a small venue. The New York quartet, long a press sensation in the UK, have also enjoyed considerable critical and commercial acclaim in the States since release of their superb debut album Turn On The Bright Lights. They sold out three consecutive nights at the Bowery Ballroom just before Christmas. The Maxwell's gig, a deliberately low-key start to a cross-country tour, coincided with their first national television appearance, on the David Letterman Show. Once the end-of-year polls are gathered up and Interpol have already topped a couple - there's little doubt that they'll be propelled several rungs further up the ladder of fame and nights such as this will seem a distant memory.
Interpol's Dan Kessler, Paul Banks and Carlos Dengler blur with the flow at Maxwell's:
But don't mistake Interpol for rock stars. Posie and I arrived at Maxwell's to find the band's bass player, programmer, and co-founder Carlos Dengler sitting with our online contacts Audrey Nelson and Vince Holleran. We initially assumed they were all old friends Audrey's web-site Melody Nelson frequently expresses her love for the band - but in fact Carlos had only just walked up to make introductions, having recognized Audrey from various city-wide events over the last year. Likewise, I made note of a nervous young man wandering the Maxwell's bar, looking rather lost and confused, and was surprised when he later took to the stage with Interpol, strapped on a guitar, stood under a dim light and sung with a fiercely driven focus for the rest of the night.
What I'm getting at here is that when people talk of how Interpol sound like every band that emerged from punk's shadows between 1978 and 1983, that's only part of the story; what's equally important is that Interpol wear the enthusiasm of the consummate music fan in their demeanor as well as their music. The suits and the haircuts suggest a certain blitz-kid flash, but I think they're just a decoy, a collective uniform for the individual identities to take refuge behind. Because what you hear with Interpol is also what you see: a young band still very much beholden to its influences, but blessed with a fine coherence, a quiet confidence and a powerful presence. And if you can't figure out how they've gathered these traits together so rapidly, then neither, I wager, can they. "It's the chemical mixture of those four people that makes a group work," said Joe Strummer of the Clash. "If it works, do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don't mess with it." With Interpol, the chemical mixture works, and they don't look like they intend to question it, let alone mess with it. They just plan to make the most of it.
This sense of workmanship translates to an unusually straightforward and polite performance. There are no ego trips, no histrionics, and if that means no onstage exorcisms a la Ian Curtis or Ian McCulloch, no Smiths-like flamboyance, it also means there's no embarrassments, and very little for the likes of me to call them on. (Other, perhaps, than their failure to address hecklers, who issued "check out the fashion show" wind-ups and 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' requests. If Interpol can't get to grips with this in the relative home territory of New Jersey, imagine the problems they'll have in the mid West.)
But what the group lacks in exhibitionism it makes up for in precision. Dengler and drummer Sam Fogarino formulate a particularly tight, taut rhythm, over which the elegant lead guitarist Dan Kessler cuts wide swathes of brightly colored riffs on his equally wide-bodied Epiphone, and Paul Banks the nervous one strums his Gibson purposefully while frequently singing across the crowd at an acute angle that seems to complement his off-center lyrics. Clearly-enunciated lines like "stabbing yourself in the neck" (from 'Obstacle 1'), "sleep tight, grim rite, we have 200 couches" ('PDA') and "friends don't waste wine when there's words to sell" (from set-closer 'Obstacle 2'), are beautifully impressionistic, leaving their full meaning to our own imagination. A new song 'Length of Love' opened with the more literal (if rather Morrissey-esque) line "This could be destiny, oh sweetheart," while its brisk pace suggested that Interpol may be leaving the oft-referenced jagged rhythms of Joy Division behind for the more dance floor-friendly grooves of New Order. Which, I suppose, is progress.
Turn On The Bright Lights - please! Interpol hide in the shadows at Maxwell's, Jan 8 2003
Based on this introductory experience, Interpol's strengths are also their weaknesses. The onstage civility, while refreshing in its own right, was unfortunately matched by the audience, which roared its approval as each song concluded but was surprisingly subdued during the performances themselves. And the intensity that so clearly lurks at the heart of their darkness has yet to be fully realized: at least a couple of the songs could benefit from extended codas as per, for example, the Bunnymen rocking out on 'Rescue' or 'Do It Clean'. The nearest they came was with the album's standout ballad 'NYC' - which benefited enormously from live keyboard player Eric's textural contributions.
But while it's a common criticism of Interpol, that the live renditions are too close to the recorded versions, I think that's also part of their appeal: the band has clearly yet to learn the ego-tripping that comes from individual riffing. And this clinical onstage modesty is certainly not unrelated to the fact that their success to date has happened relatively quietly, devoid of the hype and hysteria that accompanied last year's New York sensations. Interpol are clearly still growing, still learning, still fighting to escape their influences but they're doing so under a much dimmer spotlight than the Strokes, which can only be to their benefit. Listening to the captivating debut, watching this calmly intense live show, I had the feeling that, far from having missed the best of the early days, I've joined the fan club at just the right moment. Interpol are only just getting going. And that prospect is frightening.
THURSDAY JANUARY 9
MAD MEDIA AND UNCOMFORTABLE WORDS OF TRUTH
What were the Guardian editors thinking earlier this week when they published a G2 front cover, with nothing but the hand-written words Fuck Cilla Black, in large black type on a white background? Apparently, they thought they were honoring their self-appointed role as patrons of the arts. Six months ago, the paper decided to commission five renowned British artists, including David Hockney, to design front covers for the G2 Section throughout this first full week of the New Year. One of those artists was Turner Award winner Gillian Wearing, who came up for Tuesday's crude graffiti design, "after spending a day with the Guardian's features team" that day being Monday. The "team" scrambled for a news story that would be worthy of Wearing's attention. They settled on the fact that the nation's most endearing Liverpudlian ex-pop star and television personality, Cilla Black, had resigned from her long-standing hit TV show Blind Date over the weekend - live and on-air while a new show, Without Prejudice, which debuted over the weekend, seemed to indicate the new, nastier direction in which British television is now headed. Hence the cover tag. You follow?
I don't, not really. Seems to me that Wearing was inexcusably lazy, falling back on the same old 'shock' tactics that modern artists are perpetually claiming to have moved beyond, that she was unforgivably willing to engage in the same nastiness she would claim of modern TV and that the Guardian editors were far too impressed with her credentials to suggest that perhaps she should think a bit longer and work a little harder to earn her fee.
Am I offended? Not as someone who swears more than they should in front of the kid, and who grew up loudly singing along to the four-letter words on my favorite punk records. But do I think that just because I occasionally forget to watch my language in front of my seven year old, that national newspapers should be printing Fuck in bold letters on the front cover of their pull-out sections? Of course not. And while I've never had much of an opinion on Cilla Black either way, I feel for her: I certainly don't think she's so horrific a TV personality that she should have to be so visibly and viciously skewered by a supposedly intelligent middle-class newspaper.
But what I find most fascinating about the whole controversy is the sense of surprise and denial from the editors and artist alike at the subsequent outrage. "I thought people would laugh at it and not even look at it for long," said Wearing, wearing her best Alfred E. Neumann pose of incredulity. "It just shows you cannot predict what people will think." Only if you have no connection to what people think in the first place, does it.
G2 editor Ian Katz doesn't share Wearing's apparent surprise. He admits that the Guardian's style sheets call for the word "fuck" only to be used as a direct quote. Instead, he uses the understandable defense that "if you ask an artist for their interpretation of a story, it is then rather difficult to turn round and say, 'Actually, it isn't quite our cup of tea.'" He could have left it there. But then he second-guesses his own philosophy. "That's not strictly true: plainly we would have dropped any of our artists' covers, if, for argument's sake, they had called for the expulsion of all Muslims."
Plainly? Think about this. Is Katz saying that it's okay for an artist to draw a lazy character assassination using bold-faced expletives, but it's not okay for an artist to offer a political agenda? In which case, what are we to make of the ongoing claim that all art is political or indeed, what are we to make of Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell's increasingly offensive and narrow-minded political commentary? Or is Katz saying instead, that it's okay for an artist to offer a political agenda - as long as the target of that agenda is a harmless TV personality whose recourse to such offense is minimal, and as long as the agenda, "for argument's sake," doesn't contradict the newspaper's own political ideology? I'd like to know.
When not addressing the Guardian's own contribution to sliding British moral values, yesterday's British papers otherwise gave considerable coverage to Tony Blair's foreign policy speech, in which the British Prime Minister engaged in serious some would say desperate - shoring up of support for the oncoming war with Iraq. I don't envy Blair he's failed to fix almost any of the country's myriad domestic problems, and most of the electorate wishes he'd simply ignore the international ones. It's that exact latter issue that he addressed in Tuesday's speech, in which he rightly called on the USA to listen to international concerns, but in which he also called on the British people to recognize that opting out is not a viable option. "The price of influence is that we do not leave the US to face the tricky issues alone. By tricky, I mean the ones which people wish weren't there, don't want to deal with and, if I can put it a little pejoratively, know the US should confront, but want the luxury of criticising them for it." Ouch. That can't have been easy to say, but I'm extremely grateful he had the guts to say it. I hope the rest of Europe was listening.
And following further along that thread, I then sat up late last night reading Michael Ignatieff's NY Times magazine cover story 'American Empire (Get Used To It).' The crux of Ignatieff's well-reasoned essay is that, for all Bush's insistence aside, the USA is indeed an empire but a very different one from that of the British, the Romans or whatever other example the European left usually cite when gleefully predicting that American collapse is inevitably but another terrorist attack away. Like Blair, Ignatieff addresses a number of inconveniently difficult political points, such as we all wish weren't here but aren't going to go away just because we close our eyes to them. The following statement, for example, is uncomfortable to digest, but equally difficult to dispute.
"Iraq lays bare the realities of America's new role. Iraq itself is an imperial fiction, cobbled together at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 by the French and British and held together by force and violence since independence. Now an expansionist rights violator holds it together with terror. The United Nations lay dozing like a dog before the fire, happy to ignore Saddam, until an American president seized it by the scruff of the neck and made it bark. Multilateral solutions to the world's problems are all very well, but they have no teeth unless America bares its fangs."
There's plenty more where that came from in his piece. To which I can only conclude that I still hope for peace, even as I doubt the likelihood.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 8
Hopefully you've had a chance to peruse my Top 10 Albums and Singles of 2002. (If not, you can find them here.) Top 10s and Year-End Reviews always dominate the media as the calendar turns, and it's good fun. Then again, I can't help wondering whether the fact that Q and Mojo resorted to, respectively, the 100 Greatest Albums Ever and the 100 Greatest Drug Songs Ever for their January issues reflects the current poor state of British music or whether the magazines' increasingly regular nostalgia trips are partly responsible for it?
Either way, I perused, without prejudice, the reader-voted Q poll. I'm not surprised that Nevermind is considered the 'greatest' album ever, nor that Revolver is number three. That Radiohead are number 2 (with OK Computer) is no great shakes either. But the fact that Radiohead are also number 4 - with The Bends, an album I'd previously thought was under-rated and over-ignored - is quite an astonishing achievement when you think about it. Elsewhere in the Top 10, debut albums by the Sex Pistols, Stone Roses and Oasis fairly enough take places 6-8, while Achtung Baby beats out the rest of U2's catalogue at number 10 important acknowledgement that the group's re-invention was more important than it's original development.
What does that leave? Two disparate American acts. At number 5, Eminem, whose The Marshall Mathers LP is the nearest thing the chart has to black music until Lauryn Hill appears at number 20; and at number 9, The Strokes' Is This It debut. I've come round to The Strokes this past year, so let me say this in a nice way. Along with the appearance of their media mates the White Stripes down at number 27, it's worth noting just how comparatively "new" this album is for such a supposedly definitive chart. Q proposes conducting this Poll every five years, and I'll wager a friendly fiver to any takers that The Strokes will have dropped out of the Top 20 come 2008.
On the subject of lists, as we were, DJ Oil, host of Brooklyn's Crashin In' club night, has diligently compiled and posted at his web site of the same name, an alphabetical list of every young working New York City band complete with the bands' web links. Journalists and music fans alike should bookmark this page to easily check spellings and find home pages; I already have done.
And on the subject of links, as we were, my Joe Strummer tribute has been receiving a heavy number of hits, thanks to links from various Strummer and Clash sites across the web. I appreciate that. I write here, from the heart, for the simple sake of communicating, but it's all the better when people with a vested interest in what I have to say get to read it. And while it's not my place to list all the sites that have given up space to the late, great man, I got a request from Don Whistance to plug his JoeStrummer.org, and don't mind doing so. Whistance attended Strand Grammar School with Mick Jones down in Tulse Hill in the 1970s, and his site, which has been in existence for a year, is full of photographs tracing the Clash' geographical formation and development. To other South Londoners like myself, the references to such landmarks as Crown Point, Streatham Common, Beulah Hill - and the good old 68 bus destined for what Whistance, like many of us, once thought to be bucolic 'Chalk Farm' across the other end of London - are especially nostalgic. The front page links to all manner of other Strummer-related web sites for those who have the time to surf.
On the subject of Joe Strummer, as we were, the New York Times did publish an apology for the horrendous inaccuracies in and around Ed Ward's feature in the supposedly authoritative Week In Review. Check the archaic language: "An article last Sunday about the legacy of the Clash and other punk rock bands in the 1970's referred incorrectly to the social climate from which the Sex Pistols emerged. It was not the Britain of Margaret Thatcher: she became prime minister in 1979, and the Sex Pistols disbanded in 1978." Presumably, this last statement is also meant to correct Ward's suggestion that the Pistols broke up at least 25 years and 9 months ago. Oh, and "A picture with the article was published in error. It showed Mick Jones of the Clash not Joe Strummer, who died earlier in the week." Yes, thousands of us noticed.
And on the subject of Joe Strummer and the New York Times, as indeed we were, the paper seems to have learned that it's better off and confining its music tributes to the music pages, where presumably the interns and fact-checkers at least have a notion as to the subjects in question. So it was with interest that I read Neil Strauss' refreshingly personal and passionate story about the Clash in Sunday's Arts & Leisure Section. I admire Strauss: he's intuitive, intelligent and unafraid to use his position of authority to assail the music business behemoth. Still, his account of how he was initially disappointed by the debut Clash album, given him for his 12th birthday following his impressively juvenile introduction to punk with the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, made me pause. "In my mind it wasn't punk rock at least not in the way the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were. It was too, well, musical. All the songs didn't sound the same. There were traces of reggae, jazz, cowboy music and oldies rock 'n' roll."
Reggae, yes; we all know how revolutionary 'Police and Thieves' sounded. But jazz and cowboy music? On The Clash? For a moment, I thought Strauss had gone the confused way of Ed Ward, but then I remembered that the Pistols' Bollocks came out long after The Clash's debut, noted how he'd quoted a lyric from 'Clash City Rockers' as part of the album (even though that song was a subsequent single), and finally grasped that it was the American version of The Clash he was referring to.
Released in the States only in July 1979 after the group's second studio album Give 'Em Enough Rope the U.S. version of the Clash "debut" was a significantly different release from the British album of two years earlier. As well as 'Clash City Rockers' and its b-side 'Jail Guitar Doors,' it added the unrivaled a-sides 'Complete Control' and '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,' and then leapfrogged right past Give 'Em Enough Rope to include the band's cover of the Bobby Fuller Four's 'I Fought The Law.' Listening to the American version myself, I can see how a 12-year old would have found it un-punk: 'I Fought The Law' is both oldies rock'n'roll and a cowboy track (a comedy too), 'Jail Guitar Doors' could arguably be considered jazzy, and if Strauss had one of the early pressings, he'd also have received an accompanying 45 with 'Gates of the West' and 'Groovy Times' (from 1979's 'The Cost Of Living' EP), which pushed the band's boundaries yet further.
All the same, it's a little disingenuous for Strauss to write about how "musical" the Clash sounded from the very beginning, based not on their actual debut album, but on its corporate recompilation two years after the event. The 14 tracks released onto vinyl in the spring of 1977 the real Clash debut album to any professional historian's intents and purposes are many things to many people. But the down tempo shift of 'Police and Thieves' aside, they're not exactly "musical." I assume Strauss is not trying to claim that he was listening to the Clash as a twelve-year old back in 1977, in which case a single line from him, making clear that different versions of this historically influential album were released two full years apart - and that he was referring to the later version - would have been welcome. It's not as if Americans don't know the difference: when I interviewed Jello Biafra in 1980 for Jamming! he told me that first Clash album had sold 100,000 copies on import in the States, enough to impact a whole American generation.
TUESDAY JANUARY 7
THE NEW YEAR'S HONORS LIST
(OR, MY TOP 10 ALBUMS AND SINGLES OF 2002)
I spent this last weekend listening to some of the year's best albums, finalizing my votes for the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll. (I've always hated the word 'critic'; I prefer the term 'Music Journalist'.) The Voice poll is considered America's most important and influential, not only because it surveys some 1300 of us so-called 'experts' (ha!), but also because it uses a complex voting scheme that allows us to finely distinguish among our choices and supposedly give the final poll further credence. Of our ten chosen albums, we can award between five and thirty points to each, as long as our total adds up to 100.
Given that we're journalists, not mathematicians, many of us simply allocate ten points per album and leave it at that. But because I listened to more new music in 2002 than in any of the last five years, I took the challenge seriously this time around, tweaking my points allocation until I felt comfortable. Five albums were automatic choices for my list. For the others, I made a master list of about 40-50 (the various reviews and hitlists I posted on the site this past year proved a handy resource center) and narrowed it down from there.
It's always a conflict when compiling these lists between choosing what most rocked my individual world in the last twelve months i.e., my favorites - and what were in theory the "best" albums of the year: i.e. the most innovative, important and/or or influential. "Critics" generally lean toward the latter criteria, but I'm something of a populist. I want my list to define the records that mean most to me. So here they are.
1. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - THE RISING - Columbia (15 points)
2. THE STREETS - ORIGINAL PIRATE MATERIAL Vice/Atlantic (15 points)
3. 2 MANY DJs - AS HEARD ON RADIO SOULWAX - PIAS import (14 points)
4. TOM PETTY - THE LAST DJ - Warner Brothers (13 points)
5. INTERPOL - TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS - Matador (10 points)
6. COLDPLAY - A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD - Capitol (9 points)
7. PAUL WESTERBERG - STEREO - Vagrant (7 points)
8. FLAMING LIPS - YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS - Warner Brothers (7 points)
9. RADIO 4 - GOTHAM! - Gern Blandstein (5 points)
10. FELIX DA HOUSECAT - KITTENZ AND THEE GLITZ - Emperor Norton (5 points)
I plan to post a more comprehensive Best of 2002 in a week or two, at which point I'll enlarge the Top 10 to include all the other albums I found especially worthy this year, along with some Top Concerts, Personal Moments and so on. But in brief summary (follow the links for review or comments I posted earlier in the year). . .
Bruce Springsteen made possibly the most important artistic statement of an incredibly important artistic career. Just as I still hear the song 'Born To Run' as a textbook case in production tricks, treats and techniques, I believe that in decades to come, scholars will hold high The Rising album as a reference point for songwriters the world over. Springsteen's ability to be so personal, so specific, so full of detail, and yet not once to mention the actual events that inspired most of these songs (i.e. the attacks of 9/11) is awe-inspiring. That the melodies, and the manner in which they are played, are so simple and yet so emotive, simply doubles and trebles the overall effect.
Original Pirate Material is one of those rare new albums that keeps me optimistic for the future of music. Mike Skinner created a whole new genre of sounds on this most British of dance records; he's also the wittiest and most erudite street poet this side of Eminem.
2 Many DJs I've written about several times on this site, and I still have to post my interview with them, so check my references here and here. And don't be surprised should what I consider the best mix album of all time be in the Voice top 10 when all the votes are cast.
On The Last DJ, the intensity of Tom Petty's message a hatred of the music business, a concern for children and a love for his wife was matched by the keen and varied focus of his music. And as with The Boss, Petty walks it like he talks it, refusing to take sponsorship or sell his songs for commercials. Younger artists looking for three-decade careers, take note.
Interpol proves something of a surprise choice to me. I went out and bought Turn On The Bright Lights based on the hauntingly beautiful song 'NYC' (which I heard on a CD given away free with a British monthly) and a general buzz in the New York air. The album sounds exactly like what Interpol currently is a young band on its first album and still very much beholden to its influences but every play reveals a further depth to the songwriting and performances alike, until the songs and their deep emotions are firmly imprinted on the conscience.
Albums #6-8 reflect the "critical" aspect of me a little more than the enthusiast in that I haven't played them constantly - but when I do, I'm constantly amazed by them. Coldplay deserve kudos for daring to sound bigger, bolder and braver - and succeeding on all three fronts. Paul Westerberg's Stereo (not to be confused with the simultaneous release of his Grandpa Boy's Mono) is the year's most painfully honest and heartfelt collection of stripped-down ballads, edging Beck's Sea Change out for contention in that regard. And the Flaming Lips album sounds like it's been beamed down from another planet. It also contains the year's most tragically accurate lyric set to the most beautiful arrangement: "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?"
I paused several times over Radio 4, asking myself whether I was including them because I like them personally rather than because they made a better album than, say, Oasis or Wilco. But then I played Gotham! again - and again - and decided that friendship be damned: this is just a great record.
And I had severe doubts about including Felix da Housecat's album until the bitter end. Not because of any lack in quality: released in the UK in 2001 (where it won Album of the Year awards there a solid twelve months ago), it's undoubtedly been one of the year's most influential records. But that means it's largely due to Kittenz and Thee Glitz that we've had to endure so much bad Electroclash. Is that Felix's fault? Or those he inspired? I'll go with the latter and give Felix credit where it's due. And though I've now heard 'Madame Hollywood' and 'Silver Screen Shower Scene' one too many times for comfort, that doesnt diminish from how remarkable they sounded on first listen.
Conclusions? As per last year, some old stalwarts came back to console me, comfort me and assure me that the best musicians are just like fine wines, acquiring ever more attractive flavors, nuances and textures as they mature. The difference is that in 2001, it was long-standing UK bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order and The Charlatans who dominated my Top 10. This year it was the American singer-songwriters Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Paul Westerberg. In fact, some 7 of my 10 choices this year emanated from the States. Does this reflect on current Stateside superiority or a gradual Americanization on my own part? The former, I believe: it's worth noting that the British magazine Uncut also chose 7 of its Top 10 from this side of the Atlantic and that even my new New York choices have been celebrated far afield.
I note that I only saw three of these acts perform live over the last year (or three and a half, including a brief Felix da Housecat DJ set), even though all of them were out there treading the boards and I was out several nights a week. I think that reflects two increasingly important distinctions in my life: firstly, that I can enjoy an album to the max without needing to run out and experience the same music in concert, and secondly, that I genuinely prefer the club/gig night out to the concert/arena experience, even at the expense of seeing some of the bigger and better artists.
Overall, I'm proud of my balance between old and new, east and west, rock and dance; I had no problems playing Tom Petty and The Streets alongside each other when I received their albums in October - perhaps because I also saw 2 Many DJs blur the boundaries the very same week. Still, I'm always a little embarrassed at how "white" my play list is, but that's because I have a certain confidence (born of experience) in making my choices in the worlds of rock and what I should call post-rave dance. When it comes to "black" music, I'm more of a follower, allowing other writers, the charts and year-end polls to help narrow down the equally overcrowded fields of hip-hop, soul, world music, R&B etc. I've already seen the names Blackalicious, El-P, Missy Elliot, The Roots and Talib Kweli appear in so many year-end lists that I know I have to spend some time with their albums, but I can't apologize for not giving them enough attention upon release: there's only so much listening time to go around. In fact, when I look at how many albums in my own "fields of knowledge" I still didn't get to hear this year, the list is embarrassing: it includes acclaimed works by Spoon, the Notwist, Hot Hot Heat, Sleater-Kinney, Lambchop, Ryan Adams, The Mendoza Line, Pony Club, My Computer, Leaves and Bright Eyes, all of which I hope to catch up with eventually. This plethora of buzz-worthy, independent releases can only be a good thing, and here's hoping it carries into 2003.
The Village Voice also asks us for our Top 10 Singles, which has come to mean "airplay" or "feature" tracks in the absence of old-fashioned 7" 45s. Though I could easily have drawn my list from my Top 10 albums, I deliberately put forward an entirely different set of artists to spread the love around. Of these ten, one has yet to release an album (The Rapture), another has a best-selling album I haven't heard (Missy Elliott) and a couple of them released otherwise disappointing albums (Timo Maas and Layo & Bushwacka!). The remaining half dozen all released excellent long-players that just weren't quite original or transcendent enough to make my primary Top 10: I've chosen to highlight their feature tracks instead.
1. UNDERWORLD - "TWO MONTHS OFF" - V2
2. THE RAPTURE - "HOUSE OF JEALOUS LOVERS" - DFA
3. LAYO & BUSHWACKA! - "LOVE STORY" - XL
4. BETH ORTON - "CONCRETE SKY" - EMI
5. MISSY ELLIOTT - "WORK IT" - Elektra
6. EMINEM - "CLEANIN OUT MY CLOSET" - Interscope
7. WILCO - "HEAVY METAL DRUMMER" - Nonesuch
8. OASIS - "STOP CRYING YOUR HEART OUT" - Epic
9. TIMO MAAS - "TO GET DOWN" - Kinetic
10. GREEN VELVET - "LA LA LAND" - Relief
As ever, you're welcome to pass comment. You can do so here.
MONDAY JANUARY 6
NEW YEAR'S DAZE CONTINUED
(OR, MORE TALES ABOUT WINE, FOOTBALLING WOMEN AND SONG...)
If you read my review of Radio 4's New Year's Eve gig at Southpaw, you may have imagined I called it quits after the band's midnight set. If so, you were mistaken. As I wrote near the top, "our new Year's Eve experience exemplified this
banner year for Brooklyn." Which means we made a real night of it. So, as Southpaw wound down following the Radio 4 gig, it was off to another new neighborhood spot, the Bubble Lounge, which claims as its calling card those strange bubble teas that I believe are some kind of Japanese specialty, but which seems to be gaining its reputation primarily as the local mad house.
Oasis karaoke in Brooklyn. Sorry, Jill, you spoke too soon. (And no that's not me singing along.)
By the time four of us arrived there around 2 am, the bar had been cleaned out of wine as well as champagne, and a Karaoke session was in full swing: being the sort of gregarious person I am, I promptly volunteered to conduct a stirring rendition of The Proclaimers' '(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles', Scottish accent and all. (I sung 'Then I Met You', from the same brilliant Proclaimers album, with Rogues March as backing band, at my wedding, so I've some practice with both the accent and the material.) We then helped our happily inebriated friend Jill Stempel sing 'Wonderwall' before the rest of the bar crowd returned to Britney and Whitney, and the remnants of Radio 4 stopped by to pick us up on their way to O'Connors.
A smoky old-timer's bar without a basement and therefore devoid of tap beer, O'Connors was nonetheless seized upon by the younger crowd that moved into Park Slope in the 90s, for the simple reason that it was the only drinking hole within many blocks. The owners were in turn smart enough to hire young bartenders (like musician Spike Priggen), and encourage them to restock the jukebox and arrange live jamborees in the corner. As a result, the young crowd has stayed loyal despite so many other bars opening in the area, and O'Connors was jammed on New Year's until well after the usual 4am closing hour.
At that point, given that there were still several unresolved musical conversations in full swing, it was all Back To Mine. There we drank a lovely bottle of Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 1996 while listening to the very bands we were discussing: the Jam, the Clash and Apocalypse, of whose song 'Going Up In The World' Radio 4 manager Brian Long inexplicably (drunkenly?) likened to 'Radio Free Europe.' As a gathering gray horizon announced the first dawn of the New Year, I pined a little for former Apocalypse band mate Tony Page, who sang the words "grab yourself a good friend and sit around talking 'till 4" on our song 'Release'. I don't think Pagey stops by the web site often but anyone who sees him walking his dog on Bexhill Beach, say hello from me.
New Year's Day was spent, predictably, recuperating in front of the TV. With the rain bucketing down, we ordered a hearty brunch from the local Mexican diner and settled down to watch Westway to the World in tribute to and memory of Joe Strummer. Anyone who wants to understand what made the Clash 'special' would do as well to buy this Don Letts-directed documentary as to stock up on the band's albums. Apart from its thrilling live clips and rare early rehearsal footage, the documentary is notable for how each Clash member Strummer, Jones, Simonon and drummers Terry Chimes and Topper Headon is refreshingly, even embarrassingly honest.
Strummer in particular is captivating. He seems constantly amazed by the band's musical triumphs: specifically, having the "bare balls" to cover 'Police and Thieves,' then to compose '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, and finally to take on the nascent New York electro-funk with 'The Magnificent Seven' and be rewarded by a summer's worth of airplay on WBLS. And I love how he simultaneously disses and praises Sandanista! in the same breath. "Even though it would have been better as a double album, or a single album, or as an EP - who knows?! - the fact is that we recorded all that music in one spot at one moment in one three-week blast. For better or worse, that is the document."
But gradually a sadness pervades the nostalgia, most notably in Strummer, who, even after all these years, is still trying to work out where it went wrong. "I should never have listened to that," he says to camera of a typically maverick suggestion by manager Bernie Rhodes, rehired after Sandanista! in a valiant but vain attempt to recreate their early mystique. Then his gaze turns to the floor. "You have to have some regrets."
Not many though. Strummer clearly recognizes the intangible qualities that made the Clash so potent. "It's the chemical mixture of those four people that makes a group work. That's the lesson everyone should learn. You don't mess with it. If it works, do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don't mess with it. We learned that bitterly." He's right of course, but Strummer seemed either unable or unwilling, at this point on camera, to grasp that a band moving with such fiery momentum as the Clash was scientifically pre-destined to implode internally after exploding commercially. The only way it could have been different would have been for them to have worked slower, and taken less risks. Then they wouldnt have been the Clash we knew and loved, and ultimately, Strummer recognizes that their adventurousness was their most important contribution. "We weren't Little Englanders," he says at the documentary's conclusion, referring, I'm sure, to those other punk survivors. "At least we had the suss to embrace the world in all its weird varieties."
Indeed they did, and to honor as much, throughout the wet New Year's afternoon, I let the six Clash studio albums (counting two for Sandanista!) play randomly on my six-CD changer. The process only confirmed my long-standing views on their recorded repertoire. The debut album, The Clash, remains remarkable (English or U.S. version); Give 'Em Enough Rope starts strong but descends into cliché; London Calling is the band's most evident artistic triumph, its many ground-breaking highlights making up for what I perceive as the occasional filler; Sandanista!, for all its musical bravery, embarrasses far more than it ever excites; and Combat Rock is less consistent than its hit singles would let on. Still, it's a phenomenal musical journey the Clash took, just five years separating the first album from the last. Only the Beatles and the Who come to mind as having undertaken similarly revelatory and revolutionary journeys.
|One reason I never bothered with Fever Pitch the movie: its awful American imagery
A Clash afternoon turned into a football evening, with back-to-back first-time viewing of both Fever Pitch and Bend It Like Beckham. When Fever Pitch was published ten years ago, I was every bit as struck by Nick Hornby's autobiographical account of his Arsenal obsession as any other football fanatic. But I've never had much interest in the 1997 movie; I couldn't see how such an intensely personal and literary memoir could possibly translate to the big screen. To some extent my suspicions were born out. The on-screen love affair between teachers Colin Firth (as Paul based on Nick Hornby) and Ruth Gemmell (as Sarah based on, what?, Hornby's real life wife?) is entertainingly depicted in the manner at which British romantic comedies are so adept. But it takes a back seat to the movie's real story - that of the 1988-89 football season, which ends with Arsenal's last-minute goal at Anfield, the Gunners lifting the English League Title from under Liverpool's very noses. The movie depicts the on-pitch aspect well (mainly because it uses genuine televised footage) and I found myself caring more for Arsenal than I'd like to. But still Fever Pitch felt small, both metaphorically (see my later conclusion) and physically. The terrace scenes were built around all of 20 or 30 people, and the supposed euphoria outside Highbury when Arsenal win the League was positively mundane compared to my rare experiences of glory as a Palace fan. It seems no wonder that Nick Hornby subsequently allowed High Fidelity to be produced and set in America he probably felt it needed a Hollywood budget to successfully tell the story.
Maybe it just needed a visionary director, like Gurinda Chadha, whose Bend It Like Beckham I found to be every bit as brilliant as proclaimed. (Someone kindly sent me a VHS for Christmas.) It was particularly instructive to watch the movies next to each other. For if Fever Pitch was indeed a catalyst in attracting girls to modern football, then Bend It Like Beckham is its offspring the end result of terrace/all-seater equality. Bend It Like Beckham, set very much in the present, not only takes for granted that teenage English girls love football, not only allows that a teenage Asian girl's crush on David Beckham can be tolerated by her devout Sikh parents, it insists that girls can play football too, and with as much determination as the neighborhood boys.
|Two good reasons to watch Bend It Like Beckham. (There's more, too.)
But there the march of progress comes to a halt. The stars of this movie are shown topping out in minor leagues and even those are considerably more glamorous than anything I ever witnessed when living in the UK. (Do the likes of the Hounslow Harriers actually exist? Anyone?) The girls' only option for a career in football is therefore in America where, as the movie's only televised clips demonstrate, the best players are paid well, play in major stadiums, and are considered female role models. On an important personal note, as someone who's lived in the States so long, and taken so much flak over the years for the fact that "soccer" is only "popular" here as a "girls sport", the movie's glorification of Mia Hamm, Brandy Chastaine and co. was refreshing to see - especially because the US "Soccer" team represents the better (i.e. less ego-ridden and media-governed) qualities of sportsmanship...um, sportswomanship. Until the day that other countries offer their girls equal career opportunities in their male-dominated sports, they may prefer to keep quiet about their supposed competitive superiority.
You don't have to be a football fan to appreciate Bend It Like Beckham, but it does help to have an understanding of modern Britain, in particular its steady assimilation of its post-War immigrants. Football is depicted here as a metaphor, the final cultural hurdle for girls in general, for Asians in particular, and for the Sikh star player Jess (Parminder Nagra) especially. Bend It Like Beckham dares to wonder aloud how Asians have come to be accepted into the upper class sport of cricket, yet have made no evident inroads in the working class sport of football, but it mostly, and wisely, chooses subtle comedy over blatant morality. Through the Sikh dad with his mini-bar, to the white mum with her wonder-bras; the three older Asian girls with their Ali G street talk, to the Asian boys with their homo-erotic muscle flexing; and most vividly, through the parental confusion over Jess's relationship with her equally gifted and gorgeous Caucasian team mate Juliette (played by Keira Knightley), to the girls' own competing instincts for coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Bend It Like Beckham delivers one hilariously charming scene after another.
Ultimately, I rooted for Jess and Juliette while watching Bend It Like Beckham much more than I did for Arsenal in Fever Pitch - because the nature of the films invited that response. In Fever Pitch, Colin Firth's character Paul is the classic football pessimist, afraid to believe in his team's chances even though his entire life revolves around their results. In Bend It Like Beckham, Juliette and Jess are inherent optimists, refusing to let their parents or their culture deny them the lives they wish for themselves. And it's that, more than the twelve years that separates their story lines, which marks the movies as so different. Fever Pitch is cute, but it's inward, parochial, thoroughly nostalgic, what Joe Strummer would have called a "Little Englander." Bend It Like Beckham is cute too, but it looks outward, and onward or as Strummer might have said, it has "the suss to embrace the world in all its weird varieties." This attitude is publicly celebrated during the final credits, with the cast and crew singing the West Indian carnival anthem 'Hot Hot Hot' in Hindi. That's your real Global A Go-Go and it helps explain why Bend It Like Beckham is finally about to open in American cinemas, where hopefully it will be celebrated for its statement of positive internationalism as much as for being a classic Asian-British romantic comedy.