Sunday, 13 February 2011
14. A Digression (Part 1)
It's 1983 and it's something of love at first quip. Martin has adopted me as his sidekick, because I'm young enough to be of no threat while precocious enough to be entertaining. It makes him laugh that I won't back down in an argument, and that I'm as sarcastic and, regrettably, cruel as he is, and, most importantly, because I'm the only bloke he knows that's as obsessive about music as he is that isn't also too embarrassingly odd to be seen out with. He's four years older than me, a text-book alpha male, loud, biting, funny, solidly built and vigorous too, more than fond of the booze and the weed and the powder, attractive to women and shockingly able to sleep with them too, and his eyes, when you can catch a glimpse of them under that overgrown mullet of a haircut, are constantly flickering around in the hope of catching sight of something more interesting.
It's 1985 and Martin's a record plugger at a very big record label indeed, convincing the nation's favourite daytime DJs at Radio One and Capital Radio that they really ought to be playing this week's plastic-product from the sonic-pap workshops of the decade's nadir, and we can't believe that it's all happening for him. We're so pleased we're not even resentful. It's exactly the job that Martin ought to be doing. For I can fake sociability, but he really is incredibly gregarious, he really is, when he isn't overcome by contempt for whoever he's talking to. Martin's one of humanity's born snake-oil salesmen. (His body language is so effusive that his simple presence can make an excited Italian feel as if his personal space is being invaded.) And now here he is, in the stockrooms and staff canteens of Babylon, all hype and, he promises us, cocaine payola, raiding stockrooms stacked with Talking Heads sweatshirts and Duran Duran wristbands in order to win air-time from household names at the BBC. The gossip is as glamorously tawdry as we want it to be, the handouts as precious as we pretend they're contemptible, and, for awhile, Martin's more alive than he's ever been seen to be when he wasn't out of his head and unbelievably pulling women while speed-lauding obscure Philly B-sides.
It's 1986 and we don't see Martin so much anymore. Oh, well. Occasionally he throws us tickets to Talk Talk at the Hammersmith Apollo, or posts out the press release kits for the likes of Duran Duran's "Notorious" to us. But he seems to have forgotten, and this really is hard to come to terms with, that Duran Duran press kits just aren't the presents to be handing out to folks who can't stand Duran Duran, regardless of Nile Rodger's presence as producer, or that Talk Talk in concert at this stage really are a somewhat dull 90 minutes of standing still and Fairlight-sourced animal sounds. There are brief pity dates in pubs in Charing Cross and the Tottenham Court Road between us, so kindly squeezed in between his afternoons at the office and his evening caning it with the rest of the plugging fraternity. It's nothing more than the insulting largesse of the nouveau riche. I turn up once, can't bear to lift the swag he's so graciously dropped on the table before us, as if it's Maundy Money and he were the Kinge, and I disappear, never to return.
The talk, which always becoms his tittle-tattle, is all taxi-rides with David Kid Jensen, drinking between radio interviews with Fish, and what really killed Ricky Wilson. Most of all, he regales with the japes of the folks who market and pimp records, and there's absolutely no doubt that we are expected to laugh, and to be fascinated, and to be very impressed by Martin.
The public are proles, we're his subjects, and even "his" artists couldn't find their way to a career saving meeting with Anglia TV if he wasn't there to hold their hands and deliver something with an inspiring fizz into their mineral water while he does so.
But I've always been impressed by Martin, and I'm still incredibly pleased for him. Yet when I talk to him about Microdisney, he cuts me off and declares that Rough Trade just don't have the distribution. And when I mention "Sign O'The Times", he's off on an epic about how he'd blagged tickets for Prince in Utrecht, but was too wasted to travel, and what does it matter, because Prince's always touring.
It certainly makes sense that there's apparently no music playing during Dave Kohl's visit to the Memory Kingdom of Britpop, beyond that suggested by a single panel showing a Retromancer cack-handedly picking out a chord on a child's guitar. (*1) For everything's decayed in that region of the collective unconscious, and the Retromancers certainly can't understand anything of the spirit which originally animated the music associated with the era. But when is it that the Phonomancers and their opposite numbers in "Rue Britannia" actually enjoy music? They talk about it, or at least they banter about the cultural chit-chat related to it, but when do they listen to music for the music's sake? In all six chapters of the book, we only ever see two situations in which music is more important than the power it can bring. (*1) And even one of those scenes, of David Kohl delaying sleeping with his girlfriend so that can he listen again to a Kenicke single, has the ring of a falsehood, of a tale told to aid the seduction of yet another young woman. Elsewhere, music is held in contempt or its value denied, as in Dave's visit to The Fleeces, or used as means to enter the memory kingdom of Britpop, or shown being manipulated by a Luthor-esque Retromancer who's acting as a "nostalgia parasite".
Although it's easy at first to believe that Dave Kohl is a music obsessive, he really is all talk and no needletime. For all that he's forever trying to debate the cannon of Britpop, he doesn't seem to ever listen to it, or anything else for that matter. (Anyone who can travel that far in a van while humming Shed Seven songs, for example, can't have been listening to anything else at the same time, which means that that was a long, long journey without music.) Emily can discuss the mix of ideologies which informed the Manic's first incarnation, but she talks about the ephemera of music rather than the music itself. And The Myth doesn't even seem to be able to associate music with anything other than power; "The music will be fine." he tells Dave Kohl. Not exciting or invigorating, wonderful or moving, upsetting or transcendental, but simply "fine", as if he were describing the weather for a placid May morning.
And if often seems as if the only difference between Phonomancers and Retromancers, as we've mentioned briefly before, is the difference in the scale of how they abuse others using the music that they draw their enchantments from. Neither breed seem to treasure music for its own sake. The Retromancers, who Dave Kohl obviously regards as a lesser, crueler breed, aren't doing anything that the various members of the Coven aren't, although they are manipulating folks on a greater scale. (Perhaps what Kohl most hates so about the Retromancers is how accurately they mirror his own corruption.) Both groups use the magic they can access through music to influence others against their will, and yet neither group seems to get any pleasure from the very thing that's made them what they are. The Retromancers are joyless and controlling, and the Phonomancers seem hardly more alive at all, concerned as they are for no-one but their individual selves.
(*1) - I'm grateful to Colin Smith - yes. another Colin Smith, but a clearer thinking one - for several corrections to this paragraph. His perceptive comments can be found below. (17/8/2/11)
It's not that the world of "Phonogram", or even its bars and clubs, would immediately become an Arcadia if only those damnable magicians would stop screwing about with the music and with the perceptions of the people who're moved by it. In a pleasing display of a lack of sentimentality, the nameless mass who exist beyond the tiny circle of the Coven and its rival players are often shown to be just as self-regarding and elitist as those who prey on them. There's nothing as trite as "the people" shuffling around in the background of "Rue Britannia", just waiting to be treated kindly and to be set an appropriate example before heaven can be declared upon Earth. Whether it's the clubbers who regard Dave Kohl's appearance as a Manic's fan a dozen years out of time with a mixture of outrage and disdain, or the women in The Fleeces who note his appearance with no little suspicion, everyone is policing their own territory and defining who's acceptable and who's not on first appearances. (That the women at the Ladyfest are right to nail David Kohl as a dangerous predator is irrelevant to the fact that they're defining him by his appearance rather than his behaviour, though I readily concede that their wariness is a sensible measure.) For it's not that the Coven are an intrinsically corrupt minority of human beings by their very nature. The seeds of the elitism, for good reasons as well as ill, can be found elsewhere in "Rue Britannia". The difference between them and most of everyone else, we're left to presume, is simply that they've accessed power, and power really does, as Acton forever reminds us, corrupt, and corrupt absolutely.
But if the music magicians aren't fundamentally different to everyone else in this first book of "Phonogram", they undoubtedly do have a pernicious habit of quite effectively denying other people the right to make their own decisions. And beyond the range of their influence, there's a far better chance of folks being kinder to each other. We can see this in the backgrounds of Mr McKelvie's work in "Rue Britannia" where spontaneous moments of good humour and gentleness constantly occur where Dave Kohl either can't or won't notice them. The little boy excited to find himself before the bear cage in London Zoo. The couple chatting in the club as Dave waits for the Kid to, shall we say, fill out Kohl's painkilling prescription, whose presence he notes only so far as there's a drink beside them for him to steal. The women relaxed and largely free from the likes of Dave Kohl in The Fleeces for Ladyfest. Out there, where personalities aren't fixed by magic and will, something other than selfishness is possible, even if goodness is hardly ubiquitous.
One of the most impressive technical achievements of Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie's work here is how subtly they represent the degree to which Dave Kohl is disconnected from, and largely oblivious of, the world around him. For we're rarely shown characters from beyond Kohl's immediate circle except for those he's intensely focused upon at any one moment. For most of the story, no-one but young men and women can be seen in the backgrounds of Mr McKelvie's art, purposefully undistracting and largely emotionless characters who flicker at the edge of Dave Kohl's awareness. Anyone else whose appearance makes them unsuitable for being cast and re-dressed for the movie that runs in Dave Kohl's head of his Britpop memories are simply absent from his perceptions. He just doesn't see them. And so, the women at Ladyfest are shown in some specific detail because Kohl's scanning them to see if they're both attractive to him and susceptible to magic, but elsewhere, the world that we're shown is often as deserted as a provincial town on a Sunday afternoon before the shop-opening laws were relaxed. Even the roads and motorways are largely empty of traffic, and there's what might be a lovely joke in "Faster", where the van carrying the Kid and Kohl is shown driving along the middle of a dual-lane highway which is empty of all other traffic even as they're being held up by a moped. Well, of course David Kohl would notice a moped, even if he couldn't register anything else around him.
And it's only during the long, long afternoon before his visit to Primrose Hill during "Kissing With Dry Lips" that any sign of diversity starts to flicker into Dave Kohl's perceptions, a sign that his self-obsession is just starting to waver to that significant degree. The range of people he's starting to perceive, if not pay any real attention to, is still a narrow one, but it's notably far broader than before. As his opinions begin to develop beyond that prescribed by the elitism of the coven, something of the wider world gradually flickers into view, and the process which finishes in the untitled story in "The Singles Club"# 6, where P J Holden so evocatively shows Kohl sitting in a bar in the company of all measure of folks and accepting a "boogie" with a woman of mature years, is finally properly underway.
19. A Conclusion And A Digression Too (Part 2)
In the end, I'm not sure that "Rue Britannia" is about music at all, except in the fact that music can be reduced to a commodity which enriches those who control its production and distribution, its criticism and consumption . Because "Rue Britannia" is really about power and its temptations. It's concerned with how human beings are so compulsively good at forming in-groups and out-groups, and of convincing themselves that those folks on the outside are different, and inferior, and deserving of being exploited. It's a profoundly anti-elitist book, and where it shows us the pleasures to be found in pop music, it does so by presenting us with a cast of characters who mostly seem to take no real pleasure in pop music at all.
I'd not thought of my once and no-longer friend Martin in almost a decade until I started writing about "Rue Britannia". Either the whole business simply didn't matter to me anymore, or it mattered so much that I felt compelled to hide it all away where I shouldn't have to stumble across it anymore. Whatever. But I am suddenly immensely thankful that it was him and not me that had that opportunity, that rose up that particular greasy pole. Because wherever Martin went, I'd've gone too. At the age of 23, and a particularly stupid 23 at that, well, I'd not have made a good fist of that degree of temptation. And I have enough guilt about others and regrets for myself as it is.
Perhaps he found himself his equivalent of a Libertines fan on Primrose Hill, a tumbling-off-of-the donkey moment that turned him around, or perhaps he really didn't need turning around at all. As the culture-ghost of Luke Haines demands of Dave Kohl in the Memory Kingdom of Brit-Pop, " Who are you to begrudge their happiness?" Perhaps Martin was just having a real good time.
But it is true that Martin used to adore the music rather than the hype it can come wrapped up in, and I think that he used to like us as well.
By which I mean, "me". I think that he used to like me as well.
But I wasn't very useful anymore, and neither were those inconvenient, those so tiresomely irrelevant, melodies and lyrics, productions and associations.
The very last memory I have of Martin is from 1989. It's a fiercely hot, cloudless Sunday lunchtime in July. Martin's having a barbecue as a housewarming, and for some reason I no longer recall, I've been invited. Over here are the folks from the label, and over there are a few last survivors of the old crew and a sprinkling of his family. The twain do not meet, and we're laughing a lot less, and alot less loudly, than they are. All around us is a building site, grand half-built fake-Tudor mansions standing either side of long, winding sandy lanes. It's as if someone has decided to build an almost-executive estate on the last day of the world, and with the exception of Martin's guests, the whole bombshell landscape seems empty, and silent.
Martin's standing over by the sliding door to his living room, safe in the shadows with his colleagues, with a few beers, and a few lines, and a great deal of industry chatter, when an old friend asks, in an effort to spark a ghost of intimacy, what music he should put on.
That old friend may have been me.
"Anything you like." is what he replies, before returning to his preoccupations, and those three words have always stuck in my memory, or at least they did, until I apparently chose without choosing to try to delete them.
They could have meant that he was too busy to be specific, or that he was happy with whatever anyone else wanted to hear, or that music was no longer as important as the company of his good friends and family, as indeed it shouldn't ever be.
But I think that he meant that he simply didn't care about music anymore.
Well, that's a first look at "Rue Britannia" been and caught the last train home, and there's still thousands of words on myth, on the superhero in Phonogram, on gender and social representations, and a great deal more sitting around unused. Oh, well. Perhaps they'll come in useful when we chat about "The Singles Club" later on this year. Next time, a complete pallet-cleansing change of pace, to say the least, with a visit back to the early Nineties, and Valiant Comic's "Unity" crossover. No, really.