December 06, 2003


Documentary from 99 on The Clash repeated tonight on BBC2 to commemorate the first anniversary of Strummer's death. Well, the music is unredeemable: a frustrated, frustrating, blocked, blunt, ugly sludginess. None of the Pistols' cascading Glam power, none of Lydon's sorcerous incandescence, just honest-to-goodness lo-fi Brit garage rock and Strummer's social worker rabble-rousing.

(Spit on me, and I know I'll lose brownie points hereabouts for this, but I always thought that The Jam were much better at this sort of thing. The ramrod-inflexibility and devoid-of-funk whiteness of the early Jam (almost the anti-type of the Style Council's flailing attempts at soulfulness and jazzfunky 'sophistication') was just much more effective than The Clash's inchoate bluster. Both bands essentially boiled down the Kinks' Brit Invasion sound into a council estate rock for the 70s (The Clash throwing in some earnest but awful reggae into the mix, of course) - yet The Jam made better use of their resources. 'Going Underground' and 'Eton Rifles' bristle with class nuances and ambivalences in a way that The Clash's faded placards never did. 'What chance have you got against a tie and a crest,' remains a great line, too.)

It's obvious now that The Clash paved the way for U2: as the Clash (by then top-five in America) imploded with impeccably anti-careerist timing in 1982, U2 were waiting in the wings, and five years later they would complete the job that The Clash had started, selling American mythmusic back to the Americans.

All that said, who could not feel more than a pang of nostalgia for the seventies when watching the documentary? Music as an (anti)social force, as cultural electricity. Music as more than music... All gone now... What the early Clash in particular must be celebrated for is the abstract sense of potential that they embodied: anything could happen.... All gone now...

And now, and NOW, isn't everything jaded before it has even been released? Everything's cornered. There's always an angle , a marketing strategy, a masterplan, it's all sewn up. Yeh, that was always the case to some degree, no doubt - but has mainstream Pop - at any time since the Fifties - been so bereft of cultural energy? A blind, implacable marketing mechanism, autistically indifferent to new input, permanently set to recycle .....

It seems almost gauchely obvious to complain, but isn't that Pop Idol Lennon travesty just typical of this? Even I can't watch Pop Idol now, by the way. Watching ITV at the best of times is a soiling and debasing experience. Pop Idol takes this to a new level. You can't watch without your reality flattening out into a endlessly unscrolling tabloid page in which everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator: you feel contaminated, greasy.

Impossible and irrelevant to moan about Cowell's aesthetics. What you have to admire about him, actually, is his undisguised instrumentalism - his total indifference to content. In that respect, he is a metonym for remorseless Kapital. (The News of the World actually gave away a free Best of Simon Cowell CD a few weeks ago - you'd have thought that this was a bit of a double-edged sword for Cowell, whose c.v. is hardly packed with lasting Pop milestones. It could have looked less like a hagiographic round-up of his achievements than a shaming revelation of what his 'legacy' amounts to: records that you'll find going begging every week in carboot sales up and down the country.) But that's missing the point somewhat, of course: Cowell's reputation, such as it is, is not based on any musical judgement, needless to say, but on a commercial eye for short-termist exploitation. And what's worse about this, is that those he's exploiting are wide-eyed aware of it. What he is hawking in every sense, is success, success as end-in-itself, the Reality Teleology.

Old news, old news, and it wouldn't matter, if there were any ALTERNATIVE. Yet here it comes: unavoidable, ineluctable, a force of nature. 'Christmas (War is Over)': everyone in the video smiling and simpering, singing in that fifteenth hand let's-get-it-on orgasmic r and b moan, American vowels and Craaaaaig David bo-selecta yowls. (Incidentally, when did that become the Only way to sing?) The Pop Idol contestants have long made an art out of total insensate inability to connect with what they are singing about (anyone remember the Abba travesties of a couple of years back?), but this is genuinely stupefying. Needless to say, any trace of Lennon's irony or cynicism has been scoured (Cowelled) clean - the song's gleaming picked-clean skeleton a monument to Cowellite capitalism's indifferent capacity to use up and process anything.

And has anyone seen The All New Top of the Pops? It's like the seventh circle of Hell. Tim Cash. Those sf teeth, digitally enhanced smarm, a 'man' (though I wonder if he really can be human) devoid of even the hint of personality. A kind of 'professional' poise incarnate. And the All New Top of the Pops - as it seeks to detach itself from the charts, it frees itself up to be a marketing vehicle for the Industry. It's airless, impenetrable, the sound of Inevitability, of what has Already Been Decided...

Metkoub. It is written.

Posted by mark at December 6, 2003 02:19 AM | TrackBack

'And has anyone seen The All New Top of the Pops? [...] a marketing vehicle for the Industry. It's airless, impenetrable, the sound of Inevitability, of what has Already Been Decided...'

Same as it ever was. TOTP was always awful; it's simply nostagia for your faded youth that makes you rememeber it as being better back then (whenever 'back then' was) than it is now. Even the good bands (whoever you might think they were) were shit when they 'played' TOTP.

Posted by: Val at December 6, 2003 11:30 AM

Fuck me, I thought I was in a bad mood with my Macca attack, but Mark returns with some savagery!! True, it's a bit of an obvious target but still good to see someone echoing my own thoughts on the matter so accuratey.
Could the blogosphere be the nearest equivilent to the 'empathy machines' in Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep"?

Posted by: Nick at December 6, 2003 01:51 PM

Just to respond to Val's comment, I actually loved watching TOTP when I was younger so cannot agree that it's 'always' been aweful. The thing that I find most disturbing nowadays is the unrelenting 'professionalism', the pursuit of fame for fame's sake, the hi-gloss, hi-glamour presentation that is just so tediously conservative. This stuff could never touch me in the way that, say, a gloriously ramshackle early Bananarama performance could. And where are the fashion renegades to rival Adam Ant, Boy George or even Toyah?
Is this just nostalgia talking? Probably. But I still maintain that the rot started to set in roughly around the same time that Paul Hardcastle's TOTP theme was introduced. The Thin Lizzy/Midge Ure theme-era was ace. And all the '70s stuff was ace to. One more thing - TOTP performances should ALWAYS be mimed. These live shows sound shite.

Posted by: Nick at December 6, 2003 02:09 PM

Entirely with you on that bloke Cash, it's like he was born in a TV Studio. Also find your reading of the BBC as a distinct cultural entity (why not?) as charming as ever, disables it in a fashion.

Posted by: Matt at December 6, 2003 02:32 PM

Nick, my twin as ever, perfectly echoes my own thoughts.

I just can't accept that TOTP wasn't better in the 'old days'; no doubt that's partly because Pop was better in those days, I'll grant. Part of the point of the Clash post was that there was a time when Pop was driven by energies other than those of the marketers. TOTP reflected that, and couldn't avoid reflecting it because it was chart-based. There was such a thing as a Pop Culture then - the different role of fashion that Nick talks of is definitely a part of that. Fashion now equals a grim subordination to Kapital conservatism; fashion 'then' was as much about new possibilities, enchantments of the real, as was the music. More than the music in many ways, what people were wearing was capable of opening up whole worlds. The whole 'did you see that?' phenomenon. You only have to remember what it was like to see Boy George, Human League, Japan on TV for the first time. What was that?

I wonder how the construction of 'youth' has played a role in the All Malevolent Top of the Pops. Maybe the decline started with the 'New' Radio One - with the inhibiting Cool of a certain model of what it is to be Young? There's something charming and appealing about the gauche absurdity of the Radio One old school - Bates, Read, Powell - who in their own way had a ridiculous flamboyance entirely lacking in the conservative Young Professionals of today.

Matt: Can you explain this for me? 'Also find your reading of the BBC as a distinct cultural entity (why not?) as charming as ever, disables it in a fashion.'

Posted by: mark k-punk at December 6, 2003 04:25 PM

Also must echo Nick's remarks on playing live. Please, no. There's nothing more delibidinizing and destructive to Pop than 'performing live': the revenge of Rockism? Course TOTP is forced down this route by the increasing popularity of 24 hr music channels in the search for a Unique Selling Point. Funnily enough, I remember Pete Waterman saying he would never let one of his acts play live on TV - because of mixing. He spends days getting it right on the record - TV sound engineers throw a mix together in half an hour that any way will sound shit when broadcast.

Part of the problem with TOTP now is the inherent lack of charisma of today's pop stars. There's just nothing arresting, nothing to fixate upon or be fascinated by in their performance.

Posted by: mark k-punk at December 6, 2003 04:34 PM

just working on something tonight which should clear it up big man. thanks for bearing with me.

Posted by: Matt at December 6, 2003 08:26 PM

Good to have you back Mark. The Clash? Not much different from pop idol really. All image, no substance, and soooo American

Posted by: sean at December 6, 2003 10:14 PM

Watching top of the pops saturday this morning i thought how tidy the girls haircuts were, and how they looked like typical fashionable pr types.
the girls did the soul things and the boys did the cheeky public school boy inspired by dad's cd collection tidy rock things.
It was all very tidy, very organised lacking in youthful energy, provocation and libido .
Even five star made their own clothes and take that did a cream style remix of relight my fire, even the venga boys had some kinda pop concept.
now it's just too clean, this kind of sexless posing just misses the point, you can't plan this stuff.

Posted by: m.cus at December 6, 2003 11:25 PM

Funnily enough, Five Star crossed my mind earlier on. I think they occupy a grey area between style-individualism (rememeber those American Football cloths?) and the ultra-professional 'control' of the modern pop idol. Their finely crafted, super-slick dance routines certainly seem to be prototypes for today's groups. I have mixed feelings about them in many ways. The actual songs were very good, I thought. Proper pop music: strong hooks, tight electro-based grooves, female vox (always a plus in my pop checklist!). In some ways Five Star embody my love/hate relationship with the mid-to-late-'80's pop scene. It seemed rotten at the time but now just seems to resonate more powerfully with each passing year. I'm sure it's all subjective, but what if it ISN'T?!

Posted by: Nick at December 7, 2003 01:03 AM

Nick, your thoughts exactly chime in with mine once again.... Are you sure we weren't separated at birth?

I actually loved Five Star at the time. Although I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember any of the titles just at the moment, apart from 'System Addict.'

I wonder how 'super-slick' the dance routines would look by today's standards though?

Posted by: mark k-punk at December 7, 2003 01:26 AM

Their dance routines were pretty complicated and fast,like happy shopper michael jackson, which is why i guess they used those call centre style head piece mouth mikes.
my sister loved five star so in the tradition of big brothers i thought they were rubbish.
She also bought smash hits which had a cartoon called the five star story in it, probably one of the ost boring cartoons ever.

Posted by: m.cus at December 7, 2003 11:32 AM