Sunday, 3 February 2013
David BOWIE: Scary Monsters And Super Creeps
(#238: 27 September 1980, 2 weeks)
Track listing: It’s No Game (Part 1)/Up The Hill Backwards/Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)/Ashes To Ashes/Fashion/Teenage Wildlife/Scream Like A Baby/Kingdom Come/Because You’re Young/It’s No Game (Part 2)
It had been six years since he had last been there. Six years; he noted the number with some satisfaction. At the same time, he shook his head in profound dissatisfaction, disappointed that, although he had come back to get on with the end of the world from exactly where he had left off, nobody had learned any lessons from the last one, and he was sure, even as he was making the record, that even fewer people could be taught anything by this one. They took the self-disgust, the aura of destruction (without the necessary creation obverse) and 1984 from the last one – but nothing else.
He’d known that at the time, too, which is probably why he had decided to “resign.” Just as he had done several years earlier.
When he got back to London, that first time, he knew he’d have to do something, even though things had been arranged so that he wouldn’t need to do anything if he didn’t want it.
Details were sometimes hazy, at other times clear, and among the clarity in that subterranean cavern he remembered that they had paid his way out. “Traveller’s cheques…a million…Passport…valid for anywhere…” And so it had proved.
He didn’t always remember how he got out but he did recall it involved guns, strangely-dressed soldiers, carnage and a rocket of some kind. When you’re drugged, retrospective memory isn’t always reliable; least of all to confirm that you’d actually escaped.
But he knew London all right when he returned there…and it was London, not a studio-built or chemically-induced fantasy of London. Virtually the first thing he did was drive to his bank in the City and get those traveller’s cheques converted and paid in; a million wouldn’t cause even the merest eyelid flutter there. It was a lot of money in 1968, and still was, such that he could, if he’d wished, live very comfortably off the interest on the interest.
But what to do? Of course he couldn’t go back to his old job, seeing as how he’d left it. To his mild surprise, he didn’t worry nearly as much as he expected to about being recaptured, or about his “freedom” being a chimera. If they’d wanted him, they could get him at any time; right there in the middle of town. He could do anything he wanted. If he wanted to do anything.
Janet wasn’t an option. Virtually the second thing he did was drive to her apartment block, only to be told by a nice young Australian woman that she was very sorry, but no Janet Portland was known here, and was he sure he had the right address, and you know he had been out of touch for a long time. He started, briefly; how could she have known that?
He didn’t blame her for getting out, and as far away from him as possible. He vanishes for a year and a half, another man turns up insisting he is “him” and kisses and embraces her as such…nobody could have put up with such things and remained sane. That is, if Janet had even been there in the first place. It seemed too suspicious; 1949 Young Debutante of the Year, much more interested in Ray Conniff than the Grateful Dead, expense account at Harrods – they never could have matched. He was not overly sorrowful about this.
Still, there is a limit to how long you can wander around London and not go mad. So it was that he grew his hair out a little – partly to avoid being recognised by casual acquaintances from the Village (not that he had seen any) – started smoking again and again took up the guitar which had lain dormant and untouched in the far corner of his study for several years. He went to Cecil Court, got art and fashion books, read up on things at the British Library – nobody blanched at his still unexpired membership card – took out subscriptions to the weekly music press and read the countercultural magazines that Number 48 sent him in the mail.
Eventually he began writing songs, or bits of songs, and in time they were found good enough to warrant a recording contract. He also played some arty clubs in and around London, and – remembering his kosho sessions in the Village – got some professional training in dance and mime. He was noted to be different, and before long, to his surprise, found himself on the charts with what was surely intended to be a novelty record, about a rocket – not that rocket, not the same 1? – going into space and the guy in the spacecraft. Writers thought it heralded the end of the decade, or some such.
Did they really think he’d written that song with the American GI in mind – whether in Vietnam, or aboard Apollo 11? He gave some cheery, non-committal interviews to the press, partially expecting to be unmasked by his former captors at any time (though nothing happened). Didn’t the song’s general subtext, not to mention his own closing paraphrasing of the guitar solo on “See Emily Play” – a song he would eventually record himself – suggest another subject…another “prisoner” of London who couldn’t find his way out?
Then that time passed and the first album was reasonable-grade Donovan and so it was back into the arty clubs, but he used that passport to get around – not once was he stopped at any airport – and travel a bit, and when he got back his music was tougher and more focused, and eventually he became one of the most popular people in Britain.
Not bad, considering he wasn’t using his real name, nor letting anybody see his full, unmade-up face.
But being big is sometimes as suffocating and bad as being invisible, and so it was that he felt he had to “resign” again. Some high chairs stirred when that happened. Unsatisfied with his self – his “One”ness – he was apt to hide behind a succession of masks, each more distorted and less recognisable than the last.
Who was he supposed to be again, today?
Where was he supposed to be?
And so, after announcing the end of humanity on his last record to go all the way, he began to travel again, and to explore his selves more deeply. How deep could not be fathomed, since the drugs were taking hold again.
Where am I supposed to be today? Philadelphia? Berlin? The Tower Ballroom? Victoria Station?
Do they even know it’s me?
It’s a nice idea, he had initially thought; the rebel (rebel!) who got on Top Of The Pops just to show he could. But then, what – glam star, ballad crooner, ballet dancer, leading actor, courtesan, impresario, free jazz saxophonist WHAT??!!??
He remembered cutting some disco sides about America, in America, which had gone down quite well.
He remembered Berlin better than you thought.
How there was nothing, but then he fought to pull something out of it.
Which is exactly why he couldn’t go with the punks – for them (as he saw it, from another country and in another state of mind/being) it had been all dogs, no diamonds, all lows and no heroes. Wallowing in the bad shit instead of using it to pull themselves out of it.
He resigned for this?
But he knew he’d have to come back sometime. Three records in Berlin, with Brian, and these had been great, cathartic even, but Brian was now playing pop with another David – remaining in the light – and he couldn’t just leave the skeletal family circling into extinction indefinitely. He had to resolve it somehow, and anyway there was the not small matter of steadily declining record sales.
So…another album as “himself,” with proper, pre-written songs. No matter that most of them were improvisations from scraps he’d thought about maybe a decade earlier, if not for himself, then for some girl groups he’d briefly had high hopes about; he reunited the old team (even though they weren’t very different from the Berlin team) and knew he could splash back down again.
He remembered the Corn Flakes packet from perhaps a year before, with its offer of free “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes.”
He knew that the cover would have to act as a self-destructive photo album; designs and sketches…”Glamour” said one such…and, in the background, discarded images of his former selves, all the ones people were alleged to have “loved.”
This is, he knew, the record where he had to come back and say “And now, this is me…but I’m not who you thought I was a few years ago. Be careful.”
Set the tape deck and there is this rancid fucking BLAST.
It could be called “Anti-Heroes.”
What’s happening? A Japanese woman barking, closely miked, at the listener (words, according to Japanese linguistic custom, normally used by men – so genders are already being bended), while he, neurotic and exhausted, sighs and moans his way through the lyric, as disappointed and affably exasperated as a post-apocalypse Noël Coward (“To be insulted by these fascists – it’s so degrading”). But Bob, churning his guitar from Planet Zonk-Ex(posure)…
…and the singer remembers seeing Bob on stage at the Lyceum, a decade before, as part of Centipede, and how people were disappointed by the album because Bob only produced it rather than played on it, but Bob and Godding AND Halsall were up there on the stage, with Pete and Brian and their VCS3 synthesiser things, and yes you had to have been there; it revealed to him a real model of how different civilisations could get on together. Not the scrubbed-up version they had tried to sell him on the Pembrokeshire coast…
…and he will just not shut up and the singer, now ending his tether, screams and SHOUTS (and lets it all out) “SHADDAP!” Twice. And the tape op has to cut off the song at its stem.
This is going to be a number one album????
This song – 7/4 Bo Diddley with vocals recorded as though it were the Family Dogg in 1969, and like “A Way Of Life,” the song is a list of crucifying placebos. Over and over, reaching out to the world but “It’s got nothing to do with you.” “We’re legally crippled,” they/he sing, It’s the death of love.”
The one age that was missed out of their Seven Ages of Man brouhaha.
Bob plays the changes but makes his solo sound like no guitarist was ever more radical.
And the moral of this song is a Village placebo; this shit is going to keep on happening because we say so and that’s the way things are and nothing you do can ever change it…
(“I walk, and walk/Do nothing”)
…so settle down in your lovely Village and just let it roll over you, like that big white balloon if you have any awkward questions…
The title track, oh it’s the story, isn’t it, about how he takes this girl and fucks her up – was Marianne and someone else ever in mind here? – but however far he drags her down, he’s going down with her; the general thump is derived from Monster Movie-era Can, most obviously with the closing sequence of “Noise!” chants, yells and screams, but the Cockney-isms anticipate somebody else, as does the “Waiting at the lights, know what I mean?” part of the bridge; bending his voice down low and conspiratorial, and twelve-year-old Damon and Graham, of Cheltenham, Essex, are listening and learning.
“Running scared,” just like Roy Orbison.
The trailer single had put him back at number one, and he was ambivalent about that, and about the whole space scenario; at the end of the previous year he had reworked the space song for television and it was now stripped, monochrome, the singer in the Embryo Room with food supplies for six months. With this he was happy that the video alone be shown; the eighties come walking towards the viewer, closely followed by a giant bulldozer.
The piano was Roy, whom he used before on Station To Station, and he was in the next room – for they were all in New York; it was cheaper and asked fewer questions than anyone or anywhere in London – to Springsteen’s band, who were making The River, and hi Bruce, can we borrow Roy for a little while (“Independence Day” is the present record’s “Be My Wife”)? Roy brings out this flange thing, or at least notices it, and so his piano riff is unlike anything this side of Joe Meek, possibly unprecedented, and alongside and behind it is the Spy Who Couldn’t Get Back In The Village, telling us what has happened in the intervening eleven years; the little green wheels which won’t stop following him, the “valuable friend” whose habit is too expensive to keep but who he knows he can’t, and won’t, shake off, the reduction of everything to throwaway newsprint good stories (“Sordid details following”)…and the nightmarishly opulent bridges with its spoken rebound of voice (“Oh, woe”?) lead to a chorus of what can only be described as resignation…resignation from “leading” pop, from being a “Face,” from being an example or avatar to anybody…
But we carried you in our arms on Independence Day!
The seventies are over, for sure, but with this song he sounds like he’s burying the sixties, too…all this over-romantic ideal(isation) of “home” (which invariably has revealed itself as nothing of the kind – “Many happy returns!”), all brushed away…and at the end of a song more eighties than anything in the eighties that has preceded it, a memory of “Mother’s Little Helper.” “My mama said to get things done…”
(Keep that “get things done” in mind; we’ll be needing it later…)
…”You’d better not mess with Major Tom” – so the junkie is now his own drug.
He went down Blitz, of course he did, wouldn’t let Jagger in but why should they, wouldn’t old Grandpa Mick just spoil our fun, all of us insecure nogoodniks who get routinely turfed out of all other clubs, so why shouldn’t we be allowed to have our own? Got some people together, brought them in to appear in the video, that strange dress inversion of the cover of Abbey Road - but was he convinced? Possibly the need to escape from his own past – that need which never really abandoned him – was the principal driving factor.
The ending is, unsurprisingly, similar in type and impact to that of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”; the constant building up of layers, the sublyrical urge NOT to step down.
And there is of course the elephant in the 1980 sitting room, or on The Wall on that sitting room, apropos giving up on the present tense; yes, there’s Syd, still, in his blue electric room, watching the TV, if it’s plugged in.
But, make no mistake, “Ashes To Ashes” represents his resignation from being any kind of Number 1. The dream is over, now I’m John…wait a minute…
…who am I supposed to be, again, today?
“Fashion” is about not knowing who you are and not having the style to perpetrate the non-knowledge. Part “Golden Years” retooling, part song once called “Jamaica,” the song dwells on the close resemblance of “fashion” to “fascism” – from whatever side (“Turn to the Left! Turn to the Right!”) with a sinisterly recycled old radio jingle (“We are the Goon Squad and we’re coming to town BEEP BEEP!”), its brutalist futurist boot stomp is the link between Slade and “I Travel,” the theme is similar to “Games Without Frontiers,” the lovely “Talk to me” bridge is a flashback to side one of Low…but Bob’s guitar argues with the singer rather than agrees with him (as Mick was once wont to do); with practically every line, there is a sardonic, noisy guitar rejoinder. How anyone could ever think of using this as the music for a beauty pageant is beyond the singer’s understanding, except that it would again prove that no one was actually listening.
Side one, then, which everybody knows.
Side two, which never gets played and which nobody knows.
Not that there’s a lot to say about side two except that it’s Ziggy rearranged in very odd and disturbing new shapes. Who’s he trying to be on “Teenage Wildlife”? Oh – not that Billy Mackenzie guy, but Ronnie Spector. OK, now it’s making sense.
There was a conversation. The young man came to have a word with him.
-I’m big now. Bigger nearly than everyone. But I’m not happy.
-It’s the fans, you see. One giant solid mass that makes me feel claustrophobic and that I can’t communicate with them.
-It’s not what I wanted. I feel trapped. I’m not letting them in. I couldn’t. You, of all people, should know that.
-I’m not as happy about this as I thought I would be.
-You’ve been there.
-David, what do I do? They wait for me in the hallway.
-Gary, I don’t KNOW any hallways. Not apart from my own.
-Look, I like your music. A lot. But…
-That’s not what I meant.
-When I made Low, my intention wasn’t to stay there.
-You know…I fought BACK. Made Heroes. Came out of hell and faced the world again.
-Whereas you don’t even allow yourself the possibility of escape in your music, except for turning into a machine – and you see how far that got you.
-You’ve CONFINED yourself, Gary. Painted yourself into a corner.
-I’m sorry, but, you know…
-…I can’t do anything for you. Can’t help.
-There are other things in this world to be concerned and worried about than pulling your own blind down in front of your face.
-That’s not what I’m doing, though.
-You are, and you don’t know it. Look, it’s like cutting your own arm off, I know, but you need to get about a bit more, Gary. Travel places. Meet people. Get out of the house, away from your gadgets.
-I feel for you but I cannot help you. Only you can do that.
-Just because my problem is trivial doesn’t mean it erases itself.
-That’s not what Neil Young will mean, either.
-I just…I can’t be responsible for anybody else who chooses to follow my path. I’m no shining example to anybody. No matter what “The President” said.
-I don’t see.
-I figure you’re going to end up being you, anyway, no matter what I say to you.
-One tip. Learn to fly. Might be useful. I know somebody.
“Scream Like A Baby”: a projected (desired?) future. It’s in the near future, or it’s now, and people are being rounded up for being…different. So he imagines this guy…or maybe it’s just a “gun”…called Sam who gets carted away to prison, or camp, but can’t bear it, so decides to end things for himself anyway (“…he jumped into the furnace/Singing old songs we loved”). An air of ’Til The Band Comes In fatalism here (“But I never knew his last name/And we never had no fun”).
Or is it yet another delayed memory?
Note how on the line “And I’m learning to be a part of society” he cannot quite bring himself to enunciate the word “society.”
“Society,” he remembers being told, “is a place where people exist TOGETHER.”
-That is civilisation.
Stupid, lovable Roland Walter Dutton, strung out in heaven’s high; that’s what you get for “cooperating.”
So why should he have cooperated?
Memories, now firmer in mind:
Climbing the inside of the rocket; reaching Number 1’s office.
Knock on the door.
-Come in, Big Bill.
He glanced at the seat’s occupant.
-I knew, of course, he said.
She was pleased to see him.
-Then you know we all have to get out of here.
-I had guessed.
-This was your idea. The Village. Everybody knew that.
-And that the idea would necessarily be used by another side for less than humane reasons.
-As ludicrous as it sounds, I’m also here to try and destroy this place.
-Even Number 1?
-Even I am answerable to someone.
-I’m not astonished.
Looked at the dial.
-So where’s this rocket headed?
-Out of here, that’s all I know. But downstairs…
-It’s all bullshit.
-Yes. They mean to kill you as well as the other two.
-Or send us into space, which amounts to the same thing.
She worked at the dashboard for a fevered minute or two.
-There. I’ve set it to take off in three minutes. We can get out of here by then.
-Don’t worry; reinforcements are coming. Now let’s get down and get out of here.
They went down, and set the two prisoners free. Overpowering the guards was easy. Dressed in obfuscatory robes, and armed, they returned to the place of ceremony, where they were somewhat surprised to see that a one-sided battle was already taking place. Village soldiers were being ruthlessly gunned down. The “President” was in the process of being taken into custody.
A familiar-looking man in military uniform rushed to the figures just as they emerged.
-Well, James. Fancy seeing you here!
The Colonel grinned.
-When your ‘plane didn’t come back we did our own reconnaissance and tracking. Found the place pretty easily. Then it was only a matter of organising a force to come down here and liberate everyone.
-Oh, he’s in the helicopter. Complete coward but he has a head for facts and faces. Now let’s head out of here – the route is clear! Come on, Sir Horace, don’t be a tortoise!
He had safe passage, as did Nadia, Sir Horace, Alex and Sancho. He noticed other helicopters waiting to pick up other Village residents; also a container ship a mile or so out to sea to take some residents to – he guessed – Southampton.
-A tidy ending, the Colonel grinned.
-Almost too tidy, John chuckled. –Put this on television and nobody would credit it.
-It is a bit drab on that level, the Colonel agreed, -but as long as we’re all safe and alive, that’s the important thing!
-Thirty minutes, Big Bill. Patience is a virtue.
He never read anything in the paper about a rocket taking off in North Wales. Nor was he ever tempted to revisit the area.
He remained golfing chums with the Colonel. At the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 he spotted Nadia, three rows back from the front, singing along to “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.” He sometimes spotted Sir Horace striding determinedly through the City and was happy to have him as an occasional drinking partner (Sir Horace had correctly surmised that that drink had drugged him into unconsciousness, rather than “killed” him; resurrection being the individual’s business).
Alex became the Godfather of Punk and he produced three popular albums by him. He particularly enjoyed Lust For Life - the title track being a “Dem Bones” for its time.
Then he sings a song written by a former Television personality.
Tom Verlaine, a guitar hero for an age that needed none. Tom Verlaine, whose failure to die in 1977 meant that Television carried on to a not-that-bad-really/but not as good as the first one second album and then a much-respected, non-record selling solo career. From his eponymous 1979 debut came “Kingdom Come,” a song about breaking rocks and working for the man until death do everything part – it’s as close as anything on this record gets to a Springsteen song – but here it is sung in that same quasi-hysterical Ronnie Spector/Tony Newley exaggerated vibrato, as if the singer is going to fall apart at any (gun)point. At one point he sings, “The Wall’s a mile HIGH!” and there is a fadeout chant that resembles “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” It is understood that Verlaine himself turned up at the studio one time, testing out various amplifiers and guitar lines, but that none of his work remained on the finished record (hence no credit for him).
Whereas Pete Townshend, a man who had once laughed sardonically at him for ripping off a Who song, turned up for “Because You’re Young” and sounded like…Lee Ritenour, or any session guitarist doing the gig for a buck. He was, as was his wont in 1980, pissed to fuck, but obligingly rolled out windmill chords. Meanwhile, the singer once again abnegates any responsibility for his spiritual descendents; he sees a girl, knows she’ll meet someone and fall in love but that they’ll end up like the protagonists on the title track and that, as per “Up The Hill Backwards,” everything’s just going to end up repeating itself regardless and so, like Leo Sayer but unlike Bryan Ferry, he’ll just dance his life away:
“They’re people I know – people I LOVE,
They seem so unhappy – dead or alive.”
And the last song is a subdued repeat of the first one; slower in tempo, more measured in delivery, though hardly less angry. It is as if he has acknowledged the fucked-upness of it all but he’s far from ready to accept things as they are. Not so long as there are (as he sings) children round the world putting camel shit on the wall, making carpets on treadmills or garbage sorting.
He listens to the tape running off its spool, and thinks: yes, that’ll do.
And the other John, the one he worked with five years previously, before he himself “resigned,” who kept coming into the studio and hanging out; he was a key influence on how the record turned out. “It’s No Game (Part 1)” as a new “Instant Karma”? Makes perfect sense. Don’t know how I would have got through the record without him being there.
And the record comes out and does pretty well, though not as successfully in the USA as he had hoped. But things are up and moving again and he takes the lead role in this off-Broadway production of The Elephant Man - he always had a secret penchant for acting - and a couple of months after the record’s release he’s in this theatre just uptown from the Dakota and one night there are these six fucking loud BANGS and he runs home to this apartment, except it’s a house, and when the door opens he cries: “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON IN THIS WORLD?” over and over.
“It’s about time,” she says. “He’s upstairs, waiting to see you.”
* * * * * * * *
He rushed upstairs and knocked patiently on the bedroom door.
He entered and realised that he was no longer in New York, but in Bothwell, a few miles southeast of Glasgow. In the room he could see many rows and shelves of books, records and tapes, as well as some rather less neat piles of typescript. Sitting on his bed was a sixteen-year-old teenager, a Smith-Corona typewriter by his side with a piece of partially typed paper still in it.
He glanced over to read what the sheet said:
It had been six years since he had last been there. Six years; he noted the number with some satisfaction.
He turned to the boy.
-What the fuck is going on in this blog?
The boy, looking somewhat older and sadder than his sixteen years might have suggested, replied:
-Blog? What do you mean, “blog”?
-You bastard! You’re using me as convenient shorthand to try out yet more of your stupid crazy theories!
The boy pointed to a magazine on the bed. It was the seventh issue of The Face (subtitled “ROCK’S FINAL FRONTIER”). He recognised the person on the cover.
-You see, David, it’s only December 1980, and I’m afraid “blogs,” as you call them, don’t exist yet. That look, David! Really I don’t deserve it! In fact, I shouldn’t be here at all because actually I’m in Oxford, having my pre-entrance interview, but I don’t think that a future generation of readers is going to be particularly worried about that wee bit of discontinuity.
-It’s a good piece, that Jon Savage article about me.
-Are you as worried as he thinks you sound?
-More so, since the album is about not really knowing who I am, or who, or what, I want to be.
-So…what’s it all about? This Then Play Long thing?
-At this moment, it’s only a vague idea in my head. I already have more of the records than you think, and I would like to do something with them, but how to do it and get people to read it…that’s the problem.
-You’re sixteen, it’s a novelty…bound to work if you tried it now?
-You’d think, wouldn’t you? But the writing really wouldn’t be good enough. Even thinking about it now, I know that when I eventually get round to doing something about Then Play Long I will by now have covered barely a quarter of what will need to be written about.
-Why wait so long, then?
-As I say, my writing would let it down. At this point I am able to marshal facts but not yet able to manipulate and correlate them into a valid argument. If I published now, it would be a rota of dull data, full of history and information. It would be like publishing a bus timetable.
-I disagree. I’ve heard about some of your early work.
-So be it, and I have to tell you – because, thanks to convenient time loops, I can – that one of the pieces on Then Play Long will be a verbatim transcript of something I wrote when I was fourteen. It’s already up, and I’m not saying which one it is. But most of the writing would be pretty dreary.
-What’s the game? Making me out to be an extension of Number 6’s overactive and underemployed imagination?
-Because it allows me to undertake a major step forward in terms of how I want this blog to be perceived. That it’s a story about somebody writing a blog about number one albums, rather than a blog about number one albums…
-You’ve said that many times.
-And will continue to do so, since it’s true (apologies to the shadow of BS Johnson). And there’s something else I want to say, too. Something that needs to be demonstrated. There’s a point that I’m trying to prove.
-I haven’t got there yet.
-There’s gratitude for you!
-Look, I nearly stopped this blog because of you!
-Don’t blame me for building your own hallways.
The boy paused, uttering a remorseful sigh.
-I felt it was going to be vitally important to keep the blog going because of this incredible, and really when you think about it, even in 1980, pretty damn scary string of records…
-All of which are linked in one way or another.
-Most of them, anyway. Even Back In Black, half the songs on which are about death. But this string, it keeps piling up and up, higher and higher, in intensity, and your record is kind of the culmination of the whole thing…
-What you’re saying is that the string is about to snap.
-What I’m saying is that I’m rather scared about where this is all going, how it is going to culminate. Your record opens with a Japanese woman screaming…
-Well, she was on the cover of Kimono My House…
-…and ends with a song in which you sing, “Put a bullet in my brain/And it makes all the papers”…and I really don’t want THAT to be the brutal fucking quietus to all of this.
-It’s like a prophecy.
-There are, of course, other ways out.
-Accept that you can only do so much about the state of the world from where you are and that if you’re going to be able to do anything more about it you’re going to have to come towards the world and look it in its eye.
-Or that this is as far as you can go doing this sort of thing, and you’ll need to re-adapt.
The boy pointed to a corner of the room. “Look at all these records I’ve done so far,” he said, “two hundred and thirty-eight of them, including yours. The thing I’ve learned is that…”
He interrupted. “When does it all end?”
-That’s a good question. I don’t know, but have a look at these magazines here.
The back page of The Face; huge white type on black background with a (then) reassuring sky blue and vermillion logo:
the HMV shop”
“I have a feeling,” said the boy, “that sometime in the future HMV are going to wish they’d stayed with more records and more tapes.”
He then pointed to an article in the then current NME, all about the home taping boom and how homemade tapes were going to bleed the record industry dry until only an incredibly contracted record market would ultimately exist, for the benefit of collectors and specialists only. It seemed prophetic enough, and he reckoned it would come to pass, but not via homemade cassette tapes – no, these would themselves be rendered obsolete by a new, as yet unforeseen development, which in turn would be wiped out by something else, probably to do with computers. A time when you could pick songs out on a computer without having to go and buy any records; a natural reversion to the original state of things where people wanted to hear songs and songs only. He figured that most of what went to number one in the eighties album chart would be convenient compilations of lots of singles, or greatest hits packages. The sort of albums which make it unnecessary to buy albums. And that when enough people decided that the song alone was good enough for them, the album would dwindle towards obsolescence, a reminder of a more opulent, indulgent age where musical thoughts could be extended to fill forty-five or sixty minutes of the listener’s time.
So his belief was that albums as such were bound to have a limited lifespan, and therefore it was possible that, no matter when he decided to start Then Play Long, he could foresee an ending.
The Spy listened to all of this with interest, then added: “So where would that leave me?”
-I was coming to that. The thing I’ve learned, as I say, is that going through all these number one albums, it’s always the ones which look out of place which tend to have the greatest long-term impact. Take this one, for instance.
From one pile the boy fished out a twenty-year-old copy of Down Drury Lane To Memory Lane by 101 Strings.
-As improbable as it looks – and sounds – this record is actually the way number one albums are going to go. There will, in the future, be a book called Elevator Music, and it will include a chapter on 101 Strings where it says that they are “responsible for what is essentially the original world music…giving Middle America an exact replica of the world it wants.” That is to say, there will be nothing about ethnomusicological “forgery” or “fourth worlds,” but a careful and very studious and astute broth made out of those elements of “the world” most likely to appeal to Middle America’s very conservative ideas about what it wants and what makes it happy. The image of travelling the world, even aurally, without ever having to get out of one’s armchair. You must know the record; it is such an important influence on the second side of Low - ask Brian if you get a chance.
He continued: -The Drury Lane record never even made it to the States; it was a compendium of performances from previously available albums tailored specifically (including its sleevenote) to appeal to a British demographic of a certain age and bearing. “A macrocosm incarnate,” Mr Lanza writes, “now gobbling up nations and customs; now regurgitating them into easily recognizable sounds and symbols; now grooming, duplicating and selling them in the discount racks of Woolworth’s, K-Mart, and other mainstream emporia at bargain prices.”
-But it sells. The world recognises it. You may not feel it now, but I assure you that in time this is the path that you will follow.
-I don’t believe you. It sounds like a nightmare inversion of utopia.
-At the time of writing you have another four number one albums to go. Perhaps there may even be a triumphant late period comeback before too long. One of these is a compilation. The other will find you happy, rekindled, ready to take on the eighties and nineties, all pain and doubt nullified.
-You mean…I will sell out?
-All three records contain a relatively high proportion of cover versions.
-Or I could stop here?
-Except you won’t. You didn’t in 1968 or 1974, and you won’t now. It’s not in your nature, Number 6.
-What did you call me?
The boy rose. “Our time is nearly up. When you leave this house you will find yourself back in New York. Back to your life. Don’t worry about me or this ‘blog.’ I see my future before me, and there are elements of it that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, just as there are elements of it that will justify there being a future. The same as with most people.”
-You’re very talky and smartass for a sixteen-year-old.
-That is because this is my current 49-year-old self speaking through a useful literary conduit. As I say don’t worry – the point of this blog will make itself known, given time.
The Spy turned towards the door.
“Oh, and just one more thing,” said the writer. “Why did you resign?”
“So that I wouldn’t get six-and-a-half-thousand-word blog posts written about me.”
“More idols than realities…it’ll be alright.”
“What was that?”
“Oh, and as you’re leaving,” added the writer, who The Spy now noticed had pulled off his usual irritating trick of appearing to tell the reader everything but actually telling them nothing, “please could you ask Gordon to come up. Even though it’s only 1980, I can already tell that this story has been dark for too long; we need some light, some springtime, something to look forward to.”
* * * * * * * *
He walked back out onto 72nd Street.
He recognised her immediately.
“Hello, Alison,” he said.
“You’ve been reading my mind again,” she said.
“It’s in our nature,” he smiled.
“Who are you really?” she asked.
“Does it matter, as long as I am who I am?” he replied, and they strolled off happily.
When it comes to resurrections, there is always room for one more.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:06