Thursday, June 19, 2008

Taylor Parkes comes back with a clarification/elaboration upon his claim that MBV poisoned the Britrock pond for half-a-decade

"I was thinking more generally of the shift from the clean sounds of the 1980s (where the interplay between instruments was crucial) to the early-90s thing of massed, ultra-distorted guitars - which I remember extending way beyond shoegaze - encouraging laziness in playing and arrangement. In other words, MBV used that sound, subtly and with great skill, to create new atmospheres, while a thousand bands that emerged in the next few years just blasted away with a bunch of effects pedals and hoped for the best, and it wasn't just the shoegazers. That messy sound hung on as far as Oasis - very much a post-Valentines band, but with all the avant-garde stuff stripped away. They very definitely stole the big billowing guitar sound from "Isn't Anything" while missing the point. They played neat Beatley songs which were too slight to stand up by themselves, so they reached for the blizzard-of-noise to give themselves a lift - and the result was a sort of sludge that stopped them developing as a band (although I doubt that would have happened anyway), and was a million miles from the kind of skilful two-guitar pop their songwriting drew on. That bleary sound wouldn't have existed without "Isn't Anything" and "Loveless". I just seem to remember almost every group for the best part of a decade featuring two guitarists thrashing away with lazy strumming, amplified and distorted to hell. No subtlety, no push-and-pull, just an almighty racket that really had nothing in common with MBV's sculpted noise, but was clearly drawn from it. It was what made most indie rock gigs so miserable throughout the 90s."

Ah, that makes a lot of sense, actually. Almost like the bands were aiming for the same sound-cloud effect but the spirit animating it being not Ecstasy-induced/aligned alchemical-and-androgynous, but more boozy-woozy and bleary-beery, a ladsy-sudsy blether of all-together-now emotion... Shoegaze crossed with the Farm...

More generally, thinking about the Brit bands of the last 14 years or so, a period I was in America so in a lot of cases my sole access to the inkie-touted bands has been retrospectively via Jools Holland (Later With... is on here but in this kind of anachronic endless rotation way that draws on shows from across the programme's entire life-span, shows that in some cases look to be from about ten years ago, but as a result it has a real educative function for me, finally getting to hear things like Travis and--with mounting disbelief as the song proceeded--that "more life in a tramp's coat" ditty), but yeah, it's very often this indistinct mush of sound that you get from British post-indie, given further dismal amorphitude by the listless non-assertive drumming.

(Perhaps Coldplay are one logical extension of shoegaze but then I read that in a bizarre returns-a-second-time-as-farce repeat of U2's Eno-assisted self-reinvention circa Achtung Baby, for their new album Coldplay have been steeping themselves in a whole range of "edgy" music, including some of the exact same things U2-circa-Achtung were checking out and drawing from, among them My Bloody Valentine--which further makes you wonder how any reasonably sentient UK-based rock musician growing up in the 90s could have avoided hearing Loveless etc... But then even before hooking up with him, Coldplay already were something like the dystopian version of Eno's famous "vaguest piece of music ever to have been a hit" tribute to "Soon", music so textured it actually has no texture, paradoxically). Later with Jools has a peculiar effect, doesn't it, even bands you like seemed to get turned to shit by being on the show, e.g. The Beta Band.

Tangentially this has reminded me of a juxtaposition I saw recently on Later that seemed to speak volumes... There was one show where they had Bobby Womack on. I don't think anyone nowadays would place him in the first rank of Soul Men (the Eighties soul boys had a valiant try, they were looking around for anybody to rally around who was actually active, and, with The Poet and Poet II, there was really just Womack; I was actually swayed enough by the hype to go and see him do the full soul-revue thing at Oxford Apollo in must-have-been 1984). Anyway Womack was on Later, doing a cover of "California Dreaming", just him singing and strumming an acoustic guitar. And, minor legend perhaps, but in that context he came over like a colossus--such presence, such poise, just the sheer magnificence of his physical being. And then immediately after... Graham Coxon! Looking like a spotty, speccy fifteen year old too shy to meet anyone's eye, sheepishly scrabbling out this knobbly indie-guitar semi-song so shaky and self-effaced it wouldn't even have made it onto C86 (This might be the very performance in fact). Once upon a long-ago time British rock would have routinely aspired to Womack level... the Stones covered his "It's All Over Now", right?)but since indie onwards it's too often been about being smaller-than-life.
(Well, then again, I suppose "Tender" was Blur aspiring, horribly, to Womack-type Expressive Size, but the impetus I expect for that came from Albarn rather than lo-fi fan Coxon. C.f. Spiritualized, also on Later, Albarn couldn't do it with his own voice, but had to go the Hired Gospel Choir route). It also made me think how utterly mystifying to Bobby Womack the mousy modesty of Coxon's song and performance must have been, and many others on the show too, if he'd stuck around, which he probably had to, cos they all do two songs, right?

While we're on Jools and also on Melody Maker journalists, I must share a bizarre ghosts-of-my-life type experience I had last week. I was watching one show, from 2002 or thereabouts, and they had David Bowie on, sitting at the piano with Holland, doing this kind of droney-Lunndunn-voiced semi-comic Pete and Dud routine with him. And I thought, not for the first time, how much Bowie and Chris Roberts* resembled each other. And whether there was an element of narcissism to Chris's rabid Bowie fandom (he's a guy, after all, who publically wrote an appreciation of the Glass Spider tour). Or was it in fact the other way around, and as per Talking Heads's "Seen and Not Seen", he'd gradually changed his facial features by force of will? And then, amid these idle ponderings, I suddenly became aware of this blurry face-portion darting into view behind Bowie's head every so often. No, it couldn't be... But yes, to my utter amazement, like the materialisation of my thoughts, the features resolved into the face of Chris Roberts, sitting in the front row of the audience immediately behind his idol and looking appropriately amused. At one point Roberts head seemed to settle on Bowie's shoulder/neck like some monstrous growth, like How To Get Ahead in Advertising remade by Fred "Starlust" Vermorel. I press 'pause', go get Joy from the other room , rewind, we have a good chuckle. And then,continuing to watch, suddenly, another unnervingly familiar face starts to play peek-and-boo with me using the wrinkled glam god's head-and-shoulders, before finally settling into full view: Ian Gittins!!!

Here's the entire sequence, on youtube.

* both in turn having a bizarre resemblance to Wolfgang Voigt, viz