And so, with no fanfare whatsoever, the 5th annual ItP end-of-year shindig. Well, if all the newspapers are doing it, why can't we?
Friday, December 31, 2010
And so, with no fanfare whatsoever, the 5th annual ItP end-of-year shindig. Well, if all the newspapers are doing it, why can't we?
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Through three stellar albums (Lust, Envy and Greed, all on Spotify) and a succession of major labels, the group flirted with mainstream success (see below, for example), but never quite cracked the big time. Instead they now console themselves with providing film soundtracks and undertaking collaborations, it seems. They were probably a bit too brittle and angular for chart stardom, but you have to Admit It, they made a pretty great sound for 6-odd years, and they still sound great today as far as I'm concerned. I've attached a download if you want to investigate further.
Friday, December 24, 2010
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Ever since seeing Eraserhead on TV at a tender age, I've been following (and often enjoying) the work of David Lynch. Actually, my fascination pre-dates even my first viewing of his films-- just seeing the box of the Eraserhead VHS was creepily seductive. In recent years, however, his experiments with digital video have left me a little cold. Inland Empire, for example, has sat on my shelves, unwatched, for over two years. So, I was a little hesitant about seeing The Air Is On Fire, a solo Lynch retrospective, recently. But I took the plunge, and I'm glad I did. Much of his artwork (paintings, noise machines, sculptures, manipulated photos) displayed the requisite eerieness even as they rehashed familiar themes and tropes. But the room full of doodles on napkins, matchbooks and scraps of paper, collated over 25 years, was a real insight into the guy's mind, and the cinema showing a continuous three-hour compilation of shorts was revelatory. The Grandmother, in particular, holds up really well as a pre-cursor of many Lynch obsessions, and was better than I remembered from my first viewing 20 years ago.
Spookily, having seen the show on Saturday, I turned on the radio on a snowy day in Scotland two days later to hear that Lynch has just released two (!) singles. Though his interest in sound is obvious (cf. his production of Julee Cruise's Into The Night, as well as his curating and production of Industrial Symphony no.1 and his collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti and Alan Splet) this is his first foray into music as a solo performer (he did a little vocal take on the Dark Night of the Soul project earlier this year). The first, Good Day Today, is fairly weak, like an Underworld out-take. However, the other one, I Know, is not bad. Nice Vaughn Oliver artwork too, but don't give up the day job(s), David.
Here's a little Playstation ad I found, directed by Lynch.
And, as we mentioned Angelo Badalamenti, how about some Blue Velvet soundtrack to download?
Download Mysteries of Love by Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch (Julee Cruise version) mp3
Monday, November 29, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
This is surely what the internet was invented for. Thanks, Tim Berners-Lee. An ongoing archive of every issue of Smash Hits.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
The article that led me to this incredible clip was this excellent appraisal of Dirty Mind some 30 years after its release.
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
It's on the ridiculously-monikered Jagjaguwar Records. More info here.
But now I've read the reports rather than hearing just the outline of the case on the wireless. And I have to say, I'd be prepared to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, if you read the coverage (e.g. this report from The Independent), he either had an extremely broad musical taste (Donna Summer, The Membranes, XTC, As Tall as Lions (who hell they?-ed), film soundtracks) or this is a huge coincidence. Furthermore, those self-same reports claim that not only was the officer inserting song titles into his evidence, he was inserting snatches of lyrics (Enough is Enough isn't actually the name of the Summer/Streisand collab- it's entitled No More Tears), and words which merely hinted at the titles of songs (the phrase "self-preservation" supposedly standing in for the title of the tune [Get a Bloomin' Move On] which concludes The Italian Job). Oh really? And as for extracting individual words and common phrases from the officer's evidence ("faith", "daylight", "line of fire", point of no return") and inferring that these must be references to songs by George Michael, Coldplay, Journey and Duran Duran respectively- well, puh-leeze.
I'm not saying he definitely didn't do it. The references to popular music are so tenuous and vague that presumably it's only because someone in the Yard couldn't keep stumm that the case has come to light (I simply can't imagine that anyone looked at his evidence and suddenly said "Wait a minute! These are all song titles!"). But really: the connections between what he said and the intent that he is alleged to have had are so threadbare that even the most half-witted defence lawyer could drive a coach and horses through the allegations if there is ever an internal investigation. In other words, whether he did or didn't do it, this is hardly a watertight case.
Don't believe me? Here's the opening paragraph of the lead story in the Independent at time of writing:
A new wave of strike action across the public sector began last night with massive disruption to the London Underground, as 11,000 staff began another 24-hour walkout that will affect millions of commuters. A Bonfire Night strike for firefighters also looms on Friday, as no progress was made during talks with brigade officials yesterday, according to sources close to the discussions. Tensions rose when two demonstrators were injured during the latest round of industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), after they were hit by vehicles trying to break the picket line.
Now lets take a look at the song titles those sneaky sub-editors have smuggled in, eh?
"New Wave": clearly a reference to the song of the same name by Common on his 2002 album Electric Circus. "Strike": obviously the 1984 single by The Enemy Within (Adrian Sherwood & Keith LeBlanc) in support of the miners. "Last Night": The Strokes, natch. "24": Emmy the Great. "Millions": probably a reference to the Tortoise track Millions Now Living Will Never Die. "Yesterday": a little-known tune penned by one P. McCartney. "Fire": The Ohio Players. "Union": The Black Eyed Peas. "Hit": The Sugarcubes.
The defence rests, your honour.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
Of course, many of you will be saying "Young Marble Who?" If so, you can hear the real thing, straight outta Cardiff, below.
Download Young Marble Giants Wurlitzer Jukebox mp3 (deleted Jan 2011)
Buy Young Marble Giants Cds
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Who hell they? Well, for a start, it's actually a he, rather than a they. Like a Viz version of Ray Allen and Lord Charles, his gang consists entirely of a puppet (Little Kunt). Oh, and his mobile phone, which, plugged in to the PA of the pub he performed in, was his sole musical accompaniment. Emerson, Lake and Palmer used to travel across the country with their equipment in three separate articulated trucks. Now artists can fit their entire backing into their pocket. That's progress.
If you zoom over to the man's MySpace page, you'll see among his influences The Macc Lads and the Silicon Teens. This is telling. Like the Silicon Teens (who were, for those of you that might not know, a nom de disque of Daniel Miller, boss of Mute Records), Kunt is from Basildon, and like the Teens and their labelmates Depeche Mode (in their early years, at least), his musical stock-in-trade is jaunty, seemingly-simple but naggingly-catchy synth melodies. Unlike his Mute forbears though, he eschews the boy-meets-girl lyrics of early synthpop, and presents something slightly more earthy for the listener's pleasure. And if you couldn't surmise the tone of his repertoire from his name, the songs' titles (including Chips or Tits, I'm Gonna Lick You Out and Feminine Itch- and these are three of the tamer titles) may just tip you off.
She showed me pictures of her threesomes/I couldn't believe my eyes/She'd been rogered by Rodgers & Hammerstein/And skied with Morecambe & Wise/She'd been spit-roasted by Chas & Dave/And felched by Blazin' Squad/She got a facial when the lead singer/From Showaddywaddy lost his wad/From Adam Ant to Zucchero/They'd all been up her snitch/She'd pulled a train on Dave Dee/Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch!The other thing that saves him from charges of blatant misogyny and the sort of macho nonsense espoused by most R-rated comedians is his inclusive view of sexuality. The Macc Lads, for example, would never have entertained writing a song like I Sucked Off A Bloke or penned a verse about fantasising over a transsexual, as Kunt does in Wank Fantasy (both below).
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Sunday, August 08, 2010
Simple Minds. There, I've said it. Nowadays, something of a dirty word (two dirty words, strictly speaking) in musical circles, but at one time one of the hippest names to drop and (and bear in mind they're not usually the same thing) a fantastic group too. Where did it all go wrong?
So far, so uncontroversial. That Simple Minds were a fantastic band until 1983 or so seems to be a tacit understanding among fans of post-punk. Simon Reynolds wouldn't argue. Neither would James Nice (in fact, he called Sons and Fascination and New Gold Dream "stone classics"). The general consensus seems to be that the rot set in with the next album, 1984's Sparkle In The Rain. Yes, the dreaminess seemed to disappear, as did the ambiguity. The previously meandering basslines became, in the main, monolithic (compare the metronomic Waterfront, for example, with the earlier Glittering Prize), the drums were pushed way up in the mix, and the band already seemed to have one eye on America and the garantuan success they'd soon achieve with the Keith Forsey-penned Don't You Forget About Me (and the subsequent album Once Upon A Time). But here's the thing. I really still like Sparkle In The Rain, and I see this as the band's last creative gasp before they were fully subsumed into the mainstream.
Friday, July 30, 2010
It therefore pains me to have to say that the most recent release on his usually execrable Bad Boy Records label is an out-and-out winner. That it also displays much of the verve and imagination of the artists that Diddy, Kanye, and the blowhards that recorded for Death Row have largely displaced (i.e. showmen like Ram Ell Zee and Afrika Bamabaataa) is telling. Janelle Monae (for it is she) has looked beyond the tired tropes of "The Street" and turned her eyes skywards, and the result is compelling and at times quite audacious. A concept album (a phrase which usually induces suspicion, not least in hip-hop where a "concept album" is often sub-par material linked by weak and unfunny "skits"), Archandroid is reportedly based on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and while I occasionally lost the conceptual thread that supposedly links the work to the film that served as its inspiration, there's no doubt that Lang's masterpiece has spurred Monae to vault far ahead of her contemporaries. The film, which up until now had only given rise to a mediocre re-interpretation by Queen, has inspired her to create a dazzling melange that takes in R&B, rap, pastoral folk and psych rock, and features a guest appearance by Georgia art-rockers Of Montreal, the latter telling you all you need to know about Monae's expansive and inclusive worldview. As others have pointed out, she displays the ambition and range that Prince did in his heyday. High praise indeed. Anyway, it's well worth a listen (the tracks Sir Greendown, 57821, and Mushrooms & Roses are particularly good), as is its predecessor Metropolis: The Chase Suite, supposedly the first part of this ongoing "suite" . They're both on Spotify and available to buy (links below). BTW, I have two Spotify unlimited free invites (i.e. not the 20-hour a month ones) to give away; if anyone can make use of them, let me know in the comments and I'll pass 'em on.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The entire unsavoury business stands in marked contrast to the conditions that gave birth to hip hop some 18 years earlier. While it’s an old story, told often, it’s worth remembering that the genre was initially a way for impoverished New Yorkers to transcend the mundane and petty realities of gang activity, and offered a form of escapism. Science-fiction, video game and comic imagery abounded, and hip-hop took its aesthetic cues from the earlier cosmic templates laid down by George Clinton—just think of Afrika Bambaataa’s cosmic shaman outfits, Newcleus’s interplanetary jams, and the Jonzun Crew’s spacey beats.
Perhaps the most out-there figure in early hip-hop was Rammelzee (aka Ramm Ell Zee), who has recently passed away (peacefully, through ilness) at the age of 49. A maverick figure, with his permanently-attached ski-goggles and Transformers-via-Oxfam garb, he existed on the fringes of avant-garde hip hop for over 25 years and left behind a small but perfectly-formed body of work. His early graffiti work led to a friendship (or rivalry) with Jean-Michel Basquiat who produced (and provided the artwork for) Ramm’s first foray into vinyl, the hallucinatory and unsettling Beat Bop with the mysterious K-Rob. Later occasional work with Bill Laswell and the Death Comet Crew (featuring Ike Yard’s Stuart Argabright, who went on to produce Rammellzee’s debut solo album, some 21 years after Beat Bop) kept Ramm's reputation alive, but the sporadic nature of his recorded output and his insistence on cleaving to his own personal iconography of letterforms, cosmological signs, quantum mechanics and, frankly, utter gibberish, served to keep him a marginal figure in a hip-hop mainstream more interested in Cristal, bling and bitches. A shame really, as footage of his work (below) shows that in a parallel universe, hip hop could have developed further along this path rather than the one its protaganists chose to take, and been more about ideas and Philip K. Dick than about materialism and dick with a small d.
Download Hisstory by Material and Ramm Ell Zee (mp3) (deleted Jan 2011)
Ramm Ell Zee personal site
A definitive interview by The Wire
Obituary from LA Times
So, let's try for third time lucky: Beaumont Hannant, where are you? I'll confess, I know very little about Mr. Hannant, save for what I can glean from Discogs.com and the like. But I also know that for about 18 to 24 months around 1995 he was one of the names to drop, and was as ubiquitous a remixer, producer and svengali as William Orbit. In fact, the comparison with William Orbit is entirely appropriate, because just as Orbit had his stable of collaborators, so did Hannant. In particular, Lida Husik occupied a similar position for Beaumont Hannant as Caroline Lavelle or Laurie Mayer (no, not this one) did for Orbit. He produced and remixed a number of records for her (more info on him and Husik here), and formed one half of production duo Outcast. But since 2000 or so, pretty much nothing. Where did he disappear to? What's he up to? I wish I knew, and I wish he'd get back to music because I used to love pretty much everything he did.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Monday, July 19, 2010
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
Monday, June 07, 2010
By 1986, then, something had to change. Stephanie Lawrence's official World Cup theme Special Kind of Hero was written by Rick Wakeman, and while I have to doff my cap to Rick Wakeman, (a particularly skilled and amusing raconteur and a pretty good keyboardist to boot), only a cloth-eared ninny would think that commissioning a song in 1986 by Wakeman was going to capture the zeitgeist. Step up then, 4AD stalwarts Colourbox who, completely uninvited, gave us The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme. Note the clever title. This wasn't The Official World Cup Theme by Colourbox; sadly, as we've already mentioned, Special Kind of Hero was the official song. Instead, this was the Official Colourbox World Cup Theme, i.e. the official theme within the confines of their world. The song manages to capture both the spirit of the times (clattering, programmed instruments and an indie dancefloor sensibility- think Age of Chance, World Domination Enterprises, Tackhead) and the spirit of the tournament at the same time. I'm very surprised we don't hear it more often on BBC or ITV sports shows, as, to my mind, it's a perfect song to use as a musical bed for a montage of goals, dives, fouls and penalties.
New Order's effort four years later, is, rightly, remembered as a football/music high point (though these things are relative: it's actually a New Order low point when compared to, e.g., Cries and Whispers, Age of Consent or Love Vigilantes, but football songs being so uniformly poor, it easily bests all others in the genre). However, while it's not quite up there with World In Motion, we shouldn't overlook Pop Will Eat Itself's unofficial Italia '90 anthem, Touched By The Hand of Cicciolina. It wasn't enough to spur England to victory, but it's a smart song and actually more subversive than New Order's, though not as easy to sing while munching on a meat pie and sipping a Bovril. It also features future soundtrack composer Clint Mansell and references Jeff Koons' ex-wife, so it's worth a look.
Since then, we've been subsumed by the unremitting dreck of, among others, Del Amitri's dirge-like Don't Come Home Too Soon from 1998 (a realistic assessment of Scotland's chances, some would say) and England United, by the unholy quartet of Space, Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Colour Scene, and the Spice Girls (no, I don't remember it either). This year, the floodgates have well and truly opened, and along with James Corden and Dizzee Rascal's opus, we've been subjected to abysmal stuff from Stan Boardman, Terry Venables, Clint Boon and Gideon Conn and (Jesus, how the mighty are fallen) Rik Mayall. All (except Corden's) rely on cliches of Englishness, cleave to the idea of a nation that reached its zenith (musically and sportingly) in 1966, and sound little different in tone and form from World Cup Willie. All of which makes Colourbox's sublime, unofficial anthem seem even more urgent and appropriate even 24 years after it was made. I'd like to think that if the FA had commissioned an update by the group for this year's World Cup (or better still, simply re-released it, officially sanctioned), it would spur our team of donkeys on to, ooh, at least the quarter-finals. As it stands, if England's performance in South Africa reflects the quality of the music that's been composed to spur them on this year, they'll probably crash out before the knockout stage.
Download The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme by Colourbox (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)
Friday, May 21, 2010
The BBC has been a curious anomaly since the introduction of independent broadcasting in 1954, and never more so than now, when broadcasting is becoming ever-more fragmented, catering to niche audiences on lower and lower budgets. What, now, is the BBC’s role? Is it to compete with the large independent broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4, Sky, Capital etc. ) and imitate their output (talent shows, reality shows, shock docs), thereby satisfying the viewing and listening desires of the majority of the licence payers? Or is it to offer an alternative to the mainstream, thereby leading to accusations of obscurantism and elitism? How can it continue to square the circle between being, in effect, a state broadcaster and yet remaining editorially and politically independent? And can its funding mechanism (effectively a compulsory tax on television ownership) be justified in an age when many liberal democracies are seeking to move services out of the public sector and into private hands where, the arguments runs, they will be better administrated, more efficient and less of a burden on taxpayers?
The latter question, at least, was answered for me when I watched an episode of Michael Moore’s TV Nation in the mid-90s on BBC2. In an early segment of the show, Moore ridiculed the BBC’s antiquated funding mechanism, and conducted a vox-pop on a suburban American high street to ask whether the interviewees were aware that one had to pay a licence fee to own a television in the UK. Naturally, said interviewees were aghast at the thought of state encroachment on what they saw as a fundamental right, i.e. the right to slob out in front of the goggle box. They couldn’t believe it, and said so quite forcefully. Later in the same show, Moore broadcast a documentary piece about the then-current Detroit newspaper strike, and mentioned in an aside that this segment had had to be cut from the US edition of the programme, as the network on which it was being shown had business ties with the newspaper. At no point, needless to say, did Moore join the dots between these two disparate stories, and realise that the reason why he could make reference to the strike on the BBC is precisely because of the fact that it’s not owned by private interests. The BBC's role, in this instance, was thrown into sharp relief. Because it's (largely) free of vested commercial interests, it can be (and often is) a haven for the uncommercial and the marginalised. Which brings us back to the matter in hand.
The whole debacle surrounding the proposed closure of 6Music (and, lest we forget, the BBC Asian Network) is, of course, at least partly political, being widely viewed as a sop to the likes of the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press (and, by implication, an incoming Tory government) over such issues as Sachsgate and various phone-in anomalies. These papers (and the party they support) are naturally opposed to the state, and this distaste for anything that smacks of socialism can be seen in the bogeymen that regularly feature in their pages: social workers, progressive education, Labour-run councils... To the likes of the Daily Mail, the BBC is of a piece with these organisations, taking a lot of money from the public to do a job that could be done far more efficiently and successfully by the private sector.
Bizarrely, the BBC has colluded in this deception, citing (as part of its justification for closing 6Music) the notion that the station is encroaching on commercial radio’s audiences. I’ll address the specific folly of that statement in a moment, but for now, can we please bury the broader canard that public=bad, private=good? Even the Labour party had to adopt this Thatcherite mantra over the last 13 years in order to get (and stay in) power. And despite all the events of the last two years, Labour were still fundamentally committed to devolving power away from the state and towards the private sector: cf. the Private Finance Initiatives, the continuing privatisation of utilities and transport, the selling off of state assets to private investors... All this despite the catastrophic failures of, for example, the selling off of HMRC to Mapely, National Express walking away from its obligations running the Edinburgh to London line, the disaster area that is Capita, the banking crisis... I could go on, but if you ever get Private Eye, I probably don’t need to. And as for the accounting con-trick that is PFI... I’ve visited any number of PFI secondary schools, and they’re all, without exception, crap: lowest-common denominator architecture built of the cheapest generic building materials, all in the name of maximising profit. Who cares if the implicit message to pupils is “we don’t care about you or your education. We’re just going to give you the minimum we can legally get away with”? And yet we (or least our politicians and press) are still wedded to the idea that public ownership is, ipso facto, a bad thing.
To return, then, to the specifics of the proposed closure of 6Music: one reason proposed for its closure is the BBC’s mission to provide quality and distinctiveness*. You could argue that this is precisely the BBC’s raison d’etre, i.e. that it should be distinctive from commercial offerings and shouldn’t feel the need to compete. Another reason given is the financial one: that the relatively small audience that 6 enjoys is expensive when worked out on a per capita basis (its small audience, as the report handily obfuscates, is of course due in large part to its transmission method, i.e. via the web and DAB radios only, not the FM radios most of us have at home or in the car). Yet, strangely, the BBC seems to argue against itself on both the commercial and qualitative fronts when it proposes to migrate many of 6 Music’s shows to Radio 2. To quote Thompson in the report that the BBC commissioned on the station:
The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive. However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks.
In other words, Thompson thinks that the best way for the BBC to 'maintain quality and distinctiveness' is to take a high quality and distinctive (but relatively low in listenership) radio station and merge it into lower quality and less distinctive siblings, and therefore make the latter less popular. Christ, even I’m confused. As for the argument that 6Music is somehow eating into the commercial market (and that, by implication, Heart FM is just itching to play Parliament, Bogshed, Arvo Part and Burial rather than heavy-rotation Simply Red, Whitney and Boyzone), that particular fallacy is demolished rather effectively by Steve Orchard of Quidem:
Commercial radio can never replicate 6 Music’s cultural value – it’s not viable for us to do so. The commercial landscape has featured many fine rock music stations that have never made any real money – over time we water them down and gently shepherd them back towards the traditional commercial heartland. We will gain nothing from this closure yet the music industry will lose much.
It all rather seems that the closure is a fait accompli, and that Thompson is throwing around excuses full of public service buzzwords to obfuscate his real reasons for closing the station, i.e. to provide a sacrificial lamb to the incoming administration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of the Beeb alone. Unfortunately for him, its small listenership is not taking this lying down, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. If you were on the fence up until now, and I haven’t managed to appeal to your head thus far, it’s time to appeal to your heart. Just go to the 6Music webpage (www.bbc.co.uk/6music) and take a look at the track listings for any random show by Don Letts, Gideon Coe, Marc Riley, Craig Charles, Adam Buxton, Bruce Dickinson, Guy Garvey, Stuart Maconie, Tom Robinson or Jarvis Cocker, and ask yourself where you might hear diverse playlists like these on commercial radio. And ask yourself whether the station is worth saving.
Finally, if you’re still not convinced whose side to take, just watch Mark Thompson’s humourless response to Adam Buxton’s offer of a fight here..
And enjoy this mash-up of the Thick of It, Jeremy Paxman and “Thommo”:
And then, finally, ask yourself, "Am I really going to side with this guy Thompson?" If the answer's no, for any reason, please address your concerns to the BBC Trust here.
*"The BBC should concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and that are most at risk of being ignored or facing underinvestment. It should take significant further steps towards building the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its programmes and services."http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/bbc-must-stop-trying-do-everything
Friday, May 14, 2010
Still, Smith’s book just trumps Wolfe’s, to my mind, because as well as outlining the facts and sketching in the characters of the astronauts, the author also considers wider questions of what it meant to travel to the moon, to the individuals concerned but moreover to mankind as a whole. Of course, for most astronauts, their Apollo flight and landing was an early peak in their lives, one that would be impossible to surpass in the decades that followed it. All coped in different ways, but patterns recur. Many went through divorces not long afterwards. Buzz Aldrin succumbed to alcoholism. Neil Armstrong became a virtual recluse. Others, such as Charlie Duke, found religion. Alan Bean turned to art, painting moonscapes over and over again to try and recapture the feelings that he experienced on the lunar surface. Edgar Mitchell turned into a UFO nut. Along the way, there are some revealing vignettes: tales of NASA’s bureaucracy and parsimony abound, never more so than in the story of Aldrin’s framed expenses receipt, with deductions:
PAYEE’S NAME: Col. Edwin E. Aldrin 00018
FROM: Houston, Texas
AMOUNT CLAIMED: $33.31
That these men, who put their lives on the line time and again (and who, lest we forget, were totally uninsurable) were little more than glorified civil servants on relatively meagre wages goes some way to explaining why David Scott and the crew of Apollo 15 sought to profit from Stampgate.
The book’s not all doom and gloom, though. Far from it. Smith has a terrific deftness of style, always finding the right metaphor or simile. As a former rock journalist, he’s good at leavening the heavier stuff with moments of bathetic relief. He manages to include elements of his personal odyssey too (as a child of the 60s who can remember the events around the moon landings, he’s able to also address the question of what the space race meant to him, and how profoundly it affected his life and relationships) without ever interrupting the main thrust of the narrative. And he includes one terrific, and spot-on, passage about the nature of modern celebrity and our relationship with celebrities. It’s occasioned by the author’s presence at a dinner in Nevada, ostensibly honouring many of the Apollo moonwalkers, including Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong who are all there in person, and upon which space-fans and autograph hunters have converged: Armstrong becomes uncomfortable and leaves the auditorium, later to be found staring at the slot machines in the casino.
“Old fashioned fame was acquired., but celebrity is bestowed: it only exists in
relationship with the audience-jury we supply and comprise. Thus, we’re
the arbiters. They owe us. We voted them in and we can vote them
out, more immediately and effectively, in fact, than the politicians who
themselves look and behave more like celebrities every day (perhaps in an effort
to revive our waning interest in their show). Of course, Neil Armstrong is
not a celebrity in the strict sense; because he did something to earn his status
his fame has a hinterland, but the boundaries between the two conditions have
become so confused that we no longer recognise this distinction. So you’d
better sign the autograph, sucker. You’re lucky I even ask. A widely
reported study in the UK found that people who earn over £35,000 a year feel
more deprived than those who earn less, because they feel licensed to compare
their lives to the more fabulous existence of their democratically appointed
celebrities, and they wonder when their turn’s coming. Is it possible that
our adulation of the famous is no more than a Trojan horse for our own
disappointment and anger? Is this what Armstrong runs from?
Most of all though, Smith’s book boils down to one question- “What was it like to stand on the moon?” On the face of it, this is the most banal and meaningless of questions, on a par with asking a losing X-Factor contestant “How do you feel right now?” Neil Armstrong assiduously avoids the question, and the sort of people that might ask it. Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, Smith reveals, had a stock response to deflect the questioner: “Super! Really enjoyed it!” But at its heart is a real desire to engage with the question of meaning and intent behind the space race. Why exactly did we—i.e. they—i.e. the Americans—travel quarter of a million miles into space? To beat the Soviets? To invent Teflon? Was it political? Scientific? Capitalist PR? And what does that say about us as a species? Are we emboldened by it? Diminished? Ultimately, the effort to get to the moon raises more questions than answers, but whatever it was about (and Smith has a few suppositions), Moon Dust is an engaging, thoughtful and reflective meditation on the subject, mixing three parts of hard-headed science to one part psychology, one part psychedelia, and one part childish wonder.
Smith’s book, while it (of necessity) concentrates on the American half of the space race, gives due credit to Russian pioneers, too, in particular Yuri Gagarin. I knew about Gagarin’s status as the first man of space. I wasn’t aware that he died aged 34 during a routine flight, and that conspiracy theorists posit that he was deliberately killed in the aftermath of a botched, fatal attempt to send one of his compatriots into space (a story that’s too long to repeat here, but which you can find on pp. 129-30).
Gagarin had a profound effect on another boy, but slightly earlier and thousands of miles from Smith (who grew up in California). That boy was Dave Formula, born Dave Tomlinson in Whalley Range, Manchester. Gagarin actually visited Manchester in the early sixties and Formula was there (he can actually be seen in one of the photos taken during the visit). Now, some 50 years later, and after a long career that takes in 60s R&B band St. Louis Union, 70s post-punk nihilists Magazine and 80s proto-New Romantics Visage, it's inspired Formula's debut solo album. Featuring turns from old Magazine hands including Howard Devoto and Barry Adamson, as well as Robert Wyatt and Clint Boon, it’s a concept album of sorts, entitled Satellite Sweetheart, and it documents the romance and optimism of the early years of the space race. The track Elvis In Space captures something of the rock-star status accorded the cosmonauts (and, to this day, to the Apollo astronauts), and it’s presented here for your delectation.
Download Elvis in Space by Dave Formula (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)
And, for some light relief, see when Buzz Aldrin met Ali G....