Friday, August 29, 2008

Heller good

There aren't too many things that are great about living under dictatorships, as even Julie Burchill is starting to realise, but one of them is that they're pretty good at marshalling ranks of citizens in the service of a huge nationalistic spectacle, as was demonstrated in Beijing last week to great effect at the closing ceremony for the Olympics. European democracies, however, with their pesky pluralist ideas and their relativist philosophies, tend to get queasy at the thought of large nationalist rallies. Which in some ways is fair enough; you don't have to be AJP Taylor to know where that sort of thing can lead. But I just wish sometimes that we could put aside our qualms and just create a big f-you spectacular on a par with China, or Russia, or the US (which isn't a dictatorship ["...yet!"-Kevin Turvey] but is far less self-conscious than Europe about promoting its virtues).

I'm thinking, of course, of the abject handing-over ceremony that Britain put on immediately after China's spectacle. After the Lord Mayor's show that was the Chinese party, the British effort looked like a garden fete presided over by a Soho ad agency. Instead of fireworks, synchronised movement, colour, shape and noise, the world was treated to the sight of a lollipop lady, a zebra crossing, 20 umbrellas, and a dance routine for 30 people that could have been choreographed by Action Image Exchange. The musical equivalent soon made itself apparent: Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis (standing on frickin' astroturf) miming to a bowdlerised version of Whole Lotta Love, the sort of pairing only Alan Yentob would think was a good idea. As my wife asked "When is the mini-Stonehenge going to come on?" She's got a well-developed sense of timing; at that moment a stylised skyline of London (possibly made to resemble topiary) became visible on the sides of a double-decker bus. It must have been all of thirty-six inches in height. Remember, folks, this was in a stadium holding some 91,000 people. The whole event would have been risible in most contexts, but to put on such a feeble show after the breathtaking Chinese spectacle immediately prior just compounded the embarrassment.

This isn't just a British thing though, of course, we do make a virtue of amateurism and whimsy. I'm sure if the Dutch (for example) had been curating a closing ceremony it would have featured wheels of cheese, windmills and It's A Knockout figures, and would have been equally as bathetic.

All of which brings me to Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State , a comprehensive look at propaganda art. From Mussolini's Italy to Stalin's Russia to Mao's China, Steven Heller's fantastic and weighty tome illustrates the point that demagogues of all stripes were past masters at branding their product. Colour, language, typefaces and logos were all subordinated to the state. Of course, the downside was that competing art forms weren't given a look-in; the Nazis in particular were hostile to anything that fell outside the official state-sanctioned definition of art. Which was bad news for the Bauhaus, Otto Dix and others. But good news if you liked mass rallies of like-minded people.

Now on the whole I don't like those sorts of things (mass rallies, I mean). And you don't have to be reminded of how Bryan Ferry was dropped by M&S (for pointing out that the Third Reich wore nice clothes) to realise it's a short, slippery slope from looking at the past from an art history perspective to being accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies. So let's not go too far down this path. But, just for a moment last Sunday, like Steven Heller, while I'll continue to abhor the politics of totalitarianism, I was full of admiration for the aesthetics.

Crud on the tracks

Jakob Dylan (ex The Wallflowers) is back promoting a new album, I see. As per, he's wanting to escape the (huge) shadow of his father (Bob Dylan, in case you hadn't guessed), and complaining of critics who compare his music to that of Dylan Senior. Which, you might think, is fair enough.

But ask yourself this. If he really did want to avoid comparisons, and sidestep accusations that he's merely trading off his father's name, why didn't he call himself Jakob Zimmerman?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Some Friendly

How great is this? Straight outta St. Alban's...

Friendly Fires sound like Slowdive fronting a tropicalia band, they're named after a Section 25 song (possibly), and they are fantastic, despite my wife telling me she thought they were singing "Jump in the Poo". This song has put a huge smile on my face. That the video is impossibly gorgeous is a bonus.

It comes out next week, I believe.

Friday, August 22, 2008

When the Levin Breaks

After (of necessity) wallowing in the post-punk era for a while, where better to turn than some mid-90s obscure post-modern classical music?

I'll admit that even though I have both of the albums Todd Levin made in his short musical career, I know next to zip about the man, so I'll have to waffle around this. But I can tell you that his swansong, DeLuxe, is an audacious and occasionally astonishing album, melding high camp, science-fiction, opera, and whip-smart pop sensibility, and featuring a picture of the composer bouncing around on a space-hopper on its sleeve. Which was possibly a first for Deutsche Grammophon, the Rolls Royce of classical labels, and the imprint on which DeLuxe was released in the mid-90s. I mean, you wouldn't catch, say, Herbert von Karajan doing that, would you?

Levin had previously come to my attention in 1992 as the composer of Ride the Planet, a rather less metropolitan set of compositions that used guitar and keyboard textures (i.e. traditional rock tropes) in the service of classical methods. That album appeared out of the blue on Philip Glass's excellent and much-missed Point Music label*. Just in case the rather ethereal sleeve (see left) didn't tip you off that you were in the presence of art rather than common-or-garden rock and/or roll, the sleeve notes were written by Jenny Holzer, who also helpfully provided all the song titles. These include the snappy "In a Dream You Saw a Way To Survive and You Were Full of Joy" and "It Is Heroic to Try To Stop Time". The music? Oh, I nearly forgot. Imagine Michael Brook fronting Pink Floyd and you wouldn't be far off.

However, some three years later, Levin had gotten a haircut, a smart suit and a job at Sotheby's (according to the sleeve of DeLuxe), as well as a change of label. Luckily for all fans of post-modern whimsy, he found time to knock up some compositions inbetween pricing up gewgaws at the auction house. I've included a couple of his works below. Blur (presumably not named for the Britpop chancers) is quite audacious, and somewhat giddy-making. You're also getting a 6 and a half minute snatch of the incredibly arch, and knowingly annoying, Todd Levin, the autobiographical third track on DeLuxe. The unedited track is 35 minutes long and may a) try your patience and b) screw with my monthly bandwidth allowances, so you're only getting an edit of it. If anyone is really desperate to hear the whole thing, drop me a note. And yes, that is the theme tune to Space 1999 interpolated into Todd Levin at the start of the track. In fact, if you listen carefully, I reckon you might just be able to hear the kitchen sink being thrown in too.

If anyone can shed any more light on the whereabouts of the mysterious Todd Levin, again, drop me a line.

Download Blur (Fragrance Free Mix) by Todd Levin mp3 (deleted Aug 2009)

Download Todd Levin (DG Ultramix) by Todd Levin mp3 (deleted Aug 2009)

A contemporaneous review

The New Composers- Levin, Andriessen, Bang On A Can etc.

* Which reminds me of my one and only Philip Glass anecdote, which I'll now gratuitously shoehorn in. I once spoke to the man himself briefly-- I'm sure it's etched on his memory. Anyhoo, it was a record signing; he'd just brought out The Heroes Symphony and was signing copies. My brother was and is a big Glass fan, so I got Phil to sign the CD "To Big Al", Big Al being my brother's nickname through childhood. "Big Al, huh?" mused Big Phil, "I wonder, did your brother ever meet Little Al, who used to run a record store in Greenwich Village?" "Not unless Little Al ever visited Thornton Cleveleys," I replied, to general bafflement.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Jive talking.

I've just returned from a foreign holiday, where I was privileged to hear, among other Euro-pop nonsense, a cover version of Jive Bunny and The Mixmasters' That's What I Like, which, as readers of a certain vintage may recall, consisted of hits by Chubby Checker, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chris Montez given the then-fashionable MARRS treatment (i.e. sampled, scratched, mixed and collaged).

The cover version was clearly played by a band (rather than sampling the original records); they even sang in cod-English with a Spanish accent. All of the stuttering bits of Jive Bunny's original were kept intact.

One question. Why?

Cherry. Oh Baby....

And so without further ado or a don't, Cherry Red's Pillows and Prayers. There's not much left to day that hasn't been said before about Pillows and Prayers (often involving a combination of the phrases "chart-topping", "winsome" and "Kevin Coyne") so I'll just post a quick track from said album in hopes that you'll buy the thing.

XOYO by The Passage is, as anyone listening to John Peel in 1983 will know, one of the shoulda-been hits of the era, and sounds a lot like Soft Cell if Marc Almond's preferred reading matter had been Brave New World rather than the collected works of Sacher-Masoch. Though since I've heard the lyrics in high-fidelity, rather than on crackly late-night AM, I've realised exactly why it could never have been a hit (Dick Witts' playful, polymorphous visions proved something of a bar to daytime radio-play, I imagine).

Like the Some Bizzare Album (below), Pillows and Prayers has recently been re-released for the umpteenth time, and garnered plaudits from Q Magazine at this year's Q Awards (Catalogue Release of the year, apparently). So if you haven't yet got a copy, it's not too late. Though you will have to pay a little more than 99p, I'm afraid.

Download XOYO by The Passage (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)

Buy The Passage CDs

Buy Pillows and Prayers