Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen - Tracey Thorn


I must admit I've never paid that much attention to Everything But The Girl. They just never struck a (jazz) chord with me. I must admit also that I was surprised to read that over their eighteen year existence they recorded 9 albums and sold around nine million records. That's some serious unit shifting as your ex-manager might have said. A weird thing is that I know their names - Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn - and so I would guess do a good many other people though without necessarily knowing their music. Such is the nature of fame.
I've no wish to be unkind about Everything But The Girl as they've never done me any harm and I've no wish to be unkind about Tracey Thorn, though she does during her book Bedsit Disco Queen leave herself wide open for it. But I'll get to that in a minute.

To start, I've no qualms about agreeing with the likes of Caitlin Moran, Zoe Williams and Kitty Empire that Tracey's a good writer. She's very warm, inviting and very unassuming; drawing the reader in with attention to detail and a self-effacing, dry sense of humour. And importantly - to Tracey at least, and to me as well, actually - her Punk credentials are sound. In 1978, for example, she was seeing Siouxsie And The Banshees, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, UK Subs, The Fall and The Clash. That same year she was ordering records by The Clash, X-Ray Spex and Patrick Fitzgerald from Small Wonder Records. And do you know, there are people in Exmouth who don't even know who Small Wonder Records were?

By 1981 Tracey was in the Marine Girls who without knowing it were a seminal, all-girl pop band when pop was DIY. It's interesting to read Tracey's account of what has now become a hugely respected cult band, particularly when she writes about being approached by Courtney Love and being told that her and Kurt Cobain were huge fans of the band. Tracey doesn't quite know whether to believe it or not and it's only when she reads Kurt Cobain's Journals and she sees it there in his own hand writing that she realises it's true.
This is the point in the book where I began to suspect Tracey is lovely. Such modesty! Here was Kurt Cobain, one of the biggest figures in music history putting the d├ębut album by the Marine Girls featuring songs written by Tracey in her bedroom and then recorded in a shed up in a list alongside albums by the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Public Enemy. Tracey tells us about it but almost shyly, almost as an aside.

Tracey ends up at Hull University studying English where she meets Ben Watt, leading to the formation of Everything But The Girl. Now, as I said, I've never paid that much attention to EBTG (as I shall now refer to them) but I always knew they were there. When they started, I can only describe those years as 'extreme' and there were other bands and other forms of music I felt more in tune with than them. I mean, after a night of sniffing glue and battling it out on the streets with cops and beer monsters (and beer monster cops) you just don't feel like going home and putting on a bit of 'easy listening, new jazz', do you? There were other bands and other forms of music that were more apt, more fitting, more conducive to the moment.

It's still interesting, however, to read Tracey's account of those years because her and I are basically coming from the same Punk culture and the ethics, attitudes and ideology of those times is what shaped us and made us what we are - for better or for worse. I think we all became aware at around the same time that the wheels had come off our dream. Like Lennon had stated years earlier: the dream was over. The only problem being what else was there? Was adaptation to the free-market economy our only recourse?
As Tracey puts it: "From now on, it seemed we were just an individual group, alongside all sorts of other fairly disparate groups, with no sense of belonging to any kind of collective moment in pop history... For now, there was simply a sense that we were on our own, as were our contemporaries - individual bands in an age that revered the individual above all thoughts of collective identity. If the 1980s saw an attempt to undermine and belittle the notion that there was any such thing as 'society', then it was perhaps no accident that the feeling we had of every band being an island took hold at the same time."

And out of that period came The Smiths, whom Tracey became a huge fan of and who acted as a guiding light in how to be and where to go with EBTG. The Smiths at that time were untouchable and never really needed to flaunt their politics in the slightest. Their fans just knew where they stood, which was obviously against Thatcher though that didn't necessarily mean they were for Kinnock. (But then come to think of it, perhaps they were?)
Red Wedge was the Labour Party's bid for the youth vote and this is the point at which Tracey is deserving of ridicule. Everything But The Girl, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, The Communards and everyone else involved with Red Wedge and the Neil Kinnock roadshow (including The Smiths for one gig) were totally out of step with this. What on earth made them think that Kinnock was the solution to Thatcher?
I can remember Kinnock giving a speech at a mass CND rally in Hyde Park once and him saying the only way to avert nuclear war was to vote for him. I remember bottles being thrown at him by the anarchists down at the front for the sheer shit he was talking and then those throwing the bottles being condemned by CND for their actions. A little while later, Kinnock did a complete volte-face and started saying that he wouldn't do away with all nuclear weapons after all. He was saying anything to get himself elected, thus proving those who had thrown bottles at him to have been justified and right. If the aim of Red Wedge was to get young people engaged with politics then that wasn't what came across at all, instead it was getting young people engaged with Neil Kinnock - which was an atrocious thing to try and do.

But never mind. Onwards and upwards.

Actually, Tracey makes a very good point when writing about the Eighties which I'm in complete agreement with: "I often feel that I barely recognise 'The 1980s' as a decade, in the form that is now remembered and repackaged for glib TV programmes. I would later see the decade reviled, and then revived, but in a manner that bore almost no relation to the years I had lived through. Events that many of us had shied away from, or sneered at, or at least had reservations about, from the Royal Wedding to Live Aid, have now become the unchallenged and unchallengeable iconic moments of the period. It's not possible to say that you watched not a second of the wedding, and that you were dismissive of Live Aid, without sounding like a complete killjoy outsider, but many of us simply lived an entirely different set of experiences, which seem to have gone unrecorded and unwritten about, so that it's as though they never happened. Scenes which I never witnessed in my life - yuppies chugging champagne in City wine bars, toffs dancing in puffball skirts to Duran Duran - have now become the universal TV shorthand to locate and define the era."
She's perfectly correct and I tend to find it all a little disturbing, to be honest. My own (and Tracey's) version of the Eighties is being erased and eclipsed by one I have no recognition of. Like Trotsky famously being removed from a photograph it's manipulation and falsification of history and the only solution to it as far as I can see is to record our own history in our own words. But then at the end of the day does it really matter, I wonder? No it doesn't - but it's important.

Come 1989 and after experiencing commercial success with their cover version of Rod Stewart's I Don't Want To Talk About It, Tracey finds herself out of place and out of time. The Smiths have split and all the kids want is to take drugs and go raving, so EBTG head off to America to allow themselves to be polished and over-produced to within an inch of their lives. It wins them some further success particularly in the American market but it doesn't win them happiness nor artistic fulfilment. For what does it profit a man if he gaineth the world but loses his own fucking soul?

Through a combination of encounters, firstly with Fairport Convention, then Massive Attack, then DJ Todd Terry their star later rises pheonix-like from the ashes of artistic torpor. From Fairport Convention they glimpse how it's possible to be in a band completely independent of any interference from record companies or the obvious trappings of the music business. From Massive Attack and guest-singing on Protection they're thrown a lifeline to credibility as they're hurtled into the future. And from Todd Terry they're given the re-mix of Missing, causing the song to open like a flower and in the process communicate something universal to a world-wide audience.
The year was 1995 and the world was a significantly different beast from how it was in the early Eighties. The world and EBTG had finally caught up with each other and were chiming perfectly.

Tracey's story is an interesting one and Bedsit Disco Queen is an enjoyable read. It's not the best music-based memoir I've ever read by any means and it's this point that for me raises a troubling question.
I recognise who EBTG's audience might be post-Massive Attack because as I said, the world by then had changed and I can recognise the post-rave comedown mood that came into being and how that altered people's perceptions and changed what they could be receptive to. I fail, however, to recognise who EBTG's audience were during the Eighties. I have a suspicion they appealed to a strictly student audience and I suspect a good few from that audience have ended up with jobs in academia and the media.
Bedsit Disco Queen, as it states on the cover, is the Sunday Times top ten bestseller and not that I think Tracey's book doesn't deserve to be awarded such a title but I do wonder how it happened? Are all the critics who have praised the book all old EBTG fans? I think they may well be because I wonder why no other music memoir - The Rest Is Propaganda by Steve Ignorant of Crass (which is every bit as good as Bedsit Disco Queen), for example - hasn't ended up on that Sunday Times bestseller list also? I wonder how Tracey and not Steve Ignorant (for example) has ended up being a columnist for the New Statesman, giving talks to University audiences and being invited to book festivals and events throughout the land? To paraphrase David Byrne, who Tracey quotes in her introduction: 'How did she get there?'.

John Serpico

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Myth Of Sisyphus - Albert Camus


In The Myth Of Sisyphus, Albert Camus gets to the nub of it immediately, as he explains in the preface: "It is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate. ...The Myth Of Sisyphus... sums itself up... as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert."

For Camus, the plight of Sisyphus as relayed by Homer sums up the plight of human existence. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain whereupon the rock would roll back down again, forcing Sisyphus to start all over again. Over and over, again and again, on and on, forever and ever, Amen.
Sisyphus, however, is being punished for loving life, hating death and scorning the gods (so in this light he may be viewed as a hero) and for such crimes the gods thought futile and hopeless labour would be the most dreadful of punishments. According to Camus, however, Sisyphus is undefeated and it's during his descent back down the mountain to the rock below to start the rolling again that he becomes aware of his loss of life on the earth, his condemnation to the underworld, and of his fate. It is in that hour that Sisyphus is conscious.

Sisyphus is the proletarian of the gods. Powerless, rebellious but conscious of the whole extent of his wretched condition. He teaches us "the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks... The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

I wouldn't particularly urge anyone to read this book of Camus' above any other of his works but rather to view it as part of his canon, his oeuvre. If we have the luxury to do this in this day and age then why shouldn't we? The Myth Of Sisyphus describes the question of suicide in an absurd world but is incredibly life-affirming and not depressing in the slightest.
Camus' message is a positive one: "Any authentic creation is a gift to the future".

Ultimately, all is well.
John Serpico

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 15)


His name is Mr Trotter and for six days a week, year in year out, come rain or shine he stands there like a Colossus of Rhodes in miniature, surveying the surging masses as they sweep through the town in their shopping frenzy. There he stands outside of Porky Down in the Magnolia Centre, smiling his smile, as proud as Punch to be Exmouth's most famous resident.

I sometimes, however, get to wonder and I sometimes get to suspect that not everything is how it at first seems and not everyone is how they at first appear. Take for example Mr Trotter and others much like him. Those who would appear to be always merry and bright, always happy and smiling, always with a song in their heart and a skip in their step. Never down in the dumps, never depressed, never red of eye having spent all night crying into their pillow. How can this be so, I ask? In this town? In this country? In this world? What's their secret? What do they know that others don't? Or what don't they know?
Are they not paying attention?
I sometimes get to wonder if Mr Trotter and others like him are for real?

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher - Hilary Mantel


So this is the one that caused all the fuss - The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. The publishers, Fourth Estate, might have known the title would be 'controversial' which is why they would have opted for it to be the main title out of a choice of ten others from the collection and the thing is, it's not even the best of the short stories collected here. And amusingly, it's not even really very controversial at all.

The story in question starts by quoting the famous news clip of when Thatcher and her Secretary of State announced the recapture of South Georgia at the start of the Falklands war in 1982 and a reporter asked if Britain was going to now declare war on Argentina? "Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines" replied Thatcher "Rejoice!"

The Falklands war was a war that dared not speak its name and it was only when the Belgrano was sunk and the Sun reported it as 'Gotcha!' that the reality suddenly sunk in, if you can excuse the pun? Some 321 Argentine conscripts had been killed in the most horrible way so what the fuck was there now to rejoice? So the Argentine Junta was a Fascist one? What did Thatcher care? It had never stopped Britain trading with them or stopped America being a good friend or stopped France selling them Exocet missiles. And what did Thatcher care that the Falkland islanders were British? So were the miners of Yorkshire but we didn't see Thatcher sending in her forces to save them. The complete opposite, actually. Come to think of it, if the Falklands had been a British but solidly socialist enclave would she have been so passionate in her defence of them?

But I digress.

Hilary's story concerns itself with the time when Thatcher entered into hospital for an eye operation. The narrator has a view of the hospital grounds from her apartment window and on the day that Thatcher's due to leave, the narrator has a visitor who she at first believes to be the plumber she was expecting. It's only when he unpacks his canvas holdall and she sees it's not a set of spanners he's arrived with but what is known in the trade as a widowmaker that she realises it's not a radiator that's going to be bled that day.

Hilary has much fun with the situation of a respectable lady encountering and accommodating an IRA hitman in his mission of assassinating the Prime Minister and even throws in a few digs from the lady herself: "It's the fake femininity I can't stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It's the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It's her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It's her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can't cry?"
The point that was lost on a few people, however, is that Hilary Mantel is a writer and this is a work of fiction. It's not a shocking story in the slightest, particularly when contrasted with the reality of Thatcher and all that she was responsible for. It just doesn't compare.

It was the Daily Mail, of course, who led the charge with their usual prejudiced and foaming-at-the-mouth ridiculousness masquerading as news-reporting who accused Hilary of being... well, I don't know what, really. What the Mail does, you see, is to go to a few of their stock-in-trade Right-wingers to get a quote and then use that quote to hang their agenda upon. On this particular occasion they hooked a typically juicy quote from Norman Tebbit who said it was "a sick book from a sick mind". Then from former Thatcher adviser Tim Bell they got this: "If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate."
The Mail then throws the whole lot at their readership who then let rip on the comments section of their website. And if you think the comments posted by 13 year-old boys on You Tube are bad then check out the Mail on-line comments from adults of voting age.
It was patently obvious, by the way, that neither Tebbit or Bell had actually read the book for if they had they would have seen that as well as wishing to assassinate Thatcher, Hilary was also an accomplice in the killing of a child as confessed in the story Winter Break. Or was that a so-called work of fiction also?

The real merit of Hilary's short story, however, is in the greater purpose it serves; that being to expose the dire hopelessness of conservative opinion and the sand on which it's built. It emits the faintest of tingles to those of a politically perverted disposition and burns a hole in the gossamer-thin shell of their opinion to reveal the gaping void beneath.
Hilary's story shows us the power of the written word.

But as I mentioned, The Assassination isn't even the best of the ten short stories collected here. That honour goes to the story entitled Terminus, in which Hilary (or rather, the narrator) describes the occasion when she saw her dead father on a train pulling out of Clapham Junction, bound for Waterloo. Quite simply, her thoughts whilst searching for him among the surging thousands at Waterloo Station are sublime.

The plaudits and the praise that's been heaped upon Hilary Mantel over the years is quite staggering. She's won the Man Booker Prize twice now and according to Sir Peter Stothard, The Chair of the judges for the Man Booker Prize 2012 she's "The greatest modern English prose writer working today". And that's a pretty far cry from being labelled 'sick' by Norman Tebbit. I know who I might be inclined to agree with but until I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, I withhold my judgement. She's very good though, I'll give her that; which I'm sure she'll appreciate coming from me and The Art Of Exmouth rather than such fly-by-nights as the New Statesman, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Spectator, the Sunday Times, the New Yorker, the Economist, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail...
John Serpico

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 14)


Not that I wish to compare Exmouth to a Nazi death camp but hanging over the road leading into the town is a large banner proclaiming the names of various pop bands and pop stars from the 1980s: Thompson Twins, Bananarama, Howard Jones, ABC, Go West, Nik Kershaw, Five Star, Nick Heyward, Midge Ure, Brother Beyond, etc, etc.

One man's pleasure is another man's pain. One man's pop heaven is another man's pop hell.

Over the gate to the entrance of Auschwitz was the proclamation 'Arbeit Macht Frei', translated as 'Work makes you free'. Over the gate leading to Dante's Inferno was the inscription 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here'.

I'm really not trying to compare and contrast, I'm really not.