by carl wilson

'There's No More Distressing Sight Than That/
Of an Englishman in a Baseball Cap'
(Plus, Thursday Reading Revived)

libertines.jpg

This Dissensus thread on What Went Wrong With British Music? is one of the more intriguing Internet discussions I've run across in quite awhile - I think it's a question with some serious heft. I ranted about it myself in a long-ago column about the now-defunct Libertines, the singers of the quote (and in the pic) that heads this post. (Actually the same one Warren Kinsella praised in that email.) I'd modify some of those remarks now (since the advent of grime, for one thing) (not to mention the overgenerous characterization of Billy Bragg as an "elder statesman" - uhhh...) but I still find the Brit Thing a headscratcher, especially when confronted with some of the anglophiles in the Toronto music scene, not to mention the Globe offices. I'm going to read the thread more carefully tomorrow and see what I think - join me. Meanwhile, of relevance, Simon Reynolds' Slate piece on the Gang of Four reunion - or, as he describes it, self-tribute - album. I like this piece much better than Simon's postpunk book, overall, just because it's that much more pointed.

Notice that the "Thursday Reading" idea seems to reassert itself no matter how I doubt it. That's because Thursday nights often (tho not always) involve long slow editing-production cycles here in the office, which leads to a lot of Internet cruising. Plus Mrs. Zoilus says she likes it. So I admit it, it's back, with its ugly multiposting tendencies and all. Make sure you scroll down a bit on Fridays, because there will often be piles of fresh fertilizer.

In that spirit also check out the excellent recent pieces on Said the Gramophone, particularly Sean's examination of Mt. Eerie's The Dead of Night, comparing it to Destroyer's Your Blues in terms of its use of artifice, a subject I've gone on at length about here. I'm not quite sure how to parse Sean's point about the differences between them. I'd describe it as Phil Elvrum (who is Mt. Eerie, and formerly the Microphones) having a continued faith in the organic, a category I wouldn't say Dan Bejar (who is Destroyer, and sometimes a New Pornographer) gives any territorial recognition. (See the Supreme Court case, Glam v. Hippie, circa 1974.) So beauty's not fake, for Elvrum, because it cannot be by Nature, and to my ears he uses artifice in the pursuit of Truth, while Bejar uses artifice to lay further waste to the truth/beauty dyad. However, I think Sean's point about Elvrum's "ear for song-texture" is dead-on - I kind of hate Elvrum's songs, but his ability to frame them is so strong that I feel compelled to listen.

To tie this all up... There's something deeply and obviously American about Elvrum's transcendentalist point-of-view (see Walt Whitman et al), while stereotypically the British are the champions of pure artifice. Forced to choose between them I end up siding with the Americans because too often that English artifice seems a merely clever cover for shallowness. You know, as Dylan said in quite another context, in art you gotta serve some body, whether that body's solid or synthetic. ... But then we have Canada, and at the risk of seeming patriotic - or perhaps better put, just confessing that I am of the place I am of - there's Canada's ironic pivot point between them, its ambivalence, its suspicion that something is darting between those layers of artifice but that it is forever something you cannot capture, something hard and crusty and yet evanescent as snow ... that there are plastic birds in the plastic trees that somehow have real organs and feathers and leaves on them. And for me that attitude is the one with claws, digging down into my pale skin.

[... That UK/Libertines column is on the flipside ... ]



A punk-like stab at the English heart

SCENE
CARL WILSON
7 August 2003
The Globe and Mail Review

There is no such thing as punk rock.

There hasn't been for a decade, maybe two. Yes, a lot of pop music capitalizes (or anticapitalizes) on the territory punk cleared, while the hardcore-punk hobbyist network ploughs that same ground over and over again. And then there are myriad arty offshoots from the punk Big Bang — various kinds of experimental music on one hand, and various thoughtful, challenging indie bands and singers on, well, the same hand.

But whatever punk really was, it leached back down into the groundwater long ago. If it meant anything, it was a convulsive denial of being influenced and of having an influence, of past and of future. In this it was a summary of the 20th-Century Modern (and its totalitarian shadow) regurgitated in spit and bile. Naturally the illusion evaporated. The punk books-reunions-and-reissues market has been rubbing in that point for years, though rarely having any fun with the irony.

So when you run across a brotherhood of smart, snotty British lads like the Libertines — who choose to rerun punk so explicitly as to hire Mick Jones of the Clash to produce their debut album, Up the Bracket, and smear a studied sloppiness over the surface of their sturdily built songs — what's in it for them?

You can tell when you hear them (as you can, sort of, at the Opera House in Toronto on Tuesday) that the style is no accident. They haven't bought into punk myth the way some young bands do, as a jacket to wear over the fear that they're not really cool. Like the Strokes in New York, to whom they've been compared ad absurdum, the Libertines are worldly and seductive, their approach highly calculated. But in their case, not cynically so.

Most potentially good rock bands have (or fake) a secret agenda. The Libertines' is their fixation on an England that has vanished, or never was. Punk fits in perfectly.

The album's most-quoted line, in the song Time for Heroes, is “There is no more distressing sight than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap.” In interviews, principals Pete Doherty, 23, and Carl Barat, 24, have gone on about their mutual pact “to sail the good ship Albion to Arcadia,” and their attachments to Oscar Wilde, Disraeli, Joe Orton, Oliver Reed and various creaky BBC personalities. And then they'll turn around on the occasion of the Royal Jubilee and call the Queen an “old slag.”

The pair has stuck together since 1996, haunting the clubs, squats and (in one memorable rooming arrangement) brothels of London. The lyrics of their songs match foppish Edwardian decadence against details from today's drugged-out, hostile streets, fragments of Dickensian reportage from Tony Blair's Britannia.

While the punk riffs cribbed from not only the Clash but the Jam and the Buzzcocks are the main stitching, the musical material goes back to Thin Lizzy, Ian Dury, the Kinks (godfathers of English nostalgia-rock), the Small Faces and the between-the-wars music hall.

But this is no Village Green Preservation Society. “There were no ‘good old days,' ” they're careful to spell out in one song. “These are the good old days.”

Personally, I have an aversion to most English culture since the Second World War, especially post-1970s. The mainstream arts there in recent decades seem like the most aimless mass of mere competence you could locate on any map. Radiohead may be heroes to most, but they never meant shit to me — straight-up wankers, those suckers are, simple and plain.

From Martin Amis to Oasis, most prominent English artists seem adrift, defaulting to ego. Bred for an imperial society that collapsed before their time, they still assume their voices resound, just because they are English and bear the marks of centuries of civilization in ways most North Americans lack. But their accents, whether plummy or slummy, mostly bounce back on the interior walls, the gossip of a society of echoes.

No wonder Blair has been so desperate to get in on the Next Big Global Thing that he's swung from Clinton crony to Bush lackey.

The exceptions tend to be the bitter social critics, from the punks to playwrights and directors such as Orton, Harold Pinter or Mike Leigh. They've at least tried to confront post-imperial decadence.

But the riddle almost no artist or politician has faced is Englishness itself. While the Scots, Irish and Welsh (and their rock bands) have grappled seriously with their post-British identity, the English are at a loss — except in immigrant communities, where there's a different urgency.

The elder statesman of Brit post-punk politics, Billy Bragg, nailed it on his album last year, England, Half-English: “Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset,” he sang. “And pile all those history books, but don't throw them away/ They just might have some clues about what it really means/ To be an Anglo-hyphen-Saxon in England.co.uk.”

In their half-romantic, half-thuggish manner, the Libertines have taken up that challenge with the bits of English history they feel strike a chord, from punk back. The result is an uneven album, but twice the personality and purpose of most other bands that make the cover of the NME.

The question is whether they will see it through. Perhaps predictably, the band recently split in two, with one singer-guitarist booting out the other — Barat said Doherty was “not well,” and that the band was suspending him till he got better.

Doherty meanwhile said the problem was that he wanted to fire the bassist and drummer. He's started solo work while the Libertines tour — including this week's Toronto date — with a fill-in. The story flipped again on Friday with reports that Doherty was arrested on a break-and-enter charge.

All sides still maintain the separation is temporary. Let's hope so. [Ed. note, 2005: Ha ha ha ha ha ... ]

The Libertines is clearly the dream the pair dreamed together in their own love-hate affair. Their music apart may turn out cleaner and catchier. But it would mean abdicating the playroom kingdom they built in punk's abandoned arena, and the guerilla theatre about their country's unconscious that they were enacting there.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, October 06 at 10:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)

 

COMMENTS

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Posted by joestoe on November 4, 2005 05:01 PM

 

 

Belle looked very pale and meek when she put her note in her pocket, but she only said, "I must go and comfort Kate," and the Doctor gladly obeyed, feeling that the joke was more serious than he had imagined.

Posted by Buy Viagra on October 14, 2005 07:49 AM

 

 

that movie keeeps coming up!!

(I've seen my fair share of bollywood dance numbers, mostly at madras dosa hut in etobicoke, but I'd never made the hindu/glam connection!)

Posted by shudder on October 10, 2005 04:23 PM

 

 

Oh come now. You must get out more, dear Shudder.

Check out "Bride and Prejudice," the Anglophonic take on a Bollywood musical, significant portions of which were shot in India, and which was choreographed by a honcho of Bollywood choreography. The dance of the glam Hindu drag queens made me want to see more Bollywood musicals. It was one for the ages.

Posted by John on October 9, 2005 02:35 PM

 

 

wow. hindu glam. wow.

Posted by shudder on October 8, 2005 05:07 PM

 

 

Agree very much with the synthesist thread in this discussion. Artifice is truth; there is no path to transcendence except through artifice. I love me a glam hippie.

Blake and certain strains of Hinduism agree here. All religion is metaphor to the unexpressible. "To" is the preposition I want; metaphor, etymologically, is "transit." And there it is.

Posted by John on October 7, 2005 11:34 PM

 

 

DEAD fuckin ON on Canada's ambivalence between the two. (At least it is for me, as a canadian at a US school, where I'm forced into the position of the reluctant defender of artifice/glam against the masses of real/nature/hippy)

Posted by shudder on October 7, 2005 02:32 PM

 

 

Hi Carl. Thanks for the kind words, and for taking an interest. I apologise for the lack of clarity in my post: I prefer to leave the articulate arguments to you and Eppy, keeping the middle-ground of nonsense to Said the Gramophone. You do it much, much better than I can.

You're on track with what I was getting at, though. There's a typically rockist/Romantic surface/fake vs beautiful/true binary, and both Mt Eerie and Destroyer seem to be digging in.

Elv[e]rum says the binary's bullshit: his magnanimous holism holds all things to be beautiful and perfect, once you realise. Mt Eerie's and The Microphones' music is very much an exploration of the beauty in (mostly natural) things, and about re-training yourself to understand this. I see Phil's foray into synths as a direct assault on the beauty/fakeness pair - he sets out to show that fake sounds are beautiful (not just that they CAN be beautiful, but that they are inherently so [as all things are]). Nothing's "fake", for Phil - everything's the product of hands and sunlight.

Bejar's also attacking the "truth/beauty dyad", like you say. But for him I feel that it's sort of the other way around. Whereas Phil says nothing's "fake", Bejar says "nothing's beautiful". That is, all art/aesthetics/'The Real' are contaminated by performance, surface, representation, blah blah blah. 'Pure' beauty is a myth. And yet his songs, drenched in the fake, show that the 'fakeness' doesn't really matter: everything is still just as true.

Where things get complicated is that Bejar and Elvrum's conclusions end up basically being the same: things are often (or always) true, beautiful -and- fake, and that there are no contradictions in that.

Posted by Sean on October 7, 2005 05:21 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson