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Saturday, 21 February 2015

'Kraftwerk: Publikation' by David Buckley

Back in the days before Twitter allowed us to find out what they were having for breakfast, pop stars could be quite mysterious and there was no act quite as mysterious as Kraftwerk. After they released their albums, they would invariably carry out a perfunctory bit of promotional work (usually, if memory serves, on the TV science show 'Tomorrow’s World') and maybe do the odd concert, after which they would retreat to their studios in Dusseldorf (the splendidly named Kling Klang) to start work on their next project, or maybe that should be projekt. When I say they ‘started work’, that would have been a guess. In those days, we had no idea what those mysterious Germans got up to. Years would pass; pop fashions and prime-ministers would come and go, but Kratfwerk wouldn’t even answer the phone. What were they working on? New music? Testing new synthesisers? Building robots? Constructing a time machine? Or perhaps a combination of all of the above? It turns out, according to David Buckley’s biography, that they were quite often goofing around with gizmos, enjoying coffee and pastries or indulging in that most rock and roll of pastimes, cycling.

Their imperial phase came in the mid-to-late seventies, with the albums ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘The Man Machine’, with the latter -for my money- representing their finest work; the composition, structure and pacing on that album is flawless, a perfect realisation of their artistic vision. I love Kraftwerk’s warm analogue sounds and insistent rhythms, but my affection for their music is also informed by memories of a time when they didn’t just 'represent' something new; they were something new. In the 21st century, electronica has become the lingua franca of pop, but in the seventies, Kraftwerk were revolutionary, not in the sense of having anticipated or embraced the latest fashion or sounds, but in the sense of having invented a new way of making music, of having forged a new language for pop. That might be something that only a middle-aged person would say and, to be honest, I am not unsympathetic to Buckley’s ‘dad watching Top of the Pops’ view that pop and rock appears to have evolved into a self-referential ‘curator’ culture, wherein pretty much everything we hear now is ‘a bit 60s’ or ‘a bit folky’ or maybe ‘a bit RnB’ or ‘a bit 80s’.   

The author points out (correctly, in my view) that, by the time they had released ‘Computer World’ in 1981, the world had caught up with Kraftwerk. For the first time, they sounded contemporary, part of the pop landscape, where –just a few years earlier- they had sounded like they had arrived from the future. In the 1980s, their output declined to the point where to have described it as ‘sluggish’ would have been a generous exaggeration. The two main creative forces, Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, were happy living off the royalty cheques from the likes of 'Autobahn' and 'The Model' and were so into their cycling that the other two members, Karl Bartos and Wolgang Flur, had to find other ways to pay the bills.  

Buckley offers some good background material on the German cultural milieu of the late 60s and early 70s, but the book leans rather too heavily on interviews with musicians who have been influenced by the band. The author also reveals a bit too much about his own political views, which I’d wager are of no real interest to most readers. As one might expect, Ralf and Florian only appear in snippets from old interviews. Even in the age of social media, there exists an information black hole out of which very little emerges about these men; we know as little about them as we did thirty five years ago. Karl Bartos makes a modest contribution, but I suspect that he is keeping his powder dry for a book of his own.   

This might not be the definitive tome on Kraftwerk, but if you’re a fan of the band it’s a pretty good read. If you’re waiting for a comprehensive warts-and-all guide to the life and work of this fascinating combo, I’d advise you not to hold your breath.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Demis Roussos - Class Warrior

I was saddened to hear of the passing of the Greek singer, Demis Roussos. This is partly because my mum liked him and partly because I regard his music as a defiant symbol of the kind of lowbrow popular art that is usually disdained by critics. A few years ago, I wrote about watching Demis on a re-run of an old ‘Top of the Pops’ episode from 1976, observing that: 

"He dressed like a character from an episode of Star Trek, in which Kirk and crew had beamed down to a planet where the dominant species had evolved from a race of fortune tellers and new-age therapists. He sometimes appeared through the miracle of specially-filmed clips shot in Greece (or at least shot somewhere that was hot, with rocks and sand and electricity that was magically supplied to the various unplugged instruments). He was a handsome big fellow and he did his fair share of smouldering, but that ‘mean and slightly moody’ look was rather at odds with his high-pitched vocal delivery, which often attracted scorn from his critics." 

Demis may have sold millions of records, but many folk will remember him for having been rather brutally disparaged by Mike Leigh in the play ‘Abigail’s Party’, wherein his music was deemed to be a risible signifier of the suburbanite affectations of the main character, Beverly. Underpinning the dreadful snobbery of that play was a fear and loathing of the aspirant lower middle-class with their common tastes and their vulgar desire to improve their lot. Goodness, these people wore the wrong clothes, drank the wrong wine, ate the wrong food, watched the wrong films, listened to the wrong music and, when ‘Abigail’s Party’ was first performed in 1977, they would probably have been gearing up to vote for the wrong political party. I’d imagine that in la belle beau monde inhabited by Mike Leigh and chums, where the right kind of people ate in the right restaurants and ordered the right wine, there would have been no little degree of disdain for anyone who had the audacity to get above their station by doing something as vulgar as, say, buying their own council house. 

Sadly, that kind of class snobbery is no longer the preserve of educated theatre-types. It now infests our social discourse like a plague, manifested in the censorious and hectoring desire of the political class to micro-manage every aspect of the lives of those they deem too stupid, crass and vulgar to make decisions for themselves about what to watch, what to eat, what to drink, what to smoke or how to raise their kids. 

I can't claim to be much of a fan of the music of Demis Roussos but, because of that play and because of what the playwright so clearly believed his music to represent, any time I hear one of his songs I get the mental image of a fat man in a kaftan giving the middle finger to anyone who would fancy themselves an arbiter of 'good taste'. 

And somehow, that seems enormously satisfying.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The age of self-censorship

I’ve nothing against the various displays of 'solidarity' with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m sure the folk at the demonstrations mean well, but all of that #jesuischarlie and candlelit vigil stuff won’t amount to a hill of beans. If the demonstrators think they are protecting freedom of speech, I’m afraid they’re a bit late. We gave that up when we embarked upon the age of self-censorship. 

Historians might quibble about the date, but I reckon the age of self-censorship started in 1989 when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Some of us jumped up and down at the time and demanded a vigorous response from the authorities. Instead of lying low and apologising for Rushdie’s ‘offence’, I thought we should have printed hundreds of thousands of copies of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and distributed them free in schools, libraries and health centre waiting rooms. I thought we should have filled huge skips full of these books and left them in every town centre, just to make a point. We should have done something like that because the point was worth making. The bedrock of our civilisation is intellectual freedom and we should have been confident enough to send a clear message to the medievalists: Feel free to practice whichever religion you want, believe whichever ancient fairy stories you like, but do it in peace. Do not seek to impose your views and your rules on people who do not follow your beliefs. It’s really as simple as that. If we’d made our position clear at the time, we might have saved ourselves a whole heap of trouble. Instead, we’ve seen our political and cultural leaders retreat from their responsibilities to protect the ideals they’re supposed to hold dear. 

I don’t blame the fundamentalist nut-jobs for this state of affairs, because fundamentalist nut-jobs have being doing fundamentalist nut-job things for centuries and will no doubt continue to do those things. There will, alas, always be a tiny but violent minority of fundamentalist nut-jobs and one of the things about that tiny but violent minority is that they tend to notice when people cave in to pressure. And we have, since 1989, been doing a lot of caving in. In the years since the Rushdie fatwa, who knows how many authors and journalists have excised characters, themes or lines from their stories and articles because they feared reprisals from fundamentalists? 

Of course, it’s impossible to quantify things that only might have existed, but it is possible to judge things that have happened. Only a couple of years ago, the Obama administration asked YouTube to remove a video that had (allegedly) set off attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi. Then, to compound this craven stupidity, the de facto leader of the western world made a speech to the UN in which he said that “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Prophet Mohammed”. Really? Imagine, if you will, how folk would have reacted had George W. Bush said “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Lord Jesus Christ.”   

As long as we keep re-drawing our line in the sand, we’re heading for our date with destiny: the point at which there will be no-one willing or able to stand up to the fundamentalist nut-jobs. And, as we re-draw that line, we become acclimatised to the idea that a British author might have to go into hiding because of the ‘actions’ of one of his fictional characters; we become acclimatised to the idea that a Dutch film maker can be murdered because he makes a film critical of a certain religion; we become acclimatised to the idea that the headquarters of a Danish magazine can be fire bombed because it prints some cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea of not publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea that police officers, civil servants and journalists will suppress factual accounts of grooming and gang rape for fear of ‘causing offence’.  

When the ‘blasphemous’ publication of cartoons led to the attack on that obscure little Danish magazine in 2005, not a single British newspaper or magazine acted in solidarity with their fellow journalists. Not one editor had the guts to publish the cartoons and say: ’This is what all the fuss is about’. Of course, they all composed editorials declaring their abhorrence of intimidation and violence and their unshakeable belief in our rights to freedom of speech, but -for the sake of not offending sensibilities- they decided against publishing the cartoons. Not one of them would do it.
And here we are again, pretending to show solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo outrage. Except, when The Telegraph published an article on the massacre, the cartoon image of Mohammed was pixelated in order to obscure the view and avoid causing offence. The BBC website invited historian Tom Holland to write an article on Islam, but refused his request to publish the cartoon. As David Dimbleby revealed the other night on ‘Question Time’, it is official BBC policy that: “the prophet Mohammed should not be represented in any shape or form”.  
Amol Ragan, editor of The Independent stated that his “every instinct” was to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but he decided that it was “too much of a risk”. He admitted that he was “very uncomfortable” with this. One is tempted to point out that so he should be, because he’s supposed to be a journalist. 

As the blogger David Budge put it:
'I get why journalists are scared of offending Muslims. I just don’t get why they’re journalists'.

So, good people, go to your demonstrations and your candlelit vigils. Tweet your hashtags and put your Je suis Charlie badges up on facebook. Feel free to live in the hope that it will make some difference. But if any of those murderous thugs are watching, the stupid folk who think it’s their duty to slaughter the infidel, how much notice do you think they’re going to take?    

What we need to do is to re-draw our line in the sand, but let’s move it a little bit in the other direction. Let’s do something that makes a positive, celebratory statement about how much we value freedom of speech. Something that will tell the medievalists that, instead of picking on little magazines, they will have to take on every publication in the land. Let’s do something that really does say: "We are all Charlie Hendo."
I make this appeal to all newspaper and magazine editors: Please, print an image of the prophet Mohammed. Do it on your front page and explain why you are doing it. Do it to make a point about freedom of speech. Do it to express the right of those with no religious affiliations not to be bound by the rules that believers are bound by. Do it, not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but to celebrate a sensibility that has evolved over several hundred years of conflict and socio-political development throughout a continent. It’s the sensibility that embraces the most important diversity of all: intellectual diversity. Do it, if you think that value is worth sticking up for.   

But if you can’t do that, please stop insulting our intelligence by pretending that your actions are informed by ‘respect’. At least be brave enough to call your reluctance to publish exactly what it is: fear. There’s nothing wrong with being frightened; being frightened in the face of intimidation is part of our survival mechanism. But if we don’t republish those cartoons, all we’re doing is letting those poor French journalists take the bullets on our behalf. So if you can’t at least honour their bravery by republishing the work that got them killed, please don’t write about showing 'solidarity' with the massacre victims. Please don’t come out with any more fatuous pieties about how we’re all going to live together in perfect harmony. Please don’t patronise us with more rubbish about your staunch support for freedom of speech, because all you’re doing is redrawing that line in the sand, that line we’ve been moving since 1989.   

So please … print a cartoon. 

Or just shut up and admit that we are now in the age of self-censorship and that the bad men with the guns have already won.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Sackcloth and ashes

What were the people in charge of Oldham Athletic thinking when they thought to recruit the convicted rapist Ched Evans? Did they think that they could sneak this one under the radar? When someone at the club raised the idea of signing the disgraced footballer, surely it must have occurred to them that there might just be a bit of a backlash? They must have considered the probability of some awkward outcomes if they went through with this deal; the likelihood is that, at some point in the process, they probably believed that they could just tough it out.  

Evans is a convicted rapist and, we may assume, not a very nice man. On a personal level, we may be entitled to our misgivings about this deal, but the law has already exacted its penance and there is no compelling moral obligation for us to go above and beyond that; any judgement we make will be entirely subjective. If company A thinks it unacceptable to recruit a convicted rapist, it will act accordingly. But company B is entitled to come to a different conclusion and may believe it appropriate and fair to offer this offender a chance to earn a living and to rebuild his reputation. Accordingly, Oldham Athletic should sign Ched Evans, or decide against signing him, based on what they think is the right thing to do, not on how the notion goes down on twitter, which is what appears to be happening. After news of the deal was leaked, the club appeared to take cold feet. The official statement on their website states that: “Whilst acknowledging the considerable media attention, we continue to have conversations with representative bodies such as the PFA and will conduct due diligence with regard to any decision we make on this matter.”

If the Oldham officials arrived at their decision after some serious discussion, they might at least have tried to ensure that they had arguments robust enough to stand up to scrutiny. If you’re going to make a decision that some folk will regard as controversial, you should be prepared to take a little flak from social media. Some people might think it rather dismissive to describe an online petition signed (so far) by 45,000 people as ‘a little flak’, but I chose those words deliberately. There are many wonderful things about social media, but there are also some significant downsides. Twitter, in particular, provides perfect conditions for two of the most tiresome species known to humankind: those who seek to offend and those who seek to be offended. At times, it seems little more than an echo chamber wherein the like-minded can get their righteous kicks by acting like a 21st century equivalent of the lynch mob. It is interesting to note that the anti-Evans petition was started by a blogger whose commitment to justice is so principled that he or she writes under the pseudonym ‘Jean Hatchet’.     
What are the special conditions about this case that make Mr. or Ms. Hatchet (and those who signed the petition) believe that the law is inadequate and that Ched Evans deserves additional punishment? Are there any other professions to which these special conditions should apply? Are there any other crimes to which these special conditions should apply?  

We either believe in the principle of the rehabilitation of offenders, or we don’t. If we wish to make exceptions, we should perhaps vote for people who will put these exceptions on the statute book. But if we’d rather let subjective morality usurp objective law, if we’d rather label for life those we would disdain, we might as well go the whole hog. 

We could make all convicted offenders wear sackcloth and ashes. Or better still, we could tattoo the word ‘criminal’ on their foreheads. 

Here’s another idea: why not chop off the hands of anyone who steals?