Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cabaret Voltaire: a road not travelled.

2013 is a brilliant year for fans of Cabaret Voltaire (Wikipedia disambiguation: the 80s electronic band not the Scottish night club or birthplace of Dada from which both took their name), with a reissue (and overdue reappraisal) of the masterpiece "Red Mecca" and coming soon an extensive boxset of that brief moment in the mid-eighties where they trod that a tightrope of mainstream success and critical acclaim, "conform to deform", as one of their compilations has it. Wire magazine has a useful primer on their work - most of which is still available, either directly from the band, or from their various record labels: a sign of their ongoing relevance.

Cabaret Voltaire began pre-punk as a confrontational art project based in Sheffield. Kirk, Mallinder and Watson - their first classic line-up - created a strangely hybrid music that was always rhythmic, political, mesmeric and murky. They moved seamlessly between key independent record labels, releasing records for Rough Trade, Factory, Les Disques des Crepuscule, Industrial and their own Doublevision. Regulars in the indie charts probably the first track I heard by them was their prototype electronic punk single "Nag Nag Nag", still in many ways their biggest "hit" (and a contemporary of Human League's "Being Boiled" or the Normal's "Warm Leatherette.") Their early records were not often this insistently tuneful and an unfashionable psychedelia informed their work as much as a briefly fashionable electronica. Yet this archetypal electronic band pioneered the mix of electronics with other instruments - seeing bass guitar or horns as valid sound sources as vocal snippets for the treatments and distortions of much of their early production work. In this they always seemed to me to take on the "road not taken" from Eno and Fripp's electronic experiments of the seventies. Whilst the former went primarily ambient and the latter created a sort of late 20th century chamber music, it left younger artists like Cabaret Voltaire with a whole world of abrasive electronics to explore.

Sound collages on early albums like "Voice of America" pre-figured Eno/Byrne's experiments on "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" and you could see the classic early Cabaret Voltaire sound been pitched somewhere between that and the functional electronica of Material or Tom Tom Club, but with far more of a DIY aspect. "Red Mecca" aside, I don't think any of the early albums entirely convince, and much of their best work came out on extended 12" singles, as the mesmeric rather than song-orientated nature of their material required that type of texturing and extended work out. You  find it on "Taxi Music" from the "Johnny Yes/No" soundtrack or on the brilliant Japanese live album "Hai!"

I came across much of this music later on, for it was when the Cabs signed to Some Bizarre/Virgin (and after Watson had left) that the second, and to my mind, critical phase of their career began. From "The Crackdown" to "Code" Cabaret Voltaire didn't so much as crossover into the mainstream as create a new hybrid. Never conventional songwriters, these albums did included catchy grooves such as "Just Fascination", "Sensoria" and "Don't Argue" which were bonafide hits - or at least, as close to being hits as the rigid radio formats of the day would allow. Industrial electronica had never been Peel's particular favourite music, and Cabaret Voltaire, like Sisters of Mercy, always seemed a little distant from even the "indie" mainstream of the day: whether it was Peel or the NME.

I think what they did from "The Crackdown" onwards was create a genuine alternative for electronic music that showed it didn't have to choose either the pristine pop of fellow Sheffield iconoclasts Human League and Heaven 17, or dissolve into a progressive ambience. Cabaret Voltaire's music was rhythmic if not always aimed at the dancefloor. As a fifteen or sixteen year old it grabbed me more than almost all their contemporaries - the darkness at the heart of their vision tempered by the warm use of synthesizers. "The Crackdown" is the link album between this new partly programmed sound and the occasionally DIY treatments of "2 x 45" or "Red Mecca." It has a real edginess but also a modernity that Heaven 17 for instance, were more blatantly chasing. These were not primarily "songs" but neither were they "collages." They had developed a genuinely new strain of avant-pop that they would follow over the next three albums and associated singles.

In "Wire" magazines reappraisal, they are somewhat sniffy about this period of the Cabs career, seeing them as ever more desperate for a hit. This isn't my recollection. Rather, alongside New Order and Brix-era the Fall, they were one of the few bands who were able to make a genuinely new and exciting music that didn't pander overtly to the charts but could well be imagined to belong there. There was enough of an audience to propel these albums into the top 40. Best of the lot to my mind is the follow up "Micro Phonies" with "Sensoria" a genuine indie dance highlight, and the overtly funky "James Brown" another key favourite. Here they are using better equipment, programmed rhythms, but still creating these hybrid songs that work both as a groove and as stand alone tracks. It remains one of my favourite albums of the period. The 3rd album of this period - "The Covenant, the sword and the arm of the lord" - showed some diminishing returns, and in many ways, they were suffering a little from the way the winds were blowing. The other post-industrial bands who had come along in their wake had never done much at all commercially (Hula, 400 Blows, Test Department, Hard Corps, Chakk, Portion Control) whilst blowing record company advances: whilst a mainstreaming of the Cabs sound could surely be found in the studio concoctions of ZTT, especially the Art of Noise, Propaganda and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But these were more overtly aimed at the charts - and with Morley and Horn at the helms, of all the pretensions they had, none were to obscurity.

By 1986 house music had bubbled up from the clubs of Chicago, a simplified machine music that was streamlined for dancing, and had none of the "edge" of Cabaret Voltaire's electronic art pop. If Mallinder had always been an unlikely singer, his gruff voice used almost as another treated instrument, house music disposed with vocals all together, at least until it rediscovered the disco diva via the sampling of Loleatta Holloway on "Ride on Time." "Beat Dis" and finally "Pump up the Volume" created dancefloor filling sample collages that dispensed with the lead vocalist entirely. Electronic music had become, and would remain, ubiquitous, but in a particular format, that was often fun, but rarely exciting.

For me then, the Cabaret Voltaire of the mid-eighties remains the high point, with due reverance for what came before, but it became one of the unfollowed routes for pop music. Certainly they were the most influential act on my own songwriting, as I was always looking for a purely electronic group that was also not afraid to write songs. Much as I like "Dare" and "Non Stop Erotic Cabaret" the songs are often conventional in form and structure, just with electronics, and even as house morphed into techno and a myriad other formats it generally ditched the vocal except as a disco shriek. A more conventional Cabaret Voltaire would emerge with the late 80s "Groovy Laidback and Nasty" where Mallinder's voice is conventional, and the music sounds generic (albeit including a couple of strong tracks in the singles "Keep On" and especially "Easy Life.") Released from major labels after this, they never quite got the success that their pioneering spirit deserved, and that brief period when they'd mapped out a possible future for a psychedelic political electronic music that couldn't be easily pigeonholded, was all but forgotten.

With much of their best music spread across E.P.s, live albums, and Peel sessions, the new boxset will surely offer a real opportunity to look again at the period '83-'85 when the possibility of a music that could be commercially successful without being overly compromised seemed real indeed. Electronic music lacks the grand narrative of rock and roll. It has no "Beatles" no "Elvis", just a mix of cult figures and bewildering scenes and subgenres; and those bands who were often its most successful (such as New Order) sometimes seem to want to become "just another rock band" when the opportunity arises. We need Cabaret Voltaire as a kind of Velvet Underground of electronica, not just renowned for a few songs like Suicide or their innovation like Silver Apples, but for offering a raft of possibilities for the format.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Public and the Private

I wrote earlier in the year about how we need writers on a "hot streak" - it was a little tongue in cheek, though there's some truth that writers, and other artists, have a period or periods when they can seem to do no wrong. There's another school of thought that a writer reaches their level, whether commercially or artistically, and stays there pretty much. This is what the marketing men hope. Hilary Mantel will one day write a non-Henry VIII novel, as much as J.K. Rowling's now writing non-Harry Potter novels.

In a world where no-one knows nothing, to re-use William Goldman's words about the movie industry, I wonder to what extent agents and publishers are looking for those writers who are hitting their hot streak, or have improved their art to a point where they'll stand out from the crowd. Its notable that two Penned in the Margins writers, Claire TrĂ©vien and Melissa Lee-Houghton, have respectively been mentioned for the Guardian First book award and a Poetry Book Society recommendation. In the busy, but small world of poetry, I know both of them a little and had you asked, I'd have probably given you them as names to watch. What of course I haven't been privy to, is the behind the scenes work that was leading to their new books. Certainly the new poems Claire read with me on the Salt Modern Voices tour in late 2011 sounded good, and Melissa's work that I've seen has seemed equally impressive  but at this remove I wouldn't have known more than that. With Claire being published, like myself, in the Salt pamphlet series, PitM have done a good job in plucking her from Salt - before, it has to be noted, their cessation of single poet collections - and Melissa is publishing her second book with them.

Having taking some time off this last fortnight, I'd realised I was still not fully recovered from my eye operation 8 weeks ago, so its been a period of life being put on hold in some ways. At such moments you can sometimes think the worst of everything. Yet, after a bit of endeavour, I've had time to think through my recent creative work - and it hangs together. The music I've been making is as accomplished as any I've ever done, and by using some old tunes that I'd never got to record, has taken some pressure off the need to write new material (the results will be available soon), I've also embarked on a couple of creative projects, one fiction, one something else, which are also looking pretty strong. The two short stories I've written this year are both good ones, the first of which "The Cat" is being published shortly in Unthank Books "Unthology 4", (published shortly), the first time one of my stories has been in a book; and the other just needs a bit of rewriting before I look for a good home for it. Poetry hasn't been my first concern, but I seem to be writing the occasional "signature" poem that's working well, or longer sequences, that just require a little more time. An essay I've recently written on how we are outsourcing our memory to machines, will be out shortly in a Manchester zine as well.

The public and the private endeavour are always some way distant from each other it seems, at least when you're working without a publisher or agent. This year has been a bit of a right-off in many ways, yet my art doesn't seem to have suffered too much for it, remarkably. Whether I'm hitting my stride, or simply consolidating some of my better ideas after years of practice, its hard to know. The proof of the pudding is not just in the publication - though that helps - but in the work itself. In a world of social media where books are desperate for the oxygen of publicity that a prize confers upon them its sometimes easy to forget that what you are seeing is like chipping away at a stone and discovering a well-preserved fossil in the rock; the "discovery" is the easiest bit, albeit open to chance, the hard work has been in the forming of whatever lies beneath the surface: and that, as ever, happens in solitude, in silence. The quiet satisfaction of knowing that what you're working on is looking good, is one of the great pleasures of writing. Wondering when or where it will get published is a luxury I try to avoid indulging too much.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pure by Andrew Miller

I've been meaning to read Andrew Miller for some time, and finally got round to "Pure", his Costa winning novel from 2011. Set a handful of years before the French Revolution is takes a vignette of Parisian history - the clearing of the cemetary of Les Innocents, where the dead had been piled up for centuries until it had become a charnel house poisoning the very air of Paris. Metaphor is not hard to find in "Pure", though in many ways, having set it so poignantly in place and time, Miller concentrates on what he surely knows best, which is telling a story. And its a ripe tale. The young engineer, Jean-Baptiste has been summoned from Normandy for an unknown task, which turns out to be the clearance of the cemetary, and he sets about it with a mixture of enlightenment gusto, and pragmatic common sense, calling on a troupe of Flemish miners to do the (literally) dirty work. A classic young naive away from home, the petit-bourgeois family he stays with are friendly but distant - and their beautiful daughter gets increasingly fraught as they discover what his job actually is. Miller doesn't waste any time on unruly stratagems - for Jean-Baptiste arrives at the church and immediately enlists a sidekick and friend, the ebullient organist Armand, to navigate him through the poor, decadent district in which Les Innocents is based. Jean-Baptiste - son of a protestant - isn't so keen on raffishness, but does get drunk and buys a dandyish suit, before eventually taking up with a beautiful Austrian prostitute whom he makes a (relatively) honest woman of.

Yet the book doesn't shirk away from the dirt and the detail of the macabre task in hand. It takes a light comic touch to walk us through the destruction of a cemetary and the horror of what is found there by the band of miners is skilfully told. They appear to be an almost ghostly presence in the novel: a band of ne'er do wells whom the engineer has to keep in check, but who nonetheless take to their task in hand. Like "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" a young man, trying to make his fortune, is doing so in a world that is anything but idealistic. You never quite get the sense that Jean-Baptiste - a man hired by a shadowy minister - is at any sort of real risk, and he's simply too likeable, so that even though his character hardens, and he faces near-death at one point, the novel seems to set him aside from the other characters. Like in Rose Tremain's "Restoration" (surely a book that has informed this whole strand of comic historical fiction?) we root for him even as he goes about his somewhat Herculean task.

Though some 300 pages or more, its quite a slight novel, and I zipped through it in an afternoon, not without alot of pleasure, despite its ghoulish moments. At its heart, its a comic romp, that may as well be set in a fantasy world as in this well-imagined pre-revolutionary France. The macabre nature of its subject reminds one of Suskind's "Perfume". I'm reminded, more than once, of Thomas Hardy, particularly a novel like "The Woodlanders", with the 14-year old girl Jeanne, who grew up in the cemetary, taking on the role of Marty South. This idea of innocence and experience is explored throughout. Yet when Hardy was writing about the passage of history in that novel, he was documenting inevitable change; here, we have an English novelist going back in time to a well-trod period of history, which has inevitable walk-on parts for everyone from Marie Antoinette to Dr. Guillotin. Carry On Don't Lose Your Head is not too far away. In one of the book's better recurring themes, Jean-Baptiste's "nickname", imposed on him after a drunken night with Armand and his shadowy pre-revolutionary anarchists, keeps appearing in graffitti. Yet, perhaps not wanting to stray too much into a deeper history, this running joke doesn't lead anywhere (yet its hinted at, one point, that it will be important.)

The tale itself is relatively slight, but told with great gusto, and some lovely details, and Miller writes with a sure touch that makes me want to go and read his other books; yet its not particularly a serious book. Like so much of English fiction it doesn't quite feel grown-up enough for my tastes, despite its reasonably ample servings of sex and gore. The historical novel is a dominant feature of the contemporary literary landscape, but however well-researched, however enjoyable it is, I came away from it glad to have had an enjoyable read, but wishing it was both more serious in its intent, and committed in its philosophy.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

In Praise of Original Stories

Its probably Shakespeare's fault; or T.S. Eliot's; or Chaucers. One of those. We have a culture based on appropriation, of stories passed down or passed off. Its not a bad thing, necessarily. Shakespeare may have purloined his plots, but that was about all he stole. The rest was all him, and it can be argued that if you're putting on a brand new play in front of several hundred people then you need a hook to bait them. That's why people say that if Shakespeare was writing now he'd be writing for film/for Eastenders/for HBO/for video games. (The fact that the formulation changes depending on what's most popular, shows what nonsense it might be.) If Tom Stoppard - whose first play was an appropriation of two characters from "Hamlet" - was alive today he'd be writing for Radio 2 about prog rock. Of course, he is alive, and of course he is writing for Radio 2 about prog rock. Stoppard's got away with loads in his career - he was perhaps last relevant around 30 years ago, so that makes him perfect to dramatise Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." 

Writers are full of bad ideas like this of course, unfortunately we're seeing that TV and radio producers and publishers are the first to indulge them. Its not enough that Tom Stoppard, acclaimed playwright, could write an absurdist radio drama (has he ever done anything with sound before, I wonder? Surely his two great skills are wordplay and physical theatre?), it has to be hooked into some media event. Stoppard gets to meet Nick Mason, Floyd get some harmless promotion (and far less brand-affecting than a hip hop or grime mash-up for instance), and the BBC producers of a certain age (I'd imagine you'd have to be in your fifties to think this was a good idea) get to meet their heroes. "Event radio" they probably call it.

I've often wondered if the greatest barrier for a new writer is originality. Far better if you can pitch your novel as being an archetype, or give your poetry collection a hook. Making things up. That's what I always enjoyed about writing. But making things up is somehow not enough. There needs to be this appropriation somehow. Over the last year I've been asked to write poems about Jane Austen, the Fall, the North West landscape and Pussy Riot. All have, or are going to be published. Write a poem about something in your private mythos though and it falls on stoney ground.

It does seem that the last thing we want is originality. The big novels this summer are "by association." "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting is a debut that owes something of its subject matter to "Lolita" and is being reported almost as if its a news story about a female seducer, rather than a work of fiction. (The very name "Lolita" - in every sense a remarkable fictional creation by Nabakov is now used as shorthand for paedophilia.) David Peace's "Red or Dead" is both his fictional biography of Bill Shankley, and the second time he's done this, following on from his Brian Clough book "The Damned United." I'm looking forward to it, but "red or dead" isn't Peace's formulation, whereas "the Damned United" was. Just as the characters in Martin Amis's "Money" would drink his made-up "Peculiar Brews" but by "Yellow Dog" were lazily imbibing Stella.

Great imaginative feats can come from appropriation - see Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell for instance; or going back a few years, Jane Rogers' Mr. Wroe's Virgins. Its not this I'm against. More that if you take something too current - too real and fictionalise it then you're in the territory of the "bio-pic" that rightly derided form of cheap drama that used to make up so many "made for TV" movies. The imagined country singer in "Crazy Heart" seems a more real creature than Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" for instance. I was going on about that quirkily original movie "Things to Denver When You're Dead." From its title, to its set up (Andy Garcia's business making VHS tapes of cancer victims last words for their descendants to watch), to its subversion of the "lets get the gang together for one last job," (They do, its a disaster), its an original piece of work - that becomes its own archetype.

We talk about our society being Big Brother-ish, and forget that Big Brother is all the stronger for being a fictional creation. It was Orwell's imaginative leaping that makes this a contemporary myth. Yes, stories like this or "Lord of the Flies" owe at least something to primary sources, but the writer has added more than just some chocolate sauce to the ice cream; he's made it from its primary ingredients and created something new as a result.

Our three book phenomenons of the last few years are all appropriations. Dan Brown's novels fictionalise a notionally non-fiction conspiracy theory; The 50 Shades books began in the "Twilight" universe as fan fiction; even Harry Potter is a comforting amalgam of boarding school and fantasy archetypes. (That there is a book about the "J.K. Rowling universe" shows that she at least created something original from this dough.) Hollywood relies on the sequel, or as those dry up, desperate attempts to use an existing idea to create a new franchise ("Lone Ranger", "John Carter").

Writers from Irvine Welsh to Hilary Mantel to Jonathan Coe are tempted back to look again at old characters; yet at least this has the benefit of self-plagiarism, however limited the returns might be.

I don't think I have any problems with this per se, as good art is as likely to come from this as bad art, its just that the expectations of the non-creative end of the creative industries can't seem to appreciate originality when so much of their core business is anything but. You'd have thought that the gender reversal fairy tale had been done already by Angela Carter, but it didn't stop Carol Ann Duffy's "The World's Wife" or other reversionings do phenomenally well. Yet I'm trying to think the last time I remember reading a fictional creation that had legs - that could last beyond the book. Do we have to go back as far as Amis's John Self or Keith Talent? It sometimes seems that way. Modern books have characters who are defined by their problem - whether its "Life of Pi" or "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" - yet its worth remembering that Cathy and Heathcliff, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Mr. Darcy, Gatsby and Carraway,  Winston Smith and others are creations: they may have not appeared out of nothing, but the imagination of the writer's involved is what made them come to life.

Yet as a writer if I do get any feedback its more "is this based on anyone?" rather than "did you make this up?" The 3rd parties who commission work seem uncomfortable with this "made up" world as if its something of an affectation; that writers should be looking for commissions such as the Stoppard one above. Of course, I should be writing a novelisation of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", putting some flesh onto Billy Shears, rather than creating something new. But I'm a writer. Making things is up is what I do.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Opposed Positions by Gwendoline Riley

Its taken me too long to get to Gwendoline Riley's fourth novel, "Opposed Positions", considering I heard her read from it in Bolton even before it was published. Her protagonist is Aislinn Kelly, a novelist struggling with the fractures that have always defined her life, particularly a violent father, whom her mother finally divorced and took the children away from - albeit with him seeing them on alternate Saturdays. Drifting through a poverty-stricken but somewhat successful career as a novelist, Aislinn struggles with coming to an understanding of her own tendency to being solitary, her depression and the failed relationships in her life.

Yet its a subtle novel that eschews a straight narrative to go backwards and forwards through memory, Kelly's commentary throughout being suitably wry and self aware. Here is the reliable narrator occasionally taking on the guise of the unreliable one, as she struggles with understanding the key relationships in her life. She asks her mother why she married her father and gets back "it was what people did". Her own estrangement from those "close relations" and a motley crew of the accidental friends we accumulate in our twenties and early thirties, is part self-preservation, part destructive. Much of the "action" of this carefully constructed novel takes place from a distance: through emails, phonecalls and recounted conversations. There's something new in Riley's work here, as her always striking observational skills is matched with a keen ear for the unsaid nuances of conversation. Her characters harbour a very English reserve that justs gets on with things, but also spills over occasionally into violence. Her brother Liam comes back from one of his trips with their father with a black eye, apparently for daring to show the slightest bit of sarcasm to his father. Kelly, quietly reading away in the corner, makes occasional attempts to lessen the hurt in her family, but she is no heroine, and her timid attempts to let Liam understand her mother's lack of money, or to draw out her mother's sense of entitlement to a happy life, are quickly rebuffed. Kelly retires into the solitude that feeds into her writing.

Drawn back to the family home by a variety of reasons - poverty, guilt, loneliness - she has disconnected herself from even her mother, a clever, practical but endlessly stoic woman who accidentally ends up in another dreadful marriage with the depressive, self-absorbed Howard. Given these archetypes Kelly's own struggles are ones that she acknowledges as deep-rooted. Constantly berated for looking miserable, it becomes her default position. Yet, in burrowing deep into the misunderstandings of those closest to us, Riley gives us a powerful, sceptical, and sometimes darkly humorous portrait of modern emotional mores. Aislinn's infatuation with an American singer, "Jim", turns out to be as equally a dysfunctional non-relationship as her familial ones, that comes to a head when they meet up after a gig in Birmingham. Drunk and angry, but not even sure about what, Aislinn turns on Jim, with whom she's barely slept with, but harboured hopes of a relationship that he's kept away from (whilst going out with other women as less complicated surrogates for her.) The "opposed positions" of the title is about the misunderstandings; not so much between men and women, but between people who are trying and failing to connect. She sees in Jim a simplicity of thought and conversation that she comes to discover is just as much an affectation as any other.

The book dances around familiar Riley locales. Real venues - the Castle, the Temple - in Manchester's sodden streets are mentioned, and she touches on a disaffection with the city, a city where so much of her fiction has been set, as a "terrible failure of the imagination." Rather than being a betrayal, this seems an appropriate farewell to a city, almost as an ex-flame to which it would be a mistake to go back to. In Riley's fiction, so often a real-time depiction of the contemporary city, its almost a growing up of her earlier heroine's lives in a demi-monde that never changes much. There's always someone who knows your name, who will have a drink with you. No wonder that Manchester refusenik, Morrissey, is the one musical reference who crops up in the novel.

Escaping England, Aislinn escapes - not to New York or San Francisco - but to a tiny town in Indianopolis. If this is the weakest part of the novel, its perhaps because the going away seems to serve little purpose, other than to distance the character and make a break. Alone in a sublet apartment she writes and takes late night phone calls from friends across the Atlantic. Communication is the novel is curiously stilted, as our modern connectedness is contrasted with the disconnect that modern lives have even amongst close families. A series of emails from her father to Aislinn's college email address feels more like stalking than familial love; and later, Aislinn the writer's Wikipedia entry is viciously edited by him as another attempt at cyber-control where all his real world attempts have failed. In an interview in the Independent, Riley talks of the importance of writing a novel where the parents aren't conveniently killed or shunted off stage. Here it family rather than lovers and friends which are the main source of the novel's conflict.

At times, as ever, the writing is breathtaking. On landing in the US there is a page and a half of tightly observed description, that is notable because she is so sparing with such skills elsewhere. Yet she's brilliant on the tiny details of family life, noticing things about her characters which are more nuanced than their sometimes evasive conversations. Yet it is a conversational novel, and in parts, particularly with a number of conversations with friends or acquaintances, the novel becomes a little fragmentary - you get the sense that some of these scenes, anecdotal, are either pared down from a longer work, or a sign of how the novel developed. Yet Aislinn is a more grown up narrator than Riley has previously written of, and she is decidedly literary at times; often to the frustration of her family. Yet this doesn't feel an affectation - the writer adding their own intelligence to their characters - partly because Aislinn is also a writer of short books that mirror her own life. Like Coetzee's recent works, Riley's "playing" with the autobiographical in fiction is consummate and powerful, and the skill is that it becomes meaningless to look for the join.

What I've always like about Riley's work, and its here more than ever, is that sense that its not necessary to create an artificial framework to make a novel work. The plot is less important to her than the character's journeying. Its a psychological novel in many ways, even if inevitably with its fair share of distancing, but seems particularly acute in its handling of the fallout from a broken home. A surprising omission from Granta's best novelists under 40 list, reading this, her most recent novel, makes the absence even more perplexing.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Loud Music

Its the 20 years since "In Utero" by Nirvana topped the UK and US charts. I'm sure there have been some other loud albums to make that position, with fan bases propelling them there, but it did strike me - reading about the making of the album in "Mojo" - how rare it is that "loud music" makes it into the wider consciousness these days. For all our sense of an age where everything goes; of sensory overload, there's been a mainstreaming of culture since the millennium that the idea of a band like Nirvana becoming more than a cult band for teenagers but a phenomenon, seems increasingly unlikely. Even at the time - when Cobain died in 1994, the newspapers were full of articles about "legend to everyone under 30, unknown to everyone over." The generations that had kindly given us everything from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to the Sex Pistols were disconcerted by Nirvana's loud music.

Listening back to Nirvana now its striking how raw they still sound. The "polish" of Nevermind is just that, it brings out these fabulous songs in all their subtlety. Important, because grunge was usually anything but subtle. Heavy metal riffs and punk attitude, you find it even on "Nevermind", where alongside the "hits" are uncompromising noise tracks that betrayed their roots in the US hardcore scene where the biggest crime was "selling out." Their live recordings show that this band were never aiming too much for the pop kids. The nature of the power trio's sound meant that it wasn't that easy to dilute it anyway. By "In Utero" they were coming up with songs like "Rape Me" and "I Hate Myself and I want to Die" which were deliberate two fingers to "selling out." Adolescent perhaps, but it also includes some of their best songs. What would a 4th album have sounded like? I imagine something like the Pearl Jam of "No Code", mixing styles, as they did successfully on the cover-heavy "MTV unplugged" - which is the album I always point out to people if they're not convinced by Cobain's greatness (then you hit them with "School" or "Serve the Servants.")

I've a long relationship with loud music - from Joy Division and the Cure at their bleakest, through industrial, American hardcore and the like - though the musicianship of heavy metal always seemed as contrived as their lyrics - which made Nirvana such a great band. Its hard to imagine a song as incendiary as "Smells like Teen Spirit" in the top ten these days - radio wouldn't play it. The irony of digital consumption of sound has been that it seems that there's a professional class of gatekeepers about what can get played on the radio these days. Anything "demo-y" isn't allowed. The best things I saw on television during Glastonbury were the very loud and uncompromising new band Savages, and the venerable sonic terrorists Public Enemy. Glastonbury's hippy vibe has never been that accomodating to anything loud, or that rocks however, so no surprise that Mumford and Sons seemed - more than a raggedy Rolling Stones - the perfect Glastonbury band. Inevitably their records sales soared. The much louder Arctic Monkeys of their last "Suck it and See" album were a rare sighting of a  loud band on primetime. I have a feeling that the people in charge are the ones who bought the Celine Dion and Phil Collins and Travis albums, rather than "In Utero."