Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revival by Stephen King

Recently, faced with "readers block," I've found late Stephen King a good way of unblocking. But what King was I reading? "11.22.63" was a time travel story squarely set in the uncomplicated fifties that he's so good at evoking; "Mr. Mercedes" managed to be a detective story where the only horror element was in the world we live in today, whilst at the same time managing a not-embarassing take on the internet.

"Revival" is back to classic King territory - a slow burn horror story. I was interested by its premise. A young boy finds himself under a shadow of a charismatic preacher who loses his faith when tragedy hits his own life. The young boy finds his own way through life by picking up a rhythm guitar and playing for twenty years in road bands, before his heroin addiction brings him down. King has always had a good ear for rock and roll, even if I can't quite remember him writing an overtly rock and roll novel before; add in religion, smalltown Maine, and a P.T. Barnum-like evangelical miracle worker harnessing the power of lightning, and there's all the elements of a classic King. Sadly, "Revival" doesn't manage to mix them together well.

Jamie Morton is playing soldiers, a happy child in large religiously-inclined family, when the new charismatic minister, the young Charlie Jacobs arrives, to be followed shortly afterwards by his beautiful wife and their young son. Everyone falls in love with Jacobs and he's a well drawn picture of a charismatic religious leader ending up in a small community and having an impact on all their lives. Such a man would surely move on soon enough, but fate sees him abandoning the church with a final terrible sermon where he doesn't believe in God. The young Jamie was the first person he spoke to and he a lingering fondness for the Minister, having been shown early on Jacobs' interests in home made electronics. But Jacobs doesn't experiment just to provide a link between science and God, he believes in "the secret electricity" - which as the novel progresses we only learn has been studied intermittently over the centuries, but the books in which it has been mentioned are banned or held by collectors. Such Crowley-esque mystery is more Dan Brown than usual, and King's heart hardly seems to be in it. We have to take the supernatural on trust here. Considering how other worlds have been so believably intertwined with ours in books like "Firestarter" and "The Stand", it seems strange how perfunctory this is.

As Morton grows older, tragedy hits his own family, but we already know there is a "shadow" over his life. It is the adult Morton who is telling the story and on the first page he calls Jacobs his "fifth business". Yet for much of the novel the shadow that the preacher casts seems a benign one. First, he has his own tragedy, his own darkness, and then when Morton finds him again, this time as a carny, making magic pictures of pretty girls to take home from the fair, the musician is at an all time low, a heroin addict just wanting the next score, having just been sacked from the second rate band he's in. I never quite buy Morton's heroin addiction - he seems a jobbing, amateur musician, and there's little in his background to suggest that he would succumb to being a drug addict. Besides, when Jacobs, now going under a different name uses the "secret electricity" to enact a cure, we suddenly have a clean musician. When he next encounters Jacobs, he's more of preacher than a carny. He has started giving out miracle cures. Yet these cures have side effects, and Morton becomes concerned that Jacobs is dabbling with a darkness that is destroying people's lives. But none of this feels particularly convincing. The "secret electricity" is perfunctorily explained; so that when once again Morton becomes involved, he has to wait with an ageing Jacobs for a storm after a benign summer, before the electricity can be used again. Morton knows there is a darkness to the "cures" that Jacobs gives out, but because he is telling the story - and similar to "Mr. Mercedes" this bit feels a bit like a detective tale - we are at a distance from the reality. Everything bad happens offstage. Morton himself has occasional voices in his head; his brother Col, who was the first of Jacobs' "cures" has no problems at all. It is other people - his mother, his sister - who have had natural tragedies in their life. Jacobs wasn't there for them, but this is not even touched on. There seems little reason for Morton's curiousity, and even when Jacobs approaches him because his first girlfriend has come to him asking for a cure, it seems an absurd piece of machinery.

In many ways, this is a classic bit of shaggy dog storytelling. By the end of the book Jamie is sixty - placing the childhood start of the novel in the early sixties. The whole novel is just a preamble for a set piece straight out of  "The Monkeys Paw", with one final cure being attempted by a near-death Jacobs as he wants to open the portal onto life after death. We never quite understand the motivations and there's an irony that in a book of the supernatural, a logic to itself is what makes a book like this (like his early novels) believable or not. This tries too hard to come up with something plausible, yet I go the sense that it could have been done in a condensed short story if King hadn't wanted to spin several hundred pages of chance encounters before the denouement. Yes, the ending is genuinely dark and scary, and we finally agree with Morton that it would have been better had he never met Jacobs, so dark was the aftermath of his ministrations. It feels a little that King wanted to finally write that "rock and roll" novel whilst also having a good go at the evangelical placebos of a credible middle America, and they all got thrown in to this idea of "Revival" - a musical concept; but also straight out of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," - reviving the  monster - whilst also having something of the showman "religious revival."

Plenty there in other words for a compelling novel, but for once in King, none of the ideas really convince. The longeurs of the timescale, the nature of Morton as a retrospective first person narrator, the somewhat dashed off rock and roll elements - none really convince. When Jacobs is on the page it sizzles a bit more, yet we are always in Morton's words, and so we see the incarnations with a cynicism, that makes us wonder why he's continuing with the story. Without believable motive, the sense of uncovering or even understanding the nature of Jacobs'' experiments, exposing his evil in other words, seems contrived. That it is the last few pages, after the final denouement, that are the most effective, highlights how much the novel structurally misfired for me. The writing is the slackest I've read by him for a long time, for the second novel in a row (following "Mr. Mercedes") a middle aged man falls far too easily into bed with a much younger woman, and even Jacobs, who at times seems a genuinely intrigueing character - as a man who has been tainted by his curiousity, a bit like Frankenstein, or the hatter who goes mad from too much mercury poisoning - is dealt with lazily. Not one of his best.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Lost Art of the Greatest Hits Album

When you are a kid, the Greatest Hits album is probably all you know. Those bands you heard growing up before you could afford to buy the records have kindly put all their hits in one place. Its no surprise that some of the biggest selling albums in the UK (ABBA, Queen) and US (Elton John, Eagles) are Greatest Hits albums.

Once upon a time, in the sixties, artists tended to not put their singles on albums,  yet those compilations, "A Collection of Beatles Oldies," "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" and "High Tide and Greeen Grass" were not big sellers at the time - coming so soon after the records themselves had come out. The baroque names probably didn't help either. I suspect they were probably priced more expensively as well - and also had to compete with the new album by the Beatles, the Who or the Stones as these bands developed so quickly.

So it was really the seventies where the Greatest Hits came into its own. Artists might be recording an album a year and a Greatest could give them a bit of a breather, and pull together the songs that had been played on the radio. Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and others were album bands who also had hit singles, but a Greatest Hits drew in the casual fans, the ones who'd heard that early song on the radio or perhaps bought the really big breakthrough album. There's sometimes some odd choices on these mega-selling records. "Border Song" on Elton's for instance. They are of their time as well - all three of those artists would have second volumes of greatest hits which would include some of their biggest later hits. Frequently a Greatest would be a way of getting mileage out of the back catalogue of an artist who'd just had a massive hit single. ABBA's Greatest Hits for instance was a bestseller, but made up for the fact that few people bought their first three albums despite some hit singles. As they became massive stars, it ended up being the first album that people bought by them.

As a regular trawler of second hand record sellers I've been picking up Greatest Hits. You might not think you need Cat Stevens in your life, but a collection without "Wild World" or "Father or Son" is slightly bereft - a Greatest Hits solves the problem. By the late seventies TV advertised Greatest Hits crammed more than the regular 10 or 12 sides - so the fidelity sometimes suffered. But New Wave and New Romantic bands are surely as well served by their greatest hits as individual albums. Want "Call Me" by Blondie? Then you need the exemplary "Best of Blondie" - only a shame that this iconic collection wasn'tm reissued on vinyl recently when their other early records were. (It had the advantage of being released before their less than stellar "The Hunter" album.) Madness, Human League, OMD - all bands that are probably best served on a decent best of.

The CD kind of ruined things of course. The 70 plus minute length meant that a greatest was no longer a sharp forty or fifty minute party record, but something crammed with every single, with the boring slow tracks as well as the pop songs. For Greatest Hits sensibly tended to be aimed at the seventies house party. Who needs that half paced love song that was the third single off the album? Of course, there are exceptions. ABBA Gold probably couldn't be beaten, whilst Madonna's "Immaculate collection" is amazing for the tracks it misses off (including a couple of UK number ones).

Nowadays of course there is every kind of compilation - even bands like the Smiths have spawned half a dozen. If in doubt, stay with the singles, as these were the tracks that meant the most at the time. I was as surprised as anyone how fantastic the Beatles' "1" album was - by concentrating on just their biggest hits it turned them from rock legends back into that brilliant pop band that they started out as. Latterday bands such as James are best showcased on their best of - whilst some bands who had just one great album and a smattering of singles - like the Stone Roses - seem odd in a  Greatest Hits context. That Greatest Hits by Guns n' Roses and Red  Hot Chilli Peppers have been so successful indicates the patchy nature of so many of their albums and must be a good way for a young rock fan to pick up a single disc best of - yet they hardly seem classic collections.

The days of bands releasing two or three singles a year off each album, moving on, maybe having a non album hit or two, seem long gone. Often there's one massive album and a longer career that's underwhelming. I'm sure boy bands like One Direction will have massive selling best ofs, but there's a cynicism to modern musical careers that means we've only had one song from Adele for instance since her mega-selling "21".

Growing up, I experienced the sixties mainly through compilations - the Beatles Red and Blue albums; Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks; Bob Dylan Greatest Hits; best ofs by the Small Faces and Jefferson Airplane; soul compilations of the Temptations or Isley Brothers or Booker T and the MGs.
Now, I quite like putting on a crackly old record, like Roxy Music's Greatest Hits (see above), a slightly odd choice of tracks, that nonetheless works as a great party record. Even hated bands like the Eagles can be made palatable by the filleting of a Greatest Hits.

Some Favourites.

1. Best of Blondie

Good as their albums are, this brings all their best tracks together. Non album song "Call Me" gets a run out, as do early non-hits "X Offender" and "Rip Her to Shreds." If you only listen to "Parallel Lines" (virtually a greatest hits in itself) you miss such gems as "Presence Dear" from the album before.

2. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits

This was my first Dylan album and perhaps it should still be my favourite. Its a great track selection. Whether they were all hits or not, I'm not sure - but like alot of "best ofs" it serves as a track listing for the songs of his that lasted. Further volumes are weird and career spanning collections just to diverse - this is the one to go for.

3. Roxy Music Greatest Hits

"Virginia Plain" and "Pyjamarama" can't be found on their other albums - it tends to the rockier side of their back catalogue - and it finishes before they resumed with "Manifesto" - but its such a listenable record even if it feels like Eno has been asked to stand outside.

4. The Temptations Greatest Hits

Mine's a TV compilation with a terrible cover - but it brings together their late sixties psychedelia like "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with their earlier classic Motown. Cheap Motown compilations have been a joy throughout my life.

5. Celluloid Heroes - the Kinks

Seventies Kinks are a mixed bunch - weird double albums, concept albums, and no hits - yet "Celluloid Heroes" is a brilliant distillation of this period. Like the Stones "Rewind" it takes an unfashionable period and compiles it well.

6. Uncut Funk: the bomb - Parliament

In the late eighties it was hard to find Parliament records so when this brilliant compilation came out I bought it and played it to death. It has a picture of George Clinton surfing two dolphins on the cover, a brilliantly funny funk dictionary on the back. What's not to like?

7. Once Upon a Time - Siouxsie and the Banshees

Despite being dark and gothic on their albums the Banshees were also a brilliant pop band and this timely compilation of their imperial period is stunning, not a bad track on it. Twice Upon  a Time - double the length - and from their later career does a good job as well, but this is the one you need.

8. Snap! - the Jam

I wasn't a great Jam fan but this compilation convinced me. Originally a double album I've the slightly reduced track listing of the CD - a collection that crams as much of the band on as it can and yet never goes slack, surely the sign of a good band? The underrated Style Council are equally well served by the "Singular Adventures of..." compilation, which fillets even lacklustre albums for gems.

9. The Whole Story - Kate Bush

A classic compilation that still sells well today. Kate's early success tended to overshadow the songs that came after (at least until "Hounds of Love") but this brilliant selection gives equal billing to "Army Dreamers", "Babooshka" and "Sat in Your Lap." It means that a song as weird as "The Dreaming" is in pretty much every household in the country.

10. The Collection - Jefferson Airplane

I hardly knew the Airplane until Castle Communications started issuing cheap double albums/single CDs in the late eighties and early nineties. Cheap to look at, they were nonetheless intelligently compiled. For a while I thought this was the only Airplane I needed, but of course, they were a quality band and I've since investigated much further - but this was where I came in. I've also got great Castle albums by Melanie, Small Faces, Motorhead, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Worth picking up if you see them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gentrification of Urban Literature

I may not have grown up in an urban environment but I grew up as a writer as an urban writer. It was the only thing worth writing about if you came from the dullest of suburbs. The city was exciting. It carried on after dark (and in those days of restricted licensing laws, actually came back to life after dark after a six o'clock switch off), it threw all kinds of lives together in a melting pot, it had its own edgelands - abandoned estates or tower blocks where the police wouldn''t go.

The cityscape was an excitement that I couldn't avoid as a teenager, even if it came with danger and occasional fear, because it also came with opportunity. The music I loved took place there, both because bands themselves migrated to the cities and because that's where they played, and where I'd have to go to see them. The places they played might be swish nightclubs on a weekend, but would be handed over to guitar bands midweek; or more likely they were odd, scummy, barely legal places with sticky floors and unheralded entrances, down uninviting side streets.

As a teenager I quickly grew tired of fantasy and science fiction, and part of the reason  why was that the realism that existed in the city was equally as strange, equally as alluring. Whether drugs, sex, music or simply neon lights and speeding cars on rain-streaked streets, this was futuristic and fantastical to my mind. The hidden venue down a back alleyway, the first time down a darkened staircase, the opening out into a cramped emporium of sounds and sights for sore eyes? This was William Burroughs via "Blade Runner" and the Cantina-scene in "Star Wars". And it was in Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.

Yet come out of these dives and the world was like the dystopia of "Blade Runner" or later "The Matrix" or "Strange Days." Our urban environment on film has been for  a long time a noirish nightmare of shadows. The abandonment of our cities - the no-go areas and slums - speaks of a traumatic human history, just as the great civic buildings, speak of their previous pre-eminency. And part of the allure of these urban spaces was the real story that took place there. After all I grew up during a period when cities were all but abandoned by our central government. With a critical election coming up in a few weeks, its worth remembering that the Conservative Party not only fails to win inner city seats, but has no real idea of what cities are except as speculative property plays. Like cartoon characters, the modern Conservative party makes it money in the city and then retires to its landed estate in the countryside. The riots of the Thatcher years; the long-running sores of the Irish "Troubles"; these held back cities from gentrifying even as elsewhere in Europe the city - which had never suffered quite so much of a battering as its blighted British or American equivalent - made a comeback.

Look around now, though, and a gentrification of our cities has taken place. The process of prettifying old manufacturing areas, and turning the old factories and warehouses into offices, shops and flats is close to completing in so many of our cities. Whereas spacious lofts might once have been taken over by artists in unsavoury parts of the city, nowadays its the property speculators who cut these spaces into multiple apartments, encouraging a new urban consumer - young, affluent, requiring to be near to work - into the city. Our gentrification is almost complete, and at the same time our literature surely gentrifies as well. John Lanchester's "Capital" for instance, which is less about "capital" as in money than our capital city, and takes place primarily in a rich suburban street. Or even Zadie Smith's "NW" where the council estate where her characters grew up is left behind, a place separate from the gentrified city. Our new urban literature is as much a daughter of "Sex and the City" and "Friends", a young urban middle class living in expensive rentals, defining themselves by shopping and lifestyle, as it is by their urban environment. Tao Lin describes the interiors or apartments and writes about lives looking inward to their computer terminals or mobile devices, but the external environment no longer matters, is no longer there. There would be little sense of a believable "fall" from the gentrified city to the slums, the kind of journey you used to find in "Bonfire of the Vanities", not when everyone is an Uber away from the yoghurt bar. The need to go down to Chinatown for your noodles is alleviated when a designer noodle or sushi bar has opened on every regentrified corner.

What might be better for our life - though one wonders about this as well, so dependent on debt-culture, so much of it being speculative property plays, so much of it fuelled by a shifting workforce - where our inner cities have gentrified, and the "problems" are either dispersed or ignored, also has a damaging effect on our art. For the artists studios get moved out. The dive bars and venues close down (The Roadhouse in Manchester being the latest to announce its closure), the marginal areas like London's Soho become inhospitable to anything other than mainstream culture. And with it goes our urban literature. The problems mostly still remain: just count the homeless on our streets as the refuges and hostels get closed down in the name of "austerity". When Galbraith talked of "Private Wealth, Public Squalor" did he envisage at time when even the public area would be privatised for profit, and the "squalor" would become outsourced to those who are least able to resist it? If our cities become walled estates, then so to does our urban literature.

Yet literature has to remain its relevance. We see how contemporary writers seem to struggle with the issues of the day - see the rash of post 9/11 literature, few of which have enhanced the writers' reputations. But even our urban crises are giving out different stories that literature has to find a way of telling. The riots in Manchester in 2011 were the opposite of previous rounds of rioting which tended to happen in marginalised areas of the cities; this was an imported opportunistic riot that grew via social media and disappeared almost as soon as it had begun. For the ongoing narrative in our urban environment is about gentrification and speculative property development. Forget that  Manchester had a record low number of new house starts in 2014, for the cranes in the city centre are rising again. I go round Europe a lot and in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, London and elsewhere I've rarely seen so much building work going on - large civic projects like Crossrail and HS2 are in some ways land clearers for the private developments that come in their wake. Old London has survived many things, from the Luftwaffe to urban blight, but its finding itself helpless at the onslaught of sovereign wealth funds as they offer a "scorched earth" policy for non-productive assets, such as the music shops around Denmark Streets or the night time economy in SoHo.

On the one hand one can't be too upset at losing illegal brothels, condemned buildings and fire-risk underground cellar venues, but its what they are being replaced with that shocks. Privatised public spaces, with security barriers; expensive rabbit warren apartments; empty office blocks sold off between developers as corporate property ploys; and much of it dependent on the infrastructure of public money that is being squeezed out of services and thrown at infrastructure projects as right wing austerity policies have calcified the economies, and old style Keynesian pump-priming has been required instead. But if earlier recessions got rid of bloated or unnproductive firms and companies, this new model seems to be bolster the fortunes of the property and finance sectors, where the former's tangible asset props up the latter's intangible one.

For an urban writer the story becomes more difficult to tell. Do we interiorise so our characters spend all their time looking at their tablets and moving between restaurant and coffeeshop like the world has reduced to the set of "Friends"? Or do we try and tell the story through its new institutions - its zero hour contracts, its passive non-unionised workforce, its hidden armies of contract cleaners and security guards, its call centres and marketing companies. Its a grimmer prospect for a writer than the squats and slums of Hulme or the crumbling urban heat of Brixton. A Martin Millar or Irvine Welsh or William Burroughs would surely struggle here. The crumbling nowheresville of urban loneliness has been exported to small towns and provincial suburbs, in the hidden lives of those refused benefits  or sanctioned for missing an appointment.

If urban literature offered something other than an exciting colour, it was because it was the place where society interacted, came into touch with each other. Our contemporary solipsism, where the girl down the corridor from me puts on her headphones even as she throws out the trash in order not to have to say hello to anyone, is the endgame of this debt-led economical model. For all the problems of the urban wastelands I grew up with, they were also creative hotbeds of possibility - designed and adapted by the young, the marginalised, the new, and the uncomfortable. Our current world offers up a consumerist panacea....we don't need something like Google glasses - we are already living it.

As the empty tower blocks fill up with temporary agency staff; as the bars get more expensive and the restaurants heap up the calories on mega burgers or speciality pizzas, as the drugs get taken behind closed doors by burnt out accountants and marketing consultants... as the last dive venue puts up the "For Sale" sign and the last second hand shop moves out to the declining highstreets of suburbs and districts, we need new words for our Bourgeois-opolis, our Google-towns. The world's problems are increasing, yet our urban centres are becoming Westworld-style theme parks away from the reality. How to write that? How to read that?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coming Up

In my head I've not been blogging much - but I think its probably because I've not done too many "catch up" blogs on what's going on out there. I don't really want this to just turn into a "review" blog so I will try harder....

Today... you can go to Poets & Players at John Rylands for poetry superstar Alice Oswald. I imagine it will be packed so get there early.

On Monday, we've a whole raft of superstars, the FlashTag flash fiction collective - kind of like WWF but with words or something. I think it will be Fat Roland, Benjamin Judge and Sarah Clare Conlon reading at Verbose, alongside an "open mic". The last two events were packed so come early. Both Fat Roland and Benjamin Judge did a reading last night at SFX at the Royal Exchange, so if that was a preview, you are in for a treat.

And the megastars keep on coming, as the very funny (and very good) Chris Killen will be reading in real life from his new novel "In Real Life" at ever entertaining Bad Language.

Then the Manchester art scene will be out in force on Thursday night for a final showcase of New Art Space Federation House developed by Castlefield Gallery. It should be fantastic. Details are here - and its from 6pm-9pm.

Enough to be going on with? I do hope so.

I'm now off to Levy Market where there's food, drink, fleas (its a flea market innit?) and musical performances.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Underworld at Albert Hall Manchester

The first thing you notice on arriving at Manchester's Albert Hall to see Underworld is the sparse stage layout, with two Apple Macbooks, to the left of a bank of keyboards hidden from view.

When "dubnobasswithmyheadman" was released in 1994, the World Wide Web was in its infancy, and though computers were used widely in music, they were nowhere near as powerful as they are now.

The concept of bands touring their classic albums is one that can seem purely nostalgic, and surely for electronic dance music, which is so often singles-orientated and defined by its time, the idea should be ridiculous. Yet, "dubnobasswithmyheadman" was and is an exception to these rules. As Karl Hyde admits from the stage, he doesn't like to look back, so was uncertain about this tour. Yet last year saw a massive 20th anniversary reissue of what in effect was their debut album (they sensibly kept the name Underworld from an earlier pop-rock incarnation) and its such a seminal piece of work that performing it live makes a strange sense.

Go back to the early nineties, and the "revolution" in dance music that had begun in 1986 with "Jack Your Body" and Chicago house, had hardly petered out, rather it had morphed into a more generic "dance" music. Technology had improved for a start, so that whereas earlier house tracks had been built round tiny samples, it was now possible to build much more complex tracks. You could go to a gig to see top 40 indie band and there would be only a couple of hundred people there; yet go to a rave the next night and there might be two thousand. It was this world that Underworld understood, explored and exploited. By putting their rock band sensibility to use behind a club type record they took dance music away from its instrumental tendencies and infused it with a lyrical sensibility. Listening to Hyde as his deep murmuring vocal underpins the brooding opener "Dark & Long" its hard to think of  a precedent. His often surreal phrasemaking is a poetry of urban life that perhaps owes something to Lou Reed, but musically, I can only really think of early Eno or mid-period Cabaret Voltaire as being anything similar.

And if Underworld sounded pretty unique in 1994 its why their sound hasn't really dated twenty years on. Tracks like "Mmm...Skyscraper I Love You" and "Spoonman" are long, multi-part songs that are like electronic versions of "Midnight Rambler", "Heroin" or "The End". There's also something of the metallic darkness of early Sisters of Mercy, especially "The Reptile House", in these brooding songs. Yet because they are underpinned by an insistent trance like rhythm (and "trance" was a sub genre they virtually invented on this album) even the darkest songs are danceable and mesmeric. Playing the whole of that first album and then contemporary singles like the Voodoo Ray-like "Rez" and finally the triumphant nineties anthem "Born Slippy NUXX" their two hour set is as perfectly judged as a good DJ set. And you realise how "dubnobasswithmyhead" - an unheard of double album - is so perfectly judged, including previously released 12" mixes alongside slighter songs that give the audience a breather. There are a couple of moments that if not dated, seem of their time, such as the reggae/dub style "River of Bass" (itself closer to the Trip Hop sound that was happening around the same time) and "Surfboy" (which incorporates elements of Deep Forest/Cry Sisco style jungle samples); but otherwise the decision to tour a twenty year old dance record makes perfect sense.

The single that followed the album, "Born Slippy" came out unheralded, though I was a big fan at the time, but when it was used as the soundtrack to film du jour "Trainspotting", it went to number two in the charts, not only their only top ten hit, but an anthem for that generation. Its depiction of a night out, with cries of "Lager, lager, lager" was both celebration and warning, yet it became - like "Born in the USA" - an anthem liked by the very people it was probably critical of. Caught in the middle of air-thumping men of a certain age during "Rez" and "Born Slippy" in a slightly too-packed Albert Hall, it reminded me of the way that the celebratory nature of early nineties techno, exemplified by Underworld and by the communal Megadog gigs, quickly became as unruly as Oasis at Knebworth. Twenty years on, the lads still want to be lads. Despite that, the gig was a triumph, and a reminder of the ambition of electronic dance music in that era. There was hardly anyone in the audience under forty (at £30+ a ticket, perhaps no surprise), but it did make me wonder what a new generation would be listening to which had the same kick.

I'd been making electronic music myself for a decade when Underworld appeared, and I immediately recognised a music that had managed to achieve that mix of the rock band and house music that I'd suspected would come along at some point; what's remarkable is how finely achieved it was, how unique, and, two decades on, how well it stands up.

(Try this track of mine, "Forcefeeding" from 1991, I needed the skills of a Darren Emerson to take my pseudo goth EBM in a more commercial direction!)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes' 2010 novel "Zoo City" received quite a lot of attention when it came out and deservedly so. Ostensibly d a fantasy novel, the fantasy is so well grounded in a raw, contemporary, noirish Johannesburg, that the central conceit - that murderers summon up an "animal" from the undertow as a physical representation of their crime - becomes something that the reader soon takes on board, despite its strangeness. Part of that is South Africa itself, where black magic and the rituals that go with it are seen as being part and parcel of everyday life. The novel's feel is not a million miles from noirish films like "Angel Heart" set in a juju-obsessed New Orleans.

Zinzi December has a sloth for company. She is "animalled" and lives in Zoo City, a dangerous slum which has become home to others like herself. She has boyfriend Benoit, who has a mongoose for company and works as a security guard. Her own life is complicated - a drug habit means she's in perpetual debt to her dealers, and paying it off bit by bit by running email scams for them. Being "animalled" also gives her a psychic power, she can find lost things, and she makes her little money by doing this. When she goes to help an old lady find a ring that has gone down the toilet, it's just a normal job, until she comes back to find the old lady has been killed.

She's dragged into a world that she was trying to avoid - and gets asked to "find" a missing person, one half of twins - a pop music duo who are the latest big thing and are being moulded by a music industry big shot, the appropriately horrible Odi, who lives as a recluse yet has his fingers in lots of different pies. In her "former life" Zinzi was a journalist and she looks up her ex-beau Gio for help. Its a complex plotted novel with a large cast of peripheral characters who all have something to do with the conspiracy that's taking place, but its Zinzi, our feisty, flawed narrator who keeps things interesting. Animalled people are massively attached to their animal, so any separation from her sloth can cause great anxiety, yet at the same time, though some find it exotic, its also a sign of her outsider status.  And animals come in all varieties from tiny birds to a gigantic crocodile. It seems that these "familiars" reflect the status of the crime; in Zinzi's case, there are mitigating circumstances, her guilt is palpable, but sloth is a reflection of her conflicted personality - it sleeps most of the time, is sensitive and caring, yet has dangerous claws that can inflict damage - a bit like Zinzi herself.

Holding all of this together should be the hard part for any writer, but Beukes is adept at doing so. From the first few pages you can believe the world in which you've stepped. The fantastic tropes of the Undertow and the animals are explained away in a few extracted articles or academic papers, strewn throughout the narrative. This is the Ellroy of L.A. Confidential technique and it works really well once you get used to it - enabling Zinzi to stumble through the wider plot. For though she knows something bad is going on, and that she is becoming implemented, she becomes involved as the hustler that she is - with nothing much to lose, she decides to go along for the ride.

In many ways, the genre here isn't fantasy at all, but like Mieville's "The City and the City", a noirish crime drama. Zinzi is not so different in her accidental P.I. role than V.I. Warshawski in Paretsky's series of novels. Yet there's something other worldly about the novel that cleverly sees that traditional South African superstitions and magic are perfectly fitted to a contemporary fantasy noir.

There are times when the plot seems to get too convoluted, and some of the minor characters take on important roles, without the reader being entirely clear who they are. Yet there's a powerful driving sensibility from Zinzi's narration which holds the attention, even in a 400 page novel. As the plot points unravel and we see - at the same time as she does - what's really going on, what's also excellent is that there's no easy denouement. This is a cruel, Manichean world, where the Undertow has made a physical manifestation of people's crimes. Zinzi can't escape her fate, but she has to live with her actions. 

I thoroughly enjoyed "Zoo City" - and it seems, with her second novel, Beukes has managed to do something both original and familiar, with the setting in contemporary Jo'Burg, and its Zoo City slum, a brilliant setting for this fantastical modern noir.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Explaining Writing to a non-Writer

I've been blessed with a lot of non-writer friends in my life. I'd say that non-creative friends were my default in reality. Partly this was from where I was growing up, in a school and village where creativity was seen as decidedly abnormal (the school was particularly anti- creativity). Then at university, the "college" system at Lancaster meant that my best mates were studying engineering or physics or economics; not necessarily non-creative in their own way, but distinctly non-imaginative. Yes, they consumed culture, but they didn't make it. As I then worked as a computer programmer for 9 years, I was definitely an "outlier" in that world. Forget all that stuff about "get your kids to code" as being a creative discipline, the majority of programmers are not imagineers, but problem solvers. Because my own creativity has been very much at the right-brain end of the spectrum - making things up, flights of fancy, being more about the idea than the craft (I will come to that) - the differences with even some of my more creative friends has been profound.

With an old programmer friend visiting this weekend I mentioned my continued writing/music and he's known me nearly 30 years so he knows its part of me, but he was absolutely uncomprehending about the "need" to be creative as its something that's not at all in him. Yet he likes music and science fiction and films and art galleries....just has never had any desire to be creative himself. In the 70s and 80s you could get away with that in schools, though I'd thought that things had changed over the years at least with a broadening of the idea of creativity (rap music as valid as classical etc.), but we keep hearing that the liberal arts are being squeezed out of schools in favour of more vocational works.

Any way, we'd had a couple of glasses of wine so I tried to explain my creativity to him. I said that I though there were two axes (science types like graphs!), one of which has CRAFT at one end and IMAGINATION at the other. So my sister, who is a classically trained musician is very much at the craft end, but has rarely, if ever wrote a song; whilst I, who can't play for toffee, has been songwriting for thirty odd years. The sweet spot of course would be somewhere in the middle - a good musician writing good material. But there's also another axes I think - so imagine this as two pieces of wood nailed together like an X - which is about content, which is about what you write. Some people writer purely from the heart - i.e. if its not about them or happened to them, they can't imagine it - whilst others write from the head, e.g. researching a subject that particularly interests them in some way or another, or taking an idea and writing about it. Again, the sweet spot is probably in the middle - taking a subject that interests you (think of Kazuo Ishiguro's tendency to take big themes, but within them have more minor, personal keys, about love, family, memory, loss) - and personalising it in some way.

So explaining writing (or art or music) to a non-writer (artist, musician) this seems quite a useful way of putting things. It also says that someone who isn't creative might well be if they find a reason - e.g. my friend is a care worker working with the seriously disabled, there might be a time when he wants to articulate what he sees in some way, and perhaps abstract art might be a way of doing this - but that it might not necessarily be in the same quadrant as myself.

As a Pisces I'm always expected to be creative and dreamy, but there's always been a tension between head and heart in my work - I'm emotional and analytical (which explains how I ended up in computing in the first place, but also explains why I left) - and in reality I've always written from the head not the heart: part of this, I think, is making up for my perceived deficiency in craft. Writing is different than art or music, in that the facility for it is comes from the "head" - from "learning" - rather than pure instinct/ability. We all (or most of us) verbally communicate; not so many of us sing or paint. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that growing up as an incredibly imaginative child in a world that didn't really value the imagination (and rarely nurtured it, outside of my parents supporting for my strangeness!) meant that I had to overcompensate on the logical side - I had to find a justification for what I was doing, which took me into writing more analytically.

I think this is partly why I still like writing and making music, as it feels instinctive, purely imaginative, whereas in prose and even poetry, I'm constantly weighing up between the imaginative me, and the intellectual me. I rarely feel comfortable with "first person" in this sense, and if I like the confessional mode it is that strand of intellectualised confessionalism that you find in Lowell or Bishop, or going back, in Donne and Herbert. The frame in which my creativity works best needs to have at least some structure to it.