Friday, January 26, 2018

Bill is Dead (RIP Mark E. Smith)

So in the end, Mark E. Smith wasn't one of the indestructibles, not an Iggy Pop or a Keith Richard, not someone who could escape the likely outcome of dissolute habits, and - more likely - those poor working class Salford genes. His passing this week, though not exactly a surprise, since he had been ill for some time, was still a shock, perhaps more so, because of the sense that he was indestructible. There were no compromises, no second acts with Mark E. Smith and the Fall, though that band went through so many line up changes ("if its me and your granny on bongos" he said, "it's the Fall), so many good times, bad times; there wasn't the solo career, or the forming of the jazz funk band or the cover versions album (though a Fall covers album would be a virtual alternate greatest hits, so good were some of their interpretations, whether obscurities like "Black Monk Theme" and "Mr. Pharmacist" or songs we were so familiar with like "Lost in Music" and "A Day in the Life"), or the writing of the novel (he wrote an autobiography, but it disapponted a little, as he seemed to grow bored with the very idea.)

There's some sadness here - that he didn't escape this particular destiny. The cause of death hasn't been announced yet - but he was a sixty year old who looked older, who had multiple health problems; no doubt intensified by the drink, the cigarettes, the amphetamine lifestyle that fuelled this particular generation of (punk) rockers. Some of the obituaries refer to him as "punk singer" Mark E. Smith - but that seems a category error from the very start. Only a very few, very early songs can be said to be using a punky yelp, his voice quickly matured into something else entirely, a kind spoken singing, as fused with Salford, as Lou Reed's tone was fused by New York. Having survived punk, and actually thrived as a band during the eighties and nineties (cue: psychedelic monster "US 80s 90s", for every occasion there's a Fall song), the first turn for the worse was when the stalwarts of Scanlon and Hanley were promptly sacked, and a new Fall, apparently dragged from local pubs and chip shops in North Manchester, replaced them. Hanging around the Manchester music scene as I have for at least half of the Fall's career, I've inevitably known a couple of his side(wo)men - carefully catalogued in the book "The Fallen" (a book he no doubted hated, or at least said he hated, but is a classic in its own way). That the Fall were a constant to the very end, and that the last incarnation, was one of the longest ones (excepting the departure of his 3rd wife Eleni), actually makes one question that myth of him hiring and firing like a particularly authoritarian football manager. He used the analogy himself once or twice, saying that you had to change the striker - but of course he never changed the real leader of the club, even as in more shambolic later period gigs he left the stage to the band, or even the audience, or sang from behind a speaker stack or backstage.

The audience is another thing entirely. I was wondering whether I should write this piece, as I know there will be endless pieces written about The Fall, by more obsessive fans than myself, by people who had met him or worked with him or been dissed by him. And yes, the majority of those will be written by middle aged white men, carrying a little bit too much weight. Later Fall albums documented this at times: "My Ex-Classmates' Kids", "50 Year Old Man", "Couples vs Jobless Mid 30s" - but then again, Smith has always written about what he can see, part street poet, part Anglo Saxon chronicler, part seer through the bottom of a pint glass. I know plenty of women who really like the Fall, but they are not the obsessives going to every gig or not caring whether Smith is on fire or a charicature of himself, or collecting endless live tapes and poorly recorded live albums. But have my say, I will, because, if not now, steeped in hearing his music and reading about him, then, when?

I'll try and keep the personal anecdote to a minimum. I did move to Manchester for the music - but it was more The Fall, than it was other favourites, the Smiths, A Certain Ratio, Joy Division. Though it was some time until I caught them play in their home city. I'd seen them in Birmingham, Lancaster, Blackburn and probably a few other places, before then. Listening to John Peel in the early 80s, they were unavoidable and it took a while to understand the cacophony - after all this must have been around 1981, when they were at their most wilfully strange - "Slates", "Hex Enduction Hour", "Room to Live." It was something more accessible than first pricked my ears, the Peel session with a song called "Eat Y'Self Fitter", a single repetitive rant, with a great sense of humour to it. "What's a computer? Eat Y'Self Fitter." My own origin story here is that I still wasn't that sure about them as a band, but I'd written a letter to the pop pages of the Daily Express (my parents' choice of newspaper) and though they didn't print my letter, they said I could have a "Top 100" album as a prize. I didn't know what was in the top 100 but had seen there was a new Fall album out - "Perverted by Language" - eventually it arrived. So the Daily Express got me into The Fall! I'm imagining a junior employee swearing under their breath as they head to Rough Trade or the Virgin Megastore to get hold of a copy to send to this spotty fifteen year old the Midlands.

At sixth form, word had got round about the Fall, and my friends had picked up some of their older albums. I taped the ones I hadn't got and looked forward to seeing them live. We stumped up for a shared taxi to Birmingham and saw them in late 1984, around the time of "Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall." Our English teacher was amazed we were going to see them. "They still around?" he said. "I went to see them in 1979, two nights in a row, they played totally different songs each night."

The Fall began as a sort-of punk band, but even at the start had some other tendencies. The major record labels were slow to sign up a few of the early crop of bands. Whilst the Stranglers, the Damned, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Wire and others found themselves on old imprints like United Artists and Harvest, some bands - Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants and the Fall, hung around like the last of the team to be picked. I wasn't old enough, but I imagine, that the implosion of the Pistols, and the sense that none of these bands were going to give the record industry a "Dark Side of the Moon" or "Frampton  omes Alive" left to the also-rans or latecomers signing to some of the new indie labels. Eventually signing to Step Forward, a sub label of Miles Copeland's "Illegal" records/IRS records, it was an odd home for them. That debut album has never been a favourite, though I like non-typical gothic song "Frightened" - its the only record where Smith would share billing, with Martin Bramagh. After that album, the Fall would be his fiefdom alone.

Though punk and post-punk created something of a market - the grimness of seventies England and the lack of resources behind the emerging independent labels meant that few bands sold that many records. The Fall's early albums were released by Step Forward, Rough Trade, Kamera, Rough Trade again (after the latter folded), before finding a relatively comfortable home with Beggars Banquet. In the years since a plethora of labels have taken on the Fall, from one offs, to chancers, to self released ("Cog Sinister"), to more recently finding a better place on reissue label Cherry Red.  One of the many untold stories of the Fall must be about their relationship with the industry - only once on a major - Fontana - and rarely staying on the same imprint for longer than a couple of albums, yet never being without a home (at least in the UK - US releases have been patchy over the years.) Add in the amount of promoters they must have worked with given their relentless endless gig schedule, the number of recording studios they frequented, and the number of festivals they performed at; their relationship with the "industry" is a vast and complex one. Through various managers, wives, and business relationships, the Fall have been sometimes the most chaotic of enterprises, but also an effective one.  Though Smith was always scathing about the obsessive fans who wanted only the old stuff, he was always smart enough to know that these fans were keeping him in fags and beer, and more importantly allowing or enabling the Fall to continue as a going concern throughout its many different incarnations.

The other key quote about the Fall - John Peel's saying "always different....always the same"  is both a truth and an untruth. It's sometimes hard to reconcile different "versions" of the Fall, yet the constant of Smith's lyrics, vocals and vision gives a unity where otherwise there might not be one. In truth, there musical palate has both been narrow and wide - narrow in the sense it usually pairs down to a love of simple noise, of warped rockabilly, or direct garage rock; but wide in the sense that this "template" is wide enough to include electro, techno, Krautrock, reggae, and various other dilutions. Working with numerous different musicians, at least since the late 1990s implosion of the band, has seen Smith being able to plunder the work of a much wider range of songsmiths, only really falling into a predictable pattern with the jobbing band of the last few years. At its best, this creates some great eclecticism, at its worst albums such as "Levitation" and "Reformation Post" are not amongst their finest.

For me, that other cliche, that your favourite Fall album is your first, holds true. It was "Perverted by Language" I pulled out - that original Daily Express provided vinyl - on hearing of Smith's death. It has "Smile", probably the most intense of their many intense pieces of guitar assaultery. (Never a punk band, the Fall were never really a rock band either, but on tracks like this are heavier and more intense than followers such as Sonic Youth). There's also "Hotel Bloedel", the first Brix E. Smith song that appears on a Fall record, a bit of strange psychedelia that is unlike anything else in the catalogue. "Eat Y'Self Fitter" remains a towering achievement - funny, yet repetitive, like John Cooper Clarke duetting with Steve Reich. Better still is the incomprehensibly ambitious "Garden" a piece of unparalleled art rock that could probably fuel a whole career. "Tempo House" recorded live at the Hacienda gives the album a freshness and excitement, Its an album of ambition - building on their last full length masterpiece "Hex Enduction Hour" but with the new tautness of this new (and soon to be relatively steady) line up of Mark and Brix, the two Hanleys, Scanlon and Burns.) The parts fuse together in a way that seems to me to be a career highpoint.

What happened next of course...the unlikely sight of The Fall becoming fashionable, belies the description of Smith as a "punk singer". It can be argued that the wealth of riches of the Beggars years - not just LPs, but E.P.s. Singles (some which charted  - a little), and even a ballet (the collaboration with Michael Clarke's company that led to "I am Kurious, Oranj.") I was at university during these years and seeing the Fall during this time was glorious. I even met them when they came to play at Lancaster. Mark scowled and read the college paper whilst I talked to Brix and Craig with the (later to be well known) journalist Amy Raphael. Brix had asked if I could get her a portable TV to watch Dynasty (it turned out it was on the wrong night), whilst they had mistakenly asked for a "fish and chip supper" as their rider. (The fish hut on campus was the worst fish and chips in the North of England.).

Other bands would come and go in my affections but the Fall would remain - mostly reliable, even if bewilderingly prolific. Later, buying a book called "The Fall: a Users Guide" I was amazed reading the discography how much stuff I had missed - b sides, extra tracks on cassette and CD versions, live recordings.  The Fall back catalogue was growing at exponential pace.

Most surprising perhaps was that even as the music industry passions changed - from punk, to post-punk, to new romantic, to goth, to indie, to Madchester, to Britpop - the Fall were never quite entirely in or out of fashion. Odd cultural things would happen as well such as an old track surfacing at the end of Jonathan Demme's modern horror "The Silence of the Lambs." In Madchester, though Smith was scathing of how his city had become an "idiot joy showland" he nonetheless duetted on a top 20 hit with the most trad of all the Manc bands, the Inspiral Carpets. As house and techno developed, quite a few DJs noticed the syncopated, Can/Krautrock nature of some of the Fall's material, and how an abrasive voice like Smith's could make a nice counterpoint to electronic beats. This would culminate a few years later in the worthwhile (if not quite the triumph we'd maybe hoped an electro-Fall album might be), collaboration with Mouse on Mars, an album under the Von Sudenfed name. Along the way, there were other surprises. A couple of reggae singles were surprisingly effective - "Kimble" and "Why are People Grudgeful?" - as surprising were the Top 30 cover of "There's a Ghost in My House", a Northern Soul classic, or the effective versions of the Kinks' "Victoria" (Dave Davies tweeted this week how much he liked the Fall version), or the driving disco of "Lost in Music." Despite his reputation, Smith was also an amenable collaborator when it came down to it. He seemed to enjoy the chance to be a bit of working class grit amongst the posh kids on the art shows, at least now and then - and for all his dismissal of much popular music, the Fall were inspired choices for the charity NME version of Sgt. Pepper, doing a wonderful version "A Day in the Life."

By the mid-1990s I think the potential of electronic music to add something to the Fall sound had been integrated - if not fully - particularly on albums like "Shiftwork." He would record a mundane techno track with D.O.S.E. at PWL studios, and in interview would mention how he liked Stock Aitken and Waterman's novelty track "I'd rather jack" by the Reynolds Girls. At some point, things came together into a top ten album - though chart placings were never really the issue. Around the corner though was a certain chaos - Smith at forty had left Brix, and the band soon went as well (though she came back as a band member briefly, inexplicably on the bright and excellent "Cerebral Caustic.") Fall albums were no longer events, and the changing line ups over the next few years, as well as changing labels, was matched with the release and reissue of a vast quantity of substandard compilations and live CDS. At some point a whole load of demos and outtakes were thrown out on three apparently random compilations "Sinister Waltz", "Oswald Defence Lawyer" and "Fiend with a violin." These tracks were often interesting, never crucial, and so random in terms of how they were compiled that it was seen as a cynical exercise aimed at fleecing the completist fans. For a band who were so often vital live, the number of gigs being cancelled, or where Smith was obviously drunk or a in a bad way, or came on late, or finished early, increased. I saw them at an outdoor concert at Castlefield Bowl and they were both chaotic and wonderful at the same time. It was the first time I feared for Smith's future. I'd always thought here was an artist who was uncompromising, doing things his own way, and different, rather than kowtowing to the record label or music industry, but it seemed like he was no longer in control of the narrative. "Levitate", "The Marshall Suite" and particularly the dreadful "Are you are missing winner?" saw a massive fall off in quality  though every album - even that last one - would have its standout moments.

It was quite a surprise that after a little gap there was a new Peel session that as good as anything they had done. Rumours of a new album. "Country on the Click", and a series of small gigs in Manchester. With a new band line up, new songs, and seemingly a whole new attitude, this Fall - eventually caught on record on "The Real New Fall LP" - were the best they'd been in decades. Songs like "Blindness" and "What About Us?" were classics that could hold their own with earlier favourites and live they were astonishing - ending as an old style review passing the mic round the audience who would sing the lyrics to "Big New Prinz" - "he is not appreciated" pointing at Smith.

For a while Smith even embraced the internet - making friends with the fan-obsessive Fall website and forum - until it became unofficial again after another falling out - and briefly agreeing some kind of amnesty on live tapes which began to appear as downloads for a few quid. For a band so extensively recorded live, their's not a truly satisfactory live album released - one wonders if whoever now looks after his estate might take a more measured view now the focus isn't just on new material and new recordings.

Of course, things couldn't last - in America Smith fell out with his band in mid-set and ended up in jail for a couple of nights - and would then play and record with an American pick-up band for a while .When 3rd wife Eleni joined the band on keyboards she was no Brix, but adding a little sparkle on stage, as well as the tinkly amateurishness of Fall keyboards, it gave a little bit of light to the band's now customary pub rock sludge. Over the year's the Fall "sound" has changed in subtle ways, and the last version was something dark and guttural, reminding one of pre-punk bands. Sometimes this was good - but the last time I saw them live - just before "Your Future, Our Clutter" came out, it was clear that the new Fall was a sound I wasn't quite so enamoured with - heavy, lacking in subtleties, with Smith's lyrics often reduced to a yowl. They were some way off their peak yet could occasionally still throw in a great track like "Bury" and live they would pull out a very few back catalogue songs - usually murky rockabilly numbers like "No Xmas for John Quays", "White Lightning" and "Mr. Pharmacist."

The touring remained relentless but sometimes Smith was hardly there, other times he was in a wheelchair or helped by a stick after a fall and breaking a hip. More recently, over the last year, signs have been ominous, with gigs and other appearances cancelled at short notice. His last album, "New Facts Emerge" was surprisingly his strongest in years, the somewhat sullen sound of his current band finally finding the right kind of groove, against which his mostly incomprehensible singing makes a kind of late period sense. Fall gigs over the years have been as much testing ground for new material as representations of whichever album has just been released.

Over the next days and months, we'll probably get plenty of new information about the last year of this great, unique, artist - at the same time, it seems fair to say that he remains in many ways unknowable in his drive and genius. A non musician who so much depended on the sounds around him - (his two spoken word solo albums are mostly just curiousities) - yet something of a genius in th way he could bring the best out of untried musicians. Nobody (except probably Bramagh) has really gone on to a good musical career after being part of The Fall. When the ex-Fall Hanley and Scanlon formed a new band they got the opposite of Smith into sing, an appalling long-haired rock singer. It was one of the worst bands I ever saw: yet made up of core components of one of the best. Lists of favourite Fall songs have been circulating all week - and though most have concentrated on early work, there's been enough on recent albums for even the jaundiced fan to feel that the Fall were still a thing not a nostalgia act. If Peel's death brought a shutter down on one important relationship - documented on the exemplary boxset that brings together all the BBC Peel sessions - the story still had some time to run; but now, to all intents and purposes it is over.

I was sad, very sad, not because it was so unexpected, but because I had hoped that Mark E. Smith might finally be taking a pause to get his health back in order; yet it was obviously too late. He didn't quite die on stage, but with gigs scheduled (or cancelled) up until the last, the idea that this ill man was going to leave us was still, we all hoped, some way off. Like Dylan, or James Brown, he seemed unable to stop doing this strange thing of performing as "The Fall". It could sometimes seem an act - a piece of art theatre more than music. At other times it was the finest rock and roll experience you could experience. The records had become adjuncts to the story - maybe they always were a little - there's not one you'll find in the nostalgia lists, as "you must buy this one" - though the ones that come closest to universal approval - "Hex Enduction Hour", "Perverted by Language" and "This Nation's Saving Grace" - are as good as place as any to start. Their Beggars Banquet A-sides compilation is as close to a "best of singles" as they ever did - though there's now a career spanning 3 CD (or 7 CD inc. b-sides) compilation from Cherry Red for a more vast listening experience. The number of books about the Fall has grown massively in last few years - Smith's autobiography joined by memoirs from Brix and Steve Hanley for instance. I sometimes think I feel I know too much, and yet also know next to nothing at all.

The bookish nature of auto-didact working class Grammar school kid who left school at sixteen, lived in a house full of sisters, stuck out against the prevailing winds of Manchester music business approval, through over 40 years of music making, over 30 albums, and hundreds upon hundreds of songs; named his band after a Camus novel, and namechecked H.P. Lovecraft, Nabokov and Ballard amongst others; wrote songs about eveything from nostalgia for seventies sweets, to poisoning by chemical companies; seemed to create a mythos that was grounded in a Manchester that is both real and a made up land of "city hobgoblins" - using a twisted beat poetry that only really works when combined with his narrowly effective vocal delivery, part shout, part scream, part growl. Somehow, off all the bands who started out in 1977, he was the only one who really believed totally in the ethos of outsider art, of being able to change things through creativity, and of being forever looking forward not backwards. In amongst the sad feelings this week, there's been something else, a crystal clear admiration for I know not what; for unlike other rock idols, Smith never wanted you to follow him, nor him to guide; rather it feels as if the example of being The Fall was enough, however irrational and unreplicable it might seem. I am the lesser for his being gone, and I am the greater for the many years that he has been in my life.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Whole of an Artist

I first became aware of Frank Zappa as a 14 year old poring over rock encyclopedias - and then seeing some of the strangely titled records in the record shops. I didn't hear any until much later, when, I think, Marc Almond, one of my heroes, included an extract from "Uncle Meat" on a show of his favourite albums. (He also included "Berlin" by Lou Reed which I quickly bought - Zappa would have to wait.) At university, a friend taped me "Hot Rats" which I sort of enjoyed, though it wasn't usually my kind of thing and at some point I picked up CDs of "Uncle Meat" (which I found a little disappointing) and "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" (which I loved). An older friend was a fan, and when his back catalogue got picked up by Rykodisc I got the two "Cheep Thrills" compilations. All the Zappa I could possibly need....

...then on a trip to Newcastle I picked up the Uncut special on Zappa to read on the train. With a review of every single album, I quickly became aware of how little I had heard...of how much there was. A few albums later - "Bongo Fury", "Roxy and Elsewhere", "Mothers Live at Filmore" - I was surely sated. Then a reissue of his first three albums in a cheap box, oh go on then. At some point I have to admit that I have around 20 Zappa albums. The bits I like - the crazy psychedelia of the early cut up albums, the doo wop pastiches, the over the top guitar wig outs - and the bits I didn't - the frat boy humour, the overly precious jazzy instrumentals, the somewhat proggy tendency of the songs - at some point become merged, sometimes in a single album or single song. Okay, I'm a fan now, I guess. But there's not just these twenty albums, there's another twenty, and another, and another....

Zappa it seems is one of those artists who is a genre to himself. I'd add in Prince, Dylan, Neil Young, Eno, Bowie, George Clinton, Rundgren - probably a few more. Once you start buying them you can't stop. The bad becomes almost as important as the good....

I remember Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner writing that his best work wasn't a particular novel but the "whole" of the saga, or individual scenes or stories - probably a necessary statement given his choosing of extracts for the "Portable Faulkner". Few writers are at a quality throughout their life - there is apprentice work, there are sidetracks, there is hack work. I recently hovered over an unmade F. Scott Fitzgerald film script in a secondhand bookshop before realising it wouldn't add anything to my knowledge of Fitzerald (I've two different versions of the "The Last Tycoon.") Whereas a novel tends to be a complete work its often not as simple as that. Early versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover", "Sons and Lovers", and "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" have been published for instance - there are two versions of two of my favourite novels, "Tender is the Night" and "A Clockwork Orange." The "best" novel of the 20th century according to one poll, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz was initially a much shorter work published in a magazine. Are multiple volume books like "The Lord of the Rings" or the Patrick Melrose novels single or multiple works?

What I think is interesting is that even as we look for the "perfect" work - the Stone Roses debut, or "Blade Runner" or "The Life Times of Michael K" - the artist is only accidentally responsible for this. Artists like Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Prince didn't just record an "album" but compiled one from different tracks. Young's recent "Hitchhiker" was an album of acoustic demos from the early 1970s which has seen most of its tracks released over the years in different versions on different albums. There are tracks on the last album of Pixies' original incarnation which appeared on their original "purple tape" sent as a demo to 4AD records. Even David Bowie - who would often go into the studio with nothing written - would resurrect a 1973 song for the "Scary Monsters" track "Scream like a Baby" - and "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic", a number one for the Police, was from a Sting demo that had long lain unrecorded.

Going to an art gallery, I'm often interested in career retrospectives. Over the years some of my favourite shows have been like this - Basquiat, Hannah Hoch, Jackson Pollock, Tove Janssen have all been career spanning shows that have absolutely fascinated me with the progress of their work. Much as we can talk about art without talking about the artist and their life (and the times in which they live), the art is often enhanced by an understanding of the circumstance of its making.

Back to Zappa, I think he'd pretty much stopped releasing proper albums around the time I got into music (his hit single "Valley Girl" from "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch"), and what would come next would be a range of curated albums - taking old live tapes and manipulating in the studio. Since he died we've had one of the most comprehensive reissue programmes ever. Certainly collections like "Lather" (which was stripped apart for 3 albums in the late 70s) and the recent expanded "Uncle Meat" are worthwhile additions to the canon; they feel like the have the imprimatur of the artist, even though he has left.  Yet though we are all interested in posthumous releases by artists we love - such as Prince and Bowie and Amy Winehouse - the posthumous releases are rarely an embarassment of riches.

Now, where can I get a cheap copy of Zappa's "Jazz from Hell".....

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Dwarves of Death by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe is a novelist whose fiction I've long intended to read, having only read his B.S. Johnson biography "Like a Fiery Elephant" in the past. Most well known for his fourth novel "What a Carve Up!" I plumped instead for the short novel that precedes it "The Dwarves of Death" partly because it adds to that interest micro-genre of novels about imaginary bands.

There are three imaginary bands in this 1990 satirical thriller, the Alaska Factory, the Unfortunates (after the B.S. Johnson novel) and the titular Dwarves of Death. Bill is the keyboard player in the first of these. He dropped out of Leeds University to follow his piano teacher to London, and has an admin job whilst moonlighting occasionally in a jazz bar, a place where he accidentally met his sort-of girlfriend Madeleine. "The Alaska Factory" are a mismatch and Bill's synth, which he lugs across London on the bus, isn't a good fit. His band's shadowy manager, Chester, suggests he leaves them and joins The Unfortunates, a darker band, whose sound needs filling out.

Bill is our genial narrator, but an unreliable one, in that he gets nearly everything wrong. Part dreamer, part innocent, he also is self-obsessed, not noticing what's around him. His old girlfriend from school, whom he has not been in touch with since coming to London, he realises seemed to see right through him - know before he did what he wanted to do. What he wants to do in London is vague. His relationship with Madeleine is one of bad dates and poor communications, and they never get further than a kiss. When she says she wants things to change, he misinterprets it as she wants him to marry her, when she's finally trying to bring the whole thing to a close. He shares a flat with Tina, sister-in-law of his piano teacher, on a grotty south London estate, but never sees her as she works shifts. They leave each other increasingly terse notes. Its obvious that Tina's boyfriend is abusing her, but not to Bill. The third woman he has an interest in is a Scottish barmaid at the pub that the band meet in.

This predictable life of late '80s London, is a recognisable but sterile one. A city in decline. Britpop hasn't yet happened - and there's no mention of the house music or other black formats which leading to warehouse parties around the M25. The Alaska Factory sound like they might be a Keane before their time - Bill's tastes run to the melodic, whilst The Unfortunates are much more intense, probably a late goth band of some sort. Yet the music is a bit of a red herring. For the story starts - and is flagged on the cover - with Bill's first meeting with the Unfortunates, in a house that their manager has provided for them. Left behind with the singer as they head to rehearsals, the singer waits in for a parcel from the shadowy man who lets them have the house. Its a mistake. Two assassins, hooded, come in to kill him. Bill hides in a corner and escapes - but is suddenly a fugitive. He never gets to join the now singerless and aptly named Unfortunates.

The novel then goes back to how it all begins and we get a comic tableau of his London life. He's like a Nick Hornby character, but without any pretension of success. The writing is often engaging and comic even as we cringe at Bill's description of situations - spending his money to taking the very ordinary (but beautiful) Madeleine to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber and spending all his time slagging off it and her love for it. Actually, as much as Hornby, its Ben Elton I recall, whose first novel "Stark" was a well read favourite from 1989. As a comedian Elton's novel was more a series of skits strung together with a bumbling hero - and in some ways "The Dwarves of Death" - its thin plot aside has a similar characteristic. An elongated piece about waiting for a bus in South London could almost be a piece of contemporary stand up.

For it turns out the Dwarves of Death were the most obscure of the obscure punk bands to come out of Scotland. Luckily Bill's friend from home is an obsessive collector and even sends him his impossible to find 2nd single. It turns out that there is a coded message in the b-side of the single - and Bill has unwittingly got involved in a revenge drama involving the barmaid and the owner of the recording studio they use.

The plot feels a red herring in many ways - Chester's getting Bill to join the Unfortunates is a pure plot device - and in what is a readable, satirical story, we realise that this is much more a dark coming of age story, with Bill having tried London, having got into all sorts of unexpected trouble, before finding what it is he really wants from his life.  Even though its set in 1988, it feels more dated in its style than its subject, the writing chatty but occasionally infuriating, as Bill, a likeable sort, proves to be a bit of a well meaning fool. That pre-internet world - where you would write a letter to old friends, or leave a message on an answerphone and not know if it had been picked up - is brought to live vividly.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Includes some spoilers.

Naomi Alderman's prize winning novel "The Power" begins with a familiar framing device. There are emails from "Naomi" to "Neil". The latter has written a history - albeit a somewhat fictionalised one - and wants the former's opinion. He is an archeologist and historian, looking back on a period of (from their perspective) ancient history. The past though is in our future - and this is where the novel begins, in our present day. The "looking back" is from a perspective of several thousand years in the future.  I'll come back to that frame.

In the present of the novel - we begin at the necessary place, when "the power" first comes to the girls. Teenage girls are the first to discover they have it - its an electric shock they can use when they touch people and things, sometimes little more than a tickle, but if they learn to control it, enough to injure or kill or worse. Like the history that it purports to be, it takes us through several origin stories. The abused girl Allie, who uses it on her foster father; the British girl, child of a gangster, who discovers the power, when her mother is attacked, the Nigerian man - soon to be a journalist - who uploads the first video of the power in action to YouTube, and an American politician who discovers it is better to hide this skill. Over time these stories will converge. Allie is the most interesting of the four characters. She runs away and guided by a voice in her head, she comes to an isolated convent where the nuns take her in. This all woman environment is where she begins to develop a new personality, a new name, and a new religion. She begins to call herself Mother Eve, and as her power develops and the voice in her head gets stronger, she begins to be a leader amongst the women.

There's a fifth story. In Moldova, a male leader dies and is replaced by his wife - who quickly declares a new country, run purely by women. Meanwhile the British girl's father realises what an asset he has in the power of his daughter, and she begins to control his drug business. When she turns up in America on the run from a revenge attack, she turns up at the convent and Mother Eve realises she has a soldier.

The power is something that appears to have always have been there but dormant - or possibly not - as some kind of nerve agent added to the waters during and after the war like flouride, so that all women now have it within them. In some ways the origins of the power matter less than what it means. Some people immediately realise it means everything has changed. Men can no longer rape or hurt women without being hurt back. In small doses it can enhance sex games. Yet at the same time this affront to masculine power means there's a counter revolution. On 4Chan like websites men use aliases as they plot revenge and converse freely of their hatred for women. Alderman, who used to develop stories for interactive game environments, is one of the few writers who is not phased by writing about the internet, but does with total confidence. It is one of the book's strengths. Compare with Eggars' "The Circle" where you get the feeling that the digital side is something he's researched.

Alderman has always been an interesting and ambitious writer, and this book really plays to her strengths. There's a lot of cleverness to her vision of this new world, a lot of spirited invention. As the book continues we move into a less speculative realm - as the action speeds up. The women's power shows itself via a "skein" that appears around their collarbone. There are men who have it as well. In the background there is the sense that this change is happening so rapidly that laws and technology can hardly keep up. At the same time the fear of these women leads to theocratic regimes in particular clamping down on the new reality - in the new Moldova, there is a war going on. Tunde, the principal male character in the novel, is now a celebrity journalist sharing his stories via his internet channels - being asked to report on the latest outburst of the phenomenon.

The pace begins to hot up - centred on the new female republic where for various reasons all the main characters have now ended up. The plot is labrynthine and breathless. Having given us plenty of explanation about the new reality, we now accept it. Like in China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" or Lauren Beukes' "Zoo City" the new reality is no longer seen as strange. It sometimes seems the women are now almost like superheroes and the power is their super power. Though it makes the book a thrilling page turner in this latter part, I felt the move out of America leads to us losing something of the everyday strangeness. In this lawless eastern country its like anything can happen without consequence. The politician is now a senator, having finally shown her power on the televised debate. She has set up training camps for the girls in a public-private partnership. Mother Eve can only feel safe by owning the whole world - the voice in her head tells her so. Whilst Roxy, the young British girl, is now queen of the drug runners, and a new drug "glitter" which enhances the power, is being shipped across Europe.

In between chapters we have some line drawings of artefacts - a reminder that this is a "history" being told from a distant future. We now understand why - for Alderman is providing us with a satirical parallel of the world we live in. Imagine: after five thousand years of a woman-led world, can you imagine a male-led one that may have existed before? I understand why she includes this - and it adds a philosophical layer to the novel but in some ways it seems awkward, unecessary. The women taking over will lead to a war - a mighty catastrophe as men, now the weaker sex, are subjugated under their female rulers.

The novel is a deserved prize winner - it adds a substantial imaginative offering to our lists of dystopian fiction, with a distinct twist to it - but though its immensely fun to read, it does at some point, move from a strange evocation of this new world into something more like a comic book or video game. By the end there's a feeling there's no real consequence - yet there is, as the major and minor characters discover - and an awkward love story adds to that sense of flippancy. It seems to lack the intense strangeness of Ben Marcus's not entirely dissimilar "The Flame Alphabet" for instance (here it is teenagers rather than girls who are different.) I think the creation of a new religion - led by Mother Eve - feels the main story in the first part of the novel, but then it just becomes one strand of several, and the least dynamic one. I guess in the desire to create a real page turning adventure and bring us to a place of satisfactory climax, we lose some of the the depth of thought and characterisation that I so loved earlier in the novel.

So, not quite a masterpiece, but certainly one of the most rewarding and readable novels I've read for some time. In an age of dystopias it seems  a particularly original one. At times its as dark as an HBO boxset and it does feel like a novel written in and for the Netflix age. The return to the framing device at the end makes explicit what we already know - that it is our known world that is the unbelievable one, not the one of the novel, where women have all the power.