Friday, March 16, 2012

Murphy's Law

Well, yes.

It's St Patrick's Day today. I have no great attachment to the day to be honest. To be brutally, unpretentiously honest - no Irish blood, no connection; I'm no hypocrite. More spleen-venting here, of course, but if you're eager to see me in a more charitable mood, here's an Irish judge from the Judge Dredd universe, hailing from the small Brit-Cit controlled territory of Emerald Isle. And it's a lady - trust me.

With a theme park mentality and a capital christened Murphyville you'd be a fool to expect anything less than a stereotype here, but, as seems the frequent case in the Dredd stories, the truth is stranger. Emerald Isle first appeared in the story of the same name during the run of Dredd largely overseen by the then up-and-coming writer Garth Ennis, and the look of the Irish judges - all harps, tricolours, shamrocks and pints, by fellow Irishman Steve Dillon - an artist whose style was for some time something of an early model for mine. The story's played for laughs, with spud guns on three settings (mash, chips and full-on taters), and yer man Dredd a grumpy fish out of water among a small band of the Garda who are largely in it for 'the craic' and aren't used to his big-city ultraviolent ways. Carnage ensues.

Murphyville's Judge-Sergeant Joyce returned for two further stories and then, with his creator, slipped the magazine with a fellow Judge - er, 'Wilde', I think (gosh, Mr scriptwriter Mark Millar, that's punching above your weight in the names department) filling in.

Enough grumbling. I actually like the Murphyville Judges, particularly for their levity in the face of an absurdly unfair world. That's probably another stereotype there, sorry, but that's the Dreddworld for you. And now for a confessions: so parochial were the early 2000ad stories of Mr Ennis that I genuinely and erroneously suspected his name was actually a pen-name, as no writer of Irish origin would seriously have a real name that so resembled the name of his homeland's national beverage.

Oh, look - more space! Okay then. A video - and here it is in honour of the day itself, the first wholly-Irish music track (and video) to totally blow me away, back in 1988. With, as any fule kno, additional crucial content by William Butler Yeats:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Generation Terrorists' (1992)
At seventeen you want to change the world, and you think that you can.

I am, roughly, the same age as the surviving members of Manic Street Preachers and, along with Blur, consider them a band of interest because of this. As I age, so do they, and as groups and fan we live and stand side by side, albeit at very different ends of the chorus line. It’s around the age of seventeen that the individual members of Manic Street Preachers came to be a group, still at school, not yet a four-piece, but equipped with the beginnings of an education and attitude which would inform their later career. There’s little to show of this early incarnation, lacking the essential ingredient of songwriter Richey James, and before this album there’s only the New Art Riot EP with its essential single Motown Junk (“I laughed when Lennon got shot” etc) vying for attention. In the years between 1986 and 1991 it’s ground-work for the band. Touring playing, creating a buzzword and building a fan base. Generation Terrorists, the first album proper is the result of this work, and the Manics’ first full-length outing on a major label.

When I first encountered the MSP it was in the pages – or rather, on the cover, of the Melody Maker, and we were all about twenty-one years old . Sprawled languidly across each other, all glam makeup and cynical mouthiness, I instantly despised them, and what the interview inside revealed about this band of try-hard Bolans and Lydons were vying for. It seemed so ludicrous, their arrogance, their ambition and belief in their self-worth. Built up as much as they were by the music press at the time, I thought if anything that they were destined for a fall. But instead they clung in there, becoming a fixture of the NME and Maker. Instead of being an irritant they were a curiosity; but not enough of one for me to follow yet, or inspect further. The cover pose, media assault and the sound of their debut album were an adroit combination of intended outrage and provocation, a very rock and roll charm offensive.

The major label launch exemplifies the slightly schizophrenic nature of Manic Street Preachers’ media strategy. As informed as they were in their early days by left-wing punk and post-punk band such as the Clash and Red Wedge acts like Billy Bragg, their loftier ambitions are much more mainstream and acquired an instant and assured infamy: they wanted to make an album like Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction; they wanted to sell out Wembley Stadium, and then they wanted to split up. They achieved none of those aims, and their failure (such as it might be measured) is the story of the band, marked by a calculated but portentous opening salvo through establishment in the UK indie and later mainstream music scene, and a steady, stable line-up interrupted only once -albeit crucially - with the disappearance of a creative lynchpin. I was saddened in downloading YouTube videos of this album to be forced to sit through an interstitial ad for, of all things, McDonalds. Is this what these young men wanted? The band who later courted controversy and eschewed the crass commercial buy-in, touring Cuba and playing for Castro? “Madonna drinks Coke and so you can too.”

Yet Generation Terrorists works surprisingly well on a single issue per song, contained and disciplined as they were at this stage. NatwestBarclaysMidlandsLloyds for example, and the single Little Baby Nothing, a feminist ballad in which singer James Dean Bradfield duets with Tracie Lords. Originally the duet was to have been shared with Kylie Minogue, but Minogue’s management vetoed the deal; the duet eventually occurred and can be heard here, although for my money there’s no comparison - Lords’ provenance and heavier delivery sell the song, while Minogue comes across as gimmicky. Wrought large, the album is single statements and phrases mashed together, invoking a deliberate clash and juxtaposition of lyrical images, fitting for the band’s own mix-and-match approach to style, image and reference. LBN is probably the most straightforward song of the whole album, addressing one person directly, while more celebrated and successful songs like Motorcycle Emptiness and Stay Beautiful represent a different marriage of slogan and descriptor, the latter almost a manifesto for the band itself.

What works: Slash 'n' Burn is a good opener, and a distinct nod to the band’s US influences in title as well as music (look out for a Robert Plant/Axl Rose yelp before the last chorus) plus NatWest, Motorcycle Emptiness (with nice Stuart Adamson guitar runs), You Love Us / Stay Beautiful. Half of the album is punchy and great, the other half sags in dated structure (Another Invented Disease with its GnR intro is clunky), and the full album is probably one side too long. The repetition of Repeat is somewhat ironic. The opposite effect is in James’ car crash lyrics of the above sloganeering and literary reference. Their density obfuscates delivery, and the message become lost amid a barrage of words which at this stage a game Bradfield manages well enough – two albums on and he’s gamely continuing and largely winning, but it’s a wall of words, and it begins here.

Which is not to paper over the contributions of the other, surviving members. James Bradfield's guitar work is already very accomplished, if a little studied and styled in the wake of others; Nicky Wire's bass is perfunctory, and we're yet to hear Sean Moore's drumming, alas, as it's all programmed for this album (and on some tracks, it shows). Perhaps at this stage the important thing is the look. The Sex Pistols just got away with an attitude and a minimum of open chords on stage; fifteen years on and this won't do - Bradfield has 'the chops' as they say, but it's a little startling also to see in live videos a young, 'ripped' shirtless torso behind the guitar as well. Nicky Wire's bizarre dressing - face paint, gender-bending frocks and scarves, is another thing entirely, and among them a genuinely wiry frame of Richey James. Yet it's James' lyrics that is one of the big things the Manics are known for and which drew the critical ear, and it’s still being developed on this album. The result here is early James, rather than the gatling-gun approach two albums on, and there’s still space, thankfully, for the quieter Spectators of Suicide, a late highlight.

Videos: As noted above, at this stage the videos are slick and straightforward; and extension of the band image and lyrics. Rather than narrative or cinematic they are studio-bound, sometimes cheap but always immediate. By the video of Little Baby Nothing the visual interplay of slogans and one-liners actually works against the intended message. The video’s direction makes them look more like that bane of Eighties music, the earnest ‘social issue’ band. Compared with the supercharged black-top muscle of, say, Slash ‘n’ Burn and the brattish You Love Us it really jars and must have given the casual viewer pause.

Album Cover: politely provocative. There’s a post-Like a Prayer church-bothering crucifix and bare ensemble, with tattoo (is it Richey’s arm?) all rendered in a daring pink on front, while on the reverse a European Union flag burns. It cries out for attention, but as suggested, falls somewhat short of outrage, while managing to merge provocation with an androgynous aesthetic (c.f Love’s Sweet Exile video)At this stage the borrowed iconography is a performance issue rather than a packaging one, so as sleeve design goes, the debut album is more of its time than the way forward.

Coming up next: the first tilt at the mainstream…