Thursday, August 03, 2006

It Wouldn't Do You Any Harm

I have a confession to make: I love first songs on albums-- so much so that one might suspect that I haven't listened all the way through a lot of records I supposedly like, which may or may not be true.

Here is a partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of fifteen "first songs" that I like more than I could possibly like any of the subsequent songs on the respective albums on which they appear:

1) "You Aint Goin Nowhere," The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
2) "Only Shallow," My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
3) "Come All Ye," Fairport Convention, Liege and Lief
4) "My Old Drunk Friend," Freakwater, Feels Like The Third Time
5) "Chasing a Bee," Mercury Rev, Yerself Is Steam
6) "Breadcrumb Trail," Slint, Spiderland
7) "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings," Palace Brothers, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You
8) "Brand New Love," Sebadoh, Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock
9) "The Wagon," Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind
10) "Skip Steps 1 & 3," Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty
11) "Running With The Devil," Van Halen, Van Halen
12) "Teenage Riot," Sonic Youth," Daydream Nation
13) "Tangled Up In Blue," Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
14) "Shepherd O Shepherd," Martin Carthy, Sweet Wivesfield
15) "Straight Outta Compton," NWA, Straight Outta Compton.

I am not sure what I think I have accomplished by making such a list.

I started thinking about this topic while listening to a few new music acquisitions. I recently located a copy of a recording by Chris Newman (no relation) called New Songs of Social Conscience/Six Sick Songs/London (ReR, 1998). My friend Martin had this CD in his collection when I was his roommate in Toronto a few years ago. When Martin played it for me and my friends we totally flipped out. Only a crazy nutjob could resist the charms of Chris Newman's music.

New Songs of Social Conscience falls loosely in the category of radical British singer-songwriter music sung by "marginal" voices-- vocalists older or craggier or more out of tune or ethnic or deranged than are usually heard on mainstream radio (we could think of Ivor Cutler, Hugh Metcalfe, Marianne Faithfull, Terry Hall, Polly Styrene, Johnny Rotten, Shane MacGowan, Mark E Smith, MIA and Lady Sovereign as all connected to this lineage, albeit in very different ways). Newman sings songs with lyrics that are powerfully idiotic, distilling bits of cliche, nonsense, and cafe conversation into a schizo vernacular of which Judge Schreber or Artaud would be proud.

He notes that the songs are are "built of everyday material, 'nothing special' taken out of context, 'nothing special' put on a pedestal. Not the exception. No escapism. The always & everything material. Potentially anything from this potential anything I build my work. Material which occurs to me without censorship. I have no preconception as to what a song is ┬┤meant┬┤ to sound like. This material, having been collected in the net of my head is then compiled, but not in a collage-type way - I loathe collage - but in a way which spreads the material onto time, spreads its meaning along the line of time. In singing the songs I do not try to be a singer but rather a singing self; in the way the material is a potential anything, I am here a potential anybody, a potential anybody put up on a pedestal."

Newman sings in a way that reminds of the great tradition of marxist postmodern queer English irony (cf. Derek Jarman), though I don't know if he identifites as marxist or queer or postmodern or English or ironic. This position gives the artist a particularly flexible relationship with the fetish objects of "high" and "low" culture, which are revealed to be identical and co-extensive: Shakespeare, opera, the flotsam and jetsam of aristocratic decadence, the Royal Family, etc. As the wonderful Toronto queer subculture of Queen Elizabeth drag queens (brought to the wider public by Scott Thompson on The Kids in the Hall) demonstrates, the slippage between class and gender positions engendered by the simultaneous embodiment of radically contradictory personas is tremendously powerful. Newman provides a great musical corollary: one moment, he transmits his melodies in an elfin, lisping, baby-doll voice; the next he stretches a syllable over an absurdly ambitious operatic melisma which his hoarse and wheezing pipes are totally incapable of navigating.

Nowhere is Newman's genius more evident than the first song on New Songs of Social Conscience, "It Wouldn't Do You Any Harm," which is another example of a first song that totally rules. Michael Finissy, whose English Country Tunes was another major inspiration for me and my friends back in the days of pre-millenial musicking, provides the piano accompaniment: jaunty, rhythmically precise hockets based around seemingly arbitrary segments of the major scale. Newman intones the first lines with a slightly demented intensity, undercut by the sweetness of the melody line and the indisputability of the senitment expressed: "It wouldn't do you any harm to give some money to that old lady/It wouldn't do you any harm to give some money to that old lady/She has none, but you have some/So give some money to the female bum/Give your money to the female bum."

Finissy's piano part returns, reiterating the opening phrase. We think we might be in the realm of music hall novelty, but the song takes an abrupt turn, as if following an errant impulse-- oh, maybe I should write this kind of song, rather than that?-- and Newman begins pondering aloud when it is possible to say whether it is one or two, something about water running... and then the music returns to the main motif. Newman regains composure, and announces, "Excuse number one, excuse number two," and repeats the first verse. The same odd "chorus" recurs four more times: "slow consumption of soup... my head is a drain... give your dog a university education... answer your own question... taking a shit at the Musee D'Orsee... don't let your penis touch the sink" (that's all I got... but what incredible lyrics, no?) The "Excuse Number One" and verse repeat a few more times, too, no longer a pop song, more the endless, circular "round" of the madman... and with each iteration, we become less sure we know why the singer is telling us to give money to the female bum, if the singer is the female bum, of if there even is "a" female bum. At the song's end, Newman repeats the clunky mantra as a coda: "But these psuedo-intellectual feelings we/you must overcome and give your money to that bum."

New Songs of Social Conscience engages with another English tradition: the embrace of simplicity and melodic infantilism as a means to critique capitalist culture. After pioneering various strategies of collective soundmaking in the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Sinfonia, composers like John White, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars developed an incredible corpus of deceptively simple melodic music. This impulse came from a variety of sources, not least of which was a global "melodic turn" on the part of socially committed composers who recognized in the advanced serialism of Stockhausen, Boulez and Babbitt an inherently elitist and reactionary politics.

Cornelius Cardew's late 1960s polemic Stockhausen Serves Imperialism was the key text articulating the rejection of Cold War mandarin experimentalism, although ironically he devoted a lot of time to critiquing John Cage rather than the indisputably odious Stockhausen (in the final analysis, Cage was probably an ally, if a highly iconoclastic and libertarian one, of the socialist avant-garde). John Cage was likely also the signal influence on the new weird melodicism (especially his Erik Satie-derived readymade "Cheap Imitation").

In the 1970s, Cardew turned, as Ruth Crawford Seeger and others had before him, to a much more literal musical engagement with working-people's struggles. Much to the chagrin of most new music lovers, the songs he wrote were pretty bad. As a rule, the songs that trained composers write for working people to sing are pretty bad. I am not saying they shouldn't do it (though a fairly unappealing Leninism underlies the notion that academic composers should write songs for the people), but we must face the facts. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; the proof of the horribly earnest composed protest song is in the wincing.

This is where the simple melodic music of the other Scratch Orchestra's alumni comes into play. John White's Fashion Music, Howard Skempton's accordion pieces, and Gavin Bryars's odd simulacrum of jazz lounge music in 1-2, 1-2-3-4 confront issues of aesthetic accessibility and commercial mediation by engaging listener's faculties ignored by agitprop music (which taps mainly into empathy and sentimentality): wonder, negative capability, creative dissonance, imagination, etc. I think of this music (and more modern versions, such as the music of Chris Newman, Michael Finissy and Victoria School composers Martin Arnold, Alison Cameron, and Stephen Parkinson), as not so much a critique of Cardew in folksonger mode as a gentle reminder that stimulating new kinds of perceptions can be just as "political" as naming the enemy.

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