Sunday, February 20, 2011

Black Swan

Perhaps a bit of serendipity that the week that I finish a review of an album by Black Swan that Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant film Black Swan opens in Barcelona. They have nothing to do with each other except perhaps a spiralling sense of darkness. But whereas the films claustrophobia is highly energised and sexualised, the album is detached and objective, but hardly emotionless.

Essentially an album length ritual, “In 8 movements” conjures up feelings of descent and drowning. In particular, listening to the album gave me the recurrent image of a scene from Yukio Mishima’s novel “Thirst for love” where the embittered and emotionally tormented widow Etsuko is finishing her bath and, in a wonderful stream of consciousness, Mishima describes her life whirling down and out with the bath water. Strange, that one can be parched and thirsty and yet drown at the same time…
"Until the moment of her death, it seemed, no one would know she was drowning."
But as a tangent, the music of the film Black Swan, as well as several other Aronofsky films, was done by Clint Mansell, once of 80s/90s group Pop Will Eat Itself (PWEI or the Poppies). Despite a somewhat aborted attempt at a reunion in the last few years, they seem largely forgotten and written out of the history of the great indie-electronica cross over of the time. Arguably an album like Screamadelica is better than their watershed “This Is The Day...This Is The Hour...This Is This!” or even “Cure for Sanity”, but still, one shouldn’t forget their worthwhile contributions.

To go even further on a tangent, one of the Poppies highlights was their tongue in cheek song for the Italia ’90 World Cup. Overall a mixed success, but then English groups singing pro-Italian songs about porn star prostitutes is never going to take you far.

The title is a pun on the New Order track “Touched by the Hand of God” from around the same time which also pays its own homage to the previous World Cup in Mexico and the actions of Diego Maradona. New Order also released a track for Italia ’90 that was England’s official song and featured an embarrassed looking Liverpool striker John Barnes in the video. Although not featuring prostitutes, the cheeky line “E for England” somehow went unnoticed at the time, despite being an obvious pro-drug reference. Would you get away with it nowadays? Not sure, but since the father of Chelsea captain and ex-England captain John Terry was arrested for selling cocaine, it could possibly slip through.

Druggy techno 1: Oni Ayhun

The latest clubbing trend across Europe at least, seems to be the After Hours scene. This means going to a club around 6am, with headlining DJs often coming on 11 am or later and shows lasting until late on Sunday evening. This doesn’t bode well for work on Monday, especially since there is a fair bet that to last from Saturday night until Sunday afternoon you have probably imbibed something illegal. The consequence of all this has been perhaps a greater emphasis on performance. Not of the DJ, but of the music. The music has to work in a more productive way to keep it all going so long. A side effect of this is some particular strains of electronic music with a heavy chemical element to the sound. It is almost as if the music itself needs to talk directly to the neurotransmitters to feed them forward into some perpetual frenzy of confusion, eleation and unknown pleasure. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is a track by Oni Ayhun from last year.

Oni Ayhun is the nom de plume of Olof Dreijer, one half of Sweden’s now defunkt electro super group The Knife. This track is almost uninteligible from a certain point of view, but its uncompromising weirdness is particularly unique and psychedelic. However, it does suggest a note of caution: there is always an end to excess and while now this kind of music is still “peaking”, there will come the inevitable come down one day.

Ziggy Stardust: Love has left you dreamless

There is only one place to start a blog of random themes, mostly musical, but certainly disorganised and that is with David Bowie. Those who know me will recognise my trait of immersing in particular subjects for lengthy periods and then moving on to another. David Bowie happens to represent the current subject of my fascination as many will already know.

But when you mention Bowie to someone it is usually a curious and confused reply that greets you. Everyone knows of him, but few know him. If you are not a fan, your picture of him is likely clouded by snippets of songs half remembered and undermined by those that are unknown or forgotten, whereas forming a visual portrait is dangerous. Many will see the big hair and prominent package of his character of the Goblin King in Labyrinth mixed with the handsome and healthy “Let’s Dance” era Bowie, but somehow blurred with images of cocaine, bisexuality and all those wonderful and curious pictures of him with red hair as Ziggy Stardust. Strangely, of all the Bowie’s, this is the one least known and perhaps the most interesting. The problem is it’s not Bowie at all, just as David Bowie is really David Jones.

Ziggy Stardust was invented by Bowie in 1971 as a way of presenting a lot of songs he’d written about a “doomed rock star messiah”. The name is derived from Iggy as in his friend Iggy Pop, as well as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and not cocaine as many still imagine. The androgyny was also a product of environment, influenced by his open relationship with wife Angie and their partners and friends from swinging London’s gay clubs and theatres. Ziggy would go on to capture all their eccentricity and extremism of costume and behaviour.

On the original Ziggy album cover, Bowie is still Bowie and still in the throes of inventing the character that he would play for nearly two years until his last appearance at the 1980 Floor Show. This event was staged at London’s Marquee in 1973 and filmed for broadcast to the world, including middle America where he must have caused quite a stir, even after censoring the lyrics to “Time”, replacing “wanking” with “swanking”.

Bowie only really became Ziggy by the time of the release of “Aladdin Sane”. By the then the iconic image of the red rooster hair and the make-up was cemented forever. It is this album that also bears the most theatrical elements, thereby reinforcing the idea that Bowie was not Ziggy, but only playing Ziggy, although the lines would blur. Later he would quip "That fucker would not leave me alone for years."

Watching Bowie perform Ziggy is akin to watching the scene from Hamlet where the characters in the play enact a play, or in Quixote where Quixote himself reads the first part of his own adventures within the second part of the novel. Many of the stage antics at this time were also very theatrical, such as mime, while tracks like “Time” played heavily off this theatrical idea for great effect and profounder meaning.

"Time is waiting in the wings

He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me"

Thus, to succeed as Ziggy, Bowie needed to build a world for him to inhabit, an ever more diverse array of changeable costumes and a stage adorned with different scenarios, dancers and other characters like the Spiders from Mars, modelled off the Droogs in “A Clockwork Orange”. Bowie in this sense pioneered rock show staging with the important difference that his stage was meant as an alternative world, a viable place to live and imagine, not like modern stadium set ups which seem little more than gimmicks, like U2s lemon or the claw, for example. The creation of such an alternative world is one reason for the legacy of the music since it opened up new frontiers for expression and being, while serving as an outlet for fantasy.

"Turn on with me

And you're not alone"

he screams at the end of "Rock n roll suicide".

Sadly the communal creation or sharing of these kinds of alternative worlds is long fading with the advent of “individual” music worlds and listening spaces of Walkmans and iPods. Another analogy would be perhaps alternative music, which at its inception was literally an alternative world and culture to that offered by the main stream, but which has now been essentially subsumed by it and rendered impotent as an “alternative” of the imagination.

It was only when Bowie began to be more Ziggy than Bowie, and when the realisation dawned that Bowie and Ziggy were facing the prospect of having to live in this alternative world forever, that Bowie decided to kill the character. This is perhaps seen prophetically in the track “Ziggy Stardust” when Bowie sings

“When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”.

Marc Spitz describes the importance and the legacy of Ziggy the best: “Like Dr. Frankenstein, [Bowie] severely underestimated the power of his creation. Strictly as a symbol, Ziggy Stardust could not have enjoyed the same impact in the sixties. He was not a utopian figure, but rather the cracked and not entirely legit messiah that the debauched humankind of the seventies had come to deserve. ... he is the embodiment of the dead sixties dream. Ziggy is the space-race anti-climax... Ziggy says to all those in pain “You have failed as human beings, but it’s alright”