Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy New Year 2555: Thailand

The route back from Australia this year was broken by a brief stopover in Bangkok to try and add something a little different to the otherwise notoriously long flight. It wasn’t quite the proverbial “One night in Bangkok” as proposed by Murray Head back in the 80s, but not far from it perhaps.

The track is a strange one in many ways, with its processed spoken word, almost rap lyrics, its jinky chorus and firstly its Middle Eastern intro. But there are some intrigues behind the scenes, such as mentions of Yul Brynner who once played the King of Siam in The King and I.

As it goes, the real King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej or Rama IX is also Thailand’s King of Jazz, having recorded many compositions throughout his lifetime and played with the likes of Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.

The words and music of “One night in Bangkok” too were composed by none other than Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, recently departed from ABBA, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator and knight of the realm Sir Tim Rice. The track was originally part of the musical Chess, hence the references to the game in the video. The story of the musical is based around a bizarre love triangle set in the cold war era and inspired by Bobby Fischer amongst others (see also As though the shame would outlive him for more on this track…) As a further aside, ABBA have announced  the release of a new track this week, an archival recording left in the vaults from the sessions that produced their last album “The Visitors” from 1981. By this stage the creative and emotional burn out from touring and wife swapping had put tainted the bands usual pop swagger with more mournful strains and introspective words.

But back to Thailand… one of the main attractions of down town Bangkok away from the temples and reclining Buddhas is the tourist Mecca of the Khao San Road, essentially a busy street lined with bars, restaurants and hotels. At night the streets flood with food vendors while the sidewalks are perpetually cluttered with T-shirt sellers.

The most popular shirts are the singlet tops, great for avoiding the humid heat and also for showing off your body, an important part of the youthful hormone-charged scene it appears. The designs on offer range from the usual mock ups of famous brands, some well-done copies of more standard designer shirts featuring Banksy designs etc, to classic Asian beer commercials (Chang, Singha, Tiger etc) and even to the odd band shirt. However, the striking thing about Khao San and the T-shirt culture is not that exists, but that it is universal. It was as if every backpacker passing through town had the obligation to head straight to Khao San, buy a shirt and get into it straight away to say “I’m here. I belong. I have the knowledge”. The clonal nature of the culture on the street was staggering, more so since it absorbed people from many countries and languages and absorbed them instantly. My last night there I overheard a conversation from two Canadian guys in their early twenties. They were trying to pull two girls by asking them some travel advice, having mentioned they’d just got off the plane. Both of them already had on their Tiger beer singlets and were ready.

One shirt I did grab for myself was a Velvet Underground shirt featuring the classic banana design. I didn’t wear the shirt until I got back home out of some principle of resistance and almost the same day came across this report in the Guardian about how the group had launched legal action against the Andy Warhol Foundation for attempting to sell the rights to use the famous banana logo to Apple. The same week Megaupload went under as has been widely reported and the parallels are obvious: essentially free merchandise in an unregulated market place where none of the profits or benefits go to the artist. But the other side is, how much profit ever went to Lou Reed et al anyway back in the day? Is the new dawn really a return to corporate control and stockpiling profits in the hands of record company executives?

One of 2011s most prolific producers was BNJMN (aka Ben Thomas) who released two exceptional albums “Black Square” and “Plastic World”, on Rush Hour. The title track to the former features a sampled loop of “All tomorrows parties”

BNJM has also just released a new single on the Second Kiss label run by Little White Earbuds editor Steve Mizek that does not feature any music by the Velvet Underground, but offers instead a more direct house track with a less cerebral arrangement and sound design.

But down the Khao San road is also one other hangover from the backpacker scene of south east Asia: Goan trance and the trite music of Full Moon Parties.

There are several vendors on the street blaring out and selling pirate CDs and mixes. It’s funny how this music almost does not exist outside of this context. Sure, you can find a few trance clubs around, a section of your local electronic music mag has a few reviews, but there is little critical acceptance or even promotional interviews outside the channels already designed for fans. One problem is that trance has always been lowest common denominator dance music almost since the beginning, catering to those more inclined to drugs than music. Its market place in such meat head environments as Full Moon Parties also doesn’t help and neither does its continual association with the God Ganesh, god of music and the arts, Thai dye shirts and all the other moronic psychedelic trappings. Trance it seems is also not the music that travels well with you through the ages, like The Doors. More than most music, it perhaps has a narrower window where it is ok to enjoy it (as judged by peer approval) and where it is physically possible to enjoy it in terms of party culture and those around you and whether they are worth spending time with or not.

What then ever happened to a genuine Cyber Punk movement that shops like Cyber Dog in London used to promote? Did the music not evolve enough to take more people with it? Personally I always appreciated some of the sounds and intentions of trance, but always found the chemical-flavoured production aesthetic too limiting and too ridiculous. The fashion too was incredible: authentically futuristic,  provocative and even erotic at times, but clearly too much for the modern day and age. One of its beauties though, was that it required a philosophical commitment almost, like Rockabilly guys and girls with their hair and tattoos, and was something not for everyone.

Years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Green Nuns of the Revolution playing live at the Melkweg in Amsterdam the night before New Year’s Eve. I was alone and there in the spirit of my housemate Eric who was a big fan. The crowd was insanely committed: one young guy dressed in full tin foil robot outfit, several others more the vinyl and plastic Cyber Dog style and even a few really old folk still dressed in the same rags they had in the 60s, beards almost down to the ground.

I met an American guy at a gig a year or so ago who told me of an alternative, darker and less-commercial strain of trance that he had been listening to that sounded intriguing, but alas, I couldn’t find anything on the internet. Is there any good trance left in the world, like this Voyager remix of System 7?

We spent one day outside the capital at the hideously touristic Floating Market and made a lightning visit to the bridge on the River Kwae where the infamous Death Railway seems anything but, now painted in bright rainbow colours as it shakes and rattles across the famous bridge. There was also time to stop at the infamous and appalling Tiger Temple, where it is possible to have your photo taken (at a price) with allegedly drugged and possibly illegally trafficked tigers, although the monks might tell you otherwise (click for news video ).

Perhaps better might have been a trip to see the famous Thai Elephant Orchestra?

Finally, Khao San should not be confused with Khe Sanh, the mythical Cold Chisel song originally released and censored from airplay in Australia 1978. The song details the life and restlessness of an Australian Vietnam veteran and features many controversial lyrics, including the lines “Their legs where open, but their minds were closed” which could equally relate to Thailand’s Patpong district as equally as to the Hong Kong girls of the song.

By a strange twist of fate Scottish-born front man Jimmy Barnes is actually married to a Thai woman and their family has a lovely restaurant called Amarin Thai on Rokeby Road in Perth. Jimmy has been spotted there occasionally when in town.

In anycase, Happy New Year and properous 2555 to all those in Thailand.

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