Archive for the ‘pop music’ Category.

notes on sigue sigue sputnik and the boardroom fetish

As part of the post-hack clean up, I found a few drafts of things I’ve not been able to finish – here is the first… comment welcome!

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Some musings on Sigue Sigue Sputnik and their hyper-glamorised capitalism.

A wilfully optimistic reading of Mclaren’s “Rock N Roll Swindle” was that punk aimed to make “cash from chaos” as a fall back position. If you fail to destroy society, you may as well be rich.

“a group has to represent what’s exciting around in the world today”
– Tony James, South of Watford TV documentary on Sigue Sigue Sputnik, 1986

Sigue Sigue Sputnik revelled in products, affluence and multinational corporations like Sony and EMI. Not because these things signified wealth and success, but because they were exciting in and of themselves. Tony James (the band’s defacto ideas man) had previously been a punk alongside Billy Idol in Generation X. Punk’s DIY “get off your arse” ethos translates well in to the business world – every “self made millionaire” has exactly the same attitude.

But before we get to Sputnik and their 80s “sado capitalism”, what are the precedents for bohemians adopting the aesthetics of commerce?

As Stewart Home has noted, the mail art movement had parodied and imitated bureaucracy from the early 70s onwards:

“Most of those participating used the new ‘hot medium’ of xerox alongside old fashioned rubber stamps. Certificates were produced in great number, which, like the rubber stamps, were used to parody officialdom.” (The Assault On Culture, Chapter 13)

Mail art was influenced by Fluxus. Genesis P-Orridge participated in both these movements and would continue to imitate and parody the structures and signs of corporate bureaucracy with Industrial Records, Throbbing Gristle’s “Annual Reports” and Psychic TV as band/TV Station/cult.

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At the end of the seventies Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and Johnny Rotten became John Lydon, director of Public Image Limited: “We’re a communications company, not a group”.

The transformation happened immediately after Rotten has spent three weeks in Jamaica with hip capitalist Richard Branson, scouting out talent for Virgin’s “Frontline” reggae sub-label: “Virgin offered me a job. It was the perfect break for me after the Sex Pistols split up.”

Early interviews with the band include reference to six Company Directors, including their accountant and Jeanette Lee (a non-musician who helped with mixing down tracks, video and interviews – Lee is now co-director of Rough Trade).

PiL’s business focus was a result of their frustrations with the music industry (being dictated to, being tied up in legal hassles) and a lack of autonomy. Adopting the guise of a businessman is punk’s DIY translated from the artistic to the economic. Like punk, it demystifies the role of “the artist” – as a special category for people with divine inspiration. But it also assumes that the corporate model is the correct/best one…

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The PiL Corporation was followed by Heaven 17 and their “British Electric Foundation”

The BEF are not just a group, they are a registered company with Marsh, Ware and Bob Last as the three shareholders – a business enterprise that is truly enterprising, and the essential tightness of The BEF is based around its organisation.

Ware: “What we’re doing is a much more realistic way of approaching things, you have just got to get out of the old cliched way of organising groups. I think that there are going to be more organisations like this in the future, with more of a business ambience about them.

I don’t think PiL have succeeded at all, they’re still just a group. Let’s face it, Public Image Limited are a moderately successful group. I can’t see any evidence of them being a business organisation at all.

I think that people may find it interesting, in as much as it’s an entirely different way of organising ones’ abilities and creative talents. It’s just getting away from the standard format of how groups are organised.”

And:

So you’re trying to create an almost Tamla-like stable of artists?

Ware:  “Yes, because obviously it gives you more flexibility, and it also enables you to close down an enterprise that is not paying off. Not just financially, but also artistically.”

From an interview in Sounds, 11 April 1981 online here.

Ware, in the thrall of the business model calls for cutting of red tape, downsizing, flexibility. Heaven 17’s modus operandi here is very similar to the gradual breaking up of large workplaces in the into smaller units (with the consequent reduction in the influence of collective bargaining for workers). Or at least it would be if they had ended up being in any way distinguishable from any other group. As time passed there seemed to be less and less mention of BEF and more focussing on the core business of the Heaven 17 brand.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik might be the first band to admit that their branding was more important than the music. Indeed, Tony James never allowed record executives to hear SSS demo tracks, instead playing them a short video collage of futuristic and science-fiction movie clips.

The group signed to EMI, reportedly for 4 million quid. This arrangement was celebrated and presumably exagerated – in stark contrast to anarcho punks like Conflict who identified Thorn EMI’s links with arms trading and gave EMI groups like New Model Army a hard time:

Conflict’s ascetic vegan anti-capitalism is the polar opposite of Sputnik’s total embrace of hi tech corporate culture. The  video for “21st Century Boy” includes a shot of Martin Degville licking a Sony Discman. Sigue Sigue Sputnik embraced commercial sponsorship at a time when this was still thought of as massively uncool by most “serious” music fans.

They also provided the press with  enough ammunition for either pro (slogans, excitement, good quotes, video) or anti (they can’t play, they are immoral, it glorifies sex and violence) coverage. According to James they were accompanied on a UK tour by tabloid journalist Garry Bushell who proposed that they entered News International’s Wapping compound on top of a tank as a publicity stunt during the lengthy picket by sacked printworkers. James et al didn’t do it (and haven’t said why) but Sam Fox did.

Ultra futurism dates quickly, but alongside the brick like mobile phones, corporate logos (Sony/EMI/Atari), anime, video nasties, et al – the group scored some bonafide “crystal ball” moments:

“Flaunt It”, the debut album, included adverts between the tracks for products like hair gel, youth culture magazines, the never-to-appear Sputnik video game, pirate TV station Network 21 and of course The Sputnik Corporation itself. This prefigures “free listening” services like Spotify which squeeze in ads between tracks.

Less plausibly Tony James also claims that their “Live TV” multimedia gig at The Royal Albert Hall influenced U2’s “Zooropa” tour. And the timestretching and pitch bending of the beats on “Love Missile F1-11″ has resonances with Jungle…

More notes:

  • The old eighties schism: Commodities, branding, adverts, contracts, suits VS inspiration, art, subversion, decadence, the triumph of the talented genius, culture.
  • P Diddy / Abba / Pink Floyd / Lady Gaga  all very successful brands, possibly because they are not “arch” about it. The brand is the music, the design, the concept of the band members as genius artists. Not grubby boardroom wheeler and dealers.
  • Vs Cottage industries – Martin Degville’s limited edition art prints, deluxe vinyl represses down “the long tail”. Both The Pixies and Florence and The Machine have released very expensive, hand signed and lavishly produced editions of their work.
  • Is exposing the inner workings of the music business still subversive in 2012? “It’s an [advertising] campaign, it has nothing to do with art.” to misquote Genesis P-Orridge on Heathen Earth.
  • Is all this simply boardroom fetishism – bohemian individualists getting excited about the slim lines of the company logo, expense accounts, power? Rubber suits, office porn. Tony James holding up an umbrella, the bowler hats from Clockwork Orange reinstated as the icons of London commuters of yesteryear.
  • The lie that this is glamorous (long hours, savage battles, insecurity, rules and regulations, budgets – work sucks!). The bohemian myth replaced with the American dream, that you can pull yourself up your own bootstraps and enter the terrain of the ruling class, by talent and tenacity alone.

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Afterword

Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s futurism looks old now, not just because it’s out of date but because futurism itself seems quaint.

Does anyone still sing about the future in utopian terms to escape from the harsh realities of the present? Maybe people realise that, whilst things are bad now, the future is going to be much worse.

Space travel has become mundane, computers have merely heralded new ways of shopping, new forms of alienation. And even shopping is less possible now.

Business, boardrooms and commerce look less sexy in 2012. Not because of the triumph of art or anti-capitalism, but because of the failures of business. Perhaps the re-emergence of the boardroom fetish will be the first signs of the recovery…

more improbable band t-shirts

The motherlode seems to be at this South American fashion blog.

But a lot of those featured aren’t actually all that improbable, I guess.

Maybe Ashlee Simpson is such a tortured soul that she regularly plays the first three Sabbath albums on rotation?

For all I know David Beckham, Miley Cyrus and Charlotte Church really do all share a deep and profound love for The Maiden?

Metal is funny like that – despite all the moral panics about Satan and head-banging health hazards, I don’t really think it has any kind of criticism of society at its core. I mean you can argue the toss about punk, but surely metal can simply be reduced to the youthful hedonism of rocking out and/or getting wasted, with some stuff about dragons thrown in for good measure?

I’ve written about my thankfully very brief brushes with metal and rawk before, but it’s not really my thing. So I can’t really work up much defensiveness or laughter when its imagery is used by celebs.

So y’know – if Britney wants to be into Led Zeppelin, fair enough!

But there is still part of me that has a weirdly protective attitude about punk. I actually find this troubling and hilarious in equal measures. Disentangling my own bizarre personality traits is the reason for this series about t-shirts I guess. (That, and posting photographs of attractive bare-armed young ladies seems to have a positive effect on my blog views, for some reason…)

Getting back on track, here is Lindsay Lohan wearing some garms from eighties California hardcore punk groups:

And “It Girl” Alexa Chung in a “Am I more skeletal than my t-shirt?” pose.

(with thanks to Sharon)

September reading links

Who Makes The Nazis is a new blog which is “Keeping an eye on the neo-fascists currently burrowing their way into a subculture near you…” off to a good start with yet more on Tony Wakeford, but also some more general ruminations on the neofolk scene which are very well argued. I especially liked the comments in this entry about artists who harp on about exploring extreme material, but seem unable to come to any conclusions or opinions about their favourite subject matter, even after a quarter of a century.

I was also thrilled to see Martin rev up the Beyond The Implode war machine with a piece entitled “10 youthful musical rituals I (sometimes) miss“.

Datacide magazine have started digitising the archival pieces from their predecessor, Alien Underground, which was a great zine covering techno, noise and politics in the mid 1990s. Pieces so far on the Criminal Justice Act, Digital Hardcore Recordings, Sakho, and a lot more. Even the record reviews from back then are a nice reminder times gone by…

Datacide contributor Flint Michigan has a great interview with Arthur McDonald of early Factory Records act The Royal Family And The Poor over at Mute Magazine.

The Christmas Bunch: The incredible industrial-electro origins of Alison Goldfrapp

Having a rifle through my tunes tonight I rediscovered three releases from an obscure outfit called “The Christmas Bunch”. Like a fair proportion of my records, these were all bought second hand. In fact I think I grabbed them all for less than a quid over a few years in the late 80s.

They sound OK. Not amazing, but there’s enough going on to hold your attention. And I quite liked the anonymity of it all, after over twenty years holding onto these records I was still none the wiser about the people behind them – (insert ominous crescendo) until now.

The first Christmas Bunch product I found must have been their “Hit No. 1″ single. A one-sided twelve inch with minimal rubber stamped markings and a biro scribbling announcing it as 230 out of 250 copies.

It ain’t bad actually – characteristically stiff “dance” beats which could politely be described as motorik. There are some nice vocal samples and arrangements which remind a bit of the Art of Noise. The actual vocals spoil it for me a little, a bit too earnest and shouty – even for me, ha ha.

“Hit No.1″ also came with this intriguing free gift, made up to look like an executive toy or educational tool:

As you can see, it’s two circles of printed card with a central pin. Windows in the front card reveal words printed on the rear one, in combinations like “glitter [....] ofcorruption” and “hide [...] behindyoureyebrows”. This forthright rejection of spaces between words would be an enduring theme.

So when the album turned up a little while later, I figured it had to be worth another quid or so…

“Get Out Of My Face” is a six track affair. It even has some credits on it, which are difficult to decipher because of the lack of spaces between words. Nevertheless the label yields a useful “all songs (c) 1986″. The back cover states that it was recorded in London, Luton and Sussex and  announces that the group “are Clyde Ely Goldhurst”. I have no idea whether that is one, two or three people cos of the lack of spaces.

Side One is a bit more”beaty” and includes “Hit No.1″ again. “Private Property”and “Dreamtime” remind me a little of Fad Gadget at his most croony – but with a slightly posher voice.

Side Two is more to my liking and verges on electronic chillout territory. “The Elephant Bar” is filmic and jazzy, a bit like some of Barry Adamson’s solo gear. Luckily the only vocals are wispy female operatic ones. (Hmm!) “Last Chance” almost sounds like a more plinky plonky Massive Attack or something. “The Fridge” might consist of pitched down church organs and choirs.

I then forgot about the Christmas Bunch for a while until I stumbled on this record in Brighton one summer:

I think you’ll have to agree that this cover either heralds the magnificent or the tragic.

The back cover reveals that the full line up is “Nick Sample featuring The Christmas Bunch”. Side A is “Marvelous Person” and features Margaret Thatcher doing vocals over an almost adequate “acid dance” backing. Whilst I doubt this ever got played at Shoom, it’s an interesting novelty record and yet another example of old industrial types dovetailing with acieeeed. Or maybe that’s too naive – it’s billed as “Yet Another Acid Cash In”. That guitar solo is a no-no though.

Side Two is all the vocal samples done acapella for all you mash up mixmasters out there. I’ve had some drunken fun with these over the years. Which is why it’s not exactly in mint condition, even by the standards of certain sellers on GEMM.

Actually, hearing it again, I’m not clear if it’s clever editing of Thatcher or a soundalike. She comes out with stuff like “I am a marvelous concept… we must take away the fruits of people’s labour” and stuff. There’s a newsreader type bloke in there as well gobbing off about “profits are modern warfare” and suchlike.

And that was the last I heard of ye Xmasbunch. It looks like they made at least one other record, which judging by its cover might include Michael Heseltine stepping up to the mic. I’m not about to start paying 5 quid for their records though. If anyone has any further information then please feel free to leave a comment below or drop me an email.


So anyway, where does Alison Goldfrapp fit into this? Well after occasionally googling for info on The Christmas Bunch to no avail over the years, this little snippet turned up tonight:

“Alison was born in 1966 — or earlier. She was in a LCP student film made in 1988 (find it on myspace) and also in 1985 also. She was NOT 15 in 1985! She was in a band called the Christmas Bunch. Do the maths.”

(It’s in the midst of a discussion about her age, which I am not remotely bothered about – it’s easy to see why women in the media spotlight might obscure their age, no? For the record I have a lot of time for Goldfrapp – particularly their “Black Cherry” and “Supernature” albums. There’s a lot of inverted snobbery about them in bloggerland.)

To be honest I don’t hold out much hope for an anonymous single source on the internet actually being true. For all I know it’s someone who used to be in the band trying to reignite some interest in their backcatalogue. But it was an unexpected bonus which has added to the mystery nicely.

And… there is an “Ali Blank” credited on the sleeve of the “Get Out Of My Face” album…

Psychick crosses in unexpected places pt 2

In a Madonna stageshow involving gasmasks and kilts, circa 2001.

(See the left dancer’s shirt).

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New address! Update your bookmarks and check  the latest entry on Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Social Trends 1950-2010

Hollow Earth: Social Trends 1950-2010.

Matt comes correct with some hard data (and kittens).

more Chart Show

Kind of amazed that they also used to do a reggae chart - check this out from 1986!

Apparently the reggae chart only ran from April to September 1986. I have no idea what the selection criteria were, but I’m guessing that actually having a video was more crucial than sales. It would be an unusual chart which featured both King Kong and UB40, I think – not much crossover in their respective markets.

Boris Gardiner’s video is awesomely cheesy and has includes some nice shots of eighties West London.

Moses on the Blood and Fire forum found this clip for me on Youtube. It seems to be the only one on there. In fact, the general consensus is that there weren’t very many of these broadcast. So if anyone else remembers the reggae chart or can post more on youtube, then please let me know!

See also this post compiling links to printed reggae charts from 1976-1999.

“Once upon a time, people believed in the future…”

History is made at night: We were brought up on the Space Race, now they expect us to clean toilets.

Neil on the moon landings, the decline of utopian futurism, and pop music.

Steven Wells RIP

Steven Wells AKA Susan Williams AKA Seething Wells has died.

He was one of my favourite music journalists ever. People will scoff at this and remind me of Paul Morley or Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs or countless legendary articulate literary types.

But I’ve never been all that literary. I always looked forward to Swells’ ranty swearing and pretension-busting championship of pop music.

He also a wrote a lot of the NME’s more political pieces in the 80s, when the music press still had something resembling a backbone. I’ve reproduced his piece on the anarchopunk riot following Conflict’s Brixton Academy gig here, but he also wrote a load of stuff on the Jello Biafra vs Tippa Gore censorship trial and many other things besides.

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I distincly remember him on Janice Long’s Radio 1 show taking some christian woman from the National Viewers and Listeners Association to task about her complete lack of knowledge of popular culture. And seeing him do a few readings at the Clerkenwell Literary Festival when he was pimping his Attack Books pulp fiction imprint (which included people like Stewart Home and Zodiac Mindwarp on the roster).

I met him once, after doing a talk about the Association of Autonomous Astronauts. He was very enthusiastic about the AAA’s Italian sub-group, the SHITS (SkinHeads as Independent Travellers in Space) and seemed like a top guy on a personal level.

There is something very reassuring about him going to the grave still taking the piss out of Smiths fans and goths, whilst simultaneously praising rioters in Tehran.

Stewart Home’s own thoughts on Swells are here.

“Thom Yorke: My Autobiography. By Steven Wells”