Alternative

New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” 12” (Factory Records, 1985) plus live recordings

One of the miracles of modern popular music, okay I’m sure there’ll be some ready to debate and argue for the less-known New Order tracks here – note: I have heard them too – but this song, this song. Equally impressive for the mordant ambiguity of the lyrics:

I stood there beside myself
Thinking hard about the weather
Then came by a friend of mine
Suggested we go out together
Then I knew it from the start
This friend of mine would fall apart
Pretending not to see his gun
I said let’s go out and have some fun

as the music itself. This is music to collapse-dance to, to keep your limbs fluid because the music is so total, so totalising. Disco pure in its essence in its spirit: music that helps you ride out whatever you’re feeling, while retaining its own distance, pop music as ambivalence. Note too the animal SFX, to quote Wiks:

“The song's complex arrangement includes a number of instruments and methods not normally used by New Order. For example, a bridge features frogs croaking melodically. The band reportedly included them because Morris loved the effect and was looking for any excuse to use it. At the end of the track, the faint bleating of a (synthesized) sheep can be heard. Sheep samples would reappear in later New Order singles "Fine Time" and "Ruined in a Day".

Frogs, sheep bleating, keeping it Biblical …

As everyone notes, so there’s no need for me to be any different the outro on this track, from about 7’40” with its increase in sonic depth, is something to recognise, to appreciate: it carries within it the essence of energy in music, as the expression of freedom, of being free. But there is so much I love about this song, it’s hard to know where to start, all of those other sounds kept distinct – the pings, the frogs absolutely. There’s something about this music that brings out the kid in me.

Some of the motivation for my writing on hip-hop, and other forms of Black American music is a desire to not go backwards (for a long time this was writing for me, with no real “audience,” prompted by my curiosity and internal cues). Writing these pieces also allowed me to keep getting educated: start with the artist, trace it back, work out ways to put the music in context. (No, there is no kink in any of this as I was once asked by a person who grew up closer to the source. Don’t forget I live in Paris, not a suburban cul-de-sac or rural idyll. There’s nothing natural).

Spending time with music you don’t know that well, music that didn’t provide the foundations for earlier periods in your life also protects you from falling into comparisons past/present, as inevitably the new falls short when compared to what has been tested. Moreover, it stops you from doing what I did when listening to this song once again, after a long break, of posing unanswerable and not very useful questions, such as where is its contemporary equivalent? These is a dead-end, I know. I have no issue with the languid, drawn-out drums, that slowed-down sibilant shimmy that is so dominant now - the genuflection in front of vibey Roy Ayers and some of the softer music of Donald Byrd - this kind of beat has its own feeling, but which music today provides an energy fix similar to “The Perfect Kiss”?

Which songs meet our need to be pulled into the velocity? So much of what you hear these days is deep on mood and introspection (or over-synthetic pop that has always been there, always will be) where is the music that helps us lose ourselves?

New Order’s music is defined by its play with discomfort, what might seem blase. One listener below one of “The Perfect Kiss” videos, Noname, critiqued it on this basis, writing “Always had mixed feelings about this band. Magnificent, expansive, bombastic keyboards!...let down by those miserable weak vocals. Like an orchestra interrupted by a sad trombone.” (Another replied: “miserable? Bernard had a very good voice.” The most recent comment responding to the debate noted: “(Sumner) isn't a great singer but his voice fits in perfectly with New Order's slightly cheesy sound. If you had Frank sinatra singing here it would make things much worse.”)

But that verse where Sumner sings:

When you are alone at night
You search yourself for all the things
That you believe are right
If you give it all away
You throw away your only chance to be here today
Then a fight breaks out on your street
You lose another broken heart in a land of meat
My friend, he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death

it sounds urgent, it sounds heartfelt and a little desperate. “When you are alone at night/ You search yourself for all the things/That you believe are right …”

To quote Wiks once more: “In an interview with GQ Magazine Bernard Sumner said "I haven't a clue what (the song) is about." He agreed with the interviewer that his best-known lyric is in the song: "Pretending not to see his gun/I said, 'Let's go out and have some fun'". The lyrics, he added, came about after the band was visiting a man's house in the United States who showed his guns under his bed before they went out for an enjoyable night. It had been quickly written, recorded and mixed without sleep before the band went on tour in Australia.”

And:

“Despite being a fan favourite, the song was not performed live between 1993 and 2006 due to the complexity of converting the programs from the E-mu Emulator to the new Roland synthesizer. However, it returned to the live set at a performance in Athens on 3 June 2006.”

Here’s the B/side “Kiss of Death” described by Wik as:

"a typical New Order dub version: it is a mostly instrumental remix of the A-side with added effects; it notably features the opening of the album version. "Perfect Pit" is a short recording of synthesized bass and drum parts that sounds like Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris practicing.”

And the audio recorded live from the video shoot with director Jonathan Demme losing it with happiness/excitement at the end:

The very famous video you can watch here, see those final moments when each band member looks so composed and disengaged, having enacted their musical transaction in a way comparable to someone scanning goods at a supermarket. Apparently Demme was disappointed to discover that the drums were programmed as he wanted to film the band hitting that perfect beat.

Coda:

Alternate versions: ‘Happily divided’ Sebadoh (Bubble and Scrape, 1993)*

For me this song by Sebadoh – the ‘representative’ lo-fi, independent US group from the 1990s, perhaps – is the perfect example of a song that has a united front, but still makes space for subtlety and nuance, largely because of the ambiguous lyrics that move me each time I hear them.

In much recent music I hear a kind of faux-simplicity and conscious under-development, via an emphasis on highly sibilant sounds and absence of the lower registers (where is the bass-line, hidden there somewhere maybe) but too often the vocalist and/or lyrics undermine this impulse towards the essential; often becoming preachy, or didactic. Where is the space of the listener here? 

Music gains its power, like any non-representative art-from, via its ability to make us feel. I don’t look towards music as a potential teacher (though I know this is not the case for everyone, many say how they were ‘educated’ in the best possible sense by Public Enemy, so be it). 

Yesterday I listened to a record by a neo-soul artist with an abundance of talent and noticed how the producers seemed to be influenced by the philosophy of a kind of anti-production style, just like the lo-fi pioneers … The problem for me, though, lay in the way the under-stated music was weakened by the explicit nature of the lyrics and position of the singer.

Make some spaces, leave gaps, I kept thinking, cut it back to allow the darkness, and ambiguity in. Not all human experience benefits from a harsh light, make space for the shadows. I want to hear your uncertainty, all those things you don’t know, but feel or sense.

Oppression, sadness and all kinds of suffering work on a bodily level, as sensations and are felt as humiliation and the shame associated with being weak, it can’t be explained via maxims and slogans (and can’t be named using the words of the academy, we need to find new tools to dismantle the master’s house ….)

Here are the lyrics to this song that come close to poetry for me:

Of these times, it’s well we make the most
Boredom fabricated as you’re going down each other’s throats
And I’m so excited, happily divided
Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you’re bigger than you really are
Pretending you’re bigger than you really are
Happily divided
Yeah, you’re big, only when your numbers grow
All dressed up with nowhere to go
So excited
Happily divided

On the studio version, the sway of the understated beat and the low vocals are perfectly in-synch in terms of mood, but what I love – among other things – is the constant feeling of no-release, the music appears to build, but doesn’t (no room of show-off guitar solos here). This frustration is perfectly in keeping  with the sarcastic tone of the lyrics, ‘I’m so excited …’

The section just under a minute in touches me, and could be my favourite lyrics of all time: ‘Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you're bigger than you really are …’

That moment when the backing vocals come in offering a surprising warmth – as if the vocalist is not alone, even if it sounds like his voice (he is echoing himself) - and the crinkly sounds of the guitar in the background provide a wonderful contrast, in keeping with the atmosphere of the song before and after.

‘Pretending … that … you’re bigger … than you really are …’

Not so long ago I found this recording of ‘Happily divided’ from a radio session in Holland, which is beautiful for the guitar track and the way the vocalist plays around with the delivery. Be careful, if listening on headphones, as the added musical excursions (those seconds of experimental piano) gave me a bit of a shock when they came in.

*In praise of shadows – Tanizaki; In praise of darkness – Borges …

After Berlin, December 2016 (& Marianne Faithfull)

Coming back home from Montparnasse today, the large hall with the long walk-ways leading to line 4 and 12 was closed down, with police guarding the barrier: four soldiers in camouflage, rifles across their chests were doing that fast walk, not quite running, as they made their way through the empty tunnels, in the far distance to whatever the threat was.

‘Is line 4 closed?’

‘For the moment, yes,’the SNCF attendant said, in his understated French way.

At Liège I got off, one stop before my destination, as a rangy man with slicked-down black hair and a tracksuit jerkily looked around, reached down for something in his pockets, looked around the carriage once more. He started talking to another man sitting down, a man whose eyes were red; he then quickly left the carriage to go to the next.

The newspaper headline, following the Berlin attack in another passenger's newspaper: ‘Terrorism knows no borders.’

Could have come through anytime
Cold lonely, puritan
What are you fighting for?
It’s not my security …

Paris is empty now, one week before Christmas. Now this may mean very little - ‘French people’ often leave the capital en masse, most notably in August where the boulevards are so wide, and so hot and dry, swept free of a human presence, you can walk and walk and walk and feel like you are the only person alive in this barren metropolis, with all these fine, well-preserved buildings looking down on you.

Perhaps it is simply that the Parisians have left to spend time with their families in the countryside. (As my little one told me: ‘Christmas is important for French people’).

Or maybe they have left to avoid the tense atmosphere of a city bracing itself for the possibility of further terrorist violence during the holiday period. In November, police disrupted a Daesh-affiliated group that was planning an attack at Disneyland and the Christmas markets on the Champs-Élysées. The police said that they had stopped 17 planned terrorist attacks this year in France, with Paris as the preferred target.

(Now after what has happened in Berlin, should we cancel his train journey – with Junior & Cie - I can go with him to Tours like last year … I think it will be okay, after November they have increased security. Try not to worry).

Trauma upsets notions of distance, in that after being hurt, or experiencing violence you feel like you can become a victim at any time, you have no protection and since potential danger is everywhere; you need to be alert, all the time. But being constantly alert damages you, makes you tired from the diffuse nature of the threat that is ever-present, but at the same time not real, or immediate. Sometimes I feel like my skin is similar to a wafer, or parchment. 

Living in a city that is coming to terms with terrorism, there is a further point of tension, as we are ‘taught’ via posters found everywhere, in libraries, in doctor’s offices, in schools what to do in the event of an attack. We hear repeated advisories about levels of risk put out by foreign governments, by the French state and an ongoing State of Emergency, but what is confusing is that amidst all of this we continue to lead ordinary lives, as if nothing has happened. 

All this might also reflect my current work: I have been reading, endlessly (and writing) about the perpetrators of the terrorist violence in Paris in November and elsewhere, for the book I’m developing. And reading the same story over and over again of ordinary men, leading banal lives that revolved around petty crime (drug-dealing, trafficking false documents, with some more serious charges, such as armed robbery) PlayStation, ‘beer,-hash-girls’ with the call to jihad as part of the mix.

There is nothing heroic here, and no logic behind it, even though this is something that victims and the perpetrators crave more than anything else; an argument, a cause, a logic behind the violence. We and they want it to have meant something.

But as Marianne Faithfull perceptively understood in ‘Broken English’ from 1979 – just listen to the way the bass-line overwhelms her vocals - terrorism, and perhaps all violence, is not about the brain, it operates on the level of the gut.

It is all about the machinery and currency of fear. And no matter what people like to believe (the victim, or the perpetrator) terrorist violence reflects the desire to dominate others, the pleasure of sadistic control that comes from slitting somebody’s throat as he cowers beneath you, no more than an animal.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this research has been discovering how shallow the nature of the men’s commitment is. They are not highly politicised intellectuals, or angry men avenging some profound slight, or feeling of humiliation. Of course they speak of their motivation, often using the same words or same ideas, they speak of their desire to inflict pain and suffering – and indeed ‘terror’ - on the crusaders, those living in the lands of the unbelievers, but more often than not it sounds like they are reading from a script. There is no depth there.

I'm writing this because I know many want terrorist violence to mean something to operate as an extension of racialised injustice, the shame some might feel growing up Black or North African in France, or Belgium, even if vast numbers of recruits to the jihadist cause are white converts; or that they are fighting old wars ...

This is background noise, providing a context and justification. One of the first things you notice is how international the contemporary terrorist violence is, operating across borders with multi-national perpetrators (the 'masterminds' of the November 13 atrocity in Paris were Belgian, as were many of the assailants, alongside Iraqis).

Despite the rhetoric and staged videos, these men act like gang members,  or ‘soldiers for hire’ inflicting cruelty in the same way as thugs brutalising populations after a vote in some half-forgotten country; or suicide bombers exploding in a market, at a wedding, a school, or religious service do. Only this time they are speaking in French …

It’ just an old war
Not even a cold war
Don’t say it in Russian
Don’t say it in German
Say it in broken English
Say it in broken English

Lose your father, your husband
Your mother, your children
What are you dying for?
It’s not my reality

To change the mood: I liked this extract from a 2011 interview from AV Club - AVC -  with Faithfull where she talks about Broken English, the record that marked an extraordinary return and reinvention of her career and musical style.

(The album includes the phenomenal 'Why'd ya do it?' - lyrics by Heathcote Williams, who had originally hoped that Tina Turner might record it. An amazing song that, as others have noticed, Grace Jones must have been inspired by, as it provides the template for her signature style; the soft reggae-inflected lilt and snarl).        

AVC: Speaking of your more atmospheric, Broken English was a huge break from what you’d done before.

MF: It was a wonderful record.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine the impact that sound would have had at the time.

MF: Straight from the streets. Straight from being a drug addict. It was pretty radical. And it was true. That’s always interesting. It couldn’t go on like that. I didn’t want to be angry, twisted and bitter all my life, so I had to change. And I did. Maybe it wasn’t quite as exciting and knife-edge.

AVC: What drew you to writing about the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof on the title track?

MF: I read a book about it, so that interested me. Before Broken English, even, I was touring with that band, and we’d gone to look at the [Berlin] Wall, me and Barry [Reynolds], and it made a deep impression on me. I think I understood it, actually, the repressed Protestant thing, and very cold, and very lonely. So I read this book about the Baader-Meinhof gang, and then I was watching something on the television. I don’t remember really what it was about, but it had subtitles, and they came on and they said, “Broken English, spoken English.” I immediately wrote that down, and then I wrote the song. 

AVC: There’s a degree of empathy in the song, but you’re also addressing her: “What are you fighting for?”

MF: Yeah, it was like that in the beginning. Of course now, “Broken English,” the whole thing has widened, and it’s different. I even say, “What are we fighting for?” now. I take it more personally. 

AVC: The title could almost have referred to you at the time: broken, English.

MF: What I’m really doing, I can tell you exactly—what I recognized is that there are a certain kind of neurosis that could express itself in terrorism, and anger out. One thing is sure, to be a drug addict, the anger is all going in. You’re hurting yourself. But with a terrorist like Ulrike Meinhof, she’s hurting other people, and that interested me. I could feel “There but for the grace of God….” I was very glad I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t that happy to be a drug addict, but anyway, I got over it.