THE BIRTHDAY PARTY A Manhattan Melodrama starring The Birthday Party
by Barney Hoskyn s
It’s a chill, exposed night in New York City. The East Coast has only
just recovered from a week of torrential rains, and winds sweeping up
the island’s avenue from Battery Park to Harlem threaten more.
But the show must go on, and at a swanky rock disco in Union Square
it’s only just beginning. Strutting their stuff to English imports like
Duran Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’ and Way of the West’s ‘Don’t Say That’s
Just For White Boys’ are second division preppies and neatly-pressed
executives from New Jersey. They are trying to get their dates drunk.
The night is flowing by pretty amorphously when suddenly, at one
o’clock, the lights on the Underground’s floor scatter back to their
source and the sound dies. Everyone looks round, seeking the cause of
this unwelcome interruption. Instantly their faces drop in disbelief,
for onto the stage are climbing five... five... but words just give way
to alarmed grimaces. Let’s just say five very undesirable aliens.
One, festooned in split-crotch gold lamé drainpipes, his bruised,
labial features twitching through black flames of hair, appears to be
the singer. Another, busy strapping on a bass guitar like a giant dildo,
sports a fishnet vest, a Stetson, and the sort of moustache you might
cultivate if you were shaping up to hustle some meat on gay Christopher
Street. Perhaps most disturbing of all, a kind of gangling, psychotic
hillbilly, squeezed into a ridiculous suit out of some garment district
garbage can, is fastening on a guitar like he was about to run through a
rehearsal for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Hyperboles aside, it’s not quite what the management was expecting.
Hell, they haven’t even played a note and already half the crowd is
filing out. A single drumbeat portends ill, and next moment all the
worst premonitions are justified. Cranking out of the guitar amps comes
this murderous death-rattle, like the gaze of Medusa freezing in their
steps the few foolhardy adventurers who dare to look. The bass, lurching
obscenely into the foray, scrapes and shunts in subterranean seizures.
St. Vitus’ Dance here we come!
Finally, his body doubling up in unholy convulsions, the macilent
wreck of a singer starts to spit and fume: "AMERICAN HEADS WILL ROLL IN
TEXAS!! AMERICAN HEADS WILL ROLL!!!" Hmmmm... like, what is this? Some
of the observers turn away in nervous laughter, others comb their
scattered brains to remember where Pigbag – polite, groovy little Pigbag
– are playing. The rest suck on straws and pray it’s over soon. "I
mean, shit, the Sex Pistols were one thing... "
When the song ends, however, an ugly pause ensues. Something’s wrong
with the guitar. Suddenly, there’s this ashen-faced nut behind the
keyboard shouting into his mic, very slowly, again and again and again:
"WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU BASTARDS? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?" It’s a
party-trick which fails to amuse the management. After the second song,
‘Zoo-Music Girl’, someone’s climbing on the stage and telling the band
their time is up. Scarcely acknowledging him, they thunder into one
last, most outrageous exhibition of carnal mayhem and then disappear.
This little scenario is roughly what the Australian group The
Birthday Party call "a really great gig". I mean, how degenerate can you
WHEN YA WALK OUT HERE
WHEN YA WALK OUT
I GOTTA FILL UP THAT SPACE
OR FILL UP THAT NO-SPACE
(The Birthday Party, ‘Cry’)
"There is no empty space in nature which we do not believe that, at one time or another, the human mind can fill."
– Antonin Artaud, ‘On The Alfred Jarry Theatre’
IN THIS APOLLONIAN climate of cold design and concealed despair, The
Birthday Party take the concept of stage performance about as far as you
are likely to see it go. Live, the songs of singer Nick Cave and
guitarist Rowland Howard are driven to an emotional edge where pain and
pleasure fuse – in cathartic madness for the performer and dithyrambic
joy for the audience. Their concerts are feasts of energy, chaotic
spectacles which break the surface of art and carry sound and lyric to
ultimate violence. If Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu seem too quirkily
surreal, The Birthday Party in performance burst through the
constrictions of intellect to a "raw power," that original sin which
Iggy Stooge so rightly perceived as "laughing at you and me... "
"A man who believes is peculiar. BUT SINCE SOME ARE BORN PLAYACTORS... "
The Birthday Party do not suffer from delusions of grandeur.
"I mean, fuck it," says Nick Cave, "what we’re trying to do is the
biggest musical cliché in the world. It’s just that some people forget
the cliché. Can you imagine Echo And The Bunnymen trying to let
He sprawls across the bar, trying to find his drink.
"I think it’s really important to rely on clichés – like Suicide did.
Not that it sounds like a cliché. As a matter of fact I think ‘King
Ink’ is one of the best songs ever written. That song can become so
intense it puts me on another planet, though I don’t think the recorded
version is at all good."
"Prayers On Fire stinks, quite honestly," announces Tracy Pew, the
group’s super-macho bassist. "The engineer slept through the entire
session for a start. But then even 'Release the Bats' isn't as good as
it could be."
"It's just too conventional at the moment," resumes Cave. "The
record, as a cultural event, is a very limited concept. With the cover
and everything, it can be much more than just the music."
The Birthday Party come to shake us out of our inhibitions. They militate against the sedative boundaries of Pop.
Cave: "There’s a real need for an intelligent but aggressive group in
London. All the treasured groups are just so softcore. At one time
there was a real upsurge of new young groups and incredible records like
‘She is Beyond Good And Evil’... you know, The Pop Group before they
sacrificed the music for that soapbox, toilet-roll politics. The groups
that came out of The Pop Group have got back to primitive funk, which is
good... I saw Rip Rig and Panic at Action Space and there was a real
directness and irreverence, as opposed to Pigbag, who are just happy to
be convincingly funky."
What about their own bacchanalian night at Action Space?
Pew: "The last two gigs in London have been the best yet. Before that
the audiences were like a little bunch of eggs with faces. They lost
control when they were told to, like Pavlovian dogs taking a leak."
Cave: "Compared to the gigs in Australia, especially in Sydney,
they’re nothing. You remember when that girl was slicing me up with a
key, Tracy? In Australia, you really feel you’re turning decent people
into monsters. But look, we’re not setting ourselves up as some kind of
demonic force, it’s just that things are generally more successful when
they become blind and unconscious, when you feel anything could happen."
Pew: "In England that doesn’t happen very often, because you media people have turned kids into robots, little UB40s... "
So what’s kept you from the threshold of madness?
Cave: " Funhouse, the two Suicide albums (also the new live
cassette)... Slates by The Fall. The Fall are a great group. Slates is
one of the best things I’ve ever heard. It has a violence and humour
which if offputting to sheep."
Is a popular music culture an important thing?
Cave: "When the history of rock music is written – which, since it’s
practically dead, will be soon – it’ll just be remembered as a sordid
interruption of normality."
Pew: "Rock will be remembered as the anus of culture. Not Del Shannon but Iggy Pop."
Cave: "The last two years in London will be swept under the rug. This
I can tell you: THE LONG FRINGES WILL NOT BE REMEMBERED. The point is
that the creative process is not some fucking craft. WE’RE A LIVING
"Who would care to contribute to a culture that cannot be satisfied
no matter how much it devours, and at whose contact the most vigorous
and wholesome nourishment is changed into ‘history and criticism’?"
"I just don’t wanna go, out in the streets... these people give me the creeps... "
(The Bush Tetras)
NEW YORK SUFFERS terribly from its reputation and consequent sense of
duty. It has convinced its spoilt children in their chic little
headbands and PX offcuts that the entire point of their lives lies in
snorting excessive amounts of cocaine, staying up till 8 in the morning
imbibing nauseous, overpriced cocktails, and taking non-stop taxis from
one club to the next. All, of course, in the name of Fun and Style. But
it doesn’t feel like fun, it feels like a routine.
That The Birthday Party have been the most exciting live act in
London for some six months cannot seriously be doubted by anyone who’s
seen them. In New York this excitement was seen simply as transgression —
in the case of the band's Ritz show, incitement of the audience to a
According to Cave, however, the Ritz was "a really boring,
conservative gig." True, at several junctures he climbed into the pit of
zombies below him, but it was quite obvious that to provoke a riot he’d
have had to set fire to them. Three quarters of the way through the
set, the lights came up, the disco came on, and The Birthday Party were
quietly and efficiently shoved off the stage.
This sort of treatment, which might have left anyone else permanently
embittered, only seemed to strengthen the group’s immediate taste for
"If our natural path is disaster," groaned Mick Harvey stoically, "then so be it."
Drunk on culture schlock, roaming the streets and sleeping with TV
eyes on, the "boys from down under" (as they were so tastefully
described in the city’s music listings) swallowed the pill and survived
"What would you rather be in," demands Rowland Howard, "Dolly Parton’s backing band or – an English new wave group?"
The others hear the answer within the question: it doesn’t brook
reply. "Yep!" bawls Tracy Pew, carefully adjusting the angle of a new
Stetson and ignoring the question, "the gig at the Underground was one
of my all-time favourite gigs".
"I don’t live this life for me, in Orstralia Land so free... "
"Oh Yer! Oh Yer! What A Wonderful Life, Fats Domino On The Radio..."
AT THE ROOT of Australia’s open rock revolt, its avowed overthrow of
Western chic and transatlantic pussyfooting lies a) the experience of
pure boredom down under, and b) one all-important testament: Funhouse by
the Stooges. Long deleted in this country, practically unheard of by
Britain’s post-punk youth – kids who will swear by crap like Lust For
Life and New Values – this apocalypse of Middle America, with its
unrepeatable anthems ‘Down In The Street’, ‘Loose' (of which The
Birthday Party do a version). ‘TV Eye', and ‘1970’ (from which Radio
Birdman took their name), is very simply one of the greatest rock‘n’roll
records ever made. The Saints knew this when they recorded two of the
other "greatest rock'n'roll records ever made", (I'm) Stranded and
Eternally Yours. And lead Birdman Deniz Tek, who was born in Detroit and
brought the word of Ig to his predestined true believers, the forgotten
street rebels of Australia, knew it before anyone.
Despite the extraordinary contempt and derision Birdman have since
suffered, it was the group’s first tour of Australia which set off the
few real triggers of discontent that awaited such a call to arms. The
Birthday party, whatever they may say to the contrary, bear the memory
of seeing Birdman for the first time as powerfully as anyone. As a
rather average five-piece combo called The Boys Next Door, all of whom,
excepting Rowland Howard, had been playing together since third form in
high school, their conception of music was radically changed by the
Within a year they had effectively established themselves at the center of Melbourne’s "alternative" music scene.
"It took us about three years," says Cave, "to get a group of about
50 people together and for them to convince another 300 or so that it
was all worthwhile."
"Yeah," snarls Pew, "all those fuckwits who used to throw glasses at us..."
"Actually," whispers Rowland Howard in another time and place, "we were regarded as a bit of a bloody joke."
1979: one strangely pop-punk LP as The Boys Next Door, called Door,
Door. Great cover, great lyrics, but songs and sounds like any
Anglo-American powerpop band. A spite marriage of the Ramones and XTC.
Cave: "We went through a year in Australia of playing the most disgusting kind of shit. Like Door, Door."
Pew: "We became a bunch of snivelling little poofs."
Cave: "I used to wear frilly shirts and pigtails before any of this
English shit. We committed the unpardonable error of playing to the
thinkers rather than the drinkers."
Between Door, Door on Mushroom Records and The Birthday Party on
Missing Link there is a gulf as wide as that between, say, The Knack's
'My Sharona' and Beefheart's 'When Big Joan Sets Up'. So what happened?
Howard stares into his drink for an answer. "I guess this is hard to
believe, but it was really just a case of natural progression."
Like there's a "natural progression" from the state of a person's mind before he drops acid to the trip itself. Tell us another.
"It's the honest truth," he protests. "Things just got a little... wilder, that's all."
That's obvious. The Birthday Party, recorded back home and released
at the beginning of 1980, is unobtainable in this country at present but
features the singles 'Mr. Clarinet/Happy Birthday' (just re-released on
4AD) and 'The Friend Catcher', two of last year's most invigorating and
disturbing single releases, plus the extraordinary 'Hair Shirt’ and a
manic version of Gene Vincent’s 'Cat Man’." If you see it, you know what
It’s on this album that perennial influences such as the Stooges and
Beefheart and more recent ones like Pere Ubu and the Pop Group begin to
coalesce in Cave’s and Howard’s songwriting. The result is unique and
By this time, the group had been so inspired by the weird sounds
imported from possible goldmines abroad they decided it was time to
leave. Their sights naturally settled on England.
Both find this idea hilarious. I venture to ask how they feel about
England after having lived in London for nearly two years. Cave clears
his throat with an evil grin.
"Coming to London has been one of the most disillusioning experiences
of my life, partly for a lot of obvious reasons, like everything
closing down at eleven o’clock, but more important, because when we came
here we thought here at least people were doing more than standing
around twanging their guitars. I was really shocked. When we arrived, we
saw this package show at the Lyceum, with Echo And The Bunnymen, A
Certain Ratio, Teardrop Explodes and so forth and... well, I’ve never
been able to take English music seriously since. It was horrible."
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY arrived in England just as the last, perhaps most
intense vestiges of punk energy were burning themselves out. When the
Pop Group split, the whole thing – the anger, the revolt, the sensuality
– went into a coma. Perhaps most unfortunate, the influence of
brilliant groups like Joy Division and brilliant individuals like Daniel
Miller was partly responsible. They inadvertently changed countless
bands and musicians who were incapable of absorbing and using that
influence to any effect. The Birthday Party, in a dismay, had to watch
this almost inevitable breakdown unfold.
By 1979, a new but fatally unclear concept of "Pop" had taken hold of
the nation’s alternative music scene. Today this meta-pop has become
the actual state of pop, an ideal for some, a living death for others.
Certainly there’s no reason why inoffensive music as produced by
electronic groups like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell shouldn’t co-exist
with an aggressive alternative to chart music. But what the Spandau hype
has done is to brainwash people into formulating a nouveau-glam
capitalist ethic which, to put it bluntly, stinks. The music, cushioned
in a kind of feebly opulent production, is the pure expression of this
ethic, an ethic of adaptation to an environment that ensconces one in
plasticine beauty and soft, smooth luxury – the environment of
nightclubs, fashion shows, and videos.
Of course there will, and must always be, fluctuations in the state
of musical angst. It’s not something that can be topped up when
depleted. But why does England have this hangup about real musical
violence – that is, a music that is neither Saxon nor the UK Subs, that
has soul and dirt and physical desire?
In the end, one can only conclude that it has something to do with
the stranglehold the music press has on youth’s cool minority. After
all, look what happens to a band when it refuses to co-operate. Look
what happened to the Saints when, like a circus animal refusing to play
dead, they wouldn’t play "punk".
Fortunately for The Birthday Party, they’ve taken the heritage of the
Saints into another dimension, and won the kind of critical approval
whose terms simply don’t apply to the likes of Spandau Ballet. 'Release
The Bats’, a "voodoo rockabilly" anthem which knocks the Cramps into the
shadows of complete insignificance, saw three weeks at the top of the
alternative singles chart. Prayers On Fire has been in the indie LP
charts ever since its release. And attendance at London gigs has been
growing all the time.
After the year of "Pop", 1980 – a miserable year spent trying to fit
in with the new nonchalance – The Birthday Party realised the only
solution was... TO ATTACK.
"MY BODY IS A MONSTER DRIVEN INSANE, MY HEART IS A FISH TOASTED BY FLAMES."
A CONCERT BY the Birthday Party – Nicholas Cave (vocals), Rowland
Howard (guitar), Mick Harvey (guitar, keyboards), Tracy Pew (bass) and
Phil Calvert (drums) – can break and dissolve the semantic frame which
supports this language. In it you can forget for maybe an hour all the
other names and categories that flood forward in the name of Pop to
imprison your emotions.
Have we not all secretly yearned, since the deaths of those beings
whose bodies, while they could not contain their own desires, diffracted
and melted ours in the passing heat of their majesty – the bodies and
voices of Hendrix, Joplin, Curtis – for that pure incandescence of being
wherein we might at last yield up the barricades of knowledge?
What we must lose now is this insidious, corrosive knowingness, this
need to collect and contain. We must use our brains that have been
stopped and plugged with random information, and once again must our
limbs carve in air the patterns of their desire – not the calibrated
measures and slick syncopation of jazz-funk but a carnal music of total
release. WE MUST MAKE OF JOY ONCE MORE A CRIME AGAINST THE STATE!
Is it possible for the tirelessly rational system which is "popular"
music ever to GO BACK ON ITS WORDS? Or has this music become so
cogniscant and inter-referential that all desire for escape and release
has been extinguished? Will we never be "lost in music"?
These questions must be asked. For if music is no more than cultural reference-point, THEN IT IS NOTHING.
From the spirit of this tragedy must come the birth of a new music – a
music whose warning signals have already been received: ‘Transmission
‘, Radio Birdman’s ‘194’, the Saints’ ‘Night In Venice’, and The
Birthday Party's ‘King Ink.
Of course we may continue to display ironical love for such advanced
cultural artefacts as Prince, the B-52’s, Michael Jackson, Disco, The
Rolling Stones (the playing on ‘Start Me Up’ is among the year’s great
performances), or even such kitsch diamonds of MOR dance production as
Dollar’s ‘Hand Held In Black And White’.
Naturally we shall not forget the Drifters, Astral Weeks, Etta James,
Phil Spector, ‘Liar Liar’ by the Castaways, ‘Jeepster’, and all real
SOUL music... nor shall we allow history to bury the names of Alex
Chilton and Arthur Lee...
In fact, we shall try to remember as much great music as it is possible to do.
But what we will banish from memory is the whole heap of trash that
is held in power by fools and phonies: REO Speedwagon, Bruce
Springsteen, Lionel Ritchie, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Debbie Harry
and, worse still for the sycophantic love bestowed on them, Spandau
Ballet, A Certain Ratio, Linx, August Darnell, The Teardrop Explodes...
"Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do
you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to
hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born,
not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is... "
I cannot finish the quotation. You must excuse this torrid rhetoric –
angry, confused and above all, perhaps, misplaced – as the only
possible substitute for the bitter silence of my tears. As this last
sentence commences, a voice breaks in all the pain of its suppressed
Sung in the words of ‘A Dead Song’:
THE LAST thing I want to do, of course, is say they're wretched.
would be too easy. Go West are an easy target. They are significant and
reviled, as the first perennial chart band of the Eighties to drop from
nowhere into the charts. Prior to Go West, the vigorous chart-gloss was
made up of the likes of The Thompson Twins, Heaven 17, Spandau, Wham!,
bands that, at one point, had in some way or another, paid their dues,
played the toilets, run themselves by "us". Even Duran Duran were
heralded, if not initiated, by two-page spreads in the music press. Go
West, by contrast, did not run in from the left under some vague pretext
of a revolt into style and colourmotion, had no pretensions to irony or
"We were both in rehearsal bands, never did any gigs. We
played material with an American feel, like Kenny Loggins, or Michael
MacDonald, at a time when that sort of thing was completely
unfashionable. When we did become fashionable – five years on –
and were signed, the record company had the advantage of being able to
get everything together at the same time – the video, the single."
West's tale of chart success is one that pop strategists such as ABC
might have been excused for imagining had been dispensed with forever;
drop a demo tape in the fruit machine and come up trumps. Go West are
what happens when A&R men learn how to ignore the music press,
ignore the live circuit, the indie dirtbox, cut corners and construct
their own (notion of) "Celebrities". Go West were suitable because they
looked like Wham! – and played like Phil Collins. Go West's muso
globalism, clipped by funk and compensated with passion was, at once, a
pleasing return to the old values – a major language, the rewardable
virtue of competence – and also conducive to the demand for boys and
lager-funk. Go West were Proper Musicians but also lads on the make. The
perfect combination! After them come Wet Wet Wet and Living In A Box – a
pop hell, in which "our" bands no longer have a hand at all.
the last thing I want to do is say that Go West are wretched. I want to
hear them speak. So I'm driven out to their hideaway, an estate in
Chessington with rehearsal facilities, to meet these hounds from hell in
their natural habitat. I want to make being Go West seem like the most
reasonable thing in the world, just to show that it could happen to you
It's a long journey and there is time to listen to the new album. As I expected, Songs From The Couch,
finally available after delays due to technical difficulties and
illness, is not a masterpiece. There are things in our culture that
exceed it – the paintings of Tintoretti and Botticelli, for example or
the singles of Racey. 'Crossfire' is akin to being made to eat a travel
brochure dipped in honey. 'Chinese Whispers' and 'True Colours' are
pasted pastiches of Level 42 so uncanny in places as to be worthy of the
late Max Beerbohm. 'From Baltimore To Paris' is a song about Edward and
Mrs Simpson. 'Masque Of Love' is good, and boasts a riff that has
become as familiar to me as a brother.
'I Want To Hear It From
You' is a song that I should like to have played at my funeral, but not
before. It's glutinous, over-produced state-of-the-art stuff, with a
grossly overstated voice deployed to compete, loudly, against the
technological over-determination. That's what always galls about these
records; it's not that they are flashy but that they are fleshy. It's
not that they are too busy playing with metal to know what's going on
but that they are well-meaning, reluctant to lose themselves in the
callous jouissance and impersonality of pop.
Having said all that,
I'm not expecting Go West to be friendly and well-meaning to me. Their
rehearsal schedule is tight and, what's more, they know my sort. Time
and patience are short. Peter Cox, however, is affable and, like all
these coves who have Ruined Pop As We Knew And Loved It, is likeable and
open, with nary a hint of Antichrist, nor any suggestion in his
demeanour that he ever burnt down an orphanage in his life. He's one
more good bloke.
Richard Drummie's initial politeness does soon
give way to broody suspicion. He stares at me throughout the interview
with what seems to be utter loathing. His grim, gimlet eye appears to be
conducting a silent narrative of its own. Something like: "Why do you
people bother us? What is it we're supposed to have done wrong? Become
Pop? But it's perfectly obvious that we don't want to be that plastic or
ephemeral. But then, we don't want to be revolutionaries either. It
would be nice to occupy that middle ground. It would be nice just to get
some respect. Oh, that bloody word, we're stuck with it – respectable!
Level 42? That name always crops up, as if we both came out of the same
box! Yes, we're musos. Why should we be ashamed of that? All we want to
do is carry on as we are and get a bit of money for it. Is that
unreasonable? I would have thought that was universal. We're not rich.
Taking a band like this out on the road costs a bleedin' fortune, and we
have to pay for it. What will I be doing in 30 years' time? That has to
be the stupidest question I've ever heard."
Peter, when you look at pop, do you dislike what you see?
"Gimmick records do so well. Americans can't believe our charts. I saw Top Of The Pops last night and you had a sequence of Spurs scoring a goal. I couldn't believe that. There are
musicians, like, one rung below who are denied a chart place because of
Hoddle and Waddle. It's no big deal, I suppose, but, in a perfect
world, the music charts would be full of music."
"You have to
fight to be uncontrived. Every circumstance is un-natural, photograph
sessions, videos, but (giant sigh) you have to give it the time.
Chrysalis don't give us money because they like us. But we never quite
succeed in coming across as we'd like to, you never do. Personally, I
don't feel that I benefit in any way from that image side of things. We
have a low public profile and we prefer it that way. The song 'Let's
Build A Boat' is about escape and that's how we like to work – away from
it all. In Denmark. In The Isle Of Man."
It seems to me that you
want to have your cake and eat it to enjoy the remuneration of pop
without fulfilling any of the responsibilities.
"What, like going out and smashing things up, or going out nobbing some dodgy personality?"
would do for a start. But then there is the glamorous, the tragic...
"We have our feet more or less Super-Glued to the ground. We enjoy
ourselves but not riotously. We don't want to be boring people but we
think you can be interesting without being shiny."
Richard: "When you talk about 'pop', we don't know what your tag is."
Go West, I'm saying, are too heavy and soulful to be considered pop.
"Well, yes, we'd rather be considered a soul band than a pop band."
Steady on, that wasn't meant as a compliment.
Do you feel that you have any kind of duty to your fans?
"Yes, if fans don't understand something about the music, then interviews are a good opportunity of clarifying matters."
Do you feel you have any kind of duty to the people who are most definitely not your fans?
"What do you mean?"
even if you sell two million LPs, that still means that the vast
majority of people don't like you; to them you are an irritation, on the
radio, the TV. This is often forgotten.
"But they're not interested in us, are they?"
Richard: "How is this responsibility supposed to manifest itself? As an apology?"
That would do nicely.
"No, I'm sorry, if they haven't the intelligence to switch off the radio then I can't feel sorry."
What about jukeboxes? You see it really is very difficult to get away from you. We get pop whether we like it or not.
I must admit we don't lose sleep over that one. I suppose at one point
we ourselves went into pubs and said to ourselves: 'We're fed up of all
these dodgy records, let's make some of our own dodgy records,' ha ha!"
West are fugitives from pop. Like all "mature" pop, their "seriousness"
consists in abstaining from the spectacle rather than engaging with it.
Instead of ambiguity, mischief and front, they offer us biography,
anxiety and accomplishment, all apologies for pop. Genesis to Exodus –
Go West are forever on retreat. But who can blame them?
Out there in the real world, it's raining Wet Wet Wet and posters advertising Songs From The Couch
are bursting out like boils all over the West End. I'd rather be on
their side than our side. This is a nice place they've got here. I am
the only interruption.
In fact, by the end of the interview, I
want nothing more than to join Go West, join them in their green
seclusion, flee with them away from pop's reckless claustrophobia, get a
bit of peace and do my own thing. I could learn rhythm guitar, or
acquire basic keyboard skills, or maybe just start off as a roadie.
Well, why not? After all, like Go West, I'm a reasonable bloke, I'm only
the epilogue to Nik Cohn's AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM (published 1969, written mid-1968)
Probably, it’s not been a bad time to write this book: pop is at its most important junction yet, it’s the gap between two major phases, and this has been quite a clean moment to make some interval notes on it.
What I’ve written about has been the rise and Fall of Superpop, the noise machine, and the image, hype and beautiful flash of rock’n’roll music. Elvis riding on his golden Cadillac, James Brown throwing off his robes in a fit, Pete Towshend slaughtering his audience with machine-gun guitar, Mick Jagger hanging of his mike like Tarzan Weismuller in the jungle, P.J. Proby – all the heroic acts of pulp.
Superpop? It hasn’t been much, it’s been simple always, silly and vulgar and fake, and it has been a noise, that’s all. In the end, specific records and singers have hardly mattered. Instead, it’s been pop itself, just the existence of it, the drone of it running through everything.
Myself, I was ten when it started, I’m twenty-two now, and it has bossed my life. It has surrounded me always, cut me off, and it has given me my heroes, it has made my myths. Almost, it has done my living for me. Six hours of trash every day, and it’s meant more to me than anything else.
Superpop, it’s been like a continuing Western, it’s had that classic simplicity, the same power to turn cliché into myth. It’s had no mind of its own. All it’s ever done has been to catch currents, moods, teen obsessions, and freeze them in images. It has made giant caricatures of lust, violence, romance and revolt, and they’ve been the most powerful, most accurate fictions of this time.
And then, beyond the heroes, beyond anything, there’s been the noise, the endless and perfect and changeless beat. Noise has been everything.
Anyhow, it’s finished now, the first mindless explosion, and the second stage has begun. Pop has gotten complicated. That was inevitable, everything ends, nothing remains simple. Pop has split itself into factions and turned sophisticated. Part of it has a mind now, makes fine music. The other part is purely industrial, a bored and boring business like any other. Either way, there are no more heroes and no more Superpop. It has all been reduced to human beings.
What’s left? In England, the industry is split roughly eighty per cent ugly and twenty per cent idealist.
The ugly eighty are mainline pop, computerized, and they hit a largely teenybop or pre-teen market, ages six to sixteen, plus a big pocket of middle-aged parents. They have a function and they sell records. They make money. When I’ve said that, I’ve said everything.
The blue-eyed twenty are hardly even pop stars any more. With very few exceptions, notably the Beatles and the Stones, they don’t sell records, and, after all, what’s pop about unpopularity? In ten years, they’ll probably be called by another name entirely, electric music or something, and they’ll relate to pop the way that art movies relate to Hollywood.
How good could they be? Logically, there’s no limit – amplified music is an obvious art form for this century and there’s reason whatever why it shouldn’t produce major works.
Very soon, you’ll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you’ll have pop concerts held in halls and the audience all sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands; you’ll have sounds and visuals combined, records that are played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked inot one, the music creating picture and patterns; you’ll have cleverness of every kind imaginable.
Myself, though, I’m not interested. Not that I have anything much against masterworks in principle but I’m hooked on image, on heroics. It’s like films – the best in art movies have no doubt been the most sensitive, brilliant and meaningful works of art, and where have I been? In the back row of the Roxy, of course, gawking at Hollywood. The art movie carries the quality and Hollywood carries the myth.
Superpop is mass media, it is teen music always, it has to hit. Ideally, it has to do what Bogart and Brando and Monroe have done in films, Gable and Fred Astaire – it has to be intelligent and simple both, it has to carry its implications lightly and it has to be fast, funny, sexy, obsessive, a bit epic.
The words of Little Richard still apply. They summed up what pop was about in 1956. They sum it up now and always: