Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 5: TURNING JAPANESE:  The Empire of Retro and the Hipster Internationale


Japanese retro-hipsterism

Although bands as divergent as Pizzicato Five and the Boredoms had brushed against my consciousness over the years, I first noticed the peculiar Japanese affinity for retro when I started going to a Manhattan club called Body & Soul around the turn of the millennium. Dedicated to New York's underground disco and house heritage, Body & Soul drew a fervent crowd mixing middle-aged veterans of legendary clubs like the Loft and  Paradise Garage,  house purists from the U.K. and Germany,  and young hipsters looking for a time-travel experience. And always , always, there'd a gaggle of immaculately period-styled Japanese waifs. 
Gradually the pieces started coming together. A music journalist acquaintance told me about "collector books": the Japanese craze for discographic books that list the entire catalogues of particular labels complete with reproductions of the front covers.  I puzzled over the peculiar obsession Japanese bands like Boris had with Blue Cheer's "turn the air into cottage cheese" heaviosity.


correct practice

W. David Marx uses the opposition "orthodoxy vs orthopraxy" to characterize this West/ East divide: ”correct belief” ( Christianity, especially the Protestant end of it) versus ”correct practice” (which relates to Confucianism, "the moral backbone of East Asian civilization")


Flipper's Guitar Scottophilia

Their 1989 debut was named Three Cheers for Our Side after an Orange Juice tune

Their second album Camera Talk drifted below Hadrian's Wall with songs called "Colour Field" (after the latterday Terry Hall outfit) and "Haircut 100".

Among the Shibuya-kei generally, there was also great admiration of  for the Postcard-and-after tradition of  Scottish indiepop pop, for groups like the hyper-referential Sixties-nostalgics Television Personalities, the oh-so-knowing él Records (Momus's early home)


talking of Momus...

W. David Marx often used to get into amiable online disputes with a rival Japanophile, Nick Currie, a/k/a the musician Momus, a cult figure in that country.  

Currie himself has used the  concept of "curation" as a way to describe what groups like Flipper's Guitar and their Shibuya-kei descendants did.  He's argued that being copied by Japanese groups helped his career, ultimately selling his records over there and enabling him to perform in the country.  "Kahimi and Cornelius played my stuff on their radio shows. They 'curated' me rather than ripping me off. " 

Momus further argued that Oyamada in his later Cornelius  guise was "much better than" groups he'd stolen ideas from like Primal Scream and The Clash. "What's more, if Primal Scream or The Clash are good, it's to the extent that they curated other bands and sounds well, the same way Cornelius does." 

That's a massive claim, and while uncomfortably true about Primal Scream ("Movin' On Up", for instance, features a guitar solo that very deliberately and totally replicates the tonality and timbre of Keith Richards circa "Sympathy for the Devil") I think it's completely wrong as regards the Clash.  Their music was born of Romantic and political idealism, not the desire to showcase their taste and discrimination. When they did covers, with just one or two few exceptions they were contemporary or at most relatively recent reggae tunes like "Police and Thieves" and "Armagideon Times", chosen because of their socially conscious message and also because the Clash wanted to forge an alliance between white youth and black youth, make their audience aware of roots reggae, in the late Seventies at its absolute peak of spiritual militancy. 

It is hard to think of anything in the Clash song-book that could be seen as pastiche or reference-gamesmanship (when they referred to the Elvis, the Beatles et al in one early anthem it was to condemn to History's dustbin), and when they expanded their music in the London Calling to Sandinista period, it was a case of organic growth in multiple directions (trying old styles like rockabilly, New Orleans R&B, ska, but also embracing hard funk, heavy dub, and early hip hop) than a knowing pick'n'mix.  

 There is a huge chasm, I think, between the mindset of the Clash and the mindset of groups like Jesus & Mary Chain and Primal Scream. If there was a sort of cusp group that balanced on the edge between eras--between rockist romanticism and pop irony,  history as a living tradition and the past as a sound-library of curatable flavours, I'd say it was Orange Juice.  So it makes sense that Orange Juice and the whole Postcard aesthetic was the trigger for Flipper's Guitar and Shibuya-kei.


The creative content is almost all curation / intellectual-artistic property is theft

W. David Marx says that "Shibuya-kei is best thought of as a hyperextension of consumer culture into music."   

But for all his Japanophile sympathies,  Marx is sufficiently Western in his outlook to be troubled by what he calls "the systematic embrace of  pakuri as art" (pakuru being the Japanese for "rip off").

He explains that Japan does not really have intellectual property laws, at least as far as foreign imports are concerned. "You only get into trouble when you sample local media. The mob-backed entertainment management companies will come after you if you use their images/products without permission. There is way more leniency for Western stuff because no one is really policing."


Shibuya-kei  music reference guide books

W. David Marx: "They basically go through every Shibuya-kei song and list all the records sampled and referenced. I know many a friend whose musical knowledge is based on these guides. Shibuya-kei was half entertainment, half education."

Sao Paolo's hipoisie

A resident took issue with my characterisation of the majority of the population as living in poverty. Still, judging from my couple of visits, the bulk of the population is working class and not especially affluent. But the population is so huge that the upper middle class is numerically as large as the entire population of many famous American cities.

Another thing that makes it such a fertile site for hipsterism is that, located far from the tropical zone, Sao Paolo has little in common with the Rio Janeiro cliché of Brazil; it feels like a European city, like an out-sized Milan maybe (an impression intensified by the large number of Italian and German immigrants that arrived there in the early part of the 20th Century).  (It also, incidentally, has the largest Japanese population outside Japan). 

the hipster internationale

The U.K. and Europe succumbed to this syndrome quicker than America, because there was already an element of distance and detachment in their relationship to rock.  

 In France, the sensibility is so ingrained--from Les Ritas Mitsoukos through Air and Daft Punk to Phoenix and Sébastien Tellier-- you could easily describe the syndrome as "Turning French" as "Turning Japanese".

The Go! Team

Barry Walters on The Go! Team's album Rolling Blackouts at eMusic:

"England has a long, checkered history of meta-acts: When the results don't live up to the ideals behind them, the bands in question typically don't last much longer than their NME single-of-the-week status. When they do, they're David Bowie. With its cartoon image, willfully bubblegum tunes, and reliance on childlike voices, the Go! Team practically beg to be filed with the former. Male, female, white, black and Asian, the Team's multiculturalism is put into practice on songs so overloaded with references and disparate styles, all delivered with such enthusiastic cuteness that the end product nearly defies intellectual response... 
What began with sampling and overdubbing is now nearly orchestral on the Go! Team's third — and by far most ambitious — album. When Parton nails a Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb-type easy listening melody on "Yosemite Theme," he employs what sounds like a small army of musicians on banjo, pedal steel, harmonica and French horns while maintaining a distinctly Public Enemy approach to production.... 

"Buy Nothing Day " [is] flat-out power-pop nirvana. Layer on layer on layer go the guitars, as if Parton managed to sync up classics by the Byrds, the Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star at the same time.

What little one can hear of the lyrics suggests Stereolab's anti-consumerist agitprop, but the crucial difference here is that everyone involved sings and plays like they believe they can make the world a more beautiful place by keeping their wallets in their pockets. The Go! Team-sters revisit well-worn genres with such depth of feeling that they bypass simple preservation. They're skipping rope on the path to revolution."


The Endless Eighties revival

a piece by me at the New York Times on the Eighties revival with specific reference to electroclash and Fischerspoone et al



LCD Soundsystem

Reviewing the debut LCD Soundsystem album, Paul Morley crushed the group with faint praise: "If you've never heard most of the stuff LCD stuff into themselves you'll think it's worthy of considerable worship. …  If you know the stuff, then, yeah, it's good at being good, at knowing how to be good, and knowing what is good, and in the end, good, but not that good."

On the subject of “Losing My Edge” and its mix of hilarious and poignant: “It’s incredibly sad," Murphy told me. "It took people a while to pick up on that. At first they were like, ‘ha! You got ‘em’, like it was just a satire on hipsters. What’s truly sad, though, is that the initial inspiration for it was from my deejaying in the early days of DFA, playing postpunk and an eclectic mix of dance and rock. And suddenly everybody started playing that kind of mixture, and I thought ‘fuck, now it’s a genre and I’m fucked, I’m not going to get hired’. My response was, “I was doing this first,” and then I realized that was pathetic, that I was this 31 year old hipster douchebag. So at the end of “Losing My Edge,” that’s why there’s the long list of bands-- Pere Ubu, Todd Terry, PIL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, Heldon, Gentle Giant,  the Human League, Roy Harper, Sun Ra, on and on--‘cos in the end that’s what my attitude reduced to, just running around trying to yell the names of cool bands before anybody else!”.


fading of the imperative to be original

  i saw this Jim Jarmusch text, much copied and circulated on the internet, on a T-shirt in Afflecks Palace, right next to the 'Fashion Will Eat Itself' T-shirt

if you don't feel like twisting your neck around:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”-- Jim Jarmusch


Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence

I don't know if people today have that anxiety -- it is a Freudian, 20th Century, pre-digital culture anxiety. Now we are all totally influxed with influence from everywhere, through being networked. How could any artist emerging today have that obsessive, intense and conflicted relationship with an ancestor?  There is so much overload of stimuli and musical information and input that the old structures of music influence and musical cathexis rarely happen now.  The model Bloom describe is from a disappeared era, it's a sensibility and maybe even a psyche that has been shattered, through network culture.

When writing this chapter, despite the proximity of the bit on LCD and the bit on Bloom, I completely forgot that when I interviewed James Murphy in the mid-2000s, I mentioned the Anxiety of Influence to him and got an unexpected response:

It's hilarious that you say this--I mention Bloom's anxiety theory pretty regularly in interviews!  This is the shit I've been screaming about for years.  Learning and progress has always been based on learning from the past.  REAL originality never comes from trying to defeat the past right out of the gate.  It's a spark of an individual idea caused by the love/hate relationship between a "listener" and the "sound".  I love music, and it inspired me at first to copy it, then to be ashamed of copying it, then to make music in "modes" (genres) while trying to pretend they were original, then finally making music with a purpose--which for me was dance music.  It made people dance. It was no longer just music to make you look cool and feel like you were part of something you admire.

“I don't feel like I'm in any danger of making ‘retro’ music, but at the same time, there are things about the ways various people who've come before me did things that I prefer greatly to the way "modern" things are done.  I use a computer.  I edit and do all sorts of modern shit, but there are things I consciously do that were done in songs I love from before me.”

heavily indebted bands no longer condemned for it, but treated as "central" - epoch-defining even when their style and substance referred back to a much earlier epoch 

here's me on Oasis (and Blur, not mentioned here) from the New York Times, October 1995.

Oasis' new album "(What's The Story) Morning Glory" (Epic) is also deeply indebted to the Beatles.  Singer Liam Gallagher sounds like a more nasal John Lennon, with the joie de vivre curdled to a sour arrogance.  Sonically, Oasis are basically a grungier version of The La's, an early '90s Beatles-obsessed outfit from the North of England. While a fervent admirer of La's songwriter Lee Mavers,

Oasis' Noel Gallagher has said that when he first saw that band perform, "I thought, 'he's ripping off my songs!'".  In truth, both songwriters are so chronically influenced by Lennon & McCartney that they're basically filling in the gaps in the Beatles songbook, and inevitably sometimes the same gap.
     Theorist Joe Carducci uses the term 'genre mining' to describe such a classic-rock approach. A marginally less hook-laden reprise of the debut LP "Definitely Maybe", "Morning Glory" suggests Oasis' particular seam of sound is  close to exhaustion.


example of non-originality as chronic syndrome in graphic design 

The original

by Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Lengiz. Books on all the branches of knowledge,” advertising poster for the Leningrad Department of Gosizdat (State Publishing House), 1924, gouaches and cut paper on photographic paper, mounted on cardboard

the remixes

and my absolute "favorite", the  piece de resistance -- the cover i saw in an airport bookstore that set off the whole El Rippitovsky / Rodchenko-remix obsession, so contrary to the original spirit of Bolshevik modernism it beggars belief, and it looks really shitty too:

there are countless other examples of graphic designers ripping off Suprematist and Constructivist design - Elizabeth Guffey has a whole chapter in her book Retro on the Soviet Chic thing of the Eighties, Swatch using all that Bolshevik modernism design etc etc


No comments:

Post a Comment