Tuesday, 12 November 2013

(Longer unpublished version) of Article for DUPE Magazine's Dark Side issue: "Pop Goes The Evil"

Pop music, like the Force, has always twinkled with an alluring dark side.

The Devil was there right at the beginning, at the crossroads with Robert Johnson, teaching him the basics of rock’n’roll. Elvis twitched suggestively that he was “All Shook Up” and Western civilisation quivered at the sexual rumble that had waited for this moment. At its core pop reflects the yin of love twinned with the shady yang of desire. And what’s darker than the despair of wanting something you can never have?

The Sixties wasn’t all “All You Need Is Love” and R&B civil rights anthems. The liberating rush of psychotropic experiments troughed into crashes and burns of many a pop meteor – The Stones’ own brand of groovy Satanism (“Sympathy for the Devil”) lost its mojo as the counter culture imploded at Altamont; Syd Barrett moved from the whimsical “Bike” to shining on into his own musical black hole; Lennon went from screaming “Twist & Shout” to just plain primal screaming on his psychoanalytic solo material (“Mother”). The rediscovery of childhood wonder through a psychedelic lens soon darkened with the arrival of half-buried childhood trauma in its wake: the desire to go back proving an expedition into a darker continent than they had planned for.

And there was Lou Reed, writing surging love songs to “Heroin” while other pop writers (and Lou was definitely a writer of pop songs, however distorted) coyly nudged the listener in the direction of cheeky amphetamines. “Venus in Furs” pretty much instantly cornered the market in sado-masochistic kink – although Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” hunts in the same pack a few years later. Lou wrote Bohemian love songs to That Which Should Not Be Loved – with “Perfect Day” being the perfect example – dragging the shattered self-image of the painter or novelist into pop’s Tin Pan Alley and showing us the broken glass on the pavement.

And if we’re talking dark, what gets any darker than metal? None more dark. The West Midland factory of heavy, industrial, Mephistophelean sounds pumped out group after group that glistened with grimy black humour and references to mental illness and The Dark One. “Paranoid” is packed with pop hooks even as it seems to twist them into its own flesh – and it remains the fetid fountainhead of all the metal subgenres in its wake. Though Ozzy’s matter of fact lyrical approach (“Finished with my woman ‘cos she couldn’t help me with my life”) got jettisoned as the genres became more complicated and the imagery more baroque and involved.

Some musicians took the whole devilish business very seriously – although the Norwegian black metal scene still seems undecided whether the murders, suicides and church burnings that took place in the Nineties were to pledge undying allegiance to Beelzebub or boost footfall into Oslo’s Helvete record shop. Slayer threw themselves into the inverted spirit of things with “South of Heaven” and the immensely riffed, Holocaust-referencing of “Angel of Death”.

However, the suspicion remains that all the gory stage shows, corpse-painted faces, fanciful Norse back stories and Cookie Monster growling betray the fact it’s all a dark, energetic Pantomime. Scratch at the rusty paint of Cannibal Corpse, and spy the inner Spinal Tap glint beneath the surface. Lordi won Eurovision, for Satan’s sake!

A couple of eerie, thunder-clapped valleys across from Metal City stands Mount Goth, fringed in broody clouds of funereal black and suburban self-loathing. Sharing some of the heavy rock audience, Goth ramped up the camp side of adolescent alienation, adopting sunken-cheeked, vampiric glamour and BDSM leathers in a more passive aggressive attempt at self-expression. This was indie rock’s sallow attempt to invoke H.P. Lovecraft and J.G. Ballard while metal was still digesting J.R.R. Tolkien.

Joy Division and Siouxsie & The Banshees sowed the dark seeds in the years immediately following Punk’s nuclear assault on popular culture, referencing Nazis bluntly in their early imagery and more obliquely in their lyrics (“Warsaw” and “Metal Postcard (Mittagessen)” for example); but it’s Sisters of Mercy who really take the goth biscuit, all paranoid amphetamine swagger and romantic literary pomp. Wagnerian sing-along anthems like “This Corrosion” and clammy, bombastic hymns to escape like “Temple of Love” underline how much of a warm refuge the music was for its audience. Contemplating death aged nineteen isn’t quite the turgid horror show of a mid-life crisis; it’s more like a kohl-eyed version of a chat line.

Nine Inch Nails flew the flag hardest for Goth’s Industrial cousins, typing the aggressive in bold with albums about serial killers (“The Downward Spiral”), songs about addiction (“Hurt”) and alternative dance floor smashes about shitty relationships (“Head Like A Hole”). Its allure falls somewhere between metal’s obsession with disease and failing bodies and Goth’s paranoid indecision and desire to strap on sexy bits of leather and metal. Nineties sci-fi fantasy movies lapped it up like liquid shorthand for decadent dystopian abandon in strobe-lit clubbing scenes (“The Crow”, “Blade”, “The Matrix”, “Johnny Mnemonic”).

Hip hop is arguably almost all dark side – but its response to urban problems has mutated over time. The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was a disco-based party tune; Afrika Bambataa & The Zulu Nation had formerly been a violent street gang but made records fusing Kraftwerk with Funkadelic and dressed like an intergalactic Village People. Then Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five introduced a more realistic reminder of what they were partying to forget (“The Message”), perhaps partying a little too hard (“White Lines”), and the street had crashed the bash.

Darkness came from all angles: Public Enemy’s feverish paranoid fantasies of crucifixion and global conspiracies on “Welcome to the Terrordome”; cartoon gothic weed-infused nightmares from Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan; murderous beefs between Biggie Smalls and Tupac plus their entourages; Ice Cube and Ice T depicting themselves as actual Menaces II Society on “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and “Cop Killer” respectively, turning the moral panic of white, suburban America into gold discs.

Once menace and genuine tales of gangster hardship and chicanery became a commodity to market, the whole game changed. Now the threat to civilisation is almost completely gone, and businessmen like Jay-Z and Kanye sit on thrones on top of global corporations; they are society, and high society at that. Perhaps these lofty, coke-streaked towers are where the real darkness dwells?

So, in short, there is a lot of dark music out there. But this is all the obvious stuff: skinny dudes and chicks trying too hard to convince us of their evil, having too much fun with leather and drugs, quoting too much Aleister Crowley, rocking out too hard, spitting too fiercely about the drugs they bought and sold. There is another darkness, a black hole duller than these other sinners could possibly have imagined…

Picture the scene. It’s the Millennium and popular music is all about partying - hedonism is firmly on top.
The curiously bland is all.  There’s no danger or rebellion to be found in rock, in hip hop, in dance music. Every revolution has failed. The dominance of chill out compilations and Dido and Moby's "Play" album underline the fact that the world had no cares in the world. It is coffee table music piped in directly from Sunday supplements.

This was a darkness of sorts, a cultural dead-space: a gap between the End of History that the Berlin Wall’s collapse had granted us and the neo-conservative machine of perpetual war coming back into focus after 9/11. A pop culture gap year, just chilling out and planning to enjoy the twenty-first century.

Even the most crepuscular of genres was getting into the festive frame. Rock’s adolescent angst had mutated into the frat boy “sports metal” of Blink 182 or Limp Bizkit – all nob jokes and stamping. Hip hop had followed the advice of KRS-One and largely quashed all beef in favour of making some serious cheddar:  the non-threatening, hook-laden party jams of Mystikal (“Shake Ya Ass”) and Pharoah Monche’s “Simon Says”; the show business sleaze of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Entertainment; and, of course, Will "Willenium" Smith. Hip hop was full of gents with bristling portfolios looking to entertain, not to threaten or educate. With the notable exception of Eminem, a hip hop Elvis who shocked and delighted tens of millions by melding white frat boy attitude and black beats into one enormously successful package.

Dance music sums up the changes best, because not many pay attention to what dance music says. The earlier, darker, more complicated Nineties had given us the dark brew of drum & bass but when Old Father Time rattled around the Y2K it had slumped into UK Garage - music to sip champagne and eye up girls to. It was all dancing and twirling and Craig David going "Boing". It was about money.

But it was a happy time, wasn’t it? It was “Sweet Like Chocolate”. It was about dancing and enjoying yourself – Modjo and Cassius and Daft Punk telling us it was all that mattered. Kylie didn’t sing of love like she did back in the Eighties; she’d put her creative struggles in the Nineties behind her. She was now a disco machine with music stuck in her head, singing about the tune stuck in her head; just “Spinning Around”. It was empty, but it wasn’t dark.

So, what do we have now; now that we’ve an Orwellian War on Terror still raging to focus our attentions? UK Garage warped into Grime, which is pretty dark – but in a familiar, urban stories kind of way - and Dubstep, the drop into the k-hole: the sound of Salvia crushing the air out of our brains. Music that you less dance to than stagger underneath.

Dido dropped an octave and within a dozen years became Lana del Ray singing about “What Makes Us Girls” - a pin up for the numb. Metal has disappeared underground almost entirely; indie music now seems the preserve of rich kids; and chart pop is being run by Simon Cowell and the Brit Academy. Neither Simon nor the Academy graduates seem to be enjoying it very much.

"Bulletproof", "Titanium", "Diamonds": these chart-topping tunes are about being watched on the dance floor rather than actually just dancing, about surviving rather than partying - as though stranded in some apocalyptic nightclub. They are about commodities and war and dance music as obliteration rather than community.

Recent research has shown that pop music has got slower and sadder over the last fifty years - almost 60% of hit American tunes now in a minor key - and its lyrics more and more narcissistic and anti-social. “We” has become “I” and “our” “mine”. Black music in the US and Caribbean built up a musical momentum in tandem with their civil rights and independence movements which has gradually dissipated into individualism and apathy. Rock and pop music in the UK reflected and amplified the social mobility of the times until these forces also ran out of steam and working class artists are increasingly dependent on the patronage of rich businessmen and institutions.

This is cultural entropy - the musical Big Bangs of jazz and pop and reggae and hip hop and house music running out of energy as they diversify and dissolve into a thousand different sub-genres. Pop is about the release of energy: the death of energy is its dark side, its deathly shadow.

For a year or two we actually thought we'd broken through into the future and were partying like it was 1999 Recurring. Now, the hangover has us in its teeth - and what a skull-crushing comedown it is.


The Rolling Stones – ”Sympathy for the Devil”
Siouxsie & The Banshees – “Metal Postcard (Mittagessen)”
Nine Inch Nails – “Hurt”
Sisters of Mercy – “This Corrosion”
Public Enemy – “Welcome to the Terrordome”
Lana del Ray – “What Makes Us Girls”
Body Count – “Cop Killer”
Slayer – “Angel of Death”
The Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs”
John Lennon – “Mother”

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Thoughts on the Dawn of Hop & Bass - Posterity Groans under The Strain

Some two months or so ago a woman wandering in the grassy heartland between friend and acquaintance, snagged on a shared love of All Tomorrow's Parties, asked whether I'd be interested in speaking to radio people about my initial impressions of the Golden Age of Hip Hop and to run through a quick appraisal of the tin lid that was drum & bass while I was at it.

She had heard I had knowledge that I'd been carrying about with me in between yellowing strips of newspaper in a wallet unpicking itself at the seams. This knowledge had been carried over the grassy grapevine from another acquaiend*. Her disabuse of this heavily-mistaken notion must have been swift as this was never mentioned again.

But by then it was too late; my mind had begun. Diseased springs twitched and cogs spat teeth as they tried to find a common forward movement. On the train from Manchester to London I summoned my immense intellect and scrawled some ideas on a clumsily-folded piece of paper. Just the act of doing that felt good, writing semi-arcane notes to myself about the fevered impressionist thoughts I was having.

But being the sweaty creep that I am, writing some shaky words on a piece of paper is not enough. I have to share these malformed ideas with the world; and so here I am. The BBC Four Friday night retrospective will be sure to follow. In time.

So. The glory and appeal of Old School Hip Hop.

Firstly, it's all about the breaks - even if they were profoundly transmuted. Early hip hop hits were heavily disco-inflected, reflecting the block parties the music had sprung from. It was party music at first, good time stuff. And that was how Grandmaster Flash was received at my primary school discos in distant, damp north Wales. Fancy dress on TOTP: a cosmic version of The Village People. Stop start rhythms ideal for musical statues.

The toughness must always have been there, as the parties must have got rough at times - for all of Afrika Bambaataa's attempts to chill everyone the fuck out. Gradually, this toughness asserted itself as it became clear that hip hop was for telling stories too. "Funky Drummer" sounds like light entertainment, but spun out into endless space in front of a Public Enemy crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon, its breakbeat has dramatic power. There is nothing to match the tension of a drum machine, the bite of a drum loop.

Early Def Jam music sounds too sparse: LL Cool J and Run DMC. The excesses of disco were pared back too far, driven perhaps by the need to escape the gravity of that sunken novelty cruiseliner. (Were I more erudite I would juggle the idea of hyper-masculinity about - even in the face of the fact there were women MCs too at this point. But my erudition is flagging chequeredly.) It was just about words and a solid stance. People were expected to listen. But once sampling technology really got involved and layers and layers of sounds began to be added, the words were scrawled across great, chaotic soundstorms. It all became so fucking tumultuous!

My first experience listening to Public Enemy was on a Walkman on the way back from a school trip to Lancaster in 1989. It was "Nation Of Millions"; and it was enormous. This was the moment when hip hop stepped away from memories of primary school discos and became what I would know recognise as the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Layer after layer of panic and solid noise, slipping and sliding against each other; black music history (and some metal too at times for a paranoid edge) re-configured and laid out in front of me in its new Chimeric form, torn into its component parts while still fizzing with life and urgency. Comparing "Yo! Bum Rush The Show" with "Millions" only a year or so later shows how fertile and explosive hip hop was in the Golden Age. Just like the period of five or six years when pop music split into rock and pop and everyone had a plan on how to push further and answer harder the music that went before. Nuclear fission still glowing forty five years on.

Listen to the way Kanye samples soul and R&B music these days in comparison to the (now impossible) piracy of the vinyl seas that De La Soul and PE explored so excitingly. For De La and producer Prince Paul  it was a game, stitching together tunes from childhood and exotic yet familiar pop sources just as they were facing down the dookie gold chains and restrictive practices that went on around them. Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad wanted to show you everything and the wide-ranging paranoid scramble of facts and mottos was reflected in the music. All the tension has been drained from the music by the time Kanye gets his sticky fingers on it - it's just a pompous backdrop for his globe-trotting; a bored, Ray-Bans wearing yuppie version of hip hop. Count your beans with a yawn on your bored looking face, you drippy cunts. Your aspirations have gone all to cock.

Still to this day, nothing will get me dancing more promptly than classic hip hop - even the "throwaway" stuff like House of Pain or Cypress Hill. Today's chartbound sounds are so limp and complacent by comparison. Even when someone of the standard of Killer Mike comes along and launches "Reagan", you can't really dance to it. It has the same leaden-footed keyboard shuffle. "Fight The Power": that's a tune you can shake serious body parts to. Yes, sir.**

Another thing about hip hop is its viral accessibility. Cultures all over the world have adapted it to their twisted ends; it has spread everywhere like some hydroponic pondweed. Even in a distant outpost of the Western cultural experiment like Eighties Anglesey it forged a connection between a pale and uninteresting sixteen year old lad and packs of angry, educated Afro-American New Yorkers. Its DNA can be reproduced in every part of the world, taking on mutations as it adapts to survive in different cultural climates. It goes native, becomes unexotic; it becomes us. It can be bolted onto anything and in so doing will subtly or unsubtly change the essential nature of its host nature.

And as a result of this chameleonic quality, as in all good bodysnatcher movies, up rose a panic about authenticity. At first the battle was between neighbourhoods in New York, Queensbridge and Brooklyn, as to who invented what. Then it was deemed the property of New York until gangster rap definitively opened up the West Coast as a second front. Still today (despite hip hop's global relevance) the sound of hip hop with non-American voices can cause a frisson of novelty-hunting excitement or a stinkcloud of ridicule. But the reality is that anyone can pick up a mic and spit their brains out over repetitive loops. Party jams became tales of urban deprivation became rants at the global poltical military industrial complex became whatever the fuck we want. And there is nothing anyone can do about it - the fatty acid chains are out there, shagging everything they touch.

Compare the career of hip hop's uncle, reggae. How despite being loved around the world and even copied by acts from highly non-Rasta/non-Jamaican cultures, reggae and its immediate descendants (roots, ragga, etc.) has an impenetrable, uncorrupted core that keeps its exoticism integral. It never assumes the identity of its host in the same way. Perhaps it doesn't offer the same opportunity to relate your own story. There is still a strong flavour of Marcus Garvey and Afrocentric spirituality that turns its head from any attempt to completely sublimate the music. It's not just about the patois, as plenty of hip hop vocabulary crossed cultural barriers within a couple of years. It's about access.

So hip hop is huge now, that's agreed. It's able to spawn and reproduce itself in a way that even rock music hasn't quite managed - adapting itself to agendas from Welsh cultural resistance to Jihad to Eminem's white boy parenting issues. It isn't about the Five Elements anymore, although you can probably trace the remains in what is going on now; but why do I think the Golden Age still holds my imagination in a way that Hova and Eminem never have?

It must be partly where the music fitted in with my own adolescent development. The timing of that Public Enemy experience, coinciding with being sixteen and beginning to form an idea of how I'd engage with the world again, couldn't have been more perfect. But I think the enduring quality is the energy, the sense of momentum - as with post-punk in the late seventies. A fresh culture (if you'll pardon the pun) breaking out, people living on their wits and kind of doing for love - as the money wasn't in hip hop yet and there were no fucking CEOs of rap music. It was vital, unrestrained by music piracy laws and responding to the civil rights optimism of their parents' generation represented by their choices of musical samples.

As hip hop had grown in confidence to express itself, it was showing me exactly what I needed to do myself. Round the corner waiting for me in the early Nineties was Hardcore/Drum & Bass, but I can't get into that stuff right now.

Yours in think

Your pal

Coc x

* Surely there must be some kind of daily spot prize for coming up with the internet's most awkwardly-jizzed neologism? No. Then I fall back on my genetic research as a back up plan for notoriety.

** Perhaps this is because the all-encompassing Illuminati-style paranoia of much of hip hop these days already feels defeated by the military industrial delusion of democracy and so dancing feels pointless. PE were still riding ripples set in motion twenty five years before with Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan and perhaps that also reflects why the use of soul music was still vital. They'd been swimming in those civil rights Motown Stax waters at first hand.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Article for Dupe magazine: "The Pop Physics of The Road"

My friends, there is driving; and there is The Road. Any fool can drive a few miles, or tool their honey wagon around the block on a summer’s afternoon; but only a beatnik fuckstar from the edge of cool takes to The Road. They walk the walk of the troubadours, then sing the song of what happened so we might wring wisdom from the tale.

Driving represents sex, freedom or both. The Beatles “Drive My Car” doesn’t leave much doubt about what stick they are looking to get shifted. Rihanna wants her fella to “Shut Up And Drive”  - all those raunchy revving noises! R Kelly’s “Ignition” illustrates where he wants the key inserted. Grace Jones suggest we pull up to her bumper and slide it in between! Prince sings about a “Little Red Corvette”, but Squarepusher makes things a bit more explicit – “I want to fuck you with my red hot car”.  And of course there’s the slasher semiotics of the Dead Man’s Curve songs’ mixture of teen sex and death.

If you want to feel the freedom in your hair, just crank your shaft along to Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” and gun your hog down the freeway, “looking for adventure/And whatever comes your way”.  “Route 66”  plots economic migration westward and leaving old prejudices back East, even while it talks about “kicks”. Tracy Chapman wants to escape her life altogether in a “Fast Car”, also reflecting a musical tendency for women (and Iggy Pop) to sit in the passenger seat. Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” brings the freedom of the freeway and the lure of the booty call into one joyful splash of hi-hats and brass.

But which musical genre best describes the getting from A to Z?

Pop isn’t well equipped to deal with travel. Gruff Rhys started driving late, so tingles with the simple joy of “Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru (Driving Driving Driving)” – but this is not The Road. Madness were the same, just enjoying driving about in a car bought in Muswell Hill.  New England punk-ish popster Jonathan Richman feels “in love with the radio on” driving around Massachusetts at night on “Roadrunner”. This is not the physics of distance and destination; pop cannot defer that gratification. It needs to burst; it goes in circles.

Old school hip hop was most bothered with the parish boundaries. Even the most escapist journey (Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” or Jazzy Jeff’s “Summertime”) only aspires to circle the neighbourhood at a slow pootle.  The new boys jet from ritzy location to cocaine-streaked fortress (“N***as in Paris”) and even uber-conscious  Public Enemy  only set out to Arizona to right political wrongs, not for fun. Only A Tribe Called Quest really got the idea of the exploratory road trip on “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” – forgetting stuff, bad food and the zen of long distance travel. But then they were pretty beatnik types, eh? “Peoples, Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm”, you say?

You can’t think about musical journeys without tipping the brim of your dusty pith helmet to Kraftwerk. They have most means of transport covered: bike (“Tour de France”), train (“Trans Europe Express”), even submarine (“Das Boot”). “Autobahn” though, a mumbling Teutonic resurfacing of the Beach Boys’ surf pop, is a byword for highways.  (Or a highword for byways.) But all Florian and the boys want is the metronomic thrill of movement: there’s no drama. The Road is too flat.

Blues waits by the road for the Devil to pass through and meet up at the crossroads. The wanderers in Blues stride out of folk tales like  “Stagger Lee” or Biblical passages like rolling stones gathering no moss. It’s too ancient; just fighting and fucking – no poetry.

Speaking of poets, Jack Kerouac casts a long shadow over a certain kind of thoughtful rock and roll. Many have had a punt, but Bruce Springsteen is the bard of the highway, mainlining the romance of the road on “Born To Run” (“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”) and also the less-documented desperation of the dead Tom Joad or “State Trooper” from his famously introspective meditation on the empty road and big skies, “Nebraska”. Begging “Mr State Trooper/Please don’t stop me” over and again is not Steppenwolf.

Rock is about the dynamics of tension and release and freedom is a lyrical obsession; but things break down and subvert expectations at times. Tom Petty’s “Night Driver” sounds dangerously sleepy, “drifting home again”. Bob Dylan’s “On The Road Again” seems more about pacing the floor in rooms and being bored than travelling itself, “till everything becomes the same”; perhaps his motorcycle accident curtailed any boyish enthusiasm for tarmacadam.  Buzzcocks’ “Fast Cars” has the adrenal rush of driving, but the chorus is “I hate fast cars”. The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” draws out the Ballardian scene after a car crash with “broken glass/In the underpass”.

The UK has its motorway mythology too. Chris Rea is very much the Springsteen of the service station. Not only has he captured the weary excitement of “Driving Home for Christmas”, but he has also given us a “Road to Hell” – transposing the bluesy meeting with the Devil from dusty Mississippi into a traffic jam hallucination. And there’s The Proclaimers who send “Letters From America”, walk “500 Miles” and even cover Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”. Which brings us to Country & Western.

Truckers and country: no faster bond exists between a genre and its audience. While rock bands tour and express their freedom, truckers and country musicians feel the pain of separation and distance. It’s hard-wired into the genes, imagery and traditions of country, inherited from homesick Celts plucking banjos in the Appalachians. Aside from cheating men and women, reflecting on the home left far behind is a country staple.

Hank Williams set the template in the Forties with “Lost Highway” – loneliness, sin and bad choices. The lyrical themes are still close to the Blues, but the distances are already greater. By the time the Seventies had come along, country was burning  ascendant and sweating self-confidence. Box Car Willie’s “Convoy” is so pumped with self-belief that the police and the National Guard are nothing – “Ain’t nothing going to get in our way/We gonna roll this convoy across the USA”. By the power of Burt Reynolds’ luxuriant moustache, it has the whiff of reactionary politics! Jeremy Clarkson must roar it out on long journeys.

The Road is a defining part of many musicians’ daily lives. Willy Nelson can’t wait to get back out “On The Road Again” and “make music with my friends.. seeing things I may never see again”. Canned Heat sing the same title in a brittle falsetto voice underpinned by a bluesy raga-like drone that supports the idea this “lonesome road” is the path of life. Motorhead’s “(We Are) The Road Crew” pays tribute to the repetitive life of the roadie – another this, another that; bad food and bleeding ears. Typically earthy and literal. The Stone Roses’ “Driving South” is another update of the Devil at the Crossroads, this time hinting of dealings with the London-based music business types. The drudge of doing what you love for a living, eh?

Back in the days before our experiences were compartmentalised into boxes of scientific this and human experience that, the ancients took Natural Philsophy as one cosmological whole – the stars, medicine, personality disorders, politics, navigation. Music was the expression of the movement of those spheres; art and science meshed together in pursuit of the same explanations.

Each experience finds its expression in a different genre of pop, a circulatory system mapping out the different fault lines and pressure points of human emotion. Each genre sees The Road differently. For pop, there is the simple joy of being on the move. Techno is similarly mindless – but with a mechanical fetish (understandably). Rock senses freedom – and the exhilarations and fears that freedom brings. But perhaps Country is the perfect genre for illustrating our feelings about being on The Road, far from home and reliant on our own instincts and character.

And who says travelling has to be by motor? Lee Marvin sums up the itinerant itch of The Road on “Wandrin’ Star”: “Home is made for coming from/For dreams of coming to/Which with any luck will never come true.”

Steppenwolf, “Born to be Wild”
Kraftwerk, “Autobahn”
The Normal, “Warm Leatherette"
Gruff Rhys, “Gyrru, Gyrru, Gyrru”
Canned Heat, “On the Road Again”
Box Car Willie, “Convoy”
A Tribe Called Quest, “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”
Hank Williams, “Lost Highway”
Motorhead, “(We Are) The Road Crew"
Lee Marvin, “Wandrin’ Star”

Article for Dupe Magazine: "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Rollers: A rock/pop hairpiece"

The four pillars of youthquake rebellion:  firstly, loud repetitive beats – “This isn’t music!”  “Get bent, Daddy-o!”; secondly, drug consumption – don’t leave home with the intention of a new musical genre without it; thirdly, the correct tribal clobber – a quarter inch too much on the hem of your straights and you could get your head caved; and fourthly, HAIR!

From Teddy Boy ducks-arses to the hipster Hoxton Fin, the language of the hair has been plaited into the DNA of pop culture and identity. Uncursed by male pattern baldness and the inevitable thinning of later life, the young youths can and did manipulate their flowing manes into badges of honour and identity. But where are the tunes to celebrate their achievements?

You generally have to go to the margins of rock society or to the more restless songwriting minds of our generations to get any hirstutial mentions at all. Facial hair in particular is almost nowhere to be seen.

Moustaches are viewed  with suspicion. They’re either symbols of failed hypermasculinity (Nirvana’s high school nightmare “Mr Moustache” or The Locust’s “Teenage Mustache”) or the marker of a cad (early rockabilly standard “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache”) or some Carry On gender benderation (The Fresh Prince’s “The Girlie Had a Mustache”). The best a moustache can hope for is weird admiration, like on The Monochrome Set’s “The Man with the Black Moustache”; and they seem to crop up most in music with double kick drums – Anal Cunt, Rollo Tomassi and Secret Fun Club’s “The Ghost of John Bonham’s Mustache”, which sums up the whole rock manliness position nicely. Soupstrainers have fallen off the radar, their battleships sunk. Fit only for hipster scum and Robert Mugabe.

Beards do a wee bit better. Impenetrable and mysterious they evoke more fear and respect than the contempt for their upper-lip cousins. But there is no warmth, just Bohemian freakery from Devendra Banhart (quite the stranger to the razor himself), A Hawk and a Hacksaw and The Olivia Tremor Control (“Glass Beard”). Too outre for the bulk of the youth dem. Too much for the older man, too dusty and oak-panelled and Old Testament. Pop demands a shinier face and rock too is complicit in this uncover-up.

So defeated at the face, we march our columns of think to the crown itself, the top of the head. Even here, the coverage is wispy at best. Where I’d expect a thick, glossy expanse of hair-related pop, there are merely a few pubes in the bathtub. So out with the tweezers and let the examination begin...

One hairy Colossus casts its massive bouffant shadow over this question: “Hair” the musical. Sure, they sound keen on the “flaxen, waxen” stuff; but I’m not sure how straight they’re being with us – “A home for fleas/A hive for the buzzing bees”? Really? Even coming from tie-dyed-in-the-man-wool hippies, that’s a pretty extreme naturalist philosophy. Musical theatre: always so much to teach us.

To Pop! Madonna may be silent. Jacko may have nothing for me. But Lady Gaga, fetishist extraordinaire, won’t let me down. She feels herself  “shorn of my identity” when her mam cuts her hair. Gaga is never knowingly understated and her follical commitment is no less powerful: “I am my hair”. She recognises the power of fabulous hair-chitecture.”This is my prayer/That I’ll die livin’ just as free as my hair”. To be fair though, she seems to keep it on a fairly tight leash.

Best-forgotten MySpace sensation Sandy Thom bobs past briefly on a tsunami of faked nostaligia for a time without computers and “flowers in my hair”. McFly point out the rebellion in the girl with “Five Colours in Her Hair”, but point with cautionary fingers – as the polychromatically-barneted lass can’t handle the notoriety and goes mad. For Willow Smith, whipping her hair back and forth is an act of precocious performance. Hair is the extension of the self: if you cut my hair, do I not bleed? And so much for pop, the musical movement that brought it us A Flock of Seagulls, the American byword for funny-looking Euro-fag hair. All that New Romantic preening and not a tune to show for it. Unless “Fade to Grey” was a metaphorical reach for the Grecian 2000.

And therefore to rock. What about the politics of long hair? T.Rex said that if you “wear your hair long/You can’t go wrong”. Sound advice. Classical Californian rockists Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young dramatise the whole dilemma of trimming an inch or two off like its Vietnam. Excuses fly (including man ‘flu) about why Mr Crosby “Almost Cut My Hair”, before deciding to leave it and “let my freak flag fly”. He realises that he needs to “separate the wheat from the chaff/I feel like I owe it so someone”. Whoa! Heavy business at the barbers.

No-one can imbue the most casual cultural decision with maxium heaviosity qute like Pete Townshend of The Who and on “Quadrophrenia” he too struggles with the same problem. “Why should I care/If I have to cut my hair?”, he asks. Because of “the uncertain feeling” that keeping up with the crowd will lead him nowhere. PJ Harvey knocks this up another notch to Biblical proportions with her “Hair” seeing Samson betrayed by Delilah and shorn of his God-given strength. Pavement put it all down to record industry aesthetics on “Cut Your Hair”: “No big hair/...Career, career!/Did you see the drummer’s hair?”

And it’s not just posh white kids that fret over their follicles. Over in Jamaica the battle between Babylonian shineheads and righteous dreads rages over acres of shiny vinyl and acetate. Marley named a whole album “Natty Dread” in 1974. Dillinger marks out the dreads on “Commercial Locks” as something that “white man want to take away” just like everything else a Rasta has. Religious faith – Rastas like Sikhs should not cut their hair - colours pop culture from the outside here, which is maybe why it’s richest source of hairy lyrics in pop or rock. Because it’s not pop or rock.

The Observers “Rasta Locks” and King Tubby’s “Hijack the Barber” dub out instrumentally on the subject of religiously observant barnets. Scratch Perry sets his stall out with loads of tunes about dreadlocks. He even hits a romantic note with wobblier menace on “Curly Locks” where he asks a woman to choose between himself (“a natty Congo dread”) and “a baldhead”. Cutting to the chase.

Let’s not forget the hair of The Other either. Whether Syd Barrett’s spooky version of the Joyce poem “Golden Hair” or America’s “Sister Golden Hair”, the hair can mark out the exotic differences. Morrissey is certainly one to fetishize the slightest pop cultural detail and “Suedehead” signifies the whisperings of club membership, the doors the right hairdo can open up. Hairdoors, if you will.

Glasgow twee indie kids The Vaselines spit out their disgust with the “Hairy”: “I don’t want/To look like you/Greasy hair/And ugly too”. Those clean-limbed, smooth-faced types that wear coats that people remember from primary school playgrounds – duffel coats, parkas and the like – call hair as they see it: unclean and thick with adolescent dirt! A little adult for their fragile pre-pubescent sensibilities perhaps? (Speaking as a shambling hedgerow of a man myself.)

Sometimes it’s  just about feeling smart. The Smoking Popes’ “A Brand New Hairstyle” is a simple prayer for a haircut that “I can wear with pride/When I go outside”.  Jonah Lewie consider getting his haircut to cheer himself up after being turned down by a woman, “then maybe I’ll be in luck”. Sometimes it’s impossible to fathom what it’s about – Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut” leaves me scratching my head. (Oh, I’m sorry. One pun too many?)

Two indie rock bands manage TWO tunes about hair each, neither of them afraid of excessive foliage themselves. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion indulge themselves in some rock semiotics with excess  and no due caution - “Haircut” (“Cut a lot of hair!” and not much else lyrically) and “Afro”. Super Furry Animals (suitable bandname for hair songs) fill in a bit more lyrical detail. In fact they can’t say enough about “Ice Hockey Hair”, although I’m not sure what the whole song is about. “Torra Fy Ngwallt yn Hir” (“Cut My Hair Long”) is pretty clear though: “Wear your hair long/Right down to your arse/...And don’t make any fuss.” And that’s without taking their album “Mwng” (Welsh for mane) into account. Finally a band that take hair seriously! Thoughtful about their rock they are.

The sooner I get my own hairy pop opus “Mammalian Tendrils” out of the pipeline, the better. The world of rock needs my help.

T.Rex, “Ride A White Swan”
The Smoking Popes, “Brand New Hairstyle”
PJ Harvey, “Hair”
Super Furry Animals, “Torra Fy Ngwallt yn Hir”
Beck, “Devil’s Haircut”
The Who, “Cut My Hair”
Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”
CSN & Y, “Almost Cut My Hair"
King Tubby, “Hijack The Barber”
The Vaselines, “Hairy”