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”