Thursday, 4 April 2013

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”

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