Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Anti-theatricality + politics - Grand Finale!

The revelation that Trump is an obsessive fan of Sunset Boulevard almost buggers belief.

 From Olivia Nuzzi's New York magazine glimpse into the Final Campaign 

"He had wanted to be in the movie business. It’s important to never forget this about him. He watches Sunset Boulevard, “one of the greatest of all time,” again and again and again. A silent-picture star sidelined by the talkies, driven to madness, in denial over her faded celebrity. When he was a businessman, he showed it to guests aboard his 727. When he was president, he held screenings of it for White House staff at Camp David.

"He once showed it to his press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who later described how “the president, who could never sit still for anything without talking on the phone, sending a tweet, or flipping through TV channels, sat enthralled.” And he once showed it to Tim O’Brien, the biographer, who wrote that when Norma Desmond cried, “Those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!,” Trump leaned over O’Brien’s shoulder and whispered, “Is this an incredible scene or what? Just incredible.”

The first thing that stirs incredulity is that it is evidence of taste, a capacity to be engaged by art.

Then there's the apparent fact that he identifies with the diva . Who lives in delusion, a bubble maintained by a flunky who secretly fabricates fake fan mail and gives it to her, so she'll believe she's still adored and not forgotten (as is actually the case). Identifies with the deranged diva without realising that she's the bad guy in the story,  or at best, an object of apalled pity. 

It's all just a bit too on the nose to be believable. 

Nuzzi returns to the Billy Wilder movie for a closing twist of the knife: 

"Do you remember how Sunset Boulevard ends? Norma Desmond shoots and kills the writer, a fraudster who has fallen under the spell of her charisma, just as he summons the courage to walk away. Her sycophantic butler flips. There are no enablers left to protect her. A final fantasy, a fake movie set, is staged in the mansion’s entryway. The lights go on, and she is lured before the cameras, where the police are waiting to haul her away."


Although it would make for a climactic ending - it's unlikely ever to be topped - this probably won't in fact be the last ever anti-theatricality round-up. Tropes based around the stage and showbiz are sure to continue cropping up in political reporting and commentary. 

Still this is possibly a good pause point to unpack what my angle is....

It's double-pronged, the prongs pointing in different directions, or even towards each other, in a self-cancelling thrust

On one hand, like any sane and pragmatic "let's get stuff done" person who votes Democrat and would vote for Labour if still able to remotely,  I'm aghast at the extent to which political theatre has displaced governance and policy for one entire half of the political spectrum. I anticipate being nauseated by the string of stunts and photo ops that the new House of Representative majority will be staging for the next two years, rather than fixing problems and making people's lives marginally better.  Same for the vindictive theatrics unfurled by various Republican governors simply to play to their sado-populist base via the TV. 

On the other hand, it's not that I imagine that there is or ever could be a form of politics purified of the theatrical or the image-based, that could decontaminate itself from the realm of appearances and spectacle and soberly base itself around truth, expertise, facts and policy. 

Democrats are beguiled by their own favored brand of wish-fulfilment entertainment, it's just that it's the Sorkin sort, or harking back further still,  the civics fantasy fare of Jimmy Stewart / Frank Capra / Mr Smith Goes To Washington, also all those films about newspapers investigating and exposing corruption etc. Not as bombastic and pageantry-oriented as the right wing's ever more openly fascistic theatrics, for sure. Tad more tasteful and restrained -  but still corny, still peddling heartwarming happy endings. The Jan.6 committee hearings, for instance, were nothing if not great TV -  a brilliant sustained feat of narrative structuring and story telling. 


After the mid-term elections were settled, my intention was to tune out Trump-related news coverage (and as much of the antics and theatrics of the Republicans in the House as I could manage)  on the grounds that

 A/ it takes up too much of my mental bandwidth 

B/ staying  "informed" about this stuff serves no purpose ( other than sickening me and pumping me full of anxiety), given that there's nothing I can do about it...  

I have to assume the Democrats have got contingency plans and the hard-ball will to manage and sidestep as much of the barrage of nonstop evil nonsense as is possible...  what happens to Trump  depends on internal Republican Party maneuvring, on the seething id-driven impulses of their voting base, and on the activities of various attorney generals and prosecutors.... 

No, there's absolutely zero point in me "keeping up" with things; the next time I'll be of any use is as a presidential election volunteer in the summer of 2024, when the identity of the enemy will be known.  So why not have a break for now, pay attention to the many other interesting and important things in the world? 

Certainly I do not need to read yet another in-depth psychological portrait of the dictator-diva fantasist.  His internal mechanisms and churnings are thoroughly known. It's still my New Year's Resolution to cut down the intake drastically and free up the bandwidth for otherstuff.

But I couldn't help myself, had to read the Nuzzi piece. Regrettably it remains a compelling if interminable saga, and in these (hopefully penultimate) narrative throes there is a grotesque drama of decline and decay, every bit as mesmerizing as Gloria Swanson descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard.   

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Sparks and American Rock Critics - a Hate Story


One star review and skin-crawly loathing from an early '90s edition of Rolling Stone Albums Guide - not sure who M.C. is (Mark Coleman?)

But wait, there's more!

Propaganda [Island, 1975]

Admirers of these self-made twerps certainly don't refer to them as pop because they get on the AM--for once the programmers are doing their job. So is it because they sing in a high register? Or because a good beat makes them even more uncomfortable than other accoutrements of a well-lived life?; "Never turn your back on mother earth," they chant or gibber in a style unnatural enough to end your current relationship or kill your cacti, and I must be a natural man after all, because I can't endure the contradiction. C-

Introducing Sparks [Columbia, 1977]

On its five albums for Bearsville and Island, this skillful brother act compounded personal hatefulness with a deliberately tense and uninviting take on pop-rock. But with their Columbia debut, Big Beat, they began to loosen up, and here one cut actually makes surf music history, in the tending-to-hyperconsciousness section. This is tuneful, funny, even open. But the fear of women and the stubborn, spoiled-teenager cynicism is still there, and it's still hateful. B

No. 1 in Heaven [Elektra, 1979]

Anglophilia's favorite androids were destined from day of manufacture to meet up with some rock technocrat or other, so thank Ford it was Giorgio Moroder, the most playful of the breed. They even got a minor dance hit out of it--"Beat the Clock," a good one--but that's not the point. The point is channeling all their evil genius--well, evil talent, then--into magic tricks. Like the ultimate voice-box song. Or the title tune, which sounds like "Baba O'Riley" and then breaks down into Eno (or is that Gentle Giant?). Fun fun fun. B+

That's from Dean Christgau's running compendium of judgments on anything and everything. 

But this relatively recent snit takes the biscuit - item in a Greil Marcus Real Life Rock Top Ten from only last year

Since 1972, Sparks, a.k.a. the vaguely incestuous brother act of Ron and Russell Mael, have followed the path of effete cabaret. They are the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit, anything suggesting that everyone knows who they are, would erase their whole reason for being. It’s worked: while most of the world has ignored them, all kinds of people adore them, including Leos Carax, who more than two decades ago made the completely uncategorizable Pola X, perhaps the least likely literary adaptation in the history of cinema — it’s based on Melville’s nearly impenetrable Pierre; or, the Ambiguities — a movie I’ve always found impossible to remember in any detail and impossible to forget for its drive toward self-destruction. The result is a very long picture starring Adam Driver as an L.A. stand-up comedian who is above laughter — all of his routines seem to be based on King Lear — and Marion Cotillard as an opera singer with a two-octave range, and not a moment of believable human feeling in its 140 minutes. And the Maels have nothing to fear from Hollywood: the film cost $15.5 million and took in $3.1.

Peculiar things about this take:

- "vaguely incestuous", followed closely by "effete cabaret"  - American rock critics of a certain generational stripe really do seem viscerally unsettled by the not-quite-maleness of the Maels

- "the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit... would erase their whole reason for being"

Erm, they were pop stars in the UK and in bits of Europe! I know the United Kingdom and Europe don't figure in the Greil-i-verse,  rock being inherently American. But "most of the world has ignored them" - not quite!  

When pop stardom started to slip away, Sparks tried a series of maneuvers to recover it - including teeming up with Giorgio Moroder, the biggest hit-maker in the world at that precise point. And it  worked: they were in the UK pop charts again with "Number 1 Song in Heaven" and "Beat the Clock".  Hardly sounds like a group content to be a cult.  Moreover, Sparks desperately wanted to match their overseas pop success with similar chart impact in America. So in the gap between the glam-era Brit stardom and the Moroderized Eurodisco recovery, they toned down the popera aspects for a couple of more conventionally rocking albums (like the boring Introducing, which garnered Xgau's tempered approval). Then in the '80s, they went New Wave (having prefigured it to some extent), teamed up with Jane Wieldlin from the Go-Gos, etc. Over the years the Mael bros have tried again and again and again to have hit records.

(Also - why would it matter if they'd cultivated culthood anyway? Vulgar Boatmen, Mekons, Sleater-Kinney and other GM-approved outfits aren't exactly in the business of pop universality.) 

Right about one thing, though - Annette was awful, I could only get about half an hour into it before turning it off. 


The running theme  - or closely entwined themes - to Sparks-aversion among US rock critics of a certain generation is the feeling that the Mael Brothers are:

1/ un-American

2/ unmanly 

An alternative title for this post could be: Springsteen or Sparks - the Choice is Yours.

Even back in the 1970s -  when unexamined assumptions about substance, integrity, truth, were like microplastics in the generational bloodstream, when  people believed in a thing called "street credibility"... even back in the '70s, it's hard to see how someone could attend a Springsteen concert and see it as less theatrical than Sparks - as somehow more "real" or "true".  

Here's a counter-view from one of those Britkids electrified by Sparks on Top of the Pops, reviewing a best-of around 1990. 

(Proximity to someone else's review of The Animals oddly appropriate - Brits infatuated with Black America versus Sparks as Californians injecting Gilbert & Sullivan into rock 'n' roll). 

In this review - like a poptimist to the manor born! - I do some crafty transvaluation: taking exactly the sort of negative terms (whiteness, hysteria, overwrought, highly-strung, castrated, perverse, baroque) applied by Yankcrits (see also Dave Marsh on Queen) and positivizing them. Not that at the time of writing I would have been aware of how hated Sparks were in their homeland.  For me and other Britkids now grown up and trying to explain to ourselves the fascination of the Maels on our TV screen, it is precisely  Sparks's distance from "rootsiness" or "feel" or the category of "the natural" that makes them interesting and exciting.  

Obviously, the Brit Rock Experience starts with unrootedness and inauthenticity. Sparks-as-Anglophiles amplifying that English not-quite-realness and cleaning up in the U.K. - it makes sense as a historical phenomenon, but more than that, it's bound to hit a Brit on a vibrational level. What's that they say about Sparks?  "The best British band to have come out of America". Or perhaps it was "the most English group that isn't actually from England"  Either way, the deficiency of Creedence-ness is what gives them credence - where we live, at least. 

Sparks: Huysmans at the hop. 

Against Nature 

What on earth is there not to like? 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

anti-theatricality and politics round-up

update 12/9/2022

"A fashionable critique of much political punditry is that it’s theater criticism, too focused on personality and superficial action, not focused enough on the real stuff of policy.

"But we’re talking about Kyrsten Sinema today, the senator from Arizona who loves to create drama. And that’s the best way to understand her announcement this morning that she has changed her affiliation from Democrat to independent.

Here are two conflicting ways to understand Sinema’s move: In one, she was never really a true Democrat anyway, and this simply ratifies what everyone already knew. In the second, she’s still a Democrat, this is nearly pure performance, and she will continue to be a crucial and mostly reliable member of the Democrats’ thin majority. Both of these views might prove right."

- strangely the rest of this Atlantic piece by David A. Graham does not sustain or even return at the end to the theatrical metaphors of the opening gambit 

"Democracy is boring. It’s bad for ratings and clicks. It requires compromise. 

"Fascism is exciting. The strongman lands blows on the enemy! Compromising is seen as weak. 

"Too many people want theater."

Teri Kanefield

"Trump likes to say a secret of his "success" is he understands show business. If he really did tho, he'd know there was a reason why there was never a sequel to "Pluto Nash," "Ishtar" or "Battlefield Earth." And his first crack at the WH was a much bigger flop than all of those."
 - David Rothkopf 

"Unfortunately, fantasies can be generated faster than reality can puncture them. So off we go with a repeat of an old show—written, directed, and performed by a production company oblivious that it is chasing box-office success by remaking a three-decade-old flop. - " 

David Frum on the Republican Congress's investigations of Hunter Biden as a replay of the Clinton  investigations (not sure if he meant Bill or Hillary - either works)

"The Republicans keep giving you theatrics. Really since Reagan, it's been theatrical politics. Ex-actors. A series of theatrical candidates."
- Joy Reid, MSNBC, after defeat of Herschel Walker

"It seems to me that [Trump]'s doing what he always does: Write a script and try to force everyone to become actors in his show."

-Teri Kanefield 

 "She killed my admiration by her talk. Her talk. The enormous ego, false, weak, posturing. She lacks the courage of her personality, which is sensual, heavy with experience. Her role alone preoccupies her. She invents dramas in which she always stars. I am sure she creates genuine dramas, genuine chaos and whirlpools of feelings, but I feel that her share in it is a pose … This false self is composed to stir the admiration of others, inspires others to words and acts about and around her"  
- Anais Nin on Kari Lake

"In the Elon Musk show, facts don't matter.

It's all about the show."

-Teri Kanefield 


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Electric Warrior - sources and formats


May 1971 T. Rex - De Montford Hall Leicester

source, obviously, for this 

I did 3 days as a trial worker at what was then called Record and Tape Exchange (later Music and Video Exchange) before being adjudged not to have "executive potential" i.e. not hardhearted and cold-souled enough for a front counter job doing valuations on second-hand vinyl brought in for sale, often by the desperate, the pushy, the persistent - and occasionally, by a thief. You had to be deadpan in the face of wheedling and outraged, incredulous "is that all??!" responses, and stony and steadfast when threatened. I think management made the right call as regards my future with the company. 

Still, I mourn all the free records I might have got. Even during the brief stint there, I observed how the staff creamed off all the really good stuff that came in- fantastic rare records, or brand-new hip releases brought in by jaded (sometimes junkie) journalists / DJs/record biz people. But being the lowliest of underlings the only booty I was allowed to take home was a  cassette of Electric Warrior.

 My memories of that album are all entwined with that format, the slightly thin sound quality, the turning it over in the middle, fast-forwarding past the one shit song (the bluesy trudger on side 1). It got a lot of play in those wintry months of early '86 when I was scraping together the beginnings of a living as a music journalist. 

And here's the very cassette itself - treasured still, and occasionally even dragged out to be played

I can't tell if it's an original cassette from 1971 or a later iteration - some of the stuff on the inlay about how "this STEREO cassette gives genuine reproduction on Mono equipment" makes me thinks it's early '70s - or could it be just that they didn't bother to alter or update the artwork for the tape. And  then there's the DOLBY SYSTEM logo on the front - when did that get introduced?. 

For that matter, when did prerecorded cassettes become a popular format for pop music? In the early '70s you'd have thought most kids were still listening to 7-inch singles (and the occasional album) on Dansettes or similar type record players - the kind where you could pile up a load of  singles and they'd drop down one after the other to be played (not exactly the hi-est of fi ways of extracting audio information from a vinyl platter!). 

Peering at it closer, I noticed for the first time that the label is not Fly but Cube - Cube Tapes. Cube is what Fly turned into, starting May 1972. They also put out this 8-track version and an odd little EP in Mexico. 

Now I think about it, I'm not sure I ever got Electric Warrior on CD - or indeed vinyl.  

I have the brown  self-titled album on vinyl ("borrowed" off a friend) and The Slider gatefold (easy to find cheap in America where it was the album that got the push and the ones most Americans who love T.Rex seem to love - to me it's markedly not-as-good as Electric Warrior or even Brown). 

Not having the vinyl Electric Warrior, though, I missed getting these amazing portraits of the band on the inner paper bag. 

An earlier post on the mixed messages of the Electric Warrior cover and advertising: 

This murky -  faintly menacing -  advert seems to be still trying to sell Marc Bolan as an underground act, even on the eve of his pop superstardom. You can barely see his pretty face, let along any glitter on the cheekbones. 

The musician, barely identifiable as Marc, is totally self-absorbed, wrapped up his own sound and his own cool. He's not meeting the gaze of a potential audience.  

It's totally out of step with the direct appeal to tweenage girls of the song itself ("I don't mean to be bold but may I hold your hand?" - courtly love vassalage reframed in 12-bar boogie), the luscious cloying caramel-sweetness of the "la la la la-la la-la" hook / fade-refrain ... 

Likewise the cover for Electric Warrior is  "heavy".  Face hidden by long frizzy hair... guitar perpendicular and phallic...  The musician is lost in the auto-erotic swirl of the awesome noise he's generating, inwardly focused on his playing, his masturbatory mastery of the instrument, barely aware of the audience... Bolan is presented as guitar-hero (a warrior armed with electricity - that massive amplifier behind him blasting out pure power). He's an active noise-maker not a passive object of desire,  a fey plaything. It could be a cover for a Paul Kossoff solo record. 

Disco Rock

One of the things I discovered during my research on  Shock and Awe  was that the teenybop end of glam 'n' glitter was synonymous wi...