The Magnetic Fields - '(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy'
John Virtue - Landscape 568
During 1999 I filled three sketchbooks with a collage for every day of the year. These collages were mostly made up of things from the particular day in question: Items found around the classroom or in the streets; pieces torn from materials received in the post. Leafing through the books now, two things stand out: Digital promotion was still in its infancy, for the amount of printed ephemera I received really was significant; Magnetic Fields’ ’69 Love Songs’ was released on the 7th September.
This second fact has surfaced before, most notably in a piece I penned back in 2001. Ostensibly a review of the series of Magnetic Fields’ shows at the Lyric Theatre in London, where they played the ’69 Love Songs’ set in its entirity, the piece also appears to draw comparisons between Magnetic Fields and Belle & Sebastian. In hindsight this is both entirely understandable and wholly unnecessary. Clearly it was at a point at which I had lost heart somewhat with B&S and that is a shame, for they would go on to make some of their finest records after that time. Is the same true of Magnetic Fields? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly there are some who see ’69 Love Songs’ as both their pinnacle and the dead weight around their shoulders. Personally I think Stephin Merritt released equally fine records before (‘Get Lost’ remains my personal favourite) and afterwards (‘Distortion’ is as great as anything he’s ever produced), yet inevitably it is the sheer scale and consistently high quality of ’69 Love Songs’ that stands as a highlight. Well, there are far worse legacies one might be burdened with, after all.
Listening to it again now one of the things that strikes me is that perhaps it would be impossible to release such a record in 2016. Attention spans seem to be so radically trimmed to NOW! NEXT! CONSUME! DISPOSE! (itself, admittedly, an attractive kind of hyper POP concept stretched to the limits of its adhesion) that the thought of listening to a triple CD set of 69 songs in one sitting feels, well, preposterous. Perhaps it always was, and certainly there are those who will tell you that indeed was the case.
And yet ’69 Love Songs’, for all that I did so often sit down and listen to it in its entirety, is/was also a tremendous collection into which one might dip and pluck any number of treasures. In this it belies its notional position as a ‘concept’ album where Stephin Merritt explores songwriting genre, archly twisting what in other hands might be an academic project into something knowing, yet charmingly individual and almost always magical.
The song of choice therefore really could have been almost any of the 69 and on any other day it might indeed have been any other. Today however the pick is '(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy’ if only for the fact that the parentheses in the title come at the start rather than the end (in LD Beghtol’s thirty three and a third tome on ’69 Love Songs' Reggie Chamberlain-King suggests that this cements its position as the antithesis of Meatloaf’s ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’) and because I cannot think of another song that mentions Ganesh and lifts its Moog bass sound from ‘The Lies In Your Eyes’ by The Sweet. This should be enough for anyone.
During April of 2005 I happened across John Virtue’s paintings of London hanging in the National Gallery. It was both exciting and disappointing all at once. It was rather like seeing your favourite band getting into the Proper Charts and playing on Top Of The Pops whilst simultaneously knowing that the record really isn’t as good as those scratchy singles they released on an Indie label years before. On the face of it, not much had changed. The scale, style and the language of the paintings was pretty much the same as they had always been, and yet, and yet… Something had been misplaced, or at least had been lost in translation from the river Exe estuary to the skylines of London. Things became too recognisable. Too easy to relate to. No secrets for the knowing few. Maybe it was London’s fault.
Certainly Virtue’s paintings of the Exe estuary from 1997-1999 remain some of my very favourites. In scale and the language of their paint they may nod to Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock but in their sensibility they sidle up next to Constable and Turner. These are mighty giants of reference and yet I do not think Virtue’s paintings from this period particularly suffer in such company. Certainly like those others one really does need to see the work in the flesh, as it were, for scale is so crucial. That said, this is not always so easy, and if you can find a copy of the 1999 collection of Virtue’s paintings you should certainly snap it up. Leafing through it always puts me in mind of exploring the ‘mmm Skyscraper I Love You’ book accompaniment to Underworld’s ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ set and there can be few greater compliments.
Virtue has said that colour is “an unnecessary distraction” and one can certainly applaud his determination in staying true to that sentiment even if one might not always agree with it. His paintings certainly benefit from such a limited palette and when exploring the body of work what strikes one is as much the subtle differences as the threads of familiarity and similarity. As such one might want to argue that these paintings are supremely Pop in that they unapologetically stick to formula, purposefully adhere to a limited vocabulary and repeat, repeat, repeat. Perhaps those versed in Classical composition might argue the same. Perhaps not.
As with ’69 Love Songs’ then one really could drop a pin in the collection to choose one for posterity’s sake. I have opted for ‘Landscape No. 568’ partly because it of course perfectly indulges Virtue’s vice for monochromatic evocation of place, time and light as beautifully as any other from this body of work, but partly also because it is the final one in the book and thus the most likely to have actually been completed in 1999. All the parts are in place: The river Exe weaving and stretching in the fore and middle ground; the sky, in this instance brighter than at other times with clouds perhaps clearing and less glowering; the composition neatly split in half by the horizontal strip of land reaching out to Exmouth’s tip; the grounding form of a tower (perhaps All Saints Church, perhaps not) giving the hint of architectural reference. Drips, daubs, sprays of ink. Treading the line between abstract expressionism and documentary landscape. It could be anywhere, but equally it could not be anywhere but here. This should be enough for anyone.
Few things are capable of diverting The Duchess from cake when necessity arises, but Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse sculptures probably top the somewhat exclusive list. Certainly they were powerful enough to draw us both in whilst en-route to the cafe at the Guggenheim in Bilbao back in 1999. They kept us captivated for a significant amount of time too.
I have said in the past that sculpture rarely appeals, but there is an argument that says Serra’s pieces are hardly sculpture at all and are instead dynamic, monumental architectural statements. Nothing can quite prepare you for the immutable presence of mass and of the deliciously unsettling feeling of tension as you walk through and around work which is carefully designed to offer a compelling architectural experience. The interplay of space, form, light and texture is everything. As such, the collection that makes up the ‘Matter of Time’ works perfectly within Frank Gehry’s famously sculptural building, presenting a simultaneously sympathetic and contrasting experience. Curvilinear forms draw you in and around on yourself as you pass through spaces that ebb and flow, yet always there is the pressure of looming mass and dark textures of weathered steel. It really is extraordinary.
There is something fitting too about Serra’s work being permanently housed in Bilbao for there are such strong links to be made between the forms and materials of the artwork to those of the shipyards that are such a central theme to the history of the city. And as with Chillida’s work there is certainly something of the Basque sensibility within Serra’s work: powerful, dynamic and very much rooted in traditions of earth, water and industry.
We have not been back to Bilbao since that pre-Millennial visit yet the thought of seeing Serra’s works again is a compelling pull. Perhaps they will once again divert The Duchess from the prospect of cake.
Coincidentally, that pre-Millennial visit to Bilbao was to be the first time I heard the sounds of The Aislers Set, their 1998 ‘Terrible Things Happen’ set being on constant rotation on my headphones during travel and downtimes alike. How then could the experience of Bilbao not significantly infiltrate the notes I penned for their subsequent ‘The Last Match’ LP? It couldn’t, and if you will allow me a(nother) moment of self-indulgence can I tell you that those brief notes for that record remain some of my personal favourites, although I admit that context perhaps is everything. Coincidentally too the electricity pylons that feature in the last stanza of those words are the ones that punctuate the flood plain of the Exe valley; the ones that nestle next to the village we now call home. As we are apt to say so often, it all fits. And oh, it really does.
So the Aislers Set hold a special place in my heart for this and other reasons. Mostly, it has to be stressed, for the fact that their records have always felt like such dear and close friends. Records infused with shared reference and experience despite being made an ocean and a continent away: Distance perhaps making the connections stronger instead of stretching them to breaking point. After all, often it is those connections that are geographically close which we end up neglecting and taking for granted. Perhaps too that is just me.
Any of the songs then on ‘Terrible Things Happen’ could certainly be the tune of choice for this entry, yet it is the endlessly engaging, ebullient, effervescent yet simultaneously self-effacing ‘Long Division’ that gets the nod. For ‘Long Division’ really is the sound of Aislers Set at their upbeat Pop best. Frothing with fizzbomb guitars colliding with clapping hands, shuffling tambourine and the tinnitus tinkle of keys, it is a song that feels effortlessly tossed to the air: A girl-group shamble through the evening streets, picking up shots of tequilas as it goes. Abstracting numbers; exponential waves; crushed, divided and squared: Math Rock could never hope to be so humorous and deft. Through it all Linton’s infamously laconic vocal is perfectly framed; a hesitant glance from behind a fringe; a mumble of apology that is no apology at all but is instead a quiet howl of unbending intent. Ending with a curt nod a secret smile. Soft yet strong. Soft yet strong.
Ice Cream and Sunscreen - Martha (from 'Blisters In The Pit of My Heart' LP. Bandcamp) Now I'm A Killer - The Wolfhounds (from 'United Kingdom' LP. Bandcamp) All The Time - The Fireworks (from 'Black and Blue' EP. Bandcamp) Sun Drop - Young Scum (from 'Zona' EP. Bandcamp) Undine - Fear of Men (from 'Fall Forever' LP) Eurodisco - Bis (YouTube) Eurosport Music Baby! - Le Sport (from 'Tell No-one About Tonight') So, Young Fanatic - Dora Maar (from 'Flights' EP. Bandcamp) In Spain - The dB's (from 'Repercussion' LP YouTube) France - Intastella (from 'Intastella & The Family of People' LP. YouTube) Derailleur, King Of The Mountain - Appliance (from 'Six Modular Pieces' LP) The Waves - Deerful (from 'Staying Still' EP. Bandcamp) Johnny Bye-Bye - Bruce Springsteen (YouTube) Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul - The KLF (from 'Chill Out' LP) Pencil Doings - Kaspar Hauser (from 'Kaspar Hauser' EP. Bandcamp) Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth - Sparks (from 'Propaganda' LP) Turret Grove (Acoustic Version) - Rapid Results College (Bandcamp) Kardashev Fail - Video Version - Papernut Cambridge (from 'Kardashev' EP. Bandcamp) Snow White Chook - Able Tasmans (from 'A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down' LP) Hard To Clean - Chook Race (from 'Around The House' LP. Bandcamp) Without Rigour - Acton Bell (from 'You Don't Know What Love Is' LP. Bandcamp) Known World - Kodiak Island (from forthcoming LP)
I was the dampest box of matches you could ever hope to find
Belle & Sebastian might have been evoking the spirit of Felt, but by 1997 Lawrence was already seven years into the legend of his next group, Denim. I admit that after having been a big fan of Felt and of Denim’s brilliant debut protest album ‘Back In Denim’ I had lost touch with what Lawrence had been up to. ‘Denim On Ice’ had left me cold (boom boom) when it came out, though in hindsight that was very much due to it being lost somewhat amongst the mountains of drum’n’bass 12”s I was listening to at the time. A few years later, when Lawrence sent me a vinyl copy, it make significantly more sense to me and if pushed these days I would tell you that when minded to pick out any of his records to play, it is now certainly to ‘Denim On Ice’ that I most often reach.
Much has been written about Lawrence and his groups in recent years and together all those words tell perhaps the strangest story of Pop obsession. It’s told in film too, with Paul Kelly’s bittersweet bio ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’, and I admit that one of my proudest achievements is to have had a story ‘about’ the film published in the small book that accompanied the ‘Nothing’s Too Good For The Common People’ retrospective screening of Kelly’s films in New York.
So Lawrence has never become the bona-fide Pop star that he has always felt destined to be. The Pop world is certainly a poorer place for that. Infamously of course perhaps his best chance for chart success was cruelly dashed by bizarre circumstance in the late summer of 1997. His latest single, the bubblegum, sugar-coated Pop nugget ‘Summer Smash’ was lined up for release, and with Radio 1 playlisting behind it, surely destined for Top of The Pops and chart glory. And then, with the single poised to hit the shops, Princess Diana went and got herself killed in a car crash in Paris. EMI, thinking that a song called ‘Summer Smash’ might be perceived to be in somewhat poor taste, instantly pulled the record from release, supposedly destroying almost all of the stock. In one wicked twist of history, EMI both denied Lawrence his chance at mainstream Pop stardom and created perhaps the most collectable single in his catalogue alongside the debut Felt 7” ‘Index’.
A few copies of ‘Summer Smash’ did get out, however, and copies of the orange vinyl 7” and the CD nestle smugly in my collection. Listened to now, as indeed I do religiously every July and August, ‘Summer Smash’ sounds every bit the quirky, unexpected and celebratory (end of) Summer Hit it ought to have been. Euphoric without being overpowering; self-aware and self-referencing without being arrogant and cold; irresistibly infectious without being annoyingly insistent: ‘Summer Smash’ is meta-UK-bubblegum Novelty Rock, just the kind of Chinn and Chapman, RAK and Bell records influenced kind of sound Lawrence had already immortalised in ‘Middle Of The Road’. It’s a record whose heart is in the past, it’s spirit in the future, whenever one happens to hear it.
Scale is not something one typically thinks of as being crucial to photography. Unlike paintings (where we can often feel dumbstruck when seeing a real canvas that is, at times, immeasurably larger both in physical size and emotional impact than the tiny reproductions we have grown up with in books and postcards) we feel comfortable with photographs being reproduced at a small, handheld size. This is the scale we instinctively feel a photograph ought to be. When we are confronted by photography on a much larger scale therefore we often feel even more taken aback than when we see paintings. Large scale photographs are so much more unexpected.
I felt this way when I first came across Sarah Jones’ photographs of Home Counties teenagers, displayed as they were in 1.5m square prints alongside paintings such as Wallis’ infamous ‘Death of Chatterton’ and Millais’ ‘Ophelia’. It felt like a masterstroke of curation, for their are clearly connections, both visual and thematic between the works. Certainly the theme of adolescent ennui is one thing that binds them, and if Wallis and Millais’ paintings portray that ennui as having reached the point of the ultimate expression of existential angst then there is perhaps also that nagging doubt behind the protagonists of Jones’ images. Perhaps these girls are as starlets of ‘Heathers': the beautiful and the doomed. Perhaps not. Certainly there is a hint of sardonic humour, and I can imagine a slideshow of Jones’ photographs perfectly accompanying songs by The Gothic Archies.
There can be a temptation of course to sneer at these young women from relatively privileged, financially secure upbringings trapped in displays of weary boredom and diffidence. Yet part of the argument for the value of this work is that it moves the meaning away from the context of wealth and privilege whilst simultaneously acknowledging it. These feelings of dislocation, of detachment from the very fabrics of our pasts, say Jones’ photographs, transcend class and position and are universal. Alternatively of course one may also argue that these existential adolescent preoccupations are in fact entirely a product of class and wealth: only those with economic security behind them can literally afford (or alternatively be cursed by) such self-indulgences...
And so this is one of the tensions inherent in Jones’s photographs and it is a tension that lifts them above, or at least apart from, documentary work. In a way similar to Jeff Wall’s work, Jones’ photographs ask us what is real and what is not. They ask us what mysteries and secrets sit untold and unmentionable in the shadows. Chris Townsend, in his essay accompanying the University of Salamanca’s catalogue of Jones’ photographs, makes a telling reference to Robert Wise’s movie ‘The Haunting’, which is similarly gothic and illusory. And of course it is true that Wise’s film is only ever almost as spooky as Shirley Jackson’s brilliantly dark and unsettling novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ where all is illusion, suggestion and imagination. Indeed, to draw the line out and around on itself, perhaps we can imagine the two key characters in Jones’ photographs as Merricat and Constance from Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’? Preposterous perhaps, but then again we take ownership of the images we see and fill them with our own experiences and reference points, do we not? The secrets hidden in our shadows seduce and continually nag at us, like the delicious pain of a toothache. Much like Sarah Jones’ photographs.
In arguments about music, books, cinema, painting or whatever artform you care to mention, the topic of artifice versus authenticity never seems far from the surface. My opinion, of which I dare say any regular reader will be well aware, is that such arguments are bunkum. In a mediated world of real, not real and fiction, not fiction then the only things we can trust are the heat of the sun on our limbs and the chill of the ice on our tongues. "The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes" indeed.
Jeff Wall knows this and hinges his work upon this very thread. Photography, that time-honoured medium through which the illusion of ‘truth’ has traditionally been delivered is, in his hands, moulded into lies and deceptions. Convincing, beautiful, epic even, but untruths nevertheless.
His ‘Volunteer’ from 1996 is a fine example wherein Wall creates in a single still image a distillation of memory, observation and experience. On the surface the image appears to be documentary; a glimpse into a moment of the ‘volunteer’ of the work’s title, routinely cleaning the floor of what appears to be some kind of social facility. The room looks ‘real’, the moment entirely believable. And yet the ‘truth’ is that this room is a stage-set where the mural (a replica of one seen in a homeless shelter) has been painted specifically for the purpose of this photograph and where the ‘volunteer’ is as much a carefully choreographed prop as the mop he handles.
Like Cindy Sherman’s ‘Film Stills’, to which Wall’s work from this period obviously nods in acknowledgement, this photograph is cinematic in intention, preparation and execution. I can see it as a still from, say, Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ and indeed is there not a similar tension in Jarmusch’s films between mediated authenticity and surreal unreality? The clues to the staging are, one might argue, hidden in plain sight. Such tonal perfection and compositional exquisiteness do not occur by accident, after all.
Ultimately then Wall’s work gives lie to the idea that photography is a medium of honesty and truth. It instead gives weight to an idea that says the artists’ role is not to merely hold a mirror up to life and the world, but to subtly intervene such that the stories, the myriad truths and interwoven realities are instead crafted such that they become simultaneously clearer and more confused.
Rub your eyes.
When I listen to the playlist of this series one the things that strikes me is the occasional sharp shift in genre from one song/year to the next. Often this is completely at odds with the reality of my listening, where a mix of styles and sounds blends together across the days, weeks and months of a year. Stylistic ebbs and flows. A bit of minimalist electronica here, a dash of Sunshine Pop there. A sprinkling of Jazz and a dollop of Glam.
In 1996 however there really did seem to be a strange and sudden punctuation point; a point at which the predominantly dark and urban growls of jungle and hip hop gave way to the sound of suburban whispers and pastoral pop. It was all Michael White’s fault really (and it was a wonderful twist of history that led to him penning the definitive Sarah story), for he had sent me tapes from way over on the East coast of Canada that were filled with new songs by bands who were pretty much on my own doorstep. It surprised me that groups were still making this kind of sound. Two groups on those tapes really stood out though: Yummy Fur, who sounded like Fire Engines with a mouth full of Bazooka Joe and Belle & Sebastian who sounded like nothing on earth.
Some of course would say that Belle & Sebastian circa 1996 actually sounded like an indentikit indie band, all fey whimpers and hiding behind fringes, yet those who might have suggested such things were clearly missing the point. The point being that in Belle & Sebastian we suddenly had a group who, yes, certainly evoked thoughts of previous pop highlights such as Pale Fountains, Orange Juice, Felt, Weather Prophets, Servants (or any other combination of bands on Stuart Murdoch’s infamous ‘Bowlie’ tape as documented in Stuart David’s glorious ‘In the All Night Cafe') yet who crucially really did not sound at all like any one of those influences.
‘Suddenly’ is the vital word here, for Belle & Sebastian really did appear almost fully, perfectly formed. It was as though someone had sat down and plotted how to create the ultimate ‘indie’ band, complete with self-myhtologised back story (and in comic strip format to boot!) and rules of engagement (no encores; publicity photos that did not feature band members; the drummer heading up interviews). Belle & Sebastian immediately gave glorious lie to the notion of ‘indie’ authenticity. Here was a group as carefully constructed as The Monkees or Take That but with the key difference being that there was no svengali behind the curtain pulling strings. Infamously of course the group made waves by winning a Brit Award thanks to being the first group to leverage an Internet savvy fanbase. As such, Belle & Sebastian were perhaps the first band for a socialised, networked age (crucially, their fan base was one who previously networked via fanzines and frenzied letter writing - thus they took to the tools of the Internet like ducks to water). Certainly Belle & Sebastian were a group who knew the value of gang sensibility (as opposed to Gang mentality). The fact that they made such exquisite records was certainly a valuable bonus.
‘Stars of Track and Field’, the opening cut on their now widely and rightly celebrated second album certainly still sounds as delicious today as it did when it first emerged, trembling yet quietly assured from Michael’s tape. It is a song that grows in confidence as it moves forward with the loneliness of the middle distance runner: An energy saving first few hundred meters; a glance at the competition as it breathes deeper and accelerates imperceptibly; stride lengthening as it enters the final lap to culminate in, if not a sprint to the line, at least a profoundly secure romp home. Nobody else is in the finishing straight.
Turn To The Sun - Zee Town and the Dog Boys (from 'ii' EP. Bandcamp) Blue Skies - Sad Day For Puppets (from 'Unknown Colors' LP. Bandcamp) Let's Start It Over - Cosines (from 'Transitions' EP. Bandcamp) Someone to Care For Me - The Hayman Kupa Band (7" single. Bandcamp) Somebody's Turning On The People - Grapefruit (available on 'Yesterday's Sunshine' LP) Me & Magdalena - The Monkees (from 'Good Times' LP) Passing a Van - Robert Rotifer (from 'Not Your Door' LP. Bandcamp) Bed of Bones - The Lad Mags (digital single. Bandcamp) The Fall Of Great Britain - Martin Bramah (from 'BREXIT!' free EP. Bandcamp) Dream Baby Dream - Suicide (YouTube. R.I.P. Alan Vega) Get High (Grimiss & KVS Remix) - Suzy Blu (from 'Crush On You' remixed LP. Bandcamp) Paper Cuts - Boy Least Likely To (YouTube) Soul Remains - T.O.Y.S (from 'Sicks' LP. Bandcamp) Moscow on the Thames - Terry (from 'Terry HQ' LP. Bandcamp) A Beautiful Night In Oslo - Billie The Vision & The Dancers (from 'Where The Ocean Meets My Hand' LP. live on YouTube) Stop the Music - The Pipettes (from 'Earth vs The Pipettes' LP. YouTube) Future Vanishes - Rose Elinor Dougall (YouTube) Calm Before the Storm - Penetration (from 'Resolution' LP) Life's A Mistake (Worth Repeating) - Dribbling Darts (from 'Present Perfect' LP) St. Paul's (Westerberg Comprehensive) - Martha (from 'Blisters In The Pit of My Heart' LP. Bandcamp)