Peter Marlow’s photographs of Concorde and it’s observers were not taken in 2006 but it took three years for the project to reach published conclusion with the ‘Concorde: The Last Summer’ book, and that is good enough for me. I could not resist Marlow’s collection, partly because Concorde was a part of my childhood and partly because many (most?) of Marlow’s photographs in the collection are not of the aircraft at all. For like other bodies of work by the Magnum member, the photographs are about endings and about the relationships between objects and their communities; are about British industry and commerce in decline or in flux; are about investment (emotional, financial, social) and impact (immediate and reverberations).
Concorde was a part of my childhood. Every summer we would watch for it in the skies above the West Coast of Scotland as pilots trained with endless circles arced in the sky, vapour trails like ski tracks on the blue. I recall reading a poem by a local writer (from Monkton, if memory serves, which is a village whose main street runs parallel to the main runway at Prestwick airport) called ‘Circuits and Bumps’ which was all about this spectacle and of course I could not resist including reference to it my own chaotic and barely formed ‘Big Flame' novel. We certainly came to expect the visitation of this elegant aircraft; as sure a symbol of summer as the arrival of the swallows. And although I had left that coastline long before Concorde’s final demise in 2003, I feel certain that there are people living there still who miss and mourn it’s presence.
Marlow’s photographic record of that last summer of Concorde includes shots of the aircraft both in flight and in detail, and whilst those are eloquent reminders of its elegance as an aircraft, as an object to admire, it is the shots of the people watching that really appeal most. Marlow documents these observers with a name, an age and a job title, and this acts as a means of demonstrating the democratising nature of beauty and admiration. Some are taking photographs but many are just looking. Most gaze through or hide behind lenses of some kind but best of all is Brian Bicknell (58 and a retired British Airways worker) who cups his fingers over his eyes in pretend binoculars. This is my favourite partly because there is much about the compositional structure of the photograph that appeals: The strong diagonals and powerful vertical lines; the bold rectilinear forms; the vivid flash of red and the shapes created by the shadow on its face. And of course Brian’s sweater and his flares. So out of time. So marvellously unimportant and yet crucial all at once. Mostly though this photograph is my favourite because this is how I would have watched Concorde myself as a youngster. Indeed, in my hazy memory I remember preferring to avoid binoculars, for their magnification made it difficult to hold a steady gaze and although the ocular connection made the aircraft appear closer it simultaneously exaggerated a sense of detachment. Seeing, feeling Concorde in the context of the sky was so much more vital.
As far as I am aware Andreas Mattson’s feelings on Concorde are unrecorded, but certainly his song ‘The Summer Of Speed’ from the 2006 ‘The Lawlessness Of The Ruling Classes’ album would be a lovely soundtrack to a slideshow of Peter Marlow’s photographs. Mattson is someone who is likely well known to anyone with even a passing interest in Swedish Pop culture of the past few decades. Perhaps you know him from his ‘90s band Popsicle (the Swedish Spearmint anyone?) or as a member of the always excellent Vanessa And The Os. Perhaps too you know that he cropped up briefly in the wonderful 'Fucking Åmål’, which is still my favourite Lukas Moodysson movie and maybe my favourite slice of Swedish cinema, period. And incidentally, doesn’t Robyn’s title song (‘Show Me Love’) sound spectacular still?
If you do know all of these things then you will assuredly be aware of ‘The Summer Of Speed’. You will be aware that throughout its six minutes ‘The Summer of Speed’ manages to be the most exquisitely observed tale of an unravelling, drug infected urban/personal history that Bruce Springsteen never wrote. You will know that it is a beautifully restrained and perfectly phrased epic that quite naturally eschews notions of grandeur in favour of intimacy and dark, begrudging respect. You will know that Mattson, whilst not technically a great singer, has a vocal that is perfectly pitched to weave this languorous narrative of ennui and resignation. You will know that ‘The Summer of Speed’ is a song longing for release; is a song whose pace is so utterly at odds with its title it would be hilarious if it were not so perversely, heartbreakingly apt.
'The Summer Of Speed’ is the hyper activity of amphetamine rush slowed to a mesmerising slow-mo replay. It is the sound of the supersonic coming in to land; of Concorde languidly descending to touch its wheels to tarmac before looping off and away again. Circuits and bumps for the last time in the twilight before the darkness descends.
Pipettes - ‘I Love A Boy In Uniform (School Uniform)'
Tomoko Takahashi - 'My Playstation' at London Serpentine
If our 2004 entries in this series could be categorised as being about absence and loss, then 2005’s are very much about being brashly in the moment. They celebrate the present in playful, euphoric style.
Rarely, if ever, has a Pop group ravaged my heart in quite the way that The Pipettes did. If I hadn’t just started running (and I use the word advisedly) a record label when I first saw them emerge from the crowd in a packed Brighton bar, joyously waving pom-poms like polka-dotted Punk pixie princesses, then I would have certainly decided to start one there and then. I’m inordinately proud of every one of the singles and CDRs that my aptly named ‘Unpopular’ and ironically titled ‘I Wish I Was Unpopular’ labels put out, but if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d have to pin my heart to The Pipettes’ ‘I Love A Boy In Uniform (School Uniform)’. And of course, when you pulled that trigger there’d be an explosion of glitter and a big flag emblazoned with a Pop Art ‘BANG’!
BANG! ‘School Uniform’ is a rampant, runaway Pop stampede of teenage hormones and gleeful, giggling sexuality. BANG! It’s a record that stops, starts, changes its mind, makes it up again, flips and slips but never flops. BANG! It’s a Punk cacophony of pink bubblegum, a mouthful of Bazooka Joe pressed into a 7” roundel of vinyl wrapped in a Warhol-esque sleeve. ‘The Pipettes’ written in the sand on Troon beach (and hey Pop pickers, Troon beach and its environs has featured on at least four record sleeves! A prize to anyone who can name another three…), the group we never tired of falling in love with; the only group I ever flew overseas to see play. And oh, it was worth it. How it was worth it. BANG!
The Pipettes went on to make ‘better’ records than ‘School Uniform’, including much of the criminally underrated disco infused Martin Rushent produced ‘Earth vs The Pipettes’ set of 2010, but they never again captured the sheer euphoric excitement of THE FIRST TIME that ‘School Uniform’ magically contains. It’s a record that still leaves me breathless; that still makes me want to leap and weep with unbridled delight. Pure joy wins out again. And how.
The Serpentine Gallery is perhaps my favourite London gallery, and the best show I have seen there is certainly Tomoko Takahashi’s brilliant ‘My Playstation’ installation in 2004. Like The Pipettes records, ‘My Playstation’ was an exuberant Pop Art infused celebration of PLAY, with all the myriad, tangential meanings and inferences held therein. For ‘My Playstation’ Takahashi took the Serpentine space and filled it with toys and cultural ephemera. Everywhere you looked there were bits of multicoloured plastic, metal, paper and card. The windows of the gallery were papered with unfolded toy and game containers, pasted up so that the building looked like some kind of strange second hand thrift store Toy store from heaven (or maybe from hell). What’s in the box? Who can tell. Lucky dip. Surround yourself with the ephemera of childhood and play; lose yourself in questions of colour, choice, obsession, possession, instinct, order and chaos.
‘My Playstation’ was a sensory delight; an assault on memories real and mediated; an immersive pleasure of light, dark, surface and depth. Things were taken apart, discarded and collected. There were questions about consumerism, rejection, treasure and trash. Sounds clanked and trilled; mechanical and electronic. Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep clank. Some of the spaces felt theatrically threatening and others exuberantly enriched. Always everywhere you walked and looked there was something new to catch the eye. A temporary, endless reward.
Then BANG! it was gone; the 7600 elements taken away by gallery visitors in one final free for all. One wonders how many of the items remain treasured as reminders of the installation? How many strewn to the wilderness of landfill? Me, I wasn’t able to attend the final flourish but I do have one of Takahashi’s prints from the show and it is a wonderful permanent reminder of the extraordinary experience.
Alec Soth - ‘Cape Girardeau, Missouri’ from 'Sleeping By The Mississippi'
July Skies - ‘The English Cold'
My friend Joseph Brooker once wrote an entertaining piece about Geoff Dyer’s first novel in which he muses on Dyer’s exploration of the notion of moments, and of the photograph as an endless series of moments in time. Perhaps at first glance this appears to be a blatantly obvious reading of the function of the photograph, but perhaps it’s apparent obvious nature masks the complexity that the thought actually holds. At the very least it is a way in to understanding the crucial difference between a ‘snap’ and a photograph; between ‘taking’ and ‘making’, ‘looking’ and ’seeing'. Certainly it seems to me as though Alec Soth's work touches on this theme: The individual photograph as being a moment explained within a series of photographs or moments. In other words these are photographs that contain traces of much longer narratives, sometimes obvious, sometimes not. In his ‘Sleeping By The Mississippi’ work, published in 2004, the simple longer narrative is of journeying the length of America’s legendary waterway. Other narratives naturally course through the work like undercurrents and eddies. How could they not? The very act of travelling, after all, is so firmly rooted within American myth and legend; traversing the Mighty Mississippi perhaps especially so.
‘Sleeping By The Mississippi’ gleefully mixes genres of portraiture, landscape and still life yet binds them into a cohesive body of work where each supports and illuminates the other. Everywhere there are traces of history, memory and the inescapable, ever-present twin tensions of race and religion. ‘Sleeping By The Mississippi’ reflects, pauses and perhaps looks forward. It is a punctuation point in the great American narrative of the disconnect between The American Dream and reality; between have and have-not; between faith and despair; between hope and fear. The paradox is that the success of photography to successfully capture that forward glance can only be judged in hindsight. It is a function of time and the manner in which these longer narratives of history play out. Yet one could certainly argue that it is the instinct of the photographer, artist or writer to anticipate these unfolding narratives that makes them great. Alec Soth certainly has this instinct.
If ‘Sleeping By The Mississippi’ gleefully mixes genres of portraiture, landscape and still life then it is perhaps no surprise to hear that it his still life pieces that thrill me the most. And of these it is the photographs that embrace the flat plane of the two dimensional image that I keep coming back to. None more so than ‘Cape Girardeau, Missouri’. This is a photograph that may appear simple on first glance yet rewards repeated viewings and consideration. It is a photograph where absence speaks louder than presence. It is a photograph where moments and memories have been removed, leaving nothing but echoes on the wall like the shadows of bodies left by the nuclear flash. Only a single postcard image of what one assumes to be the Mississippi remains, giving us a rooting of geographical context. Near it is the torn fragment of a newspaper cutting with the word ‘folklore’. You couldn’t make it up.
I can imagine Soth’s excitement at seeing this wall. I can imagine the overwhelming sense of spiritual connection on seeing that single fragment of text. All of which brings us back again to the difference between looking and seeing; between taking and making. It really is that simple. It really is that difficult.
If Alec Soth’s photographs in ‘Sleeping By The Mississippi’ are at least partly about absence and the narrative flow of landscape and place, then there is certainly an argument to be made that says July Skies explore similar themes within the context of England and the medium of sound. Certainly 2004 album ‘The English Cold’ is one in which Anthony Harding explores the imprint left by interventions within the landscape; specifically of the ghostly presence of temporary wartime airfields. The album often makes explicit reference in its song titles, from 'Farmers And Villagers Living Within The Shadow Of Aerodromes’ to 'Countryside Of 1939’, ‘The Mighty 8th’, ‘Waiting To Land’ and ‘Lost Airmen’ but the resonance of the past and of a sense of loss is implicit in every nuance of the music. Yet this is not sombre nor funereal music. It is instead blissful and illusory. It is certainly music that is quietly mesmerising and persistently beautiful.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the title track. ‘The English Cold’ sounds exactly as the retreating Summer and the oncoming Autumn and Winter ought. Harding’s fragile voice drifts in clouds of heavily echoed guitar strums telling a simple tale of love and loss. A harmonica sobs in the faded sunlight before the song starts on perhaps the longest fade out of any song in my collection. At least one and a half minutes of it’s three minute and fifty two second length is spent gently evaporating. Seldom has ending sounded so sublimely spectral.
Jim Lambie - ‘Zobop' at Tate St Ives as part of Painting not Painting show
The old joke about the only musical instrument I’ve ever played being the record player is one that has been wheeled out more times than I care to remember. Indeed the only time I did ever dabble in the creation of ‘music’ was when, at the end of the nineties, I crafted some rudimentary sound collages. These were cobbled together using a cheap mixer/sampler and a four track tape deck borrowed from the school music department. They were not altogether successful.
I am not sure if this is also how Jens Lekman started, but there is certainly something of the sonic collagist at play in his early work, and certainly he was immeasurably more successful than me. Exponentially cooler too, but then Jens is Swedish so what can you expect?
Was Jens Lekman the start of what felt like some strange collective obsession with Swedish Pop in the noughties? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly the trails went far back via the likes of Red Sleeping Beauty and the Labrador crew but Jens’ singles for the Service label at the start of the new century were surely pivotal. Such exquisite reference points too. The Left Banke, Stylistics, Shangri-Las and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Beat Happening and even a brief burst of Belle & Sebastian. Sampling never sounded so sweet.
The ‘Maple Leaves’ EP first surfaced in 2003 as a ludicrously limited self-released 7” and then later in the same year as a CD by Service. It still sounds like a beautiful secret sketchbook whose pages are filled with eloquent ideas and melancholic embellishments. Every track is a gem, but it is the title cut that gets the nod here. With it’s deftly plundered loops of Glen Campbell and The Mamas And The Papas combined with a playful look at language it is a track that never fails to delight the senses. Jens kicks it all off by singing so sweetly about Autumn and the suburbs, of mishearing ‘make believe’ as ‘maple leaves’. An aura of naiveté falls on everything; Jen’s misunderstandings are the stuff of every haplessly romantic young man blundering through love and obsessions. This would be charming in itself but hardly enough to set it aside from any number of self-indulgent pseudo-sensitive ‘indie’ whingers. What sets ‘Maple Leaves’ apart then is that the song is also a meta-self-criticism; is a song in which Jens shines the light on himself and his ignorance, smiles wryly and acknowledges the bleak humour of the situation. Those lines about misinterpreting ‘her fall’ as being about the seasons and Mark E. Smith crack me up every time.
There have certainly been subsequent records where Jens’ songwriting is more mature and complete, but I admit that there is something about the ‘Maple Leaves’ EP that keeps drawing me back. It is perhaps analogous to the appeal of the sketchbook over the finished painting; the pleasure of seeing the overlapping joints of collaged material instead of the delicate layering of paint. Whatever makes you happy.
Perhaps, like me, you still cannot help but think of Jim Lambie primarily as being a member of The Boy Hairdressers, whose ‘Golden Shower’ single sprinkled some baroque infused indiepop magic on 1987. Personally I always want to make an apology for thinking this, for clearly it is but a momentary, tangential punctuation point in Lambie’s successful career as a visual artist. It is a career that has led to a shortlisting in the Turner Prize (whose audience I suspect to be somewhat larger than the number of people who have heard of 53rd & 3rd Records) and installations of his Zobop work in at least two of of the Tate galleries.
Indeed it was in the Tate St Ives that I first came across ‘Zobop’ as part of the ‘Painting Not Painting’ exhibition of 2003. It was a dizzying, unexpected delight; a multi-coloured intervention taping and snaking up the staircase between the rotunda gallery and its balcony. I wanted to walk up and down it all day. I wanted the psychedelic Pure Pop sensation to never end.
‘Zobop’ as an ongoing series of work has a deceptively straightforward concept: to ‘fill’ a space with rhythmic intervention whilst simultaneously leaving the space ‘empty’. Lambie accomplishes this aim with similarly deceptively straightforward means: the application of coloured tape to the the floor surface. What ‘Zobop’ achieves in doing this is the creation of often complex line and pattern; an articulation of the flat plane of floor (or in the case of the Tate St Ives, the parallel planes of a staircase) that can be seen to mimic abstract, non-figurative painting. ‘Zobop’ also playfully interacts with and questions notions of the sanctity of sculpture. When I think of ‘Zobop’ I cannot help but think also of other floor-based work with which we are forbidden from engaging physically. I mean, just imagine stepping onto Carl Andre’s 'Equivalent VIII’ (as I always want to do when I see it) or picking up a piece of a Richard Long slate circle (as the daughter of one of my friends once did). ‘Zobop’ however does not just encourage physical interaction, it insists upon it, and in doing so neatly inverses that tension between the desire to break rules and the security of adhering to them.
I have come across other iterations of ‘Zobop’ in the years since 2003 and always they have been both visually mesmerising and intellectually delightful. Always though my mind drifts back to the pleasure of that first time on the Tate St Ives stairs. Well, that and the Boy Hairdressers of course.
Peter Fraser may have made his ‘Material’ work in 2002 but I admit that I was not aware of it until seeing the terrific retrospective show of his photographs at Tate St Ives in 2013. That exhibition was one of those moments when you feel rather as though you are looking into a mirror. “This work”, you reflect, “could have been made by me.” Perhaps there appears to be a shared aesthetic. Perhaps an identification with a similar sense of purpose. The work falls on you like those “enormous yes”es that Larkin once wrote about.
And then you look closer. You reflect on the differences. Small, subtle, barely perceptible perhaps. And you realise that it’s not a mirror at all. You could not have made this work. You inhabit a lower plane.
This is okay though. A man’s got to know his limitations, as Callahan might have said.
So I felt I could/could not have made photographs like Peter Fraser. He makes it look so simple and yet therein lies the complexity. For it is only in stripping away and paring back to the essentials that you realise the difficulty there is in making simple photographs. The process requires belief and selfishness. Belief in an aesthetic purity, perhaps, and the selfishness to pursue that aesthetic. Such things are easy to write but difficult to put into practice.
Peter Fraser’s ‘Material’ work is certainly about the difference between looking and seeing; is the difference between taking and making a photograph. There is a lovely video accompanying the Tate exhibition where Fraser talks about making his photographs. He walks with his camera and looks at the world around him with an astonishingly careful eye. He talks about attaining a state of almost super-sensory awareness, of being somewhere on a higher plane perhaps. All very spiritual, but there is nothing wrong with that after all. Like meeting on Jonathan Richman’s Astral Plane, perhaps.
There is certainly something of a William Eggleston air about Frasers’ photographs and it is no surprise to learn that he spent several weeks working with Eggleston in 1984. Certainly there is a strong visual resonance between ‘Red Bolt Solder’ and Eggleston’s famous ‘red ceiling’ shot so beloved of Big Star fans. This resonance revolves of course around the poetic truth that might accompany the question “what is red?” yet it is also perhaps about the democracy of material, which is to say the democratic nature of our perception. Do the questions the photographs ask us about the relationship between inanimate objects and our hierarchical categorisation of them in terms of ‘importance’, ‘beauty’ and ‘value’ mirror the judgements we process about nature? About people? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Certainly there is something fascinating about seeing with newly opened eyes. The treasures we hide from ourselves in plain sight.
If Peter Fraser’s photography is about the difference between looking and seeing then perhaps the songs of The Clientele are a musical companion piece. For if any group’s collected output could be said to be truly cinematic and visually perceptive then it is that of The Clientele.
My friend Tim wrote about The Clientele for my Tangents website. In brief, evocative words he pulled together various threads in delicious manner, chief amongst them being the feeling that The Clientele do something in their words and in their melodies that worries away at ideas and words, continually re-working and re-defining meaning. This is a notion that connects to the process of repetition and of refinement in art. Of not continually seeking a new sound or a new direction. To reference the infamous Helsinki Bus Station Theory, it is about staying on the fucking bus.
It is probably true to say that The Clientele stayed on their particular bus throughout their career. Certainly one can line up their records and hear the supple development of a group carefully honing their aesthetic.
‘Emptily Through Holloway’ is as good an example of that aesthetic as any of their recorded moments. It is a languid and seductive song; sonically molten and chilled in the same moment; deliciously oppressive and yet simultaneously spacious and breathy. Whispered nothings beneath exhaust tinged foliage. Regret and passion mingling in averted eyes. All terribly English and nothing wrong with that after all. Assuming, of course, we are sharing the same reference sheet and connect for the same reasons. So there is E.E. Cummings and Christopher Isherwood, perhaps. Margery Allingham and Ianthe Jerrold. Shena Mackay, again, and Jane Gardam. Some things the same but different; some things real but unreal.
The surreal has always been a thread in the sounds of The Clientele and there is certainly something of that to celebrate in ‘Emptily Through Holloway’. Yet it is far from the brazen (far from) strangeness of, say, Dali’s melting clocks, but rather the subtle juxtapositions of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages. And yes, of course The Clientele made this connection concrete with their song titled after the American artist, but really there are few more appropriate visual metaphors. For ‘Emptily Through Holloway’ does suggest daydreams of museum display cases housing tangentially connected memories. A paper bird here. There a map of the territory. Somewhere else a doll’s head with unblinking plastic eyes that see everything.
It is all in your head. All in my mind. Sounds, words, moments connecting and diverging. The treasures we hide from ourselves in plain sight.
I have likely said it before and will no doubt say it again before the year is out, but making decisions on what artists not to include in the fifty available slots for this series has been a challenge. Musically, there are any number of artists and songs that I could have chosen. There could easily have been fifty songs for every year. Ponder what that playlist might sound like. Wow.
Rules is rules, however, and in reality there was never any doubt that Animals That Swim would make the cut for they are one of those groups whose body of work never fails to thrill me whenever I might choose to dip back in. They left us a clutch of glorious singles and a trilogy of near perfect albums. Every one of them still sounds rich with sound and lyrical vision, and I admit that when I think about it I oscillate wildly between wishing they had made many more records and cherishing these unblemished relics they left behind.
Their 2001 ‘Happiness Is A Distant Star’ set might have turned out to be their swan song, but naturally it is never less than exquisite, where our definition of exquisite is very much couched in notions of kitchen sink drama. In my head I have always fitted Animals That Swim’s songs into the same universe inhabited by Shena Mackay’s early novels, like ‘Music Upstairs’ or the oddly surreal ‘An Advent Calendar’. Perhaps others can see the connections. Perhaps not. Certainly the ‘All Your Stars Are Out’ single still sounds if not novelistic then at least as a short story and there are few better short story writers than Mackay.
‘All Your Stars Are Out’ is folk music that isn’t Folk; is country music that isn’t Country; is urban music that isn’t Urban. It’s a song that perhaps says there is nothing wrong with moving out to the suburbs, for we take our daydreams with us and make them what we want them to be. The sound of the suburbs need not be a deathly toll. Instead those sounds might be as sublime as those made by Animals That Swim.
So ‘All Your Stars Are Out’ is classic Animals That Swim. In other words it is a song of words, where words paint the pictures and the pictures are polaroids of all the delicious details of the things you love. It’s what the song is about after all: Fantasy and reality; celebration and the faint tint of regret and melancholy. If only. It can be. It could be. It won’t be. Love in a time of poverty when we never knew we were poor. Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Trust your heart. Something like this.
Everything will be okay.
I have not been to New York for many years but if I should have opportunity to return I would very much like to visit the High Line park. From the photographs I have seen it certainly looks like a fascinating example of urban regeneration. And yet… and yet… I admit that there is a significant part of me too that rather wishes that the High Line had been left as it was when Joel Sternfeld took the photographs that were collected in his 2001 collection ‘Walking The High Line’. Comparing these with contemporary photographs of the park space is startling and forces us to ask all kinds of awkward questions about the beauty of neglect and the aesthetic of abandonment versus practical re-purposement. The paradox that says to save something you love you must irrevocably change it. Is it better to let something you love die or to continue its life yet risk losing the very values you loved in the first place? When we are talking about urban structures of course this naturally too leads to issues of regeneration cloaked as gentrification; corporate investment and directives versus community co-operation and equity. These are complex issues and difficult questions which perhaps have no easy answers. Or at least no answers that can be universally agreed upon. But then again, can anything?
Perhaps though we can agree that Sternfeld’s collection of photographs of the High Line is one to cherish; one whose images are individually beautiful and collectively cohesive. Sternfeld’s photographs are landscapes whose success depends as much on the built environment as on natural forms and whose structure is imposed largely by the boundaries of the disused elevated railroad. At times, most notably when the photographs capture the growth of Summer’s height or the buttercup blooms of Spring, the photographs can summon notions of post-apocalyptic cinema. Yet there is always the human element that cannot be ignored: Nature may be taking over here but it is still hemmed in by the human hand.
If it is this ebb and flow between natural growth and imposed structure that makes Sternfeld’s photographs so successful then perhaps too this is what makes the environment he captured in 2001 so much more appealing visually (and intellectually?) than the regenerated 2016 High Line. In 2016 has the structure of the human hand finally suppressed nature’s sprawl? Or is it just another temporary cessation of hostilities? Perhaps one hundred years from now the High Line will once again be a forgotten space, discovered and celebrated as a secret garden. Perhaps not.
Martin Parr - ‘Babbacombe’ from ‘Think of England’
Broadcast - ‘Come On Let’s Go'
In our entry for 1999 we saw John Virtue suggest that colour should be seen as “an unnecessary distraction”. Such an opinion, one suspects, would not be shared by Martin Parr. Certainly there are few more celebrated artists in terms of those who have championed colour photography in the late 20th Century and, indeed, in the 21st. As such he is up there in my own little pantheon of greats alongside the likes of Eggleston and Gruyeart.
If Parr is certainly a photographer from the top drawer then perhaps his ‘Think of England’ collection (published in 2000) is his most widely recognised body of work. We often use it in school to explore themes of cultural identity and artistic intention within our GCSE photography course and it a remarkably useful learning tool. What is surprising (or perhaps not) is how astutely many teenagers pick up on some of Parr’s threads such as the humour, the irony and the genuine warmth and affection in the photographs. And this without prior knowledge or access to research.
Many of the photographs in ‘Think of England’ address notions of class within English society yet the way in which Parr does this often sits uneasily with traditional perspectives. For whilst Parr observes and documents, often with a wry eye and a raised eyebrow, he does not appear to take sides. Through his photographs he reminds us that such things are rarely if ever as black and white (as it were) as some might suggest. Rich, poor, privileged or poverty-struck; people are people with similar fears, loves and mishaps. We all of us who live here make up the rich tapestry of English society (and this body of work of course very much IS about England and not ‘Great Britain’) for better or for worse.
Naturally Parr uses the notion of stereotypes liberally, and gleefully, in ‘Think of England’. Again, he does not take sides. Again he does not make judgement about the value of such things. He places them before us and presents them with a knowing glint in his eye as if to say “I know this is cheesy and obvious, but doesn’t it make you smile?” And it does. It certainly does. Never more so than in this glorious shot of cream tea scones in Babbacombe.
Let me say right away that I have had a soft spot for Babbacombe ever since I read William Golding’s ‘The Pyramid’ and if you do not understand that reference then I can only suggest you read the novel. It is certainly my favourite of Golding’s novels and there is a neat spot of synchronicity at work here for of course one of the themes of ‘The Pyramid’ is class distinction and boundaries. And of course there was always something of a class issue behind Babbacombe’s most infamous moment in history; that of John “Babbacombe” Lee, convicted on flimsy evidence of the 1884 murder of Emma Keyse in Babbacombe Bay. Celebrated as “the man they couldn’t hang”, Lee survived three attempts at execution in Exeter prison before being released in 1907. Fairport Convention of course related the tale in song back in 1971.
These days Babbacombe is perhaps little more than a passed-by punctuation mark on the road into or out of Torquay, but it has a delightful little cliff funicular railway and of course one can always track down a cream tea. One would rather hope, however, that it would not be served in the same way as Parr’s was. For the connoisseur of cream teas would immediately identify that the scones in Parr’s photographs have been decorated in the Cornish manner, which is to say jam first and cream on top. The true Devononian manner is cream first, and I rather like to think that Martin Parr was conscious of this when taking his photograph. A subtle subversion of the stereotype. That glint in the eye again, wondering who will get the joke.
Even without knowing the distinctions between Cornish and Devonian cream tea customs however, the photograph rewards careful consideration. The artful angling of the plate’s design against that of the tablecloth; the sympathetic colour combination of green and blue; the starkness of the contrasting red smear of jam. Then there is the rather paltry amount of jam on the scone and the texture of the cream. Surely not clotted, it looks instead artificial, perhaps (heaven forbid) squirted from an aerosol. Which leads us inevitably back to notions of class and quality. For better or for worse.
There have been some notable losses in the world of music in recent years. Such is the fundamental nature of loss that none are sadder than any other, yet perhaps the most unexpected was the death in 2011 of Trish Keenan from the group Broadcast. Many of the musical losses we have mourned have inevitably felt like opportunities to remember and reflect on bodies of work, yet with with Keenan’s passing we also felt very keenly the loss of what might still have been created. Which is not to say that Broadcast had not already left us a staggeringly coherent and impressive catalogue of course.
One of my very favourite Broadcast records then was their ‘The Noise Made By People’ set from 2000. History will tell you it was their debut album and yet it does not feel at all like a debut album. Perhaps this is because their earlier singles had already been gathered onto the ‘Work, Non Work’ release and perhaps because in those singles they already sounded like a remarkably mature group. Never did they sound like a group searching for their sound.
Listened to again now ‘The Noise Made By People’ still sounds like a perfectly accomplished record. This is not meant as a pejorative statement. Rather it as way to saying that ‘The Noise Made By People’ sounds exactly as it ought: A record filled with a myriad of influences and references and that yet manages to craft these together to create something that sounds unique and cooly beguiling. It is never better than on ‘Come On Let’s Go’.
In a typically tangential piece for my old website Kevin Pearce once wrote about ‘The Noise Made By People’, mentioning the "Scepter Wand soul sound”. I am not sure I quite grasped what he meant at the time and yet listening to ‘Come On Let’s Go’ again in 2016 it makes perfect sense. Imagine the song as an instrumental and it becomes startlingly clear. And yet, naturally, Broadcast cloak this soul sound with other nods and references, transforming things into something that sounds simultaneously like a host of other groups and like no other group imaginable.
Much like Martin Parr, who famously has an astonishingly broad and detailed collection of photography books, Broadcast were a group excited by the history of their chosen art-form. And like Parr, who continues to both embraces and simultaneously ignore that stored knowledge and frame of reference, Broadcast were certainly a group of Pop pioneers. Keenan’s passing means we have been deprived of more deliciously diverting and educational entries into the canon of work, but we should certainly celebrate all that she and the group have left us. ‘Come On Let’s Go’ is as fine a place to start that celebration as any.
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.
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.