The ‘80s was an evil time. Neo-liberalism blossomed and in the UK our national narrative was powered by the selling of our publicly owned industries and assets. Aghast, we watched the plucky proletariat purchase a meagre share of what they already owned whilst the lion’s share went to those who already had more than we could possibly imagine. Pop music told us to either dress up in gaudy colour and immerse ourselves in the heady excess or else it told us to dress in darkness and pout and shout on the sidelines. I’m oversimplifying of course, but you certainly had to choose sides of the fence. Everything seemed to hinge on a knife edge and there was no room for manoeuvre around a middle ground. There was excess or there was anger. You were this or you were that. All or nothing. Not much room for laissez faire unless that was the name of a plush new wine bar in town. Me, I was on the side of McCarthy.
McCarthy were political Pop. Explicitly and unapologetically so. Yet you still had to squint just so at times in order to figure out what it was all about. Songs were often bitter lyrical centres coated with sweet chocolate tunes. Guitars could ring out like diamonds in the moonlight, seducing you into a romantic delusion before the sharp blade of harsh reality pierced your heart and poured battery acid in the wound. Yet it was seldom done in an uncouth manner, for McCarthy songs were too delicious for that. Apparently there were even some people who just liked the way the records sounded and hang the political pointedness of the lyrics. Which perhaps gives lie to the idea that in the ‘80s you had to choose your side of the fence. Perhaps not.
These days I still enjoy listening to any of McCarthy's records. When played again in 2016 they often feel oddly prescient and incredibly pertinent still. This probably says as much about political, social and cultural ‘progress’ over the past thirty years than it does about McCarthy’s songwriting, but given the inextricable connections between the two then perhaps the continued resonance is not surprising at all.
‘Frans Hals’ is the McCarthy song I come back to most though. It has one of my very favourite openings to a record, with stop-start drum cracks over an insistent beat and a mesh of guitars that sound magnificently thin and brittle. It’s like Big Flame on Mogadon; The Wedding Present swimming in fog. The rhythm of the song never changes. It is relentless, unflinching and yet simultaneously oddly hesitant. A poor mans’ pride proclaims itself through cheaply recorded equipment and it sounds exquisitely apt. The sounds are the perfect foil to Malcolm Eden’s somewhat nasal vocal delivery (it is tempting to cast Eden as the Dylan of the Revolutionary Communist Party) and his narrative that draws parallels between the 17th Century painter of the song’s title and the contemporary existence of the artist expressing disdain for the chattering, powerful classes. There is tension between the desire for (and indeed expectation of) retribution through revolution and the vague sense of disempowerment felt by the narrator: At one point he sings that “one day soon, the poor will deal with you” whilst in another breath suggesting that painting the town’s powerful elite as drunkards “is all I can do”. It’s the eternal conflict of interest for the educated classes: Alert to the inequities of our societies and yet impotent (through physical weakness or intellectual strength) to inflict any real change. So what do we do? We document and discuss; illuminate and immunise ourselves. Art becomes simultaneously our vessel for expression of anger and our illusory soothing salve. Both sides of the fence. Having our cake and eating it. Perhaps it was like this in the ‘80s after all.
The ‘80s was an evil time. Neo-liberalism blossomed and in the UK our national narrative was punctuated by the selling of our publicly owned industries and assets. Chris Dorley-Brown captured an intriguing tangent to this with the photographs he took on the streets of London in May 1987. On his way to Threadneedle Street to record something of the Rolls-Royce privatisation jumble sale he shot a series of images that captured the public trapped in traffic. Were these people also desperate to reach the great sell-off? Were they a part of the plucky proletariat desperate to purchase a meagre share of what they already owned? Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps they were just going about their lives. Stuck in traffic on the first truly warm day of the summer. Frustration and pleasure in equal measure.
Dorley-Brown’s photographs from that May day were essentially lost until recently, when they were unearthed and collected in volume six of the Hoxton Mini Press’ ‘East London Photo Stories’ series. It’s a terrific archaeology project and a poignant glimpse back into the realities of our past. What strikes me most on first glance is just how old and angular the vehicles look. Compared to contemporary designs of 2016 they appear stamped from steel rather than sculpted. They appear for the most part old and decrepit. Relics from an unloved past, unwelcome in the face of the shiny future. One suspects that such vehicles might be barred from entering London streets in 2016. Not expensive or exclusive enough. And the people? Perhaps the same applies. And perhaps they would now ride bicycles or the Tube. I am no Londoner and gladly admit to being rather more fond of the appeals of the countryside than city streets these days. So I’ll make no more judgements on that front.
What I will say is that my personal favourite of Dorley-Brown’s shots from the collection is of a young woman leaning forward, face partially obscured, peering into the rearview mirror of her red MG Metro. Is she examining a rogue spot on her chin? Is she checking her lipstick still looks just so? Perhaps, perhaps not. It is a photograph all about red of course, and it resonates in that way the same as Eggelston’s and this is perhaps a reason for its subliminal appeal. The connections we make somewhere inside that we cannot shake off.
I am not sure if I would have been able to identify the car from the closely cropped composition, but I like the idea that some people undoubtedly would. They would pick up on details such as the shape of the wing mirror and the colour of the seats (is that red piping between the two-tones of grey?). Others would possibly identify the knitwear on display. I’m going to suggest it’s a Next sweater and feel fairly confident of the accuracy of my statement. Such details of course are everything: they are the clues by which we build our imaginary narratives. We do it from photographs just as we do it in real time. It is why photographs like Dorley-Brown’s appeal so much. These are snapshots into past moments; moments around which pasts and futures hinge. Where did they come from and where did they go? Is it perhaps too bold a statement to suggest that such photographs are impossible to make in 2016? Impossible in so much as we now exist in a world where everyone has become so alert to being the subject of photography that we protect ourselves at all times with the projection of our preferred (self)image. Perhaps in thirty years someone will look back on a curated collection of photographs of people stuck in traffic from May 2016 and come to the same conclusions. Time moves on. Nothing much changes. 1987 forever.
Hearted - Field Harmonics (from 'Corners' LP. Bandcamp) The Stockholm Rollercoaster - GIORGIO TUMA (from 'Uncolored' LP. Bandcamp) FLOWERS - Crystal Shipsss (from 'Holly' LP. Bandcamp) Run Round - Happy Meals (from 'Fruit Joice' LP. Bandcamp) Ariana - MERCURY GIRLS (7" single. Bandcamp) Crystal Tears - Jessica and The Fletchers (7" single. Bandcamp) Common Sense - School '94 (from 'Bound' LP. Bandcamp) Down on You - Rapid Results College (from 'In City Light' LP. Bandcamp) Girls In Their Summer Clothes - Bruce Springsteen (YouTube) A New Dimension To Modern Love - Popincourt (from 'A new Dimension to Modern Love' LP. Bandcamp) Love Me, I'm a Liberal - Chris T-T (from '9 Green Songs' LP) I Just Can't Wait To See My Girl - Posture (7" single. Bandcamp) Sky Blue - Leggy (from 'Leggy' LP. Bandcamp) Whatever - The Beths (from 'Warm Blood' EP. Bandcamp) Promise I Do - Whyte Horses (from 'Pop Or Not' LP) Kara Keeley - Blue Jeans (from 'Songs Are Easy' LP. Bandcamp) Yesterday Was - Chris Knox (from 'KnowTraxFine' cassette. Bandcamp) See the world - Endless Bob Brown (from 'Endless Bob Brown' LP. Bandcamp) How Come You're Such A Hit With The Boys, Jane? - Dolly Mixture (on 'Sharon Signs To Cherry Red Independent Women 1979-1985') Hedi's Head - Kleenex (available on 'LiLiPUT'. YouTube) L.A. Freeway - Guy Clark (from 'Old No.1'YouTube) Dear Black Dream - Robert Forster (from 'Danger In The Past' LP)