Recommended Reading: ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Alex Niven

17933884I just finished the 33 1/3 volume on Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven, and I’m adequately floored. With all due respect to many talented authors in the series, including my buddy Mike Fournier (who wrote the volume on the actual best album ever made), this may have been the best installment I’ve read so far. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t expecting to agree so frequently with someone who took the time to write a book about Oasis, save for some occasional (admittedly understandable) remarks about Blur and an uncool dig at “Digsy’s Dinner.” Like many of the books in the series, it’s a breeze of a read, so I’m not going to withhold ‘spoilers.’ It really helped this Yank bloke understand just why Oasis shot to super-stardom in the time and place that they did, making their working-class sensibilities intelligible through analyses of their compositions coupled with appropriately scathing takes on the aftereffects of Thatcherism. I’ll share one of my favorite passages here, in which Niven contextualizes the socialist building blocks of Oasis’ music:

Oasis took the detritus that surrounded them in the dole culture of eighties’ and nineties’ Manchester and cemented it together to create one of the most accomplished works of archaeological summary in pop history, a work that ranged widely over rock influences in a way that seemed effortless.

… The socio-economic conditions of the period gave rise to a climate of scarcity, resourcefulness and heritage-mining in post-industrial Western urban areas. Without money and access to higher education and metropolitan taste-making culture, it is extremely difficult to make the leaps of innovation that are deemed to be progressive by the music industry establishment

… When society becomes hostile, when access to novel mainstream developments is difficult, it becomes practicable to draw on any resources that are to hand – classic records, borrowed riffs, recycled materials of all kinds. In periods of economic downturn, a kind of folk culture develops that values ingenuity with heritage over conspicuous innovation. This culture of grassroots classicism was very much Oasis’ home terrain in the early nineties.

Niven also shines a light on the overlooked (sloppy) genius of Tony McCarroll, the band’s original drummer who they sacked after recording “Some Might Say” (which just so happens to be the best song on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?). I vaguely remember Kurt Loder mentioning his name on one of those post-“Wonderwall” MTV News features on Oasis back in 1996 where they gave the Gallagher brothers subtitles for the US audience. The book ends on a somewhat sad yet incredibly educational note about success and class politics. I look forward to incorporating Niven’s lessons into my Britpop unit (yes, you read that correctly) this semester for GEOG 371: Exploring Europe.

Here’s a video of vintage Oasis (with McCarroll) on MTV in 1994 performing what’s probably my favorite song of theirs, the first four minutes of “Rock n’ Roll Star.” The way that Liam Gallagher sneers “I live my life in the city, and there’s no easy way out” as the opening line of Oasis’ debut-opening track makes me think about Paul Westerberg yelling “Raised in the city, runnin’ around” as the opening line of the Replacements’ first demo tape. There’s probably some connection there that I’ll wake up and draw out at 4 AM one of these nights. Anyway, enjoy.

 

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A Moment for Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield

One of the (dis)advantages of focusing my music research in a juggernaut of a tourist trap city like Washington, DC has been watching post-punk music seep through the cracks in the collective imaginary of place. DC (like Paris, my other city of focus) doesn’t need to lean on music to attract visitors, so on the rare instances when it includes music in the conversation, it’s noteworthy.

I was thinking about this today as I started hacking away at the summer writing process when this CityLab article came through on my twitter feed. Few (if any) post-punk bands have encapsulated “Sheffield” better than Pulp, not only because Jarvis Cocker started the band in 1978 during the “big bang” of the post-punk era in the UK. Geographers like Philip Long (2014) have placed Cocker’s music front-and-center in discussions about collective identity of that city, and now the city’s transit authority are literally inscribing his voice into their urban infrastructure. They are inserting Jarvis into the quotidian machinations of Sheffield, regardless of whether those riding the tram are his fans.

This whole thing seems like both 1) a city retroactively owning one of her most talented and influential sons as well as 2) a statement about the value of the music that would eventually evolve into the easily collectivized and nationally homogenized Britpop of the 90’s (which would catapult Pulp into international fame). This genre and scene were a bit slower to gain officially-sanctioned civic immortality than the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Long mentions that the Sheffield Public Library has published a walking tour about Def Leppard; also pretty cool), but two decades isn’t really that brutal of a lag. It doesn’t seem like Jarvis was ever in it for the transit voice-over career.

At any rate, these are the little things that earn a quality mention in the dissertation.

Liner Notes:
Long, Philip. “Popular Music, Psychogeography, Place Identity and Tourism: The Case of Sheffield.” Tourist Studies 14.1 (2014): 48-65.

Places mentioned in Pulp Songs Wiki that I just found  whilegoogling “Stanhope Rd”:
http://www.pulpwiki.net/Pulp/Places

During some last-minute fact-checking, I discovered that Jarvis’ estranged father Mac Cocker, a radio DJ in Australia for the past 3 decades, passed away on Friday.

Musical Geography 101: Blur – “This is a Low”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

… but it won’t hurt you. Those of you who know me know I cherish any opportunity to talk about Blur, one of my favourite [sic] bands and perhaps the best British guitar-pop singles group since the Kinks (or at least the Jam, who you’ll be reading about shortly). Of course, most Americans know Blur for “Song 2,” a ready-made anthem for sports arenas which began as a gentle jab at the Pixies and what the band viewed as simplistic American indie rock (though they undoubtedly love the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Pavement, and other quintessentially American bands they synthesized into their revitalized sound after the cocaine-drenched yet still wonderful 1995 album The Great Escape). Many Americans, particularly those tuned into MTV in 1994 while Britpop was thriving overseas, remember Blur’s magnum opus, Parklife. While the group themselves were hardly in awe of English culture, they did abscond and treat it not unlike Al Bundy treated Peg. It was a pain in their arse, but it was still what raised them and privileged them to be the most enduring, eclectic rock stars of that era. Sure, other bands sold more records (Oasis), broke more hearts (Pulp), and even seemed fairly adjusted and consistent (Supergrass), but none of those bands had the dueling secret weapons of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. The former has since established himself as his generation’s David Byrne through countless prolific musical collaborations and, oh yeah, another Glastonbury-headlining band he founded that included 1/2 of The Clash for a bit. The latter has spent the last two decades stretching the electric guitar to the absolute boundaries of what could still be considered pop music. Also, for those of you interested in drug policy and international relations, their bassist Alex James hosted a BBC documentary about the cocaine trade and has settled into a quiet, normal life collecting expensive instruments and making artisan cheeses. You can’t make this stuff up. If I told you their drummer has gotten heavily involved in the Labour Party and twice run for public office, you wouldn’t believe me, BUT HE ABSOLUTELY DID. For all the right reasons, Blur’s legacy has painted much of what the world conceives as “Britishness.”

Anyway, when the members of Blur were in their star-shaped mid-twenties, a lot of Albarn’s lyrics happened to include references to English landmarks (e.g. the white cliffs in “Clover Over Dover”), but “This is a Low,” supposedly inspired by a British shipping newsletter, closes out the record with a veritable catalog of places which dot the English cartographic landscape. Much like the 1997 track “Look Inside America,” “This is a Low” pulls back, floats high in the sky, surveys everything it can see, and decides, with a slight smile… “yeah, it’s alright.” From what I understand, Albarn had hit some writer’s block when James gave him a handkerchief that detailed British shipping centers as a gag gift. It may seem a cliché, but inspiration can come from the most surprising places.

Lyrics (from AtoZlyrics.com)

And into the sea goes pretty England and me
Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea
Hit traffic on the dogger bank
Up the Thames to find a taxi rank
Sail on by with the tide and go asleep
And the radio says

[Chorus]
THIS IS A LOW
BUT IT WON’T HURT YOU
WHEN YOU ARE ALONE IT WILL BE THERE WITH YOU
FINDING WAYS TO STAY SOLO

On the Tyne forth and Cramity
There’s a low in the high forties
And Saturday’s locked away on the pier
Not fast enough dear
On the Malin head, Blackpool looks blue and red
And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend
Jumped off Land’s End
And the radio says

[Chorus x 3]

“The Lowest of the Low” Thoughts on ‘Trainspotting’ and Scottishness

fanpop.com

I’m currently working with a class on the Geography of Europe, focusing primarily on the self-proclaimed continent since 1945, the year author Ian Baruma famously touted as ‘Year Zero‘ in that part of the globe. Interesting enough, the United Kingdom, having been one of the decisive victors in WWII, have shied away from any real leadership role (at least, within Europe) since then. The Brits have always had a knack for getting in spats (on whatever scale) with their neighbors, often overshadowing Great Britain’s internal spats. In 2005, I had a conversation with my Londoner friend Dominic about what social and political life over there was like, as I had yet to visit.

“The Scottish don’t particularly like us,” he said, “but we really just don’t care.”

Considering how I had only lived, at this point in my life, well above the Mason-Dixon line, I likened this to a strange Antebellum-philia many American Southerners (and elsewhere, in whatever cases) feel, coupled with antagonism toward the North and allegedly analogous federal government. Of course, to compare the American Civil War with a Millennium of shifting feudal allegiances and stirring political stew in Northern Europe would be disingenuous. I would be interested in seeing the existing parallels drawn out, though.

At any rate, our work in the European Geography course inspired me to revisit one of my favorite movies of all time “Trainspotting.” For the uninitiated, WATCH IT. (Sorry… let me try this again:) For the uninitiated, it’s a screen adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel about a pack of junkies and their sociopathic mates trying to maintain in late-1980s Edinburgh. The dialogue is fantastic, Danny Boyle’s inventive film-making never fails to impress, and we get to see Ewan MacGregor (whose career it kick-started) deliver one of the most iconic speeches on the grim realities of Scottishness that the sunny 80’s pop of Altered Images and Orange Juice did not dig up. (NSFW)

It also has one of my favorite endings, replete with gritty morals about drug use. I am not going to include too many spoilers here, but for your own good, if you have not seen it yet, do NOT watch it while eating.

Here’s the part about music as conduit of “scottishness.” While ‘Trainspotting’ may be one of the great European films of the 1990’s due to excellent acting, writing, and directing, what really set this film apart culturally was the soundtrack. Madchester and Britpop had already leaked across the Atlantic by the time of the Soundtrack’s release (most presciently, randomly enough, in the forms of EMF’s song “Unbelievable” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” respectively), but this soundtrack was what crystallized the aesthetic that had developed over British popular music over the previous twenty years. It even included a couple of 70’s gems by American artists that nonetheless fit into the film perfectly (the scene where Renton overdoses to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” gets more harrowing upon every viewing). 

I wish I had more time to write and research about this, but for now, the album (which user ‘Hayley Mills’ has uploaded) should make a great soundtrack for this Monday afternoon. In case anybody is wondering, New Order’s “Temptation” remains my favorite song used in the film, though there are so many classics here.

Tune in later this week for a massive post about Eastern Tennessee and Country Music with special guest Shane Rhyne.