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alt.culture.pop Signs of the times






'I believe in freedom, but then again, how much?'

Tony Wilson, Manchester's 'Mr Music', spoke to Andrew Calcutt about free speech, drugs and rock'n'roll

As befits the man who signed the Happy Mondays, Tony Wilson has no time for the new pop philosophy of moderation in all things. 'I think self-restraint is deeply unhealthy', declares the motormouth guru of the 'Madchester' scene (personal cv: Factory Records, Haçienda club, Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays and much more). 'And I can't imagine it being part of youth culture - this wonderful thing which has been in existence since the fifties is essentially Oedipal, the great big negative of saying "no" to your father, "no" to authority. I hope it will go on being Oedipal, and one of the great ways of being Oedipal is excess and the rest of it.'

Anthony H Wilson has had a hand in most of the music controversies of the past 20 years, ever since his seminal show So it Goes spat the Sex Pistols onto the TV screen for the first time. So, as it goes, what does he think of the growing demand for 'socially responsible lyrics', now being made by 'Drugs Czar' Keith Hellawell and other members of the great and the good on both sides of the Atlantic?

'Socially responsible lyrics? That's a fabulous issue which exposes an individual like me as a complete hypocrite - and that's what I'm going to find interesting about the free speech debate at the ICA.

'For example, I don't have a problem if The Prodigy want to say "Smack my bitch up". I think they are making themselves look stupid, but nevertheless, they can say it. But then again, if anything goes, what are you going to do about anti-Semitic lyrics or homophobic lyrics?

'I once ran a hypothetical at the music convention In the City, asking people what they would do if one of their bands delivered an album with intensely homophobic lyrics. Keith Blackhurst of Deconstruction, believing in free speech, said allow the album to go out. I'm not sure I would be as liberal. I think I would personally say, maybe you have the right to go and do it but this is my record label, and I'm sorry I just do not want to put it out.

'At the moment I am working in America with my band the Space Monkeys and Interscope, the great gangsta rap label which had to be divorced from Warner Bros whose stock was going down because of the connection. In all honesty I am glad I have not had to face this question. I believe in freedom but then again, how much? Drugs is a different issue. You do them to yourself. The rock'n'roll tradition is that you can be allowed to say anything about what you do to yourself. And that's something I do believe.'

Wilson's own bands have come under fire from the purity police on occasion, as when some music press hysterics tried to call New Order 'Nazis', or when the Happy Mondays were accused of homophobia. 'Once upon a time Bez used the word "fag" in an interview - the way a working class kid who hangs out with gay people talks about them; and the hero of the working class Steven Wells [of the NME] used that to try to destroy the Happy Mondays. At the time we knew there was a hatchet job on the way, and we thought it was going to be "They've calmed down, they're driv-ing BMWs and they've got children". Nathan [McGough, Mondays' manager] and I were relieved when we saw it. So we did nothing. Looking back on it, I should have taken a one page advert in the next week's NME with Shaun Ryder kissing a man, which Shaun would have, y'know, no problem.

'Maybe it was PC arriving early, or something that is still there, the backlash against working class bands as the kind of people who steal the stereo out of your car. And now we are in middle class rockland. I like The Verve, I like Radiohead, but it's student rock, it's nice.'

Wilson admits to being 'middle class' himself, but he has always been attracted to rough trade in music. 'The idea of Britain being cool in the nineties is based on the dance revolution which came from working class people going on holiday in Ibiza and finding a new way to behave. The mid-period of the cultural cycle has been Britpop, which is all right, but the centrality of the UK is based on the last explosion, the working class dance explosion.'

So is the music scene now too nice to be interesting? 'Basically the British music industry is quite happy in the late nineties. I judge how things are by how much retail floorspace is given over to music at Woolworths. It was decreasing in the early nineties; with Seattle happening, the American industry got totally into its own music, Europeans were selling their own home product, and computer games were going to wipe us out. Now there is a degree of buoyancy, but we are in the dying embers of a cycle. Top of the Pops today looks like it did in 85-86 and 73-4. It's the calm before the storm, which will come in two, two-and-a-half years.'

Those could prove prophetic words from a music magnate who has always had his finger on (or near, anyway) the cultural pulse, re-inventing his business more times than Richard Branson. 'I always tell the story of how we were successful with New Order in 87, and I said to our people, I think there will be a revolution round the corner and while we are doing very well let's not forget to look out for it. While I was saying this, from the band we had signed a year-and-a-half before just because they had that mark of Cain about them, two of them were round the back of a dingy pub in Manchester selling little white tablets they had got from America, and one of them was standing in the middle of the stage of the Haçienda waving his arms in the air - on his own. The revolution that was to come was already happening under our feet, and quite rightly, we shouldn't see it. If you can see history coming it's going to be no fun. Mr Fukuyama, please note.'

Tony Wilson will be appearing at the LM/ICA Free Speech Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 27 February to 1 March 1998

Signs of the times

'We're proud of what we did'
Sarah Davies, captain of the University Challenge team from New Hall, Cambridge, which scored 35 points, the lowest-ever score. Here's to non-elitist education.

'Do not iron clothes on body'
Instructions enclosed with Rowenta irons, as revealed in a New Scientist survey. Other product advice they found included:

'Do not try to stop chain with hands' from a Swedish manufacturer of chainsaws; 'kills all insects - warning: harmful to bee' from an insect spray; 'Product will be hot after heating' from a Marks and Spencers pudding; Sainsbury's peanuts ('Contains nuts'); airline peanuts ('Instructions: open packet, eat contents'); and finally, a bottle of flavoured milk marked: 'After opening, keep upright.'

'We safeguard our copyright very carefully in all cases, particularly when it concerns a children's property such as the Teletubbies'
A BBC spokesman explains its attitude to the Belfast trader who produced a t-shirt depicting a Tellytubby in military gear, brandishing a rifle under the slogan 'Tiocfaidh Ar La La'

'The buggy will only do 8mph top whack and I couldn't believe it when the police stopped me'
Sam Hammond, 72, who was charged with driving a battery-powered invalid scooter on the pavement while over the alcohol limit.

If you thought the 'None for the Road' Christmas drink-drive campaign was bad, don't visit Turkey. In Ankara, motorists have been ordered to carry body bags in their cars.

Meanwhile, Ashford residents with criminal records received Christmas cards from the local police, with the greeting 'thinking of you'. A spokesman said:
'We have an array of tactics to target criminals and this is just another way of letting them know we are watching them.'

Bangor City has been reprimanded and fined £100 for remarks in its club programme, which contained a criticism of Caersws fans who taunted followers of Rhyl with shouts of 'Scousers!' a reference to the north Wales club's tradition of fielding players from Liverpool.
'We abhor racism in any form', ran the piece, 'especially when it comes from a group of inbred sheep *******s'.

'Let's face it - [Oasis] are a cheap copy of the Beatles and so juvenile. All this business about "offering people out" - well, I'm outside the Capital Radio studios just after 10am every weekday if they want to show how tough they are.'
Fighting talk from Tony Blackburn. Sadly the challenge is only extended to members of the band.

'There are teams where you have got players who, from a distance, look almost identical, and of course, with more black players coming into the game, they would not mind me saying that that can be very confusing'
John Motson, with what he would no doubt call a 'talking point'. Yes, but is it good for the game, Motty?

Meanwhile, Deutche BA, a subsidiary of British Airways, has hired a radio DJ to teach its staff how to tell jokes and engage in banter. 'We're not forcing them to be funny', said communications executive Anja Janke.

'When the gasman came in his van we thought he was going to take away all the meters. When he told us he was only taking one. I said I am not standing for that so we decided to lock him up'
Betty Nicholls, one of seven pensioners at Romley House, Essex, who kidnapped a British Gas worker in protest at continuing bills, following their conversion to electricity

'If I don't get a place in heaven, I'll want to know why. I've done my best'
Bernard Manning


Q is for quotable

The author of clubland novel Deadmeat has got reason to be full of himself, says Theresa Clifford

'I set the template for others to follow. I wanted to break the mould of the traditional novel and of the publishing world. I wanted to be in control of my own intellectual property and show others that they could be in control too.' Q, no relation to James Bond's techno-boffin, is a young black writer with a lot to say for himself. But he can back up the hype more than most.

Q wrote, typeset, designed and published his first novel, Deadmeat, hawked it outside nightclubs from the back of his car, and then sold it on to an established publisher (Sceptre). He contributed to the acclaimed clubland anthology Disco Biscuits, cut a CD called Fever, and now, with a website already linked to his first book, he is experimenting with multi-media. All of which suggests that this twenty-something Londoner is by no means as daft as his trademark wooden sunglasses would suggest.

Q claims to be the first writer to market his book like a record. This claim is disputed, but there is certainly a musical element in his writing. 'Deadmeat has song loops. I wanted to write dialogue that sings, that reflects the rhythms of the street.' Although there is much talk of 'coming down' and 'the end of rave', Q maintains that the music which inspired him is going from strength to strength. He is equally enthusiastic about the Internet - an enthusiasm that has helped make him a sought-after commentator on the future of the novel, which, he insists, 'must be multimedia'.

Refusing to succumb to 'information overload', Q embraces the digital technology 'which has allowed me to market my own intellectual property and be in control of my own destiny. This is the deeper meaning of my book: don't be Deadmeat, make your own destiny'. His own experience of the benefits of hi-tech has set Q against 'appropriate technology' for the Third World and its proponents: 'Those that push "appropriate" technology in Africa are ignorant and racist. Without hi-tech, people in Africa are condemned to be little more than peasants. "Appropriate technology" says to them that the West will be their master.'

But Q is not totally hung up about racism. 'I don't make a big thing about my colour', he explains, 'because I didn't have anything to do with it. I'm not into "identity politics". My colour was encoded before I was born and I don't define myself by it. If my colour causes a problem, it's a challenge to overcome that problem. Technology and the Net have helped me to do that, after all the Net is colour blind - it gives you an international audience and frees you from your national location'.

Negotiating a film deal, Q has been struck by the conservatism of the industry: 'There are innovations such as digital cameras which I want to incorporate into the film version of Deadmeat, but they want to make it into a straight thriller about young blacks. If the film world doesn't get what I mean, I'll make the film myself.' At least Q sounds like he means it - too rare a thing in these days of indulgent self-doubt and irritating understatement.


No laughing matter?

When is it OK to be offensive?, asks American comedian Steven Alan Green

Why do audiences still get upset with some comedians when they go overboard? Everything they say is 'just a joke', right? 'Oh no', some might say, 'that's not funny', or 'there are some things which shouldn't be made fun of porn'; or the classic response when there has been a national tragedy, 'it's too early for that type of joke'.

Too early? I'm sorry, is there a proper time to tell offensive, tasteless jokes? If so, when? Is it after eleven in the am? The news of Diana's demise reached me at 5am. I had three one-liners on the subject by 5.08am. And who says it is now time? The real problem with waiting for subjects to be okayed by whomever is that by the time it is okay, it is too late to be really funny.

The late Sam Kinison, the over-the-edge comic who started out in Texas back in the early eighties, was bleeped on his first appearance on America's Saturday Night Live. His joke was (in essence): the reason crack cocaine use is dramatically up is because the federal government has been spraying the marijuana in Mexico with paraquat. Then he'd yell, 'You want to stop crack use? Stop spraying our pot!'.

It was a simple joke which highlighted very dramatically the government's lopsided drugs policy. Sam was not advocating drug use, necessarily. He was simply saying that the government was out of touch. Well, he got clipped. The ironic thing was that all it did was turn him into the biggest comedy martyr America has seen since Lenny Bruce. The following week Lorne Michael (legendary producer of Saturday Night Live and such film stuff as Wayne's World) made Sam guest host. For the record, Sam died in a car wreck. The driver of the other car was probably on crack.

Kinison's chief rival at the time was a comedian named Andrew 'Dice' Clay. 'Dice' was a character concocted by a formerly fat Jewish kid from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, who adopted a 'Fonzi' look and mixed it with the camp confidence of Stallone and Pacino. Dice's 15 minutes ended when he refused to apologise for a remark he made about Aids victims: 'Get a job, buttslammer. Find something you like other than the Hershey Highway.' His crowd loved it, though it was always difficult to tell who his crowd really was. Were they people who knew he was taking the piss out of a pinhead character, or were they simply pinheaded followers who saw no irony at all in what he was saying.

Anyhow, Andrew had a last chance press conference. But rather than explaining it was just a joke, he chose to stay in character and berate the press for being so stupid. His wings were clipped. He supposedly lost a movie deal, nobody with any pull would touch him. He eventually recovered somewhat, but by then he had lost his steam. Kinison, mangled in the carnage of early death myth, fared much better. Body work is always cheaper than a good press agent.

I too have experienced the wrath of the PC police. I usually open my act with a satirical song which has as its chorus 'Faggots are everywhere, they live around the block. Faggots are everywhere, they want to suck my cock'. Most people, including many gay people, know that I am taking the piss out of homophobia, that I am speaking the mind of the bigot on purpose. However, I have to admit that the shock element also works for me. And those most often shocked are the politically correct, the timid. On more than one occasion, this piece has cost me work. I have been labelled as homophobic by some. Sure, I could argue that this is not really how I feel, or that the joke contains a contradiction. If faggots are 'everywhere', I must be one too. But I choose the easier route: they can all go and suck my cock!

Sometimes you have a so-called bad guy speak on stage what everybody secretly believes. But you have to be careful. Some things are so dangerous even the audience does not want to know it knows.*

Steven Alan Green will be performing and speaking at the Free Speech Festival


Bacon the butcher

The real violence of Francis Bacon's pictures, currently on display in a rare retrospective at London's Hayward gallery, lies not so much in the depiction of grappling, convulsive figures as in what they imply: the dreadful sense that this is all there is - being without becoming. The violence Bacon does to his subjects is to wrench them from narrative, cut them off from tradition and strip them from any kind of social context. These are human beings without humanity, their bodies rendered into monstrous meat.

Bacon's figures haunt eerily institutionalised settings, decked out like real rooms as if to mock the security which they deny. Bare electric lightbulbs banish privacy and shade alike. Set against the harsh planes of abstract colour which cut and thrust across the canvas, these spaces show the ephemerality and contingency of their occupants.

When shadows intrude they ooze from the figures themselves. A face as blank as an animal's stare is devoured by its own likeness. Light switches look like panic buttons, and arrows point and poke at scenes of humili-ation. Escape is denied, and so is subjectivity. The violence of Bacon's vision extends even to the paint itself, and the way he uses its mat-eriality as if to obliterate the substance of what it represents.

Bacon, who died in 1992, was a master of his medium; but a master without a coherent method. He invited chance into his working process, and strove for nervous effect regardless of the means employed. His work and his way of working both deny the possibility of progression or transcendence. Like Goya's depiction of a skeletal corpse which rises from the grave to scrawl Nada [nothing] on its own tombstone, Bacon is all about the impossibility of tomorrow. There is only the raw impact of the nervous impulse, and the sense of ourselves as the prying eye of an authority which vio-lates both the observed and the observer.*

Martin Hughes

Francis Bacon: The Human Body, 5 February to 5 April 1998, Hayward Gallery, London, phone (0171) 928 3144

Portrait of Lucian Freud (on orange couch), Francis Bacon, 1965


Dan trouble

All is not well in the world of comic books. Marvel, publisher of Spiderman and the X-Men, has been on the point of bringing in the receivers. DC Comics are trying yet another reincarnation of Superman, this time as two separate heroes (Red and Blue Superman). And Desperate Dan, Britain's last comic cowboy, received his P45 towards the end of 1997, only to be brought back 'by popular demand'.

In each instance, publishers have cited difficulties in making characters relevant to the current era. There is nothing new in killing off characters whose face does not fit the times: Marvel's Silver Surfer hit that cosmic wave when hippiedom went on the wane; the Beano's Lord Snooty hung up his top hat after John Major talked about the classless society; and the Dandy's pyrotechnics expert, Bing Bang Benny, lit his last fuse in the seventies when the IRA's bombing campaign put an entirely different gloss on his activities.

What is new, however, is that today's writers, artists and publishers are uncertain as to how to replace the characters they have got rid of. They do not seem to be able to get a clear line on the contemporary context. Making jokes and creating heroes would be a helluva lot easier if there was not so much confusion about what to laugh at or look up to.

More so than at any other time, our favourite characters have been re-examined and found wanting. Some pundits decided there was too much violence in kids' comics, and the thwack 'em and whack 'em rate has been scaled down accordingly. The Bash Street Kids, who fought off retirement in 1994, are no longer under threat from teacher's 20-foot cane. Gags about getting stuck in the fridge are left out for fear of copycat deaths, and even Dennis seems to have lost some of his eponymous Menace. Desperate Dan managed to hang on to his blowtorch shaver, but cactus took the place of his beloved 'cow pie' for the duration of the BSE scare.

Desperate Dan returned to the Dandy's front cover in December after a barrage of complaints mainly from nostalgic adults. Backed by Tory peer and novelist Lord Jeffrey Archer, the Sun ran a successful campaign to save 'Dankind'. Having dropped to a quarter of what it once was, the Dandy's circulation climbed upwards again - temporarily (sparking accusations that Dan's demise may have been a truly Desperate sales stunt). Dan may mean little or nothing to the under-10s, but to many adult males he represents a golden age when we did not have to worry about what it means to be a man. *

Richard Sedley is a graphic artist

Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998

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