A silent voice across the MEdiaverse: The Next Day as identities prosumed

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Back in March 2013 I posted an article in which I tried to analyse Bowie’s comeback album The Next Day. Quite a few things about ‘Bowie now’ intrigued me so I worked on some of my ideas around social media and identity and eventually published an academic remix of the original article (read original here) in Celebrity Studies journal.

Not long after publication The Next Day album designer Jonathan Barnbrook sent me this message which I took to be quite positive:

“…well very interesting. quite academic language but just about understandable. reasons are much more various and multifaceted, partly accidental but certainly contain elements that you are discussing.”

I love the ‘just about understandable’ bit… I suppose it was written for an academic journal so the language is a bit ‘academic’. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how rarified a language academic-speak can be. And like any language it takes some time to understand, so I was over the moon that Jonathan took the time and effort to read the article.

More recently I was told by someone close to Bowie’s camp that he also enjoyed the article… I can’t publish the email but I can say the fanboy in me did summersaults. So, here it is for anyone who wants to take a look… but I would urge you to read the original so you can see how everyday language can become tied in academic knots, while not really adding anything that new!!!

Click here to download a PDF of the article The Next Day as identities prosumed

 

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Super Discount 2, The Sage Gateshead, 2005

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Super Discount 2, The Sage Gateshead, Friday 11 February 2005

The sight of three balding producers bobbing their heads up and down as their fingers manipulate mixing keyboards, desk and computers to work up a breathtaking house-music storm may not be the most enticing proposition to many people. But for anyone who followed the late-Nineties French dance-music scene (or French Touch, as it was popularly known) the Super Discount live experience is exciting, as it is long overdue.

Why the excitement? Arguably, without the arrival of Etienne de Crecy’s Super Discount concept in 1996, Air and Daft Punk might never have enjoyed the same degree of success. It was through the 1997 Super Discount album that the UK’s dance-music media woke up to the concept of French dance music.

That album became the must-have house collection of the year, spearheading a musical revolution among the Parisian house cognoscenti that would not only spawn numerous Top 10 hits, but even alter the musical direction of Madonna. Her album Music was heavily reliant on the French Touch sound.

Despite Super Discount’s subsequent influence on global dance music, the second instalment arrived only last month. Super Discount 2 was no less inspirational, but where its predecessor was all about defining new ground, this set was defined by its search for authenticity.

It is this same search that underlines the Super Discount 2 live show. Augmented by his fellow Parisian producers Alex Gopher (who was once in a band with the Air duo) and Julien Delfaud, De Crecy appears intent on reclaiming the spirit of house and techno from the cheesy sounds that masquerade as “dance music” these days. The band offer up an obsessive’s brew of tweaking acid house, deep, pulsating Detroit techno and raw-edged Chicago house, all orbiting the relentless simplicity of Kraftwerk and absorbed through the rushing peaks and subliminal beats of the best club tracks.

Playing to a capacity crowd, Super Discount 2 deliver a series of stunning overtures that range from the twisted bleeps of “Poisoned” to the bass- driven hypnosis of “Overnet”. The highlight of the set comes in “Fast Track”, an adrenalised Formula One soundtrack with a bassline lifted from the vaults of New Order and injected with the deepest of house grooves.

While pundits everywhere are quick to write off electronic music, Super Discount 2 recaptures the essence of house culture at its rough-and-ready best. Vintage stuff, perhaps, but also a timely reminder of how potent a force this music has been for the past 20 years.

Roisin Murphy, The Dome, Brighton, 2007

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Roisin Murphy, The Dome, Brighton, Wednesday 28 November 2007

In interview, Roisin Murphy appears not to suffer fools gladly. Direct, single-minded and occasionally a little belligerent, she comes across as a strong women who is in total control of both her art and her career.

It’s surprising, then, that her live shows reveal an individual who seems riddled with insecurities. It’s certainly the case at this opening show in support of her second solo album Overpowered, where her glamorous poses and supermodel poise are undone by awkward dance moves and embarrassed smiles and glances.

Such contrasting personality traits have always been at the heart of Murphy’s work. As one half of Moloko she milked these opposing forces of the dance-floor weirdo and the pop starlet to startling effect.

Live, however, these schizophrenic dynamics show a performer with a need to remain in complete control. This, despite the fact that her current music is built around a sense of jouissance – the out-of-body bliss of dance-floor pleasure.

Murphy’s displays of such free-spirited states of mind are tempered by her faux-celebrity performance. So pounding acid house-meets-disco beats are explored through a series of on-stage costume changes. These range from the high-couture judge for “The Truth” to the pantomime Gestapo princess for “Tell Everybody” and “Ramalama”.

The costume changes give Murphy the image of someone in need of constant reinvention. But then that is what this show is all about. The set is almost entirely drawn from her new album, while the only songs from the previous Ruby Blue set, “Sow Into You” and “Ramalama (Bang Bang)”, get a disco makeover.

As the band thunder through a performance that updates the soul revue to excellent effect, Murphy slips between personalities, proving herself to be one of the UK’s most interesting pop stars at the moment.

Her stagecraft draws on these various character traits to present an inspired observation on the split personality at the heart of the music industry. The stunning “Overpowered” finds her playing both puppet and puppet mistress, while the lone Moloko song “Forever More” sees Murphy joining her backing singers to become one of the girls, rather than the star of the show.

Endlessly inventive, beautiful, smart and blessed with a gorgeous voice: on the face of it Murphy is the perfect pop star. But as this performance showed, the obtuse side of her refuses to play the pop game according to the industry rules.

23 Skidoo Interview, The Independent

23skidooRock the dancefloor? We built it

It may have been 15 years between 23 Skidoo albums, but that didn’t stop them laying the foundations of UK dance and hip hop. Just ask the Chemical Brothers

The Independent, Friday 30 June 2000

If you’ve read any one of the numerous dance-music histories published over recent years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, until the US gave us house music, the only dance we created was of the morris variety. Apparently, funk, disco and rare groove were genres that we consumed rather than produced. Even Northern Soul seemed to slip past the experts who were busy worshipping at the altars of Chicago and Detroit – the so-called birthplaces of house and techno respectively. According to these commentators, everything started with ecstasy, and year zero coincided with the opening of London’s legendary acid- house club Shoom in 1987.

But even the most rudimentary understanding of the creative tensions which forge new subcultures and musical styles would show how ludicrous a concept this is. Nothing can evolve in a vacuum and yet we are asked to believe that today’s dance culture has a definite moment of birth.

So what of the musicians pushing at the boundaries of funk and electronica prior to Shooom? Artists like 23 Skidoo, Clock DVA, A Certain Ratio, 400 Blows and Pop Group who, for the first half of the 1980s, applied the same anything-goes nihilism to the US funk of James Brown and the Afro-funk of Fela Kuti, as the punks had previously applied to rock music. Or others like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and The Normal who attempted to harness Kraftwerk’s circuitry to the DIY aesthetic of the times.

It’s with these industrial funk bands that we can see much of the groundwork for the late-Eighties house aesthetic. The music was both conceptual and functional; it was free of the standardised pop-song format (The Beatles meant less to this generation than King Tubby) and it was mainly instrumental. Live, these bands performed heavily strobed multimedia events where projected films and slide shows took precedence over artists. Like the DJ culture that would follow, this was an anti-star scene.

Recently, the style magazine The Face ran an article celebrating the return of the sound that they’ve rechristened punk funk (industrial has come to represent the likes of US goth-rockers Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails).

The main inspiration is the re-emergence of 23 Skidoo with a new single, the gorgeous jazzy dub of “Dawning” (featuring Pharaoh Saunders) and an equally superb eponymous album. Both arrive some 15 years since their last release.

“We’re trying not to be too aware of any revivalism,” say the band “The fact is we never actually went away. We didn’t use the 23 Skidoo name, that’s all.”

23 Skidoo are Anglo-Singaporean Chinese brothers Alex and Johnny Turnbull, Fritz Catlin and Sketch (once a member of chart-topping British jazz-funk outfit Linx). Formed in 1979, the band soon came to the fore with their critically acclaimed debut single “The Gospel Comes to New Guinea”, which offered a startling amalgamation of percussive Afro rhythms, industrial ambience and heavily echoed guitars.

Over the course of the next six years, they released four albums (“7 Songs”, “Tearing Up the Plans”, “The Culling is Coming” and “Urban Gamelan”), although it’s for the celebrated 1984 single “Coup” that they are best remembered. Not least because its infectious bass line was lifted wholesale by The Chemical Brothers on their huge “Block Rocking Beats” hit.

Since 1985, 23 Skidoo appeared to have remained dormant. In reality, however, like many of their contemporaries, they never went away. Rather they withdrew into the studio where they became influential musical catalysts in the growth and development of acid house and post-acid house cultures. In 23 Skidoo’s case, they developed Ronin Records, a label through which they initially explored breakbeat house in the early Nineties (they unleashed the hugely popular rave anthem “Jailbreak” in 1990) before developing a love affair with hip hop. Ronin has subsequently been hugely instrumental in placing the UK firmly on the international hip hop stage. Among the artists they’ve championed are the globally acclaimed MCs Roots Manuva (who guest on the new album), Rodney P and DJ Skitz.

“People expected us to be heavily into dance music because of the trance element of our early stuff,” explains Alex from the cosy confines of the band’s north London studio. “But we were always more interested in funk and stuff like Fela [Kuti] and the Last Poets, y’know? When hip hop came along, we were immediately drawn to it. Hip hop’s been central to a lot of musical development. If you look at pop music now, it’s the same as what happened in R&B 10 years ago, which in itself drew on hip hop. Each development in hip hop eventually filters into the mainstream and really affects people.”

The notion of music in a constant state of evolution may be central to the band’s manifesto but, despite musical developments, their newer material is still instantly recognisable as 23 Skidoo. The moods are still dark and the rhythms still largely percussive. The only difference is that the standard of playing has improved, which raises the question of whether their original sound was partly due to their relative lack of ability.

“You can go up your backside with ability,” exclaims Alex. “It’s more about what it says to you than the technical virtuosity. A lot of dance music and experimental music might be technically perfect, but it is just so formulaic.” Which brings us back to the sampling formula as employed by the Chemical Brothers and their like. I wonder how they feel about that blatant lift from “Coup”?

“We’ve got mixed emotions about it, actually. It’s kind of ironic that people are questioning our relevance when one of the biggest dance acts in the world have lifted from us. We’ve also been sampled by Future Sound of London and Ice T, so the Chemicals aren’t alone.”

23 Skidoo. Not forgotten after all.

Not quite John Cage…

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John Cage

A few months back author, academic and damn fine producer Sean Albiez posed the question ‘which experimental leftfield popular musicians have actually turned their backs on traditional songwriting and fully embraced the avant-garde?’.

Naturally the usual names were thrown around, before being rejected. David Bowie’s Berlin albums? No, the instrumentals were supported by very traditional pop songs and anyway, as instrumentals go they were hardly going to challenge John Cage in the ‘challenging’ category. Indeed, with tracks like ‘V2 Schneider’ lifting sax riffs from an old R&B songs and others borrowing heavily from Kraftwerk and Cluster these instrumentals didn’t stray too far from the experimental mainstream. And anyway, ever since these albums Bowie has stuck to the rock formula – despite flirting with avant-garde and electronica techniques.

Who else then? Surely Brian Eno and David Byrne? Again, not easy to place them in the heart of the experimental, let alone avant-garde. Eno’s ambient phase was intended as background sound. If it had politically challenged, or inspired beyond the act of scoring everyday routine it would have failed. No matter how ‘nice’ much of it was to listen to.

Since then his debt to David Byrne’s skewed world pop has been huge. Hardly challenging, but still preferable to his production work with U2 and Coldplay. Byrne himself is someone we might have expected to disappear down the road marked ‘difficult’ in the years following My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But his love of festival camp and musical theatre has kept him comfortably in the pop-centric zone.

So which other former pop stars can be considered? Lou Reed? Yes, for Metal Machine Music, which the rock fraternity considered his RCA ‘contract get out’ album. RCA’s sister label RCA Red recognized its avant-garde qualities though. Not that he ever explored that musical terrain again. Radiohead perhaps? Fleetingly maybe, for a few minutes on Hail the Thief. How about Muse?  In their heads probably. But only in their heads.

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David Sylvian

After slinging endless names around we were only able to come up with two artists that can be truly be seen to have turned their backs on pop music and immersed themselves in the avant-garde; Scott Walker and David Sylvian.

Both Walker and Sylvian have rejected their pop star lives and slowly disappeared from view; reappearing every few years with another endlessly challenging, but consistently brilliant album. Sylvian’s recent albums have been especially powerful, with both Manafon (2009) and Died in the Wool – Manafon Variations (2011) finding the artist applying glitch techniques to random orchestration and counterpointing this with richly dark harmony.

Full time Dad and occasional artist David Bowie has suggested he’s tired of pop music and would rather take photos of everyday objects these days.  Other musicians often complain about being sick of playing the hits and lay claim to desires for a more experimental sound, something with more depth than pop music.

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Scott Walker

To these people I would suggest that they get acquainted with latter day Walker and Sylvian to discover what it is to be an artist who constantly attempts to push at the boundaries of their own ideas. Any other route would be lazy, and profoundly empty.

That we could only agree on two musicians was quite sad. In fact it was a process that forced me to challenge a lot of the pre-conceieved ideas I have about the so-called experimental artists I like.

So, who have we missed from this disappointingly short list? There’s got to be more!

Watch David Sylvian – Small Metal Gods (Manafon, 2009)

Watch Scott Walker – Track 09 (The Drift, 2006)

 

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