The End of Music as We Know It
|Gary Herman, (c) 1995|
|The 1980s was the decade that discovered style - or so the legend has it. Before the eighties, there was nothing but a big platform boot and flared-trouser shaped hole called the seventies, the paisley patterned sixties and the fifties where the quest for style had begun. Before that came The War, dinosaurs and Julius Caesar. |
In truth, the eighties was the decade that made style itself into a commodity sold in the mass market, not just an attribute of other commodities. In the sixties and seventies, people grew their hair long; in the eighties, they bought hair extensions. In the fifties and sixties, people wore jeans; in the eighties they wore the label on a pair of jeans. Where once they might have managed their time or organized their persons, in the eighties people invested in time-managers or personal organizers.
A seemingly endless stream of price-tagged style icons flowed into high streets and city centre galleries and shopping arcades. There was designer water and designer beer. There were designer clothes, designer buildings, designer computers, designer cars, designer artists, designer drugs, even designer designers.
Rock'n'roll, too, was reduced to a production-line commodity - one of the most successful of the British independent labels in the eighties was even called Factory. Style was no longer something a performer or a writer or a group had - it was something they captured in a sound sampler or bought as a pre-set patch on a Yamaha synthesizer. And when they couldn't buy a style, they borrowed someone else's from an old record.
At the limit of the process, as the nineties started to toddle, came Natalie Cole's ghoulish but prize-winning duet with her dead dad on Unforgettable - an unforgiveable techno-trompe d'oreille in which Natalie's voice was grafted on to some old but laundered Nat King Cole tracks for no apparent reason other than to demonstrate that technology presents no barrier to complete lack of originality. Elektra - the label concerned - had once been a hotbed of new ideas and new sounds. Now it was reduced to a form of grave-robbing.
Already by 1984, Chris Blackwell, co-founder and owner of Island Records (a British Elektra and one of the great artistic and commercial success stories of rock's creative past) could be heard complaining that there were no longer `any record companies in the real sense of the word.'
`We're all in the fashion business,' said Blackwell, who sold his company in 1990 to the global PolyGram empire - incidentally making multimillionaires of himself and U2, Island's biggest act at the time (or should that be asset?). `You used to be able to sell records purely on music and musicianship. Now it's packaging, media, television and video.'
Look at Madonna - a Marilyn Monroe image, blue-movie poses, and underwear courtesy of Fredericks of Hollywood, her music is the least interesting thing about her; her mouth is there to be looked at not listened to, her twin muses are fellatio and cunnilingus. But she didn't do sex, she simulated it - an absolute triumph of culture over nature, just like nouvelle cuisine and health clubs. And just to let us know she was no dumb broad, she would call one of her first singles `Like A Virgin' (1984) and her 1990 world tour `Blonde Ambition'. Her own blonde hair, as Q Magazine's Adrian Deevoy once noted, has black roots like her music. Neat sense of irony!
The truth is Madonna is what she pretends to be - the labels have become the woman and now Madonna is little more than a moving fashion plate, an assemblage of couture labels and magazine mastheads which sometimes sings. To understand Madonna all you need is to understand the labels.
`Madonna was the ultimate NY night person,' wrote critic Sheryl Garratt breathlessly in 1986. `She took the confrontational dressing of punk (the crucifix, shades, ripped tights, visible lingerie - perhaps even the lace), added a liberal sprinkling of celluloid dreams (Monroe, of course, but also a little Dietrich), then slapped on a liberal portion of NY street sass (the painted denim jacket, bumper boots, wrist bands and bare midriff of the Hip Hop kids.) The music is a similar blend of new wave, glam pop and US disco. Feminism had its influence on The Look too, albeit the cosmetic Cosmo version girls like Madonna, myself and her fans have been fed since birth. Madonna is the go-getting career girl who still looks good and finds time to have multiple orgasms and Successful One-Night Stands.'
This is not the rock'n'roll synthesis reworked, but a completely self-conscious pot-pourri of symbols and signifiers - nine parts clothes and make-up to one part music. And yet Madonna Louise Ciccone has been, arguably, the most successful rock performer of the decade, with a string of hits from 1983 onwards and a record of chart successes topped only by The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Lyrically explicit, with a stage show of unashamed vulgarity, Madonna has presented herself as a sort of sexual predator - bold enough to enjoy group sex, bondage or a little light spanking but always in command. Feminists have been divided by this image into those who see her as little more than a female pornographer, an agent of patriarchy, and those who see her as an archetypal strong woman, promoting guilt-free female sexuality and damned successful at it, too. The modern American dilemma incarnate.
She has, of course, turned all her fans into voyeurs, but what has irritated critics is the `who cares?' attitude - so modern, so in touch with the street, so fascinating. She unleashed a flood of wannabes (as in `I wanna be Madonna'), who adored her sassiness, her nonchalance, her millions of dollars, her `Boy Toy' belt-buckle, her apparent ability to straddle the sexual divide and still get her man, the ease with which she seems to change identities with her clothes, and above all her ordinariness. No Kim Basinger or Michelle Pfeiffer (despite cosmetic surgery to enlarge her lips), Madonna is the girl next door - a perfect rock icon for the eighties.
While her route to stardom has been conventional enough - dance school, disco backing group, NY rock group, club reputation, signing to Warner Brothers - continued success has ultimately relied on movies and videos, on the self-conscious creation of image and the clever exploitation of wardrobe, make-up and props (among which you can include her egregious underwear, her male dancers, and the Frida Kahlo paintings on her wall). Her image does not represent her as a creature of unattainable fantasy, but as a woman constantly re-inventing herself through play and fashion: rich or free and, latterly, both.
In the movie Desperately Seeking Susan (1984) she played the modern girl, footloose, fancy free, running a love affair through the medium of the classified pages, drifting in a neurotic urban demi-monde, living on her wits, irresponsible, unshackled, in control, and dressed for it.
In videos accompanying single releases like `Material Girl' and `Like A Prayer' she played erotic scenes with tongue in cheek. In her 1991 documentary movie, In Bed With Madonna, she watches two of her male dancers kissing, simulates fellatio on the neck of a bottle, is reprimanded by her father for seemingly masturbating on stage and ends up in bed with seven men. In the adult-rated Body of Evidence (1992), promoted as `an erotic thriller', she is shown loving her partner to death. None of this is particularly new or shocking, but two things make it different from past examples of sexual explicitness or self-styled erotic politics like Hendrix or Bowie, Jane Fonda or Grace Jones, Jim Morrison or The Tubes. One is the relentlessness with which the image is promoted - it is Madonna, that's all Madonna is. The other is the presentation of an unusual (not to say deviant) sexuality as fun, a sort of dormitory game among friends.
In interviews, she's unapologetic about the hype. She is, in person, different: `Everyone thinks I'm a raving nymphomaniac, that I have an insatiable sexual appetite,' she says. `The truth is I'd rather read a book.' But that too is image, and disingenuous image at that - Madonna Louise the homebody, the ex-Mrs. Sean Penn, the heart of the crazy, troubled Ciccone clan.
Ask Madonna what the truth is and she'll tell you she's sexual and spiritual, keen to reveal all to the cameras but not to let them `in the room when I was fucking', wants to be taken seriously but despises people who take themselves seriously. `You only have to have half a brain in your head to see I'm quite often making fun of myself. I mean, how obvious can I be?'
Well, obvious enough to sanction a change of title for the 1991 tour documentary from the original and suggestive Truth Or Dare to the subtle-as-a-flying-mallet In Bed With Madonna. Her former lover, the sexually adventurous Warren Beatty, once observed that Madonna lives on camera. Mind you, Beatty could have taught Madonna thing or two when it comes to self-publicity, and exhibitionism is a common complaint in rock'n'roll. But it's true that exhibitionism dominates eighties' rock, and Madonna dominates the exhibitionists. The camera made Madonna, not her music, and she has returned the compliment by making her life into a movie. Now, according to her publicity machine, she is `the most famous woman in the world', a fitting star for her own life story.
`The hard thing for people to take is that there isn't someone playing the part of my life in the movie 50 years after I'm dead,' she told Q Magazine. `I'm doing it myself. No-one has ever done this before.' It's really no surprise that Madonna's female fans are called `wannabes' - when the image takes over, to be like the image is to become it. And in a world of images, Madonna's sexual acrobatics are sterile and quite safe.
We have all become voyeurs and exhibitionists. In the eighties, videos and films mattered more than singles, probably more than most things - whether it was Madonna jerking off, Jane Fonda jerking up and down, or Freddy Krueger just jerking. By comparison to the rock'n'roll of the eighties, the movies had wit, verve, passion and, often, originality. There were certainly far fewer reissues and remakes with movies - quite often, the music chart looked like nothing more than a track listing from an imaginary album called Your All-time Greatest Hits.
In fact, the single most important characteristic of the rock music of the eighties was its almost total lack of originality. The second most important thing was its complete fragmentation into different markets. There was punk, rock, house, thrash, hip-hop, rap, death metal, new folk, old folk, roots, popular opera and world music (which covered everything else). Vinyl faded away, the single collapsed, CDs started a repackaging panic. Film soundtracks and TV adverts dreamt up by the greying rock generation now running Madison Avenue gave the hits of the past a new lease of life. The music didn't die - it just fell apart.
But Humpty had a saviour - a white knight called music television which was really the only thing to happen to rock and pop music in the eighties. The satellite TV station MTV was launched in 1981 as a rolling programme of videos and occasional `live' appearances hosted by bland veejays, satellite-beamed into a few homes and more hotel rooms across the globe. How many people watched it is difficult to say, although by its tenth anniversary MTV boasted 54.5 million subscribers. While most of these may have been in Hiltons, Holiday Inns and Hiatts, MTV's wallpaper approach to music and its global reach were powerful beyond its ratings.
Getting played on MTV was the acme of a music marketing department's ambitions (at least, until Sir Bob Geldof's 1984 `Live Aid' concert lifted benefit gigs into outer orbit and paved the way for a series of global marketing opportunities with street cred). Today MTV can choose from over 8,000 different music videos compared to fewer than 600 in 1981. For MTV's tenth anniversary in 1991, New York's Village Voice newspaper came up with a memo from the very same Island Records mentioned above instructing staff to use speed-dialing buttons on their office phones to unbalance the ballot on the station's `Dial MTV' segment in favour of a Drivin-n-Cryin video.
The power of video and TV is not just to sell music (or whatever now passes for music), but to put the fragmented rock scene back together again under a seamless veneer of dissolves, freeze frames and special effects. According to TV Guide in the US (probably the highest circulation journal in the world), MTV `shaped fashion, defined a youth culture and just may even have saved an entire industry.' Sounds just like the Beatles.
Look at Prince, an ersatz mixture of sixties psychedelia, funk and peace and love symbols. He's drawn comparisons with Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone, George Clinton, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Aerosmith's Steve Tyler. He has been, according to his fans and critics alike, the only figure in the eighties music scene to be close to genius. But his genius really consists of a light touch with histrionics and a bargain-basement approach to clothes, stage sets, lyrics and musical styles. Made for video!
His erotic push-ups owe more to good marketing strategies than the dangerous expression of untrammelled sexuality, his propensity for black posing pouches and eye makeup, flasher macs or blouses and brocade is an expression of his commitment to packaging, like Madonna. Unlike Madonna, however, Prince doesn't play with image - it's far too serious a business for mere playing. It's the essence of his art.
If the very beginning of his career was in a more-or-less conventional soul-funk mould with a streak of glam rock thrown in, he soon adopted an entirely theatrical devotion to erotic themes. Early on, he cultivated sexual and racial ambiguity and a Bowiesque attachment to costume. (Actually, Adam Ant may have been the biggest influence). He was interesting because he subverted racist stereotypes by playing up an apparent effeminacy and by adopting, musically and lyrically, a white idiom (so much so that many younger fans refused to believe he actually was black - a refusal made all the more natural by Prince's own habit of telling interviewers that, at different times, he had a half black, half Italian father; an all black father and an Italian mother; or just some very mixed genes). It was all cleverly contrived.
In the early eighties, he appeared on Dick Clark's vintage show American Bandstand and adopted an interview style which replaced Dylan's obliqueness and the Sex Pistol's vitriol with dumb insolence. This was not the legendary Prince shyness but a calculated piece of image-management. `Before we went on we were sitting in the green room and Prince hatched this idea not to say anything,' band guitarist Dez Dickerson remembered. `He said: "If he asks you anything just shake your head, don't talk".'
The idea was always simply to break out of the black music ghetto - to follow Chuck Berry and Hendrix into the big white world of pop stardom. For Prince Rogers Nelson this meant selecting the appropriate styles, themes and treatments. He moved on from the conventional black metaphorical approach to sex and became explicit; he introduced classic rock guitar elements, show-biz glitz and white bandsmanship into his music and his stage act, he learned the central importance of image and the presentation of image through TV, film and video.
The basis of the Prince image was from the outset rooted in performance. And the performances, inspired by Prince's own songs, were manipulations of his collaborators. In `I Wanna Be Your Lover' from the second album, Prince (1979), he played a desperate man - he wants to be lover, sister and mother, `the only one you come for'! And this was acted out on stage - a physical correspondence to Prince's lyrical attempts at creating an erotic family in a polymorphously perverse world. It didn't always work.
The band's first casualty was blonde keyboardist Gayle Chapman, in early 1980. Perhaps she found it too much to simulate intimacy with Prince during the finale of their set when His Royal Badness went into `I Wanna Be Your Lover'. `I know that she had some conflicts,' Dez Dickerson told Prince's unauthorized biographer, Dave Hill. `She loved it, but she didn't love it.' Perhaps she didn't like the acting out of passion - or perhaps she liked it too much. During a hometown gig in Minneapolis, Prince is said to have French-kissed Gayle Chapman in the middle of a performance of `Head'. In the end, she left the band and found religion, while other women in the Prince entourage have accepted his largesse and become star proteges with his material or his production skills.
Also in 1980, Prince released his most controversial album to date. Dirty Mind was described by Rolling Stone as Rabelaisian. In songs like `Do It All Night', `Head' and `Sister', Prince makes short (well, not that short) work of sex, oral sex and incestuous sex. His lyrics verge on a pornographic explicitness: vaginal lubrication and male ejaculation are not just alluded to. He claims the songs are based on actual incidents in his life, like `Bambi' on Prince in which our hero declares his passion for a lesbian.
All of this might have been seen as a challenge to the white male order's fearful suppression of the black and the female, were it not for the fact that Prince denied his blackness and wove accusations of homosexuality into a fundamentally heterosexual but deviant tapestry.
Sexual confusion and sexual explicitness are both elements of the Prince persona and they have enabled him to win an audience that incorporates adolescent females and older male funk and soul fans, both black and white. He has only gone so far in challenging stereotypes - far enough to construct himself in the image of his audiences' acceptable fantasies. They remain somehow bloodless. An extraordinary trick - made possible by the shadow-play of video and film which have elaborated and advertised the image.
Prince's crossover didn't happen until 1983 when MTV (a predominantly white channel even now) promoted `1999' and `Little Red Corvette' and His Royal Badness's career rapidly became focused on a sequence of brilliant film and video pastiches which rarely distinguished between concert performance, video fantasy and uncertain narrative - Purple Rain (1984), Under a Cherry Moon (1986), Sign `O' the Times (1987), Lovesexy (1988), Graffiti Bridge (1990), and of course Batman (1989) (the sound track of Prince's own version of dark fethishistic movie gothickery).
Crossing over into the mass pop market depended absolutely on Prince's ability to create himself as a plastic figure - a screen on which those acceptable fantasies could be projected - and a manipulator. The remarkable thing is not that he got away with it, but that he's been so single-minded. He has a Rolls Royce like John Lennon, but he has a movable office in the back not a miniature night-club. Open a cabinet inside his car and you'd probably come face to face with a fax machine, rather than a fully equipped mini-bar with a little draw for the dope.
Prince has been a one-man music industry, writing for, producing and nurturing the careers of a score of other performers - mostly young women. Even during a slump in his career, following disappointing returns from the Graffiti Bridge album and movie, he still appeared in the 1991 list of Top 40 highest grossing entertainers published by the US rich people's house mag, Forbes. His managers are reported to have said at the time: `There are a variety of ways he can generate income by sitting still and doing nothing.' That, of course, is a definition of capitalism.
An illuminating aside on Prince's career is offered by a comparison between him and Rick James - once heralded as the future of funk, who might have been where Prince is today if he had been more in tune with the eighties' ethos of success and less in love with rock'n'roll's dream of excess.
James had already established himself on the black music scene as the eighties' began, with an act owing something to George Clinton's comic-book funk, something to Bob Marley's rasta pride and something to fast and flashy white rock. But Prince, who opened for James on a string of US East Coast dates in 1980, took the flashiness one stage further and buried his music's roots beneath layers of image. Prince understood what James seems to have missed - that image and the symbols and labels which carry it were the key to success in a consumer age. Everything in his career was subsumed by the process of image creation: music, lyrics, costumes, the names of personnel and supporting groups, song titles, record sleeves. It was a masterly piece of marketing and it led Prince - in 1992 - to the biggest recording and publishing deal of all time, making him the crossover king of rock'n'roll: selling the recording and song publishing rights on six albums to Warner Brothers Records and Warner Chappel Music for an estimated $100 million.
As Prince rose irresistibly, so his rival Rick James sank. Just how upsetting it was when Prince lined up James' girlfriend Denise Matthews to appear in the stage show as Vagina as part of an imaginatively named girl-group, the Hookers, is difficult to say, and no doubt drug-dependency fuelled his paranoia, but by the mid-eighties James had begun to demonise Prince - railing against his betrayal of black culture and calling him `a mentally disturbed young man [who] sings songs about oral sex and incest.'
The Hookers became Vanity 6 with Denise Matthews as Vanity, while James hit bottom in 1991 after emerging from yet another bout of institutionalization when he and his then girlfriend, fresh-faced Tanya Anne Hijazi were jailed for tying up a woman at James' Hollywood Hills home, burning her with a crack pipe and a hot butcher's knife and forcing her to perform oral sex on Hijazi. There is something so poetic about this Star Is Born scenario and so angled that it is irresistible to conclude that it's actually drawn from the lyrics of a unpublished song by Prince.
Crack (a form of smokeable cocaine) had the definitive name for an eighties drug, evoking images of sexuality, sado-masochism, speed and decay. But the real eighties drug was fantasy - notwithstanding the flood of narcotics and stimulants that threatened to inundate the West. Cocaine, cheap heroin and designer drugs like Ecstacy (or E, the street name for MMDA, a sixties era hallucinogenic whose full chemical name is methoxymethylene-dioxyamphetamine) were certainly easily available and widely used, but this was - even more obviously - the decade of role-play games, survival adventures, and virtual reality.
It was perfectly respectable to be a rebel because rock'n'roll was meant to shock and everybody got a thrill from the experience, contained as it was within the fantasy world. Young kids could play out elaborate adventures in pretend dungeons, older kids played pretend war with paintball guns or lasers, nobody spoke of love any more they talked about sexual role-play and power games. Everything was a game in which the elements of reality were transformed into authentic copies and reconstituted as working models.
The world was being transformed before our very eyes into a Disneyland version of itself. Eventually, the process became sufficiently widespread to attract the interest of academics (who promptly gave it its very own label - a suitably impenetrable name, postmodernism, which means the condition of searching forthe familiar among the plunder of the past). But even before `postmodernism' was on everybody's lips, it became the modus vivendi of rock'n'roll. The generation of performers which emerged in the eighties was, for the first time, aware of all the arguments about rock'n'roll - the promise of rare wealth and hedonistic indulgence, the dangers of excess, the need for popular roots, the perils of financial exploitation. These performers frequently made well-informed career choices but rarely made interesting music. Occasionally, they made interesting music - and when that happened it was usually because they were unable to distinguish the original from the copy.
Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders, for example, came together as a result of Hynde's overwhelming determination to be a rock'n'roll star. The Ohio born singer-guitarist pursued this ambition to the point of obsession. Moving to London in the early seventies, she set out on the road to rock'n'roll fame. The route involved meeting, sleeping with, and then becoming, a journalist on New Musical Express, then the UK's leading rock magazine.
Through NME, Hynde got to know the hungrier half of the UK's music establishment - in particular, Sex Pistols' svengalis Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. You might say she put herself about a bit - and you might say it paid off, despite some negative reactions. Vivienne Westwood soon dropped her (`I thought you were going with the flow,' Westwood is reported to have said to her, `and the flow's going that way'), but then came a series of romantic or professional liaisons with the likes of Nick Lowe (bass-player, songwriter and producer), Chris Spedding (guitarist, arranger and producer) and Tony Secunda (whose pioneering sixties PR moves for The Move led to the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, suing for libel). Eventually, she hit it off with two former public school boys from the West Country town of Hereford, Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, slept with Farndon and gave birth to The Pretenders.
The Pretenders were an interesting group, driven by Hynde's consuming passion for rock'n'roll stardom and informed by a deep appreciation of rock culture, it was as though the band played out a series of set-piece recreations - dioramas - of what they thought rock should be. Today, kids call them `bland', but in 1981 they seemed to represent a never-before-possible synthesis. Chrissie Hynde was not the first woman to lead a rock group, but if her rock consciousness was as intellectual as Patti Smith's it was also as entertaining as Suzi Quatro's - and it was as visceral as both. The Pretenders were, perhaps, the first postmodern group - pretenders in both senses of the word.
Look at their publicity shots: but for the eyeshadow and the colour of her hair, Hynde could be Brian Jones (or maybe it was The Monkees' Davy Jones). The leather jackets and the moody looks purposely echo an era - and do not deflate it. This is not an iconoclastic group. These people are believers. They're just not real, is all. So what else should they do but sign with the Real label, part of the WEA stable?
Of their first few singles, two were Ray Davies songs previously recorded by The Kinks - `Stop Your Sobbing' (1979) and `Everynight I Just Can't Go To Sleep' (1981). The Kinks seem a curious influence - at least until you remember the dandy image (and the song called `Dandy'), the sexual ambiguity of `Lola', the deep and reactionary romanticism of Ray Davies, and the band's dismissive approach to the record industry. The Kinks were, after all, ur-New Romantics - the prototypes of New Pop, pure because outside the mainstream. It can hardly have been a surprise that Hynde started an affair with Ray Davies in 1981 which resulted in the birth of a daughter. Seeing The Kinks back home during the era of the British Invasion had, after all, been a key experience (perhaps one should say seminal). Better to fuck with an influence than simply dress up like it.
But The Pretenders' were an ill-starred group. They were surrounded by death as though the illusion of rock'n'roll had become so strong that dying was the only way reality could make itself felt. Pressures of touring and Hynde's own dominating personality soon caused an irreparable rift to appear between her and Farndon. She moved out into a Covent Garden tenement occupied by graphic designer, Keith Richard lookalike and junkie Kevin Sparrow. Sparrow overdosed on Christmas Day, 1979, three weeks before The Pretenders made number one with their third single, `Brass In Pocket'.
The problem was that nobody knew who to thank for their success. Sure, the critics had been kind and Chrissie Hynde did have a certain insolent charm, but The Pretenders had been massively hyped. In August 1980, WEA was fingered by the UK's leading investigative TV programme, `World In Action', in an expos‚ of chart-rigging and record industry malpractice. It was particularly embarrassing for WEA's managing director, John Fruin, who was also chairman of industry watchdog, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). He denied the allegations - which covered releases by Elvis Costello, Dusty Springfield, Gary Numan and Rod Stewart as well as The Pretenders - but left WEA a few weeks after the TV broadcast.
`We worked like mad to push them up the charts,' Fruin said later about The Pretenders, but the success of `Brass In Pocket' and the first album, both here and in the US, surprised almost everybody.
Soon, the group had become completely immersed in the rock lifestyle - or, at least, in some version of it. Hynde - no mean abuser herself who once drank herself into a Memphis jail - has described guitarist Honeyman-Scott as `a drug fiend', a speed-freak when they met and a heroin addict by the time success came. But he was less of a problem than bassist Pete Farndon who, according to Hynde, `was one of those unfortunate people who saw a picture of himself in the paper and thought that was him.' Farndon `had been taking smack for a long long time,' Hynde recalled, `and his behaviour was completely erratic.' He became impossible to work with, increasingly heavy-handed in his playing, losing the tempo in live performance, sometimes passing out completely, fighting backstage and apparently hitting Ray Davies on one occasion. The other Pretenders refused to work with him and in June, 1982, he was unceremoniously booted out of the band.
In many ways, Farndon was the most tragic character in The Pretenders. He cultivated a wasted look and a rebel image, complete with earrings, quiff and leathers. No doubt, his relationship with Hynde had been a source of pain and confusion, but the greatest irony was that just when he might have been expected to climax his unhappy life with a spectacular death, blond, blue-eyed James Honeyman-Scott stole the limelight and, following a typical night out fuelled by liberal doses of drink, cocaine, heroin and whatever else came to hand, died in his sleep just two days after Farndon's sacking.
It took Farndon almost another year to die - drowning in his bath in April 1983, under the malign influence of heroin and cocaine.`The guy blew it,' said Hynde, with a singular lack of sentimentality. `He shot up a speed-ball and drowned in the bath. It's not really my idea of a beautiful rock'n'roll image - the tattooed arm hanging out of the tub, turning blue with a syringe stuck in it. But that's what it came to in the end.'
So much better, one feels, if Farndon had left this world with a smidgeon more style, a pinch more panache.
There have been other drug and drink troubles over the last few years. Culture Club's Boy George (real name George O'Dowd) was pulled only just alive from the wreckage of a short but spectacular career as smack-happy androgyne with a disingenuous line in chat-show banter on how he preferred tea to sex. Perry Farrell, the former lead singer of US group, Jane's Addiction, was arrested on drugs charges in Santa Monica while Shaun MacGowan, the lead singer of Ireland's Pogues, was sacked by the band for alcohol-related unreliability. Thin Lizzy's wild man, Phil Lynott, black and Irish and would-be star of the movie life of Jimi Hendrix, struggled for respectability and married the daughter of Brit TV personality Leslie Crowther in a much hyped show-biz wedding, lost the battle and OD'ed ignominiously in 1985. David Ruffin, lead singer of the Temptations, OD'ed in Philadelphia at the age of 50. Def Leppard's lead guitarist, Steve Clark, died in London at 30 from a fatal mixture of drugs and booze after a long and unsuccessful struggle against alcoholism. Thirty-eight year old Johnny Thunders, from the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers, OD'ed in New Orleans, living life in the fast lane to the end. The Small Face's Steve Marriott burnt to death in his country home in England at 44, a demise probably hastened by Marriott's propensity for dope. But, despite all that, and the deaths and disgraces still to come, The Pretenders somehow closed the book.
There has probably been more cocaine and more heroin around in the eighties than at any other time in history - they became popular drugs, street drugs. Maybe that devalued them, or maybe the idea of destroying yourself lost its enchantment at a time when the world had never been so ready and so able to do it for you. The golden age of rock is over - its lifetime rounded with several sleeps - and with it that sense of righteousness and significance that made the paraphernalia of drug culture seem like the weapons of a revolution. All that's left for many is an inevitable price to pay.
On the street, the drugs may help to blot out pain and despair, but for the rock'n'rollers they became gewgaws. The 18th century poet and visionary William Blake had once written memorably about the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom. Excess, of course, implied depth and in the eighties wisdom was shallow and widespread - a palace of varieties, a shopping mall megastore.
In the global supermarket, rock stars' money was as good as anybody else's. We were all levelled in front of a paradise of ointments and unguents, spices and exotic foods, high tech furnishings and famous name fashions. The decade was advertised by politicians and their promoters as the triumph of capitalism - a bean-feast of buying. Even the architectural epidemic which hit our major cities proclaimed the message: make money! spend money! Like the Ritz, the grand emporium was open to all, and everything was for sale.
Greed for drugs or sex or rock or revolution became greed for money - and with money you could buy the rest. Money, of course, is the universal signifier - it stands for everything. Rock music was always a commercial form - not compromised by the market but in and of the market. Rock music had once provided a ritual arena for rebellion, but by the end of the eighties rebellion, once without a cause, seemed without a point. Why rebel at all, when the social order was so feckless and amoral? What was there to rebel for, when libertarianism had been captured by the political establishments in the US and Europe and the social experiments of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe were all disappearing into a cloud of catastrophe, venality and ethnic, cultural or religious rivalry?
This is no longer a world in which you can imagine the innocent radicalism of the sixties being taken seriously. Where are they now, the Sexual Freedom League, the Free London movement or the Dutch Provos' free white bicycle scheme? Like the snows of yesteryear, they've melted into the landscape. The promise of freedom is no more, now that everything is signified. That's postmodernism for you.
Even untimely death, which had once been such a startling punctuator of daily life, lost its special meaning. The shock with which we heard about John Kennedy or Jimi Hendrix would never be repeated. Death became commonplace, the four horsemen - AIDS, war, starvation and `natural' disaster - now subject to routine sightings.
In fact, our culture learnt to celebrate death in film, video game and music. It was, after all, just part of the postmodern mix: an image (or set of images) for the poseur and fashion victim. The most vital strand of rock throughout the eighties was once again heavy metal: only this time transmuted into extreme forms, thrash, speed and death metal, whose very names suggest impotence and negation.
Bands like Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Motley Crüe, Napalm Death, Venom, Nuclear Assault and Suicidal Tendencies specialised in grim faced posing, tight leather trousers, long, lank greasy hair, metal studs, and lyrics soaked in death, destruction, rape, pain. They represent a genuine underground, for the most part ignored by the mainstream music press and a cause of embarrassment to the rock establishment.
At its best, metal is an expression of the rebel energy that has always given rock'n'roll its power and authentic sense of creative challenge. But - let's face it - most of it is amateur macho posturing, schoolboy nasty, loud and stupid. You can tell what the music's like by what its fans use as mood-altering substances - and for metal fans it's mostly Carlsberg Special Brew and vodka.
The new breed of metal is dominated by Metallica, formed by Danish drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield in 1981. Thrash apocrypha tells of how Ulrich first met Motorhead's Lemmy - the godfather of metal music - in a hotel room in California and threw up over his carpet thanks to a tad too much vodka. This is how metal bands behave - for them road fever goes on forever, inspired by waves upon waves of predecessors, role models like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Saxon, Def Leppard, and the Tygers of Pan Tang, the inheritors of classic cock-rock, acid rock and punk, play acting the parts of hard men, evil bastards, satanists.
Death metal, we're told, was invented by a band called Venom emerging out of the decaying industrial north east of England. Their lead singer calls himself Cronos, the father of Zeus who ate his own children. His real name is Conrad Lant and his theory is that death metal is nastiness brought bang up to date. Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne comes in for a lot of criticism: `Death metal,' says Cronos, `is basically saying things that Sabbath didn't have the balls to say. We are the Evil Dead to their Hammer horror. Ripping, slashing, maiming, tearing throats out - it's all there.'
Of course, this is ugly stuff, but then its the ugliness that metal fans demand. The varieties are quite subtle as represented on album sleeves and in song lyrics - some bands go for sacrificing virgins, some for drinking blood, some go for leprosy or other forms of pestilence; some bands go for Nazi imagery or visions of political terror, some for nuclear explosions, mutilation, sadism, bodily functions or raising the dead. Personally, I doubt that any of the atrocities infecting the contemporary world have anything to do with any variety of heavy metal group, but it certainly upsets some people. The now rather old-hat heavy metal band Judas Priest, even found themselves defending a charge of manslaughter when they were accused of driving a young American to suicide because of their death-obsessed, satanist message. Hidden messages on albums and not so hidden ones in lyrics once again gripped the consciousness of American fundamentalists in the eighties. Even self-declared Christian groups like U2 and Stryper were condemned. Rock still has the power to offend, it seems - even though that offensiveness may be so contrived as to be laughable.
`You don't go knocking on people's doors flogging satan like the bloody Mormons,' says Venom's Cronos. `My criteria for if a song's good or not is that I play it to me mam and dad. If they say, "Son, it's fucking disgusting," then I know it's alright.'
The irony is that heavy metal has also created potentially the most successful rock group of the nineties - Guns N'Roses, who adopted the tattoos, the cod-pieces, the leather and denim, the long hair, the sexism, the cigarettes and the booze, but not quite all the menace of their predecessors. Sure, they say `fuck' a lot and drink Jack Daniels like Keith Richard used to, they make a lot of noise about killing family pets and taking so many drugs, their best-selling 1987 album is called Appetite for Destruction and their songs get banned for offensive lyrics. But this is a group with its eye firmly on the main chance - and doing a whole lot better than previous contenders for the title of `world's most outrageous rock band' like The Beastie Boys and Sigue-Sigue Sputnik (don't tell me you've forgotten them already!).
G N'R have tried - unsuccessfully - to get publications wanting interviews to sign over all rights in the published material to the band itself. They like to keep control of their image - so much so that singer Axl Rose (real name , Bill Bailey - no kidding!) leapt from a stage in St.Louis in 1991 when he spotted a fan taking unauthorized pictures. After the scuffle, Rose stormed off the concert stage. Result: a riot tally of 60 injuries, 16 arrests, and $200,000-worth of damage. Oh, and the words `Fuck you, St.Louis!' included in the liner notes to their Use Your Illusion I and II albums.
Axl, as if you hadn't realized, is the angry young man of the band - `I'm very sensitive and emotional,' he says. His publicity in 86 and 87 focused on a professed habit of killing small dogs (after this story had been repeated in several newspapers, it was revealed as a joke - although, we are reliably informed, Axl did once shoot a pig; but only to eat). These days, Rose's anger consists mainly of badmouthing fans, journalists and record companies. He sports a pierced nipple and a penchant for ripping out the fixtures of hotel rooms. Guitarist Slash (real name Saul Hudson), meanwhile, is the dissolute member of the band: born in Stoke-on Trent in the UK from a mixed race background and raised in LA, his father designed album sleeves and his mother designed theatre and movie costumes. He wears his dark curly hair long and it often covers his face. Naked to the waste, he's the one who drinks, takes drugs and smokes to excess. `Ozzie Osborne is someone I can relate to,' he says revealingly. `His life is so rock'n'roll oriented. He doesn't have anything else. That's the way I feel.' The rest of the band fill minor roles: Izzy Straddlin' is the group's cynic, Steve Adler the laidback one, and Duff McKagan the cowboy.
The contrivance may be obvious, but the image is almost antique. Guns N'Roses is a band which announces with pride that nothing of any importance has happened in rock since the Sex Pistols until them. And what they take from the Pistols (apart from a perfumed version of their name) is an approach to marketing. In every other way - musically, visually, and lyrically - they're less interesting than the Pistols and, once you get over the punk association, Guns N'Roses is simply a pastiche of sixties and seventies hard rock. These days even the clean groups - like teeny faves New Kids on the Block (the highest earning entertainers of the early nineties) - like to put in a pinch of hellfire. In 1991, New Kid Donnie Wahlberg even stole a march on G N'R by setting fire to a Louisville, Kentucky, hotel corridor with a bottle of vodka as fuel. It's kind of sad to be reduced to that.
In the fifties, rock's offence was its relationship with black culture. The white music establishment ripped off black performers and black styles and were condemned on the one hand for lack of discernment and on the other for lack of authenticity. By the eighties, white performers were at last able to rip off black music with no shame. Often, they came right out and proclaimed it - New Kids on the Block, Vanilla Ice; proud to be pale. This was the ultimate racist victory - the black thing had become the white thing. Understandable then that Michael Jackson, who had been raised from childhood under the glare of the publicity to become the most successful black performer of all time, somehow felt it necessary to undergo cosmetic surgery to make his facial features whiter. An indication of the situation: his own transformation was the demonstration.
Meanwhile, black street music took its stab at revenge thanks to 2 Live Crew, Niggers With Attitude, Public Enemy and a host of others in baseball caps, weird glasses, baggy trousers and unfeasibly large trainers. Rap emerged as high-tech street poetry which often overstepped the mark between entertainment and demagogy: or rather which used entertainment to serve demagogy - the music was reduced to basic textures, rhythm, echo and sampled sounds. Lyrics were doggerel, sometimes offensive doggerel, but what the hell! Posture was all. Rap was, in many ways, an equivalent to death metal - and the response of critics, the music establishment and society at large was frequently indistinguishable.
2 Live Crew found themselves in court in Florida defending lyrics that were openly anti-semitic, Niggers With Attitude demonstrated that the attitude in question was macho violence in songs like`To Kill a Hooker' and `Findum, Fuckum and Flee'. Former NWA-man, Ice Cube sneared at `white bitches' because they have `no butt and no chest', threatened violence to Japanese and Koreans and complained that his former band `let a Jew break up my crew' - alluding to NWA's manager. Ice-T, charged that his film appearance in New Jack City glamourised crime, quipped `Well, it is glamorous.'
But no music is inherently stupid or evil - at least, not at the level of content - and rap, like metal, can aim to enlighten and educate as much as shock or offend. Like it or not, rap has proved itself the musical form of the decade with performers like Run DMC, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah taking on a range of issues and arguing for their music's social roel. Meanwhile, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice have taken the music popwards, so much so that few mainstream rock or pop performers now can ignore the styles and techniques of rap. Rap fashions have spread across the globe, and (perhaps most surprising of all for a resolutely white station) MTV's rap hour `Yo!' became the station's highest rated show within weeks of its launch in 1988.
Rap's similarity to heavy metal is deeper than a simple love of shock. Both cultivate aggressive posturing as a kind of political act. Metal dreams of being white working-class music, and aspires to distil the hate and hopelessness. Rap is rooted in the oppressed communities of urban black America and aspires to liquidate that oppression in vitriol.
Despite offensive racism and sexism, soon everybody wanted to be associated with rap - from Prince to death metallers Anthrax and the white megastars of the end of the decade Guns and Roses. It was, after all, a new sound and one that displayed more life than most rock'n'roll had shown since the death of punk. The political element of early rap, its focus on giving back to the boyz `n the`hood their ghetto pride, became - at the hands of male exponents - a caricature of social vision. Only the women rappers who emerged in the late eighties - Queen Latifah, Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo - showed a firm stand against black stereotypes, racism and bullshit machismo. But who can blame the rappers? Things were getting worse. Style was all they had.
The problem with rock that rap and metal tried to address was simple: how could the music avoid blandness and indifference in a world that was increasingly clearly more bizarre, more violent, and more obscene than anything rock'n'roll could invent? A new school of criticism, a sort of rock revisionism, developed which saw this as unnecessary, arguing that we had been deluded all along about rock's innocent promise and radicalizing power.
Rock revisionism reached its culmination when Albert Goldman and his team of researchers - having dismembered the dead Elvis - did the same for John Lennon. This was to rock writing what the shopping and fucking blockbuster was to literature. Drop a few names here and there (if they're dead they can't sue), lots of sordid detail and plenty of seedy revelations of what we all already knew - that Lennon was an arsehole (asshole, for all American readers), too rich and, eventually, too self-important to count, that he took vast quantities of drugs, that he had an interesting taste in women, that Brian Epstein had been in love with him, and that nobody liked Yoko.
All of these things had become matters of supreme indifference in the eighties, except to those who love their soap opera with real people. Even then, how could anyone take John Lennon seriously when there was Julian doing an impression that could easily get him a walk-on part in a sequel to the Blues Brothers? Doesn't he look just like his father, and sings like him too! As far as rock'n'roll is concerned, they used to say `it's what's in the groove that counts,' and that's still true about Lennon - the more so now that the groove has given way to the pitted surface of a compact discs.
There was, of course, a Golden Age of rock, and like all golden ages it combined vast creative potential with destructiveness and despair in equal measure. Nothing comes free, after all.
On one level, of course, the Golden Age has never gone away. There have been deaths and departures that, more than most, seemed terminal - Lennon, shot in New York, 1980; Alexis Korner, who almost single-handedly created British R&B, died in a London hospital, 1984; Bill Graham, the Fillmore entrepreneur who made San Francisco a place to go with flowers in your hair, died in a helicopter accident, 1991. But somehow the Golden Age survives. Neil Young and Lou Reed were still making records and live appearances into the eighties and nineties (some of their output being actually better than anything they'd done in the sixties). Bob Dylan undertook his most extensive tour ever in the eighties. Even the Grateful Dead re-emerged older, fatter and greyer but still selling out Madison Square Gardens nine times over in 1991. The Rolling Stones were also touring- and still getting banned (their original 1984 `She Was Hot' video was too `raunchy' even for MTV). By the beginning of the nineties, the Stones had signed a multi-million dollar three album deal with Virgin Records. Paul McCartney, admittedly, wrote a musical and an oratorio - but then he was Paul McCartney.
There was, of course, something profoundly different about the activity of rock's great survivors. It wasn't just that Grecian 2000 had become the chemical turn-on of choice or that a good bottle of claret had replaced umpteen bottles of brown ale. It wasn't just that people slowed down or adopted a kind of cool professionalism. Their whole mood changed. They had proved themselves, accepted the role time had cast them in. They were established - part of a global process whose stability lay in its capacity for constant renewal and reinvention. It may be exciting, but it would never be new or innocent again.
The history of Virgin Records recapitulated the process. It survived, but dramatically altered. As everyone will remember, the company started life as off-the-wall hippy-dippy, discovered New Age with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells when it was still Mellow Old Age, crashed into punk with McLaren and the Sex Pistols and was turned round into a real record company when the Masters of Business Administration arrived. In its mature middle-age, Branson and his boys decided to sell the company to Thorn-EMI (along with the Stones) in order to concentrate on running an airline, thus completing a slightly wobbly circle which had begun three decades previously when EMI, as it then was, was the biggest record company in the world and had just signed the Beatles to head its expansion into the era of the global market.
Most of the oldsters had their own kids now. Some of them were concerned parents. The headlines were as likely to be made by Mick's rows with his daughter Jade (`You're not smoking in this house, my girl!') or by Eric Clapton's baby son's tragic fall from a 50th storey New York apartment window. Along with mature middle age came new responsibilities.
When Elton John sued The Sun newspaper over allegations that he had been involved with rent boys at parties run by rock manager Billy Gaff, it wasn't the sexual scandal that upset him. Elton was always open about his bisexuality and, in any case, sexual morality was less of a battleground in the eighties - it may have taken a fatal disease to break the mould, but the mould had been shattered. What disturbed Elton more was the simple fact that the newspaper had lied and that their story was a fabrication. Suing The Sun was the act of a responsible member of society confronted by the excesses of tabloid press - Elton, after all, was a friend of royalty.
In the same way, Australian soap star and pop singer, Jason Donovan, would later successfully sue style magazine, The Face, not because an article on outing implied that he was gay, but because it implied that he had lied and pretended to be heterosexual. But if any kind of consensual relationship was quite acceptable, the implication of compulsion was enough to cause prurient minds to flutter. The public was amused by Rod Stewart's parade of young wives and girlfriends, but growing old disgracefully had its limits - as Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith found out.
Somewhere between the South of France and his London penthouse, Wyman - who had always seemed rather too old and too settled for the wild life - hit his second adolescence just as his associates had retired from their first. He started `going out with' Mandy - a young woman just old enough at 13 to be his grand-daughter. It was 1984; he was 47.
At 14, Mandy was on the contraceptive pill and in the papers all the time. At 15, she was posing topless for cheesecake photos. At 16, she told the News Of The World that it was all over with Bill. `My mother approved of my relationship with Bill,' she said, `it was an unusual one.' At 17, she and Bill got married, with her mother Patsy's blessing. At 19, Mandy was admitted to hospital after her weight had fallen from 132 lbs to just 77 lbs. At 20, the happy couple split up after apparently managing to spend just five nights of wedded bliss together. With the tabloid press still yapping at their heels, Bill went back to his first loves: Gary `US' Bonds, astronomy, keeping computer records on his group's career and playing the electric bass. He was 55. It had been either the greatest publicity stunt of a career marked by a surprising lack of publicity or evidence that even a Rolling Stone can suffer from middle age.
By the time she was 21, Mandy had been diagnosed as suffering from anorexia, AIDS, Addison's disease, candida and `premenstrual syndrome'. She had become Bill Wyman's wasted youth and all she had to show for it were a £2.5 million divorce settlement and a figure that Gloria Vanderbilt (see above) would have killed for.
Recovering, she made the rounds of TV chat shows, with her loving mother in tow, looking like a blonde skeleton by Vidal Sassoon, blaming her decline on premature contraception. `I noticed nothing wrong with Mandy when she was 14,' said Bill. But then he wouldn't have, would he?
If decades have colours, the eighties were the colour of money. Everybody became respectable, believed in the Reaganomics and Thatcherism, lapped up shallow fantasies of fulfilment which masked an increasingly sordid and desperate reality. Caring and social concern were sold by the kilo, stuck on trucks and shipped out to Ethiopia or somewhere else a long way away, there to satisfy the designer conscience of a generation. When you had enough of caring, you could buy rebellion, too.
Small wars, perpetual terrorism, junk bonds, insider dealing, mass starvation, the collapse of Soviet-style `communism' (which wasn't communism) and the triumph of free-market `capitalism' (which wasn't capitalism) were the themes. The leitmotif was the deceptiveness of appearances. Nothing was what it seemed to be.
It has been a time of illusion. And its passing has been marked by the death of Freddie Mercury in the way that John Lennon's death marked the passing of an earlier time. For much of the eighties, Freddie Mercury partied like there was no tomorrow. The tales of his lavishly staged orgies are legion: dwarves handing round cocaine on silver platters, a naked woman emerging from a tub of raw calves' liver, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Like a scenario from one of Queen's more outrageous videos.
Mercury lived for sex - he said it himself - and his life epitomised that complete hedonism that becomes through the play of surreal imagination almost an art form in itself. He was, of course, a leftover from the seventies, when excess was the order of the day, a camp survivor; but his time straddled a transition from the Blakean sense of excess - a getting of wisdom - to the Wall Street version - a buying of goodies. Queen, too, was a band whose music was increasingly dominated by `production values' and by the opportunities it offered for stunningly over-the-top but completely pointless extravagance. The group had long ago given up the simple ideals of musicianship and relevance.
Freddie Mercury's death from AIDS was a case of death by lifestyle - unlike Lennon who was killed by stardom. The difference is a measure of how rock'n'roll itself changed. The conflict at the heart of Lennon's tragedy is between star and fan, the sense of it is betrayal. Freddie Mercury's tragedy was that stardom allowed him to buy himself his own private Babylon, an illusion of complete freedom which was, of course, no more than enslavement to licentiousness. AIDS itself is not the issue in this case. It only underlines the tragic point that, in the eighties, rock's creative energies became increasingly devoted to consumption and accumulation. This is what style had become: the fetishization of commodities. And this is sterile ground for any art to plough.
|Monday, September 10 2001|
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