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Eric Gill and the Bad Man Conundrum

15 Jan

Blog Pic

No, this blog post isn’t the first episode in my bid to write “the next Harry Potter” – it’s about the sculptor Eric Gill. For the uninitiated, Gill was an artist, a stonecutter and a typeface designer, famous now largely for having given his name to a well-known font.

Oh, and he raped his own daughters and had sex with his dog.

Sorry if that was all a bit much to take in in one sentence, and sorry if it was a little shocking, but if you know two things about Eric Gill, one is that he has a font named after him, the other is that he carried out incestuous affairs with both his sister and his own daughters and had an ongoing sexual relationship with his pet dog. Much of this didn’t come to light until long after Gill died in 1940, when his diaries – in which he confesses all – were made public.

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“Psst. Eric Gill bummed a dog. True story.”

These revelations were a cause for concern for those who run the many public buildings that are home to Gill’s work, including a large number of churches (he was a “devout” Catholic) and the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. Indeed, Cardiff Museum (which is about 10 minutes’ walk from my flat) has in its collection, and proudly on display, a Jacob Epstein sculpture engraved by Gill. His work is everywhere.

The question, for admirers of Gill’s, is whether the facts of his private life should affect how we look at his work. The reason Gill came to mind was because right now the sexual misdeeds of famous figures are front page news on an almost weekly (if not daily) basis. Operation Yewtree seems to have gone from an inquiry into sexual abuse within the UK’s entertainment industry into the wholesale arrest of my generation’s childhood, and while it may be easier to accept the horror stories about Jimmy Savile (who, after all, hid in plain sight – looking, acting and sounding like a child molester throughout his career), there are others for whom I think we all, secretly, want the accusations to prove unfounded.

Say it ain't so. Say it ain't so.

Say it ain’t so. Say it ain’t so.

Many of these cases are still pending, so we don’t yet know how many of those arrested as part of Yewtree are genuinely guilty. The fact is, even if many of them are acquitted, that shadow of suspicion will – rightly or wrongly – hang over them for the rest of their days.

Over in the States, I imagine both R Kelly and Woody Allen thought they were in the clear, with almost two decades of distance between them and their own accusations, but with celebrity child abusers receiving such intense media attention on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps it was only inevitable that bloggers and journalists would revisit those cases. Many remain unconvinced of either man’s innocence, and yet that doesn’t stop them from working. Allen has just enjoyed his greatest critical and commercial success in quite some time with Blue Jasmine, while R Kelly is back in the charts with his latest album, Black Panties.

Because R Kelly passed through parody's looking glass in 2005.

Because R Kelly passed through parody’s looking glass in 2005.

Meanwhile, this year should also see the general release of Roman Polanski’s latest, Venus in Fur, a good 37 years after he fled the United States, accused of the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. That accusation, never fully denied by the director, has had little to no impact on his career. Indeed, his film The Pianist scooped him the Oscar for Best Director in 2003.

My question is should we always judge – and maybe even boycott – an artist’s work based on what we know about their private life, and if so, when do we apply this? I’ve enjoyed Polanski films (I thought his 2011 movie, Carnage, based on the Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, was excellent), and Allen films (especially, funnily enough, the ones he isn’t in very much), and I’m sorry, but the Glitter Band’s Rock & Roll Part 2 is an amazing track. Should I pretend these things don’t exist, or that I didn’t enjoy them?

And if so, should we stop listening to Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page totally abducted a 14-year-old?

And if so, should we boycott all this because Jimmy Page abducted a 14-year-old?

I won’t pretend this issue isn’t without its thorns. Having been told that Allen’s Manhattan was a soaring, beautiful ode to the director’s hometown, I found the plot thread about his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl more than a little creepy, enough to spoil the rest of the film. Similarly, there are elements of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that are tainted by the composer’s notorious and rampant antisemitism, and despite having died 50 years before the Nazis came to power in Germany his work wasn’t performed in Israel until a Daniel Barenboim-conducted concert in 2000.

This post isn’t anything like my “final word” on the subject, because the truth is, I don’t know what I think. A part of me thinks we should perhaps divide the artist as a person from their body of work, and judge each one separately, but when so much of an artist’s biography – their emotional experiences, their personality, their political opinions – bleeds into the work itself, is this ever truly possible?

“Hoots, mon! Where’s ma heid?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC

6 Oct

Maria Stuarda

And so to the final installment in Welsh National Opera’s Tudor Trilogy, Donizetti’s trio of operas based on Tudor queens. Last week we had the stylish but musically limp Anna Bolena, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife; then, on Wednesday, it was the turn of Elizabeth I in the truly showstopping Roberto DevereuxLast night the stage was taken once again by Elizabeth I, squaring up to her nemesis and cousin, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots.

Chronologically, in terms of both story and order of composition, this is the middle chapter in Donizetti’s Tudor epic. Here, Elizabeth is a younger queen, but just as prone to bitter jealousy as the older, more brazenly villainous character seen in Devereux. Maria Stuarda forms a kind of spiritual bridge between Bolena – in which Elizabeth’s mother Anne is a woman (to borrow a Shakespearean turn of phrase) more sinned against than sinning and Devereux, in which Elizabeth proves to be every bit her father’s daughter when it comes to the ruthless elimination of former flames.

In its first half Stuarda performs a kind of seesaw between Elizabeth and Mary, the first few scenes focused almost exclusively on the Elizabethan court before the action shifts to Mary’s incarceration at Fotheringhay Castle. Even so, Mary is a constant presence. Madeleine Boyd’s set – again using the same plain black background as Devereux and Bolena – is dominated by two large, cuboid cells. One, dressed with ornate, mahogany-like panels, belongs to Elizabeth; the other, identical in size and shape, is its bare, skeletal twin, representing Mary’s prison cell at Fotheringhay.

Maria Stuarda

As we’ve already seen in both Bolena and Devereux, Donizetti couldn’t even count the number of fucks he gave for historical accuracy on one finger, so it’s no surprise that he has Elizabeth and Mary meet. That said, this is a common feature in many dramatic portrayals of the story, with the two squaring up to each other in just about every movie and TV series based on them, from Mary of Scotland (starring Katherine Hepburn) to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton).

Where Donizetti goes one further than his TV and big screen successors is in doing away with much of the political and religious turmoil behind the cousins’ bitter rivalry, reducing it to its basest – and most historically inaccurate – elements. You see, according to Donizetti, Elizabeth hated Mary not because she was a Catholic who plotted against Elizabeth’s life but because she was having an affair with Elizabeth’s favourite – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

"Hold the fucking phone..."

“Oh no she di’in’t.”

The midpoint confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, in which Mary – who has had it up to here with Elizabeth’s trash talk – turns the tables on her captor, calling her a “whore” and a “vile bastard”, was enough to make the WMC audience gasp in 2013, and over 150 years earlier saw the opera more or less banned throughout much of the 19th Century. It’s certainly dramatic stuff…

But no. This Footballers Wives-like confrontation didn’t actually happen. Nor, when Mary was about to climb the scaffold, did Leicester draw a semi-automatic handgun and shoot himself in the chest. This addition – which caused some of those sat near us to giggle – is more the work of director Rudolf Frey than Donizetti, and was one of several baffling notes in the production, alongside Lord Burleigh’s strangely anachronistic clip folder and the impromptu fag break that Mary and her servant Hannah take when no-one’s looking.

Now, I know what you’ll say. You’ll say, “Hey, didn’t you enjoy Roberto Devereux? And didn’t that involve the queen riding around on a giant mechanical spider?” And yes, you’re right on both counts, but with Devereux, a certain, expressionistic visual licence was present from the get-go. Here, no visual or artistic justification is given for these  flourishes – the production doesn’t earn them – and so when they appear they simply seem a little silly.

Though it's still unlikely to win the coveted "Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013".

Though it’s still unlikely to win the coveted “Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013”.

This is a shame, as out of all three operas Maria Stuarda has perhaps the most well-rounded and sympathetic protagonist, and comes closest to feeling like a genuine tragedy – rather than a brutal spat between jealous, sex-mad aristocrats. Donizetti’s use of the chorus here is at its strongest, and – save for a single bum note fairly early on – Judith Howarth’s performance as Mary has been a highlight of the whole trilogy.

The device of the two boxes, mirroring one another, works splendidly in some scenes (the moment when Mary plays “reflection” to Elizabeth, only to have her throat “cut” with a daub of paint, was a visual stand-out), but in others leaves the main cast and chorus with far too little space to move around, pushing them awkwardly out to the periphery. The production, on the whole, doesn’t feel quite as tight as Devereux or Bolena, both of which were directed by Alessandro Talevi. That said, the opera’s climax – Leicester’s gun-play aside – is every bit as gripping as – and possibly more moving than – its stablemates’.

Maria Stuarda

All in all, the Tudors Trilogy has been a pleasure, and a success. It goes on tour next week, and will visit Swansea, Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Llandudno, and Southampton. Though it’s certainly worth seeing all three operas, if you can only make it to the one, I would recommend Roberto Devereux, for brevity, eccentricity and all out, balls-to-the-wall drama.

“Off with her head!” – The WNO’s ‘Anna Bolena’ at the Wales Millennium Centre

28 Sep

Anna Bolena

I’d been pre-warned, before watching Anna Bolena, and by someone who knows his stuff when it comes to opera, that Donizetti isn’t for everyone.

“He’s been compared to Gilbert & Sullivan,” said my friend. Without adding whether or not this was meant as a compliment.

As such, I approached the show (is that the right word?) with more than a little caution. Also, it was to be my partner’s first experience of opera – four years into our relationship, with me having spent the last 2 or 3 years trying to persuade him that he would enjoy it if he could only experience the real thing, live. Really he would.

“Oh dear,” said my friend. “You do realise Anna Bolena is almost 3 hours long, don’t you?”

Anna Bolena

“Couldn’t we have gone to see Mamma Mia?”

The opera (Donizetti’s 34th) is being performed in a loose trilogy by the WNO, one of three operas the composer wrote on the subject of the Tudors, alongside Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots to us Anglophones) and Roberto Devereux (about the tempestuous relationship/affair between Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex). Like countless present-day movie makers, Donizetti had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards British history, and obviously – being a Catholic composer, writing for a largely Catholic audience – he takes a somewhat dismal view of the Tudors (and Henry VIII in particular), but if any British royal family was the stuff of opera, it’s the Tudors.

You see, that’s the thing people who haven’t seen or listened to an opera, the ones who think it’s “not for them” don’t tend to realise. The plots of operas are very rarely complicated. In fact, they’re usually sub-Hollyoaks in complexity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert, but of the 9 or 10 I’ve seen performed live, almost all of them revolved around extramarital affairs, and all – and I mean all – of them ended with one or more of the main characters dying. Spectacularly.

Though, admittedly, not as spectacularly as John Malkovich in Con Air.

Though not as spectacularly as John Malkovich in Con Air.

In that respect, Anna Bolena ticked all of the boxes. It’s about not one but multiple affairs, real and imaginary. The diabolical Henry VIII (baritone Alistair Miles, looking distinctly Game of Thrones) wants to get rid of his young wife, Anne Boleyn (Serena Farnocchia) and marry his mistress Jane Seymour (Katharine Goeldner). To do so, he invites Anne’s old flame Lord Percy (tenor Robert McPherson) back from exile, hoping they will rekindle their affair so that he can accuse the queen of adultery. Added to the mix we have Smeaton, a young lad (played by soprano Faith Sherman) who is smitten with the queen, and who finds himself embroiled in the whole tawdry mess which follows.

Throughout, the chorus of courtiers – all clad in black, against a similarly single tone black backdrop – chime in with gossip and observations, and things build to the predictable climax in which the disgraced former queen must meet her fate. It’s all very stirring stuff, or at least it would be very stirring stuff if it weren’t for Donizetti’s music. I’ve read other reviews (by people who… you know… know what they’re talking about) that wax lyrical about the complexity of Donizetti’s score, but for me it’s just frustratingly MOR, and I suddenly realised what my friend was talking about when he compared it to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Gaetano Donizetti. Looking like a member of Mumford & Sons, appropriately enough.

Gaetano Donizetti. Looking like a member of Mumford & Sons, appropriately enough.

Given its turbulent subject matter, you might expect the yearning and heartbreak to scale vertiginous heights and for the thunder, doom and despair to plumb the depths of hell itself, but it does neither. Instead, what you’re left with are arias that build and build and are then cut short by an awful lot of tum-ti-tum-ti-tum filler. This is used to good effect just once when, near the end, Anne hears the fanfare for the king’s new bride, Jane Seymour, at the exact moment when she – Anne – is facing execution. The horrible contrast between Anne’s despair and this mercilessly upbeat march is truly affecting. Otherwise, it feels like Donizetti is afraid of getting too emotional, of working too hard on his audience’s feelings, and as a result ends up pulling his punches, over and over again.

It’s a shame, because the WNO’s production has all the ingredients in place for a heart-stopping melodrama. The stage design, though a little murky and eye-straining in the first half, opens up into a dramatic, starkly lit space in the second, and a turntable stage is used to impressive effect throughout. Most of the performances are excellent, and the costume design complements the bleak, black set wonderfully.

Anna Bolena

OK, so I did find myself on the verge of standing up and telling Lord Percy to zip it (every time he opens his mouth, someone gets in trouble), and the libretto makes curious over-use of the word “trembling” (everyone “trembles” in this opera, whatever the context), but none of that is the WNO’s fault, and should be laid more squarely at the feet of Donizetti. Where the Italian composer does excel, however, is in any set-piece involving three or more singers. Here, lines weave in and out of one another and overlap with great dexterity, and the chorus is given plenty of bombast to wrap their vocal chords around.

As with the set design, so the second half is where the opera’s music also picks up the pace, but there’s still a notable absence of anything “hummable”. Not the most important criteria in an opera, perhaps, but still… if you’re a layman like me it’s up near the top of the list, surely.

Where Anna Bolena exceeded expectations – and thus redeemed itself – was in its very last act. Here the staging, performances and – for the best part – the music combined for an edge-of-your-seat climax, with Farnocchia’s Anne donning a dramatic red cloak and utterly dominating the stage before disappearing into a mist of dry ice. Not the tear-jerking finale you – and, presumably, Donizetti – might have hoped for, but definitely enough to quicken the pace.

Even my partner – who rolls his eyes and tuts whenever I insist on listening to Radio 3 – enjoyed it enough to sign up for the next installment, Maria Stuarda. We may have found a convert.

Twilight in the Magic Kingdom – Philip Glass’s ‘The Perfect American’

29 Jun

The Perfect American

Walt Disney was not a nice guy. This is one of those things you learn when you’re in your mid-to-late teens, having grown up (if you were born at any point from around 1930 onward) on a diet of Disney movies, and it’s a kind of adolescent follow-on to the revelation that there’s no such thing as Santa.

"He's just a lie your parents made up, kids." - Walt Disney, killing two birds with one stone.

“He’s just a lie your parents made up, kids.” – “Uncle Walt”, killing two birds with one stone.

Disney, the man who brought you Mickey and Donald and who established Disneyworld and Disneyland, the self-proclaimed “happiest places on Earth”, was a bit racist and may or may not have had his head frozen in a cryogenic chamber after he died. So not a nice guy, and potentially a little bit nuts.

It’s understandable, then, why composer Philip Glass and librettist Rudy Wurtlitzer (who wrote the screenplay to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidshould consider Disney a suitable subject for an opera. Wurlitzer’s libretto is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel Der König von Amerika (literally ‘King of America’, translated as ‘Perfect American’), which explores the last year of Disney’s life, as he succumbs to lung cancer and looks back on his life and career.

Christopher Purves as Walt Disney

Christopher Purves as Walt Disney

I haven’t read Jungk’s novel, so can’t comment on the approach he took, but Glass and Wurlitzer’s opera offers us a kind of kaleidoscopic dream, the hospitalised Disney reminiscing with his brother about their childhood in Marceline, Missouri, harrassed by a disgruntled former employee, and plagued by identikit animators who morph into rabbit-like creatures and a small child wearing an over-sized owl mask.

The problem for anyone approaching the life of an entertainer and filmmaker as famous and iconic as Walt Disney is how much you rely on familiar visual and sonic cues to conjure up that life. The Disney Corporation are notoriously protective and litigious, and it’s likely that any direct reference (a few notes from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ here; a black mouse with red shorts there) would have resulted in Glass & Co. experiencing the full wrath of the Kingdom of the Mouse.

Infringe their copyright, and they send these guys after you.

Infringe their copyright, and they send these guys after you.

Okay, so it was unlikely Glass would ever have offered up a pastiche of classic Disney songs, and he’s not exactly the world’s most adventurous composer, but what’s more interesting is how the show’s designer and animation director, Dan Potra and Joseph Pierce, have played against the Disney aesthetic. There are one or two very brief nods towards Disney’s iconography (the cancerous cells in Disney’s x-rayed lungs turning briefly into the famous Mickey Mouse outline), but otherwise the animal imagery conjured up in both the costumes and impressive projections is something far darker and more primeval than Bambi.

Wurlitzer’s libretto, too, hints at something dark, almost pagan, bubbling away beneath Disney’s veneer of apple pie and traditional, small-town values. On face value the plain verse dialogue appears banal, commonplace. Only as the opera progresses do we pick up on repeat references to animals and Disney’s anthropomorphised characters, usually mentioned in conjunction with Jesus, Moses and Zeus.

The Perfect American

Disney, as portrayed by an excellent Christopher Purves, is very aware that he’s creating a secular iconography for the industrial age, boasting at one point that today’s children are more familiar with Mickey Mouse than Jesus Christ, and there are hints of something darker, pre-Christian and pagan, too, when – before fading into a version of the US flag – the projected backdrop gives us two prominent pentagrams. This is Walt Disney as a capitalist shaman, and the Disney brand as a syncretic religion, fusing the crucifix and totem pole.

There were several points during the show when The Perfect American reminded me of John Gray’s recent book, The Immortalisation Commission, which looked at the various oddball schemes, both in Victorian England and early Soviet Russia, to cheat death. In England it took the form of seances, in Russia the ghoulish image of a waxy, frozen Lenin in his glass sarcophagus (shades of Snow White, anyone?) When, at the end of Act 1, Disney communes with a malfunctioning animatronic Lincoln (Zachary James), there are obvious visual references to Pinocchio, but even more so the scene feels like a kind of seance, with Disney hearing the words of this American icon, but then shaping them and censoring them to fit his own worldview.

Zachary James as Lincoln and Christopher Purves as Disney

Zachary James as Lincoln and Christopher Purves as Disney

This scene is revealing, because it demonstrates that the “American Dream” that Disney – or at least this Disney – is interested in isn’t the one laid down by the country’s great, historic statesmen, but a kind of vapid, Norman Rockwell vision of an America that never really existed in the first place. Disney’s ideas are less Utopian, and more reactionary; an attempt to reverse the very revolution (which included locomotives and the cinema) that got him where he is in the first place. When confronted, at the beginning of Act 2, by Andy Warhol – a 2nd generation artist similarly obsessed by mass production and secular iconography – Disney’s brother Roy turns the foppish, camp-as-Christmas pop artist away in horror.

The Perfect American

The Perfect American is not without its flaws. Glass, as already mentioned, isn’t particularly versatile, and all-too-often coasts along on autopilot. Much of the score is familiar, with only the odd moment (such as the Copland-esque flourishes during the Lincoln scene) to make it stand out from the rest of his body of work, and some audiences may struggle with Wurlitzer’s unfurnished, prose-like libretto, expecting something more obviously lyrical or witty.

Where the opera succeeds is in its performances – many of which are great – and its marriage of subject, subtext and very powerful and provocative imagery. It takes a scalpel to the mentality of a man who considered himself a storyteller, yet relied on others to tell his stories, and a lover of all human beings, though he (allegedly, and to borrow a phrase) considered some human beings more equal than others. The production is rich in ideas and symbolism (the test card framing Disney’s deathbed alternately takes on the appearance of a target and a ticking clock) that are ultimately far more memorable and vivid than any of its tunes.

The ‘Ding Dong’ Ding-Dong

12 Apr

Ding Dong

As I type these words, mere days after the death of Baroness Thatcher, the song Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead from The Wizard of Oz is climbing our charts, as the result of an online campaign. That’s what happens when people can buy a song for 79p with the click of a mouse. What’s 79p? That’s only a little more than a can of Fanta. So Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead is climbing the charts, and the Right Wing press are up in arms, because if it stays in the Top 40 that means it may get played on Radio 1’s Top 40 Countdown, and Radio 1 is the BBC, so that means the BBC are biased towards the Left and endorsing the whole ugly spectacle of people dancing on Thatcher’s grave.

That said, the Daily Mail thinks 'Antiques Roadshow' is hardcore socialist propaganda.

That said, the Daily Mail thinks Antiques Roadshow is hardcore socialist propaganda.

Meanwhile, many on the Left are saying, “But if they don’t play the song, that’ll show that they’re politically biased towards the Right.”

This isn’t that complicated. As Evan Davies pointed out on Twitter, if Nelson Mandela had died and a white supremacist group launched a successful campaign to get Black is Black charting, how would the Left feel about it being played on Radio 1, despite it being an innocuous and innocent song?

"It was that or Black by Pearl Jam."

“It was that or Black by Pearl Jam. Man, I love Pearl Jam.”

Or, to extract it from the poles of Left and Right, what if an online campaign resulted in a song called Big Fat Throbbing Donkey Cock reaching No.1? Would anyone, Left or Right, expect Radio 1 to play it? Of course not. Some people – many people – would find the song offensive, so it wouldn’t get played. Same goes for Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead. I wouldn’t be offended, maybe you wouldn’t be offended, but many people would, and it’s disingenuous of the Left to pretend otherwise.

The Right are demonstrating how truly absurd they are by calling for a ban, when if this was something that offended anyone but themselves they’d call a ban “political correctness gone mad”. What’s more, and this is nicely ironic, Ding Dong is only in the charts because it’s selling so well. Market forces, the very linchpin of Thatcherism, put that song there. Meanwhile, true to form, the Left are showing themselves to be weasily and dishonest by citing “freedom of speech” (even though this really isn’t about freedom of speech) when so many of them seem to spend their every waking second scouring the internet for things that offend them, and then crying out for bans and boycotts.

The BBC aren’t “duty bound” to play the song, even if it gets to No.1. If they don’t play it, that isn’t evidence of sinister Tory influence; rather, it’s just the BBC playing it safe. If it does get to No.1, it’s not because of some terrifying BBC Marxist plot, and Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead (recorded by MGM in Los Angeles in 1939) is not a “BBC witch song”, nor is it a “tasteless protest single” (as the Daily Mail phrased it). It’s just a lot of silly people making a pointless and redundant statement. So can everyone calm the fuck down?

News-wise, next week is going to be exhausting. I may hibernate.

Why I Want Justin Bieber To Go Crazy

15 Mar

Justin Bieber

First of all, I should point out that when I say I want Justin Bieber to go crazy, I don’t want him to go quite literally insane. That would be horrible, and nobody, not even Justin Bieber, deserves to suffer from a terrible and nightmarish bout of insanity.

"MAKE IT STOP! PLEASE, GOD, MAKE THE SPINNING STOP!"

“MAKE IT STOP! PLEASE, GOD, MAKE THE SPINNING STOP!”

No. When I say I want Justin Bieber to go crazy, I mean that I want him to go off the rails a little, but not life-endangeringly so. I want his career to go off the boil. I want him to have the time to go away and reflect on everything he’s done.

And then I want him to record a triple disc album of industrial noise.

You may scoff, but stranger things have happened. You think I’m lying? Perhaps you’ve never heard of 1950s heartthrob Scott Engel. For a while, Engel was very much the Justin Bieber of his day. Not quite as successful, perhaps, but he had a pretty face, and a nice enough voice, and girls would swoon and scream when he took to the stage. Here he is singing the saccharine little ditty, Too Young.

Scott Engel 

Those of you who clicked on the link might see where this is going. By 1964, pretty young Scott Engel had joined John Walker and Al “Tiny” Schneider to form The Walker Brothers, a balladeering boyband who churned out such stirring, but easy-on-the-ear hits as The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More. By the end of the decade, Engel, steeped in Jacques Brel torch songs and Ingmar Bergman movies, was recording songs with titles like The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime). By 2006 he was making music by having a member of his band punch bits of meat.

"That's great, but could you maybe try punching it in D Major?"

“That’s great, but could you maybe try punching it in D Major?”

If you think Scott Walker’s a one-off, an eccentric after whom the mould was well and truly broken, how about The Beatles? In 1963 they were producing lovely little pop tunes like this. Three years later, when none of them were any older than 26, they sounded like this.

We'll draw a curtain on what happened 20 years later.

We’ll draw a curtain on what happened 20 years later.

Not a Beatles fan? How about The Beach Boys? In 1963, they were mercilessly ripping off Chuck Berry. Three years later: This happened.

And who, in April 1972, could have predicted that the monsters responsible for Puppy Love would produce something as spectacularly awesome as Crazy Horses within the next six months?

Of course, taking the path less travelled doesn’t always work out for many pop stars and boy bands. Some, like The Osmonds, go back to doing what they did before, over and over again until at least half of them look like Ewoks…

Osmonds

Others, like Take That, produce efforts so awful there are bacteria living on the moons of Saturn who can’t believe they tried getting away with that shit.

Now let us never speak of this again.

Gary Barlow looking, appropriately, as if he’s squeezing out a very painful turd.

So… If Bieber is to go a little crazy, a little avant-garde, what route should he take? Here are three possible paths for the future of the Bieber brand.

1) German Electronica

Seriously. Chop off that cutesy first name, and you’re left with what already sounds like a German Electronica outfit from the early ’80s. If, 6 years ago, someone told you they were really into a band called Bieber who emerged from the tenement buildings of Kreuzberg in 1981 to produce the seminal album Funkturm, you would have believed (Beliebed?) them. What’s more, you would have hurried straight home to download it.

Bieber Funkturm

2) Contemporary Classical

Who says the new improved Justin Bieber has to sing? He could join forces with classically trained musicians to produce an album of spiky, pizzicato-based noise inspired by the horrors of Abu Ghraib. His Torture Symphony could become the biggest selling “contemporary classical” album since whatever Philip Glass most recently spat out, and lead to an appearance at the 2019 BBC Proms.

Bieber Torture

3) Death Metal

It may be a little passe nowadays, but I reckon Death Metal’s ready for a comeback, and who better to lead the charge than Justin Bieber? His 2015 album Gushing Axe Wound will consist of 23 songs, none of them any longer than 1 minute 45 seconds, in which Bieber, now sporting a hockey mask and a shaven, tattooed scalp, growls and screams about gibbet cages and stamping on kittens.

Justin Bieber Axe Wound

And if all else fails, he could always join the Sugababes.

3 Reasons Why Today’s Pop Music Is So, So Bad

22 Feb

One Direction Teenage Kicks

It’s been a busy month, here at Llewellyn Towers, with lots of “day job” work (copywriting) to plough through, and not one but two scripts to write, hence why things may have seemed a little quiet in the Forest of Beasts.

If you're wondering, it looks a bit like this.

If you’re wondering, it looks a bit like this.

I’ve spent much of the last week or so wondering what to write about next, and then along came the Brits.

Oh, the Brits. A blogger’s goldmine. Not since the days of Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood etc. etc. But seriously, did you watch the awards show? Awkward isn’t the word. Poor James Corden was lumbered with banter about as funny as Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, One Direction managed to murder three whole songs in as many minutes, and – though I missed it while slipping in and out of a boredom-induced coma – I believe Sharon Osborne (60) made a rather embarrassing (not to mention icky) reference to Harry Styles’s 19-year-old cock.

Fun Fact: Sharon Osbourne can strip the flesh off a horse in under 5 minutes.

Fun Fact: Sharon Osbourne can strip the flesh off a horse in under 5 minutes.

Now, while I’m more than aware that the Brits aren’t now – and probably never were – very representative of contemporary music as a whole, they are a fairly good litmus of where pop music is at, and if last Wednesday is anything to go by, it’s dying on its arse.

Here are three reasons why I think that is:

1) It’s Annoying

“Well,” I hear you say. “You would claim that. You’re almost 35. Most 35-year-olds think pop music is annoying. And besides… There’s always been annoying pop music.”

What’s different about today’s annoying pop music is how mathematically precise the annoyingness has become. It’s as if producers and songwriters have worked out the exact formula for making a song drill its way into your brain like those horrible bugs from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

No contemporary pop artist proves this more than Rihanna. Listening to a Rihanna song is like having flashcards rolled up and hammered into your skull by a hyperactive toddler.

“UMBRELLA! ELLA! ELLA!”

“Shine BRIGHT! like DIAMOND! Shine BRIGHT! like DIAMOND!”

Then there’s Justin Bieber, the Canadian Linda-Blair-in-Exorcist-II lookalike whose big breakthrough hit, here in the UK, was a song in which he sang the word “baby” over, and over, and over again, as if trying to hypnotise his pre-teen audience into submission.

Pictured: Justin Bieber, before he started turning into Gok Wan, and Linda Blair in 'Exorcist II'

Pictured: Justin Bieber, before he started turning into Gok Wan, and Linda Blair

Or how about Sean Kingston’s 2007 hit, Beautiful Girls, which featured him singing the word “suicidal” (“Sooo-i-cidal… sooo-i-cidal…”) on a loop, presumably in a bid to make the eponymous girls pity him enough to sleep with him? Because, let’s face it, if he wasn’t a pop star they wouldn’t exactly be swarming around him like something out of a Lynx commercial, now, would they?

2) It’s Boring

If it’s not been scientifically engineered to turn you into the kind of mindless, chuckle-headed oaf who stands, six-deep, at the bar of every Tiger, Tiger in the land, today’s popular music has been treated with a veneer of “sincerity” that’s about as convincing as Mel Gibson playing Tevye in a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. 

"Sunrise, sunset..." "NEXT!"

“Sunrise, sunset…” “NEXT!”

You see, there are two demographics still actually paying for popular music: Children, and the over-35s. RiRi and Bieber are aimed at the 12-year-olds, while for those of us a little grey around the temples there’s Mumford & Sons, Coldplay, Emeli Sandé and Ben Howard. Because that’s the kind of music we like. Safe, not too loud, not too emotional. The kind of music you can have on in the background during a dinner party, or while you’re doing the ironing.

Mumford

And even then, even though we’re told the lyrics are emotional and heartfelt (instead of them just being one word sung over and over), the whole thing has still been engineered to appeal to the very middle of the road, the widest possible audience. And yes, I know it’s a business, so of course this is going to happen, but our parents had Roxy Music, for fuck’s sake; a band who wrote love songs about blow-up dolls and threw bits of Wagner into the mix. And we’ve got fucking Coldplay?

3) It’s Safe

This, to me, is the worst crime of all. If I was a 35-year-old in 1925, there’s a good chance I’d have been a little scared of this “Jazz Music” that all the youngsters were raving about and dancing to in a most unseemly fashion. I mean, there were drug references in the lyrics, for crying out loud. If I was 35 years old in 1955, I’d have found Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti absolutely terrifying. Imagine being 35 in 1969 and hearing The Beatles, that mop-topped boyband who used to sing nice, inoffensive love songs, belting out Helter Skelter for the first time. Same goes for punk, hiphopacid house, just about everything, until now.

Right now there is nothing in popular music, at any point on the spectrum, that worries or surprises me. You have the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta churning out song after song which sound like they could (and perhaps should) have been recorded in 2002, while former grime stars Tinchy Stryder and Tiny Tempah have been rendered tame and not-in-the-least-bit frightening by cynically engineered “collaborations” with whichever singer or rapper they’re told to work.

Pop music doesn’t need to be avant-garde or dangerous or offensive, but it helps if we, the grownups, just don’t get it. Right now, we get it. We get it all.

With self-production and distribution of music now easier than ever, the time is perfect for something new, and startling, and absolutely baffling to my generation to come along and take us all by surprise.

So please… Young singers, songwriters and musicians. Surprise us.

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.