Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hurrah for the Black Box Recorder

New Labour’s liberal apologists like to claim that they’ve somehow established a ‘progressive consensus’ in Britain. Perhaps the best answer to this absurdity is the unstoppable rise of the Daily Mail under their watch, to the point where it leaves the Mirror (once the nearest thing there was to a truly ‘left’ paper, and unassailable) trailing. Sure, pointing out that this paper is rather Right-wing is banal, the province of Have I Got News for You guests. But that doesn’t change the fact that the paper that once cried ‘HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS’ would undoubtedly do so again, were a similar force of order and barbarity to emerge again on British streets. The Mail would love a new Mosley, one they could truly get behind (the BUF leader being too obviously a narcissistic, opportunist aristocrat, and suspiciously intelligent, not instinctive enough to convince as potential dictator. A product of the stately home rather than the semi). They’d listen to Aretha Franklin at home perhaps, and would make quite clear that their expulsions of migrants wasn’t a racial question, much as did Rothermere's editorials in the 30s.

This latent and not-so-latent evil at the heart of England, where Brimstone & Treacle could easily be remade – but certainly not commissioned - without changing a line (except from The Irish to The Muslims) barely seems to leave an obvious trace on pop culture – a matter upon which, as Robin Carmody has ceaselessly pointed out, the Mail now proclaims its normality, dishing out free Prince CDs and all. The first Black Box Recorder album is a rare instance of the Land of Rothermere put consciously onto record. A sort of Mail music pervades everywhere, but always clothes itself in some sort of inoffensive Americanism. BBR, meanwhile, were that brutality, emotional atrophy and banal, weary fascism as a (kind of) pop.

The cover of England Made Me was originally to have been a photograph from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which the England Football Team give the Nazi salute. The record might, with that cover, have truly encapsulated British Fascism by adding sport to the litany of untrustworthy outsiders, single mothers (see ‘New Baby Boom’), lurking paedos and pinched petit-bourgeois malevolence. So in the midst of (cough) cool Brittannia, in 1998, a voice that spoke in purest Selsdon curtly declares ‘we don’t like you, go away – we’re swinging’: Britpop’s politics of racial exclusion in a pithy phrase. ‘Ideal Home’ sets the cut-glass vowels on a sparse, freeze-dried evocation of the joys of property, wherein there is ‘never an awkward silence…’ The evocation of Mail-land here is always elided with, and slipping into, an earlier, interwar, blackshirt-admiring incarnation. The Mail of today, the Daily Hell as Julie Burchill christened it, is hysterical, at a constant pitch of screaming neurosis in a way that its forbears were not, and BBR deliberately excise this edge of mania.

The blankness and poise deliberately evokes an earlier version of middle-class psychosis: ‘England Made Me’ was apparently based on the dispassionate self-hatred, seediness and moral turpitude of Graham Greene (rather than the novel of that title). The inextricable horror of Englishness, impossible to erase or escape: ‘I travelled all my life. but never got away/from the killing jar, and the garden shed.’ By ‘It’s Only the End of the World’ a total fatalism takes over, like a British seaside version of ‘Is that All There Is?’ where the apocalypse is welcomed, but with none of the ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’/’Slough’ glorying in destruction. And one wonders exactly what to make of the stripping of ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ into an anemic, poker-faced march.

Luke Haines is always balancing crassness and egotism with flashes of genius: for every ‘Unsolved Child Murder’, there might be some blustery, Albini-produced mess. There are great records: blaxploitation-red army fraction concept album Baader-Meinhof, or The Oliver Twist Manifesto, where Tesco Destiny’s Child arrangements back tales of the Gordon Riots and the much-anticipated assassination of Sarah Lucas. But crucial to why England Made Me (written with John Moore) is in a different league entirely is the replacement of his perpetually irritated rasp with the perfect vowels of Sarah Nixey. There’s never a slippage, never a moment where the façade might fall; she sounds like several husbands and suicide attempts couldn’t shake her hauteur. The songs, of surveillance, boredom, suburban idylls and ‘cars found parked at Beachy Head’ have to be sung calm and blank, leaving cold spaces between the phrases - and England Made Me is full of the sheer spatiality of suburbia, the sparseness (often just a drum machine and shards of guitar and keyboard, like Young Marble Giants stripped of all naivete or charm) transliterating the physical emptiness of the cul-de-sacs, arterial roads and tennis courts. The psychoses are occasionally reversed: BBR knew where the Angry Brigade were brought up, as can be heard on ‘Kidnapping an Heiress’.

England Made Me’s perfection was almost equalled on The Facts of Life, where it occasionally seems the sinister idyll is taken seriously, embraced. The sound is bright, seductive, aiming at some sort of unlikely CD:UK dominance, apparently inspired by the production on Billie singles, and by far the nearest thing to a convincing pop record Luke Haines has ever made (bar this, maybe). As the name implies, here we have a peculiar semi-pagan Surrey sexuality, evocative of the Betjeman fetish for the starched, jolly tennis girl, though here with Wicker Man overtones creeping in, or moments (‘Gift Horse’) where you realise the alluring voice imploring love is singing in the character of John Christie. Elsewhere, the banality starts to become transcendent. ‘The English Motorway System’ channels the endless repitition and featurelessness into a placid, Kraftwerkian romanticism of smoothly running infrastructure. Sadly there’s little of this on the third record, the unfortunately named Passionoia, where (in the general manner of Haines at his worst) anti-nostalgia turns into a morbid fascination with its adversary. Nonetheless it’s that ambiguity that’s at the heart of what makes these two records such rare and precise anatomisations of British psychosis: obsessed with the petty brutality in the miserable hearts of the brit bourgeoisie, but capable of finding in its most utterly blank manifestations something ‘beautiful and strange’: aware of the cruelty it is so clearly capable of, but merely observing the calm before it puts the boot in.

(some ideas nicked from IT,with thanks)


Blogger emmy hennings said...

A fantastic post on a very great band, Owen. I pulled out England Made Me for the first time in years, recently, and that ramrod-straight version of 'Uptown Top Ranking'... chilling. A remnant nightmare of Diana Mosley fronting a street march. "Love is all I bring/In my khaki suit and ting..."

10:16 pm  
Blogger Dominic said...

Watching the YouTube video of Sarah Nixey in the bath, I was suddenly radically uncertain as to whether I was reading your blog or IT's...

10:28 pm  
Blogger Joshua said...

BBR (and indeed, all of Luke Haines' projects) are pretty uniformly unknown here in the US, and tracking the albums down took me a considerable amount of work. I suspect this is because the irony of BBR is lost on Americans, who don't get the cultural references. (I'm not being a snob here; I had to look up Lord Lucan on Wikipedia while listening to BBR to understand what that song was about.)

But that obsession with "the petty brutality in the miserable hearts of the brit bourgeoisie", as you put it, translates pretty well, I think, in the same way that Thom Yorke's obsession with same on Radiohead's OK Computer comes across. We have the same petty bourgeoisie here, and they're just as brutal and hateful.

For me, the most interesting BBR track is probably "Andrew Ridgeley", which sounds suspiciously like Haines and Nixey wearing their hearts closer to their sleeves as usual. It's a lovely and sad song, and fun to play in nightclubs, if only to watch the confusion on the dancefloor.

My personal favorite of Haines' projects, though, remains the Baader-Meinhof album, which I find both deeply groovy and fascinating as a concept. The track "Mogadishu", in particular, is one of my favorites.

10:36 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Yeah, there might well be something universal but specific in the evil they channel...

Some of the references aren't that recondite in a brit context - 'doing a Lord Lucan' for instance is proverbial over here, without anyone really knowing who he was or why he 'disappeared'. Mind you, Holger Meins and Petra Schelm are perhaps rather more obscure...

Also, see the video to 'The Rubettes' for a fantastic montage of 70s grimness. By the way, I'm told by email that John Moore's role in writing the lyrics of England Made Me is rather more considerable than Haines', so that should be on record...

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