Chime: Acid house as folk music

…’Chime’ started as a big riff from me playing this joyous Detroit-y chord progression that mirrored my mood — it was a sunny day and I was off to meet girls down the pub” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

Whenever Paul Hartnoll indulges in the memory of composing what Simon Reynolds called ‘the British ‘Strings Of Life’’, the same image emerges – a sun-tinged summer’s day, where everything feels just right. If we think of it as the British ‘Strings Of Life’, then it is worth thinking about its Britishness not as an incidental detail to where it was created, but what about Britain defines the sound of the song. Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life’, christened by Frankie Knuckles, connects with the American tradition of the dancefloor as an alternative spiritual space, for those from religious stock but barred from church membership on the grounds of their sexuality, where the combination of music, dancing, and drugs work towards a transcendent experience. ‘Chime’, on the other hand, takes some influences away from the dancefloor and closer to the ground usually claimed by folk music.

Bob Dylan was labelled as a Judas for talking folk electric. So what does that make you when you take folk electronic? Folktronica is well-established as a genre, even if it exists at the cross-section of artists experimenting along their own paths rather than being borne from a common location or identity group. Still, the aesthetic is vaguely definable, with a set of vaguely recognisable signifiers: the wonky guitar cut-ups of The Books, the dancefloor lullabies of Four Tet, or a more conceptual intersection of folk with technological environments, cf. Everyday Robots and Momus, a trailblazer in the field (pun intended), who sings about web coders and cassettes with the emotional resonance of seafaring heroes and battlefield roses.

‘Chime’ is folkic in a more abstract way. It is an amateur product, the result of a musician picking up an instrument without formal training and creating a sound on their own terms. A key feature of folk music is geographical specificity, and this seems to be a hole for such an interpretation to fall down: how can geographical specificity work with electronic dance music, powered by machines that have the same configuration in Germany, Japan, England, and Brazil? ‘Chime’ is a lesson as to how. No one would deny that local takes on house music have different sounds, but it would take a braver soul to argue that this new technology, instead of ripping up the rulebook with cybertechnic ideas, connects with older folk images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, reflections, and colours. It’s a particularly English type of cultural conservatism which might deter us from doing so.

The situation Paul Hartnoll was in while jamming ‘Chime’ is a scene which crops up repeatedly in British (or more specifically, English) art through the ages: a summer day drawing in, a particular interpretation of the pastoral mode which in music, drove Vaughan Williams and Delius at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems as if the unpredictable weather inherent to the UK ensures that such moments stick long in the memory and capture a large portion of our collective consciousness. Its place in literature is long-standing too; the titular ‘Chime’ recalls the opening of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’. The feeling of seasons turning in, of golden ages dissolving, of the flower of youth wilting, of death approaching, all of it heralded by the ringing of a bell at the end of the day:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,

   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

       And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds…

The curfew bell, used in English towns since the Norman Conquest, is the initial aural impetus behind the poet’s ruminations on death and fame. There is also Keats’ ‘Ode To a Nightingale’:

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self

The bell here is the vehicle rather than the tenor of a simile, but its sound is still placed against the nightingale which ‘singest of summer’. For a more authentically ‘folk’ example, there’s a ballad called ‘The Old Church Bell’, taken from a collection of 19th century broadsides. It comes in differing versions – with a darker tinge on occasion, but this is one which encapsulates how the bells of ‘Chime’ and their association with coming down from a trip to the rational, real world is in the same vein as Romantic flights of fancy, with the bell as a sonic marker of that:  

Oh! A mournful sound has the old church bell,

That swings in the belfry old;

How many a sad and merry knell

Has he rung from his turret bold!

The old grey-beard, and the peasant boy

Have listen’d to his chime,

As he chang’d his note from death to joy,

With the clanging hours of time;

Tolling on, with mournful knell,

A warning voice has the Old Church Bell.

Oh! His voice is clear as he gaily peals,

On a happy bridal morn,

But it mournfully to the fun’ral steals,

Ere the fading day is gone;

Impartial he makes his summons ring,

Unlike the courtier’s plan,

For he’ll wail no louder the death of a King,

Than he would of a poor old man;

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

He has seen the sire, and has seen the son

To the village church yard bend;

And the deep fond welcome shall still ring on,

Till time himself shall end,

And his loud old tongue, like a lonely bird,

Chimes with a sacred spell;

For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,

Must yield to the Old Church Bell.

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

Look at the final lines of the last stanza – ‘For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,/Must yield to the Old Church Bell’. That is the thematic progression of Orbital’s ‘Chime’, summed up in verse in a 19th century broadside. The bell may be used to ring in weddings, but its sound always leads in a downwards direction, as all things must, towards the grave.

Deliberately obtuse comparisons with poetry are one thing, but conjecturing sensory experiences are quite another – still, that’s what I’m going to do. Church bells were used as samples in other tracks of the acid house era, though more so from chillout – the two best examples being 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and The Orb’s ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. Both songs are peppered with naturalistic samples like crickets, birds, and New Age, melismatic vocals. These might be mere signifiers in isolation, but the bells which tie those songs with ‘Chime’ imply at least a recognition of sounds which might be heard as the sun goes down or comes up on a rave, like chattering birds or insects. ‘Ultraworld’ and its parent album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld are like an aural patchwork of an English midsummer’s day from dawn to twilight, as the album commences with a sample of John Waite intoning: “Over the past few years to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the droning of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise…”. In essence, the outdoor experience of the rave, and the accompanying MDMA’s shamanistic effect on making the user feel more connected with nature, contrive to give the music an added sensitivity to the sounds of the natural world which might accompany wandering back from a field, coming down, in the early hours of summer. Is it really too much to think that this is an addition to a long-standing English tradition? Was ecstasy not to acid house in the 1980s what opium was to Romantic verse in the early 19th century?

What’s more, English folk songs are usually irreverently anti-establishment: think of the Lincolnshire Poacher, who goes from serving his master to trapping hares on his land, or the Old Church Bell from earlier which chimed for both the ‘King’ and the ‘poor old man’. Raves were (and still are, though in greatly reduced numbers since the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) hosted on unclaimed or unused land, often with placards protesting for the right to freedom of assembly. Following the Second Summer of Love, the music scene and the squatting/hippie community combined with mutual interests, coming to a head at the Spiral Tribe-organised Castlemorton Common Festival. Spiral Tribe in particular drew on a medieval, folkic tradition for their parties, with sound systems that had ‘Circus’ in their name, drug sellers peddling their wares in what Simon Reynolds compared to a bazaar, and ‘terra-technic’ music. This music is not removed from folk because it’s made from machines, quite the opposite: the cheapness and availability of those machines emancipated musicians from needing lessons, a recording studio, producer, engineer – it could be made from the proverbial bedroom. ‘Chime’ was knocked up in a cupboard under the stairs which was converted to Paul Hartnoll’s studio space. As a sound and as a phenomenon in its infancy, acid house recaptured that sense of figuring tunes out, of getting to grips with tools needed to produce melodic, danceable sounds.

All of this is fine, but what about the actual song? ‘Chime’ kicks off with an insistent one-note ostinato which is so bright, it just feels solar. Very precise synthesised string hits are layered with delay which give it a lingering effect like the sun’s rays over the horizon, and it anchors the song like a pulse. The bass line palpitates with a bravery which marks Orbital out from their peers: the second bar of the bass pattern has brief entrances into higher notes, but tinged with pathos when it comes back down, recognising the inevitability of a sober end. The song is in the key of E Flat Major, which makes it suited to the big-arena-hands-in-the-air mode; a key Beethoven, Holst, and Richard Strauss knew was well suited to heroics when they employed it in the Eroica symphony, the ‘Jupiter’ suite of The Planets, and the tone poem ‘A Hero’s Life’ respectively. Those are big, boisterous pieces of nationhood and ‘Chime’ wears its cultural heritage on its sleeve as well.

When the piano kicks in, the piece develops the style which will govern it for its duration: six elements cutting and fading in and out, with the delay on the melodic parts creating phantom patterns as notes play over and across each other. It sounds denser and more complex than it is, which helps feed the sense that the song is the product of a community, one that it is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the political edge of such a new type of folk music: encouraging togetherness and love in post-industrial, Thatcherite Britain where freedom is defined by the rolling back of the state and the liberalisation of markets to allow, in theory, a class of worker-entrepreneurs to flourish. As we now know though, this competition chips away at qualities like solidarity and community. Acid house music and its associated gatherings were therefore a political act to reclaim those qualities, an act made more strident when hosted in a privately owned space, as most of the United Kingdom is.

After 7 minutes the one-note pulse engages in call-and-response with the ‘chime’ sample which gives the song its title. This is a confrontational back-and-forth, between (almost perversely, given the machinery involved) the sun symbol at the heart of the song, and the clock which, as the literary examples showed us, is the more measured, artificial way of measuring time rather than rising and setting with nature. The 303 elements, shifting in pitch to get higher and higher towards the end increasingly resemble birdsong – the muddy birdsong you might actually hear from a chaffinch or swallow in an English tree or hedgerow, instead of the steely chirruping in ‘Pacific State’. The battle is won at this point of the song, but the war is lost by the end as the song fades out the the synthesised bells looping.  The song is an ongoing battle against life, against death, against ‘business’ and rationality – it has a Romantic heart, and a folk body.

Waiting For Godot at the Barbican: The Death of the Old White Man

POZZO: Who are you?
VLADIMIR: We are men.

Samuel Beckett –  Waiting For Godot

For all of Samuel Beckett’s keen insight into general existential questions, Waiting For Godot is a play with an all-male cast, and therefore reveals something of the deep-seated insecurities of being an older man, a deeper sense of purposeless which lies behind flaccid penises and enlarged prostates. In 1988, a Dutch judge ruled that the play was sufficiently about ‘the human condition’ to permit an all-female production of it, whereas Beckett (via his lawyers) used the analogy of different musical instruments to emphasise the importance of his characters’ physical sexual difference, memorably claiming a woman couldn’t play Vladimir because ‘women don’t have prostates’.* It was immaculate timing that I should go see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot in the aftermath of the Twitterstorm reacting to Craig Raine’s poem ‘Gatwick’, published in the London Review of Books at the beginning of June. The first viral reaction to poetry on Twitter I can remember, it might just be poetry’s biggest moment of public controversy since Tony Harrison’s V. Emerging as it did firmly out of step with the contemporary mindset on issues on sex and femininity, there is much to be written about the poem and I will probably do so at some point in the future. In the interim though, the furore over Raine’s poem can help us colour in sometimes overlooked details of Beckett’s play, and appreciate a 2015 production of it.

The second stanza of Raine’s poem sets the scene in London Gatwick airport, a transport hub used as a metaphor for the mundane reeling in of old age. The humdrum formality of waiting around in queues for passport checks finds a companion in Beckett’s all-encompassing anteroom that is the desolate road where Vladimir and Estragon wait. Raine’s experience is momentarily lit up by flushes of youth, whereas Beckett’s run-down tramps find their only source of entertainment amidst their various ailments – urge to urinate, sore feet – to be vaudeville patter and mime, a brand of comedy which stands out (and did so during its stage debut) largely for being so out of date. Godot comes to represent something, anything, which ends the monotony and slow decay of growing old as a man – like death.

Having this in mind also gives a new interpretation of the boy who appears as Godot’s ambassador at the close of both acts; an envoy of youth, someone whose innocence stands apart from the chaos wrought by the older figures on stage. Lucky initially appears to be a slave whose prime of life is spent serving Pozzo, but is revealed to be far older than he first appears. This was impeccably done in the STC’s portrayal at the Barbican, as Lucky’s hat is knocked aside to reveal long, silvery hair betraying his real age (as a tangent, the fact that an Australian Theatre company is putting on the play raises valuable questions about Lucky’s role in relation to native cultures, and how subjugated they are). At the end of Act 2 the Boy seems to preempt the interpretation of Godot as God by describing the only physical description of Godot we are afforded in the entire play – that he has a beard, and that it could be white. I don’t discount that interpretation of Godot, but just as important is the white beard and its attachment to the chin of a Creator (whether God or Zeus) as the apotheosis of masculinity which has been upheld for centuries through art history, and which Vladimir and Estragon cannot inhabit in their detumescent ennui. As far as Craig Raine is concerned, the women he encounters provide different forms of reading to the ones he is familiar with. The shamanic status of poet as oral storyteller, or as any public commentator, hangs forlornly in the background as one girl immerses herself in a Kindle, and another at the immigration service moves from studying his poetry at ‘uni’ to scanning his passport, pinning down the aura of the artist to zeroes and ones. The seemingly oxymoronic final stanzas capture this, as the poet recognises the distillation of his voice. For all of the controversy that the poem provoked, much of it is anticipated in the verse. Raine knows full well that a man in his position is obliged to be silent about certain topics, ones which he has presumably ‘grown out of’ as he reaches an asexual whitebearded stage of his career.

Tension between the old and the young is not limited to Godot in Beckett’s oeuvre – it is more evident in the familial push-pull of Endgame, the layers of memory in Krapp’s Last Tape, and in the novel Molloy, where Jacques Moran has an irritable relationship with his son. One of the defining characteristics of Beckett’s works is the sense of prior catastrophe – this is where his true (if inflexible) genius comes in writing for the stage, because its fixed dimensions become a cage for characters who are trapped by oppressive circumstances. Sometimes the membrane is pierced to allow a memory to venture outwards. In Godot’s case, it is Vladimir and Estragon harvesting grapes on the banks of the Rhone. That occasion is memorable for Didi and Gogo because the latter fell in and had to be rescued by the former. Such memorial reconstructions intimate glory days long gone, distantly seen through the mud of what, in Estragon’s case, could be dementia, explaining why he is unable to remember immediately previous days. The woman on the bus who is ‘so young today’ that it is ‘almost painful’ in ‘Gatwick’ is portrayed in a quite sinister fashion, but this are inseparable from the feelings of a man who realises he has permanently left youth behind, both his own and the people he has relationships with.

Hat-tips should be given to the actors of the Sydney Theatre Company, (especially Philip Quast, who channels his inner PT Barnum as Pozzo), and the staging, as the floor is lit up with dusty pockmarks like a lunar surface which emboldens the actors’ forms upon it. The Barbican is a wonderful space to put on plays for their Beckett Season, as its gutted concrete innards feel like a subterranean cocoon from the city of London.

All of these factors and more ensure that watching Waiting For Godot is a valid exercise in 2015. To spend two hours in the company of Vladimir and Estragon is an act of witness to the kernel of pathos which lies at the heart of the old white man as the marbled busts are taken down from their pillars and we begin, at long last, to reimagine culture and history in the popular mind according to different standards of arbitration. Still, there is a certain irony at work here. Vladimir and Estragon as long-forgotten vaudeville entertainers, the Hamm actor at the centre of Endgame, the 17 copies sold of Krapp’s latest book – these are failed artists at the centre of Beckett’s view of art as a heightened form of failure, and perhaps copies of Beckett himself. The inherent mystery to his plays has nevertheless helped create an icon of the visionary artist, and if there is one practical lesson to take from a 2015 performance of Godot and its attendant concerns with aged masculinity, it should be to reconsider the role of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, Beckett’s partner through marriage and partner in crime during the French Resistance. As indispensable to his work as Dorothy Wordsworth was to her brother WIlliam’s poetry, she took Beckett’s manuscripts to publishers, gave him the incentive to produce work in the first place, not to mention the financial security to do so. Less of a muse, and more of a colleague.

From the Götterdämmerung of the old white man we can forge new icons. The time is right to re-evaluate who the guardians of culture really are, but we must be careful not to overlook abandoning other corners of human experience in our withdrawal, corners where age and sex are not just abstract tokens of privilege, but are also responsible for physical incapacity and mental disenchantment, leading to a ballooning of the suicide rate in men over the age of 45.

*Beckett’s insistence on strict sexual roles in his plays is ripe to be challenged now though, following the watershed moment of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. It should also be considered how writing about ‘the human condition’ is nearly always the preserve of male writers in the popular mindset, because there is this lingering belief that men write about the human experience, and women write about the female experience.

Shades of ‘Blood Meridian’ in ‘Whiplash’

Whiplash-Teller+and+Simmons-Drums

“At a young age, said the judge, [children] should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian is the archetypal unfilmable novel. We might just be able to use sufficient visual effects to capture the horror of McCarthy’s blood-drenched text, but it is a book ‘made out of other books’ as the author himself would describe it; it is rooted in paper and vellum, full of self-conscious allusions to Melville, Milton, Homer, and the authors of the Old Testament. The cadence and register of the novel appears to be so prophetic and literary, at least where it does not use utter specificity in the lexis of craftsmen and artisans, that to adapt it to film would miss that textual history entirely.

Then again, there is a back door available, the one taken by Damien Chazelle; to distill the novel’s characters and themes into a new setting, one in which the skeleton is visible but a new skin is sewn onto the outside. Whiplash does just this.

JK Simmons’ veins quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and they are an important part of his overall resemblance to the Judge. The Judge is ‘huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant’, both old and young, seemingly immortal, not subject to linear time, leading the narrator to speculate that he may not have been born but instead hatched from an ‘atavistic egg’. The film begins with Terence Fletcher looming at the door to Andrew Neiman’s practice room, dressed in his favourite wardrobe of head-to-toe black, and his superhuman powers of perception appear to be confirmed when Neiman tries to sneak a look into his practice room, only to find Fletcher staring right back at him. Both Holden and Fletcher cross the boundaries of human nature into forces of nature. Damien Chazelle mentioned in an interview that he specifically directed JK Simmons to go beyond the boundaries of how a human being would act. That jazz and the Western should share a mutual friend with romantic American mythologisation is a handy coincidence, so the (super)men take on board the history of a concentric cultural idioms, built upon layer-by-layer into a superficially pleasing narrative. Holden and Fletcher tease out our inclination to create these historical-cultural narratives without delving into the uncomfortable details, whether they are genocide or institutional abuse. Fletcher’s penchant for black clothing, tied with his supernatural aura, supports the interpretation of he and Holden as embodiments of evil in dualism/Gnosticism, the kind which has to be defeated through conscious will before it overwhelms you. Neiman is dressed all in white when he first encounters Fletcher and his clothing gets darker as the film progresses, with a brief reversion to pale when he encounters Fletcher at the latter’s seeming nadir. The lighting of the film reinforces this, as the rehearsal and performance spaces juxtapose bright foreground tones with a deeper darkness.

Whiplash’s director went to Harvard ‘expecting to concentrate on English’ and his appetite for reading seems evident in some allusions to Blood Meridian which appear too specific to be coincidencidental – both Neiman and the Kid lose their mothers at an early age (‘The mother dead these fourteen years’), and have fathers who are linked with failed writing – Neiman’s father practices it, while the Kid’s father is a ‘schoolmaster’  who ‘quotes from poets whose names are now lost’. In one of Fletcher’s characteristic drill sergeant style rants he humiliates Neiman by saying his mother ran off when she found out his father wasn’t ‘fucking Eugene O’Neill’. That outburst follows a moment where he and Neiman appear to have something of a heart to heart, with Fletcher drawing his charge closer into his confidence. It all proves to be a ruse though, and such emotional instability is practised by Holden, who, during the Glanton Gang’s sallies, picks up little children and puppies only to brutally murder them when his interest wanes.

The settings of the two works are vastly different – the West in its Wildest incarnation versus a smart New York music conservatory – but there is a structural overlap. The Kid and the Judge have their final meeting in a saloon bar years after the rest of the narrative; the Kid now more of a man. Fletcher and Neiman discuss the turns their lives have taken at a drinking den where Fletcher is performing with a house band. The Judge ends up as a performer at the bar following his literally unspeakable murder of the Kid (the narrator, for once, refuses to divulge the extent of the violence that takes place), as he strikes up a dance and joins in with the fiddle music. The chilling ending of Blood Meridian which describes the Judge as a ‘great favourite’ who is always ‘dancing, dancing’ puts the Judge in the position of artist, raising the question of whether art has a moral obligation – the Judge’s charisma and knowledge are undeniable, but are directed into horrific ends. There’s a similar dialogue at work in Whiplash. Neiman’s dream is to become the greatest jazz drummer of all time, but does that title mean anything if it rests at the top of a pyramid of abuse? Fletcher mentions offhandedly that Neiman’s former challenger for the drum seat, Tanner, has quit the conservatory to start a premed course. An offhand comment which strikes a powerful chord: which is more beneficial to the rest of humanity? Fletcher even comments towards the end of the film that ‘we are depriving the world’ by not allowing his teaching methods to facilitate the next creative genius. Here there is an overlap with another fine film from the last year, Birdman, the debate in which I discussed in another blog entry. Is there a line in the sand that can be drawn where art’s ability to inspire people becomes less important than the damage it causes to the people who produce it and those who know and love them? It’s a theme that Hollywood keeps revisiting and the deeper lying reasons for this are worth considering in more detail, should someone wish to take up the mantle.

film.org.pl_whiplash2

The bond forged between Fletcher and Neiman at the end of the film is made plain by the conductor stepping in to fix Neiman’s drum kit when it begins to topple over during his furious solo. This is a detail which has been neglected in most analyses of this now iconic final scene. Not only does it show Neiman’s dependence on Fletcher, but it highlights how he has internalised the attitude Fletcher presses onto him, the climax of bloody practice sessions where he has to dunk his hands in ice water – his drum kit is an outlet for a deeper sense of violence. Violence, is of course, the hallmark of McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian; Harold Bloom considers it one of the greatest American novels, but even as experienced a reader as he found the novel’s level of gratuitous bloodspilling unpalatable at first. It’s not just blood that’s spilled in Blood Meridian though; piss and spit and shit flow through the pages. What lifts Damien Chazelle’s film above its immediate peers is its recognition of the bodily trauma that goes into the practice which forges great musicians; there’s a wonderful sequence of quick cuts before Neiman’s first rehearsal with the elite band, where he sees the brass players launch a quick gozz onto the floor. The washes of yellows and oranges provided by the lights in that rehearsal space are almost Rembrandtesque, a nod to the institution of art as a whole and perhaps that artist’s turbulent personal life (which was, nevertheless, the provocation for some of his most breathtaking work, making him a fit companion for Fletcher and Riggan Thomson in Birdman).

I don’t believe in issuing a one-size-fits-all interpretation for anything, but anyone who thinks that the final scene represents a victory for Neiman, I urge you to watch again: observe how Neiman finally finds Fletcher’s ‘tempo’ as the conductor reduces him to one-two drum patterns like a wind-up toy soldier. When building him up to the appropriate speed, his hand trembles with shamanistic power, dancing in the ‘light and shadow’ of the stage as the Judge does, every inch the primordial spirit the film has hinted that he may be, just as Holden’s immortality is elaborated by the narrator in Blood Meridian’s pulsating conclusion.

Thom Yorke’s Clichés: Part 2

A few weeks ago I put up a blog post detailing some of the details behind Thom Yorke’s lyrics, and why they’re successful, despite appearing childishly simple on the surface. Since then there’s been a surprise album drop from the man himself (yes, another one), and a few tweets that hint at his compositional process in more detail than the scatterbrained websites Radiohead have maintained in years past. Here’s my update.

Twitter

Via the magic of social media, we’ve been granted an insight into the way Thom Yorke writes his lyrics, the sort of insight that was previously restricted to the gatekeepers (as Yorke might call them) of a BBC documentary series like Arena. In any case, it’s safe to assume these notes represent an early brainstorming, one of the first points at which he commits pen to paper. It’s an unconventional approach, dividing the page into columns down which he seems to be transcribing thoughts and phrases as they come into his head, and then paring them down to cut out the chaff. Instead of plotting the lyrics along the linear path of a narrative, there’s a scattergun approach, firing words at the page without discriminating, and then trying to unlock a coherent pattern among them. The overall system is like the embodiment of apophenia. It’s a helpful writing tool, but it also says a lot about Yorke’s persona poised against the system -even drafting lyrics requires a negotiation with overwhelming, faceless ‘data’, and trying to understand if any inherent patterns have value, or if they are completely arbitrary. It’s quite Pynchonian in that respect, and shows a measure of influence from that author which goes beyond the band name-dropping him with W.A.S.T.E (the name is lifted from an organisation in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). As I mentioned in the earlier article, you have to sideline your expectations of one persona speaking to you, of telling a story from their account. Yorke is what DH Lawrence might have called a ‘pipe open at both ends’, allowing all parts of the system to emerge from his larynx. Here’s a transcription, with idioms also highlighted in red:

taxpayers Traffic jams All of us A broken spell I’m no saint
managers Cheques to sign Have turned to stone A dried up well Clutching straws
Catching up Call waiting Don’t slack off Holding patterns No idea
Britney spears Book onlines Or the penny drops In a queue Where to start
All his work Burned out lights And taken away Rotten fruit Why ask me?
Will have Flames to fan All the names & vegetables As if i’d know
Been in vain Warrantees All the names Leaves that fall Waiting outside
Coming at you coming [?] for you What’s the warning On leaves that fall The swimming pool
From beyond From beyond Who can hear? On leaves that fall As if it helps
The trees The trees On leaves that fall As if it helps
Beyond the trees Beyond the trees Click your fingers More hot air
I have indeed

 

Yet more shit Tickertape Then up in smoke In the balloon
Your holiness

 

I do not want need Message reads A teleport Disconnected
Chasing tales Stomach cramps Voice [?] looking at you A sick joke Frightened
Borrowed time Chattering teeth From beyond the trees Any which way Reverberating
Fossilised

 

Hollow words Beyond the trees Just don’t stop Hollow sounds
Specks of dust

 

On the breeze Big deal so what? Don’t give in Strict demands
Glowing orbs Vessels to fill The present tense Don’t let up Upon my time
Twisted frames

 

Vessels to fill Is all you got Self-improvement Responsible
Weakest links

 

Hovering [?] birds of All his work Life coach Adult
All this time Birds of prey Will have been in vain Motivated Stay in line
Struggling Can’t let go Multiplied Coming at you Motivated Stay in line
Fighting for On motorways From beyond the grave Sales force Need to fulfil
A little patch Teenagers Beyond the grave Sales force Deadlines
A little earth On my tail Tooth and nail Don’t slack off deadlines
With wood & stone [slime] They [?] think it’s a race Agoneeze [?] Or the penny drops Musst make
Wood store [slime] All this love Platinum cards All this work best
The present tense Will have been Freebees Will come to nought Use of my time
Is all you got

 

In vain Stamps 2 lick Mirrors in Robots in
Why waste time

 

Can be taken Checking lists Changing rooms In disguise
Breaking up?

 

from you Decisions decisions We think we In disguise
Lights that dance

 

At any time This with this [?] Have an opening Never here
Around your eyes At any time Such & such Come but next Somewhere else
You won’t know where Wants this by when? A better break Waiting here
You won’t know why Yesterday A better break Wait for you
Feed the greed Yesterday Hollow fake Waiting for
Don’t stop now yesterday Reverberate The states to change
Don’t turned around All this talk Wind 2 change
All this mouth Bottomless pit
The truth is love Bottomless pit
I’m uncertain

Even at this early stage you can see some of the subversion at work, as ‘chasing tales’ continues the invective of ‘The Daily Mail’ into a pun that sends up journalists let off the leash to find stories, who only end up chasing their own tails and perpetuating a cycle. Most of the notes are nowhere near what ended up in the final version, but it’s telling that one of the few that did is ‘the penny drops’, showing that the idiom provides the foundation on which the song rests – it is one of the few phrases which made it from ‘early notes’ into the final version, indicating that Yorke does find them an interesting sub-section of language. There’s a lot to be mined from the list, but just to mention one more thing at the moment: the refrain of ‘beyond the trees’ hasn’t been sung in any performance (yet), but it’s circling around the idiom ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ – saying ‘beyond the trees’ several times over shows the wilful attempt to escape from the labyrinth of pre-programmed language. On that note, something incredibly simple that I missed last time is just how many times phrases are repeated on Hail to the Thief compared to Radiohead’s other releases. I’ve tallied them below, not counting the occasions where lines are delivered in pairs (see ‘Myxomatosis, ‘A Wolf At The Door’ and ‘The Gloaming’ for this)

Song Phrase Tally
2+2=5 Paying attention 13
I’m not 11
Sit Down. Stand Up. Sit down, stand up 11
Anytime 4
The rain drops 46
Sail to the Moon Sail us to the moon 4
Backdrifts You fell into our arms 5
Go to Sleep Over my dead body 4
Were I End And You Begin I will eat you alive 15
There’ll be no more lies 12
The Gloaming They will suck you down to the other side 4
They should be ringing 12
There There Don’t reach out 4
Someone on your shoulder 4
I Will Eyes 15
A Punchup At A Wedding No 44+
A Wolf at the Door The flan in the face 4
Put me inside 5
No I have no idea, but a lot

It’s proof that Yorke’s pessimism about political control of language reached its saturation around the time of their sixth album, particularly as he hadn’t used repetition in such a heavy way before, or since (outside of choruses, obviously).

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Brain In A Bottle  I just keep bouncing back
Guess Again  As one door shuts/Another opens
Mother Lode  Your truth is out of their league + hits the ground running

Quite aside from giving us the most Yorkesque album title yet, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes gives us three more instances of idioms. All of the idioms here are ostensibly used in a positive context, but the fact that they are idioms in the first place negates the effect. Yorke has already deconstructed the optimism of ‘bouncing back’ back in 1997 with ‘Let Down’ (bouncing back and one day/I am going to grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless…), and ‘As one door shuts, another opens’ is another positive-sounding phrase, but given that the song has already described ‘all my nightmares’ and ‘wild dogs’, there’s something else going on. The phrase moves away from an Apprentice style soundbite into a domesticated labyrinth, where another door opening is not an exit, but another layer of confusion that helps the ‘mind blow up’. Same with ‘Mother Lode’: ‘hit the ground running’ is particularly loved by corporate employers, so recalibrating the phrase is another middle finger to Yorke’s favourite nemesis, the middle management. In the context of this song, hitting the ground running is like the doors in Guess Again – a myxomatosic twitching, trying to escape from surrounding darkness. If you look at the grid above that I transcribed from Twitter, it does seem that Yorke is particularly interested in deconstructing such corporate language which deigns to help the individual achieve their potential, but really only perpetuates a system full of suited drones.

Notes for ‘The Present Tense’ include ‘self-improvement’ and ‘life coach’. I worried over the last few years, as Thom Yorke grew his hair, spent more time in Los Angeles, and hung out with cool EDM artists, that he would drift from the acid-tongued, alien looking man I idolised in my youthful naïveté. Still, it’s helpful to know that while he seems a much more contented soul now, he’s still capable of piercing the particularly Los Angeles brand of vapid personalised bullshit.

A depiction of Elijah's ascent to heaven. I know that this picture still has the watermark on it, but it made me laugh so I'm keeping it.

Wordsworth’s Apocalypse

1903 walter crane illustrated edition, courtesy of uni of minnesota

This is a version of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’, illustrated by Walter Crane in 1903. Notice how the scene has been transformed into something that would not look out of place in Greek myth. Credit: University of Minnesota

A hallmark of criticism of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality Based Upon Recollections of Early Childhood’ has been thinking about the primordial light which the poet believes predates our existence to be an implementation of Platonic thought, whereby the world is divided into Forms, with a cleavage between the physical and the ideal. According to this line of thinking, the poet describes how during life the soul is a prisoner inside the body, only free before birth and after death. Certainly, Platonism should be considered as part of the overall intellectual background Wordsworth is working from, but the language is steeped in specific Biblical cadence and terminology too. In a note he gave to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says the inspiration for the poem was his ‘brooding’ over the Biblical stories of Elijah and Enoch as a child, sympathising with their imminent connection to a transcendent state. The Old Testament contains figures like Elijah who are abruptly whisked up to heaven from Earth on a chariot of fire. Wordsworth’s ode on the other hand is like being kicked out of the chariot, with birth as a gradual descent to earth before finally being rooted out of idealism by ‘earthly freight’. The thinking may be Platonic, but the language is shared with the Elijah story, and willingly draws on its connotations in order to reverse its narrative momentum. Another Biblical source it overlaps with is the Olivet Discourse or the ‘Little Apocalypse’ from Matthew 24, also described in Mark 13. Yet the Biblical archetypes in this poem have not really been traced in sufficient detail, and Wordsworth’s invocation of Elijah has not been appropriate judged in the context of the Revolutionary Europe he was a part of.

Writing a poem with millennial undertones in 1802-4 is not unusual; the French Revolution was widely interpreted by popular preachers and writers like Joseph Priestley to be an indication of the coming millennium, whether it meant the end of the world or an overturn, necessitating a complete change in discourse. In the early years of the Revolution Wordsworth was quite radical – his friendship circle with Coleridge and others was spied upon (though quite ineptly) at Nether Stowey by James Walsh on grounds of perceived radicalism, he wrote an apology for the Revolution in a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ features a prophecy of the spread of revolutionary fervour:

                                      Liberty must raise

Red on the hills her beacon’s far-seen blaze;

Must bid the tocsin ring from tower to tower!–

Nearer and nearer comes the trying hour!

Rejoice, brave Land, though pride’s perverted ire

Rouse hell’s own aid, and wrap thy fields in fire:

Lo, from the flames a great and glorious birth;

As if a new-made heaven were hailing a new earth!

–All cannot be: the promise is too fair

For creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air:

Yet not for this will sober reason frown

Upon that promise, nor the hope disown;

She knows that only from high aims ensue

Rich guerdons, and to them alone are due.

 Already here though is a sense of an inward turn; the disheartened change of tone at line 646 shows that Wordsworth cannot completely invest in the promise of an apocalypse, and shows a change in focus to ‘creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air’ as the most important factor in his poetry.

James Gillray - Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

James Gillray – Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

The promise of revolution is completed via an interrogation of the self, not through external activities. This extract shows how militarism is introduced to the poem as an abrupt discursive shift, with the poet unwilling to combine his idealistic idea of freedom originating from the human heart with a more totemic shift in freedom achieved by violent ends, which connects the violence of the Revolution with the suddenness of Elijah’s elevation. The Revolution promises the phoenix-like ‘flames’ and ‘new-made heaven’ which greeted Elijah, but Wordsworth grounds the reality of ‘terrestrial air’ too firmly to allow transcendental escape to be a possibility, and starts to discuss the vagaries of the individual.

Elijah and the figures described in the Olivet Discourse fit quite easily into a narrative of the Revolution – those whose actions during it allow them to be transported to the new, transcendental state, leaving behind their peers who were incapable of doing so, or to interpret it from the other end of the spectrum, teleporting the virtuous away from the apocalyptic excesses of the Revolution. Even by 1798 Wordsworth’s partner Coleridge was comparing the events of the Revolution with the wind, fire and earthquake experienced by Elijah on Horeb in a letter to his brother, writing just as he and the Wordsworths were about to embark to Germany:

Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts most adequately in the words of Scripture: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake afire; and the Lord was not in the fire” and now (believing that no calamities are permitted but as the means of good) I wrap my face in my mantle and wait, with a subdued and patient thought, expecting to hear ” the still small voice” which is of God.

In this particular letter the identification with Elijah is a move away from Revolution, and the same letter details an important turn in Coleridge’s thinking, as he decides to abandon ‘consideration of immediate causes’  which are ‘infinitely complex and uncertain’, preferring to

elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life

One should always be wary of linking Coleridge and Wordsworth too closely together, but in this case the former provides the most adequate summary of their poetry’s inward turn following the excesses of the Revolution, appealing to the potential of the human heart rather than impelling a contingent audience, ready to make revolution a reality. Thus, with the two men in such close company, it is not unforeseeable to think that Wordsworth may have absorbed something of the Elijah story, not to mention that he probably had a very good knowledge of it himself anyway. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth is much less willing to describe an orthodox Christian God, so while Coleridge is lifted up, Wordsworth comes down in the ‘Ode’. Coleridge’s identification with Elijah is a wish to ride out the worst of the Revolution and become a prophet who can detune from such excesses and follow the moral instruction of God. Wordsworth’s thematic and linguistic similarity with the tale is a reconfiguration of such escapist impulses, asking whether humanity actually is something we should celebrate, rather than wish to depart from. Moreover, Wordsworth does not wait for the imminence of an interventionist God that confirms who is elect and who is reprobate, but affirms a common human heart which ensures his religion is always more muted than Coleridge’s.

In the best tradition of Biblical typology, many aspects of Elijah’s ascent are mirrored in the Olivet Discourse, and hence its influence should also be considered upon Wordsworth’s poem.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Jesus’ speech begins with the prophecy of a temple being destroyed, symbolic of abandoning earthly walls and fetters when the Second Coming arrives. Yet in Wordsworth the emphasis is upon life as a gradual realisation of the walls coming in, of the physicality of the ‘prison-house’ or ‘humorous stage’. In the Fenwick Notes to the poem Wordsworth describes the collapse of a childhood ‘abyss of idealism’, whereby one loses the sensation of feeling inextricably connected to the matter of all things. Freedom is something we lose, not something granted to us in miraculous salvation. With such a narrative in place, revolution and apocalypse is not what we’re waiting for; such manifestations at best maintain the tactility of life on earth.

Matthew 24: 16-19 emphasises the importance of abandoning worldly goods when the apocalypse arrives, and while Wordsworth would probably agree with rejecting materialism, his concentration on the ‘meanest flower’ shows another departure of his from the Bible, as he is so dedicated to the miracles of the everyday, especially those tokened by nature. Wordsworth’s idea of redemption comes about after a communion with the common elements of the world that surround him, not through a mystical revelation that pierces through all earthly matter. This is why line 25 is so important, as ‘trumpets’ harmonise the cataracts with the angelic trumpets that are harbringers of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. But in the context of the poem, they announce the May-morning festival which Wordsworth is re-joining, unable to join in the spirit of the occasion in the same manner as the children, but able to take an uplifting moral from observing them, remembering his own enjoyment of it and satisfied that it will continue in the future. They are not a sign of the end, but a sign of another start.

The May-morning festival is not only disjunctive because it has pagan origins, but because it is annual. It is a festival whose celebration returns consistently and predictably, yet as has been shown thus far the language overlaps with the prediction of the most totemic event possible – the Second Coming, or the end of history. This shows both Wordsworth’s optimism in a common human spirit, passing on through generations (rather than thinking about his own salvation, which as Coleridge showed, could manifest itself in terms of how to navigate a Revolutionary Europe), as well as a promotion of the miraculous nature of ‘regular’ life. To wit, his depictions of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Discharged Soldier (in fact, nearly all of the people he encounters in the autobiographical Prelude), and the old man in ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay’ are deeply linked to descriptions of pilgrims, but their destination is not as important as the journey, and their continued existence.  At this point in his career Wordsworth is not interested in creating a narrative arc towards an inscribed end point as Coleridge hinted at. He prefers to take the framework of such events and concentrate on the human interactions that happen amidst them.

One of the central passages in the Olivet Discourse is the fig tree analogy, used to indicate omens that the apocalypse is arriving. A symbolic parallel arrives jarringly in line 52 of Wordsworth’s poem, confirming the potency of the tree within the poem as it arrives with an abrupt change of pace. Once again the emphasis changes from harbingers of things to come in favour of things that have passed away – Wordsworth’s tree is a rooted constant in his life, one which he knows he perceived differently as a child and is confronted with it as an adult knowing the perceptual shift he has undergone since then. Wordsworth’s symbols are brought forward from subjective memory, not implemented ab extra.

Looking at Matthew 24: 36 in closer detail can elaborate this lack of faith in omens – whereas the Bible indicates that foreknowledge of the Apocalypse is only in the hands of God, the overarching structure of Wordsworth’s poem, and indeed in nearly all of his great works, is that revelation is a self-driven phenomenon, one that is only accountable to an individual, the experiences they have gone through, and the memories they have formed. The Bible tells us that ‘knoweth no man’ when Judgement will arrive. Wordsworth tells us the opposite; it is only the deeply ingrained experiences which only we know and remember which validate our existence.

Looking at the Ode through the lens of Biblical passages and millennialism facilitates greater consideration of the context of the Europe that Wordsworth inhabited, with a real sense that seismic historical changes were taking place, perhaps even the end of history. Written after the early promise of the Revolution had ebbed away into tyranny and military aggression, Wordsworth turns even further inward, to reinterpret the discourse of apocalypse and end times into a more humanistic renewal, not engaging with external portents but instead bringing forward memories and engagement with nature in order to achieve this. As with much Romantic verse, the emphasis on seemingly trivial subject matter is in fact a demonstration of how Wordsworth is keenly engaged with his political and historical context – but one has to work voraciously in order to trace it. The feeling of imminent historical changes can sometimes be met from the bottom-up, by concentrating on the very verisimilitude of human existence.

 Postscript, or, what’s the point?

 This is something new for me, but I think it’s a helpful exercise. I don’t think art should ever be judged by its immediate political relevance, but I’m going to add these little codas to some of my pieces from now on in order to give some personal ideas as to how and why the preceding essay is at all relevant to the time we live in.

 Any student of history will tell you that disillusionment with Revolution is predictable, but given how drastically bad the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has become following the ‘Arab Spring’, I feel sick to my stomach. That these world events should be presided over by Barack Obama, the world’s first hipster head of state, only adds another twist of the knife. Any chance of idealism has been completely exposed by the nuances of geopolitics and reaction by fundamentalist believers. I watched, with some close friends, events unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011 from some school computers, thinking: wow. We were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but perhaps this is it, the first global news event that we have been old enough to appreciate, that might indicate a new dawn for the world. Events since have proven that thinking in such Cold War binaries is no longer possible. In that respect, Wordsworth’s scrabbling attempt to find something to hold on to following the disintegration of a Revolution in his own time presents us with a good model to go back to the drawing board and reconsider how we interact with the world. Wordsworth is a man who has seen how grand narratives of history and the best will in the world can implode.

 

 

 

CRIME

Line of Duty and the myth of realism

In March, newspapers and websites alike were already falling over themselves to award Line of Duty with the accolade of TV drama of the year. It is a finely crafted show, of that there is no doubt (even if there was gratuitous and confusing plot dumping in the final episode), but the grounds on which it is praised are somewhat awry. The creator, Jed Mercurio, is somewhat culpable of this, as in an interview with The Guardian he described the genesis of his work:

“I got interested in writing about police corruption, it was a different angle, a police version of Bodies: very grown-up, it had mature themes, an antithesis of the escapist cop show. I am a social realist writer. There were sufficient parallels with the NHS I could write about.”

Mercurio may see himself as a social realist writer, but Line of Duty is at its most powerful when it is consciously fantastical, and I don’t think this is any coincidence.

It must be conceded right off the bat that Mercurio has done an excellent job at translating a previously ignored aspect of police life – anti-corruption and the bureaucratic culture of the police post-New Labour – onto the screen, but that is largely the extent to which his ‘social realism’ delves. There is a curious absence of the social, and that is what I understand in the phrase ‘social realism’ – examining characters based upon their socioeconomic circumstances. To some extent Mercurio’s words work against him, because the show works at its best when it is further from such an ideal of realism.

The leading players on the blue side of the line are generally rendered quite well, and without pandering to types. They are conflicted, and frequently misguided when they pursue what they believe to be true justice. So far, so good. However, the series changes tone when it attempts to address the world outside the police station. The criminal underworld in the series is a shadowy realm whose motivations are never brought forward – it is no coincidence that Gates’ house is broken into by masked intruders in series 1, and that the ambush is perpetrated by all-black wearing motorcyclists in series 2.

 

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

 

This does more than perpetuate narrative tension, as it shows the crime originating from the underclass as a strike from the shadows, one which draws power because it is so unexpected and unexplainable, not because the criminal organisations are accountable to any sort of socioeconomic production.  Crime is inevitable, it has no genesis. This is quite unusual, given that Mercurio is so careful to illustrate how the police officers are pressured by factors outside their work to act in the way that they do.

There is, of course, the fact that as a relatively low-budget BBC production, there is only so much time and energy to invest in drawing up the type of finely woven tapestry seen in a series like The Wire. Nevertheless, there are some sinister elements of Line of Duty’s limitations, which suggest there is intent behind the caricaturisation of crime. Namely, crime is seen as one part of a wider umbrella of annoyances in middle-class life, like noisy neighbours, or not being able to afford school fees. The interview with the child Ryan in series 1 does a good job at humanising him, but the impact of his early appearances puts him in close proximity with the demon-child Damien from The Omen, raising the implied question: what if this was your child?

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep - another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep – another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

You can see this in the series 2 sub-plot of Lindsay Denton and her noisy neighbour – the woman’s only purpose in the story is, quite literally, to generate noise. She has no side of the story, meaning that her disturbance of Lindsay is put on a level with the corruption the latter is dealing with. Think back to the robber in series 1 as well, who is accompanied by a motif of loud techno music which acts like a huge flashing banner, shouting “HERE! HERE! THE CRIME IS HERE! ISN’T HE A NAUGHTY BOY?”.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an 'us' and 'them' mentality.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

Crime and loud noises are combined as part of a general background buzz with other annoyances like paperwork. Sometimes moving away from realism really fits the show, as with the absence of geographical specificity which I’ll refer to later, but at other times it makes the show look refracted through a prism. Namely, that society, its constituents and their motivations are not drawn in an inquisitive manner but according to a ‘worst case scenario’ program, simply rehashing what someone may think or worry that the world outside their immediate view is like, instead of depicting it with a sense of investigation. There is less of a feeling that Mercurio has uncovered hidden elements in our society that we need to have brought to our attention, but that our insecurities are, in effect, being pandered to. Sometimes this is a useful narrative tactic, when Line of Duty takes on a decidedly Gothic flavour, drawing on several tropes of that particular genre.

There’s no peace in your own home. Jackie Laverty thought she had it in the first series, before her home was broken into and she was brutally murdered. The two police officers who supervise Denton during her incarceration in series 2 are Gothic fantasies in two ways: one, in their Kafkaesque rigour to a completely banal and emotionless bureaucracy, and two, because they are effectively doubles of one another. They are not designed to be realistic portrayals of police who were tempted on the wrong side of the thin blue line; their distinguishing feature is that they are always presented as a pair, like the eerie twins from The Shining, constantly intimidating the protagonist by outnumbering them.

twinsshining twins via horrorpedia

Such a trope also promotes another Gothic idea: disrupting humanist belief that each human being is fundamentally different by giving two figures that look and behave exactly the same. Likewise, Tommy Hunter is an angry Scotsman – his only defining characteristic is his Scottishness, which makes him louder and brasher, furthering the portrayal of crime as a noise, something which constantly stampedes upon people’s attempts to get on with their lives, instead of something that is accountable to social conditions. A real student of theory could delve here into the effect of having this Scottishness make him part of the general ‘othering’ of the criminal world within the show, but I don’t think it needs pushing that far – simply recognising the stereotypical traits of the character is sufficient.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

The whole estate sub-plot of series 1 is a sequence of ever-descending negatives, where humanity is completely absent: Sarah Hughes in The Guardian describes the overall feel as ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ and she’s certainly on to something. The estate is much more fictionalised than the police station. The estate is a place where crime and evil deeds obviously ensue, whereas the police station at least has the benefit of having each and every motivation and deed interrogated ruthlessly by the programme.  Although Fleming’s undercover work in series 1 was delicately done (and brilliantly subverted in series 2 when Denton called her out on it straight away), Dot Cottan has no such delicacies in his undercover role in AC-12. I understand that Line of Duty has been commissioned for two further series and thus it is perhaps inevitable that it will be explored further, but at the moment Cottan is a ‘Keyser Soze’ figure, a mythical menace within the police’s grasp, one who looks low on the pecking order both in the underworld and the police service but one whose hands remain remarkably clean.

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

Indeed, given the gaps series 2 left, I hope it will be the intertwining of police and criminals which forms the backbone of the next series at least. Taking the first series on their own terms, however, there was very little reference as to why Cottan, the two women in the prison, and the police behind the ambush acted in the way that they did. The fact that they show no remorse is telling; these are not conscience-driven characters in the way that the main characters are, they are devils, who commit evil deeds because that is what they are built for. It’s a circular logic; they’re evil because they’re evil. Again, this is odd when the main characters wrestle with a more 3-dimensional picture of what exactly good and evil mean in modern policing.

Sometimes this fluctuation between realism and Gothic benefits the show: they have been unable to specify where the show is set due to changing filming locations, but this has quite a neat effect of murkying the show’s palette even further – the city in which the show is set does not have a history of particular socioeconomic policy directed to it – it’s a city woven out of nightmares, where each character is trapped resolutely within their unhappiness and surrounded by demons. Line of Duty is weaker when it perpetuates extremely negative reports of society without delving enough beneath to surface to justify the label of ‘social realism’.

I have to ask for feedback on this one; Line of Duty is the only Jed Mercurio series I’ve watched. Anyone who’s watched his other stuff like Bodies and Cardiac Arrest, please leave a comment, I’d like to know how the two compare – does he seem more comfortable writing about the NHS, which he used to work in? Is there the same sense of suspended investigation? Do get in touch.

Thom Yorke is the most cliche-ridden songwriter we currently possess. That’s why he’s so important.

In an interview with HUMO magazine, Thom Yorke described the composition of ‘Fitter Happier’, the sequential and thematic centre of OK Computer, in the following terms:

“I had writer’s block for three months. In that period I could only make lists of words. It took me a long way to figure out that the only way I could translate my thoughts was with these lists”

Yet ‘Fitter Happier’ is not eccentric in its lyrical style, particularly for post-2000 Radiohead songs. Indeed, it seems as if Yorke has adapted this style of writing in his later career to slightly different, yet complementary circumstances. Much of his recent work reads as long ‘lists’ of idioms, clichés and generally familiar phrases. Pay particular attention in the quotation above to the two implications of the adverb ‘only’: it means that he realised he should stop thinking about songwriting as an introspective, cohesive manner in favour of a more fragmented approach, but also that the way in which language has been used from the 1990s onwards means that writing in such a manner is inevitable, the true way of marrying form with content in a new age. Yorke wonderfully channels the broadcasts of the modern world, not commenting as a privileged observer but allowing all of the vastness of data to penetrate through the stereo. Yet his use of cliché as a device is often missed or misunderstood (see the Neil McCormick review below). There is scope to examine it from the political angle, and utilise the agitations he has brought to light in interviews, but I am more interested in what it says on a more purely linguistic level, about how language is constructed and disseminated between people. Clearly there is an overlap here, and indeed political themes are unavoidable given the subject matter of Radiohead’s music. Nevertheless, I hope that this encourages a more appreciative look at lyrics which have been unfairly dismissed.

Bold = in Oxford idiom dictionary

Italics = other phrase of note

Pablo Honey  (2)

Pablo Honey + Drill + Itch

The Bends (3) The Bends + My Iron Lung OK Computer (5 + 3, not including Fitter Happier) OK Computer + No Surprises/Running From Demons + Airbag/How Am I Driving? Kid A/Amnesiac  (6 + 8)  29 songs Kid A + Amnesiac + I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings Hail to the Thief (13) Hail to the Thief + COM LAG (2plus2isfive)
Blow Out – “all wrapped up in cotton wool”

 Inside My Head – “hold my peace

Planet Telex – “dry as a bone”

The Bends – “blow me sky high”

“High and Dry”

Paranoid Android – “off with his head” + “first against the wall”

Subterranean Homesick Alien – “folks back home”

Exit Music – “all hell breaks loose”

Electioneering – “I trust I can rely on your vote”

“Climbing Up The Walls”

Lucky – “I’m on a roll”

Pearly

In Limbo – “you’re living in a fantasy world” + “I’m lost at sea”

Idioteque – “women and children first” + “take the money and run”

Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”

“Knives Out”

Like Spinning Plates“feed me to the lions”  + “cloud cuckoo land”

Life In A Glasshouse – “chew the fat”

You and Whose Army?”

Kinetic “you’re being took for a ride

Trans-Atlantic Drawl – “light at the end of the tunnel

Cuttooth – “tanks roll into town

2+2=5 – “put the world to rights”

The Gloaming – “genie let out of the bottle, it is now the witching hour”

Go to Sleep – “over my dead body”

Backdrifts – “damaged goods

There There – “accidents waiting to happen”

I Will – “white elephants” + “sitting ducks”

Myxomatosis – “ate me up for breakfast”

A Wolf At The Door – “take it with a pinch of salt”

A Punchup At A Wedding – “bull in a china shop” + “pot will call the kettle black” + “piss on our parade

I Am a Wicked Child – “straight and narrow

The Eraser (6 + 1) The Eraser + Spitting Feathers In Rainbows (9 + 4) In Rainbows (2CD version) + ‘These Are My Twisted Words’ + Harry Patch (In Memory Of) + ‘Supercollider/The Butcher’ The King Of Limbs (10 + 2)  The King Of Limbs + songs debuted since then Amok (3 + 4) Amok
Analyse – “self-fulfilling prophecy

Black Swan – “blind spot” + “dead horse”

Harrowdown Hill – “walk the plank”

Drunkk Machine – “spitting feathers” + “speaking in tongues” + “splitting hairs”

15 Step – “eyes off the ball” + “cat got your tongue”

All I Need – “waiting in the wings”

Faust Arp – “rise and shine” + “elephant in the room”

“House of Cards”

Jigsaw Falling Into Place – “wound up like a spring”

Videotape – “the pearly gates”

 Down is the New Up – “what’s up buttercup” + “you’re so last week” + “chink in your armour

Last Flowers – “tread on your toes

Up on the Ladder – “puppet on the strings

Little by little, by hook or by crook”

“Give up the Ghost” + “had my fill

Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Lotus Flower – “while the cat is away” + “kick the habit

The Butcher – “spare the gory details

The Daily Mail – “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” + “pig’s ear”

I Froze Up – “like lambs to the slaughter”

 Open the Floodgates

Default – “will is strong, but the flesh is weak” + “slipped my mind” + “made my bed I’ll lie in it

Ingenue – “know like the back of your hand” + “fools rushing in

“Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Amok – “penny for your thoughts”

graph 0

graph 1

I’ve attempted to provide some sort of statistical basis upon which to work from. I went through the corpus of lyrics of Radiohead, Atoms For Peace and his solo releases, finding phrases that were in The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto. Graph A demonstrates how idioms and ‘extras’ have formed the backbone of Yorke’s lyrics since Kid A/Amnesiac, with slight dips for The Eraser and Amok because there is simply less material. Graph B shows a more accurate breakdown as an average is calculated based upon the number of idioms and ‘extras’ added together and divided by the total number of songs from that particular chapter of the band’s career. My definition of ‘extras’ is of course subjective, but I’ve tried to include all the phrases which strike me as being employed because of their familiarity, rather than their originality. As the table shows, very frequently Yorke employs a metaphor not because it is a new, powerful way of perceiving a particular thing, but because it is a metaphor that now lacks imaginative penetration. It should also be noted that I tried to only count idioms that were employed verbatim, so as an example I didn’t include the line ‘Your ears should be burning’ from ‘House of Cards’ because I felt that there was enough originality in the twist of phrasing. The statistical trend to be observed is a steady growth until OK Computer, where by his own admission Yorke’s lyrics became less introspective and more cryptically worldly, taking up the perspective of “taking Polaroids of things moving around [him] too fast”, with another growth up to Hail to the Thief, and then re-emerging even more prominently in his more recent work.

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

Yorke’s words underscore his divergence from some of his songwriting predecessors; namely Bono, Morrissey and Michael Stipe. Even when Bono (Zooropa) and Stipe (Up) updated their style to fit similar themes explored by Yorke from OK Computer onwards, they are still using the technique of putting their own unique stamp on the language – as a very brief exercise, compare lines like ‘My night is coloured headache grey’ (R.E.M – Daysleeper) or ‘Your wheels are turning but you’re upside down‘ (U2 – Stay (Faraway, So Close!)) in how they depict modern life and overwork compared with Radiohead’s ‘Kinetic’, which puts forward snatches of second-hand language like ‘you’re being took for a ride’ and ‘don’t fall asleep at the wheel’. Stipe and Bono remain as Jeremiahs in the wilderness, while Yorke is more willing to embody the persona of the disoriented participant. There is a subtextual point to develop here too, as using such a device is not only artistic but also allows Yorke to sidestep the pressures of being valorised as a generational voice, with an audience of impressionable minds hanging off an artist’s every word, particularly given the repetitious overexposure through interviews et al demonstrated in Meeting People is Easy. Yorke is much more multifaceted in his approach, as his words are delivered in a disoriented manner, with no real indication of where they emerge from and how much the singer is a mere vessel; invisible speech marks float around, resisting a distinctly first-person interpretation. Yorke feels he cannot emancipate his subjectivity and is therefore constantly trying to navigate out of his complicity while persistently being trapped by language. A helpful visual corollary is the video to ‘There There’: the golden boots that promise escape contrive to leave him trapped. Broken branches trip him as he speaks.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The gradual shift from introspective and personal lyrics to more abstract and generalised compositions was embodied in the method he used in the Kid A/Amnesiac period; the ‘cut-up’ style, whereby Yorke would compose lyrics by selecting random phrases from a hat. It is interesting that while such a method was perhaps most famously employed by the Dada artists in the early 20th century in order to strike out against bourgeois rationality (which led the Western world to World War One), Yorke’s use of the device is more of a belated integration into a system which favours the soundbite (which helps palliate war, particularly Iraq).  Language, particularly in the world of political ‘spin’, no longer follows a referential function. Instead, language is manipulated, usually to dampen any emotional responses to an event. Yorke commented on the lyrical style of Hail to the Thief in a Rolling Stone interview:

“When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours [America’s] are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back”

When the literal meanings of idioms are lost, they become ripe for appropriation. Yorke’s personal burglary is not entirely successful, however – it’s rare he makes a clean getaway. The brilliant line ‘we are accidents waiting to happen’ in ‘There There’ could be a celebration of spontaneity or inevitability, depending on whether ‘accident’ or ‘happen’ is stressed. The fact that ‘waiting’ is repeated twice in the song inclines me to the latter. Likewise, the cry of ‘over my dead body’ in ‘Go to Sleep’ is alternately defiant and prostrate.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising 'Kleine Dada Soiree' in 1922.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising ‘Kleine Dada Soiree’ in 1922.

kid a frozzen

From one of Radiohead’s old sites, a page called ‘FroZZen’ – contains lyrics from Kid A, Knives Out, and others. You can almost hear the fury of letters being typed on the keyboard, drowning out the possibility of sending a coherent message. Credit: Radiohead.

Nevertheless, the continuity of this device in his lyrics has a marked social connotation as well, one which has become increasingly relevant following the rise of social media, and helps explain why the device re-emerges following the Orwellian paranoia of the Bush/Blair years. The coalescence of technology with social networks has cultivated new forms of communication which compel semantic near-misses, decontextualisation, and constraint. Character limits facilitate an appeal to common wisdom, often in the form of idiomatic phrases, as the most persuasive form of argument. There is a corollary here with what John Fuller described as the rush to wit in the English sonnet: the presence of a rhyming couplet which closes the poem encourages a summarising epigram within a 14 line space that stands on its own as an example of insight and decorum. The fact that a sonnet consists of 14 lines, and that Twitter’s character limit is 140, has always struck me as an eerie parallel. As such, the inherent limit of the medium requires using language with a summarising function, as well as a referential one. Idioms are thus extremely propitious, because they appear to grant instant authority, utilising a familiarity embedded within the language which effectively draws upon more than just the characters of the immediate tweet. The tonal ambiguity of online messaging similarly facilitates idioms, as stock phrases are used like a safety mechanism, to ensure that meaning can be transmitted without the paralanguage of face-to-face conversation.

Twitter search for 'made my bed, I'll lie in it' - line in 'Default', by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ – line in ‘Default’, by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for 'lunatics taken asylum', from 'The Daily Mail' by Radiohead.

Twitter search for ‘lunatics taken asylum’, from ‘The Daily Mail’ by Radiohead.

The pictures I’ve attached to this piece demonstrate this – look at the way in which the same phrase of ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ is applied to a number of different circumstances, like a funnel through which thoughts are directed to the same common end point. The fact that ‘The Daily Mail’ is one of the biggest culprits is strong evidence that Yorke’s lexicon is evolving with the times, rather than ossifying with age as Neil McCormick suggested in the Telegraph when he reviewed Amok:

“Yorke seems to have become increasingly conflicted about the very idea of communication, his fondness for cliché indicating a tendency towards self-sabotage.”

The use of cliché in ‘The Daily Mail’ is a riffing exchange with the acute mixture of colloquialism and Daily Hate espoused by the newspaper, drawing up panic and condemnation in equal measure by using language that is malleable because it has been shorn of context while appearing conversational. Hence, Yorke’s lyric ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ on one level describes the newspaper and culture of the British press in general; that newspapers are now vehicles to transmit impulsive, emotive messages of political contingency that are best equated with lunacy. And yet the only language Yorke is capable of using is that which could be taken from a headline of the newspaper, which makes the pun on ‘asylum’ so telling, given the paper’s denigration of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Headlines and slogans are, of course, another aspect of language which have become more prevalent with the diffusion of mass media; ostensibly neutral but in many cases coded to suit a particular agenda.

You don't tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring 'NO ASYLUM SEEKERS', as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

You don’t tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring ‘NO ASYLUM SEEKERS’, as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

The overall fairy tale feel of Hail to the Thief, with recurrent images of folk creatures (wolves, vampires, rabbits) and story-telling frames like lullabies and bedtime stories, represents another dimension to the Yorkean cliché: language as inheritance. That is, soundbites that are experienced at an early and susceptible age, to the extent that they become part of a linguistic backdrop without ever really being examined; the curious phenomenon where as a child you pick up such constructions from the people around you and use them without being fully aware of their meaning. The interweaving themes of children’s stories act as a vehicle for trying to explore alternative spaces to this inevitable inheritance, emphasising the mental capacity of the listener, rather than becoming passive to the manipulation of language. Children’s stories represent the unique imagination of the child and ability to free the imagination from the constraints of worldly thought and language that idioms represent; a long-exhausted metaphor. In researching this, I read an article by M. Chiara Levorato about an experiment in the childhood acquisition of idioms. In one experiment they tested children 10 years of age (younger children generated different results), with an exercise where they had a choice of 3 answers in order to fulfil the global coherence of a text; one answer was idiomatic (e.g. break the…ice), another was literal (break the…crayon), while a final answer was figurative, but not related to the idiom (break the…fear, when translated from Italian, the language the study was conducted in). The results showed that most of the children actually plumped for the last option, demonstrating that acquiescence into idioms involves a suspension of some original insight into language as it becomes ‘conventionalised’.

Think about how often conversations halt at the apparent insight of an idiom which is never critically examined, where the semantic sense of the idiom has become irrelevant. I’m guilty of this all the time – a particular favourite is using ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ as justification for anything (usually helping myself to a lot of finger food), ending a debate about the merits of performing a particular action with a well-timed idiom. There are some situations in which employing such an idiom is the best option for the conversation, but is often like a termination of internal logic, as these disembodied ghosts of language don’t really connote anything, and yet they appear to represent some great inherited wisdom from the past. This gives a more insidious angle to the albums produced in the wake of all of the band’s members having children; not just a sense of emerging into a politically corrupt world, but also one in which stock phrases dictate a particular world view. The imagery of storytelling and imaginative escape form a tense opposition to this throughout, which is what makes Hail to the Thief an excellent and underrated album within their oeuvre. The band at once tries to build a cocoon from the world narratives being constructed around them with the emergent War on Terror, trying to retain some sense of imaginative autonomy, while being forced to gaze at the newspaper walls within.

Since ‘Fitter Happier’, Thom Yorke’s lyrics have been peppered with idiomatic phrases and cliché. Yorke’s persona is of an individual whose attempts to carve their own niche in language are mollified by the presence of language as a series of recurrent images and ideas which communicate no particular meaning other than their vacuous second-handedness. This semantic gap strikes a chord with the body of their work as a whole, as Radiohead have, for the last two decades, been at the vanguard of music in trying to identify where the individual ends and the system begins. Thom Yorke presents a speaker who has enough know-how to question the system he is a part of, while being unable to vocalise it in anything other than re-hashed terms.