Saturday, 31 May 2014

Criminal songs - 10 songs about crime

I've published a music chart of Murder Songs but here's one of other crimes.

1) Genesis - Robbery, Assault And Battery"
You'd probably never believe it given my music collection as it currently stands, dominated by New Wave, Hip-Hop, Reggae & Art Noise, but Genesis were one of the first bands I ever got into. Peter Gabriel Genesis rather than Phil Collins Genesis of course. But still, I find them impossible to listen to now. Weren't videos made in the 1970s really rubbish?

2) The Prodigy - "Firestarter"
The album this comes from "The Fat Of The Land" is almost excellent, but as with this track I just feel each song on it threatens a lot sonically and musically but somehow always manages to truncate it without nailing it. Maybe that's why Liam sacked the rest of the band.

3) New Order - "Thieves Like Us"
Um I loved this period New Order (that yielded the album "Power, Corruption and Lies". Not my normal type of music, but I guess there was a sentimental attachment from the Joy division days. I wonder if they lost any fans who felt the synth-heavy sound meant that they had sold out the Joy Division legacy? I certainly felt similar when one of my favourite noise bands The Swans went all quite singer-songwritery and recently when my favourite contemporary band Liars produced a second successive album that ditched their art-noise roots for plinky-computer game soundtrack music.

4) Renegade Soundwave - "Probably A Robbery"
I can't remember anything else about this band. One-hit wonders? Probably.

5) The Jam - "Thick As Thieves"
Supposedly a concept album because 3 of the songs were linked, of which this was one. But ignoring that, Paul Weller's gift for longing back to a childhood of being able to belong to something never bettered than in this song.

6) The Clash - "Bankrobber"
 I never pass up any excuse to play this song really! I always thought it was just another one of their reggae covers before I discovered that no, they'd penned it themselves. Very hard to do white reggae well, but this is definitely at the top of the white reggae charts.

7) Ministry - "The Land Of Rape & Honey"
This band are from Texas. They don't fit in very well down there...

8) MC 900Ft Jesus - "The City Sleeps"
Criminally (get it?) under-appreciated artist, really sorry they stopped after a couple of killer albums. This is waaay more menacing than anything the cartoon gangster rappers might pontificate upon.

9) Pulp - "Joyriders"
Never really a Pulp fan, a mix of professional Northerner with auto-didact intellectual, just didn't strike a chord with me. Sort of Morrisey without the racial prejudice.

10) Swans - "Blackmail"
This period Swans when female vocalist Jarboe joined the band saw their enormous power sound teeter on the point of fracturing as her voice cut against it. It was brilliant these two divergent muscularities.

11) Beastie Boys - "Car Thief"
Well you know I love all things Beastie Boys. I chose this song because of the title, but let's face it, the video for their song "Sabotage" which spoofs Starsky & Hutch's opening credits is one of the best music videos every made, so I'm linking to that! Makes me a bit of a cheat, but not a criminal!

12) 50 Cent - "P.I.M.P"
The Caribbean steel band vibe of this is genius, no matter how desultory the song would be without it. #guiltypleasure

13) Gary Clail - "Two Thieves And A Liar"
Another artist like The Prodigy who has the germ of brilliant songs but never quite manages to see them through (I find this also with Adrian Sherwood's Tackhead from which Clail spawned). But this song delivers all the way through.

14) Slits - "Shoplifting"
Another band who teetered on the brink of great tunesmithery but always managed to pull back. All the elements are there, but somehow the song sounds slightly weedy, which for dub is a bit odd. I did like their track "New Town" though.

15) Ice-T - "Grand Larceny"
The granddaddy of blustering gangster rap and where is he now? Oh yeah in a police drama series on TV. Oh the irony.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Blood Angel - Friday Flash

We followed the book’s prescriptions faithfully. Having done so we feel honour bound to recommend the following corrigenda as a result of our experiences.

The first mistake was ours and ours alone. We decided on an evening enactment. I think the elders were concerned that the villagers remain working during daylight, rather than being drawn like moths to this particular flame while the sun was still high up in the sky to light their labour in the fields.  Additionally I think they were also keen on the further benison, or perhaps expedience is more fitting, of keeping them out of the tavern  for a single night, though many I’m certain smuggled in their own firkins and flasks of ale. Still, spiting the profits of the taverner could never be a bad thing.

So we convened justice when it was dark. Which only compounded the second erratum, the invocation to punish by fire. In other countries we know they lop off the offender’s head with an axe or dangle them from a gibbet until death. We respectfully feel that there can be no miscues with such straightforward orderliness. Yet in our case, we only fanned the flames of incitement in favour of that which we were seeking to expunge.

She stood there against the stake, arms strapped out either side of her in unwitting simulacrum of our own Messiah’s death, as the flames began to lick around her feet. Yet her flaxen hair, (I ought to remark that this specimen was not possessed of any gnarled, wen-covered crone’s visage), billowed out around her, presumably driven by the flow of the heated air. Now the effect of this was that her locks echoed and mocked the flames still trying to fully catch. It suggested that she was not only embracing the flames, but merrily encouraging them under her control. Was her hair on fire, or was it made of fire, indicative of her whole body being forged from the abyss itself? The red balefire against the darkness only augmented the impression that we were in the realm of those from the infernal place and they were in their element, whereas we in the village were far from home. We had surrendered the night to its denizens rather than brand our purifying mark upon it.

Her eyes too were blazing in the most diabolic fashion, even though we few men of learning present, appreciated that this was just the effect of the flames being reflected in her dead lenses. Their cowering effect still struck home amongst our populace though I could see. Many arms were raised to try and fortify themselves by quaffing on their home-made brews, as they perceived her to be glaring at  them each with a most furious evil eye. We had staged this spectacle to demonstrate the power of Christ to defeat his foes, yet it was they who seemed to have inverted every one of our attributes and were demonstrating their own fiendish puissance through them.

Some said they heard her screaming her pain as you would hope, while others reported it as a wicked cackling. Again here was the cozening play of the image of her up on that pile perverting the minds of simple folk.  I myself don’t remember any sound emitted from her at all, as if she was drawing demonic strength that even with her final breath she was still performing the devil’s work. That she was to be sacrificed in order to sow demonic diabolic seeds was exactly how Beelzebub always treated his minions, yet the perniciousness of such a fatal contract passed right over the heads of our people slathering near the stake.

Another fallacy was when these people at the front were dancing in what they credited to be blood and other boiled juices pressed out of her body by the heat of the blaze, actually turned out to be leaking pitch from the barrels fashioned with the usual slipshod craft by our village cooper. So that when a stray spark or two landed upon the liquid pool, up they went in a conflagration claiming their lives, which only seemed to offer another possible demonstration of supernatural forces at work.

And when the inferno had finished its ministrations and burned itself out by dawn’s first light, we were left with two further scathing impressions. The first was that when the flames had burned though her rope shackles and allowed her leaden carcass to topple forward to the earth, we had naturally assumed that the spark of life had left her. And yet the imprint on the soil disabused us of such reasoning, since she must have been able to move her arms and tried crawling away even though she had no legs to propel her. Since there in blood were outlines like snow angels, only red. An abomination of the very notion of an angel, here again to taunt  us, but also stamping the notion of a fallen angel, one of Hell’s legions marked out for all to see. The second, that despite the fire reducing everything of her to ashes and powder, there in the middle of the blood angel was her perfectly preserved, albeit singed, black heart.

Brazenly presented with such sigils of damnable pre-eminence, the villagers fell under its spell at once. They started fornicating among the ashes hoping to absorb the occult powers. The black heart was borne to the church and placed on the altar, while the crucifixes within were all inverted. And finally I was forced to make the amendments you read in this book, transcribing in her dark angel blood. Before they mean to burn me on a pyre and challenge our lord of mercy to such a display of sovereignty to rival theirs.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Breathless - Friday Flash

He removed the cigarette resting behind his ear and held it to the burning tip of the one still perched between his lips until the flame took whereupon he swapped them round and let the dog end pitch to the ground as he moved to stamp out the embers of its life but since his attention was given to ensuring the new smoke was securely in place his stomp missed the butt entirely which he became acquainted with as he looked down and proceeded to pound the feebly pluming fag end which, were his foot a hand and his shoe a knife, could be observed to be a stabbing frenzy which utterly reflected his mood and temper at that moment to his very fibre as his cells cried out to be nourished so that the butt stood for his meet who was late and was being severely punished for it under the tread of his shoe, but his fury was cut off since in his furore his breath was so abated behind lips clamped on the new gasper to prevent it falling out of his mouth, that the fumes backed up into his gullet and caused him to explode in a paroxysm of coughing which sent the cigarette shooting from his mouth like a dart from a blowpipe which doubly enraged him and saw him unwittingly jack-knife his body as his leg continued to try and obliterate every last trace of the first stub, while his outstretched arm strived to salvage his newer coffin nail so that the differing pulls toppled him over on to the pavement and knocked the wind out of him as he lay there on his stomach panting and wheezing his wordless rage even as the tears of frustration and desperate craving unleashed themselves from their ducts like a crack parachute division exiting their jump plane.
“You wanna give those up, they’ll kill you” said a man approaching him on the pavement. “Looks like you’re out of puff” as he tossed him a little bag of powder. "That'll put the wind back in your sails".

Thursday, 8 May 2014

140 Character Assassination - Twitter & the need for precision of language

On Tuesday someone I follow on twitter announced they were leaving having been driven off through tweets received. This blew up really quickly and so I was able to glean very little in the limited time I had access to their timeline before the account was deleted. Being a timeline only of their tweets, I couldn't see what abuse or menace they were on the receiving end, so I could very well have the wrong reason they found their back to the wall. But I think it was over the use of a single word.

The word 'banter' in its original meaning has the sense of light-hearted verbal exchange. Certainly nothing aimed at wounding. But the word has I think developed a bit more edge as it is used as an excuse to defend hurtful barbs. This is particularly true of team sports dressing rooms, where the cut and thrust of banter is perceived as both a team bonding instrument but also a tool for toughening up. The logic running something like if you can't take the competitive asperity of a dressing room, you probably won't be able to survive in professional sports. It's a proving ground of sorts. A verbal assault course that has to be bested. It's a completely non-sensical argument, since a team dressing room is absolutely the place to retain grudges, because you are forced together with people you probably don't like every day with no escape. As to team building, how many soccer clubs banned card schools that were supposed to help bonding, only for the playboy millionaires to have huge gambling debts with team mates that only ruptured any sense of unity? So much is excused as being 'just a bit of banter' and players often claim they love 'a bit of banter' with the crowd, until they lose it and respond with a gesture that lands them in trouble with the governing body, or worse. I don't think Eric Cantona saw it as just a 'bit of banter' when he leapt into the crowd with a karate kick at an opposition fan who had been baiting him.

So the word itself has perhaps become degraded from its original sense. The ex-twitterer didn't even use the word 'banter', but the slang foreshortening of it to 'bants'. I think the tweet was something like "just bants". I was completely unaware of this idiom and had no idea that's what they were referring to. So I went online to look it up in that gospel of idiomatic usage "Urban Dictionary". I saw that 'bants' was just a shortened slangy version of 'banter', perfect for the cramped language use encouraged by 140 characters on twitter. You shave all of a single character by such usage.

But I'm an old hand at referencing "Urban Dictionary". I know full well that there is likely to be more than one interpretation of any slang or idiomatic term or phrase listed there, and indeed validation and veracity are, as is the prescription of our age, voted on as to confirm or reject. Indeed 'bants' has another meaning and I suspect it was this that brought down the opprobrium on the tweeter's head. (As is often the case, there are actually a couple of minor variations on this second meaning, as UD always manages to convey a sense that any verbal explanation has had its vowels and consonants mangled in the telling as is the wont of the generations who speak without moving their upper lip and that the transcription on UD reflects this local and regional variation).

I'm not going to reproduce the alternative meanings, you can look them up yourself if you're so minded, but it seemed apparent to me that here was a difference between a UK English interpretation of the word 'bants' from an American English one, where the words is actually an acronym and its letter 'N' is highly charged as reiterated once again only this very week in the UK by Jeremy Clarkson's grovelling apology for using it and in the US, by a professional sports team owner stirring up the whole race issue with his own players and abdicating his right to own just such a sports team.

I knew neither meaning of the word as indeed I'd never heard the word before. I think it highly likely the tweeter only knew of the UK English one and thus fell foul of an unintended reverberation in its use. Is that a defence? I have absolutely no idea to be honest, in such a fast changing world of slang and idiom it simply isn't possible to stay on top of every single new word and phrase. "Urban Dictionary" being a crowdsourced compendium of such usage only encourages faster coinage of new idioms and all are of course completely unsubstantiated.

But and this is a big but, you put yourself and your opinions out in public on platforms like Twitter, you better be prepared to stand by and back up every word you post. Because if you put stuff out there that you are not in full comprehension of its meanings, shades, imputations, undertones and overtones, then you expose yourself to all manner of challenges. Should those challenges be vicious, insulting and cruel? Of course not, but they will be and possibly more since the current state of both legislation and law enforcement seems totally overwhelmed by the virtual phenomenon. Which brings me back to the dressing room. It's not how I would choose to forge a bonded, united team environment, but at present that is the state of affairs. You stand up and back yourself with a rhinoceros-plated hide, or you go under. It is the same in social media. And getting your language right is a crucial part.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Unamerican Activities - 10 songs about America from the rest of the world

Britain and America have always been culturally linked and especially in the fertile exchange of pop and rock music. There was a sort of inverted snobbery about home and a yearning for our brethren on the other side of the pond. Hence a US band could call themselves "Pavement" because it's a British word not an American one, while UK band Jesus And Mary Chain produced a feedback-laden version of Californian surf music with a track called "Sidewalking" as part of their homage.

But as America became the only super-power in town with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US got a really bad press from overseas particularly about its all conquering culture. Here's 10 songs sung by non-Americans about our Stateside cousins.

1) Au Pairs - "America"
Sort of paranoia about just how paranoid Reaganite America was. Go figure

2) The Clash - "I'm So Bored With the USA"
they sang on their debut album and yet ended up living and working there... On the same album they sang about how boring London was that it ought to be burned to the ground. There's just no pleasing some folks.

3) DOA - "America The Beautiful"
Just so you don't get the impression that it's only us Brits who are mealy mouthed about America, here are their northern cousins the Canadians getting all clichéd about America's Moral majority.

4) The Skids - "Working For The Yankee Dollar"
Who wouldn't right? Ever since the Beatles, the Brits have been obsessed with breaking the American market. Few succeed, although One Direction depressingly seem to be more successful than most in the task.

5) David Bowie - "This Is Not America"
Bowie was a man with more experience of the US than most, having spent time working there in film as well as music. He made the "Man Who Fell To Earth" about an alien struggling to comprehend life in the US. He hasn't really put his experience to use in this song, not necessarily due to the lyrics, but because this is one hell of a mess musically as a song. Dreck as the Yanks might say.

6) The Pogues - "Body Of An American"
Well Shane Magowan went about mythologising Irish culture from his London base, so why not do the same for American Irish culture?

7) The Proclaimers - "Letter From America"
Well it took the seventh song to find something vaguely sympathetic to the USA, albeit from the point of view of looking back longingly to Scotland.

8) The Guess Who - "American Woman"
Those canadians at it again, although the strength of this song is such you can only but forgive their prejudice against their daughters to the South.

9) U2 -  "The Hands That Built America"
If there would be one band to stick up for the Yankee Doodle Dandies it would be Bono's we don't dislike anyone bunch of god botherers. I'm ashamed to have to include them in this post, but what ya gonna do?

10) Test Department - "51st State Of America"
Remember when we all really believed this, with the assault of US culture of TV and films and the proliferation of nuclear arms in US air bases sited on British soil? No? Then you were problem born after the 1980s.

Bonus Track:
Just to prove we're not all foaming at the mouth with hatred for everything American
Noel Coward - "I Like America"

Monday, 5 May 2014

A Writer's Craft

The word craft deliciously has three shades of meaning that work against and undercut one another.

1) A skill or ability, especially when applied to a creative art involves an attention to the detail of aspects of the work
2) A skill or ability used for deceit, acting with guile
3) An occupation, trade or guild of a group of workers with special, defined skills. Often such membership is exclusive and used to keep others out

All writers and all artists pursue their craft. Honed by long practise and learning from experience, sometimes augmented by formal teaching of elements of the craft. Books and other sources of advice abound on the craft of writing. The craft is deconstructed and laid bare and the student can take which elements they will and forge them into their own individualised method of writing.

When you try and encapsulate the elements that make up the craft of writing, you are normally offered the axions of plot, character, conflict, arcs, setting, relationship. story development, transitions, point of view, dialogue, themes, metaphors, language, endings and so on.

Now these are all worthwhile elements to consider, but what the writer must remember is that they are only organising principles. They form the armatures around which their material moulds and shapes itself to form the whole. As soon as one regards these elements as a hierarchy, that say character or plot is at the apex of the pyramid and everything else issues from there, I think a great deal is lost to the work. Privileging any one aspect over any other risks exposing the craft's mechanics instead of the work emerging organically and all of a piece.

For example, if you the author is sat there contemplating the nature of the conflict at the heart of the book, or what the conflict is at the heart of every significant relationship the book deals with, then the book veers towards a central axis of conflict. Of course conflict in relationship is both important and an every day reality, but it does not define all relationship. The peril of ensuring that there is conflict in every relationship is that is becomes a device, it reads artificial and formulaic.

Or what could be more fundamental to a novel than its story? The story it's telling and how that unfurls over the pages to the reader. Well nothing of course and yet... Any novel plunges its reader into a world that is initially unknown and the opening pages help orient the reader in this strange new world, or maybe locate them within the familiarity of a world they do in fact recognise from their own knowledge and experiences. Beginnings are important, because they help hook the reader, but they are all in a sense random, until the reader finds their feet. The reader is pitched into one specific environment out of an almost infinite array of possibilities. As the reader progresses through the chapters, we have the bulk of the novel lumpishly described as 'the middle'. Even if there are lots of swooping changes of direction and wild arcs for the reader to follow, this is still just the meat of the book as a largely undifferentiated block. Why? because it all is leading up the the end. The payoff, the twist, the redemption, the tragedy, the denouement, or whatever the author has in store for the reader. Now there are books that eschew beginning, middle and ends for their story structure, but these are few and far between.

Ah but you may cavil, it's plot that allows the gradations of story structure. Character development, themes and metaphors all break up the monolithic blocks of print. And indeed they do, but one mustn't just regard them as spacers dividing up elements of the story in the same way as the human skeleton acts as armatures and spacers for our muscle and tissue. Each is a rich facet of fiction that brings much to the reading table in its own right. Additionally this is perhaps the point where you begin to see how some of theses elements overlap with one another so that it is not possible to say where say character ends and language, metaphor, dialogue begin, since each of these does more than merely feed in to how the character expresses themselves, they ARE character.

I don't privilege any aspect over any other in my writing. By doing so I think I avoid formulaic writing. Rather the novel emerges more organically. Do my novels tell stories? Of course they do, but it isn't necessarily their primary purpose. Do they contain characters? Well save for a couple of my flash fictions which contain no characters at all, yes my books have characters. Well actually I'd say they have Voices, for character is beset with predetermined theories of how we are constructed (to wit the psychology canon) and Voice embodies the elements of speech, metaphor, point of view, language, value system and the like, all through the words provided by the author for how the voice expresses itself. Do my characters embody conflict? Probably, though it's never anything I consciously think about while I write and certainly it's not something I ever use to drive a scene. If the character organically is beset with some conflict, be it with others, or with themselves, then that is a situation I have arrived at, not one I have set up from the beginning as a destination point I have to reach within the writing.

Perhaps all this is merely a slightly different emphasis and shade. A variant position on amy spectrum that contains all of these fundamental building blocks of the craft. But that I think is my divergence, I don't see them as fundamental. Yes they are all or mostly all present, but not highlighted, not in the foreground of my thinking when I sit down to write. I think ultimately craft is whatever the individual artist has arrived at for what works for them. For me, approaching writing with these elements as a hierarchy is both exclusive and also artificial in the sense of guile or archness in the craft.