Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

This Goes With This (civil litigation edition)

If you accept, which, I should add, I strongly do not (for reasons that are much more intelligently put by Graeme Downes, musicologist and driving force behind New Zealand's Verlaines, in a long blog entry that I commend to you), that Men At Work's "Down Under" is a "substantial reproduction" of the old Australian song "Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree", then Portishead's lawyers might be well advised to spend some time with the title track from Charlotte Gainsbourg's new album, "IRM", and run some comparisons with "Silence", the opening song on Portishead's "Third". There may not be any note-for-note copying going on, but the overall sound and atmosphere of the two are, at the very least, sympathetic. The way the drums, recorded to the edge of distortion and then a little bit further, punish the listener. The way both songs don't so much end as just stop, as if someone has simply pulled the plug. (There are, actually, elements of a couple of other songs from "Third" that can also be picked out in "IRM", I'm thinking in particular of "We Carry On" and "Nylon Smile". Then again, there are also close echoes of T Rex, as I have mentioned before, in one of the other songs on the album, "Dandelion", not to mention all the ways in which it reminds of Beck's own "Sea Change" album.)

The point I want to make, though, is that none of this is intended in any way as a criticism. Aside from imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and all that, there are any number of songs that I like that sound like other songs that I like. This is not just coincidence. Once a piece of music is out there in the public arena, there is a good chance it will catch someone's attention, and if that someone is a musician, well, it is always possible that some small part of it, a few notes, a chord sequence, a sound, a mood, even an indescribable essence, might turn up in one of that musician's songs.

Which leads to my problem with the Men At Work decision. Judges talk, in various contexts, about things having a "chilling" effect. (They don't mean that crawling feeling you get when sitting around a campfire telling horror stories. They mean that activity in a particular field will be dampened down, or frozen.) All songs are, in some way, influenced by other songs. If the Men At Work decision is correct (and, unless it is successfully appealed, it is by definition correct, in the sense that The Law Has Spoken, unless Parliament sees fit to legislate against it) the logical corollary is that the only people who will be able to write songs, free from the risk that they will be seen in the eyes of the law as plagiarising someone else's work, are people who have never listened to another piece of music in their lives. There is, I would have thought, a difference between being original and being ignorant.

Yes, there is, when you know to listen for it, a clear but fleeting similarity between one line of "Down Under" and the opening melody of "Kookaburra". (The ways in which they are not similar is explained by Downes.) I have listened to a lot of songs, and, as I have perhaps established on this blog over the years, I am able to hear (rightly or wrongly) bits of songs in other songs all the time. And yet I (and, presumably, most other people, until it was pointed out during an episode of the popular Australian music-quiz television programme "Spicks and Specks") had never made the connection. To say that the two songs, as songs, are "substantially similar" is, in my own opinion, nonsense. To say that a fleeting reference, which, even if it was conscious, can't really be said to rise above the level of homage, nod, wink, or "shout-out", is worth forty percent of the Men At Work song's royalties, well, no. Just, no. You might as well say that anybody using the words "I love you" in a song is breaching the copyright of whichever of the tens of thousands of songs using those words happened to be written first.

Larrikin's decision to bring this case in the first place can only have been a decision made by opportunists with dollar signs in their eyes, or by bean counters, in any case people with no regard for its implications for the future of songwriting. In winning it, Larrikin's "Kookaburra" has not only managed to do a big crap in its own nest, it has also taken a large bite out of the hand that feeds it. It is yet another example of being careful of what you wish for, just in case you actually get it. The company would be well advised to contemplate the consequences of its "victory" for the future of the industry it is a part of, and thus for its own future cash flows. I don't know if this has ever happened before, but Larrikin might even think about making an odd kind of legal history by appealing against its own successful court action.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Song of the day

"Infinity", by The xx. I go into this song hearing the song itself, but I come out singing "Wicked Game". It seems clear that the similarity is intended. Because of my confused relationship with the Chris Isaak song, I can't yet decide whether that is a good thing. But I am optimistic that things will turn out alright.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Song of the day

"It's Gonna Be Alright (Dirk Leyers Remix)", by Justus Kohncke. If you saw a behatted gentleman standing at a bus stop in the Canberra parliamentary triangle around 5.45 this afternoon, dancing with himself, well, okay, that was me, but (a) it kept me warm and (b) I challenge you to stand still with this song booming around your ears. Dickensian employers take note: playing this song in your Victorian-era factory would enhance the productivity of even the most jaded and tired of child labourers.

House of Tomorrow

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Song(s) of the day

1. "Clampdown", by The Clash. Because I look down and see that my shirt is blue and brown. I never understood that: if you wore blue and brown were you one of the good guys or one of the bad guys?

2. "I Am A Cider Drinker", by The Wurzels. Well, you just have to love it, don't you. Don't you?

3. "Alright, Alright, Alright", by Mungo Jerry. As featured in a current Australian TV advertisement for a fizzy drink that is self-promoting its long-running support for AFL football. For some weeks the identity of this song has eluded me. The internet can answer pretty much any question that you can throw at it. You just have to know how to frame the question. Thank you, internet.

"All over the world, High School girls ..."

... are presumably not mourning the passing of Malcolm McLaren -- unlike the way they would have been mourning, say, the death of Ian Curtis in 1980, or Curt Cobain in 1994, or Jeff Buckley in 1997. But if those High School girls had been doing their homework, instead of spending half the night Facebooking, texting, and hanging on the telephone, they might have discovered that McLaren is in no small part responsible for the pop cultural landscape they inhabit.

It is ironic, no, not ironic, funny, well, no, not funny at all, actually, just a horrible coincidence, that what took him was mesothelioma, a disease that is mostly known for attacking people who have been exposed to high levels of asbestos, a fire retardant: ironic/not ironic, funny/not funny, horribly coincidental because McLaren spent large parts of his adult life deflecting the many powerful blowtorches that were periodically fired at him.

For those of us a million miles away from The King's Road in the early 1970s, our first awareness of Malcolm was as the face -- or perhaps more accurately the mouth -- behind The Sex Pistols. But there is no evidence that his life before then -- if he was 64 when he died then he must have been around 30 the year punk broke -- was that of a shrinking violet. A person who didn't want to draw attention to himself would not, in 1975, in Mary Whitehouse's Britain, have renamed his clothes shop "Sex".

Here I rehash my take on the Sex Pistols. Musically, they were no big deal. They released two exhilarating and still remarkable singles, which captured the anger of the UK at a particular moment, but they very quickly became cartoon characters of themselves, and not in a good way, and of course the whole thing ended in farce followed by tragedy (or possibly the other way around). But for McLaren the Sex Pistols was never about the music so much as it was a kind of social experiment concocted to see how far he could push "things". He may not even have had a direction in mind, other than just to get something happening, and hang (or, in fact, overdose) the consequences.

In his adventure with the Pistols, McLaren was an early exponent of the use of the media as a tool. Was he an anarchist, a philosopher, or a shrewd businessman? You cannot ignore his tendency to use people and then spit them out. That must weigh against all that he did achieve, but surely doesn't negate it. His enthusiasm for the new, his love of music, his drive to shake things up: these are the things he should be remembered for.

But musically, for at least some part of him was in "the music business", he should be remembered for "Duck Rock". Presumably chastened by the death of Sid Vicious, and maybe a little bit frightened by what the Sex Pistols wrought (you might imagine him looking down from a high balcony at a scene of utter devastation and carnage, and then looking at his hands, and thinking, "Did these do all of that?"), but still perhaps running on adrenaline, he shortly unleashed Bow Wow Wow onto an unsuspecting but, for the most part, uninterested world, and then he seems to have gone on some kind of world tour of musical discovery, which he distilled, with the help of Trevor Horn and a long list of other accomplices, into "Duck Rock". I love this album, although I wasn't sure what to make of it at the time. In fact, it felt like it had dropped from some passing spaceship, en route from another planet entirely.

It appeared, as if out of necessity, at a time when the New Pop was in the process of congealing into a horrible parody of itself, where what you looked like in the mirror was more important than the sounds you made. There are days when I honestly believe that "Double Dutch" is the greatest single ever. There are other days when I think more deeply about the album, and about the snail trail it has left through almost every corner of the pop landscape since. Its interest in the township music of Soweto can be heard today, in the music of Vampire Weekend and jj. More immediately, it paved the way for releases like "Indestructible Beat of Soweto", on Shanachie, and more broadly the emergence and growth into maturity of that thing we reluctantly call "World Music". Its early embrace of what was then known as "break dancing" culture, graffiti, Keith Haring paintings, Velcro'd sneakers and ghetto blasters, well, it's impossible now to imagine a world without those things, but at the time you would almost have had to have been physically located in certain pockets of New York to be aware of them. The way the album is structured, with songs drifting in and out of radio chatter, and the songs themselves seemingly constructed from almost random bits and pieces, introduced the world to sampling culture, and ultimately paved the way for the mash-up. It must have had some influence on later records like "As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2" and the Girl Talk albums. Even the piano motif on "World's Famous" predicts acid jazz and, if you want to stretch things ever so slightly further, numerous subgenres of house music, old and new.

Those High School girls, though, I have often thought, was the one Malcolm McLaren controversy that the world wasn't yet ready for. Imagine, in this fallen, post-Gary Glitter world, a middle-aged man (at least by "industry" standards) getting away with a song like "Double Dutch" today, and its attendant visual imagery of girls in short pants jumping rope. It is the sort of stunt only a Malcolm McLaren would dare to pull. And yet at the time (or so I remember) it was seen as good clean fun, and taken entirely at face value, or maybe it was just trampled over in the rush to pillory him for his use (by theft or otherwise) of music from black South Africa in the darkest days of Apartheid.

It is an album that may not have been well understood at the time of its release, but it is surely one of very few records that can prove, in hindsight, to have been a road map for so much of the next thirty years of pop music.

"Duck, duck, duck."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Fairports, Fairports everywhere

Ah, Autumn in the nation's capital. The days are a couple of degrees cooler. The leaves are starting to fall from the trees. The wind is springing up. (I don't like that much.) The light is fading as I wait for the evening bus home from work. A new bunch of songs on the iPod. Fitting, then, that so much of the recent music that has come to my attention draws from the ancient well of those three essential Fairport Convention albums, "What We Did On Our Holiday", "Unhalfbricking", and "Liege And Leaf".

Three bands in particular: Tunng, Espers and Midlake. Each coming from their own unique corner of the musical world and, curiously and (presumably) independently, landing in more or less the same place: Tunng from a place called, and for once fairly accurately, "folktronica" (and calling out the haters for leaving that place); Espers from a place where the rivers are busting their banks with extended psychedelic jams (and the haters are hating on them for leaving that place, too); and Midlake, well, not so long ago they were the unexpectedly fertile second coming of Fleetwood Mac. The haters are on them, too, I guess for not coming up with another "Roscoe" this time around. This, of course, is completely unfair: perhaps one in a hundred million bands would ever in their career come up with a song as special as "Roscoe". To expect Midlake to do it twice, well, it's asking a bit much really. The new album, despite what the blogging heads might think, has a lot going for it, it's just that what is going for it is different from what was going for "The Trials Of Van Occupanther". Sometimes it seems like in this world you are either damned for standing still or damned for moving on.

As for the prevalence at this point in time of Fairport love, it's a bit of a double-edged broadsword. On the one hand, these three bands (at least) are doing it for all the right reasons. On the other hand, in this hyper-accelerated Internet-driven world of wave upon wave of seemingly week-long trends it is never too long until somebody, or a hundred thousand somebodies, miss the point entirely and the entire mo(ve)ment jumps the shark. (Example: it seems like only yesterday that Underwater Peoples were captivating us with their blend of nostalgic cassettes-in-the-mail lo-fidelity doohickey; and suddenly everybody is doing it, with the usual diminishing returns.) As with other trends, the trick for the listener is not to throw out the bath water with the baby. These three are the babies you would be wise to grab hold of as they start to fly out the window.

[Written in some haste and not checked over. Heck, everybody else does that, don't they?]