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Friday, 23 May 2014

Top of the Pops, 24th May 1979: Rise of the machines

Watching re-runs of old editions of Top of the Pops reminds me that the show could be exciting, tedious, brilliant and stupid, often within the space of forty infuriating minutes. Whichever week of whichever year you’d care to drop into, you’ll find that the charts were pretty mediocre, with sometimes only the occasional gem sparkling among heaps of anodyne rubbish. On a bad week, Top of the Pops could make you feel that the music business existed just to rub your nose in the futility of existence. On other occasions, the stars would align and the tastes of Joe and Josephine Public might roughly coincide with yours. Then you could allow yourself to believe that everything in the world was good and that pop music was a truly wonderful thing.

Once in a lifetime, you might win the lottery and encounter an episode that so faithfully reflects your musical worldview that you’ll be tempted to think that the producer had rifled through your record collection and opted to share your exquisite taste with the nation. This happened to me one evening, late in May 1979. An episode of Top of the Pops (shown recently on BBC4) featured Roxy Music, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Blondie, ELO, The Skids and a ‘new’ act that had already exerted a powerful grip on my musical imagination. I loved all of those named artists, but the new act that night – Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan- somehow felt like ‘my’ discovery.

I had heard Tubeway Army for the first time a couple of months previously, while listening late one night to John Peel’s show on BBC Radio. Sitting in a corner of our living room with the headphones at ear-damaging volume, I would have been hoping that the show would throw up something interesting. John Peel played stuff you wouldn’t hear anywhere else and -if you could abide the default setting of 'indie bloke' freemasonry- you could usually expect to find some excellent music in among the (often deservedly) obscure flotsam and jetsam. Midway through what had been an average middle-of-the-week show, he played a track called Down in the Park and duly transformed my musical world. It was a menacingly atmospheric, yet hauntingly beautiful slice of electronic pop and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it.

I couldn’t quite grasp all of the detail, but I knew that the song told a story. The lyrics seemed far removed from the bog standard new wave fare, painting a nightmarish scene in which the park was not a place for the local folk to gather and enjoy the scenery; it was, instead, part of a minatory landscape in which killers, government agents and ‘rape machines’ roamed, brutalising a cowed populace. At the end of the track, Peel said something like: ‘Blimey … that sounds like a Pink Floyd for the 1980s’. He was wrong about the Pink Floyd bit, but absolutely right about the ‘blimey’. To a lonely teenager imagining himself at the centre of an alienated and hostile universe, Gary Numan really hit the sweet spot.

That weekend, I hunted down the Replicas album and quickly became absorbed in its dystopian and decadent fantasies. It appeared to be a concept album set ten minutes into a totalitarian future in which population control was maintained by government surveillance agents, people had relationships with synthetic humans and the city was patrolled by thought police and sinister assassins in trench coats. Numan’s musical schtick was part-Bowie (particularly the Low album) part Kraftwerk, part Brian Eno, with maybe a little dollop of early Ultravox thrown into the mix.
Lyrically, it was clear that he was heavily influenced by the paranoid, hallucinatory writings of Philip K Dick, William Burroughs and –to a lesser extent- JG Ballard. For a young reader who was devouring dystopian science fiction by the bucketload, this album seemed like a perfect reflection of my view that the world was on the verge of forming a strange and unsettling relationship with burgeoning technology. Whatever was going to happen, I just knew it would involve synthetic humans, sinister government conspiracies and androgynous young guys in make-up, playing synthesisers.

Utterly mesmerised, it was the first time that I was aware that an artist’s image might be almost as important as the music. Numan had perfected an androgynous robot stormtrooper look (no doubt heavily influenced by Kraftwerk) and it made him stand out a mile in an era when most new wave bands made little concession to ‘image’, beyond wearing drainpipe jeans and perhaps a skinny tie. On that iconic Replicas sleeve, Numan looks fantastic: dyed blond hair, kohl eyeliner, black nail varnish, black shirt, tie and trousers. With respect to the Replicas narrative, the cover shot is ambiguous; it’s not clear whether the guy in the room is a victim or a victimiser. Why is he dressed like that? Is he one of us, or is he one of those 'machmen'? Is he a government agent or maybe one of those synthetic humans working in the sex trade? What’s going on in the park outside his window? How come the ‘reflection’ in the window has his hands clasped together while the person in the room hasn’t?

As a growing army of teenaged Numanoids wrestled with these questions, the prosaic reality gradually emerged over the next couple of years as Gary went on to become a massive pop star. We discovered that he was actually just a shy young man (diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) who had managed to articulate and brilliantly exploit his melancholic fantasies about alienation and androids. He was just a 21-year old kid from Slough who didn’t know much about anything. Jesus, he even admitted to voting Tory in an interview. If he’d been more worldly wise, he’d have known that that is an unforgivable sin in the right-on world of rock journalism. Needless to say, he was pilloried for years on the back of it and his relationship with the press quickly declined from ‘curious’ to ‘bad’ to ‘catastrophic’.

In spite of the various press maulings, it’s probably fair to say that Numan has had the last laugh. Two decades after it first appeared on Top of the Pops, Are ‘friends’ electric? was brilliantly re-imagined by the Sugababes for their number one hit Freak like Me. He has enjoyed a recent upturn in commercial and critical fortunes and his music has been cited as a powerful influence by the likes of Basement Jaxx, Armand Van Helden, Foo Fighters, Afrika Bambaataa, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

By the time Are ‘friends’ electric? had made it onto that edition of Top of the Pops in May 1979, I was already boring my friends rigid with my ridiculous zeal for Gary Numan’s music. My ‘discovery’ of this weird and wonderful artist allowed me to feel quite smug as his song made its steady way to the summit of the charts over a six-week period, progress which –by today’s standards- seems positively glacial.

During that time, the synthesiser was transformed from being a 'progressive rock’ instrument played by classically-trained bearded blokes in capes into something quite sexy, sitting right at the epicentre of pop culture. And, without anything resembling a recognisable chorus, a strange song about a robot prostitute topped the charts for four incredible weeks. I’ll always love Gary Numan for that.

In the words of the song: “You see, it meant everything to me.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Content, in context

A friend told me an interesting story the other day. He was in the car with his kids, listening to a football discussion on the radio. Graham Taylor, the former England football manager, was talking about the reasons why the English national team consistently under-performs. Mr Taylor said: "the problem is that there are too many foreigners playing in the English premier League". Most folk would probably accept that there is a link between the number of indigenous players playing in a domestic league and the success, or otherwise, of that country’s national team. Because of the incredible riches on offer, the English game attracts some of the best international footballers, which makes it more difficult for young English talent to break through to the top level. The percentage of English players playing in the top flight of the English League is very low (30%) compared to other -demonstrably more successful- national teams. In Italy, 57% of the players in Serie A are eligible to play for the national team, while in Spain 65% of the players in La Liga are available for selection by the national manager. It is, therefore, factually correct to state that the English football manager has fewer options than his Italian or Spanish counterparts when it comes to picking his first eleven. So Mr Taylor has a point.

Anyway, to get back to my friend. When his teenage kids heard that ‘too many foreigners’ remark on the radio, they both exclaimed: “but he can’t say that … it’s racist!

The context of the remark was completely lost on them. This was not because they weren't bright kids, but because -I'd suggest- that is how they’ve been taught to respond to anything even remotely connected with what has become a taboo subject. They have been trained to react to certain words and phrases with a mixture of horror and revulsion (with maybe a touch of righteous indignation on the side). You might say that this is a good thing and is at least an improvement on the societal and conversational mores extant in say, 1975, but there is a disquieting element to such a Pavlovian reaction. Of course, young people should be taught that racism is a bad thing, but surely it is more important that they are taught to recognise and interpret the context of a remark?

Last week, Donald Sterling -owner of Los Angeles Clippers basketball team- was banned from the National Basketball Association for life after a recording emerged of him expressing views that were perceived to have been racist. Mr Sterling was recorded asking a woman not to associate in public with black people; he didn’t use any specific racist terminology, but the content and context of his remarks made his views perfectly clear.
Let’s shelve for the moment the question of whether or not it was right that he should have received a lifetime ban from the sport. The point is that Mr Sterling managed to reveal his deep-rooted racism without using any of those taboo words and phrases, the words and phrases we’ve taught our kids to recoil from. He was condemned by an understanding (or at least an interpretation) of his content and context.

If we train young people merely to recoil at phrases like ‘too many foreigners’, we have failed them, no matter how good we think our intentions might be. A response to words alone is almost always inadequate, because context determines the meaning of things. It is the understanding of context (and the forming of an appropriate response to it) that marks out a thinking person. If kids are taught to respond to key words and phrases without thinking about setting, nuance, tone, or any of the awkward possibilities of context, we have opened the door to something quite sinister.

It’s been said a million times, but it’s worth saying it a million times more: we shouldn’t be teaching kids what to think, we should be teaching them how to think. Mere words are only part of the story.