All Our Lives, Rolled Into One
126 · 26 June 97
Kenickie: At the Club
I really hate the Spice Girls. Their music has all the grace and personality of Menudo out-takes transcribed for General MIDI, so I'd rather not listen to it, but this isn't why I hate them. I hate them for two reasons. First, I hate the Spice Girls because the voluminous sales of their record remind me that the general public's appreciation of music is commensurate with the delicacy of a palette that thought a McDonald's "lobster" sandwich sounded like a good idea. This isn't the same as not liking it; for all I know, the "lobster" sandwich, taken on its own terms, was quite tasty. The point is that calling it a lobster sandwich, and pretending that it occupies the same culinary sphere as an actual, bug-like, chitinous sea-dwelling lobster, shows so little understanding of food or language that the fact that most people are capable of talking with their mouths full has to be considered a dual miracle. "Spice" is profoundly inappropriate; the Spice Girls are to music what the Easy-Bake Oven is to cooking.
The main reason I hate the Spice Girls, however, is their co-opting of the phrase "Girl Power". If the Spice Girls are powerful defenders of adolescent female identity and self-worth, then the Indian in the Village People was Native Americans' Martin Luther King. To the extent that we mean anything at all by Girl Power, as something separate from People Power, Woman Power, Lesbian Power, or any other related cause for which there is no serious musical shortage of effective advocates, then surely Shampoo are the British girl-group who carry the flag. A revolution must pose a threat, and the Spice Girls are about as intimidating as "Graduation Barbie"; if Shampoo, on the other hand, were action figures, they'd have karate-chop action, rocket launchers in their breasts, throwing stars hidden in their hairdos, and cell-phones embedded in their platform soles so that once they've got you duct-taped to an inflatable lawn chair, with the deadly spider dangling inches from your face, they could take a break to compare mayhem strategies with their friends while you squirm. The Spice Girls giggle, and cavort, but what about them, other than the sheer number of outfits they own, engenders pride? They are manufactured icons, and their trumpeted independence exists only within the carefully delineated borders of their producers' pre-fab dioramas. Shampoo, too, rely on their producer to provide most of their music, but in Shampoo's case his work no more undermines their essential quasi-pubescent impudence than the writhing women in a Whitesnake video somehow make that band less masculine. The Spice Girls are birthday-party karaoke; Shampoo are the sound of a generation discovering its power. Or so it seems, at any rate, to me, though why a thirty-year-old male's opinion of what should count as Girl Power is of any relevance, I could not say.
Regardless, Shampoo occupies an important place in my cartography of recent music, and Kenickie initially gets theirs by reference to it. They are the bridge, in my mind, between Shampoo's Lolita-esque synth-punk end-of-childhood and Sleeper's wearily aware adulthood. They have begun to sense, I think, that the power to make every night a glittering spectacle merely by imposing your fervid restlessness on it fades with age, and even shoplifting is starting to lose its thrill, but they perceive, at the same time, that life only gets to slot you into a mold if you hold still for it. The transition towards maturity is perhaps plainest in Shampoo's "Shiny Black Taxi Cab" and Kenickie's "Nightlife". "Having the best time you ever had", Shampoo trill, gleefully; but Kenickie counters, "Have to see each other's clothes, / So we're all freezing". Youth is too frantic. Every night can't be the best time you ever had, and in trying to make it so, you run the risk of never experiencing anything slower and more meaningful. Integral to Shampoo's version of Girl Power, far from the Spice Girls' camera-conscious strut, is the idea that girls' courses hardly intersect with the rest of the world's. True Girl Power freedom is the independence of photons skimming through nuclei untouched, or of hummingbirds nesting behind the ears of ineffectually irritated giants. What moves too fast to be seen can never be crushed. "Back to your house in the afternoon", Kenickie sing in "In Your Car". "I want to see your room." The adult world is like Charlie Brown's parents, making inarticulate sounds from somewhere always offstage. But you can only live this way for so long. Eventually the offstage admonitions resolve despite your best efforts not to comprehend them. Eventually you leave your room, and get an apartment. The afternoons spent plotting turn into late nights writing the dialogue that actually fills the scenes you used to only storyboard. You turn thirty, you buy a house, and you realize that however vividly you remember using a cello as an ersatz guitar, blasting "Feelin' Satisfied" through crappy Realistic headphones, when you were twelve, the same you has somehow managed to hire a lawyer and make notes to itself about applying for the residential property-tax deduction after all. The trick is to get through this evolution without burning your instincts for fuel. Don't turn into the co-workers that looked blankly at me, when I told them that Kurt's body had just been found. "He was the singer for a band", I started to explain, before I realized that nothing I could say would reach them. So I'm not sure whether Kenickie is more important to me because they sound like girls growing up without forgetting why being a girl is powerful, and I'm heartened by this, or because they sound, seen from the other side, like adults who've figured out how to sneak back into childhood for recharging when they need it.
It certainly doesn't hurt my experience of this album that I already like so many pieces of it. Here in the US, new bands get contracts, make records, and then release singles from them, but in the UK the recorded output often goes in the reverse order. As a result, by the time At the Club came out I'd gone through a pile of Kenickie singles in preparation, pieces of which compose more than half of this record. Three-fourths of the Skillex EP makes it onto the album, two songs from Punka, two from In Your Car, and the a-sides "Millionaire Sweeper", "Nightlife" and "PVC". I worried, when I first picked the album up in the store and saw the track list, that I'd be disappointed, so few new songs, but instead I'm proud. It was hard to tell, taking short singles in isolation, and mixing a-sides with experiments, whether Kenickie were really going to live up to their own mythology, but I thought I heard enough evidence to believe they were, and the album is my vindication. "In Your Car" was a catchy single, but here at the album's opening, where its swirling guitar intro acts like a sonic fog machine, and the first words you hear on the entire record are an insistently inquisitive "Tell us exactly!", it's a much more sweeping statement of intent. The robotic murmurs and sputtering drum machine fusillades of the b-side "Private Buchowski" are hard to gauge on a three-track single, where there's insufficient context to tell whether the band knows their relationship to Gary Numan or are just mocking him, but finding it here, holding up track six of a sixteen-song album, tells me that they understand what steel and plastic can support. "Millionaire Sweeper", next, is able to borrow some of "Private Buchowski"'s energy to keep its wistful pathos from sounding resigned. "Nightlife", halfway between Manic Street Preachers' "You Love Us" and the Jam's "Town Called Malice", is an unexpectedly literate nod to some less obvious ancestors. Five of the earliest songs are loaded, audaciously, into the second half of the album, just when it's most critical that the band prove it has more to offer than a few early fluke hits. The jerky "Punka" is the most Shampoo-like, its subdued b-side, "Cowboy", the least. "PVC" is like a remake of Nirvana's "Lithium" that explodes into a combination of My Bloody Valentine and the Go-Go's on the ecstatic choruses. "Come Out 2 Nite" is a giddy, handclap-buoyed neo-Buzzcocks sprint. And the solemn, aching "Acetone", a cello-and-acoustic-guitar relationship quandary without any obvious solution ("I would like another way to breathe"; "And as I spit my dying wish / You're listening to something else"), seems to me both a stirringly beautiful conclusion for an album, and a particularly courageous one, as it provides the record with nothing vaguely resembling emotional or musical closure. The pacing of this album, alone, is ample evidence for me that Kenickie has a lot more mileage left in their first burst of inspiration, even if they never have another great thought between them.
And the songs that are new to me, however few of them there are, bolster this conviction. "People We Want" rings with a slow optimism that Elastica's accelerated metabolism couldn't tolerate, and in amongst its details of desperate courtship it captures the persistent hope that keeps leading us into the relationships that Sleeper always seem to only see the pitiful tail ends of. "Spies" is brash and slashing, like an Elastica based on Pere Ubu, rather than Wire. "Brother John" is like an acoustic remake of Veruca Salt's "Seether" that substitutes trumpet for guitar blasts, and airy harmonies for Post and Gordon's snarl. "Robot Song", for all the beepy noises tossed in to justify the title, and the Luscious Jackson-ish half-spoken vocals, is lyrically, to me, one of the album's most disturbingly unflinching songs ("I hate the taste of skin. / It's terrifying, / Reminds me of the truth / That biting bits of you / Can bring you home"; "I wish I had the skill to stop my thinking, / Concentrate each breath, / To make sure that it's done, / It's not instinctive."). The galloping "Classy" is the realist anthem ("We're on our backs looking up at the stars", becoming "We're on our backs looking up at the stairs", and "We make things out of dust / So we can smash them up", which may be my favorite summary of the warring urges to break and build since the TMJ theme song) that "In Your Car" and "Nightlife" are slightly too preoccupied with other questions to become. And the drifting, frail "I Never Complain", apropos to the stabs of Tubeway Army guitar and glassine synthesizer, gets its calm from the helplessness of nightmare, not the equilibrium of rest.
If Shampoo embody Girl Power, then, at times so tangled in the web of it that it's impossible to reconstruct exactly how they got there, perhaps Kenickie are the ones capable of subordinating charisma to cognizance when the situation requires it. I'm not sure whether the point of doing this is to question the premises of the movement, and correct its course, or whether it's simply to explain the precepts to those who are unable to just accept them on faith. Either way, playing this record makes me feel like I've seen a glimpse of one of the elusive sparks that animates all life. My firm personal aversion to nail polish and halter tops may keep me out of Girl Power sing-alongs, but what I learn from listening I still get to keep.
various: Random (Gary Numan tribute)
Gary Numan fans are one of the few subcultures as thoroughly disenfranchised as young girls, so it's strangely just that my two icons of Girl Power, Kenickie and Shampoo, should both be instrumental in returning Numan to some kind of position of respect in the musical world. Shampoo's version of "Cars", from the single for "Girl Power", happened too long ago to be included in this potentially daunting two-CD collection, I guess, but Kenickie's "I'm an Agent", which originally appeared as a b-side for "In Your Car", opens disc two. Tribute albums are not, I think, exactly the greatest format innovation of the past few years. In a way I suspect they arise out of the same well-intentioned impulses that lead you to "harmonize", loudly, with a song you particularly like that comes on the car radio while you're driving. You love it, and you want it to know how you feel, and how else can you express your dedication? Well, you could shut up.
However, I think Gary Numan is a songwriter who actually deserves a tribute. With his goofy cyborg imagery and thin robotic voice he's an easy target for glib dismissal, but objectively I believe you could pick few artists who have had as distinct, and largely unprecedented (Bowie notwithstanding), a personal style, and who seem as solely responsible for the existence of a major branch of rock technique. Despite his historical position, though, Gary's recent albums have been mostly ignored, and until this recent spate of them, I knew of only one cover of a song of his (the Judybats' version of "Cars" on the single for their song "Daylight"). Part of the reason for this, one has to admit, is that in the mid- and late Eighties Gary made a string of dreadful albums that virtually nobody in the world other than him liked, and since then has retreated, misanthropically, into flying airplanes, while a series of opportunistic labels with contract leverage put out a baffling panoply of redundant compilations, seemingly designed specifically to suggest to the world at large that he is either dead or retired. He isn't dead, and has even kept making records (and improved ones, at that), but since they come out on his own label, you're unlikely to encounter them casually.
Every time I go back and listen to the eight Beggars Banquet albums that constitute his heyday, though (Tubeway Army/Dance, Replicas/The Plan, The Pleasure Principle/Warriors, Telekon/I, Assassin, to take them in the catalog order of the four now-definitive two-each reissues), I'm impressed anew. If you simply can't stand the mechanist posturing, which pervades even the Tubeway Army guitar-punk albums, Numan will forever be a closed book to you, but the relationship between man and machine is almost certainly this age's most significant cultural theme, and Numan is one of the few artists to assemble a coherent corpus dedicated to the idea that machines may be our way of expressing our most human urges, rather than our least. Machines, after all, are not imposed on us, like Nature is. We make them. Where is our self-image clearer than in the breaths of life we try to give our constructions? What we create is how we see ourselves. When Numan wrests beauty out of clockwork and right-angles it seems to me like a greater achievement than finding it in tree hollows or cliff-face sunsets, because our ability, as a species, to make our own beauty, and infuse our devices with it, is in a sense our capacity for aesthetic survival.
Numan's resuscitated legacy comes in two parts. The real impetus for this tribute, my own feelings about Shampoo, Kenickie and Gary's songwriting aside, is that the techno movement has made him something of a retroactive visionary. His haunting, strained songs share very little spirit with techno's chattering rhythmic permutation-swapping, but he was one of the grand masters of the synthesizer, and so, like Jean Michel Jarre, he gets swept up by implication in a movement that is not really his own. About half of the twenty-six songs on this set are techno-ish remakes or remixes of one form or another. St. Etienne nearly transform the obscure b-side "Stormtrooper in Drag" into ABBA. Peck Slip make a sort of Garbage-like meditation out of the lean-years track "I Can't Stop". Posh sound like a rawer Republica churning through Dance's "She's Got Claws". Underdog shreds The Pleasure Principle's "Films" into a Beastie Boys-like hip-hop DJ rant. Sukia manages to make the Replicas' standard "Me! I Disconnect From You" into something even more robotic than the original. The Orb end disc one with a ten-minute reassembly of Tubeway Army's "Jo the Waiter" in which only a few scattered hooks are still recognizable. Jimi Tenor turns "Down in the Park" into soundtrack music for a disco carousel. Towering Inferno's version of The Pleasure Principle's "Metal" is an uneasy merger of a surging techno-metal backing track and a disarmingly artless female voice edging warily through the lyrics, and Dubstar's swirling "Everyday I Die" is in the same vein. Pop Will Eat Itself fold Tubeway Army's "Friends" into their trademark rap/noise/metal frame. Republica sound enough like Siouxsie fronting a peppier Numan band already that their version of "Are 'Friends' Electric?" seems nearly effortless. And Dave Clarke, the only participant willing to essay "Cars", opts only to remix it, updating the drum track and exaggerating, as if this song needed it, the vocals' nasal twang.
The versions that excite me more are the ones that sound like products of deeper respect, not just for the equipment Gary happened to be using, but for what the music meant to him. Matt Sharp and Damon Albarn's version of the b-side "We Have a Technical" and Bis' chirpy half-ska "We Are So Fragile" cast lines from Britpop. Gravity Kills turns another b-side, "Poetry and Power", into a vicious metal-industrial roar. EMF sound almost like their old, impish selves, skipping through Telekon's "We Are Glass" amidst a happy clamour of incidental sound effects. The Magnetic Fields eschew keyboards entirely, and do "I Die: You Die" with just a cello, a banjo, some amplified scuffing and Stephin Merritt's gravely, permanently-muted voice. The normally confrontational Earl Brutus turn in a version of "M.E." whose diligent accuracy only flags long enough for a bizarre guitar solo in the middle. Kenickie's "I'm an Agent" is airier and shinier than Numan's, but otherwise basically faithful. Moloko, on the other hand, make their version of "Are 'Friends' Electric?" into a spare jazz-funk odyssey, like Nina Hagen singing with the soundstage band from an old Star Trek episode. Chris Holmes' "Remember I Was Vapour" sounds like an attempt to simultaneously reconstruct U2's "Numb" and Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" using only Numan source material. Amanda Ghost, the only contributor to try a recent composition, does a version of the post-Sacrifice single "Absolution" that moves from sounding like Laura Nyro singing with an oscilloscope to an almost Alanis-like guitar-and-voice duet. Deadsy's methodical, lumbering rendition of "Replicas" is actually more ominous and mechanical than Gary's. Windscale's trippy acid-rock/garage-band take on I, Assassin's "War Songs" is probably the collection's oddest moment, and Jesus Jones' crunchy, infectious "We Are So Fragile" is probably its most conventionally successful.
My own favorite track is the quietest one, An Pierle's almost subliminal "Are 'Friends' Electric?", with just her and a piano. Where other bands attempt to make Gary Numan into Nine Inch Nails, An tries to make this song into Tori Amos. The combination only sounds odd on the surface. Gary's songs, at their best (i.e., not "Cars"), rely as much on expressive nuance as Tori's, and An's dramatic dynamic shifts reproduce the song's emotional range much better than a homogenous techno buzz. Her expressive singing also highlights the pained questions in the lyrics, to which I have yet to hear conclusive answers, and there's even a chance that hearing this song done this way could prompt you to reevaluate it.
So maybe there's a point to tributes, after all.