The Second Hand
306 · 7 December 00
Paul Hyde: Living Off the Radar
One: In the room with the printers, the copiers and the mailboxes, at the software company I work for, there is a large framed photograph on the wall. It was indifferently composed, the subjects are arrayed with no particular logic or presence, there's no caption, and the print is probably four times as large as the original snapshot's resolution actually justifies. I think it was taken by the guy who assembled our first cubicles, and I don't remember what reason he gave, at the time, except it certainly did not contain the words "founders", "enshrined" or "posterity", and when he later presented us with this nicely-mounted enlargement, I'm not sure we were properly appreciative. But there are nine people in it, our first nine employees more or less, and we look inconceivably calm, like we have no idea what is to come, which of course we didn't. Our first programmer has since left, as have our first office-manager and our first network guy. The other six are still with us, more than four years later. I'm the one in front, with the soccer ball. The company now employs more than two hundred people and just announced version 5.0 of our product. In the compressed time-scales of the web, and the skewed perspective of companies that grow along hyperbolic arcs, four years and five versions are minor eternities, and most of our people, statistically speaking, arrived late in the process. That blurry picture of the nine of us has thus assumed a sort of talismanic significance, a bit of tangible evidence of our origins for those who postdate them, and more than one new person has said, as I've introduced myself to them, "Oh, you're in The Picture". They don't know what I do, and they only know my name after I tell them, but they know that I represent, in some oblique way, History.
Two: Last week, after a dinner with some music-geek friends, we all trooped over to one of our favorite used-CD stores and spent a while collaboratively trawling for bargains and oddities. After a series of willfully obscure selections by whichever staff member had won control of the store's stereo, somebody put on Boston's "More Than a Feeling", with which I began humming along happily. "I always forget," said the friend two bins down from me, "which city-band is this?" Struck speechless, I could only gesture around us. This one, this city, the one we're living in. The guy in the aisle across from us, noticing my dismay, then compounded it by admitting that he'd never heard the song before. Never heard "More Than a Feeling"? I spent several seconds trying to imagine why somebody would assert something so baldly preposterous, and then it slowly dawned on me that he was serious. He is a few years younger than I am, and thus grew up in an incomprehensible alternate universe in which "More Than a Feeling" is not Western civilization's finest one-song summary of FM Radio, and thus of mainstream musical culture. The one who forgot which city it was later claims he's never heard anything from Rumours. I am used to being the one without the sense of history, since so much that has happened during my awareness stems from earlier roots, but for a moment, in this particular company, I am the elder, relating tedious stories nobody really wants to hear about how things used to be. And in the youth-dominated environs of popular music, in fact, this is coming to be less unusual. At thirty-three I feel the balance of precedent starting to shift from what I think of as the past into what I think of as the present. We are now starting to revive things that I hadn't yet forgotten about from the first time. And my changer, this week, is filled with people whose histories I will feel obliged to retell.
Paul Hyde was the lead singer of Payola$, one of my favorite early New Wave bands. They made the albums In a Place Like This, No Stranger to Danger and Hammer on a Drum in 1981, 1982 and 1983, after which they changed their name to Paul Hyde and Payola$ for 1985's "Here's the World For Ya", and then again to Rock and Hyde for 1987's Under the Volcano. A patchy 1987 retrospective, Between a Rock and a Hyde Place, covers all but the last of these. The tense, choppy "Eyes of a Stranger", from No Stranger to Danger, was their biggest hit and a multiple-Juno-award winner at home in Canada. "Where Is This Love" and "Christmas Is Coming", from Hammer on a Drum, were my personal favorites. Payola$ guitarist Bob Rock, who was the "Rock" in "Rock and Hyde", is now one of the five or six most important producers in rock (Lanois, Albini and Mutt Lange?; not sure who I think the other one or two are). And Paul Hyde? Well, until I ran across this new album in a Misc. Import H bin, I had no idea what had become of him, but apparently it is his third solo album, after 1990's Turtle Island and 1996's Love and the Great Depression, which I've yet to find more trace of than entries in a discography. I take it from the title of Living Off the Radar that I'm not the only one who didn't realize he was still writing songs. But having successful friends can be useful, and Rock both lent Hyde an eight-track to get started on demos, and then made a couple weeks in his Maui schedule to record the real thing. Hyde and Rock split the guitar and bass duties, engineer Brian Joseph Dobbs plays most of the drums (although two songs do feature Payola$ drummer Chris Taylor), and whether Rock tones down his hard-rock production bombast consciously, or working with an old friend evokes older resonances on its own, or they would have made this sound gigantic but they simply didn't have time, the album comes out admirably understated, not nostalgic in any overt way, but a spiritual throwback to simpler times all the same.
Payola$ were always easier to categorize culturally than musically. Many of their early songs had punk urgency, and they shared some reggae influences with the Clash and the Police, but in retrospect the later albums seem alternative more by association than inclination, and for Living Off the Radar Hyde doesn't both to disguise his songwriting impulses as anything other than straightforward, melodic, adult rock in a tradition that runs back through the Odds, 54-40, Rick Springfield and Neil Finn, and perhaps nods, in opposite directions, towards Bruce Cockburn and Bryan Adams. The sweet love-song "I Think You Hung the Moon", the opener, is mid-tempo and sturdy, with squarely thwacked drums, supportive bass, cascading rhythm-guitar changes and some pealing, George-Harrison-esque lead hooks. The brash, lurching "I Loved You Before I Met You", co-written with ex-Odds singer Craig Northey, is the album's one notable misstep, to me, the melody too repetitive and Paul's son David's rap interlude, though an understandable sentimental touch and plausibly executed, still incongruous enough to constitute cultural tokenism. But "Any Day Now, I'll Be Found" returns to guitar-centricity, surging like recent Big Country or Midnight Oil. "Wonderland" is not a cover of the Big Country song, but a solid, jangly anthem that rises from folk strumming to synth-buoyed, Jeff-Lynne-like effusion. "I Want You" is spare, crisp and redemptive, resolving into a wistful chorus of "The quiet girls with fat legs, / The chubby boys with big heads, / The second-hand, the nearly-new, / I want you." Rock turns on a few guitar-mangling gadgets for the incendiary anti-drug rant "The Snake", but the pounding drums pound without industrial aid, the odd vocal treatments are used sparingly, and when an acoustic guitar joins in on the chorus the whole soaring thing reminds me vividly of the Call's "Oklahoma". "Forgiven", though, is as intimate as "The Snake" is stentorian, Hyde sounding like a less somber Peter Gabriel or a Richard Butler who quit smoking earlier, a restrained organ whir coaxing the music towards lullaby. "This Is a Love Song" is a cheerfully sneering punk anachronism that switches from churning verses on the order of "Treason"-era Naked Raygun to choruses with a touch more of the flamboyance of Billy Idol's "White Wedding". "The Fireman Rushes In" could be a menacing Dire Straits remake, but the spangly, party-dregs dissolution of "My Brilliant Career" is charmingly enough undermined by the squashed production of Carol Pope's duet part (imported whole from the demo, and a reprise of her appearance on the old Payola$ song "Never Said I Love You") that I make another in a long line of exceptions to my well-intentioned rule against pop songs about the sad inner lives of prostitutes. Hyde sounds more than a little like Verbow's Jason Narducy at the beginning of the "Let's Run Away", but by the refrain the song has regained a sunny rock composure that Verbow would never countenance. The terse, grinding "Drugged Drugged", which sounds like a bookend for "The Snake" but is actually a crush song with a drug metaphor, seems like an odd way to end the album, and in fact, after a short silence, it starts up again, concluding instead with a distracted alternate take of "I Loved You Before I Met You" that leaves out the rap, which suggests that even through a father's pride Hyde could tell it didn't belong. Statements? Themes? Arcs? No, none to speak of, exactly, except the implicit, enduring, essential one that spotlights and performances, however much they seem to feed on each other, are fundamentally unrelated. All art originates in obscurity, by definition, and although evanescent notoriety and persistent neglect are each trying, in their own ways, getting to survival is an achievement in self-understanding, not navigation. It's tempting, when things are going well, to believe that if your words echo it's because even the air acknowledges their truth, and it's just as tempting, when they aren't, to believe that echoes indicate an imminent abyss. But the air and the abyss aren't listening, and don't care. We sing for ourselves.
Midge Ure: Move Me
Midge Ure will always be Ultravox's singer, to me, but while Ultravox were making records with John Foxx, Midge was touring with Thin Lizzy, turning down an offer to be in the Sex Pistols and eventually joining Glen Matlock's post-Pistols band Rich Kids, and helping Steve Strange out with Visage, so presumably his post-Ultravox solo-career wasn't as surprising to everybody as it was to me. After a couple albums on which it sounded like he wanted to be Peter Gabriel, by 1996's Breathe it seemed to me that if Midge wanted to be Peter Gabriel, it was a version of Peter Gabriel that Peter himself had lost interest in, a continuation of what "Solsbury Hill" and "Biko" began, before "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" sidetracked Peter in one direction and all those self-congratulatorily cross-cultural Real World projects in the other, studio facility and New Wave's expanded instrumental palette placed in service of songs written with the same compositional discipline that would have been required if they'd been created for an acoustic guitar, a piano or a symphony. Ultravox wrote some real songs, to be sure (I'll stick up for "Vienna" and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" at the Final Reckoning) but they also filled a fair amount of space with noise tricks. The intrinsic flaw in New Wave was the "New" part; the haircuts and the synth timbres went from novel to dated incredibly quickly, and in a sense synth-pop is still recovering from that setback. Many of its innovators defected to dance music or walled themselves up in their own caves, and today we're left with discouragingly few good examples of what a New Wave icon turns into as an adult. Devo and Thomas Dolby retreated into multimedia, Peter Godwin disappeared, Depeche Mode got disreputable, Missing Persons and the Human League imploded, Sting and Patty Smyth overcompensated towards the middle, Joe Jackson and Mark Hollis overcompensated towards the fringe, Morrissey never changed at all, Adam Ant and Billy Idol missed the costumes too much. Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann and Neil Finn are probably the best role models, if only because they each had to overcome seriously goofy hair. Aimee and Neil, however, grew up by becoming pop traditionalists, and Cyndi grew up mainly by keeping making records that didn't sound like "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" until finally everybody either started believing she was serious about it, or stopped paying attention. Midge is one of the few to try to pull the form into adulthood with him, instead of, far more expediently, leaving it behind.
Move Me, then, to me, is a brave and potentially inspiring exercise in imagining what New Wave, freed of the glum austerity of "New Europeans" or the agoraphobic insularity of "Cars", might have unfolded into. Pinging, mathematically precise piano-chimes sparkle through the clipped drum-loops and splayed guitar of the airy, earnest "You Move Me". A gospel backing choir lifts the ironic paean "Beneath a Spielberg Sky", even as it decries our ability and willingness to manufacture counterfeit triumph ("Watch it as it happens on the news, / Live from the camera on the missile"). "Words" starts out like an heir to "Da Da Da" or "She Blinded Me With Science", minimal and beepy, but turns out to be elegantly pan-ethnic, with primitive, rattling percussion under slithering Cajun accordion. "Strong" is a ballad almost as deadpan as "Sister Christian", or "Vienna" for that matter, except the melody twirls where "Vienna" traced morbidly straight lines, and that's the difference between an upholstered sofa and a marble bench. "Let Me Go"'s chattering drums, squalling guitars and eerie piano would all fit in a Gary Numan song, but Midge's voice floats where Gary's would sink. "Alone" is a miniature tour de force, crossing broad-swath Backstreet Boys pantomime with the slashing guitars of recent Rush albums and some of Metallica's measured howl. The chugging instrumental "Monster" is a bizarrely grim non sequitur, somewhere between Black Sabbath and Faith No More, but play the radiant "Absolution Sometime!" back to back with Gary Numan's malevolent "Absolution" and you'll have as stark a contrast between hope and gloom as I can think of. Martial drum splatter and whistling synths circle around "The Refugee Song" without much disturbing its funeral cadence, like a bleak composite of the Waterboys' "Somebody Might Wave Back" and "Red Army Blues" in which the narrator understands exactly what he's lost. "Four" turns on a guitar riff close enough to the Edge's in U2's "Until the End of the World" that I think I would have either rewritten it or worked it in as an allusion, but "Somebody", the record's finale, backs up and does a credible job of summarization, combining watery piano, glassy synth pads, muffled guitar, twitchy drum-machines, an Icicle Works-ish chorus solemnity and an angelic falsetto vocal that makes me wonder, for what feels like the first time, how much Thom Yorke owes Midge. The New Romantics approached music like it was architecture, and architecture, as an aesthetic impulse, spends more time out of fashion than in, but Move Me rings like an apology and a new resolve, like Midge now sees which mistaken assumptions made Ultravox monstrous when they only meant to be grand, knows why the needs of masses and individuals dictate that parade grounds and promenades must have different characters, or else your public spaces all start to recapitulate Triumph of the Will.
Gary Numan: Pure
And then, for a cautionary counter-example, there's Gary Numan's new album, Pure. The first fifteen seconds of Move Me and the first thirty seconds of Pure are composed of almost identical components, and the difference in effect is basically the difference between the albums. In "You Move Me" the piano is bouncy and anticipatory, and the background ambience is like disembodied reverb, the isolated essence of a structure's ability to retain sound. In "Pure" the piano is spectral and corrosive, tolling for something it always despised, and the background hiss is raspy and fitful, like an asthmatic dragging a corpse. True to this form, the rest of the album soaks petulantly in its own miasma, as if enough people have told Gary Numan that he was an influence on Nine Inch Nails that he now only sees the parts of himself that Trent reflects. "Pure" is Gary's version of NIN's "Closer", trading Trent's "I want to fuck you like an animal" / "You get me closer to god" for "Hey bitch, this is what you are, / Purified, sanctified, sacrificed". "Innocence is pain in disguise", groans "Walking With Shadows". "Rip" pretends to be a song of devotion, but seems much more interested in thinking of new extremes to which it can claim to be willing to go ("I'll rip the skin from God's face" is visceral, but of questionable utility) than in convincing its subject of anything, and as a result the "I've got something for you" at the end is gruesome, not romantic. "One Perfect Lie" has the sense to wonder if it's missing something ("If God has a heart he will find you"), but if I'm interpreting the sketchy narrative correctly, it's a posthumous apology to somebody the speaker deliberately abandoned while they were dying. The savior portrait in "My Jesus" is predictably sinister ("My Jesus says 'Their screams will guide you to me'"), and "Listen to My Voice" has even worse things to say about your faith ("The God you love is gone. / He lies broken by your shame. / The thing that took His place already died. / It will send Angels, / Send black Angels for you."). "So, I prayed," "A Prayer for the Unborn" explains, "But she was very small, / And you have worlds to mend", which finally gives all this fury a rational context, but "Torn" is right back to nightmare extravagance, intoning "Silently I feel you breathe on me, / And I hear mercy sigh and leave the room", which leaves me suspecting that Gary just made up the dead-child scenario for effect, and I whiplash from guardedly sympathetic to betrayed and furious, and when "Little Invitro" returns to the lost-child theme I have no patience left for it. And "I Can't Breathe", the conclusion, is so self-consciously terrified that I'm left thinking that at least the kid in The Sixth Sense who talked to dead people was learning interpersonal skills.
But I've liked albums with drearier messages than this. I appreciated The Downward Spiral, after all, and Pure's notion of nihilistic angst is far less juvenile than that. But The Downward Spiral, however much it owed to a multitude of sources, also broached some musical ideas that were new to me, so I was motivated to find a way to assign the lyrics to some time-honored artistic tradition, like journals from trips into Hell. Pure, unfortunately, inspires no such tolerance. Gary spent the late Eighties and early Nineties making a series of albums that seem to me to be identically over-mannered and identically forgettable, and although he finally broke the streak with 1994's Sacrifice, the 1998 follow-up Exile was disturbingly similar to Sacrifice, and now Pure raises the possibility that Bill Murray got through Ground Hog Day only to find himself trapped in the day after Ground Hog Day. Crackly quasi-industrial drum-sample-loops, macabre synth textures, gnashing guitars, wraith-like backing-vocal tendrils (mostly generated by processors and pitch-trackers, not people) and Gary muttering in a chill-inducing voice like an premature gargoyle infant dispensing baleful curses: I guess I've now heard as much of this as I care to. I loved Sacrifice, and I eventually managed to enjoy Exile by treating the repetitive elements as a background pattern you're not meant to dwell on. This time, though, it's not working. I can't focus on the background, because it bores me, and I can't focus on the foreground, because it makes me feel sick. If precedent holds, Gary will put out an extended version of Pure next year, and I imagine I'll buy it, if for no other reason than that I don't think we have, collectively, paid Gary back yet for everything he gave us long ago, and most of you appear to have stopped contributing to the cause. But thinking that I'll like this soul-gnawing self-indulgence any better at longer lengths is like thinking that chewing on aluminum foil would get less unpleasant if you didn't give up so soon.