Sunday, September 16, 2012

Video Affects - The Smiths, Girlfriend in a Coma

Morrissey is coming to NZ this December. It's kind of a big deal, I guess, with people of my age, added to that the fact Moz hasn't visited these shores in twenty-one years. There's the sense that this time, a bit like The Pixies maybe and Bowie (though we didn't necessarily see that one coming) is a 'last chance to see' sort of gig. Nevertheless, I'm already double-booked, so there we are, and there I won't be, Boo.

I discovered The Smiths late, like most of New Zealand, the late Eighties being (as I see it) the last gasp of our Antipodean six months/two years-behind-the-rest-of-the-world-in-pop-culture factor that led to most of our punk bands arising in the early Eighties and Acid House not really a going concern until 1989 at best. By the Nineties and the arrival of the Worldwide Web, our embarrassing South Seas Bubble would burst, but 1987-1988, The Smiths were a vaguely-known thing to me; the source of obsession by a schoolmate Mark, and of bewilderment by yours truly.

Enter the video for Girlfriend in a Coma, one of their last singles. This is a video that's a signature of the band, is in a big way irrelevant to the song with its scenes from The Leather Boys (as much as their album and single covers steadfastly eschewed images of the band themselves, opting istead for silver screen idols), yet rewards the viewer curious enough to follow up the images (I haven't) - to get to know the band without actually seeing the band. Front and slightly left or right of centre is enigmatic frontman Steven Morrisey in action, and this as far as I can recall, ismy entry point proper to the world of The Smiths. By my second year of university a couple of years later I'd heard pretty much all I could get my hands on, bought their albums and resold them again for ridiculously small fare (but then I had to eat), and having learned a few songs along the way and taken all I could at the time from them, moved on.

But the video was a serviceable entry point for the band, as late as it was to their story. Here's Morrissey at the corners of the frame, singing devotedly to the black and white image of Rita Tushingham, the singer's colour and the footage's monochrome separating the two subjects until the 1:40 mark where Morrissey's face becomes merged with that of co-star Colin Campbell. The rest of the band are absent, as is the case for the other videos from parent album Strangeways Here We Come, and the vdeo says nothing of The Smiths' internal ructions and impending split - in fact, it's business as usual.But it was enough for me. I'd not seen a video like it, in a decade known more for putting musical artists in increasingly narrative or cinematic contexts, here's a video apparently about adulation and worship. Curiously introverted, studied and coy. It started me on a short road of Smiths fandom.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"We Used to Have Answers"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Lifeblood' (2004) And now the mid-Nineties synth job. Produced by industry veteran Tony Visconti, there’s little redolent of his long-time collaboration with David Bowie here, unless you count the late-era slapped bassline in Always/Never. Instead, the overall sound reminds me more of early Steve Lillywhite, producer of Big Country, a later incarnation of Manic influence The Skids, and certainly album opener 1985 contains a decent likeness of a typical Stuart Adamson guitar fill, but elsewhere is reminiscent also of late career U2 and mid-career Coldplay. Which goes some way to saying that while James Dean Bradfield’s guitar is present, it once again shares the roster with other instruments, namely keyboard washes and piano lines (more Lillywhite), muting the tone and softening the edges.

 Lyrically Lifeblood improves on Know Your Enemy, although there seems a less obvious polemic at work. Nicky Wire described the album as ‘elegeic’, and maybe that’s more apt than first appears, because I sense more resignation than protest in its songs, of offences being commented on after the fact; Emily, Wire’s comment on the usurping of heroine status of Emmeline Panckhurst by the likes of Princess Diana (“So pity poor Emily / You have been replaced by charity”.) We’re leagues away from the inflective of The Holy Bible, and even now listening to the album certain phrases come to mind: ‘domesticated’, ‘middle-aged’, almost ‘dinner party’. Nobody’s nose is going to be put out of joint by this offering – even in 2004 a reference in Empty Souls to “collapsing like the twin towers / falling down like April showers” was overdubbed for the single release.

 If anything, Lifeblood is perhaps a little too homogenous, succeeding in recovering the sense of continuity that its more celebrated predecessors (Bible, Everything, Truth), but the risk run here is that the songs, particularly after the first half of the album, tend to merge rather too well, and as a result the album drifts off to sleep shortly before closer Cardiff Afterlife and its Smiths-styled harmonica wraps things up. The eighties are all over this album for me, from the aforementioned Lillywhite sound (To Repel Ghosts could have come off U2’s October), to the lyrical opening of 1985 (“In 1985, Orwell was proved right / Torville and Dean’s Bolero, redundant as a sad Welsh chapel”) and its nod to the bands who would inspire the Manics’ creation (“Friends were made for life / Morrissey and Marr gave me choice”)

Cover Story: Slick and somehow anonymous. Text is along the lines of Everything and This Is My Truth (which seems apt and sensible after the less than spectacular efforts on Know Your Enemy). Computer-enhanced blood splashed over a nude figure against a white background. The motif’s presented further inside the liner notes, but the shots of the band members posed ‘reacting’ to splashes of red don’t work so well – it looks like it may well be – Ribena spilled on some black and white photos.