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Haunted House Music: the kitchen

December 11, 2007

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The kitchen might have been made of music since 1936 when, perhaps, Robert Johnson gave birth to the modern blues song in his kitchen, but that’s by the way.  In Come On In My Kitchen, Johnson offers a refuge from blues landscapes and blues weather, but not a refuge simply from the blues (which predate Bakelite as legally copyrighted material by exactly ten years).  As macho rock ‘n’ roll is reared, and comes to misogynistically define the domestic space as feminine, the kitchen goes quite quiet — except maybe for coffee percolating in The Ink Spots’ Java Jive. But I suppose that’s more the sound of aspiration towards affluence achieved by working in the kitchen’s of richer and whiter people.

In Britain, whose culture industry was always likely to be more domestic (because less aspirational, and less located in a geographical vastness), the kitchen goes pop, and the kitchen goes art.  Tommy Steele, a young cockney star performance a copy of American rock ‘n’ roll filtered through British music hall entertainment, records his 1958 single The Only Man in the Island, the b-side to which is called I Puts the Lightie On.  It’s a camp song making use of the same gremlin-goblin voice effects the David Bowie later uses on The Laughing Gnome.  Steele sings about a little a man who lives in the fridge “with the ham and the butter”, waiting for you to “open and shut her”.  The little man helpfully explains what he’s doing in the fridge — he’s the man who “puts the lightie on.”

There’s a lot to be said about Tommy Steele’s song. Most obviously, there’s the bathetic effect of mimicking a big swaggering American rock ‘n’ roll performance in order to sing about going to the kitchen to make a sandwich.  But more interestingly, Steele sings about domestic appliances–specifically the fridge, one of the shiny symbols of American mid-century prosperity that will help bring Britain out of the post-war era of empty larders and powdered eggs.  In the form of the little man who puts the lightie on, a figment of the kitsch-pop imagination is inserted into the domestic.

So what?  Warholian pop art would make make the kitchen go pop, and kitsch go art, for evermore — so what does this have to do with Britain?  It’s worth remembering that pop art was a British movement, initiated by Hamilton, Hockney, Blake et al.  And this kind of British pop art (mostly offering deranged exaggerations of domesticity when the very idea of domesticity had been Americanised) couldn’t have happened without the thoroughly unkitsch mode of kitchen sink realism typified by John Bratby’s 1954 painting, Still Life With Chip Frier (shown above).  “Kitchen sink realism”, whether in art of in cinema, is probably a bit of a misnomer, anyway, because what Bratby was doing, and what Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson were doing, was really kitchen sink expressionism; that is, social realism through an aesthetically avant-garde lens.

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So much for image.  What about sounds?  More than any other room in the house, the kitchen became a symbol of realism because it is a place of domestic industry and preparation, whereas the living room and bedroom are, in their own ways, full of windows and imaginative portals.  Well, perhaps nowadays the kitchen is too: Jonny Opinion has many opinions, one of which is the sensibly cryptic advice that we should all GET IN THE FRIDGE.

(And calculate.  Bathos: The Art of Sinking in Poetry”: the art of the kitchen sink.)

But the point is, the no-nonsense busy-ness that makes the kitchen a theatre of the “real” also determines the kind of voice that the kitchen has.  Forget the fact that my fridge is so loud that it speaks above me; what could be more invigorating than the sound of a kettle coming to the boil?  Or ice cracking in water, or stainless steel cutlery organising itself in the drawer?  Kitchen sounds are busy and angular and a little unpolished, with some old and unrefined electronic sources thrown in.  No wonder, then, that there are fine examples of kitchen art served up in and around British new wave: take the Associates’ Kitchen Person, the Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen, and Soft Cell’s Kitchen Sink Drama.

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And I’ve been putting fridges in my songs, or putting my songs in fridges, for quite a while now.  In 2001, I wrote a song called Domestic Arrangements, which began, “If you like the sound of your own voice, / Put it in the fridge”, which I don’t regret.  More recently, there’s The Shadow Falls Across the Fridge, Frank, an attempt to open up the strangeness of the domestic space; and I realise now that the shadow (and Frank for that matter) are more or less the same entity as Tommy Steele’s little man who puts the lightie on — all of them creatures from the consumer electronics department of the spirit world.

The myspace page of Amon Tobin, the Brazilian electronica artist and field recordist, is currently hosting four remixes of his track Kitchen Sink (gushing water and clattering cutlery, I think). Here’s an explanation from his blog:

The title of “Kitchen Sink” hopefully gives you some clue as to the origins of the noises involved, but now these sources have been farmed out to an intrepid and international band of remixers.

There it is — domestic noise gets sent out across the world.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Viginia permalink
    December 11, 2007 1:52 pm

    These people are a cocky bunch. http://youtube.com/watch?v=dAk1iHW5LU8

  2. December 11, 2007 5:54 pm

    Yeah, that’s the idea! Creative housebreaking.
    Strange to note that Kurt Cobain posted that video to youtube. I didn’t know he was interested in that kind of thing.

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  1. Haunted House Music: the living room « The Ideal Tiger

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