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Mick Ronson: Hey Ma Get Papa

December 18, 2012

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Everyone has their own favourite “surprise” Bowie song from beyond the trusted territory of the 1969-1980 albums. Mine doesn’t come from the unpromising expanse the wrong side of Scary Monsters, nor does it come from the sixties period before Space Oddity signaled the start of the seventies Bowie; as I’ve already noted, Bowie did loads of brilliant things in the sixties, so a gem from that period doesn’t seem too rare a discovery.

My own pet non-canonical Bowie song is Hey Ma Get Papa, written by Bowie and performed by Mick Ronson on Ronson’s confused post-Spiders album Slaughter on 10th Avenue. It’s easy to miss this song, since it’s tagged on the end of the fairly dire longer song Pleasure Man, by way of an extended guitar / studio effects transition. I can only find one version on Youtube with just Hey Ma Get Papa; happily, it’s paired with an image of a hammerhead shark.

Hey Ma Get Papa is one of three songs donated by Bowie to Slaughter on 10th Avenue, if you include Music is Lethal, a loose translation of a Lucio Battisti song. These songs apparently stem from Bowie’s infatuation with the streetwise, urban American style of the young Bruce Springsteen (Bowie went on to cover It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City), though of course the Boss’s earnest grit becomes something camper when tried on by the Dame: “Now I take pride in the way I behave, never see me stalking around,” goes Growing Up and I’m Fine, unintentionally funnily. The interest in juvenile delinquency was always present in the golden age of glam, as in Ziggy Stardust’s stolen guitars and Clockwork Orange references, or Mott the Hoople’s supreme teenage tough / queenly mincer duet, Violence. Ronson himself would have a bash at this type of song with Billy Porter, on his next album.

What happens to the tough / camp combination, beyond the break-up of the Spiders, at the effete end of glam, sung by the harder, Hull-ier cast-aside-kick Mick? Ronson sounds like he’s straining to sing it like Bowie or at least Ian Hunter, and I think this is what appeals to me about Hey Ma Get Papa, this weird tale about dubious characters called JJ Dean and Pigsty Paul and a sacrificial-symbolic stabbing in the side with a spike from a fence. There’s an almost comical absence of Humberside in Ronson’s voice. (There is usually something enjoyable about all-powerful guitarists made vulnerable as vocalists; I’ve always enjoyed Rowland S. Howard’s solo material for this same reason.)

The song’s not all Bowie, though. As a studio creation, the track grew from Ronson’s apparent interest in Todd Rundgren-like effects such as the lovely sweep of synthesizer that propels the intro to the song. There’s a highly lovable synth solo. Above all, though, what really nudges the song out of the post-Ziggy rut in which most of Slaughter on 10th… is the deranged background voices that infiltrate the song after the first chorus. These at first add to the same mixed glam/Berlin cabaret atmosphere as featured on Bowie’s Velvet Goldmine, but end up sounding like an out-take from Stockhausen’s Stimmung.

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Vindicatrix: Mengamuk (and Die Alten Bösen Lieder)

December 17, 2012

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Vindicatrix’s albums – 2010’s Die Alten Bösen Lieder, and its excellent recent follow-up, Mengamuk — shouldn’t be that hard to place. Plenty of the elements making up these records are familiar enough: the jittery beats and dub wobbles echoing Burial and beyond; some dusty electronics and hanging spirits reconvened from Ghost Box and its hauntological associates; the trembling baritone of later Scott Walker; an atmospheric persistence of ghosts of songs, as heard in The Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom. There’s a context in which this stuff can be placed.

Even so, Vindicatrix — David Aird, by his other name — seems a little out on his own, impressively fitful and contrary. His first album (The Old Bad Songs is the literal translation of the title) wretches up traditional German songs, the gestures of cabaret performances; Vindicatrix’s live shows, by all accounts, are fittingly performances in the proper sense. But on record at least the up-frontness of cabaret performance is turned around. The voice is always buried, whispering under layers of sound like a thing resisting excavation.

It’s an expressive (and expressionist?) voice, working against the logic of the music, dragging down the moving beats. This is music that only the nervous system will dance to, the bone-bag now exhausted and paranoid, having frightened off all potential partners. There’s a comparison to be made with Scott Walker, beyond the low, unnervingly patient voice (I apologise, he probably gets that all the time); a point that came up in Scott’s recent Wire interview about Climate of Hunter, and the juxtaposition of slow-moving vocalizations with more frenetic rhythms, could equally be made about these records.

When the voice does surface and really make itself heard, its usually expressing something uneasy and extraordinary, as on Mengamuk’s brilliant opening song, Cellophane, when I think Aird sings, with rare impatience, “I need an organ! What’s an organ between friends?” It’s a good question, though it’s also likely that this is my own mis-hearing. I’m happy to hang onto my uncertainty.

Stills from La Guerre est Finie

December 14, 2012

(Alain Resnais, 1966)
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Why sit in the dark handling yourself?

December 13, 2012

We need to talk about what a song is, and what a song can be. This subject perhaps sound tedious, but it isn’t. It’s thrilling. We need to have a big, long think about what Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch suggests about the song-form in general.

I’ve had a week to digest this body of work and here’s a sketch of some thoughts I’ve had about Bish Bosch, so far. I expect that I’ll go on having thoughts about this album because, like Tilt and The Drift before it, Bish Bosch will take a lot of processing. And because this is a record that stays heard, that haunts.

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 “See You Don’t Bump His Head” is how it begins. And this opening song is bumpy, a pounding of drums contrary to the caution advised in the title. A footnote in the accompanying booklet tells us that the title is a line spoken by Montgomery Clift in From Here To Eternity, as Frank Sinatra’s corpse is carried off. Furthermore, this is actually a missing line, a line eventually cut from the film. (Cutting apart, cutting out texts and sounds, extracting chunks here and there, is key to Scott Walker’s compositional process.)

 You can hear Sinatra – the emotionally-neutral-with-flecks-of-morose Sinatra of In The Wee Small Hours, an album that insists upon its own loneliness, a man miserable in a room – you could hear this all throughout Scotts 1 through to 4 (“uneasy in my easy chair,” sang Frank; “the only sound to tear the night comes from the man upstairs,” sang Scott). Now here Sinatra’s just the now-silent corpse carted off. The singer’s fallen silent, the line’s cut out, Scott’s going on about “plucking feathers from a swan song” – there’s an awful lot of plucking or hacking away at song’s plumage in this record, so what’s left is song-meat and song-bones to be contorted or re-shaped in often violent ways, entrails examined. I remember a performance of Xenakis being described as “exfoliating”. These slabs exist, “suspended” as Scott and David Toop agreed about the voice in a recent interview, amongst passages of silence, empty air.

SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) is the album’s centre-piece, by some distance the longest song, and apparently the first-completed piece, the track that determined the character of the album at large. Zercon brings together images of suspension, existing precariously high above (the footnotes help out again here): a cold sub-stellar body, Saint Simeon on his pillar, the early 20th century fad of flagpole-sitting; vertiginous heights, but also scatological depths (how can you stoop so high?). The dominant voice is that of Attila the Hun’s deformed dwarf jester. It’s an amazingly coarse song, full of impressive outbursts like this:

No more
dragging this wormy anus
round on shag piles from
Persia to Thrace.

I’ve severed
my reeking gonads,

fed them to your
shrunken face.

which is a hell of a resignation speech (compare, perhaps, with Malcolm Tucker’s closing outbursts in the recent final episode of The Thick of It); this has been a good year for final expressions of disgust.)

There’s plenty else holding Zercon together: the numerals intermittently recited (I V I, V IX IX III etc…) signifying–what?–an ancient take on Roxy Music’s CPL593H refrain? Then there’s the clamour of rams-horns; after the meat and wooden box on The Drift, all the talk has been of farts and machetes this time around, but to me its these old testament animal-part noisemakers that make the maddest clamour.

There’s always a silence around the corner: Zercon is a jester, spitting out abusive (or self-loathing?) one-or-two liners but finding himself, as Walker himself explained it, “heckled by silence”: the voice is sent out into silence and darkness, supported by nothing. There’s something gloriously un-reassuring about these silences; the songs’ characters exist, like the people in Samuel Beckett’s radio work, as voices in a frightening darkness, out of which swarms of strings, clacking percussion, fizzing electronics may or may not emerge at any given moment.

Bish Bosch sees Scott becoming more Beckettian, also, in his lyrics’ unflinching bodily preoccupations. In childhood I had a friend who went through a phase: whenever he had a bruise on his arms or legs, would draw an outline around the bruise with a biro, and re-draw the line each morning so that his body was eventually just an obsessive chart of former damage.

These songs take violent, microscopic, slapstick-comic, invasive, biochemical approaches to the human carcase, making you realize how comparatively unbodily most supposedly visceral popular song really is. Take the closing image in Dimple, of a “lowering left-testicle night” and imagine how easily the following passage from Beckett’s Molloy might be filtered into Bish Bosch:

I had so to speak only one leg at my disposal, I was virtually one-legged, and I would have been happier, livelier, amputated at the groin. And if they had removed a few testicles into the bargain I wouldn’t have objected. For from such testicles as mine, dangling at mid-thigh at the end of a meagre chord, there was nothing more to be squeezed, not a drop. So that non che la speme il desiderio, and I longed to see them gone, from the old stand where they bore false witness, for and against, in the lifelong charge against me. For if they accused me of having made a balls of it, of me, of them, they thanked me for it too, from the depths of their rotten bag, the right lower than the left, or inversely, I forget, decaying circus clowns.

Bish Bosch finishes off, of course, with Scott’s Christmas song, in the form of a personality test taken by Nicolae Ceasescu (before? after?) his Christmas Day execution; the same scrutiny applied to the body is now applied, chillingly, to what I expect is called human character.

 

[Finally, this is probably as good a time as any to give an airing to my earlier illustration of Scott Walker punching a donkey in the streets of Galway.]

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Stills from This Sporting Life

December 6, 2012

(Lindsay Anderson, 1963)

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Monster Momus Musical?

June 3, 2011

Sometimes a piece of news makes such good sense that it takes quite a while to mentally process the information. The word from Momus’s Tumblr site is that a “cinematic Momus musical” is being planned. Peter Webber, director of Girl With a Pearl Earring is involved, and the provisional title is Monsters of Love. (Personally I’d have gone with Hippopotamomuses of Love, but that’s OK.) Furthermore, it’s hoped that Leo Chadburn a.k.a. Simon Bookish will be doing clever arrangements of highlights from the massive Momus book of songs.

I think we can all agree that that’s a good idea.

These ought to be our pop stars (part 1)

May 13, 2011

In the finest possible way, Vulnavia Vanity makes me feel like I’m sixteen again.