Sunday, 27 March 2011

After The March: Complaints and Complicity

All this complaining about “spoiling the march” and “mindless violence”. As if the black bloc were the enemy. They are not the enemy. Let me repeat that: THEY ARE NOT THE ENEMY. The enemy are the men with the suits in Westminster and their pals in the City and what should be being complained about – over and over, again and again – is the vile things they are doing in order to keep themselves in money and power. The black bloc are not closing libraries. The kids in balaclavas are not cutting disability benefits. The ones who threw paint bombs and flares are not the ones closing youth centres and privatising higher education and dismantling the NHS. They are not giving tax breaks to huge corporations or happily waving multinationals through neonlit tax loopholes or spending public money on bail-outs only for the guilty parties to reward themselves with bonuses that would pay for the nurses and teachers and midwives needed for society to function in a humane way. They are not the bad guys here.

Add to this the fact that these same interests, these same politicians, are continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have brutalised the populations of those countries in ways that we over here, protesting righteously about our library closures, can scarcely understand. Every day that we allow our elected representatives to get away with making monsters out of young British men in uniform, turning them with ruthless efficiency into haters and murderers and rapists and torturers, every single day that we allow ‘our’ forces to bomb and terrify and oppress countries that are not threatening us, we are complicit in that horror. It is utterly disgusting. Of course I am angry. Of course I loathe the people in power who are doing these things. Of course I loathe the people who enable them to continue to hold that power, and that includes the wilfully dim BBC as well as the boys in blue and yellow.

So here are some facts about yesterday’s protests to balance out the bias:

1.  UKUncut are not the same people who chucked paintballs and smashed windows. Anyone with half a brain and Facebook can work that out. So any newspaper or television station that muddles the two is either terminally stupid or has an agenda. They are complicit in a misrepresentation of the march that suits the status quo down to the ground. I am not particularly impressed with the target that UKUncut chose – occupying a tea shop, however posh, is hardly going to shake the foundations of capitalism – but I can see that they had good intentions and were careful not to compromise themselves. Good for them and their disobedience; disobedience is the only way that anything will ever change or ever has changed. As much as I wanted to stand up and be counted by being on the march, direct action is so much more effective than trudging.

2. The people who DID throw paintballs and smash windows are not “mindless yobs” as some high-up copper claimed. And as countless people have been repeating, from UKUncutters, to MPS, bloggers, comedians, journalists and anyone else who fancies disassociating themselves from the taint of ‘violence’ and ‘criminal damage’. Firstly, violence against property is not the same as violence against people, and it was pretty clear that there was no indiscriminate bashing of bystanders by the black bloc (the same cannot be said for the police). Secondly, it is not mindless to target the banks, when it is the government’s inhumane solution to the banking crises that the wider march was protesting. They also smashed a Starbuck’s windowpane and chucked paint at the Ritz. Pfft. So what? Good on them. Those paintballs are joining the dots: they’re making it a class war, rather than the subtle re-shuffling of resources and closing of loopholes that most people are meekly asking for. This is the way that capitalism works: it works for profit not for people. It is a bad, unfair and destructive way of organising resources. People suffer. Many die. A few, a very few relatively speaking, gain immense wealth. And horrible, violent, prolonged war is part of the deal at the moment. I don’t want it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. But I am complicit in it because I am not stopping it. I am not going to apologise for the thrill I felt on seeing the broken window at the Ritz or the splattered paint running down the front of RBS and Santander: I wasn’t alone in feeling it either, judging by the number of people laughing and snapping pics on their phones. I’m glad that there are kids who are also so angry about it that they have the guts to express their rage like that. They are not demonstrating stupidity or yobbishness by protesting in the way they do, however much spin is put on it. May they continue to rage.

3. The police aren’t neutral bystanders in the events. They may well be working class men and women next in-line for job cuts, but they are also the people who allow the state to continue to exist. They allow it to work in the crap way that it does. Of course those kids in their hoodies were spoiling for a fight: I saw them hopping about with pent-up frustration, aching to go chuck something at those tooled-up riot cops, just as I saw the police twitching to go after the kids. I saw them throw placards and firecrackers after the riot police got heavy-handed, but they weren’t the ones with the batons and the armour. The police were there on the streets of London yesterday to curb disobedience and dissent; they were there as the physical manifestation of State repression and I make no apology for sounding like a polytechnic Marxist: it's true. The ones with machine guns I saw in front of Downing Street more obviously so than the genial PCs who gave us directions to the loos in Hyde Park, but I also clocked the heavily-armoured police protecting De Beers and the Ritz and the riot cops kicking their heels in huge numbers behind Burlington Arcade. Their complicity in the system is noted. I’d have loved a full-on defection to the cause, as happened in Wisconsin, when the police sent to turf out the occupiers of the Capitol joined the protesters, saying that they knew who the worked for and it was the people, not the politicians. But it didn’t happen yesterday. Shame.

4. The violence in Trafalgar Square wasn’t anything to do with UKUncut or the class warriors, although there may have been some overlap in the people who attached themselves to both and then were in the square later. It was the riot police being inappropriate and twitchy and wanting to teach a few lessons to uppity kids. People were hanging about having a party, enjoying the feeling of being in possession of the city. It’s a wild feeling, being able to stroll across Hyde Park Corner and down the Strand in crowds of thousands; watching the limos getting turned around; stopping the traffic: I remember it from the anti-Poll Tax demo. Of course people wanted to occupy Trafalgar Square for the night: if I’d have been their age I’d have stuck around too. We stopped there during the afternoon and chatted and listened to London Calling booming out over the big black lions; it was as if worlds had temporarily flipped over and all that city stuff, all that pomp and marble and space, was ours. All your base are belong to us. So, come nightfall, the police wanted to clear the square, nip that proprietorial delirium in the bud, make all the kids, partied-up and high on righteousness, go home and be good. THAT’S why there was violence. Watch the videos, read Laurie Penny’s tweets from inside the kettle: if you get hundreds of riot police charging at unarmed people and start battering them, you are going to get some fighting back. Wouldn’t you resist? The fact that some bins were turned over and set on fire is really neither here nor there compared to the fact that there is a video on Youtube showing several huge great men with shields and helmets bundle up and arrest a girl with tears running down her face, who is trying, ever polite, ever hopeful that logic and decency will work on them, to tell them that she hadn’t done anything wrong.

I watched John Pilger’s film about the media’s part in the Gulf War not long ago; it was illuminating and heartbreaking in equal measure. What struck me most were the chuckled denials from the heads of news at the ITN and the BBC that they could have been expected to know that what the government was feeding them was lies. Never mind any tradition of incisive investigative journalism, how could they possibly have known that there were no weapons of mass destruction? That the dossier was false? That war was going to be a mistake of epic proportions and that it needed to be stopped, not justified? And I remember marching for hours on a similar spring day to yesterday, I remember my feet aching then as they do today, I remember the same jubilation in being part of such a colossal show of feeling, the buzz of the mass, the shouting, the singing, the placards – witty and articulate or brutally plain – that were waved by the same colourful variety of people as I saw yesterday… Then I am forced to recall also that despite all the marching and chanting, despite the million voices raised against war, the government went ahead anyway and bombed a relatively peaceful and prosperous country to bits, then compounded the bombing with sanctions that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. We all fucking knew what was coming, in essence if not the mindboggling severity of the reality. We knew. We protested. We were ignored.

So don’t be telling me than a few hundred kids in balaclavas have spoiled anything for anyone. If the media and the government chose to use firecrackers and burning bins as an excuse to smear the entire movement against cuts, refuse to be any part of it. Ask yourself: who are the bullies? Who are the criminals? Who are the destructive thugs? There is so very much to be truly, deeply, burningly angry about at the moment; if a march of half a million doesn’t force the radical change that is needed to fix the situation (and reports now suggest very strongly that it won’t) then something else will have to be done instead. It’s up to us. It’s up to you.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

What I really expected was for Wounded Rhymes to follow the usual second album taming process. Sure, I was ready to take it to my heart, hungry as I was for more, but with wistful backward glances at Lykke Li’s remarkable debut, Youth Novels. It’s the way these things work.If you need an example, look to The Unthanks, whose unpolished mixture of strangeness and simplicity (plus those gorgeous voices, as unpop and earthily creamy as you like) made their first album, The Bairns, a masterpiece (I'm conveniently ignoring their real first album, 2005's Cruel Sister, mainly because I haven't heard it and I'm pretending no-one else has either, so the ascent from obscurity schtick I'm playing with here doesn't yet apply), but who were renamed, tidied up, fiddled about with and produced into a more straightforward, Mercury Prize-friendly proposition (2010's Here's The Tender Coming) next time round. It was almost as if someone with a suit/beard combo had sat down and transcribed faithfully what the Northumberland clog-dancing folkies sounded like, but hadn’t the gumption or imagination to articulate their utter, fantastic wildness. It’s not that Here's The Tender Coming doesn’t have perfectly lovely moments, and of course it has the larynxes of Becky and Rachel, but it’s not stumbling over the moors any more with burrs in its hair and the tears streaming; it’s dressed-up and pretty and presentable to the grandparents.

A similar thing happened to Laura Marling’s second offering (2010's I Speak Because I Can), after her first album of songs of startling, youthful originality (2008's Alas I Cannot Swim). It’s something to do with the naivety of the newbie that can make a first album that special; some kind of raw awkwardness that, prehaps inevitably, dissipates with record deals and budgets, age and status. (It may or may not be a coincidence that the three examples I’ve picked are by women. And, of course, I’m sure that anyone could find me three good counter-examples of second albums which have made the progression from generic to remarkable. But.)

So Youth Novels had all of that big-eyed gawky freshness, it tottered about on shaky foal legs, and was just absolutely humming with the alarmingly mercurial self-confidence of a teenager. I loved it at first listen. Especially for the way it constantly teetered on the edge of being wrong. Some of Li’s peculiarities of phrasing, her lispy infantile vocals, her whispered lines, were almost odd enough to be painful to listen to (see Bjork for someone who’s made a career for herself out of such tics, also Joanna Newsom, or CocoRosie, a band whose vocal eccentricity is well past the point of unconventional, is teeth-grating but marvellously so): but that almost-wrongness, of course, was precisely what made it brilliant. Youth Novels throbbed with inventiveness, with its minimal backing, brassy synths, primal percussion, blips and bloops and abrasiveness and the scuffed sweetness and unexpected turns of Li’s grainy vocal lines; it was an extraordinary piece of work.

It’s no surprise then that Wounded Rhymes is not as extraordinary as Youth Novels. But it is wonderful. Triumphant. And bigger. Much, much bigger. Of course it’s more polished. Of course it’s more produced. The kitchen-sink clattering of Youth Novels has been replaced by enormous thunderous drums, multi-tracked heavenly choirs, and melodies that come in great trembling reverberations. There’s ‘Jerome’, the huge melancholic ballad of a thousand broken hearts, with its rolling timpani, bereft wails and handclaps. There’s the pounding, prowling, un-PC booty call of ‘Get Some’, its leers and shrieks and wanton promises (“I’m your prostitute; you gon’ get some”) capturing the dirty of the album’s ferocious sex n’ love n’ obsession theme. Or the closer, ‘Silent My Song’, with its booming echo-chambers the size of subterranean caverns and mournfulness to fill the lot of them, howling out in witness to the murderousness of love.

Of course, there’s defiance in there too: this singer has not been muted, quite the opposite, and the pain of love and the delirium of sex instead of stifling her has filled these songs to bursting. The whispering has gone; Li belts out the tunes with the full-throated retro verve of an Amy or an Adele, and if it’s not with their virtuosity, then that doesn’t matter one jot: there’s always the drums to beat up a storm beneath her. Where Youth Novels seemed at times to have been beamed in from an alternative universe, Wounded Rhymes dances its way into an appropriately exalted place in this world with sure-footed references to Pop Past, all shoo-wops and rock’n’roll riffs. She seems to be fulfilling in spades the promise of sheer pop stardom that she oozed from the stage when I saw her play a couple of years ago. There was quite a disjunct between the small, dark venue, more used to being thumped about on by middling level rock outfits, and the fantastical whirling figure throwing shapes up on the stage, who was quite obviously already a fucking STAR.

My guess is that as the acclaim for Laura Marling and The Unthanks’ less extraordinary sophomore releases far surpassed that for their debuts, this album will be widely seen as Lykke Li’s moment; polished, produced and grown-up is where the wider world gets its kicks after all, however much more strange and marvellous the first hatchings might seem. This time, because what Li has produced has made such a success of the inevitable, has ramped it up and maxed it out so much that a positive virtue is made of the necessity of maturation, I think that it’s worth applauding the process. Maybe this time there will be a fitting correlation between the levels of attention heaped on a less unconventional second album and its quality. And perhaps kohl-eyed, birdlike Swedish girls with armfuls of bangles and wild stares can be the megastars they should be in this world.

I hope so.

(First published on Collapse Board)