William D Drake – The Rising Of The Lights (Onomatopoeia)
by Lucy Cage
Or: How I Stopped Worrying And Learnt To Love the Cardiacs.
A fair chunk of music that has been produced this year could be classified as music for people who don’t like music. A fair chunk of all pop music ever has been. You know the type. When I was a student everyone had to own Bob Marley’s Legend and Born In The USA. That was how it was. Produce the cassettes and you get to wear your keffiyeh down the uni bar. Not that some of it isn’t good – draw your own Venn diagrams here – but the music that gets sold at petrol stations has a particular flavour to it. I mean, if you’ve only bought a couple of albums in the last six months and you’ve picked from Fleet Foxes, Adele, Lady Gaga or Eddie Vedder and his faux-rustic, common man, back to basics ukefuckingleles, you’re consuming music in a very different way to someone who devours it for breakfast, lunch and tea, whose pulse beats faster at the thought of the filthy shouty racket that the best new band in town will make tonight and who can actually literally feel their mouth watering when they read enticing reviews of new releases (please tell me that’s not just me).
Everyone I’ve met who likes Cardiacs has LOVED music. Every single one. There is no such thing as a casual Cardiacs fan. They have the hunger on them. Music isn’t an optional extra, it’s the centre, the hub, the pivot around which everything else wheels. They get the shivers, they get the buzz. They don’t get Death Cab For Cutie from beside the till at BP before a long journey home to see the folks.
I’ve got to confess I’ve had my problems with Cardiacs in the past. Sometimes I’ve found their wackiness so teeth-gratingly irksome I’ve wanted to gnaw my feet off rather than listen to a minute more. It was so bloody wearisome, all that snickersnackery bouncing around. I wanted to put it under a blanket and sit on it. It had the same effect on me as Camel. Or Yes. Made me snarl. But recently I got roundly (and deservedly) berated on Facebook for dismissing a documentary on prog rock that someone had posted a link to. Pfft, not watching that, I smirked; it’s all codpieces and public school boys being pleased with themselves. Twattery that prizes ‘technical proficiency’, that chill passion-killer, above gawky inventiveness. Boy music. Clever-clever fancy footwork that does not ring my bell, no way, no how.
Which, behind the facetiousness, betrays a common-enough repulsion for anything that doesn’t conform to a class-conscious, post-punk directness; to an authenticity (whatever the fuck that means) which pays homage at the altar of down’n’dirty rock’n’roll by spurning silly time-signatures and mock-classical tomfoolery. Punk gobbed on music in 1977, so the story goes, and washed the streets clean of the degenerate, self-satisfied dross that the likes of ELP and Rush were wanking out over the album charts; freed us all to scorn the stomach-turning excesses of prog in favour of DIY attitude; got virtuosity stomped on by rough & ready’s size 12 DMs. Grrrwk: take that, velvet waistcoats! Sppplaf: take that, unnecessarily fiddly flute solo!
Well, the story is distorted rubbish. I was wrong about prog. Yes, it can easily be caricatured as indulgent wankery, but, as a savvy friend of mine said, it is actually as much about an attempt to find beauty as anything else. And that’s a quest worth following to the end of the line (even if it does involve whole symphony orchestras and unnerving facial hair). There’s nothing inherently pompous about being difficult; nothing gobworthy about ambition.
Cardiacs isn’t exactly prog, anyway. It’s been called pronk – a hybrid punk/prog beastie, combining prog’s proficiency with punk’s spikiness – which is going to have to do as a defining something, but there’s an anti-Cardiacs vibe at play in the press that is tied up with the anti-progism that’s been so evident in (un)critical thinking about music for the last few decades.
Nor is it boy music, not by any definition of the term that you care to make up on the spot. The audience for the Cardiacs-associated bands I saw last weekend was as gender-mixed (and enthusiastically engaged) a crowd as I have seen at a gig for years. Women musicians and fans abound in the Cardiacosphere. And a Cardiacs song which employs tricksy time-signatures that flick the rug out from under you just as you’re finding your feet in its patterns is going about the business of bending, breaking and re-making the rules in a contrary multi-coloured glory, not about proving how clever it is, as the most boyish of boy music seems intent on doing.
That story is wrong about punk rock, too; there was a good thick strand of fun and silliness to punk and its aftermath (think of Captain Sensible, if you must, but also of X-Ray Spex who were quite capable of being daft as well as furious) but somehow the Great Punk Creed that obliterated the cred of prog has managed to create a situation today where joyless fucks like Kings of Leon get lauded for their grittiness and the pogoing loons have been forgotten. How did worthiness win out over moshing? History is a peculiar business.
Of course Cardiacs’ music is clever. Of course it is fiddly. It is jagged. Silly. Playful. Roaringly scritchy. Stop-start-stop-go-go-GO widdliness to end all widdliness. It is, oh god, fun. It is jaunty. Jaunty. For fuck’s sake. A word that should make one and all wash their ears out with Pussy Galore. No leather kecks here. Nor cool, neither, not a drop of it. But what there is, is joy. And snatched beauty, so much better than the complacent here-it-is-on-a-plate kind. And songs that skitter hither and thither in wild abandon to make untidy girls in stompy boots and flowery dresses shake their hair on the dancefloor and laugh like maniacs. What the fuck was ever wrong with joy in pop music? When I stopped worrying about the whimsy and started feeling the noise, it all made sense. I got the scritchiness bug.
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