September 14th, 2005

operesque

Paul is dead

In the 1960s there were The Beatles and The Stones, rival bands led by Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. And in 2005 there are still The Beatles and The Stones, or rather, there are record releases by Mick Jagger's band and by Paul McCartney in the form of A Bigger Bang, the new Stones album, and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, the new Paul McCartney solo album. Both are being hailed as "returns to form", but I think they're something else altogether. I think they're the work of impostors.

David Bowie also popped up this week, performing with The Arcade Fire at Fashion Rocks. He did "Five Years" and "Life On Mars", as well as some Arcade Fire songs. Although it was heartwarming and exciting to see him (Bowie's been rather quiet since his operation), the performance was oddly dis-spiriting. Here was a man trying to look and sound like the Platonic idea of David Bowie, having obviously studied the vocal and visual mannerisms of David Bowie as he appears in the popular imagination. You couldn't help thinking "It's not a bad impersonation — he got the hair just right. But the real David Bowie would always be a couple of steps ahead, trying to look and sound like someone else. This man is trying to look and sound like David Bowie, so he's obviously a fake".

The same so-authentic-it-must-be-fake thing is going on with the Paul McCartney album. Produced by Nigel Godrich, that master of faked retro authenticity, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" makes you think "God, this guy used to be in, be, The Beatles, and this could almost be a new Beatles record, and yet The Beatles is like another era, the Cretaceous not the Holocene. Isn't it impressive that life is so long, and that artists can just keep going on and on, like the Queen?" At the same time, there's some suspicion that this might be a much-parodied artist parodying himself better than his parodists ever could (because of course he has the exact same voice as Paul McCartney of The Beatles, and doesn't sound much older than he did on "Let It Be"). Mightn't acclaim for the album be coming from that conservative instinct of the public to hear a familiar artist making a familiar sound, the same instinct that made everyone applaud Bowie's reunion with Tony Visconti, and their "late period parody" style using old tricks you recognise from old albums?

So here are the plonking piano style of the typical Beatles ballad, the lush vocal harmonies of the "Abbey Road" period, those richly sentimental George Martin string arrangements you remember from Eleanor Rigby... Everything, really, except the experimentalism of late Beatles. And you have to ask yourself whether it's self-parody, or just... well, just self, that thing that just doesn't go away as long as you live. That agglomeration of habits and tricks and reflexes and shortcuts, ambushed by the occasional self-challenge and the inevitable challenges of the ageing process. (Why challenge myself, the artist muses, when Mother Nature is making such a good job of it?)

I know how easy it is to do this; I've done it myself. I thought of my 1997 album "Ping Pong" as a "return to core Momus values", guided by the fact that some younger artists in London at the time seemed to be influenced by my work. I tried to hear my own work through their ears, hear what they were specifically attracted to, and focus on making more work in that vein. Instead of trying to become someone else, expand, I tried to become myself, or rather, my earlier self, as curated by these young whippersnappers (people like Anthony of Jack, Dickon of Orlando). The result was a sort of self-parody, in the form of songs like "My Pervert Doppelganger". But of course the old work contained this divergent movement, this desire to be a new person, and the new work contains a convergent movement, the desire to be who you "are", so the attempt to recapture the spirit of the past always fails.

To put it another way: there's a time when a rock star like Mick Jagger has an ever-changing hairstyle, and each time we see him it's new; long as a woman's, fringed, tousled, primped, and so on. But then at a certain point we notice that he's just trying to look as much as possible like the image in the popular mind of "Mick Jagger", and that his hair looks like "Mick Jagger hair", as if that hairstyle has been fixed for all eternity as the Platonic idea of Mick Jagger hair, and Mick himself is now just another guy trying to look like Mick Jagger.

If you wonder where the 1960s experimentalism of The Beatles and The Stones went, and regret that the conservatism of the public tends to mean that their wilder, more divergent moments never make it to the Platonic ideal of who they're considered to be, never seem to get into the fur ewig version, that marble bust which the original artists and their imitators alike model themselves upon, I have good news for you. There's an online museum of the avant garde which contains, amongst other treasures, wild experiments by members of The Beatles and The Stones. It's Ubu.com and it's back after a summer-long period of refurbishment. Here you'll find the real Mick Jagger rather than the Jagger impersonator on the new Stones album; a Mick Jagger who proves his authenticity by doing the last thing we'd think of as "Jaggeresque": playing a solo monophonic Moog composition for Kenneth Anger's 1969 film "Invocation of My Demon Brother". And here too is that part of the spirit of The Beatles which, although it doesn't make it onto McCartney solo albums, authenticates by its startling unrecognisability the Beatles identity: John and Yoko's 1971 film "Erection". It looks and sounds nothing like "The Beatles", so there's a good chance it's a work by one of them, containing the missing, maverick spirit of the group. The dead Beatle is obviously the living one, and the living one dead.