February 22nd, 2006


Hits in a parallel universe

The idea of the hit in a parallel universe is an old critical saw. I guess you use it of songs which sound like hits, but find themselves released in the wrong time period, to the wrong public, or without sufficient promotional or financial clout. At worst, the phrase designates derivative, overly catchy songs which sound like the hits of yesteryear. At best, it can summon up a better world, a world where talent goes rewarded, word of mouth makes hits, and the public has great taste.

I thought of this phrase twice in the last week or so. Once when I saw a very impressive concert here in Osaka by my Glasgow friends the BMX Bandits, and once when deciding on a final running order for my 2006 album Ocky Milk.

Despite having a horrible sleeve, "My Chain", the new album from the Bandits, is a very strong one indeed. (James Goggin has agreed to do the "Ocky Milk" sleeve, so I know it'll be at least as good as the "Otto Spooky" sleeve. These things are important, and not just in a parallel universe.) David Scott (the man behind Marina band The Pearlfishers) brings his skill for baroque Beach Boys / Bacharach-David arrangement and production to Duglas T. Stewart's sometimes unbearably desolate songs, and the result is... well, a series of hits in a parallel universe. The live show was storming. Afterwards I asked David why he wasn't bigger than Elton John. He didn't seem quite sure himself; like me, he finds it utterly weird that Elton John is as big as Elton John. In other words, it's what happens in this universe which is the truly baffling thing.

My album was supposed to be the ultimate exercise in optimizing marginality by taking risks. Remember, back in November, how I was working with avant garde producer Rusty Santos, and talking about my record as if it would mostly be the sound of a fingernail scratching a cow udder for 45 minutes? Well, it didn't turn out like that at all. Even before Rusty left, I'd thrown that blueprint out the window and started making silly pop songs about bears, or enka-style torch songs. The first track I made that sounded like "a hit in a parallel universe" was "Nervous Heartbeat", finished on December 6th. This one, which builds through vocodered verses to a massive and unashamedly sentimental Chinese riff, sounds like the hit Johnny Ray would have had in the parallel world of 1950s China... if he were using the technology Cher had at her disposal when she made "Believe". People, this is a massive, massive hit! (Okay, perhaps I don't mean "people", perhaps I mean "klingons" or "odradeks"...)

Since then they've kept coming: "The Birdcatcher", "Frilly Military", "Permagasm", "Hang Low"... in some world where I'm a pop star (the world where I look like Martin Webb, for instance) and have a big record company behind me, these could easily make me as big as Robbie Williams. (Hopefully not as unhappy, though.) I mean, several songs of mine have sold 250,000 copies and been hit singles, and I think I have a sense of commercial potential, if not really much ambition these days in that direction.

But there's something worrying about making music which "could be a hit" and "could be on the radio", which is that the music which is and does these things is mostly unbearable. I avoid it at all costs, normally -- last night I turned around and walked out of a restaurant which was playing commercial pop music, and went instead to a restaurant (Rio in Amerika-Mura) playing World Music and children's songs (including a wonderful Malaysian version of "Coming Through the Rye"). Also, it may just be that this music sounds "commercial" because it's made by old songwriters who've got better and better at writing a certain kind of song, a song which resembles the hits of their formative years. And yes, some of this new "commercial material" does sound a bit like me when I sounded like the Pet Shop Boys. Uh-oh! Could that "parallel universe" really be 1986?

This is the feeling I get when I listen to BMX Bandits, to rhodri's band The Free French, and to some of the material on "Ocky Milk". This is stuff made by middle-aged songwriters, and the problem is that as we've got older our music has become too commercial, a bit like Bowie in the 80s. I'm sure lots of people are going to love this stuff, including very young people. And in a way I'd prefer to be making songs that stick in your mind than Alejandra and Aeron-type ambient music, much as I love that, or the sound of an udder being scraped. But when we hear music that's "a hit in a parallel universe" we have to ask what's so great about hits (especially those that aren't), and whether we'd really want to live in that parallel universe anyway. I mean, I know that the alternative me that has hits is a pretty unbearable person, for a start. And not necessarily leading a more glamorous or enjoyable life than the real me, right here, right now.

Thank god John Talaga is currently fucking my material up in ways which make it completely radio outrageous!