Thursday, 21 February 2008

JOSEF K: The Missionary

If the new millennium in music is to be guided by tautness of guitar strings, rapidly of strumming movements and references to immediate pre-war 20th century art and politics then "The Missionary" could be counted as the first true pop record of 2000 and beyond; certainly Franz Ferdinand have made a career out of singing this song, and to his credit Paul Haig is eternally grateful.

To an important degree Haig was always going to be a curious mixture of awkward and inflexible ever to make the New Pop crossover; he was steely where Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame were cautiously cuddly, a little too machine-like to transcend as Kerr or MacKenzie did - and remember that Haig was expected to be the third prong of that latter crown of punctum. As things turned out, he hitched onto New Pop expansiveness a year too late and never really recovered; unlike fellow Edinburghdonian Davey Henderson he could never quite make the Fire Engines-to-Win comfortable quantum trot.

"The Missionary" appeared as the lead track of a three-track EP entitled The Farewell Single in the spring of 1982; the recording was taken from a Peel session and was as important to this greatest of half years as anything else happening in the Top 75 - a considerable indie chart hit, its appearance on the Belgian Les Disques du Crepuscule imprint prevented it from mainstream crossover (though it came surprisingly close). What strikes me about the track, then and now, is its uncanny resemblance in efficiency and approach to Kraftwerk; the guitars are thrashed but clinically, with great deftness and at maximal points of impact, the drums are ruthlessly on track even when improvising, there is no seam through which a mistake can be glimpsed. It is Postcard indie gone motorik.

And Haig's Iggy-trapped-in-Oor-Wullie's-inverted-bucket voice is ideal for this consideration of modern world versus ancient, commercial ("Buying some trash without too much paying") versus spiritual, even if the latter still comes at a price to the outsider - the would-be saviour is "Passing through small towns that have no religion/See all the faces that make it so charming" but scarcely draws breath to "talk to the people" there before thinking "about leaving." Back home, he thinks of his own pseudo-faith ("Come back next Sunday and give us a reason") but still his song has to be eternally sung in his grateful head.

The music moves between three points of a triangular ping-pong table, both lead guitars overlapping like Steve Reich and the Stooges, breaking off into a harmonically unresolving debate in the bridges (punctuated by Haig's chiding "ch!"s); in the third and final verse one of the guitars, almost unnoticed, takes the melodic topline up an octave, but this combusting pot is never in peril of exploding since they soften down for the final minor key sequence, a regretful adaptation of the bridge motifs, anchored by Haig's serpentine extended hiss of "sssssssss-sing the song and eternally grateful" before landing on an as yet unpopulated airstrip. Its emotions are hard won but they were a necessary strip of grey gauze on that shiniest and most yellow of springs.