Wednesday, 7 May 2008


"If rock 'n' roll is just entertaining, then it's only using ten per cent of its potential"
(Miami Steve van Zandt, quoted in the NME, week ending 7 December 1985)

Standing on the edge of a broken sky indeed, but still I feel the need to say that something needs to be done about BBC music radio. Oh, I know there are far greater demons facing off against us in 2008 than to have to worry about a crappy public radio service - but maybe the latter helps to feed the former. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago Radio 1 was more or less what Radio 2 is now - stiffly naff, acknowledging the new with the barest and most grudging of nudges - it has developed into a furiously anxious champion of newness, all newness, whatever its form or underlying quality. To tell the truth the only time I ever bother to listen to the station in depth is when the venerable Westwood is on, and generally it is to listen to Westwood first with the music an increasingly distant second. Otherwise, if you can negotiate the endless jingles, plugs and shouting, there seems little underlying change; a nauseatingly matey, enclosed world where every new act, every new record, is de facto great and nothing matters in the irritating world outside - and of course the newness is purely cosmetic, since in the case of genuine new music Radio 1 has generally run as far away from it as it can possibly manage; there is now no hope of a renegade John Peel type broaching the moat.

Meanwhile, Radio 2 continues to cosset its conservative - small or capital C, take your pick - audience, the one which no longer has the time or energy it might have had in 1978 or 1982; and welcome the sanitised new muzak vision of contented, who-could-disagree canons of rock and pop divorced from the energies, politics and sex which gave this music life in the first place; finally you get your Pistols, your Clash, your Joy Division even, neatly and contented wrapped up in a handy package for disbelieving, shaking heads, many of which wonder what the fuss was in the first place, taking their due place beside Phil and Rod and Mick in the unending catacombs of rock-as-nu-MoR tapestries, a sanitised landscape where the follies and idiosyncracies of the past can be safely buried or smuggled into 6Music and where - in total contrast to Peel, whose show was once simulcast on Radios 1 and 2 - any supposedly "difficult" music is flagged up from a distance of 50 miles as though In Rainbows were a set of contraflow-inducing roadworks, the overseers terrified that their listeners will switch over to Virgin or Heart at the merest hint of discordance or independence of thought - whereas Peel had the gift to leave things there for the audience to take as they might.

Thus the recent spectre of Mark Radcliffe fearfully trying to reassure his village-owning followers that Portishead are normal types, really, that they are not as "weird" as their music might suggest, i.e. please don't switch off and turn to Michael Buble four times an hour. Thus the increasingly bathetic babble which in turn is squeezing actual music into a tighter schedule, early fadeouts now commonplace, all the better to allow witless, punchline-free "banter" or a plug for X's new book or Y's new film...and we can forget what the music they are playing once meant, or could still mean.

But Portishead haven't forgotten, and surely the thoroughly deserved commercial success of Third - straight in at number two first week, not that far behind Madonna - has belied the crass demographic assumption that people will flee from "new" music unless it trots up and licks their hands like a cheery spaniel (see the Zutons, Guillemots, Kooks ad terminum).

And their memories remain vivid and hurt. "Hunter" refers back uneasily to the semi-comfy Portishead that we previously assumed we knew with its patient brushes, Frankie Laine guitar ripples and Dammers-via-Satie piano - but its opening transition from a bell tree absconded from Montague Terrace (and never as blue) into a thudding heartbeat immediately positions us away from ease. It's still after the war, and she is still crying, trying to retain a grip on what she might previously have known as the world ("A new evidence is what we require in this world").

There are two major interruptions to the song; first, the air raid guitar returns, now lower and more snarling, as she stands at the edge of her broken sky, and second, a 1970 computer data bank burble (sometimes accentuated by the keening guitar, sometimes bustled into the future by Barrow's suddenly busy snare runs) via Dazzle Ships, but always coming back to this purple heartbreak, this grey grief:

"And if I should fall, would you hold me? Would you pass me by?"

This is not to say that Radio 2 still cannot divulge unheralded revelations; on his show last night, Desmond Carrington played a Vera Lynn recording I'd never heard before, from the early seventies, a modified version of the Tom Paxton song "Whose Garden Was This?," and its pitiless vision of a post-nuclear wasteland wherein the survivor struggles to come to terms with the absence of the green meadows and the blue rivers, or, as the song goes on to imply, can't remember their existence in the first place ("Can you SWEAR they were there?") sounds all the more startling coming from the Voice of World War II - her final, angry "then why is this forest EMPTY?" disappears into a terrible echo.

And it fits with eerie perfection into "Hunter"'s picture of stumbling victims:

"So confused - my thoughts are taken over,
Unwanted horizons face me instead - won't let go."

Because that's what it comes down to, in any end; you can't tear down structures or beliefs and gleefully display fragments of the wreckage in pretence that they still exist, and trying to pretend prevents those of us who are determined not to let go of what we remember (rather than clinging to it) to present a truer picture. Most things in the world right now are a very long way indeed from great or super, but as there is comfort so must there be revelation (because it makes the comfort greater) and so seemingly unpleasant truths have to be faced and I have to emphasise that "seemingly" because if we can't get past that "seemingly" like Jane Eyre or Psyche managed and get close enough to witness the hopeful beauty within then we have truly had it.