Why Artists Should Stick To Art
What can we learn from examining these CDs?
That puppet master Gerry Anderson (Thunderbirds, Stingray, Space: 1999) is a first class buffoon who never got over the Second World War, nor the fact that his animated creations fell out of fashion in the ’70s. Look at his selections: a Dire Straits song (“Calling Elvis”) which he helped make the video for; theme music to his various series like Thunderbirds and Lavender Castle; interspersed with snatched radio memories from the war (Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” the Red Army Choir’s “Cossack Patrol”). Look at the selections he didn’t make: Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String”–included only because a couple of people at EMI thought it would be a “good” idea, incredibly enough. Years after Thunderbirds composer Barry Gray died, Anderson still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Gray was once more widely fêted than himself–as shown by his inclusion of two Gray compositions, neither in its original form. Anderson is every trainspotter’s dream: a self-obsessed, woefully insecure pushover who is still at everyone’s beck and call. Look at the poor sap on the back sleeve, holding the hands of his most famous “Supermarionations” as he waves good-bye to us. You almost start to feel sorry for him.
What else do we learn? That Gonzo artist Ralph Steadman (Fear and Loathing, Leviathan, Leonardo da Vinci) is a pretentious, cross-dressing pseud. Steadman, however, has the wit to state that his musical choices are balanced “by the desire to be moved to laughter or to tears”–he is aware of the pitfalls inherent in making a selection which commentators are going to link to his art. Hence, he is able to include some genuine oddities next to more obvious choices. For the former, there’s Spike Jones’ iconoclastic, Oscar Wilde-debunking “Cocktails for Two”; English folk oddball Jake Thackeray’s “The Blacksmith & The Toffee Maker”; and Bob Kerr’s self-explanatory “Making Whoopee.” For the latter, there’s himself; William S. bloody Burroughs; Leonard bloody Cohen; Billie bloody Holiday; Beet-bloody-hoven. The trouble is, by spreading his net so wide–to include classical and even 15th-century madrigal–Steadman’s collection is almost unlistenable. At least you can begin to understand, however, why his drawings are so schizophrenic, warped, and unpredictable.
Forget pop music for a moment. All culture is ephemeral, throwaway. Show me someone who still reveres Shakespeare, Beethoven, the Velvet Underground, Picasso, Debussy… and I’ll show you someone who can’t be bothered to seek out the new, the challenging, that is always out there. (Pop culture commentators are often applauded for bringing certain “scenes” to wider attention–for example, U.K. punk ’76 or U.S. grunge ’89. I would argue that every area in every age has its fair share of talent–nothing stands out above anything else–all that alters is the focus, the veneration).
Are you listening Banks, Thompson… and Barker?
Best-selling horror/fantasy U.K. author and painter Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Weaveworld) is a complete sap. Only two styles of music exist for him: the mawkish and the pompous. Anything else is both distasteful and redundant. One could say the same for his own writing. Check his CD’s juxtaposition of the classical next to the filmic next to the sentimental. His choices veer so radically and self-consciously between “spooky” and “safe” it’s painful. I’m not doubting the sincerity of the writer’s comments on South Pacific’s “Bali Ha’i” (“one of the greatest songs of yearning I know”) or his inspired inclusion of both Fred Astaire’s classic “The Way You Look Tonight” and the tender “Baby Mine” from Walt Disney’s Dumbo… but I do object to him being so overly reverential toward cod-classical music. Benjamin Britten? Oh,please. And only a true wanker could like Diamanda Galas’ perfectly pitched screeching. Plus, his paintings are crap.
At least godfather of underground comics Robert Crumb’s (Weirdo, Zap, Mr. Natural) selections have the merit of introducing a (presumably) completely new form of music to his audience. Anyone familiar with Crumb’s meticulous, painfully autobiographical work will know of his fondness for the American dance orchestras of the ’20s, and his near-legendary 78-rpm record collection. Anyone who’s seen Crumb, the moving, full-length film centered around his dysfunctional family, will already understand why the cartoonist wants no truck with the second half of the 20th century–as evinced by his selections on That’s What I Call Sweet Music, all from the 1920s. Good for Crumb. Here is a man who clearly searched out his favorite music, who didn’t stick with the fashionable and present-day, but rooted back in the past until he found music that would suit his moods. On the positive side: That’s What I Call Sweet Music, out of any of these CDs, offers the swiftest escape route from the everyday–surely the prime purpose of any art form. On the negative: I fucking hate the sound of the ’20s–the only image it sparks off in my mind is that of the pampered, cosseted, white upper-middle classes lording it up while their Negro slaves toil in the kitchens.