By Duncan Harman.
Turntable and Blue Light’s editorial office. The top two floors of a converted warehouse in the Bowery. It’s chic, it’s drafty, and when I arrive, there’s a crowded conference suite; half-dressed midgets performing Bavarian folk songs. I don’t ask. The editor’s inner sanctum – known colloquially as the Den of Pain – contains a desk the size of a small Caribbean island. I can just make out the editor herself on a distant shore, up past the paper clips. She’s reciting war poetry of an ancient, undiscovered civilization. Or maybe telling me I have to have 1,500 words ready for the Halloween issue – she’s so far away, it could be either. I take the safe option and nod. “And make it spooky” (I think) she yells on my way out. The midgets are still busy singing. I don’t ask.
“Make it spooky”. Spooky – I looked it up in this big book that explains what words mean. In reference to horses, it defines acting in a nervous or skittish fashion. In any other context, it means eerie, scary. Coldplay, in other words. Or maybe not even Coldplay, more the waves of cultural and critical acclaim that such safe, anodyne, soulless drivel continually generates. Any combination of earnestness, pretentiousness and anaemia is begging for public ridicule (plus any band who name an album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends deserve to spend the afterlife in the company of Billy Corgan) – and yet they shift records in astonishing amounts. I don’t get it. Why Coldplay? Even the merest glimpse of Chris Martin’s smug face makes me desperate to hide in the refrigerator, and I grow mightily scared when I crawl onto the shelf next to the yoghurt and those pesky elves slam the door shut. The prospect of writing 1,500 words on what Gwyneth Paltrow likes to stuff in her ears leaves me headed directly for that consignment of semi-legal vodka Keith Richards gave me after I’d discovered that he’d had his entire internal organs replaced with those harvested from Cambodian orphans, and I’d promised not to write about it in any of my articles. Several vodkas calm my nerves enough to stagger over to the stereo. A Prolapse album, played at some vulgar volume, that should do the trick.
Ah, Prolapse. If Coldplay’s global exposure is in inverse proportion to their inventiveness, Prolapse did it the other way round. Or, as my neighbours probably won’t testify, there’s something rather special about this all-too-quickly-forgotten band from a lost decade and a dreary city in the border country that’s neither North nor South, the UK’s very own Mason/Dixon line. Leicester is a city I know well, an urban persona strafing POST-INDUSTRIAL in large, untidy letters on the walls of concrete underpasses. It’s an aesthetic found – in the 1980s and 90s at least - in many similar cities: Sheffield, Düsseldorf, maybe even Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (although I can’t be sure of the latter; the last time I was in the Keystone State, a large man with a mean glint in his only eye and a hunting rifle strapped to his torso came up to me in a bar, remarked upon my pink sneakers, then suggested that I should return to Canada with haste, so I never made it that far). Cities struggling with their own identity possess a distinctive sound, and it’s a sound that Prolapse plugged into with brio. It’s also, by the name of Pointless Walks to Dismal Places, the name of their debut album. Beat that, Mr. Paltrow.
Prolapse sound like Leicester in 1992. Conversely, this is also the sound of flying to Amsterdam to start a riot, or the Fall, if they’d come from a small village in Switzerland and had been touched inappropriately by Auntie Freda. Prolapse continually executed a fine line in shouty. A quick rummage in the big book that explains what words mean suggests that the correct noun is shout, or (context-dependant) shouting – which just goes to prove that big books can be as wrong as a Coldplay-loving populace. Open-larynxed, sophomore angst or politicisation - shouting is an artform that any three-year-old can manage with aplomb, and certainly isn’t something that graces any canon of popular music. Shouty however – it’s something far more subtle. Often just as loud, but far more inventive, multi-layered and multi-textured. Former Pixie Frank Black has spent his entire career enveloped in shouty. Zack De La Rocha has spent his entire career shouting.
Shouting = Spandex heavy metal, Courtney Love, Courtney Love’s vagina.
Shouty = Old Julian Cope records, At The Drive-In, Dear Science - the fantastic new album by TV On The Radio, LCD Soundsystem’s North American Scum.
Shouting = Fox News.
Shouty = that understated “hello, we are Prolapse”; buzzy, droning, hacking guitars; male / female dual vox underwritten by a twist of sexual tension and embellished with improvised, non-sensical wordplay. It’s like eavesdropping to a couple arguing in a cupboard whilst feeding each other candy. That they never had a hit single, it’s simply further emphasis that the majority isn’t always in the right. Just ask those who want the hideous piano intro from Clocks played at their next funeral.
Shouting is bad, shouty is damn fine, thank you, and by half-past whenever, with dawn trying to kick the windows in, I’ve traversed the entire Prolapse back-catalogue. I’ve consumed enough vodka to make me eligible for Russian citizenship. I’ve spectacularly failed to write a single word of the “spooky” article. Only there’s a far more pressing problem. Prolapse are the greatest band in the world, ever, but I haven’t yet played Autobahn by Cha Cha 2000. You know, Kraftwerk’s zen-industrial masterpiece, only covered by the real greatest band in the world, ever. Cha Cha 2000 were the evil spawn of Prolapse, depraved masterminds who knew that the only way to improve upon the original was to coat it with the sound of bagpipes mating. The pained cry a set of bagpipes emits is so soul-destroyingly awful, the only people who should be subjected to them are those who would quite happily be stuck in a cupboard where Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre record is the only choice on the jukebox (I was thinking on nominating Chris Martin for that particular pleasure – but it would only give him ideas). Cha Cha 2000’s true genius was to apply the theory of inverse awfulness and release it as a record. Yes, the only way to attain greater understanding of a seminal record was to re-record it as a discordance befitting two Glaswegians fighting over who has the fewest teeth.
There’s nothing else for it; the very future of the planet may as well depend on me listening to this record RIGHT THIS VERY INSTANT. I crawl over to where the vinyl lives, next to the box of severed mannequin heads. A preliminary search displays a sharp lack of Autobahn. A more thorough search, one that involves an unnecessary amount of mess and a certain degree of trauma, confirms the worst. I no longer own this record. A precise memory, the exchange of hard cash for 10 (yes – 10!) inches of gramophone record - sullied, invalidated even.
There’s something deeply unsettling about a treasured, lost record. If I understood the concept of irony (hey - you attempt consulting a dictionary after this much liquor) I might try a wry smile; whilst failing to mould a spooky article, I end up asking myself: is there anything spookier than the land where lost records go? Where is this place? How do you get there? These many, many records that I’ve owned, that by every sensible law of physics should be standing on some shelf pleading to be played, do they elope together to some stereophonic nirvana? Are they awaiting more responsible owners via a thrift store secret door? Pimping themselves online?
Ah – the internet. No-one buys records anymore. What’s the point, when some high-school student has altruistically uploaded a torrent of exactly what you’re after? Except that Autobahn by Cha Cha 2000 doesn’t exist online. Not a single torrent, not one single blog specializing in obscure Leicester-based rockola available to click on and save as. What is the point of being able to download every anthem, ditty and advertising jingle that has ever existed, directly into your cranium, if the one fucking record that the entire planet’s survival depends upon isn’t waving its derriere in the air and screaming “yeah, let’s internet copyright theft, baby”?
At 6.03 in the morning, with a deadline for a “make it spooky” article about to be missed, I finally admit defeat. No vodka left. Mannequins lacking torsos, they look sad, resigned. No Autobahn right now for us. The future of a small and insignificant planet is out of my hands. Prolapse split in 2000. Cha Cha 2000 probably didn’t exist in the first place. Before I pass out, I recall a recent visit to a bar in Scotland. A roaring fire, a splendid range of malt whisky, and the gentle sound of bagpipes dripping out of the wall-mounted speakers. It took me a while for the song to register. It was Yellow. Bagpipe Coldplay. As a metaphor for doom it worked far too well. Keith – I need more alcohol.