Kraftwerk: An Appreciation

What The Beatles are to pop/rock and the Velvet Underground are to alternative, Kraftwerk are to electronic music. They are the mainspring, the well of inspiration, the goddamn motherlode. Their run of classic albums is astonishing, up there for consistent creativity and delight with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side-The Wall sequence, or, say, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet-Exile On Main Street series of triumphs. Starting with Autobahn (1974), each album defines and refines their inspiration: from the long form elementary synthesized excursion of Autobahn‘s epic title track (cos ambitious bands had to have side-long epic tracks back then) to Radio Activity (1975) with its shorter thematically-linked pieces to the electro-funk of Trans Europe Express (1977) to the multiple digitized rhythms of the magnificent The Man Machine (1978) and then the warmth, sass and wit of Computer World (1981). (Earlier albums like Kraftwerk I (1971) and Kraftwerk II (1972) are embryonic to say the least, stuck in the Krautrock milieu whence they sprang, while later efforts Electric Cafe (1986) and Tour De France (2003) lack the unbridled inspiration and gleaming intelligence of the classics).

Let’s take a look at each of the classics and praise it. For all albums, I recommend the German language versions as being more… Kraftwerkian, if you will; but I will refer to the English track names for ease of comprehension.

Autobahn

I’ve included this album as one of the greats purely on the basis of “Autobahn”, which remains a classic and a fan favourite (it’s on the 2005 live album Minimum Maximum). The great thing is how one hears the freedom, autonomy and modernity of driving, something so elementary and yet so popular. (Also note that the lyric is not “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” but “Fahren, fahren, fahren“, the word being German for “drive”). Musically the song is constructed on elementary Moog synths and (I think) guitar arpeggios, with ancillary flutes and keyboards; compared to later albums, it sounds a bit clunky, but the rhythm keeps it moving, and there’s a freshness and enthusiasm that’s enticing. And of course, as Kraftwerk would repeatedly do, it sounds like what they signing about, with horns and passing cars and all being evoked.

The rest of the album rather pales in comparison, not being thematically linked (the next two tracks being “Kometenmelodie 1″ and “Kometenmelodie 2″, which suggests their place as mood pieces rather than extensions of the theme – though the latter does suggest later glories) or having the same daring celebration of the joys of present. “Mitternacht”, in its ambient down-tempo moodiness, was presumably what David Bowie was ripping off when he made the latter half of Low, three years later; while “Morgenspaziergang” is a bit like the worst songs of the studio disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma. Rather like, say, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, Autobahn is embryonic, enormously influential, and overshadowed by later glories.

Radio Activity

This is where the real Kraftwerk comes together. The album is linked via two interconnected themes: radio communications (or transmissions) and radioactive energy. This is made most clear in “The Voice Of Energy”, a track of a single deep distorted electro vocal, “Radio Stars”, a pulsing radiowave transmission over which a voice tonelessly verbalises, and “Transistor”, which similarly pulsates but does so over a pleasant keyboard tune. None have either beat or rhythm (beyond the simple pulse of the radio waves in “Radio Waves” and “Transmission”, like an alpha or sine wave), and yet thematically and conceptually they are perfect. In the more tuneful tracks, “Radioactivity” is an overture to the entire thematic and music scope of the album, and “Airwaves” is a joyful excursion after the static frieze of the preceding “Radioland”. But these tunes, while they link the album, are significantly in the majority; most of the album is short thematic ideas-driven pieces, like “News” (a bunch of newsreaders), the opening “Geiger Counter” (blipblipblip.. blip-blip-blip-blipblipblipblipblipblipblip), “Transistor”, the sound of a repeating, echoing simple melody, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, which I think the Chemical Brothers samples for the opening track to their first album Exit Planet Dust. With this album, Kraftwerk truly discover their genius. It remains a wonderful piece of imagination, craft and flair.

Trans Europe Express

It irritates me that this album is the one always mentioned in the “Best Albums Ever”. I guess this is because of two things: the sheer bloody goddamn awesomeness of the title track, and the fact that it was heavily sampled by Afrika Bambaataa in “Planet Rock“, thus inventing hiphop or something. But while the album opener “Europe Endless” is magnificent, the following two tracks “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are to my ears the two weakest tracks in Kraftwerk’s great album sequence. The former sounds like something from a Commodore 64 tape (check this as a C64 version of Tubular Bells – if you grew up in the 80s or had a Commy, you might well enjoy it), while the latter is a dry self-parody but little more. All the same, “Trans Europe Express” has that amazing locomotive rhythm and is endlessly enjoyable, “Metal On Metal” continues the rhythm (it’s really just part two of a side-long suite), and “Europe Endless” a stunning evocation of the glories of the continent, at a time when Europe and cutting-edge modernity were practically synonymous (German cars, Concorde, etc). But with two tracks to which I’m highly indifferent, Trans Europe Express just isn’t all that.

The Man Machine

To my mind the best Kraftwerk album, and contender for best album of the 1970s (which, given the competition, is really saying something). Here, the pulsing rhythms of Trans Europe Express develop to an exciting polyrhythmic approach which, given how white Kraftwerk sound, is almost African in origin and would inspire a lot of electro music in the future, from hiphop to techno. Also, the digitisation of Kraftwerk’s sound takes a great leap here; while substantial parts of Radio Activity is live and unprocessed, and while the synthesizer beats of Trans Europe Express chug along nicely, almost every part of The Man Machine is digitised, processed. (Only the vocals to “Neon Lights” and “The Model” are unaltered, I think). And while the early albums were obviously Moog-synthy, analogue machines creating digital sounds, the entire feel and texture of The Man Machine is modern and synthetic. Take the opening to opening track (Kraftwerk always paid attention to album flow, with opening and closing tracks of significance in the whole piece), “The Robots”: four plosive beats sound before some percussive electronic noises (in time, of course), which is repeated, upon which the marvellous juga-juga-juga-juga riff kicks in, and then a glossily shimmering keyboard ascends before the heavily-processed Vocoder-sung lyrics come in:

We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy

We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots

(Damn, it’s so much harder to convey the minutiae of electronica compared to rock music!) The whole thing is so robotik, so alien, so unhumanly funky… fucking magnificent. I am also a great fan of the next track, “Spacelab”. It often reminds me of my firs semester at uni, when I had really just discovered Kraftwerk thanks to one of my uncles, and listening to this tune as I smoked my first joints. That defamiliarisation and sense of disconnect suited my initial loneliness and homesickness. But this is mere anecdote: what I really like about “Spacelab” is that sense of highflown indifference, as emphasised by the track not coming to any resolution but merely fading out. The best track of all, in my opinion (which is all you get around here) is “Neon Lights”, which is a glorious pulsating ode to the possibilities and progress of urban life. Which is a nice change from the posturing rural sympathies of so much rock music. (I’ll exclude Nick Drake from this, as his music does convey so much countryside scenes, from the swaying yew trees in “Cello Song” to the mysteries of “River Man”). What astonishes me about this album is that even today is sounds fresh: considering how fast electronic music progresses, that is truly incredible.

Computer World

Building on the polyrhythms of The Man Machine, Computer World is funkier, less distant and far wittier. On occasions it’s actually very funny. It is odd that so few artists celebrate modernity, or what I suppose we should call postmodernity. Most times the past is viewed nostalgically, the present with regret (of love lost, possibilities missed etc etc etc) and the future with trepidation. This, I guess, is what happens when the vast proportion of rock music is made by men in their 20s. But then the same is true of so many writers: the pose of the sophisticated poet despairing of the cheap tawdry urban crowd perhaps began with TS Eliot and continues today, with gimps who don’t have a solitary percentage of Eliot’s learning affecting a disdainful superiority to the masses. As you can guess, I loathe this fuck-knuckle smart-ass disdain. Far better, I reckon, to have the relish and abandon of the Beats, that celebratory joyful vision of Ginsberg and Kerouac.  With this 1981 album, Kraftwerk celebrate the wonders of the computer and even foresee the interconnections of the internet age. There is, of course, an occasional wryness – perhaps Kraftwerk’s most characteristic emotional note – but there’s little of the distance of The Man Machine. “Pocket Calculator” must take the prize for Kraftwerk’s most fun song (with Radio Activity‘s “Air Waves” in second), with its kinetic rhythms, cheerily cheesy sound effects (maybe a Fisher Price calculator?) and the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of the lyric:

I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator

 

By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody

Glorious. Meanwhile, “Numbers” is more breakbeaty than usual for Kraftwerk, even as it counts in the numbers (mostly in German, though there are different languages and vocal effects for each), “Computer World” is perhaps most akin to a Man Machine track, in its anxiety and simplicity, counting off the knowledge bases of the modern world (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank… FBI and Scotland Yard…”). Throughout, as always, Kraftwerk not only sing about the world of computers, they evoke it musically, with the pulsing “Home Computer” suggesting the data flows of the digital networks, the eponymous pocket calculator jingling away merrily, and the wry sense of urban disconnect in a world of fragmented isolated individuals keenly suggested in the sparse echoing melodies of “Computer World”, like tunes played in empty shopping malls. Yet, considering the 1981 release date, it does not sound dated: of its time, yes, but with Kraftwerk’s keen intelligence, and humane empathy, their disquisitions on modernity, computers and disconnect are timeless.

 *

As I’ve mentioned before, I rate Kraftwerk very highly: basically as one of the best bands of all time, and as the originators of so much of modern music. We are all vastly in their debt. But this does not make them dated, as perhaps Louis Armstrong (well, maybe Jelly Roll Morton) is when compared to Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Kraftwerk remain as fresh and compelling as on their release, and whose, imagination, creativity, intelligence and melodic flair remain undimmed these thirty-odd years.

In Praise Of… Live At The Ritz

One of the things that most fascinates me about gig-watching is seeing the band dynamics right up there in front of you. You see all types: from the nervous, egg-shell anxiety of the other Nirvana members towards Kurt Cobain at Unplugged In New York; the primus inter pares status of Thom Yorke to Radiohead (I saw them during their tour for Amnesiac); the pseudo-democracy of Belle and Sebastian (with leader Stuart Murdoch as a self-effacing dictator); Paul Di’anno-era Iron Maiden very clearly has Steve Harris as the front man (bass guitar thrust at the audience like a machine gun) rather than the singer; Queen’s Olympian Live Aid performance draws not just on Freddy Mercury’s huge charisma, but also the band’s exceptional stage-craft honed across over fifteen years of intensive gigging; The Beatles’ famous rooftop gig is a dream for any student of body language, as Lennon and McCartney constantly turn to each other to sing (Macca being a southpaw, of course) while poor George looks on and Ringo hopes to keep up; hell, even with the League Of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton comes across as very much the man in charge – no mean feat considering his colleagues are the sublime Mark Gattis (on whom I have rather a man-crush) and the spiky Reece Shearsmith. Closer to home, I once saw a very much beginner band with a talented guitarist with a cheeky smile that girls found intensely fuckable; the singer was much weaker, and it was odd but very obvious how much he draw confidence and strength from the guitarist. You could see him literally extracting it from the guitarist.

The most enthralling live performance I’ve ever seen is and remains Guns N’ Roses’ Live At The New York Ritz. Recorded in February 1988, it was performed eight months after the release of Appetite For Destruction but before it had set the world alight – it’s sometimes forgotten that it took a year to catch fire, with early single ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ not attracting much attention and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ being released twice when its first release was similarly lackluster. Guns at this stage were therefore still “hungry tigers” – a phrase from my wife when I showed her the DVD of this gig, which I think was brilliantly apposite. They were lean, ferociously hungry for success and absolutely on fire.

The stage chemistry and presence of the band is magnificent. Axl naturally dominates, but without overshadowing the others: his raw charisma is utterly compelling, his red hair, sharp cheek bones and not-an-ounce-of-fat frame mean you can’t take your eyes off him; there’s something smoldering, some risk, always possible. (Like when he falls/jumps off the stage – I’ve never quite figured out which it is). At the start of the show, in his snakeskin jacket, swaying hips and mirrored-sunglasses, he is the very definition of young male arrogance. Slash, by contrast, is the faceless demon, the dark monster of rock. His face is concealed by his hair but somehow a cigarette still props out of his mouth, and he doesn’t just play that guitar (naturally a Les Paul Gibson), it’s like he is hard rock itself. Steven Adler on drums beats the skins and cymbals with glorious emphasis, pounding them like his life depends on it (and to time!). And when Guns are rocking hard, as in the end of “Paradise City” or when the verse kicks in on “Welcome To The Jungle”, he’s a pulsating blizzard of hair, drumsticks, arms and leather. Izzy interestingly eschews the leather look of the others for a white shirt and waistcoat, and he’s also the least active member on stage. His riffs propel the whole gig, though: when Slash is soloing you realize how essential Izzy is to the Guns sound. (His departure in 1991 was the end of Guns as a great band: Slash might be more exotic and is a stunning soloist, but Izzy was the heart and soul of the band, the riff, the Keith Richards). And in Duff, tall and lean and blonde, with that Sid Vicious-style chokechain-and-padlock, there was the punk presence in GN’R. But as a bassist he is terrific, constantly outlining the melody (as in the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or to the riff of “My Michelle”): he’s no dum-dum-dum-dum average punk bassist. (Can you think of a memorable bass line on a great punk tune? Nope, me either. I’m not including Public Image or later Clash albums in that, to clarify!). Every band member feels essential: there’s no Dave Rowantree (the Blur drummer) or Jason Newsted slightly left out, feeling inessential. It helps that the Ritz is fairly small: I think it held (holds?) about 2000 people, so it has that small club intensity of atmosphere I have always preferred to communal festivals, which I find slightly Nuremberg. The band get in each other’s space, have to work with each other: the stage can only be about fifteen foot wide for all five of them. They are close, and tight.

As for the performance, it’s stunning. Energy doesn’t just flow from Guns, it blazes from them, like the heat from a desert sun. This is partly from the music of course: the surging power of the electric guitars is undeniable. (Those Les Pauls and Marhsall stacks!) But the band put in a tremendous shift, headbanging, stomping, pounding, thumping the air – all conveying the power and force of their songs. When the main riff begins on “Nighttrain”, Slash blasts the riff to the audience as he runs the length of the stage. As “Out Ta Get Me” starts, Axl does these quite odd high kicks, while during “It’s So Easy” he does those great hipswaying movements. And during the climax to “Paradise City” they all rock like a bunch of demented bastards. (Except Izzy). It’s fucking brilliant.

There is always something special when chemistry and talent lock in: the power of a group of people multiplies exponentially. Here, for this hour-long video, you can feel the unquestionable force of this, when GN’R were the best band in the world.

 

Dance Albums

I’m really the wrong person to write about dance albums. My exposure to them began and pretty much ended when I was in my nightclubbing phase, in my late teens-early 20s. There was then a big amorphous group of us (as happens when you’re drawn together by hedonism, rather than similarity in outlook or experiences) and most of that crowd were substantially more danceheads than me, in their music taste I mean. We all liked going to jungle, drum n’ bass and pounding techno nights, but for music at home, my chums favoured electronica more than I would have. So although I had some background here, through Kraftwerk mostly, dance albums were new to me and it was all interesting and new, etc. No doubt my choices will appear ridiculously mainstream and pedestrian to those in the know. Well, fine. Your taste in 80s thrash might seem banal to my ears :)

All that self-justification having been said, it does seem to me that there was something of a rich seam of dance/electronica albums around the turn of the millennium, with a convergence of “dance” and the indie/lo-fi aesthetic. Dance no longer meant just nightclub preening or disco frivolity, expanding its emotional and textural palette to something more recognisable to rock fans. Fusion, as Miles Davis might have said.

Daft Punk Homework

The mid-late 90s seemed to blossom some outstanding French electronica, with Air’s Moon Safari and the brilliant Super Discount compilations, not to mention the wonderful Stardust single “Music Sounds Better With You”. Daft Punk’s Homework was the best of them, a thumping concoction of abrasive textures over slyly melodic riffs. Probably the most famous is “Da Funk“, with that memorable “NAAAOOOWWW DA-DA-NAAAOOOWWW” hook and the weird, memorable and affecting story of the dog new to the big city, and “Around The World”, with its circular, almost undulating elements coalescing into one of the smartest dance tracks I’ve ever heard. (The video is also brilliantly enjoyable).

But the album is strong throughout, from lead-in track “Daftendirekt” to “Revolution 909” (a Beatles tribute there?) to the brutal stomper “Rollin’ And Scratchin‘” to the very fine “Alive“.

After Homework, Daft Punk went off the lo-fi techno approach and went all house music, shimmery and glossy. The tension and gritty textures of Homework disappeared entirely, and I’ve never thought much of Discovery or subsequent work – not even the recent much-hyped single “Get Lucky”. Never mind – Homework is a fantastic work of imagination, skill, style and flair.

Leftfield Leftism

Hands down, the best dance album ever, in my opinion. All killer, no filler. (Well, maybe “Storm 3000″ isn’t all that, but it does provide a welcome lull midway through the second side before the John Lydon-sung stomper “Open Up“). The sense of rhythm and texture are endlessly superb: the bouncy toy piano of opener “Release The Pressure“, the tribal rhythms of “Afro-Left” (a style later refined to the ferocious rhythmic assault of “Phat Planet“), the cool liquid textures of “Melt” which leads gracefully to the slow-build of “Song Of Life“, with its glorious beats opening up halfway through. Similarly, the tender ballad “Original” leads to the sinister dark charge of “Black Flute” which then yields to the glorious adrenaline-rush of “Space Shanty“.

With dance music based on rhythm, tracks can just go on based on their 4/4 beat. What’s terrific about Leftism is that while the songs have definite propulsive beats, this is never for the sake of it: you feel the intelligent craft of what the song is about and what it’s doing all the time, and the sense of narrative works well not just within each song but on the broader structure of the entire album. Leftism remains the single best example of a dance album.

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation

The Prodigy were a cartoonish rave band to start with, breaking through with “Charly Says” (did you know Kenny Everett voiced the cat?). Their second album was a much darker and more aggressive affair, with substantial grit added to the texture, while retaining the breakbeats and high tempo energy. This is best seen on “Their Law” (with guitars by Pop Will Eat Itself), which is a furious snarling punk song within the structure of a dance track. Vital, adrenalizing, life-affirming stuff. Some of the tracks are more traditional dance, like “No Good (Start The Dance)” (how cool is the video?!)

and “Voodoo People” (taking its riff from Nirvana’s “Very Ape”) but even then there a rockier, guitar tinge to the music.

Various Essential Skint

This was really the first dance-oriented electronica album I listened to a lot. The CD was a freebie from the defunct but much-missed Select magazine, being a sampler from Skint Records, a hot-house for bigbeat and non-cheesy electronica. It starts with the sublime “Santa Cruz” by Fatboy Slim: rather than his cheesy, pop-friendly bigbeat aspect, it’s an almost dreamy but insistently rhythmic prog-dance track. Ideal for spliffing to :) It’s followed by two class tracks, Bentley Rhythm Ace’s “Why Is A Frog Too?”, which is upbeat without being (as BRA sometimes verged into) silly or losing the point, and Lo-Fidelity Allstars’ “Many Tentacles Pimping On The Keys”, which is a terrifically colourful and imaginative bass-led beat masterpiece. (I can’t describe these tracks well at all, can I?!).

The quality declines as it goes on (no surprise, this was a freebie), but that 1-2-3 opener was vastly influential to me. It showed that dance music can be as articulate and imaginative as rock music. Dance music need not be callisthenics, mindlessly pumping beat after beat, like the absurd hard house stuff I’d heard a few years earlier. While Kraftwerk obviously broke the ground here (for me I mean), their rhythms were never aggressive, their tone usually wry and ironic. Essential Skint showed that big beats could be big fun.

Chemical Brothers Surrender

This is something of a left-turn from their first two albums (Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole). Rather than the bigbeat extravaganzas of their first pair, the Chems (to coin a phrase) turn psychedelic, reducing the rhythmic emphasis in favour of increased textural and timbre experimentation. This is best seen in tracks like “Sunshine Overground“, with its acid-sensitized opener and slowburn increase in tempo, building to a cathartic (though not orgasmic) peak at 6.24. “Let Forever Be”, with its Noel Gallagher vocal and Beatley bassline, is delightfully colourful:

less of a pounding bigbeat stomper than the previous Gallagher collaboration “Setting Sun” (with rhythm stolen directly from The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows“), and more of a psychedelic groove, man. There’s also the hit single “Hey Girl Hey Boy“, which was the soundtrack to one of those brilliant nightclub moments where everything just clicked and you feel you can touch nirvana (damn, drugs can be good). On the other hand, “Out Of Control” sung by Bernard Sumner does go on a bit.

Thee Madkatt Courtship I Know Electrikboy

Although I’ve extolled indie/bigbeat dance albums thus far, let me flip that on its head with the most sleekly house album I own. Thing is, as with every art form, it’s not the form you choose, it’s what you do with it. Thee Madkatt Courtship (better known as Felix Da Housecat, Chicago house DJ extraordinaire) thus have used the tools of house music to create an album that’s a love letter to dance music and nightclubbing, a concept album of a glorious night out. It opens with the opening statement of intent, “My Life Muzik” and gathers pace, getting into a good deep groove by “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers“, and it builds to an immense glorious peak at “Cosmic Pop“, perhaps the most authentic recreation of an ecstasy rush I’ve ever heard. “Strobe” and “Kitty Lounge” continue the dancefloor mania, before the album settles into a mellower, post-club come-down with “Open Air” and the confusion and longing of “Soulmate #1″. Though I say this is house music, there is considerable variety, from the acid house of “Zone” to the breakbeats of “Jetsetta” and the discordant trance (could almost be a Daft Punk track) of “Strobe”.

For the longest time I had no idea what this album was called or who it was by, having copied it from a friend without noting the name. But whenever I wanted to show off some proper dance music to anyone, I’d slip this on, quietly, smirkingly confident they’d be blown away. It always worked :)

Books On Modern China

After a year-long hiatus after leaving the country, I’ve recently been getting back into books about China, having just bought China’s Great Economic Transformation (on the Chinese economy, 1979-present) and Mao’s Last Revolution (on the Cultural Revolution). Here are the best books on modern China that I’ve read. (The text for these reviews are taken from my articles on agendabeijing.com).

Martin Jacques – When China Rules The World

Extrapolating the future from the past is always tempting, and that’s what Jacques seems to do here. Assuming that China’s astonishing growth will continue and that with this will come the political liberalisation seen in other Asian economies like Singapore and Taiwan, Jacques sets out a future scheme of China as the essential state, as once was the case – in Asia at least. (His historical section is better, because the facts speak for themselves, but there’s some amazing factoids in there). Jacques is something of an economic determinist (as a former editor of Marxism Today), and downplays the political obstacles before much of this can transpire. In the long term he may be right, but it won’t be the smooth sailing he makes it appear.

Susan Shirk – China: Fragile Superpower

Formerly the US deputy assistant Secretary of State responsible for China under President Clinton, Shirk’s book is an examination of the tensions on the fault-lines of China’s national security structure. With a job remit focused on China’s most sensitive neuralgic areas, she perhaps inevitably sees China as insecure, while the book is also very US-centric. The section on the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 is perhaps the most interesting section, but I came away with a sense that much more could be said. (I really don’t buy the “accident” line). Still, as an introduction to the areas of greatest external tension, this is a useful and interesting book.

G.E. Anderson – Designated Drivers

Policy formation in China is opaque, to say the least. Pronouncements come from as on high, and everyone below better listen up, buddy. This book is a marvellous introduction into Chinese economic policy and the numerous actors – and just because several are state actors does not mean that they are homogenous – behind the scenes, through the prism of the car industry. With the Japanese and South Korean auto industries doing well, China has designs to be a world-player in that area, though it remains some way off. Anderson explains why and how, and what this means for future economic policy development in China.

Wen-Szu Lin – The China Twist

Every single entrepreneur or businessperson thinking about entering the Chinese market should first read this. It is a fascinating story of an attempt to run a franchise business in China and the (very!) numerous pitfalls and problems Lin and his partners encounter. From dissembling agents to crooked officials to dubious partners, the whole cast of China’s rackety business infrastructure is here. The book is both hair-raising and eye-opening: you’ll definitely look at the untold promise of China’s domestic market differently thereafter.

Richard McGregor – The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

The leader’s compound at Zhongnanhai, as China correspondents from the world over come to realise, is a “black box”. What goes on in there we don’t know. But piecing together stories form news reports and people who do have encounters from those inside, McGregor paints a picture of the Leninist framework underpinning the Chinese state. Its very efficiency is proved by how inconspicuous it is. As one (anonymous) official says, it’s like air: you cannot see it; it’s everywhere.

Henry KissengerOn China

As the Secretary of State to Nixon and architect of the “China policy”, Kissenger’s book is a first rate analysis of relations between the US and China. (The title is something of a misnomer: it should be On Sino-US Diplomacy). Tracing Chinese attitudes and state reactions to waiguoren from the first encounters to Obama, the book is naturally at its most vivid and penetrating when talking about Kissenger’s time as head of the National Security Council then as Secretary of State. Fortunately this comprises the bulk of the book. Kissinger’s explication of the demands of geopolitics and the niceties of diplomacy are fascinating – you literally learn how states interact on a real time basis. On the other hand, his reputation as an obsequious fawner comes through in the exchanges between himself, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong.

Richard Burger – Behind The Red Door

China has a somewhat schizophrenic reputation as a civilization based on the primacy of the family and one where prostitution is endemic. But as Burger shows, perhaps these two aspects are not as contradictory as you might think – when sexuality is corralled into marriage which are subject to parental approval, there will be desires unmet elsewhere. Thus, pornography, homosexuality, prostitution and affairs receive almost tacit approval. Burger also takes the reader through a whirlwind tour of attitudes and practices, from the permissive Tang to the ludicrously repressive Maoist epochs, and divides subsequent chapters into useful sections, like The Family”, “Homosexuality”, “Dating and Marriage”, “The Sex Trade”. The book is never prurient, but humane and empathetic towards people in their most intimate moments.

Andrew Hupert – The Fragile Bridge

Doing business in China has many pitfalls and necessary strategies. This book of chockful of conflict management and resolution techniques, illuminating subtleties of which you may not have been aware and ways of playing the game, when you didn’t even know which game was being played! This is essential reading for anyone with business to transact, especially anyone conducting negotiations.

Tom Miller - China’s Urban Billion

This book by Tom Miller, managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly, is a timely examination of this “biggest human migration in history”. Miller divides his material into six key areas: an overview of the lives of migrant workers; the hukou system; land grabs; urban construction; ghost towns and urban planning; and transitioning the new urban classes into active economic agents. Perhaps the most consternating chapter is that on the hukou. In some ways it can be shown to be a success – by preventing migrants from coming to large cities willy-nilly, it has prevented Chinese cities from degenerating into the slums and shantytowns which scar India, Brazil and South Africa (for example). On the other hand, the human cost is high. Locking people who work and labor in the cities out of the benefits of living there condemns many to a half-life, trapped between their place of origin and place of work, unable to settle and shorn of their rights. Their living conditions are inevitably dreadful. As with each chapter Miller suggests means for ameliorating the system, one requiring sustained effort and investment from provincial and central government. Given the glacial rate of reform in the Hu-Wen years, one can only hope for a quickening.

Christopher Dillon - Landed China

Landed China is not just tips on buying door handles, or the percentage required for stamp duty (though it does address both). It opens with a historical overview of the housing market in China, which itself is fascinating, though I would have like this to have been both longer and deeper, before going on to examine current market dynamics, bubble concerns and demographics which will shape the future market. Dillon then goes on to the meat of the book: the “Your New Home” and “Finance” sections. The former examines the process of buying property, advises on what and where to buy, gives good advice on renovations (almost all new apartments being sold as empty concrete shells), and then gives a long, useful but rather worrying section on risks. While buying property here is possible, that does not mean it is easy, with scams coming left, right and center, and the buyer suffering from severe information poverty in comparison to developers, agents and banks. If that doesn’t have you running screaming from the very idea of buying a place in China, this might well be the most useful section.

Stanley Chao - Selling To China

Chao repeatedly emphasizes is that business in China is not some mysterious alchemic process. Agreements and partnerships which are mutually beneficial will succeed. This is not to say that it’s actually easy. On the contrary! For SMEs without the clout to make threats to withdraw from China worth attending to, operating here is stuffed with potholes and quagmires. Contracts, which the rule-bound Western mind thinks the last word on agreements, to Chinese should be updated on any change in market conditions. Negotiations will play on the fact that visiting businesspeople are necessarily time-bound and will desire to make the deal, at almost silly lengths. Independent translation is crucial. Choose partners with great care, after numerous visits to plant and office. Sweat the details – cover all the angles where you might be shafted, have a Plan B, and remove all the assumptions implicit in your business plan.

Selling To China is very well organized, with handy chapter reviews, a sensible progression through the material (from personal relations to the complexities of JVs and WOFEs) and a summarizing final thirteen rules for doing business in China. Chao – MD of a consulting firm assisting companies make it in China – clearly knows his stuff, and peppers the narrative with anecdotes and hard-won experience. For this, and its common sense, street-smarts and savoir-faire, this is a great book for anyone interested in entering the Chinese market.

Michael Griffiths - Consumers and Individuals In China

Taking a poststructuralist perspective on sociological and ethnographic practices, Michael Griffiths (Director of Ethnography, Ogilvy & Mather Greater China) examines various aspects of day-to-day urban Chinese life, as lived in the city of Anhan, Liaoning province. With empathy and humane understanding, Griffiths shows how individuals claim agency within the everyday structures they find in their environment. For example, in the “Sociability” chapter, he shows how the rules of courtesy and face must be negotiated to maintain social status. Some will refuse a dinner that they cannot reciprocate, even if it’s made clear that no return is expected or desired; some may strive too hard to claim generosity as a social distinction when the intimacy it relies upon has not actually been formed; while yet others, lacking the everyday means to treat others, prefer to formalise their munificence into “a rare orgy of success”.

What is most pleasing is the sense that Griffiths really knows what he’s talking about. Living in Anshan for several years conducting field research, he evidently engaged in local life in a real grassroots manner. Too often talk of “Chinese consumers” has referred to the high-end, high net-worth end of the market, omitting the lives and cultures of the 99%. Griffiths’ book however sets itself squarely within the migrant workers, low-scale entrepreneurs, farmers and former factory workers of Anshan. This shows to the benefit of each section, where he records the rites and rituals of Chinese life, and also gives (often pungent) tastes of local opinion on these areas. This is no bland marketing exercise, but rather a frank truth-telling. Long-term expats will find themselves nodding in agreement and recognition, particularly if they have lived outwith the major cities.

The Destruction Of The White Collar Class

EM Forster, that most perceptive and class-conscious of novelists, has a terrific sketch of the incipient decline of the upper-middle classes in his novel Maurice. Noting that Anne, the wife of estate owner and magistrate Clive Durham, was “delightful and accomplished”, Forster tartly adds that “she belonged to the same class as the Durhams, and every year England grew less inclined to pay her highly”. This, written in 1912 (though not published until 1971 due to its homosexual theme), is notably far-sighted in view of the decline of the dividend-owning class following the First World War, with the decline in the value of the pound and the disinclination of the Colonies to keep providing Britain with low cost raw materials. To be “delightful and accomplished” were no longer enough in a Britain facing sharp competition from Germany, the US, Japan, and discontent in the colonies.

Another wave of class destruction is evidently underway in the austerity UK of the present day. But now it is not the dividend-drawing class being bested by economic megatrends. It is the white-collar classes, the professionals and managers and administrators who had done so well out of the post-war settlement. Consider: in 1951 non-manual workers comprised 30.9% of UK workers (manual workers 64.2%), but in 1981 they had become the majority with 52.3%, with 47.7% manual workers. Some attribute this to the expansion of university places and therefore the need to provide employment for a more educated workforce, but in his seminal book The New Industrial State (1967), economist JK Galbraith ascribes the rise in white collar employment to the broader influencing and planning functions of the corporation. Sales, marketing, forecasting, R&D: all called for an educated, literate workforce. With modern businesses often of enormous scale – with most markets are dominated by three or four fairly evenly matched rivals – and products requiring significant investment of time and money, corporations spend much of their energies stimulating and managing the market for their products, rather than actually manufacturing them. The margins in creating products are slim, the work tedious. From Nike to Apple, modern business is about marketing (in the sense of managing your market), not manufacturing.

What we are now finding, however, is that the same process which largely eliminated manufacturing from the UK is now swiftly killing off white collar jobs. Advertising and marketing are now largely done digitally, where their returns can be far more precisely analyzed. Customer service is now more likely to be part of “digital outreach” and is far more cheaply done by a social media-savvy twenty-something than a long-time employee who knows the company inside out (and who had pesky things like a pension). Inventory and logistical management are far easier and far more efficiently done online. Bank managers, with whom you had a relationship and who gave you a mortgage over lunch, are long gone. In this way, entire white-collar professions have been or are being wiped out. Capital divests itself of whatever burdens it can: this is the genius, and terrible peril, of capitalism. The same thing of course happened with manual jobs, but because they were considered low-skilled, this was seen as economically just, or even politically desirable, when such industries had the impertinence to be unionized. But now we get into the puzzling and confusing situation where the remaining necessary manual jobs are trades, such as plumbing or engineering, and relatively highly paid.

The numbers are frightening, if you are a white collar worker, or aspire to be one. The employment opportunities for the educated classes, for those of us who are “delightful and accomplished”, are receding dramatically. The phenomenon of “hipsters on food stamps” (as the superb essay called it) by has been well noted in the US, where perhaps the process is more advanced. An education system which creates graduates who are advanced in their consumer preferences, who have studied Humanities and now are in their thirties, enormously in debt, sharing a flat and working in a low-paying service job, is not fit for the society it serves. No more than one which created ladies who were refined and genteel and wanted to be married to landowners. An MA in English, like elocution lessons and a finishing school, is no longer economically viable. If you can afford to study for one in Oxbridge, your family connections are such that the professional benefits of this qualification are negligible.

The collapse of the economic basis of a class is a frightening, worrying thing. Only the most oblivious free-market cheerleaders fail to note the second word in “creative destruction”. When manufacturing declined, slowly but surely, in the postwar period, we had white collar jobs and the expanding service sector to take its place. This was alright: the profits of industrialized nations could support them. But with Asia snapping on our heels, such advantages can no longer be assumed. The question therefore is: where are jobs coming from? An Atlantic article from 2012 showed the five employment categories which will add the most staff in this decade in the US (we can probably assume the same economic trends will catch on over here): food preparation and service; customer service representatives; home health aides; registered nurses; and personal and home care aides. Much of our future employment, then, will go into caring for the sick and elderly. This is our medium-term future: cleaning up the shit of the Baby Boomer Generation, as they get ill and then die.

Horror Movies

As far as films go, while my highest respect and appreciation goes to classic character-driven and literary/thematic dramas like The Godfather, Chinatown and Easy Rider, I have an unabashed gleeful relish for horror films. Like heavy metal, horror films are fantastic visions of all the anti-social elements that lie restrained by civilization and polite society. The genre is often thought to be somewhat adolescent – perhaps those with little intimations of their own mortality can most easily consume violence and bloody death as entertainment. I for one certainly don’t enjoy the torture porn horror films of the 00s and beyond, but this may be more about aesthetics and plot structuring that an adult revulsion towards such grim topics. For all that, I do definitely love a great horror film (if, again as with heavy metal, my patience for modern forms has rather evaporated) and feel a great affection for them. Here then are some favourites and some anecdotes pertaining to them.

Nightmare on Elm Street I

This was about the first horror film I ever saw, and by jeezus it scared the life out of me. I actually remember seeing a trailer for it some time beforehand, maybe when I was 9 or 10 years old, and when I saw that bit when Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed and vomited out… I had to run out the house. Then I felt worried that the ground would open up and do the same to me. Yikes! So of course, this meant that I had to see that film! And that truly was “watching-behind-the-sofa” viewing. It was my first real introduction to the delicious frisson of fear and terror of the quality horror film. It hasn’t really aged: the scary scary bits are still bloody effective. The first death is monstrously gruesome, the sight of Tina sliding down the school hallway in a bodybag is still deeply unsettling (the whole Nancy-at-school scene is one of the best in the film), the sight of the millipede coming out her mouth is gut-churning, the death of Glen (a youthful Johnny Depp) truly revoltingly sickening

NOES (or as we then called it, Freddy I) now strikes me as one of the newest additions to the classic horror pantheon (demonicon?) of zombie, werewolf, vampire and Frankenstein. Freddy Kruger has moved from the nightmare figure of the first film to the pop-culture anti-hero of Freddy vs Jason and a million spinoffs and tie-ins. As a symbol of nightmares, Kruger’s ferocity and demonic countenance symbolises the darkest side of humanity and our sleep-induced vulnerability to it. This is rich with metaphorical possibilities and resonances, just as the werewolf, zombie and vampire are. This is not to say you should go and have a wank over the critical/theoretical possibilities, but simply to note that such characters are those with the most staying power because film-makers can do so much with them. It was depressing that the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street was a sterile witless waste, but just as Frankenstein and other horror characters have fallow periods, I believe Freddy Kruger will be rejuvenated, to keep terrifying the crap out of people :)

Evil Dead

What I love about Evil Dead is its sheer unapologetic gleeful attack. There’s nothing tasteful or artistic about it. It is full-on raging horror from the off. This does mean that things like characterisation and setting get neglected – its hard to distinguish between the three women at the start, for example, as their personalities are not established, and neither is their relationships. (The two men do get a bit of attention though, with Scotty an impulsive jackass and Ash the sensible leader; while Bruce Campbell has that chin). But such flaws gets forgotten about quickly enough once the horror attack gets going. It’s vile, grotesque, brutal… and kinda fun. The tree-rape is (to say the least) imaginative, while the zombie make-up and behaviour more vivid, putrescent and active than the shuffling undead seen in George Romero’s films. (The card-shuffling scene still occasionally inspires me to quote from it whenever I see people playing solitaire). All of this makes Evil Dead a visceral attack on the viewer, which while raw and flawed, bristles with malevolent energy.

The Exorcist

This was the first horror film to genuinely terrify me. So much of the reviews of horror films and novels seem to me to be utter hyperbole – I mean, go read the back of any Stephen King book for preposterous overkill. Until then, horror films had certainly provided many scary and shocking moments, but until The Exorcist, only books like IT and The Omen had really deeply scared me. But man, oh man, The Exorcist truly deeply terrified me. I first saw it in the cinema, having that day moved into a flat where the rest of my flatmates would be arriving the next week. I met with some friends, smoked a couple of joints, then went to the cinema. We were late (as stoners tend to be) and the only seats left were right down the front. So the film totally assaulted my eyeballs, and then I had to suffer the unease of being in a new, empty flat when I went home. You know when you really have to pluck up the courage to go to the toilet? Yeah.

Many people have analyses quite what makes The Exorcist probably the scariest film ever: the body horror, the special effects, the religion vs science, the calling of the unknown, the subliminal images. For me what remains terrifying is the sense of an unknown, unconquerable power of malice and malevolence. This vibe is of course straight out of HP Lovecraft, but to see this being played out on a sweet and innocent little girl is enormously disturbing. It is difficult to dispel feelings that there is a greater power out there, somewhere; but it is an alarming thought to consider that it may well be evil and spiteful. The subplot of the priest and his mother is also particularly affecting, bringing up feelings of guilt and remorse and parental neglect, which most of us I would imagine are prone to. Similarly, the juxtaposition of faith and science, and the film’s examination of the limits of knowledge, can show up how little we know and what little control we have. The Exorcist is a deeply disturbing acknowledgement of the powerlessness and ineffectiveness of humanity.

American Werewolf in London

This is sometimes called a “comedy horror” and while there are funny bits (the decaying Jack picking up a Mickey Mouse figure and saying “Hi, David!” has cracked me up for more than twenty five years), the premise and plot structure of the film are horror. As a film, it’s very concisely plotted (note how David’s nightmares, for example, provide dramatic incidents in what would otherwise be a dull period in hospital, and how he remains unconscious for three weeks – just time to him to get going before the next full moon) and the characters sharply drawn – the dour sceptical Chief Inspector, the brassy (and contrast-providing) nurse, the harassed Indian orderly, and the three tramps, are all wonderful vignettes. It’s probably best not to think about the distance from north Yorkshire to London and how long it would take Doctor Hersh to drive there, though. Also notable aspects include the precise snapshot of a grimy and unappealing mid-1980s London (from the pricey local supermarkets to the punk-infested subway), the superlative soundtrack (from Creedence Clearwater to Van Morrison), and (of course) the remarkable special effects (by Rick Baker). If there’s a more visceral transformation in cinema, I haven’t seen it.

What I find most affecting about American Werewolf, though, is how believable it all is. Ignore the plot holes about distance etc, and consider the character reactions to events, and they really are entirely believable. There’s none of the common but annoyingly absurd heroics of horror films, where the protagonist just has to find out what dread things are going on in the basement. When the werewolf first attacks the hitch-hikers, David’s entirely human first response is to run away. David’s reaction as his appalling predicament unfolds (as I think actor David Naughton has said) run through the stages of shock – first disbelief, then anger, then pleading, then acceptance. Alex’s behaviour too is similarly comprehensible, in trying to help what she sees as a man afflicted by a great trauma (although the level of their mutual passion, if necessary for the plot, does seem somewhat unlikely).

American Werewolf then is a rare case of a believable modern day (okay, modernish) horror film, updating the classic werewolf fable. It’s funny, sad, convincing, and at just the right times, really fucking scary.

Thriller

Okay, this is a music video. But the funny/sad/weird thing is, Thriller scared the living shit out of me for longer than all other horrors combined. I don’t quite remember the exact incident, but seeing it when young scared and scarred me, so that I developed a large phobia about both video and song. I literally could not even hear the song without panicking and having to run out of earshot. This lasted until I was in my early twenties! At which point I became fed up of crapping myself every Halloween or 80s night, and started to wean myself into being able to stand it. I started by watching the video on mute, then with the sound barely audible, then progressively higher and higher. I would grip the chair with white-knuckled nervous anxiety, but in time the fear and panic dissipated. I now consider both video and song to be fantastic. But sometimes… the shadow of that panic and fear still crosses my mind!

Awesome Intros

There’s nothing like a good intro which grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gets your heart-a-tingling with the its awesomeness. Vast vistas can be summoned, entire moods established; the whole song summarised in essence. Here’s a fandabydozy selection.

Gimme Shelter

Oh god, that tremolo, that unsettling “Oooooh”… and the way Charlie Watts kicks in with the drums as the harmonica wails. Spine-tingling.

Out Ta Get Me

Guns at their best, with two fucking incredible guitarists. It’s interesting how though Izzy and Slash have pretty similar guitar sounds (not sure what guitars they used to record the album), they don’t really get in each other’s way, there’s a degree of space between them that lets the sound breathe. And goddamn, the tension they raise, over the straight beats by Steven Adler… fuck yeah!

She Loves You

I described this elsewhere:

The tom-tom roll sets it careening, but the first two declarations of “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” are jerked back, heightening to an impossible tension (right from the very start!!), while the third iteration releases it into the first verse with superb momentum. The verses, sung jointly by Lennon and McCartney, just sizzles with their harmonised vocals, and in the chorus, the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” absolutely soars.

Incident after incident after incident, all getting you to prick up your ears right from the off. The Fabs knew every trick in the damn book.

Eton Rifles

Another intro rich with drama and anticipation – you just have to listen on. It’s just so dramatic, the guitar drenching electricity over the bass’s rhythmic figure. Superb. (The verses don’t maintain this level, but the chorus is outstanding).

Firestarter

Nothing, but NOTHING, has a more dramatic, danger-filled intro.

Face The Slayer

I love the way that the tension rises and rise, the feeling of rising tide of evil just ready to burst loose. Slayer were the masters at that (see also: “Evil Has no Boundaries”, “Angel Of Death” and “South of Heaven”). The twin guitars are straight out of Iron Maiden/Judas Priest, but Slayer make them their own.

Higher Ground

What the fuck is that insanely funky thing at the very start? Whatever it is, its inflexions just get your hips grooving. (“Permit me to demonstrate”).

Wish Fulfilment

If you want some out-there distortion or weirdness, you need a steady figure to play off of, and to centre the listener. Thurston Moore’s overcharged distorted geetar, an almost melodic otherworldly yowling, plays over a simple figure by Lee Ronaldo, then… BAM!