On Being Cheesy

When I was a student in the late 1990s, there was a terrible enthusiasm for all things cheesy – cheesy music in particular, but also cheesy TV and cheesy fashion. A night at the student union nightclub called “Up The Glitter”, featuring songs like “99 Red Balloons”, “Making Your Mind Up”, “Come On Eileen” and “Funky Town”, went from a midweek once monthly (the preserve of the out and proud gay types) to the prized Saturday spot every week and even spawning imitators, such was its popularity. Teletubbies was openly watched and talked about. The Eurovision Song Contest drew appreciative parties. We mock-referred to anyone insistent on their way as “fascist”, and hid our own appreciations behind a wall of cynicism and irony. It was the done thing to read The Sun or Loaded (“for the tits”), rather than The Guardian or The Economist, which were much closer to our real interests.

Looking back, the cheesy trend fits well into our pre-millennial pop-culture overload take on modern life. Cheesy is to a large extent a result of being too well versed in pop culture. Aspects of culture which become overly familiar become first clichés, then cheesy, then cause revulsion, then lose their power entirely, to become historical documents rather than art. (This process is not however linear; there can be jumps from one to the other stage). Cheesiness is hence largely an overfamiliarity with certain stylistic moves and techniques in popular culture, engendering an ironic awareness of the text as artistic construct. (The text here can be considered not just the music or film etc, but also the performer or actor, if they have a recognizable repertoire – a known body of signs, in other words. Jack Nicholson’s post-Witches of Eastwick eyebrow raising is one such example of a familiar move becoming contemptible). Consider Elvis Presley – at one time vital and dangerous, by the time I encountered him, he was seen as a grotesque parody, subject of bad pictures in dole-scum livingrooms and tacky presentation plates sold in illiterate magazines. He was progressing from cheesy to revulsion. He came back in popularity thanks to the strength of his musical catalogue, but his films are already historical documents rather than living entries in the cinematic canon. James Dean can be considered likewise; similarly, cultural symbols as disparate Abba, Ice-T, Jaws, South Park clothes, John Travolta, the entire disco genre, The Evil Dead and John Grisham have all progressed from edgy to cheesy. They become assimilated into the culture; their tricks and angles become too well known, and “that thing you do” doesn’t work anymore. If all political careers end in failure, then all pop culture careers follow the process outlined above, except sometimes in cases of early death. (No-one ever called Jimi Hendrix cheesy, even after Wayne’s World’s rendition of ‘Foxy Lady’.) Nowadays it’s 1980s culture which is considered cheesy. That’s simply because tastemakers were children in that decade. It’s not long ago that 1970s culture was considered the epitome of cheesiness – now, in some respects, it seems like a golden age.

But cheesy also applies on the micro level, to small cultural methods and styles. The cinematic habit of dragging on the death of a supporting character as they gasp their dying, vitally important words, for example – Star Wars tore the arse out of it, and by the time Boromir declared his fealty to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, you just wanted the prick to fuck off and die quietly. Adverts involving The Simpsons – you know Homer is going to say “Doh!”, whatever happens. Kitchen sink dramas were forever scuppered the moment Monty Python had a sketch featuring a young man returning from mining coal to visit his working-class parents, with his mother fretting over his father who had injured his hand writing a sonnet sequence. Top Gun was so chock-full of extremely simplistic and effective moves that a whole movie was made of the parodies they enabled. “Hair metal”, with its masculine posturing and sub-Van Halen guitar, never survived the sniggers of Nirvana and the broader grunge generation, for whom its simple moves were all too obvious. Horror movie protagonists who dumbly make their way to the basement, or investigate some nameless horror, nowadays have cinema audiences berating them rather than cowering in their seats. Swelling orchestral strings at totally, like, emotional parts of power ballads these days create a sense of ennui rather than punching the air or proudly holding aloft that cigarette lighter. In all these moves, they’ve become overfamiliar clichés, and go on to be despised. “God, how cheesy!”

There’s a deeper angle to cheesy, however. Saussure showed the arbitrary connection the sign (the textual word) and the signified (the meaning or concept), and that signs were only explicable relative to each other. Cat is cat because it is not mat, bat, fat or hat. Structuralism then showed that this could be applied on a broader perspective, where items other than words could be considered signs, and thus form their own language, their own semiotic code. Claude Levi-Strauss applied it to anthropology, showing that human rituals had no essential connection to their meaning, and could only be understood within a social context. Baudrillard applied it to houseware, considering each item relative to others, while Roland Barthe’s Mythologies looked at everyday phenomena, from wrestling to wine, teasing out the underlying meanings and archetypes in everyday objects and events. In pop culture, stylistic moves and trends over time become assimilated, familiar and clichéd. The connection between signifier and signifier, the stylistic move and the desired effect, becomes apparent, self-evident, where it should remain unremarked, unobtrusive. Once it is apparent, it appears inauthentic, because for art to work the methodology cannot be seen. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are as “staged” as those of hair metal rockers, but because his music remains fresher than that of Ratt or Poison or Motley Crue (thanks to the greater skill of the E Street Band, in all likelihood), he gets away with it. (His “passing a kidney stone” performance in “We Are The World” has to be seen to be believed). Heavy metal is notorious for demanding authenticity, which is really a cry of frustration when something new is attempted unsuccessfully. The connection between move and effect becomes all too apparent, and anger cannot appear staged; it must appear immediate and self-present. Dr. Who, of course, descended deep into a pit of cheesiness in the 1980s, viewer suspension of disbelief ruined by shoddy effects and over-familiarity. Stock movie characters like the “tart with the heart” and the Machiavellian businessman have similarly lost all power and gained a distinct aroma of le fromage.

Some art is never cheesy. It remains fresh. It has a depth and complexity which enables those who enjoy it to constantly discover new things. One might cite Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, The Godfather films (despite the parodies and homages), Bjork, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley. But the days of artistic mystique, predicated upon unavailability, are gone. Cultural overexposure, thanks to the internet, is now the norm. Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds cheese.

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Guitar Solos

Listening to my iPod on the way to work every day, I tend to go for more energetic music: mostly hard rock and metal. And consequently, I have been considering what makes a great guitar solo. (This is the kind of thing that goes through my head, I’m afraid – it’s a burden). Structurally, the solo in rock music is different from that in jazz. In rock, the solo often goes after the bridge, before the final chorus, or verse/chorus. (Not always, of course – it used to irritate me, for example, that Oasis’ “Live Forever” has the solo after the first verse, but now I see the point of setting out a bold statement so early in the song), while in jazz the solos are what is being “sung” in each “verse” (or in jazz terms the chorus).

The trouble I often find with guitar solos is that too many of them are generic, perhaps astonishing you with their vigour and intensity, but rarely do they add to the narrative of the song.  A good solo is usually a restatement of the themes or ideas of the song in “pure”, unrestrained fashion, outside the confines of the riff and chorus, but the truly great ones add to the meaning of the overall song. So, then, let’s look at examples of all three.

Generic Solos

I think Lou Reed is the most important American rock musician ever. Really! Trouble is, as good a guitarist as he is, he’s often a poor soloist. They meander here and there without making much of a statement, or, indeed, impression. Check out the solo in “Run Run Run”… great riff, crap solo.  He would go on and get better – the soloing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” is just demented (though still quite directionless), but he’s essentially a rhythm guitar player. (It’s notable that his best work has been with great guitar players like Robert Quine and Mick Ronson, as well as Sterling Morrison, of course).

Punk was so aggressively back-to-basics, reacting against the wanky instrumental pyrotechnics of “dinosaur rock” that being “flash” with guitar solos was actively discouraged. (See the essential anti-solo in The Buzzcock’s “Boredom” and the self-mocking “GUITAR HERO” on Steve Jones’ amp). Punk is therefore filled with example of merely adequate solos, and songs without solos at all. Brian James of The Damned (well, their first two albums) repeatedly riffs where the solo would normally be on Damned! Damned! Damned!here’s a good example.  The Adicts, in their fun song “Chinese Takeaway” show how a basic riff can make a good song, if performed with irrepressible relish, but there’s nothing to the solo at all. Steve Jones has excellent delivery (he must have incredibly strong fingers), but solos in “God Save The Queen” and “Satellite”, for example, are nothing special in comparison to his great riffs and Rotten’s electrifying voice.

Good Solos

As I said above, I think good solos restates themes or ideas of the song. The best example of this is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, where instead of shredding the fretboard, Kurt Cobain simply plays the melody. This isn’t just laziness: it’s lean and concise, increasing the intensity of the song. Similarly, here’s AC/DC with the live version of “Whole Lotta Rosie”: god, that riff is fantastic, but while the solo brilliantly gives the feel of the song, it doesn’t add to its meaning. You see what I mean? Metal bands often feature riff-shredding solos, and while these can be enjoyed for themselves – if you like that sort of thing; I personally think they’re fairly self-indulgent: virtuosity means nothing to me. For great guitar solos, you need something more.

Great Solos

As said above, I believe that great solos add to the meaning of the song; they add to the overall narrative of the piece. Perhaps the best metal solos come in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” – the first solo (starting at 3.35) gives a sense of the bliss and peace of the drug addict. Beautifully and skillfully, this modulates to an ominous, immensely powerful central section (“Master, master, where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”), with the bass-heavy, dark riffing giving the sense of abasement to some almost-Lovecraftian greater power . This clearly suggests drug bliss and drug withdrawal. Another brilliant example is in the Velvet Underground’s incomparable “Sister Ray”, the most ferociously dissonant song ever recorded. John Cale’s keyboard solo (starting from 3.53), where he takes on Lou Reed’s guitar and wins in an exultant example of pure volume and power (at 6.24), is just astonishing. Joy Division, no strangers to dissonance or atonality themselves, could not capture half of this power in their cover of the song. Slayer’s screamingly-intense solos (performed both by Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) in “Angel Of Death” capture the insanity of Auschwitz in a way that no riff ever could.

Good soloing is not exclusive to metal, of course: Johnny Marr was probably the most influential British guitarist of the 1980s, with good reason. Check out the beautiful gossamer shimmer of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”: not only does it create a vivid atmosphere, they give a sense of yearning beauty that Morrissey’s tongue-in-cheek lyric fails to capture. The vibrato-rich, glossy black solo by Bernard Butler in Suede’s “The Asphalt World” similarly creates a world of epic longing and tortured poetry which redouble the effect of verses, which verge on the absurd. (Butler wanted the song (and solo) to be longer – I often think he was right. Structurally, the song is similar to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” – itself over 17 minutes). And how about the solo in Television’s “Marquee Moon”? Just savour the guitar interplay.

These are, of course, just a few examples of songs which I think have great guitar solos. What about you, what would you nominate?

Amis and Larkin: A Friendship Revalued

I’m a big Philip Larkin fan, and I mean big – I have loved reading his poetry since 1995 (for some reason I have both editions of his Collected Poems, the superior chronological version and the baffling as-they-were-published edition), have copies of his prose collections Required Writing, Further Requirements and Trouble At Willow Gables And Other Fictions (note that additional “s” – so post-modern), and I must have read his Life (by Andrew Motion) and Selected  Letters (edited by Anthony Thwaite), I don’t know, at least a dozen times each. I say this not to boast but simply to show that I love Larkin’s poetry and I love reading about him.

You might think he’s a racist sexist terrible bastard, and there’s plenty evidence to back that up. I’m not going to deny that he could act stupidly, even grotesquely, especially in his later years. There’s a quite dreadful recording of him and Monica Jones drunkenly singing “Niggers… niggers… niggers”, from the late 70s or early 80s by which time the drink had really got them both. It’s stomach-turning. All the same, I don’t think that a writer’s life is of much importance in deciding the merit of their work. This isn’t to deny the value of biography, or to argue about “the death of the author” but simply to say that ethical or social concerns rank low on my criteria for judging writers. (H.P. Lovecraft similarly – “Nazi bastard”, Mark Renton says in Trainspotting, “but he can spin a good yarn.”) So no matter – Larkin’s scrupulous standards, his mastery of verse forms, his pessimism, his desire for transcendence, his grouchy-tender capturing of the welfare state, his frank confronting of the elemental truths of life, make him a great writer.

Thus, I constantly enjoy reading him, and reading about him. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert – I don’t know much at all about Yeats, Hardy, Vernon Watkins or Auden, so I can’t really judge his influences and how they work upon him, for example. So let’s just say I’m an enthusiastic amateur on Larkinalia. Recently, however, I have been reading about Kingsley Amis, in his Life and Selected Letters (written and edited, respectively, by Zachary Leader). And what has struck me is that Amis’ role in Larkin’s life is seriously under-represented. It might be said that Larkin’s role in Amis’ life is perhaps given undue weight, given the preponderance of letters to Larkin which make up the first ten years of the Amis Letters, and their use in establishing Amis’ life. (Key figures in Amis’ earlier life are unfortunately lacking as recipients. Amis’ first wife, Hilly, tore up the letters he sent her after their split, while letters to Amis’ other main contemporary, Bruce Montgomery, are deposited in the Bodleian and may not be consulted until after 2035).

However, regardless, there is still I would say a serious, and perhaps deliberate, dilution of the importance of Amis upon Larkin in his official representations by Motion and Thwaite. It would seem clear that Motion, for example, had access to Larkin’s letters to Amis (Larkin, a librarian of course, was a far better letter-keeper than Amis; tragically few of Larkin’s to Amis prior to the mid-70s have survived), and he makes some reference to them in Larkin’s Life, so there is no reason for the sustained diminution – unless it was deliberate, of course.

Reading Amis’ letters makes this clear. First, Amis’ tone and manner suggest how close they are, with their frequent semi-ironic endearments (“dalling”), obscure neologisms, private codes and soul-barings. Amis’ tone is often nearly homoerotic: sometimes mockingly so, but often clearly in simple adoration. In 1946, he says:

I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, brutal, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don’t want anyone else to know about; but most of all because I am always on the verge of almost violent laughter when talking to you, and because you are savagely uninterested in all the things I am uninterested in.

Larkin’s letters to Amis occasion some of his most hilarious moments, such as when he goes to a tailors and notes their reaction to not wanting a waistcoat: “looking as if I’d asked to have ‘Slay ’em, Bronx’ worked in cerise on the back of the jacket”. Second, the depth, range and frequency of Amis’ correspondence to Larkin suggest that Larkin must have been equally forthcoming, as indeed many reference make clear. Amis’ letters about Hilly’s first pregnancy, the possibility of getting a back-street abortion and their decision to marry are remarkably honest and self-revealing. Larkin’s late letters are justly famous for the comic savagery of their gloom: “God I hate news – can’t watch it – to see these awful shits marching or picketing or saying the ma’er wi’ noo be referred back to thu Na’ional Exe’u’ive is too much for me. Why don’t they show NAKED WOMEN, or PROS AND CONS OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN GIRLS’ SCHOOLS oh for God’s sake Phil can’t you NO I CAN’T”. While Larkin’s Letters are dominated in the early years by those to James Sutton, their constant fixation on D.H. Lawrence and pessimism about women suggest a relationship that did not develop; meanwhile, the Amis letters to Larkin are extremely wide-ranging (on writers ancient and modern, jazz, their own writing, drink, literary gossip, contemporaries and friends, and day-to-day living), with more humour and give-and-take. Third, numerous biographical facts revealed by the Amis Letters show how the relation was closer than Motion suggests. For example, Larkin’s crucial role in revising Lucky Jim is mentioned, but with little sense of his crucial importance to the revisions; his regular visits to Amis hardly register, while his weekend in Paris with Bruce Montgomery gets about two pages; there is no mention of Amis visiting Larkin in Belfast, while his visits to Leicester are only mentioned because of the quote about the inspiration for Lucky Jim. It wAS Amis, indeed, who gave the eulogy at Larkin’s funeral. Fourth, several depredations about Amis’ behaviour are undermined. Motion notes that Amis never visited Larkin in Hull, saying that at one point he cancelled at the last moment, and as if to suggest Larkin’s great offence, says that the invite was never repeated. I think this is nonsense. Motion must surely have known that at this time, Amis’ first marriage had barely survived, after repeated adultery by Amis and a serious affair between Hilly and the journalist Henry Fairlie (coiner of the phrase “the Establishment”), that Sally Amis had recently suffered a fractured skull, and that one of Amis’ girlfriends had recently dropped him. It is little wonder that Amis wished to lick his wounds, alone. But more than this, Amis had a chronic antipathy, even a phobia, to travelling alone. With Hilly looking after the children, it’s unlikely that Amis could travel to Hull without difficulty – thus, the two more often met in London. Either way, I think Motion does Amis a disservice here, and indeed throughout the Life. Zachary Leader goes into detail about another (potential) contretemps, Amis’ caricaturing of Larkin’s companion and lover Monica Jones, in Lucky Jim. Motion suggests that Amis was either astonishingly ignorant or astonishingly careless of Larkin’s feelings towards Jones; Leader on the other hand suggests that Amis well knew both Larkin’s ambivalent attitude about Jones and what he would allow said about her. Leader notes elsewhere about Larkin’s comments on Lucky Jim that he expressed himself freely about sections that made him angry (with typical phrases like “Hideous smell of arse” and “Gruesome aroma of bum”): the absence of any such comments on the portrait of Jones is therefore revealing.

It is true, of course, that Larkin and Amis had a cooling of relations during the 1960s. This is not particularly surprising, given the longevity of their friendship (some forty years). But it is clear from Amis’ letters that the two were extremely close from 1943-1956 or so, and (primarily in an epistolary manner) from 1975-1985. It might be thought that physical distance in the latter period debars it from being a genuine closeness. But the brutal truths, the savage black humour, the shared rants and miscontents, suggest they have their match and equal in the other. While Larkin’s reputation took longer to establish, by the mid-70s he was seen as easily Amis’ equal, and perhaps il miglior fabbro. (Amis’ reputation was then perhaps beginning to slide, with his 1980 novel Russian Hide And Seek considered his worst). This gives their late correspondence a real piquancy, with their ability to talk (and grouse) freely with an equal, both in talent, fame, and experience, and to unburden themselves of all their prejudices, complaints and fears.

Why, then, such a downplaying of Amis on Larkin? What influenced Motion – after all a respect biographer as well as an exceptional poet – in this way? At the risk of making her into a Yoko Ono or Sonia Orwell figure, I think the hand of Monica Jones is clear. Motion makes clear the antipathy between Jones and Amis from the outset; and both in his portrayal of her in the Life and in the subsequent footnotes, his allegiance is clear. In the Life, he says “[w]ith her inability to suffer fools, her slightly pouting mouth and her abrupt speech, she contended with the world with style”, and it’s clear that she was the major source for Larkin’s’ life, meeting so often that Motion decides not to give dates in the footnotes, simply citing it “MJ to author”. It is, of course, hard to work around the feelings of the living when it comes to biographies. But given what we know from subsequent biographical evidence (including the recent Letters To Monica, of which only a sliver appear in the Letters), it seems clear that Jones was hard to love and hard to be around. Thus, I contend, Motion deliberately downplayed Amis and emphasised Jones’ role in the life of Larkin, under the influence of Jones herself. There is little, for example, about the alcoholic intake of Jones during the latter period of Larkin’s life, when it appears that she was matching him, drink for drink, and nothing about the chilling letter Larkin sends her about her unfortunate social behaviours (seen only in Letters To Monica): I say this not to denigrate her but to demonstrate that Motion consistently downplays or elides her negative characteristics. Perhaps this is through kindness, perhaps this is because he simply believes her side of the story, but overall it shows him as partial and weakens his biography.

It rather seems that, while she was alive, there was something of a policy to be nice to Jones and to respect her wishes regarding the presentation of the life of Larkin. Her opinions about Amis prevailed, her less fortunate aspects toned down. But with Martin Amis’ Experience, and the biographical material on Kingsley Amis, the truth of the situation between Larkin and Amis can be reconstructed. It turns out that the two of them truly were old devils, joshing, mocking, grousing, satirising, complaining, leering, deriding and “horsepissing” their way into the annals of literature. “What a feast is awaiting chaps when we’re both dead and our complete letters come out,” Amis wrote at one point in 1956. Damn right.