Tag Archives: Hefner

Carl’s Tuesday Musics (on Monday): “Empire of the Senseless,” The Mekons (1989)

by Carl Wilson

If this week has given us anything so far, it’s that a lot of people have learned about the great British anti-Thatcher songs of the 1980s and 1990s. (Although anyone who thinks, like Slate’s David Wiegel, that “we Americans had nothing like this” really wasn’t paying attention.) Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down would be the great anthem specifically looking forward to Thatcher’s death (rivaled by Hefner’s The Day That Thatcher Dies and Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine) but one I haven’t seen mentioned is this song from one of my favourite albums, The Mekons’ 1989 Rock’n’Roll.

It doesn’t call out Maggie by name (though it does mention “the hard lady”); in fact the only political figure name-dropped is an American, Oliver North (“Boring Ollie North down in the subway dealing drugs and guns/ turning little liars into heroes, it’s what they’ve always done” – and this was decades before North became a Fox News pundit). Instead it’s about a whole suite of Thatcherite policies, in the “culture wars” ambience of censorship and intolerance of the ’80s.

What I like best is its demonstration of the particular, peculiar sense of humour you develop when you spend a decade being near-continuously pissed off.

The now-odd-sounding lines, “This song promotes homosexuality/ It’s in a pretended family relationship/ with the others on this record/ And on the charts and on the jukebox/ And on the radio” refer to Thatcher’s family-values legislation Section 28, while the earlier, “These lines are all individuals/ And there’s no such thing as a song” parodies Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.” (Man, she was a piece of work.) “Even the silent are now guilty” refers to legislation her government passed saying that while accused people would retain the right to remain silent, judges and juries would be free to interpret their silence as an admission of guilt. The line “turning journalists into heroes takes some doing” is a joke about the popularity of Charter 88, a petition protesting Thatcher’s restrictions on press freedom. And finally, the closing lines take off from Thatcher’s notorious line on immigration that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped” – turned around to say “people are really rather afraid of being swamped by selfishness and greed.”

I’m sure there are other references I’m missing. The title is of course borrowed from Kathy Acker’s then-new, excoriating novel, which in turn I guess was playing on the title of Nagisa Oshima’s classic Japanese S&M art film, which in France was called L’Empire des sens, “empire of the senses,” itself a play on Roland Barthes’s book about Japan, The Empire of Signs …

“All unacceptable gropings have been removed from the screen. Only eyes full of unspeakable thoughts remain.”

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The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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