Tag Archives: Mekons

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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Filed under carl wilson, music, Tuesday Musics

Tea With Chris: The Lies of a Baby

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: Ariel Levy’s New Yorker article about the many trials and depredations of Silvio Berlusconi is unsurprisingly filled with great quotes, from the crony who approvingly equates his Presidente with Mussolini to the former cabinet minister who explains: “His lies are like the lies of a baby: he gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and says ‘I’ve never eaten a cookie in my life!’” Levy meets Italians who delight in their buffoon of a leader and ones who cringe at being represented by a human stereotype, but she zeroes in on the oligarchic control that allowed Berlusconi to make his own appalling sexism omnipresent in the media: “If your only information about female people came from Berlusconi’s channels, you would likely conclude that they exist specifically to be sexually humiliated in public.”

PS22 chorus covers “Energy” by Austra and former choir kid Katie Stelmanis, kills it.
Margaux: I love Peter Galison and his concrete ways . He wrote a book about how it was probably pretty relevant that Einstein had a crappy job at the patent office where he had to think about how to synchronize clocks for train schedules – a very big problem at that time. It’s an obvious idea once you think about – the obviousness a natural sign for a real genius idea. It feels better to think that something as abstract as the theory of relativity could originate from a problem in the world so newly created as “how to coordinate train schedules”. One’s mundane job feels better too. This New York Times article surveys his incredibly varied works.

Speaking of grounding the symbolic realms, this reminds me of how, reportedly, Buckminster Fuller had a pretty hard timeas a child understanding that the dots on the blackboard represented points in the world – and lines drawn between them represented connections. And how he tried to change the phrase “worldwide” with the more grounded “world around” but didn’t have any luck.

Which makes me think of how strangely grounded the artist Rebecca Belmore‘s repetitive gestures are. Sometimes, when people are trying to be more direct with their art, they occasionally think to take their work off the canvas or pedastal or loom. Sometimes the results of this freedom can, unfortunately, become even more trapped by the medium of the gallery – as it can be a challenge for irregular forms or complicated messages to keep their shape outside this context. But the artist Rebecca Belmore always succeeds to escape both the mediums, the gallery boxes and the confusion.

If you’re not familiar with Rebecca Belmore’s work, Daniel Baird’s article in Walrus Magazine is a good survey of her work. Even if you haven’t seen Belmore’s work, it is hard not to be horribly moved by even Baird’s simple descriptions of her most famous performance pieces. The works are made up of ideas and gestures and performance. They performances’ power are just as undiminished through video or account (though Daniel Baird is to be credited too here). Rebecca Belmore’s repetitive gestures seem to be the gestures that she knows are missing in world – gestures of grieving or acceptance or making things right or simply known. Her gestures became part of the concrete world through sheer force of will, repetition and need. Though unconventional, the work communicates directly to anyone who can look.

Carl: The best thing I’ve read about class in a long while is Polly Toynbee’s spare-no-fistpower column on the British equivalent of the (less commonly thrown around) North American  “white trash” slur, “chav,” the most successfully bruited-about socioeconomic bogeyman since the 1980s-90s welfare-mom/crack-mom in the U.S. The spectre of the chav, she writes, is a tool in “the conspiracy to deny the very existence of a working class, even to itself.”

Killer bars: That brief period between 1917 and 1979, when British wealth, trembling in fear of revolution, ceded some power, opportunity and money to the working classes is over. There is now no politics to express or admit the enormity of what has happened since the 1980s – how wealth and human respect drained from the bottom to enrich and glorify the top.

She was inspired by what seems like a fantastic new book on the subject, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, by Owen Jones. Put it on your summer reading list. The whole thing reminds me of a joke I heard this week somewhere I can’t recall: A corporate executive, a union member and a Tea Party member are sitting at a table. On the table are 10 cookies. The CEO reaches out and takes nine cookies at once and then turns to the Tea Party member and says, “Look out! That union guy is trying to take your cookie!”

Nobody in the past 30-plus years has sung about such subjects better than the late, great Gil Scott-Heron, and nobody has sung in prose about the death of GSH (or many other topics this year) than the great Greg Tate this week in the Village Voice. A truly heartbreaking eulogy. A few killer bars among many:

George Clinton once said Sly Stone’s interviews were better than most cats’ albums; Gil clearing his throat coughed up more gravitas than many gruff MCs’ tuffest 16 bars. Being a bona fide griot and Orisha-ascendant will do that; being a truth-teller, soothsayer, word-magician, and acerbic musical op-ed columnist will do that. Gil is who and what Rakim was really talking about when he rhymed, “This is a lifetime mission: vision a prison.” Shouldering the task of carrying Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and The Black Arts Movement’s legacies into the 1970s world of African-American popular song will do that too. The Revolution came and went so fast on April 4, 1968, that even most Black people missed it. (Over 100 American cities up in flames the night after King’s murder—what else do you think that was? The Day After The Revolution has been everything that’s shaped America’s racial profile ever since, from COINTELPRO to Soul Train, crack to krunk, bling to Barack.)

This recollection of being taught creative writing by Scott-Heron early in his career is also well worth reading.

Finally, as a little ray of sunshine through that beautifully rippled gloom – hey, it’s really nice outside! – here’s a video that seemed to me this week as if it was everywhere on the social networks, but in fact it was only everywhere on my social networks, because where 80s anarcho-collectivist-folk-punk and Torontopian twang-rock intersect you apparently automatically find all my contact information. It’s a joyful shambles of a hootenanny by the Mekons and Toronto’s own Sadies on one of my favourite songs, “Memphis, Egypt,” from one of my absolute favourite albums, Rock N Roll (1989). Apropos of the above: “We know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand/ embraced him and thought his foul breath was fine perfume…. Just like rock ‘n’ roll.” It is sung in Zurich, where the proverbial fiscal gnomes reside.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson