Just before the new year, Lawrence came round to see me.
I first met the legendary Felt frontman in 1988 in a hotel room in Spain. We'd been booked into the same room, but as soon as Lawrence saw that I'd broken the hygienic seal around the toilet, he requested a room of his own.
I didn't take this amiss. I'd heard about his hygiene fetish, and soon began adding new peculiarities to the list: his mortal terror of cheese, which made him wait outside restaurants and double check the food we'd bring him, his temper tantrums over the exact positioning of a barcode on a record sleeve.
We'd both signed to Creation straight from Cherry Red Records, and it's funny that, now Creation have decided to call it a day, we're both back at Cherry Red, Iain McNay's perennial, indestructible indie institution, albeit with our own labels (Analog Baroque and West Midlands, which is the most Warholishly boring name Lawrence could think of for his imprint).
How Spook Got Her Man
I flatted for a while with Vicky Spook, a pretty New Zealand girl who looked like a stocky Audrey Hepburn and acted as a sort of amanuensis to Lawrence. She worked at Creation for a while, but when we moved to Fitzrovia together in 1990 Vicky got a job at the Design Council. Lawrence was in New York writing the songs that would appear on the first Denim album. Vicky would send him stuff he couldn't get there. She had internalised his fetishes, and knew exactly what he wanted. Books of corporate logos, children's records from the 70s, British confectionery.
When he came back from New York Lawrence became a familiar face at our Cleveland Street flat, eating spaghetti and watching the soaps. As he was leaving he'd usually ask Vicky to shoplift books on 60s typefaces or Italian advertising from the Design Council bookshop. When the Haymarket shop closed down a few years later, it was probably because there was no stock left for Vicky to steal.
Actually, the Design Council Bookshop may have closed for another reason. Like the ICA down the road, it sometimes seemed that its only customers were Japanese girls.
Instant Wigwam And Igloo Mixture
Back to late 1999. I'm listening to Lawrence's new record on West Midlands Records. It's by his fictional group, Go-Kart Mozart. The album's called 'Instant Wigwam and Igloo Mixture', which is a great title. I find the record really fantastic. There's a song called 'Sailor Boy' in which Lawrence describes getting sodomised in a prison cell by Jean Genet. Except it sounds like a game of Super Mario. There's another called 'Mrs Back To Front And The Bull Ring Thing' which sounds like a deranged children's story, then breaks into Wagnerian gotterdamerung before becoming a sort of Tony Christie croon recommending the brutalist shopping centres of Birmingham, the aural equivalent of Martin Parr's recent book of Boring Postcards.
I play Lawrence records by Dr Kosmos, Takako Minekawa and Bruce Haack. He's very taken with all of them, and sits down to write a note to the nice people at Trattoria Records asking if he can trade copies of his album for 'Cloudy Cloud Calculator', 'Fun 9' and vinyl copies of all the Cornelius albums. I type it out and e mail it, and a week later Trattoria reply that they'll be sending the goods to Lawrence's address.
Rotrings, Letraset And Tracing Paper
Cornelius, Lawrence, Momus... there's something we all have in common, and it's a bit hard to define, but it has something to do with graphic design. We don't seem to be motivated by money and fame as much as some sort of compulsive, vaguely suspicious fetish for the colourful and the creative and the commercial.
We can all write songs, but we'd be just as happy being graphic designers or making computer games. We're commercial creatives, or maybe meta-commercial creatives.
From the age of about ten I used to sit around tracing magazine ads. I memorised all the typestyles in the Letraset catalogue and learned the shapes of all the trendy faces you'd see in magazines. I'd work for hours with superfine-nibbed Rotring pens and tracing paper making family newspapers or advertisements advising my brother and sister to save electricity. At school I volunteered my services as an unpaid Jay Chiatt, making superslick poster campaigns for the weekly meetings of the Scripture Union. I never attended a single meeting. And I didn't believe in God.
My god was the strange reified aura of what Vance Packard's book on advertising 'The Hidden Persuaders' taught me to call Added Value, and Marx later taught me to describe as Commodity Fetishism. It was the thing that took a product beyond its mere function or use value into the realm of the bullshit commercial sublime. It was what advertising added to washing-up liquid or a Volkswagen to make them not just products but radiant symbols of some happiness slightly out of reach, some metaphysical yet supercapitalist Beyond.
It wasn't Capitalism itself that I worshipped, but its slickness in reifying and alienating everything it touched, like some metaphysical Midas turning human relationships into impersonal dreams and human objects into cosmic symbols. Metaphysical as in Pittura Metafisica, for what advertising and graphic design seemed to add to humdrum products was also what Giorgio De Chirico added to a boring Italian square at noon: some taste of the sinister, the eternal, and the unnameable.
Me and Lawrence and Cornelius weren't the first, of course we weren't. The insight that the commercial can be wierdly metaphysical was right bang in the centre of Pop Art, the work of Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol and, later, Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney and everyone who's ever noticed that there's something sinister, fetishistic and 'beyond' about Disneyland.
The IBM Logo
It seems to be something to do with alienation, this spooky feeling. It's like Toad in 'Wind In The Willows' getting his canary-coloured caravan knocked into a ditch by the first car he's ever seen, and standing dazed by the roadside murmuring 'Poop poop!' From that moment on, of course, he's smitten, obsessed with the thing that has injured him. And we're all fascinated by the thing that is injuring and alienating us, which is the lie dream of the capitalist machine. The bigger and slicker and more alienating it gets, the more we love it.
In the mid-70s I became obsessed with the IBM logo, and used to sit in my Montreal classroom drawing it over and over. A couple of years later I saw David Bowie's 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' and was besotted by the idea of Thomas Jerome Newton's megalithic and superslick World Enterprises, which eats Kodak, Motorola and IBM for breakfast and launches its own space program before, like Microsoft, being broken up by the Feds. The WE commercial, in which we see Newton taking instant photos in a peaceful yet sinister and lurid Japanese garden, is sublime.
I Can See Japan
What's it all for? Why can't we have a society that just calls a spade a spade, and digs? Why do we live in this world that confuses a carton of orange juice with human happiness, and not just any carton of orange juice but only the one with this particular package design and that particular combination of forms and colours and associated dreams?
My fascination with all this became an active search for alternatives when I became a rather puritanical Marxist at university and swore to fight capitalism to the death. But when I started making records it was right back to the business of love-hate again, making sleeves that pastiched what Peter Fuller used to call the 'megavisual tradition' at the same time as they paid tribute to it.
When I went to Japan I realised I wasn't alone. There was a whole nation who felt the same way I did about the weird, fascinating, alienating power of capitalism. Japan, which I began visiting in the early 90s, was, as Barthes put it, an empire of signs, and a paradise for connoiseurs of the delicious alienation built into the heraldry of capitalism. Here were department stores called 'In The Room', and here too a general diffused fetishism somewhere between the religious and the sexual. Instead of God there was holiness in every little gesture and every simple, triple-wrapped product. Instead of being focused in the genitals, sex too seemed to be diffused everywhere; in a discarded sock, a shuffling walk, an umbrella, the way a young girl sat at a public piano recital.
In Plato's Cave
Plato once wrote about people like the Japanese, Lawrence and me. He saw us as people who loved the shadows of things rather than the things themselves. He likened us to people sitting in a cave, watching shadows flicker on the wall rather than stepping out into the sunshine of objective fact.
Maybe we are, and maybe that's the secret of our happiness, if you can call it happiness. Japan is a land with no god, and so everything is free to be sacred, even the commercial, the profane. 'The packaging is always so good,' says Lawrence, fingering Takako's 'Fun 9' CD, and it's true. It's sublime, glossy and yet sarcastic, naive and yet knowing, like a 30 year old Japanese woman pretending to be a schoolgirl or a sophisticated poet pretending to be a dumb pop star.
You see, the Japanese, Lawrence and me, we're arty weeds, sensitive flowers who turn our aggression inwards and learn to love the things which oppress us. We learn to copy and to satirise them, and our subtle satire is love and hate combined. We get very good at doing the voice, making commercial products which mimic the alienation and otherness we, in our flowerish way, notice in the promises and signs that surround everybody in capitalism, but which those less brittle seem not to find very important, or strange, or oppressive.
One thing which makes me think that Japan may still dominate the world this century is that everybody who seeks the metaphysical power hidden in consumer trash must, sooner or later, acknowledge that nowhere is the spiritual dimension of trash so keenly sought as in Japan. Even Japan's straightforward misunderstandings of American capitalism -- all that's lost and especially all that's added in translation -- are an important source of oxygen, of irony to...
The Knights Of The Holy Grail
To the extent that young people, and provincial people, and outsiders of all sorts attribute metaphysical power to certain symbols -- the heraldry of money and power and its series of utopias distant yet central, unattainable yet inescapable, ephemeral yet eternal -- these categories of people actually come to understand this heraldry better even than its makers, the money people themselves, for whom human life is cheap, and dreams have the shabby instrumental function of regulating the productive life of captive populations. Such people may seem embittered or ironic, or, if they work in the heraldry industries themselves, even self-hating. But in fact I would call them noble and aspiring individuals who so long to find some spiritual dimension, even in a world structured by stubby-fingered money-grubbers, that they are prepared to create metaphysical value where none would otherwise exist. They are willing to build castles in the air, for money certainly, but which finally transcend money and incarnate spiritual values. And I would say that, sooner or later, all such people must turn to Japan, because Japan is where the banal and the transcendent are the most closely interwoven, and where graphics and design and manufacture and presentation are acknowledged to be infused, at every stage, with Otherness and the Beyond.
How To Spot An Invert
In the west, there aren't yet that many knights in search of the grail of the serious at the heart of the stupid. They -- we -- still wear the chain mail of irony, though our quest is a deeply serious one, a matter of life and death. We sometimes infiltrate the mainstream and pass off our creations as successful capitalist products, but you can usually distinguish our work from the real thing, the capitalist cultural spawn which throws up Boyzones and Wild Wild Wests, one-dimensional products which remain shoddy and lifeless and unspiritual, revealing too clearly their single, mundane motivation, which is to add shareholder value. In contrast to the makers of these expensive yet naive and acceptable frauds, less than the sum of their parts, we grail-seekers give the game away by heightening the strangeness and the alienation of the commercial. We can't help it. That's how it seems to us. To us, shopping is like murder. Mere shopping, without the dimension of the metaphysical, is hollow and unethical.
If we can't have heaven, we will settle for hell. At least it's an Elsewhere, a Beyond. So we recontextualise and alienate the commercial by re-introducing the most gruesome retro styles. We speed everything up, making records that are deliberately seedy and lurid, because, as sensitive flowers, that's how pop strikes us, and as masochists, that's how we like to be struck.
The Go-Kart Mozart record is full of disturbing speeded-up voices, as if to suggest that pop music is both childish and demonic. Japan pushes concepts like 'pink', 'big-eyed', 'girlish' and 'cute' to extremes that are, finally, sinister. Momus makes Stars Forever, a record that not only delights in its ability to transform the universal act of taking money for music into something fascinatingly corrupt and... well, weird, but also turns flesh-and-blood human beings, their work and lives, into added value, brands and logos. (Like capitalism itself, which right now is turning even our genes one by one into a series of copyrights.)
Beck too is one of us, and Midnite Vultures is to Beck what Don't Stop The Night (not by coincidence Cornelius's favourite album) is to Momus: the record in which you see most clearly the masochistic triumph of the capitalist creative, falling in love with the great machine even as it cuts the death sentence into the flesh of his back.