Friday, 23 December 2016

It's a Merry Christmas for Songwriters

Songwriters are earning four times as much as recording artists.
            We can reach this conclusion by using the work of Will Page, who is the go-to person for music industries’ statistics. When he worked for PRS for Music he would annually total up the British figures. Now that he is Spotify’s Director of Economics he is performing the same task on a global scale. He has discovered that our planetary music copyright business was worth $24.37bn in 2015. This represents a rise of $941m on 2014.
            In his findings, Page lists the money earned by the record company members of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI); the income of the publisher and composer members of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC); and the money that is going to the publishers directly. The results are as follows:

IFPI digital recordings                           $6.5bn
IFPI physical recordings                        $5.0bn
IFPI performing rights                            $2.1bn
IFPI sync rights                                          $0.3bn
CISAC performing rights                          $6.8bn
CISAC mechanical rights                           $1.2bn
CISAC private copying income                 $0.2bn
Publishing sync rights                                 $0.8bn
Publishing other                                            $0.8bn
Non-CISAC publishing mechanicals          $0.5bn

It is size of the collections and the increase in the money that has attracted headlines. Nevertheless, Page is also keen to point out that there is ‘a misconception about the David-Goliath relationship between labels and publishing’. The publishers are not dwarfed. The overall income for songwriting copyrights is $10.4bn (42.7% of the total), while the income for sound recording copyrights is $14bn (57.3% of the total). According to Page:
When you factored in all the monies that flow to PROs [Performing Rights Organisations], publishers and songwriters, they were much more neck-and-neck in true value than often perceived. However, how that money then flows from firms (labels, publishers and collectives) to individuals (artists and songwriters) is an entirely different conversation.
Page does not enter into this dialogue and it is easy to understand why. It is hard enough getting the total income figures from industry organisations, but at least this information is available. In contrast, the contract details of songwriters and recording artists remain private. As such, it is difficult to determine the percentage royalties that they are receiving from their publishers and record labels. Moreover, these royalties vary from country to country and from artist to artist. These royalties have also varied through time. Songwriters and performers who signed contracts in the 1950s or 1960s, for example, will generally be on lower royalty rates than artists who are signing contracts today.
But the conversation is still worth having. It provides a means of assessing the relative prosperity of songwriters and recording artists. And while the precise details of contracts are not known, some general figures are available. If all artists were on contemporary UK contracts, the splits would look something like this:

Sound Recoding Copyright $14bn
IFPI digital recordings            80%-85% record labels/15%-20% recording artists
IFPI physical recordings         80%-85% record labels/15%-20% recording artists
IFPI performing rights             50% record labels/50% recording artists
IFPI sync rights                        50%-85% record labels/15%-50% recording artists

Songwriting Copyright $10.4bn
CISAC performing rights                           20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters
CISAC mechanical rights                           20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters
CISAC private copying income                  50% publishers/50% songwriters?
Publishing sync rights                                  15%-35% publishers/65%-85% songwriters
Publishing other                                            15%-35% publishers/65%-85% songwriters?
Non-CISAC publishing mechanicals            20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters?

Although some of these splits can only be estimated, these percentages would place the income of songwriters far above that of recording artists. Their take home would be something like $7.75bn, while the overall copyright income for recording artists would only be $2.1bn.
Songwriters would also be in a better position than recording artists when it comes to non-recoupable royalties, the money that cannot be used to pay off advances. At least £3.4bn of the songwriting income would be free from recoupment. In contrast, the only element that would be non-recoupable for recording artists would be the $1.05bn earned from their 50% share of the IFPI performing rights.
            These total figures would have to be reduced, however. At least half of the worldwide copyright income is derived from back catalogue. Consequently, there will be many recording artists and songwriters who are on less favourable percentages than presented here. However, even though the totals for songwriting and recording would come down, there would be an even greater bias in favor of the writers. Old recording contracts tend to be more punitive than old publishing contracts are. The percentages for the artists are proportionally lower and the terms of the contracts last longer. Moreover, songwriters have been guaranteed at least 50% of the performing rights income in most territories for over a century. This is the biggest single income stream and it is non-recoupable. In contrast, recording artists in many countries are still not guaranteed equitable remuneration for performing rights income. Although this 50% share is now mandatory throughout the European Union, this has only been the case since the Rental and Lending Rights Directive of 1992.
            The money is still in the publishing.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

From Where to Despair?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Hot Chocolate's 'It Started With a Kiss' have much in common. Hamlet is brilliant and yet there is something wrong with it. T.S. Eliot put his finger on it: ‘Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear’. For Eliot any emotion in a work of art must have an ‘objective correlative’, i.e. if a character is feeling something strongly, the reasons for that feeling must be found in the work of art itself. He outlines ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’.
            And so to Hot Chocolate. ‘It Started With a Kiss’ starts out simply enough. Errol Brown sings the verses in his sweetest voice. We are taken back to his youth; he is stealing kisses with a girl in the back row of a classroom. The two of them promise to marry, but she is only eight years old and he has just turned nine. In a later verse they reach the ages of sixteen and seventeen respectively. The tune is still sweet, even though Brown realises that he can no longer hold on to her love. The choruses take us from these childhood memories right up until the present day. The music is lilting, numbing us to the slight foreboding in the lyrics. ‘It started with a kiss’, Brown trills; ‘I never thought it would come to this’.
            Nothing prepares us for what follows. ‘YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! The tune jolts suddenly and there is utter despair. Brown is so in excess of the facts that you worry about his state of mind. You hope to dear god that no one has left a bare bodkin lying around.
            There is a difference between Hamlet and ‘It Started With a Kiss’, though. What spoils Shakespeare’s play makes the Hot Chocolate song. In fact, one of the great pleasures of popular music is when an objective does not correlate. It is the strange gaps in songs that give the listener room to enter in.
I’ve been there, Errol. I’ve been there.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Blurred Lines: What's Goin' On?

In March 2015 a jury in the US found against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke in the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, deciding that their composition had infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up’. To many, this decision feels wrong. Songwriters, in particular, have been outraged by the outcome, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent for their profession. Trying to work out why it is wrong is a complicated and convoluted matter, however. Let me attempt to count the ways:
1.     Copyright legislation is based on the notion of originality
US copyright law states that ‘Copyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship’. British legislation states similarly that copyright is owned by ‘the person who creates’ the ‘original’ work. In both instances copyright is betraying its debts to Romanticism and the notion of individual genius. It is this aspect of creativity that the Gaye family sought to emphasise when celebrating their victory. They argued that true artists, such as Marvin Gaye, work ‘creatively from a blank slate in the crafting of their song to ensure originality and the integrity of their creation’. They claimed their action was ‘protecting the legacy of original artistry’ and that it was ‘encouraging future artists to also aim for new ground’. They were against magpie artists such as Williams and Thicke, whose only aim was to ‘write a song with the same groove’ as ‘Got to Give It Up’ and who failed to give ‘credit where credit is due’.
2.     Popular music is not original
Songwriters have been outraged by the decision in the ‘Blurred Lines’ case because it fails to understand that most new music steals from old music. There is nothing that is wholly original. Following the verdict, Williams stated, ‘If we lose our freedom to be inspired, we’re going to look up one day and the entertainment industry as we know it will be frozen in litigation ... Everything that’s around you in a room was inspired by something or someone. If you kill that, there’s no creativity’. More recently, over 200 songwriters, including Danger Mouse, Earth, Wind & Fire, Linkin Park, the Black Crowes, Jennifer Hudson and R. Kelly, have grouped together in support of the appeal that Williams and Thicke are making against the verdict. In their amicus brief they have stated ‘All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process’.
3.     Popular music turns a blind eye to some aspects of borrowing, but is vigilant about others
Traditionally, songwriters have felt free to be ‘inspired’ by other artists’ rhythm tracks and by the timbre of recordings, but have been wary of lifting anything melodic or harmonic from another songwriters’ work. The ‘Blurred Lines’ case stands this on its head. It went against Thicke and Williams because they incorporated the groove and feel of ‘Got to Give It Up’ into their work. This is the issue that has upset composers. Jim Irvin, a writer for Lana Del Ray and David Guetta, has stated ‘Yes, there’s a sonic resemblance, but Pharrell and Thicke are paying homage to an atmosphere, using some of the colours of the arrangement, not copying the substance of the chords, melody or lyric’. Meanwhile, the amicus brief points out that ‘Got to Give It Up’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ ‘do not have similar melodies; the two songs do not even share a single melodic phrase’. It condemns the wrongheaded jury who decided in the Gaye’s estates favour just because the two songs have a similar ‘feel’ or ‘groove’.
4.     These biases of songwriting credits are elitist and racist
Previously, when disputes about songwriting credits made it to court, the majority of cases have found in favour of the composers of the main melodic and harmonic parts. Popular music scholars have objected to this practice on two grounds. First, it favours the elements of music that can be captured in a written score. It thus has a high art bias and ignores the fact that much popular music is centred on nuances of rhythm and texture - elements that come to the fore through the recording process. Second, it is racist. Simon Frith has stated, ‘Copyright law defines music in terms of nineteenth-century Western conventions and is not well suited to the protection of Afro-American musicians’ improvisation art or rhythmic skills’. Matt Stahl has claimed similarly that ‘US copyright’s focus on words and melody privileges certain forms and makers of music and disadvantages others along racialized lines’.
5.     Williams welcomed the high art and racial bias of case law
One quirk of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case was that it was supposed to be determined on the basis of the sheet music rather than the recording. This is because ‘Got to Give It Up’ was released in 1977. As such, the sound recording was copyrighted after the drafting of the US Copyright Act of 1976, but fell under previous legislation because the Act had not yet been implemented. Earlier US legislation did not recognise a copyright for sound recordings. It stipulated that any copyright infringement lawsuit had to be determined on the basis of the written composition, as deposited in the US Copyright Office. Williams sought to take advantage of this situation, arguing that the sheet music of ‘Blurred Lines’ is completely different to that for ‘Got to Give it Up’. He demanded: ‘Anybody that plays music and reads music, just simply go to the piano and play the two. One's minor and one's major. And not even in the same key’.
6.     It is possible to give songwriting credits for feel and groove
Although case law has its biases about compositional credits, copyright legislation offers no specific guidance. Any aspect of the music can be credited, including the work of the rhythm section and the skills of the producer. In addition, these songwriting shares can be of any size, ranging from less than 1% to the whole of the work. There is a history of conventions, however. The original division set out by most collection societies was to divide the songwriting royalties 50/50 between the authors of the lyrics and the composers of the written score. This norm was established in era when sheet music sales were dominant and there were few writer-artists. New practices emerged in response to the rise of self-contained, self-composing groups, as well as to the ascendancy of sound recordings in the market. A convention developed amongst bands to divide songwriting royalties equally between each member (the Yardbirds and the Doors were pioneers here). In more recent years, a hybrid style has appeared, whereby all band members are credited but the composers of the lyrics, melody and harmony will gain higher copyright shares than the rhythm players. A further model has grown in response to the growth of digital recording. In genres such as EDM and contemporary R&B it is common for a producer-composer to create a backing track, which will then be sent to ‘topliners’ who will add melodies, harmonies and lyrics. Here it is common to divide the royalties 50/50 between the producers and the topliners. As such, half of the songwriting credits are being awarded for feel and groove. Finally, there is a long tradition of falsifying credits. It is possible to award shares to participants that exceed their compositional contributions. It is also possible to award shares to non-composers. This practice goes back at least as far as the inter-war period, when performers such as Al Jolson would be given a songwriting cut as a means of encouragement to perform a tune.
7.     The songwriting credits for ‘Got to Give It Up’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ were determined by different conventions
Gaye is listed as the sole composer of ‘Got to Give It Up’. On the recording itself he performs lead vocals and some of the backing vocals. He also plays keyboards, synthesizer bass and percussion. Gaye is not the sole performer on the track, however. There are two guitar players, a saxophonist, a tambourine player and a drummer. Although Gaye is credited with putting together the ‘vocal, rhythm and synthesizer arrangement’, these are not the aspects of the composition that earn him his sole composer credit. In fact, the arrangement of a work cannot be copyrighted under US law. Gaye instead received 100% of the compositional rewards because he wrote all of the lyrics as well as the main melodic and harmonic parts. His family emphasised this point in the court case, which they claimed was ‘was based entirely on the similarity of the basic musical compositions, not on “style” or “feel” or “era” or “genre”’ (thus contradicting their other comment that Williams and Thicke lost the case because they wrote a song ‘with the same groove’ as ‘Got to Give it Up’). Moreover, it has been acknowledged that the feel of ‘Got to Give It Up’ is not original. Gaye was attempting to recapture the atmosphere of Johnnie Taylor’s hit, ‘Disco Lady’. He did not give Taylor any songwriting credit for this inspiration and neither did he credit Taylor’s rhythm section. ‘Blurred Lines’, in contrast, does give some acknowledgement to the creator of the song’s groove and feel. It also includes some false accounting. Thicke confessed that he was ‘high on vicodin and alcohol’ during the songwriting sessions. He has stated, ‘the reality is, Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song’. This includes the words, which Williams has admitted are wholly his own. Despite his paltry contribution, Thicke was given 22% of the songwriting royalties for the song. Meanwhile, T.I. was given 13% for his rap, and Williams claimed the remaining 65%. Williams has stated that he gave Thicke his share because ‘This is what happens every day in our industry ... people are made to look like they have much more authorship in the situation than they actually do’.
8.     Gaye was rewarded in ‘Blurred Lines’ case on the basis of elements of ‘Got to Give It Up’ he did not claim to compose
Although the ‘Blurred Lines’ case was supposed to be decided on the sheet music alone, it appears that the sound recording of ‘Got to Give It Up’ did influence the jury’s decision. The judge permitted a stripped-down version of the recording to be played in court. In their appeal against the verdict, Williams and Thicke have stated that ‘the court erroneously allowed the Gayes’ experts to testify about the sound recording anyway, including by playing their own musical excerpts based on the sound recording’. There is little lyrical, melodic or harmonic similarity between ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’. The main correspondence lies instead with the rhythmic feel and the disco style. ‘Blurred Lines’ sounds like ‘Got to Give it Up’; it does not sing like it. As we have seen, songwriting credits can be given to the rhythm players who have developed a groove, and they can go to producers of a recording. This is not what Gaye did with ‘Got to Give It Up’, however. His compositional credit was based on the aspects of music that can be captured in a written score. Nevertheless, Gaye’s estate has been awarded $7.4m in damages for copyright infringement due to the fact that the recordings of ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ have sonic similarities.
9.     Songwriting copyright is rigid
Although the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision is legally unjust, it is not the technicalities of the case that have caused outrage amongst songwriters. Many of them believe that an original recording, rather than sheet music, constitutes the essence of a work. In addition, many of them do credit rhythm and feel in their songwriting splits. Rather, what is problematic is that this decision flies in the face of their everyday practice. Moreover, their everyday practice is not accounted for within the law. Songwriting copyright has proven to be flexible in one way. The conventions of registration have changed over time to accommodate new technologies, changed working methods and differing forms of agreement between contributors. And yet songwriting copyright can also be rigid: there is usually only one way that a work can be registered. This is problematic, as a song can be utilised by different people in different forms. For songwriters there is the sheet music and the original recording. For song borrowers there are cover versions and samples. For song stealers there is plagiarism. In each of those instances, different aspects of the composition can come to the fore. The original recording is usually uppermost in most songwriters’ minds when it comes to sorting out the splits. As such, works registrations will regularly credit aspects of songs that are only present in their first recordings, including their feel and their groove. When we turn to the other forms that a song can take, the stress given to these aspects of the recording can rise and fall. Covers usually remain faithful to the original lyrics of a song and they often stick closely to the principal melody and chords. Their employment of rhythm and feel can vary widely from the original recording, however. And yet, there is no provision within copyright law that accounts for this fact. Sampling is the opposite of cover versions in one respect: it usually concentrates on the rhythm or texture of a recording, rather than its melody or harmony. It also has different injustices. Many sampled recordings are old; consequently the drummers and the producers are rarely credited in the original songwriting splits. Sampling is similar to cover versions in one way, however: the splits cannot be revisited in light of these emphases. If ‘Blurred Lines’ had sampled ‘Got to Give It Up’ directly there would have been general acceptance that the authorship of the latter tune should be credited. Any sense of injustice would instead have been focused on the fact that Gaye would be the only contributor to the sampled work to receive a royalty. ‘Got to Give It Up’ was not sampled, however. The ‘Blurred Lines’ case instead rested on whether or not Williams and Thicke had plagiarised Gaye’s song. Although plagiarism can come close to sampling – particularly with soundalike recordings and ‘interpolations’ of works - songwriters think about it in a different manner. As the amicus brief indicates, many of them are upset by the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision because it has suggested that it possible to plagiarise a song’s feel or groove. A group such as the Doors might register a work to all members of the band, and a songwriter-producer such as Williams might incorporate rhythm and production into his attribution of shares, but neither will expect to ‘own’ the rhythmic elements or the production style. It is accepted practice that they can be mimicked and copied. In contrast, songwriters are more vigilant when a melody line is copied or lyrics are stolen. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there is still a hierarchy of musical elements, which places melody, harmony and lyrics as the most important. There is a corresponding hierarchy within groups: it is rare that the bass player or drummer will be the leader of the band. Another reason why plagiarism cases are not made in this respect is because many bass and drum parts are not original. The same patterns and methods are used in multiple songs. This has been made possible because songwriters do not commonly launch plagiarism cases when these elements are simulated. This is only convention, however, and it is not possible to provide a separate registration of a work that will outline which elements of a composition songwriters will pursue in a plagiarism case and which they will chose to ignore. The ‘Blurred Lines’ case goes against songwriters’ practice. It has caused alarm because the Gaye estate won.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Remember You're a Sex Pistol

Album, the 1986 record by Public Image Ltd has recently been re-released. Reviewers have referred to its making as ‘one of the most bizarre episodes in [John] Lydon’s extraordinary story’, noting that the singer employed ‘a raft of top-flight session players’, including Ginger Baker, Tony Williams, Steve Vai, Bernard Fowler and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Lydon enjoyed confounding people. He has stated that he ‘needed the support from people like the Ginger Bakers, and to be reminded that people really fucking respected what I was doing’. Their encouragement made him see that he was not ‘an enormous, talentless boring lump’. He also enjoyed the fact that Sting thought that the record ‘was the best album I’ve ever made’. Nevertheless, the public were ‘confused’ by Album and his record company was ‘nonplussed’. Apparently, punk and session musicians are opposites.
            But is this really the case? The Ramones provided the template for American punk. Their strongest influences were the girl group records of the early 1960s (which were performed by American session musicians) and the bubblegum pop of the Bay City Rollers (which was recorded by British session musicians). The influence of these predecessors is transparent. The Ramones recorded an album with the girl group producer Phil Spector (who employed session musicians for some of the guitar parts as well as for the strings). Their song ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ is modelled on the Rollers' ‘Saturday Night’.
The Bay City Rollers also served as Malcolm McLaren’s template for the Sex Pistols. This was true from the launch of the band (prior to hiring Lydon, McLaren drove to Scotland in search of a Rollers-type singer) to the time of their demise (in 1980 he looked back upon the Sex Pistols, saying ‘I was always concerned to make them as much like The Bay City Rollers as possible’).
            And we should not forget the Chris Spedding rumours. It has been suggested that this session musician played guitar on early Sex Pistols’ tracks. Spedding also played guitar on the Wombles’ hits. What matters most about this story is not that it is true, but that it is plausible. The Sex Pistols were not averse to session musician practices. After his sacking, Glen Matlock was rehired as a session bass player. Steve Jones also had a session musician’s mentality as he laid down layer after layer of guitar for Never Mind the Bollocks and also played the bass.
            It is not hard to see why the connections between punk and session musicians have been overlooked. They fly in the face of punk’s DIY ethos. They should not be ignored, however, and we should consider whether doing it for yourself and getting someone else to do it for you really are so different. These networks should also encourage us to rethink the Wombles. Are they the missing link between glam rock and punk?

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Live Dead

Live music is called live music for a reason. It wishes to imply that its opponent – recorded music – is dead. The use of the term ‘live’ to describe a performance that is ‘heard or watched at the time of its occurrence’ only arose in the 1930s. Musicians’ unions promoted this usage vigourously, as they campaigned hard to ‘keep music live’. They targetted recorded music, describing it as a ‘grave threat’, a ‘serious danger’ and an ‘ever-present menace’. Their great fear was that records would take the place of performing musicians: ‘The musician may well become extinct and music may cease to be written’.
            To a certain extent their terminology was appropriate. The term ‘record’ has preservative connotations. To record is to embalm sounds that would otherwise pass. Death haunted the earliest phonographic reveries. The first article about sound recording declared, ‘certainly nothing can be conceived more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead’. Thomas Edison, the inventor of sound recording, promised an epitaph that would last through the ages: ‘This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, utters your words: and, centuries after you have crumbled into dust, may repeat every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word’.
            And yet the promotion of the term ‘live music’ has been more duplicitous than first appears. By the 1930s records were very much seen as living things. This is because Edison was a liar. His original tinfoil recordings lasted days rather than centuries; they were destroyed when they were removed from the phonograph. Shellac and vinyl offered improvements upon this format, but they too proved susceptible to ageing processes. Consequently, the preservative function of records was downplayed. In its place came a recording industry that focused on a fast turnover of products. It didn’t want you to keep your records forever. It wanted you to buy new ones.
            This had phenomenological ramifications. Records felt alive precisely because you could play them to death. Analogue records aged in step with their owners, acquiring the same scuffs, knocks and dust as they passed through time. Elvis Costello made this point clear in ‘45’, his paean to the 7” single: ‘Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat, every breath that I bless’. This ethos casts the musicians’ unions’ campaigns in a different light. They weren’t attacking records because they thought they were lifeless; they feared them because they are very much alive.
            And were they trying to cover up the fact that it is live performance that is morbid? One reason to see an artist in the flesh is to witness them before that flesh withers. This much has become apparent following the rash of popular music deaths this year. How did people respond to the passing of David Bowie and Prince? By boasting that they had seen them when they were alive. Social media was awash with pictures of ticket stubs, as people sought to prove that they were once in the same room as the recently deceased.
The death cult of live performance increases as artists and audiences grow older. There is a sense of chalking musicians off your list before they pass away. It is not only confined to OAP artists, however. One of the reasons why people pay to see unpredictable and doomed performers such as Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty is in the hope that the artist will die young. The viewer will then be able to speak from the privileged position of having seen them while they fretted their hour on the stage.
Gig-goers are a cruel bunch.

Monday, 3 October 2016

War's No Fairytale, Guns and Bombs aren't Fucking Toys!

Like so many people, I have plenty of arguments about punk. Recently, I’ve managed to get two of them off my chest. The first is that, in the UK at least, the commercial zenith of punk happened in 1979, rather than in the fetishised years of 1976-78. I made this point in my Popular Music and Society article about being a school kid in that peak year. The second is that, when it comes to the punk diaspora, the greatest legacy has not come from the leading British bands of the late 1970s, or from the CBGB’s punk of seventies New York. The continuing punk lifestyle and ethos instead owes more to anarcho punk bands, such as Crass and Flux of Pink Indians, who arose to prominence in the UK in the early 1980s, and hardcore American punk bands, such as Black Flag and Minor Threat, who first recorded slightly later. I arrive at this point in my review of the Subcultures Network’ book Fight Back: Punk, Politics and Resistance, which is in the latest edition of Popular Music. The title of this book also gave me an opportunity to reference the great Stoke-on-Trent punk band, Discharge. Altogether now: ‘We’ve been shit on far too long. Fight the system, fight back!’

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Icarus or Lazarus

Last night I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time in years. It is a bonkers, brilliant and flawed film and is well worth seeing again. Fans of David Bowie can marvel at the fact that he looks amazing. Fans of Iron Maiden can hail the typeface that was used for the film’s poster: it is where they got their logo.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but the entire film is something of a pun. Bowie, as Jerome Newton, is the ‘man’ who fell to earth: he is an alien who has decided to descend to our planet. He is also the man who fell to earth in that he is brought down with a bump. Bowie becomes more human and he gets humdrum. His ideals and inventions come to nothing. He instead succumbs to alcohol and inadequacy.
            This is the underlying message of the film. Don’t fly too high – your wings will get burnt. It is underlined by a scene in which the character Dr Nathan Bryce looks at an art book, which contains the W.H. Auden poem ‘Musee des Beaux Art’, as well as the brilliant Breughel painting that it references:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

What an odd message this is, though, for a film about an alien. Jerome Newton shouldn’t be cast as an Icarus; he’s not hubristic. Perhaps this is why Bowie decided to revisit the same character, but in the guise of Lazarus. This time he will rise like a bluebird; this time he will be free.