Friday, 31 December 2010

Wider Reading | Further Thoughts on 'Are Games Art'? - Fallout: New Vegas

Black Isle Studios. Responsible, back in the distant mists of the late 90s, for some of the best-loved, geekiest and most unequivocally acclaimed video games of all time, and directly involved with quite a few others. One of their products, Torment, an offbeat, strangely epic game concerned with mortality and man’s ability to change, with a near-novelistic amount of writing, has been one of the pro-game primary witnesses in the on-going ‘are games art/destructive to our nation’s youth?’ debate.

And then there was Fallout (which itself stole much of its concept from an earlier game called Wasteland), which posited the idea of an America struggling to pick up the pieces some years after a Cold War-style nuclear holocaust. So instead of just having the usual Mad Max guys in leather with mohawks, you had societies and factions trying to create themselves in the image of former empires, sometimes comically. You had some quite clever ideas about how mankind would rebuild itself with a ‘fresh start’ that was in fact saturated with the cultural debris of a lost age. And you had a goofy, straight-faced spoof of 50s science fiction, an entire world built on the idea that ‘radiation makes things big and monstrous!’ is biological fact.

Real nuclear explosions are rarely quirky and fun.

Bethesda Softworks (No, I don’t know how to pronounce it either. Neither am I convinced that ‘Softworks’ is a real thing). Primarily known for ‘open world’ fantasy games that aspired to be as enormous and apparently endless as a virtual reality could be. Having acquired the rights to the Fallout series, they set about creating an ‘open world’ post-apocalyptic game. Enter Fallout 3, a critically acclaimed, massive grey blancmange of a title. Not too intelligent a blancmange either, sadly; the plot depended on the player chasing their father, a blandly benevolent Liam Neeson, about the (again, grey) wastelands near Washington DC, and getting caught up in the fight between some goodies and baddies. Just so we understand how bad the baddies are – their leader’s voiced by Malcolm McDowell.

Fallout 3 was exactly the sort of game that would make Roger Ebert shudder; a thoroughly detailed, dumb virtual reality world for nerds to vanish into and shoot the heads off things in slow motion, with great production values and star wattage, but without a great deal of character. It developed a huge following amongst a new generation of game-players.

Obsidian Entertainment. Much like a society from Fallout, this developer was formed from the remnants of the original Black Isle Studios after its dissolution and they’ve been living under the weight of that past ever since, turning out a mixture of obvious attempts to break into the mainstream and more ‘alternative’, thoughtful games. All of these, to date, have been heavily criticised for their bugs and technical issues. And, earlier this year, they were allowed to bring out New Vegas, the most recent Fallout title, which uses Fallout 3’s engine, which marketed itself on Bethesda's earlier game, to the extent that it was bloody hard for me to find decent pictures of it that didn't involve gratuituous, Borderlands-style violence or ridiculously big guns. With me so far?

It really is a political story with just as much emphasis on morality, diplomacy and smarts as adolescent shooting of monsters. No, honestly!

Good. Because, if you haven’t given up in confusion, I’d like to put New Vegas forward as another example of art. Not ‘Art’ with a capital A, but…y’know, just ‘art’. The main reason being that it takes that attention to detail, Bethesda’s effective imitation of a real world, and uses it to create a setting with the same level of detail, the same nuances and the same character as the best of our speculative fiction.

The game takes place in the territories around the partially rebuilt Las Vegas. To the east, you’ve got an occupying force of Ancient Rome-loving fanatics who keep order through slavery. Holding them off from the spectacular Hoover Dam are a kind of rag-tag peoples’ army, who any other game would be heroic. (Here, mostly due to being rag-tag and made up of ordinary people, they’re inefficient, disorganised and corrupt, in spite of their leaders' good intentions.) ‘New Vegas’ itself is kept independent by a wealthy autocrat, while the various casinos have become, effectively, noble houses, and the streets are kept safe by a benevolent gangster 'King' who continues the fine Las Vegas tradition of Elvis impersonation.

Essentially, there’s a McGuffin that may help to tip the balance of power in any one direction, and you play the poor schmo who’s hired to deliver it safely, and who gets shot by a petty criminal played by an extremely bored and/possibly or drugged-up Matthew Perry, then left for dead. You wake up, and the game begins. That’s the, er, ‘game’, and the ‘game for power’, as you travel the mind-bogglingly huge map, making allies or enemies of the various factions and trying to get your hands on that damned McGuffin so that, culminating in a battle for the city atop the dam. At heart, it’s a Sergio Leone-style cowboy story, and a far more characterful one than the directionless, amoral Red Dead Redemption.

It’s also flawed, in so, so many ways – aside from the aforementioned bugs, the engine itself isn’t built for heavy storytelling. All of the hundreds (thousands?) of people in the game are marvellous; they have their own daily routines, they sleep, they smoke cigarettes or type at computers when they feel like it…and then, when you try to talk to them, they stare straight at you, unmoving, and talk without any real sort of expression.

But let’s go back to that depth of detail, that personality that makes the game feel like a legitimate world. And it relates to an issue I’ve agonised over a little – Ebert’s argument that if art contains choice on the reader’s/player’s/what-have-you’s part, it cannot be art, because the choice itself is a game we want to win. New Vegas is detailed and nuanced enough – hell, if I’m going to use that dreadful word, it’s immersive enough – that in its best moments, the choice becomes an emotional or an intellectual one within the world, not a calculated one outside it.

Let me give a geeky, fangasming, spoiler-filled example; at a certain point in the plot, my character failed to kill Matthew Perry (I’m as upset as you are. But he could have died at that point, which would have altered the following section of the plot entirely) who high-tailed it off to the base of the Roman-loving ‘Legion’ to offer the McGuffin to them. Now, earlier on in the game, I’d happened to run into and make friends with a gruff sniper fellow whose wife had been made a slave by the Legion, and who had a serious, suicidal grudge against them as a result. I’d also discovered their habit of crucifying ill-doers in various bandit towns. And so, for some time, my sniper pal and I had been fighting a lonely war together against these tyrants, who saw us as their implacable enemies.

The leader of the Legion, however, decided at this point to try and bargain with my character, and sent word about a place where I could catch a ferry to his fortress to meet him. Had I done so, the two enemies could have formed a grudging alliance, with the commander offering the life of the captured Matthew Perry (the man who’d tried to kill my character, remember) and the McGuffin as a gift of friendship.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, as we reached the ferry spot, my sniper and I passed by a slave pen where ordinary people were being imprisoned for a life of servitude by these Roman nutters. Rebelling at the sight of that, we gunned down their captors and set them loose. Afterwards, we stepped into the ferry regardless to get that McGuffin back, but what could have been a genteel meeting with the leader had become a suicide-mission attack on the fort; my sniper pal told me, with a certain grim satisfaction, that we most likely wouldn’t get out alive. My character cheerfully replied that the Legion wouldn’t know what hit them, and off we went for our showdown.

I actually found my sniper friend in the mouth of this dinosaur, if you'll believe it. Good times.

All of this is in the game; none of it is LARPing or any other such nonsense. You make your choices - based largely on chance encounters - and the game, in general, responds to it with astounding depth and even emotional impact. It’s a testament to that same detail and character that New Vegas doesn’t come across simply as Civ-style ‘you have angered the Red Team! Now they attack you!’. And so, at least if you’re playing it once, you react to the storyline organically rather than, say, deciding to ‘do a bad-guy playthrough’.

This level of immersion is actually pretty scary (see how easily I kept slipping into ‘I’ instead of ‘my character’ back there?). But if games are going to continue getting bigger and more viable as an alternative to reality, we have to ask at least that they make the effort to dump us back in the world with a slightly heightened sense of ourselves, rather than giving us false-sense-of-accomplishment psychological highs for collecting all 100 crystals. Immersion with artistic responsibility, let’s call it. Which New Vegas, in its own twisted way, certainly has.

So it’s art. Maybe.

(I also have to thank New Vegas for introducing me to 'Big Iron', Marty Robbins' marvellously appropriate cowboy song that plays throughout the game, on a radio station hosted by none other than Wayne Newton, who - unlike that bastard Perry - has a ball with his voice-over. Also, here's the Verve's 'Virtual World', back from when they wrote funky, interesting psychedelic music.)

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Wider Reading | David Lynch Goes Electro

Writing about Guardian article: 
I don't know what I was expecting when I heard that David Lynch had released a single. I suppose part of me was thinking Aphex Twin. Or maybe some of that beautifully weird score we get so much of in Twin Peaks. What I wasn't expecting was this:

Good Day Today by threeminutesthirtyseconds

Honestly, it sounds like something that could be knocked up in Garage Band in twenty minutes. But then, as I have often been told when it comes to David Lynch, I just don't 'get it'. But does anybody else think it sounds like the batshit crazy Aussie animator Wendy Vainity?

Wider Reading | England Retain The Ashes

And what a fascinating little snippet the Guardian caught for us. Strauss has clearly so taken to heart the karmic strategy that 'When we give in to hubris, we immediately lose 5-0 next time around', and so he shrugs his shoulders with wonderful dourness and mutters something about working on their errors, strategising for the upcoming Sydney match, etc, etc.

And Ponting, with a heartbreaking little smile, hopes that he won't only be remembered as the man who lost those three series. Hugs for that man!

A lot of people don't seem to like Mitchell Johnson very much. I think it's at least partially because he looks a bit like Eli Roth, and it's all in the power of association. Poor fellow.

The England-Australia sporting rivalry's always seemed a bit odd to me. They hate - or pretend to hate - us because of colonialism and because we won't shut up about the whole convict thing. We reciprocate...because they're, generally speaking, better than we are? Do any Australians out there know when this fascinating battle of egos first began?

Ah, well. We've got that dinky little jar now, as well as more talented bowlers than you could shake a wicket at. I also have a theory that Jonathan Trott, bless his stubby bald little head, is secretly KP's deeply unfashionable polar-opposite-doppelganger (those exist, right?)

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Wider Reading | Why Peep Show Needs To Die

Peep Show’s going the way of The Simpsons. Instead of great episodes, we’re getting great bits enlivening structureless episodes. And by the standards of this patchy, patchy series (I may just never get over the horror of the fourth episode’s premise ‘Mark and Jeremy get stuck in a corridor’. That’s not a Peep Show episode. That’s something out of Friends, and even while Joey and Chandler were stuck in the corridor, Phoebe would be serenading a man with an embarrassing hairdo, Ross would be mistakenly considered gay by an effete co-worker, and Monica and Rachael would be fighting over a half-price wedding dress), the Christmas episode wasn’t bad at all. The jokes were often pretty standard – oh, no, the turkey’s undercooked! – but Bain and Armstrong did manage to get quite a bit of good, if sometimes over-exaggerated comedy out of tweaking the heroes’ characters, turning Mark into a control-freak Christmas-host fascist and Jeremy into a wide-eyed, determinedly innocent child.

Anyone else want to see David Mitchell playing a detective on ITV?

The first problem came with Dobby, in a scene that reminded me of what I think I’ve always known at heart; Sam and Jesse can’t write women as much more than the butt of a joke or a plot device, and in a show as decidedly acerbic as Peep Show, this means that they end up being (respectively) either irritating or a nymphomaniac. Sophie, Mark’s beloved through most of the series, ended up being both. It’s easy to forget how little personality she’s had throughout those first three series, when almost all we saw of her was through Mark’s panicked, delusional consciousness, and Olivia Colman’s role was to look shocked whenever he said or did something terrible. Then she was forced to participate actively in the plot, and she turned into the shrewish catalyst for every episode, forcing Mark into various upsetting activities…and then eventually creating the big, unbelievable three-way ‘who’s the father of my baby?” moment.

Dobby, so far, (and full credit to Isy Suttie’s oddly deep-voiced, burbling, energetic performance) has appeared to have a bit more substance to her. She’s a sort of all-round anti-mainstream nerd; a geek who outgeeks Mark thanks to a well-developed sense of detached irony.

But then we had the scene in that Christmas episode where she tried to harass Mark into watching FlashForward with her, which led to an amusing rant from him about these overwrought American drama series we like to obsess over. Hang on…Dobby being a Prison Break fanatic who’d rather sit at home watching supermodel-filled, mainstream-approved TV than, I don’t know, going out and LARPing? If she was going to pick anything, surely it’d be Doctor Who.

Sadly, it’s a case of characters being dragged out of character in order to work in a certain routine, a problem that recurred when Mark’s sister Sarah turned up - having apparently forgotten all the horrible things Jeremy did to her last time round - and spent the entire episode trying to have sex with him for no reason whatsoever. We were probably fortunate to get away without an appearance by the weirdly asexual, pretentious thicky Zahra, whose only redeeming features so far have been that ‘a demain’ joke and the fact that she’s not Elena, Jeremy’s love interest from the last series, who I can never remember being anything more than a stretched-out version of those Polish café waitresses from the Harry Enfield sketch. (Although, to be fair, the problems the show’s having with minor characters aren’t restricted entirely to women. How many more times are we going to have to see a gruff, controlling father/father-in-law with a mousy, sweet wife, before the end?)

This was Google's first image result for 'Peep Show'. Now, I don't mean to quibble, but there's no partition with viewing window separating the pink rabbits from their customers, so this should really be properly defined as a standard 'strip joint'.

The second major issue was one of basic structure. Peep Show, recently, seems to have been trying to award its two heroes victories in small doses. So while the majority of this Xmas episode was, in its own way, based on the classic ‘Mark’ formula (he attempts to interact with society, doing so with varying degrees of success until all the little lies, humiliations and embarrassments build and build until eventually something inside him snaps and he does something bizarre in public – bowling fruit, pretending to have a brain tumour, getting a knife out, ranting obscenities at a young man with a limp, etc.), the second half also attempted a much older, much more well-worn comedy structure. One baddy character – in this case, Mark’s dad - makes everyone’s lives miserable, until at last the hero mans up and tells them where to go. Everyone cheers! Even Sarah, whose sub-plot with Jeremy was swept curiously to one side by her sudden desire to play Pictionary.

The transition from a ‘Mark becomes Fuhrer Christmas’ storyline to a ‘Mark achieves Oedipal catharsis’ storyline was uncertain and messy, leaving swathes of plot unresolved (Couldn’t Mark, with his newfound courage, call Dobby and ask her to come back? Actually, while we’re on the subject, wasn’t the whole ‘refusing to admit she’s my girlfriend’ thing contrived and out of character as well, from a previously married man, even one as messed up as Mark?)

The episode’s worst crime I save till last; it did absolutely nothing funny with Super Hans. Well…maybe the line about Ratatouille. But that’s not enough, goddammit.

Before I actually watched this episode, I was treated to a Channel 4 documentary about Peep Show, in which Bain and Armstrong said that they reckoned they’d probably end it slightly after they should have done so, and then joked that perhaps this point had already been passed. I think it probably happened around the end of Season 4, if anybody’s keeping count. And, actually, as a huge fan of this show, I think I quite want it to die now. Otherwise it’s a long trudge downwards towards – as Troy McClure puts it – magic powers! Wedding after wedding after wedding! And did someone say, ‘long-lost triplets’?

Friday, 24 December 2010

Snow | Mini Essay | Claus-trophobia, by Tash Hodgson

He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie

Bringing her children up in a hopelessly Godless household, my mother was forced to call upon the eternal power of Father Christmas in order to keep us from turning feral. Not willing to have us exposed to the major faiths of the world but more than happy to spin us her own, hand-crafted psuedo-cult, we were told from a young age that Santa Claus – the hairy guy hoarding all the Sega Megadrives – was an all-seeing, all-knowing bad-man. She would have monthly, excessively loud phone conversations with him (charges reversed, obviously) in the kitchen, about how me and my brother ‘had been doing OK this year, but we’d have to see, wouldn’t we?’ as Joe and I looked on with terrified eyes, trying to figure out just how many stolen newsagent cola bottles constituted a lump of coal in place of Super Street Fighter. It was only when we got to the going-to-school age that I realised that our view of Father Christmas – a terrifying, malevolent phone-addict with great taste in computer games – wasn’t universal.

Of course, in Spain it’s the Three Kings, Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthazar, who dole out the presents and punishments. Three Sauron-esque overlords for the price of one. Mum would have bloody loved that, and I probably would have had a mental breakdown. In the Basque country it’s Olentzero, an overweight chap sporting a jaunty beret who comes bearing gifts – but he smokes a pipe, and Ma wouldn’t have been happy with him dirtying the curtains. Hungary would have been no good to her, as Father Christmas turns up on the 6th December and until Jesus arrives on the 24th there seems to be a terrifying 17-day no man’s land of suspended morality. She’d have to have been a fool to agree to such terms. In Latvia he brings a gift a day for the 12 days of Christmas (too much effort) and in Russia you’ve got the whole Orthodox Church calendar business to fuss about with. In Italy, we’d be dealing with generous old crone La Befana as well as big daddy C and in Austria it’s a Christ child (das Christkind) who does all the heavy lifting. She could have just stripped it down to the bare bones and pretended the fourth century Greek Bishop Saint Nicholas was going to throw some money through our windows, but to be honest, I grew up in Warrington; believing in flying reindeer was one thing, believing some bloke would throw something that wasn’t on fire through your window was entirely another.

In the end, it seemed I worshipped a mongrel deity formed of myth, legend, fact and (mother-spawned) fiction. A jolly, portly Englishman (hats off to the Ghost of Christmas Present) with large beard (thanks Odin), who sported a red cloak (copyright Coca Cola) and gave gifts hidden in stockings (see: Saint Nick). He definitely either comes from the North Pole (thank you American cartoonist Thomas Nast) or Lapland (an idea apparently originating in a 1920s children’s radio show that went by the cheerful name of Markus-sedän lastentunti, or ‘Children’s hour with Uncle Markus’). He, obviously, always had his phone to hand (mother Hodge) and tried to trick you by only asking for one carrot to be put out on Christmas eve when he really expected twelve – one for each reindeer (my own hyperventilating five-year-old paranoia that forced my mother to do an extra vegetable run on Christmas eve).

Will I be passing down this patchwork-dark-lord version to my own spawn, if and when they turn up? I’d love to say no. It would be lovely to believe that I could patrol my kids with nothing more than a guiding hand towards an innate sense of right and wrong, softly tempered by smiling generosity and devastating good looks. But I’m afraid newsagents worldwide would go bust from the explosion in shoplifting. Sorry kids. If it helps, I’ll make sure we stock up on carrots.

Tash Hodgson

Tash edits the splendid film review blog, Best For Film, which has been running a competition throughout December called ‘Write Christmas’ that I believe you’re still good to enter until midnight tonight. The idea is basically to compose a review of the greatest Christmas film never made. Further details here. Entries so far here. All of which are well worth a Christmas Eve read, especially Santassassin, The Wrong Kind Of Snow and Sand For Snow.

And with that, the final candied orange segment of our condensed week of seasonal content, Silkworms shuts up shop for a few days – although I daresay we might toss out a spot of Wider Reading content, like so much pantomime confectionary, between Boxing Day and New Year. See you in January 2011 everybody, and thank you all so much for contributing, commenting, illustrating, reading, listening, admiring, critiquing or at the very least acknowledging our existence over the past few months. Merry bloody Christmas,

James, Phil, Jon and Sam

Snow | Mixtape | Mixtape XVIII, White Whindie Hymnals

Music As Reading: Mixtape XVIII, White Whindie Hymnals

We went home to her place
and cooked up some chilli
Warmed us from the inside
'cause the outside was chilly

A simple proposition this week, as it’s Christmas Eve. The vast majority of guitar music can be split down the middle, based on whether it’s innately wintery or summery. This tape proves this fact via its simultaneous breadth and coherence – alongside some more subtle proofs that you’ll probably need the accompanying essay what I wrote to understand. They’re that subtle. This tape’s particular literary resonance? Well frankly, it’s not exactly glaring – mainly we just wanted to get these songs up on the site before Christmas Day. But there is something, which I’ll quote from the last paragraph of the aforementioned essay:

It makes me wonder whether it reflects badly on (guitar) music that it can be so tied to seasonal extremes, rather than the more sophisticated liminalities that so much literature and visual art seems to get its kicks out of.

Whatevs, they’re (almost) all wonderful songs for this time of year. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve everyone. Oh, and yes, the fact there are 24 tracks is deliberate, we’re going to rehash this list in December 2011 as a MUSICAL ADVENT CALENDAR. Won’t that be awesome?

1. For Emma – Bon Iver

2. White Winter Hymnal – Fleet Foxes

3. Sister Winter – Sufjan Stevens

4. The Cold Swedish Winter – Jens Lekman

5. Winter Dies – Midlake

6. Colorado – Grizzly Bear

7. White Tooth Man – Iron & Wine

8. She Came Home For Christmas – Mew

9. Hello To Nils – Peter Broderick

10. Mr Peterson – Perfume Genius

11. Silent City – Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Brian Harnetty

12. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – The Ronettes

13. While I Shovel The Snow – The Walkmen

14. The Christmas Song – The Raveonettes

15. Mid-winter Songs: No. 5. Intercession In Late October – Morten Lauridsen

16. Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen

17. Helplessly Hoping – Crosby, Stills & Nash

18. Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside) – My Bloody Valentine

19. Halfway Home – TV On The Radio

20. Cover Me (Slowly) – Deerhunter

21. We Three Kings Of Orient Are – The Beach Boys

22. Girls In Their Summer Clothes (Winter Mix) – Bruce Springsteen

23. Summer Babe (Winter Version) – Pavement

24. Wait For The Wintertime – Yeasayer

Snow | Chapbook | Vol XLI, The Gingerbread Gang by Michael Frissore


Vol XLI, The Gingerbread Gang

Michael Frissore (24.12.10)


Merry Christmas! To celebrate here is 'The Gingerbread Gang'. A festive chapbook...well kind of, it features gingerbread. Go on, nibble.

Snow | Music | WHINDIE (Whimsy + Winter + Indie)

Can’t remember who it was, so I can’t credit them unfortunately, but a month or so ago, on Facebook (yeah, sorry, it’s going to one of those articles) somebody wrote something like the following…

the one upside to it being this cold: i can start listening to bon iver again

…and I was really bloody happy to see that somebody else saves up a certain type of music for the winter. This time two years ago, I spent the vast majority of December listening to Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan, Yeasayer, Jen Lekman and very little else. This time one year ago, it was Midlake, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, Mew, Talons’, Jen Lekman and very little else. This year it’s been Peter Broderick, Perfume Genius, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Jens Lekman and very little else. For me, in short, an essential component of my cultural experience during the winter months, particularly those preceding Christmas, is a soundtrack of unambiguously wintery (and often enough, somewhat unchallenging) American and Canadian guitar music – both accompanying and redefining my romanticed notions of winter’s special poetry, loveliness, importance.

Now, a certain amount of this connection speaks for itself insofar as, say, Lekman’s Cold Swedish Winter…

We went home to her place
and cooked up some chilli
Warmed us from the inside
'cause the outside was chilly

…is, explicitly, a whimsical romanticisation of winter, whilst his being Swedish, along with Mew’s being Danish, Broderick being adopted Danish, Fleet Foxes being from snowy Washington state and so on, are all clear pointers as to why this music makes sense – is pleasurable to the point that it’s the only music worth listening to – in the colder months. But actually, a lot of the songs by the above artists explicitly about winter aren’t actually very much in love with it. ‘A man can be happy with the weather / As long as it doesn’t snow / There’s a price to pay for summertime,’ explain Yeasayer in Wait For The Wintertime, and as for Fleet Foxes:

I was following the pack
All swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied around their throats
To keep their little heads
From falling in the snow
And I turned around and there you go
And, Michael, you would fall
And turn the white snow red as strawberries
In the summertime

Bleak. Lyrically, anyway. But not aesthetically, which to me is a point far more important than apparently obvious lyrical or, I don’t know, geographical explanations: the reason for the connection between winter and a certain kind of music is about music, rather than ‘meaning'. For me, the way Phil Spector produced his glorious Christmas Album is much more Christmassy than its banal and, in the case of album highlight I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, frankly sinister lyrical content. All scratchily galloping Little Drummer Boy snares, backing vocals melting into strings and back again, layered instrumentals. It’s a winter sound that makes its way into Grizzly Bear, Sufjan, and many more besides.
I’m fudging together winter and Christmas here because it’s the easiest way – obviously they’re different things, in music and in life, but as a general rule most Christmassy American and Canadian guitar music fits into the winter music framework I’m trying to define, whilst most winter music doesn’t fit into whatever Christmas frameworks do exist. Incidentally, one shouldn’t underestimate the impact the OC and, more specifically, its Chrismukkah compilation has had upon the now entrenched relationship between commercialish indie music and a sorta kitch love of Christmas stuff. See Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas. See AV Undercover’s recent set of ‘holiday covers’ featuring bands like the Walkmen – who, you knows it OC fans, actually appeared in an episode of the show. The OC defined an entire generation’s relationship with alternative music. Underestimate the OC at your peril. Incidentally, the opening track on the Chrismukkah record is the Raveonette’s The Christmas Song which tries really, really hard to sound like a Spector creation. Just sayin.

Anyway, this aesthetic blueprint, this makes-sense-in-wintertime blueprint, what are its ingredients, beyond those contained within Phil Spectorism? Firstly, quietness – many of the artists I’ve mentioned already are solo outfits, many make creative use of silence, Peter Broderick’s pauses and Samuel Beam’s Iron & Wine whisper particularly good examples. And the association between winter and quiet isn’t too hard to work out – for me, the most striking thing about snow is the way it flattens urban noise into a cushioned, swaddled silence, as uncanny as it is wonderful. Second, a certain type of vocal, invariably layered into harmony, á la Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, almost always male, yet frequently verging on falsetto – so King’s College’s Nine Lessons and Carols, then? Well perhaps that’s going a bit far. But the relationship between one of the most-sung strands of choral composition and winter is long-established and still going strong – think Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, his Mid-winter Songs – and so it’s inevitable that other modes of music which adopt choral-ish tropes will appear, well, wintery. That’s what Fleet Foxes are like: choir boys.
Thirdly, there’s storytelling whimsy, a Christmas/winter tradition that has dominated Western culture from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s ‘Christmas game’ to Good King Wenceslas via the tradition of old wives’ winter’s tales immortalised by Shakespeare – who’s Mamillus warns us that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter,’ a notion adopted throughout, say, Perfume Genius’ particular take on meandering wintery songwriting. Here’s Mr Peterson:

He let me smoke weed in his truck
If I could convince him I loved him enough

He made me a tape of Joy Division
He told there was a part of him missing
When I was sixteen
He jumped off a building

In short, this thing I do, this thing I was so excited to see somebody else do, actually makes perfect sense, buys into existing seasonal cultural frameworks, traditions, trends – that were, indeed, erected and established in my cultural life at a ridiculously young age via weather patterns, carol services and 19th century poems like A Visit from St. Nicholas. Winterous indie music is a fact, not a thing. A prevalent fact, indeed. These ingredients are utilised by an enormous spectrum of bands, ranging from Crosby, Stills & Nash to My Bloody Valentine to TVOTR to Deerhunter via the Beach Boys. Make that half the Beach Boys – for a lot of their most well-known singles are, naturally, summertime tunes. And that Beach Boys dichotomy introduces us to the most compelling proof of wintery guitar music there is, the fact that there is a parallel strand of summery guitar music – one, indeed, that we all take for granted. Just one manifestation: that difficult to summarise genre we call surf that one can trace all the way through from Brian Wilson to Wavves.

The truth of this is evident in three examples: the fact that Springsteen released a single in 2008 called Girls In Their Summer Clothes – and then released a different mix that he felt the need to entitle Girls In Their Summer Clothes (Winter Mix) in order to differentiate it as a fundamentally different song. For as anybody who has seen The Promise will know, Bruce cares about production. And as Spector has taught us, production can be a basis of winterousness. Two, the fact Pavement did exactly the same with Summer Babe which, when it appeared on Slanted & Enchanted, became Summer Babe (Winter Version) to designate a completely different, wintery mix. And finally, the fact Yeasayer’s debut record All Hour Cymbals was constructed around a counterpointing pair of songs, Wait For The Summer and Wait For The Wintertime, each representing a checklist of the different components that made up the two strands they’d spend the rest of the record attempting to fuse – a lightly cascading sunny worldbeat on the one hand, frostily gothic walls of sound on the other.
It makes me wonder whether all (guitar) music can be broken down into wintery and summery headings. Whether it is indeed fair, as I suspect it is, to describe a label like Bella Union’s entire roster as winter bands – they put on a hell of a Christmas party after all. And this in turn makes me wonder whether it reflects badly on (guitar) music that it can be so tied to seasonal extremes, rather than the more sophisticated liminalities that so much literature and visual art seems to get its kicks out of. Oh wells, I’m still going to spend tomorrow (today) listening to as much of it as I possibly can whilst decorating my tree. Yeah, I decorate it on Christmas eve. That's what you're supposed to do.

God bless everyone,

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Wider Reading | Yet Another Good Reason To Read Silkworms Daily

Because if the Daily Mail says it, it must be true.

Ed. just want to point out that the obvious typo in that caption is the Daily Mail's, not Silkworms'.

Wider Reading | Respect and Obey Authority.

On today's 'Cute Yet Terrifying' Silkwatch, we have a video featuring a bunch of sweet, talented American kids who've put together a band and written a song for us. They're called X-TReMe PoWeR. Well, isn't that adorable-

I don't know what to make of this. Really, I don't. Quite plausibly, it could be just an innocent song that's trying to express how kids should pay attention in class, and respect their parents, as the verses indicate... which case it's just bad luck that these precocious youngsters have written a chorus that sounds like something out of Barney the Dinosaur's Ministry of Love. This couldn't be the New World Order's most ingenious attempt yet to indoctrinate us all, could it? Next they'll be teaching fluffy kittens to mewl 'Doubt Leads To Heresy' at you as you tickle their bellies.

And it's actually kind of catchy, as well. O-B-E-Y...

Snow | Fiction | There's Something Nasty Lurking In The Glacier

People flee into snowy places. There’s no other reason to venture there. That seems to be our main literary thesis. Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein himself, and Robert Walton are all running away to the wastes of the North Pole (the Creature himself, of course, finds a smaller, less well-fortified wilderness earlier in the book in the Alps) but the latter two both convince themselves falsely that they’re not fleeing so much as chasing something.

The other obvious association is that snowy places are dwelling-places for the uncanny. Frankenstein is an amusing exception to the rule, because while our first suspicion during Walton’s framing device is that something weird lurks in the fog and the ice, the Creature actually originates from a seat of learning and culture in the midst of European civilised society. For most of our uncanny literature, though, that theme is played straight. Consider the presence of ice and snow in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' as the gateway to the otherworld, the natural torment that leads to unnatural torments. In one sense, this is simply practical; the snowy landscape is, as should be made clear by the number of Stephen King novels set there and the number of B-movies and B-novels in which an alien craft crashes there, a perfectly isolated and frightening setting for horror. But consider the way the uncanny seeps into otherwise realistic thrillers as soon as they venture into the snow-filled wilds – Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, for example, or Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights (and for those of you keeping track of just how ridiculous a piece of literary genre fiction can get while still being acclaimed – SPOILERS -, that’s one count of ‘alien parasite inside a fallen meteorite’ and one count of ‘talking apes at a Soviet research facility.)

All of this intrigues me in part because of the upcoming movie version of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness – for my money, the best story by old H.P., which is going to be made by James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro and has, therefore, both the most suitable and utterly unsuitable team behind it that anyone could hope for. Suitable because both of them know how to make damn good, memorable sets, and you think they’d be able to capture the weirdness of an ice-filled land effectively. Unsuitable because…both of them really, really like monsters, and they like to try and capture those monsters visually, which is the wrong approach for any Lovecraftian tale and especially for Mountains, which barely contains any visual monstrosities at all, especially not living. The horror has to come from the alien purity of the snow itself, the twisted reflections of the ice, the white fog that conceals the world around you, the empty flats and the bottomless crevasses. (All right, and the penguins. The horror partly comes from the penguins.)

The black pit! The carven ring...the proto-Shoggoths, the windowless solids with five dimensions!

No, if an adaptation of Mountains is going to work, it requires the spirit of my favourite cryptid – certainly the one with the best name – Am Fear Liath Mor, the Gaelic term for the sense of unease experienced by lonely climbers in harsh mountains; the belief that one is being followed by an unseen presence, or even the flitting glimpse of a humanoid figure. Fear Liath has been, very obviously, connected with the legend of the yeti, and it’s been attributed to loneliness, exhaustion, the effects of high altitude or low temperatures, or the reflection of sunlight off snow or low-lying mist.

It could, conceivably, be an explanation for the fascinating Dyatlov Pass Incident from the late 50s, when nine skiers in the Ural Mountains were discovered to have torn themselves forcibly out of their tent in the middle of the night, as if in a sudden panic, and ran out into the woods in their underclothes. They scattered into the trees, refusing for some unknown reason to return to the shelter of their tent, until eventually they died from the cold. No footprints were found other than theirs. Chilling details began to emerge later, such as that one of the women had had her tongue removed, and that several of the men were heavily bruised, as if they’d been struck by an unknown force. There were plenty of obvious explanations – small carnivores are plentiful, the men could have tripped and injured themselves – but it remains one of the 20th century’s most genuinely intriguing real-life cases of the uncanny.

The slashed tent.

This, perhaps, is snow’s appropriateness for horror – a landscape designed as if by nature to confuse and unsettle us, playing sensual tricks on us, distorting our perceptions, in much the same way that dilapidated old ‘haunted houses’ sometimes have carbon monoxide leaks. A natural world that appears very much to be unnatural, the sense that we are not alone in the loneliest of places. The horrid state of mind, in fact, that connects the Ancient Mariner with Frankenstein, encapsulated by the lines which purportedly caused Percy Shelley to faint in utter terror;

“Like one, that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turned round walks on,

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows, a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread.”

A very happy Christmas to you all.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow | Poetry | Woods for the Trees

I will be writing today about Robert Frost’s most famous poem, which most of us have encountered at one point or another. But for anyone who doesn’t know the poem, here it is:

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost

I have started playing the guitar again recently, after having fallen out of practice for about a year. As a result, the tips of my fingers are in pain from pressing on the strings. This is because I have a job that does not allow a lot of time for sitting in my bedroom playing the guitar.

Our lives are structured in a way that force us to prioritise.

Wake up. Eat. Go to work. Eat. Do some more work. Go home. Eat. Go to sleep. Here are the imperatives.

Have friends. Find a soulmate. Go on holiday. Try and get your five a day. Keep an eye out for promotion opportunities. These are some of the optional add-ons.

So in this hierarchy, where does playing the guitar fit in? Honestly, it doesn’t unless you force yourself to ignore life’s limitless flowcharts. Learning a new chord or buying a new plectrum will not go anyway towards you landing the Henderson account down at the office, nor will it improve your diet. So why do we play the guitar?

This is an idea that Frost wrestles with in Stopping by Woods. He only feels able to stop and admire the woods that he passes through because the person who owns them ‘will not see me stopping here / to see his woods fill up with snow’. If he is caught stopping here, he will not be prosecuted, but he will probably be asked to give some sort of logical reason for why he has stopped on his treacherous journey through the snow to admire the view.

The most important character is the horse though. ‘He gives his harness bells a shake/ to ask if there is some mistake’. The horse sees no viability in stopping ‘without a farmhouse near’ to simply wallow in the beauty of the situation. If we take the horse for an emblem of animal nature, then Frost is presenting the idea that art goes against our very nature, in the hunter-gatherer sense.

What Frost is really wrestling with here is the tension between practical and spiritual necessities. It is an idea that is blanketing Britain at this very moment. As a country we are being pulled between the aesthetic beauty of a snow-glazed landscape and the practical and financial impediment of frozen travel-routes.

The horse has no need of poetry, nor does the man whose house is in the village. To read and write poems is to stop and think over the very nature of stopping and thinking. It is to take something perilous and get caught up in how pretty it is. And, of course, the world would stop functioning as it currently does if we all indulged this side of ourselves. If every office-worker, bus-driver, police-officer and doctor stopped on their way to work to admire the ‘easy wind and downy flake’ then there is no argument that deaths would be caused.

Frost knows this, which is why he makes good on his ‘promises to keep’. He would love to spend the night exploring the ‘lovely, dark and deep’ forests, but knows that life’s obligations are about more than stopping and taking in a nice view. Yet he does stop for long enough to plant the seed for his poem in his mind.

This is why the poetry section of every bookshop is small but non-existent. If we had no use for that side of our brain that just wants something beautiful to think about then there would be no poetry sections. Anywhere. But the point that Frost alludes to is that we need that balance. We need that small corner of entirely inefficient, solitary thought where we can just wallow in what words are capable of when we swirl them in the petri-dish.

Do we not also get the sense that what Frost is really relishing is the absence of all other people in this scene? The horse is pulling him back towards the village, certainly, but Frost is fleetingly, truly happy when left with nothing but the sound of ‘the sweep of easy wind and downy flake’. This is the instant that gives him the idea for the poem. In solitude. Uninterrupted.

He knows that soon he will have to return to the world of people, people to whom he has made ‘promises’, but he has enjoyed this moment’s rest from it all. It is a difficult choice for him to make though – so difficult in fact that he has to repeat his justification in the penultimate and final lines. He longs to sever his obligations and explore the woods, yet he knows that he must think practically.

If we take the ‘woods’ here to mean the creative process, then Frost is beautifully encapsulating the life of a writer. If he allowed himself to fully enter the woods and leave the world behind, then his work would have no basis in a world that any audience would understand. If he does not spend time with other people, then he will never be able to write as one of them.

People love this poem because it’s easy to remember; the rhyme of the third line of each quatrain reminds you how the next one will start. People love it because the final quatrain has enough of the gothic fairytale about it to capture the dullest of imaginations. People love it because Quentin Tarantino cack-handedly shoe-horned it into Death Proof.

I love this poem because it shows Robert Frost lying in the bed that he has made for himself, and still managing to give us one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the English language.

Seasons Greetings,

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Wider Reading | Brotherhood of the Wolf

Mainstream French cinema, in my admittedly limited experience, isn’t fun. No, no – put that turkey baster away and let me explain. Truffaut isn’t fun. Godard isn’t fun. Manon de Sources isn’t fun. Au Revoir Les Enfants isn’t fun. Last Year at Marienbad isn’t fun. Amelie isn’t fun, but that’s because it’s cloying dreck. Haute Tension was neither clever nor fun. These films can be thoroughly engaging, brilliant, comedic, heart-warming, soul-destroying, even entertaining in a variety of off-kilter ways…but fun? I mean, even to start to think about ‘fun’, you’d have to go to the period stuff – Ridicule, Le Bossu, Cyrano de Bergerac…and even those have a restraining stateliness to them.

You’re almost certainly screaming abuse at me, specifically concerning my obvious lack of in-depth knowledge and my sweeping generalisations about a field I clearly don’t understand. But, fortunately, it’s the Internet and I can’t hear you, so I’m going to talk about werewolf mythology.

Pictured: History.

It was always werewolves for me. Partly because vampires, when I was growing up, had managed a few feeble struggles towards dignity in the form of Near Dark and The Lost Boys, but were now hopelessly uncool, still years before they’d be dragged out onto the stage, Susan Boyle-like, and forced to participate in teenage romances. Whereas werewolves had never been cool. But it was also because…well…what are vampires supposed to represent, exactly? MumblemumblesomethingaboutsexSTDsmumblemumble. Werewolves, to the childish mind, were very simple; inside every man there is a beast. I could understand that.

And the Beast of Gevaudan, to fans of relatively modern werewolf myths, is a sheer delight of history. A strange, wolf-like beast (or possibly several) terrorised a stretch of rural France for three years in the 18th century, tearing out peasants’ throats. It was finally shot – as later romantics claimed, with a silver bullet – by a suspicious fellow by the name of Jean Chastel, who’s been accused ever since of having actually been the creature’s master, even by that bastion of fact against superstition, the History Channel, which concluded that the Beast may have been an Asian hyena. Right…

Le Pacte des Loups, perhaps a movie which I have more affection for than any other, takes this set-up and moulds it into an adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes is Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac, an arse-kicking naturalist sent by the King, and Watson is Mani, a mystical Native American martial artist who can communicate with wolves. Monica Belluci also appears as a prostitute with the gift of second sight, who’s actually a deadly all-Catholic assassin and spy investigating the Beast under the Pope’s orders.

More History!

It’s very peculiar, and not just because of the mush of characters I’ve described to you above; it’s an obvious blockbuster that moves in all the wrong directions for a blockbuster. The pacing is all off, beginning slow and ponderous, with plenty of court intrigue and detective work only enlivened by the occasional gratuitous ninja fight. There’s also far too much time and care devoted to its love-triangle subplot for an action movie, including a marvellous, semi-obligatory brothel bit in which Miss Belluci’s breasts fade out into snow-covered mountains. There are nudges towards a larger theme about the rise of the Enlightenment, the oncoming Revolution and the last death throes of the religious and aristocratic rule over the common man. All of this is carried out against a lush, misty backdrop and with occasionally wonderful, over-exuberant use of slow-motion.

Then Fronsac and Mani leave. Then they’re called back. Then the film goes insane. The pace just about doubles. We’re treated to a rapid succession of fight scene after fight scene, becoming ever more acrobatic, exciting and bloody daft, equally daft plot twists are pulled out of the hat every five minutes…

…and then up pops a rather sad, offbeat framework ending, followed by one of those ‘repeating the title at the end of the film which suggests that the director thought it would take on a new significance for his/her audience.’ It really doesn’t.

Leonard Maltlin, who disliked Pacte, ended his review by admitting that it was “a very strange movie.” John Walker of Halliwell’s seemed to get a better handle on its unique quirkiness, describing it as “a delirious mix of kung-fu fighting, aristocratic shenanigans, Hammer horror and religious and political conspiracies; it is a stylish, enjoyable diversion.” That’s a mini-review I remember well, because it’s how I first heard about Pacte. And my reaction to that summary was, of course,

“Bloody hell, that sounds like fun!”

More History still!

And it is. My God, it is. Christophe Gans, its director, went on to adapt another piece of highly atmospheric, derivative yet individual, stylish nonsense, Silent Hill (sorry, Silent Hill), which didn’t do quite as well. And I must confess that as, like Cain, I’ve wandered the earth trying to find people to show this movie too, a great number of them have confessed that they find it baffling and a little cheesy. They’ve also done really irritating things like pointing out the obvious plot holes. I don’t mind. That’s the entire point of cult classics (even if they are international successes, as Pacte was).

But it’s Christmas. It’s a time for family, friends and lovers. But above all, it’s a time for a movie which contains high-kicking, sword-fights, death by wolf pack, monsters, eroticism, penis jokes, religious hypocrisy, guillotines, and a bit with a killer fan. (That’s…like, a lady’s fan. It’s spiky. It’s awesome and deeply silly, much like another weapon which I won’t spoil here, and much like the film itself.) It's time for a guilty pleasure that leaves you feeling delighted and amused and not as if you've just spent two-and-a-half hours wading through pigswill.

Right. Enough teasing; I’m sticking the DVD in.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Name | Music | Monica, Erica, Rita, Tina, Sandra, Mary, Jessica, It Was Really Nothing

Writers who think the names of their characters are important are stupid and annoying. I’ve overheard creative-writing-seminar conversations along the lines of, I’m trying to work out if he’s an Edward or a James, y’know, I wanted to go for something Old Testamenty but I think the associations would be too strong. When I started out he was definitely a Peter but he stopped behaving like a Peter for some reason, it was a real shame. Writers who talk about ‘their’ characters as though ‘they’re’ one, their friends, and two, changing outside of their control, are fucking stupid and annoying.

Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that (well, it probably is re. the second thing). Onomatopoeic and connotative names are fundamentally important to a certain type of brilliant, stylised writing, everything from Dickens to Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! via Roald Dahl. And actually, just as Jon pointed out all the way back in May that even the most seemingly unadorned, unelaborate first lines of novels betray a considerable degree of craft (usually in order to look unadorned and unelaborate) so the most ‘normal’ names in literature are, very obviously, the product of cautiously imaginative design. An example to demonstrate what I mean: were a novelist, having plotted and created his or her story utilising archetypes along the lines of Man A, Woman B, Child C – as is perhaps the most sensible approach of all – to then turn those sketches into John Smith, Karen Jones and so on (i.e. making use of what are, potentially, still the most mathematically common names in the UK) he would be accused of making a BS Johnson-style meta point that detracted utterly from his or her text’s attempts at naturalism. And we turn again to Brecht’s question to Lukács (paraphrased, obvs): how naturalistic can naturalism actually be?

Either way, people giving too much a shit about names is way more prevalent in English literature than it is in, say, German (even though Goethe decided to rhyme his most famous protagonist’s name with his own, the fucking idiot) for one, rather obvious reason: the cliché even more beloved by unimaginative journalists than ‘causes cancer’, the English and their obsession with class. As somebody who, due to my decidedly double-barrelled surname, gets a fair bit assumed about him by people he hasn’t met, I’m extremely attuned to the fact that character names from Shakespeare to Harry Potter are an issue of class-defining shortcuts. Does anything scream ignorant, prosaic peasant like ‘Dogberry’ or ‘Bottom’? Anything suggest petit-bourgeois barbarian like ‘Pumblechook’ or ‘Dursley’? And the relationship between the aristocracy and centuries-old surnames hardly needs repeating, except to say that literature which professes to find such things disgusting doesn’t half buy into the aesthetic thrill of such aristocratic mythology.

So yes, things worth talking about with reference to names in literature: idiots, naturalism and class. So here’s an interesting thing: none of those things are worth talking about with reference to names in music. Rather, songwriters who don’t think the names of their characters are important are the stupid, annoying ones. A fact which suggests that names offer an interesting entry-point into discussing the different processes involved in word- and song-writing. Let’s see.
Enter Morrissey, master of dependent-upon-a-single-name song-writing, most notably in William, It Was Really Nothing and Sheila Take A Bow. Both songs are thought to be about actual figures (well, sort of) the character William Fisher from Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar and Shelagh Delaney, the playwright responsible for A Taste of Honey – to some degree anyway. Indeed, of Shelagh Delaney, Morrissey said the following: ‘I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50% of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.’ For the record, Strangeways Here We Come is a paraphrased version of a line from the movie adaptation of Billy Liar, whilst the Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a retelling of A Taste of Honey directly quoting the play in several places.

And yet neither figure’s name is used straightforwardly, Billy (as he is throughout the book) returning to William and Shelagh becoming Sheila. With both these decisions feeding into the rest of what the songs are about, their ambiguities and structures of musical meaning. Mozza’s own description of William, It Was Really Nothing’s meaning is this:

It occurred to me that within popular music if ever there were any records that discussed marriage they were always from the female’s standpoint – female singers singing to women: whenever there were any songs saying ‘do not marry, stay single, self-preservation, etc.’ I thought it was about time there was a male voice speaking directly to another male saying that marriage was a waste of time... that, in fact, it was ‘absolutely nothing.’

‘William’ creates an atmosphere of adult, masculine seriousness that ‘Billy’ obviously lacks. And turning Shelagh into Sheila means Steven Patrick can inhabit his female alter-ego without the issue of, y’know, Gaelicness or Mozza’s lack thereof getting in the way. For let’s be frank, his Sheila might resemble one of Delaney’s characters – or even Delaney herself – to some degree, but does the following read as a description of anybody but himself?

Is it wrong not to always be glad?
No, it’s not wrong – but I must add
How can someone so young
Sing words so sad? 

And that’s not even getting into the musical manner in which the three-syllable cadence of ‘William’ with its formal, royal connotations, falls in line with the meandering whimsy of the Smiths mid-eighties sound. The royal thing is worth emphasising, particularly considering that two years later, The Queen is Dead would be released. And the way a shorter spelling of ‘Sheila’ encourages the ‘Sheila / Take a’ bouncing rhyme at the heart of the second song should not be underestimated either.

Oh, one more thing, the ambiguity of ‘William’ also succeeded in catalysing a whole strand of speculation about Morrissey being in love with Billy MacKenzie from the Associates, almost all of which is apocryphal except for the fact MacKenzie’s band recorded a response song called Stephen, You’re Really Something in 1993. The power of the name in song is not, in short, something to be trifled with.
Mozza’s William, It Was Really Nothing model of a name followed by a comma followed by the rest of the song-title is much copied – and represents, indeed, an indie by-word for elegantly thought-out name usage in songwriting (and yes, of course the Beach Boys’ Caroline, No came first, but I’m convinced this is more of a post-Smiths kingda thing). Architecture in Helsinki’s two and a half minute track, Frenchy I’m Faking, is a masterpiece of half-rhyme and alliteration a la Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – all of which is dependent upon the syllabic symmetry and chiming sonics of that first line. Indeed, there is some amazingly crisp writing here:

Frenchy, I’m faking,
Been longing to stir you up,
Changing looks slightly like back in the 90s,
Far and away, whistle-delayed delights.

The prospect of lightning was ever so frightening,
She said, your kisses are nice,
But I’m looking for hills to roll
Down with abandon and no understanding.

I borrowed your suitcase and filled it with pearls and gold,
You let me down lightly,
I killed you politely.

And AiH’s awareness of the Smiths reference in the title is proved, I think, by the first line of the second verse’s nod in the direction of Bohemian Rhapsody. Meanwhile the Magnetic Fields’ hilarious Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long is a brilliant inversion of Morrissey’s earnest intent precisely because the name it centres on fits so well into its comic framework. The song is obviously about cheating – so using such an archetypal, unimaginative dog name ensures ‘Fido’ is understood to be partially symbolic. The song is also about funny, childish wordplay – the ‘shit’ of ‘Shitzu’ and, more surprising, the ‘fuck’ of ‘foxhounds’ are emphasised with puerile glee – and calling a dog as stupid a name as ‘Fido’ buys into that.

Fido, your leash is too long
You go where you don’t belong
You’ve been diggin’ in the rubble getting bitches in trouble
Fido, your leash is too long

Fido your leash is too long
I don’t know where I went wrong
You scare me out of my wits when you do that Shit
-zu Fido, your leash is too long 

Fido, you’ve gone far enough
I must have all of your love
You’ve just run out of luck I don’t care what you fox
-hounds do, but your leash is too long
Mambo No. 5, you’ll notice, doesn’t have a name in its title – indeed, its full title, Mambo No. 5 (a little bit of…) reveals a self-conscious decision not to include a name. But look what the song itself contains. This, folks, is what happens when the naming tendencies of naturalistic fiction, when casual, arbitrary, connotation-less naming meets songwriting:

a little bit of Monica in my life
a little bit of Erica by my side
a little bit of Rita is all I need
a little bit of Tina is what I see
a little bit of Sandra in the sun
a little bit of Mary all night long
a little bit of Jessica here I am
a little bit of you makes me your man

MISOGYNY and TERRIBLE HALF-RHYMES, that’s what happens. So what does this all mean for the word-writing versus song-writing question? There’s a whole bunch of obvious stuff that barely needs pointing out – that the sound and rhythm of proper nouns matter more in the constraints of a song that in the open-endedness of a novel, that titles play a much more fundamental role in song-writing than they do in word-writing (even poetry), that sorta thing. But there’s one question that’s come out of this what's much more interesting than those differences everybody’s got some idea of. Namely, if names, one of the more prominent signposts pointing to whether a piece of writing is let’s say ‘realistic’ or ‘stylised’, are only effective things in songs when used for purposes other than pure Lou Bega naturalism, does this mean it’s impossible for a song to be ‘realistic’ in the way we understand a certain type of fiction or poetry to be realistic?

And does this matter? When so much music is valued for being ‘real’ in the sense that it accurately reflects, say, African American, or working class British life, I suspect it does.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor