Predictably, the Bemolution hasn’t got much time for Halloween, seeing it as rampant Yankee cultural imperialism cynically manipulating impressionable kiddies to sell shelf-fulls of overpriced plastic tat. But, since it’s sure as hell going to happen anyway, and ultimately doesn’t do that many people immediate physical harm, it’s a convenient excuse to showcase some nice loosely Halloween-themed music.
First out of the gate are the delightfully offensive Dead Kennedys – probably the Bemolution’s joint-favourite group alongside dazzlingly good Mancunian indie-founders The Smiths – with the originally entitled ‘Halloween’. Jello Biafra, vocalist, band spokesman and former prospective Mayor of San Francisco, uses the prism of a raucous yuppie get-together on All Hallows Eve to attack Middle America’s everyday conformism. While Mr Biafra exercises his vocals chords in harmony with his acid wit, East Bay Ray’s demented surf guitar has bipolar mood-swings between shrapnel-spitting shred and sawing riffs, the volatile concoction kept at boiling point by Klaus Flouride’s implausibly springy bass.
And second, resplendent in pink on the 31st of October 1981, we have the irreplaceable Frank Zappa – probably the Bemolution’s joint-favourite artist alongside ingenious vaudeville oddball Tom Waits – cheerfully presenting the scatological horrors of The Torture Never Stops.
Perhaps the finest classical guitar-mastering Marquis Spain has ever produced, Andres Segovia was one of the subtlest, most awesomely skilled and heavily influential players of the twentieth century. Here he softly plucks his way through a gorgeous rendition of the Theme, Variations and Finale of the folk-inflected Mexican composer Manuel Ponce.
At college, instead of concentrating on my A Levels, I ended up in the middle of a strange, probably cult-like campus subculture we called Bem. I didn’t come up with the name – it was a random nonsense word I think my friend Joe invented one day in a boring Politics lesson, but I can’t really remember. Looking back, it was about not liking the state society was in, and trying to live out an alternative in everything you did.
We were all left-wing. We all hated consumerism, conformism and the slow strangulation of anything interesting and original in the cultural realm. And we all shared the same bleak, surreal sense of humour. Most of all, we were united by the belief that civilisation was terrible. Millions starved, died in droughts, died in childbirth, died of treatable diseases – and the richest, most technologically advanced societies in human history did nothing about it. Most people didn’t even notice, let alone care.
Our fellow students seemed to typify everything that was wrong – shallow, materialistic, self-obsessed. Clueless about the sheer horrifying extent of suffering in the world, and utterly absorbed by the mindless triviality of their own silly little lives. Here was a society where callousness and ignorance was the default setting. And we set about an inevitably doomed but passionately heartfelt attempt to undermine it all by refusing to take it seriously. We were like apocalyptic mini-Chomskys crossed with the Chuckle Brothers.
If I do say so myself, I think our critique of modern society was remarkably insightful for a bunch of grouchy teenagers fresh out of secondary education. But we were still very far from perfect.
For one, we were far too harsh on our fellow students. They weren’t all the feckless neoliberal drones we made them out to be – especially up against the kind of people I’d meet at Cambridge.
We were also distinctly rubbish when it came to actually doing anything about our politics. To be fair, we did a lot of anti-fascism campaigning when the BNP came to town. But most of the time, we were content to just lounge around feeling radical because we listened to Stevie Wonder, The Smiths and Berlin-era Bowie rather than Rihanna and Take That. We were lazy, we were extremely pessimistic, and we were all political mouth and no activist trousers.
When college ended, we all shot off in different directions to get on with being adults. I see some of them regularly, others nowhere near as regularly as I’d like – but however much they’ve changed in the years since, I’d say pretty much all of them have hung on to something of that original outlook.
Partly thanks to the experience of going from a single parent household in the land neoliberalism forgot to Oxbridge and back, I went on to become more political than ever. To the extent that, shockingly, I now sometimes even get out and do some actual activism.
These days, I’m a shambolic mish-mash of far-left atheist vicar and lentil-munching free love hippy. I’m far less cynical about people, and particularly my own generation, which has turned out to be more left-wing and switched on than I ever would’ve imagined in the old days. And yet I dislike the state modern society’s in as much as ever. Most of all, I’m focused on the horrifying scale of preventable humanitarian suffering in the world, and the catastrophic damage humanity is doing to its environment.
In other words, there have been tweaks along the way, but it’s still essentially Bem. I still see politics, music, personal conduct, even having a certain type of sense of humour, as all part of the same thing – a wholesale rejection of a way of life that’s well on the way to being cataclysmic. And when I started a blog in 2011, just about the same time ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ jazz-rapper Gil Scot Heron died, the thing named itself.
Four and a bit years down the line, I’m finally getting round to some of the things I wanted to do with this site when I first started it – talk about an accessible, environmentally-focused modern manifestation of radical socialism. Explain economics in a way that laypeople can understand, and that isn’t skewed in favour of the status quo. Ramble inanely about my own vision of socially engaged atheism-as-a-religion. And I can now officially say that sometimes, occasionally, someone even reads it.
As promised/threatened, a selection of Robert Fripp’s work for your aural edification. A very selective selection. King Crimson can be quite nice in places, but Fripp’s main musical outfit has always a bit faceless and machine-like for the Bemolution’s tastes. Unless you’re the most die-hard of die-hards, you can’t take very much of that kind of real, unflinching, hard-core prog before collapsing into your own personal Year Zero and gorging yourself on Black Flag and Muddy Waters for hours before you can take another side of Lark’s Tongues in Aspic.
So here’s Fripp with Bowie instead – ‘Joe the Lion’ from 1977’s “Heroes”, and ‘Fashion’ and from 1980’s Scary Monsters.
The Bemolution briefly gave up snuffling for rotten vegetables in the Somersetian wilds and got on a plane to the Czech Republic. Obscurely, we were joined by a cabin-ful of Labour Party activists, and spent the resulting trip ignoring the architectural loveliness and brooding politically while dribbling goulash down ourself.
There’s something quite deflating about present day Prague. In one sense, the gothic-spired Bohemian rhapsody is very much intact – the Charles Bridge still sturdily but gracefully spans the Vltava, Prague Castle still bathes the city in stately restraint from its hill-top roost, and thousands upon thousands still waste precious minutes of their mortal existences waiting for the Astrological Clock in the Old Town Square to do something remotely interesting.
If you believe the standard jolly ‘End of History’ interpretation, benighted Central-Eastern Europe has been gloriously born-again since Communism fell. In many ways, it’s hard to disagree – the former Eastern Bloc is now studded with vibrant, prosperous culture-capitals drawing edgy city-breakers and stag-doers to soak up the ambience, see the sights, and/or drink Pilsner til they burst. That said, providing pleasurable holiday destinations to foreign tourists is very different from guaranteeing the happiness and wellbeing of the people that live there. Continue reading “Czech It Out: Politics and Post-Communist Silly Dancing, part 1”→