Dinner over (roast chicken, roast potatoes, purple broccoli spears from OldEngland & NewEngland’s garden; Elisabeth‘s delicious rhubarb crumble, dark and sweet and unctuous; a good bottle of Montagny; the most recent Stereolab album), we settle down in front of the second episode of the BBC’s new Trollope adaptation, He Knew He Was Right – in which Anna Massey’s magnificent “maiden aunt” character truly comes into her own. You can’t beat a decently constructed bonnet or two on a Sunday night – to say nothing of the chignons, which were incomparable.
Never mind the pollen count; this “hay fever” is starting to feel more like a full-on viral infection. An early, but restless night follows: sleep is fitful, dreams are of the relentlessly frustrating kind (I have a particularly tough time trying to find my seat at a Madonna concert), and my body feels about twice its normal weight. By the time the alarm goes off at 7:30, I feel like an inert lump of aching phlegm. Despite the urgency of the hour, it still takes me ten minutes to get out of bed.
Indeed, we are both slow this morning, not managing to get away until 8:45 (our cut-off time for leaving the cottage is usually 8:30). I still feel dreadful. During the course of the drive back to Nottingham, I cancel today’s dental appointment, and call in sick to work. Today wasn’t going to be especially busy, anyway.
Back in Nottingham, K goes upstairs to work while I flop on the living room sofa with the newspaper and a bunch of music DVDs. The Cesaria Evora concert from April 2001 turns out to be the best choice, its easy, rolling bonhomie somehow chiming in well with my physical and mental fogginess, and lifting my spirits accordingly. A bunch of us will be going to see her in Leicester next month; she may not be the most obviously charismatic of performers, but her band sound fantastic and my anticipation steps up a notch.
K’s business partner S turns up mid-morning; they stay upstairs talking until around 13:30, after which K nips out for sandwiches. We have lunch while watching a recent BBC4 documentary about the competition to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Although the six shortlisted artworks are uniformly dismal, the show’s sharp, irreverent presenter is consistently entertaining, with a perceptive, direct manner, bordering on faux-naivete, which frequently wrong-foots his more smug, self-important interviewees. It also acts as a pleasing counterfoil to the irritatingly uniform (indeed, newly conventional) faux-naivete of many of the shortlisted artists; how bored I have become of their Being There style of monosyllabic vapidity.
As the afternoon wears on, malaise sets in; I’m tired of music, tired of reading, tired of telly, and start flicking disconsolately through the channels. A variant on Changing Rooms entitled Sixty Minute Makeover amuses for a while; at least it makes no mental demands, and the sight of other people stressing up under ludicrous deadlines is oddly relaxing, even if it has all been staged for the cameras. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby fail to deliver – some “screwball” comedies date better than others – and before too long I have bottomed out, surfing backwards and forwards through the music channels. The new Faithless single (Mass Destruction) is a trite disappointment, which tries too hard to be topical and merely ends up spouting easy platitudes; to think that six years ago, they were my favourite band. The awfulness of the current Number One, Eamon’s F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back) is surpassed only by the “answer record”, Frankee’s F.U.R.B. – F U Right Back. The aural equivalent of Trisha, marketed mainly at sniggering pubescents (“tee-hee, they said f**k“), these two records threaten to bring out the latent Daily Mail reader in me (has popular culture come to this?).
I reach for the Off button, heave myself off the sofa, and shuffle off to prune the geraniums in the conservatory before my mother gets here. A highly organised woman with an efficiently well-regulated lifestyle, my mother’s exacting standards can sometimes feel a little intimidating, her visits requiring all the preparation of a tour of inspection by a member of the royal family. Like the royals, she would never actually be so rude as to actually pass comment on our domestic shortcomings; her manners are never anything less than impeccable. However, the slight flicker in the corner of her eyes, and the slight downward twitching of her mouth, would tell us all we needed to know. To give us only a day’s notice of her arrival is most unlike her. This evening, she is simply going to have to take us as she finds us.
Of course, I know full well that this is a form of cosmic payback for the perfect weekend which has just passed. As the heavens open outside, I heave a heavy sigh and soothe myself with happy images of budding tulips in the PDMG. Be brave, my little angels! We’ll be back amongst you tomorrow evening!
Back in the garden with The Observer, my concentration repeatedly lapses, as I find myself gazing in wonder at the tulips. “Have you ever seen plants look so happy?” asks K skittishly; grubby and blackened, he has spent the past hour or so polishing his black Alfa Spider with T-Cut, and generally smartening it up for sale. Having an open-top weekend run-around has been fun at times, but now we have the garden and the cottage is furnished, we find ourselves spending much less time in the car than before. The clearest argument for sale is the car’s mileage: just 4300 miles in three years. Besides, we could do with the extra space in the garage. The Alfa is now sitting outside on the lane, looking gleaming, immaculate, and box-fresh. K admits to experiencing a mild twinge of regret, but it is a mild twinge only.
K puts on the Omara Portuondo CD (we’re seeing her at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday), and fixes us lunch: ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, with plenty of black pepper and some mayonnaise. He is unsure about the addition of the mayonnaise, and wonders whether it might have been a flavour too far; my reply is that it adds a pleasing degree of moisture and creaminess. Beer for him; a pineapple, mango & lime smoothie for me.
Slam has rung about the sofa & footstool which he is buying off us; we arrange for him to come over to Nottingham on Friday to pick it up. NewEngland rings next; there are dozens of vintage tractors parked outside the village pub, and we should come and take a look.
We stroll down to OldEngland and NewEngland’s place, and from there to the pub. All around the pub, around forty vintage tractors are parked up, while their owners have lunch inside. Starting out from Hartington this morning, they have been touring the local villages in convoy – Wetton, Ilam, Alstonefield – and will be returning to Hartington after lunch. The tractors look magnificent; K calls them “Thomas the Tank Engine” tractors, and they certainly do look as if they have emerged from the pages of a 1940s children’s story book. A good half of them are phone-box red, or of a reddish orange hue, with David Brown and Nuffield as easily the most popular manufacturers. As a former seller of Britains toy tractors myself (at Hamleys toy store on Regent Street, 24 years ago), I cast an interested eye over the details. Much smaller than today’s models, almost none have cabs attached; instead, the drivers straddle the central chassis, often placing their feet into metal stirrups.
As the convoy begins to set off, so the four of us, drinks in hand, scamper down to the village green for the best view of the procession. It is a spectacular sight, as the vehicles slowly snake past us, on towards the Spar shop, and out of the village on their way back up to the Buxton road. Who says nothing ever happens in villages?
We sit for a while longer on a low wall by the duck pond, finishing our drinks as we watch the ducks squabble, preen and mate. A passing rambler asks us the time; none of us are wearing watches and none are carrying mobiles, but OldEngland says that judging by the sun in the sky, it must be about twenty past three. The rambler looks mildly astonished, as we in turn feel like complete yokels, clearly having no need of such new-fangled instruments as time-pieces.
Down to the village shop, to return last night’s video (Lantana – serious, well-acted and worthy, but a bit lacking in action; K fell asleep, and I struggled to keep awake). We also pick up various ingredients for this evening’s rhubarb crumble. Sorting through a drawer yesterday, I had come across Elisabeth‘s hand-written recipe for “the best rhubarb crumble ever”, which she had inserted into our Xmas card. A couple of hours later, and without knowing anything about the recipe, OldEngland and NewEngland had then spontaneously offered us some of the rhubarb from the bottom of their garden; clearly, the time was right.
Returning to the cottage, we excitedly discover that another tulip had opened – the first of its particular batch. The long, slender, pointed bulb – originally a deep mauve on the outside – reveal unexpected bright reds and yellows within, sending us into another ecstatic swoon.
As K weeds, I apply wax polish to the statue, buffing it up and leaving it looking darker and shinier. As my duster reaches up the crack of her backside, K passes by with a cheeky holler: “Ooh, kind SIR!” The tits buff up nicely, too. Such uncommon intimacy with the female form, and in such a public place besides! Performing the same task six months earlier, K had felt decidedly self-conscious about this; I, on the other hand, feel positively brazen in my shamelessness.
A call from my Mother, who will be in Nottingham this week on a residential study course, staying in a hotel on the edge of the city. We arrange for her to come and stay tomorrow night, as it will be our only opportunity to meet.
As the Phoenix album (Alphabetical) and the new Prince album (Musicology) play, K makes the crumble as I tap into the laptop on the kitchen table, sneezing explosively every few minutes – the tree pollen is reported to be high today, and I have been steadily suffering as the day has progressed. Hay fever normally passes me by, so today’s levels must be exceptional. It is the only slight blight on what has otherwise been an idyllic day. Sometimes, I bloody love my life.
Up at 9:30, to a glorious morning: sunshine, warmth and birdsong. Today’s outfit: brown & yellow striped button-down Etro shirt (bought in Milan airport last December), Yohji Yamamoto belt (Pollyanna in Barnsley, the December before that), Diesel jeans (Boston, Spring 2001), stripey Paul Smith socks, slippers.
(Never you mind what pants I’m wearing; BdJ this ain’t.)
While K walks down to the village shop, I load up a tray and take it out to the PDMG; this will be our first al fresco breakfast of the year. The kitchen still whiffs a bit of chip fat from the night before, so I open all the windows on both floors, letting the freshness and the birdsong waft in.
· Preliminary Yakult (for those all-important “friendly bacteria”)
· Glass of Tropicana Sanguinello 100% Pure Squeezed Red Orange Juice (blood red; full, concentrated flavour)
· Cod liver oil capsule (for supple joints)
· Boiled egg
· Half a slice of buttered brown wholemeal toast, spread very thinly with Gentleman’s Relish (a habit picked up from my late maternal grandfather; the saltiness of the anchovy paste marries well with the taste of the egg)
· Half a slice of toast, spread with Tiptree Medium Cut Marmalade (our favourite, by some distance)
· The other half slice of toast is intended for Blue Witch‘s marvellous home-grown honey, but I have no more room; as breakfast time is the only time of day where I have next to no appetite, it would be unwise to force the issue.
· Two cups of Twinings English Breakfast tea.
· Cream-coloured Wedgewood “Queensware” crockery; slight seconds, bought dirt cheap from the factory shop when we moved into the cottage.
· The Observer’s Music Monthly magazine, which leaves me feeling rather more favourably disposed to the prospect of The Streets’ new album, despite the disappointment of the one-dimensional Fit But You Know It.
As breakfast is being prepared, K receives a text from Mark, one of the other interviewees in yesterday’s “gay marriage” piece in the Nottingham Evening Post:
If money is an issue we will go halves on the turtle doves with you! x
I suggest a reply:
And maybe we can negotiate a bulk discount on the white suits?
After breakfast, we move up to the bench at the top of the garden; sheltered in a corner by the wattle hurdles and the lilac tree, it’s a real sun trap, and noticeably hotter than the breakfast table. Some more of the deep red tulips have opened up overnight; it has been our first attempt at planting bulbs, so we are endlessly fascinated by the developing results. Some of the other tulips have been gradually opening themselves wider during breakfast, as the sunlight hits them; we are particularly pleased with the pale lilac bulbs which open right out to reveal a custard yellow inside. We have brought the digicam over to get some snaps, but the re-chargeable batteries have run down, and it is objecting to Duracells. No matter; we’ll be back on Tuesday evening, when things should be looking even better. This is the first weekend when the garden has truly come back into its own; plants are shooting up all over the place, and – aside from the odd misplanted bulb (the bulging geraniums already engulfing some of the tulips, for example) – everything is looking great.
Halfway up the wattle hurdles, K spots three snails, and quickly seizes them. We cannot understand why the snails seem so fond of climbing so high, away from anything which they might fancy eating. I speculate that they might be scoping out the landscape below, like birds of prey, ready to swoop and snatch. We laugh.
K chucks two of the snails into the middle of the road, but sets another one upside down on a stone slab in front of him. He wants to see whether the snail is able to flip itself back over again, or whether it will be left helplessly stuck, marooned on the slab until the birds find it and peck it to bits. I comment with amusement on the slightly ghoulish relish with which he is approaching the experiment. Two or three minutes later, the snail heroically flips itself back upright – at which point K snatches it up and hurls it out into the street to join the others. At this point, I actually feel genuine pangs of sympathy for the snail.
Down below, a car passes by; K waves cheerily at the driver, as is his wont. (He also does this while walking down the village street. A cheery wave here, and a cheery wave there. I have started calling him Noddy.) As it disappears, he wanders down and peers over the wall, playing up to his role of Evil Experimental Scientist. “Oh good; one of the snails has already been crushed.” I duly feign horror.
A soak in the bath; I have used Molton Brown’s Rejuvenating Arctic Birch for the foam, and am soaping myself down with their Vitalising Vitamin AB+C. As I stand up and apply the buff-puff to my bits, I can see, through the open skylight, two figures walking on the far hill, about half a mile away. If they had binoculars trained this way, they would be able to spy on me soaping my nether regions. Undeterred, I soap them some more, somewhat tickled by the exhibitionistic possibilities.
Amongst the numerous contradictions that have helped shape me into the fascinatingly complex individual that I am today, (and God, this ironic self-aggrandisement is going to have to stop some time soon, lest the wind should change direction and leave me stuck that way) my attitude to social cliques is a prime example. Rationally speaking, I retain a strong dislike for cliques: the insularity, the exclusivity, the unhealthily inward focus. Nevertheless, I am also the sort of person who has always been naturally drawn towards them, and into them. For there are aspects of cliquedom which attract as well as repel: the security, the dependability, the easy, instant support network – and, if I am honest, their essentially self-referential nature. I like the “insider knowledge” that membership of a clique confers – and I love the knowing, sharp banter which flows from that. Mine is a sense of humour which thrives on the delicious naughtiness of the in-joke; I delight in operating just within the boundaries of what constitutes good-natured teasing, safe in the knowledge that offence will not be caused.
Thus it is that over the years, I have found myself right at the heart of many a social clique. In my first year at University, our clique of maybe a dozen or so in residence hall was so flagrantly close-knit that we referred to ourselves quite openly as “The Clique”, and were happy to be known as such by everyone else. I’ve been in school cliques, office cliques, gay cliques (of various hues), neighbourhood cliques, clubbing cliques, pub cliques, house-share cliques… the lot. And for a while, they’re usually great places to be.
Until – inevitably – they start to disintegrate. A key member of the clique moves away – or changes job – or meets a new partner with a different set of friends, who doesn’t quite “fit in”. Or maybe they just bore of the repetition, and so start to move in wider circles. The pub changes hands; the club shuts down; the department is re-organised. Or, worse still, a feud breaks out between two or more of the clique members. Sides are drawn. Allies are recruited. This person and that person can no longer stand to be in the same room together. Suddenly, the illusion of permanence – that we will always be together, friends forever – is cracked, revealing the underlying, uncomfortable truth: that these arrangements are always temporary.
The ground is pulled from under your feet. You had come to rely on these people. Their constant presence had saved you from having to make conscious decisions about who you saw, where you went, and what you talked about. You feel uneasy, insecure – and, if you’re not careful – resentful, wounded, jealous, spiteful. The open banter freezes into covert bitchiness. The aggrieved muttering and finger-pointing begins. It’s all his fault, or her fault, or their fault. We thought you cared. You’ve spoilt everything. You were a false friend; you strung us along, and we never realised.
In these situations, closeness can turn to distance in an instant. Too late, you discover that with some people, it’s all or nothing. From gossipy huddles three times a week down the pub, to strained smiles and awkward small talk three times a year; in the street, in the supermarket, at someone else’s summer barbecue. It hurts. You can’t quite understand how everything changed so rapidly. You replay events and conversations over and over again in your mind, trying to find an answer, wondering what you did wrong.
Shows like Friends perpetuate a myth; the myth of the permanently inseparable gang. Yes, individual friendships can and do last – for years, for decades – but without need of the supporting structure of a clique to keep them alive.
These days, I retain a careful wariness of cliques. I will happily hover at the edges – picking up some of the banter, joining in some of the activities – but I will stop well short of total immersion. And yes, that applies online as much as offline. What’s more; I have discovered that I actively like the independence that this brings. More choices, more variety, more control. More interest. More scope.
“Darling! You’re looking as fabulous as ever tonight! Mwah! Mwah! Big hug! Now tell me all the latest gossip!” Enjoy it for what it is. But don’t be seduced by the illusion, however glittering and flattering it may be.
Top of Thor’s Cave.
Dry Stone Wall.
Found on a walk through the Manifold valley on Good Friday, in a spot which we have christened Harlot’s Nook:
Update: There’s more sizzling hot tree-pr0n over at Frizzy Logic. Work that trunk!
I didn’t really want to go to the swanky hotel’s first birthday party – it was too soon after the excesses of the weekend – but K said come on, it will be a laugh, people we know are going, it’s free booze and gourmet nibbles, and it’s a good excuse to put on our smart new trendy gear and pose around a bit. Sometimes, he knows exactly how to speak my language.
“It’s cocktails and beer in the restaurant, or champagne and wine in the lobby.”
What a peculiar way to organise your drinks. We turn right and battle through to the lobby, winding through sprawling clumps of braying flash trash who think this do is the fucking business, mate. There’s a big queue for fizz – except that it’s more of a scrum, as most of the flash trash evidently consider themselves above waiting in line. No-one doing the rounds with trays, except for one lone waitress with just two glasses left; she promises to return with more, and is never seen again.
Awkward, over-calculated postures; fake smiles betrayed by eyes which are constantly scanning the brightly-lit space; everyone is performing, everyone is “on”. (And I choose my prepositions carefully, hur hur.) Playing the game is the only option. Our journalist friend (already battling to suppress his dirty looks when no-one is watching) introduces us to someone of his acquaintance who has wandered into our orbit.
“This is K, this is Mike, this is S.”
She smiles and greets K, swivels her head straight past me in one smooth, flawless motion, then smiles and greets S. In a split second, she has correctly calculated that I am an outsider at this game, and thus am no-one worth knowing.
As we have observed on many occasions, our journalist friend is blessed with uncommonly acute social antennae. He waits a minute or so, and then has another bash at bringing me into the game.
“This is Mike. This man is one of the country’s top bloggers. He’s just been featured in The Observer.”
(In brackets. In the middle of a list. At the back end of Page Two. But now is not a time to quibble.)
In a split second, she has snapped straight back round to face me, arm already outstreched, face wreathed in smiles. “Hi! Very pleased to meet you!”
As I, in turn, make my own calculations and act on them accordingly. Two can play this game, missy.
An enthusiastic, natural networker, our journalist friend has recently taken to talking me up everywhere as “one of the country’s top bloggers”. As I blushingly make to duck and wince – bobbing my face, Lady Di style, beneath an imagined (and long vanished) floppy fringe – I discover with some surprise that the old reactions of bafflement, condescension or total disinterest have all but vanished. People actually look impressed. Post-BdJ, her book deal, and all the attendant guessing games in the national press, everyone in these circles now knows exactly what a blogger is. Or thinks they do, at any rate. We’re the phemomenon du jour, don’t you know. We’re really frightfully au courant. No longer viewed as sad little loudmouths, bleating away to nobody in particular, we’re getting respect. What a richly ironic proposition – that the lascivious diaries of a call girl could finally be conferring respectability upon us all.
Back at the swanky do, I am slowly drowning. Our friend from the boutique hotel is regaling us with mischievous gossip about the boy band who checked in this afternoon. (“Our masseuse says that X has such stinky feet!”) For me, this should be conversational home ground – an easy lob. Nevertheless, it is becoming more and more of an effort of will to focus on what is being said. An overpowering sense of disconnection is taking me over. The people standing around me no longer seem quite real; it is as if I am observing them through a bubble. Even their voices are sounding muffled; words reverberating inside my head, but their meaning failing to reach my brain. I keep zoning out, staring into the middle distance, longing to be anywhere but here – and then frantically snapping back into the room, trying to arrange my facial features into some semblance of the requisite brightness, failing badly, and then zoning out again. Insulating myself with ever-thickening layers of guilt.
As the cycle repeats, panic starts to rise inside me, causing my heart to race and my temples to pound. I even feel slightly sick. I have to get out of this room. NOW. Handing my glass to K, I mumble an excuse and flee for the sanctuary of a toilet cubicle, where I sit for several minutes, trying to calm myself, waiting for the pounding and the throbbing to stop.
If I stay in here any longer, people will wonder where I am. A fresh wave of anxiety hits, pushing me back out into the lobby. I try and flash a look at K, but we are in uncharted waters here, and there is no meaningful signal which I can send. Besides which, he is playing the game to perfection, networking all around with his customary apparent ease, attracting people towards him with that understated charisma which he doesn’t quite know that he has. I have no wish to put him off his stroke. A new anxiety hits me: that I might be letting him down in public. The pounding and the throbbing return, even as a couple of goons in matching white sportswear suddenly materialise next to me, tumbling around on the lobby floor in an ill-conceived display – half judo, half breakdancing – which is presumably meant to be the evening’s “turn”. It is a staggering misjudgment. No-one quite knows how to react. Even the flash trash are looking uncomfortable.
And I can take no more. Another quick mumble to K, and I am out of the door before he even has the chance to react. Ten minutes later, I am back at home, sitting semi-catatonic in the dark in my Marc Jacobs pea coat and my too-tight Prada shoes, breathing in and breathing out, and finally understanding why K sometimes has to leave noisy gay clubs in a hurry.
Images of the Scissor Sisters at Nottingham Rock City last night, courtesy of Buni‘s phonecam.
To you, they might look fuzzy; to me, they’re an astonishingly accurate representation.
(It was that kind of night…)
Smart, fashionable young woman, discussing The Passion Of The Christ with her friends:
“Oh, it was so sad! Especially that bit where his mother saw him… yeah, that bit… as a woman, I really related to that. But, basically, I just cried and cried all the way through it! I mean – really, really sobbed, like a child or something! In fact, I don’t think I stopped crying until right at the end, when he was… you know… re-born or whatever.”
(Brightly) “Still, nice of them to leave it open for a sequel…”
If I were to download and burn a mix CD from your suggestions so far (which, of course, I would NEVER do, because that would be SO WRONG), then the current track listing would look something like this.
1. I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten – Dusty Springfield (Angus)
2. At Last – Etta James (asta)
3. He’s So Fine – The Chiffons (PB Curtis)
4. Try A Little Tenderness – Otis Redding (Vaughan)
5. Let’s Get It On – Marvin Gaye (Simon)
6. All Day Long I Think About Sex – JC Chasez (zbornak)
7. Tainted Love – Soft Cell (Mark)
8. Rent – Pet Shop Boys (lyle)
9. Rock Me Gently (A Combination of Special Events) – Erasure (A Reader)
10. Burnt Out Car – Saint Etienne (brittle-lemon)
11. Heartbeats – The Knife (starlet)
12. Planet DaDa – Yello (Gina)
13. She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult (Wild)
14. Hanging Around – The Stranglers (Mish)
15. Hammer To Fall – Queen (zed)
16. Dead Homiez – Ice Cube (noodle)
17. River Deep Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner (quarsan)
18. Ooh Aah Just a Little Bit – Gina G (Looby)
19. Wuthering Heights – Jah Wurzel/Hybrid Kids (Debster)
1. Sun Comes up, it’s Tuesday Morning – Cowboy Junkies (larkin)
2. Family Tree – Belle & Sebastian (gwplf)
3. Talk Show Host – Radiohead (Green Fairy)
4. Grace – Jeff Buckley (Ruggybabs)
5. Running Up That Hill – Kate Bush (Caroline)
6. Severence – Dead Can Dance (Josh)
7. Postcards of Scarborough – Michael Chapman (Mr.D.)
8. Diamonds on the Windshield – Tom Waits (Emrys)
9. My Country – Randy Newman (Nixon)
10. Took The Children Away – Archie Roach (Amanda)
11. The World Is Full Of Fools – Kevin Coyne (dymbel)
12. Shipbuilding – Robert Wyatt (thom)
13. And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda – June Tabor (Nigel)
14. With God On Our Side – Neville Brothers (Blue Witch)
15. The End – The Doors (Stereoboard)
16. Breathing – Kate Bush (Alan)
17. Madame Joy – Van Morrison (jo)
18. Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight and the Pips (BykerSink)
19. The Only Way Is Up – Otis Clay (mike)
Any more suggestions? Remember: rather than necessarily being your favourite song of all time (that most nebulous of concepts), this should instead be a song which you think everybody should hear.
Update: The ENTIRELY FICTITIOUS BECAUSE DOWNLOADING IS SO VERY VERY WRONG double CD is now complete, but don’t let that stop you making further suggestions for the “special edition” boxed set.
1st place – The 1960s. (36 points)
Most popular: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
Least popular: Diane – The Bachelors.
Yes! It’s a middle-aged Mojo reader’s wet dream! With the 1960s winning by a decisive margin of 5 points, the final result sees our five decades neatly stacked up in reverse chronological order, thus adding weight to the theory that pop music really has got steadily worse over the past forty years. As Groc said in a recent comment:
Of course the 60s had to win. It’s when pop really hit its stride. Everything since has been a remix and remodelling of everything that was invented back then – hence that first rush of authenticity and joy and naivety and energy has been lost forever. Sad but true.
Or maybe we just hit a good week in a year of rapid change and growth, as the British beat boom revolutionised the way that pop music was made. Suddenly, everyone was in a group with a singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer (there are six in this particular selection) whereas even a year earlier, such a commodity was bordering on the non-existent. The notion of the pop group as a gang-like, creatively autonomous unit had arrived; it persists to this day.
Lyrically speaking, the focus here is overwhelmingly romantic in inclination, with nine songs in the Top Ten being more or less straightforward love songs. Or maybe not so straightforward; for as well as being the most romantic of the five decades, 1964 is also the most heartbroken, with exactly half of the top ten dealing with jilted, absent or cruel lovers. (Compare this with the lust-drenched chart of 2004, where only Jamelia’s Thank You addresses the pain which love can bring.) It is also somewhat disconcerting to note that while the intervening three decades brought a dramatic widening of lyrical scope (nostalgia, surrealism, social commentary…), this appears to have narrowed right down again in the last few years. Simply put: we have moved from love to lust, passing experimentation along the way.
Your two favourite Top Tens are also by far and away the most British: apart from Jim Reeves (USA) and The Bachelors (Ireland), all of 1964’s other acts come from the UK, with four of them hailing from Liverpool. In 1974, nine singles in the Top Ten are British. In both 1984 and 1994, there are just two, and in 2004 there are four. Is this mere coincidence, or does this reveal a sublimated nationalism in your voting patterns?
Or am I just extrapolating wildly from insufficient data samples, and drawing unsafe and even slightly insulting conclusions? Oh, quite probably. But – once again – what huge fun I have had in doing so.
Thank you to everyone who took the trouble to vote and leave comments; unless I’ve flounced off in another hiatus by then, you can rest assured that we will most certainly be doing this all over again next year.
Until then, I shall leave you with the combined decade scores for the past two years of the project. Just five more years to go, and then we shall truly know…
Which Decade is Tops for Pops!
(Cue end titles.)
1. The 1970s (67 points)
2. The 1980s (65 points)
3. The 1960s (64 points)
4. The 2000s (53 points)
5. The 1990s (52 points)
(This has been another absurdly maximalist interactive stunt from Troubled Diva Productions – where more is always more. Much, much more.)
2nd place – The 1970s. (31 points)
Most popular: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies.
Least popular: Remember (Sha La La La) – Bay City Rollers.
Last year’s winner fought back hard this time around, pulling itself up from fifth place to second place in the last four days of the poll. Like 1984, this was a transitional year, which saw the glam-rockers of 1973 peaking and then quickly distancing themselves from the genre, with Slade, Gary Glitter and T.Rex all releasing uncharacteristic ballads within a few weeks of each other. By the end of the year, glam would have yielded to early disco (George McCrae, Three Degrees, Hues Corporation), The Osmonds would have yielded to the Bay City Rollers, and a new breed of slightly artier, more self-consciously literate pop acts (Sparks, Queen, Cockney Rebel, 10cc) would have gained ground.
The overriding theme of this particular Top 10 was, however, nostalgia. The New Seekers and the Bay City Rollers waxed wistfully about the songs of the “old days”, Ringo Starr covered one of them, and both Suzi Quatro and Alvin Stardust referenced the styles of classic rock and roll. Meanwhile, The Hollies and Charlie Rich delivered what for me were the two most pleasant surprises of this year’s selection: stately, well-crafted ballads, sensitively arranged, and performed with genuine feeling. As with Van Halen in 1984, sometimes it’s the uncool, unfashionable material which ends up sounding the most timeless and enduring (and in the case of The Air That I Breathe, directly influencing a classic of 20 years later, Radiohead’s Creep).
3rd place – The 1980s. (30 points)
Most popular: Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Least popular: Joanna – Kool & The Gang.
This is unexpected, to say the least. In my (possibly nostalgia-addled) memory, 1984 was the final year of a protracted Golden Age which started with Heart Of Glass and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, peaked with Relax and Two Tribes, and ended with Do They Know It’s Christmas and You Spin Me Round (Like A Record). Sharp, sussed pop music, with wit, style and substance. To say nothing of all the fantastic early 80s soul/funk/late disco/early electro which had me bopping round my boom box in my fluffy white towelling socks.
So why was almost none this represented in our sample Top Ten? The preposterous Rockwell, the condescending Billy Joel, the borderline-offensive Lionel Richie, the whining Nik Kershaw, the patently counterfeit Break Machine, the anodyne Kool & The Gang… this is not the 1984 which I eagerly documented each Tuesday or Wednesday with my own personal top forty (yes, forty) of current favourites. On the strength of this pitiful evidence, it’s a wonder that the 1980s even managed to climb as high as third place. This was only achieved on the strength of the remaining four songs (It’s Raining Men, 99 Red Balloons, Jump, Relax), all classics in their own way, which between them picked up 19 points out of a possible 20.
No, this wasn’t my 1984 at all. Perhaps I should check those old handwritten personal Top 40s once again. Let’s see what was really rocking my world twenty years ago – and let’s hope that it’s not too embarrassing.
Hmm. Tolerable – distinctly tolerable – if a little Wine Bar in places. (Look, Sade was on the front cover of The Face! We didn’t know any better!)
Thanks to Dymbel for alerting me to an article about blogging by Simon Garfield in today’s Observer. Garfield seems to be labouring under the happy delusion that I am one of the “big names” of UK blogging – a delusion with which I am more than happy to concur.
Bouquets to “moi” over at the estimable Bacon, Cheese and Oatcakes, who gets a particularly lengthy write-up.
Ego suitably stroked, I shall now return to the pleasurable languors of my well-earnt hangover.
4th place – The 1990s. (27 points)
Most popular: Girls And Boys – Blur.
Least popular: Breathe Again – Toni Braxton.
Unlike the witless puppets of 2004, at least the charts of 1994 can still be credited with some intelligence. Whatever we might think of the offerings by Tori Amos, Blur and Bruce Springsteen, at least they are all, in their own ways, offering something which hadn’t been offered before, and thus stretching the definitions of chart pop.
Would that the same could be said for perhaps the most unmourned genre of the 1990s – the power ballad. With Celine Dion mercifully absent, it is left to Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey to fly the flag for ghastly, torpid, air-brushed, over-egged, fake emoting.
At the same time, dance music (as represented here by I Like To Move It, Renaissance and Doop) had established itself as a regular feature in the Top 10, with many hits having started their lives in what was then a thriving and expanding club scene. The rapid decline of dance music in the singles charts is perhaps the most surprising development of recent years.
But the most prescient of these ten hits has to be Girls And Boys. The glories of the Britpop years were just about to begin. Had our sample been taken from the Top 10s of 1995, 1996 or 1997, I suspect that the 1990s would have placed a lot higher than fourth.
5th place – The 2000s. (26 points)
Most popular: Toxic – Britney Spears. (Watch the fantastic video for this here.)
Least popular: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar.
“Tuneless – atonal – a horrible racket – call this music?” There is an argument which says that the 2000s have, in a sense, scored a victory by finishing last in our poll. After all, aren’t grown-ups traditionally meant to hate modern chart pop? It’s not made for us. We’re not supposed to get it. By shifting its emphasis away from the melodic and towards the rhythmic, 2004 pop has done a fine job of alienating many of us.
It is, however, a slender argument. There is another more compelling argument which says: yes, today’s pop music really is the worst it has ever been. Marketed to death, with all remaining traces of innocence, rebellion and inventiveness squeezed out of the formula. Too focus-grouped, too demographically targeted, too cynical, too knowing – and with a horrible spiritual vacuum at its core. I suspect that this is the line that most of you will prefer to take.
Having listened carefully and repeatedly to all ten tracks in this year’s selection, two particular observations stand out. Firstly: that much of this music is not even intended to be concentrated upon. In today’s multimedia-saturated culture of immediate gratification, we are losing the ability to concentrate on anything much. Many of the consumers of these songs will hear them as nothing more than backwash – as the backing track to their lives. Thus it is that many of these songs (Dude and Cha Cha Slide particularly come to mind) set out their stalls within the first minute; the rest is merely repetition of those first few simple ideas.
Secondly: that modern pop is dripping with lust, more explicitly stated than ever before. While the songs of the 1960s speak of romantic love, exactly half the songs of the 2004 Top Ten (Dude, Red Blooded Woman, Not In Love, Mysterious Girl, Toxic) can be lyrically read as unambiguous expressions of directly erotic intent. It’s a commonly heard complaint: that popular culture is becoming alarmingly – some might even say inappropriately – over-sexualised. Where will it all end, we ask ourselves, furrowing our brows in concern.
We are becoming our parents.