Singles of the year: #19

19. Babycakes – 3 Of A Kind

1999: Windowlicker – Aphex Twin
1994: Ghetto Day – Crystal Waters
1989: Express Yourself – N.W.A.
1984: You Think You’re A Man – Divine

My great blogging regret of last year was that I never put together a decent tribute to one of the very few true “hero” figures I have ever had in life: the late John Peel. For although “somebody famous has died” is right up there with “today I had a cheese sandwich“, “Blogger ate my post“, “aren’t spam commenters ghastly?“, “Googlers search for the darndest things!“, “look what I just found on Boing Boing!” and (embarrassed cough) “isn’t it amazing what you can do with” in the pantheon of Blog Postings We Never Want To Read Again Unless There’s A Very, VERY Good Reason, I felt that there was much that could usefully be said about the powerfully benevolent influence that Peel exerted on so many of us in our formative years – to say nothing of the cultural legacy which he has left behind.

On the other hand, the sheer number of well-worded, insightful and affectionate tributes which poured forth on seemingly every weblog within my orbit over the ensuing weeks was a source of both astonishment and delight. I simply had no idea that so many of us related to the man in such an intensely personal way, and that there was so much shared ground between each of these individual relationships. As time went on, the urge to pen my own tribute slowly dwindled. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, to the point of saturation.

(Or even beyond it, as some testily observed. Given the overall mood of National Grief which briefly prevailed, it’s a small wonder we haven’t ended up with a Memorial Garden.)

However, a point which I only saw being made once or twice, and a point on which I have since reflected upon at some length, concerns the particular nature of Peel’s preferred musical aesthetic. Just why did he continually favour the new over the established, the debut single over the third album, the rough over the slick, the barely “musical” over the practised and accomplished?

To some, this indicated a fickleness, a shallowness, an inverted snobbery, an unseemly arrested development. But the particular observation which struck me as being closest to the truth was this: that Peel’s primary aesthetic was that of the Primitive. Once you start to apply this guiding principle, then a lot of Peel’s seemingly baffling eclecticism begins to add up and make sense. The thrash metal, the nosebleed techno, the dub reggae, the English folk, the Southern African hi-life, the low-budget early hip-hop, the dour indie miserablists, the original punk rockers, the assorted outsiders and refuseniks… nearly all of them shared something of this unifying primitive quality.

But what the f**k has any of this to do with Babycakes by 3 Of A Kind: a massive overground chart hit in the UK, which could be heard blaring from every other car window in town over July and August of last year? To most of my generation of former Peel fans (who actually stopped listening years ago, provoked beyond endurance by some newly favoured “call this music?” genre; for me it was the thrash metal), this could easily be held up as a prime example of the sort of gormless commercialised pap that Peel had fought against all his life.

Except that in this instance, I beg to differ. To these ears, there’s something of that essential primitive quality in Babycakes: a stuttering, clattering piece of four-years-out-of-date two-step UK garage which sounds like it was recorded in a back bedroom in East London on a budget of tuppence by a bunch of Nike-ed up no-marks whose only other pleasure in life is to get strung out every night on super-skunk and carry-out Breezers in the car park of the local Burger King.

(All of which is an unnecessarily roundabout way of avoiding the use of one snide, smug, hateful little word which became an unavoidable part of 2004’s cultural currency. Four letters, begins with C, ends with V: class hatred in a single syllable.)

Indeed, it’s the very gormlessness of Babycakes which appeals: that disaffected, detached vocal delivery; that take-that-gobstopper-out-of-your-mouth diction; that fumbling emotional inarticulacy; that accidental quality, which has you seriously wondering whether 3 Of A Kind will ever be heard of again (at least beyond the confines of the promo racks in their local vinyl store).

You see the problem here? For someone like me – pushing 43, second home in the country, nice collection of contemporary ceramics on the leather console table – to appreciate somehing like this, which comes from a place well outside of his experience or even his imagination, the temptation to apply the patronising and ignorant critical aesthetic of the “noble savage” becomes almost overwhelming. We’re a heartbeat away from Henry Higgins territory here.

And maybe that’s the same problem which some suspicious commentators had with John Peel: this privately educated bourgeois boy with the dry, self-deprecating wit and the singular blend of cynicism and idealism, who shed his posh accent and comprehensively re-invented himself (several times over) as a classless, class-blind Everyman.

But, ahem, let’s not get too carried away here. Shall we crack on with The Big Competition instead? Yes, I think we’d better.

As Dave Spellcnut thought that Babycakes would be my favourite single of 2004, he takes over the leader board from Waitrose David (whom I forgot to credit earlier, when his prediction for The Prodigy came up). Remember: the person who makes the closest prediction wins a copy of my Best Of 2004 triple mix CD. So keep those guesses coming!

Already listed:
#19 Babycakes – 3 Of A Kind (dave) · #29 Girls (rex the dog mix) – The Prodigy (Waitrose David) · #32 Toxic – Britney Spears (Angus) · #36 I Believe In You – Kylie Minogue (Joe) · #38Love Machine – Girls Aloud (Alan) · #49 The Show – Girls Aloud (Paul) · #64 Take Your Mama – Scissor Sisters (Chig) · #85 Matinee – Franz Ferdinand (timothy)Not (yet?) listed:
Tits On The Radio – Scissor Sisters (Todd) · Filthy/Gorgeous – Scissor Sisters (asta) · Heartbeats – The Knife (Swish David) · Trick Me – Kelis (Ben) · Common People – William Shatner & Joe Jackson (Gary F.)

See also: Tuesday October 26, 2004.

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