Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

The least of three Clarke novels I have read, probably because it is mostly Earth-bound and involves more characterisation and dialogue, for which Clarke is not best suited. As I’ve said before, it’s not that he’s bad at these things, just unimaginative, occasionally stilted, and clearly more invested in other elements of his writing. (Ok, sometimes he is quite bad.) The episodic structure is problematic, too, and the whole is rather too drawn out for my taste. Having said this, Vonnegut reckoned Childhood’s End a masterpiece, so what do I know.

The story is set on Earth in the late 20th century, and describes a benign but interventionist alien invasion. The Overlords, as Clarke’s puny Earthlings come to know them, claim to have come to save humanity from extinction through a programme of coercive “supervision”. Their efforts bring about a kind of moribund utopia, in which everyone is safe and provided for but creativity and ambition is terminally stifled. (Clarke failed to foresee the tabloid unhinging that would ensue were an unsuspecting alien race to try such an aggressive NANNY STATE scheme.)

Some humans, however, won’t be coddled into submission, although active defiance is impossible. One man stows away on an Overlord spaceship. Others establish a self-sufficient colony in an attempt to restore civilisation’s vigour. Nobody really knows what is to be the Overlords’ end game, and the Overlords aren’t inclined to let on.

I found all of this less than intriguing. The human characters are uniformly dull, even by Clarke’s standards, and their names (George, Jan, Jean, Jeffrey, Jennifer) reflect the clanging sameness of their characterisations. The Overlords are no better: their very nature is undemonstrative, unemotional, uninteresting.

A lot rides on the novel’s philosophical implications, especially the proposal that humanity, unless checked by outside forces, will ultimately destroy itself, or at least be relegated to the status of a galactic also-ran. It's the zoo hypothesis, essentially, but Clarke executes a few extra twists, revealing [spoiler alert for 60+ year-old novel] that the Overlords are themselves guided by a still greater intelligence, and are merely acting as midwives for the transcendence of humanity - a transcendence that will be forever denied to the Overlords.

As I have been discovering, it is this mystical, cosmological side to Clarke that is the most engaging - and haunting - aspect of his work. Childhood’s End abruptly becomes an end-times novel, one with an ostensibly “happy” ending - humanity evolves into a different species, a kind of collective consciousness - but which nevertheless carries immense sadness from the perspective of a non-transcendent, single consciousness. I’d struggle to call this a successful novel, but the strange tragedy at its heart makes me glad I read it.

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick’s film is an indelible work of art; Clarke’s novel is also extremely successful, by its own standards. By which I mean it’s not as “good” as the film, but it’s very “good” indeed. Famously, Clarke and Kubrick developed the novel and screenplay simultaneously, with a lot of “cross-fertilization” (as Wikipedia has it) between the two projects. It’s interesting, if ultimately fruitless, to speculate on the traces each left on the other’s work. Like the great artist/megalomaniac he was, Kubrick absorbed a lot of Clarke into his film, as part of the act of synthesis required to create something suis generis. Clarke, a more modest artist if not a more modest man, ended up with another very good Clarke novel.

The novel’s story is much the same as the film’s. You’ve got your prehistoric apemen being transfixed by a mysterious monolith; then we’re in the future, heading for the moon where a similar monolith has been uncovered. Part three is the journey to Saturn (via Jupiter in the novel; express service in the movie.) HAL has his wig-out, etc. Part four is the bit where astronaut Dave Bowman journeys through hyperspace or the psychedelia-sphere or whatever, before being reborn as a giant space baby.

Given the essentially non-verbal nature of the film, it is hardly surprising that 2001: A Space Novelssy is a lot more, er, wordy by comparison. Clarke’s only got words, after all. (You have to imagine the Strauss and Ligeti for yourself.) Where the film is mysterious, the novel is explicit. We get inside the heads of the apemen and understand some of the monolith’s motives. HAL’s crisis is explained; likewise the intelligence behind the monoliths and Dave’s mystical rebirth.

So reading the novel is a very different experience to watching the film. It’s almost like they’re different entities, in different media, using vastly different tools to tell the same story! The film is overwhelming: a case of the modern sublime if ever there was one. The novel is more comfortable - in many ways it’s a familiar space exploration story, albeit one with large helpings of philosophy and/or mysticism. But damn if it doesn’t deliver, in its own way, a vertiginous sense of the crushing scale of space-time.

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous With Rama

Bit of a surprise, this. Of the generally accepted “great” SF writers, the two I most assiduously avoided during the heavy SF-reading years of my teens were Heinlein (the hippy-libertarian rep put me off, and still does) and Clarke. I read some of his stories here and there, but otherwise his books sounded too heavy, and not violent or sexy or silly enough to engage me. By the time I’d had my head removed by J.G. Ballard and others, an old-fashioned sense-of-wonder merchant like Clarke wasn’t even in contention.

Right now, though, I’m making a deliberate return to reading SF on a regular basis, and part of that is going to be sampling big name writers I’ve avoided or read very little. I may even get to Heinlein.

Anyway, Rendezvous With Rama proved to be much as expected: full of grand and plausible-seeming scientific speculation, realistic evocations of space flight, mysterious alien artefacts, and characters so thin you could floss with them. The science and the mystery and so on are great - genuinely wonder-inducing at times - the thin characters not so much. Does this flaw matter? Yes, but also no.

It doesn’t matter because they’re good enough. Clarke’s characters, like his prose, are for the most part utilitarian, which is not the same as bad. The point is put across, as often as not with a feint at elegance. You can tell who is who, you get a bit of backstory and some shallow introspection, and everybody fulfills their role. The hero captain has occasional doubts, but he’s still a hero. The sinister ambassador from Mercury is sinister. The kind-of-sassy medical officer is kind-of-sassy. The characters work in a superficial way as surrogates for the reader to experience the real stars (haha) of the novel, space and its attendant wonders.

Mind you, there are clunky moments. Foremost:

Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of an un-holstered lady officer through the control cabin.

Who knew that “un-holstered” boobs were such a threat? Why, it’s enough to cause a serious space accident in one’s space pants.

So yeah, Clarke doesn’t do people all that well, but thankfully the sympathetically vibrating boob thing is an aberration in this otherwise fairly sober book.

What Clarke does do well is articulate the awesomeness of space travel, and, in this case, the strange cylindrical world the hardy adventurers end up exploring. There’s a lot of action and discovery and speculation, and despite my reservations my inner twelve-year-old (he hangs out near my spleen) found it all highly engaging, even affecting on some level. That Clarke refuses to answer the novel’s central question - who are the Ramans? - only adds to the cumulative power. (The sequels, co-written with Gentry Lee, apparently do answer this question, with unfortunate consequences for everyone, especially the reader.)

This leads me to why it does matter after all, at least to me, that Clarke’s characters are so psychologically shallow. It is relatively simple to suspend disbelief about interplanetary travel, enormous alien artefacts, and the inability of grown men to function as professionals in the presence of mammary glands. It is less easy to suspend disbelief as to the profound psychological changes that space travel - let alone exploring an object like Rama - would entail. Clarke’s heroes wander through this novel with all the equanimity of James Bond facing down a sexy, ribaldly-named assassin. Nothing shakes them: professionalism, protocol, and a lack of interiority protects them from psychological change.

I don’t know if this amounts to a substantive criticism or merely a personal preference. Maybe it’s both. In any case, I’m willing to overlook - or let’s say accept - Clarke’s flaws, as I see them, because I so much enjoyed what he did otherwise in Rendezvous With Rama.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

It’s almost inarguable that Frankenstein is a work of precocious genius, one of the key progenitors of modern science fiction, a philosophically complex narrative whose influence extends well beyond the neck-bolts guy from the movies, although we’re all thankful for him too, I’m sure. I first read the novel as an undergrad, part of an initial, mind-expanding immersion in the Romantic. I liked it a lot, but I don’t like it much now. Whether I like it is really neither here nor there, in terms of the book’s importance. But this is my blog, so it matters, sort of, here. Unfortunately my reasons for disliking it are not especially incisive. Mainly I just wish Victor Frankenstein would shut his stupid face.

Harsh? Maybe. Facile? For cert. But the man is an first-rate pillock, a Byronic sook from temple to toe. The problem with the capital-R Romantic hero is that his stridency and introspection so easily curdles into histrionic manpain. Now, Frankenstein is meant to be arrogant and overreaching: hubris is the wellspring of his tragedy. I get this. But as written by Shelley, Frunkensteen is so one-note, so abjectly ridiculous a figure as to be impossible to take seriously.

The creature, while more sympathetic, shares many of his creator’s faults. The novel becomes a kind of contest of misery, as Victor and his grotesque spawn fight literally to the death for the thorny crown of martyrdom. There’s something suffocating about this interminable pas de deux. Again, that’s at least partly by design: it’s a tale of obsession, revenge. But it wants the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness. The extended po-faced man-whinge is not my favourite literary mode, no matter how intensely imagined.

Having read Frankenstein before, this time I listened to the audiobook read by Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey. Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey turns out not to be the stentorian butler, but some other guy. Despite this disappointment, it’s a good reading, capturing the pathos and tragedy of the characters so well that I now want to wring Dan Stevens’s neck along with Victor Frankenstein’s.

 

Theodore Sturgeon, Some of Your Blood

This is an occasionally fun but not all that successful attempt to recast the vampire mythos in the milieu of mid-20C clinical psychiatry. George Smith, a GI, is transferred to a psychiatric clinic after decking an officer. Most of the first half of the (short) novel consists of his autobiography, written in the third person at the request of his treating doctor. George is simple-minded and poorly educated, but he manages to put across the story of his shitty childhood and adolescence with occasional poetry and insight. The remainder of the novel is told in epistolary form: letters, clinical notes, etc. George’s story turns out to be even stranger than it initially appears. He likes hunting, sure, but he also likes drinking blood. Animal, human, whatever. To paraphrase Spike Lee, he’s gotta have it.

The epistolary form is not the only obvious nod to Dracula: George’s family hails from Eastern Europe, and his real first name is Bela. All very droll. Sturgeon gets the voices right, especially the forced jocularity in the letters between George’s treating psychiatrist and the his army bigwig pal.

It’s not a frightening novel, though; it’s not even unsettling. The reduction of blood drinking to the Oedipal complex is, not surprisingly, a bit dull. But the novel is playful enough, and short enough, to warrant reading, if only as a curio.

 

Peter Watts, Starfish

Remember seaQuest DSV? I didn’t, until I started reading this book. Not that it’s anything like seaQuest DSV. (And yes, that is the preferred style.) But like that show Starfish takes place in a near-future world where the bottom of the ocean has become a place of exploration and, predictably, exploitation. Anyway, forget I mentioned seaQuest. There are no talking dolphins here! In fact, there’s nothing loveable or cute about this book. Starfish offers a hard, sometimes harsh, vision, and a cast of hard and harsh characters, among whom the most likeable is probably the pedophile, and he’s not likeable at all.

Likeability. Fictional characters are meant to have this quality, at least according to some reviewers. Now, it’s easy to scoff at this notion - the simple-minded plebs and their desire for likeable, relatable characters! - but really, how often are characters truly unlikeable? Humbert Humbert? A squicky figure if ever there was one, but still fun to spend time with, at least in a literary sense. Patrick Bateman? Hey, at least he has a strong sense of personal style. Bill Sikes? Total prick, but the man loves his dog. Well, sort of.

Starfish’s characters have no such redeeming features. They are, by design, a bunch of headcases, ill-fitted for life in the world, but apparently just crazy enough to be stationed at the bottom of the ocean on the Jean de Fuca rift. (Not for kicks, mind: they’re manning a geothermal energy station.) There are teething problems - not surprisingly, jerks don’t always get along - but eventually the company gets the personality mix right, and all is apples.

Except of course it’s not. For one thing, the rifters become a little too keen on their new life. They’re fitted out with body modifications and protective diveskins that allow them almost unfettered freedom in their new underwater world. They are quickly changed, in the Ballardian sense, by their extreme circumstances. Some of the crew only return to the underwater station to eat. Others don’t return at all, preferring to pick up fishy snacks on the wing. The rifters have also fiddled with their body modifications, and they begin to develop a kind of group ESP. This rag-tag buncha misfits might make a pretty good team after all!

In between all the swimming around and intense relationship stuff, there’s an apocalyptic plot involving ancient nucleic acid and AIs that just might go full Skynet. It’s handled pretty well, and the resistance I felt at the start of the novel (to summarise: “Christ, these people are awful. How many pages are left?”) was by about the halfway mark replaced by 1) investment in the characters, who become a lot more palatable, perhaps because they stop being quite so arseholish to one another; and 2) curiosity about the corporate manipulation of our brave rifters and the Pandora’s Box full of unholy shit they have apparently opened.

Watts is marine biologist and Starfish tends towards the harder end of the SF spectrum, but even this scientific dunderhead found the techy stuff mostly comprehensible. Watts is also a pretty decent writer, which makes all the difference. He is able to take the story from underwater psychological-horror to apocalyptic AI-gone-wild catastrophe, while always keeping a sharp eye on character and place. It’s not a great novel - a bit slapdash structurally, and the characterisations can be wearing - but it has its share of good stuff.

Bland 90s: A Listicle

This is not a list of bad songs, although that is a quality many of them share. What I’m interested in is a certain 90s-flavoured blandness combined with inexplicable staying power. These are songs that exist on two planes: they’re tedious, piddling ditties that are simultaneously mighty earworms, lodged deep in our culture, and our brains. My brain, anyway. Short of lobotomy, this listicle might be the only way to purge them.

Disclaimer #1: this isn’t music criticism. This is personal.

Disclaimer #2: "90s kids" can die in the bin.

OMC, “How Bizarre” (1996)

From the twee flamenco-esque chord progression to the shitty-ass beats and the cheesy vocal hook, this thing is a purgative in 4/4 time.

Swoop, “Apple Eyes” (1995)

Leading off with a guitar riff that borrows the tone and rhythm, but none of the vitality, from Nirvana’s “Very Ape”, “Apple Eyes” swiftly moves through an idiotic verse (“if you got a castle well you know I got the moat”) and slightly more palatable bridge to the massive go-get-fucked of the immortal chorus: “Apple eyes drinking strawberry wine together / You and I and a blueberry sky forever”. From this vantage it looks and sounds indistinguishable from some behind the times cool hunter’s version of mid-90s alternative chic. It could be a fucking Big M commercial. Maybe it was.

Blessid Union of Souls, “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me)” (1999)

That band name. Jesus. Then their song has a title with parentheses, so that’s another strike. But wait, check these lyrics:

She likes me for me
Not because I look like Leonardo
Or that guy who played in Fargo
I think his name was Steve

As Anna pointed out to me, singing these lyrics makes it sound like you’re making fun of the song in a sub-Weird Al kind of way, when in fact they are the actual lyrics.

Musically it’s like an even poppier Everclear with some country/Southern rock stylings. But like Swoop, the Blessid Union (shudder) show that diverse stylistic influences and multiple vocalists cannot salvage the congenitally bland.

Sugar Ray, “Every Morning” (1999)

By 1999, if you weren’t using sampling in your shitty alternative pop song, you were probably Blessid Union of Souls. For their hit “Every Morning”, dude bro band avant la lettre Sugar Ray sampled the songs “Suavecito” by Malo and “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela. I just listened to those tunes, and while they are hardly masterpieces, they are vastly preferable to the cheddar cheesefest that is “Every Morning”.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Soul to Squeeze” (1993)

Direct from the Coneheads soundtrack...

RHCP have any number of candidates for this list - the entirety of One Hot Minute, for example - but this standalone single marked the beginning of the end of my ill-advised interest in the band. It’s just so dull, even when they do a bit of a tepid “rock out” in the middle. Anthony Kiedis’s abysmal vocals are matched by his lyrics, which include some of his trademark mush-mouthed babbling, eg:

Doo doo doo doo dingle zing a dong bone
Ba-di ba-da ba-zumba crunga cong gone bad

Stay the fuck away from heroin, kids.

Sheryl Crow, “All I Wanna Do” (1993)

Like RHCP, Sheryl Crow is a prodigious fount of blandness. Crow’s somnolence-inducing career kicked off with this tune, which is about how all Sheryl wants to do is have some fun, you know, in a laid-back, chill kind of way, with a bit of slide guitar and [falls asleep at wheel, twelve dead].

Geggy Tah, “Whoever You Are” (1996)

I was going to make fun of the band name, but then I realised that in 2015 it could just as easily be the name of some quasi-experimental Brooklyn folk-noise quartet. It would still be a shit band name, though.

Odd song in that the verse is the catchy bit and the chorus is a nothing. Like a few other songs on this list it has a loose dance beat with strummy guitar work - a can’t-miss recipe for bland 90s glory.

Something For Kate, “Captain (Million Miles an Hour)” (1997)

An almost superhumanly boring band, represented here by one of the blandest songs yet synthesised outside of a government laboratory. As usual, singer/guitarist Paul Dempsey looks and sounds like he’s on the verge of sleep, if not a coma. Listening to the last minute or so, it’s amazing to contemplate the many ways the 90s proved it was possible to be mind-numbingly dull while ostensibly rocking out. That’s an achievement, of sorts.

Ben Lee, “Cigarettes Will Kill You” (1998)

Here's hoping.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "The Impression That I Get" (1997)

Nuclear weapons, genocide, the 90s ska revival: these are the crimes for which humanity will one day face the judgement of the Supreme Galactic Council.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had been together for sixteen years when they hit it big with “The Impression That I Get”. The many years of honing their asinine craft are evident as the band takes you on a three minute ride through the ska-punk routine: shouting, horn stabs, softer bits, (inevitably) more shouting. There are so many band members doing so many lively things, yet the result is bland with a capital BLAH.

The Dave Matthews Band

I have never knowingly heard a song by the Dave Matthews Band, but reading US magazines in the 90s, and then music sites, they always struck me as the ne plus ultra of 90s blandness. I mean, they were so bland they didn’t even catch on in Australia! So although I can’t nominate an actual song, it wouldn’t feel right to exclude them from this list.

 

MIFF 2015 Round-up

Anna and I have already talked about six of the films we saw at this year's MIFF on the last two episodes of Shoot the DVD Player, so if you're interested in a more in-depth discussion, that's the place to go. We had planned on a third MIFF episode, but the domestic schedule got buggered up by events beyond our control and we couldn't both see some of the films we wanted to review. Was especially annoyed to miss out of Joachim Trier's new one, Louder Than Bombs. Other than that, it's been an ace festival - I only saw one dud, and even the inevitable cold that I picked up along the way wasn't too bad.

More for my own future reference than anything else, here are the films I saw.

Mississippi Grind
Gambling buddy drama with Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds giving good chemistry in the service of a so-so script. Good blues and country soundtrack and depiction of the seedy backroom gambling life.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Utterly crushing documentary about the LA serial killer who was more or less permitted to operate without impunity over two and a half decades. Not a story in which humanity covers itself with glory.

Welcome to Leith
Another depressing doco, this one about a tiny US town being taken over by neo-Nazis. Beautifully put together, thoughtful, and disturbing.

Land and Shade
A modern dustbowl tale set in the sugarcane fields of Columbia. Lovely performances and understated script combine with really gorgeous cinematography to make this one of my favourites of the festival.

Raiders!
Crowd-pleasing doco about the kids who made a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and who reunite as adults to finish their film. Lots of fun, with a strain of melancholy at its heart.

Listen to Me Marlon
Awful audio-visual collage Brando biography. Hackwork.

Tehran Taxi
The third post-ban film from Iranian director Jafar Panahi. By its very existence it makes strong points about artistic freedom, and the same themes run through the film. It's also a lot of fun at times.

Theeb
Loved this stunning Middle Eastern "Western", set during WW1, with a story kind of like an inverted Lawrence of Arabia.

Queen of the Earth
Saw this today and probably need to process it a little longer. I liked it a lot, though, and I definitely want to see it again. One of those films that evokes a lot of previous films, but which is its own beast at the same time.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 30 - A song I discovered during the challenge

I'm with Mike: Alpine's "Hands", selected by Kate back on Day 3, is my favourite new (to me) song I've heard during this challenge. It's joyful and lively and the video is memorably weird. Honestly I'm surprised it hasn't been played to death on ads. (Not an indictment of the song, mind. It's just so crisp and catchy, it's a wonder someone hasn't used it to sell hand sanitiser.)

Anyway, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks to everyone who has been posting, and thanks for reading. It's certainly livened up my blog.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 28 - A song from my childhood

Among the very few LPs my brother and I owned as children was a 1980 masterpiece from a little musical combo known as The Chipmunks. The album? Chipmunk Punk. Check the sleeve art.

Lock up your acorns!

The album included songs by such renowned punks as Queen, Tom Petty, Linda Rondstadt and Billy Joel. Anarchy! Oh, and three songs by The Knack. Yes - who knew The Knack had two songs, let alone three?

Slightly more credible, if the word can apply at all in this case, were the songs by Blondie and The Cars. I mean, the Chipmunk versions were still fucking awful, but at least Blondie and The Cars were vaguely punk, if viewed in a dim light, through cataracts.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 27 - A song I wish I could play/sing

Written and recorded by The Loved Ones in 1967, "Sad Dark Eyes" has become an Australian standard, having been covered by Mick Harvey, Nick Cave, Jen Cohler, and probably dozens of others. For my money though the best version is by Ed Kuepper. I can play a basic version of the song, and can report that it has the rare properties of being relatively simple to play and sing along to while being incredibly satisfying. Having said that, I could practice it for a hundred years and still never dream of matching Ed's magnificent version for intensity and drama.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 26 - A song that is an earworm

Orange Is the New Black is a pretty good Netflix show that three years in still feels like it doesn't know what kind of show it wants to be but is at least successful at being 60-70% of the shows it's trying to be at any given moment. It's frustrating to watch, at times, because it combines incredible skill (in writing, direction, performance) with an off-putting lack of control. You'll get two minutes of superb television - comedic, dramatic, or pitched perfectly somewhere in between - followed by two minutes of overreaching dross that seems designed to be turned into those obnoxious multi-panel gifs with dialogue written on them in yellow font. The balance is usually on the good side, but I do wonder for how much longer.

Anyway, this isn't a tv review. The point is, OITNB features what the listicle writers of the future will consider an iconic opening credit sequence consisting of fast-edited close-ups of inmates' faces, set to Regina Spector's excellent song "You've Got Time". It's brilliant, clever, even a little confronting - these are not beautified faces, they are worn and tattooed and lived in, deliberately nonconformist with what is expected of the televised woman face.

But. The credit sequence is quite long - about a minute twenty - and the song... oh, god, the song! It's a good song, really. But it sticks in the brain, and now, three seasons in, I can hardly stand it. We usually play the credits through on mute, but just seeing the images evokes the song, and the song stays put for the next day or so. For the last fortnight I've been going to bed with it in my head. It's there when I wake up in the night. It's there in the morning. It's there when I shower in my non-communal bathroom. It's there. Always there. Please stop, Regina. I beg of you. I feel for the animals trapped trapped trapped till the cage is full, but there's no reason to trap me in a cage of your quirky, empathetic songwriting. Why can't you let me live?

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 25 - A song with utterly mysterious lyrics

Like Mike, I find it hard to go past Wire for this prompt. Their lyrics tend towards the abstract and cryptic, but they always sound considered, as though appropriate thought has been given to the weight of the syllables and the thickness of the allusions. In other words, they're generally  nonsensical, but they often make a lot of sense. Also, in Colin Newman and Graham Lewis Wire have two singers with strikingly different styles: Newman's punk shout is as good as his arch speak-singing, while Graham Lewis's monotonal tenor sounds especially great all reverbed up on the 80s stuff.

To give a brief example, the lyrics to the 1978 song "Practice Makes Perfect" are as follows:

Practice makes perfect
Yes I can prove it
Business or pleasure
The more that you do it
Please dress in your best things
This course was unplanned
You see up in my bedroom I've got Sarah Bernhardt's hand
Practice makes perfect
I've done this before
Never for money
Always for love
Please dress in your best things
And don't make a fuss
'Cause you see up in my bedroom Sarah's waiting for us

Not the weirdest Wire lyrics, but it was the first Wire song I ever heard, and I was, to put it mildly, intrigued.



30 Day Song Challenge: Day 22 - A song I wish I'd written

Tough one. I suppose it would be nice to have written a massively popular song, so I could spend my days diving about in piles of ingots, Scrooge McDuck style. But that's got nothing to do with music, and everything to do with avarice/my bizarre fetish for anthropomorphic ducks.

So... *drums table absently*

Hey, this is a good song. I like this song. Let's just say I wish I'd written this. Why not.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 21 - A song that is best heard live

A few years ago John Cale was doing a big show at the Melbourne Festival. I couldn't afford to go, but I could afford a significantly cheaper ticket to an "evening with" event. Cale spoke for an hour or so about Wales, his youth, playing music with La Monte Young, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, and all sorts of other things. He was a reserved but engaging speaker, and it was a thrill to be seated so close to him, given the amazing life he's had.

At the end, there was a treat. Cale's band came onstage, and the man himself took up his viola and they played an absolutely stunning version of (the Lou Reed penned) Velvets song "Venus In Furs". Whenever I hear the song now, I think about that extraordinary performance.

And it was so tantalising because that's all we got. As frustrating as this was, though, it probably lodged the experience more firmly in my memory. It wasn't diluted by, or competing for space with, a bunch of other songs and all the good and bad things you can experience at a concert. It was five perfect minutes, and we were all, I think, grateful to have had them.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 20 - A song I listen to when I'm angry

"Luau" by Drive Like Jehu is not really angry as such but it's just so heavy you can't help but expend some unwanted emosh. There's all sorts of slipper-dip guitar stuff going on, and the whole thing churns, but it has an odd beauty too. The last couple of minutes are just like YEAH.

As a side note, Drive Like Jehu are the subject of one of my favourite band photos.

30 Day Song Challenge: Day 19 - A terrible cover version

Go ahead, strip that iconic song of its context and turn it into something altogether stranger. Classic example: both Otis Redding and Devo turned out versions of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" that mess with the original in entertaining ways. The Devo version is the weirder, more subversive reading, replacing the cocky swagger* and jet-setting cynicism of the original with herky-jerky Midwest nerd paranoia. Redding, on the other hand, didn't even bother to learn the proper lyrics and his version is still great, so the points are pretty evenly split.

The other option is to produce a travesty, like Novo Amor's Lynx deodorant-sponsored version of "Welcome to the Jungle". There's no invention, no subversion, no irony, it's just the original lyrics droned over a generic shimmery, strummy arrangement. "Welcome to the Jungle" is a great rock song but there are no sacred cows: I'd love to hear a genuinely engaged tribute/piss-take. This version though is the pits. (Deodorant humour.)

*official Rolling Stones adjectives