December 23rd, 2008
…said Steve the shop. Luckily, I had the issue in my hand already, thereby narrowly dodging another cruel flechette of conversational shrapnel, saved from a fresh scar of shame and age gouged from the old character armour.
Candy covers – Pic’n'Mix (Woolies RIP)
Phonogram: The Singles Club #1 (Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson, Image) is for hip kids then. I am not one of these kids any more – so much so in fact that Phonogram has, in the first volume and this new offering, gone out of its way to insult me personally. To explain: the Phonoverse’s cosmology of puissance and privilege – hipness – is a little confusing, but I think it goes something like this – at the very top you have these god-things like Britannia or SWBFYE (see below), representative egregore’s of certain musical trends; under them are Phonomancers, sort of muso-mages, basically what in our world you’d call ‘music journalists/bloggers’ (although from this latest ish it seems appropriately enthusiastic fans might qualify too); after that, you’ve got DJs; musicians; average citizens…
Below them, as I remember, are the baddies: mainly these are called Retromancers, who in real life would be School Disco DJs, Paul Weller fans, that kind of thing; but below even them, at the lowest circle of Phono-hell with the donkey-raping shit-eaters, proponents of City Bonus Culture and the Kaiser Chiefs are “people who … ‘like a bit of everything’ or ‘whatever’s on the radio” (quoted from the letter’s page in the inside back cover, echoing a sentiment expounded in the first Phonogram book*.) I didn’t realise quite what a fuckpiece it made me, but yes, I am one of those people who tend to like whatever’s on the radio.
It wasn’t always so of course. There were many years when all I cared to think about was the latest wondergrooves burning a path up, down and entirely orthogonal to the hit parade. Charity shop vinyl bins and the reduced-to-clear CDs in Woolworths were my small town lifeline to the outside world, providing windows onto states of being I’d only and never really imagined, and a ready-to-wear identity and range of cultural signifiers that would stand me in good stead when the inevitable escape occurred. (I long to return to that small town now, of course.) But for a while the music was so real to me it was more solid than the ground beneath my feet. It made me walk on air instead. Iggy saved my life. Bowie suggested what to do with it. The Velvets showed me how to moan. Roxy how to party. The Manics taught me fucking politics and literature (I was a rather glam and retro teen, it seems). Blur and Oasis taught me how to drink. Crucially, and no longer embarrassingly, Menswe@r demonstrated how a skinny young man could dress like he meant it, and also offered a salutary lesson on how best to believe the hype (pinches of salt, enjoy it while it’s good and no longer, never apologise).
So long ago now. I found in the intervening years that music-as- lifestyle or rite-of-passage (the angles that Phonogram is about, and quite not the same as music-as-art or music-as-listening experience) was just one of many contexts which I found I needed to frame myself, and that certain other aspects of existence offered experiences of thought and emotion equally or more immersive, complex, edifying and fun. Noticing I was falling behind, I did what any sensible person would do: I gave up. It was a gradual letting-go at first: I stopped flicking through the record racks, quit buying the mags, sat still while whole new musical movements passed me by. Other people seemed so much better at it than me, so fervent and fast with the latest goods, ears to the ground, eyes to the sky and souls just bursting with YES! for tunes that I could find no reference for. This was saddening of course, but good tunes still mixed with my earwaves with enough frequency that I could still get out there, tap my foot and shake my rump when I needed to, so the need, the hunger, for something a bit something got sated just enough. And other things just happened. I soon realised: I do not miss the NME (yeah yeah, or Plan b or whatever). From inside the muso diagnosis, this latter attitude of mine is sheer loserdom, grandadism, bad beard. Despite the clutch of just right comics, and an on-trend gingham shirt, even Steve the shop can tell I’m not a hip kid which, let’s be honest, fucking sucks. Who doesn’t want to be hip?
But despite being told I’m a cunt by this comic on a pretty frequent basis, all things considered, it’s hard not to like it. Or want to like it, perhaps. It’s just such a necessary comic for right now. The current crossover between comics and music, and comics and music and everything else in the world, facilitated by the galaxysize venn diagram that is Le Web, makes Phonogram a fantastic, exploding, inevitable exercise in cultural cross-pollination. And it’s published by Image. (You remember Image, right? Well Phonogram is probably the bravest example of why Image is currently the greatest anglophone publisher of original maybe-mainstream comics in the world.) Gillen and Mckelvie are both smart operators and kings of convergence: the book taps into just the right portion of the comic shop’s audience (those, *sniff*, hip kids…), they’re all over the web, the cons and the zines, and their book is beautifully conceived and executed as pop artifact: back-up strips, no ads, front covers more lovely and info-action-packed than the whole thirty-rubbish-odd pages of most rival books. But what do we actually get from The Singles Club #1, as a comic and reader experience? It’s the first module of seven interconnected but standalone stories, sorry, I mean it’s an ‘experimentally structured folded narrative’ (more on this later), all taking place at the same place (Never On A Sunday – a Bristol nightclub, songs with girl vocals only – I imagine most similary-sized cities have a club with the same theme – round my way it’s Da Doo Ron Ron) on the same night (December 23rd 2006, two years ago this very night- I remember very well what I was doing back then, but it’s a story for another time. The memory is sharper, more painful and more dear than any I have of being in a nightclub.)
Dancer, phonomancer, and garrulous girl-group fan Penny B is getting ready to go out to her favourite club. Laconic chum Laura Heaven, instant fan-fave, all hats and hidden depths and hopefully a key player in the overall saga, pops round, and out they go into the cold West End night (NOAS’ real life venue is just round the corner from where the much-missed Forever People used to be – one of the UKs very first specialist comic shops – Crapfact Ed.). Penny keeps up a to-camera commentary all the way, explaining her unique phonomancer skill set, and the crush she has on a boy she’s hoping to see tonight. They enter the club, check the scene, get the drinks in, wait for the music to start, while also helping to nudge it into life. Penny tries a spot of sleight-of-mind on the DJ, loses her powers for her trouble, frets a bit, gets them back again. Quick-fade to white, just like at the end of the old Dr Whos, plus a little credit and issue-title rerun, a-pat-on-the-back the issue doesn’t really earn.
If that little recap seems slight then, well, that’s because the story is, really. Just as Penny drops her mojo and moves into a panic, the narrative feels like it’s going to step up a gear, and there’s one cool chilling moment where the back of her crush’s head starts talking to her, a nice demonic touch, but thee things drop off very early. We get lots of quick cameos from the stars of the next few issues, and the book seems content at this stage just to give us an exhibition of narrative scaffolding rather than any actual drama, and we just have to hope that when the time comes later chapters will offer a bit more in the way of action than the wall-propping and eyebrow-arching (phonomancer specialities both) that we glimpse here. Pop’s a bit like that, as I remember: hope.
Despite my radio-scum status, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the pop reference points in this issue aren’t actually beyond me at all – either I’m not the wanker I’ve been lead to believe, or this comic isn’t quite as cool as it likes to front. Maybe it’s just the two year time lag – who knows what impossible grooves these ice-cats are into now? The Pipettes song ‘Pull Shapes’ gives this issue’s story its title – it’s an OK song, good mainly for the fact that the chorus actually sounds like they’re singing ‘Bull! Shit!’ , so much so you suspect that may have been how the song was originally conceived, a la Chic’s ‘Le Freak (/ ‘Fuck Off’).
Essentially, the ghosts of three contemporary girlbands haunt the gutters of this issue, The Pipettes, of course, The Long Blondes and New Young Pony Club. [Prismatic aside: these three bands, combined like some weird new disco transformer, would form a pretty mean iteration of the triune indie figurehead that is XRay Spex-Strawberry Switchblade- Shampoo, who were basically one band spread across three decades. The digital prism has filtered this marvelous beast back out into three simultaneous bands for the Two-One-Cee: The Pipettes doing the style, manifestos and connoisseurship, The LBs doing the toe-tapping melancholy, and the NYPC doing the boredom which, stripped of balancing attributes, becomes boring - the monotone ice maiden 'We Have Sex!!' thing they do is like sooo an electroclash cliche: they were a sad self-parody from the moment they dropped. Piss tunes too, most importantly.
Actually, maybe you'd need to add the Ting Tings to the mix to get it just right - for the shouting and genuine chart-bothering. And where would the Crystal Castles go... Ah forget it, stupid idea anyway.]
Penny’s look is pretty prolly based on any of the blonder given Pipettes, difficult to say which, as stable line ups is not exactly their thing. Laura Heaven, the still waters phonomancer wannabe and all-round best chum, is similarly based on Long Blondes (click link for their best tune) lead singer Kate Jackson (she also reminds me of my mate Laura, who was rocking a similar look back when we used to go to these clubs together).
Art: The addition of colour has made Phonogram finally look like the comic it is meant to be – the greyscales of the previous volume gave a dour air to the proceedings at odds with the when-indie-got-its-groove-on subject matter, if not perhaps the introspective plot. Jamie Mckelvie’s crisp, assured lines allow lots of confident, wide-open spacs fit for soaking up the poptones of Matt Wilson’s pitch-perfect candy-coloured palette. McKelvie’s eye for the telling detail and attention to the full implication of the world this comic inhabits. The language of clothing and hair and gyrating bodies; all the deliberately accidental background details are marshaled with total, believable balance and finesse, like a record producer putting in the hours behind the desk, the complete image in his head being mixed down and down from the available tracks until pitch perfect. Inevitably, this level of control reveals its true intentions through omission: where are the booze bottles in Penny’s bedroom? Why can’t she magic herself warm like people who walk to clubs do? Where are the Christmas lights out on the streets? How come this club’s so clean?
Maybe these questions would be answered in the backmatter. Yeah, backmatter. Didn’t I mention it before? What you thought I’d try and pull shit like ‘experimentally structured folded narrative’ on you myself? I’d have left it alone actually, resisted the temptation to type ‘less Nik Kent, more Clark Kent’ – the rest of the comic was such a breath of fresh, only slightly pleased-with-itself air that I wanted to just be nice, with the usual reservations… But Kieron Gillen starts off his four-page bit of Stan’s Soapbox with an apologia which felt like a personal challenge: ‘While the vast majority seem to like the current trend in single-issue comics including creator essays crammed in the back of the singles, there’s a minority who are actually offended by their existence.’ What? Well who the fuck could these foul hataz be? Bit of an open goal here I feel – any column that has to spend the first quarter of its allotted space justifying itself already knows deep down that it can’t. It doesn’t matter, because apparently the vast majority don’t feel that these creator essays are the comic book equivalent of an acoustically-guitared Noel Gallagher pulling up a stool on Jools Holland, for a more, y’know, intimate session. Which ought to make the rest of the backmatter the equivalent of a person more slime than man helpfully boogiewoogieing away on keys, but they’re really not as bad as that image suggests. The annotations/glossary section is still quite a painful read- the ‘did you see what I did there?’ aspect of it is representative of the worst ego-prose tones of the common music-journalese dialect, and actually highlight weaknesses in the comic itself that I’d managed to miss. But, and this is the big butt that saves the whole issue, you then have two excellent back-up strips, illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin and Marc Ellerby. The first of these pays a return visit to Indie Dave, a character from the first book, who look slike he spends his day listening to the immersive black metal heck-scapes of Urfaust, Wrath of the Weak or Agalloch, but is really more interested in pub toilet theories about mid-stream elderly-indie type fare as Sufjan Stevens. Character missteps aside, ‘She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment’ is a marvelous four-pages, piercing an unsavory element of male music fandom to the wall with a withering glare that doesn’t let Indie Dave go easily. The next strip, ‘The Power of Love’ is, if possible, even better – tonally antithetical to its predecessor, it’s a breezy double pager with summer-special pencils about the power of Huey Lewis, which reaches back into the main strip and makes the Never On A Sunday DJs from ‘Pull Shapes’ positively slappable (which sounds like faint praise, but, you’ll agree, is a huge improvement on stabbable). And it’s not over yet: a letter’s page – hit skip or be prepared to cringe – plus, upon closing, a back page that is yet another page of honest-to-guv’nor comicstrip (with more lush McKelvie-isms). Eject.
Because of this pure hot-strippage, as a packed and pretty package it’s hard to think of a cooler comic to be seen with, this year or next. Pass as one of those hip kids by stapling it to your chest. I will be.
*(Which is called Rue Britannia and is well worth a look. The Babylonians chat about it here – a good listen, so strange to hear Americans grousing about whether Sleeper are better than Echobelly.)