Wednesday, 10 June 2009

'Oh no my clothes have all fallen off, and The Clash.'

The other day I was challenged - by Does That Make Sense?, no less - to say something pertinent, or even just dim, about Transvision Vamp. Panicking like Blears, I plumped for the latter. Here goes.

Transvision Vamp were, essentially, Wendy James and - one of the best rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tex Axile, an old punk who'd been in the fag-end version of X-Ray Spex and silly controversy-mongering non-band The Moors Murderers with Chrissie Hynde and Steve Strange. Tex provided the proto-Grunge mellow chiming verses and stock power chord choruses over which Wendy would alternately pout and scream in a manner often, and not entirely unfairly, likened to Bonnie Langford throwing a wobbly in Just William. In fact, most people's first encounter with the band was via James's thcweam at the start of their first big hit, I Want Your Love. The lyrics were textbook frowny bedroom nihilism, full of clumsy rhymes ('I love your motivation/And I love your desperation') which were - perhaps fatally - mixed high enough for every word to be intelligible.

They found themselves lumped in with a load of other bands who did vaguely power-poppy songs and had a blonde frontwoman, and all appeared round about the same time, as the '80s were being smoked down to the filter. Thus James was constantly compared to Andrea off The Darling Buds and - one of the worst rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tracy Tracy off The Primitives. I don't know if someone tried to tie them up in one of those freshly-minted micro-genres that were all over pop journalism in those days. (I'm hoping 'peroxide power pop' is something I've just made up).

For better or worse, James was ahead of her time. Let's take the worse first. There are two things about Wend that got the music press's collective goat, which just wouldn't be issues today. First, and most obvious, was her willingness to shed as much clobber as possible if there was a cover shoot in it. Actually, it was all very chaste by today's standards - arms and militaria experts on the Antiques Roadshow have cavorted in less - but back then for an actual singer, rather than some model who mimed to Loleatta Holloway, to set the controls for 'shirtless' was an invitation to be priggishly lambasted in the pages of the inkies (who illustrated their thesis with copious examples of the evidence, natch). No-one, with the possible exception of Carol Decker, had a harder time from the music press in the late '80s.

Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, The Vamp wanted to be 'credible' without being 'indie'. Explaining the arcane rules of the 1980s independent music scene to anyone under 25 is like summarising pounds, shillings and pence via the medium of dance, and it really is an unquestionably Good Thing that selling a few records now and again is no longer considered an instant bar to musical worth. But back then it still - just about - was. So Wend and Tex's bangings-on about Joe Strummer in interviews were reported with a vertiginously raised eyebrow. How dare these self-confessed wannabe chart-toppers flirt with the trappings of 'proper' music? Such snobbery was on the way out, though, for the good of all concerned (the staff of Melody Maker aside). It just came a little too late for the Trannies.

Best not to go overboard with the revisionism, though - there are few pop songs feebler than Born to Be Sold, for a start. But at a time when just about everything else from the 1980s has been salvaged, polished up and stuck on an ad (Westworld on the telly in 2009? I'm all for it, but... how?) it's odd we haven't heard those workmanlike power chords and that girlish 'Waaaaaagh!' being used to flog a Kinder Bueno or a Ped-Egg... yet.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

It's Not Fair and It's Really Not PG

It was easy in the old days (by which I mean before 1982). For films, you had your certificate U for the whole family, your certificate AA for over 14s (or 12 year olds who felt lucky)and your certificate X for over 18s (or two vertically mounted twelve year olds sharing one man's overcoat, trilby and burnt cork around the face). For everything else, it was safely assumed that anyone likely to take offence - children, the elderly, Lord Hailsham - would be safely in bed by nine. Simple.

Then things started to get mussy. Films certificates changed into new ones which were supposed to be easier to make out but weren't, then kept being added to every couple of years. The 9PM curfew became increasingly meaningless in the face of black and white portable tellies in bedrooms, and then the advance of VCRs, Sky Plussing contraptions and, finally, the Internet. Sending junior to bed the moment Old Man Steptoe unleashed his first 'Cobblers!' of the night was no longer an option - they could be watching Derek Jarman up there, and without that all-important 'parental guidance'. ('Look Billy, those two Roman soldiers are very good friends, aren't they? You know your Uncle Alan...')

So we got a stream of hastily cobbled together own brand censorship regimes, from the phoney (Red Triangle Films) to the earnest but ridiculous (those strange boxes on the backs of DVDs, with their invocations of 'scenes of mild peril' and other abstract concepts straight from the terrified mind of Norris Cole). Worst of all is the music-related stuff, which has gone far beyond those daft 'Parental Guidance' stickers that cluttered album sleeves in the '90s.

Try listening, for instance, to Lily Allen's new single 'Ed From the Chemical Brothers Shags Like an Invalid Penguin' on a selection of radio stations. The 'difficult' content is treated in various ways. Some just censor the word 'head', which became rude in about 1991, around the time the previously untouched 'Walk on the Wild Side' started suffering a similar fate. Some censor the word 'giving' as well, probably because cutting the word 'head' on its own might sound a bit like like having your decency cake and eating it. ('Giving what, eh, lads? Not blood, I bet! Woooorgh!') Some get rid of the whole offending line. Some, even, let their faders eat into the previous line, removing 'wet patch', a totally innocuous phrase to anyone who doesn't already know what might be the cause of said spillage. There are probably versions out there which cut even more in an attempt to take the world back to a pre-Are You Being Served? state of Edenic innocence.

Meanwhile, poor old Lily's song disappears bit by saucy bit, like a sexually explicit version of 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes'. It's all very subtle and barely raises an eyebrow these days. Back when music censorship was full of uniformed coppers raiding branches of Our Price and Mike Read going apoplectic over some 'raunchy Scouse combo' who had probably never even heard of John Betjeman, at least we knew where we stood. Now not only do we not know, it seems the people devising these things haven't got a clue either. God knows what they'd have made of Danny La Rue.