Book: A Light that Never Goes Out

From Coronation Street to court cases, Tony Fletcher’s biography is full of fantastic facts and incendiary quotes, but somehow lacks sparkle 

-Kathryn Bromwich

a light that never goes out

Remember when Morrissey was known for his ground-breaking music and lyrics, and not for being a massive racist cock? Firstly, I should admit that the Smiths are one of the few bands whose entire discography I could sing along to word-for-word. Deep down, I still believe that anyone who doesn’t feel this way must have skipped the Sulky Teenager phase altogether, which, surely, makes them incomplete human beings.

Yet, what with This Charming Man being played to death in every ‘indie room’ throughout university and Morrissey’s increasingly unpalatable views, it is easy to forget just how exhilarating a band they were. Throw your mind back to your teenage years, when the Smiths were the only ones who really understood your literary aspirations, staunch liberalism, loneliness, existential gloom, vegetarian leanings and pathetic love life. And then start reading this book.

Incredibly, this is their first comprehensive biography since Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance in 1992. And as such it is certainly thorough: music journalist and former Keith Moon and REM biographer Tony Fletcher has been meticulous in his research, procuring exclusive facts through interviews with all the key players (excluding Mike Joyce and, naturally, Morrissey). At 700 pages and over a kilo, even the most obsessive Smiths fan – vegan, brooding, and with a life-size cardboard cutout of a naked Morrissey in their bedroom – will be satisfied.

Early on, Fletcher promises not to focus unduly on Morrissey, but acknowledges that a Smiths biography centred mainly on Johnny Marr would miss out on much of the brio and flourish that made the Smiths what they were. The book makes a good job of covering both of them in detail, while not forgetting bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, giving ample space to the unfair royalties rates and subsequent court case.

Starting with a fawning intro and an unnecessary reference to 500 Days of Summer, the book finds its stride when it describes, in remarkable detail, the first meeting of Johnny Marr and Morrissey. The two bequiffed young Mancunians, with their shared Irish stock and working class credentials, bonded over their love of Sandie Shaw, songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, and Patti Smith.

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‘Thought-tormented Music’: David Bowie’s Low and T.S. Eliot

Fragmented language, Nietzschean elitism, and disillusionment with art: could Bowie’s Thin White Duke era have been inspired by The Waste Land?

-Kathryn Bromwich


Submitted for MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture, University College London, 2009. 

Shorter, snappier version here.

T.S. Eliot’s early work, particularly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), and David Bowie’s Low (1977), are considered to be ground-breaking in their respective genres of poetry and music. Both antagonise the reader or listener with fragmented language and obscure references, and are united by a similarity in tone: disillusionment with art and distrust of language. Through a discussion of the influence of Eliot on Bowie, this essay will examine the motivation behind the aesthetic choices in both artists, and the ways in which they strive to bring about ‘newness’. The trend in 1970’s rock towards experimentation and intellectualism is well exemplified by Bowie’s interest in literature in 1977; the link between him and Eliot appears to be considerable, and can be seen as a symptomatic example for a wider movement of innovation in music. The focus will be on Low, in relation to Eliot’s early poetry and the critical writings of Eliot and Ezra Pound, in order to illustrate the ways in which Modernist ideas, themselves incorporating musical aspects, function when applied to the field of music.

The disciples of Eliot are numerous, but one who is not often discussed is David Bowie. Passing through William Burroughs, it is possible to establish an indirect influence of Eliot on Bowie. Hugo Wilcken, in his extended analysis of Low, states that Bowie’s lyrics were often composed in a ‘cut-up writing style, derived from William S. Burroughs,’[1] who in turn referred to The Waste Land as ‘the first great cut-up collage’[2] and ‘terrifically important […] I often find myself sort of quoting it or using it in my work in one way or other.’[3] However, there is also a more concrete link to Eliot. Three years before Low was released, Burroughs interviewed Bowie and remarked:

Burroughs: I read this ‘Eight Line Poem’ of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

Burroughs: (Laughs) It is very reminiscent of ‘The Waste Land.’[4]

Given that Bowie considered Burroughs to be ‘the John the Baptist of postmodernism,’[5] it appears likely that this encounter would have encouraged Bowie to read Eliot.

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Music: Dirty Three, Cargo

Back with a new album going back to their old sound, the Dirty Three play a beautiful and vitriolic show at Cargo

Kathryn Bromwich

warren ellisFrom their last album Cinder (2005), which got as close to 3-minute pop songs as the Dirty Three have ever been, with Toward the Low Sun the trio have returned to the more improvised and unstructured sound of their earlier work. Gentle and seemingly aimless strumming is interrupted by violin melodies and riffs, giving it a staccato quality that is sometimes almost jazz-like. The angrily buzzing feedback, however, gives the album a dark and disconcerting undertone. The tunes are less catchy than we’ve been used to in the last few records, and even upon repeated listens it’s a strangely amorphous kind of sound, interspersed with striking moments of beauty that are all the more rewarding for their unexpected appearance. On record, the full impact of the album is not immediately apparent, but in the flesh the Dirty Three bring it to life.

Cargo is an unusually trendy venue for the band. Their last appearance in London was at the Southbank, and they can often be found at festivals such as I’ll Be Your Mirror or All Tomorrow’s Parties. Tonight’s show is organised by ATP, and the small venue provides an intimate setting for the gig — so intimate it sold out in minutes. There is no support act, and Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White waltz on to the stage with swagger. The trio play a number of songs from Toward the Low Sun, and a few well-chosen gems from their back catalogue. The two-hour gig averages out at a satisfying 11 minutes for each song or, rather, for each elemental soundscape. Ellis and White stare intently into each other’s eyes, while Turner strums along, Thurston Moore-esque.

Ellis is wearing a smart suit jacket, which he soon removes to reveal a silk purple shirt with pink polka dots, several buttons open and chains of gold bling adorning his chest (some great photos here). Thankfully, he is refusing to grow old gracefully, much like a certain friend of his, and this is great news. His repeated quips at Bono and usually-successful attempts at humour, coupled with high kicks, screams and manic dancing, make for a hilarious and energetic spectacle. Nevertheless, the music is taken seriously: the band’s scratchy elegance is on full display, and the sound is as shambolic and raw as ever.

Click here for the Setlist

Music: Gang Gang Dance, ULU

New York’s Gang Gang Dance offer avant-garde synth and live awesomeness, in a gig which you don’t want to end

Véronique Ward

Gang Gang Dance is one of those bands whose CD sounds can never quite express the true awesomeness of their music. See them live, however, and you can guarantee to be blown away. Hailing from New York and largely described as an experimental music band, Gang Gang Dance make full use of their array of synthesizers, percussion, and more generic instruments to provide a musical experience that although not unique is certainly enthralling.

ULU is the perfect venue for this kind of band. Not unheard of but not of stadium-playing proportions either, Gang Gang Dance has the kind of loyal following that thrives in the square blandness that is characteristic of so many University-based venues. Somehow the surroundings provided by  this canteen/bar-cum-music hall work wonders on this kind of performance, where the band is all that’s needed to transport you somewhere a little more epic.

Add an entrancing video loop serving as a background to the performance and you’re in another world entirely. The neon, swirling, multiplying images fit their music so well that the audience barely notice themselves transfer from static to mobile state in their distraction.

A mellow start gives just a taste of the set to come as the band warm with a folkier sound of Adult Goth, which slowly builds before erupting into the burst of electro magnitude that characterises them so well. Truly happy to be playing to the capital’s finest, the energy and good nature between band members sweeps its way over the crowd and serves as a great accompaniment to the better-known MindKilla and Glass Jar amongst other favourites.

Popular choice of encore Thru and Thru wraps the set up leaving the audience pleased but wanting more. As one co-punter comments, very few are the gigs which you don’t want to end — and Gang Gang Dance definitely does this statement justice.

Music: Tosca, ENO

The plot is big and stupid, the gender politics are dubious, and the male hero’s pretty dull, but, by God, all this cannot stop me from loving Tosca

-Kathryn Bromwich

 In typical Italian style, the story is about love, lust, jealousy, politics, torture, corruption, extortion – it’s all there. The posters for this production at the English National Opera feature a stunning, dark-haired Monica Bellucci lookalike posing sexily with a knife. This fills me with joy. It perfectly captures the spirit of the opera: sexed-up melodrama, with lots of sex and violence, and then some more sex. There is no room for subtlety here. If you’re looking for proof that opera is neither highbrow nor pretentious, look no further. With its passionate and unrestrained plot, it’s like a dark, ripe, over-sexed Disney cartoon cranked up to eleven.

The story starts in a church, where Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi is painting a picture of Mary Magdalen. He runs into his old friend Angelotti, former Consul of the Roman Republic and now a political prisoner, who has escaped from jail and is hiding in the church. Cavaradossi offers to help him, portentously adding “whatever it may cost me”. Angelotti hidden, Tosca arrives, and the happy couple croons sappily together for a while. And then the tone changes: police chief Scarpia marches in looking for the fugitive, starts to suspect Cavaradossi, and sows seeds of jealousy into Tosca’s already-anxious mind. The two increasingly turbulent acts that follow contain blackmail, attempted rape, murder, betrayal and suicide. Set in June 1800, in the background there is Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, sporadically emerging as ‘Cavaradossi = virtuous and heroic dissenter’, ‘Scarpia = corrupt embodiment of the State’.

Cavaradossi, bless him, is a good, moral, manly, and slightly boring character. He does, however, get to sing some brilliant pieces of music. The first aria about different kinds of beauty, ‘Recondita Armonia’, is schmaltzy but wonderful. In the Second Act, after being tortured and sentenced to death, he breaks into a triumphant ejaculation of ‘Victorious, Victorious’ upon hearing of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo. Finally, he sings the climax of the third act. ‘E Lucevan le Stelle’ is just about as populist as opera goes, but its mournful, languid notes as Cavaradossi says goodbye to life are heartbreakingly beautiful. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s vocals rise up to the challenge, tugging at heartstrings in all the right ways.

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