Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Stereolab - Switched On (1992)

Music used to be much better than it is now, back in the good old days. Music is now rubbish. It used to be great, but now it isn't.

The debate, such as it is, rages on - if the term rage can really be applied to a discourse which chunders along with all the vitality of piss dripping from the leaf of a stinging nettle. My cousin or niece or whatever the hell she is opined as much on facebook a while back. People today don't know what proper music is, she boldy suggested. My dad made sure we only had proper music in my house when I was growing up, classics like the Jam, the Who, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene…

She's young, so I left it.

More recently, YouTube suggested that I might enjoy a twenty-minute sermon on the subject of why music used to be much better than it is now. The address is delivered by one of those YouTube pundits I generally try to avoid, a person identifying himself as Thoughty2. His avatar is a picture of himself scratching his chin, having thoughts, because that's what you do when you have thoughts. You scratch your chin and maybe raise one eyebrow a little. For a small fee, one can subscribe to Thoughty's private feed and gain exclusive access to what he describes as mind-blowing videos such as These Ancient Relics Are so Advanced They Shouldn't Exist or Who Was the Most Terrifying Pirate of All Time? The one about how music is now shit opens with Thoughty courageously flying in the face of the consensus by suggesting that Justin Bieber isn't as good as the Beatles - really going out on a fucking limb there, boy - before informing us that this has now been scientifically proven in a laboratory. I don't know what that scientific proof could be because I stopped watching after three minutes and I don't really care. I'm guessing it will be something about tonal complexity, harmony, and how the brain responds, which strikes me as different to saying that I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am by Herman's Hermits is objectively superior to World War 303 by Rozzer's Dog.

I have a problem with this sort of gormless nostalgia, which is after all only a variation on Peter Kay endlessly chuckling over discontinued chocolate bars - it's important because I remember it. Just like the ontological significance of Curly Wurly, music is a largely subjective experience which as such cannot be meaningfully quantified in any sense other than how it may do more or less of something done by some other piece of music; so it is therefore surely best judged in terms of how well it does whatever it sets out to do. Whether whatever it has set out to do was anything worth doing is another thing entirely, and there's probably not much to be gained arguing over it unless you're a complete fucking twat. Maybe Britney Spears is quantifiably more shit as an artist than, off the top of my head, Pink Floyd; but then ...Baby One More Time, still sounds decent to me, while Pink Floyd still sound like four hairy hippies having a really slow wank which they will later describe as amaaaaaaazing spelt with thirteen letters. The argument that Pink Floyd are quantifiably superior to Britney Spears makes as much sense as saying ...Baby One More Time is a better record than The Medium was Tedium by the Desperate Bicycles purely because it sold more.

The thing is that persons such as Thoughty and his ilk are people with no Elvis in 'em, as Mojo Nixon would have it. Their purpose is to commodify nostalgia and sell it back to us as a superior brand on grounds equivalent to the notion that it shifts 25% more grease than the products of leading competitors.

So nostalgia and the invocation of things past has always thrown me. I've enjoyed music which recreates some previous form, but I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea, and I still can't quite shake the feeling that Stereolab were only ever the krautrock Showaddywaddy - which isn't to say that I dislike them. In fact I have about seven or eight albums - Switched On, and then - tellingly - various things picked up at CD & DVD Exchange, because for some reason CD & DVD Exchange always has a ton of old Stereolab in the racks. I inevitably own albums by Neu! and La Düsseldorf and the rest, so I know where Stereolab were coming from; and I used to write to Tim Gane back when he was in the Unkommuniti, and that krautrock chug was already evident even on those tapes he recorded in his bedroom in homage to H.P. Lovecraft. Yet of all the albums, I've listened to Switched On a lot, and the rest only every so often when I'll dig one out and wonder whether it was as good as Switched On, which it never is. It's not even like the others are as repetitive as I tend to remember them being. Each album sounds a little different, representing some subtle variation on a theme, but the differences are such that it always feels as though someone found a previously undiscovered clip of 1970s Open University and a whole new seam of retrofuturism ripe for exploitation; and you begin to wonder if anyone in the band was ever told off for accidentally sounding like something which happened later than 1975. Maybe this sonic resuscitation of forgotten sound is justified as a one-off exercise in working within certain limitations, but an entire back catalogue?

Denim got away with it somehow, or got away with a variation on this sort of necromancy, but there seemed to be a peculiarly militant purpose there. Billy Childish justifies what he does by arguing that if something still works, then you may as well put it to use, which is after all why so many blues records still sound powerful half a century later; but I just don't know with Stereolab. There's a track on Sound-Dust which sounds like fucking Lily the Pink, which is just being cunty for the sake of it, if you ask me - which you sort of did by virtue of your having read this far.

It's all bollocks.

Switched On was the first Stereolab record I heard, given to me for my birthday by my girlfriend of the time, and I didn't really listen to it until a few nights before we were about to split up, nearly a year later. She was moving away and I knew it wasn't going to last much longer, which was probably for the best but it was a weird time. I was confused, upset, couldn't sleep, and I stayed up one night listening to this record over and over until about four in the morning; and it sounded perfect, almost happy with a profound twist of melancholia, a feeling which couldn't even be described in words. It's in the drone and the repetition, the contrast of the chug with sweet voices, and the key change which takes three or four minutes to build to a peak and then pulls your heart out when it flips over. None of their other records ever came close for me, not compared to this one; and that is what music is about - not some wibbling crap longing for the security of the familiar because it's scary out there, or mathematical equations supposedly proving that Bob Dylan is 87% more betterer than Stormzy because he doesn't need to say cunt or bollocks to express himself. I couldn't give a shit what Switched On does in terms of musicology or whether anyone else in the universe gets the same out of it as I do. I only care what it does when I listen to it.

See also all other music ever.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with you. Apart from the Pink Floyd thing. Ho hum etc

  2. Incidentally I met you once back in 1990. You were in Bradley's with Glenn Wallis, not long after Whitehouse had played at the New Cross Venue.

    1. In that case, hello again - don't specifically remember you right now, but I only drank at Bradley's with Glenn a couple of times so far as I remember so it's probably stored up there somewhere. Pardon the Pink Floyd thing - mostly a reaction against being told how important they are over and over.