The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Raiding the 20th Century redux 

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One of the big hits on the net this week was the release, at the weekend, of Raiding the 20th - Words and Music Expansion. Strictly Kev, progenitor of the original Raiding the 20th Century [fat MP3 here] has reworked his original 45 minute mashup epic (I told you it was a fat MP3!) in collaboration with Paul Morley. The result is now less mashup symphony, more concept radio show with Morley introducing each section by reading passges from Words and Music.

One unfortunate side effect of this is to do with the words Morley himself is reading. I've moaned about Words and Music before now, and unfortunately for Morley several of its primary faults are shown up by Strictly Kev's mix. A few minutes in, Morley makes the point (quoting directly from his book) that Varèse's Déserts is to all intents and purposes the original sample-based music, avant garde experimentalism predating techno before even rock and roll was invented. It's a pretty weak and uninspired point in any case - most electronic musicians acknowledged their debt to 50s tape music at least a decade ago - but it's made weaker for the fact that Déserts is hardly the first of its kind (and does anyone pronounce Varèse 'Vareese'?). Stockhausen produced his Konkrete Etüde for one-track tape in 1952; Pierre Schaefer invented tape composition using prerecorded source sounds (musique concrète) in 1948. Amusingly, just before Morley speaks these words, Schaeffer's Etude aux chemins de fers, predating Morley's nonfact by six years, plays in the background. Unsubstantiated facts are used, at length, to support weak ideas.

On the other hand, once you think past Morley's super-redundant prose style, it is nice to hear him talking about the Strokes/Christina Aguilera mashup, and Kylie/New Order at the Brits as these are playing. You get a feel for the genuine love he is writing about. I do believe there is something interesting and provocative at the heart of Morley's book - the problem is that it's shrouded in swathes of 6th-form literary gimmicks, an almost total replacement of content by style.

Funnily, this is a problem with which mashups flirt from time to time. In amongst the condensed encyclopedia of the mashup that Strictly Kev has compiled are some moments of real wit - the aforementioned Strokes/Xtina track A Stroke of Genius by the Freelance Hellraiser is one, and the Freelance Hellraiser's Marshall's Been Snookered is a funny added layer to Eminem's music hall/hip-shock persona. Musical intertextuality is not quite as radically new as Morley suggests it is. Composers and musicians have known for centuries that music is the most powerful memory-trigger of all the arts, making it ideal for intertextual quotation and the sedimentation of meaning and reference (to his credit, Strictly Kev's work shows that he knows this). You'd need a pretty big canvas to paint an equivalent to one minute of DJ Danger Mouse's 'Justify my Thug' for example. Mashups play on this intertextuality in the most complete fashion we might have seen to date - the Grey Album is entirely made from two pre-existing records - but in itself this doesn't make them a good thing. Most mashups appear to be made simply for the sake of a punning title. Of course, the whole business is about extended musical puns, but too often these seem to be done for the sake of it. The superficial joke is deemed enough - style over content once again. Moulin Rouge, a film that I adore, showed that it is possible to work with extended musical puns to great effect and purpose. Rap battles, and dancehall and grime riddims work on the same basis - Crazy Titch's 'Just an Arsehole', say - where there's space for wit and invention - quotation can generate some sort of emotional momentum. But so many mashups just sound like clever-clever (and sometimes less than clever) jigsaws.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. I guess my point is that this sounds like a step backwards. OK, the extended version includes a new chunk at the beginning to take account of the Grey Album and the Beastles, but the whole enterprise was always an exercise in historical cross reference - as mashups are themselves. There's something deeply nostalgic about putting contemporary pop over a David Bowie groove, and while it can be funny, even exciting, it isn't pushing things forward. Morley himself senses this I think in his evocation of Ian Curtis reincarnated in Kylie. I hope bootlegs and remixes and mashups do go somewhere; but for the moment, with Raiding the 20th Century 2 they sound like they're stuck in a rut.

If you want a really great hit of mashup/bootleg/remix/mentalist beats, you could do much worse than pointing your bandwidth at the two mixes at Kid Kameleon's site, produced as promos for the new Tigerbeat6 sublabel Shockout. Not the same thing as what Strictly Kev's doing, I know, but these really feel like they're going somewhere.

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