With The Philosophy of Momus receiving mixed reviews, and his career as a songwriter for others doing so well, the personality of Momus was due for some self-reflection. In an interview with Keith Gillard for Cosmik Debris fanzine, Momus said:
“I’ve been thinking recently it could be liberating to draw a line across Momus and launch a new persona…. in a sense Momus is already someone else. She’s called Kahimi Karie and she’s a big star in Japan.”
However the digital age meant that this was not an absolute. Momus had plans for his persona to be released on the exciting new medium of CD-ROM:
“If you ask “what will it be, this CD-ROM”, I’d answer : rain, sex, a manservant, a goblin, a clock, northern-ness… I don’t know”
Momus had extensive and ambitious plans for a CD-ROM experience that would enable users to explore his back catalogue and current work.
“I originally planned this as an all-singing, all-dancing CD Plus. It was to be called ‘Digital Closet’ and, on inserting it into your CD ROM drive, you’d be able to rummage around in my old recordings as well as peep voyeuristically out at carnal goings on in the room beyond.”
This meant that he had to learn how to program, how to use the Macromedia technology required and realistically, to port whatever he created for his Mac into a Windows version eventually.
“But my programming skills weren’t up to it, and I made do with a record of new versions of some of my 80s songs (the 90s material is still covered by a restriction clause in my Creation contract) with some amusing secret tracks at the end.”
So Slender Sherbet: Classic Songs Revisited came into being. The album would contain re-workings of numerous Momus songs and did indeed include three secret tracks with new partially improvised lyrics. The album was released by Cherry Red in October of 1995. The postponed CD-ROM project was pushed back to 1996 and released as “This Must Stop!” for Mac only. There was an audio CD version of the CD-ROM called “Stop This!” which was never released but contained all the tracks available and hidden on the CD-ROM. You can read more about the content of the CD-ROM here: http://imomus.com/index666.html but good luck getting the download samples to work unless you have the original version of Macromedia Director and a Necronomicon. Both versions contain recordings of very early demos and songs by Nicholas Currie from the early 1980s and are interesting in their impact on the development of early Momus. However since I don’t have a copy of “Stop This!” I can’t write a piece about it. The lyrics for all the songs are available on Momus website. Recordings of many of the songs are available in different forms on other artists’ albums or on the ProCreate/Recreate reissues as bonus tracks.
The front cover of Slender Sherbet demonstrates the juxtaposition of the classic and new Momus: a parodic interpretation of the original cover of Tender Pervert with a digitally created mask and hands, pointing to a version of the brand name Momus which blurs with movement, oscillating into the future, on a pure white background. The sub-title “classic songs revisited” is faintly printed under the main image. Immediately the feeling is that the past is not sacred, and there is an element of self parody in the format used.
The back cover lists the tracks included in two halves, separated by what looks like the centre hole of a vinyl album, again, a reminder of the past. The front mask image is included along with another version of the masks with a swirling symbol on it. There is also a statement that these are newly recorded versions of early songs by Momus – the “tender pervert”, recorded in Paris 1995. The back cover has white text on black, whereas the CD itself is black text on white, with the same design as the CD back. The back inside also has an address for Cherry Red and a website address at Demon Internet. The CD inlay contains all the lyrics, closely typed and printed without formatting. There is also a larger statement: “Momus Paris 1995” and the current website address at Demon for Momus.
These are less “new versions” of the songs than meta-commentaries on them, composed and performed by the originator as sleeve notes, sometimes happening to improve on the original, more often self-flagellating, or attempting to take apart the mythology around them.
As these are all songs I have previously discussed, in my reviews of each track I will not discuss the lyrics in detail apart from where they depart from the original, and in full detail for the three “new” tracks.
A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy.
The first song taken for this treatment is A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy. The album opens with a robotic voice, a synthesized voice from the minimal range of speaking voices available for Mac at this point. The computer reads through the first verse flatly: removing all emotion from the delivery of the material may be an attempt to force focus onto the content, or may symbolise our transition into digital selves and avatars behind which true feelings can hide.
Momus backs up the voice with wordless vocalising following the bass melody of the song, rising abruptly for the final part of the chorus on the words “Parts 17..”.
A different robotic voice takes up the second verse and a softly played acoustic guitar joins in. The new recording juxtaposes human feeling – represented by the backing vocals and guitar – against the robotic. Each new stanza has a different synthesized voice until a synthesizer and skittering beat come in and play the instrumental passage, percussive keyboard sounds and a bass are also added and build the song, with more voices – including the first female coded voice – join in. Relics of the original sound appear at the end as the whole fades out, symbolising a battle between the personal and impersonal, human and synthetic, real and imagined
The Guitar Lesson
There are more atmospherics, more electronics at the start of this version than the original, with vague sounds of the roads outside. Softly played piano replaces the arpeggios of the original, with a growling keyboard effect after “afternoon grows still” that jars with the gentle sounds under it, the unsettling made a little too clear and “on the nose”. On the second verse the guitar appears playing a slowed and gentle version of the arpeggio theme and keyboard sounds from the original wash over. The whole track is a little slower and initially more melancholy. A guitar keyboard sound plays the main theme now, and a Casio sounding beat starts half way through, very much out of style with the rest of the track. The “burglar alarm” is a much cheaper sounding effect as well, the whole version sounding rather lo-fi in comparison with the original. This is certainly an example of a track which did not really need much alteration, and this version to my mind doesn’t add very much except that the concentration on acoustic instrumentation (or at least, acoustic sounds) rather than electronics emphasises the eroticism as human and is a pleasing counterpoint to the first track.
Closer To You
The bass line comes in as in the original, the accompanying synth effects a little squelchier. The spanish sounding guitar is the same, and Momus’ breathy vocals are just as erotic and ‘come hither’ as in the original. There is, in fact, very little significant difference in the choices of instrumentation or presentation. His vocals however seem a little, quicker, perhaps, or less considered than in the original. The acoustic guitar is more prominent and the key instrument throughout this version. The backing vocals come to the fore and end the track as in the original. I really can’t see much gained from this version over the original either.
The clinical electronic coldness of the original made its spitting venom and revenge narrative all the more successful. This new version follows the template established so far in adding acoustic guitars, vinyl scratches and noise to humanise the narrative. The bass line in the chorus is bouncier, but the “whoo whoo”s remain in place. What is the purpose of the vinyl record noise, and the splashes of prepared piano in the background? Are they there to remind us of older Momus, along with the sounds reminiscent of the effects on Bishonen? Is this intended to be a voice from the past, a record of a time when to be “homo” was still an issue, but no longer is, officially? The lyrics are delivered more flatly, with less spite than on the original. It seems more like a recreation than a recording, as if Momus is performing a reading of a Momus song rather than directly performing it. The effects that locate the sound and narrative in the past distance the audience from the performer and distance the performer from the narrative meaning of the words, as if the piece were an exercise in Brechtian alienation.
The Charm of Innocence
A quite strident beat sets up the acoustic guitar to join for this key Momus track. The bass and guitar work well with the very slightly faster sounding delivery, and the Oriental sounding effect that arrives on “stalk the botanical garden..” matches the feeling of the track perfectly. The organ sound used in the original remains in the background from the second verse. The chorus uses a double tracked set of Momuses (Momii?) who both sound quite impressive, and the Oriental sounding effect works well as accompaniment. A keyboard plays off key notes in a high register in the next verse, creating an unsettling feeling which also suits the subject material. Overall the sound of this song works well to feel alien, wrong, off-kilter, just as the story being told is one that most of us could never empathise with. Those sounds also work to accompany stories of travel and wandering around darker zones of Paris. If the delivery is more lackadaisical than the original, that is fine for the tale being told, of a louche ne’er do well. The instrumental break melody is played on a keyboard sound of a squalling guitar, again disturbing in an appropriate manner. The song ends similarly to the original, fading out in this case with the unsettling keyboard melody in the background. This track is actually an improvement on the original for me, although you may disagree.
Lucky Like St. Sebastian
A disco dance beat and rave “oh yeahs!” introduce an almost rapped version of the opening song on Circus Maximus. Whether this is a good idea or not is debateable. Certainly the comparison of St. Sebastian “performing” his martyrdom matches the style of music being used, it is extrovert and demands attention, but hardly suits the more introverted talk of secret perversions and longing for waitresses. In the final minute as Momus almost shouts the chorus a couple of times, it seems completely out of place, the wrong costume. It is perfectly reasonable to equate sainthood with celebrity and write a version of this song in which a saint is performative in the style of a rap or disco celebrity, but to actually listen to the results is quite hard going.
I Was a Maoist Intellectual
Another fast-paced re-interpretation, opening with circus trumpets and a swanee whistle, and a fast beat. Momus comes in with a growling voice, shouting the lyrics for the most part, as an attempt to make the anger and ire of the original more emphatic. The problem being that the anger and despair of the original grows during the piece rather than coming on strong from the beginning. As such the dynamics of performance in the original are lost and the whole track feels quite flat in its effect. It is, again, quite exhausting to listen to. Why is he shouting the lyrics like this, what is he really angry about? Perhaps the similarity of the song’s narrative to Momus’ own chart career is too close to home to ignore now. At any rate, although some of the instrumentation, for instance in the quieter section halfway through, works effectively, the performance here completely alienates the listener. This could, of course, be entirely intentional.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Really the only way this could be remade is as a lo-fi version of the original, a sarcastic comment on the collapse of the 1980s and the new culture of the 1990s.
So instead of the fireworks of the original this has a simple piano part as in the original but very low key, synthesized percussion and an organ backing gently in the background. The song is slightly slower I think, and the lyrics delivered much as in the original but with an ironic distance from the original version. It is more like the character of the Don’t Stop the Night version singing to us about how it used to be.. a slight melancholy in the delivery and instrumentation, along with a sense of humour at himself, “is that really what we used to think?”. The lyrics are altered to emphasise this, the names used in the original chorus are gone, instead we have “hey jack I’m all right, staying alive I’ll keep swinging, it’s a lovely day tonight”, making fun of the attitudes in the original but removing any specific references that may no longer make sense.
The Angels are Voyeurs
The bass drum opens the song as in the original, and the backing to this version is much as before, except for a strummed guitar to the fore. The rhythm is perhaps bouncier, and on the chorus “And his angels..” is followed by a distorted, fuzzy guitar sound rather than the cleaner power chord of the original.
The overall effect is to make the song slightly more comic, more of a satiric piece than a descriptive one. After the first chorus a backing vocal is clear, Momus making “chka, chka” noises which again have a humorous effect. A melody runs down the scale played on a marimba keyboard sound into the second verse, which also has a comic sounding aspect. The second verse has a choppy organ effect which also drags my mind to British end of the pier seaside sauciness. The end of the second chorus retains the dramatic lift in the line “his angels move in close”, but the effect is more bathetic. The instrumental break is played on an acoustic guitar which follows Slender Sherbet’s general habit of going acoustic, humanising the tale. The original “reprise” from the end of the album is included, delivered with no bass or percussion, just the guitar and marimba effect. The distorted guitar of the chorus is replaced by acoustic as well here. The overall purpose of the version seems to be to humanise the tale and emphasise the comic aspect of it. (Comic as in dramatic theatre, not comic as in “funny”). Sometimes I prefer this version, I suspect it depends whether your mood tends towards the comic or dramatic…
Hotel Marquis de Sade
A song from the Beast with 3 Backs EP: opens with clomping percussion which paints a mental picture of a donkey traipsing along a hot Spanish mountain trail, but we know it is three young people walking towards that siesta in two single beds. (Why don’t they push them together?) The clomping percussion persists across the bridge from the verse into the chorus, which means that the beautiful lift on the delivery of the word “Mediterranean” is lost somewhat. The ugliness of the chorus, particularly the end repeat of “the beast with three backs” is emphasised however. In my opinion the sinister aspect of the situation is somewhat undercut, or lost, by the introduction of that percussion, replaced by ugliness. The same can be said for the end of the song, the quotation from Eliot, is less powerful, less disturbing, for having this different backing.
An interesting choice really, not a song you would guess would be chosen for a retrospective of this nature. The lush opening of the original has been altered to sound more oriental, crows cawing in the distance with wind chimes and static breaking into synthesizer chords and a guitar part very similar to the original. The percussion is similar to other songs on this album including “Hotel Marquis de Sade“. Samples are laid over the backing as on the line “he takes in the faces” which has a dissonant guitar sample looping in the background. The effect of these samples and sound effects is to make the whole sound more alien, more eastern. This is appropriate as the Gatecrasher is an intruder himself, and out of place: so it makes sense thematically to have sounds of static, intrusive keyboard and guitar samples and hardly definable noises interrupting proceedings. Does it emphasise this otherness too much and reduce the melancholy and loneliness of the original? Perhaps, or maybe the distortion and confusion acts as the antithesis for those emotions and allows the listener to make their own judgement of the Gatecrasher’s situation.
The Hairstyle of the Devil
Given the overblown electronic nature of the original, perhaps the only way to go with this song was to strip it down. So we have a simple acoustic guitar backing and chiming keyboard part. Momus delivers the vocal as a singer-songwriter rather than a popster, the vocal now has space to breathe which the original did not have. He accompanies himself on backing vocals in the chorus, and the keyboard parts echo the choppy house piano of the original in a muted way. It is easier to hear the beauty of the chord sequence following the second chorus that acts as an instrumental break. In general, it is easier to hear the song ‘qua’ song than it was with the original, where it was more of an exercise in production. The drama of the end “beast rules with rivalry” section is highlighted more if anything, with its contrast to the quieter verses. It’s a different experience to the original, but far more of a “performed” piece, and I think I actually prefer it on that level.
There really isn’t any reason to mess about with this track too much. The narrative is what drives the original and to alter the backing too much would risk losing the driving force of it. Fortunately Momus has realised this and the arpeggio keyboard remains in place, slightly different sounds are used and there is a vocalised sample used, sounding like an old Japanese man. The bass keyboard sounds used from three minutes onwards are perhaps even more powerful than those in the original. The vocal delivery is very much identical to the original. It would be very interesting for Momus to record a version of Bishonen now, actually, with an older man’s voice he could take on more the role of the perverse old man: perhaps he could write a version of the song from his point of view? A slightly sci-fi sounding keyboard noise appears in the background from half way through, something like an alarm going off. Other than these subtle additions, which are a matter of personal choice, there is nothing really to choose between this and the original version. Using the piano to perform the dramatic ending section rather than a synthesizer sound seems to reduce its impact a little to me, but you may prefer it.
The reprise of Tender Pervert using one of the synthesized voices from the first track, with a dance beat from a Casio keyboard underneath it. Gives an illusion of thematic unity, I suppose, but otherwise unremarkable. Ends with half a minute or so of silence as there are three “hidden” tracks following.
The three “hidden” tracks are “Untitled” on the CD. They are very clear evidence of a state of mind, I feel. The writing seems to be on the wall for the Momus persona at this point, and the clearest evidence of this is that his own creator is mocking him. These three tracks are self-parodies of Momus songs. All three of the songs play with the Momus persona, the louche and debonair womaniser who always gets the girl he wants and is intellectually superior to all those around him, untouched and unapologetic about the emotional trauma he must leave in his wake. The Momus of these songs is a very normal and insecure guy, actually rather incompetent in his approach to women and desperately jealous of everyone.
During the 60s and 70s Michael Moorcock wrote a series of books which became known as the Cornelius Quartet about a character called Jerry Cornelius, who was a super spy, fashion icon, rock star and general sex god. In the last of these books “The Condition of Muzak”, there are sections in which we meet the “real” Jerry Cornelius, who is a spotty teenager with a rubbish rock band dreaming of sexual success and stardom: “A grimly realistic JC, a spotty young man living in a grubby apartment with his mother and sister, dreaming of rock ‘n’ roll stardom.” (“Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World’s Pain” Mark Scroggins, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 52, 2016). The three songs here are reminiscent of those hyper-realistic sections of “The Condition of Muzak”: it feels like we meet the real Momus rather than what he imagines himself to be.
A Complete History of Penis Envy, Sizes 24-29
The backing to this version of “A Complete History” is poppy, cheerful, fun. With the music fast-paced and jolly, Momus recounts over it the story of a man who is jealous of literally everyone.
“I’m jealous of the men whose penises are larger than my penis is
And I’m jealous of the men whose penises are so enormous they outstrip all average penises
I’m even jealous of the men whose penises are slightly smaller than mine
A complete history of penis envy, sizes 24-29″
The comic timing and pause in the line “the men whose penises are slightly smaller…. then mine” is very good. There is of course an element of that seaside, end of the pier humour I mentioned earlier. Albeit the very unsubtle humour of just saying “penis” a lot.
Momus retains enough professional clarity in this song to make it self-referential: perhaps he can’t help himself. Notice how the second line here mirrors the word play used in the original lyrics.
“I’m jealous of the women whose slightly protuberant clitorises pass for penises bigger than mine
I’m jealous of the men who measure the penises of the men whose penises reach size 29
And my only consolation for penis envy would be to write a bitter and twisted little song
Called ‘A Complete History of Penis Envy, Sizes 24-29′”
It is also nice that he is clearly finding it hard not to laugh while singing this song. These tracks allow us to see Momus as someone with a sense of humour about himself for the first time. Bear in mind that in 1995 these albums and magazine interviews are pretty much the only contact we had with Momus, prior to our having access to the internet, and he mostly came across in the albums and press as very serious and even self-absorbed.
Finally, his obsession with penises leads to him going completely off the rails (in the song I mean, not in real life, as far as I know, yet). From a Freudian point of view, this song suggests that Momus has a very small penis or an uncontrollably large one. There are songs yet to come up in his oeuvre where he implies the latter. The hard evidence from Cynthia Plaster-Caster is rather inconclusive.
“I once saw a man whose penis was so big he had to wheel it around in a wheelbarrow
And I used to think it wasn’t what you got but how you used it that mattered, but now I don’t know
And if you see me one day muttering, shabby and mad in the doorway with a paper bag round a bottle of wine
Just put it down to penis envy, sizes 24-29″
Oh, we will.
The Guitar Lesson
A realistic version of the Guitar Lesson, to backing from the new version. This is what really happens if you try to chat up an adult guitar student:
The mirroring of the original lyrics is done very well.
“The pupil is 42, a black-belt at judo
She doesn’t like sexists or saucy innuendo
She caught me looking down her top one day
And jabbed me hard on the elbow
And I had to put down the guitar
And stifle a sob”
This is very Carry-On, very Sid James (although he is more Jim Dale in this scenario I think):
“She won’t let me stop even for a glass of water
To think I only took this job to get a glimpse of her daughter
I keep going to the bathroom but I’ve never once caught her
And her mother thinks I’m incontinent
Or that I’ve got some kind of embarrassing cold of the bladder”
The last verse shows a very appropriate disdain for religion: note the proximity of the verb “fingers” to the word “Bible”.
There is good humour in the phrase “Baptists and things” demonstrating the singer’s lack of understanding, or interest, in her faith.
The equivalence of religious fervour to sexual excitement is played for laughs here rather than as a direct attack on faith as it might be in a more serious song.
“She fingers her bible, we’re practicing hymns
For revivalist meetings with Baptists and things
And while her voice quivers with evangelical fervor
I think about shagging her daughter
But a little twelve year old replica of her, why bother?”
The humour in a potential paedophile not bothering with forcing his abuse because he doesn’t fancy the girl involved prefigures approaches taken in later work such as this clip from “Brass Eye: Paedogeddon“. Also, making the “abuser” in this song such a pathetic figure parodies the deliberate way in which Momus did the opposite in the original song. Having been criticised for not “attacking” the paedophile in the original song, this version demonstrates why he didn’t: it wouldn’t work. If the original song went all out to show how disgusting the guitar teacher was we wouldn’t be able to see or feel the duality of thought in the victim or ourselves, the attraction that allows such situations to pass without any physical violence or apparent resistance. The situation would be described as clear-cut, and black and white, and linear: all the things that it is not.
Closer to You
Most girls you see on the Tube are not actually beautiful in the conventional manner described in the original version of this song. A fact which is the basis of this song, about the humans Momus is in reality forced to share space with each day. We are asked to imagine that he is sexually obsessed with a girl who is not conventionally attractive. This version uses a backing track from the new version of the song.
“Ooh it’s true
Girl I’m only doing it to be closer to you”
His description of the girl seems to be improvised and is distinctly non-PC.
“And maybe you’re the more than slightly overweight girl
A little mentally retarded, perhaps”
How do we feel about his disparaging description of her as “more than slightly overweight”?
And given that my own daughter has Down Syndrome, what about the second line? Offended? Well, no: this is humour.
The key to the humour: he is not describing a real girl, even in the context of the song:
“Maybe you’re the more than slightly overweight girl…” as in the original, he is dealing in images of women who might be on the Tube with him, not real girls.
The locus of the humour is that for some reason his idealised girl is “more than slightly overweight”.
Now in 2020 we may worry about lyrics and content which “bodyshames” but that would not have been a consideration in 1995: a fat girl would have been a comic image: just look at the portrayal of teenage Monica in the tv show Friends.
Here however, the humour is NOT in the fact that she is overweight, but in the thought that her obesity is what makes him so turned on. Equally, her being “a little mentally retarded” uses English understatement as a comic device and the fact that the character is turned on by what is not a sexy feature is where the humour lies, in HIS mental issues, not hers. He continues to describe this paragon of imaginary beauty:
“With a large hairy head
And a little chewing gum stuck on the back
And a coat hanger which you forgot to take off your coat while it was in the wardrobe
And I can smell that breath from here
And I can see in six different shades
What you were eating last night”
He starts laughing at various points, and at the end it fades out with someone saying “that’s shit”, and giggling, presumably Shazna?
Reviews for Slender Sherbet were mixed, generally conceding that there were some successes on the album. AllMusic concluded that the album’s chief benefit may be as a primer to new American listeners, and that is certainly true. Melody Maker were more positive, saying “If you need to exclude ambiguity from your life, you shouldn’t buy this album.”
The same review also quoted Momus speaking in defence of his more controversial songs:
“if I was writing an article in a paper or summing up a rape case in court, I’d have to have a clear line on women. As a songwriter, I’m allowed to have 18 or 19 different lines… An interesting song starts from not having a clear position.”: which probably sums up the defence for his music more clearly than my own attempts above.
Slender Sherbet does draw an effective line under his Creation period: and may have been intended as a line through it.
Some of the new versions work well, others are less effective, the whole album does have a consistent low-fi sound to it which is quite charming at times and annoying at others. The more experimental attempts at vocal delivery are not well chosen: as in “Lucky Like St. Sebastian” or “Maoist Intellectual”. The album works best when a theme or emotion which was not previously emphasised on a track is drawn out by the instrumentation, and the delivery calmly supports this, as in “The Charm of Innocence“, “Hairstyle of the Devil” or “Bishonen”.
There was plenty of work going on for Nicholas Currie / Momus at this point, writing for others. A new Momus studio album if it ever emerged was some distance away.
In 1996 however, a “rarities” disc called 20 Vodka Jellies was released, with many fascinating tracks and stories. Whereas the lack of consistency of The Philosophy of Momus was frustrating given the homogenous nature of the album’s presentation, this compilation with its chewy and distinctive flavours was intended to be kaleidoscopic, and would achieve its aim fully, and be – in my opinion – one of the most engaging Momus albums of all, and the subject of my next entry, at a time when against all the odds the musical stylings of Momus would emerge as relevant once more, and enable his return.
Also, in terms of “number of albums to review” and counting double/triple albums as two or three albums respectively, this review signifies about the quarter-way mark on this journey, notwithstanding that by the time I catch up to “now” there will be more albums released. I think half-way is around the time of Ocky Milk, for what it is worth.