On 9/11, Momus is in New York, listening to Schubert, in a loft bed in Orchard Street with a girl. On hearing the first explosion he watches the news then goes to the roof of his building in time to see the second plane strike, bodies falling from the towers, the mushrooming clouds of smoke. There’s a picture he takes which you can still see on his website, with the towers in the background surrounded by black plumes. He runs outside, shoots some video. The first tower falls. The world changes.
His blog entry on the catastrophe is entitled “Life During Wartime” after the Talking Heads song, and he talks about the reaction to the terrorist atrocity, the sudden demarcation between responses of violence and responses of reason. Individuals such as the musician Moby who believe the events to be an attack on civilisation are described as “broadcasting live from the Middle ages”: the 12th Century taking on Enlightenment attitudes. Momus is on the side of reason, of understanding how these events came to be, rejecting both Islamic and Globalist Fundamentalism, rejecting also a Great Britain which follows the US lapdog-like into conflict. It leads to his move firstly to Tokyo with girlfriend Shizu, then to Paris briefly after this relationship ends, then to Berlin.
Troops mobilise and war with the Middle East is soon underway, a new crusade which Momus wants no part of. During the remainder of 2001 and 2002 he works between Tokyo and Berlin, a new Germanic aesthetic tenanting his work as his electronic chamber pop takes on aspects of lieder, the reason for his pre-apocalyptic consumption of Schubert. His projects include Travels with a Donkey, the album recorded with ex-wife Shazna-Nessa as Milky and released in 2002, and Mashroom Haircat for the act Mashcat (Emi Necozawa and Momus). He writes and records his solo songs as well, for the 2003 album Oskar Tennis Champion, the influences for which include 9/11 but also a more personal tragedy, the death by suicide of his close friend Rika Hirata. Their relationship; complex, intimate, physical, accepted by his girlfriend Shizu; had been strained by Rika’s bipolar disorder. In his biography Niche Momus says Rika described the twin towers collapse as “one of the most beautiful things” she had ever seen, and after hospitalisation for her condition she eventually succumbed to it, while Nick was in Edinburgh. The death of friends becomes a keynote in the contextual framework of Oskar. Momus describes all these albums as:
“the kind of record(s) that might have emerged if Georges Brassens had worked with Pierre Schaeffer, or Tom Lehrer had studied with Stockhausen.”
A 2001 essay, “Electroacoustics of Humanism”, points towards several more academic nexus points in the work. A conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (Plato’s brother), as in Plato’s Republic, the essay covers a successful eye operation, the recent chart success of Dido and Kylie Minogue, a meeting with Neil Tennant, and several philosophical questions. One of these is about whether there might exist a politics of colour: observing that:
“Public transport in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tokyo uses these bright, clean, optimistic colour schemes which have to be linked somehow with politics. There must be a politics of colour and texture! London’s shabby seat covers are like that because Britain’s public transport system has been underfunded for decades.”
It is of note that Momus seems to link political landscapes with the attitude of citizenry. For example, there is always an underlying feeling that Momus links the possession of cultural capital to an inherent characteristic of a culture. At hospital for his eye exam:
“I’m sitting in the ward waiting for my eye op, and this lady from hospital radio comes up and introduces herself. ‘What are you writing?’ she goes. ‘Oh, just an article.’ ‘An article?’ ‘Yes, for a Japanese magazine. It’s a piece called ‘The Electroacoustics of Humanism’. That knocks her patter out of joint a bit, but she pulls herself together and asks if I’d like to request a piece of music on the hospital evening radio show. ‘Oh, you probably wouldn’t have what I want to hear,’ I smile. ‘Try us, you’d be surprised!’ ‘Okay. I’d like to hear ‘Telemusik’ by Stockhausen. If you have that I’ll eat my… hospital food!'”
This seems to demonstrate an assumption that a British hospital worker – a British person, in fact, probably does not possess the cultural capital that would enable them to even know who Stockhausen was. To envisage the same exchange being set in France, Germany or Japan is hard because throughout everything Momus has written, there seems to be an assumption of a shared higher value cultural capital in the “other”: the non-British. This essay, with others of the time, shows Momus to have an increasing dislike and dismissal of Brutish Britain and, with the aftermath of 9/11, the same dismissal of certain quarters of the States.
The hospital DJ could of course exact revenge by playing whatever song they desired for Momus, perhaps R.E.M’s The One I Love. (That’s a joke stolen from Tom Binns, a comedian who plays a character called Ivan Brackenbury, an accidentally offensive hospital D.J.)
The conclusions of Momus’ essay follow a thought of his that “Man must realise that he is a structure too. Perhaps, if this is true, there really can be an ‘electroacoustics of humanism’.’ After all, electroacoustics is about the study of how technology and physical construction can alter sound, and we are just physical constructs, therefore there can be an electroacoustic effect caused by our humanity. So humanism, which itself is the result of physical, electric signalling in the brain, is a kind of electronic acoustics.
The essay also talks about Marshall Mcluhan: the idea of “the medium is the message” is well explained by Momus as:
“We tend to focus on the car yet forget — because it’s so obvious — that it has changed the whole landscape, all our living systems, our landscapes, our politics. We look at television but not at the empty street at night, its direct product, or the closed music hall, or the creation of virtual communities, or the synthetic creation of culture, unified or diversified. “
Momus goes on to talk about the artists Oblaat and DJ Olive, both of whom made work which concentrated on what surrounds their product, focusing on the medium, which is the context of the work: and arguing that the medium is the whole world. As he goes on to put it:
“…you can be a humanist-formalist, and change the world with texture, like an artist, or a formalist-humanist, and change art with politics, like a curator, by working on context… which is the world.”
In a current world where “context” is deemed irrelevant when judging whether offence is caused, where individual statements are the evidence on which individuals entire lives can be “cancelled” or reduced to rubble, this seems more important than ever. Context is, has to be, everything. However here Momus intended this as a direction to follow in an artistic medium. It sounds similar to the “outside” concept which Bowie followed in the 90s, “thinking about the colour, shape, size and texture of the thing”, and in focusing on the shell, the glitchy, multi-coloured and spatially distorted shape of the music becomes the very focus and message of this next album.
The aesthetic of Oskar tended towards Glitch Pop: best described as an “aesthetic of failure” and by Computer Music Journal writer Kim Cascone as “post-digital”: although random electronic noise generation had been used to create music since the early 20th Century, the development of digital recording devices and media since the 1970s had led to a movement against “perfect” reproduction. Just as vinyl records, magnetic tape and early recording apparatus by its very primitive nature made an impact on the recording made of itself, so digital systems could impact the music imprinted on them as well. The hiss, scratch and ambient clicks of a tape or vinyl record become a part of the music: so, in the same way, glitch pop makes the digital process more overt and visible. So for instance, tracks will “jump” just as a CD jumps, or whirr as if a disc is stuck, include generated noise, the sound of modems connecting or a taped computer game loading, mix “inexpertly” from track to track, bend and distort sound, emulate a computer crashing, etc. The failure of the recording device becomes a part of the art. Some artists use deliberately broken equipment or hammer it to pieces themselves. Oskar Tennis Champion uses broken noise to represent a broken world, where the perfection of digital sound is being smashed into an unrecognisable mess by circumstance. Artists that drip feed into the mélange of influences on Oskar include o.lamm, DAT Politics and Scratch Pet Land, the European operatives in Glitch.
Glitching the message, glitching the medium, these being the same thing, means releasing some element of control. Momus could not glitch his own work. Therefore he enlisted John Talaga, who recorded as Fashion Flesh and had a double act as the Super Madrigal Brothers with Oliver Cobol (real name Adam Bruneau). Their album Shakestation used electronic instruments and video game consoles to play renaissance tunes, and was released on American Patchwork – the record label curated by Momus and operated by Darla records. John Talaga was given the Oskar Tennis Champion tracks to “re-produce”, to tear apart, destroy, link in whatever way suited him. Suiting the initial feel of the songs, the working title of the album was The Pirate.
The eventual title of the album comes however from Jacques Tati. He was a French actor, comic, mime, and film director. His film Playtime (1967) may be one of the greatest films ever made and comic character Mr. Hulot (a clear influence on Mr. Bean) is the star of many of his films. His work – Playtime in particular – demonstrates the conflict between humanity and the modern world, with technology failing in comic ways, and the irony of this being demonstrated in Playtime featuring one of the largest and most complex film sets ever built is possibly intentional. He was not attacking the modern world, but celebrating that it remained fallible, remained human: given the history of Europe in the 20th Century, it is a reassurance that flawed technology would not be soulless, sterile, fascistic. Tati played in an early film called Oscar, Tennis Champion, now lost, and the source of the album’s title. Imagery from silent film, from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the like, feeds into the narrative of the songs and the album’s philosophy as we will discover.
The cover of Oskar Tennis Champion is a photograph of a cardboard sculpture, a creation by Florian Perret, who you may remember also worked on the artwork and installation for Folktronic. The imagery can be interpreted various ways, there are tennis racquets on the left hand side, perhaps the main figure on the right is Oskar himself. The red object might be a piano, the background might show a tower collapsed, flames around it, or it could be a technological item, in the act of exploding. The whole scene is set in glowing light, and the cardboard/paper is marked with lines, almost formally, like technical drawing paper. As Momus says on his LiveJournal website:
“The collapse of the graph-paper rationality of the World Trade Center seemed like one of those moments … where the clown is dangling from the clockface of a 1920s skyscraper, or saved only by the position of an open window when a whole facade crashes down?”
The op-art references and illusory imagery are captivating, draw the eye and inspire thought. This is a glitched image of the past, present and future, Oskar is incompetent and a champion, the icon of glorious failure. And if this is some kind of tennis match, who on earth is the Umpire? And can they be serious?
The back cover of the CD lists the 15 main tracks, and also mentions “The Ringtone Cycle by Oliver Cobol”, which is an extra track we will come to. The credits include Momus as producer, and John Fashion Flesh as “Reproducer”. The interior sleeve has a brown and orange composition, wooden looking features including a penguin holding a tennis racquet – penguins feature in the lyrics of one song – and an Eastern dragon. There is a list of “other albums” available, and links to Momus’ website – still on demon.co.uk at this point, a link to lyrics and free downloadable remixes. Finally there is a dedication to Rika Hirata. Perret has made a beautiful cover, subtly containing imagery from the songs and capturing the essence of its sound.
Early starts on this album tried to meld musique concrete with the sounds of Cantonese opera and kabuki – heavily dramatised Japanese theatre – before the idea of combining slapstick and futurism sent the album in a different direction and Oskar arrived. The concept behind the soundscape offered here is related to “ostranienie” – the act of alienation, the concept being explained by Russian theorist Viktor Shlovsky in the 1917 work Art as Technique. Momus wants you to engage in some disorienteering: according to his own notes
“He wants to spin you around blindfolded and headphoned then release you into the wild to fend for yourself in an artificial landscape of deliberate errors and synthetic terrors.”
“Ostranienie” is to make the familiar seem strange, to alienate you from your surroundings. Momus is taking inspiration from the writing of Victor Shklovsky, Russian theorist of the 20th Century who (and bearing in mind the imagery on the cover of Oskar):
“…uses a famous passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), where an opera is described as ‘painted cardboard and oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang strangely in a patch of blazing light’ to exemplify this concept. “
The familiar made strange: the strange made familiar, that which cannot be countenanced made unavoidable, that which is unquestioned being held to account: these are primary themes through every album by Momus, and they are continued here.
The album opens with a click, a clock, a ticking down, then sampled Cantonese opera, glitches of electronic noise and fear, then a metallic echo leaves a ghostly wind blowing, and a reversed vocal swoops in. The narrator – unreliable, unbelievable – is a pirate. Sounds of machinery and bird like noises accompany him. He is declamatory, operatic in scope if not volume. On the word “darkness” the machinery collapses and the word is said as if by a dying HAL9000.
“We are the pirates
We sail in silence
On frigates, through darkness”
Loud and soft voices and sounds alternate to emphasise the usual dichotomy and contradiction of Momus: seductive evil, “our violence” is whispered, “Others admire us” is more sinister. We are invited to visit, bringing, of course, our treasures.
“Some fear us, our violence
Others admire us
Come to our islands
The sea is still calm
Bring all your diamonds
Our caves are warm”
Behind and around all these lyrics are scattered glitches and wave/wind like effects, with samples from Cantonese operas and voices from radio.
“These waves herald a storm
We’ll do you no harm”
The song cuts out briefly here, to have us contemplate the harm that will, actually, come.
“You have no choice
Lucky our hearts are warm
Trust me, you’re lost”
The final line is all about the “ostranienie” that the song is supposed to embody, that glitch music is supposed to draw you into. A message to anyone familiar with Momus previous work, perhaps, as well: a warning that this is not a continuation of the previous work. Having said that, there is certainly a theme laid down for the next track, as we continue all piratical
Is it Because I’m a Pirate?
There are several recurring themes on this album: the sea, cold weather, alienation, and a fear of one’s own rejection for reasons of deformity. Deformities which could be physical, cultural or philosophical: prejudice and identity, as the previous pirate stated “some fear us, others admire us”. Musically, thematically, this song continues from the previous although in a more accessible mode, comic and more akin to a pop song. Using samples of avant garde music from China and Japan, the piece begins with heavily treated vocals speaking the title, the song whirring into life like a malfunctioning replicant. There’s a skirl of formal dance music and then Momus reads the lesson: he’s a desperate pirate operating off the coast of Malay who nevertheless feels slighted by a waitress who spurns him. The waitress was real, her name was Kei and she worked at an Organic Café, where presumably she turned down our Nick. The verse and chorus are pure music hall, down to the crowd rousing rhythm and sweep of the melody, designed for a Cockney sing-a-long. The backing is rowdy, glitchy and cut-up samples of folk music from several continents.
“Now I’ve done a string of horrible things
Like murdering, pillaging and theft
I’ve looted the junks in the Straits of Malacca
Put Spanish explorers to death
But prejudice would be the ugliest thing
For a waitress so lovely to feel”
The chorus is rousing, a sea-shanty for a Victorian audience, sung to a Japanese girl in the 21st Century, the alienation clearly intentional. The character is certain that he is being stood up owing to “prejudice”: a self-loathing he also bears against himself. With the eye-patch now confirmed as a permanent fixture, it is no great leap of judgement to assume this is how Momus views himself now, as “other”.
“Is it because I’m a pirate
You seem to have cancelled our date?
And is it because I’m a pirate
That now it’s a quarter to eight
Your prejudice turns you against me
But I am prepared to wait”
Momus’ girlfriend Shizu now says the line which Kei originally said, firing the pirate into action. The humour of his asking for a date in front of his current date allows the pirate to show awareness of his own flaws, and he then fantasises about the girl who has not shown up.
‘I like your eyepatch!’ ‘Who said that?’
I took in your waist then your face
Floating above me, pouring out tea
In some Nakameguro place
And though it was rude to the girl I was with
I asked if you’d go for a date
And then when you said you’d be happy to meet
I dreamed of your breasts and your face”
After accusing the girl of spreading stereotypes the middle eight uses a rising army of voices to accompany the pirate making his case: that he is “kind” despite his habit of slitting throats, and the song grinds to a sarcastic halt as the Cockney pirate announces himself to be “just another man”.
“Of course I am wanted by customs officials
Of course I’m an international fugitive
When not slitting throats of the people on boats
I am kind and surprisingly sensitive
Set your mind free, as I know you can
One day you may see me as just another man”
The final chorus has the pirate declaring his greatness, unable to accept that maybe sometimes the girl just doesn’t want his booty. But despite the advancing hour, he remains in hope.
“Life is too short, I am too great
For a waitress so lovely to hate
I am prepared to wait.”
The song ends in static and squalls of noise, thirty seconds of remixed dismantling of sound by Talaga, fading out to be replaced by a more familiar sonic territory for Nick.
Although it opens with a short music-hall tinged riff, in the same territory as the previous track, this is replaced by a harpsichord, taking us back to Analog Baroque territory and a through-composed song (i.e. one without repeated sections). It is a short squib like those on Little Red Songbook, and with lyrics which offer a poorly argued proposal in defence of polyamory. The lyrics are accompanied by harpsichord and synthesized brass which is cut-up and jitters in the background.
“If love is good
As most agree
Loving two must be
Twice as good
And loving three…
Well, you get the idea”
A slower section accompanies the conclusion to this argument, the music-hall riff returns to the vocal section and the lead vocal is echoed, and multiplied like the love in the lyrics. Momus is singing here about his own relationship with Shizu, a more or less open relationship which he tested the bounds of very often. Clearly loving more people does not multiply love, it could equally divide it.
“That all seems pretty logical and uncontroversial to me
So why call me cheat or hypocrite
For loving another girl?
I’m simply multiplying love;
There’s never enough in this world”
The fairground like main riff plays with reversed vocals over it, and finally the last line is repeated and loops away into the distance, much as the relationship with Shizu eventually did. The original intention was to have several of these short songs dotted around the album, skits, essentially, but this didn’t last.
Hans/Jean Arp was an artist of German/French parents who was mainly active in the early to mid 20th Century. Scottish Lips is an Arp painting from 1926 which Momus saw in the Tate Modern, a Dadaist, surrealist image from which various connotations sprang. The image of lips on the canvas, and more importantly the title, are the springboard for the lyrics.
The song demands of a lover that they love him for more than his lips alone: living in Tokyo, Japan: a Scot, Momus was the “other”, the “gaijin”: but this made him instantaneously exotic and sexually interesting, at least for the purposes of this text. Nobody wants to be desired only for their body parts or nationality, after all.
This track is cleaner, less cluttered than the previous three, and sparser in its instrumentation: a Highland inflected melody repeats under the verse, spoken by Momus as syncopated percussive noises slap in the background. The lust that Momus’ lips arose is strongly described:
“Because I have Scottish lips
You think you can tell me you love me
Because I have Scottish lips
You are listening hard to your glands”
The song rises a key and Momus’ disdain for this inferior type of love is made clear in his comparison to baboons:
“Because I have Scottish lips
You are dancing a fling in your knickers
Your love for my Scottish lips
Knows no bounds
It’s the love that is known
The love that is known to baboons”
The melody is played instrumentally with echo, leading to our second verse: the narrator tries to shift interest to his attempts at cooking: which sound disastrous:
“Don’t love me for my Scottish lips
But my truffles and my baklava
Grilled eggplant, delicious mint salsa
Love me for my cooking!
Don’t be stupid, I’m joking
I’m only joking”
On the third verse it is an ultimatum: demanding love for his spirit, soul and mind even if it’s a lie: a glitch, an untruth. He ends begging for at least a convincing deceit.
“Get lost if you tell me you love me
When it’s all for my Scottish lips
Why can’t you tell me you love me for stuff
That’s a bit more important than this
Tell me you love me in spirit
Tell me you love me in soul
Or you love me in mind
Even if it’s a lie
And when I reply
Look me deep in the eye
Or at least try to look the other way”
And it ends with the plea that many woman have made related to a different set of body parts, comically adjusted here to relate to Momus’ facial labia:
“Just make sure your gaze never slips
Down to my Scottish lips”
Fashion Flesh creates a cool little loop from the percussion and synth which fades out, taking us into a more full on bit of Carry-On.
My Sperm is Not Your Enemy
Another song very much in the Analog Baroque style: self-described as a “comic lieder” or poem set to song, influenced by Schubert and Schumann. Momus said that this was an album which desperately wanted to be German, or at least Germanic, despite important French and Japanese influences more overtly inspiring him. Momus had recorded with German band Kreidler (the song Mnemorex) and recorded his love of the choreography of Sasha Waltz, Artistic Director of Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (Berlin).
The German influence is clearly in the music, but a more down to earth and Japanese influence is responsible for the lyrics. Momus “found himself” looking at bukkake, which is a Japanese word meaning to splash with liquid, and the name of a popular noodle dish. Whilst presumably looking for a recipe for this, he happened across another type of bukkake, which is a specific form of pornography involving several men – sometimes tens, hundreds – who “splash” a female participant with sperm.
(I’m sure that finding this video was an accident, but what would I know, after all, these reviews are “censorious” according to The Wire magazine. And “pedestrian”. Well, you find a tenth different way to say the synthesizer noise is “squelchy”. Fair opinion to an extent but, censorious?! How dare you say that, you should be banned…)
Being reminded of the Joe Orton mantra: “writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent masturbation”, Momus considered the position of the recipient in these videos, who in order to avoid victimhood might see herself as a “controller of sperm”, in the sense that the person who controls the sperm of Kings and Emperors controls the future direction of mankind.
There is a fanfare in the German style, brassy synth giving way to Momus voice: the lyric is honest about the less attractive qualities of the life giving fluid. Since all human life could follow from this attractive concoction, it contains a sense of eternity.
“My sperm is not your enemy
In it glistens destiny
Some day you’ll appreciate
This acrid, viscose gunk
An agglomerate of goo
Condensed milk, runny glue
He exhorts her to hold it in her hand and consider that she now holds the “future of man”. The music then moves to a slower version of the lieder, and pompously extols the touch and taste of sperm:
“Touch it, I invite you!
You’re its inspiration and its muse
Taste it, it won’t bite you!
It’s just a fluid, how could it hurt you?”
Although the AIDS epidemic as cultural-panic is mostly behind us by 2003, it hasn’t completely left public consciousness, therefore there remains an irony in these lyrics.
“Oh go ahead, what do you have to lose?”
The central idea that the girl is in charge of the destinies of the most important people on Earth is now put forward, as a meek, sorry defence for the humiliation she has been put through:
“And all the powers of this earth
Choose whom to strike down
But you choose who is born
And all the presidents and kings
May control gold
You control these pearls”
The song returns to the opening fanfare to back the final declarative statement, which is sung twice before the end.
“I’ve said it once before, I’ll say it once again:
Who controls the sperm of men
Controls the world”
The glitches here make the CD appear broken, stuck, and then crashes to a close, fake damage ending this faux-feminism and honesty: rendering bukkake as the snuff movie of future ages.
Oskar Tennis Champion
The song title predates its selection as the album title, and contains a precis of the modernist/futurist ideas which the whole project proposes. The architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier (the crow-like) had many ideas about urban design, and in 1935 published La Ville Radieuse – the Radiant City – in which he proposed a classless city structure, housing according to need rather than class. The city was designed in the shape of a human body, with high rise buildings and large open spaces, all part of the general idea of housing being a “machine for living in”.
An artist called Momoyo Torimitsu had in 2001 created an art exhibit called “Made in Sumida” which used field recordings from traditional, family-run factories and merchants in Tokyo, and this song uses samples from her work, the industry and machinery caught and used as symbolic of a continuum between the modernist and futurist. This is used in the style and as a pastiche of Pierre Schaeffer, one of the major figures in the development of musique concréte.
The main character is comic and ultimately becomes the anti-thesis of modernism and the Bauhaus, somehow becoming a King Kong. All this is presented in the form of a humorous song channelling silent film artists, and placing them in the context of a post-9/11 song about the death of modernism: it is hard to place modernity in your work as a contextual marker, when we live in the very modern age you have predicted and you were wrong.
The song begins with static, crackle and random radio noise, and continues with an amusing, parping brass, five semitones apart, that comic interval between F sharp and C sharp. The bass line develops with Momus’ vocal, half speaking and half singing, telling Oskar’s story.
“Uncle Oskar, an intensely idealistic tennis star
Goes to see a guru at an architecture seminar
It seems the radiant city will soon be ushered in
Where all things will be modular and rational and clean
Green space, tennis, pleasures all planned
And nothing, says the man, to fear or fail to understand
The world will be ‘Ein Lichtspiel Schwartz-Weiss-Grau’
As predicted by the experts at the Bauhaus, Dessau”
Bauhaus director and architect Walter Gropius appointed artist/photographer and film-maker László Moholy-Nagy as Professor in 1923. Moholy-Nagy’s 1930 short film Ein Lichtspiel Schwarts-Weiss-Grau – A lightplay: Black, White, Gray – is an abstract film in which metallic objects seem to dissolve into light, move and act as if seen from extra-dimensional viewpoints, showing the movement of marbles, balloons, etc. as if alien objects, dematerialising and materialising through – not into – our vision, once again we are disorienteering, lost again in the kinetic sculptures he has filmed, one being called the space-light modulator. This shining image of the future led him to be invited to create ultimately unused designs for the 1936 sci-fi film Things to Come. Oskar is promised a shining, metallic new world based on this vision, and Le Corbusier, a promise that will take him away from his former life and even his partner.
“Oh Oskar tennis champion, we’re sorry for your frau
Now Moholy Nagy is your holy cow”
The song now turns to slapstick, using images and tropes from silent films, particularly those of Buster Keaton, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. (And the rake image could refer to Sideshow Bob, of course).
“My uncle is inspired to start his dream home right away
He steps out of the hall, but in his hurry, to his great dismay
He fails to see the rake, it bangs him in the face
Causing him to trip, and, to his horror and disgrace
A barrel of molasses hanging dangling in the sky
Falls upon my uncle and it hits him in the eye
It trickles down his back, my uncle’s quickly stuck
To the sleepers of the nearby monorail track”
The monorail could also be a Simpsons reference: was it seeping into Momus’ subconscious in some way? The monorail was a symbol of the futurist dream, the steam powered shining new age which would appear in the radiant city. The dream city would take care of its inhabitants, end all inhumanity, in fact:
“Oh Oskar tennis champion uh-oh wow
Who but Le Corbusier could save you now?”
“Next time we see our hero two experimental trains
Are hurtling down the monorail towards my uncle’s balls and brains
Then comes a bolt of lightning, a sudden cut in power
My uncle sees the whole facade of a residential tower
Crashing down towards him, he doesn’t worry though
His survival is assured by the position of the window”
This last image is directly from Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr., the famous shot of Buster standing in front of a house front which falls onto him, with the open window just saving his life – literally, as the “fake” house front which would have killed the actor misses him by inches thanks to his position. This is why you need maths, kids, and possibly the only actual practical application of trigonometry that has ever impressed me.
“Oh Oskar Tennis Champion, what’s up doc?
Help, he goes, send Adolf Loos or the Keystone Cops!”
Adolf Loos was an Austrian architect, and it pleases Momus to compare/combine the high art of German architecture with the nonsense of the Keystone Cops, inept policeman who inhabited Mack Sennett silent films, some featuring Charlie Chaplin.
“Oh Oskar Tennis Champion
It’s all gone wrong
Who knew you’d see Utopia but you’d be King Kong?
Oskar Tennis Champion uh-oh wow
Can pompous Walter Gropius save you now?
Ultra-modernism it’s a drag
When Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton write your gags”
Modernism collides with humanity in this song, as in Tati’s films, as in Chaplin’s Modern Times, as in the second episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (a BBC comedy of the 1970s). Modernism and futurism cannot perhaps survive contact with actual physical humanity, idiot flesh and all. Uncle Oskar becomes the King Kong to this shining new world, destined to destroy and be destroyed by it.
The ending to Oskar Tennis Champion is the sound of mechanical breakdown, alarms and finally backwards vocals, which spiral upwards like a tape deck malfunction into an abrupt silence, quickly broken by a toy piano sound.
A Little Schubert
The toy piano plays something Schubert-esque, a lieder, the lyrics for which have been sent through Babelfish into something resembling, but not quite, German. For this track the lyrics themselves are glitched and unrealiable. The track is reversed, speeded up and otherwise fucked with by Fashion Flesh at intervals. The synth and bass playing throughout give this a feel of the Little Red Songbook, and of Clockwork fruit gone rotten.
The lyrics, translated back to English, speak of the music of Schubert, music in general, as a restorative given terrible circumstances, and a balm in the face of death.
“My summer is over
My winter is here now
goodbye my love
her long black hair
I’m taking a winter trip
My death is at the end
I set out with a backpack with no girlfriend
I hear a little Schubert
Through Schubert, through Schubert
I hear a little Schubert
To drift along on the wind
It asks for the last time ‘Hubert! Hubert! Hubert!
The singer has various misadventures during the song, causing trouble generally, but always saved by Schubert. At the end, as he finally agrees to go, a tourist to the winter lands, a torn up beat is introduced by Fashion Flesh, and this takes us into a different musical genre entirely.
The Laird of Inversnecky.
A song about Scottish vaudeville, set however against a Tokyo soundscape, and boasting a pretty melody and chords masked by the ‘othering’ glitches and orientalism, with appropriate vocal effects throughout. The specific Scottish entertainers being referenced in the song are the likes of Harry Gordon, an entertainer of the 30s to 50s, whose character the Laird of Inversnecky (Inverness) gives the song its title. Another featured is Rikki Fulton, a later performer, who was well known for his regular appearance on a sketch show on BBC Scotland called Scotch and Wry, and for his character Rev IM Jolley, who was a depressed minister delivering a tv sermon: a segment which poked fun at two more serious programmes on British television: one called Late Call on ITV/STV and another called The Epilogue on BBC TV. Stanley Baxter, a popular star of British television, is also a source of inspiration. These characters would have appeared on Scottish television in Momus’ youth, and the song is nostalgic and upbeat, bouncing in to our ears with a jolly little tune, and backed by the sound of Japanese street sellers.
The lyrics open with the vaudeville star narrating the song making a cryptic joke to himself while preparing for a show at the Winter Gardens in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute: a real location. Part of the ‘othering’ here which is possibly unintentional is the sense of dislocation one feels when watching comedy which simply does not mean anything to you. Watching a video of Harry Gordon Live at the Tivoli, which is on YouTube, is a disorienting experience for those of us who are not Scottish, or of the era, or of the district, and cannot know the references. Like hearing a sentence in another language, you can tell what Harry is saying or singing has the rhythm, cadence, structure, syntax and grammar of a joke, but what it is about is unclear. If I was there it would feel like being in a pagan ritual the purpose of which I did not know.
‘I’d rather sleep with her with no clothes on than you in your best suit’
I said to my dummy at the Winter Gardens, Rothesay, Isle of Bute
While the manager, praying for rain, watched the £50 grey clouds
Knowing if it rained we’d get the crowds
Knowing if it rained we’d get the crowds”
The “Tall Droll” was Chic Murray, who was 6’3″ tall (1.9m) and his wife Maidie was 4’11” (1.5m). Maidie had been a child star and as a double act they got as far as being invited to the Royal Variety Show in London in 1956, which was unfortunately cancelled owing to the Suez Crisis. In the 70s, and following an amicable separation from his wife, Chic continued with a successful solo comedy career, full of surreal ideas and characters.
“Born in Greenock, ‘the Tall Drole’ was known to all
Worked in the mines and the mills but ended up in music hall
Maidie played the accordion, she was ‘the Small Doll’
We could bring the hoose doon, nae bother at a’!”
In case it is an issue, the last line says “we could bring the house down, no bother at all”. I know some of you are American, and you needed subtitles for Trainspotting.
This song is a refreshingly un-cynical piece for Momus, he seems genuinely fond of these characters. The line “it all seems like yesterday, though you weren’t alive”, is how many people feel about halcyon days in the past, many people of my generation are nostalgic for the sixties for instance, despite not being born then.
The Panopticon on Trongate in Glasgow is the oldest surviving original music hall, built in 1857, read about it here. https://www.britanniapanopticon.org/ “In the name of the wee man” was a catchphrase and cry made by – amongst others – the entertainer Tommy Lorne, a comedian of the inter-war years. (“The Wee Man” is also coincidentally the screen name of a current Scottish YouTube comedy star “played” by Neil Bratchpiece.)
“It all seems like yesterday, though you weren’t alive
The Panopticon, the Trongate, Glasgow 1935
In the name of the wee man, here comes Funny Clive
God, it made you glad to be alive”
Harry Gordon had a cast of characters he played, simple observational comedy of a type which is very out of fashion now. He sings of how you ‘ken’ (know) him well, with a cast of characters that are nearly real, because they are probably based on real people. “Cold today! Aye!” is a line which is in the videos I have seen, possibly a riff on the British obsession with the weather, which is a topic of conversation even when the status of the weather is blindingly obvious. The British seaside is particularly known for being cold and dismal, and further humour comes from the British insistence on nevertheless enjoying the day out, eating ice-cream in a downpour, fish and chips in a tornado, etc., merely pausing to point out that the wind is “bracing”.
“It’s the Laird of Inversnecky here, aye you ken me weil
With ma cast of characters frae places that are nearly real
Cold today! Aye! That’s why we’re by the seaside
To the Aberdeen Beach Pavilion
Every single night is fun!”
The singer now outlines his career, touchingly, from working as the tea boy to being the star, referencing Rikki Fulton’s character described above.
“I began as the panto tea boy
Became the canny Scot
Like a chimney sweep on a ladder to very top
Synonymous for many with my famous character
The Reverend IM Jolly the morose minister”
The line that can be drawn from the work of someone like Harry Gordon to the “character comedians” of today, the character of Rab C Nesbitt for instance, or any who have seen this type of humour, is made clear. He talks of seeing other lesser comedians writing notes when they saw him.
“The character comedians you may see today
Where’d they get their talent for remarkable mimicry?
It’s plain to see, it came from me
I saw them scribbling away
They all laughed like crazy
At my “hoity-toity ladies””
We hear Momus then pretending to be those ladies, as the narrator gently mocks the posh women of Edinburgh as they wend their way to Mackie’s Family Restaurant on Prince’s Street.
‘The flag at the castle is half mast high
Let’s all go down to Mackie’s for a wee cup of tea’
Portobello is a region of Edinburgh, and the narrator feels the performers from there cannot compete with him. He has loved his career, and tells us that every night has been fun, every bloody night: the man is a professional, and it is his job more than his calling now. “Greet” means to cry, perhaps with laughter, perhaps with compassion.
“It’s the Laird of Inversnecky here, back to make you greet
The Portobello pierrots they cannae compete
At the Aberdeen Beach Pavilion
Sixteen bloody years we’ve run
And every single night of it’s been fun!
Every single bloody night’s been fun!”
Momus is obviously very fond of the comedians and performers he is referencing here, and the song is lovely. It is followed however by a song which mixes a much more complex and portentous set of political arguments.
The Last Communist
IN 2003 translation software such as Babelfish and Amikai was enabling us, for the first time, to read webpages originally in other languages. Momus’ friend and artist Emi Necozawa (Mashcat) kept a diary about her move to Paris. Of one school she visited she wrote about its high-so (high society) feel, with Babelfish translating the phrase to “Something the high Soviet Union it is feeling”.
Momus had grown up in the cold war, with the Soviet Union constantly represented as the threat to our Capitalist system, and in the UK the IRA had always been the extant terrorist threat. But by 2003 the peace process cemented by the Good Friday agreement of 1998 had minimised the threat from the IRA. The Soviet Union had collapsed by 1990, and had been replaced by Islamic Fundamentalism as the new, more nebulous terrorist and existential threat to Western Society. There was some amount of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, as a threat which could be at least directly addressed and to some extent negotiated with. For the purposes of Oskar Tennis Champion, the Soviet Union also straddled the same period of modernism which the album did and as a failed ideology also embodied a similar idealism. And of course the original theorist of ‘ostranienie’, Shlovsky, was a Soviet.
So Momus imagined a Soviet Union represented by a school, apartment block or other municipal building, almost empty, inhabited only by a caretaker – the Last Communist – who is looking after the building until people return. The caretaker is crazy, full of hatred for the capitalist system and the US in particular, and convinced that communism will thrive again. He might be right, as citizens of the US and Europe grow to despise the wars they are plunged into, as young people who never experienced the Cold War look for ways to oppose multinationalism, the next two decades will see a resurgence of interest in the ideas and possibilities of communism. As of February 2022, Russia is certainly of global interest once more.
Momus’ first attempt at the song was along the lines of a Charles Ives piece, and he reviewed this idea to reframe it musically in the early 80s, something along the lines of Being Boiled (Human League) or Fascist Groove Thang (Heaven 17), using samples from Yellow Magic Orchestra and Telex. In describing his work process he explains he uses a Macintosh Performa, a relatively old machine, in order to run quite old sequencing software called EZ Vision. Other equipment used includes a Rhodes Piano, Roland M12E mixer, Korg D12 recorder and Roland PMA5 personal music assistant. (Here is a contemporaneous review of the PMA5 to give some idea of the tech available: https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/roland-pma5 (“you’d think it was a filofax”!)
The communist sings about his status as the last communist in the building, and the caretaker for the empire. The melody on the piano is Baroque, inspired by Bach, the beat is martial, imperial. There are multi-layered vocal and shouts as if from a Russian army cohort.
‘Would the last communist out
Switch off the lights?’
They shout as they go
Into the night
They think that it’s over
Maybe it is
But I’m staying here
Alone with this promise”
The bridge displays a self-awareness – the caretaker is aware that the Union only exists in his mind at the moment – a dissociative state indicated by the chord sequence which whips up and down, and ends with a bass descending.
“In my mind
It still exists
I’m the last communist
Alone in the Soviet Union”
The following section is a repeated call and response section, with an escalating bass line, tension building towards a crash and burn.
“In the Soviet Union
There’s a lightswitch on the wall
In the Soviet Union
And a canteen down the hall
In the Soviet Union
I make faces with a torch
In the Soviet Union
In the mirror on the back of the bathroom door
In the Soviet Union”
The melody is backed up by a synth line and the tension racked up again:
“Shining up the lino on the corridor floor
In the Soviet Union
Eating dead pigeons cold and raw
In the Soviet Union
Drinking vodka through a straw
In the Soviet Union
Weeping for the visions Lenin saw”
The second verse plays with obvious stereotypes and (mis)conceptions of the benefits of communism, the infrastructure works and “a job is for life”, which is of course true of all slavery.
“I like it here, I like it fine
The radiator’s warm
The bus is on time
And healthcare is free
A job is for life
The caretaker is me
I’m switching on the lights”
Now he is the “first” communist, as interest returns, as suspicion and fear of the newer alternatives make people nostalgic for the old Cold War, and some would prefer a return to the certainties of a communist regime.
“In my mind
It will exist
I’m the first communist
Alive in the Soviet Union”
In the second “chorus” the tension is increased by repeating the main section twice, and the lyrics used are both anti-capitalist and anti-American whilst being oddly surreal, disturbing enough that we would not want to side with the narrator, while having no love for the world he describes. Stereotypes of the West and capitalism – skateboards, barcodes, are used.
“(In the world of freedom)
You lived a long time ago
You filled your shoes with six black toes
You rode to work on a big skateboard
And swiped your celery barcode”
The following lines hit on the exploitation of other cultures by the West – including palm trees, coconuts and a comparison of those natural products to a man-made, plastic tray.
“Exploding filippino washing machines
Your sinister servants watch TV
You shake our palm trees violently
Until the coconuts fill your plastic tray”
Capitalism is about profit, so forms of accounting are attacked, and the line “It’s always someone else’s turn to die” is very true of Western thinking and news reporting: disasters, wars and disease abroad are always reported as remote, unimportant and of no impact to the “real” world. This outlook took something of a hit recently with Covid, of course, and the various financial crises that have followed. The war against the Middle East that followed 9/11 is referenced as well, ZamZam cola is a Middle Eastern alternative to Coca-Cola. Screaming high synth lines are added to emphasise this.
“You’re writing up the budget and you’re purchasing supplies
It’s always someone else’s turn to die
You’re launching major missile strikes
To prove you’ll never drink Zamzam cola”
The next couplet is excellent, hinting at the difference between being inside the “car” and being outside and run over by it: or more directly, the difference between being inside the car and being the child labour that helped produce it and subsequently died of exhaustion. Written more recently the song might have talked about the children mining minerals for mobile phones, or dying in sweatshops to provide us with cheap clothing. The second pair of lines are clearly about George W. Bush and his lackey Tony Blair, it is fairly clear which is which. More percussion kicks in to bolster this attack, most of the instruments drop out to focus our attention on the last vocal line.
“The car protecting your child is killing mine
You’re blinded by the headlights on the autobahn
A chimp made off with your sports jacket, boy
Your king is a monkey and a mongoloid”
A return from fantasy to reality as the Caretaker realises that actually the time is not quite yet for celebration, the war against capitalism is not quite done, but one day we will run back to the Soviet Empire.
“Today I’m alone
The war hasn’t even begun
But your king hasn’t won
One day you’ll come”
The final chorus ends with a summation of the main point being made: with the rise of fundamentalism of both Islamic and Christian religion being worse than any previous Second world, “Come back communism!”.
“It’s so clear
Our future’s here
I am just the caretaker
All is forgiven!
Come back communism!”
My second favourite song on the album, impassioned, chaotic and yet focused, imprecise but clear, foggy and laser aimed: all the contradictions we look for in Momus, given to us as the song draws to a halt with alarms and static bursts from Talaga’s remix.
Originally written for Emi Necozawa and the Mashroom Haircat album, this version is sung by Momus. A Pierrot is a white-faced clown of Commedia dell’arte dating from the sixteenth century, a love-lorn character, usually comic and unfortunate. David Bowie appeared as Pierrot in Pierrot in Turquoise on-stage, and seems to be playing Pierrot in his video for Ashes to Ashes.
In 1884 Belgian poet Albert Giraud published Pierrot Lunaire: a sequence of 50 poems about Pierrot, modernist, symbolic and greatly expanding the universe the character inhabited. Arnold Schoenberg set some of these poems to music, a song-cycle called “Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire” “. Schoenberg’s setting is atonal and uses a specific ensemble now called a “Pierrot Ensemble”. The song-cycle has been recorded many times, including versions by Cleo Laine and Bruce LaBruce, and Bjork also performed it live at the 1996 Verbier Festival.
In Momus’ version “Pierrot” is a representation of himself, as a puppet, controlled by strings, pulled by a boss, a controlling Mum and many other lovers. The song is from Shizu’s point of view, as she is frustrated at the distance between herself in Tokyo and Momus (in New York at the time he wrote it). The music is inspired by Brazilian-born Italian synth-pop artist Alberto Camerini (whose song Rock ‘n’ Roll Robot I have discussed previously.)
The glitches which open the song give way to a waltz time structure as the narrator bemoans all the control she does not have over her lover: the question being, who controls his sex? Her frustration is enough to make her consider self-immolation in the hope of getting his attention.
“The string to his head
The boss makes it nod
The string to his mouth
His mum pulls for food
The string to his soul
It leads up to God
But who controls
The string to his cock?
In the bleak midwinter
At the bottom of the stair
I’ll set myself on fire
Pour petrol in my hair
If he would ever notice
If he could ever care
I’m just so bored with Pierrot Lunaire”
A bass line is added and the second verse outlines what sounds like a mundane life: this section is not about Momus as such, it’s hard to see him playing five-a-side soccer on a Sunday: he would be very disdainful of such an activity. The sound effects and samples added in the background colour in the lyrics, with a warbling, irritated guitar solo fading up at the end of the second stanza.
“Football on a Sunday
Drinks after work
Tuesday a DJ
Friday a jerk
And what really matters
And who really cares
My lover’s a puppet
In the bleak midwinter
At the bottom of the stair
I’ll set myself on fire
Pour petrol in my hair
If he would ever notice
If he could even care
I’m just so bored with Pierrot Lunaire”
She longs for a “proper” boyfriend, not a puppet, who will make love to her, “je t’aime” perhaps a nod to Serge Gainsbourg.
“Others have boyfriends
Boyfriends who care
Of flesh and blood
Not string and air
They lay them on beds
They whisper ‘je t’aime’
They take off their clothes
And make love to them”
The only way she can think to get his attention now is by making herself into a puppet, Pulcinella, another character from Commedia Dell’Arte who was the proto-version of Mr. Punch from British Punch and Judy shows.
“One day I’ll cut my arms off
And send them to him
I’ll sever my legs
Suspend them from strings
I’ll be Polcinella
We’ll hang out so close
My wooden cheek
To his wooden nose”
The glitches and samples underlying the piece become louder as the song goes on, just as her madness and desperation increase. Lysergic relates to LSD, the hallucinogen: Lysander the Midsummer Night’s Dream character who also features in Commedia Dell’Arte, these and other confused elements run through her head.
Nodding his head
A glittery panda
That needs to be fed
A Cantonese opera
Performed at the zoo
These foolish things
Remind me of you”
The song is back to being more directly about Momus now, Shizu considering the other “puppet girls” on the moon, just as Momus in New York meets other women. Her frustration and loneliness set her “on fire”, which Momus sings emphatically here, raising his voice for the first time in this song.
“And the puppet girls kiss you
Up there on the moon
They must know I miss you
Please come back soon
In the depths of midwinter
At the bottom of the stair
I’m on fire
The song dissolves into 4/4 time and a disco beat now, with a rap reminiscent of Don’t Stop the Night‘s breakdown. This is also a mental breakdown, the resentment and isolation, the ostranienie of a distance relationship, being outlined. That Pierrot does not cry, and perhaps cannot cry, is as much of an insult to the relationship as his actual behaviour.
“I know you can’t cry so don’t even try
When you’ve cried as much as me, the tears roll by
The years rain down, the tears don’t dry
They dangle from your chin like a memory
I passed you on the stair, you’re like, I swear”
There are references now to a nursery tale (Goldilocks and the Three Bears) a Heinrich Hoffmann cautionary Tale (The Story of Cruel Frederick), Nosferatu the Vampyre, and the extraordinary American writer Henry Darger (who wrote a fantasy novel in which children rebel against cruel slavery)… all references to cruelty and childhood fears.
‘Who’s been sleeping in baby bear’s lair?
How’s Cruel Frederick, is anybody there?
The Nosferatu puppet with corkscrew hair?
The nest of baby spiders underneath the chair?
All the survivors of the massacre
All the little friends of Henry Darger
Living large but dreaming larger
Patience is a virtue and virtue is a grace
And Grace is a little girl who slaps your face”.
Finally the song breaks down in snatches of noise and percussive sounds, rolling into an alien landscape in which a monster dwells. The song provides no positive closure or ending for its narrator, who remains alone and without a secure connection to her lover, and his unreliable, stringy body parts.
Beowulf (I am Deformed)
Beowulf, dating as far back as 1000 CE and possibly hundreds of years prior, is a classic of Old English epic poetry, concerning a hero named Beowulf who defeats a monster called Grendel, who has laid waste to King Hrothgar’s mead hall at Heorot, in Denmark. Grendel is supposedly a descendant of Cain, a representative of darkness and chaos, defeated by the light of Beowulf’s heroism, arguably a Christian subtext. Beowulf goes on to slay Grendel’s Mother, when she comes for revenge, and the poem also tells of his fight against a Dragon many years later, which leads to Beowulf’s death. The story has various digressions, and Beowulf is assumed to fight many other battles and creatures. The “original” text manuscript – the Nowell Codex – remains, in the British Museum, dating from around 1000 CE.
For Momus, who studied the poem at University, the story of Beowulf is the story of an outsider: having grappled with so many monsters, Beowulf himself had to be damaged, and distorted. The song is a joke against political correctness, a deformed and disabled warrior sent to take on a great monster, and laughed at by the people he has come to save. There is an echo of Momus’ own experience of course, with his own “deformity”, his eyepatch, on show for all to see. When he visits the Edinburgh festival, he is…:
“…more aware than before of my own vulnerable exoticism in the eyes of my fellow countrymen, the Scots, who now seem, sadly, to bristle with hostility at my appearance. I get cries, as I pass, of ‘Where’s your parrot?’ and ‘What the fuck is that?’, I get ‘Arrrrs’ both from drunks and the bouncers paid to keep tabs on them. I even get a raw egg thrown at me from a passing car.”
He is appalled by the violence that seems to be too common in Edinburgh, and almost all white-on-white. Most of the material that impresses him at Edinburgh is “other”, from Europe or further away. Beowulf, however, is laughed at and despised, even in his own country, to which he has returned to “save” it.
The track begins with a mock fanfare, unsettling whirring noises behind it, as something lurches into view and talks to us: as he talks about his pain and the pain he will inflict, a cool little buzzsawing bass line comes in, but at the end of this stanza things fall apart.
“I have come with my sword Naegling
And the usual aches and pains
To defeat Grendel, the monster
Lately scourge of the Danes
Showing no mercy in the mead hall
He laid waste thirty thanes
In return I will chop off his shoulder
Then I will deal with his mother”
This much is the standard tale, told in miniature to bring the listener up to speed should they be unfamiliar with Beowulf: although there had just been a dreadful, confused film version with Christopher Lambert, Beowulf (1999), and it would not be long before another Beowulf (2007) : a CGI animated version “starring” Ray Winstone and Anthony Hopkins and putting the battle between Christianity and Paganism forefront: in that version, Beowulf’s “disability” and transgression would be his failure to not be seduced by Grendel’s mother, played by Angelina Jolie, with the Dragon being his resultant offspring, shame, and nemesis. A year later the film Outlander (2008) starring Jim Caviezel would take another approach, and have Grendel be an alien monster crashed to Earth with Caviezel in pursuit. Again, paganism and Christianity would be placed in opposition and both judged incapable of dealing with an alien incursion. The other major version Beowulf and Grendel (2005) (starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley) takes a more naturalistic approach (the monster Grendel is plausibly human, although the mother is not), but perhaps suffers from a lower budget, miscasting, and actually loses some of the mysticism on the way.
Losing all mysticism too is Momus’ Beowulf, who can hardly get to the battle without needing a sit down. The music collapses now, there is laughter, and when he sings again the music stops and starts, as he defends himself.
“Where is the disabled loo?
I’m feeling slightly queasy, woozy
So would you if you’d had to do
The things I’ve had to do
Slay the good, slay the bad
Do I have the right to use the disabled loos?
Did they send the right man from the land of heroes?”
The crowd mock Beowulf even as he begs them not to: the chorus is fairly cheerful, but resigned, with the deformity increasing as things continue.
“Stop laughing, I am Beowulf
I give you my oath, as I was born
I am Beowulf
I am the hero coming to save you
I am deformed”
The description Momus gives of Beowulf’s deformities is indeed sickening: the music stutters along underneath it, with Talaga removing more and more obvious “meaning” as it continues, allowing the sound to build.
“Cancer gubbins that hangs at my neck like a turkey throat
Swaddling leather trussing up a shrivelled belly bloat
Dangling from my orifice is a puzzling speculum drip
If you promise not to tell anyone I have a hare lip
A smoking hole and a very large mole
My face it slithers, my ears are torn
Don’t laugh, I am deformed”
“Stop laughing, I am Beowulf
I give you my oath, as I was born
I am Beowulf
I am the hero coming to save you
I am deformed”
Now Momus adds a reference to Richard II (the famously hunchbacked King of England), and further describes his own appalling appearance. Thalidomide was a drug developed by Chemie Grünenthal GmBH in the 50s and given as a sedative and cure for morning sickness to pregnant women, before the effect of drugs on the foetus was fully understood. Thalidomide caused terrible deformities to unborn children including effects on the limbs, brain, eyesight and hearing. The drug was withdrawn from sale in 1961 and compensation claims continued for many years, mostly settled out of court by the mid 1970s. Over 10,000 babies were affected, with half of these dying soon after birth. Although the drug retains some use against the symptoms of AIDS, leprosy and other conditions, its use is heavily controlled.
The dreadful, atonal stomp that Talaga has fashioned, entirely appropriately, continues underneath the horrific description that follows. As if a Disney song has been infected by something from beyond the Event Horizon. (Liberate tuteme ex inferis, indeed).
“So go ahead, laugh, you won’t be the first
Richard the Hundredth, the Hunchback laughed
Henry Dalrymple the simpleton convulsed with mirth
At this sick rubber joke my bones as they poke out of a hole in my skin
At this helplessly flailing mutant apalling prosthetic thalidomide limb
Have a good laugh while you’re at it at my schlong
My metallic foot brace it scratches and drags
I dribble down a twig
I twitch along the ground
My Breugel boots they beggar belief
I have the stinky shanks of a hound
My patchy moustache hides a birthmark
I have come to save Denmark”
“Stop laughing, I am Beowulf
I give you my oath, as I was born
I am Beowulf
I am the hero I’ve come to save you
And I am deformed”
The song ends with more laughter, a “machine that goes ping”, and a heart monitor sounding a dying breath. There are no more heroes in this world.
Electrosexual Sewing Machine
In his prose poem Les Chant des Maldoror (1869), surrealist writer Isidore Ducasse, writing as Comte de Lautréamont, described an English schoolboy “as fair as … the chance meeting, on a dissecting-table, of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” The narrator of this story stalks and kills the boy, making this surreal description both incomprehensible and indefinably sinister. The sentence became the inspiration for artwork by Man Ray and Dalí, and for an extraordinary painting by Oscar Dominguez entitled Electro-sexual Sewing Machine.
His image shows a naked ostensibly female figure laying on her front with blood dripped onto her back from what seems to be a plant, representing the umbrella perhaps, with some kind of dissection under way. The image is surreal, likely inspired by Bruegel and by Bosch as well as the original text. The image could be a general comment on female sexuality and its connection to the sewing machine as an implement which is symbolic of hard labour, and yet capable of producing liberating clothing.
Isidore Ducasse died young, of a fever, at age 24. Oscar Dominguez, who suffered from a progressive disorder which produced deformities in his limbs and face, committed suicide in 1957 at age 51. It is perhaps fitting that these individual artists combined to inspire this song, with its themes of abandonment, blindness and deformity.
Maurice Maeterlinck was a Belgian playwright who lived from 1862 to 1949 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. His work was fanciful, sometimes mystical or magical. His play Les Aveugles(The Blind) is a one-act piece in which the 12 characters (blind, lost) are abandoned in a forest when their guide hangs himself, and are unable to fend for themselves. Their disability is not really the point in this play which is reminiscent of Beckett, the abandonment and fear of dissociation from society is what Maeterlinck invites us to partake in. For Momus, now living in the certainty that one eye was lost, the connection to his own situation, and perceived “freakishness” and otherness, was obvious.
A 2005 performance of The Blind directed by Kristjan Thorgeirsson placed the audience in a pitch black environment – led by the hand through the hull of an old ship with winding corridors and maze like interiors – along with the actors who wore opaque contact lenses so were genuinely unable to see. Thorgeirsson went on to use the same tactic in a “Haunted House” setting called Blackout, genuinely terrifying his “victims” and releasing the footage in a documentary called The Blackout Experiments.
The music of Momus’ recording bears an influence from the track Thatness and Thereness by Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the setting and mood hark back to Germania (20 Vodka Jellies). The song opens with electronic squeals, synth notes stabbing out a melody and bass line. The lyric is whispered, sinister as the original image was. The lines which are used are deliberately obscure, surreal and bearing similarities to modernist and futurist slogans. The ghost he describes could be from Ju-On (Grudge), the 2002 horror film so influential on what followed.
“The noise of the street enters the house
Darkness conceals the electro-sexual sewing machine
An eagle is wearing your clothes
Your foot has a shoe with six toes
The ghost of a girl with long black hair
Plays the koto as you go to sleep”
The chords which lie beneath these lyrics are pretty, moving even, but the actual sound is ice cold and steel, cobalt. The person sung to seems to have existed across time and space, living through some surreal nightmare.
“It seems you were born in some Czechoslovakian town
Your buttons were torn from a Hapsburg Empire silk dressing gown
Far away and a long time ago
Crimson and black in the snow
A spooky young man whose face was scarred
Mixed you up with the killer of flies”
While the “glitching” on this song is less pronounced than on others, the effects which slowly layer up beneath the song give it a darkness, along with the vocal effects and echo. The chorus is of course referencing Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles.
“In a pitch black forest
Twelve blind people are screaming in horror and fear
For their guide
Maybe he died”
The second verse sets us in a strange, fascistic society, the puritanism Momus despises seems to be evident in this land, and deaths and sentences are pre-ordained.
“Mechanisation is taking command
All decoration is banned on the word of the ultra-sadistic popular front
A shrimp has made off with your shirt
You’re naked in front of the court
They’re reading from your biography
It’s the part where the character dies”
A second more apocalyptic sounding chorus, the backing louder now and the reverberation sending us into the pitch-black void.
“In a pitch black forest
Twelve blind people are waiting in horror and fear
For their guide
Maybe he died”
Finally as Momus sings the title again, it loops and fades away, more computer noise joining it as we finally leave the forest and go for a walk somewhere more Siberian.
Momus and Shizu went to dinner with a girl called Akiko, beautiful and graceful, and uninterested in talk of philosophy, as evidenced when Momus tried to impress her with his views on Situationism. The situationists of 60s Paris concerned themselves with a mixture of Marxism and Capitalism. They believed that the environment influenced human behaviour and emotion – both deliberate and accidental in design – and called this “psychogeography”. Art was seen as requiring suppression as a discrete activity, and instead was to be integrated into life as part of the passion of existence. Andre Gide and Guy Debord were key philosophers of the movement. Disinterested in this talk, Akiko concerned herself instead with a chihuahua at a nearby table, and incurred the wrath and icy blast of a Momus spurned. He metaphorically “froze her out” and ignored her, and for the purposes of this song imagined her sent to Antarctica with the blasted Chihuahua.
He was also inspired by an Ivor Cutler spoken word piece – A Land of Penguin – in which Ivor wanders off to Antarctica, where the penguins ignore him, for a picnic, then relieves himself on the ice floe, which is unpopular. Momus, of course, had previous experience in writing songs for penguins, or at least for one penguin – Pingu. He had been invited to write the theme song for a putative film version of Pingu for a Japanese film company. This never happened, but provided the theme tune for the album Ping Pong instead. Pingu is of course not to be confused with the character played by Ben Whishaw in Nathan Barley, Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s tv series of 2005, which Momus professed to be a fan of and even imagined himself to be the prototype for. (https://imomus.livejournal.com/225202.html)
A simple tune on a glockenspiel introduces percussion and handclaps, underlying the spoken word story brought to us with Ivor Cutler’s style of delivery. Glitchy sound effects are introduced which to some extent mimic the yappings of a small dog. There is sentiment here though: the sequence of chords below “I sensed that I could only mean a thing to you” is tragic and heartfelt. The contrast of this romanticism to the straight delivery of “to send you to Antarctica to face your certain death”… is comic, understated evil.
“Powerless, with my talk of Guy Debord and Gide
To rival a chihuahua or some other breed of lapdog
I sent you to Antarctica, I’m very sorry now
I sensed that I could only mean a thing to you
If I could somehow be a lapdog too
But to send you to Antarctica to face your certain death
Was a very, very heartless thing to do”
A stabbing, brass synth note delivers a fanfare now, a marching song as we strike into the whiteout. The second verse imagines Akiko somehow sending a letter back from the pole, and we find that the dog has been exiled as well. Akiko seems unaware of the perilous nature of her position, and is very unsuitably dressed. The dog sound effects are back, yapping away.
“You’re wearing your pink flip flops
You tell me in your letter
You like the friendly crunch they make
On the snow, even though there’s horrible weather
You’ve brought your lapdog with you
It pokes its head out of your coat
The animal looks undeniably cute
With a little bark rising up in its throat”
The fanfare plays again, this time with a lyric line over it, the penguins are funny and supposedly menacing. There’s nothing scarier than penguins in the night.
“But penguins won’t stop following you
They march in a long black line
It’s menacing and sinister
And soon it will be night-time”
We return to the verse construction, and the Situationists are unfavourably compared to the attractive qualities of a lapdog. There is a very pleasing, familiar sounding 80s keyboard sound played over the emotive line “Maybe I could mean something to you”.
And the Situationists loom very small indeed
Alongside a chihuahua or some other breed of lapdog
Perhaps if they loomed smaller they’d be cute enough to love
And maybe someday I could mean something to you
If I could somehow be a lapdog too”
But the vengeance is complete now, as Akiko is both alone and now her pet has also died.
“So do people flirt and laugh, are they photographing you?
If there were anybody there I’m sure they would do
But the last time you looked down to pat your lapdog’s tiny head
Its little eyes were frozen, it was dead”
The penguins return and surround Akiko as Momus completes his thoughts: perhaps Akiko can only love that which is small, or small-minded, or dumb. A comment on those who cannot properly communicate with him through a lack of cultural capital, perhaps, that slight snobbery which could be observed in his dealing with the hospital DJ in Britain.
“And penguins won’t stop following you
They march in a long black line
It’s menacing and sinister
And soon it will be night-time
The Situationists and me loom very small indeed
Alongside a chihuahua or some other breed of lapdog
Perhaps if we were dumb and small enough
We’d become worthy of your love”.
Phased and reversed cymbals and chords from the song are played now, more icy and alienating sounds which end the piece, a landscape of snow and desolation into which we plant a tree.
It must have been an emotional experience for Momus to work with his ex-wife on her debut album. Shazna and Momus produced Travels With a Donkey (named after Robert Louis Stevenson’s early travel book) for release in 2002 by L’Appareil-Photo in Japan and Siesta in Europe. The songs on Travels are for the most part gentle, even folksy, and seem to describe positive internal and external landscapes. Momus included his own version of Lovely Tree on Oskar. Its description of nature and visionary language are similar to William Blake, the coldness and loneliness tempered with companionship and warmth. The lyrics and music came to Momus in a dream, the simple melody mimicking traditional songs, the lyric described by Momus as “what I wanted my ex-wife Shazna to say to me” as he grew old, and stood in danger of dropping his foliage.
The song starts with a train whistle, and the blowing of wind, as if we are headed back into the tundra of his song Trans-Siberian Express. A warm brass sound plays the main melody and a simple, loping bass line plays. A piano comes in to play louder notes over the brass sound, this mixture of a cold environment and warm voice taking us to the main lyric.
“Keep, lovely tree, your leaves in wintertime
Stand strongly in your bark of love
Make shelter for the lion and the lamb
Keep every tender beast safe from the butcher’s knife”
The winter, the dark, ice palaces, sinister places, but this time there is some humanity to be found there. Like the warm memories to be found in a collaboration with someone you had once been married to, but were undramatically and coldly divorced from.
“Mothers are giving birth in wintertime
Miners find copper in the mine
And in a palace made of dangling icicles
Grapes of ice are hanging dangling from the lovely vine”
The last verse vocal is faded in as a glitch, the backing quieter, for a while, as someone rescues the lost soul with warm clothes, soup and chocolate. Twix in case you don’t know is a finger shaped biscuit topped with caramel covered in chocolate and sold in pairs. Originally sold in Europe as Raider and the name change in the 80s being initially unpopular. (The name Twix apparently sounds like the slang for masturbation in German.)
“Last night I wandered in a wasteland
I was abandoned to the snow
You came through forests thick with tangled undergrowth
With chicken soup, a Twix bar and some winter clothes”
The melody line slides upwards, a high note replaced by a bass whirring sound, unsettling and desolate, fading away into the snow.
Death was the ultimate wilderness, the ultimate cold that was hovering on the fringe of Oskar Tennis Champion. The death of Rika Hirata was the first death of significance in Momus’ life, and it hugely affected him. Of course he worked with many artists and had a queer audience who were in their turn affected by the HIV epidemic. He had been in New York during 9/11 and its aftermath. The confirmation of his loss of vision was a blunt reminder of his own vulnerability and mortality. Death seemed to be circling.
Although insignificant in comparison, in my own life I had recently divorced. I lived for a while a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle myself, and was still working in website design, a futile existence at best. I would meet my second and presumably final wife in 2004, marry in 2005 and thereafter lose contact with Momus’ work as my life gained meaning and became too occupied to concern myself with the activities of artists living thousands of miles away. At any rate, this song was very meaningful to me, it represented a change in life, a party that was ongoing at the time, and made me nostalgic for times and friends gone by.
A friend of Momus called Jorge Columbo, an artist and illustrator still active today, described to Momus how he kept a list of friends in a notebook on his Palm Pilot, in order to remind himself of who was alive and who was dead: he had heard that Brian Eno had a similar list. Working in and with the communities affected by HIV would prompt this, the simple act of aging makes it a necessity. Musically, Palm Deathtop samples folk music and owes a debt to the process music of Reich and Nyman.
The song begins with a reference to The House of the Dead: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian forced-labour camp: another image of cold and isolation. Unless of course he is referring to the 1996 computer game House of the Dead, a light-gun zombie shooting game, which seems unlikely. There was in fact a 2003 film version of the game House of the Dead, directed by Uwe Boll and released around this time, which has a 3% rating on RottenTomatoes and yet, for some baffling reason, had a sequel in 2005. Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead was filmed in Russia in 1932, scripted by and starring none other than Viktor Shlovsky, the theorist who developed the concept of ostranienie as discussed at the start of this entry.
After a click as if a radio has turned on, an oriental melody on a koto plays and repeats, continuing in the background behind Momus’ sprechstimme. Brass notes emphasise certain words, the minor key but ascending melody inculcating nostalgic sentiment in the listener. The word ‘soul’ provokes a pause, the importance of Momus’ lack of belief in an afterlife meaning that the party he later describes is not to be taken literally.
“The house of the dead becomes more and more real to me
As the list of dead friends on my Palm increases
Though I don’t believe in the permanent soul”
The instrumentation is added to, keyboards playing in fifths, arpeggios bringing that hint of process to the piece, the volume and intensity increasing and decreasing at times to dramatic fashion:
“I can’t help asking ‘But where do they go?’
And the love I invest
In my lovers deceased
Drains my love for those who exist
At an actual and earthly address”
A brief baroque skirl introduces the chorus, in which a brass keyboard note is played staccato under each word, emphasising the robotic nature of the process which is undertaken, the updating of a database contrasting with the humanity and fragility it records. “Vaporware” is software which is constantly promised but never delivered: ethereal and nebulous.
“I update the database
Daily from my laptop
Using new vaporware:
The next section and bridge is influenced by process music, Momus intones “ba ba ba” over series of ascending chords played on the brass sound, leading to a tension which is beautifully resolved to the home key and a repetition of the opening koto melody. These lines bring home the inevitability of death to us all, Momus included:
“I’m starting to wish I could see my old friends again
At the glamorous party to which they’ve departed
Well, what do you know? I’m apparently invited”
Another pause before the song continues with more instrumentation, building to the final conclusion, that we will all be together in death, not necessarily in heaven, but at least together in data.
“Look there, your name is also on the list
Sooner or later, we’ll all be there I guess
All already no longer exist
Together with our friends again
Let’s update the database
Daily from our laptops
Using new vaporware:
This time the ascending spiral of chords does not resolve but instead peters out, the skittering electronics pulsing and beating for another forty seconds before also ticking away. It’s a beautiful song, reflecting on life and death, a meditation on the memorials that we will leave and the memorials that will be afforded to us, a few words of comfort to those humanists among us who do not believe in some phantasmal world past this world.
There is a final, announced but unnumbered track on the album, which is a remix of various themes from the album by Oliver Cobol, who is the Super Madrigal Brother who isn’t John Talaga, and whose real name is Adam Bruneau. They are played as if ringtones or game themes on the Nintendo DS. The arrangement makes clear how pretty the main melodies of the album are. Momus himself felt that working with young people like the Super Madrigal Brothers rejuvenated his work processes. This included the other artists who joined American Patchwork, Digiki, who remixed Beowulf, and the cover artist Florian Perret, along with other artists he met in Paris, Berlin and Tokyo.
Reviews for the album were generally positive although quite baffled. Uncut described it as “his best work since Hippopotamomus”, Mojo praised his “extreme collaborative filtering”, for Q he was “as unique as ever” and Logo Magazine described him as “if Falco fell through a wormhole with Andy Partridge and The Human League and landed in 1930’s Berlin”. Frontiers Magazine wondered if he was gay or straight, and compared him to the old novelty hit “They’re coming to take me away”.
Pitchfork website, however, awarded him 2.1 stars in a review by Michael Idov, saying “Song after song, Currie’s trademarked sick wit is nowhere to be found”. Idov unfavourably compares The Last Communist‘s description of Russia with the poeticism and mysticism of Trans-Siberian Express. This ignores the fact that the later track is sung from the point of view of a character, with the limited vocabulary and expression that is implied. The review also implies that Momus is concerned with money and fame, and adds:
“The new Momus is the kind of guy who stoops to include a minute of silence as the 16th track on this disc and titles it “A Minute of Silence”. If that’s not enough, he follows it up with an instrumental reprise of the album’s second track– rendered in telephone ringtones! Oh, the fun!”
There is no track called “A Minute of Silence” on the album, and it isn’t Momus who is rendering anything in the final track, it is Oliver Cobol. Momus pointed this out himself.
Michael Idov went on to release music himself, including a cover version of the GG Allin song I Kill Everything I Fuck. It puzzled Momus that someone who recorded such a song would not enjoy the sperm based humour on Oskar. He asked this directly on an ILXOR message board in 2005 and Idov replied:
“I am indeed your fan (which should have been easy to deduce from the review); I was just unlucky enough not to enjoy Oskar Tennis Champion. Were I to review Ping Pong, or The Philosophy Of Momus, or your live show, or your book… I also admit, from the safe distance of – what, two years? Jesus – that I was being unduly harsh. But that is what one gets from a fan (momentarily) scorned. My first album should be appearing on these shores somewhere in late Summer-early Fall. There is nothing I would enjoy more than a sound drubbing from you in the medium of your choice.”
I don’t know if that ever happened.
Forbidden Software Timemachine
2003 was also the year in which the first major Momus compilation was released: tracks chosen by Momus from the seven Creation albums, (six and a singles compilation) released as a double album on Analog Baroque, the track listing as below.
Disc 1: 80s
The youthful hero doomed to fall like blossom
(Running time: 71 minutes)
Murderers, the Hope of Women
Love on Ice
How Do You Find My Sister?
A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24)
The Hairstyle of the Devil
The Guitar Lesson
In The Sanatorium
The Charm of Innocence
Closer to You
Disc 2: 90s
A machine that let you feel all his emotion
(Running time: 58 minutes)
Ventriloquists and Dolls
Monsters of Love
A Monkey for Sallie
Morality Is Vanity
Summer Holiday 1999
Song In Contravention
The compilation – mastered by Eric Wilhelm da Cruz – included a “minipop” pixelated rendition of Momus created by Craig Robinson, a pioneer of pixel art whose entire work output since 1999 is still viewable at his website http://wwww.flipflopflyin.com/.
Momus’ next album would be Otto Spooky – recorded early in 2004 and released in 2005 – the next in his “O” trilogy, his Berlin trilogy, roughly speaking. January 2004 saw a change in his website as he moved onto a LiveJournal called Click Opera, the entirety of which is still online. This enabled him to blog on a daily basis rather than write the lengthy essays and commentaries that had been the norm before. There was also the addition of interactivity: visitors could sign in and comment, or comment anonymously, allowing two-way connectivity in the heady new days of Web 2.0. He continued to contribute to the Google group alt.fan.momus, although this was near to death by 2010, and sites like ilxor.com.
The beginning of Click Opera : https://imomus.livejournal.com/2004/01/16/
In 2004 Momus was living in Berlin for half the year with a fashion student called Ayako, and had recorded an album called Summerisle with the artist and musician Anne Laplantine. At the time there was a resurgence of interest in the film The Wicker Man, a boom in the Weird Folk genre and increasing use of what we would now call Folk Horror, linked to a kind of hauntology. This same folk horror, along with the spooky nature of it, informs the confusion that is Otto Spooky, an experimental album using cut-up lyrics and cut and paste sampling, and more oblique strategies than you can shake a fish at. The prevailing theme would be water rather than ice, and yet be both oblique and opaque.
The next blog entry will discuss Summerisle briefly and focus on Otto Spooky, as we hit the half way point of the noughties, and embark on a Fur Ming Felt Hunt. I’m not scared…