Friday, October 27, 2006

Schadenfreude is not the most refined of human sentiments, but few of us are above it and I couldn’t resist a cackle on hearing how Madonna’s apparently throwing tantrums on Oprah now that her latest media stunt has backfired. After all, this is the woman who is celebrated for being such a great media manipulator, queen of the image change, who is actually applauded for turning ruthlessness and superficiality into an art form. Over the course of her career she has spawned courses in Madonna studies at Mickey Mouse universities for rich idiots too stupid to get a real degree and volumes of pretentious wank written about what a feminist/post-feminist/who gives a fuck icon she is, without ever, as far as I can see, producing a half-decent song. Call me a traditionalist, but aren’t pop stars supposed to make music? Whereas this is never more than secondary, a mere vehicle for Madonna’s self-promotion, and nobody even seems to bother to pretend it’s otherwise. Does anyone actually listen to her music at home, or do they just head, lemming-like, straight for their bank accounts to fork out for an absurdly priced ticket for her ooh so controversial show. For that price it’s got to be good, right? And for decades the media have lapped it up, apparently she’s “cool”. Yes, she is one of my personal pet hates, precisely because she’s one of those who’ve got away with it. Up to now. YESSS!!

Let’s look at her beef. She sees a cute little black boy on a TV screen and is “transfixed”. Like a spoilt little girl spying the most expensive toy in the shop she decides “I gotta have it”. Cue photo ops etc. while she gets her team of soulless drones and hangers on to sort the boring bits out. With money and a profile like that, as well as the legal chaos surrounding adoption in Malawi, this isn’t difficult. Only… she doesn’t actually bother to check it properly with the boy’s father. Wouldn’t be quite so cute, would it, if she simply provided the money for a better life for both of them, father and child together? And let’s face it, an undernourished, under-educated, adult African man is not half as photogenic as his little boy, is he? Don’t want him under our roof, bloody hell! So he’s told his son’s going into good hands, be grateful, and since his choices are pretty stark, he agrees. Although now it turns out Madonna and her crew didn’t tell him that it was a case of outright adoption and he’d been under the impression it was a temporary arrangement, and wouldn’t have agreed to it had he known the full truth. What’s Madonna’s response to this? Apparently his grievances are merely due to the fact that he’s been MANIPULATED BY THE MEDIA. Boom, boom!! Their role, of course, is to photograph her and provide her with the required exposure on cue, certainly not to investigate or, God forbid, talk to the other parties involved.

So let’s get this straight Madge, are you calling the boy’s father a LIAR?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Out of touch as I am with events over in Blighty I’ve just realised that in yesterday's post on Czech underground rock I spectacularly managed to overlook the fact that Tom Stoppard’s play Rock n Roll, which covers the period of normalisation and involves the Plastic People of the Universe, has apparently been taking London by storm for the last few months. And I’d hoped to be the bearer of fascinating new insights. I can only say that I’m glad I chose the more unsung (and in my personal view more musically interesting) Dg. 307 as my main subject matter. In addition I feel I should probably qualify some of my comments regarding their political role and impact. The now sadly departed Milan Hlavsa (1951-2001), a key member of both bands, once argued in a debate with Václav Havel that the Plastic People (and thus presumably also Dg. 307) were not a political or protest band. Havel countered that within such a political climate any kind of authentic expression becomes political regardless of its intent, and since this certainly saves me rather a lot of back-pedalling I’m inclined to agree. Their lyrics are probably less explicitly political than those of the Sex Pistols, who also claimed to be essentially apolitical, at least in conventional left-right terms, but screamed that the Queen “ain’t no human being”. However, it’s not difficult to see that the fragile, morally baseless regime of normalisation, which was so dependent on hypocrisy and the perpetuation of meaninglessness for its survival, had a great deal to fear even from far less specific expressions of nihilistic frustration. Did anyone in 1970s Czechoslovakia, a country that wouldn’t dare allow its citizens to cross the Iron Curtain, truly believe they were living in a perfect society? God forbid that anyone hear, let alone interpret for themselves, such sentiments as:

Attack on history (hysteria) (1973)

demolish history which invokes prostitution
demolish the theory of life
demolish the institution of the past
destroy it all, right down to its bones

bludgeon memories out of your heads
better to leave an empty space inside
tear out your tongue
with all its idiotic talk
destroy all good morals
rid yourself of early cramps
tear up books
throw poetry to the pigs
and return purified to living dreams

Cower in fear, Commie scum!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Czech music scene, in general, is not something that has impressed me greatly in the time I’ve been living here, overpopulated as it is by “revival bands” churning out turgid old blues covers. There are however notable exceptions, one of which is the legendary Dg. 307. The group took its name from a psychiatrist’s drug prescription (Dg. an abbreviation for diagnosis), carrying with it the suggestion that dissidents such as themselves were liable to be classified as mentally ill by the regime of the time, and their early work in particular is indeed really quite psychologically disturbing stuff. Along with their more celebrated sister band the Plastic People of the Universe, a group whose impact here was so immense that they merit an entire separate treatise (an excellent one of which can be found at, they formed at a particularly bleak period in Czechoslovak history: the period known here as “normalisation”, following the Soviet occupation which crushed the Prague Spring in 68.

This political context is absolutely critical – the squalling noise of Dg. 307 is the sound of a generation gasping for air in an environment where all creativity has been forcibly stifled, the sound of humanity creaking under the weight of a dismally stagnant and oppressive regime. In the mid-60s the optimism of the flower children had taken hold forcefully in liberalised Czechoslovakia, with the Beatles in particular becoming huge. I can’t pretend to be a Beatles fan, but their social significance here transcended their music and they became a symbol of liberation, of things to come. More hip, Western influences followed and a generation of beatniks was allowed to flourish, within limits, under Dubček’s “socialism with a human face”. The death of the hippy dream was thus felt all the more acutely here. It didn’t decay and fall apart from within, it was extinguished from outside by a foreign, occupying power. Sure, in the States there may have been Altamont and Nixon, but here there were Soviet tanks on the street. For a brief period anything had seemed possible, now nothing was permitted, and it is this annihilated optimism that gives Dg. 307 their twisted vitality.

On stage the band have an enormous presence, fronted by the towering figure of Pavel Zajíček, also a part-time member of the Plastic People and one of the greatest rock n roll stars imaginable – a preposterously talented musician, sculptor and poet of enviably chiselled features, who oozes charisma and dignity. A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet the great man after a concert, and in addition to all his aforementioned qualities he was also a perfect gentleman. Their influences are difficult if not impossible to pick out. The most commonly mentioned reference points for the Plastic People are the Velvet Underground, Beefheart and Zappa, from whom the Plastics took their name. In the case of Dg. 307, however, any influences they might have are warped by their disgust with the political and social environment in which they live, up to the point where they are unrecognisable, and to my ears they sound much more like Throbbing Gristle or Neubauten (this is back in 1973 – the first industrial rock band?). Their early recordings, for understandable reasons, are not of the best sound quality, but their desperate rage is very much in evidence in their shouted vocals and pulverising, tuneless din. The lyrics are characterised by vulgarism and intentionally inept rhymes, conveying exquisitely the atmosphere of banal stupidity that pervaded in the cultural living death of 1970s Czechoslovakia.

Unsurprisingly, they were far from popular with the powers that be, and were certainly felt to constitute a genuine threat to the status quo. Any happenings they held were illegal, risking infiltration by the secret police or violent disbanding by the riot police. Zajíček was eventually imprisoned for a year on a trumped up charge of disturbing the peace. Afterwards he went to live in Sweden and then the USA, but is now back here with a revived Dg. 307, these days somewhat more tuneful than in their dissident heyday and still thoroughly engaging.

Their lyrics are not easy to translate, based as they often are on naïve rhyme and wordplay. However, the following translation, imperfect as it is, can give some impression of what their early work was about.

Dg. 307

Utopenec (1974)

topim se ve sračkách
svýho přemejšlení
topim se vobden
nic se nemění

chci s někým mluvit
každej je z gumy
nebudu je rušit
mastěj vlastní struny

sežral sem všechnu moudrost
v podobě hovna
nemám velkou radost
z toho hovna zrovna

holky se svlíkaj
je právě jaro
ptáci zpívají
něco se stalo

peníz se ztratil v pivu
penis se válí v klidu
dlouho sem nečet knihu
zbožňuju pohled klínu
noha se lepí v klihu
netěším se na zimu

je mi 23
a mám špatný sny
sem slepec
žádnej světec

třesu se když se vzbudim
sem tam chodim
piju 10 piv
je mně špatně z nich

vim co je to nuda
nevim co je to filosofie
vim co je to onanie
vim že život neni zrůda

Drowning Man (1974)

I drown in the shit
of my thoughts
I drown every other day
nothing changes

I want to talk to someone
everyone's made of rubber
I won't bother them
they're looking after their own

I've swallowed all wisdom
in the form of shit
I don't feel any great
satisfaction from it

girls are undressing
spring is here
birds are singing
something has happened


money's lost in beer
my cock swings freely
I haven't read a book for a long time
I worship the view of a crotch
my foot is stuck down with glue
I'm not looking forward to winter

I'm 23 years old
and I have bad dreams
I'm a blind man
no saint

I shiver when I awake
I wander from here to there
I drink 10 beers
then I feel ill

I know what boredom is
I don't know what philosophy is
I know what masturbation is
I know life is no monstrosity


Sunday, October 08, 2006

The surfacing of Robbie Williams as a topic this week over on the Impostume has caused me to ponder this rather thorny issue. A tricky one, Robbie, I have to admit that I find some of his stuff rather irritatingly likeable. I still can’t work out whether I enjoy catchy tunes like the thumping, vaguely Frankie-esque Rock DJ, for example, despite or because of his twattishness. I feel infuriated by his cheap trickery of presenting himself as the daft, loveable northern lad, and at the same time feel a kind of incredulous admiration at how, in my eyes at least, he manages to get away with it.

Probably the most pivotal Robbie moment is the epic Come Undone. A part of me wants to bristle at the hypocrisy of him writing a hit about what a shallow, corrupting and soul-destroying process it is to write hits. Surely it’s just another obvious example of fashionable, cynically commodified angst, along the lines of that despicable Natalie Imbruglia tune of yore (“I am cold and I am shamed, lying naked on the floor”?? No you’re not, you’re that surfer-jock’s bird off Neighbours! Fuck off!!). Just how many bluffs are at work in this song? Here he goes, trying to prove how deep he is with his shamelessly faked self-loathing, having the gall to be seen to be sneering at his own insincerity, the whole time laughing all the way to the bank. Rubbing it in our faces that by following a shabby formula – in this case riding the “I’m so fucked up” zeitgeist, juxtaposing pop tunes and smooth production with bombastic language and the odd expletive or drug reference – he can earn enough to buy a yacht within the space of a couple of days. Whilst at the same time asking for our sympathy? He’s lucky not to be lynched.

But on the other hand, the staggering bloody cheek of it is actually rather impressive. Obviously there’s the classic debate about whether or not he should have to mean it anyway (oh shit, I’m not having a post-modern moment am I?), but in any case, the thought has struck me that Robbie has in all probability endured enough miserable coke comedowns to have experienced genuine, if not absolutely crushing self-hatred. Which leaves me where? Eventually, after weighing up the pros and cons all I’m left with is the doltishly prosaic conclusion that it’s all subjective anyway. Do I like the song or not? Well yes, with its expansive, sweeping chorus and bludgeoning repetition of the word “scum” (always been one of my favourites, that) I think it’s an absolute anthem. It’s a classic case of aesthetics over morality. There’s no moral difference between Robbie and other (in my view) maddeningly overrated charlatans who’ve got away with it in the public eye, such as personal bête noires (iconoclasm alert!) Primal Scream, Madonna, the fucking Beatles. But after all, we are talking about a pop song here, not ending world poverty. For better or worse, like Kylie (who I also quite like), Robbie’s a survivor, who every so often turns out a damn good tune. So why do I feel the need to justify myself for saying that?

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Thanks to the generosity of a visiting member of the Stoke Newington Jet Set who was recently passing through Prague, ostensibly for the occasion of the ludicrously exorbitant Nick Cave sans Bad Seeds gig (at almost 50 quid a go, who do you think you are Nick, Madonna?), I am now in the possession of the DVD film of WILD ZERO. This was pleasing regardless of the film itself, since it provided a kind of symmetry, reaffirming the slightly naïve but life-sustaining hypothesis that what goes around comes around – I introduced John to Guitar Wolf when he was over here a few years ago, a few years later he brings me back a copy of their film.

If there is one band over the last ten years or so that has convinced me rock music isn’t dead, then it is Guitar Wolf. Whilst some have settled for tame, indie mediocrity, others have drifted out to the fringes to experiment with post-rock and others still have abandoned rock completely, there is nothing tame, experimental or un-rock about Guitar Wolf. They fucking rock. If you’re not familiar with them yet, think Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Elvis at his meanest. Think the Sonics, the Stooges, Johnny Thunders, Motorhead, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Pussy Galore. Lots of screaming. Leather, motorbikes, quiffs and sunglasses after dark. Repeatedly shouting “Baby Baby”. All in Japanese.

Instead of trying to find a way out in order to sound fresh, they’ve gone further in, simply cranking up the volume and the distortion. Less isn’t more. More is more. More shouting, more noise, yes, more clichés. They love it. Perhaps the above-mentioned artists weren’t rock n roll enough for them. Like all of the above they understand that true genius resides in absolute simplicity. There is no sophistication whatsoever here. It’s as predictable as it is majestic, a ferocious three-chord cacophony replete with feedback, the ultimate effect something like a car crash in an abattoir.

As for the film, it’s also more or less exactly what you’d expect. Guitar Wolf himself is in fact not the main character, which is a good idea since his acting is actually pretty wooden, but there is no doubt throughout the film that he’s the man. Along with Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf he spends most of his time looking cool, none of them ever once taking their shades off. A man of few words, most of them the frequently repeated catchphrase “LOCK N LORRRLLL!” Probably the stupidest film I’ve ever seen, though with a rather unexpected politically correct twist about how it’s really quite acceptable and rock n roll to fall in love with a hermaphrodite. The defining moment of the film comes when the great man, standing on a burnt-out skyscraper, whips out a Samurai sword from his ever-present guitar and uses it to disembowel a descending spaceship, by which he saves the world from invading alien vampire cannibal zombies. Obvious really. Sorry if I’ve spoilt it for you, but believe me, this is a film you’re never going to watch for the plot.

Apparently they want to make a sequel. Fantastic.

Thanks to John, not only for the DVD, but I suspect I’ve also slightly plagiarised an e-mail he sent me a while ago describing the spaceship episode.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I recently arrived back from an extended and thoroughly enjoyable, if rather punishing weekend in the big smoke. Prague is a place full of contradictions, and inevitably leaves me with contradictory feelings. Almost every time I go there I at some point think to myself “my god man, you fool, look what you’re missing out on by not living here”, and usually before the end of my stay at least once think “bloody hell I’m sick of this, I can’t wait to get home”.

For a start Prague is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and last weekend it seemed particularly so with glorious weather, less tourists than in the high season and open beer gardens offering superb views. If this part of Prague is all you see, then it may indeed seem like paradise on earth. On the other hand, although there are nice residential areas of Prague, the majority of Praguers don’t live there. Most of them live in housing estates which are a great deal closer aesthetically to hell on earth – hideous concrete blocks that, confusingly and rather sinisterly, all look the same and extend for miles on the south of the city. This contrast is almost so striking as to appear positively impudent for those (usually not tourists) who don’t stay near the centre – waking up bleary-eyed in a flat in a tower block after a pleasantly drunken evening overlooking the Vltava, upon looking out of the window it is hard to believe you are in the same city. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that large parts of Prague could compete for the title of ugliest residential area in the world.

In many cases Prague suffers from the same syndrome as many capital cities – it has the advantages of a higher standard of living, better wages, being more cosmopolitan and with far, far better options for entertainment, particularly clubs and foreign restaurants. It also has similar disadvantages of being overcrowded in the centre, too many tourists, of losing large amounts of time every day travelling from one side of the city to the other, higher prices for accommodation and in general being much more expensive than the rest of the country – in this respect it’s no different from capital cities in any other country. In addition it’s the city that all Czechs outside Prague love to hate. The same things are said about Praguers as are said about Londoners or Parisians – that they’re arrogant, snobbish, pushy, superficial, materialistic, rude, and utterly ignorant of the country outside Prague – which is an outrageous stereotype, but as usual contains a certain grain of truth.

Unlike Western European capitals however, in Prague’s case this difference between the capital and the rest of the country does seem fairly extreme. Of the foreign tourists who come to the Czech Republic, less than 10% go anywhere outside of Prague. Foreigners in any case are still a relatively new concept here – before the revolution they were limited to a few exchange students and Vietnamese market traders, and outside of Prague little has changed in this respect. By contrast, the centre of Prague is now so cosmopolitan that it hardly seems Czech, passing through the areas around the Old Town Square or Charles Bridge it is rare to hear the native language. Prices have rocketed, though almost at random – most pubs and restaurants in the tourist hotspots of Prague serve meals and drinks for Western European prices, several times higher than elsewhere in the country (the quality rarely corresponds), whilst others within relatively close proximity remain startlingly reasonable.

The general effect, despite the fact that even the centre of Prague can be quite affordable to those on Czech wages provided they know where to go, is that the place has the feel of a westerner’s playground, with all the attendant tackiness you’d expect – overpriced trips in horse-drawn carriages, twee market stalls selling stupefyingly useless hippy items, and the latest toe-curlingly patronising craze of “exotic” token black people dressed up in Mozart costumes, advertising concerts. Cheapo flights, of which I regularly take advantage from the other end, have meant that Prague is now even more accessible, an easy weekend destination for most Europeans.

Which, as we all know, has meant that in the last few years Prague has fallen victim to the phenomenon of the British stag weekend. Years ago I used to haughtily dismiss any notion of being proud of my country as crass, puerile nationalism. Having lived outside the UK for a number of years now I feel that I can say that there are certain traits or traditions that can at times make me feel proud to be British, and there are certainly a number of things that I miss about the country. On the other hand, the stag weekend in Prague is one of the things that has made me feel ashamed, and when I walk around the centre of Prague I usually try my hardest to seem as Czech as possible. One of the things that makes the staggers so easy to despise is that they are so damned easy to spot – same gratuitously inelegant way of dressing (even if they aren’t wearing their customised scum weekend T-shirts), red, blotchy skin, beer guts, tattoos, and in addition it’s usually possible to hear them a long time before you see them, their arrival inevitably heralded by incomprehensible, loutish bellowing. Several pubs now have signs on the door saying, in effect, that stag parties are not welcome. Prague attracts tourists from all over the world, but this is clearly directed against the British. Feeling ashamed of one’s country is presumably as irrational and retarded as feeling proud of it, but when a Czech asks me why it is that my compatriots behave like that, how am I supposed to feel?

This might seem like just another easy target to go for – but, but, but, the people I know who live in Prague have all commented on this phenomenon, and as something that has genuinely affected their quality of life. There are not only pubs and clubs, but even entire areas of town which friends of mine, Czechs and ex-pats alike, prefer to avoid precisely because of British stag weekends. It’s bad enough having to travel on crowded tubes or trams for a good proportion of your day, though the thought has occurred to me that if I lived in a capital city for a while I might develop the necessary urban reserve to deal with it. I don’t however believe that I possess sufficient resources of stoicism and (misplaced) tolerance to accommodate these fat sacks of shit, and if I had to see them in the city centre each weekend would probably develop stomach ulcers within a very short time.

Having said all this I crave my trips to Prague for all the things I can’t get out here in Moravia – the aforementioned nightlife, foreign restaurants, foreign food shops, English language bookshops, if I’m lucky I might be able to get hold of some mature cheddar or even Stilton somewhere. Plus I get to catch up with a lot of mates. But there are reasons beyond the obvious financial ones that stop me from moving there. One is that when all’s said and done, I’d like to keep my trips there special and not become indifferent to or blasé about the city's many charms. Another is that I often become aware of the fact that I, albeit from the opposite end, am in many ways enjoying Prague for its very non-Czechness. And that in turn gives me the uncomfortable feeling that I’m part of the problem rather than part of the solution.