The Bonfire

So. I’ve got an admission to make….

This stroke survivor is in a band.

Oi! You’ve spelled “ROMANTIC PASTORAL STROKE” wrong!!

I think Nerd Bait was first described on here as a “Six-Legged Collaborative Creative Collective”, and that is about the size of it. But that appellation was also a reflexively defensive way not to say “band”.

Yes, we’re an odd kind of modern, transatlantic, virtual iteration of a band, but that’s no excuse. The Dave Matthews Band is a pile of shit, and they’ve got “Band” IN THEIR NAME.

[Scroll down for the new Nerd Bait track, The Bonfire — gives it FIVE STARS!!!]

“What Would I Say?” I’d say you’re a bit crap, but maybe that’s just me.

But if you’re a forty-year-old stroke survivor, it initially feels a bit odd to say you’re with the band. Particularly when your greatest musical talent was being a bit average at the guitar before the feeling in your left-hand fingertips was dulled. However! That needn’t be a hindrance. Does anyone remember Art Of Noise? Here’s what bandmember Paul Morley had to say about them:

I loved the name Art of Noise [taken from the essay “The Art of Noises” by futurist Luigi Russolo] so much that I forced my way into the group. If over the years people asked me what I did in the group, I replied that I named them, and it was such a great name, that was enough to justify my role. I was the Ringo Starr of Art of Noise. I made the tea. Oh, and I wrote the lyrics to one of the loveliest pieces of pop music ever, Moments in Love.

Prof (née Friendoftheblog) Paul and Singer Steph have just completed the latest Nerd Bait track. At three-and-a-half minutes, it’s the length of a perfect pop single, and this post will make much more sense if you have a listen:

The Bonfire — musically — covers a number of bases recently contemplated on the blog. Why Fidelity? railed against the way in which the listified commodification of music gives “the past an upper hand [that] can be fatal to experimental, innovational activity in the arts and in life.” (A hat tip once again to Barry Faulk’s interesting Love, Lists and Class in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (Cultural Critique, No. 66, University of Minnesota Press)).

But the past is such a vast expanse, what’s to be done? Well, as it happens, Paul Morley might point one in the right direction. As well as being a member of The Art of Noise, Ian Wiki notes that Morley is “credited with steering the marketing and promotion of the phenomenal early success of ZTT’s biggest act, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Although it has never been confirmed, it is claimed that Morley authored the provocative slogans on the band’s T-shirts (e.g. “Frankie Say Arm the Unemployed”, “Frankie Say War! Hide Yourself”).” To this day, the reason I dislike Band Aid’s Feed The World isn’t anything to do with the sense of the line “Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” but that it kept Frankie’s The Power Of Love out of the Christmas No. 1 slot.

Frankie say “IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!”

More pertinently, Morley was the first host of BBC2’s The Late Show, and previously wrote for the NME between 1976 and 1984 (roughly contemporaneously with blog favourite Danny Baker, I would guess). Later, he was the focus of BBC Two’s “How to Be a Composer, in which he spent a year at the Royal Academy of Music attempting to learn to compose classical music, despite being unable to read music or play an instrument.”

Unsurprisingly (as described in a recent piece for The Grauniad), when Morley was with the NME, he thought

classical music seemed connected to a dreary sense of uninspiring worthiness that was fixed inside an ideologically suspect status quo, lacking the exhilarating suggestion of new beginnings….

And if there’s one thing can’t abide, it’s the status quo. Yet Morley — now 57 and just about managing to maintain spikey hair and scraggly beard — has made the clichéd, late-life move into conservative, grown-up classical music. And of course he’s defensive about it.

Nice scraggly beard and spiky hair, mate. (Pic: David Corio/Redferns)

For me, though, it has been more a move to where the provocative, thrilling and transformative ideas are, mainly because modern pop and rock has become the status quo.

Morley ends the article with a Spotify list of classical pieces to expand the mind, with endearing missionary zeal. Once I’m done here, I’m going to check it out, even though I doubt there’s anything as aggressively modern and terrifying as this track (Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiorshima) that Paul sent me during the summer. The Beach Boys it ain’t. Quoth I:

Even I can tell that’s really good. If Joy Division and Messiaen are a bit too day-glo for you. That is terrifying.
Admittedly, The Bonfire isn’t that confrontational. In fact, its first seeds were sown when Steph and Paul were originally knocking around the idea of Nerd Bait, prior to my Morley-esque entry. (Yeah, I didn’t even come up with the band name.)
There were cocktails with Sriracha involved.
Needs… more… gin….

Paul writes: [W]e decided that we should revive the operatic lieder. If you don’t know what this is, you should go and listen to, say, “Frauen Liebe und Leben” (  But anyway, the idea was that, in the 1820s, people wrote (basically) pop songs where the words were operatically delivered songs. In German. Cool eh? A bit of an acquired taste, but [Steph and I] both dig them.

Hence my recent walk up Calton Hill for poetic inspiration. There’s a rumour that something may spring out of the comments to this post. And then there are our prior excursions into similar territory, The Trephination Song from The Treacherous Brain, and Moonbeams from Wrong Word Write Time.

The other blog topic echoed by the music of The Bonfire is ageing. As mentioned above, Paul Morley makes note of the cliché of the “late-life move into conservative, grown-up classical music” in his Guardian article. But check out the Penderecki track linked above. Or our Trephination Song. There’s nothing conservative about playing that to a room of folk looking forward to some spoken word entertainment in Edinburgh’s Old Town. While trepanning yourself with a hand held drill.

Friendoftheblogavi recently pointed me towards a study by a team of Concordia University researchers, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. As summarised in Medical News Today,

[t]he new study has three major findings that can help forecast cognitive ability in one’s golden years: The more you want to use your brain – and the more you enjoy doing it – the more likely you are to stay sharp as you age.

Now, no one in Nerd Bait is terribly aged. Well, Steph’s not. And my hair is 17. And Paul has more, and more flexible, neurons than a particularly elastic  twenty-year-old. But a month after crashing into my early Clooneys, I’m feeling younger and more comfortable in my skin than ten — heck, twenty — years ago. The idea of a comfortable middle age isn’t terribly unusual, but the possibility of a challenging, exciting one goes unacknowledged — unlike the mid-life crisis — because, as Susan Neiman puts it here, adulthood is a subversive idea. She takes eternal teenager Immanuel Kant as her text.

Fancy an alcopop, innit?

And this leads her to opine that [t]here is reason to suspect those who tell the young to savour the best years of their lives. The tone is cheery, but the message is ominous: everything else will get worse. Thus young people are prepared to expect – and to demand – very little.

There’s a lot worth reading the article, but the message is, don’t collude in your own infantilisation or consignment to the scrapheap. Take on big questions. Don’t despair. Be active. Oh yeah, and listen to some weird, brilliant music. And make your own. Like some kind of 1820s punk.

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2 thoughts on “The Bonfire

  1. So it’s a bit odd to be the first comment since the post is about some stuff we did together, and all, but I’d love to add some more thoughts to your writing.

    First, very thought provoking. The “Happier post middle age” is something I very much hope is correct. Sounds right, though. I’m having fun writing some music with you all, and it’s sort of nice to not care if anyone likes it or not. Freeing! I mean, would we really write operatic lieder if we wanted to win friends and meet the ladies?

    But I also want to give you (and the readers) a thought. We have this false dichotomy of “classical” and “pop” music. I sort of dislike both terms. Some of the “pop” music I like isn’t very popular, or poppy. And some of the “classical” music I like would be more suited for a party than some of that pop.

    So I’ve sort of started using the phrase “composed music” more to refer to what people often call “classical”. A few thoughts on this

    First, “classical” is a well defined period from about 1780-1820. So calling all orchestras “classical” is, if you want to be pedantic, a bit wrong. Common usage, though, has literally decimated that distinction, almost exponentially, so I’ll give up that fight.

    But “classical” also brings thoughts of sitting quietly with a brandy listening to a composition, unmoved. No I have nothing against listening to music with a brandy. But unmoved is the bit I find exception with. Sort of like “middle age should be boring”, think that “Beethoven is dull”. Both silly.

    “Composed” music, though, is more what’s going on. Some Nerd Bait material is definitely composed, but some (like “Brain Herniation”) is just stuff I made to your words up and didn’t write down. But that act of picking notes and the flow of emotion is important.

    Also, there’s often a break between the composer and the performer. That addition of individuals interpreting the music, intermediated by a score, is an interesting factor.

    So short version: If you are out there thinking “yeah, I don’t like classical music” you aren’t alone. Haydn and Mozart (early classical period) don’t do it for me, really. Too twee.

    All that said, the Threnody is still hard going. If are intrigued by the idea of composed music and differently shaped ensembles, let me encourage you all to check out this live performance of music for 18 musicians which is, well, super cool.

    1. Thanks, Paul! That’s really helpful, I think. “Composed” sounds like a more meaningful distinction, if we are to have distinctions. Where do we have to have distinctions, and where are they useful? It’s useful to have handles to describe things quickly, of course. But as I’ve just been reading (to avoid the set Derrida), it’s not so good to have handles, the primary function of which is to be exclusionary.

      Clearly, it would be lovely if the kidz were hoovering up the free tickets for cello works at St. John’s on Lothian Rd (and Nerd Bait’s latest Lieder). They’re, like, $250 cheaper than Radiohead at MSG. But it’s also lovely and right that they might be busy recovering from the hangover that springs from pining for youthful fumblings in sweaty whitewashed boxes under South Bridge.

      I don’t know what to do with this developing thought other than note that it’s part of a growing feeling that it’s taken me 25 years too long to think that it’s OK to think, “I don’t know much, but I know what I like [and that other things might be enjoyable with an open mind, and it might be worthwhile learning a little more about the things that I might enjoy in order to deepen my enjoyment].”

      Also, charismatic chickens.

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