Friday, 25 September 2009

“THEY DON’T MAKE THEM LIKE THIS ANY MORE...”


... and indeed they don’t. Last week witnessed one of the strangest moments yet in British comics history. Children’s comics briefly returned to the newsagents’ shelves, albeit stuffed within the pages of the Guardian as part of a giveaway of “classic comics”! Of course there’s a rub to the tag-line I’ve turned into my title, for needless to say they’re actually aimed at nostalgic adults (with cover dates between 1971 and 1984) rather than relaunched for today’s children. In fact I had visions of kids asking their parents what these strange-looking new supplements were all about, much like the youngster I once heard in a charity shop asking his mum what a pile of LPs were. (He didn’t believe the answer.) However, at least one letter-writer reported her daughter asking where she could buy more copies of Tammy!


Despite my being in the target age group, none of this intended nostalgic glow penetrated my cantankerous hide. At the time I only ever read one of these titles with anything approaching regularity, Whizzer and Chips. I glanced over The Dandy from time to time, but it had far too many text blocks under the panels and looked too olde-worldey even for me. I never so much as considered Roy of the Rovers, seeing the appeal of football comics even less than the game itself. (Dan Dare had been to both Venus and Mars, and yet you want me to read about some guys kicking a bit of dead cow around a field?) And of course I never read any of the girls comics. Indeed, a schoolboy reading girls comics might have stuck out somewhat in the early Seventies Midlands.





So the whole exercise might have passed me by had it not been for Tammy. Glancing through it I was reminded of the oft-repeated argument that girls’ comics were actually better than boys, that the more mature readership forced their creators into providing better stories and artwork. (A somewhat ironic assertion as girls’ comics vanished off the shelves before boys’ did.) Much of the artwork in this comic is great, perhaps due to the fact that each artist is allowed their own style. (I remember boys’ comics of this era as looking much more homogenous.) Of course that freedom didn’t extend to artists signing their work so I can’t tell you who any of them are (though ‘Glen’, below, looks to be by Jim Baikie).



Of course that image may be enhanced by putting this comic alongside the wearisome Roy of the Rovers. (I still prefer Dan Dare, quite frankly.) Tammy perhaps came out during a heyday for comics. The boys’ Countdown, for exampled, debuted later that same month – February 1971. Nevertheless, I contend that this comic does more than shine in dull company...


I previously knew Tammy by reputation, as one of a triumverate (with Jinty and Misty) that had revitalised girl’s comics in the early Seventies. However, I don’t think I could have told you that it actually launched that triumverate, under the editorship of Gerry Finley-Day. The successive titles may have gained more renown due to the greater involvement of fan favourite Pat Mills. (And some comments I came across on-line on-line suggest that the successor comics did take things further.) Yet it was Mills himself who said: "I've always felt Tammy was in some ways ahead of my Battle and Action... I hope one day the male readers will see just how relevant Tammy is in beginning the process.” (From this feature via Down The Tubes. See also Jenni Scott’s interview with Pat Mills on similar themes from an old Caption convention, complete with audience question from me!)
In fact even the Guardian feature implicitly acknowledges the comic’s importance. While all the other titles had been represented rather randomly (albeit with an ‘event issue’ for Roy of the Rovers) only Tammy takes things back to the first issue. (Though sadly lacking the free gift ring and bracelet, unless of course the newsagent nicked mine!) It also offers a contrast with a more ‘regular’ girls comic, a Bunty from the following year. (For some reason a longer ‘Summer Special’ rather than a regular issue.) The comparison’s not perfect, as Bunty was aimed at a younger readership. (Notably it includes several one-page humour strips.) But it’s to hand, and besides I don’t exactly have a huge reservoir of girl’s comics to call up on.


Bunty excelled in what were most commonly called ‘Cinderella stories’, in which trials and travails are piled upon the juvenile heroine to a torturous degree. A heroine would be called upon to roll a large rock up a hill, particularly if she had a wooden leg and a glass arm. The story would work even better if a malevolent Aunt would try to prevent her by chucking other rocks downhill at her. Work in a boarding school setting and a dead pet or two and you were away...


This title, though, is in one way a misnomer as these stories involved exceedingly few visits to balls, let alone any getting together with handsome princes, and a whole lot of chores and ugly sisters. As Pat Mills comments in the interview linked above, this emphasis on endurance frequently appeared in the boy’s comics as well. But there the hero would always at some point triumph above adversity, even if only temporarily. (For example the Victor’s ‘Tough of the Track’ would get repeatedly knocked down by life but still go on to win his race.) Heroines would be called upon to endure adversity, on an excruciating weekly basis. Passivity was a positive value for girls, just as activity was for boys.



Despite the fairy-tale origins of the phrase, if we exclude the gag strips only one story here has a fantastical setting – ‘Lydia and the Little People’ – but it is significant. Lydia doesn’t travel to a wonderland but becomes trapped in a world of endless Sisyphan chores, such as scrubbing the street (yes, the street!) so the (apparently all male) little people can hold their outdoor parties. While other strips do not duplicate this otherworldly setting, they do reproduce this travailing sense of existence. Indeed, precisely what they lack is the ‘real world’ to escape back into and throw your scrubbing brushes away.


‘The Four Marys’, apparently Bunty’s longest-lasting strip, was (not altogether surprisingly) a boarding-school tale – though all the title characters seem to be learning from school is how to cook and sew. However their efforts are being thwarted by two bullies, Veronica and Mabel. They defeat the bullies by bringing along some children, which horrify them so much they even agree to the “polishing, scrubbing” to escape their “sticky” mitts. As if it wasn’t clear enough that girls should be learning how to become mothers and housewives the bullies are given identical short ‘flapper’ haircuts while the Mary all have longer, more ‘womanly’ hair.


One interesting feature, however, is that the bullies mostly pick on one Mary, ‘Simpy’, because “she is of the lower classes”. Simpy responds “I’m not ashamed of being working class. I’m proud of it, in fact, and I like doing housework.” Wikipedia comments:


“At the time of Bunty’s creation, this was a rather political topic - admission to upper-class public schools still mainly ran on wealth, and the class divide was a hotly debated issue. Simpy, although accepted without question by the other Marys, nevertheless had a good deal of prejudice from her classmates, and many of her plotlines were centered around the difficulty of dealing with her separation of class.”


Indeed this aspect of the storyline shouldn’t be underestimated. Though a departure from the Cinderella theme (for Cinderalla’s poverty had familial not social causes, stemming from her step-sisters) it is quite typical of comics of this era. (The already-mentioned ‘Tough of the Track’ played a similar role in boy’s comics, coming from the wrong side of those tracks.) However, let’s also remember “the time of Bunty’s creation” was 1958, some way before 1972. Furthermore, class identity took a different form in the Seventies to today, before those repeated pronouncements such as John Major’s “we are all middle class now.” It was then seen as an inheritance, a sense of belonging, whereas now it is perceived more as an individual decision, a question of aspiration. (Those who see society as some steady progression towards egalitarianism may wish to reflect upon this point.) Finally, Simpy’s response that she likes doing housework should remind us that simply to assert class identity is in itself merely conservative.


There could be said to be another point of departure from Cinderella in these two strips. While Cinderella is rescued from her servitude by the interventions of the Prince, the girls here free themselves. Lydia escapes the Little People by solving a puzzle, while the Four Marys trick and outwit their bullies. However this may be down to the standalone, single-story nature of the Summer Special. (Indeed, Lydia’s strip seems strangely to start in the middle.) In the regular comic, the masochism could have been perpetually stretched out, only being brought to a halt when the strip finally dipped in popularity and had to be closed. (Which in the Four Marys’ case was 2001!)


Anyone expecting Tammy to dispense this Cinderella theme (and perhaps serialise The Female Eunuch in strip form instead) might be disappointed. Indeed, given this first episode, a strip like ‘No Tears For Molly’ might even have appeared in Bunty. A servant girl arrives for duty at a country house in the Twenties, to find herself perpetually bullied by the “more superior servants”. Uncomplaining throughout, in one panel she even describes her “posh” room in a letter to her mother as she sits in her windowless box. In ‘Our Janie - Little Mum’, the pinafore-clad Janie devotes herself full-time to caring for her family after her own mother has died. (However, unlike Molly, Janie has a much more modern setting – a block of council flats.)


However, other strips push against the passivity of the Cinderella theme. ‘Girls of Liberty Lodge’ starts at yet another tyrannous public school, but before the first page is over Miss Valentine has quit her teaching job there to open her own “freedom school. The girls will be free to come and go as they please.”


But even less passive is Julie Jeffries in the splendidly titled ‘My Father My Enemy’. The daughter of a dictatorial mine owner at the turn of the century, she turns against him - declaiming “those ‘common people’ are the ones that you keep in luxury. They work like slaves and their children starve while you give yourself airs.” In a panel I’ll have to reproduce for you to believe me, she runs to the miners and explains to them the value of collective action – “He can’t sack you all, or the mine would have to close down! You’ve got to stick together to defy him!” They truly don’t make ‘em like that any more!





At the same time, there is almost a sense of ‘too good to be true’ about this episode. It reads almost like the result of a dare rather than the start of a regular series, unlike other strips here it’s not at all clear where it can go next. (It is set too late, after all, for Julie to lead her miners to the First International Congress.) It would be interesting to read future installments...


This strip does foreground something notable about Tammy. With Bunty only in the fantastical ‘Lydia and the Little People’ had the bullies been male. In Tammy they’re male in a majority of the strips, even if only explicitly the father in this particular example.


Another significant difference is in the treatment of time. Bunty takes place in quite a time-transcendent world of boarding schools, riding lessons and Victorian cobblers shops. (Though a minority of strips aimed at something more contemporary, such as ‘Rose Budd Model Girl.’) ‘Lydia’ is even explicitly set in a nightmare place where time never progresses. Just as a woman’s work is never done, the past never ends but merely keeps up a continuum with the present. Though several Tammy strips are also set in the past they are always specified as such, while the contemporary strips are similarly coded (through hair and clothing styles etc).



Perhaps most interesting of all is the opening strip, ‘The Secret of Trebaran’, where Trudy Smith falls back in time into the Puritan era. (To have her radio described as “an instrument of the devil!”) Here domination is not so much an intrinsic feature of life, something to be endured, but is associated with the past, with previous generations. (The country and city may also be tagged in a similar way.) It’s also notable in ‘The Girls of Liberty Lodge’ that it’s “young teachers” who want to join the freedom school – “they seem just the types we want.” By opening up the generation gap, Tammy shut the lid on a timeless continuum which must merely be endured. You can debate whether it was a symptom of a new era or an enabler if chicken-and-egg questions are something you enjoy.


Now that the week’s supplements are over, is there anywhere next for British children’s comics? Reading the Guardian letter about the girl who wanted more Tammy made me wonder what a girls’ comic of today might look like. Then I started imagining a strip about the reality TV contestant who endured the bullying to win the show, scoop the prize and get a Zoo magazine centrespread out of it.


...after which, Bunty didn’t sound so unappealing after all...

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

SPOTLIGHTING SPOTIFY, OR ‘OUR ONLINE PLAYER COULD BE YOUR LIFE’

The first of a two-part series in which an old man discovers new media and a lucid frenzy ensues. (Disclaimer: The Spotify player is currently only available in Western Europe. But I expect that it will expand, that similar products arise elsewhere or possibly even both at once.)



Back somewhere in the mists of time, so long ago that Doctor Who was still on the telly, I borrowed the NME Book of Rock from my school library. Lacking access even to something so simple as a photocopier, I’d diligently copy any interesting-sounding entries out on my Mum’s manual typewriter. I had that red folder full of badly typewritten sheets for years afterwards, as precious a document as any pirate’s treasure map. I knew it would take me years of solid and valiant effort, but eventually I would track down each band it referred to...

...which is pretty much the way it turned out. Over fifteen years might have gone by between my hearing of Pere Ubu and my actually hearing anything by them. Music was like that, you see, or at least the real and vital music. While the radio played the same ‘top’ forty tracks on rotation, real music was something arcane and transgressive and inherently underground - something to devote yourself to. (This was a particular feature of music, a fact most borne out by adult fears. To their minds, comics merely encouraged illiteracy. Music led to delinquency.)

These days a mate e-mails me about seeing a band, and ten seconds later I’m checking them out on Spotify. Being somewhat technologically backward, I missed out on a lot of the intervening steps, so maybe that only seems particularly weird to me. But maybe that’s precisely why you need me to tell you just how weird all that is.

That is, if I can tune out of Spotify long enough to type it up, for of late my music system has been taking a rare rest. But it’s not just that I’ve turned to listen to more music on Spotify, since Spotify’s been around I’ve been listening to more music. In fact I’ve been plugged into it’s player like something out of Videodrome. Truly it is almost an embarrassment of riches. If it hasn’t got all of everything, it’s got pretty much a taster of everything. Yes, Pere Ubu are on there. As are Nurse With Wound, Agitation Free or Jackie O Motherfucker. Brother, it ain’t just Coldplay!

Sometimes I’ve tried my damnedest to out-obscure it, only for it to come up with not only the desired result but suggestions for still-more obscure acts to hear out. I even finally heard the Minutemen, whose classic ‘History Lesson Part Two’ inspired this piece’s header. What’s more, they’re committed enough to keep adding acts. The Mekons drew a blank when I first searched for them, now they’re up and running.

It would be like smacking a gift horse in the mouth to criticise it for its few lapses and limitations. Copyright compliant as they are, there’s pretty much nothing they can do about stuff of disputed ownership. (Will I ever hear Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off Baby without paying absurd ‘rarity’ prices I can’t afford?) My inner nerd recoils when albums are dated wrongly or bands with similar names get confused, presumably because those functions are automated. (The writeup on Camera Obscura starts “not to be confused with the Scottish twee pop outfit with the same name”, when in fact that Scottish twee poppers are the only outfit featured. Ah well, some of us quite liked them!)

It might be more on the money to criticise Spotify from the opposite angle, as too much of a good thing. In an earlier entry, I half-seriously argued for the rationing of art. Spotify, meanwhile, is more like one of those magic dishes in folk-tales which refills as soon as you’ve eaten from it. Even when I really get into a track, I still don’t listen to it as much as when I’ve invested in the CD. (While I never listened to the CD as much as I did the LP back in my youth, when I knew by rote each precious note.) And there are inherent distractions involved in music-by-computer. Even if you can focus your mind enough not to think “I’ll just check my e-mail or tomorrow’s weather” it’s an extra effort not to think “would Wikipedia have an entry for this band?” or similar.

But I also found I got better. With no Ministry of Rationing around any more, I learnt to ration myself. At first I was like those scenes of Homer Simpson snacking, reaching out with more hands than I had ears, unable to listen to any one track all the way through... oh look, they’ve got this... ooh, and that too... let’s just check to see if there’s also... Once I finally had it in my head that they had it all and that they didn’t shut at 5pm like a shop, I finally managed to take my time.

Certainly, it’s one more nail in the identity politics of music I was describing earlier. But that old music wasn’t willfully obscure, for the most part they tried to distribute it as well as they could. They weren’t making treasure chests to be buried, but music to be heard. Even if you know not everybody’s going to get what you’re doing, the easiest way to get it to those who will is to make it available to everyone.

Besides which, knowing you’re never going to hear it all is a salutary life lesson. It may even mark the distinction between my obsessive compulsiveness and fully fledged Aspergers. I’d already learnt that my red folder didn’t contain the complete canon as I’d once innocently assumed, that tracking down the good music is like pinning down a hydra. The more of it you get to, the more you become aware of that’s still out there. And isn’t that a good feeling? Like any artform, most music is made by grunts devoid of imagination and devoted to greenbacks. But there’s a whole host of people out there who don’t think that way...

But the question I’m really interested in is whether Spotify will change the way we listen to music. (Rather than just the place I plug my headphones into.) I’ve found I use it as either a personal radio station and a jukebox. When I’m working, I can just ask it to cycle through the entire catalogue of an artist (or even label) where even the longest CD required changing. At the same time I’m normally working at my computer, so should I choose I can change the channel without even getting up. When I stop working, I can cruse it’s byways for the stuff my ears have previously missed out on. In short, I have all but abandoned my music system for a hybrid of things – but none of those things is another music system.

The key to the whole thing for me is the playlists. Now in one sense, playlists are just the modern equivalent of mixtapes. And the old way of making mixtapes now seems to be so laborious as to be hilarious; trying to time tracklengths on your watch then inevitably getting the sums wrong and having the tape conk out twenty seconds before your grand finale; deciding to reverse the order of tracks two and three then realising that meant the tedious business of going through the whole process again from the beginning. Moreover, every copy you made took quality down a generation and surrendered more territory to the ever-encroaching menace of tape hiss, a perpetual nemesis whose entropic force could at best be held off. For me it was like writing letters with a quill pen and tying them to the leg of a passing pigeon, then a mate tapping you on the shoulder to tell you everyone else is using e-mail.

But that’s the very point – playlists are now so easy to assemble that they cannot help but rise to dominance. I’ve found a strange reversal of function come upon me when aboard Spotify, in which I hunt out tracks which might conceivably work on my latest playlist. Albums are no longer inviolate, their borders became porous. Those more modern than me probably already own i-Pods or shopped from download sites which have served to cut into their integrity (and quite possibly gone on to do some of that ‘texting’ on the subject). Perhaps it even started with CD players and their ‘random’ button which blew apart sequencing.

Of course some might see a Darwinian effect here, allowing the weaker tracks to be weeded out now they can no longer herd in with the stronger. All artists have to do is to provide filler-free releases, and listeners will have no need to slice and dice their output. And it’s true, when CDs ran longer than LPs there was a corresponding increase in filler which could now be cut down.

But I’d suggest we’re also losing something. Ironically there’s a parallel loss of power. I suspect a large part of the appeal of playlists lies in being enabled to create something yourself, you are not merely passively consuming. (This may be why the ads always feel more insidious during playlists, they’re intruding into something of yours.) With the mixtape everything was editable. You could cut from one song to another, or edit in snippets from the radio, a DVD or even your mates talking. While playlists erode the boundaries of the album, the track has simultaneously become irreducible. You can’t do anything even as simple as cut out that intro you don’t like. With playlists you are never creating a collage, but merely ordering menu items.

But there’s a greater loss. I can remember people celebrating the i-Pod’s ‘shuffle’ feature as a liberation, and my pointing out that it was only comparatively recently when (most evidently through Sergeant Pepper) the album-as-entity was presented as an advance. Before that, albums were merely handy carrier-bags for bunches of songs. (Even the early Beatles albums were ruthlessly reordered when released in America.)

Think of the subtle but decisive distinction between album and playlist. There are lots of similarities, after all. With both you sequence the songs in an aesthetically pleasing way. You might choose to save your best number for last. You may even give the assortment some vague sort of theme, maybe ‘music-hall-like’ or ‘northern’. (Certainly the Beatles did little more than that for Pepper.) But each song’s a part of a mindset, created by a set group of people within a set time. Consequently, each song becomes like a facet of some overall object, bigger than the sum of those parts but only visible through them. The term ‘concept album’ now has lots of negative associations, of interminable rock operas about stoned pixies. But in a sense any half-decent album is a concept album, virtually by definition.

Any fool knows the final track on Pepper, ‘A Day in the Life’, to also be it’s finest. But listening to the rest of the album first (even the filler tracks) sets it in a context which enriches it. Otherwise it’s like skipping to the final movement of a symphony. Appreciating an artist involves trusting them, giving up time to them, even taking a little bit of rough with the smooth. It approximates aspects of a personal relationship, over and above a service encounter. Spotify hands us the tools not to surrender to that trust, to break down the walls of the album unit and plunder from what’s inside. But like anything broken it’ll be harder to put back together.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s still a couple of old Robert Wyatt albums I haven’t heard. If there’s anything particularly good I might use it for that playlist I’m working on...

Fellow West Europeans can download the Spotify player from here, all for free. Everyone else... we are laughing at you.