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Veteran Australian pop satirist New Waver has a new album, Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody, out.
New Waver's usual stock-in-trade in the past has been a relentlessly bleak neo-Darwinian pessimism, extrapolating the principles of neo-Darwinist evolution into a viciously competitive world, seen from the loser's perspective, and resulting in records like The Defeated and Darwin Junior High. Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody veers from this theme into an examination of the modern post-industrial age, casting a jaundiced eye over Richard Florida's concept of the "Creative Class" from the unaffordably gentrified inner north of Melbourne.
In the thesis of Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody, several phenomena of the past few decades (the shifting of industrial production to China, the move to a post-industrial economy and the rise of DIY art/music and internet-based user-generated content lowering the barriers to artistic creativity) have created a glut of "artists", with exhibitions and indie bands and bedroom music projects all over the inner suburbs. Artists have, as many have observed, congregated in undesirable suburbs hollowed out by deindustrialisation (at least in Melbourne; in Berlin, the collapse of Communism had the same effect), attracting hipsters, trendies, yuppies and ultimately the wealthy, aesthetically conservative haute-bourgeoisie, by then the artists having been forced out by rising rents. (In the words of a famous graffito in 1990s San Francisco, "artists are the shock troops of gentrification"; though it may make more sense to think of them as a sort of baker's yeast, whose job is to make the bread rise and then perish.) Meanwhile, the ease of creating (and copying) art, and indeed any sort of intellectual products, in the digital age has led to a rise in supply exceeding demand; not only is it harder to survive making art, but it is harder to get people to devote time to looking at your creations.
As with many of his previous recordings, New Waver expresses this thesis through the medium of cover versions of popular songs, assembled using General MIDI files. The opening track, Lugging For Nothing turns Dire Straits' anthem of the rock'n'roll dream on its head; in New Waver's acerbically realistic reworking, the people to be envied are the tradesmen, high-school drop-outs and cashed-up bogans, doing lucratively uncopiable physical work and spending their money on material luxuries. Like neo-Rousseauvian ignoble savages, impervious to the siren song of cultural engagement, they're happy to take the money of those afflicted by it (by renting them rehearsal rooms and such), while aspiring musicians infected by the rock'n'roll dream pack into small rooms and toil doing shitwork to pay off records and tours. The idea of cultural enagement as a parasitic replicator reemerges behind Media, I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life, which recounts the lot of the culturally engaged, struggling to afford to rent enough space to store their record collections and spending their spare hours discussing music and arthouse films on social websites; it is not difficult to square this with author Greg Wadley's well-documented interest in evolutionary psychology and conclude that the culturally engaged are the victims of parasitic memes, deprived of the chance to live a comfortable existence in a McMansion in suburbia, watching junk TV on their plasma screen and listening to whatever's on the radio by the terrible compulsion to impoverish themselves playing in bands, exhibiting art or otherwise trading time, wealth and effort for arbitrary signifiers of status, all the while helping to reproduce these memes.
Other songs touch on different, but related, themes; Party Like It's 1979 (a Prince cover, of course) looks at the resurgence of retro-styled indie music genres, from White Stripes-like garage bands to post-punk ("Fleetwood Mac's probably the most influential band today", "I got some classic rock released six months ago, some psychedelic folk, some white guys playing disco"), and the fetishisation of the vinyl format, reframing it as a cargo-cult commodity fetish, a subconscious belief that imitating one's idols will bring one their fame, wealth and sexual success. Inner City Drug Use, one of New Waver's older songs, is Queen's You're My Best Friend rewritten about the dependence on coffee, and My Memory Stick Weighs A Ton (a cover of a song by Melburnian 1980s post-punk turned suave crooner Dave Graney) about the glut of media produced by those who can be loosely categorised as "white-collar", and the declining likelihood of any of those items finding a willing audience. The closing track, The Cars That Ate Melbourne returns to the uncultured bogan "other", and this time to their habit of cruising around the inner cities in souped-up cars with blaring stereos; it does this by combining a house/commercial-dance beat, car engine noise and a porn dialogue sample; it is somewhat reminiscent of New Waver's 1990s commercial-dance track, "We're Gonna Get You After School".
The standout track, in my opinion, is "Hey Dude"; here, New Waver has taken the famous Beatles song and turned it into a missive from property developers and landlords to artists, hipsters and the creative classes, urging them to take a sad suburb and make it better by putting on exhibitions, opening cafés, organising events and looking hip, and reminding them that they carry investments on their shoulders. As commentary on gentrification, it is perfect. For what it's worth, there is a video here.
Consistent with its thesis, Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody is not being manufactured on CD or offered in shops (though there are rumours of a limited-edition memory-stick release), but is available for free downloading from New Waver's website. Which is not at all a bad deal for what will undoubtedly be one of the most apposite pieces of social commentary committed to the format of music this year.
A copy of the New Waver retrospective, Neuters, arrived in the mail recently. This CD was released this year through Australian experimental label Dual Plover (who will be familiar to anyone who has been to the What Is Music? noise-music/sound-art festivals or who frequents Synæsthesia), and compiles 14 of New Waver's biggest hits from the early 1980s onwards.
The compilation appears to be roughly in chronological order. It starts off with NW's rougher, earlier pieces; covers of pop songs performed on a home organ, with altered lyrics performed in a lugubrious monotone, and then goes on to more sophisticated General MIDI dance grooves. The basic concept of New Waver involves covers of pop songs with the lyrics changed to present an extremely pessimistic neo-Darwinian worldview; in the New Waver world, everything comes down to Darwinian competition, in which the strongest and most dominant triumph and the rest are sidelined, ostracised, beaten up, and generally have miserable, pointless lives. This is underscored with lyrics like "sexual performance needs social dominance" and sound samples from wildlife documentaries, recordings of counselling sessions, consumer-product advertisements and Christian anti-masturbation therapy tapes.
The songs are roughly chronological in terms of the story they tell, which is the life of Everyman (or perhaps Everyloser), the poor low-status schmuck who keeps being kicked in the teeth by life and always comes out worst. The story starts with him being bullied and persecuted at school, his life made a hell by "tough guys" and "confident guys"; then goes on with him going on to a dead-end public-service office job and being ostracised by coworkers ("a complex man with a heart of darkness in a beer and football land"), getting obsessively into computers/video games, being ignored by the opposite sex until a last-resort marriage to a low-status female who recognises and exploits his low value and lack of bargaining power, moving to the suburbs, and dulling the pain of existence with beer, consumption and Prozac whilst trudging through the pointless day-to-day routine. Had Jean-Paul Sartre been born in Brisbane or Canberra, he could well have come up with something like this.
The songs? Well, it starts with an organ-driven version of the Beastie Boys' You've Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party, which segues into an AC/DC cover titled Tea Break. There's a version of Madonna's Erotica all about masturbation, a Jimmy Barnes tribute titled Middle Class Man; a version of the Dead Kennedys' Too Drunk To Fuck that proclaims that, without brain-deadening alcohol, the human race would die out, and a masterful take on the Velvet Underground's Heroin, titled Prozac. And that old Depeche Mode joke which everyone has heard lots of times, Just Can't Get It Up, gets transformed into a complete song; transposed into a minor key, it works quite well.
The CD came with a press release recounting the history of New Waver; the band's formation by several teenaged clerks in the Claims section of the Australian Tax Office in Canberra in the early 1980s and run of minor hits in the 1990s, before time pressures caused the band to break up.
In 1996, a number of Australian indie bands recorded covers of TV show themes for a tribute compilation named Box; this was released on cassette; I recall seeing a copy in PolyEster records back when Paul Elliott ran it. Now, it's available in MP3 form. Hear Wank Engine's cover of the Mr. Squiggle theme, Ninetynine's version of Blake's Seven, New Waver's characteristically Darwinian take on the Four Corners theme and some outfit named Pigshit doing the Degrassi Junior High theme, among others. (Thanks to Greg Wadley for the heads-up.)
I picked up a copy of New Waver's The Defeated. It's basically techno (in the casual sense of the word) with spoken-word samples from suicide hotlines, medical reports, documentaries about natural selection, football commentary and self-help tapes on how to be a winner; some of it sounds like some of SNOG's early interludes.
Words don't do justice to how profoundly depressing a listen it is; in fact, it is probably the most depressing thing I have ever heard. Compared to New Waver, Thom Yorke is a veritable Pollyanna and Ian Curtis' bleakest lyrics are positively life-affirming. Much has been said about the existential-crisis-inducing potential of post-rock, but this even outdoes A Silver Mt. Zion in that department. Perhaps it's the way the bleak realities of the words subliminally penetrate your consciousness under the repetitive techno beats that does it. Anyway, I was feeling quite cheerful last evening; then I listened to the whole thing, and by the end, I went away with the feeling that life is a pointless, Sisyphean ordeal from which the only reprieve is death.
And then I put on Stereolab's People Do It All The Time and felt a lot better.
Update: And here is New Waver's Kraftwerk tribute MP3 album.