Bowie's in Space

One last music post before I return to Found History‘s bread and butter.

If you haven’t been watching HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, you’re really missing something. Take my word, it’s the best comedy to hit TV since FOX inexplicably pulled Arrested Development from the air more than a year ago. It’s way too weird to explain fully here, but it’s basically a story about a pair of New Zealanders—Bret and Jemaine—trying to make it as novelty musicians in New York. Between meetings with their agent Murray and chance encounters with their lusty “fan” (singular) Mel, the Conchords regale us with their truly awesome music videos.

This week the Conchords did some history—some freaky Bowie history. Three times during the episode, Bret is visited in his sleep by a vision of Bowie past: the 1972 Ziggy Stardust Bowie, the 1980 Scary Monsters Bowie, and finally the 1996 Labyrinth Bowie. This final visit launches the Conchords into “Bowie’s in Space” a brilliant parody of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Then, to top it all off, the video continues into the credits where the music changes from the 1970s space kitsch of “Major Tom” to the 1980s wood block and rolled up sport jacket sleeves of “Let’s Dance.” Too funny, man.

U2's Kite

I’ll stick with music for one more post.

“Kite” is one of my favorite of U2‘s more recent songs. In keeping with the title, Edge’s guitar is alternatingly lilting and soaring, and Bono’s vocals are more than usually impassioned. The chord progression is classic rock simple, but the rhythms are changeable and complex. In many ways “Kite” marks the high point or cresendo of the band’s return its rocking roots in its November 2000 release All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

However, the best moment for me—and not coincidentally the one that will be most interesting to Found History readers—is the song’s nearly spoken-word epilogue:

Did I waste it?
Not so much I couldn’t taste it
Life should be fragrant
Rooftop to the basement

The last of the rocks stars
When hip hop drove the big cars
In the time when new media
Was the big idea

That was the big idea

Buried just beneath the surface of this apparent afterthought is what amounts to an historical apology to fans.

Emerging from the same late-70s post-punk, post-prog crucible as The Police and The Clash, U2 outlasted its equally talented competition to become what many consider the band of the 80s. The high point of this success was undoubtedly 1987’s landmark release The Joshua Tree, which by almost any measure must rank among rock’s greatest achievements.

If the Joshua Tree launched U2 into the pantheon of rock and roll, it also presented the band with the familiar problem of finding a suitable second act. The Joshua Tree was haunting and profound, but it was also chokingly serious and unsustainably earnest. U2’s 1988 follow up album-cum-tour film Rattle and Hum presents a band that has taken itself too seriously. 1991’s sometimes brilliant, faintly inane, and thoroughly self-regarding release Achtung Baby gave us a band on the verge of collapse. Often mistaken to be a love song, the album’s biggest single “One” is in fact a desperate plea to keep the band together.

Yet what U2 recognized in Achtung Baby that nearly all top bands miss is that they had to stop taking themselves so seriously. It wasn’t at all obvious how to do this: the history of rock doesn’t provide many good examples of humility. Indeed a late-90s observer likely would have determined that U2 had failed. 1993’s Zooropa, 1997’s Pop, and the band members’ string of unremarkable solo projects took the inanity of Achtung Baby to new heights. In the increasingly fragmented media and music environment of the mid-1990s that now included Rap, House, Grunge, Electronica, Alternative and many more, U2s brand of Led Zeppelin-style superstardom just seemed all the more ridiculous.

In fact, consciously or not, U2 had hit upon an ingenious reinvention strategy. The only way to combat the overwhelming earnestness of The Joshua Tree and the art house self-seriousness of Achtung Baby was to tear the band down and rebuild from the ground up. Pop in particular was a scathing, humiliating, almost self-flagellating parody of wealth, fame, technology, and rock itself. Yet at the time it just seemed like a bust. Most late-90s observers would have determined that U2 was finished.

2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was therefore and by all accounts a renaissance. With songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” the band returned to the tested formula of big vocals, socially aware lyrics, building guitars, and rock-solid bass and percussion that served it so well in the mid-1980s. (You find hints of U2’s earlier work throughout the album, for example the tinkling piano at the end of “Walk On” is clearly a throwback to 1983’s “New Year’s Day.”) This time, however, tempered by experience, they did it without so much (though admittedly still some – hey, they’re rock stars) ego and condescention. For long time fans—like me, if you hadn’t already guessed—it was a welcome return to the band’s roots.

This is the history told in the last two stanzas of “Kite.” In the first of these, Bono acknowledges the band’s mid-90s collapse and explains that its absurdist turn was at least partly intentional: “Did I waste it? / Not so much I couldn’t taste it / Life should be fragrant / Rooftop to the basement.” In the second, he provides fans with a rationale: “The last of the rocks stars / When hip hop drove the big cars / In the time when new media was the big idea / That was the big idea.”

Together I think these two stanzas prove I’m not totally off my rocker in pointing to the historical work being done by U2 in this song. In them Bono recognizes the essential anachronism of a 1970s stadium rock band (the “last of the rock stars”) in a world of satellite television, iTunes, and general media fragmentation (in the mid- to late-90s marginal hip hop artists truly “drove the big cars” viz. the Notorious B.I.G. and Coolio). He also recognizes that the only way to deal with the historical predicament in which U2 finds itself is alternatingly to embrace and reject that new media culture—that was the “big idea.”

In terms of found history, “Kite” shows not only that U2 has thought about and understands its place in the larger sweep of rock and roll history, but also that its long time fan base expects fidelity to that history or at least some explanation when it deviates from it. “Kite” also suggests that at this late stage, die hard fans may well expect U2 to make history and autobiography as much as they expect them to make good music.

Synchronicity

So the picture is horrible, but the show was great.

police.jpg

Friday night I was fortunate enough to catch The Police in Hershey, PA, and I have to say it was one of the best reunion concerts I have seen. As this cell phone picture of the t-shirt tent attempts to show, both the crowd and the band exhibited their fair share of sentimentality and nostalgia: cover art from Outlandos d’Amour, Regatta de Blanc, and Synchronicity was much in evidence.

Despite the throwback visuals, however, The Police and their music seemed surprisingly fresh and relevant. You could almost imagine them doing something interesting in the recording studio—a claim you wouldn’t make of other recent reunion acts like The Who, The Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac. Sting in particular went a long way towards rehabilitating his rock star credentials and winning me back as a fan. After several tired years of tantric spirituality, bad lute music, and cheesy troubadour costumes, it was nice to see him rock out in spiked hair, a torn t-shirt, and a used up bass guitar. That, of course, is my own nostalgia at work, but as Rob MacDougall might observe, sometimes old is truly the new new.

Xtimeline

Xtimeline is a new addition to the growing field of personal timeline builders. Simile Timeline, MIT’s open source offering is still the best of the bunch, but Xtimeline definitely wins in the user-friendly department. In terms of workflow, data management, and data display, the new Chinese offering also bears striking resemblances to our own Flash-based “Timeline Builder” proof of concept. Along with family trees, timelines are perhaps the preferred mode of exploring history and producing history among amateurs, and I’m not surprised to see more offerings in this space.

Previous posts:

Searching History

This week Yahoo! Buzz provides a telling glimpse into the popular historical mind with a list of last Sunday’s top twenty “history” searches. Perhaps predictably the list leans towards the geeky (“History of the Computer” and “History of the Internet”), which probably reflects the technological and scientific biases of internet users, and towards the recreational (“History of Badminton” and “History of Swimming”), which probably reflects the fact the sample was taken on the weekend. But there are some oddballs in there as well, for instance “History of Mortgage Rates” at #3 and “Titanic History” at #10. Interestingly, moreover, “American History” ranks below both “Philippine History” and “Pakistan History”.

Here’s the whole list:

  1. History of the Computer
  2. History of Mortgage Rates
  3. Philippine History
  4. History of Badminton
  5. Pakistan History
  6. History of Psychology
  7. History of the Internet
  8. History of Physical Education
  9. American History
  10. Titanic History
  11. History of Volleyball
  12. History of Statistics
  13. History of Biology
  14. History of Table Tennis
  15. History of Measurement
  16. History of Gymnastics
  17. History of Swimming
  18. History of Mathematics
  19. History of China
  20. History of Chemistry