Today’s tune is How I Wrote “Elastic Man”, a 1980 single by English post-punk band The Fall. Post-Punk was a genre for intellectuals who liked the idea of the Sex Pistols but really preferred to listen to early Pink Floyd and the Kinks. Or as The Rock Snob’s Dictionary put it, “musicians who were sympathetic to punk’s aims but were too arty and clever to just gob and make noise.” Good points of reference are Talking Heads and Devo, bands which are usually classified as “New Wave”. The genres dovetail somewhat, but the rule of thumb is that if they’re noisy and you’ve never heard of them, it’s Post-Punk, not New Wave. If it’s really noisy, then you’re dealing with something called “no wave”. You listen to a couple of No Wave songs and you get it and want to move on. No Wave bands either grew into something more artistically sustainable, as Sonic Youth did, or maintained their atonal purity and became a footnote in pop history, like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. All three genres were largely a transatlantic (New York City and England) phenomenon- all of these bands have a decidedly Anglo sensibility, and none more so than the Fall- where the ratio of intellectuals greatly exceeds that of the rest of America ( where most rock and roll still comes from) although the greatest Post-Punk band was/is Pere Ubu, who hail from Cleveland. Most Post-Punk bands are way overrated (the word “pretentious” is often applicable) but there is some great stuff here and there. Ripping off a highly regarded Post-Punk band is still the best way to get into Spin Magazine (not on the cover, but still).
This is certainly the best song about novel-writing since “Paperback Writer”. Indeed it is a sequel of sorts, since the great mid-Beatles tune deals with the ambition of being a novelist, while this one deals with the anxieties of being a published and working author. A novelist experiences writer’s block, crippled by early success, pestered by his fans, haunted by recent scathing reviews (“smug, self-satisfied”). How did you write that great book we all love, and when will you do it again? everybody wonders. He doesn’t know. If he did he could do it again. Nobody knows where the muse comes from or where it goes when it’s gone. My favorite line: “I’m eternally grateful to my past influences/ but they will not free me.” (Ah, the old “anxiety of influence”. Recalls the McCartney line “it’s based on a novel by a man named Lear”.) I love that lyricist Mark E. Smith makes the character a sci-fi writer (at least I’m pretty sure a book called “Elastic Man” has to be sci-fi; that or some sort of postmodernist version of sci-fi like Pynchon or something), since both post-punk and science fiction originated in England.*
Bonus rock trivia: that opening guitar line sounds a lot like the great riff from “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by British psychedelic hard-rockers Status Quo. I don’t know if the Fall deliberately pilfered it, but given the self-conscious nature of much of their music (even their name is taken from a Camus novel), I’d rate it as likely.
* Okay, this is a contentious issue, and you can make as much a case for the American Edgar Allen Poe as originator as Brit Mary Shelly (and hell, even her husband Percy Shelly has some sci-fi moments). Probably because of an early interest in H.G. Wells, I continue to think of the genre as essentially British in origin.