On the Hot Dog Streets
, July 19th, 2012 10:26
It's nowhere to be seen on the official press release, but somewhere deep in the many subsections of the Cherry Red website, under the heading "Advertisements for my band," Lawrence has written the following précis of On the Hot Dog Streets.
"Go-Kart Mozart have offered us their contempt. The entire album is a rag bag of contemptuous attitudes. Contempt for art - contempt for sex - contempt for their country and most especially contempt for the audience that might be listening. All this, it must be said, is not perceived through a tin ear or a dim mind, but through a widescreen composition of what ails us most. While we are lost in our fallacies displaying an acute distaste, we are forced to finally see our own reflection and scream back at it in abject terror..."
It's worth quoting in full, I think, if only to battle against the notion of Lawrence as simply a loveable eccentric; faded former frontman of one of the great lost indie bands of the eighties (Felt), now peddling "quintessentially English" quirky glam-pop nostalgia, a comfortable balm for those who also remember when it was all Spangles round 'ere. Not that there isn't some truth in this stereotype; Felt were indeed great and under-appreciated, and with his 90s band Denim, Lawrence did lay one of the founding stones of Britpop's retro youth club aesthetic, alongside Suede, Saint Etienne and The Auteurs. But like those other bands, Denim were in fact far more original and subversive than what came after; whether referencing the Birmingham pub bombings or claiming "I'm against the 80s" in 1992, Lawrence in Denim was a protest singer, challenging the status quo of the times and asserting a personal view of recent history while attempting to wipe the slate clean for a new decade.
But it was a decade that increasingly sought a self-defeating and spurious authenticity in its music and culture, and while the similarly arty Pulp could make it big by playing a straight bat on 'Common People', a complex pop art construction like Denim was bound to flounder; bad luck and Lawrence's fragile personal temperament arguably didn't help matters either. By the 90s' end, Denim were no more, and Lawrence had formed (or more accurately, become) Go-Kart Mozart; conceived initially as a b-side band, a reaction against the relatively big budget, big studio, high pressure existence of Denim, allowing for lo-fi home recordings and self-indulgent experimentation. They also allowed him to further develop his concept of 'Novelty Rock' – novelty songs, but with a serious theme. Apparently though, after two albums, Lawrence decided that he actually didn't like being lo-fi that much. He missed the big studios, the sense that you were really making a record that mattered. It was time for Go-Kart Mozart to make one last grand statement and, eight years in the making, On the Hot Dog Streets is the result.
Lawrence claims that this isn't a protest record, although he insists that it's about "life today." And it is, though it's still very much about life yesterday as well. He says he tried to write love songs, girl songs that would be acceptable to everyone, although he admits that they didn't quite come out as planned. But he still hopes that On the Hot Dog Streets will be a hit; that's the whole point, the whole intention of the exercise, to be right there in everyone's faces, on prime time TV, in the heart of mainstream culture. Well, it's a brilliant album, but to be honest it hasn't got a hope in hell. Pop music as Lawrence conceives it doesn't exist anymore. No Top of the Pops, no Razzmatazz, no Supersonic in 2012. No Jonathan King, no 'Gimme Dat Ding,' no 'Star Trekkin' or 'Mouldy Old Dough.' The more Lawrence tries to be a populist entertainer, the further he moves from mainstream acceptance. They'll let you on Later with smirkin' Jools and all the audience wishing you'd go back and do 'Primitive Painters' again, but the whole point is to be out there on the National Lottery Live, on Saturday morning kids' TV... hang on, what do you mean they don't have Saturday morning kids' TV anymore...!?
In Felt he may have spoken of seeking out and embracing only beauty, but these days, like JG Ballard, Lawrence immerses himself in soulless suburbiana, in plastic trash and shopping malls, refusing the easy options of classical beauty and good taste in favour of embracing the world we live in now, as it is, in all its vulgarity and neon shallowness. How else to make art with any real relevance? That doesn't mean he likes it; although it doesn't mean he hates it, either. On the Hot Dog Streets has much in common with Music for People who Hate Themselves by the Pre New, fellow savage satirists of contemporary life whose evolution (or maybe devolution) from World of Twist and Earl Brutus in some ways parallels Lawrence's own journey. 70s kids all, who grew up with George Best and Gary Glitter; saw punk kick off, loved Dylan and Television but ultimately learnt from them that you had to make music that reflected your own times, your own experience. Like the Pre New, Go-Kart Mozart are not meant to make you feel comfortable; despite appearances, they're not here to help you wallow in nostalgia. They make use of comedy, and are often very funny, but they are not a comedy band. Lawrence is not a national institution, or a national treasure; he's a middle-aged man with teenage dreams, a man who's been kicked around by life and who has battled many inner demons alongside those steely villains without. He's a man like you and me, but a man with a vision: "to cold cock all the crapola and all-purpose wheatchaff mix n' match, to set the whole schmear straight and get the current state of play down, down, down, to stand and fall in one dignified granite hard focus." This from the album sleevenotes, though just above it he also admits (twice), "I don't know what's going on anymore."
Make no mistake, this is one dark and troubled album, though it starts innocuously enough with the sneering casiotone electropop of 'Lawrence Takes Over', in which Lawrence sets out his novelty rock manifesto over horrible, cheap cabaret funk synth settings. It's a rewrite of the title track from Denim's 1997 unreleased fourth LP, Denim Takes Over, and in fact nearly half the songs on here were originally written for that record. Yet the mid-section, which decries false nostalgia for simpler times to a tune that parodies Brian and Michael's 'Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs,' is just as relevant to these Keep Calm and Cameron times as it was to the fag end of Britpop (and I particularly like how Lawrence slips into a sarcastic mockney whine to pronounce 'Dundee Cake' as 'Dandy Cake').
'West Brom Blues' is high street existential nausea set to a Lieutenant Pigeon beat- "Standing in a queue with your bit of plastic... for a semi and a couple of kids - ain't life fantastic?" –and it's apparent that the "girl songs" really haven't worked out as universally acceptable as planned, as they all seemed to be mired in the bitterness of a failed relationship. Of course, the very concept of novelty rock mitigates against any kind of autobiographical interpretation, but one can't help but notice a somewhat misogynistic pattern: in 'West Brom Blues' Lawrence decries the "fat housewives" talking mindlessly about their new washing machines, reflecting on the lucky escape he had from the prison of domesticity.
'The Sun' finds him so wounded by the girl who left him that he wants to escape completely, abandon real life for some imaginary desert island: "I believe in honesty and I believe in charity - I believe in prostitution, I believe in, uh, chastity." Later on, 'Mickie Made The Most' pines nostalgically for the days when "the little girls shine they're looking so pretty, when we lift their tiny skirts they blush a pure red". 'I Talk with Robot Voice' dissects the emotional alienation and withdrawal of the confused Numanoid: "I have frozen my emotions so I won't get hurt by girls no more... I'm sick and tired of their abuse, yet I admit I'm still susceptible to vagina's allure." The closing 'Men Look at Women' states "men look at women, and women bring the men down to their knees," while 'Electrosex' finds Lawrence chanting "Blonde hair- big breasts- big kiss- Mae West" over the kind of retro-synth romp to a glitter beat that Add N to (X) made their own. Only the moving 'As Long As You Come Home Tonight' exhibits any kind of tenderness towards the female sex, and even this is sung from the perspective of the injured party: "I don't care who you're with, as long as you come home tonight." Yet with its subdued piano and drum machine backing, it's a rare moment of vulnerability, Lawrence singing in his old Felt voice again, letting pain and love back into his heart.
It's in stark contrast to the astonishing 'Retro-Glancing,' which starts off like a pastiche of the Streets' 'Dry your Eyes', Lawrence sounding strikingly like Mike Skinner as he casts himself as some bulletproof low rent gigolo, getting his revenge on the girl who broke his heart. "I left you with nothing but a screaming ass kid, I made it my business to make sure you failed miserably- and you did!" Droning guitars do the glam descend as the cold rage grows ever more shocking, flashing with bitter poetry: "Your former glory is a distant pawn shop haze- the rags that you're wrapped in are remnants from some long lost disco craze- the guy you're about to pick up is gonna die now from AIDs- You're a lollipop cross on a municipal grave." It gets worse, bleak and blank over an emotionless tinpot beat: "pull a knife out-use it- wipe it clean- put it back- I'll leave it there now, you know where I'm at." The rapid journey from sensitive wounded lovers to ruined lives is accomplished like a Hubert Selby short story; the fact that Lawrence makes such an unconvincing, bewildered thug only adds to the pathos.
There are many uncomfortable moments on this album. 'Come On You Lot' displays the same rueful nostalgia that 'Lawrence Takes Over' took the piss out of, as over a Chicory Tip groove Lawrence contrasts a childhood celebrating England's 1966 World Cup win with Bailiffs evicting him from his home just under forty years later. After the instrumental break (preceded by a cry of "drugs drugs cash cash! Solo!"), Lawrence decides who to blame and unleashes his limp spleen, supported by barking sergeant major backing vocals: "This country's lost its spine, all we do is moan and whine," he moans and whines; "the girls are thick as shit, all they want is supersize silicone tits- vulgar, no taste, a vile and ugly race."
Warming to his theme, 'Blowin' in a Secular Breeze' finds Lawrence bemoaning our collective loss of faith, in god and country, while strumming an acoustic guitar over a knees-up rhythm. "When Britannia ruled the waves and the Empire still was great, you could go around the world in eighty days," might just be a parody of Ray Davies style Little Englander songwriting (even though Davies was himself a parodist), and again, we shouldn't necessarily assume that any of these songs reflect Lawrence's own beliefs or feelings, but it has to be noted that as far as can be made clear this song takes a pretty right-wing view of recent British history, albeit with the odd concession to liberal viewpoints ("someone built the bomb and the good old days were gone," "down with Westminster Sleaze"). But these simply distract from verses like "prosperity softened battle cries, and with everyone impressed by a scot-free NHS, it seems we left the back door open far too wide," and "disloyalty was rife, then the miners went on strike; what was great is now simply history." Stand back, of course, and the song has a twisted appeal; what if Enoch Powell wrote novelty songs? What if Lieutenant Pigeon was an actual lieutenant, with a short sharp shock, short back and sides prescription for society's ills?
But 'White Stilettos in the Sand', 'Synth Wizard' and 'Queen of the Scene' are joyous pop anthems all, the former having the feel of Ricky Wilde's amazing writing and production work on sister Kim's early RAK albums, while telling a straightforward kitchen sink narrative of Spanish holidays in search of sun, sea and sex "that's hard to find in boring old England." The latter sounds like Chris Spedding or Wreckless Eric, a seedy glam-grebo wish fulfilment fantasy: "there's no-one sweeter than my underage cheetah when she's just drunk a litre of wine." He gets away with it because it's so patently ridiculous: "switchblade scene! Pink baked bean! You think you're in Poland but it's Edmonton Green!" And 'Spunky Axe' is a stream of consciousness dredging of late seventies kids' TV, comic books, sweets and novelty pop songs so obscure and densely packed that it requires the kind of book-length annotation Jess Nevins has provided for Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. "And we all sing Oscar and the Great Wooferoo- Mumfie Sally and Jake shake your spunky axe woohoo."
With packaging that's almost worth the album price in itself, conjuring up an entire parallel universe in a style that's part A Clockwork Orange, part Wow! comic, there's something of Richey-era Manic Street Preachers about On the Hot Dog Streets. There's the same comparison of childhood innocence with adult corruption, the same disturbingly dogmatic idealism, and to be honest the same sense of a deeply troubled soul behind it all. Like the early Manics records, it even comes with a reading list, though here half the books and authors are obviously made up. Unlike the Manics, hardly anyone will take Go-Kart Mozart seriously. Yes, on one level it's a comedy record, and it's as funny as it is musically addictive, but the comedy is very much in the Chris Morris line; joyfully silly, but punchline-free and deliberately unsettling. Go-Kart Mozart is warped genius at work; wonderful, but beneath the novelty surface, also rather worrying.