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Uncovering The Ballardian Universe Of Black Box Recorder
Jude Rogers , June 1st, 2010 07:24

Danger, death and British humour: it's all in a day's work for Black Box Recorder, says Jude Rogers, as she sifts through their back catalogue to bring you the choicest cuts

December 2000. Snow falling thickly across festive Britain. White sheets landing in layers on long, steady roads. Two childhood friends are speeding on the motorway – my friend Danny and I – in a car that holds so many stories from our teenage days. We are heading to old haunts in the North, where an old boy of mine will be, whose very being in the world fills me with dread, cold and sickly.

Just before the M62 hits Manchester, we hit black ice. Eeeeeeeh….tssssssssssshhhhhh. This is it. The End on a grass verge near Nether Peover. White knuckles grabbingthesteeringwheel, watchinghimmoveintotheskid, s-l-o-w pedals, breeeeeathe...the tyres find their grip, and the car slowly corrects herself. We heave, we sigh, we laugh, we survive.

And at that precise moment, Black Box Recorder’s 'Girl Singing In The Wreckage' starts to purr through the cassette player.

Whenever I try and sum up the brilliant band that rose from the mouldering ashes of The Auteurs – a very peculiar, prim and proper dirty phoenix – I can’t fail to go back to that terribly Ballardian incident. Everything about this band is present in its very nature. There’s the danger, the black humour, the exquisite, sinister Englishness, coupled with a pop tune that lodges in the brain like a virus, wriggling elegance into the ears like a bloodied diamond. Established in 1998 by Luke Haines – two years after his first side-project, Baader Meinhof’s concept album about terrorism, and The Auteurs’ penultimate record, After Murder Park, pondering the possibilities of light aircraft on fire and unsolved child murders – this was his first group where it wasn’t all about him, but about the band around him, and the nasty world outside them. Sarah Nixey gave the songs an expressionless, erotic charge with her rounded, RP vocals, while the Jesus and Mary Chain’s drummer John Moore – who would later become her husband, then later, her ex-husband – filled in the gaps with seamy, beautiful guitars.

They were like Saint Etienne reversed into a dark, oily negative, commemorating, rather than celebrating, Britain. After Pulp, they were also a pop group that exposed the actual matter of the popular; the seedy underbelly of it as it shaped our daily lives. These days, we call music like this hauntological; back then it was just the way we were. BBR soaked up the spirit of the World’s Worst Serial Killers books spinning on roundels in silent service stations, the terror of thinking that your domestic flight might fall from the sky, the tangible darkness that lay behind Sun headlines about sex, death and decay, and our country’s tireless obsessions with poshness and prudishness. All the addictive, wonderful horror of the everyday set to a 4/4 beat– the spirit of Chris Morris’ Blue Jam turned into pop music, delivered exquisitely, pickled in ginger.

Last month, Black Box Recorder said goodbye to us for good, standing behind an Union Jack on their MySpace page, using final statements from Enoch Powell ("all political careers end in failure"), Nanny McPhee ("when you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay, but when you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go") and Frank Butcher ("I did it my way") to make their point. Let us commemorate properly their strange and frightening world.

1. 'Child Psychology' (single, 1998)

Not many bands would launch themselves with a song that cleaves your expectations of a pop song to pieces, before delicately handing the listener the knife. "Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it," it went. A song about a world-weary little girl who stops talking to the world at the age of six, shows no interest in the outside world, and is later expelled ("it didn’t mean a thing"), it was banned by most UK radio stations and MTV, a fact that only makes Nixey’s deadpan delivery sound even sweeter. Released as a single in the US a week after the Columbine Massacre, DJs chose to play the chorus line backwards to avoid offence.

2. 'Seasons In The Sun' (b-side to 'Child Psychology', album track, England Made Me, 1998)

Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit 'Seasons In The Sun' was an English-language adaptation of Brel’s song, 'Le Moribond' – a sarcastic romp about him leaving his wife because of her infidelity. Jacks removed the verses that referred to this relationship, and inserted in a sickly section about how it was hard to die when all the birds were singing in the sky. Haines, Nixey and Moore kept these lyrics, but brought back the dark humour of the original, adding perky pop drums, eerie guitar reverb, and Nixey’s gloriously unjolly way of singing "Goodbye Papa". Here, truly, are the black sheep of the family.

3. 'Girl Singing In The Wreckage' (album track, England Made Me), 1998

More controversy the year after the death of Diana and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash. Again, Nixey is the female protagonist of a strange story, in a car where "my dress is torn, my hair is wild" – creating another character defined sketchily by atmospheric phrases. Lines like "My first car, my early boyfriends" and "wet weekends, New Years Eve parties" sound like memories flashing before her dying eyes, and the hint where "my private world is smashed right open" suggest a journey for deeper reasons.

4. 'England Made Me' (album track, England Made Me), 1998

The title of Graham Greene’s early novel about a disreputable man wrestling with his conscience was a perfect fit for the band’s debut album – and its title track distils perfectly the nature of their beastliness. A girl plays mind games with a spider, dreams she was drunk and leaves a man for dead in a trunk in Brighton station, then leads a secret life and betrays both sides. The video features faces of everyday people morphing into those of the band, as if Nixey, Moore and Haines are the devils beneath them. The title is simply repeated in the chorus as if it explains everything.

5. 'The Facts Of Life' (single, 2000, title track, The Facts Of Life, 2000)

In 2000, something remarkable happened – Black Box Recorder had a top 20 hit. Of course, it had to be a pseudo-scientific semi-spoken treatise on puberty. "When boys are just eleven/They begin to grow in height at a fast rate than they have done before", Nixey instructs, like a diligent schoolmarm, before talking about boys’ "sweet dreams", and the lack of convenient meeting places for small-town dating ("a family car, a disused coalmine/A rowing boat or a shed"). The song got the band on Top Of The Pops, and, as some reviewers noted, it could have been even more popular had Haines not referred to his record label as "fucking cunts" in an interview.

6. 'The Art Of Driving' (single, 2000, album track, The Facts Of Life)

In the video for The Facts Of Life’s second single, the new Mr and Mrs Moore sit in a white car, dressed as crash test dummies, making a four-minute-long series of Carry On comparisons between the eroticism of driving and a burgeoning relationship. He is more forceful ("we could get the hood down/throw away those learner plates"), while she is more considered ("we’ve got to plan the journey/Eliminate all mistakes"). Sounding like a spick-and-span 1960s public information film set to gorgeously tinkly keyboards and drums, it also contains several exquisite laugh-out-loud moments (Moore: "lets go out driving"; Nixey: "I’ll wait ‘til you’ve passed your test"). In the summer of this year, they played at Glastonbury – and Nixey wore her outfit on stage.

7. 'English Motorway System' (album track, The Facts Of Life, 2000)

Another Ballardian beauty from the band, taking Kraftwerk’s love of the autobahn and capturing its peculiar hypnotic qualities as we find them on home turf. A song about a couple about to break up, it also perhaps the band’s most tender and least blackly comic track, ignited by atmospheric ahhs and their most lovely chorus yet. "It’s going to be there forever", Nixey says, mythologising the tarmac, "it’s never going away".

8. 'Goodnight Kiss' (album track, The Facts Of Life, 2000)

A song about the possibilities of love, and the yearning for excitement around our fair and promised land, swinging by Blackpool Tower, Brighton Pier, Severn Bridge, Southend-On-Sea, Dungeness and The Golden Mile. "We'll have an adventure/I'm bored with just love/A fairy tale with a sting in the tail/Tonight we'll draw blood".

9. 'Andrew Ridgeley' (Passionoia, 2003)

Passionoia, the band’s final album, saw the band putting on their shiny shoes for the last dance. 'Andrew Ridgeley' is a sly disco romp about a posh girl who puts a tooth under her pillow, finds a ten-pound note the next morning, and then goes to buy her first Wham! Record. Later, she sees her idol pulling into the traffic on Kensington High Street, "just like a real-life human being", and later still, her rich father loses everything, but she still has her pop star. This track also begins with the most Smash Hits lyric of all time: "I never liked George Michael much/Although they said he was the talented one".

10. 'The New Diana' (album track, Passionoia, 2003)

"Where is the replacement for the world’s front cover? From one English rose to another?", sang Nixey, in a character as a woman dying to dive into the sea, and rest on her yacht, as deep-sea fishermen toiled away in the distance. As celebrity magazines took over the world with their glossy, glittery emptiness, Black Box Recorder were still arching their perfectly plucked eyebrows at the depressing aspirations of a generation. Seven years on, these have not gone away, but they are leaving us anyway.

11. 'Do You Believe In God?' (new song, 2010)

In February 2010, Black Box Recorder played their last two shows in Kilburn. They also debuted two songs, Keep It In The Family and Do You Believe In God, and a new, glittering life seemed to be beginning for them. It was not to be. All we have now is these two final songs in all their withering loveliness – "Do you believe in God? Not even sometimes? Sometimes?" – and the memory of a band that said everything about Britain, in all its bemusing, and brilliant, and black-hearted beauty.

Remember them.