Difficult Questions
Shop Around … pt 19
It’s a week of difficult questions. Like, which role did Penelope Tree actually play in The Rutles movie? And was Stereolab the greatest pop group of the ‘90s? So, I admit that these may not be questions that have been bothering everyone, but they have really been bugging me.

Well, if Stereolab weren’t the greatest pop group of the ‘90s, then who was? I could say the Make Up. It could be Saint Etienne or the Sea and Cake? Either Massive Attack or TLC maybe? This week though it’s definitely Stereolab. Which is a little bit hypocritical I suppose. As I’ve never really gone for the Stereolab thing wholesale wholeheartedly. Just dabbling here and there, wowing and fluttering occasionally when our paths have crossed, and sort of sidestepping and shooting off another way when we’ve chanced upon one another. But this week! This week I’ve listened almost exclusively to their Oscillons from the Anti-Sun box set, and I think Stereolab is the greatest pop group (or groop, as they cutely put it!) of the ‘90s.

The box set is 3 CDs (and a terrific DVD) worth of odds and sods from their formidable back catalogue, stray songs released hither and thither on their Duophonic label between 1993 and 2001. And it all sounds wonderful. You may know better than me how Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, together with key collaborators, created a strange parallel universe where Marxist maxims and exotic pop fanaticism merged magnificently. Throw in an array of abandoned instruments, your Moogs and Theremins, musical kleptomania and found sounds one-upmanship, your sinister easy listening and Brazilian psychedelia, and you had a winning formula. And you just figured somewhere there was a Stereolab formula - or a programme for an old Commodore computer that created a lovely Stereolab number on demand.

In his terrific Clash book Pat Gilbert points out how genial Joe Strummer was obsessed with Middle of the Road (of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ fame) and singer Sally Carr, offering to write songs for her in 1977. It’s a lovely idea. And somehow you suspect the net result might have ended up as great as ‘Ping Pong’ or the numbers the ‘lab technicians produced during their strangely sweet bossa phase, which sound subversive enough to win the Eurovision Song Contest.

What I have never really got my head around is that incessant motorik groove thing. The ripple of the Kraut stream. The heads down no nonsense thoughtful boogie thing. But when it works, it works very well. I suppose ‘French Disko’ is the best example of this. And this is where you have to switch to the DVD for their performance of this gem on The Word. It’s one of the strangest and funniest things ever. And it sums up everything that is fabulous and infuriating about Stereolab.

As a moment in time, it’s like some of those old TOTP performances where some of the stranger punk groups are doing their thing, and the audience is grooving away incongruously. So fashion freaks are frugging away to the ‘Lab’s boogie might (sort of Caetano Veloso meets Status Quo), and Laetitia is trying to stay focussed on what she’s singing, and rise above the distractions of the pop process, but inadvertently ending up as an alarmingly attractive pop star nevertheless, while Tim Gane is irritatingly bouncing up and down, grinning and gurning like someone in one of those blessed boy bands that have spiky hair nowadays, and hang on is that Callahan huddled over the moog, thinking god knows what? That’s Callahan, as in the great lost leader of the Wolfhounds and Moonshake, one of the great pop contenders, and if I’m right there he is facing the ignominy of having to be there on TV watching Tim Gane bounce up and down like he’s in Busted or McFly or the Kaiser Chiefs. It’s a cruel world.
That aside though, what we have there is the essence of the ‘lab. Laetitia is one of the great pop figures, effortlessly cool and thoughtful, while her other ‘alf Tim is the so-called boffin, with a record collection some of us would kill for. Dare I suggest Tim is something of a Woody Allen character? We know he’s a genius, and gifted, and smarter than we’ll ever be, and knows more than we’ll ever know, but somehow we can’t warm to him, and wouldn’t want to be around him. And suspect he would be nothing without his Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. But still he’s come up with some of the greatest films ever. You see what I’m getting at?

I mean it doesn’t matter how great a song ‘Ping Pong’ is, there’s still no excuse for that haircut. Or for not looking any older in the 20 odd years I’ve been aware of him. He played guitar in McCarthy once. McCarthy was one of the great underground groups of the ‘80s. They produced some of the most wonderful songs of the ‘80s, which still sound superb. But they were terrible live. Now I’ve never seen Stereolab live, but I suspect that if performances on this DVD are anything to go by, then they suffered from the same frailties and awkwardness as McCarthy, but no matter. It’s, erm, what’s in the grooves that count, and there’s plenty to love. And there’s a kind of continuum from those underground groups like McCarthy and the Wolfhounds, through Stereolab and Moonshake, through Pram and Broadcast, to Electrelane and Tenniscoats.

Somewhere here too mention must be made of Luscious Jackson, more contenders for the greatest group of the ‘90s, who were at the time a link to the downtown NYC of ESG, Liquid Liquid, and the UK inspirations like the Slits, Raincoats, Delta 5. Somehow since their disintegration in 2000 Luscious Jackson have fallen out of favour. This is particularly cruel when since then all sorts of idiots have been credited with forging links to the NYC Noise thing of the early ‘80s which are patently preposterous. By the time Luscious Jackson went their separate ways they were producing streamlined sounds that would sound awfully at home on daytime AOR Radio Two now. But at their best they were the funkiest show in town, throwing hip hop and country into the pop pot, and boy were they ineffably cool. I would have killed for Jill Cunniff, but where is she now?

I think the last I heard of Jill was on the lovely Emmylou Harris set Red Dirt Girl, where she got to return the favour for when the scarily beautiful Emmy sang backing vocals on the Luscious Jackson classic collection Fever In Fever Out, one of the greatest LPs ever. And it was on Grand Royal too when that meant something. Remember those fantastic Grand Royal magazines? And also for Grand Royal Jill recorded the KoStars set (with comrade Viv Trimble) which is still eerily lovely and just right for a mellow summerish evening. Luscious Jackson at their best were a link between Teena Marie and the Bush Tetras, which is a brilliant thing to be. What makes me sad is the fact no one has been quite so successful in linking say twenty first century r'n’b back to the wit and wisdom of the underground pop schemers like McCarthy, mixing things up in the strangest of ways. Or maybe they have?

© 2005 John Carney