Tuesday, February 14, 2006

When pop gets its marching orders.....

This week, I shall be talking about pop stars going into combat. Gear, that is. Military chic is big in the pop world. Musicians from every pop genre seem to have reached for the khakis at some point. Here are just a few of my favourite examples of poppers who have 'done their service,' as it were. Ten 'hup!
We start, rather fittingly in my favourite location, the Balkans, a place where people aren't averse to going to war. Falling into line for us, are soldierly Slovenians Laibach, one arm (but not the right one!) of art collective Neue Slovenische Kunst (NSK). Laibach have made a career out of dressing up in military gear, striking mock-socialist realist poses, and shouting about totalitarianism.

"Ja, ja, jawooohl!" Laibach go into un-PC style overdrive

Laibach have plundered every military style going, from blackshirt chic to leather-chapped Yugoslavian partisan mode. But is the music as martial as the look? Yup. The fanatic foursome have written songs about Tito, Nato, sampled the sound of marching soldiers, and tastefully called a European tour 'Occupied Europe.' They have also covered Status Quo's 'In the Army Now' and re-recorded entire Beatles and Rolling Stones albums inna Teutonic marching band stylee. Their version of 'Get Back' is hilarious. The band, clearly desperate to ruffle a few feathers, were last spotted wearing Heinrich Himmler's cast-offs.

You're in the army now.
Not with that mess on your uniform, you're not! A hundred push-ups for you, soldier!!!

Pop fact: In 1991, NSK declared that it was no longer an art collective, but a state - 'A state in time, a state without territory and national borders. ' Should you fancy an extra nationality, you can purchase an NSK passport here.
Back on the grey shores of the UK, let's extend a firm, authoritarian hand to Throbbing Gristle. Four sonic terrorists from Hull, the Gristle are/were another bunch of artists pretending to be musicians. TG caused a bit of a stir in the late 70s and early 80s, by making an absolute racket, and singing about about topics such as pornography and death camps. The band's chirpy Goebbels-esque slogan was 'Nothing short of Total War.' For their publicity shots, the group posed in army uniforms, which they claimed was a 'subversion of symbols of power and systems of control'. But I reckon they also did it 'cos it looked cool and a bit scary, especially on spooky-eyed front man, Genesis P-Orridge.

Your local neighbourhood watch:
Throbbing Gristle in battle dress mode.

Martial drum rolls? Unlike their Slavic cousins Laibach, TG weren't trying to turn Led Zep's back catalogue into the 'Horst Wessel Lied.' They preferred feedback and weird trumpets. But they did earn some stripes by recording songs entitled 'Discipline', 'The World is a War Film' and 'Weapon Training,' as well as releasing a single in a camouflage slip cover and running around dressed like militant survivalists in their videos.
TG Pop Fact: Before his transformation into a semi-woman, P-Orridge bore an uncanny resemblance to David Bennett, the actor who played Oskar Matzareth, the midget whose screams could shatter glass, in the film 'The Tin Drum.'

General P-Orridge enjoys
some r 'n' r.

Winging our way in a volley of jet fighters over to the USA, and into radically different musical territory, we crash land on, and then apologise profusely to agit-rappers Public Enemy. PE pioneered political rap, and to complement their militant, confrontational lyrics, were accompanied on stage by their paramilitary security force/'dancers' SWI (Security of the First World). Whilst front men Chuck D, Flavour Flav, and Terminator X sported a casual hip-hop look, the SWI donned everything from grey and white camouflage to the central African dictator-meets-cruise ship captain dress of the Nation of Islam (see album 'Apocalypse 91- The Empire Strikes Black'). More recently, the groups unsmiling pretorian guard have been flaunting more modest bullet-proof SWAT-team chic. War dance? Actually, more anti-war: PE wrote 'Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos' about a black man refusing the draft during the Vietnam war.

Party for the right to fight:The SWI in
Farrakhan mode. Note Professor Griff's (fr)
convincing impression of an action man

Pop fact: The Security of the First World were recruited from the Long Island militant activist organisation Unity Force, and headed by Professor Griff, who acted as PE's 'Minister of Information'. Griff is an ex-military policeman, and was fired from PE for his anti-semitic outbursts, leading many to nickname him 'Minister for Propaganda.' After he left the group, just to prove he wasn't as aggressive as people thought he was, he worked briefly as a bounty hunter.
We set our battleship's co-ordinates for the U.K, and hark! What's that I hear? Why, it sounds like the protests of those bleeding-heart pop peaceniks who wear khaki because, well, it's wrong to send young men off to war! My first chosen representatives of this over-populated camp are none other than The Clash. The Clash embraced the army shirt 'n' corporal's hat look with gusto for their 'Combat Rock' album.

Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer get ready for The Call Up

They didn't normally go for entire uniforms (although they sometimes got a bit carried away), instead playing with the odd army garment to add that special something to their rock 'n' roll garb. Although The Clash were anti-war, their soldierly style suggests they weren't averse to benefitting from it's sartorial side-effects.
Music to march to? 'Combat Rock' contains a multitude of references to war, particularly Vietnam. 'Straight to Hell' is about the children born to Vietnamese mothers and American GI fathers, and 'Sean Flynn' was inspired by the war photographer and son of Errol, who was captured and allegedly executed by the Viet Cong in 1971. In fact, there were numerous nods to the battlefield on most Clash albums ('Spanish Bombs', 'Sandanista', 'The Call Up', 'The Dictator' etc, etc.). In fact, the band probably wrote more songs about combat than any other pop group, prior to the birth of the Wu Tang Clan.
Pop fact: I had the privilege of spending my 18th birthday in the company of Joe Strummer. He was shorter than me, and when we were introduced, he said, 'Blimey, they make 'em tall these days, don't they?' Yes, I know. It's not really a pop fact. Or very interesting for that matter.

Next up for inspection is weedy warbler Kate Bush, a highly unlikely army recruit if ever there was one. Bush dressed up in helmet and grease paint for the 'Army Dreamers' video, during which, our heroine, possibly the last person you'd want leading the troops in battle, is blown away, several times.

Private Bush: No General Patton

Kate's song was inspired by war films, but her take on these films certainly sent out mixed messages. This is a quote from an interview she did in the 1970s: "Well, whenever I see the news, it's always the same depressing things. Wars' hostages, and people's arms hanging off with all the tendons hanging out, you know. So I tend not to watch it much. I prefer to go and see a movie or something, where it's all put much more poetically: people getting their heads blown off in slow motion, very beautifully." Er, I thought you were supposed to be anti-war, Kate.

"Lets go to war!"
Frankie and his boys get ready for (chart) combat.
Note unconvincing war 'wounds' sported by Brian 'Nasher' Nash (furthest right).

Our convoy of jeeps reaches it's final destination, in the superficial camp of Pop-Lite, where wearing fatigues is less down to political convictions than a good stylist ("Yeah, its stylish but like, an anti-war statement, too you know?"). The first posers for peace on my list are those cheeky clones, Frankie goes to Hollywood. In 1984, Frankie raided their local army surplus store to kit themselves out for Cold War chant 'Two Tribes.' The video featured Reagan and the Soviet PM engaging in fisticuffs. OK, it is a political song, but I bet FGTH were pleased to get the chance to wear the stuff they wore down at Trade on Top of the Pops.
Old, well-known Frankie pop fact: 'Two Tribes' contains the baffling line 'Sock it to me biscuits yeah!'
Another shiny-buttoned example of a pop singer gone paramilitary is Madonna in her 'American Life' video. Major Madge parades around in Che Guevara and Elvis in Germany style togs, and gets to throw a grenade at a George Bush-alike.

Corporal Ciccone gets ready to
defend 'American Life' from the critics
Models stride down catwalks in camouflage burkahs and necklaces made out of grenades, followed by a boy pretending to be a suicide bomber. Sadly, when the Americans invaded Iraq, Madge deserted her anti-war stance in a moment of bland, 'I'm not anti-anyone' cowardice. Bah! If it was WW2 she'd have been up for a court-marshall!
More recently, the Spice Girls adopted a 40's aviator-Belle look for their first concert, perhaps in order to show that they're like a 'unit, again, yeah?' Or maybe the beginning of the battle of the egos. I'll stop now...
The Spice Girls, appropriately attired, begin their campaign for world domination

Like the occupation of Iraq, this entry could go on much longer than it should, so I have decided to "Halt!" here.
For you dear readers, this entry is over! As John Stewart Mill once said "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things." No , dear readers, that would be Marilyn Manson wearing a white SS uniform, or Keith Moon dressed as Hitler, or Elton bashin' away at his joanna, dressed up like the leader of a military Junta!
Ten 'hup!


Catherine said...

Well, American Life (with extra Lara Croft) was apparently the inspiration for Severina's Hrvatica video two years ago - which I still need to see all the way through, or possibly don't!

maisieh said...

Oh my god. She is fantastic. Really plastic.

Catherine said...

The most worrying thing is that five years ago she used to look like Cherie Blair rather than Angelina Jolie!

Tijana Dapčević (Macedonia/Serbia) probably ought to be on your list too...

coturnix said...

I remember when Leibach first started - it was quite shocking for the soft-pop culture of Yugoslavia at the time.

ErosGod1 said...

Up with the Plastic Life!

I came here clickin'over the Popol Vuh link, I've heard them only in a Herzog films, can you give me a link for get more music of them?

Thanks, your site is seducer, I'll be back.

The Plastic Ono Band counts?

maisieh said...

Here you go:


alex said...

you've got quite the blog.
i think it's really cool.
you like the clash and laibach? i do.
if you could give me more info on where to find turbo-folk music or videos that would be realeat.
you can E-mail me at challi_1369@yahoo.ca
or contact my blog at www.sdgfhzt.blogspot.com