A Thousand Points of Light

Few people will know that the Prime Minister’s Office issues a daily Points of Light award. The awards are designed to reward exceptional acts of community service or volunteering. Some of the people granted awards certainly represent the very best of philanthropic achievement and endeavour.

The phrase “Points of Light” is a direct quote from George H. W. Bush (right), who first used it when accepting his nomination as the 1988 Republican presidential candidate. His speechwriters were attempting to capture the idea of the American community as

a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

In the speech, this undeniably powerful image is immediately followed by a hard-edged passage on social policy, in which inter alia Bush issues his infamous pledge “read my lips: no new taxes”; sings the praises of capital punishment; and demands “zero tolerance” for drug dealers.

To me, the phrase has always seemed backward. Light itself is reliant on darkness in order to create a contrast. The use of the phrase in the speech makes that reliance explicit: these “points of light” are stars. To take the phrase literally, it suggests a predominantly dark environment.

In other words, Bush’s phrase – with its rhetorical intention to create a sense of hope – actually implied the opposite.

Bush went on to win the Presidency. He repeated the “thousand points of light” phrase in his inaugural address. He also wanted a “kinder and gentler nation” – a soundbite that quickly turned sour.

A month later, Neil Young performed a new song live for the first time. It was called “Rockin’ in the Free World”, and it was released on record in November 1989.**

A victim of circumstance, Young’s song would quickly become associated with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But his poetry had a very different aim. The song was, and remains, a caustic assessment of Bush’s administration: its three verses seethe with ambivalence and anger about the state of American society and the country’s influence in the world – then at its absolute peak.

In the third verse, Young takes direct aim at the emptiness and hypocrisy of political rhetoric:

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand

In two sentences Young demolishes Bush’s insubstantial posturing. The first contrasts the hopey-changey rhetoric of “a thousand points of light” with the darkness that consumes millions of lives. The second mocks “kinder, gentler” by raising the spectre of Bush’s own history as CIA head and Iran/Contra collaborator – not to mention the wider US foreign policy escapades which, in the first verse, had left Young singing “don’t feel like Satan – but I am to them”.

But Young doesn’t stop there. The third verse takes in the US citizen-as-consumer, decrying “department stores and toilet paper/styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”. He then goes on:

Got a man of the people says keep hope alive

And here is the sting in the tail. “Keep hope alive” was Jesse Jackson’s campaign slogan when running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. The mocking tag “man of the people” shows just what Young thinks of it. Against a Republican candidate basing his campaign on shallow rhetoric, the American left in the late 1980s could muster nothing but equally vacuous slogans.

David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an attempt to find another way to say the same thing. Steve Hilton, for a while the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, used to be fond of wearing a tee-shirt that said “Big Society Not Big Government” (see example, right).

The idea presented to us was that as the bloated state got out of the way, it would be replaced by a more active and philanthropic civic society. But as this 2013 demolition of the policy’s pretended principles argued, it was a mere cipher, making room for the same traditional – and inadequate – paternalism.

No wonder it was quietly abandoned.

Nowadays, in the UK in 2015, the Conservative government so lacks ways to veil its continued campaign to unpick a comprehensive state-funded social security system that it is content simply to recycle Bush’s sloganeering. So it doles out daily Points of Light awards.

I do not suggest that the people receiving such awards are undeserving. Their work is valuable and, in many ways, increasingly so. But like the inexorable rise of food banks run by volunteers, the gaps opening up in our society are too wide for them to fill. They are sailors using tiny buckets to bail out a sinking ship as the icy ocean waters begin to freeze their blood.

Here is the nub of the matter: we live in dangerous times. We live in an era when the government is able to pass “reforms” to the social insurance system we have without a shred of opposition from, well, the official opposition. We live in a corrosive atmosphere where the foreigner is increasingly regarded not merely with suspicion but with outright hatred.

And the UK left is about to elect someone whose ability to hammer out an alternative is seriously questionable. In short, they’re going to elect a “man of the people” who says “keep hope alive”, but whose version of hope is as relevant as George H. W. Bush is now. A man who says on becoming leader he will apologise for a war that happened so long ago that the gap between it and today is already as long as the gap between it and the war that preceded it.

When people see that this “man of the people” is nothing more than a decent human being trapped in a vice of his own devising, slowly squeezed to death by a combination of a totally idealistic left and a resistant right, they will turn elsewhere. They will look for other populist movements. They will look for other plain talkers. And most of all, they will want someone whose politics match their fears.

Meanwhile those same fears will be amplified, by degrees and by stealth, by the government, which will chart a course that, by comparison, seems all moderation and good sense.

Got fuel to burn. Got roads to drive.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world.*

*The total usurpation of this song was completed recently by Donald Trump’s unauthorised decision to use it when announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The wheel turns.

**The performance Neil Young gave of RITFW on Saturday Night Live in 1989 is justly regarded as one of the greatest live TV performances of all time. He worked himself into a frenzy backstage in order to mimic the feeling of performing an encore after a full two hour set. And it shows.

A Song for Saturday: Bjork – Black Lake

I have a tenuous relationship with Bjork’s music. She released her ninth studio album, Vulnicura, meaning “Cure for Wounds” in January this year, and it’s certainly not a summery listen, but I’ve come to it late, so you’ll have to deal with this somewhat unseasonal choice.

The album is as conceptual as any of her previous work, dealing with the break-up of her long-term relationship with artist Matthew Barney. It is a work of deep emotional honesty and can be quite difficult to listen to at points. Thankfully the pain of the lyrics is matched by the beauty of the music, which signals at least a partial return to the “beats and strings” approach of her early albums, Debut and especially 1997’s Homogenic, which remains my favourite of hers.

(Incidentally, 1997 was probably the greatest single year for music since the 1970s.)

“Black Lake” is the dark heart of the album, which is so precisely linked to real-life events that many of the tracks have subtitles detailing the number of months before or after the break-up. 10 minutes long, it was written “two months after”, and bears the hallmarks of the stuttering beginnings of understanding and anger that swirl around at such a time.

The singer herself professes to be embarrassed by the track, and this quote sums up perfectly the feeling it creates as you listen to it:

It’s like, when you’re trying to express something and you sort of start, but then nothing comes out. You can maybe utter five words and then you’re just stuck in the pain. And the chords in-between, they sort of represent that. […] We called them “the freezes,” these moments between the verses. They’re longer than the verses, actually. It’s just that one emotion when you’re stuck. It is hard, but it’s also the only way to escape the pain, just going back and having another go, trying to make another verse.

The film made to accompany the music is also characteristically beautiful and overwrought in equal measure.

A Song for Saturday: Tom Paxton – On the Road from Srebrenica

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War. The death toll in Srebrenica was more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, gunned down by the Bosnian Serbs under the generalship of Ratko Mladic, who remains on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity, including the events at Srebrenica.

I have been fascinated and disturbed by the genocide at Srebrenica since my childhood. One of my earliest memories is watching news footage of the Bosnian war and the Siege of Sarajevo; I have a vivid memory of the smoke and flames billowing from the Parliament building, and the distinctive yellow block of the Holiday Inn, where most of the foreign media were based during the war.

Srebrenica has special resonance for me partly because of a song written by the American folk singer, Tom Paxton. We used to listen to Tom Paxton a lot when I was a child, and many of his songs were cutesy throwaways: zany treats like “Goin’ to the Zoo” and funny little vignettes such as “I Don’t Want a Bunny Wunny“, a musing upon President Jimmy Carter’s encounter with a vicious killer rabbit.

On the Road from Srebrenica, though, is Paxton at his most visceral, serious and human; a mournful retelling of the brutal violence meted out, through a series of disturbing images. The lyrics zoom in and out from individuals among the panicked thousands fleeing; they dwell on the sickening efficacy of the murder; they provide that mixture of awful dread and just enough humanity (in the carefully hopeful third verse) to sock you in the gut every time you listen to it.

Ok, it has some poetic licence: Paxton seems obsessed with the idea that the weather was cold, even though the massacre occurred in July, and Eastern European countries including Bosnia are generally very warm at that time of year. But the essential truth of the song can’t be denied.

It is a fitting memorial for one of the greatest blots on human history. It still astonishes me that this occurred in my lifetime.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js-wEJR0cM8]

The Sunday Spotify: Caught Off Guard

Having dealt with outros in my previous playlist, this week it’s the turn of the intro to hold centre stage. This week’s collection includes intros that catch you off guard – whether it’s because of a confusing polyrhythm, a shift of tempo, or simply a great bit of instrumentation, one that grabs you by the ears and forces you to pay attention.

The list kicks off with Rope, by Foo Fighters, a beautiful example of that band’s capacity to create a sound that is both complicated

It’s quite dominated by classic rock, but you can’t look past some of these. More interesting choices include the Hollies’ surprisingly muscular hit, Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress), which comes knocking on your door masquerading as something far less catchy than it turns out to be.

A Song for Saturday: Van Morrison – Caravan

On the weekend when it was announced that Van the Man is becoming Sir Van, it’s only appropriate that this week’s Song for Saturday choice is one of his best cuts.

“Caravan” was originally to be found on my favourite Van Morrison album, Moondance. On that studio version, it’s contemplative, even louche; it sounds like a travelling song, rather than a rabble-rouser. There’s some wistful sounding orchestration, and the tempo is considered and moderate. Van sounds soulful but restrained and controlled – when he sings “turn it up – that’s enough” you feel that he means it. And the coda is insistent without ever losing that sense of control.

But I know the song better from the 1976 concert The Last Waltz, famously documented by Martin Scorsese as the farewell gig by The Band. You feel like even Van himself, a famously taciturn, even morose, performer – a malcontent in dark suits – was caught up in the heady atmosphere. The tempo is upbeat, with Levon Helm (one of my all-time favourite drummers, a man whose vocal chops meant he played for the song as well as anyone) driving it with his almost lyrical ride cymbal and hiccuping snare fills. Meanwhile Van’s there at the front, giving it everything, in a kind of weird purple jumpsuit that screams “it’s the 1970s”.

I love the anticipation of the instrumental section around the 3:20 mark. Robbie Robertson picks out a couple of rootsy licks and Van scats a bit. But then, he sings “turn it up” and the song is carried to another plane. The coda in this version is just relentless, building and building until it becomes overwhelming. Van kicks the air, descending into incoherence, and eventually drifts off the stage as if in a trance. You can feel the enjoyment of the entire Band, especially the glee on Robertson’s and Helm’s faces.

An appropriate way to celebrate a knighthood.

The Sunday Spotify: Ten Great Outros

I’m beginning a new series of weekend music posts to sit alongside the already well-established and highly-respected “Song for Saturday” tag. Each week on a Sunday I’ll publish a ten-song Spotify playlist around a specific theme, whether that’s to do with geography, style, band members, instrumentation or whatever else takes my fancy.

Today we start with a playlist inspired by my post on dEUS’ Instant Street last week. Having listened to the song back-to-back several times (as my Last.fm library will attest), I began thinking about other songs with extended outros that completely change the feel of the track, arguably elevating it to some new plain, whether of beauty, intensity, or simple excellence.

Without further ado – here’s my list. It features some very long codas (such as Yes’ Starship Trooper) and some very short ones (Alison Gross, the song that rocks the hardest without drums you’ll ever have heard, and is ended by a sudden clash of discordant guitar that still sounds genuinely shocking, at least to my ears). It’s probably also the only playlist where RHCP’s Sir Psycho Sexy is preceded by Karma Police.

What did I miss? Tell me in the comments.

A Song for Saturday: Low – In Metal

This is a song for those who feel fragile on a Saturday.

Low are a band just weird enough never to be well-known, but accessible enough for anyone who really wants to listen. It’s claimed that they are the leaders of what came to be known as a subgenre called “slowcore”, although they hate that label. I just think of them as a really great minimalist rock band, one that writes songs that take time to creep up on you and steal your heart.

In Metal is the closing track on what I still think is their best album, 1999’s “Things We Lost In the Fire”. It’s a sprawling record, nearly an hour long – and at the pace Low play, it feels that long, although never dull. I saw them perform the whole album live at the Barbican in 2006, as part of the Don’t Look Back series, one of All Tomorrow’s Parties best innovations.

The song is about the child of the two founder members of Low, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and it even features recordings of the baby cooing, making the “tiny sounds” referred to in the first line. The lyrics are minimal enough to be quoted here in their entirety:

Filling holes with tiny sounds

Shining from the inside out

Picture of you where it began

In metal, in metal

Partly hate to see you grow

And just like your baby shoes

Wish I could keep your little body

In metal, in metal

In metal, in metal

In metal, in metal

The music is lovely and highlights the band’s gift for harmony, as well as showing what can be done with a broad dynamic range and a sense of momentum. But it’s among the most moving songs I can think of. I’m not a parent, but this song makes me feel like one. The sense of bittersweet emotion and love and care is almost overwhelming.