Banned! Music and The Opening Ceremony

You knew that last night’s Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be musically special when the first minute included Elgar, The Jam, the Eton Boating Song and Fuck Button’s ‘Surf Solar’, as the camera tracked from the source of the Thames down to the Olympic Park.

Fuck Buttons!

This is, by definition, the most mainstream event on the plant, and Fuck Buttons are there, right at the start as a wild and wonderful flag-waving celebration of what is real and wonderful about our world. Not built-by-numbers pop hits, but by a gorgeous, brutal piece of Andrew Weatherall-produced synth noise, a ‘Glider’ for this decade.

Underworld, who masterminded the soundtrack to the ceremony, subverted everything music is supposed to do at a showcase event like the Olympics. Instead of broadcasting pop hits that were built with profit in mind, or that smooth out the rough edges of life into a lowest common denominator average, they took the music not underground, because these were predominantly pieces of music we all know and love, but back to the margins, where all the most interesting things begin.

Along with the aforementioned Fuck Buttons, whose name is censored down to a more acceptable F Buttons on TV and radio, the show also included at least five pieces of music that were either banned at the time of release or that had a controversial relationship with the establishment. There was not just one Sex Pistols track, but two, starting with God Save The Queen and culminating with the pogoing punks with big heads going mental to Pretty Vacant, a song whose chorus is usually sung along to with particular focus on the last two syllables of the final word.

You can only imagine what David Cameron made of it. #savethesurprise? Ho ho, yes!

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ was intended by ZTT label co-founder Paul Morely as ‘an assault on pop’, an overt recognition of the band’s keystone reference points of sex, war and religion. Let’s not forget that the original ads for the release featured images of Rutherford in a sailor cap and leather vest and were accompanied by the legend ‘All The Nice Boys Love Sea Men’. As well having all the requisite rub points for an AIDS-bombarded youth, it was an awesome piece of pop music that cost producer Trevor Horn a reported £70,000 of studio costs.

Then there’s Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, the most commercial tip of an iceberg that started with hardcore and rave and their early shows at Dalston’s rave-mine Labyrynth and wheeled through jungle before ending up with the freak-faced hardcore pop of ‘Firestarter’. The video was banned by the BBC on the laughable basis that it might encourage arson.

I could go on, about the brilliant use of Underworld’s ‘Dark and Long’ (also used to soundtrack Renton’s worst hallucination in Trainspotting) or how grime was celebrated and showcased, or about how the athletes walked into the stadium to the sound of The Chemical Brother’s ‘Galvanise’ or about the twitter query that maybe, had the KLF organised the opening ceremony? (answer: there would have been a damn sight more blood and burning if they had) or just the whole, fantastic honesty of the thing. But instead, can I just say a heartfelt thank you to whoever let Danny Boyle and Underworld do whatever they wanted. It was an emotional, political, musical riot.

Just imagine, we could have had Gary Barlow in charge.

Fuck Buttons pic: mehan jayasuriya

Sound At The Science Museum

I went along to the Science Museum Lates night because it was exploring the science behind music. I was imagining exhibits about the power of sound waves, or perhaps some music, and maybe some machines. What I got instead was a metaphorical punch in the heart courtesy of a remarkable man called Professor Nigel Osbourne, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. You can see a YouTube clip of him talking here and here.

The billing in the programme looked cool: ‘Music, Neuroscience and the Real World’ and I hustled Robbie and Petra from Live Magazine, who’d come down to cover it, down to the ground floor so we made sure we got in. We were led down to the basement and into a room with round primary-coloured cushions on the floor and a jolly looking chap standing at the front. He used the microphone to tell us he didn’t want to use the microphone, putting it one side with a comment about not wanting or needing a ‘digital advantage’ and began a fascinating, moving half an hour which we heard about children he’d worked with in war-torn Sarajevo, in northern Uganda, in the world’s most densely populated place, Balata camp in Palestine, and along a disputed border of Thailand and Myanmar.

He interspersed stories about these traumatised children with facts about how trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder have a physiological effect on breathing, heart-rate and movement – and how music can counter these negative effects. It can alter the heart-rate, and slow the over-charged heartbeat of a traumatised person. Singing exercises the lungs (you use 100% of the lung capacity when you’re singing, as compared to 60% when exercising hard) negating the shallow, irregular breathing of someone suffering from PTSD, and music can deal with the hyperactivity or lack of response that’s common in children suffering in this way. We’re hardwired for sound, he said, banging a cupboard. We respond to noise, react to it, get information from it. Music, he said, probably exists as a response to our need to move to sound.

The real choker was when he showed us some footage to reinforce what he’d been saying. In one clip we saw him singing songs to a primary school-age group of children with disabilities who usually spent most of the day beating each other up and thus spent the day in a specially padded room. One boy was sitting in the circle, just to the left of the Professor. He never vocalised, we were told and was sitting mute with a tambourine on his lap. But half way through the song he stood up, began banging the tambourine and started making sound; singing, really.

Music, he said, can’t heal anything, but it can assist in the process of healing: it can make healing possible. It can be an agent for social change. We know that… but it was wonderful to see some of the science behind it.

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