Not long ago one Philip Tagg, a musicologist, published a 150-page analysis of Abba’s “Fernando.” (“It’s not even their best song,” Simon Frith complained in a review.) Only a few years before, a particularly addled scholar devoted 500 pages to unraveling the supposed mysteries of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.”
With these and other absurdities upon us–and, as comix artists Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death remind us, with “Heartbreak Hotel”–honking sax man George, that is, Bill, Clinton in the White House (not to mention one-time rock-and-roll vocalist Tony Blair in No. 11 Downing Street, No. 10 being too small for Blair, wife, and children)–it is plain a completely new approach to pop criticism and pop history is needed. Of course, the indelible contributions pop performers have made to the occasionally dicey survival of Western civilization must be acknowledged–but we must also accept that the very same performers can instantly rise to levels of cretinism so irritating that were the end of Western civilization the price of their disappearance, it would not seem out of line. Coincidentally, this is exactly the approach taken in the pages that follow by Morton and Death.
Here, all of pop history is turned into one grand and interlocking pun, with inside dope, fans’ legends, and actual truth smeared until even the significant is a moment of the trivial, and vice versa. The pop past is not merely retold, it is corrected: if once an outraged folkie screamed “JUDAS!” at Bob Dylan and his new electric guitar, now a less apocalyptic “BOO! Do you know any Judas Priest?” seems infinitely more telling. The responsibilities of pop sociology are not ignored, just twisted. Punk rockers, we are instructed, “wore ridiculous outfits, didn’t have proper jobs and said beastly things about the Royal Family (who also wore ridiculous clothes and didn’t have proper jobs)”; in installment number 3 of The Adam Ant Story there is an invaluable lecture on why money does grow on trees. One meets familiar faces: the Shangri-las take on Richard Wagner and, in the single funniest strip in this collection, turn Siegfried into “Leader of the Pack.” Druidic songsters emerge from the mists of time as avatars of punk progeny in their now-forgotten struggle for “glade credibility.” The Devil makes off with the souls of Led Zeppelin, save that of skeptical bass player Jean-Paul Sartre (“Non,” he demurs, “l’occultisme, c’est un grand sac de merde”). There are “Pacifist Philosopher Louis Fakkarakkaran,” the Kray Twins (surrendering to the police rather than take on Sid Vicious), even a former prime minister, affectionately remembered (“Margaret Hecate Thatcher, Whore of Babylon”).
The panels themselves are busy, jammed with references bumping into each other and into those of strips ten or twenty pages before or after. Very little, in these versions of the pop faces that have been reproduced so many times over, is precisely what it seems. Sometimes it is, though–as with one signal drawing of Johnny Rotten, who first appears as a tubercular waif in a Hogarthian re-creation of that famous day when he was kidnapped by a pedophile in front of Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop (sorry, I mean recruited for a pop group), and who takes on definitive form only much later, in part 1 of The Adam Ant Story.
In full regalia, dripping badges, strips of clothing, and a huge safety pin, his mouth opens. “GO AWAY I DON’T LIKE ANY OF YOU, MAAAN!” he says–and he looks just like a compost pile. I cut that panel out of the paper when it first appeared, and pinned it to the wall. I look at it every month or so, always wondering how it feels to get something so right. That is one of the few pop questions not answered in Great Pop Things.
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The great pop question left unanswered by Great Pop Things, though, is the question raised on top of strip after strip: how can pop change the world? It’s the strip’s running joke, the joke being on anyone who ever thought pop could change the world–or anything bigger than last week’s charts. “Nazis try to change the world with their Wagner and fail dismally,” runs an early newsbreak; it’s all downhill from there, though as the joke turns cold there are priceless moments along the way. Dylan “tried to change the world by setting various suggestions about how the world should be changed to music and singing them with his acoustical guitar,” then “by making various suggestions about how the world should be changed couched in gnarled gnostic songs backed by a loud electric rock band,” “gnarled gnostic songs” being one of the better phrases rock criticism has turned up in the last 35 years. Eric Clapton “tried to change the world by being God” (usually works, if you are); the Grateful Dead “tried to change the world by playing continuously since 1966” (that did work, unfortunately); Bruce Springsteen “tried to change the world by giving his wealth away–which,” Morton and Death add, “is actually quite a good way.” But a sourness creeps in, with endless variations on how Frank Zappa “tried to change the world with this sort of square beardy thing in the middle of his chin,” Abba trying “to change the world by snogging other people behind each other’s backs in public,” the Police trying “to change the world by dressing up as policemen,” or the countless one-time heroes who tried to change the world by wearing something no one else had worn before, or at least not during the previous week.
Despite continuing wonders–The Charles Manson Story retold in the form of It’s a Wonderful Life, Elvis Presley wielding the severed head of Adolf Hitler, Frank Sinatra carving “I’m 4F” into his arm, an astonishingly tasteless and complex panel on the murder of John Lennon, or Captain Beefheart’s high-school yearbook–a bitter, self-mocking, humiliated tone creeps into the tale.
It’s the sound of people humiliated by their own desires, their own dreams, their own demands. Because, you see, this constant, running joke is not always pitched in the future-past conditional. It can slip past you, the first time the true past of the idea arrives, in The Sex Pistols Story Part 4: “They changed the world with their SWEARING on TELLY.” But when the saga resumes 20 years later, with Princess Di now a full-fledged member of the group and Johnny Rotten an unhappy grandmother (or so he looks), the boomerang of Morton and Death’s apparent shaggy-dog story is all too clear, and it hits them like it hits the reader, in the face. “Sex Pistols reform for ’96,” reads the headline, with a broken A projected like the Batman sign into the night sky outside Johnny Rotten’s window: “THEY TRIED TO CHANGE THE WORLD AGAIN TWENTY YEARS AFTER THEY HAD FIRST CHANGED THE WORLD.” That’s the problem with this joke. Once, the authors say–as if against their will, or as if to tell a truth that can only be told as a slip, as a joke, as a mistake–pop did change the world, and the authors like not a few others can’t stop hating themselves for believing that the first time wasn’t the last time. Hard to credit, as one pages through the adventures of the Sugarcubes, Tin Machine, or Jackson Browne (“He tried to change the world by telling it that Darryl Hall had chucked him and now he’s fed up!”), and, looking once more at Johnny Rotten denouncing a curious Adam Ant and anyone else within earshot, a notion just as hard to dismiss–even if, well before these words see print, Morton and Death will have likely trumped that notion, as history may have already done, if history has not, in its perverse way, confirmed it. It is, you see, The Ugly Rumors Story, starring Tony Blair: “He tried to change the world by quitting his band and promising never to sing rock & roll again!”–and, who knows, it might even work.
(Panel at top of screen feat. Greil Marcus taken from p. 109 of GPT.)