Tales of the unexpected

For decades, the lyrics of the sublime Talking Heads song Heaven have been a subject of intense debate among fans of the band. The refrain “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” seems to suggest one meaning but the lines “When this kiss is over it will start again/It will not be any different/It will be exactly the same” take it somewhere else. Finally, the thought “It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun” muddies the waters still further.

Among the many interpretations of this oblique masterpiece, one of the most popular views is that it’s a lament on David Byrne’s hectic life at the time and his desire for a break, an empty schedule, the chance to go away for a while and totally chill out. Drummer Chris Frantz seems to confirm this perspective in his sleevenotes for the Talking Heads compilation album Sand In The Vaseline: “Sometimes rock stars get over-stimulated and the idea of a place where nothing ever happens sounds pretty appealing.”

However, another popular view of the song – one that rings true for me – is that Byrne is saying that ‘Heaven’ is an illusion created by us to try and add meaning to our lives, but true meaning comes from having a finite existence; Heaven is boredom, dull nothingness, not all that…and that the interesting stuff is happening right here – the true buzz is living in the now.

Is Talking Heads’ ‘Heaven’ perfection or monotony? Who knows for sure, but I think one of the most interesting things about it is that people are even asking that question. That it’s a ‘pop’ song but also a kind of philosophical treatise. It moves me in a way I don’t quite understand and plays to my love of things that do something different or unexpected for their genre.

As another example, back in 1999, many viewers turned on The Sopranos expecting standard gangster fare, but soon got sucked into a deeply Shakespearean drama the likes of which had not been seen on television up until that point. It was less of a quick-hit telly show and more a mash-up of King Lear and Hamlet transported to New Jersey. Similarly, you might have expected The Streets’ 2004 album A Grand Don’t Come For Free to be another album of tuneful beats and deadbeat raps. But in fact it was turned out to be a poignant morality play in musical form. Some people might have bought a ticket for the film Under The Skin expecting a standard Scarlett Johansson movie; anyone who’s seen it would probably agree it’s far stranger and darker than that. And anyone who picked up Watchmen because they were a casual fan of superhero comics or graphic novels wouldn’t have been anywhere near prepared for the existential mindquake they would have experienced on reading it.

This might seem extremely obvious and ‘do something different’ sounds like such a cliché. But doing something not usually done in a genre feels like such a simple way to stand out. And in advertising, it’s used way too rarely. Most car ads look like car ads, most make-up ads are basically interchangeable and almost all beer ads are playing in the same area, tonally. The media gets set beforehand, the ad agency fils in the boxes, the work ends up being wallpaper. Which is why I love the mesmerisingly unique Ikea beds ad, the fact that Nike Fuelband is a training aid not an ad and that when briefed to do an ad campaign for a life insurance company, a Korean agency did this.

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Don’t be a tit rifle. Play from your fucking heart.

Off the back of my last post, a few people have taken issue with my love of Morrissey. He’s clearly not everyone’s cuppa, but that was my point. In a world of bland, boring, apolitical music, he’s one man who’s not afraid to have an opinion and shout about it. Whether it’s Coldplay, Kasbian, Bastille, Ed Sheeran, Kaiser Chiefs and the like serving up their torturously vanilla fare, some X Factor muppet’s soulless cover versions or the latest R&B twat wanging on about Cristal, limos and nightclubs, it’s hard to find an actual point of view in contemporary music, let alone what you might call protest music. All too often, the passion, politics, piss and vinegar comes from old farts like Springsteen, Dylan and Neil Young. If Bill Hicks was still around, he’d be appalled (as is made clear above). And as a parent, I’d be horrified if my kids got into Mumford & Sons or the like.

I know I’m at risk of sounding like an old fart when I diss current music and bring up the crusty old artists I love, so I was excited to hear from a mate about an excellent group who absolutely aren’t in the heritage rock Uncut set. Sleaford Mods are a brilliantly demented pair of grumpy fuckers who use the medium of ranting electronic punk rock beat poetry to tear strips off all the shit they hate, from hipsters with fake accents to Oasis (“Butlins indie”), Jamie Hince of The Kills, Thatcher, the Royal family, Tories, Chumbawaumba (who “weren’t political, they were just crap”) and “St George’s Flag twats”. On You’re Brave, a wannabe hipster dad completely cops it: “Nicked your biscuits, laughed with your mates, wanked in your toilet, you fucking tit rifle.”

The heavy atmosphere of punky rage with the bullshitometer turned up to 11 feels like a mash-up of all manner of heroic trouble-makers from Suicide, PiL, Squirrel and G-Man-era Happy Mondays, The Streets, The Fall, Dizzee Rascal, Manic Street Preachers and Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked to the poetry of John Cooper Clarke and the films of Alan Clarke. “Anger is an energy” as John Lydon once growled and this is a gloriously contrary racket that’ll remind every kid picking up a guitar/microphone/keyboard/sampler/whatever that music can and should be a life-changing force with the power to bust the chops of hypocrites and arseholes. Stick on Sleaford Mods’ new album Divide and Exit and scare the neighbours. Share it with the teenagers in your life. After all, as our old friend Bill wondered, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children?”

Weird, mental, pretentious…sublime: this is the best thing I’ve seen in years

From the age of 13 until 21, Steven Patrick Morrissey from Davyhulme, Manchester was my hero. For me, The Smiths were the greatest band that ever lived and my teenage years are forever entwined with their poetry, art and sublime Rickenbacher-driven chords. Morrissey was the inspiration behind my becoming a vegetarian, the kitchen sink dramas he championed marked my teenage years indelibly and his Wildean wit was my guiding light.

Since those days, my relationship with Morrissey has been up and down like a boy racer in a souped up motor on an Essex high street. His first post-Smiths album, Viva Hate, remains his best solo album by many country miles. Sadly, alongside the poignant genius of songs like Late Night, Maudlin Street and Suedehead lurked a depressing ode to xenophobia, Bengali In Platforms. The first time I heard it – on the cassette I’d rushed home from the shop with on the day of its release – was like being punched in the face unexpectedly by your best friend. My family is from Bangladesh, I was born there and here was my idol telling us to “Shelve your Western plans…life is hard enough when you belong here.”

While I eventually decided to put that patronising racist bollocks down as a misguided attempt at a profound state of the nation observation, this was my first taste of the hard life lesson that your heroes are never perfect. Morrissey was no longer up on a pedestal but back down at ground level with the rest of us. His fallibility was confirmed by his dire solo career. While he’s occasionally hit some peaks – Now My Heart Is Full is one of the greatest songs of all time – the duds far outweigh the diamonds. However, as the man himself has noted, the word is full of crashing bores. And Morrissey absolutely refuses to be one of them.

I love that this man stands firm behind what he believes and that there is no-one else like him on the planet. I love his fearless cheer-leading and trouble-making for vegetarianism and animal rights, his abhorrence of the royal family and his insightful disdain for the idiocy of politicians. He’s a clear-eyed specialist in telling truth to power, a master of belly laughter in the dark, a thorn in the side of wankers and hypocrites. Long may he create art and prosper, long may he surprise us and make us laugh. Long may he continue to give us unique and brilliantly pretentious meditations on what it means to be human, like the masterpiece above.

That Shakespeare bloke’s not a bad copywriter

Wow. This is properly beautiful stuff from Mother and Juan Cabral (and William S). I actually don’t quite get what’s going on – is she dreaming, is it a metaphor for how comfortable she is in an Ikea bed or is it just a fantastical piece of film to showcase the product range? But who cares? Like Cadbury’s Gorilla they’ve left it open for the viewer to fill in the narrative blanks. It’s lovely and kind of pretentious in a sublime, Guinness Surfer-y way. It’ll leap out of the telly and pin people to their seats in the cinema. Best commercial of 2014 by a country mile.

“The male libido is like being handcuffed to a lunatic.”

One of my first Creative Directors, the advertising legend Siimon Reynolds, had a theory that creative ideas are out in the ether and our job is to attune ourselves to the right frequency to pick them up. He cited the phenomenon of many films with similar themes coming out around the same time; for example, in the late 80s there was a run of baby movies including Raising Arizona, 3 Men And A Baby and Look Who’s Talking. Siimon felt that the idea of comedy baby movies was somehow out there and multiple people people had picked up on it. It’s a similar theory to Trevor Beattie’s thought that “A great idea is like a £50 note on the floor in a pub. Anyone can see it and pick it up but only one person does.”

I bring this up because I was reminded of the theory of being attuned to ideas by a fascinating interview I read this week with Peter Mehlman, one of the writers on Seinfeld. Mehlman was talking about the writing process and how he came up with ideas for the show. Reflecting on the show’s focus on the minutiae of everyday life and the creative approach of its co-creator, Larry David, he said: “I’d look at Larry and the way that he was so in tune with his tiniest thoughts. Most of us have these thoughts that could be pure gold, but we’re not aware of them. We don’t think in those terms. I was trying to be aware of my own thoughts, and it went overboard. After one season, I went to a health spa for a few days because I was just fried. I had met this girl there, and eventually we started making out. As we’re making out, I’m thinking, Oh, it’s funny how every girl has got her own little kissing system. Hands here. Lips there. And then all of a sudden I was like, Oh my God, I’m observing my own thoughts in the middle of making out! That’s when I realized that this was going a little bit too far. I think by my fifth season, I hit a happy medium of trying to be aware of my own thoughts but actually living.”

To some, Mehlman’s Seinfeld-days perspective may seem strange and obsessive but I think it’s a great example of the way creative people need to be to produce ideas day in-day out. Our brains need to be operating on a specific frequency, constantly pan-handling our thoughts and experiences for gold dust. Anyone can have an idea and perhaps anyone can have a great idea. But when your JOB is to have ideas, you can’t rely on an idea popping up at the right time. Just as salesman are taught to Always Be Closing, when you need five ideas for a review at three o’ clock today and five more for a meeting tomorrow morning, you need to have your cerebral threshing machine set to constant.

For me, the crux of it is Mehlman’s observation that he managed to “hit a happy medium of trying to be aware of my own thoughts but actually living.” This is the happy medium many creative people are trying to achieve, especially if you have a family. Should you switch off? If so, how? How do you sit through dinner with your kids without hearing your 7-year old say something and thinking, “Hmm, that’d make a good ad”? In my experience, the best approach is to go hard on the brief during the day and then switch it to the back-burner after hours. Your brain’s still working on the brief, but like a render farm, in the background, almost without you knowing it. This enables you to live a normal live and to be ‘present’ for the important stuff, but also for the subconscious mind to be beavering away and to serve you up ideas in the bath/shower/bed/at the bus stop. It’s a strange way of living and makes me think that, in a way, creativity is as much a benevolent curse as a blessing. And the thought that creative people can never set themselves free from the search for new ideas and inspirations reminds me of Plato’s famous reflection on male sexuality, that “The male libido is like being handcuffed to a lunatic.”

The right way to be wrong

Sam Mendes directed American Beauty in 1999. While he’d been phenomenally successful as a London theatre director, this was his first film. He’d been personally hired by Stephen Spielberg to make the film for the DreamWorks studio and had been given complete control over its budget, casting and creative vision. He’d also insisted on and been given a full two weeks of rehearsals with the actors. So when they got to day one of shooting, expectations were running high.

Confidence was definitely not an issue for Mendes. He’d directed Dame Judi Dench (in The Cherry Orchard) aged 24, Nicole Kidman in the hit production of David Hare’s The Blue Room and created two classic Shakespeare productions in London. But even so, he’d never directed a film before and this was a big Hollywood movie with a cast of stars, a lot of eyes on him and a shitload of pressure to deliver. So when the first day didn’t go well, he started to have doubts about his approach. On day two he wasn’t happy with anything he’d shot and by day three he was really concerned about the project. Nothing felt right and he sensed the actors losing faith. Mendes has described the work he did on those three days as “crap” and “disastrous”. He said: “It was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault. And everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault. There were more than a couple of sleepless nights when I thought, ‘Just help me out here.'”

When I mentally put myself in his shoes at this point, the options that come to mind are (1) tough it out, push on through and get the film made as best you can, (2) talk to a trusted friend for some support and an opinion or (3) reach out to Spielberg for advice. But Mendes did none of these things. After much soul-searching, on the evening of the third day of shooting, he spoke to DreamWorks to say, “This is not what I wanted it to be.” He told them that everything he’d shot so far was wrong and that he wanted to scrap it all and start again from scratch. This would clearly have a significant impact on the schedule and budget, not to mention the actors’ and studio’s perceptions of him. But he persuaded the studio that while everything he’d done so far was unusable, he now knew exactly what he needed to do.

While they were taken aback by this turn of events, DreamWorks backed Mendes and allowed him to start again. He did so and made one of the best films of the decade, a movie that picked up five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Setting aside the brilliance of the film he ultimately made, for me, his decision to start again is inspiring. I doubt most people (including myself) would have had the balls and boldness to have made that call, for fear of being seen as weak or indecisive. But in retrospect, I see it demonstrates phenomenal strength of will and self belief. Carrying on down the wrong track out of fear and insecurity would have led to a bad film and probably the end of Mendes’ career as a film director. It would have been the wrong way to be wrong. Having the guts to admit he’d stuffed up, taking it on the chin and acting quickly and decisively to get things back on track led to creative gold. It was the right way to be wrong.

The ingredients for truly great creative work

These Animal Men were a relatively short-lived, Brighton-based band who rose to a minor level of cult fame in Britain in the mid ’90s. Following in the wake of the Manic Street Preachers’ unique blend of spiky rock with politics, literature and philosophy, they were named after Julius Caesar’s description of the British. And they lived up to their controversial billing with headline-grabbing moves like issuing a punk manifesto (Commandment 7: “Love’s good but not as good as a wank.”), claiming to have shagged each other, celebrating amphetamine use and inviting fans to kill them onstage. I loved them for all of five minutes.

With their tight jeans, eyeliner, journalist-baiting slogans and grandiose absurdity, they were a rubbish-fantastic mod Spinal Tap. However, while briefly entertaining and even inspiring, they never had the combination of musical chops and smart ideas required to break properly big and sustain a career. They did, however, produce one moment of undeniable brilliance, the song and video above, You’re Not My Babylon. The reason I wanted to hark back to it is that, for me, it perfectly combines the key ingredients required for any truly great piece of creative work. I’ve written before about “the holy trinity of great ads”, – writing, casting and performance – but that was more focused on moving image work. Stepping outside of those specifics into a more channel-neutral debate about pure creativity, I think the essential elements are: ideas, storytelling, craft and passion. You’re Not My Babylon has them all.

The song’s idea is based on the strangeness of obsessive love and it’s explored through the story of Billie Frechette, the lover of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. Frechette was a French-Indian singer and waitress who became involved with Dillinger in 1933. Both John Toland’s book, The Dillinger Days and the 1971 film Dillinger with Warren Oates and Michelle Phillips, depict a very violent relationship, with Dillinger punching and kicking Billie, including beating her black and blue on Christmas Day 1933. After a bank job in 1934, she helped him hide and ended up doing two years in prison for aiding and abetting a criminal. When she was released she went back to Dillinger and toured with his family for five years in a musical called Crime Didn’t Pay. She later returned to the Menominee Reservation where she remarried, then died of cancer in 1969.

Exploring the idea of obsessive love through Billie’s life story is ambitious stuff for a bunch of druggy upstarts but, amazingly they pull it off with phenomenal passion (the last 30 seconds are seriously powerful) and wrap it up in a simple, perfectly crafted and brilliantly iconic video of heroes and villains. These Animal Men never scaled the heights of You’re Not My Babylon ever again, which I think demonstrates the extreme difficulty of producing truly great creative work – and goes a way to explaining the phenomenon of one-hit wonders. Of course there’s no magic formula for creativity but I do think that without one of the aforementioned key ingredients – ideas, story, craft and passion – or with a discernible lack of one of them, any creative endeavour is doomed to fall short of greatness.