(Rejected piece, 2010)
Inside the earth you hear music. November is the month of sacrifice. You wait next to your dead lord under the hill. You will accompany him to the afterlife.
That was the dream I had. The music cut the cobwebs, dispersed the dust, sharp, sunken, scissoring, mandolins. Postgate was the scream I couldn’t emit, the word I woke with hot on my forehead and that’s no accident, the music he used is witchcraft, reanimation, a warning to the curious. Neither simply for kids, or too grown-up for them – the music Postgate used was about neither innocence or intellect but being reconnected with time and the earth, the flow and force of it, the shattering moments where the clock would stop and abscond, where the second-hand hovers in mid-air waiting for the reverberations to stop within you. Nostalgia is too often cheesedip, a party, a thrown arm round the collective shoulders, a safe and essentially warming review of those culinary/cultural/cinematic/musical motifs time has severed from your present. I recommend scowling on the stairs and not imbibing. Leave the party. You’re not wanted there.
No one there can help or hold you in oh-ten: only a hex, a galdr can help you now. Find a lonely place at 8pm; get ready to be pierced with sorrow. Press 620 on your skybox for NickJrClassics. Watch Chigley, Mr Benn, The Clangers, Bagpuss & Camberwick Green. Listen to the music of Freddie Phillips, Sandra Kerr, Phillip Faulkner, Vernon Elliot, Postgate, the birds outside the village hall, the scrape of string, the quill, the Celeste, the music box, the old songs and new shapes, the unsung sung again. This is music that saw the future we’re now in and wanted none of it, music that summoned up old ghosts to walk amongst us, music that fantasised and idealised and experimented with visions of a future that was courtly, Christ-less, pre-feudal, Arcadian, impossible.
Don’t watch with mother(fuckers) like you. Avoid adults; your irony-addictions will sap you of the ability to be moved. Give whatever children may be present blankets, bottles, dummies and let them be brain-kidnapped by the men in sheds and assorted mentalists who weaved such wonder across our teatimes. As an industry, nostalgia relies on the supposedly unproblematic desire amongst old geeks to feel like kids again, a fondness for a time of perceived non-responsibility. But it’s a fiction, a false memory, a mock-up infantilisation that’s pure dress-up, pretend, a skim across the trappings of childhood without ever surrendering to the trap again, the confinement, the monomania, all that ultimately traumatic and disturbing ferocity of feeling that is the true feel of childhood. With anyone else of your own vintage in the room, watching these programs will become an open review, a laugh, a sing-along, a chance to shore up a shared cultural heritage, a chance to deflect any admission that a toad playing a banjo can make you cry. How dare you. This music did what all truly good teachers do with kids & anyone else in earshot. It talked to you. Across the room with no agenda except the story. The wonder of the world now, and worlds gone.
Down the hill I hear explosions. They’re knocking down the twin towers of the Courtaulds factory in Coventry today, demolishing what had already been derelicted for two decades.My dad used to work there. I had no idea what job he did and didn’t care, all I had as proof that he did something when he wasn’t home was a photo of him leaning over a drawing-board with a big set square looking focussed and busy and brochure-worthy. At 5.30 across town I’d be waiting for him to return. The ten minutes that came between 5.30 and the End Of Kids Programs was important, crucial, a way of calming the jitters but also an acknowledgment that funtime was up, grown-ups were coming home, were gonna boss the box from here on in, that sleep was coming and expected of you. An electric but also elegiac 600 seconds, whether it was Ludwig, or WilloTheWisp or the Clangers it was charged with epochal (for as a child every day was a lifetime) significance. Startling now to think how many of those prone moments were under the control of communists, medieval pagans, folk revivalists, troublemakers, how often Freddie Phillips had a hand in our pre-nap afternoon tumbles into sleep, how often his genius coloured our daymares, seeped into our unpiloted moonlit bed-bound journeys across our imaginations. Hearing in situ his score for the ‘54 reissue of Lotte Reiniger’s astonishing Adventures Of Prince Achmed you realise that Phillips from-the-off took music for kids’ seriously, composed his sounds in a way that fully credited kids with the intelligence and intrigue too many modern kids-composers steamroll over with singalong-obviousness and didactic edutainment. Likewise, to save this music from the neutering poison nostalgia spreads, you must avoid the hormonally mature, watch with those who never smirk, seek out the company of those who watch alone even when not alone. Kids. Prone, wide-eyed (tears WILL come) as you first experienced them, the programs Phillips, Elliot & Postgate created are less things to revisit than things that impose a revisitation upon you. No matter how solidly mortgaged-up your surroundings or secure you feel in your grown-up skin you may find yourself floating free, travelling ‘tween dimensions, reinhabiting that child-sized space you were once in, the long lurch of those latchkey lunchtimes and afternoons. And it’s in those refound lost moments, those redug holes in your memory, where stories etch into your skull and songs pluck sobs from your ribcage, that you truly experience this music’s possibilities. Because when you first heard this music you weren’t just the functioning human being you try to be now. You were a silver feather, a surging tiger, a shooting star, a tired cosmonaut, a bloodied Keneivel, an exhausted den-builder, a resting monster.
You had a future. Now your future’s come and gone, this ancient, fearless, fearful sound skewers you. The ponderous woodwind dirges of Mr Benn, the spectral medievalisms of Bagpuss, the diaphanous complexities within Trumptonshire’s everyday commute – feel free to chortle but know amidst those chuckles you are hiding something, know you are humming away the heartache, running scared of the fact that you never grew up, are still afraid, still unsure, still just as prone to the bliss and blisters this music leaves on your skin, in your veins, in your expectations. Kid/kidult/adult, you are still you, still hurt by elders, beat by peers, and you are still cut apart & engulfed by what your life might mean, still under the hill waiting to see the sky, innards as soft and perishable as ever even if you’ve buffed your hard shell to a presentably sacrificial shine by now, that shine that gets you work and feeds your belly and keeps your demise nicely ticking over. You might be all made up of lies now, but this music did not lie to you. It gently, persuasively, insisted, whispered in your suggestible ear, that ‘reality’ was not all it was cracked up to be, that points in time could be vaunted via sound, that music could be magical in an entirely practical kids-eye-level sense. And in so doing it put demands, standards inside of you impossible to shake, incapable of dilution in nostalgia’s lukewarm paddle-waters. Because nostalgia is never cosy when you’re on your own. It’s the most heartbreak you can summon up in an instant. Sink yourself, lose yourself, find yourself in it.
Grow up. And get small again.
(Accepted piece, from Plan B Magazine 2008, that uncannily came out the week before Postgate passed on. RIP Oliver.)
Favourite pop object of the year? Easy. My most-used, most cherished piece of pop merch of 08’ measures 3 inches by 1 by 1. Cast in white plastic in some Chinese sweatshop, it came free with a burger & fries. It plays a song, only one song mind, and only 30 seconds of it. My 10-yr old's plays McFly. Mine plays Girls Aloud. The 2-yr old steals both, scratches up cacophony & rerub with random buttonpush. Pick it up, pop it on, put it down. A concision to be guided by, and objects toddlers love finding. Kids are brutal with pop, have a pure taste for the fresh stuff that's always only just getting diluted by linkage and lineage: these pint-sized pop addicts respond only to melody and rhythm and what's memorable and what charms their soul, and cherish their McDonalds Popplayers almost as much as dad. Brilliant simplicity of purpose in getting that tune out of your head and into your jittering legs. It says use pop for what you need and it puts that control into tiny hands. But on kids television in 08, music is less willing to be governed by what kids actually want. Music on kids television, often kids first continuing exposure to sound & it's possibilities, is all about telling kids what they want and need. And this new vocational, career-minded exploitation of music for educational purposes is in danger of becoming the only story, the utilitarian mindset instilled early on an entire generation. Kids pop, the music you hear in the living room, in the playground, in the back of cars, looks like it could soon become nothing bar a tool of social engineering. An evil of sorts. Just take a look out there.
I'm talking about the 20 channels of constant noise broadcasting right now for kids from Boomerang all the way up to CITV and no, I'm not bitching about Uncle Walt's High School Musical or Hannah Montana (or Nick's unquestionably ace Naked Brothers Band): these kindling/gold cashcow combo-juggernauts have been with us since time immemorial, and every teenager needs hatefigures. Harmless, here, & eventually gone after scarring you with a few undeniable moments. Not the problem. I'm thinking about the way music is now pitched at pre-tweens, the way, - horribly - that kids tv music has become knowingly educational, improving, productive. Time was when the few sparse moments of toddler-aimed telly we got wouldn't dare squander precious moments on anything so vulgar as lifeskills, awareness, brain-boosting, readying your tots for the corporate climb of adulthood. It may have given us those things incidentally, subliminally, accidentally – but it's intent was never to improve, only to enchant. Right now, in what's thrown at kids, in toys in magazines & in television what's getting reflected is our mistrust, our paranoia, our fear that our kids will get 'left behind' or left out, our desperation to fine-tune every single aspect of their fate: we won't leave them in the care of men in sheds anymore, the Oliver Postgate's & Eric Thompsons who only needed five minutes of a latchkey-kids life to twist that life inside out outside in of an afternoon. Watching Camberwick Green or Bagpuss (as retransmitted by Nick Jr after 8pm) now, the supplanting of fantasy for fear in the last 30 years of kids telly is clear. Where current kids-shows grab the infant hand and pressure-push them into being part of a goal-achieving/problem-solving 'team' (as pioneered by 'interactive' shows like the hellacious Dora The Explorer) something like the Clangers is honest and harsh enough to allow the kid to be alone, only just understanding, getting pulled by the sheer strange attraction of those lone pipes and Sun-Ra shimmers out into outer space. The opening titles and dewy dulcimer folk of Camberwick Green's opening and closing title-sequences are deathless bewitchment that still transfix any child caught in their cobwebs (the music box & credit-spool sequences in particular): this isn't music that condescends to children, rather it politely insists that children hear beauty uncut by protective concerns, as ravishing, suggestive and shatteringly poignant as music gets, something that doesn't offer swift congratulation or reasoning, something the kids head has to wrap itself around, figure out, wonder how anything can be so crystalline, so complex, so suggestive of a joy and sadness that's entirely unchildish.
Oh, there's still gold scattered. Pocoyo. Just watch it. Backyardigans' mini-operas, Boogie Beebies bhangra-fixation, Space Pirates’ batshit mix of cheese & chants & cool covers, the fantastic 'Horrible Histories, Spongebob's always-engrossing dives into torch-songs and powerballads. Yo Gabba Gabba's use of BizMark, Smoosh, Low & The Shins should make it squarely hit the hipster gag-reflex: it works beautifully because it lets real kids bust their own spontaneous moves to the music (none of Hi-Five or Fun Song Factory's shouty marshalling – the kids on such studio-bound singalong shows look downright terrorized), and the bands all seem to have raised their game rather than condescended to jingle-laziness - occassionally you get real moments of magic. Watching my 2 year-old's static, shocked stare when confronted with the volcanic reality of Cornelius shredding out a Sesame-Street-style counting song, a wide-eyed stare that lasts half a minute, cogs whirring, before the body starts to make sense of it all in it's own little one-girl moshpit, I'm reminded that the best moments of kids tv music aren't those that improve you, tell you to eat your greens or learn your abc's or find the best of both worlds. The best moments undoubtedly stretch the mind but that's not their motivation, it's just a side-effect of the aesthetic explosion, the gentle derailment of reality that truly great kids tv music always seems to achieve so beautifully, and always with scant effort bar it's own hypnosis into it's own world, it's own reality. Commercial television obviously has no reason to pursue such unprofitable lines, but if the BBC don't find themselves a new Postgate or Peter Firmin soon consider our kids imaginations derelicted by television, abandoned to an ice-age of product-placement and home-tutoring. A better world maybe, a more productive one. But a world in which kids imaginations will never be lost in sound again, never reach beyond the confinements of what’s good for ‘em.