Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

I really thought I had rid myself of that twatty arrogance that the majority of music obsessive’s carry around with them. You know, the sort of attitude so eloquently exposed by James Murphy in LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, which makes you dislike music when it becomes popular, and has you snorting derisively and proclaiming that you’ve been there, done that, when anyone else proffers love for a band. I used to be a bit like this, and I’m sure I’m not alone. A forward-thinking, pioneering mentality and a willingness to seek out the new, undone by a dismissive reaction to people who are a bit slower at getting to the party than you were. It’s not good, and as I said, I thought I had got it out of my system. For starters, I’m definitely slower to getting to new music than I was. Entire new scenes are built and smashed to pieces before I’ve got my ears anywhere near them. But providing I do get in there early, these days I like to share, as this blog bears witness.

Maybe I have changed, but there are still moments when that old mentality rears its ugly head. Take last year – my 40something, Bruce Springsteen-loving boss came up to me at work and jabbed a finger at the T-shirt I was wearing and said, “Boards of Canada? I like them. They’re not as good as Zero 7 but some of their album is alright.” I grimaced, smiled and nodded. ‘The Campfire Headphase’, BOC's third album, had been out for a while, and I was troubled. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn't into it. I suspected it was lightweight and wasn’t going to grow on me as other doubters I knew seemed to think. Hearing their name mentioned in the same breath as Zero 7 set the alarm bells ringing once again. That was it. They’d made a generic ‘coffee-table’ album, destined for the stereos of floppy-fringed middle managers who wear suit jackets with jeans and buy exactly five albums a month from HMV. No, that wasn’t it. I was just being a snob again. They hadn’t sold out, their sound had evolved and maybe I wasn’t on board, but just because it appealed to a wider audience, didn’t mean it was shit. They had finally broken through, and deserved critical acclaim would turn into financial reward and widespread recognition. Surely, this was what all artists’ craved, and why should I begrudge them that? Did I really hate the fact my ‘friends’ had become successful?

Did I? Well, my love for Boards of Canada runs deep, ever since an old flatmate gave me a copy of their ‘Hi-Scores’ 12” in 1997. This unexpected act of generosity had wider implications, as I fell head over heels in love with BOC’s unique mix of whimsical melodies, deep emotive synths and awesome hip hop beats. I wanted more, but was dismayed to find that, despite having a considerable back catalogue of material, with the exception of the 100-only vinyl pressing of ‘Twoism’ from 1995, all the rest of their music was only available on cassettes that they’d given away to their friends and were virtually impossible to find. It’s bizarre, but this frustration made them more appealing; a bit like being given the come-on by an attractive girl, only to keep on getting blown out when you moved in for a kiss. Yep, Boards of Canada played hard to get, and I fell even deeper in love. The second major attraction was the origin of their name. They took it from the Nation Film Board of Canada who were partly famous for wildlife and nature documentaries made during the 1970s, one of which I had been shown several times at school when I was about eight. We were doing a project on birds at the time, and as well as watching ‘Look and Read’ (which had a drama about poachers stealing peregrine falcon eggs), there was this documentary about an eagle. I don’t remember much about it, but it had spectacular shots of golden eagle’s soaring over their natural habitat, with a calming, instructive voiceover and distinctive melodious music to accompany the footage. This piece of film stayed with me, and when I first came across BoC, their music resonated strongly, partly because of the “forced nostalgia” their melodies invoke (making you feel like you’ve heard them somewhere before) and partly because they reminded me of that film, so perhaps I had, in some strange way, heard them before.

The love affair was sealed with ‘Music Has the Right to Children’, their masterpiece LP, which was a joint release between Warp and Skam in 1998. It’s hard to explain the impact this album had on me, but I don’t think I listened to anything else for a while after it first came out. It was so addictive, and sounded like nothing else. The familiar, nostalgic melodies, the buried vocal elements and all the mystery that surrounded their subliminal meaning, the impeccable beat programming, the wonderful one-minute songs, the enigmatic artwork – it was like an album masquerading as a whole new way of life, and I closely guarded my promo copy, listening to it obsessively, but rarely playing it to anyone else. Eventually I broke ranks and started taking it round people’s houses and playing it and it had a similar effect on them. I wouldn’t be allowed to leave until they had taped their own copy. It was that sort of album. Once you’d heard it, you had to have it, as nothing else in your collection could come close to it. Genius is a word used with far too much freedom these days, but ‘Music Has the Right to Children’ was definitely beaten to within an inch of its life by the genius stick. It became my lullaby music and I used to fall asleep to it all the time. I didn’t buy into all the BOC conspiracy theories that continue to do the rounds with fans who are closer to stalkers than obsessives (see here), but had definitely found a special new band, and an album that is to this day, one of the best my ears have had the privilege of being serenaded by. It spawned a host of second-rate imitators and changed the landscape of electronic music. Its influence is still being felt today, and its creators, the Scottish duo of Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison, have remained an enigma, with sporadic live shows and hundreds of conflicting rumours about their existence circulating among fans. Though we now know they are brothers, something they were keen to keep a secret for some strange reason.

Looking back now, it’s easy to see that I fell too hard, too quickly. If I’m to be completely honest, I didn’t really get into ‘Geogaddi’, the duo’s follow-up released in 2002, and as any ‘proper’ BOC fan will tell you, if you don’t get ‘Geogaddi’, you don’t get BOC, period. I was so wrapped up in the magic of the original album when it was fresh and new, and it would have taken a miracle for any of the proceeding music they made to draw me in so completely. I do like ‘Geogaddi’, I play it often, but I don’t LOVE it in the same way I love ‘Music Has the Right to Children’. And as for ‘The Campfire Headphase’ – I’m not really into it, but it’s not really a big deal is it? We’ll always have ‘MHTRTC’, won’t we Marcus? Right, Mike? They’ve moved on, I’ve moved on. And I certainly don’t begrudge them their success, as they deserve it. Despite saying all of this, I could still barely suppress the rage I felt when my boss proclaimed herself a Boards of Canada fan, mentioning them in the same breath as Zero 7. I can’t repeat what I would have liked to say, but of course, I didn’t. I value my job too much for that. Besides, I shouldn’t really be wearing the band’s T-shirt if I’m not really into the band anymore. They’re not trading on past glories, so nor should I. It really is time to move on…

Boards of Canada - Everything You Do Is A Balloon

…but before we do, let’s have some music, from BOC’s golden era, circa 1996-1998. Starting with ‘Everything You Do Is A Balloon’ from the ‘Hi-Scores’ EP. This really is peerless music. I’m sure they had their own reference points, but their keyboards make sounds that nobody else has ever made, yet still manage to be completely familiar. Warm, fuzzy melodies envelop you and carry you away, back to your childhood. It’s unnerving how they can do this, almost as if they have some way of tapping into collective nostalgia and finding the sounds and melodies that evoke key memories that connect all of our lives. There used to be a photo on their old website, with a kid in this climbing frame that was a hexagonal fibreglass structure, with round holes you could peer from or climb in and out of. I hadn’t seen it since I was about five (one of the few things my camera-mad Dad didn’t take a photo of!), but seeing it again brought on an overwhelming rush of memory that hit me like a tidal wave. The plasticy, new smell of the fibreglass; the feel of it, warm and hard against my hands as I clambered around, and the echoey reverb of my voice when I called to my brother from within. It’s this strength of memory their music stirs up, and if I could, I’d climb inside this song and live in it forever.

Boards of Canada - Orange Romeda

‘Orange Romeda’ was Boards of Canada’s contribution to the ‘We Are Reasonable People’ compilation, Warp’s 100th album release. Seeing as I couldn't possibly post the entire ‘Music Has the Right to Children’ album, and am not able choose a single track, this is a pretty good replacement. It’s typical of what went on that album. This is classic BOC, the sound of the duo hitting their collective stride. The beats stand-out - repetitive, shuffling and with that superb, fizzing bass drum that goes right through you. The intricate flute-like melody takes a while to reveal itself, combining with the lush, warm pads that permeate the whole track with gorgeousness.

Bubbah's Tum - Dirty Great Mable (Boards Of Canada Mix)

Boards of Canada have always been choosy about the acts they’ve chosen to remix. Those selected have often been surprising. These days it’s Beck who gets the nod, but back in 1998, they accepted the challenge of reworking the insane and virtually unknown ‘Dirty Great Mable’ by Bubbah’s Tum for the late, great Ill Recordings. Toning down the thunderous, shit kicking drums of the original they play with buried vocal elements; children’s voices, snatches of phrases and shouts, cut-up in the mix, along with what I can only describe as trademark ‘BOC melodies’. That term became a journalistic byword for any form of woozy, analogue synth work in music, but BOC did it first. This is about as hard as BOC ever got, but it really does suit their sound. I'm ever hopeful that they'll return with an album of stuff like this one day.

Official Boards of Canada website
Buy Boards of Canada from Norman Records
Boards of Canada's My Space
Incredible Boards of Canada fan resource
Boards of Canada discography
Boards of Canada at Warp Records
Boards of Canada entry at Wikipedia


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