Matters of Speech
May 2006

Lecture (reading/listening session)
Bold Italic 2006, Ghent

In 2006, we were invited by Michael Bussaer to participate in Bold Italic, an incredibly good series of free annual lectures taking place every year at De Vooruit in Ghent (Belgium). Michael asked us if we wanted to prepare a lecture for the 2006 edition of Bold Italic, and he was particularly interested in the listening/reading session that we presented in the summer of 2005 during the Chaumont Poster Festival (see Chaumont (((O))) Lecture). In short, during that event, we handed out a small booklet containing 9 short texts to a seated audience, after which we played a selection of 9 songs on a CD-player. The short texts in the booklet corresponded with the songs played, and together they told a story about graphic design (although in a somewhat indirect way).

Michael asked us if we could do something similar for Bold Italic, and explained that the theme for this particular edition of Bold Italic would revolve around 'manners of speech'; all the speakers he invited could be linked to that subject.
Thinking about manners of speech, we decided to come up with a lecture called 'Matters of Speech'. In short, we compiled a list of 13 songs, all dealing with different manners of speech. We wrote short texts about these songs, and turned these texts into a simple publication, basically an A2-sized sheet folded to an A4-sized booklet.

The front of the A4-sized booklet:
experimental_jetset_speech-front

Unfolded, this A4 booklet turns into an A2-sized sheet; shown here the front and back of this sheet:
As can be seen, the back of the A2 sheet contained a pattern of speech bubbles (text balloons). The paper being quite thin, the speech bubbles that were printed on the back were visible on the front, in such a way that every text was captured in its own speech bubble.

During the actual event (which took place on May 9, 2006) we handed out the booklets to the audience, and then played the selection of 13 songs. Shown below a snapshot of the audience, followed by the actual text of the lecture:

01. Nilsson
Everybody's Talking

"Everybody's talking at me / I don't hear a word they're saying". A first line that is surprisingly catchy for a song which main subject is the inability to communicate. A fitting start for this lecture as well.
Harry Nilsson is one of our favourite all-time artists, and 'Everybody's Talking' must be one of his better-known songs. A cover version of a song initially written by folk singer Fred Neil, the track originally appeared on Nilsson's 1968 album 'Aerial Ballet'. A year later it was re-released as part of the soundtrack of the motion picture 'Midnight Cowboy', which was when the song entered the public realm.

The first part of the song focuses on a general feeling of alienation, manifesting itself as an unwillingness to relate to 'the others'. In a perfect illustration of Sartre's dictum "L'enfer, c'est les autres", the narrator can't hear a word 'they' are saying ("only the echoes of my mind"), and can't see 'their' faces ("only the shadows of their eyes").
In the second part, the narrator muses about finding a way out of this misery, describing an utopian realm where "the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain". (In the end, it is unsure whether the narrator actually believes that this utopian place is a realistic destination, or whether we are still listening to the "echoes of his mind").
This utopian theme is echoed in the movie itself, wherein New York bum Ratso (Dustin Hoffman's character) is struggling throughout the story to escape to the warmer climate of Florida. (Tragically, Ratso dies on the bus to Florida, in a heartbreakingly sad scene).

The feeling of unhappiness described in the first part of the song, this inability to communicate, to identify oneself with society, is not just a side-effect of civilization; it is instead its very essence. It's a structural unhappiness that can never be really solved, but only expressed (and sublimated) through aesthetics. Every cultural artifact is charged with this deep discontent, and every composition, no matter how abstract, is testament to this unhappiness. But maybe we're wandering off here.

Back to the topic of this lecture. Since we're dealing with different matters of speech, it's interesting to hear Nilsson, in the last few (split) seconds of the song, demonstrate his 'scatting' skills (by which we mean the improvised, wordless singing, in which the voice is used in imitation of an instrument).

02. El Perro Del Mar
I Can't Talk About It


Originally taken from a split single with Jens Lekman (and later reissued on the album 'Look! It's El Perro Del Mar!'), 'I Can't Talk About It' is a beautiful and haunting pop song by El Perro Del Mar, moniker of Swedish singer/songwriter Sarah Assbring.
On first hearing, the song seems to rely quite heavily on the sound of legendary Sixties producer Phil Spector, and the work that he did for girl groups such as The Crystals and The Ronettes. Spector's signature sound, which became known as the 'Wall of Sound', was an orchestral, multi-layered mass of reverberation, in which individual instruments were inseparable from each other; a sound that was flat and deep at the same time.
El Perro Del Mar takes this classic sound, but strips it down to its bare, lo-fi essence. Her 'Wall of Sound' is a minimal one, but with a maximum impact.

Just like Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talking', El Perro Del Mar's 'I Can't Talk About It' is essentially about the inability (or unwillingness) to communicate. This non-communication then becomes the basis of a higher form of communication, the sublime pop song.
Although the title of the song is 'I Can't Talk About It', she actually sings "I can't really talk about it"; this line is repeated again and again, as a mantra, systematically punctuated by a roll of four drum beats. About this repetition of lines, Sarah Assbring says in an interview: " I just want to express a feeling in a very condensed way. Like the blues tradition, where you lament on something and repeat it until it goes away". Repetition as exorcism.

The famous last thesis of Wittgenstein's 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus' reads "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent". But that doesn't mean one has to be silent about the inability to speak itself. And it surely doesn't mean one cannot make a beautifully haunting (and hauntingly beautiful) pop song about it.

03. The Wisdom of Harry
The Year Without Speaking


While searching in our record collection for songs referring to the subject of 'manners of speech', it surprised us that half of the songs we found were about the absence of speech rather than the presence of speech. Nilsson can't hear a word, El Perro Del Mar can't talk about it, while The Wisdom of Harry goes a full year without speaking.
The Wisdom of Harry is the alias of Pete Astor, formerly of the Weather Prophets. We have no idea whether the 'Harry' in the band name actually refers to Harry Nilsson, but for the sake of this lecture, let's pretend that it indeed does refer to Nilsson.

'The Year Without Speaking' is a short, rather cinematic piece, taken from the album 'House of Binary'. Appropriately for a song about non-speech, it's completely instrumental.

04. Allen Ginsberg
Prayer for John Sinclair


Here we hear the poet Ginsberg reciting a prayer, while playing the harmonium, at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, December 10, 1971. Taking place in the Crisler Arena at Ann Arbor, and featuring artists such as John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder and Bob Seger, this benefit festival was set up to support John Sinclair (radical left-wing poet, and former manager of Detroit rock band MC5), who was serving a 9-10 year sentence in maximum security prison for the possession of two joints of marihuana. Only three days after this festival, Sinclair was actually released, after serving 29 months. (While in prison, Sinclair wrote the collection of texts that would later be published as the excellent 'Guitar Army', designed by Gary Grimshaw; but that's another story).

Merging two rhetorical forms (political pamphlet and prayer), Ginsberg's performance is certainly more than the sum of parts. While Ginsberg's diction (the way in which sentences such as "this case aaarticulates / the bankruptcy of middle-class / laaaw and order..." are delivered) is genuinely funny, there is certainly also a subversive dimension to this poem. This subversiveness lays not necessarily in the poem's direct political message; after all, direct political messages are seldom truly subversive. The real subversiveness is of course the use of a religious format, the prayer, as a vehicle for a mundane message.
Using an old form to tell a new story, sometimes described as 'appropriation' or 're-appropriation', is often regarded by critics as an ironic, postmodern gesture. As always, we strongly disagree with this view; in our opinion, there are certainly cases where referring to an old form is a progressive gesture. Ginsberg's prayer is such a case. Rather than re-appropriation, his poem is a case of de-appropriation: freeing a format from its religious realm, and putting it back in the material world where it belongs. There is nothing ironic about that.

05. Deep Purple
Hush


After what sounds like a howling dog, the band kicks in. We're listening to Deep Purple, performing 'Hush', one of their earliest hit singles. A surprisingly stomping and grooving song for a band that became better known for their more tenacious hard rock sound. Originally written and recorded by country artist Joe South, later transformed into a soul song by Billy Joe Royal (and recently also covered by Kula Shaker), 'Hush' urges the listener to be quiet, as the singer tries to hear the voice of his girlfriend, who apparently broke up with him ("Hush,hush, I thought I heard her calling my name now").

The term 'Hush' is slightly onomatopoeic: it's a word that seems to be based on a certain sound, a sound commonly associated with what the word refers to. The tone 'Ssshh', basically the sound of air escaping through closed teeth, is universally understood as an urgent request to keep one's mouth shut, to quieten down.
The thing is, this song doesn't suggest any quietness at all. It's a lengthy and heavy rock jam, accentuated by the massive sound of an Hammond organ. In fact, the Hammond sound is here so dominant, it easily becomes the second singer. What we're listening to is almost a duet; a duet between singer and organ.

The organ, specifically the classic pipe organ, is basically a labyrinth of tubing within which air may be trapped and/or redirected. And come to think of it, the human body is also just that: a labyrinth of tubing. Releasing air through closed teeth ('Ssshh'), trough valves, through pipes: it's all the same. What we're listening to is the sound of moving air. Speech is air.

06. The Free Design
Never Tell The World


A Sixties soft pop band with psychedelic undertones, The Free Design is another one of our favourites. 'Never Tell The World' comes from their beautiful 'Kites Are Fun' album, and is a perfect example of their sharp vocals and crystal-clear sound.
Told from the viewpoint of two people trying to keep their love secret from the world, the lyrics are surprisingly radical. Love is treated here as a form of critical resistance, as an act of negation against the world. Therefore, it's a love that cannot be openly expressed: "Never has the world complied with a love that seems to reproach it". The lovers are fully aware that the world will never accept a love that is against the world.

Just as with Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talking', the only sense of relief can be found in the utopian realm: "But someday the world might change, and a love like ours might belong. But until that day comes -- Never tell". Honey-glazed defeatism at its finest.

07. Papas Fritas
Hey Hey You Say


We first became aware of 'Hey Hey You Say' in 1997, when graphic designer and film director Mike Mills gave us a tape containing the video that he made for this song. The tune has been in our head ever since.

We had no idea what the song was about, until we read the liner notes included on 'Pop Has Freed Us', the Papas Fritas anthology album that came out in 2003. About 'Hey Hey You Say', they wrote: "While we were making the record, we did a lot of interviews where we were asked if rock was dead. Music doesn't die. Records wear out, marketing terms cease to be relevant. But music doesn't die. We wrote 'Hey Hey You Say' as a response, and hopefully showed that there's as much life in a song as you want to put in it".

Come to think of it, the 'rock is dead' sentiment is one that also exists in a lot of graphic design magazines. "Grey is the new black", "Ornaments are in, minimalism is out", "Serif is the new sans"... Empty phrases, reducing graphic design to a fast-paced chain of nervous trends and styles. To speak with Papas Fritas, 'give us a break'.

08. Joe Jones
You Talk Too Much


To some of us, novelty smash hit 'You Talk Too Much', written and recorded in 1960 by New Orleans R&B singer Joe Jones, is perhaps better known as the opening tune of RUR ('Rechtstreeks uit Richter'), a popular Dutch talkshow in the Eighties. "You talk too much / You worry me to death / You talk too much / You even worry my pet ". Dry lyrics, delivered in a steady, nonchalant voice, accompanied by a steady, nonchalant saxophone.

The singer is addressing his harsh critique, not so much to the listener, but to an imaginary third person, standing in between the singer and the listener. (In fact, this is one of those songs that triggered a so-called 'answer record', Martha Nelson's 'I Don't Talk Too Much').
What's troubling the singer is not just the talking itself, but also the subject of the talking: people. "You talk about people / That you don't know", "You talk about people / Wherever you go", "You talk about people / That you've never seen". In other words, what's really bothering the singer is gossiping, a subject that reoccurred (in a very similar way) a few decades later in Timex Social Club's hit single 'Rumors'.

So far so good. A hard-hitting attack on gossip culture, perhaps even on celebrity culture; what's not to like? Still, there's something slightly unfair about the song. A singer that keeps repeating that 'you' talk to much, while it is in fact he who is making all the noise. It just doesn't feel right.

09. OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark)
Talking Loud and Clear


New Pop was the shinier, more accessible side of the Eighties UK post-punk movement. Focusing on glossy three-minute pop songs, and pushing towards an "overground brightness", New Pop was defined by a strange mix of mainstream aspirations and obscure citations. OMD, especially latter-period OMD, is a perfect example of this.
OMD loaded their synth-pop with references to avant garde movements and obscure Krautrock bands. Their albums had titles such as 'Organisation' (1980), 'Architecture & Morality' (1981) and 'Dazzle Ships' (1983), featuring record sleeves designed by Peter Saville. To many, these things might seem pretentious, but that was the whole point of New Pop. Pretentiousness as a statement in itself.

'Talking Load and Clear' seems a pretty straight-forward love song, an optimistic mirror image of The Free Design's 'Never Tell The World', but closer listening reveals a more complex narrative. For it isn't the lovers that are talking loud and clear, but the love itself. In fact, the lovers themselves are rather silent, engaged in "little words", "little movements", "with silence all around". Further in the song, the lovers "understand each other / but didn't make a sound". It's an interesting, paradoxical twist: the love is loud, the lovers not. James Brown's motto 'Talking Loud and Saying Nothing' turned upside-down.

10. Hasil Adkins
She Said


"In 1956, when America was giving birth to rock & roll, one man was already trying to kill it" boasts an advertisement for 'The Wild World of Hasil Adkins', an obscure documentary from 1993.
Hasil 'The Haze' Adkins was a one-man band, singing, drumming and playing guitar at the same time. 'She Said' (1961) must be his best known track, featured on countless rockabilly compilation albums, and later covered by The Cramps.

Music is often seen as a temporal construction, as a phenomenon existing in time rather than in space. Primitive recording techniques (as used on 'She Said') expose music as a spatial construction; as a place, as a specific zone. Unintentional reverb, echo, spilled sounds: they all give the listener a chance to measure the imaginary space around the recording artist.
Hasil Adkins seems to accentuate this sense of space even more by pointing, in his lyrics, to various places: "So this time we got waaay over here / And then we went waaay down here / And we got all the way over there". Here, the song becomes a body.

Adkin's lyrics are vulgar, and seem a clear expression of repressed and conflicting urges. But somehow, balancing several musical instruments at the same time, flowing from temporality to spatiality, singing both the male and the female voice, Adkins seems to sublimate these urges, into a near-perfect two-minute rock & roll manifesto.

11. The Beatles
She Said She Said


(It's funny. The title 'She Said She Said' would've been more fitting for the Hasil Adkins song, while Adkin's title 'She Said' would've been more appropriate for The Beatles. But alas, it's too late to change titles now).

'Revolution in the Head' (1994), by Ian MacDonald, is widely regarded as the definitive track-by-track guide to the Beatles' oeuvre. It's an excellent piece of pop-cultural criticism, firmly situating the music of the Beatles in its social, political and spiritual context. In the book, MacDonald refers to 'She Said She Said' as "the outstanding track of 'Revolver', emotionally tense and as moving in its unhappy way as 'Eleanor Rigby'." He also calls it "a song of tormented self-doubt, struggling in a lopsided web of harmony and metre".
The song is indeed emotionally tense and tormented, featuring lyrics of a somewhat morbid nature. While the she-figure knows "what it is to be dead", the narrator feels like he has "never been born", and at a certain point, even knows "that he's ready to leave". Again, the only relief can be found in the utopian realm, in this case childhood innocence: "When I was a boy, everything was right".
(In retrospect, it seems telling that Ian MacDonald regarded 'She Said She Said' as such an outstanding track. Not long after writing 'Revolution in the Head', he committed suicide -- a sad ending for such a brilliant writer).

12. Tom Tom Club
Wordy Rappinghood


If graphic design was a country, 'Wordy Rappinghood' should be its national anthem. Beginning with the sound of a typewriter (slightly comparable to 'The Typewriter Song' by Leroy Anderson), it's a delightful piece of upbeat and optimistic wordplay. Placing words in different contexts, showing unexpected shifts in meaning, it's a waterfall of wit and poetry, all delivered in a faux-naive proto-rap style.

The Tom Tom Club was the side-project of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, bassist and drummer of the Talking Heads. It shared with the Talking Heads its mix of African rhythms and NY new wave. 'Wordy Rappinghood' features another element reminiscent of the Talking Heads; the use of a French interlude ("Mots pressé, mots sensé / Mots qui disent la verité / Mots maudits, mots mentis / Mots qui manquent le fruit d'esprit") seems vaguely related to the use of a French interlude in Talking Head's 'Psycho Killer' ("Ce que j'ai fait ce soir-là / Ce qu'elle a dit ce soir-là / Realisant mon espoir / Je me lance vers la gloire").

The question repeated throughout the song, "What are words worth?", seems a rhetorical one. The nouns 'word' and 'worth' sound so alike, that it would seem only natural for words to be inherently worthy, and for worths (values) to be inherently wordy. You would also expect 'word' and 'worth' (in Dutch, 'woord' and 'waarde') to be etymologically related; but in fact, they are not. None of the etymological dictionaries that we consulted showed a common root. Which we find hard to believe. But then again, "What are etymological dictionaries worth"?

13. Weird War
Word on the Street


Weird War is the current incarnation of The Make-Up, another one of our favourite bands. 'Word on the Street' is taken from their excellent album 'Illuminated by the Light'.

We like the expression "Word on the street". First of all, it refers to a specific infrastructure in which information can be trapped and/or redirected. In that sense, it's very similar to "Heard it through the grapevine". While "Word on the street" suggests an urban context, "Through the grapevine" refers of course to a pre-urban, rural setting.
(In their song, Weird War actually mentions yet another infrastructure to distribute information: "Don't ask me, where I heard it first / Because I tell you that the bird told me". The idea of a bird as a messenger is in fact quite biblical).

The second reason why we like the expression "Word on the street" is that, taken literally, it's a phrase that shows the word as an object, as something that can occupy a very concrete space (in this case, the street).
Of course, a word is always an object. Spoken, a word is a bubble of air, while printed, a word is a specific amount of ink, stamped on a piece of paper. Before anything else, a word is a material thing.
But by being placed in the proverbial street, the word gains in thingness. In fact, the phrase "Word on the street" reminds us of Brazilian poet Agusto de Campo's definition of concrete poetry: "The tension of word-things in space-time".

14. Nilsson
Everybody's Talking (reprise)


The 'Midnight Cowboy' soundtrack also contains a reprise of Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talking'. We're quite fond of reprises: they are the perfect endings, both for records and lectures.
This version of 'Everybody's Talking' is slightly different than the one we began the lecture with. It's more orchestrated (by John Barry, known for his work for the James Bond movies), and features a virtuous Toots Thielemans on harmonica.

There is not really a conclusion to be drawn. We just wanted to present a selection of songs that we really enjoy, songs that seemed to fit the theme of this particular edition of Bold Italic. If there is something that we personally learned from selecting (and describing) these songs, it might be this: maybe it's not only the will to communicate, but also the inability to communicate, that really shapes culture.
We leave you with Nilsson, "sailing on a summer breeze / and skipping over the ocean like a stone".

Experimental Jetset, Amsterdam 2006

A list of songs we considered, but eventually didn't use in our selection (incomplete, and in no particular order):

'You Can't Talk to The Dude' by Jonathan Richman, 'Beggin' by Timebox, 'I'm Not Sayin' by Nico, 'Never Seem Able to Say Goodbye' by Fay (Lovsky) Lovesick, 'Tongue Tied' by Wanda Jackson, 'Shut Your Face' by Polyrock, 'Walk And Talk It' by Velvet Underground, Why Don't You Practise What You Preach?' by The Boswell Sisters, 'You Shouldn't Have Said That' by Blanket Music, 'Count 0 Number 1' by Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, 'Shh Song' by Takako Minekawa, 'Spelling' by Mauricio Nannucci, 'Shout' and 'Twist & Shout' by The Isley Brothers, 'Scream Bloody Gore' by Death, 'Loose Lips' by Kimya Dawson, 'Say a Little Prayer' by Aretha Franklin, '(Talking about) My Generation' by The Who, 'Word Up' by Cameo, 'I Love Paris' by Screaming Jay Hawkins, 'F-Word' by Jens Lekman, 'Talk is Cheap' by Bold, 'Terminator X Talks With His Hand' by Public Enemy, 'Happy Talk' by Captain Sensible, 'Shout To The Top' by The Style Council, and many more.


And that concludes the actual text of the lecture. Thanks to Michael Bussaer and the Sint Lucas School of Visual Arts for organizing these events, and for inviting us.

Related link: http://archive.vooruit.be/bolditalic2006

Publication printed by Drukkerij robstolk, Amsterdam.
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