Two summers ago I reread Phonogram in its entirety and had something like an identity crisis for several weeks after, if listening to Shrag’s “On The Spines of Old Cathedrals” on repeat and thinking about a very specific period of time in your life (2010-2013, give or take a few months either side) and how it has now passed, but the music from that time remains and trigger floods of memories you didn’t ask for, and it fucks you up a bit, is what an identity crisis is.
Phonogram is a Image Comics series by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, later joined by colourist Matt Wilson, the Spinderella to their Salt-n-Pepa. It is about a world where music is magic, which isn’t wholly distinct from our own world. In the world of Phonogram, listening to a song which is able to conjure up such powerful memories is the most basic form of magic; it’s a literalisation (or mystification?) of associations will build with media, music often being the strongest, especially for the young and the sincere/the beautiful and the doomed. Ritualistically chasing that feeling — by, say, listening to the same Shrag track over and over — is “retromancy,” and that’s where things get tricky.
The plot of the first Phonogram miniseries, subtitled “Rue Britannia,” is about an absolute bastard called David Kohl, who may or may not be loosely based on Gillen. He is arrogant and preening and just the right side of a music snob. He is a self-aware shit. He is a bad person with a good taste in records, as he diagnoses DJ Seth Bingo in the next miniseries, “The Singles Club.” And he begins to fall apart because some retromancers are trying to resurrect the goddess Britannia, the nationalistic spirit of first sixties groups like the Small Faces and the Kinks, and then the nineties Britpop scene directly inspired by their predecessors. This isn’t good because Britannia is not due to be resurrected for another twenty years, if ever. These are the cycles that styles and fashion move naturally, but the ageing casualties of Britpop (“nostalgia parasites”) are not happy with their crows feet and sagging flesh and inability to get into Groucho’s any more, and so take matters into their own hands.
For Kohl this is a problem because his personality is still “rooted” in Britpop, something other characters repeatedly chastise him for. His experience of Britpop is not the culturally-agreed-upon narrative, the one which documentaries are now being made about, which apparently flatten the period in much the same way that 1977 punk is now the same set of cliches trotted out, but perhaps in a different order. For Kohl, Britpop was not about “a London clique shagging, taking drugs and writing songs about each other, or anonymous crowds of one hundred and twenty thousand in a field.” It was the grotty clubs he spent his youth, with “piss-floored toilets full of pissed-up mods touching up their eyeliner and each other,” and more importantly, “a DJ that played records that came out that week rather than last decade.”
That is his personal experience of Britpop, and an avowedly rose-tinted and subjective one. It’s part of the problem with rooting a significant amount of your early, developing personality in a music scene. Your memories end up not being wholly your own, susceptible to manipulation and distortion by others who were there. This is the first way that rereading Phonogram fucked me up in the summer of 2016. It is now the autumn of 2018, and the other night I got the National Express back from Sheffield, where I had visited friends via a weekend with the family. Somehow I fell into listening to the same two Los Campesinos! songs on repeat, from their most recent record, 2017’s Sick Scenes.
I listened to the whole album in full a couple of times, before honing in on these two tracks. They were “A Slow, Slow Death” and “Got Stendhal’s.” I’m listening to them on repeat now, along with “On The Spines of Old Cathedrals,” but will get to the latter in good time. “A Slow, Slow Death” is a love song in the Los Campesinos! mode, which is to say in the miserabilist self-flagellating mode (key lyric: “You / On a lilo / Are an island / Of the pacific / And then me, me, me / I am face down / In a puddle / On the high street”), which is to say in BS Johnson poetry mode. For me the song recalls the spoken-word section outro of “In Medias Res,” the opening track of their 2010 — important year, remember — album Romance is Boring, which offered: “If you were given the option of dying painlessly in peace at forty-five, but with a lover at your side, after a full and happy life, is this something that would interest you?” Instead, “A Slow, Slow Death” suggests the option of a long life with one person.
“Got Stendhal’s,” meanwhile, is directly engaged with the past. The chorus is “I assembled former ghosts at a seance / Said I missed ’em, you only have to say it once / What I truly fear, maybe selfishly / When I finally rest, someone will summon me.” The third Phonogram miniseries is called “The Immaterial Girl,” and mostly it’s about Emily Aster, who took the extreme opposite approach to personality-forming David Kohl did. She banished her depressive, self-harming teenage self Claire in favour of becoming an entirely new person; albeit one whose past self has the unfortunate habit of appearing in the mirror to have a go at her. Anyway, the fourth issue of that miniseries puts the Aster story on pause, and instead is a personal attack on me I am still reeling from.
Issue four of “The Immaterial Girl” is called “(Let’s Make This) Precious Little Life.” It is an extended parody of the first Scott Pilgrim graphic novel, has the second Long Blondes album as a key plot point, and uses Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner lyrics as chapter headings. This is when I have to tip my cards entirely, and state that my identity crisis upon rereading Phonogram was upon realising that my personality was, like David Kohl’s, rooted in something unstable and adolescent and really I ought to move on. The difference is that the particular “era” or “scene” or whatever is one not nearly as well-defined as Britpop, and with not an ounce of the cultural influence, and one that involved lots of mistakes and bad decisions and being a shit, often under the influence of music and booze, but mostly on the internet, not in club nights above pubs.
In 2010 I was listening to Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner, and the mostly-defunct Dananananaykroyd and Sky Larkin and Slow Club because they were friends with those bands, and Pavement and Xiu Xiu and Parenthetical Girls because Los Campesinos! liked/collaborated/quoted from/covered them, and Former Ghosts because he collaborated with Xiu Xiu and supported Parenthetical Girls at a gig in Brighton I went to with someone I met through the internet and liking all these types of bands. The period of 2010-2013 was when I last cared about music with the elan that young people love music and attach a great deal of importance and emotional investment to it, and it smarts to have lost that.
That loss is partly because I got burnt out on the amatuer music journalism I was doing at the time, finding I could muster up plenty of paragraphs about records I was passionate about, but could barely meet the minimum word count for something bang average, and most of what I reviewed was bang average; Shrag’s final album, Canines, is one of the few which were great. It’s partly because the loose community that I was part of during that time is entirely nonexistent, the semi-passive social media platform it utilised has changed in culture and usage and corporate ownership plenty since then, and enough bad blood and (mostly) justified antagonisms of the period mean that “community” is now more a diffuse handful of associates who might like an Instagram post or Facebook status of one another’s every so often. Mostly it’s because, like your man says in The Great Gatsby, you can’t repeat the past.
But also: “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us” (or, more accurately, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” I reread Phonogram and then I listened to “On The Spine of Old Cathedrals” by Shrag on repeat for several days after. I listened to it in the shower. I listened to it in my room. I listened to it on the bus to and from work. I listened for the same reason I had the same two Los Campesinos! tracks on repeat on the coach home from Sheffield. It allowed me to access, or perhaps forced me to access, memories and feelings and such I hadn’t given much mind, or perhaps repressed, for a long time. And I am not that person anymore, but I am. Emily Aster asks David Kohl why he is “still tied to Britannia? Why don’t you just…disconnect? I was baptised by Britannia too and I’ve long since recentred my identity.”
The truth is, it’s not that easy. Investigating the rogue resurrection of Britannia, Kohl conducts an intense version of the retromancy I’m currently conducting with the same three bloody indie songs on repeat. Like Proust shoving madeleines down his throat to try and travel back in time to this childhood, Kohl dons eyeliner and black fingernails and a Yale lock necklace and plays “Common People” on a Walkman in the club he used to frequent in his Britpop days, and leaps through into the “memory kingdom” that offers direct access to his past, playing out in vivid monochrome. Afterwards, having being confronted with what a shit he was as a younger man, he has “trouble settling on something worthwhile enough to reconstruct [himself] around. Radical poptimism? Played out.” In the end of “Rue Britannia,” he succeeds in saving his reality, in part by addressing his shittiness as a younger man, and in part by finally admitting he “liked the occasional Echobelly song.”
Mostly I’ve not mentioned “The Singles Club,” even though that’s the first Phonogram miniseries I read in full. Each issue looks at the same club night, Never On A Sunday, from the perspective of a different character. The problem is that, as I said, my experience of being a Sensitive Indie Boy in three-year Overton window I’ve cracked open for the purposes of this, using Shrag and Los Campesinos!, was mediated through text posts that meaningfully excerpted a lyric to suggest I fancied somebody, having the username box-elder, submitting a monologue about an Orange Juice song recorded on Audacity for a Johnny Foreigner song I still get shit off my mates for, and awkwardly saying hello to people at gigs who I knew from webcam selfies and all-too-revealing late-night blogs hidden beneath “Read more” links which would be swiftly deleted from the dashboard in the cold light of day. Not club nights.
It was a communal experience of music, and one that fuelled many hookups and heartbreaks and drama as the playlist of Seth Bingo and Silent Girl in “The Singles Club.” No dancing, though. It did however prove to be an experience as impermanent and ephemeral as a drunken night out, blogs routinely scrubbed entirely from existence — even the Internet Archive holds no record of my many, many “remakes” — and friendships and relationships of the period all but reduced down to nothing, but for the few that made it under the wire fence separating online and IRL and became “real.”
This is a very personal and very embarrassing blog post only half-masquerading as a critical analysis of a comic. It’s an exegesis about my own bullshit. I’ve barely even mentioned the artwork, and that is very bad when writing about a comic, but this isn’t really about the comic. Like Kohl, I’m not a “saviour of reality,” but maybe it’d be nice to be the saviour of my own reality. Issue four of “The Immaterial Girl.” Not only did it reference Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner, who we have established are erm, my Britpop, but also The Long Blondes (one of the first gigs I ever went to, but a band I got into pre-internet community, and so untainted by association, and so I can listen to Somebody To Drive You Home without being crushed beneath memories), and Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. I once wrote a blog post as a 19-year-old where I bemoaned Scott Pilgrim’s ability to have multiple girls fighting over him despite being a doofus, because I had good hair then and was a doofus, and I felt very lonely and very entitled in the way a young man at university who hasn’t had sex in four months feels.
Of course, Scott Pilgrim starts at a point and develops such that the title character is forced to confront all the shitty things he’s done, hidden behind the “excuse” of being a lovable doofus, and when he accepts the consequences of his actions in the final volume he finally matures into an actual adult. It’s a conclusion not unlike that of Kohl in “Rue Britannia,” or Emily Aster at the conclusion of “The Immaterial Girl.” But “(Let’s Make This) Precious Little Life” is not about two characters at that point; not quite. It’s about Lloyd and Laura, or Mr Logos and Laura Black, and their antagonistic “relationship” which was established in “The Singles Club.” Lloyd tells Laura the second Long Blondes record has leaked, knowing how much her own personality is rooted in the lyrics of Dorian Cox and the performance of Kate Jackson. He does this because she knows, in its departure from angular indie rock to bleaker krautrock, will break her heart.
Lloyd gets a jobs in a Wetherspoons with a soul-crushing playlist. Their friends move away, and they stay in Bristol. A year later, Silent Girl asks them to DJ while she and Seth Bingo are busy for a weekend. After “a month of obsessive preparation,” they pull it off. Then they have a big metaphorical scrap, like the big metaphorical scraps Scott Pilgrim has with his new girlfriend’s League of Evil Exes, in a climactic section introduced with “Turn On The Real Drums,” the lyrics which herald the shift from drum machine to crashing crescendo on Johnny Foreigner’s “Salt, Peppa and Spinderella.” They literally tear each other apart, after which Laura curses, “fucking metaphors.” It’s only in the aftermath that they move towards something like Scott Pilgrim’s maturation, acknowledging “we’re the only two people in this town who have anything in common and we’d be better off not self-abusing by proxy and should work together to get out of the shithole that is our lives.”
In the arthouse favourite My Dinner with Andre, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play lightly fictionalised versions of themselves discussing theatre, privilege, the sense of self, memories. In a retrospective interview years later, Shawn said of writing the film and his character in it, “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.” It’s hard not to see the autobiography in Phonogram, not least of all because David Kohl begins to more directly resemble Kieron Gillen as the years go by. The very last bit of comics in the final issue of “The Immaterial Girl” makes the connection even clearer, in a back-up written by Gillen and drawn by Tom Humberstone, when a middle-aged and thinning-haired Kohl transmogrifies into the writer listening to a Spotify playlist and writing the comic’s script.
Phonogram in part feels like Gillen’s own attempt to “destroy the guy” exemplified by Kohl, following a similar path of coming to terms with the past but rooting his overall personality somewhere else. Which is unwelcome and complete speculation, but now he’s writing Star Wars and a comic about pop music gods that’s mainly about death, which is surely character development of a sort. Wallace Shawn went onto a lucrative career as a bit-part character actor in Hollywood productions including Clueless and The Princess Bride, while writing brilliant and bleak-as-fuck theatre. Years after “Rue Britannia”, in-universe and publication-wise, David Kohl is in a steady relationship with someone and has mostly gotten over himself, a marked change from the shagging-around, vaguely lecherous and still self-important figure in “The Singles Club.”
Unlike Kohl, I have not rooted my personality in a different genre/band/era, but more-or-less given up music as my personal omphalos. It’s now nominally film, which I begin an MA in next month and which this blog is supposedly focussed on. It’s also, to a certain extent, comics, which I write about regularly for Broken Frontier; and books, and art, because I read a lot and try to go to exhibitions as much as possible, and theatre because I work in one and am trying to write plays. But I barely go to gigs any more, or buy records, or stay abreast of new releases. The only people with whom music is a foundation of our relationship are my dad, and remaining friends from 2010-2013. My sixth rock gig of the year, in a few weeks, will be Los Campesinos! playing Kentish Town Forum to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first two full-length releases.
In Lloyd’s issue of “The Singles Club,” David Kohl puts Mr Logos onto the then-nascent Los Campesinos! “They’re going to be bi…” he stops himself. “Actually, scratch that. They’re never going to be big big. But they’re going to be big to some people.”
The song that sinches Los Campesinos! for Lloyd is “You Throw Parties, We Throw Knives,” which is, ahem, not their best. The group have changed a lot since then, frontman Gareth’s lyrics and voice each improving with age, the music principally composed by guitarist and producer Tom changing naturally as the makeup of the band and instrumentation did, but also as confidence and experience have honed down the wall of sound to something more assured. “A Slow, Slow Death” is great because it’s different from a lot of what’s come before for the band, even in their slowies. It’s great also because, for a band whose lyrical concerns have often been heartbreak, betrayal and heightened emotions of the most hysterical order — and with the music often complementing that — it’s about the possibility of something else. Rooting music and personalities and emotion in something else, of love something being something that persists rather than a ticking timebomb, a relationship that refutes “We kid ourselves there’s future in the fucking / But there is no fucking future.”
I’d rather a slow, slow death than the “safety” of being “encased in concrete” offered by “Got Stendahl’s.” Listening to “On The Spines of Old Cathedrals” in the summer of 2016 wasn’t quite self-flagellation, but it wasn’t not that. Now I listen, and there are associations, but I’m coming to terms with what a shit I was, and how that time has passed, and how I’m now rooted in something else, traumatic though that process at times was. I hope I can be a better person. I hope I can one day love music properly again, but if that day doesn’t come, it’s not the end of the world.