Monthly Archives: November 2010

Guilty pleasures #2: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Having jumped in the deepest of deep ends in terms of guilty pleasures with my recent essay on my uncomfortable response to some of the James Bond films and novels, let's swim a little closer to the shore and artistic terra firma. I want to turn at this point to guilty pleasures that are not necessarily toxic, but which are of dubious merit, or those that combine abundant measures of both the meritorious and the miserable, and the essential quality of which is therefore confusing and ambiguous. The genesis, so to speak, of this whole series on guilty pleasures was an idea I had a little more than a year ago for an essay on how to think about art or cultural artifacts which we cannot decide whether or not we think are good, which we find both attractive and repulsive, and which alternately and even simultaneously are in some ways unmistakably impressive and plainly mediocre in others.

At the time I specifically had in mind the 1974 Genesis double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and its various other incarnations. Since the late 70s, when I first heard it, I've had a very ambivalent relationship with this piece, or rather set of pieces, of music. I think high on everyone's list of guilty pleasures, or things they enjoy without respecting much or even at all, would be certain kinds of pop music. Almost everyone enjoys, at some level, some version of catchy, appealing musical drivel, for various reasons. But the question becomes a lot more complicated when for many years one cannot decide whether a certain piece or set of music is actually good or bad, whether we are responding enthusiastically to something that is a totally guilty pleasure or is something we can really defend wholeheartedly or at least in part.

Because I hadn't thought about it systematically, but the question would crop up in my mind regularly from time to time, I had the idea of doing a little essay on whether or not The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is actually any good. I had self-consciously been hoping that writing such an essay would “resolve” the question in my mind once and for all, after an incredible amount of back and forth over many years. But something interesting happened in the process of preparing to write that (this?) essay: I decided that the question wasn't as difficult as it seems and that, on balance, The Lamb simply had to be consigned pretty firmly to the “not good” category once and for all. For a while that seemed satisfactory. But over time, it hasn't.

So I return to the original problem, once again with a degree of ambivalence about the object in question, and it raises a set of extremely difficult questions. How do we respond and relate to works of art we both respect and dismiss simultaneously at different levels? How do we deal with those occasional objects that seem both not only worthy but impressive in some ways and incompetent or even pathetic in others? Is it possible for something to be both really very good and undoubtedly pretty bad at the same time? Is it possible to tease apart that which is recuperable from that which, honestly, must be permanently dismissed? What kind of guilty pleasure is involved in appreciating that which we find “good" about such an object while frankly admitting that a great deal about it is “bad?” Is this the aesthetic and intellectual equivalent of a bad or even abusive relationship or friendship? Shouldn't we maintain high enough aesthetic standards that objects that are woefully and probably fatally flawed are dispatched without too much sentimentality? But then, should we really privilege the head over the gut in such a manner when it comes to something as instinctive and emotionally direct as music? These are just a few of the questions this problem opens up and there's no hope at all of answering them here. Yet even teasing out the difficulties of addressing them ought to provide some serious food for thought and at least clarify some of the questions and problems if not provide any answers.

Before we go any further, obviously I have to spare some attention to what I mean by “good” and “bad” in artistic terms. Historically there was some resistance to the introduction of literary studies as an academic discipline at all on the grounds that “gentlemen cannot be examined on matters of taste” and so forth, as distinguished from scholarship in the classics and languages, for example, that were traditionally seen as sufficiently rigorous. But the very premise of literary studies, among other well-established and obviously legitimate disciplines, is precisely that there are systematic methodologies for reading and more broadly aesthetic interpretation, and that there is something vitally important to be gained by the application of such techniques to literary and other artistic texts. This is, of course, another way of saying that literary studies and critical theory assert their own relevance, if not primacy. But this relevance is almost universally accepted, and has been for many decades (imagine if a university decided to try to completely abolish its English and Comparative Literature departments, for example), and at its heart lies the idea that artistic and aesthetic judgments about literature and other arts are not only legitimate but can and should be systematic and rigorous. Of course the question of how to read and evaluate artistic artifacts and judge relative merit (the last is not necessary, although it's extremely difficult to pursue these studies without at least implicit value judgments at some level) is ancient, vexed and, ultimately, irresolvable. But I can't go forward with the question of ambivalence of judgment of artistic merit without providing some sense of what I'm talking about beyond arbitrary expressions of “taste.”

By “good” generally speaking I mean that which succeeds on its own terms, which achieves the implicit goals set down in its own structures and produces the effects it appears to be striving for. Simply put, does it create the response in the audience that is built into its project, especially when that audience is well informed and critical? That strikes me as a minimal requirement of artistic merit. Another obvious characteristic is a dynamic relationship, which can be complementary, contradictory or even calculatedly and suggestively arbitrary, between manifest and latent content on the one hand and formal attributes on the other hand. In other words, does the artifact communicate its messages formally as well as in terms of more overt content? Third, does the expression reflect a certain mastery of formal technique, which of course can also be expressed through a calculated and deliberate rejection of or opposition to those formal techniques, and/or real insight into the manifest and latent subject matter being addressed by the content of the message? Really great art is only achievable, it seems to me, when both formal mastery and suggestive insight are combined in a given work. A successful work minimally has to contain a little bit of one or the other at the very least. Without either formal mastery, which could include radically original and even intuitive techniques, or reflective insight, which again can be either carefully thought through or possibly also intuitive – in other words, without disciplined talent and/or significant intelligence at work – I'd argue it's going to be very difficult to find an artistic product significantly meritorious. There are important additional questions, of course, such as: Does it open rather than close down space in which ideas can operate, proliferate, and evolve? To what extent is it relevant to material that came before and after it, and what role does it play in cultural change and development? Does it seem to have continued or heightened relevance over time, and so forth?  Obviously such judgments depend on the criteria and methodologies employed for interpretation and analysis and are also culturally dependent, so a large degree of subjectivity is perforce involved. But this hardly constitutes a resort to arbitrary "tastes" or prevents the development of rigor and serious, systematic thinking about the question.

This, more or less, is what I mean by “good,” at least in this context. By “bad” I therefore mean a marked absence of such qualities. In particular the failure of a work to produce its apparently intended effects or to marshal structures and forms that are consistent with its attempted messaging are rather obvious failures. It almost goes without saying that I can identify maddeningly large quantities of both what seemed to be “good” and are obviously “bad” aspects to The Lamb, which gives it its ambiguous status in my own experience. I'm really not trying to write only about this one, by now somewhat obscure, double album from the 1970s, but rather to use it to discuss more broadly the problem posed when one can identify much of both the good and the bad in a single object and is therefore confronted with this conundrum of judgment, especially over a long period of time. If one were able to simply dismiss an object like this or forget about it, it wouldn't be that much of a problem. The deep ambivalence comes when moving on is difficult and when the ambivalence neither resolves itself nor fades into the distance but instead persists as a nagging question that demands a resolution (which is probably not fully achievable).
The Lamb, it should be acknowledged from the outset, can be seen in a way as a synecdoche for the usually dreadful genre of progressive or “prog" rock that emerged in the late 60s, specifically following the release of King Crimson's extraordinary 1969 debut LP, In the Court of the Crimson King. That record, which is pretty brilliant in a lot of ways and was certainly groundbreaking, had an enormous influence in very wide circles especially in Britain, and can't be held responsible for the grotesque excesses to which it helped to give rise. Prog rock, especially of the Crimson-influenced variety, rested on two interesting and theoretically worthy ideas: first, that European rock musicians could and should move away from the blues/R&B roots of American rock music and start to explore European classical and folk traditions which might have (and actually sometimes did) produced a really interesting variation on a limited field; and second, that a more elevated level of instrumental precision and compositional complexity, often rooted in formal classical or jazz training, would make rock music more exciting and interesting to listen to. Sounds good. Unfortunately, in practice for the most part the genre lurched from one level of self-indulgent excess and absurdity to another and was rapidly characterized by ludicrous displays of pomposity and self-grandiosity.

The introduction of classical influences that began rather promisingly with early King Crimson quickly went off the rails in a very ugly way. Crimson had included in their first tour playlist in 1969 a rather stunning version of Mars from Gustav Holtz's The Plants, which had obviously influenced both their overall style and several of their specific songs (in subsequent years Crimson produced a number of variations on Mars under different names in a repeated nod to this aspect of their roots). They never bothered to put their straight 1969 version of Mars on any of their formal releases at the time, but it can be heard in some of the frequently breathtaking live recordings of that tour released many decades later. From this interesting side-experiment, the band that epitomized most of the worst excesses of prog rock, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (including the original Crimson bassist/vocalist and in-house lightweight Greg Lake), extrapolated an abominable album-length demolition of Modest Mussorgsky's 1874 piano suite, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It was dreadful for Mussorgsky's original composition, for rock music, and, above all, for its audiences (who might better be described as victims). The pomposity of prog rock in general and its biggest villains, ELP, in particular, probably reached its nadir in the god-awful 1977 Works, Volume I double LP, especially the first side of the first disc which was defaced by Keith Emerson's "Piano Concerto No. 1," no less. And, yes, it's as contemptible as you no doubt fear.

As for the heightened levels of instrumental competence and formal training that tended to accompany prog rock, these were undoubtedly real but generally never made it beyond, or at least quickly degenerated into, empty pyrotechnics without any artistic merit whatsoever. Without adult supervision, self-restraint or real writing ability, prog rock types typically deluded themselves that pomposity, grandiosity and empty instrumental pyrotechnics were a substitute for well-written, enjoyable or interesting music. Worse still, they forgot or denied they were still operating in the field of pop, in which the ultimate goal has been and remains a perfectly honed, catchy and diamond-like three-four-minute love song or something equally perfectly formed but simple. The very notion of a catchy tune, which is the sine qua non of pop music, became anathema to this genre of it. A particularly egregious example of this was another leading UK prog rock band, Yes, which managed to assemble some extremely talented instrumentalists indeed but which, in several decades of dedicated and earnest labor, never managed to compose a single remotely interesting or decently composed song. Their music, usually difficult and demanding to perform, was nonetheless almost always a prodigious mess full of sound and fury and signifying nothing whatsoever. Almost all of it is downright unlistenable.

The only one of the prog rock bands whose instrumental brilliance was sometimes able to overcome a complete absence of songwriting talent or, worse, a militant disinterest in the craft of songwriting, was the aforementioned King Crimson. The band, which continuously changed members except guitar ace Robert Fripp, produced very few well-written songs, but quite a lot of very interesting and sometimes exciting music, and especially inventive and dynamic live improvisations (along with the Grateful Dead they are probably the only well-known rock band to really risk that on such a scale for so much of their history, although that's surely the only thing those two bands have in common). Because of these qualities, Crimson had interestingly delayed levels of influence on the music scene, with their work from the early 70s, for example, having a profound impact on early 90s grunge bands like Nirvana and many others (Kurt Cobain apparently considered Crimson's Red the best LP he had ever heard, and I can understand the sentiment). Even so, much of Crimson's output is so badly written that, like almost all of the rest of 70s prog rock, it can't escape being cringe-inducing.

The punk revolution of the mid-70s was aimed straight at the heart of this rot, and I'm not sure there's been a more salutary self-correction in any aspect of popular culture in recent decades. John Lydon (soon to be renamed Johnny Rotten) reportedly first came to the attention of the Sex Pistols' future manager and mastermind Malcolm McLaren because, among other things, he was wearing a T-shirt with "I hate" penned in above its prefabricated Pink Floyd logo. Quite right! And, of course, with its psychedelic-inflected aesthetic and Roger Waters' unusual (for prog rock) ability to sometimes write a decent song, Pink Floyd was hardly the worst of the bunch. It's crucial to understand that The Lamb was released on the brink of the punk counteroffensive and during the very depths of the prog rock fiasco, and that this is reflected in its contents in a really fascinating and complex way, for both good and ill. Prog rock, for the most part, was unable to avoid self-important grandiosities like the concept album, especially the concept double album. In many ways, The Lamb is the last of these, although Pink Floyd's Animals and The Wall might be seen as final holdouts. But while it participated in so much of prog rock's excesses and errors, The Lamb strikes me as one of the very few products of that genre still worth listening to, at least in part. It's errors and failings are generally typical, but its genuinely interesting features were quite unusual and noteworthy at the time, and remain intriguing and engaging.

Genesis were always something of a lesser light in the prog rock world of the early 70s. They were fairly late to gain any real attention, and while they sometimes tried to copy aspects of Yes' pseudo-classical style, they weren't nearly as good at actually playing their instruments. A more significant difference was the fact that they began as a songwriting collective and always took the idea of songwriting much more seriously than most their prog colleagues. They came across as what they were: not exactly a group of upper class twits, but certainly a group of upper middle-class public (i.e. private) school boys. The band was founded in the late 60s at the Charterhouse school, and the class exception, working-class drummer Phil Collins, was a subsequent hire. This was a key origin of some of Genesis' distinctive quirkiness: their early songs were infused with a strange pseudo-Edwardian sensibility, nursery rhymes and riddles, an absurdist sense of humor particular to the English middle and upper classes, a kind of soft liberal politics that tends come with a certain amount of privilege, and a familiarity with classical and English literature and traditions that was otherwise (probably mercifully) rare if not entirely absent from the subject matter of other rock songs.

Using, as he has throughout his career, a combination of weird and occasionally good ideas and genuine audacity to make up for a marked lack of real singing ability and any other obvious innate talent, their singer Peter Gabriel gained attention for the group through his outlandish costumes and makeup, striking even by the prevailing glam rock standards of Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Some, like the notorious “old man” mask used in live performances of The Musical Box, were extremely effective, while others were ridiculous or simply unconvincing. But it had to be said that Genesis were at least toying with a level of theatricality that was largely if not entirely unprecedented. As with their subject matter, their live performance staging was unexpected and quirky enough to distinguish them from the rest of the prog rock pack.

And then there was the sound. Partly by accident and partly by design, Genesis had early on discovered how to create a unique and very atmospheric musical quality that fit a lot of their subject matter perfectly. Frequently based on multiple 12 string guitars, flute, unusually delicate keyboard touches by Tony Banks and light, haunting, almost ghostly, electric guitar flourishes by Steve Hackett, the sound had a lilting, faded, autumnal and almost musty quality. It sounded as antique and fragile as the nursery and schoolroom subject matter they frequently wrote about or invoked. It seemed, and still seems, an anachronistic and inappropriate set of musical qualities and subject matter for any version of rock and remains quite unique, especially since all efforts to copy it have failed completely. It either works for you or it doesn't. Most listeners are left extremely cold and unmoved by the effect, but for some of us the sound itself seems to possess “magical” or at least deeply evocative qualities that are undeniably affecting. The opening passages of Cinema Show, for example, with its extremely delicate interplay of 12 strings and flute, has an evocative quality that's almost ineffable, but if it works for you, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If one of the unarticulated and even unconscious aims of prog rock was to create a genre that was more European and less American, in this sense early Genesis probably succeeded more than any other effort to find an overall musical quality, a “sound,” that was not just clearly European but unmistakably, almost militantly, English, complete with faux-old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy and calculatedly "quaint" qualities, and that uniquely absurdist English sense of humor.

I noted above that they started out as a songwriting collective rather than a band as such and that unlike most of their prog rock colleagues they took the notion of songwriting seriously and worked hard at it. At some point that kind of single-minded effort is likely to begin to pay off, but quite a lot of their early work suggested trying too hard by half, and it has to be admitted that they produced some of the worst songs, in terms of the interplay of music and lyrics, but I can think of. Two of them were featured on Selling England by the Pound, the 1973 LP that immediately preceded The Lamb. It was certainly their most polished performance up till then, but also brought out the worst of their excesses, and reflected those typical of prog rock generally. Firth of Fifth, for instance, is a bombastic but certainly not terrible, and in some ways very interesting, instrumental track, but the words, whoever was responsible for them, are definitely my candidate for worst written lyric of all time, at least when combined with a plausibly defensible if grandiose instrumental. Insofar as it does make any sense it is inane and insulting, but mostly it just makes no sense, and in a bad way.

Another particularly cringe-inducing song on Selling England is the endless The Battle of Epping Forest, which I suppose was intended to be a satire of some kind of contemporary British culture. Epic fail. It's musically unlistenable, and the lyrics, which are almost certainly the handiwork of Peter Gabriel in his very worst, are an object lesson in how not to write words for a song. Everything is a belabored pun, play on words, unfunny joke, lame cultural reference and so forth. No doubt its a distant descendent of Bob Dylan's masterful satire Desolation Row, with its grotesque parade of clichés and cultural icons bitterly anatomizing a brutal heartbreak. As Stephen Sondheim once observed about Ira Gershwin, you know something has gone badly wrong when while listening to a song one can't help imagining the writer sweating over a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, trying to pack as much wordplay as possible into the text, when a lyricists' actual role is to be, insofar as possible, invisible. This disastrous and elementary failing was repeated in parts of The Lamb, to devastating effect.

An excess typical of both early Genesis at its worst and prog rock's undisciplined grandiosity in general, also found on Selling England, is the abuse of the third section of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, The Fire Sermon, in the god-awful lyrics for the aforementioned Cinema Show. Needless to say Genesis missed Eliot's point entirely and only succeeded in demonstrating the immaturity of their songwriting craftsmanship, rather than their erudition or upper-middle-class education. Yet for all of that, the sound was unique and compelling to some and it was clear that these people, Gabriel in particular, were at least really trying to write effective, emotionally powerful songs in the context of a genre that generally speaking did not recognize, and even dismissed, the need for any such thing. That something good was eventually going to emerge from so much effort, in spite of so many blunders and false starts, was probably inevitable.

The Lamb both is and isn't it, which is what makes it such a difficult text. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway actually has at least five distinct incarnations that overlap with each other but can be viewed as at least somewhat discrete entities. First, it's a largely and deservedly forgotten short story by Peter Gabriel that was included in the interior gatefold of the original double LP. It can be dispensed without any second thought, being poorly written and completely inane. Gabriel had developed a storytelling technique during early gigs to entertain the audience during the frequent band re-tunings in live performance, and some people found it charming and engaging. It certainly helped to give Genesis another element of uniqueness and deepened its quirky style. But in truth Gabriel never displayed much talent as a prose storyteller, and this short story suggests that his choice of profession as a musician and performer rather than as a writer was a wise one. Second, The Lamb is a studio double album released in 1974 combining lyrics and music in a set of songs that purport to tell a similar if not the same story. Of course this is what most people think of when we refer to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Third, it also refers to the rather extraordinary 102 performance world tour, which on a good night was probably one of the most remarkable concerts one might have hoped to see but which was never filmed or even properly recorded. Fourth, there are the recordings of live performances: numerous bootlegs (and, yes, I admit to possessing modest collection of these) of varying qualities of performance and recording, and the nearly complete version from The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles recorded on January 24, 1975 and released, with considerable tweaking, in the Genesis Archive 1967-75 box set issued in 1998. Even more than the original studio recording, I'd consider this last version close to definitive, although some of the other raw live recordings such as the one from the Wembley Empire Pool in 1974 and several others are also indispensable. Finally, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is also the name of the first and crucially important song of the whole set, and can therefore can refer to that as a stand-alone in any or all of the numerous versions performed by Genesis or Gabriel over the years.

As I already noted, the “story” behind The Lamb, both written in prose by Gabriel and as reflected in the lyrics is, on its face, utterly inane and garbled. Its efforts at surrealism are largely, although not entirely, a failure and it simply doesn't hold together in a meaningful sense, at least in terms of its manifest content. There have been numerous efforts to “interpret” or otherwise provide meaning and structure to what Gabriel himself called “a big lump of story and music,” almost all without significant success. This is almost certainly because to a very large extent there is no there there, so to speak. To return to my proposition that the first quality of “good” art succeed on its own terms, The Lamb as a story, a concept and a unified whole fails utterly. You'd think that would be the end of things, but interestingly it's not. Among other things, there is a subtext in which a great deal of what is written, particularly in some of the song lyrics, has a latent meaning its author may not even have been fully aware of that regularly asserts itself in a very compelling manner.

During the period in which The Lamb was written, Gabriel was becoming increasingly unhappy with his relationship with the other members of Genesis, his role as a rock star and, I think, the way in which prog rock in general was proceeding. Sometime during the composition he decided to quit the band, and in the run-up to the tour he decided to take a hiatus from music altogether and apparently considered a change of careers. At the end of the tour in 1975, he actually did disappear for a couple of years only to reemerge in 1977 as a very compelling solo act. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd did a great deal of complaining in his songs about the hazards of rock stardom and the abuses of the industry, but, for a short time at least, Gabriel went beyond complaining to actually walking away. It didn't last, but it probably salvaged his ability to subsequently emerge as a major songwriter, performer and, at times, visionary, in the pop music field. At any rate his songs in The Lamb and on his first solo album strongly reflect this discontent and even anger. A year earlier in 1974, King Crimson honcho Robert Fripp dissolved his band indefinitely (it unexpectedly, even to him, reemerged in a barely recognizable form in 1981) and went underground to practice the New Age teachings of Bennett and Gurdjieff. It's less demonstrable, but it seems likely that Fripp too could see the writing on the wall for prog rock and decided to get out while the getting was good. And perhaps it's no coincidence that Fripp and Gabriel, the best of the bunch in most ways anyway, reemerged in new, stripped-down, post-prog forms in the late 70s with Fripp joining Gabriel's first tour (playing while concealed behind a stack of amplifiers) and producing (badly) his second LP.

It's been suggested before, but I do think The Lamb, in so far as it is amenable to and worth reading as a whole text, has interesting things to say about this set of issues that just so happened to be consuming its author at the time. It's probably best read as a kind of refracted diary of a frustrated and fledgling artist who feels entirely smothered by the very structures he created and is looking for creative and personal independence, that is to say for a way out. This certainly seems to be the only way to make sense of it all. Predictably, it is the refracted and displaced exploration of such sentiments that gives rise to the best and the worst of what The Lamb has to offer.

So what works on the album, and what doesn't, apart from an incoherent narrative that makes little diegetic sense and is essentially a string of non sequiturs both in a linear and even in a more attenuated, non-linear or surrealist framework? Well, to begin at the beginning, it has to be said that the opening of The Lamb and its title track, especially on the Archives and bootlegged live versions, creates a pretty spectacular musical effect. Rapid keyboard arpeggios are themselves circled with odd buzzing, fluttering sounds, gaining density and intensity until the first theme comes crashing through and the opening lyrics, "And the lamb… lies down… on Broadway," initiate the narrative in earnest. The effect is that of something being conjured out of nothing, of a strange, unearthly, and incorporeal presence suddenly and inexorably swirling into a shape and bursting into life with an abrupt and surprising muscularity. This opening track is strikingly effective at almost every level and was the only song on the album to be routinely performed by both Genesis and Gabriel in subsequent years. In other words, what is overall frequently a disappointing and even “bad” LP gets off to a remarkably “good” start.

Musically the opening sets the tone for the rest of the album, combining both powerful and delicate elements and emphasizing more simple and traditional rock song structures than Genesis had typically aimed for in earlier records. It also has some of the most effective lyrics on the entire record, first carefully creating its urban surrealist atmosphere, then introducing the angry, alienated outsider, Rael, “the imperial aerosol kid,” who is also implicitly violent and a sexual predator, and finally beginning a series carefully calculated pop cultural references and, more importantly, musical quotations. Unlike many of their prog rock colleagues, Genesis had tried to avoid musical quotations, including from classical sources for most of their early period. For The Lamb, however, they suddenly decided to literally litter its music and text with quotations and allusions. This process may start as early in the opening track as the third verse reference to Suzanne, possibly citing Leonard Cohen's 1966 classic that Gabriel would later rather brilliantly cover. It is unmistakably underway as the opening song ends with “they say the lights are always bright on Broadway, they say there's always magic in the air,” from The Drifters' classic. The musical and lyrical quotations in The Lamb are, importantly, mostly to either American classic pop and rock songs, or to distinctly American-inflected British rock such as the Rolling Stones (who are parodied at the very end of the album), and not to any classical or folk sources typically favored by other prog rock bands.

The choice of these quotations is very calculated. Gabriel and Genesis were deliberately trying to move away from the Edwardian, classical, mythic, swords and sorcery, fantasy, quaintly English and “airy-fairy” as they put it, subject matter and tone they were most closely associated with. The effort was only partly successful, but indicates an understanding of where unmistakably diminishing returns were becoming clearly evident. The attempt to create a “gritty” urban setting in a version of New York City, to center on an unpleasant and possibly dangerous main character who is a violent gang member, and to toughen some of the music while retaining a signature delicacy at times, all reflected this impulse. And in quoting American and American-inflected classic pop and rock songs, Genesis was obviously trying to say, you've misunderstood us: we aren't Yes, ELP and company, we're more interested in and responsive to the great songs we all know and love and were trying to write new ones rather than compete with or mimic Gustaf Holst, Wagner or Chopin. Gabriel's idol, after all, was Otis Redding.

At times, The Lamb either succeeds in this ambitious transformation, or at least comes very close. Probably the most striking and, for those who respond to and like it, emotionally affecting track on the album is Back in NYC, which is a huge deviation from anything Genesis ever did before or after. Some people have identified it, and its narrator Rael, as proto-punk, and whether one agrees with that extremely debatable interpretation or not, we're certainly dealing with an angry, violent and vicious character giving full vent to his rage. The live version on the Archive and many other bootlegged live performances find Gabriel at close to his finest, and for whatever reason (quite possibly linked to his frustration with the band and the whole direction Genesis was taking) he almost too convincingly comes across as an angry, unstable and at least slightly dangerous persona in some of these performances. Throughout the 80s and into the 90s he displayed similar flashes of anger on album and stage in a weird love/hate relationship with his audience that was only resolved, perhaps, with the LP So, best known for its love song to the audience In Your Eyes, and probably not fully until even later with the conciliatory album appropriately entitled Us. Musically, Back in NYC is also quite unique for Genesis and seems to set the stage much more for Gabriel's solo work such as San Jacinto, his unreleased cover version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and his collaboration with Afro-Celt Sound System, When You're Falling, which seems to be more or less of a reworking of NYC.

But however effective it clearly is in the opening track and in Back in NYC, the character of Rael is often extremely problematic and at times constitutes one of the greatest failings of The Lamb. To effect the shift Genesis were looking for, he had to be as "othered" as possible: American, not English; Puerto Rican, not white; half, not fully, Puerto Rican (no indication of "the other half"), have a name that kind of sounds right but really does not exist, and so forth. Worse, Gabriel was simply unable to get his voice right in the lyrics. Gabriel's own deeply English vocabulary, phraseology, references and sensibility come through time and again, and there's no way any listener can credit Rael the narrator as a successfully constructed a half-Puerto Rican New York street kid gang member. It is possible, of course, to hear Rael as GabRael rather than "Real," and therefore as yet another mask the Genesis singer was using to thinly disguise aspects of his own persona. Gabriel's subsequent development of a powerful confessional style of songwriting suggests that consciously or unconsciously this is what he was trying to do. But given my criterion that an artistic effort ought to minimally succeed at least on the terms it lays down for itself, I don't think it's possible to see Rael ultimately as anything other than a grand miscalculation and an effort to pull off a kind of ambitious cross-cultural ventriloquism for which Genesis and Gabriel did not possess the requisite capital or knowledge-base.

Listing the vast number of phrases, sentiments and formulations that are easily identifiable with what must have been Charterhouse culture but completely inappropriate for anyone of Rael's purported description would be far too tedious. The worst examples are concentrated in the weakest song on the album, in my view, The Chamber of 32 Doors, especially its celebration of the “country man” versus the “town man.” The distinction of town versus country is quite deep in the English culture and psyche, but has no rhetorical equivalent in the United States, especially in New York City (it matters little whether the voice speaking in that part of the song is assumed to be that of Rael himself or some advice-giving relative as some have suggested). Beyond that, the song is just awful. It anticipates Gabriel's future confessional style, but it fails both formally and in terms of satisfying its own clear-cut agenda, and its emotions are bathetic at best, a kind of melodrama we will come to in a future Ibishblog guilty pleasures essay.

Another of the low points comes soon after the excellent opening track and the stunning short follow-through, Fly on the Windshield (a metaphor much later appropriated by Depeche Mode), which quickly gives way to Broadway Melody of 1974, which is similar to and almost as bad as The Battle of Epping Forest, though mercifully much shorter. It's basically a series of bad puns and lame cultural allusions that are supposed to be clever, evocative and, I suppose, surrealistic, but are merely tiresome and annoying. Again, a sub-Desolation Row fiasco. Obviously there is a point being made here about nostalgia, which was running deep in Anglo-American culture in 1974, but the song feels like a checklist and produces Sondheim's "Gershwin effect" of primarily evoking the image of the songwriter sweating over his wordplay to the exclusion of lyrical effectiveness or, for that matter meaning.

A number of the other tracks fail along similar lines. Anyway and The Colony of Slippermen fall back into the public school cleverness trap in an extremely ineffective manner and the whole trope of Rael and his brother facing the twin specters of castration and suburban domestication seems crude and juvenile. The Lamia is in some ways a well-written song, but again resorting to classical mythology and Romantic poetry (in this case John Keats, in Slippermen, William Wordsworth) not only doesn't work and sounds silly, but worse it seems to contradict a lot of the other imperatives Genesis seemed to be setting themselves and the album in earlier parts of The Lamb. It comes across as a retreat, a surrender to a familiar and played-out style and, in a sense, an admission that the new path either wasn't working or couldn't be sustained. It is as if, as the double album progresses, the creative energies deployed on both sides of the first disc simply burned themselves out and Genesis increasingly allowed themselves to slip back into very familiar and therefore completely ineffective territory that it was the whole point of The Lamb to move beyond if not repudiate. Under such circumstances it's hard to avoid self-parody, but if that danger was not entirely avoided in be only partly successful effort to create a new, gritty, urban and slightly menacing atmosphere on disc one, by Slippermen Genesis begin to sound like a parody of their old selves. Of course it's an inglorious spectacle.

To oscillate rapidly back towards the album's charms, largely located on the first disc, the songs that work best are, not surprisingly, those most directly reflecting Gabriel's claustrophobia, fear and despair at the time. Cuckoo Cocoon has as much of the trapped and sedated but anxious as one might wish: "this feels so secure, that I know it can't be real, but I feel good," etc. In the Cage seems to work extremely well on almost every level. Genesis continued to perform the song for many years after, and because it's so well-crafted it stands alone perfectly. It slowly gain steam and increasingly and then frantically builds to a moving and effective crescendo that condenses and releases a great deal of tension. That its author felt trapped by something serious is evident on first listening. And while there isn't any direct quotation, there certainly is the (entirely positive and, insofar as possible, unpretentious) influence of Bach in Tony Banks' keyboard solo (for a prog rock band, Genesis was remarkably unconcerned with the pyrotechnical solo, no doubt because they aspired to write effective songs).

I am unusual, I think, among admirers of The Lamb in appreciating the track that follows In the Cage, the unheralded and much-maligned The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging, which musically is probably the simplest song on the entire album, but which I think contains genuinely clever and effective lyrics. Those interested primarily in complicated or interesting musical structures will no doubt find little of interest in it, but I would argue that it demonstrates Gabriel's slow maturation as a wordsmith, and at an earlier point in his career it might have fallen victim to the “Gershwin effect,” but doesn't. Again, the song goes directly to Gabriel's growing anxiety about becoming a commodity. In his brilliant song Solsbury Hill, the highlight of his first solo effort after leaving Genesis, he insists that "I walked right out of the machinery," a boast rendered increasingly hollow as it is being used in more and more TV commercials. Nonetheless, if Solsbury Hill is to be seen, as it should be, as Gabriel's declaration of independence from Genesis ("today I don't need a replacement, I showed them what the smile on my face meant"), then songs like Grand Parade and the others served as fair warning, due notice and further evidence of a decent respect to the opinions of mankind as they say.

No such unorthodoxy attaches to my very high regard for "The Carpet Crawlers," which is undoubtedly the highlight of The Lamb, and therefore certainly the best song Genesis ever produced with or without Gabriel. There is some dispute about whether Gabriel was responsible for both the lyrics and most of the music or only the lyrics and the essential melody, but it hardly matters. Here, at last, by those criteria I laid out the beginning of this essay is a product that can unequivocally be identified as “good” in every possible sense. There have been many efforts to decipher who and what these carpet crawlers might be and why their refrain is “we got to get into get out.” I don't think there's any great mystery about it, however. The song describes, in figurative but unmistakable language, the perils of ambition and working within a system of ambitions, of the trap that they set for the individuals “who are pulled up by the magnet, believing they're free.” It seems to me almost impossible that song could have been written by anyone who wasn't giving voice to a degree of outrage at their own captivity in such systems and the distortions of personality and behavior they inevitably produce.

In particular I find the often ignored introductory section to be exceptionally evocative and effective, and the clearest sign that Gabriel's ambition to become a serious songwriter, after so many fiascoes and false starts, was finally beginning to be realized: “A salamander scurries into flames to be destroyed. Imaginary creatures are trapped at birth on celluloid. The fleas cling to the golden fleece, hoping they'll find peace. Each thought and gesture are caught on celluloid. There's no hiding in my memory. There's no room to avoid.” Self-destruction, self-creation and re-creation, self-delusion, self-defeat, illusory ambition, the pointless yearning for and relentless punishment by entertainment industry success, the passionate desire for and intense fear of creating a permanent artistic record, and the self-recrimination and self-loathing these produce are all powerfully invoked here. The fact that it leads directly into an exceptionally beautiful song that continues to press the case with powerful and evocative imagery and a haunting chorus and refrain, and which builds to an extraordinary intensity, only reinforces the sense that we are dealing, from the outset, with an entirely successful and indeed remarkable work of art, a truly great song by any standards. Whether he wrote only most or basically all of it, bootlegs of the tour suggest that Gabriel consistently produced powerful vocal performances of the song, even on the (frequent) evenings in which his voice and/or singing abilities were less than impressive. And no matter how many times Phil Collins has tried to sing it, the song was and remains entirely owned by Gabriel.

As for The Lamb on stage, it remains one of the more tantalizing mysteries for prog rock, and indeed rock in general. Gabriel-era Genesis was probably the most interestingly "theatrical" band ever, in the most positive and negative senses of the term, even though others perhaps before, and certainly since, have had more elaborate staging. This pattern clearly reached its peak with The Lamb tour, which bizarrely and inexplicably was never properly documented, let alone filmed. The staging included a studied and carefully constructed pitch blackness; three large screens showing more than 1,400 slides throughout the performance; a giant swirling cone that descended on Gabriel at the end of The Lamia; the most bizarre and elaborate costume, the Slipperman, that he or probably any other major rock figure has ever worn; and a life-sized and apparently convincing dummy second Gabriel that emerged with an explosion on the other side of the stage at the moment Rael realizes that his brother John, who he has been chasing through most of the narrative, is actually himself. An enormous amount of effort to reconstruct the spectacle, which was evidently quite remarkable, has been expended by numerous people, and one can get a generalized sense of it, but there is a palpable feeling in many quarters that it probably packed much more of a wallop than we can glean from the fragments. Or not. Very few of us will ever be sure. The tiny scraps of 8mm video that have survived, almost all of wretchedly poor quality, are extremely suggestive and enticing. So is the text of the tour program that describes the show as "multi-media," a concept that was fledgling at best in 1974.

One of my closest friends, who is a noted rock critic, a serious and canny cultural observer and a brilliant journalist, once told me that the one show he most regrets never having seen was Genesis in 1974. Even though I long had a soft spot for The Lamb, and had a sense of what an intriguing spectacle it must've been from photographs by Armando Gallo and others, at that time I told him I wasn't sure what he meant. But upon reflection, and especially after the release of the Shrine Auditorium performance in the Archive box set I was convinced and I told him so. One thing is for sure: the lack of a serious documentary visual record of the performance only adds to its mystique, which for those of us who like, or are even deeply ambivalent about, it is considerable. It is, for some of us, the mother of all the ones that got away without more than a few traces.

I've gone into all this background and textual detail in order, I hope, to make a broader point about how ambivalence in judgment of artistic merit works in practice and how difficult the questions it raises are. As promised, I haven't answered any of them. What I was trying to illuminate is why The Lamb is compelling both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship to a cultural moment, the immanent and probably overdue death of prog rock, but at the same time to be very frank about all the serious flaws and failings that hold me fast to a position of apparently irresolvable ambivalence. But if The Lamb marks in some senses one of the highest achievements and in other senses a crucial herald of the death of prog rock, it also anticipates several other new forms: the stripped-down post-prog music pursued by Gabriel, Fripp and other refugees of that ilk; Genesis' own post-Gabriel slow drift into garbage-pop artistic oblivion and concomitant commercial success; and possibly in some senses the imminent punk counterattack. Certainly for those who have significant regard for Gabriel's later achievements, especially beginning with Gabriel III (also known as “Melt”) in 1980, The Lamb is most clearly the end of one era and the glimmerings of the beginning of another.

I hope that by looking at the ways in which I am simultaneously attracted to and repelled by The Lamb, I have been able to begin to tease out a little bit of how ambivalence functions as a variety of the guilty pleasure. For me, in this case the effect is slightly vertiginous since the repulsion is at least as strong as the attraction, and such a strong case can be made for either embracing or dismissing the object overall. That parts of it can be unequivocally embraced and others unhesitatingly dismissed doesn't help much in resolving the question of the status of the whole, which ultimately must be subjected to some kind of judgment. In this case, and in all such ambivalent guilty pleasures, the guilt comes from tolerating what's embarrassingly bad in order to celebrate what certainly seems to be praiseworthy, and of course what we respond to emotionally. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that The Lamb is something I tend to listen to on a regular basis, especially in weakened, tired, emotional or euphoric states of mind. I couldn't live without this LP, but I wouldn't want to defend its overall merits in any kind of extended public debate.

Unlike the toxic guilty pleasures, such as the Bond films, in which I propose that the frisson of various forms of guilt is an intrinsic part of the pleasure, in this case the guilt attached to tolerating the indefensible is experienced more as a kind of shame, an embarrassment that must be tolerated because of an attachment to more positive qualities. It's a little bit like being with an incorrigible spouse or romantic partner who insists on behaving badly from time to time. Whether or not it's worth the effort, the guilt and the shame is a judgment call everybody has to make in each individual case. In this case, I bit the bullet and wrote and made public this long-delayed essay in partial and carefully attenuated praise of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway… at last. So be it. Let the shame of such a guilty pleasure be upon my head, and the heads of my children for that matter. In this case, the pleasures it provides are certainly worth it, and they have consistently proven that over several decades.

“Four Lions” is no laughing matter

Chris Morris’ new film “Four Lions,” which attempts to satirize “homegrown” Jihadist terrorists in the United Kingdom, is a disappointing and distasteful fiasco.

Morris is best known as a British television current affairs satirist on programs such as “The Day Today” and “Brass Eye” who revels in controversial and edgy subjects. “Four Lions” premiered at the 2010 Sundance film festival, has done well at the box office and received considerable and largely positive attention in the United States and the UK. The theater in which I saw the film in Washington DC was sold out, and the audience appeared extremely receptive in spite of elements of working-class northern English and South Asian immigrant cultures that few Americans are familiar with.

“Four Lions” tells the story of four young British Muslims in Sheffield who have, for reasons the film does not explain, decided to embrace the ideology of Al-Qaeda and conduct terrorist acts in the UK. Two of the men, Omar and Waj, go to Pakistan for “mujahideen training,” during which they accidentally blow up a terrorist training camp.

The other two extremists are the particularly dimwitted Faisal and the most extreme and irrational of the group, Barry, an English convert. Their essential features, both as individuals and as a group, are extreme stupidity and incompetence, which do not prevent them from being very menacing. But at heart, this is just another version of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Inevitably, however, the four end up causing brutal mayhem at the London Marathon.

Since the film focuses on an extremely serious, important and under-analyzed (maybe even under-conceptualized) phenomenon, it should have been both funny and insightful. Unfortunately, it is neither.

That there are people like the ones depicted in the film is beyond question. That some of these people really are as bizarre and incompetent is also evident from counterterrorism surveillance and several spectacularly bungled attempted “homegrown” Jihadist attacks, particularly in the United States. The extremists, their radicalism and, in some cases their stupidity, are not only legitimate grounds for satire, they virtually scream for it. Yet “Four Lions” fails miserably both as a satire and as a critique.

It’s not really an Islamophobic movie, I hasten to add. The only aspect of the film that rings profoundly false and might be considered socially and politically objectionable is the representation of Omar’s young professional wife, not to mention his cheerful young son, as calmly and demurely supportive of his plan for suicidal terrorist mayhem. The record strongly suggests that such extremists go to great lengths to hide their plans not only from others in their Western Muslim communities broadly; but specifically also from family members including parents and spouses. I’m as skeptical about Omar’s wife representing a real phenomenon as I am convinced that he does.

Morris has said that he believes he has made “a good-hearted film,” but I don’t know how he could possibly think so. There’s nothing wrong with black comedy, at which the British excel, or gallows humor for that matter, but the image of a mentally challenged would-be terrorist suddenly exploding because he has wrapped himself in a homemade bomb and inadvertently collided with a sheep just isn’t that amusing. This is the most troubling thing about “Four Lions”: it sounds funny in theory, and it should be funny, but in practice it merely proves to be predictable, tedious and frequently repulsive.

The humor in the film, for those familiar with the evolution of British comedy, is mostly old-fashioned, drawing mainly from the Peter Cook tradition, especially the millennialist fools in his classic “The End of the World” sketch from the “Beyond the Fringe” review, which debuted in 1960. The voice of these “Jihadist British Muslims” is, in both tone and structure, pretty much indistinguishable from what was on offer at the Edinburgh Festival 50 years ago.

Morris has defended his script by pointing out that he has drawn some of his material from actual counterterrorism surveillance documents. No doubt that’s true. But I doubt that, ludicrous and disturbing as many of those conversations may be, they are anymore more entertaining or amusing than his film proves.

In the final analysis, satire has to have a point. “Four Lions,” insofar as I can tell, simply doesn’t. Yes, such people exist, and they’re frequently morons. Yes, ignorant, weird converts are often the most extreme ones (Barry keeps insisting that what they really should blow up is the local mosque to “radicalize the moderates”). Yes, the police are often equally cretinous, and occasionally perhaps equally ruthless. Yes, at a certain level political extremism proves in practice to be a sick joke. We knew all that already.

I watched Morris’ film carefully, and I just have no idea what, beyond such obvious and even undeniable banalities, he was really trying to communicate to his Western audiences. The danger with this kind of satire is that it trivializes a serious set of problems, and the payoff has to be insight or analytical clarity offsetting such trivialization. “Four Lions” tries much too hard to be edgy without ever actually asking any of the most difficult questions its subject matter begs. In the end, it’s as foolish and incompetent as are its own main characters.

Guilty pleasures #1: James Bond

Some months ago my dear friend the great critical theorist R. Radhakrishnan suggested I pay some attention in writing to the phenomenon I discussed with him on several occasions whereby we respond emotionally, aesthetically or intellectually to cultural artifacts that we nonetheless do not, at a certain level, respect. In fact, we may know very well that a cultural product is inferior if not fundamentally absurd, and yet it may have a profound impact and even an irresistible draw to us. How and why does that operate? What's going on when we respond so powerfully at all kinds of levels to something we feel, whether on reflection or viscerally, is either completely or in some senses beneath contempt? How do we account for such "guilty pleasures?" Of course, this version of guilty pleasure is a subset of the deeper existential problem of why we want things that we know very well are bad for us: why we cling to, or mourn the loss of, dysfunctional relationships with toxic people; persist with, or pine for, self-destructive behavior of one kind or another; or find ourselves in the grip of a political or religious ideology we know very well, at a certain level at any rate, is indefensible and possibly loathsome. But for the meanwhile, let's stick to the subject of bad art.

I'm going to begin looking at this problem by taking on one of what has been, in my life at any rate, one of its more gruesome manifestations: films featuring the character James Bond and the Ian Fleming novels on which they are based. Let's be clear at the outset: on the whole and in most senses they are without question garbage, and toxic garbage at that. The films are militantly stupid and implausible, often insultingly so, distinctly racist and irredeemably sexist, and the novels even more racist and sexist (more about the dismal ideology at work in them a little later). And yet some of us are drawn to some of them in spite of having no respect for them whatsoever, and even finding them offensive. In particular the early Bond movies starring Sean Connery have a real pull on my imagination and I'd like to begin my exploration of the morphology of guilty pleasures by considering how on earth that could possibly be the case.

The Bond films are useful as a starting point because, for me at any rate, they point directly to one of the most important and powerful forces behind guilty pleasures of this kind: nostalgia. I find a great deal of my fascination with “bad art,” if it even rises to that level in this case, is rooted in a kind of nostalgia for what gripped my attention when I was young, what evokes a bygone era, what reminds me of my childhood or youth, and what seems originary and culturally fundamental. For those of us who were children in the late 60s and early 70s, the early Bond movies were, like Beatles' songs and certain TV shows, supporting pillars of the popular culture with which we were surrounded, including in the Middle East. We grew up with them, so they are in that sense a kind of cultural comfort food, something we wouldn't find particularly appealing on its own merits if it didn't inspire memories of distant and supposedly happier times, the innocence and happy days of childhood and other dubious fantasies.

For instance, one of the toys I remember most clearly really enjoying as a young boy was a Corgi matchbox car version of the legendary gray Aston Martin driven by Bond in Goldfinger (1964), complete with what at the time appeared miraculous, but now seem both clunky and ridiculous, gadgets. The model toy car seemed to capture both the cool elegance and the exciting power of Q's armored and souped-up Aston Martin and with it, in a sense, the very essence of the Bond films themselves. So for me, these memories are deep and powerful, and the imagery and ideology of these films hits at a fairly visceral level.

The early Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger and Thunderball (1965) really were enormously influential in not only Western but global culture in establishing and popularizing a pop art aesthetic particular to the 1960s. Particularly the set and costume designs, as well as the frequently psychedelic credits, and to some extent the scores as well, may have appeared staid and conservative but in fact fully embraced and propagated to a very wide audience this aesthetic at an early period in its popularization. So in reconnecting with them, one instantly access one of the more powerful vehicles for popularizing an aesthetic style that literally did define an era. When that process is in operation, it doesn't matter how silly the content of any given message might be. The aesthetic sensibilities being seductively passed around like free samples from a local coke or heroin dealer were always the most important thing being communicated, and if one is nostalgic for an era defined by that style, the vehicle itself by definition and perforce must possess a certain charm, however unearned.

But of course that's not the only thing that drew people and continues to draw people, especially young men, to the Bond films, particularly the early ones. Both the films and the Fleming novels are chockablock with Freudian sexual imagery that is either barely or not at all veiled, and the essential subtext of most of the early Bond films is blatantly Oedipal. In particular Goldfinger, which was and remains probably the most iconic, although hardly the best, of the early Bond films is an entirely Oedipal drama in which a younger, more sexually dynamic man confronts and tries to usurp and overwhelm a richer, more powerful and in most ways more formidable older rival. (Ever since Umberto Eco's early and influential essay about narrative structures in Fleming's novels it's been intellectually defensible to discuss Bond in serious company, but it still feels silly to look at the subtext of such frivolous material.) Nonetheless, what Goldfinger and many of the others suggest is that the fundamental Bond Fantasy, so to speak, is essentially an Oedipal one. Contrast Bond's snazzy, hip and youthful Aston Martin with Goldfinger's opulent but staid and indeed antique Rolls-Royce (complete with homicidal Korean manservant), recall the legendary and very blatant aborted castration scene with the laser cutter (“no, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” etc.), and consider their constant struggle over sports contests (golf), control of gold and money, and even more crucially control of women (most notably the unsubtly named “Pussy Galore”). The case makes itself. Part of the film's power comes from its blatant crudeness, its encoding so liminal, so close to the surface, so very un-hidden that it requires almost no interpretation and can be lost on virtually no one who pays the least attention, even at the time.

There are several consequences to this crucial aspect of the Bond films and their appeal. First, they only really “work” the first few times, because the message is so simple and can only be repeated in so many ways before it becomes a self-parody, which it quickly did (if it wasn't always already one from the outset). Second, it requires a youthful Bond, which quickly became a problem for Sean Connery who was already wearing a toupee in Dr. No (1962). By the time of Connery's return to the part in Diamonds are Forever in 1972, he was clearly too old to be an Oedipal hero of any kind whatsoever and this aspect of the films was lost more or less permanently. It is no coincidence that Diamonds are Forever introduces the Bond film as primarily a comedy rather than primarily a thriller or action film for the first time, a pattern to be consistently maintained throughout Roger Moore's tenure during the rest of the 70s.

Moore and the producers rightly understood that when he assumed the character in Live and Let Die (1973) he was already inheriting a self-parody, and both he and the writers made every effort to ensure that Bond became essentially a (rather poor) comedian involved in adventures rather than an action hero with occasional (also very poor) "witticisms" as in the early Connery films. I think it's impossible not to see this transformation as fundamentally rooted in a combination of Connery's past-the-sell-by-date age in Diamonds are Forever and the fact that after Thunderball the Oedipal drama was too well-established to be successfully repeated with any emotional impact and that the formula had been repeated so many times that the only thing left to do was for the Bond movies to embrace their status as a self-parody in a very overt manner. From then on, if not before, Bond movies also became fairly passive recipients of the latest fads, rather than trendsetters themselves: blaxsploitation in Live and Let Die, the kung fu craze in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), videogames in Moonraker (1979) and Never Say Never Again (1983), etc. ad infinitum.

That said, when an Oedipal fantasy is effectively constructed, and several of the early Bond movies do achieve that effect, it's difficult to overstate the potential to appeal to both a wide audience and, especially, a dedicated following of young men and, above all, boys. So for those of us who were, in fact, boys at the time, part of the source of our guilty pleasure in the Bond films is not really very mysterious at all, especially when combined with the power of nostalgia. This is not to say, of course, that absolutely everything about all the Bond films is bad. Dr. No is in many ways a terrible film, but it did have a number of original features and actually defined a major genre, for good or ill, and therefore can't be dismissed lightly. From Russia with Love is often cited as the best of the Bond films, and I think overall that's true. It is well-paced, entertaining, engaging, suitably ridiculous and for the first time assembled all the essential features of the Bond movie as a genre, giving it as much of the charm of the originary as Dr. No possesses (which is a considerable degree). It's not exactly a good movie, but it's certainly not terrible.

It's harder to praise Goldfinger, Thunderball or You Only Live Twice (1967) in general with a straight face, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) is another matter altogether. Many Bond aficionados consider it easily the best of the films, and one can certainly see why. It's well paced and scripted, and some of the Alpine action sequences are genuinely well-done. Scenes involving the cable car are genuinely tense, and the chase on skis is, if not a classic, certainly an expertly constructed chase scene, the only good one in any Bond film, which, of course, contain mediocre chase after mediocre chase. More importantly, On Her Majesty's Secret Service marks the only real, albeit decidedly halfhearted, effort to give Bond an actual personality, and the fact that it was in almost every sense a miserable failure is extremely revealing. George Lazenby, who gives a perfectly creditable performance, was widely reviled largely for not being Connery, but also no doubt took the brunt of the producers' ill-considered decision to follow the lead of the novels in attempting, also without success, to flesh out a little more of a character for Bond in the film. From the outset he seems vulnerable and tenuous rather than icy and coldly effective, and his virtual nervous breakdown at the end when his newlywed wife is murdered is interesting but didn't sit well at all with most audiences, either at the time or now for that matter. Diamonds are Forever, with the return of Connery to the role and radical shift in tone and attitude towards the comic, glib and jocular, its obsession with fakes and doubles, and absolute evasion of any mention of the murder of Bond's wife at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, serves as a thoroughgoing repudiation of the mistake. One reason for this is, of course, that the effort to "humanize" Bond simply didn't work. But there's more to it than that. It was fundamentally inappropriate to the character and the genre built around him.

The Bond character has been described as an “automaton” and Fleming himself saw him as “a blunt instrument” in the service of a government. I'd phrase it differently. Bond is more of a cipher than an automaton, an empty vessel rather than one on autopilot. This surely is part of his wide-ranging appeal: he DOES things, and in a sense he IS things, but he isn't exactly someone since he has no identifiable personality as such (which has helped so many actors to play him more or less interchangeably). If the point is to allow young men to project themselves onto a character and young women to project onto him a sexual or romantic fantasy, the blanker the screen, the better. Bond leaves that space open perfectly, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service threatened to clutter it up with disruptive and intrusive detail, such as actual elements of a character. In the novels he has virtually no personality, and in the films, none whatsoever. And here's where it gets really insidious: Bond is, more than anything else, the archetype of the ideal modern, and even postmodern, capitalist subject: perfectly the company man and commodity fetishizing consumer.

As a company man, Bond is, to all appearances, faithful and loyal to his employers not only to a fault but in an ultimately inexplicable manner. He seems patriotic, but his patriotism is absolutely devoid of any ideas, or even conscious affiliations, whatsoever. He a ruthless agent of the government, particularly of his handler, the noxious M, but, in the films at least, why is entirely unclear. Yet his loyalty to what he frequently calls “the company” is ostentatiously demonstrated on numerous occasions, and not only in terms of the personal risks he is taking for missions he is often not fully briefed about and in pursuit of policies in which he takes no interest whatsoever. When M asks him, in their first ever film conversation in Dr. No, when he ever sleeps, Bond assures him, “never on the firm's time.” Similarly, he is scrupulous about money and other assets belonging to what he describes as “the company” or other elements of “government property” that have to be “fully accounted for.” In other words, however mischievous and defiant he sometimes pretends to be, at heart he's an exemplary employee and, above all else, a fully interpolated company man, and proud of it.

Bond is also among the most passionate commodity fetishizing consumers in all of film and literature. Fleming was an early practitioner of the brand-name dropping genre of faux-elegance, and Bond is very particular about what he deigns to consume. Perhaps above all else, Bond is depicted as a walking set of appetites: for fetishized fine food; fetishized beverages, especially alcohol (though some of his tastes in that regard are decidedly odd); fetishized consumer objects, brand names (especially the ultra-exclusive Q brand) and bling; and, of course, fetishized women, for whom he has a particularly voracious and objectifying appetite. As a vehicle of ideological instruction, Bond is an ideal capitalist subject who exemplifies how to work selflessly for the bosses on the job, and consume everything in sight off the job, with a special enthusiasm for commodity and other forms of highly questionable fetishism. We don't know who he really is in any meaningful sense, but we know who he works for, what he does (mainly kill, for which he is “licensed”), and, most importantly, what he consumes. The lessons being taught here are about the worst you could fear. Fleming's early novels are also anti-Soviet cold war propaganda documents of a quite strident variety, although none of the films fell directly into that trap. If he intended Bond to serve as an instrument of indoctrination in the socio-economic mores of late capitalism, not bogged down by any element of political theory or content whatsoever, his construct was as crude but effective a vehicle of ideology as the character is a crude but effective “blunt instrument” in vapid, empty and unthinking obedience to his government superiors.

The films never get into it, but Fleming did open his series of novels with an effort to explicate the origins of Bond's conduct. Casino Royale (1952) is a genuinely interesting and mercifully short read, and is the only one really worth picking up for a couple of hours. It's certainly Bond at his most ruthless and brutal, and is probably worth the two hours or so it will take to make one's way through it on that basis alone. But Fleming unusually spares a little bit of time in the novel on what passes for Bond's psychology, or at least the architecture of his motivations. At the book's outset, he already possesses most of the qualities described above. He's a company man, a fetishizing consumer, and an unquestioning, ruthless “blunt instrument” of his employers' instructions. After some pretty dreadful spy thriller drivel, a genuinely interesting and skillful explication of the mechanics of baccarat and a reasonably suspenseful gambling scene, Bond is subjected to a brutal and clinically described torture session in which his testicles are beaten to a pulp by his first nemesis, the Soviet agent Le Chiffre, with a carpet beater (the first of the virtually endless castration-oriented primal scenes that litter both the novels and the films). He barely survives the abuse, and during his extended hospital recovery enters into an uncharacteristic bout of self-reflection and self-doubt.

This is where things really get interesting. Bond seriously questions his role as a government agent and gets sucked into some equally emasculating moral and perspectival relativism (shock, horror). He muses, “the hero [referring to himself] kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn't a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up.” He continues, “patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I'd been alive 50 years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts.” This crippling flash of insight, we are meant to understand as the nadir of his career and almost the permanent and irrevocable downfall of Bond the character, a mental emasculation that mimics his (also temporary) physical one. But it's actually a set up for his rededication to his role at the novel's conclusion. His French colleague Mathis tells Bond it's not about principles, it's about defending against people who, for whatever reason, want to kill you and your loved ones: “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

Bond actually tries to follow this advice, and allows himself to fall in love with the ridiculous and ridiculously named Vesper Lynd, his putative assistant. He determines to resign from the service and marry her. During a romantic trip after his recovery from the nearly fatal testicle torture, in which all of Bond implausibly returns to perfect working order, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and her stories increasingly contradictory. It becomes clear all is not what it seems. She commits suicide, leaving behind a note in which she confesses to have been a double agent working for the other side (the testicle torturers, among other things), claiming to have been blackmailed because a man she loves is being held hostage in Poland. All thoughts of moral and political relativism in Bond die with Vesper and her betrayal – upon learning of her perfidy he swears reflexively, weeps briefly and immediately seeks refuge in his “professionalism”: “He saw her now only as a spy. Their love and his grief were relegated to the boxroom of his mind… Now he could only think of her treachery to the Service and her country and of the damage it had done. His professional mind was completely absorbed with the consequences…” Bond becomes Bond as we "know" him, or at least recommits to being Bond, because of this betrayal and an animating thirst for vengeance. He concludes: “Be faithful, spy well, or you die… Advance against the enemy and the bullet might miss you. Retreat, evade, betray, and the bullet would never miss.” He calls to report her death to his organization with the famous and chilling final lines: “The bitch is dead now.”

Almost all of this relative complexity is lost in the appalling 2006 film remake of Casino Royale. Bond's flirtation with moral relativism is excised. The shallowness and dubious nature of Vesper's confession/excuse is papered over by an assurance that IM6 knows it's all true about the boyfriend being held hostage (in the book we have only her flimsy, unreliable word for it). And Bond, rather than being almost killed and deeply traumatized by the testicle torture, literally laughs it off, telling the 2006 version of Le Chiffre at the height of the torment, “the world is going to know that you died scratching my balls.” Whatever tidbits of interest can be gleaned from the novel are scrubbed clean in this absolutely terrible film. In fact Casino Royale has been filmed three times: first for American television in 1954 with Barry Nelson as an American version of “card sense” Jimmy Bond, a gambling American agent. It bears little resemblance to either the book or any of the subsequent Bond films and is probably most notable for a surprisingly weak performance by Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Second was an early and unamusing Bond film parody in 1967 starring David Niven and Woody Allen. And third, the 2006 fiasco that was widely touted as “gritty” and some kind of return to a tougher, cruder Bond when it's nothing of the kind. It's hard to know which of the three is the worst.

At any rate, in Fleming's first novel it's pretty clear by the end that Bond is going to be motivated primarily not by patriotism, which he has largely seen through, or by affiliation and love for family because he doesn't have any and has been betrayed by Vesper who he was intending to marry, or by political ideas because he doesn't understand or care about them at all. Instead, he's largely going to be motivated, at least from then on if not before, by psychosexual rage prompted by the betrayal of a woman and the machinations of the organization that was ultimately responsible. In other words, Fleming makes it clear that Bond is fundamentally driven by some pretty base motivations, to say the least. At least his misogyny in all subsequent novels is well sourced here, although he already has a solid dose before discovering Vesper's betrayal. Before her suicide he decides to marry her when he concludes that, “she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have this sweet tang of rape.” These attitudes are intensified after his discovery of her betrayal and projected not only onto the entire female gender but internalized as a primary motivation in resuming his career as a “licensed killer” and projected onto the Soviet enemy as a whole.

It is no doubt this combination of Bond as an arch-consumer driven by un-, or at least barely-, controlled appetites and as an ostensible company man actually driven by psychosexual demons of a particularly grim variety that led John le Carré to dismiss Bond as a potential traitor. He noted that Bond had no political or ideological affiliation to the system for which he was fighting and that his appetites made him potentially very easy to “turn.” I'd add that his profoundly neurotic sexual attitudes only add to the conclusion that, as an operative, from the little that we know about this character, he seems particularly unsound. Although le Carré is almost certainly right in this assessment, the irony is that in literary terms Fleming served as an essential bridge between the earlier “British hero” genre of spy fiction, of the John Buchan variety for example, and le Carré's own antihero genre. In Bond, Fleming created an outsized heroic veneer with no interior, or at least no interior that isn't deeply tainted, and without most of the chivalrous, mannered and principled “heroic” qualities of the earlier spy thriller heroes, setting the stage for le Carré's bureaucratic antiheroes. So even if one were to champion le Carré, as most serious readers would, against Fleming, one would have to acknowledge the role the latter played in preparing the genre and the public for the former to emerge.

Which brings us back to the fundamental question: why do some of us enjoy or emotionally respond to these perfectly dreadful films and novels? Obviously it's not enough to say, I like action films or I like spy novels. There are plenty of both that are good if not excellent, but these are not. The perfect example of how something reasonably close in genre, style and time to the earliest Bond movies can be not only excellent, but a transcendent work of art is the Hitchcock masterpiece North by Northwest (1959), which clearly was a major influence on the Bond genre and on several of the earlier Bond films individually. In truth, for the most part even the best of Bond are really shoddy action films and spy novels, and citing a taste for the genre is completely insufficient as an explanation. I suggested that nostalgia, aesthetic sensibility and style, and the crude, raw Oedipal sexual fantasy at work in the early Bond films at least partly account for their enduring ability to command some of our attention. But I'm going to end by suggesting there may be something deeper and more insidious at work as well.

When my nephew was a small child he used to demand of my sister, “give me something bad for me that I yike.” Most of my relatives were taken with the baby talk mispronunciation of like as "yike," but my father and I appreciated the sentiment in and of itself. Sometimes, for reasons we shall investigate further in future guilty pleasures Ibishblog postings, we turn to the cultural landscape, throw open our arms and demand that it gives us something bad for us that we yike.

The question is, especially in the case of something as toxic as Bond, do we like it, or at least respond to it, in spite, or at some level because, of the ways in which they clearly are bad for us? Its probably a little of both. As a fully interpolated and perfectly functioning company man, a perfected fetishizing consumer, and a finely honed machine that serves his socioeconomic, political and biological functions in an exemplary manner, Bond really is an idealized late capitalist fantasy. He doesn't ask too many questions, he just does what's expected of him to perfection. No wonder we respond. If only it were so easy.

When such a fantasy sugarcoats not only its own ideological contents but gratuitous racism and sexism as well, perhaps its very toxicity is part of its appeal. All guilty pleasures involve the sense that one is indulging in something unworthy in one way or another, but Bond films and novels are a guilty pleasure that we can, and should, really feel guilty about. It feels transgressive, if not downright naughty, to enjoy or in any way pay close attention to such moronic, toxic rubbish, complete with foul ideology, racism, sexism and continuous insults to the intelligence. So maybe, in such a case at any rate, the frisson of guilt is an inextricable part of the pleasure.