Momus (Nick Currie) (b. 1960)
Momus on UbuWeb
Tender Pervert (1988)
1. The Angels Are Voyeurs: I think people might have been surprised to hear this song, after looking at the sleeve (and the label) and expecting something more dark, more rock. This is a crisp, light, tight cabaret song sung in an articulate whisper. It doesn't really sound like anything else in late 80s British pop. The conceit of the song is a sexualized take on Rilke's idea of the "watcher angel", which had just been used as a central motif in Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire. These angels are not so benign, though: they maintain a sadistic distance, and they're as excited by the possibility of our self-annihilation as they're aroused by "our cleverness, our nakedness".
How I rate this now: This song floats like a butterfly, but stings like a bee. There's cultural dynamite -- not to mention blasphemy -- in the idea of a masturbating deity. Powered by Dean Klevatt's crisp, crunchy rhythm programming, the song sets up a frame for the subject matter to come, welcomes us into a parallel world where everything is sexual. This is still literary songwriting, but somehow it's a lot less conservative than the worthy short stories on The Poison Boyfriend. We may feel queasy, but there's no turning back.
2. Love On Ice: Faintly discordant synth brass over a Casio beat welcome us to... it's the story of figure-skaters Torvill and Dean, isn't it? Well, not quite. This couple is gay, and it's their manager and PR person who're called Chris and Jane. They're living a ghastly lie, because the more they resemble wedding-cake heterosexuals in the media, the less they express their true homosexuality. The music becomes an increasingly grotesque fairground waltz as the skaters lose to "a couple of Soviets who skated like robots". They try to come out, but it's too late, and anyway, "the ice is a mirror in which people see their nation and their sexuality". It's as if I'm realising that fame isn't really that great a goal.
How I rate this now: This is very Brecht-Weill, very Weimar in its cynicism. It's scrap from an abandoned album about television I was making, but it fits the gay themes of Tender Pervert well. The judges here are giving it four straight eights.
3. I Was A Maoist Intellectual: This is a self-epitaph song in the tradition of Brecht's "Of Poor BB", itself a take on a self-epitaph by medieval french poet Francois Villon. It began life with the lyric "I was an austere mandarin intellectual in the music industry", and I suppose I wanted -- in a spirit of puckish defiance -- to sound as ascetic as possible. Oh, there's another Brecht song I had in mind: To Those Born Later, which has the refrain "that is how I made use of the time on earth allotted me". There's narcissism and self-pity here, tempered by humour ("clutching my forgotten discs in their forgotten format... I gave up ideology the day I lost my looks") and political grit. And lots of cheap Dixons keyboard samples (a cassette that came with the Casio SK1) and clown whistles.
How I rate this now: There's a faux-bitterness to this, a gathering intensity, which makes it more of a Brel song than a Gainsbourg song. Brel songs go down better live (big build to a sharp ending), Gainsbourg songs are nicer to listen to at home. I think I find this a bit too grandstanding and lapel-grabbing now to really love. And it sounds like a guy who reads his own press a little too closely -- but who's decided to "optimize his marginality" and exaggerate all the things he's learned he's not supposed to be. So kudos for that, young Momus.
4. The Homosexual: This is based on a true story; Mike Alway was negotiating with some major label, and some sneery A&R man was dicking him around, not only businesswise, but also teasing him for his effeminacy. Then suddenly this man's wife left him... for Mike. That delicious revenge (for the indie against the major, for the effeminate against the macho, for the musical against the tone deaf, for the post-feminist against the pre-feminist) powers this song, along with the sexual groans of a beautiful German DJ I'd met on tour. I remember writing this song and being very happy with it, and singing it for the first time at some pub gig in Brixton, and the crowd going so quiet that the review said people were holding up fingers to order at the bar.
How I rate this now: It's a good song, of course it is -- a venomous song, a punchy song that hits below the belt, a sweet, hot revenge song. I don't care if Neil Tennant later told me it didn't have enough melodic hooks; it swings a claw hand, this song.
5. Bishonen: There are three very specific sources for this song. One is a song my friend Douglas Benford wrote, called The Landed Gentry (for the Nyman-ish arrangement). One is Jean Bertola's reading of a late Brassens song about impotence called L'Andropause; I was impressed that it had about a hundred verses. And the third is the chapter entitled The Third Sex in Ian Buruma's book "A Japanese Mirror", which is mostly about Mishima's novel Forbidden Colours. Another possible album title was "Evil Beauty # 3". People plotting cruel, aristocratic sexual revenges interested me a lot -- maybe I'd watched Les Liasons Dangereuses a few too many times. Or The Draftsman's Contract.
How I rate this now: This pungent epic could well be the peak of my songwriting career. It continues the album's floating-stinging technique, of light sounds trafficking heavy scenarios. It's redolent of some of the best bits of 1980s postmodernism; without ever dropping the narrative line, the song leads us through a palace of mirrors. And it gets quite moving at the end, surprisingly enough. The narcissism becomes something that makes us care for the character, rather than repelling us. Groomed to die in extraordinary circumstances, he's condemned, like the Christ of Scorcese's Last Temptation, to live on in ignominious normality.
6. Righthand Heart: This track was originally an extra on a limited edition 7" vinyl single (along with a song called The Poison Boyfriend, recorded in 1982). Its raw acoustic sound reflects what I sounded like live at the time; I remember recording this version -- just me and my red semi-acoustic 12-string Baldwin, recorded without an amp -- in one take at Scarf, the studio where engineer Nigel Palmer and I recorded Tender Pervert pretty much alone, with the whine of a Mile End lumber saw coming through the walls from time to time.
How I rate this now: This song shouldn't really be here; I think of the Don't Stop The Night version as the "official" one.
7. A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24): This sounded like a Leonard Cohen song when I demoed it, but Pet Shop Boys samples and an electro bassline really brought it alive. It's yet another song of bitter and twisted sexual insecurity. This is probably where I got the reputation as "Britain's premier psychoanalyst of song"; I had a tendency to see normal things as deeply pathological. In fact, I used to sit in on lectures at the LSE by one Christopher Badcock -- his whole thing was that society itself was sick and needed a shrink. The personal was political, and sexual possessiveness was about a society which valued possessions and property above all else. But my narrator falls in love with his own jealousy and tells his partner to "love the others".
How I rate this now: This is yet more sharp self-parodic psychoanalysis. I like the way the syntax works: "The man the man you broke the heart of broke the heart of" is a nice trick -- one I found myself repeating the other day when I found myself deriding, on some blog, "the tendency to see the decline of things once seen as a sure sign of the decline of things as a sure sign of the decline of things". This album leaves no snub unsquibbed!
8. Ice King: You can hear Prince in this song about a warm man pretending to be a cold man, or possibly a cold man pretending to be a warm man pretending to be a cold man. Swain and Jolley basslines, Casio trumpets, a guarded, hurt narrator; Bryan Ferry should have covered this on one of his solo albums, through gritted teeth.
How I rate this now: Good commercial songwriting -- and psychoanalysis -- though this may be, I can't help feeling that the genre requires greater vocal ability than I'm bringing to bear here.
9. In The Sanatorium: When I gave a copy of Tender Pervert to my friend Bill Prichard to give to Serge Gainsbourg (who'd befriended him), I included a little note which confessed that this song was his Depression au dessus du Jardin "detourné au clef mineur", turned to a minor key -- a riff on his own pun on detournement de mineur. If that's the source of the music, Andre Gide's The Immoralist is the source of the story. The ending repeats the trick in Islington John where a sort of placid, mysterious plateau is reached, and Asian flutes warble. And then -- ghostly in the distance -- comes the line "for love will endure or not endure, regardless of where we are" (from The Threepenny Opera, and already used at the end of Circus Maximus). It's a line which fascinates me for its inbuilt nihilism; it seems to pledge eternal love, but offers nothing but the fatalistic certainty of uncertainty. (I prefer the translation: "For love will endure or not endure, here or in some other place".)
How I rate this now: I actually like this song better than any of the others on Tender Pervert now, because it has mystery and atmosphere. You can draw a direct line from this to, say, Dracula on my current album. There's a story, a situation, but it's more about atmosphere and emotion than about the kind of cleverness and aggression on display in other Tender Pervert songs. Even the narrator's selfishness and evil -- he burns offers of help on the fire, and plans to molest his beloved while she sleeps -- is somehow, well, tender perversion.
10. The Charm of Innocence: More confessions (which raises another possible influence: the Confessions of St Augustine, or possibly Kierkegaard's aesthetic seducer from Either / Or), more mixtures of autobiography with fiction. This narrator is a sort of Dorian Gray; whatever he does, he stays innocent. I remember writing it at the Hayward Gallery, in the middle of a Lucian Freud exhibition. Women there were, indeed, blue cheese. There's a Peter Starstedt quality to this, possibly some Brel (the Algerian whores of the 18th arrondissement could be characters in Next or Jacky). Somehow this song crams an entire novel (I'm thinking Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, Leonard Cohen) into six minutes. Like the Bishonen, this guy feels guilty for his innocence. If the song at the end of side one is Forbidden Colours, the one at the end of side two is Confessions of a Mask.
How I rate this now: This is weighty stuff, self-therapy as successful art. The flurried strings at the end, as my narrator begs for someone to "paint out the blush of shame", still move.
11. The Angels Are Voyeurs (Reprise): We zoom out, the camera quivering slightly as we come full circle. We really do come full circle; God has an orgasm and a new galaxy is created from his sperm. Do Primal Scream albums finish this way?
How I rate this now: It's still satisfyingly shocking to hear this young man singing "the angels pump their cocks". You can tell he loved early Ian McEwan short stories. He didn't intend to be ignored, that's for sure.
A few moments ago I was reading a review of Luke Haines' book Bad Vibes in which the caustic auteur of The Auteurs is quoted calling me -- without apparent sarcasm -- "the song-writing genius". If he -- and other Britpop stars like Jarvis Cocker, Justine Frischmann and Brett Anderson -- were listening to me at the end of the 1980s, I'd guess it's because of this album. Tender Pervert is probably my statement as Momus, the same way Ziggy Stardust is Bowie's statement. I think it's probably my best and most definitive album, but I haven't listened to it in a while. Let's play it as we go, and see how it holds up today.
But first, a little background. I'm 28. I'm living in a tiny bedsit just off the King's Road in Chelsea (taken over rather surreptitiously when my french girlfriend leaves for leafier quarters in north London). The Poison Boyfriend has been well-received, critically, and it's time to record a follow-up. Several things that are "in the air" in 1988 contribute to Tender Pervert. First, it's the 20th anniversary of the 1968 student uprisings, and there are documentaries and films from those heady days on TV. Then there's a pervasive disgust with Margaret Thatcher, and particularly her response to the AIDS crisis; she adds insult to injury by banning any material which "promotes homosexuality" as a valid lifestyle. I'm so furious about this that I decide that, if gay people are not only dying but being gagged by the government while dying, it's up to straight people to promote homosexuality in their place.
So Tender Pervert -- bristling with gay themes borrowed from Mishima and elsewhere -- is initially titled The Homosexual. I'm persuaded to change this when Alan McGee tells me Canadian licensee Polygram will refuse to release an album with that title. (McGee will also decide against issuing A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24) as a single "because, to be honest with you Nick, it's got the word "sexual" in it").
Other things that feed into Tender Pervert: my fascination with the totally sexual world of Gainsbourg's Love on the Beat album. A BBC Radio 3 documentary series about the history of French cabaret (which I plan to release here on Click Opera one day; I still have the cassettes). Ovid's poem The Art of Love. Ian Buruma's book about heroes and villains of Japanese culture, "A Japanese Mirror". Mangas my friend Mika Goto was sending me from Japan (along with bunches of roses). The plays and diaries of Joe Orton; his line "Give me the ability to rage correctly" is one of the album's mottos, along with the biblical injunction to "circumcize the foreskin of your heart".
So let's listen to -- and release -- Tender Pervert, shall we? (By the way, these are now high quality mp3s hosted on Ubuweb. Lyrics, reviews and interviews are on the Momus website.)
Next: Don't Stop The Night (1989)