Momus (Nick Currie) (b. 1960)
Momus on UbuWeb
1. Hippopotamomus: The album drifts in with an odd juxtaposition: an acid arpeggio figure and the ghostly sound of Flanders and Swann's Hippopotamus Song. The vocal is a comic poem delivered in a sexy, gruff voice (I arranged phlegm in my throat to get the sound of one million Gitanes, then whacked a ton of compression on). The hippo narrator has been caught in volcanic ash in the act of fucking his mate, and put on show at the Museum of Natural History in South Kensington. The track builds rather well, punctuated by the backing vocals of comic singer Preacher Harry Powell, and ends with Flanders and Swann again.
How I rate this now: It's not so much a song, per se, as a scene-setter -- an impishly perverse, childish tale you might tell your lover to amuse her in between bouts of lovemaking. What's rather nice here, I think, is that the world-weariness of Trust Me, I'm A Doctor or the bitterness of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous has gone, replaced by the sound of someone who's found some kind of contentment.
2. I Ate A Girl Right Up: The trivial, childish tone continues with this song, which bounces along on fun, bubbly drum and bass programming I'd made with my new Atari and Akai (the bass is a Gameboy sample). A warm, lively reggae feel (punctuated by dirty trombone parps) develops as the cannibal details his human meal. There's some intellectual subversion here, too, though: "I crossed the line dividing clean from dirty" refers to a little book I'd read by Christian Enzensberger, Smut: An Anatomy of Dirt (1972), which linked authoritarianism with obsessive cleanliness and proposed experimental incursions into dirt as a kind of cure for fascism. (The critics, not having read this book, naturally thought it was about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.)
How I rate this now: I think it's got a very interesting sound -- the fruit of much experimentation with sampling and sequencing -- and it shows me embracing the technology of the new decade with some enthusiasm, as well as achieving a rather pleasant warmth and intimacy. It's not going to win any Ivor Novello awards for songwriting, though.
3. Made of Rubber: This may surprise some, but Little Richard is a big influence on this album. I'd just read his biography, and totally admired the raw sexuality of his 1950s work -- the short, punchy songs with their erotic themes, the inventive nursery talk of "wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom". This song imagines a sexual tryst between the Michelin Man (an advertising icon representing rubber tyres, but also gourmet cuisine, thanks to Terence Conran) and Josephine Baker; he's going to "bump her till her bed's just junk", apparently. If she pumps him up, anyway. I also remember that the lyrics to these songs were scribbled in a Futurist Diary, which might explain the 1920s feel -- that combination of technological novelty and social depravity (the "pneumatic" babes of Ford's Brave New World).
How I rate this now: The stadium reverb is a bit too much, and the song isn't as satisfying, sonically, as I Ate A GIrl Right Up. When Michelin threatened to sue (they apparently read the lyric out at a board meeting -- oh to have been there!) we dropped the song (and the original sleeve) without much of a fight.
4. A Dull Documentary: Freud's Primal Scene for Beginners! The narrator is banging the babysitter, and can't bring himself to stop when the little girl enters the room. Here the subject matter becomes dangerously risqué, at least for prudish British people (it's the song that made the NME reviewer sick). I remember telling friends that I wanted to make the most sexual record anyone had ever released with Hippopotamomus -- not sure if I succeeded (the competition was, um, stiff), but this does cross some sort of red line in terms of subject matter.
How I rate this now: The low voice doesn't really work, and the Chopsticks motif is a little annoying. The song, as you'll recall, was originally part of my abandoned BBC 1 album about television, but obviously fits the Hippo worldview. I don't really enjoy it, though.
5. Marquis of Sadness: It's worth remembering that in 1991 the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom was still banned in Britain, and that Pasolini's film of the novel could only be shown uncensored in private clubs. Hippopotamomus filters sex through french literature -- that peculiarly french sub-genre of pornography written by philosophers and poets (Sade, Diderot, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Louys). I was spending a lot of time in Grant and Cutler -- London's foreign language bookshop -- at the time, and coming home with these elegantly smutty books. Quite possibly the kind of thing the hero of this song (co-sung by my flatmate Vicky) would be going through with pretty students in one-on-one tutorials on his sofa.
How I rate this now: I remember this being my mother's favourite song on the album -- we're all a bit literary in my family, and all a bit flirty. This song is fun, a bit naff, mocks your inner puritan, and makes a neat connection between books and longing, poetry and presence. I like the squeal Vicky does at the end -- I had to tickle her to get that exact sound. And, you know, I didn't tickle anyone when making Murderers, the Hope of Women, even if it's a much better song.
6. Bluestocking: The link between sex and books continues as a "bluestocking... gives head", in every sense. She's read a lot, and she gives great head -- in the form of a sung reading list. The reading at the end of phrases from Marguerite Duras' The Lover by Catherine Brouard (aka Zoe Pascale) is lovely, and reminds me how much she influenced me; it was Catherine who first played me Brassens, for instance, and taught me sensual playfulness, and how to explore and share fantasies where anything went. She was my erotic professor and my entrée into French culture, and she had to have a cameo role on this record -- the culmination and climax, perhaps, of her influence on me over the preceding decade. I wonder where she is now?
How I rate this now: One of my favourite tracks on Hippopotamomus.
7. Ventriloquists and Dolls: This is a better song than anything else on the record, a rewrite of Strangers In The Night which tells the tale of a pervy ventriloquist and his relationship with his pretty dummy. Noko's guitar really adds to the creepy atmosphere and inevitably summons Magazine comparisons. I like the theme; that there's a kind of fatal symbiosis between categories of people.
How I rate this now: Shit hot; the best song so far, with a really funky feel (the bassline is particularly good here, and the eerie clouds of mist that drift across the ending).
8. The Painter and his Model: This sounds like Kraftwerk jamming with Shakatak (a piano-oriented 80s easy listening band). The artist narrator is making a painting of a woman using shreds of her clothes, and there's much play on the double meaning (mimetic and biological) of "reproduction". The Theatre and Its Double is a book by Antonin Artaud, and the idea is that art-about-sex maps to sex itself, a theme that will return in the final song (in a legal framing), and which also raises the question of how close the "pornographer" making this record is to an actual seducer, and whether crimes described are the same as crimes committed. This was an era, remember, very much interested in the possibility of thoughtcrime.
How I rate this now: It's slight, but pleasant. On its own this wouldn't be much, but I think that by this point we're really feeling the cumulative force of the album's unrelenting theme, its obsessive fixation on transgressive sex. In that sense, what emerges from Hippopotamomus is a lot stronger than its individual components.
9. A Monkey for Sallie: Sallie was a girl I'd dated in 1989, someone who worked at Rough Trade (she later married Bill Drummond, though I believe they're divorced now). She adored her labrador and was distraught when it died in 1990, so I suppose this song gifts her with a substitute. But it's also a Gainsbourgian tale of a masturbating monkey which -- like the album itself -- permits itself anything, and comes across as rather cute and appealing as a result. Playing with yourself "from dawn to dusk, from dusk to the crack of dawn" -- as monkeys notoriously do in zoos -- could be a sort of utopia, after all; a life containing only pleasure. Actually, this song applies very much to my current pet, my oversexed rabbit Pok.
How I rate this now: I find this quite charming. Musically it all meshes quite well -- the fretless bass, the sample from Stockhausen's Kontakte, the Mellotron-like chords.
10. Pornography: Believe it or not, I saw very little pornography until my late 20s. Before the internet you had to go into shops to buy it, and I was much too shy and prim to do that. When I did finally see hardcore pornography -- in a Hamburg hotel room, whilst touring with Primal Scream -- my initial reaction was that this supposedly toxic thing, this thing UK Customs searched you for and the UK police raided you for, was surprisingly natural and innocuous, just naked bodies and people enjoying themselves. Was this really going to bring down the state? So, while pornography isn't quite "a young girl's diary", it is "just the body". Nothing to be scared of. And indeed, by 1991 the British government was allowing me to enjoy heavily-censored soft porn movies via Westminster Cable TV, many of them accompanied by gorgeous 1970s easy-disco soundtracks; another influence here.
How I rate this now: This simple song has something spookily beautiful about it -- it's one of the album's most gorgeous. Chilled-out sounds from Warp's Artificial Intelligence series give this a very 1991 feel, and prefigure the otherwordly atmosphere of some of the Aphex Twin's Ambient recordings.
11. Song in Contravention: This spacey ballad owes a lot to Gainsbourg songs like Mélodie Interdite (the theme) and Ballade de Johnny Jane (the music). The language is legalistic, reading like a writ. The "love outside the law" this time is homosexuality, and the song's target is the Section 28 legislation the Tories have enacted against the "promotion of homosexuality". Britain, it seems to me, is sexually sick. The album ends -- on some lush, sensuous string chords -- with the lines "the prosecution rests its case", and the sound of what might be a spacecraft taking off for new lands -- a world, perhaps, where human sexuality and human society can co-exist in harmony.
How I rate this now: Rather gorgeous, and a surprising ending -- the rather flip and glib and gigglish songs at the start of the album have led to some kind of soulful sci-fi sound suffused with longing. This -- a sound I'll christen "science fiction melodrama" -- will become the dominant tone of my next two albums, my last for Creation: Voyager and Timelord.
It's not just the decade that changes between 1989's Don't Stop The Night and 1991's Hippopotamomus. 1990 has been a "marking time" sort of year for Momus, with Creation releasing a compilation, Monsters of Love (featuring three new tracks). Compilations often signal the twilight of the artist-label relationship; certainly things were more distant between Momus and Creation. I was avoiding direct contact with McGee -- who was taking too many drugs and had become erratic and megalomaniacal -- and signed with Angie Somerside at Orange, a management company with The Beloved on their books. All Angie had really managed to do for me, though, was renew my tenuous Creation deal (negotiations with Mute, whose worldview seemed to fit mine better, stalled). Just staying in the same place seemed like hard work.
It was also increasingly hard work staying in the context of Britain. After the disappointment of Hairstyle I'd essentially given up on the British market, becoming -- as the headline of a 1990 Gay Times interview put it -- an "internal exile". I'd kitted out my Cleveland Street flat with a mini studio in the shape of an Atari STE 1040 and an Akai S900 sampler; it became an arty sort of bunker where I could weather any storm and still make records. That flat became a bubble filled with french pop -- Mylene Farmer, Lio, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg. That and "daisy age" acid jazz and trip hop -- Galliano, Dream Warriors, Massive Attack, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, De La Soul.
If Don't Stop The Night contains a jaded, unhealthy ambition, Hippopotamomus reflects someone who's renounced all claim on the UK mainstream and found a niche -- a warm, sensual place in the sun, adrift from Anglo-Saxon morals, from guilt and from censure. Hippopotamomus is a post-Three Feet High and Rising take on Gainsbourg's quiet, rude, happy 1974 album Vu De L'Exterieur, and bears the same relationship to Hairstyle of the Devil that the Gainsbourg "monkey album" bears to his 1969 hit Je T'Aime, Moi Non Plus. We'd both retreated to private pleasures -- though not without some residual desire to scandalize.
Hippopotamomus -- recorded the same month Gainsbourg died in Paris, and containing his decanted soul, in many ways -- didn't much please Creation (or the NME, for that matter, who, at the height of their political correctness, blasted it for "sexism"). So how does it sound now? Let's listen. (Lyrics, reviews and interviews are here, and there's a diary of the recording sessions here.)
Next: Voyager (1992).