Tag Archives: Art Objects

#31Songs (4): 20th Century Composites, by Art Objects

#31Songs (4): A Song About Music

20th Century Composites, by Art Objects, from Bagpipe Music (1981)

In late 1970s and early 80s New Wave there’s a distinct and distinctive strand of self-conscious deconstruction of the conventions of pop and rock, usually done in a comical spirit. Hipgnosis’s cover for XTC’s Go 2 (1978) was one of the most conspicuous demonstrations:


Wilson Neate’s 33 1/3 book on Wire’s Pink Flag (1977) sees Wire as implementing such critiques in their song writing: their song structures self-consciously dismantle conventional pop music structures; they lengthen or shorten introductions, and in other ways play with the frames.

Much later, on Harvester, the Blue Aeroplanes covered Wire’s ‘Outdoor Miner’, so that band were clearly on their radar, but what the Art Objects do in ’20th Century Composites’ is closer in spirit to XTC’s album cover: Art Objects no more abolish the catchy pop song than XTC get rid of the outer sleeve of their record; they continue in the tradition while drawing attention to its weaknesses and exhaustion.


The acoustic guitar riff may have taken only seconds to compose, but it’s brilliant: it’s catchy, but  it derives from twelve-bar boogie; played on an electric and it could sit quite happily at the start of a Status Quo song.  But there, after the first few iterations, you’d expect the chord to shift up; Art Objects stick with the same two chords, like a stuck record, and at the end of the first verse there’s an sudden silence.  Then were back into the riff again for another verse, before the sound fills out slightly for the chorus, with a catchy but angular keyboard riff coming in.  The backing vocals in the chorus are a neat touch: ‘Ba-by’, sung with a slur between the two notes, and recorded with little or no reverb: compared to some of the band’s chorus additions, it’s minimal and it’s almost mechanical in its delivery. It’s more the evacuated sign of a chorus rather than the thing itself. The long drum roll after the second chorus (slightly phased) also feels like a deliberately performed cliche, though like all these things, one that lets the band have their cake and eat it.  The coup de grace comes with the lyrics on the play out: ‘Verse chorus / Verse chorus / Middle eight / Solo’: a standard rock-song structure that, in their more experimental pieces, Art Objects were working to go beyond, as were  The Blue Aeroplanes after them.

It’s hilarious and catchy. Where the lyric goes slightly wrong is more an ideological matter: it conflates the artificial and formally cliched art work with the artificial woman.  It might mean that it’s about the artificial depictions of women in cliched works of art (she has stepped ‘out of the page’), but it falls a bit too easily into a misogynist tradition of rejecting women for their artificiality.  (See Jonathan Swift, for example).  Particularly problematic is the denial of self-reflection in ‘There are traditions you can’t even feel / Moving in your blood’: the speaker sets himself up as the one who knows, the one who can pass judgement on the artificial construct.


LYRICS (from the liner notes)

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#31Songs (3): Batpoem, by Art Objects

#31Songs (3): Title Alludes to a Film

‘Batpoem’, by Art Objects, from Bagpipe Music (1981)

‘Batpoem’ doesn’t only allude to a film, but to the whole pop-cultural myth of the superhero.  Moreover, as the original liner notes indicate, it updates a number done by Adrian Henri as part of the The Liverpool Scene on their album The Amazing Adventures of the Liverpool Scene, which apparently appeared in 1968 or 1969 (sources differ).  Here’s the Liverpool Scene’s version on YouTube:


I can’t find a YouTube version of the Art Objects song, but there is one on Spotify:


Gerard Langley’s notes add: ‘That was the 60’s.  It’s the 80’s now and Batman’s in the White House’.  While Henri’s lyrics had been sarcastic about a culture hung-up on superhero interventions, Langley’s Reagan-era account turns the screw even tighter.

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I think Henri’s lyrics about ‘damsels in distress’ in various states of undress was a criticism of patriarchal attitudes and of the imaginary irresistible attractiveness produced by  ‘Batpill’ (or the fantasy of rape implied); Langley’s ‘The Batpill don’t seem to work no more’ doesn’t allow any space for thinking otherwise.

As a performance the Art Objects’ version exposes the Liverpool Scene one as a fairly pale and lame late-evening joke.  This is the punkiest and most savage performance I can think of from Art Objects or the Blue Aeroplanes: the drums are solid, the guitars fuzzy and crudely reverbed, and Gerard’s delivery is hoarse and vitriolic.


#31Songs (2): Hard Objects, by Art Objects

#31Songs (2): A Political Song

Hard Objects, by Art Objects


The origins of The Blue Aeroplanes lie in a band called Art Objects, and in the light of the many changes of personnel in the Aeroplanes, and the minimal difference between Art Objects and their successor, it makes sense to start here. Art Objects played their first gig at Aston Court festival in the summer of 1978, at which point they consisted of Gerard Langley on vocals, Wojtek Dmochowski as a dancer, and J. J. Key on guitar and other noises. (My account comes from a piece by Bill Stair, who joined the following year as a bassist.)  It’s clear that from the outset the band had no intention of being a standard rock unit, and though the following year they added a drummer, another guitarist, and the aforementioned bassist, their approach was experimental. That said, as is clear from one listen to ‘Hard Objects’, they were perfectly capable of writing catchy tunes.  ‘Hard Objects’ was recorded early in 1980 and released on newly formed Bristol label Fried Egg Records.

Many elements of the Aeroplanes’ sound are in place: Gerard doesn’t sing, and so the usual melodic focal point of popular song is denied us; but the backing vocals compensate by twisting a vocal melody around his declaimed lyrics; there are melodic elements in the guitars and in the bass, but there are also more experimental, guitar-derived shriekings and groanings.  The style of the ending anticipates the end of ‘And Stones’ from the Swagger album, with the climax of the music coinciding with the end of the lyrics; and the delay-pedal guitars also anticipate that song.

Lyrically, though, it’s much more direct and message-oriented than Gerard Langley’s other material: it’s a protest song, and one can imagine it working well in a scene of CND and other leftish gigs.  The opening line is pure blues, of course, but I like to think of it as being derived indirectly, via W. H. Auden’s blues-poems from the 1930s, of which ‘Funeral Blues’ is now by far the best known.  The delivery is punchy and direct. Something that I can’t quite put my finger on goes wrong in the conclusion (‘The nuclear bomb …’ onwards): I don’t think it’s so much that the lyrics spell things out too obviously and are a little overwrought, but rather that the sneering tone in the delivery is over-emphatic: the sneer is intended for those in power, for sure, but the implication is that we as listeners won’t get the point of the lyrics without it; and given that the lyrics are very direct at this point, that seems to be a failure of nerve or lack of faith in the audience.


LYRICS (my transcription)

I woke up this morning I walked to the wall (HARD OBJECTS)
The size of their guns did not worry me at all (HARD OBJECTS)
The beauty of the morning was a wound still ahead (HARD OBJECTS)
The gaunt stab of weapons and things better left unsaid.

Living in the shadow of — HARD OBJECTS
Carving at a road with — HARD OBJECTS
Another cut or two with — HARD OBJECTS

I was living at the heart of one room space
With a badly twisted body and infected face
The hole in the ribs had exposed a [? giant lung]
Oh what it is to me, young

I’m threatened day and night by — HARD OBJECTS
Suffering death by — HARD OBJECTS
Hung about and weighted with — HARD OBJECTS

Well the front page is full till the flags have been raised
A captive beast staggering bloody and crazed
It’s a myth, an old myth of cruelty that we shared
That you can die as you live or bring pressure to bear.

Without listening for the sound of — HARD OBJECTS
Looking for the prying of — HARD OBJECTS
The ticking and the clicking of — HARD OBJECTS
The whirring and the grinding of — HARD OBJECTS
The spokes and wheels and ratchets of — HARD OBJECTS
I hate the uses made of — HARD OBJECTS
The authority invested in — HARD OBJECTS
Beaten in the face by . . .


The nuclear bomb is a blunt instrument in the hands of disturbed children playing […] marbles.
The law is a blunt instrument for the use, as they so wish, of those in a position of authority.
The mass media is a blunt instrument in the hands of men whose sole desire it is to rob a bank.
The economy is a blunt instrument with which the politically wealthy can have the poor or subservient systematically beaten to ensure the minimum resistance.
Desire and affection are blunt instruments effectively employed by professional […] whose hands are permanently stained with hypocrisy and printer’s ink.
Education is a two-edged weapon which after a certain point those in power would like to keep for their exclusive use.
And the voice of protest and dissent is the only weapon possessed by the majority of victims and it’s lying unused at the feet of people too busy living and dying to bother to pick it up.