Monday, 30 July 2007

Review: Phonogram - Rue Britannia

Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen (story) and Jamie McKelvie (art and lettering), Image Comics, 2007, 138 pages of strip, US$14.99

David Kohl is a phonomancer, a magician whose power is focused in music, particularly, in his case, the Britpop movement of the 1990s. Kohl learns that someone is planning to resurrect Britannia, goddess of Britpop, but in zombified form. As events progress, Kohl finds his memories and tastes changing, putting his very identity at risk.

The first chapter of this story – which was originally issue 1 of the pamphlet series – is a glorious tribute to the power of popular music. It refers at length and explicitly to a batch of singles by Sunderland popstrels Kenickie (who were strangely omitted from Bryan Talbot’s otherwise comprehensive tour of Mackem culture in Alice in Sunderland). But even if you are wholly unfamiliar with “Come Out 2Nite” - a state you should change as soon as possible - you can understand what this sequence means by reference to any pop songs that have ever spoken directly to you.

Then it all takes a turn for the worse. Well, a couple of turns, really. One is in the artwork. Jamie McKelvie’s art has a quiet, clear-line style that is fine for the more mundane parts of the storyline, a visual equivalent of the dry, deadpan voices of Luke Haines (of the Auteurs) or Damon Albarn (of Blur). But as Kieron Gillen’s script turns more to the mystical, McKelvie’s only recourse is to use grey tones instead of black for the more hallucinatory aspects, such as the “Memory Kingdom” where Kohl talks with Britpop idols. It’s a missed opportunity, especially when Blur turn up and you start to wonder what Albarn’s flatmate Jamie Hewlett might have done with this material. McKelvie is also none too strong on likenesses: I spent several pages wondering why Kohl was being guided through the Memory Kingdom by a young Elton John, before realising that this was supposed to be Luke Haines, songwriter and singer of the Auteurs.

And this is indicative of the second wrong turn: Phonogram becomes too specifically about Britpop, and, in particular, about the interpretation of Britpop favoured by Kohl.

For those of you who missed it, in the early to mid 1990s, the pallid boys with guitars in Britain started to produce songs with whistleable tunes and audible lyrics. In part, this was a reaction to the popularity of American grunge a few years earlier. Hence “Britpop” – British, not American, pop more than rock. Hair was shorter, clothes sharp in the mod tradition. For a while, this caught the mood of the public, and Britpop bands, most prominently Blur, Oasis and Pulp, thrived in the record sales charts and the playlists of BBC Radio 1. And then it ended. Fickle public taste moved on; the pallid boys were accused of selling out and decided to make their music more wilfully obscure and difficult; and, most catastrophically of all, the new Blair government tried to co-opt Britpop for political ends. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport even published a book called Cool Britannia. No pop movement could survive that.

Phonogram’s perspective on this period takes its cue from the so-called “inkies” of the time: the NME (formerly the New Musical Express) and Melody Maker, two music magazines published weekly on low-grade newsprint. Their target readership was pop music snobs, more concerned that their record collections should be credible than danceable. I know, dear reader, for I was that snob – but ten or more years older than most readers, so less likely to be taken in by the inkies’ latest round of hype, scorn and scene-building

Much of Phonogram’s plot revolves around Kohl’s attempt to defend this perspective against an assault by a rival group of music-centred magicians called retromancers, who want to produce a simpler version of the memory of Britpop which they can peddle at 1990s nights at clubs and theme pubs. This, it seems, threatens Kohl’s own memory and, indeed, identity. It seems that, in Phonogram, there is only room for one, definitive, memory of the past, and this is something to be contested.

This is where I part company with Phonogram. “But it wasn’t like that. Blur vs Oasis and nowt all else.” Well, indeed, to Kohl and Gillen and me. But possibly not to those who preferred The Sun to the NME, and certainly not to schoolchildren of 1995, shouting the names of their favourites at each other the week the two bands released their new singles simultaneously. And their views are as valid as ours, especially given that one of the defining traits of Britpop was that it was actually popular, unlike so much indie guitar music. I remember once, browsing in HMV, Oasis’ “Wonderwall” came on the in-store radio. Every single person I could see was singing along under their breath. Would they have sung along to the Auteurs’ “Unsolved Child Murder”? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that they misremember Britpop, but that it was always something different for different people. By championing a more complex picture of Britpop, Phonogram favours a less complex picture of culture and memory.

And, for that matter, a less complex picture of the longer-term development of British pop music. Phonogram describes Britpop as “the second flowering of British guitar pop”. So what was the first? The sixties? It’s hard to dispute the claims of the Beatles and the Stones. But, hold on, the first issue’s cover is a pastiche of the sleeve of Elastica’s debut album, which was heavily influenced – to say the least – by 1970s punk and new wave bands like Wire and the Stranglers. Was there no flowering then? And if no further flowerings are to be allowed, where does that leave the current wave of commercially successful guitar pop bands like Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys? (Kohl does at least mention the last of these, though in condescending terms.) It is hard to esacpe the impression that this is just special pleading on the part of a music scene that happens to be the one that meant most to the character.

Several times in Phonogram, Kohl’s fellow phonomancers warn him that it is a mistake to hang his own identity on a long-dead phase in music, and you expect that the resolution of the story might involve him learning and growing past this. But instead, he reaffirms this narrow definition, mellowing only to the extent that he now accepts that he always did like some songs by unfashionable groups like Echobelly and Sleeper. So a story that starts as a hymn to the potency of cheap music become something more crabbed and cliquey, a defence of hipster superiority and a denial of the right of people to enjoy music however they may. Perhaps, when Gillen was writing about those Kenickie singles, he should have heeded the mickey-taking of “Punka” (lyrics taken from Lyrics Download ):

Hey Punka (hey!), how're you doin'?
Hey Punka (hey!), are you staying true to you?
Cos that's what Punkas do.
I wanna be a Punka too.
And if your friends all bitch, you're a Punka (Punka!),
If your life is kitsch, you're a Punka (Punka!).
I'm a Punka too.

Hey Punka (hey!), I've got ambition.
Hey Punka (hey!), my one wish is to
Be as punk as you when I grow up,
If Punkas ever do grow up.
And if your hits all miss, you're a Punka (Punka!),
If you dance like this, you're a Punka (Punka!).
I'm a Punka.

P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Lo-fi songs are great (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
We never learnt to play, cos we're Punka!
I wanna be a Punka too,
When I grow up if Punkas ever do,
I wanna be
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Underground cliché (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
We always want to stay, hey! (Punka!)
I wanna be a Punka too,
When I grow up, if Punkas ever do,
And play guitar like

[Guitar break]

P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Lo-fi songs are great (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Don't you want to play, Punka?

I wanna be a Punka too,
When I grow up, if Punkas ever do,
I wanna be like you.

Even so, Phonogram is not a complete loss. Gillen is good at creating simple but memorable supporting characters, such as Kohl’s oblivious friend Kid-with-Knife, or the hermit Indie Dave, who keeps himself warm by burning old seven-inch singles. And there is a major sub-plot about a woman who has given up listening to music, leaving behind as a ghost her old obsession with the Manic Street Preachers and their guitarist and lyricist, Richie Edwards, which is much more touching, humane and uplifting than the main plot. The resolution of the subplot closes the book. If the rest of it had maintained the tone of the first chapter and the last few pages, I would have been much happier.


Sean Kleefeld said...

Thanks for the in-depth review, Steve. Being generally oblivious to contemporary music, I just couldn't fathom what the heck was going on and gave up on this story pretty quickly. Regardless of how good the book is/isn't, this pretty well confirms that I am NOT the target audience for this and I shouldn't try to go back and figure it out. :)

Steve Flanagan said...

I just hope that the review isn't impenetrable too.

Kieron said...


Just wanted to thank you for a review. Don't mind downbeat ones when someone has applied their brains to the work. Hell - we prefer hard honest critique over vacuous praise, if we were forced to choose between the two.

As a passing note, what we were trying to say with Kohl's arc absolutely wasn't how you interpreted it. Not that it matters. If our intent didn't come across, at least for you, we fluffed it.


Steve Flanagan said...

Thanks for taking the trouble to reply, Kieron. I hope that I'm more in sync with your next project (because, on the strength of the first chapter and the Manics subplot, I will definitely look out for it).

Kieron said...

It's a very different take, to say the least - it's a mass of smaller stories rather than a single large traditional narrative. I hope at least some of them will appeal to you.

And - y'know - Kenickie!


Andrew Hickey said...

I'd been in two minds about whether to get this or not, and I think you've tipped me towards 'not'. I love the concept, but the Britpop thing... much as I loved it at the time (it was the first time as a teenager that my peer group were listening to music I enjoyed, and seeing Pulp at Glastonbury in 1995 is still one of the highlights of my musical life), there was an inherent conservatism, a New Labourness about it that looked bright and shiny in 1995 but now seems slightly distasteful.

Kieron said...

It is called Rue Britannia for a reason :)