Money money money. It’s a rich man’s world.
Pop music and money are natural business partners, or at least they were during the dominance of the major label. Musicians and money are also a combustible combination; liquidity and electricity don’t mix. We all know the cautionary tales – Five Star going bankrupt within a year, Michael Jackson perpetrating an international soft toy shortage – but profligacy seems par for the course. No amount of (admittedly spectacular) Live Aid preening could alter the fact that Freddie Mercury spent over a million pounds on koi carp. I guess it’s better than snorting it all up your nostrils, though the poor fish themselves came a cropper in 2002 under suspicious circumstances. For a leftish person like me, the tax gripes are the worst side of this rocky marriage between creativity and remuneration. Adele’s recent petulance at having to pay a respectable fifty percent top rate makes the deserters of the ninety percent 1970s seem almost justified (well, there were plenty of reasons for Rod Stewart to cross the Atlantic). We did get Exile on Main Street, I suppose, and ‘Taxman’ still raises a smile, though it unnerves me that the usually Zen-like George Harrison could sneer so well.
Just as many artists have been embarrassed by Pop PLC, of course. With its ringing cash registers and self-lacerating lyrics, Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ is a masterclass in sarcasm. David Gilmour is in the ‘high fidelity first class travelling set’, which we’re meant to take as a dig at rock excess. Nevertheless, he still maintains his cut glass accent, and the long A on ‘class’ suggests what he’s really sneering at is the unwashed nouveau riche arrivistes who substitute breeding for helicopters. With irony, there’s always a danger the joke will rebound. The mythically venal 1980s offer some rich examples. George Michael always claimed ‘Club Tropicana’ was satirical. Yeah, George, you’re pulling your own permatanned leg; it’s your round, and my cocktail’s a double bluff. Cracking tune, by the way. I have slightly less affection for Dire Straits, much as my Dad loved to play the drum intro to ‘Money for nothing’ at full pelt in his Volvo. OK, they tried to voice the views of the custom-kitchen delivery man (so sadly neglected by most rock stars), but they did relish playing their ‘gee-tars on the MTV’; if you ask me, they were rubbing his nose in the foam packaging. Thank God for The Pet Shop Boys, as ever. ‘I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks – let’s make lots of money!’ Tennant and Lowe, your deadpanning earns you joint promotion to pop’s board of directors. You can give Knopfler and his delivery man their P45s on the way up.
These are all (in)famous examples, and the more famous you get, the more irony may be required. Jane Siberry had no such burden when she recorded ‘Extra Executives’ in 1984. In fact, I doubt she’s made any more money from thirty years of witty vignettes and character pieces than Dire Straits made from that one drum intro. In 2005, Siberry gave up her house and possessions in Toronto altogether; she lives in whichever city happens to be hosting her gig. If any other artist had made this decision, it might well have come across as a publicity stunt, but in Siberry’s case it’s entirely in keeping. While many of her songs follow the standard verse-chorus conventions (making kd lang covers possible), many more have an almost improvisatory feel, and hers is definitely a career that has been made up as it goes along. The first time I saw her play at the Barbican she inserted ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ into her set. I usually despise popera, but this was nothing of the sort: it was as if Handel had known in 1741 that a kooky Canadian would make it her own, and dropped in a few little nuances just for her. Her rendition was perfectly natural in context, even though she had just finished a medley of audience requests that included the infectious country singalong ‘Everything reminds me of my dog’. Dogs and deities, and everything in between – that’s her metier.
The executives in this song are neither pooch nor Prince of Peace. To Jane, they are ‘grouper fish, / floating through the reefs’. If you’ve ever seen a grouper fish, you’ll know that we’re already a long way away from Freddie Mercury’s koi collection. Groupers lie in wait for smaller fish and crustaceans, and swallow them whole. They don’t fanny on with that swimming lark, and they don’t mess around biting and chewing. The more obvious shark metaphor has been rejected here – it smacks too much of dynamism. No, these are the sort of executives who don’t chase the wine refill or the canapé; they rely on the waitresses simply being sucked into their force-field.
What do you need to be successful in this fish-eat-fish world? Jane thinks it’s just a case of ‘general desire’ – hunger for hunger’s sake. She mimics this in her asides, trilling ‘I want, I want’. A sentence without an object, an ambition without a purpose: want is intransitive. Despite the possibility of career progress, this isn’t a ladder so much as a whirlpool. It’s there in the music, motored by propulsive, giddy percussion (so giddy, in fact, that it sometimes trips over itself and momentarily changes time signature) that is constantly contradicted by a two-chord perpetuum mobile. Every forward step is a backward step. Middle management is trying to hitch itself up the hierarchy, but it’s running up the down escalator.
Siberry’s ditty gets the tedium spot on. At the same time, the song hovers above its subject, cool and disinterested – a Raymond Carver short story in 4/4. The jaunty, atonal introduction, repeated at various interludes, is the sound of a narrator eyeing up the possibilities at this suburban party, before swooping down a funny scale to ground level. There’s observation, but no empathy. She’s not the David Byrne preacher, sagely calling on the drones around her to let the days go by and the water hold them down. She doesn’t respect them nearly enough for that. A quiet word is all that is needed to register disapproval.
Who knows whether a real situation provided Jane with her subject matter. She’s had her own ups and downs with record company execs – an inevitable consequence of making brave, unclassifiable music. I like to think of ‘Extra Executives’ as a rebuff, a bit of bubblegum pop blown insouciantly in the face of Mr. EMI or Sony. But it’s also absolutely familiar to anyone who has had to endure paranoid colleagues at a works do or overhear an interminable conference call in a rail carriage. This is what I love about Jane Siberry: she makes the normal seem exceptional, and the exceptional seem quite normal. The second time I heard her perform was in a stranger’s front room in a Brockley basement flat. As my partner dropped a tenner into an old Quality Street tin, he felt a hand on his shoulder: ‘Hello there. I’m sure we’ve met before’, said a voice behind him. It was Jane. She’d never met him in her life, though he’d had her poster on his wall as a teenager. The ensuing gig, mostly extempore musings sung to a backing track, had all twenty or thirty of us enthralled. A nondescript patch of South London had turned into a strange little circus; it was like one of those surreal children’s TV programmes from the seventies that you suspect was really made for the parents. I almost forgot that money had changed hands. We simply crossed the palm with silver, and made a wish. Next time you feel the urge to go and see Coldplay or whoever, in some aircraft hanger plastered with sponsorship banners, save your money and drop it into Jane’s biscuit tin instead. Coldplay don’t need it, and they’ll only dodge their tax liability. They might even write a song about it, and that would be catastrophic. That’s the rock way. In the bendy republic of pop whimsy, on the other hand, it’s always a rich man’s world.