When the BBC Sound of 2013 artists were announced a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help feeling just a teensy bit weary. I often try to give the acts a listen, but I’m aware that there is a long list of also-rans from years gone by that have failed to prove the pollsters right. I found myself glancing over the artists singled out in previous years, and my eye wandered over to 2003, astonishingly (though unavoidably) ten years ago to the day. The list yielded some well-established names – Dizzee Rascal and 50 Cent being the most recognisable – as well as some who seemed ubiquitous at the time but are no longer radio staples (Sean Paul). The garage rock revival was clearly at full throttle, though all the listed acts hailed from outside the UK: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (a great band), The Datsuns (who?) and Electric Six, who if you remember planned to start a nuclear war at a gay bar. Silly lads. Nestling in sixth place were Interpol, who were certainly my group of the moment back then; I was addicted to their beautifully tortured album Turn on the Bright Lights. For our nascent post-punk band, they were both model and muse. It seemed that finally there were bands out there which shared our tastes and aspired to hog the same niches as us. That could only mean one thing – that this would be our time, and we had to grab it by the balls.
Somewhere in the bohemian crucible, the cultural laboratory that was early to mid-noughties Shoreditch, we found ourselves in a mouldering basement studio on Curtain Road with strangulated acoustics and mirrors in odd places. It all sounds a bit Nathan Barley now, but at the time I remember thinking to myself: these are your twenties, use them! They were certainly very different to how I’d envisaged them as a teenager. I never imagined I’d be working in an Oxford library through the day and playing the batcaves of the Hope and Anchor or the Dublin Castle at night. I never imagined that I’d have to know what a D.I. was, or that I’d be asking grizzled soundmen with greasy beards for D.I.s on a regular basis. Least of all did I predict that many a Saturday morning would be spent on the X90 coach with a keyboard stand between my legs (a sort of gunmetal stick-insect, highly adept at bashing shins and bringing lesser objects tumbling in its wake), looking up at the towers that line the Westway, thinking ‘fucking hell, I’m in a band’. The tube to Old Street, the stink of frying onions and wet concrete in the subway, then coming back into the light, blinking at skinny men with their skinny ties and skinny jeans and their elegantly-wasted coats, too big for their pixie frames. Ah the mid-noughties! Funny how back then I felt like an outsider – chubby and professorial as I was – and yet now it seems I was part of something after all.
Funny too how the period has come into sharp focus in the years that have followed. It’s now utterly unremarkable for an ‘indie’ band to crank it up to 100BPM and ride a crisp hi-hat, but in 2004, Franz Ferdinand’s ‘music for girls to dance to’ seemed a bit nuts, in a glorious way. While it was ubiquitous in 2004, time has been kind to their classic opening salvo, ‘Take me out’; that moment when the Strokesy strum of the first verse unravels into a grinding, disco-rock boogie was effectively the manifesto that set a whole era in motion, and it was far sexier than any guitar band had a right to be (I grew up in the nineties, when it was de rigueur to sling your guitar low over baggy jeans and look permanently as if someone had pissed in your pint). I promptly bought an old Roland JX-3P from E-bay (very 2004, eh? Couldn’t afford a Juno though) and dreamed of the uber-hybrid synth-pop-rock that had previously been always out of my reach: finally my love of Gary Numan could be married to my love of The Pixies – London says so!
And then, the ‘guerrilla gigs’. It wasn’t just the Libertines and Bloc Party and all those New Crossers announcing their gatherings by text an hour before plug-in and lift-off (remember, we’re talking that innocent time just before Facer and Twitbook). No, we were there too. Somewhere in Hoxton, trembling with fear (or at least I was), in some basement with a load of hipster moustaches in lab coats. Not so much the velvet as the synthetic fibre underground. It’s what happens when art students get together of a weekend: morbid party games (they were actually playing ‘pin the leg on the amputee’), artificial light and substances a la mode. As for the house party in Wood Green, where the room was so small the guitars had to be played vertically and the floor was carpeted with so much broken glass you had to tiptoe round your instruments, well – that was a nadir. Still, that party sticks in the head for several reasons. First and foremost, the neighbours’ complaints and the ensuing police sirens; secondly, the band who arrived without any gear and had to borrow our stuff unannounced; and thirdly, the playlist that boomed out of the speakers when the bands weren’t shredding their trainers on the shards or stepping over mooning, coke-fired couples. While we were untangling our own wires and leads and praying for our sanity, the speakers boomed out ‘Olio’ by The Rapture, and again I had this weird feeling that I may never be such a part of the zeitgeist ever again.
‘Olio’, and indeed the album it kicked off so menacingly, Echoes, almost certainly constituted a watershed moment in the music of the 2000s. They were the second band I saw at Glastonbury in 2004 (after a much mellower set from Wilco), and for about forty minutes a sunny field in the West Country turned pure East Village. Luke Jenner ‘sang’ like an exotic ululating bird – a bird that had parroted PiL and Gang of Four – and it was all cowbells and Korgs a-go-go. And, I’m pleased to report, not a lab coat in sight. During the standouts – ‘House of Jealous Lovers’, ‘Sister Saviour’ – all of the great groundswell rock and pop movements of yesteryear seemed to coalesce. I looked around me at the crowd, and listened to the demonic hybrid at work on stage, and it was all there – punk, post-punk, synth-pop, acid house. A big, brilliant, splodgy Pollock canvas; a glorious fucking mess. This is pretty much the condition of post-internet pop music, music with such unlimited resources that it’s always going just a bit too far (or else audibly trying to rein itself in with sometimes thrilling results). And it’s pretty much James Murphy’s specialist subject. As the producer of that first Rapture album (and much else of wonder besides), and the man behind the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, he was – is – the high priest and professor of noughties pop-anxiety, the Gilles Deleuze of dance-punk. So symbolic is he of that period – of analogue rebellion against the impending digital revolution, rebellion made possible only by the digital – that it almost seems as if he’s the invention of Pitchfork. But he is real, nonetheless. Remember – he was there.
‘Losing my edge’ is both a manifesto for its era and an acknowledgement that manifestos are almost meaningless in an age of such rapid musical turnover. It’s a masterclass in self-deconstruction (perhaps even self-destruction, as the witty, masochistic video implies). This is not Michael Stipe losing his religion (whatever that was about); nor is it Liza Minnelli losing her mind. It’s much more worrying than that, and at the same time much more blissful. In the digital age, with every back catalogue available to anyone who’s interested, with the technological means to make a DJ or a critic or a collagist out of any Macbook muso, how can you ever find your ‘edge’, never mind lose it? What seems to make Murphy’s character hyper is the possibility that the edge itself is slipping – that there’s just an endless mise en abyme of namechecks and playlists, atoms of sound proliferating in the infinity of the internet. It’s pretty astonishing to think this track is now ten years old: ITunes had barely got its act together, and the launch of Spotify was a whole three years away. It’s not postmodern pastiche, but prophecy: Murphy’s a seer as well as a psychoanalyst.
He’s also pretty hilarious. In this track, he’s a pub bore set spinning on his barstool by forces beyond his control. We’ve all met those men – in record shops (sometimes behind the counter), in clubs, or commandeering the vinyl at house parties – who have a lusty fetish for the twelve inch and an indefatigable capacity for the bullshit anecdote. And very often their babble is little other than lists, lists and more lists. You can have a good deal of fun reconstructing the canon of cool from ‘Losing my edge’ – I’ve always been chuffed that The Human League and Soft Cell sneak in there amongst Detroit techno white labels and the grin-inducing announcement of ‘GIL SCOTT HERON’ – but it’s also a deadly accurate parody of pop music’s obsessive self-recycling, its increasingly giddy repetitions. It’s not a bitter record; baffled by the ‘kids from France and from London’, he does still acknowledge, perhaps against the tide of his feeling, that they’re ‘actually really nice’. But the most telling sentiment of all comes in the outro: ‘You don’t know what you really want.’ The what of pop has disappeared. It is all desire. Hunger. Voracity. The object itself no longer matters.
What better way to state this than with a pop object so brilliant it becomes an instant classic? The music of ‘Losing my edge’ is always in tandem with the rush of its lyrics. The intro stages an intervention, the brutal replacement of a tinny garage band (which sounds like it’s being relayed through Poundland earphones) with a blippity-bloop percussion track that refuses to relent over the track’s near-enough eight minutes. The past has been hijacked by something approaching the future, though when it calls for reinforcements, we get a morphed Killing Joke loop; the future sounds like the past, but meta-meta and megaphoned. The success of this musical blueprint is the biggest irony of all. Murphy isn’t losing his edge in the slightest; he’s defining it, in all directions. Far from being all precious and fashionista – the moustache-and-lab-coat side of the noughties – he’s just giving in to the tide, and laughing at himself being all uptight. He has his cake: and he bloody eats it too.
I ate my slice, long ago. I don’t think I’ll get another one, though you never know. It was fun while it lasted though – 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006. If you catch me with a gin in my hand by the vinyl collection, don’t be too harsh on me. I was there, after all.