Tuesday 9 December 2014

The Love of Hopeless Causes

I was once accused by a friend of being  ‘the master of the perverse soft spot’. He didn’t mean to imply that I had a fetish for gladioli and sellotape (that’s another story entirely) but instead that I tend to stick up for those projects that are understood to be an artist’s worst work. You know the ones I mean – the universally-acknowledged worst album, the one ‘for completists only’, the black sheep, the rogue entry in the canon – the lost cause. 

Every band has one. They are often the shabby footnote to a great career, beset by record company meddling and personnel issues. The key examples are ‘Cut the Crap’, the dire electro-punk death rattle from the Clash; ‘Forbidden’, the hastily released rap crossover album by Black Sabbath; ‘Still from the Heart’, where the Angelic Upstarts exchanged their hearty punk roar for a baffling new romantic pop sound; ‘Cold Lake’, which saw Celtic Frost sell their credibility and reputation down the river of god-awful cock rock; ‘Grave New World’, Discharge’s aborted attempt to leap into the hair metal arena; and Metallica even have two - ‘St Anger’ and ‘Lulu’  - both of which representing craters of incapability on the very face of Rock; the list goes on.  

Yet these are albums which we can have bizarre attachments to, and which we may play even more than more illustrious parts of the oeuvre; we embarrass ourselves by having ‘Never Let Me Down’ on the stereo when visitors arrive, rather than the more critically acceptable classics. People’s minds boggle – “do they have no taste?”

Of course, in a way this is entirely understandable. We’ve all been there – when your dad tells you not look in the cupboard under the stairs because you won’t like what’s in there,  you then feel compelled to see what that could be.  If everyone is talking about how bad a film is then you are bound by curiosity to find out what the fuss is about. The Worst always stands out as an exception – ‘everything they did was brilliant apart from that album, which was shit’. And it works in all walks of life – let’s say you had an interest in the Napoleonic Wars and were told by an aficionado that ‘all Bonaparte’s campaigns were glorious successes apart from the Russian invasion, which was madness’, you would then be intrigued to find out for yourself why that was. This is the law of the forbidden fruit, and the human urge to taste it and see if it really is as bad as it seems. 

There is another urge that draws us towards the dross – to see if the runt of the litter, the beast under the stairs, the unwanted child, is really as bereft of quality as everyone says.   Our sympathy for the underdog makes us stick up for it – “it can’t be that bad, surely? It’s criminally underrated!”  We then find ourselves jumping into pub talk with both feet and defending the indefensible – “I’ll have you know that ‘Outside The Gate’ has some really good tracks!” you’ll protest, convincing nobody.

But maybe it’s time we should embrace the rubbish? Why should our guilty pleasures remain guilty? If the same band can make a classic and a travesty then that just shows how fallible everyone, even our heroes, can be. Are we not defined more by our defeats than our victories? Haven’t we learned more by falling on our backsides than by climbing mountains? Only when we learn to love our disasters and failures can we really embrace our humanity. Make your failures glorious, magnificent,  world-beating; if you’re going to fail, fail big! I’m sure on the long retreat from Moscow Napoleon thought to himself ‘this may have been a fuck-up but at least it’s the mother of all fuck-ups’; and I’m sure Joe Strummer, Mensi and Lars Ulrich all had similar thoughts. 

So put on your dog-eared copy of ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’, laugh, cry, and brazenly shout to anyone who cares that “this album is terrible and I love it!”.  Because Christmas is the time for bringing every album in from the cold – even ‘Hot Space’.

Merry Xmas, everyone.

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