Red Nose Day Charity Songs: A List of Five

Alright; let’s get one thing out of the way. Everyone knows that Comic Relief is neither very comedic nor, in truth, very relieving, but it’s at worst a bit of light relief with a pretty serious message, and at best as good-natured attempt to encourage people to give to charity. But it’s hard not to be a little cynical about the overreliance on celebrities in cajoling people to donate, not just because of the self-publicity and credibility cache some celebrities seem to use it as, but because I sometimes wonder if the amount of celebrities-doing-funny-things not only eclipses the cause, but in some cases diminishes the altruism of the gesture of donating to charity in the first place.

The old cliché of RND antics – the ubiquitous ‘bath of beans’ stunt, as ever sent up perfectly in this Alan Partridge clip… from Comic Relief (ignore James Corden in ‘sincere mode’ at the end… or don’t – see what I mean about character rebuilding opportunity for certain celebrities) – isn’t really something to encourage people to give money to end global hunger. And so with more real-world recent examples. Is giving money to charity a good thing to do? Unquestionably. Are celebrities to be commended for encouraging people to do so? Probably. But is giving money to African aid because Jessie J shaved her head a good thing? Or does it leave out the question of where the money is going to all together? “Pay a fiver to see Jessie J shave her head” becomes the message, and I don’t think that’s good at all.

Anyway, I didn’t watch any of Comic relief, apart from one ‘impassioned speech’ from the seemingly omnipresent James Corden where he admitted that Comic Relief was “a bit shit” but that you should give them your money anyway. And about a minute of some haircut following an African boy along a road to his hut… and having to take a break because it was too hot (having seen the music video discussed below, I’m pretty sure this was one of One Direction). So maybe I am wrong about this. But I was just thinking about some of the tie-in charity singles that have accompanied Comic Relief. I was going to listen to One Direction’s recent contribution to world poverty ten times in a row, but I realistically though that I might not be able to physically or emotionally bear that, so here are a couple of other songs as well.  

1. The Stonk – Hale and Pace (1991)

I remember buying a cassette single of Hale and Pace’s ‘Stonk’ with my pocket money from Woolworths, in a remembrance so technologically and culturally anachronistic that it feels like it doesn’t come from childhood, but rather from another epoch… kind of on a par with saying something like ‘I remember lashing my flint axe head to a deer’s antler before worshipping the sun at a stone circle’.

The Stonk has not aged well, as this blurry VHS copy of the video on Youtube will attest.

It’s all over the place, and of all the songs on this short list, it is probably the one that has the least actually musical material in it (I say that, but I haven’t actually listened to spirit in the sky yet). If you condensed this song into its constituent individual parts and ideas, it would run for all of about fifteen seconds. The lyrics sound like they were written in about five seconds… via a process of “right, without thinking about it, list the first fifteen pairs of words that rhyme that come into your head, and we’ll just fit the rest of the lyrics, irrespective of sense or message or meaning or anything, around them”. Case in point “you can microwave a pussy cat for your tea/ but it’s better little baby if you stonk with me”. Now then; even given that Comic Relief is supposed to be a “bit nutty”, and ‘zaniness’ was at a premium in the early 90s, this line is not just nonsensical, it’s kind of grotesque. Other insightful rhyming couplets include: cheese/peas, fat/hat, shop/cops  – in the most clumsy of lines “the robbers are even stonking with the cops” – etc. The only redeeming feature of interest is the run that accompanies ‘and let’s stonk’ at the end of every chorus, but that gets played so many times that it ruins it.

In fact, the only think I really remember from this song on my cassette single, leaning over the arm of the green leather sofa we used to have, repetitively rewinding and listening to it over and over again, was at the very end it said “and now a word from Jacque CouSTONK… gluglugluglgulg”, but this isn’t even on this video.

2. Who Do You Think You Are – The Spice Girls (1997)

So, when I decided to expand out this re-listening from just One Direction to include several charity singles, I had to check the Wikipedia page to see what other songs there were. I had completely forgotten about this one, but as soon as I saw it on the list, it became the only port in an otherwise shitty storm, and convinced me to continue.

Looking back, it’s hard to measure how much I loved the Spice Girls circa 1997, because I didn’t ever really allow myself to find out. I knew that I should hate them. I was 13. You’re supposed to like ‘good’ music, like Oasis and Blur (!), ‘proper music’ with guitars and men and Kangol fishing hats, not pop music with mint tunes and confusingly alluring women and positivity. So I pretended that I hated them. Then I pretended that I only knew all the words to their songs as an ironic joke, just to prove how cheesy they were. Now if I were to lie about any of my musical history, it would be about owning The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ (god, I’ve just found the front cover of that album. Is there a more pretentious, and shitter, title for an album than ‘Urban Hymns’? Is there a picture that more accurate encapsulates who I thought I was trying to be, but failing, when I was 13?) and not about owning ‘Spice’.

Anyway – the tune. It’s class. Those synth trumpet stabs, that faux-wah guitar at the start. The energy in it, Sporty’s ‘swing it, shake, it, move it, make it’ melody in the outro. The colours of the video. It’s mesmerising to me now, and so to a 13 year old from rural County Durham, the image that begins the video of Ginger jiggling in a red dress, or Scary’s tounge piercing was kind of baffling and amazing and intimidating because again I knew that I probably shouldn’t love it so much, but I did, despite myself. Actually, I’m trying to remember how I would have ever seen this video? I really do take Youtube for granted now, but the fact that it was an uncontrolled and random occurrence to see the Spice Girls probably made it all the more magical.

Anyway – the tune speaks for itself. I want to go back in time to 1997 and hand my thirteen-year-old self a copy of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ on CD single and just say “it’s ok to love this, fuck everyone else. Britpop is going to look shit in a few years time anyway.”

3. Spirit in the Sky – Gareth Gates and the Kumars (2003)

From the sublime to the fucking horrific.

It’s sort of amazing how dated something from ten years ago can look. Actually it’s not, really. ‘Ten years ago’ is about as un-cool as anything can get before it starts getting revived. There is little chance of either Gareth Gates or ‘The Kumars’ getting revived, and we should be thankful for at least that small mercy.

Of course, I had completely forgotten about this version. There is very little of value here. The ‘bad bum day’ joke at the beginning is about as good as it gets.

From then on in, the only contributions the Kumars make are hurried, scarcely comprehensible ‘commentaries’ on Gareth Gates’ lyrics. “What? Wembley?” to the line ‘the place that’s the best’ and “or Krishna” to ‘gotta have a friend in Jesus’. These additions were, presumably, thought out in advance and recorded in a professional recording studio, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were unintentional bleeding into the mix from a remarkably unfunny producer accidentally leaving the two way communication channel on the mixing desk open.

And there is less musical material in this tune than there is in ‘The Stonk’. Even one of the Kumars admits as much at the end when she says “you keep saying the same thing” to the interminable repetitions of ‘going to the place that’s the best’, included only to push the sorry exercise over the standard three minute mark.

4. Is this the Way to Amarillo? – Peter Kay

The less said about this one the better.

I remember being a teacher at a Secondary School in South-East London, three years after this one was released, but still, inexplicably, doing your own version of the video was seen as an ingenious and hilarious thing to do. And a number of the senior staff did a version of it for the Christmas charity campaign. And I vowed then that I would leave that school, and the profession of teaching. There was nothing for me there.

Instead of the music video, remember when Kay included it in Phoenix Nights (about 16.30), and it was quite funny?

5. One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks) – One Direction (2013)

And so…

I don’t really know anything about One Direction. I don’t think I have ever knowingly heard one of their songs (probably a damning indictment for someone studying popular music). They’re like so many things that happen: Justin Bieber, Pippa Middleton, UKIP, Sex and the City, all horse races and Formula 1, Top Gear, the Daily Mail, Twitter. I know they exist, I know vaguely what they are about (and that I would hate them if I invested even a nanosecond in finding out about them) and that some people (that I have never met) must love them for them to exist. And so it is with One Direction. I don’t know anything about them, and yet I think I know everything that there is to know to do a passable impression of someone connected to the rest of humanity. One of them is called Harry, I think. They have haircuts.

It’s like with a film like ‘The Godfather’ – you never need to have seen it to do a passable impression of someone who has, Just puff out your cheeks and say “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” and any potentially embarrassing situation where the film comes up for discussion is averted. You have demonstrated that you ‘know’ The Godfather. (I watched the Godfather for the first time about a year ago).

The same is true of One Direction. Just say ‘Harry’ and ‘Haircuts’ and I think you’ll be fine.

But I do know both The Undertones and Blondie…

The first guy – I think it must be Harry – he certainly has the most conspicuous ‘hair’ – is wearing a ‘Rush’ t-shirt. This can’t possibly be a ‘retro-cool’ thing, like wearing insanely expensive Ramones t-shirts was a few years ago, can it? Are ‘Rush’ cool now?

Anyway, the reverse effect on the start kicks off what is actually quite an unsettling vocal performance throughout this song. It sounds like the ghost of troubled Joe, hung by his pretty white neck, of ‘A Rush and a Push…’ by The Smiths fame (rush again), like it’s coming from beyond the grave… not a pleasant beginning to a charity song.

Then the blonde guy singing ‘I will drive past your house…’; it’s just creepy.

Maybe it’s wrong to think this, but there is a marked difference between someone like Debbie Harry essentially saying ‘I am going to stalk you until I wear you down’ and a group of five young men saying it, isn’t there. This is emphasised in the shout-along middle section.

And then they combine this anthem to stalking with a song about wanking, and it starts getting a bit messy/silly/shit.

The Teenage Kicks bit is just so unnecessary. Why does it need to be there? OK, it adds a little more musical material than either Spirit in the Sky or the Stonk, but not enough to justify this sort of cut-and-shut song melding. It doesn’t work. It sounds crap…. But through the noise of bellowed ‘na na na’ and faux-we-will-rock-you drumming, there’s another noise… what is it? It’s a sort of humming, rotating sound. Oh. It’s John Peel. He’s turning in his grave.

… And then David Cameron comes in. And he can’t even act as himself. And suddenly Tony Blair doing the ‘am I bovvered’ bit with Catherine Tate – another nadir in the pursuit of doing something ‘funny for money’ – doesn’t seem quite so bad… or does it.

But in the end, it looks like five lads having an undeserved, entirely unrealistic, good time… or four lads at least, the blonde one who wears a kind of grubby vest in a few of the shots just has the slightest onset of the look of someone for whom the ‘living the dream’ bubble burst about six months ago, and he’s just waiting for the right time to tell everyone… ‘The Robbie Williams look’, in other words. 

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Sci-Fi Short Story

Here is a link to a Sci-Fi short story I wrote a while ago. It is still something of a work-in-progress, but I would really appreciate any comments.


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Sex on Fire: Ten Times


Listen 1:

Ok here we go. Oh God, I haven’t heard this song for a long time. I hate it already. And I don’t usually like to write about songs that are shit. I don’t like it. everyone knows that there is, probably, more shit pop music around than there is good – particularly recently. Everyone knows that, it doesn’t need advertising. In fact, there needs to be more said about good pop music. But I’m trying to get back into writing this blog, and the ten times format lends itself to easing back into it.

The problem is, I couldn’t think of any good tunes that have been stuck in my head recently, other than the Grandstand theme tune and a tune called ‘Rumble’ – as a quick tangent, I don’t think I know any of the lyrics to this tune, which is a surprise, because I usually seem to absorb pop lyrics with a savant-like completeness… I actually only know the howled title. I’m watching a video that has the lyrics on it on You Tube – by a mandolin player called Jimmy Gaudreau, but amazingly You Tube doesn’t seem to hold any copy of that song in its limitless vaults.

Anyway – this tune returned like stress-induced eczema to clutter my head yesterday, so where better to restart than this.

Listen 2:

Mercifully this tune is relatively short – three and half minutes – which means that this ordeal won’t actually take all that long. Let’s grasp the nettle early on. What is it that I hate about this tune? It has to be the most obvious thing. The title. The catchphrase, which is I think the most apt term for it – of the song. ‘Sex is on Fire’. I always thought it was ‘this sex is on fire’, but the first chorus says your sex is on fire, which is, if it’s possible, even worse. It goes from being more or less meaningless to being grotesque. The word ‘sex’ in this sentence with the word ‘your’ – ‘your sex’ – makes it sound like it’s taken from the sort of top-shelf erotic novels with Mills & Boon-style faux-watercolour covers that you used to only find in motorway service stations; because only there is the word ‘sex’ used as a euphemism for ‘vagina’. “You… Your vagina is on fire.”

I think it’s probably the worst lyrics can remember hearing.

Listen 3:

And then there’s the delivery. There’s something about this guy’s voice that just makes me angry. What is it? I mean it’s so stylised – that little yelp at the end of the first line… actually they keep appearing all the way through, like he’s trying hard to contain the emotion of the meaningless words. It just sounds so false, such an imitation of emotion. What is the rhyming line of the chorus? I can’t tell yet… “we’re the ones who transpire”? I’ll check for the next one. The way he sings it gets under my skin… but not in a good way…. like shards of bamboo under finger nails. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it because it’s like a studied imitation of ‘rock singing’.

And even as an imitation it has been so imitated, and with each repetition it gets further and further away from being something meaningful, and just becomes noise. That’s all I can hear already is just a kind of howled noise. Maybe that’s why I have never understood the words to this song, because they are so pointless.

Listen 4:

So I have just listened to it again, looking at the lyrics. A few gems stick out. And I really didn’t have any idea what any of these lyrics were. The song is more overtly about having sex that I ever thought it was. I think that makes it worse. Because there’s no connecting context. And then the line ‘the kiddie-like play’ and this sort of unconnected, decontextualised idea of ‘people watching’. I suppose it’s supposed to make it sound somehow sinister and dark, but it’s just meaningless. And what makes it meaningless is how sing-alongable it’s so obviously constructed to be. That’s what does it. The ‘You’ of the chorus ‘yau-ha-haeuuuu’ designed for a festival crowd to sing along to – hold out the microphone to them. It’s a ready packaged ‘festival anthem’ which, in itself, makes any meaning of the lyrics irrelevant – if there ever was something in the secretive world of two people having sex theme of the lyrics.

Oh no, there is a live version of Beyonce singing it… and it looks like it’s at a festival. I have to watch that version. I know already it’s going to be awful.

Listen 5:

But first, more on the chorus.

I also always thought that this song contained one of the forbidden rhyming couplets: ‘fire/desire’ (the others being ‘love/above’ and any mention of anyone catching anyone else when they fall). However, on closer lyrical inspection it doesn’t. I was hoping to spend at least one listen discussing how much I dislike that rhyming couplet. But if anything, this song fashions an even more clunky and unconvincing rhyme for the word fire. “Consumed with what’s just transpired”. What’s just transpired?! “how do you feel after that sex which has just transpired… which was on fire” “I feel consumed”. “Is that good or bad?” “I don’t know.” It’s a really terrible lyrics, one that has only been written to fit a rhyme, not to actually convey any sort of meaning. Consumed with what’s just transpired. It doesn’t even rhyme.

Ok; I’ve just checked another website, and apparently the lyric may be “consumed with what’s to transpire”… which at least rhymes properly, but which, if anything, makes even less sense. ‘Consumed with what’s to transpire’. “Do you want to have sex… on fire?” “Darling, I am consumed with the thought of what’s to transpire.” “Ok then, let’s get cracking with the kiddie-like play.”

Listen 6:

Oh Beyonce. Why? Why was this necessary? At least this video is a welcome respite from the voice of the singer from the Kings of Leon, which is, after only five repetitions, now almost too much to bear. But that Beyonce would stoop to such blatant crowd-appeasing sing-along tut as this is unforgivable, and it makes me hate this song even more. Because Beyonce has clearly thought ‘I’m playing a festival… they’ll want a song they can sing along to… ‘sex on fire’ has that terrible screamed ‘you-hoo-hoo’ bit in it which I can hold the microphone out to the crowd for [and at two minutes, right on cue, the inevitable “sing it y’all” and microphone held out to the crowd, which would amplify nothing transpires] and it’ll be an easy mid-set sing-along.’

I love Beyonce. I think ‘Countdown’ particularly is one of the best pop tunes of recent times. I wish all music could sound like that. So why this? And there’s certain micro-moments when Beyonce staggers on those insane high heels where she just looks a little too much like Tina Turner… where the performance just threatens to tip over into the ludicrous. Her singing ‘Your sex is on fire’ almost does it.

And I think I can see the tell-tale flag-waving (when did that meaningless fad begin?) that makes this unmistakable Glastonbury… which makes this performance all the shitter. Luckily this version is about to finish, so I don’t have a chance to get into how soul-crushingly sad I find it that Beyonce would be singing ‘sex on fire’ at Glastonbury. Let’s move on.   

Listen 7:

So I couldn’t go back to that voice yet, and another cover version of this song caught my attention, in that way that You Tube has of encouraging you to click your way through related videos until its two in the morning and you’re watching something impossibly shit and you can’t even remember any of the fifty million steps you took to get to it, or what the original starting point to get here was.

I wish I had gone back to the original. Because this video is worse.

Again, I don’t want to get into You Tube negative comment territory, but this video may be approaching the very bottom of the popular music barrel. The case for the prosecution asserting that music is not worth saving.

The delivery of the line ‘has people talking’ at about 1.13 makes me want to stop what I’m doing. It really makes me want to never listen to music ever again, in fact.

And then there’s the word ‘fire’ at 1.26. Which does the same. But maybe even more so.

This isn’t her fault, whoever she is; her and her “little twitter fanbase”. It goes right back to the Kings of Leon. It’s their fault for making people think that the way you say something gives it it’s sincerity, rather than the meaning of the words actually being said. The way they sing – which is the same way that this person is singing – masks the words almost entirely – in place of making the sounds ‘emotional’. And then we can all sing along.

Fuck me. Your sex is on fire.

Actually I thought it would be funny to get angry at something this afternoon. But it isn’t. I’m just shaking my head.  

Listen 8:

And then here we are. The nadir, perhaps, of all human endeavour.

Jamie Afro. X Factor audition.

“Music means… everything” Does it? Why not demonstrate that by singing someone else’s impression of emotion on a television programme that has, implicitly, at its heart the notion that you can covert a passion into money, and that that is the only reason to make or care about music.

I was going to say that the only good thing about this is that it already seems like it comes from another dimension, and that we’re coming out of the cultural recession of the likes of the X Factor, but then the top two comments on this video both say ‘like if you’re still listening to this in 2013’, so maybe we’re not.

And then he says “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m 33 years old. It’s now or never really.” And I almost can’t stand it.

And then he sings with all the right stylised bending-down and pointing actions, and he touches his face, and he has a sort of emoticon face of sincerity. And Simon Cowell pulls a surprised-but-impressed face. And Louis Walsh looks like he’s trying to remember what faces human beings make when they’re interested in something called ‘music’, but can’t quite remember. And then Jamie Afro (who has had to erase his own last name and replace it with what kind of hair he has) says ‘I say a one, two, three’ and everyone sings along. And Dannii Minogue tries to make a face underneath all the makeup. And Cheryl Cole bobs her head along and flashed her teeth, and his gaggle of friends backstage all bend over and look at what’s happening on a television screen, even though they’re actually there, because that’s the only way that you can process something like this. And Dermot O’Leary points at a screen (even though he’s really there) and says “Simon Cowell is singing along” with all the hoarse-voiced ecstasy of someone watching the Berlin Wall being torn down and knowing that their world has changed forever. And then the judges confirm that what we’ve just seen is awe-inspiring and we have all just had a collective moment. And Jamie Afro has, in that three minute window, ‘made it’.

And then it ends. And Jamie Afro, presumably, goes back to working in bars, and he realises that the distinction of the choice ‘now or never’ isn’t quite as clear-cut as he thought it was. And as he clears the empty pint glasses and crisp packets off another table, and hums ‘your sex is on fire’ (he’s cut his afro off now… he’s just ‘Jamie normal hair’ now) he realises that ‘now’ and ‘never’ are the same thing.  

Listen 9:

I suppose I should watch the Kings of Leon playing this live at a festival. That’s what I should do.

I wonder how many times the Kings of Leon have had to play this song. I wonder if it means anything to them anymore?

I wonder if it was ever based on something real? And if the singer, in another cavernous stadium, sometimes catches himself singing ‘you-hoo-hoo’ to the barrage of faces in front of him, all singing it back to him and for a second remembers the ‘you’ to whom it was initially written. I wonder if he still knows this ‘you’.

Man; there are so many people at this gig. It’s at the O2. And he asks them all to sing along to this song, knowing that they have no other option than to do so.

At least he looks like he doesn’t want them to. At least there’s that. But then maybe even that is an act. I can’t tell anymore.   

Listen 10:

I like the way you move

Boulevard of broken dreams

They were two other songs I was thinking of doing this ‘ten times’ thing with. Two of my least favourite songs. But it’ll have to be a long time before I can. Because this ten times of ‘sex on fire’ has left me drained… sort of like anti-sex…

… on fire.

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‘Aspidochelone’ – a sci-fi story

here is a link to a (long) short story I have written called ‘Aspidochelone’.

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The Guitar is Not Dead

If the Guitar is Dead, Who Killed it?

“This machine kills fascists” written on an acoustic guitar. On Woody Guthrie’s guitar. There’s so many things about it that now seem so odd. Of course, there’s the always-inappropriate appropriation; the turning of manifesto into marketing slogan. You can buy a ‘this machine kills fascists’ bumper sticker (or, you could go with the old favourite: “my other bike is your mom”, also for sale). But stranger than that is the thought of the guitar as a machine; a tool to be wielded – a powerful tool at that, and one that finds its efficacy in the realm of the political. In a way, the sentiment – the political championing of the guitar – seems so anachronistic in this midst of this bleak musical epoch that it doesn’t even feel like history, more like mythology; a relic from an alternative world where to act musically was, by its very nature, to act politically.

One of the most insidious things about this nu-folk – or ‘West London folk movement’, or whatever horrible name you want to call it – is not just the overt celebration of privilege, though that does stick in the throat; as this casual reminiscence of august school days from Mumford and Sons demonstrates:

“All four of us came from slightly different angles, musically,” Mumford said. “Ben and I played in a jazz band together. At the end of school, I got really into country music. Ted was playing a lot of blues. He’s a blues guitarist, really, by trade, but had also picked up a double bass. And Winston had been teaching himself the banjo and got really into some bluegrass music.”

An environment where one can just ‘pick up’ a double bass, or teach yourself banjo, or ‘get really into bluegrass’; there’s just a lack of self-awareness in the tone here; an inability to perceive how this might sound to someone for whom these things are not a given. Anyway – this is a different point. The most insidious thing about this ‘folk’ movement is the deliberate eschewing of the political. Not necessarily (capital P) Politics, but the politics of the everyday, the social commentary, the narrative of what is happening. Even when purportedly clinging to the imagined utopia of “the 60s”, it is only ever as a superficial aesthetical goldmine from which to glean ‘great harmonies’ and ‘coolness’ (see this video of ‘The Staves’ explaining their musical/familial heritage).

So in this arena – where tweed waistcoats, wellington boots, floral dresses and braces are worn (admittedly not all at once) with a sort of loving, cozy fondness; not so much ironically as hereditarily, like they have been passed down by parents with the record collection – the guitar seems like one more aesthetic borrowing; mined for its aesthetic, it’s surface skimmed – but not the surface upon which Woody wrote his maxim.

It’s this that brings about the charge that the guitar is irrelevant; that it has ‘died’ (and I guess it’s a cyclical one; I seem to vaguely remember a similar charge being leveled before Grunge and Brit Pop). The machine is rusty and no longer fit for purpose.

Well, I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s because I have too much personally invested in the guitar. Maybe too much of my personality is invested in it? But, as a machine, as a contemporary instrument and as a communication device, the guitar still has some life left in it, I think. Here are some reasons why.

1. Meaning in Memory

So, starting with what the guitar has done, rather than what it may yet do may seem to be playing into the hands of this nu-folk revival of the past. Actually a number of the perennial sources paid homage to by these musicians are sources that I too love. The Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash, Bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, those luscious three-part country harmonies. They all mean something to me too. And the guitar. That means a lot to me.

I started playing guitar when I was about 13. Actually I first started playing bass. That Christmas was a real sea change in my life; I found something that I loved, but something through which I could begin to work out who I was. I know it may sound hokey, but I really do think that a lot of who I am is inextricably bound up in the guitar. That’s not necessarily anything to do with the innate power of the machine itself, but simply because many of my most pertinent memories from high school centre around playing guitar. Being in a band, rehearsing with the volume too loud, playing Smashing Pumpkins songs badly, the first time I sang in front of someone (I had to, because playing the bass was seen as self-evidently easier than playing the guitar, so I had concentration to spare. Just for the record, the first song I sang was ‘All Around the World’ by Oasis, sat cross legged on the floor, a copy of ‘it’s easy to play oasis’ open in front of me), and was told that I was ‘alright’. The first time I ever played a self-written song to someone. Playing gigs at dubious pubs and social clubs in Consett and the surrounding environ, our first gig in Newcastle – the big city(!). These memories make me who I am, and they are all based around the guitar, the power of the guitar to bring people together – to form bands. I know that the notion of ‘being in a band’ has come in for a lot of stick recently – and rightly so. Nothing seems more superficial and egotistical than wanting to ‘be in a band’ when it coincides with the avaricious pursuit of ‘making it’, but in that naive fervour of teenage, having that secret club, writing songs, sharing in the enjoyment of making noise – the minute rebellion. It was, without hyperbole, life-changing. The guitar changed who I am.

But this isn’t just about dewy-eyed nostalgia. Memory and the past are keen mediators of the present. As Paul Connerton writes “present factors tend to influence… our recollections of the past, but also… past factors tend to influence, or distort, our experience of the present”[1]. So though the nu-folk ‘movement’ (movement sounds too radical, maybe ‘conglomeration’ is more apt) seem to superficially mine an imagined (and non-personal) past – the myth of the 60s as ‘cool’ (and, tellingly, not ‘radical’ or ‘volatile’), a 60s located in Carnaby Street or a romanticised folk club, rather than the Paris riots – throwing remembrance out with the bath water is no remedy. The past still has significance for the present, and to me, the guitar is a significant part of my past, and thus still a powerful symbol for the future. I hope I am not alone in thinking this.

2. Outside Indie/ Folk Discourse

But all this talk of the nu-folk and indie circles and their misuse of the guitar is too narrow a vista. Certainly these scenes damage the guitar’s reputation as a relevant and radical tool of social commentary and means for social and cultural communication, but they are not the only musics/ musicians that utilise the machine. There are other contexts in which it still thrives and lives.

I have written here about Porno Para Ricardo – a Cuban punk band – and their use (and their destruction) of guitars. Theirs is a situation in which the electric guitar still maintains a frisson of action and relevance. This is not to suggest that it is so innately; that the ‘non-Western’ context – and the context of political oppression – automatically makes the act of picking up a guitar a political and potent act. It does not. Indeed, as I note elsewhere, their destruction of both Cuban and Soviet guitars as part of their (now forbidden) live shows was aimed partly to precisely address that point; that the friki[2] movement within Cuba must use the symbols of rebellion to act, and actually say something rebellious. Hence lead singer Gorki Águila’s assertion that:

at the time I started the group, I saw that a lot of bands would play the song on stage and then the next song, and there was no contact, and on top of that they would sing in English – allegedly – and also guttural [impersonation of heavy metal voice] and so I saw that there was no communication with that music. So I said ‘if I want to listen to the music I like, I will have to create my own band’

here there is a lot of ‘mimetismo’ [copying] a lot of copying of the fashion, of MTV or of what they see, and then, therefore because your mind doesn’t see beyond that horizon, you expect institutions to give you everything, because it is a totalitarian regime. The government controls everything, and it likes to think that you have to do everything with it and that everything is politics. That is; many intellectuals here also defend that, even friends of mine – that everything is politics – you cannot escape politics and I think so, even it’s utopian – I want to believe so. That it is my raft of salvation within this sea of chaos – of so much ideology and so many lies and so much demagoguery.

Porno Para Ricardo represent one local example outside the paradigm of the British/ American culture industry where the guitar, when backed up by an overt political message, represents a tool that can both augment and popularise a political message. There must surely be more examples globally. And maybe even a few within the UK.

3. Who is Operating the Machine?

This is something we need to remember in castigating the guitar as moribund. It is just an instrument. It cannot do any of the work itself. It is, at its best, a magnifying glass for the message of the song – of the singer. Perhaps we shouldn’t disregard the guitar, but question the guitarist.

It is no secret that popular music (in its broadest definition) has not only removed itself from the political realm, but seems too to have refused its responsibility to make any kind of social commentary, preferring instead a return to the introspection of the individual monologue. This is particularly worrisome in the wake of a Tory government, the summer riots, questions of (‘big’) society and vast cuts to community organisations. But this would be the case whether the instrument used was the guitar, the synthesiser, the computer, or indeed, the banjo or double bass.

Primarily, I think it is lyrics that need the most addressing, because I think the guitar will always have a certain approachability – an understandability, if you like – to it that can only benefit any political/ social message. The guitar is a vehicle. But who is behind the wheel?

4. Another Tool for the Same Job?

So if the guitar has lost its prowess as a political machine, if it is incapable of doing the job, where might we find a new machine for the contemporary job of popular social commentary? Maybe this is part of the problem. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the guitar – its approachability, its un-daunting appeal – that makes it such an enticing machine. With that come some of the dangerous trappings of posturing and pretension, but at its best it is a populist machine, a popular machine, and its connection to the ‘everyday’ – its position within the (short) history of popular music, from the catalogue-purchase guitars of the skiffle/ early rock n roll movements, to the battered bodies and broken strings of punk, needs to be remembered as more than just aesthetics to be mined and worked into a post-modern bricolage. However trite it may sound, these things meant something; the guitar meant something. Its use was deliberate. The guitar was deliberately ubiquitous, and gained much of its cultural significance precisely from that ubiquity.

So where can we go to find a new equivalent instrument? Where might one find a new machine of the masses? A lot of faith is placed in new technologies, their abilities to make any and all sounds, to play the ethereal, to emulate the real. The laptop has become an Aleph, in Jorge Luis Borges use of the word; a glimmering sphere within which the entire space of sound can be encapsulated and grasped. New musics – unimaginable and impossible even 15 years ago – are now makeable by ‘anyone’, and the tools to do so are encroaching upon the ubiquity of the guitar. Maybe the laptop is set to become the new musical instrument of the masses.

Or is it? Around the time that I got my first electric guitar (a second-hand Squire from the less-than-salubrious ‘Smokey Joe’s’ on Pilgrim Street, and a £10 practice amp from the now sadly defunct Spenders guitars), I remember hearing somewhere that for the first time ever ‘decks’ had outsold guitars as the instrument of choice. I remember wondering if I should ‘get some decks’ (I wasn’t really sure what decks were, or what I would do with them). I never did. Now the thought of decks as a replacement for the guitar seems daft. Will the laptop be any different?

I think part of the problem is that from certain positions within the UK (and even then it is only certain positions), it might be tempting to see the laptop as a ubiquitous technology. Perhaps it should be. Perhaps one day it will be. But not for a long time yet. I think the championing of such technologies (even technologies such as the internet) fails to recognise that they are much less commonplace (nationally, let alone globally) than we would like them to be. It is not only price that is prohibitively expensive in making these technologies a potential replacement for the guitar. It’s the extraneous paraphernalia – software, patches, midi controllers, speakers, etc, that hamper its immediacy. Is it conceivable that four teenagers could get together and form something like a ‘laptop band’? Of course it is, but would that band be more likely to come from precisely the sorts of privileged environs that the nu-folk musicians seem to come from?

There is another problem that I see as pervasive in the hampering of such technologies as a communal and commentating machine, and that is precisely their proclivity for fostering individualism and isolation. The ability to produce any and all sounds over an (almost) infinite number of layers makes the external input of others somewhat moot. Why have four laptops in a ‘band’ when one is quite capable of producing all the sounds you could ever need? The advent of the near-professional capabilities of the ‘home studio’ has massive benefits for many musicians who wish to operate ‘outside the system’; one can write, record, and release musical material to a global network using the same machine, and that has the potential to reinvent at least the position at which the cultural gatekeepers of the music industry stand (if not abolish them entirely); it has certainly already started to make the record executive look like a hopeless anachronism, and the ‘record deal’ an unnecessary dream.

However, technology is not the deus ex machina in the tangled plot of contemporary music making. At its worst, the home studio encourages further atomisation of musicians. Collaboration on tracks may still take place, but often it takes place over a geographical distance; tracks sent back and forth electronically rendering real-time communication unnecessary. Not so much an ethos of ‘Do it Yourself’, then, as a mentality of ‘Do it All Yourself’. Thus more and more information is fed into the abyss of the internet, and the more physically tactile aspects of music-making are foregone. Thus the realm of the guitar – and the potential communality, and, dare I say it, potentially grassroots-political act of band formation is reserved to those ‘aspirational’ enough to deem themselves able to ‘make it’.

The guitar has two almost paradoxical benefits over such technological advancements. Firstly, its immediacy. Not in learning how to play it (though for me, bleeding fingers aside, it does seem to be more intuitive a process than operating Protools or Cubase – maybe that’s just me) but in the ability to pick up and play. An acoustic guitar can be taken anywhere, played anywhere (this is not always a good thing, as myriad guitarists-in-the-park, and the particularly egregious busker-who-only-seems-to-play-songs-from-Californication-on-Northumberland-Street, will attest) and thus it has a portability that affords it a chance to accompany a sociable and communitarian movement (emphasis on the move). It can move around, bring its message, with little mediation, anywhere. Of course, such a discourse leans towards romanticism, and that old rock aesthetic of ‘raw’, unmediated authenticity, but there is something to be said for at least the ability to move to the periphery, to speak from any location, and to reflect upon something with a level of immediacy.

But secondly, the guitar alone is often not enough. Alright, there’s the trope of the singer-songwriter (but even Bob Dylan had The Band); the lone guitarist is a prominent figure on the cultural horizon, and not often positively. But in many cases, the guitar loves company; it needs company, allows it, demands it. Whether through some innate design, or through repeated social convention, the guitar just seems ‘right’ for pop music groups. It has a language to it that feels familiar (again, probably through rote cultural repetition) and that can afford a space for communication. I have played guitar with many people I would have had a hard time speaking to (not just because of a language barrier), and it was the guitar itself which helped facilitate the musical communication.

If the Guitar is Dead, Can it be Revived?

Revival. Its often a terrible word when used in the context of popular music. Either it ignored the still-living parts of the thing ostensibly revived, or else it attempts to revive all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons (hence reviving the sound of the sixties because it ‘sounds cool’; hence the nu-folk revival singularly omitting the always-continuing folk movement in local bars and clubs around the country from its narrative).

Can the guitar be revived, and if so, should we bother doing it?

The guitar can’t die. It’s not alive. It’s just a machine, and even the most powerful of machines needs to be switched on and operated. Maybe we need to look more closely at the role of pop music, critically reassess what we mean when we mourn (or celebrate) the demise of one of its most recognisable symbols.

What do we want pop music to do? What do we need? It needs to be a commentary on the everyday. More than a ‘soundtrack to our lives’ – a sort of benign, every-playing ipod on shuffle, ‘randomly’ (with all the hatful inanity that that word has come to stand for) blaring sound to distract us – music is “the grammar and fodder for our troubles, pleasures joy and pain”[3]. It becomes an alternative narrative, a personalisable yet still communal narrative, one that is constantly referencing the past, but doing so in, and crucially for the purpose of making sense of, the present. Pop music is an attempt to say what society is collectively and oftentimes unconsciously thinking, to capture, if only for three-minutes, a zeitgeist.

This is what is missing from music. The machine through which it is played is largely irrelevant. We don’t need to abandon the guitar, we just need a new type of guitarist.

[1] ‘How Societies Remember’ (1989:2)

[2] Friki  – a Hispanic rendering of the English word ‘freaky’ is used, in Cuba, to mean any member of a loose collection of broadly alternative rock genres.

[3] Tara Brabazon, ‘From Revolution to Revelation’ (2005:67)

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“I’ll Brave the Dark in St. James’ Park, in the Gallowgate End in the Rain”: Why This Name Change Does Matter

"The Sports Direct Arena". Honestly.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The phrase could have been written for NUFC. Third in the league, playing football the likes of which I haven’t seen for many a year (dare I invoke that ubiquitous spectre Keegan so early on?). An on-field camaraderie I don’t think I’ve ever seen from a Newcastle team. An owner and board who have shown a contempt for the fanbase and an almost morbid fixation with neoliberal profiteering, which if it weren’t so depressing would be awe-inspiring.

I never really got behind the ‘fat cockney bastard’ vitriol, which has undergone its own apologetic transformation– again, as depressingly as inevitably – morphing into the more pragmatic chant “we don’t care about Ashley, ‘cause he don’t care about me, all we care about is NUFC” and now into benign silence. How long before “there’s only one Mike Ashley” chants start being heard in pockets of the ground? If we’re still third by Christmas? After 30 games? If we get into Europe?

I was wary of the man from the beginning, knowing how many false dawns this club has had even in my short lifespan. It all seemed too good to be true. Shepherd had sold up, if not to a “Geordie Abramovich”, then at least to an English one. But the cavalcade of duplicitous, back-handed compliments to fans, the wilful misinformation, the disregard of key staff, the disbanding of the Toon Ultras corner, and the staggering u-turns in policy have put Ashley and his team in an irredeemable position. I rather contentiously suggested a couple of weeks ago, before this latest stadium (sorry…. arena) naming debacle hit, that I would prefer NUFC to get relegated without Ashley than us to win the FA Cup with him. It may sound masochistic, but I stand by it. Of course I want NUFC to win…. well, anything would do. But there are certain things that cannot be sacrificed for either profit (which the Ashley regime seems exclusively concerned with) or for short-term success (Birmingham City won the League Cup under their spurious owners… would NUFC fans accept the price they have paid for a gaudy bit of tinsel?)

I don’t go in for the dewy-eyed sentimentalism around the club either (well, alright, I do – Keegan is still king, and I’d welcome him back in a heartbeat). I saw on the BBC website[1] a ‘fan’ outside the ground suggesting “they should rename it the Sir Bobby Robson Stadium”. I don’t think so. I recognise that money and a prudent business approach are necessary evils in modern football. I recognise that spunking money on ‘marquee signings’ is daft and unsustainable. But what must always be taken into account is the entirely unsentimental fact that football clubs are not simply businesses.

I don’t want to assert that the club is a symbol of regional identity, or that people’s personal histories and memories are entwined in the place more than could ever happen with any other type of business – it’s true, but not the point. The point is that, unlike any other business in the neoliberal market, the ‘customers’ (i.e. fans) are bound into supporting the same brand (i.e. club) irrespective of policy. If I disagree with the way Tesco sell their oranges, I can go to Asda. If I disagree with how Mike Ashley is running NUFC, I can’t go and support another club. I can’t. Therefore, I don’t think it is truculent or petulant to insist that the club is run with at least a modicum of respect for the fans interests, and with at least some recourse for fans to assert their feelings upon how their club is managed.

Now what is the ‘voice of the fans’? Could a workable consensus of NUFC fans ever realistically be found, let alone consulted, let alone relied upon to make sensible decisions about the running of the club? Obviously there is no absolute consensus among the 40,000 plus people who regularly attend matches at St. James’ Park. Indeed part of the fun of match day is disagreeing over all aspects of how the club is run. But because it would be difficult to implement, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to implement. And just because we are doing well now, doesn’t mean we have to put up with all the concessions and impingements upon the history and identity of the club. Just because protesting over these decisions may rock the boat, and may ultimately be fruitless, it does not mean that they are not worth doing.

The most saddening thing about the proposed stadium name change (which, Llambias ensured would always, under his reign, contain within it the words St. James’ Park – even that scant concession to the fans has now disappeared) is the ever-growing numbers of toon fans claiming that it doesn’t matter, as long as we keep doing well in the league. But where is the end of this egregious line of thinking line? If the meagre (and it is meagre, in light of the astronomical amounts of money swilling around football now) £8 -10 million extra is worth the re-naming of an already contentiously renamed stadium, then what might Ashley sacrifice from the identity of this club for £20million? Could we be encouraged to play in blue and red stripes? Conceivably, yes, if everything has a price. If financial viability is the chief concern of Ashley, then having the club based in the economic hinterland of the North-East doesn’t make very much economic sense (particularly under this Conservative regime). What if Ashley decides to take up Tory councillor David Shakespeare’s recent suggestion, and get on his bike and relocate the club in the South East? Don’t think there is no precedent for such a move – it happens all the time in American franchise sports (which the Premier League seems to be aping), and it wasn’t all that long ago that Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. If the money is right, and it makes financial sense for the club, would Ashley do it? What about changing the name of the club. What if a sponsor insisted that as well as stadium (sorry… arena) naming rights, they wanted club naming rights? What then? Newcastle Red Bulls? Virgin Media United? Again, there are precedents.

The above may be unfounded ravings, but the pursuit of financial security at the cost of anything else – which Ashley seems to have made his modus operandi – would inevitably lead to all sorts of unthinkable concessions.

The other position some fans seem to have taken is that ‘it doesn’t matter what they call the stadium, it’ll always be called St. James’ Park’. But this is only superficially defiant, and only superficially true. Llambias’ frighteningly Orweillian discourse the last time they changed the stadium name suggests that history is up for grabs:

Success, really, will heal the wounds, and time, a combination of both. We are patient people and I think the fans will come around eventually.

I have no idea what length of time that will be – I may be a very old man before it’s done – but I think the fans will see in the future that we do care[2].

Combine that with his most recent statement that “we need to become part of the history[3]” and there is no reason in the world that the stadium ‘will always’ be known as St. James’ Park. There have been numerous examples of short term rebranding that have usurped the original name. So if success and time can heal all wounds, how long before we forget there was ever a wound there in the first place?

Another execrable line of argument that seems to be creeping into view is the “everybody else is doing it” approach. Stoke. Bolton. Manchester City. Even Chelsea, who have been in the same stadium as long as the toon, are doing it. But come on. Without wishing to be disrespectful, the renaming of stadia is the preserve of the out-of-town-off-the-motorway-meccano-kit-stadiums (and clubs), or reserved for the sort of club (Chelsea and Man City) who we should be studiously avoiding trying to be like. Or Arsenal, whose purpose build new stadium had no such history connected to it. St. James’ Park takes pride of place in the Newcastle skyline; as important and iconic as the Tyne Bridge, the Cathedral or the Keep. It is more than a stadium, it is a monument, and that should be respected.

“So what do you want? It’s Ashley’s club, he can do what he wants. Do you want the fans to run the club, or have some kind of fan-based democracy? Should we beatify Sir Bobby, and put Keegan back on the throne? Should we permanently re-live the 95-96 season, though this time conflate it with the season after, when we beat Man United 5-0?”

Of course football is a business, of course we have to live in pragmatic times, but like the riots (at their best) in London and Manchester show, like the occupation of St. Paul’s Cathedral (at its best) shows (p.s. – do you know it cost about 14 quid to go into St. Paul’s?!), the rampant and unabashed pursuit of financial stability is not a justification for riding roughshod over history, identity and community. Sentimental, intangible – even anachronistic – as they may appear to be in football today, these things do still mean something; they mean a hell of a lot more than profit and trophies.

I don’t want to run the club, but I think it’s not too unrealistic to demand that a stream of forthright and honest information about the club and its ambitions and motivation should be given to the fans by the club, and that we should not have to put up with the back-handed, duplicitous and often totally fabricated, nonsensical doublespeak that the Ashley regime has made its stock in trade just to ensure that the players play well. Finally, I think that certain aspects of the club should remain off limits to profiteering. By all means sell players; they truly are the businesses stock. I have no real problem with the sale of Carroll, Barton et al (though the communication from the club surrounding each of the big name transfers was, as ever, misleading and contemptuous towards fans). But when the name of the stadium (sorry… arena) is flogged off, we start down a very dangerous road, the end of which is a worrying prospect for a club like NUFC.

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Searching for the Grain in an Autotuned Voice

I am a great believer in Roland Barthes’ well-rehearsed theory of the ‘grain of the voice’ providing
the appreciation of in musical performance. Briefly recounted, Barthes looks to
(listens to?) the ‘imperfections’ in the individual voice – “the tongue, the
glottis, the teeth, the mucous membrane, the nose”  – to find that intangible thrill that
occasionally grasps us when listening to music.

It’s a characteristic that very much feeds into the rock discourse around
authenticity. For example, one can scarcely mistake Bruce Springsteen when he
begins to sing, so distinctive is his particular ‘grain’. But it also speaks of
a certain type of ‘unpolished’ performance; something ‘natural’ (the ‘wood’
analogy is not at all accidental), something not requiring ‘polish’ or
supplementation; it grows and reaches our ears unmediated and ‘raw’.

Of course such rock discourses are fraught with mythology. Nothing recorded ever reaches our
ears without mediation, without the hand of technology. The grain of the voice
is always polished to a certain extent through the process of recording.

But recently I have become a little obsessed with a band (and a constituent member who has
embarked upon a solo career) for whom I can find no traditional or obvious ‘grain’
at all, yet I still feel that same spark of musical joy when listening to the
songs. The band are a Kpop girl group called “4Minute” and the singer Hyuna.

[This song is called ‘Why’]

[This one is called ‘I Me My Mine’……….. see; you missed one out, George]

[And This is the unbelievably good ‘Bubble Pop’ by Hyuna]

What is so striking about 4Minute is precisely how unremarkable their ‘voice’ is. As with
so much pop music, the voice is not only produced and ‘polished’ to a
hyper-real gloss, it is also deliberately masked by the vogue for unashamed
autotune. Autotune has many detractors, and it is perhaps the latest in a long
line of technological devices that irk rock purists for widening the gap
between singer and listener. This is an old lament. But what is more
interesting about autotune is the way it so entirely dehumanises the voice;
making it variously hyper-tuned, capable of impossible melisma or strangely
robotic and metallic. But also it renders the singer ‘beneath’ the effect

Sufficed to say, 4Minute are a band who have bought into the autotune aesthetic wholesale. The
result is that their voices sound… well ‘un-grained’ for want of a better
term. Alongside the meticulous production, it creates a soundworld, let alone a voice, that is barely

human at all, much less indicative of glottis and teeth. I challenge
anyone to hear mucous membrane in any of these examples! But this is a
deliberate aesthetic; it is almost a ‘grainless grain’; an aesthetic that
revels in its roboticism and minute perfection.

Yet I still get a thrill from the music somehow, despite its lack of grain. What is causing
this? I don’t think it is too strong a statement to say that I love the song ‘Bubble
Pop’! I do.

Perhaps there is something in the appreciation of something entirely perfect; in delighting in
the quasi-robotic precision of art; pop taken to its logical zenith. I refute
the claim that such music always dehumanizes.
I mean, I think I am always conscious of the fact that ‘Bubble Pop’ has
humanity in it; it’s just the type of human that is a master of technology; I
appreciate the skill of technological production. I think a song like this
perhaps reveals that arguments (still prevalent in rock discourse – as the case
of autotune demonstrates) about technology and humanity being two separate,
disparate and contradictory spheres is anachronistic.

There’s something else about the voice that is interesting here. I don’t understand the
lyrics. For a native English speaker living in England, it is a rare indeed to
be confronted by pop music that sounds so
familiar, yet is lyrically incomprehensible. But I love the experience of it.
To have so many musical markers intelligible, yet almost no lyrical markers (apart
from the hook line ‘bubble bubble bubble pop’, which in itself means very
little and the occasional ‘hey boy’… actually and the bizarre comic book captions
in the middle of the video!) produces a disquieting effect, which is not unpleasant,
but actually quite enjoyable. For the same reason I love Brazilian pagode music (particularly ‘Grupo Revelacao’). I am of course
talking from my own perspective. Of course for a South Korean there would be an
entirely different relationship to this song, not only lyrically, but semiotically,
musically, culturally etc. Maybe that is where the grain is for me? In the
confusion of the familiar pop language. Maybe the Korean language is the grain –
that which differentiates and intrigues –  in my appreciation of these tunes?

There is something of an ethnomusicological concern about cultural globalisation here – ‘McDonaldization’
as I have seen it called – which is clearly of even more pertinence in South Korea.
But this music, however much it is influenced by the musical language of U.S.
pop music (clearly a lot) it has difference – in essence a grain – that sets it
apart, makes it distinguishable and, potentially, lends it the quality of being
thrilling. A discussion about the ‘enforcement’ of American culture on the rest
of the world will wait for another day. Sufficed to say it is an
oversimplification, one that denies the appropriation of pop music templates
for varying purposes and to varying ends throughout the world.

For now, I am happy to have found something of an autotuned grain in a South Korean voice!

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