rage Issue 5 - Those Features in full
We take a look at three diverse things for this months features section. First we look at a new band set to take the World by storm. Babybird are going to be releasing over 400 tracks in the next 6 months, and it's up to you to choose the best ones. Jimmy Blackburn meets up with the man himself Stephen Jones, and keyboard player Hew Chadbourn. Scooby Doo is another episode in our deconstruction series. If you don't know what that is then read on. The last feature is on Shamanism what is it ? who does it ? where can you learn about it ? and is it a sham or shamanism ? there's also a rather good section about Peyote(and no it's not a cartoon dog !- Ed).
Not only has the rage team met the new group who hope to subvert typical music industry protocols by releasing five new albums in the next three months, but they have a name remarkably similar to a series of childrens classic books. No, its not the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, but Babybird...Jimmy Blackburn gets the bird...
One of the summers most intriguing records has been Baby Bird's debut album 'I Was Born A Man', a collection of imaginative and literate songs recorded at home by a man with a ridiculous pseudonym. And promising though it is, on stage Baby Bird present the rare sight of someone who can actually sing a bit giving his all while a bunch of fellows get to grips with the songs. An interview seemed in order, so we met up with Mr Bird himself, Stephen Jones, and keyboard player Hew Chadbourn before a recent show......
"The next step for Baby Bird is to release five albums before the end of the year " Is this some kind of scam? (Which actually worked for me, being the thing that originally kindled my interest in an unknown act) Jones is quite adamant. 'It's not a scam. I've recorded 400 songs and this is the easiest way to get them out. Do you know about the polling cards?' Ah, the polling card, a fine idea this. 'We want people to vote for their three favourite tracks from each album, and we'll rerecord them as the first band LP." This is also good thinking, making a virtue out of the fact that these five albums are basically demos, and testing the water, though even that hasn't gone smoothly. "It has happened quicker than we thought. We didn't expect anyone to notice until the second or third." It was inevitable that people would get interested though. The records may be rambling in a style not a million miles from Beck, say, but live Jones is more in the vein of Jarvis Cocker, a world weary show off who can capture an audience, and that means big money these days.
Where did you learn to sing like that? Have you been in bands before? "About twelve years ago. But I didn't like the process. There were too many compromises."
So were you singing along at home with the Great Musicals? Jones laughs.'Russ Abbot's 'I love a party with an atmosphere'. That's the only one I would have sung along with.'
I'm sure he must have some kind of theatrical past, because he really is a belter, but he sure ain't telling today. Being grown men, Baby Bird like to show a cynical sense of humour to the world. 'CFC' is a highly amusing list of annoyances, like the Beautiful South but good, and Stephen was amusingly rude about the Boo Radleys on stage the other night. Does he really get worked up about things as innocuous as the Boos? 'That's just because of 'Wake Up', which is such a cynical attempt to make a summer pop hit.' True, but it worked.
Pity really, as he was as bitchy and funny as Lily Savage on the subject between songs. Are you going to go for the over the top sweeping strings treatment when you get the chance to record sometime? 'Some songs like 'Mans Tight Vest' (supremely melodramatic tale of tragic transvestism) could be epic show tunes. But we'll have to see.' Fair enough, the band have only played a dozen gigs together, and as Jones has already noted 'We've got a band that will hold back.'
It'll be interesting to see what happens. By the time you read this there'll probably be another album or two released ('Only a thousand of each. We don't want to flood the market.'), and the band will have shown further improvement. Baby Bird could most definitely cope with fame, but I don't think they'd kill for it. They play great civilised English pop, and surprisingly Jones claims not to have heard Scott Walker. He will, before he tires of the comparison, and his band will continue to blow better known acts off stage. Don't miss them in your town.
Baby Bird's second album, 'Bad Shave', is released at the end of September.
Scooby DooWell since I'm old, and I'm the publisher I can commission anything I want, and I like the cartoons I grew up with. So here's Colin Hamilton to deconstruct another one for us, under the aegis that it's art. Well it is art, as far as I'm concerned, and yes I am deeply pretentious but so what. Just remember IF IT WASN'T FOR YOU DARN KIDS I WOULD HAVE GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT !
The most popular cartoon series on TV at the moment is The Simpsons. Over a million people watch every episode in this country,. When you consider that it's only available on cable or satellite in England it represents over a quarter of available viewers. The Simpsons also sell countless videos, shirts, tooth brushes, hats, records, toys et. If there's space to write Simpsons on it, then it's for sale somewhere. The Simpsons are now advertised on a customised 747 airplane.
Despite not being available to the vast majority of the population, Bart Simpson's image is recognised by over 65% of people in Britain. This increases even more dramatically if only people under 24 are considered. At this age, more people recognise Bart Simpson than recognise the prime minister.
The Simpsons rule the animated kingdom. How did the Simpsons reach this dominating position? They reinvented animation. First the Simpsons family was created as a static cartoon and then it was animated, as if it was film. Watch it carefully, the shots zoom in on faces, it pans around rooms, it shows perspectives. Often the camera position (if they had used a camera) looks as if they'd filmed it from in the fridge, or behind a goldfish bowl or directly down from the ceiling. This is expensive, but the result is a huge visual treat. Even if the programme was in a foreign language, it would entertain without resorting to exploding eyeballs of Ren and Stimpy ( bar the tongue in cheek Itchy and Scratchy segments). The programme has a variety of plots, focused on individual members of the Simpson's family, their next door neighbour Ned Flanders, Moe, the barman, Mr Burns, the owner of the nuclear power station or one of a whole host of characters that have been introduced to us. And character is the word, we know these people. Ned and his religion, Moe's greed, the cut throat world of Mr Burns. This has not always been the case though.
Twenty years ago, when having a colour TV was a novelty, it was all different. Scooby Doo was the world leader as far as popularity went. All the action revolved around the same characters in every episode. There were no visual tricks, no plot twists other than the extremely predictable and nobody blinked unless they were talking. The most dramatic action involved running down long corridors. Where ever they went there would be a long corridor, with goldmines and possibly some of the mansions this was reasonable enough, but some of the smaller buildings such as corner shops or fortune tellers rooms it was stretching the reality a little too far. There was one episode set in a lighthouse which still featured a long straight chase scene.
In an average episode of the Simpsons, sixty different people speak, in the average episode of Scooby Doo it's nearer seven: the four main characters, the person who gets caught, the person who thanks them and Scooby. With Scooby Doo you knew what you were going to get. Four people, two male, two female, and a dog drove around in a van which had Mystery Machine painted on the side of it with bright fluorescent lettering. Due to the rather poor animation used it was rather difficult to determine their ages. The fact that they had access to a van for every episode without any parental pressures implied that they must be over the ages of seventeen. Their conversation, however, demonstrated a maturity that would make most parents worry about allowing them to collect the newspaper unaccompanied, let alone launch on a road trip with a group of equally immature friends. Freddie, the rather pretty blond male would generally drive, which implied that he was the eldest and that he or his parents owned the van. Due to his rather dreary nature he probably had no friends of his own age. The van could be used to bribe younger people, who weren't old enough to drive, to be friends with him. Even with wheels though, his personality was such that it was only the dullest of the young people who were prepared to spend any time with him.
The plot of Scooby Doo was invariably the same. The group would arrive somewhere in the van. Generally, it would be near a deserted castle, goldmine or oil well. A local tradesman would helpfully warn them to avoid the nearby building at all costs. The reason given was that it was haunted. Undeterred they would visit and then split into two groups. Freddie and Daphne, the slim attractive female, would set off in one direction and inevitably discover nothing. One theory was that they'd secretly return to the van and “no friends” Freddie would be compensated for the petrol. Meanwhile, Shaggy, the scruffy one with the goatee and Thelma, the dumpy brunette would set off in the other direction. Scooby Doo would generally not be needed by Freddie and Daphne and so he would set off with Shaggy and Thelma too.
These three would discover the ghost, and inevitably this would lead to one of those corridor chases while they tried to avoid it. Avoiding the ghost would last for a large part of the episode allowing the creators to recycle animation and thus save a fortune in production costs. Eventually (i.e. after about ten minutes of running) they would come up with the theory that it couldn't really be a ghost because it eats food or leaves footprints. All five would then search the area and fortuitously discover a secret passage which would lead directly, from the haunted area to the shop that the local tradesman worked in. Rather than confront him, a highly ambitious trap would be set. This involved persuading Scooby Doo to lure the ghost out of hiding by offering him a Scooby snack which he inevitably refused. He knew he could hold out for two. There would then be another corridor chase which would climax with the ghost being caught despite their highly speculative nature of their plan.
The owner of the building would appear as Freddie announces that “this is no ghost” and removes the disguise. It would turn out to be the person who warned them that ghosts were residing in the vicinity. Despite the fact he was the only other person to have spoken during the episode, everyone would look shocked and announce his name in unison. There was one time when I was slightly stunned myself. A disguise, which amounted to little more than a clean-shaven man painting his face blue, was removed to reveal a bearded person with spectacles. Freddie would quickly explain that the images of ghosts were just produced by cameras and mirrors, and the table that chased them for ten minutes was powered by the small fan beneath it.
With plots so obvious, why was Scooby Doo so popular in it's heyday? The reason was probably that the plots were reassuringly obvious. It's the same with soap opera's ,we enjoy them because we can guess what's going to happen. Despite the fact that soap operas telegraph plots weeks before anything happens, we gain great pleasure announcing that so‘n'so will cop off with what's her name and being correct four weeks down the line. The fact that they've gazed lovingly into each other eyes every time they've met during the month preceding their first kiss and they've had endless pregnant pauses when they met does not remove any of the gloss of being correct. You feel that you have a deep understanding of the interpersonal relationships of strangers rather than you've read all the obvious signs provided by the programme makers. With the younger generation it's the same. However, the plot needs to be a little more straightforward before they can get the same feeling. Hence the rather limited choice of suspects and heavy-handed clues pointing to him. The fact that the ghostly effects are quickly talked away is irrelevant. The surprise on the faces of Scooby and his owners only adds to the joy felt.
The popularity of Scooby Doo presaged a well worn format that would be exploited in times to come: the spin off. Scooby's little cousin, Scrappy, got his own cartoon, but this was really too early for a generation who demanded security and predictability from their animated heroes. Scooby Doo was made in a time when children's entire futures depended on the eleven plus and being wrong ended any real hope of a well paid job. As a ten year old it must have been reassuring to say “he'll be the ghost” and know that you'll be correct.
'E's are good, E's are good', sang the Shamen, and that cost them a ban from Top of the Pops. Rage reporter Pete Morris has given up his day job as cover star for drug advisory brochures, and gone on the trail of the mystic mescaline behind the new shamanism..But first a definition 'The shaman is a wounded healer' - Joan Halifax.
There are an ever-growing number of shamanic practitioners in the UK - and they do not like being lumped in with the rave crowd. "The idea is putting people in touch with themselves" says Duncan Wordley of the Dancing Wolf group. "The problem is that the counter culture has grabbedshamanism. People like Terence McKenna (new age guru) have made too much of the use of drugs - they've skewed what it's really about."
For practitioners like Wordley, who runs one of Britain's dozen or so shamanic teaching centres, the 'quick fixes' of raves and E's run counter to more traditional shamanic teachings. The use of the hallucinogen Peyote, which is called the 'Teacher Plant' in shamanic parlance, to produce trance-like states and visions, is one of the best known features of shamanic activity (see adjoining feature), but another practitioner, Heather Kelly - who runs the Moon Owl Medicine school, says that it should be respected and not taken lightly: "To take the teacher plant in a ceremony is very scary, it produces a deathlike experience." Kelly says that most people do not have a 'balanced enough' environment to take Peyote. 'It is a teacher, but it can only teach in a controlled environment.'
The writer Michael James Winkelman describes shamanism as "an ecstatic state of communion with the spirit world on behalf of the community". Although natural drugs are one way to reach the 'communion', other ways to alter consciousness include 'auditory driving' (dancing and drumming) and excessive sleep or sleep deprivation.
One of the criticisms of the rise of contemporary shamanism has been that, taken out of context, the religious practices and beliefs become meaningless. Winkelman argues that the universal nature of the shaman in ancient societies - the word comes from an Asian people that left to populate the America's 50.000 years ago - "derives from an ecological adaptation of hunting and gathering societies to biological based altered states of consciousness." Winkelman's point is that the shaman grew naturally out of the specific nature of these societies. The universal aspects of conventional shamanism are, he says, the selection or self selection of group members to become the shaman; some form of training; the creation of altered states of consciousness and some way of recounting the experiences of the 'inner journey' back to other members of the group.
From this legacy has come contemporary - or urban - shamanism. The definition has changed, and it is now more about creating and using art. 'The shaman is an individual who transforms individual neuroses into art' according to Gabrielle Roth, who has been one of the driving forces in merging traditional shamanism with self-expressive dance. This new definition of shamanism would cover musicians and contemporary performance artists, who claim links with a shamanic heritage.
Winkelman argues that shamanism can only be studied in remote sites, away from the modern world and "the influence of foreigners." There have also been disputes within the American Indian Movement (AIM) as to whether non-American Indians can be involved with 'Indian spirituality'. The Medicine Tribe - a major American Indian shaman group which has taught many of the practitioners now teaching in the UK, says that 'people cannot steal one's sprit' and that they have no objection to shamanism being taught in non-American Indian societies.
Urban shamanism does at least end criticism that shamanic activity is no longer relevant in a modern society. Practitioner Raven Lamoreux-Dodd says that the urban environment is the one where shamanic techniques are most needed: "Its easy to be at peace in the country. In the city you have many opportunities to actually put techniques into practice and transcend stress" she says "There is so much energy in cities that can be transformed into healing and artistic endeavours."
Despite this, many of the courses on offer tend to be based in the country - and hence expensive to the poor people in cities, in many ways the people that are most interested in the idea of transcending everyday experience and environment. Typical courses are £940 for the residential course run by Eagle's Wing Centre for Contemporary Shamanism, although most groups do run much cheaper short-courses and talks where you can see if it's of interest.
Shamanism, as it is practised on the courses, is a 'pick and mix' affair. There are a number of paths of shamanism, that mirror the way that it has developed over time in very different societies. Heather Kelly, who teaches a strand of shamanism based on non-traditional native American practice, points out that the practice of shamanism is highly delineated: 'Its like a martial art. There are fourteen 'gateways' that need to be completed on the pact each consisting of fifty three ceremonies."
The ceremonies take place in the country side, and some involve taking peyote. "The human world is the only world that is not enlightened - it has a dark side that does not exist in animals or plants." Traditional shaman believed that human sprits could leave the body and live in animals and birds as a way of keeping them safe, hence the nature of the names of many of the groups. The animals also function as a metaphor, says Leo Rutherford who runs the Eagle's Wing centre:
"The introduction is to take a guided visualisation'' he says. In this the neophyte lays down and, to the beat of a drum, follows a tunnel down to the earth, to meet their own 'power animal' . "This is a metaphor" says Rutherford "Its about getting rid of the baggage around you and connecting to the instinctive side." The side which, he says, is too often repressed and locked away by the strain of everyday life.
This, says Rutherford, is the essence of contemporary shamanism. In a society that stresses the individual and the transitory, rather than the solidarity of a group, urban shamanism is a frail, thin link to our more natural past.
The battle over the right to use Peyote in religious ceremonies is a long and bitter one - and has resulted in a number of protracted court cases. The most recent cases were brought by two American Indian substance abuse counsellors, in Oregon, who were sacked for ingesting peyote at a worship service of the Native American Church. "Peyote is seen as a sacrament, like the wine and the wafer inChristianity" says Steven Pevar, a case worker with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) "So there is an inherent conflict with any law that says that hallucinogens are illegal."
Several US states, including California, have upheld that drug laws should not be used to discriminate against Indians. The recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act says that the government can only prohibit religious practice if there is a compelling reason for it to do so. No state has yet argued that the taking of hallucinogens is a compelling reason.
But equally there is much confusion over Peyote in the UK. When rage phoned the Home Office to ask what the penalties were for using Peyote - up to seven years imprisonment in case you're wondering -we were told that ' The hallucinogen Peyote is a Schedule 1, Class A drug. It has no recognised medical use - somebody caught producing it would face a very high penalty in court.'
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - brought in after the alleged excesses of the 'permissive 60's' - all drugs have a 'Schedule' and a 'Class'. The Class is the sentencing 'tariff' and the Schedule is the guide to whether the drug has any approved medical use, and how tightly it should be controlled. For instance, ecstacy is a class A drug.
Peyote is not 'produced', though, in the same way as synthetic drugs - although its principle active agent, Mescaline, can be distilled from it, and taken separately. Ron Bullis, an American doctor who writes for the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, says that Peyote is far more than an Indian equivalent of the holy communion. "A sacrament is a church ritual that is both a sign and a means of grace - it signifies something else. But the Native American Church goes further. The worshippers actually pray to the peyote buttons - not just through them" says Bullis.
Peyote is seen by the Native American Church as the vehicle for speaking to divinity. During the Native American Church wedding, onlookers bang drums that contain peyote tea, which is then drunk. Other worshippers shake rattles that are actually shaped like peyote buttons. Crushed grains of peyote are also ingested by members of the congregation.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act seems to have created an uneasy truce between the Native American Church and the more reactionary of the US states, at least for now. But there have been a number of unresolved law cases - including whether non-Indians could become members of the Native American Church, and become involved in ceremonies that worshipped peyote.
There has been no clear-cut answer to this, but there does seem to be a least a better appreciation of the use of peyote as a sacrament. As recently as 1964, the Californian attorney general blamed the evils of peyote for "shackling the Indians to their primitive conditions" when he tried to outlaw it.
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