Monday, December 6, 2010

Phonogram: Rue Britannia

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Phonogram: Rue Britannia (Image, 2006).

I think the problem with this book is that David Kohl is full of (a) himself and (b) shit. It's not an insurmountable problem, mind you. Originally published about five years ago, I believe it was the first professional work for an American publisher by its creators, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It's the story of a "phonomancer" named David Kohl who gets... umm... magical powers by tapping into the totemic possibilities of pop music, or something. It's really vague. Anyway, one particular musical goddess, Britannia, who was at the peak of her powers in the mid-nineties is pissed off at David because he... well, I think he misused his magical powers by pretending to like a band that he really didn't in order to get into some bird's knickers, as they say. It's a very London comic. And very vague.

Yet it works, for me, because after my initial, positive reaction to the plot and the art wore away in return for some dissatisfaction with its vagueness, I started reading it as actually being about a lonely, sad man's nostalgia. There's no "magic" here. What we see of it on the page is David just letting wish-fulfillment and imagination run riot. He's just a schlub in his thirties whose existence is as dreary and gray as McKelvie's attractive but stuff designs, and takes the music of his nineteenth and twentieth years far too seriously. Like lots of us.

I think a key giveaway is an incident in the second chapter where David, busy expounding on how a certain club used to be filled with the magic of a contemporary scene, allowing phonomancers like himself to gain power from the spark of the moment, starts sneering at the DJ. This guy's a retromancer; he's getting people to dance from the power of "That's the Way I Like It." He's likened to a vulture, and a date rapist, outing David as a pretenious snob who can't stand the way that kids - today's damn kids - have let his beloved Melody Maker and Select die.

Put another way, just reading this on the surface is bound to disappoint. There isn't anything magical about Britpop; there isn't now and there never was. And I say that as somebody who heard "The Universal" for the first time only about four months ago and has had it stuck in his head, happily, about twice a week since. There was some damn great music out of that scene, but lots of people have scenes - I guess that mine must have been whatever you wanna call the Post Modern MTV / Disintegration / R.E.M. signs to Warners and the Replacements sign to Sire period - and then they grow up and they wish that today's damn kids would listen to music half as good. And then they, like David, do stupid things like look up an old almost-a-girlfriend who used to like the Manic Street Preachers a whole lot and learn that she moved on and he didn't and he justifies it to himself by calling it magic.

How this becomes a compelling read, I've no idea. But I've also got no real impression of Britpop either; I think that half the bands namechecked in this book never had a distribution deal in the US. When I did find Suede and Pulp and Blur, and loved them all, I found them late, after the moment. I should neither like this, nor its past-obsessed ass of a protagonist, at all. But I can sympathize with him just enough to make the story compelling. Change the city to Athens and change Beth to Victoria and drop "Race for the Prize" by the Flaming Lips (Warner Brothers, 1999) in there somewhere and David's not entirely unlike me, and, really, we all feel better knowing that we're not the only asses around. Recommended.

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