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Director's cut — March 2006

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March 1, 2006 by Tara Brabazon

Greetings to members and lurkers.

When all of us are nannas moving around city streets with walking frames and automated wheel chairs, young people will ask us why 'we' went to war with/in Iraq. Luckily I have about fifty years to develop an answer because no clear justification comes to mind at the moment. Armed conflicts trigger tough questions.

I had a student ask me last week about the causes of the First World War. For this fresh faced seventeen year old, I am clearly of the generation that must have been hip deep in the mud of French trenches. But as my first degree was in European History, obtained when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I have had some time to think about this question.

Replacing experience with scholarship, I mentioned the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Horror filled her face and a confused reply spluttered from her mouth: "you mean the band caused a war?" Well, sort of.

But in our outcome-oriented education, this sort of subtlety and complexity is lost in high school essay questions asking students to list the causes and consequences of the WW1. In such an answer, our Archduke features strongly, but the band does not make the cut in most marking keys.

Amidst these bullet points and simplifications, popular music in the last two years has revealed an intelligent, funny and eccentric re-cycling of the First World War. The Archduke is back in popular culture and fashion. His presence confirms the currency of the most difficult mix in music and life: wit with simplicity and humour with creativity.

Creativity is the word of the decade. It is difficult to define and even harder to find, like intelligence. We all maintain assumptions about creative people, generally involving a black turtleneck sweater, bitter Turkish coffee and earnest conversations about the upcoming revolution.

Frequent synonyms for creativity include innovation, newness, difference and challenge. But these semiotic affiliations and relationships are derived from the fount of high culture, not pop. Even unconsciously, we summon the image of a poet sitting on a rock and 'being creative (dah-ling).'

Creativity in music is probably easier to track than in literature and film, by monitoring rhythm, instrumentation, song structure, melody, lyric or voice. Franz Ferdinand's 'Take me out' is amongst the most bizarre and extraordinary of songs in the suite of pop. The track starts, not with a guitar introduction, but the crash of a cymbal. It moves into a fast and propulsive bouncy rock track. Then, at the moment when we think we have worked out this track's genre, the rhythm slows — painfully — and transposes into a completely different song. Instead of a rock track, it becomes pure body glitter disco through the syncopated cymbal and the stomping 4/4 dance beat. Then — at 2 minutes and 15 seconds into the song — the bridge of 'I know I won't be leaving here with you' alters the rhythm again.

In other words, 'Take me out' is three different songs — all of which are remarkable — but are stir fried into four minutes of energetic confusion. The innovations of genre, song structure, rhythm, melody, instrumentation and lyric are startling. If any song is able to freeze dry the brittle shambles that is life, politics and culture in the 2000s, then it is 'Take me out,' where three separate songs fight for ascendancy in one track. If Franz Ferdinand had never recorded another song, then it would not have mattered. They changed music. They were creative. And they came from Scotland. Go figure.

Scotland — indeed Glasgow — is important to this story. Not being from London or Manchester, being excluded from the main game, necessitates independence and confidence. The members of Franz Ferdinand are smart, snappy and self aware. They are not four baggy trousered mop tops exploited by a ruthless, cigar-smoking Las Vegas-type. They are educated and not frightened to show it. Alex Kapranos, the lead singer of the band, spoke at the 2005 Edinburgh Lectures, discussing Scotland's role in the music industry for the 21st century. Other speakers included Dr James McMillan, composer and conductor with the BBC Philharmonic, Nigel Osborne, Reid Professor of Music, and Tia DeNora, Professor of Sociology at Exeter University. This speech followed the band's Mercury Music Prize, the award for originality and creativity in the industry. They decided to use the £20,000 windfall to set up a centre in Glasgow to assist young people in music. Such an awareness of place and space has a resonance in the early history of the band where they 'appropriated' a disused art-deco warehouse in the city centre which they named, with tongue firmly in architectural cheek, The Chateau. A police raid ensued, and Kapranos was arrested. The charges — of running an illegal bar, creating a fire hazard and contravening health and safety laws — were dropped. Appropriately, they then moved their musical and artistic 'happenings' to an abandoned Victorian courthouse and prison.

For the covers of their albums and singles, they moved to the Russian avant garde for their palette, with the cover for 'Take me out' revisioning Aleksandr Rodchenko's 'One-Sixth Part of the World' and the single 'Michael' sampling from 'A Proun' by Lissitzky. They continued their homage to Rodchenko on their second album, using the famous poster image of a headscarfed woman, hand cupped to mouth, shouting the word 'Books.' Instead, she now screams for the Archduke.

Through 2005, they worked on the impossible second album. How was it possible to follow 'Take me out'? Offering a political commentary and a personal critique, they used the title You could have it so much better for their October 2005 release. They also wanted to rewrite the old Harold Macmillan slogan to blast people out of their complacency and comfort.

Through their serious deployment of history, they also claimed the energy and fun of the best popular music. One of the triggers for the band's odd and innovative song writing is the highly desirable goal of not sounding like Radiohead. Kapranos realised that the "post-rock thing … seemed to be doing its damndest to avoid any bloody tune. We want people to go away from the gigs humming the tunes that we were singing. But at the same time bringing an edge to it."

In playing tunes on the edge, and tunes from the edge, they have become the most visible contributors and representatives of the Scottish music industry, building on the legacy of Orange Juice, Annie Lennox, Wet Wet Wet, Texas, Travis and Belle and Sebastian. Their success has meant that Scottish governments are finally recognising the social and economic value of popular music beyond bagpipes and the Edinburgh Tattoo. Yet there is a lesson for all of us in the Franz Ferdinand story.

For our Creative Industries Matrix, Glasgow and Franz Ferdinand can provide both a case study and an example for the PCC. As our cub convener, Dr Leanne McRae, leads us through the next group project for the CIM this year, we need to remember not only the value of history — and the original Archduke — but his popular cultural homage.

Be well — see you in April.