He’s Lost Controlby Sean O’Toole / 03.01.2011
It is 1978. A young Manchester man with sallow skin who dances like he’s sinking in quicksand has an epileptic fit. The only way for him to create distance between himself and the event is to write a song. The percussion opening this song welcomes you to a rhythmic void; it is all hollowed out and factory clean. Dance music for hospitals. The lead guitar offers no relief, its riffs angular and dissonant. Which doesn’t stop this man from singing about a woman seized up on the floor, confronting the edge of no escape.
She’s lost control, sings Ian Curtis.
It is 1980. A tall Jamaican model with constructivist lines turns her back on Andy Warhol, disco and never-ending crescendos. She retreats to a music studio in the Bahamas, accompanied by the industrial melancholy of young British men. She remakes The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’, inadvertently lending JG Ballard’s novel ‘Crash’ – the source code for The Normal’s paean to car wrecks – a whiff of zol. It’s almost as sublime as the B-side to ‘Private Life’, a not quite lyrically perfect cover of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’.
I’ve lost control, sings Grace Jones.
It is 2010. A young man with Buddy Holly geek glasses writes a long-distance love letter home. Formerly of Soweto, he now lives with his wife, a schoolteacher, in Malmo, Sweden. His letter is pained in places, angry even. While the rhythmic sex beats he’s become famous for are still there, the braggadocio has morphed into something else. Consciousness. Perhaps. And the girl who never knew just why and screamed out kicking on her side, she’s now a man who clings to the nearest skirt in sight, in fear.
He’s lost control, sings Nthato Mokgata.
Two songs towered head and shoulders above the rest for me this year. The one sounds like Darth Vader doing disco karaoke and is titled ‘Control’, track nine off Spoek Mathambo’s debut album, Mshini Wam. The other is M.I.A.’s ‘Born Free’, from Mathangi “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam’s album Maya. Both songs are nominally covers, although the spark of recognition that drives these tracks relies more on a severed fragment than a quotation. Neither song feels too obliged or deferential to its source. Lend us your synthetic beats, white boys – we’ll make up the rest, even the words.
That the outcome in both instances shares a sameness of texture is worth pausing on. In his Fader interview Mokgata says he wants, amongst a whole list of things, to “react against sounding similar to M.I.A.” In the end he doesn’t. Does it lessen the outcome? I don’t think so. More likely, it lends context and momentum to his beat infested composition.
Like ‘Control’, ‘Born Free’ is a pimped-out, revved-up take on ‘Ghost Rider’, the opening composition to Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s 1977 debut as a pair of arty New York weirdoes with attitude, synths and a microphone. Suicide was their band’s name. Ian Curtis preferred the verb to the noun, his suicide in May 1980 birthing a myth that gets ever more unconvincing in its serial recall.
If myth is the fuzz that takes shape around fact, the fact is that there are two studio-recorded versions of ‘She’s Lost Control’. The first appears on ‘Unknown Pleasures’, a haunted dance track on an otherwise morbidly introspective album, the other a single version with an added verse and more chart-orientated beat. The differences between the two are negligible, but already at the outset the source is corrupt.
This leads me to think that corruption (or duplication) is central to creativity, perhaps even a driver of it. There can be no perfect original, just a founding impetus, which, if perfectly poised, will ceaselessly inspire others to play with it and make it newer.