Then and Now

Alistair Fitchett on ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ by Mozart Estate. Out now on Cherry Red records.

Whilst watching the most recent (2022) Batman film I found myself contemplating the scenes in which Robert Pattison removes his mask and emerges as a ravaged, somewhat haunted entity that has not yet settled back into the persona of Bruce Wayne. It may come as a surprise to hear that the figure reminded me of Lawrence, but there is something in both the damaged beauty of the physical features and in the abstract metaphor of embattled hero fighting on against the odds that strikes a chord. There is something appealing in the idea of Lawrence as comic book hero, and after all in recent years he has appeared as such on beer cans and record sleeves. Pure Pop Art, just like the labels on soup tins or The Archies.

That Lawrence has attained a position of High Pop majesty in the eyes of his dedicated followers ought to be a given. That he has always seen himself in such a position is equally beyond question. Rarely, if ever, has an artist so unflinchingly held to the belief that they are not only A Star in their own firmament, but that they deserve to be so in the eyes of the so-called Mainstream Majority. Lawrence has never had eyes on the squalid ‘indie’ swamplands, but instead has seen his place as being rightfully high in the Hollywood Hills. And as tempting as it may be to suggest that in parallel universes this might indeed have been the case, the truth is that parallel universe success does not pay the bills in this one. Such extrapolations on our part are whimsy; meagre excuses for our own failures to amount to anything much or to explain away our deviations from previous pathways. We write our own rules to make ourselves feel better in the realities though which we battle, and that is just fine. Yet Lawrence seems always to have been Lawrence, and there is something impressive in that.

One might argue that the Lawrence of Felt is very different to that of Denim or of Go-Kart Mozart and, now, Mozart Estate. There may be some truth in such thinking. The blending of poetry and Pop versus the garish ultra-kitsch of the Poundland plastic toy counter. I don’t think there’s much in it, myself. So the poetry might have changed from surreal symbolism to kitchen sink documentary fired with a slip of black humour, and the music from ethereal guitar (much of it courtesy of Maurice Deebank) or sensualist keyboards (courtesy of Martin Duffy, whose recent death is greatly mourned) to jingletastic Novelty Rock that now rarely bothers with the notion that attention spans can last longer than a couple of minutes. Yet in all instances there is a sense of things being not quite as one might expect. Square pegs inhabiting round holes. Bodies uncomfortable in the skin that’s been given them, playing the hands of perversity with a recalcitrant glee. Something like this, or nothing like this at all. Perhaps both at once.

In line with this thinking, then, the new Mozart Estate album ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ is a record that occupies a strange space somewhere between Then and Now, where ‘Then’ is a universe informed by early ‘70s sitcoms and ‘Now’ is a monthly Britbox subscription. That may sound pejorative, but it isn’t meant to, for in that particularly peculiar realm Mozart Estate manufacture the sound of an ecstatic anger at such an existence. Comfort is corrosive; the ‘chimera of content’ debilitating. The discomfort of existing within one’s own bubble, waiting for history to catch up or come round again and chime with one’s own vision remains intact. Lawrence still being Lawrence. This time it’ll be different. Until it isn’t.

It is difficult, frankly, to see ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ being the ‘breakthrough’ record that many would love it to be, simply because it feels like the entertainment industry no longer functions in the manner that such a notion of ‘success’ is framed. Perhaps some snippet of ‘I’m Gonna Wiggle’, ‘Vanilla Gorilla’ or ‘Doin’ The Brickwall Crawl’ will become a Tik-Tok sensation. Perhaps Seasick Steve will make a new video for ‘Relative Poverty’, the scales will fall from the eyes of the populace (who will see both the dark poetic genius of Lawrence and the bitter banality of Sleaford Slobs) and Lawrence will find himself on breakfast telly. Or at least his digital avatar will, for if any artist other that ABBA deserves that kind of ultimate Pop deification it is Lawrence. Either him or Elvis, which, if you believe Lawrence, might be much the same thing. I’m not about to disagree.

Much more likely, sadly, is that the veneration of Lawrence within A Certain Age Group will continue to bloom, with a gentle smattering of The Younger Generations getting on board to whisper the legends passed down through the decades to each other in awed respect. Lawrence meanwhile will harangue them for merely streaming or downloading the songs and not buying the records.

I plead guilty to that particularly heinous crime myself, incidentally, the price of vinyls (sic) being prohibitively expensive for a pensioner like me, never mind for those who might accurately sing along with Lawrence on the aforementioned ‘Relative Poverty’. (altogether now: “I’m living on a tenner a week. Goodness, gracious, a tenner a week”). We’re not, of course. We’re just projecting. But Lawrence is 4-Real. He means it maaaan.

One must suppose he means it on ‘Record Store Day’ too, which is an, ahem, Pop at the marketing phenomenon that might have been at least partly guilty for the tedious resurgence in the popularity of vinyls (sic again) as fashion/lifestyle accessory and an excuse to buy one’s record collection all over again, after having done so at least once already when the scratched original was succeeded by The CD and then again with the remastered remixed version with extra tracks and then… oh good lord, we’ll be tripping unpleasantly into Morrissey territory of Miserable Old Geezer if we are not careful. Being wayward and cynical and all that.

Nevertheless I’ll be honest and say that the song itself bores/irritates me almost as much as the event in question, which perhaps is the point. “John Peel”, “Mark E Smith”, “Rough Trade” intones Lawrence. Sacred Cows to the slaughter. Line ‘em up, shoot ‘em down. Ka-POW! Ka-POW! Ker-CHING! In my head I have Tyler’s glamorous French friend Stephanie in ‘Shampoo Planet’ drawling that it is all “so barring”. Well quite. We need Batman now more than ever to say ‘this ends. Now.’

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the record, ‘Pink And The Purple’ is The Scaffold drinking acid-laced Cremola Foam; ‘I Wanna Murder You’ Derek Raymond ruminating on 21st Century News Stories whilst listening to late ‘70s funk acts covering Glam novelty hits. And then there is the gorgeous cover of Adam Faith’s ‘Honey’ in which Lawrence perfectly showcases himself as yes, a lousy singer, but equally one of of the finest vocalists of Our Generation. It’s a pretty faithful version, which is no bad thing, and it is up there with Felt’s equally beautiful take on The Beach Boys’ ’Be Still’.

It may be wrong, though, to fall into the critics’ trap (as indeed I have just done) of listing thoughts about, or worse, descriptions of individual songs, for ‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ is an album that insists on being listened to as a whole. Forty minutes of Pop Art discomfort, a Play For Today in 16 scenes of faded technicolor where the actors are all channelling Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’. We coulda been contenders…

‘Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping’ is, then, a record caught up in its own macro-nostalgic universe, a record that is beautifully infuriating and infuriatingly addictive. A record so rooted in and redolent of a peculiarly personal past that it feels utterly contemporary and ageless all at once. Time stands still and simultaneously rushes inwards on itself. Then and Now in imperfect harmony.

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