Monday, February 06, 2006

Biting the hand

I want to bite the hand that feeds me
I want to bite that hand so badly

Elvis Costello - Radio Radio


In 1978, aged 12, I left my modern, enlightened Middle School and started at Secondary School, an austere 1930's throwback erected on the remains of a World War 2 USAF base. It emphasised traditional values, obedience and regimentation as vital milestones in the development of the child into a balanced, educated individual. For the independent-minded, this approach was as likely to nourish a love of learning as a half-ton of rock salt might enhance your Lobelia bed.

Stunned by this new regime, I plunged into misery and was soon playing traunt. At least I thought I was pretending to be sick, but in truth I was hovering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and those days off were just about the only thing keeping me sane.

So there I was, physically healthy but stuck in bed and listening to Radio One all day. Radio One was and probably still is the home of the smuggest, thickest, most self-satisfied DJs in broadcasting, but they mercifully had little say in what records they played. And in the late seventies whoever planned the Radio One playlist had great taste.

Punk had just about breathed its last, but that was OK, because most of punk music was second-rate. Bands like Generation X or the Plasmatics or the Lurkers were migraine-inducing, chord-deficient mediocrities. But many of the bands which had sprung out of punk, like Blondie, the Police or the Jam, while universally acclaimed at the time as sell-outs, were vastly superior and entering their most productive phases.

Playing truant and spellbound by the hourly rotation of Elvis Costello's fantastic "Radio Radio", I was starting to notice things. I was fascinated by the line "I want to bite the hand that feeds me".

Obviously I was drawn to its surly rebellion, but I'd been hearing surly rebellion for the last two years without being particularly impressed. I'm not sure I understood why, but it was the clever construction that impressed me. My English teacher, who was one of the most humane teachers in my school (she's been to college with Jean Jacques Burnell of the Stranglers - how cool is that?), could have told me why it was clever. If I hadn't been actively avoid her lessons, that is.

What Costello was doing was inverting a cliche to make something new. When "bite the hand that feeds you" was coined it must have seemed new and exciting, but it had become hackneyed through overuse. By sticking that "I want to" on the front, Costello had made a phrase which I'd simply never heard before, turning a standard slur into a statement of discontent. And Costello's deliberate repetition of "I want to" in the next line emphasised the point, while the "so badly" widened it.

And then there was

Some of my friends sit around every evening
and they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
and the promise of an early bed


"Overwhelmed by indifference". How could that even be possible? And yet it worked, and condensed into three words a whole world of emotional conflict.

This was all novel and intelligent and entirely intoxicating. I wanted more, and I wanted to learn how it was done.

So in attempting to avoid an English lesson I had gingerly tiptoed through a backdoor into the delicious garden of poetry. Without wishing to denigrate Government attempts to eliminate childhood truancy, this was the most educational skive of my life.

Did this make me an lifelong Elvis Costello fan? Not really. He showed flashes of greatness but even then I realised Radio Radio had been written with airplay in mind. Obsessed with lyrics, I moved on to other bands before, almost inevitably, falling into the orbit of Bob Dylan.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Archie J. said...

So, here's my question, which I'm often left with after reading your entries... are you published yet? And, if not, why not? You write very well. Get thee to a publisher! I'm curious... do you write any fiction?

1:14 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

I'm completely unpublished, if you disregard a few letters in the Guardian. The closest I ever came was a crushingly dull technical report which got pulped when a major software company (oh all right, it was Microsoft) slapped the company I worked for with a "Cease and Desist" notice.

Other than that, I haven't had anything published, perhaps because I've never submitted anything. And I'm having difficulties thinking of an explanation for my lack of submissions which doesn't make me look like a fool or a coward.

I'm starting to do fiction, but at the moment I lack the control over structure to produce a full novel. But I'm working on it.

Thanks for the kind words, especially as I'm neurotically insecure about my writing style.

9:31 am  
Anonymous archie j. said...

Well, consider yourself officially encouraged. I started reading this blog for the comic reviews/commentary, but at this point I'm completely indifferent whether the topic is comics or not. You've definitely got the gift.

As for the novel structure, my own experience has been that if you have a thorough outline, then you can write the different sections as if they were shorter pieces. You can even write them out of sequence, or work on one section for a few days, then switch to a different one, then switch back to the first later on and approach it with a fresh eye.

Best of luck!

12:52 pm  
Anonymous Dick said...

I was 30 when Costello burst into prominence. Most of the 6th Form at the progressive school at which I taught Drama were still shaking their curls to Barclay James Harvest or humming those catchy Yes melodies. Only a handful of them caught the punk new wave &, throwing dignity to the winds, I did too. I drove the minibus to Surrey University when the legendary Stiffs Tour was in town & the 6th Form misfits & I stood transfixed before an intoxicatingly angry Elvis Costello playing his heart out. Unforgettable - one of my top 3 live music experiences.

10:36 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

archie j:

My problem seems to be that I either have a rigid outline with no soul, or a great idea which degenerates into an unstructured mess.

However, your official encouragement got me thinking, and I have just had a good idea. If by some miracle it should end up at a publishers, I'll give you a namecheck.

Dick:

I don't know if it's still true, but back then elder sibling syndrome definitely used to push music forward. There was no way at thirteen I was going to listen to Queen or David Bowie, as that was what my elder brother used to listen to. And don't get me started on my sister playing Barclay James Harvest...

8:23 pm  
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