Originally published in Pop Culture Press magazine, 2006
During an interview with Simon Reynolds about Rip It Up and Start Again in 2006, I played him five songs (without telling him what they were beforehand) and asked him to talk about each one in turn – along the same lines as The Wire’s Invisible Jukebox.
This is one of two songs on what’s perhaps the best side of postpunk ever, although this is lost today because it’s on CD and not in its original format of three 45 rpm 12-inch records. In the US it was released as Second Edition. “Careering” is the second of two songs on the third side — side one of the second record. The first track is “Poptones,” an amazing trance-like, almost psychedelic song, with a looping, gyrating guitar riff and this incredible Jah Wobble bassline. Rotten is singing from the point of view of being abducted and you can’t work out if he’s been murdered or not, or if he’s just lying in the woods, cowering in the foliage, with all his body heat going. And the next track is “Careering,” which has no guitar in it; instead, Keith Levene uses a synthesizer in a really abstract way and the sounds swoop over your head. The song is obliquely about Northern Ireland, at a time when the conflict must have been at its worst and there were people on hunger strike. Lydon talks about people going over the border, bringing weapons and bombs. It’s very oblique but it’s definitely about civil strife in Northern Ireland. It’s Public Image at the peak of their inventiveness. Metal Box is PiL’s masterpiece and this is their best side; this two-song sequence is a real killer.
This was originally the B-side of “The Sweetest Girl,” which is when Scritti Politti reinvented themselves as a pop band. “The Sweetest Girl” is — as its title suggests — a very “sweet,” almost cloying pop-reggae song. It’s a beautiful love song, but the sort of love song that actually questions the idea of love songs and problematizes notions of love and possession. And then, on the other side, “Lions After Slumber” is a very strange track. It’s a list song — a list song through the lens of Green’s narcissism. It’s a list of things to do with him: “my languor,” “my greed,” “my elbow,” “my indecision,” “my sex,” “my white chocolate” and so on, all these states of mind, bodily dispositions, little moments, fragments of time, things he owns, his stance. It’s obviously very influenced by post-structuralism and the idea of the self not as a unitary entity, but as a plurality or as a multiplicity, and the idea of there being no essence to someone — just these moments and interactions with things or with people. Despite the fact that it’s about the fragmented self, coming through it all is this very strong, almost feline narcissism. The way Green sings it, you feel he’s like a cat basking in himself, arching his back, really in love with himself. It comes through in this sort of falsetto he sings in. So there’s an interesting tension there between the fragmented self and this absolute self-love conveyed by the vocals. It ties in with the band’s failing really: Scritti Politti ultimately wanted to be a pop group but none of their songs ever really got beyond Green’s psyche. I imagine people bought Scritti’s records and found meanings in them for themselves but it’s all so tied up with Green and his particular anguishes and doubts.
This is an interesting song. It was a single in England but it wasn’t a hit. It followed “Once in a Lifetime,” which was a big hit in the UK but not in America. “Houses in Motion” was sequenced on Remain in Light to follow “Once in a Lifetime,” which is about someone who’s suddenly estranged from his routine, his life, his possessions, his family, his wife. He’s estranged from it and it all seems absurd, yet that realization hits him with this sort of a cosmic force. It’s almost like a blinding, mystical epiphany: the idea that you cruise through everything without connecting with reality. And then, immediately, it goes into “Houses in Motion,” which is back inside alienation. It’s based in the same musical ideas as “Once in a Lifetime” but whereas “Once in a Lifetime” is a kind of mystical, oceanic funk, “House in Motion” is a sort of eerie, neurotic funk. The protagonist in the song is back inside neurosis. The key line is: “He’s digging his own grave.” He’s trapped in routine, going round and round, just working for these goals and missing life. So it’s almost as if the two songs are sister songs. In the first one, the guy sees through everything and grasps the oneness of existence, in an almost mystical way. In the second song he’s like a prisoner. He’s blinkered. He’s working for ambition and goals, digging his own grave, going nowhere.
Durutti Column are interesting because, a lot of the time, people think of postpunk as this sort of angular, abrasive music but a lot of lovely, ethereal music was made during that period. I would think of Cocteau Twins as a postpunk group in some ways and Young Marble Giants, for instance, made very pretty, intricate, atmospheric, low-key music.And Durutti Column are a case in point. There’s this intricate, spider web filigree of guitar-playing that’s almost too exquisite at times. I almost feel it’s vulgar how exquisite it is — all these arpeggios. It’s very delicate. There’s nothing abrasive about it. It’s a dream music, a music of reverie, of drift, of fleeting prismatic perceptions. Vini Reilly was a very delicate figure. He was anorexic. He was almost wasting away and so there’s a sense in which you almost feel that the music is an expression of his body, of his fleeting, weak grip on the world. It’s almost as if he’s going to drift away, like his music.
The Pop Group started out as quite Romantic. They were into the Beat poets and their lyrics were very abstract and imagistic. They were political but in the sense of “impossible politics”: they were into the Situationists, whose famous slogan was “Be Reasonable: Demand the Impossible.” It was that very Romantic idea of politics. Everything was politics, mysticism, poetry; it was all indivisible. Somewhere along the line, though, they got more didactic, a lot more like protest singers, and “We Are All Prostitutes” is the turning point. It’s still a very exciting song today. The music is a burning punk-funk sound. The lyrics are guilt-wracked. It captures a certain aspect of postpunk: the idea that everything’s corrupt and we’re part of a system where everything we do is connected to something evil. The Pop Group agonized over the fact that they were signed to Radar, which was part of a bigger label owned by a conglomerate involved in arms-dealing. That tortured them and they left and formed their own indie label. So that was all part of it — the feeling of being unclean and wanting to be pure. “We Are All Prostitutes” was an almost hysterical rant about consumerism and capitalism as a barbaric religion. It imagines the future when our children will be ashamed of us, stone us, disown us and feel that we’re totally corrupt. It turned a lot of people off, fans who liked the early Romantic, Byronic stuff. The Pop Group were a bit like the Romantic poets, like Blake, Shelley and Byron who were also political. Shelley and Byron were involved in liberation struggles. Byron was involved in the attempt to free Greece from Turkish rule. The Pop Group were into all those guys. But they lost a bit of their Romanticism and became very guilt-haunted. They were flagellating themselves, so guilty and tortured by living in this corrupt Western society. People found that a very black-and-white view of the world, very blinkered and a big turn off. The album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? was very lecturing. The lyrics were almost like pamphlets given out by some left-winger outside the Tube station. It was very guilt-tripping and they lost a lot of their support but “We Are All Prostitutes” is still a powerful piece of music. In some ways, it’s more focused than their early stuff because their early Romantic phase is quite chaotic musically. But as they got more militant, they actually got more focused and hard-hitting sonically.