Monthly Archives: June 2012

Top ten songs with the Motorik beat

I don’t remember when I first heard the ‘motorik’ beat – it’s one of those things that feels as if you’ve always known it. Over the last few weeks, having been listening to a lot of Bowie’s Berlin period, and reading Hugo Wilcken’s book on Low, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, revisiting favourite songs and albums that utilise it, from the progenitors like Neu! to latter day pretenders like The Horrors, and discovering new examples of it.

To clarify, the motorik beat goes like this:

Beat 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Hi-hat x x x x x x x x
Snare x x
Kick x x x x x x

If that doesn’t quite make sense, then think of it as dum-dum-dum-tsh-dum-dum-dum-tsh-dum-dum-dum-tsh-dum-dum-dum-tsh in perfect 4/4 time forever and ever.

An ILM thread has helped immeasurably in my quest for new examples, as has #motorik on Twitter, and this great article on The Quietus. I’ve come across a plethora of songs, some of which I already knew but had never thought of as motorik, and others which I’d assumed were faithfully motorik but which, on closer inspection, have turned out not quite to be. Some of them have been so faithful as to be redundant – Sons of Rother by Death In Vegas is a kind of weird Xerox of an idea of what motorik is, the electronic equivalent of Ocean Colour Scene writing a song called We’d Like To Be The Beatles – whilst others have demonstrated variations on the theme that have stayed truer to the spirit of the beat as I understand it.

As a result I’ve assembled a playlist of some 60 songs that use it, whether fastidiously or loosely – there are, I’m sure, many hundreds if not thousands more, and now the playlist is started I’ll keep adding to it in future. These following 10 songs, which I’m sure you can Spotify or buy from iTunes or wherever pretty easily, are just some of my personal favourites from that longlist. As usual, they’re in no particular order.

Kit and Holly – Echoboy
Not every song in this list is 100% faithful to the rigidity of the “pure” motorik beat. Kit and Holly varies the kick drum hits, but it’s no matter, because the spirit of the song – one of discovery, of progression, of propulsion – is entirely in keeping with the motorik beat. Echoboy is Richard Warren, former guitarist in retro Britpop also-rans The Hybirds, who seemed to have some kind of epiphany wherein he discovered techno, dub, and krautrock, and embarked on a solo career where he tried to meld all three together. Kit and Holly seems to be a paean to this epiphany (“I’ve gotta keep on runnin’ / I’m a 3-chord clown… I’m not a tough man / but I know the rules / I’ve gotta break ‘em / I’ve gotta start again”), icy synths and linear guitars embellished with filtersweep oscillations and echo, all underpinned by jittery, repetitious hi-hats and clockwork snares. And it’s a great little pop tune to boot.

Just Like Everyone Else – Field Music
If it’s not playing slightly ahead of the beat with excitational hi-hats, then a deadened, mechanical take on the motorik beat can become soaked with sadness, which is what happens in this beautifully vulnerable song.

Shoot Speed/Kill Light – Primal Scream
You’d think, for all their talk, that the Scream’s catalogue would be littered with the motorik beat, but it’s actually not all that common. This awesome, relentless, unstoppable climax of XTRMNTR uses it in excelsis though; it’s been just about my favourite moment from their catalogue for a dozen years now.

“Untitled” – Six.By Seven
A small, electronic motorik pulse sets “Untitled” on its way before real drums pick up the pattern and drive Six.By Seven, sans bassist at this point in their history, on a mechanised trip through their own contradictions and follies. Six.By Seven’s career is littered with other examples, from metronomic pop songs like I.O.U. Love, to full-on kraut workouts like Wallflower. This, brilliantly, falls somewhere in between.

Doors Unlocked and Open – Death Cab For Cutie
New to me from recent recommendations, this is almost the biggest motorik hit ever, like Ben Gibbard set out to find the platonic essence of the beat. Normally I’m not a fan of Gibbard’s voice or lyrics, but here he’s sublimated in the face of momentum and percussion, bass and guitars in service to the beat and him in service to all of it, the beat out in front, pulling everything else along with it.

Knickerbocker – Fujiya & Miyagi
A new discovery via this mini-project, Fujiya & Miyagi were a name I was aware of but knew literally nothing about – I had assumed they were an actual Japanese duo, and weird and experimental, like Keiji Heino or something, but actually they’re a gang of krautpopping Brightonians. This seemingly meaningless and chirpy pop groove (which almost pinches the chorus from Kokomo) about ice cream becomes intensely sad when you realise it namechecks Lena Zavaroni.

Spiders (Kidsmoke) Wilco
I like Wilco most when they branch out away from and do something different; this 10-minute kraut-verse, powerpop-chorus excursion has nothing to do with the Midwest and a whole lot to do with Europe, and is brilliant. The actual drumbeat isn’t pure motorik in pattern, but the formula they concoct atop it with guitar and bass gives it a deliciously metronomic feel. Glen Kotche is an awesome drummer.

Hallo Gallo – Neu!
This is, of course, the mother lode; I feel faintly silly including it because it’s so obvious, but clichés are only clichés because they’re truths that have become horribly apparent. Two related tunes, the little electronic shimmer of Heiße Lippen by Cluster and the chugging rock monster of Monza (Rauf Und Runter) by Harmonia, plus Mother Sky by Can (and about a dozen other Neu! songs, most probably Isi, Negativland or After Eight), were all vying for my token “actually German” choice on this list. But Hallo Gallo is the foundation and platonic essence of this beat, and it’s still fantastic.

Big Ideas – LCD Soundsystem
Like Primal Scream, you kind of expect that LCD Soundsystem would have oodles of pure motorik in their catalogue, but actually this tune from the soundtrack of a film that no one ever watched is their most faithful (Great Release follows the pattern closely, but is closer to Eno than Neu!, so loses out), and is also terrific. It was my go-to LCD track for playlists for an age. Which leads very nicely on to…

Roadrunner – Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers
I’ve been aware of Jonathan and his band for an age, but never investigated them. Until now. Roadrunner is terrific; not krautrock but still motorik, shot through with the feverish, can’t-sit-still spirit that informs the best rock and pop and punk. I’ll be digging further.

Honourable mentions
Stammtisch by Barbara Manning, Like Foxes Through Fences by American Analog Set, A Final Warning by Caribou, Bells by Electrelane, Touch Sensitive by The Fall, Honey Power by My Bloody Valentine, Sea Within A Sea by The Horrors, Destination Tokyo by Nisennenmondai, Got Nuffin by Spoon, Hard To Explain by The Strokes, Pric by Super Furry Animals, What Goes On by The Velvet Underground, and Forever by Working For A Nuclear Free City.


So, Prometheus then…

Turn away if you don’t want to get spoilt.

We won some free cinema tickets on a milkshake and have been saving them for one of the various summer blockbusters we’re looking forward to. On leave this week after spending the weekend in Jersey, the weather was so awful (preventing me from cycling or getting to the allotment) we decided we’d go and see Prometheus on Tuesday afternoon and use the free tickets up. I almost wish we hadn’t bothered.

I’ve been looking forward to Prometheus since hearing that Ridley Scott was wanting to do something related to Alien; I’m not a fan of him as a director per se, but I love Alien and Blade Runner, and the things he was saying – about not wanting to make a straight prequel – sounded good and right. Resurrecting the franchise would be tiresome; examining new ideas from the same universe seemed like a bona fide good idea, especially if it allowed Scott to lavish modern cinema techniques and technologies onto a sci-fi context.

Sadly, Prometheus is, to my mind, a victim of modern mainstream cinema blockbuster idiocy as well as a beneficiary of modern techniques and technology. I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the man who made Gladiator and Black Hawk Down; Scott obviously has no issue with the overwhelming of plot and character by spectacle and set-piece, and I’m left wondering if the subtle successes of Alien and Blade Runner were side-effects of the limitations of Scott’s technical film-making back then – if you can’t CGI an enormous monster or a 3D galaxy map or an extremely invasive wide-awake abdominal surgery scene, you develop compelling characters and confusing moral dilemmas by accident?

So, what irritated me about Prometheus? Firstly, I didn’t give a crap about any of the characters. Not one. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender were very watchable (Fassbender especially during the brief Wall•E-esque scenes where he wandered the ship alone, watching David Lean films and bleaching his hair), but I didn’t care about either of them, and the rest of the cast were irritating, pointless, or nondescript. The crew aboard the spaceship also suffered from “Sunshine Syndrome” – which is to say that they were (almost) all far too beautiful to be believable as scientists. I work with academics; none of them look like Logan Marshall-Green. None of the cast on the Nostromo in Alien did, either, which added to a sense of believability, and therefore empathy and sympathy, and therefore dread and terror.

Charlize Theron’s character was almost completely without purpose; I literally have no idea what she was in the film for (apart from to satisfy the Male Gaze with some near-naked push-ups and skin-tight uniforms), as any hint of tension or drama that was suggested early on evaporated. The casting of Guy Pearce was bizarre, and seemed to be justified entirely by clever pre-opening viral marketing and as an excuse to use a load of old-man prosthetics. Idris Elba’s character seemed like the most rounded and likeable, but was given barely any screen time. Sean Harris’ character was an excuse for a haircut and some mild dissonance. Rafe Spall, who I really like as an actor, was equally pointless. In fact it’s a quote from Spall about why he was so excited to be in Prometheus that best illustrates my issue with the film: “That’s why I wanted to be an actor, to be in a space suit on an ‘Alien’ set.”

Because I think Damon Lindeloff and the whole Comic-Con / Wonder-Con culture ruined Prometheus by making it pander to whooping expectations of spectacle. Lindeloff, we know from Lost, is an ideas man who needs a steadying hand to say “why?” instead of “why not?” every time he says “let’s do this awesome cool thing!” “Because it would be cool!” is not justification enough. So “let’s have the Space Jockey be a giant god-like humanoid with an exact match to our DNA despite translucent opalescent skin and huge stature, and let’s have them have created mankind in the dim and distant past by drinking a disintegration potion and dissolving their biomatter into a lake in Iceland” should have been met with enormous incredulity rather than gurning acceptance. Let’s not even get into the “let’s have a surgery-pod that performs complex operations on still-waking patients in space, and have it perform a kind of weird appendectomy / caesarian on Noomi Rapace, while she’s dressed like Leeloo from Fifth Element, and extract a giant CGI alien fish from her abdomen” suggestion.

“Let’s immolate people who are possessed for seemingly no reason!” “Let’s have a giant worm force itself down someone’s throat again and again! And have acid for blood!” “Let’s have a giant starfish monster with a vagina-like maw, and let’s have it have a fight with a giant translucent opalescent skinned godlike humanoid creation alien with our exact DNA! In space!” “Let’s have ancient cave paintings be of advanced alien civilizations consisting of giant translucent opalescent skinned godlike humanoid creation aliens with our exact DNA!” “Let’s have the android infect the male archaeologist with an unidentified micro-thingy, and then let’s have the male archaeologist have sex with the female archaeologist and impregnate her with rapidly-gestating alien starfish spawn!” “Let’s explore the very reason we exist! In space!” “Let’s have an entire planet be a bio-chemical warfare laboratory breeding some nasty bio-weapon which may or may not turn out to be the Giger-alien!” “Let’s have an android mirror the creationist dilemma and want to be Lawrence of Arabia! In space! And then let’s tear his head off and expose his milky circuitry guts, because that’s a trope we have to have in every film!” “Let’s add a mean female character with daddy-issues!” “Let’s have Guy Pearce in old-man prosthetics!”

Much less happens in Alien than in Prometheus, and it’s a much better film for it. The “themes” are much less lofty, the awe and terror much closer to home, much more intimate, and much more affecting for it. Likewise the spectacle is more modest, more real, the characters (and their cats) much more identifiable and understandable. So much of what does happen in Prometheus is unexplained. It’s like the inverse of dramatic irony; neither characters nor audience, nor, seemingly, director, writer, or producer, seem to have a clue why anything is happening. It all just happens because “it’d be cool to have this happen!”; there’s seemingly no internal logic.

There’s plenty more I could moan about, but I’ve already written a thousand words. I don’t think Prometheus is a “bad” film, per se – it’s an enjoyable cinema experience, it looks amazing, and so on and so forth – I just think it could have been much, much better.