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CARDEW, CORNELIUS : The People Liberation Tapes and other Songs
What to say? Unquestionably an important document - but. someone has to say the King was by this time close to naked (as I remember Henry Cow did, when we and PLM played together in the late 70's). These are all songs, some traditional (mostly about the Irish struggle) and many original, written by Cardew himself. They were supposed to appeal to the masses (whoever they are), support the struggle and harmonise with the musical dialect of 'the people'. PLM must have thought it a painfully simple dialect. That may sound hard, but it is a judgement difficult to avoid when listening to this collection of pastiche songs, mostly in the style of Julian Lloyd Weber and scarily devoid of any (intentional) humour - played, moreover, unremittingly senza brio. For Un Pueblo Unido, Song of The United Front and the Irish songs, it merely has to be said that these same songs in their natural habitat sound greatly superior and that the difference between the masses or the folk and these well meaning schoolteachers is that the masses and the folk always have art up their sleeve; the music is theirs and they are proud to make it well. PLM's versions, conversely, are alien to experience, wooden and, politically insulting, blatantly colonising a living culture through a bad imitation. Moving Hearts, to name just a single indigenous Irish group, cracked these same (perfectly real) engagement and meaning problems without even trying; they were genuinely political. By comparison, PLM didn't even get into the conversation. Having said that, of course, anyone who believes that Robert Johnson was 'natural' and not putting it on is a bourgeois romantic. Art is always about putting it on - and when folk artists sing for others they do it with Art. But with PLM the Art is absent - and meaning well can't fill that void. Bad is bad. Bad jazz is bad, bad singing is bad and this group just can't hack the political and folk material. Cardew's original compositions on the other hand have to be judged differently; there's no doubt that he could write and that even at this time his pastiches of Baroque and Religious music could be genuinely moving - even tragic. One feels his sincerity but is repeatedly thrown back by his clanking insensitivity and instinctive paternalism (there are exceptions in this period: eg 'There is Only One Truth', or the stunningly good 'Thalmann variations'- but not on this record). Solving other people's problems while blind to one's own does not produce art or politics - and neither are produced here, other than in some of the dreadful texts. One is forced to the conclusion that they just didn't get it, didn't even begin to get it - even though they clearly meant it. But the reggae finale is so pathetic - and so insultingly bad - that one's instinctive sympathy fades; the raw hand of imperialism (of the well meaning, 'they're rather like children really' kind) is so exposed here, that one really has to look away: so misconceived, so mis-achieved, so ... wrong. Listened to sympathetically, it speaks volumes, it buries itself and reveals its own incomprehension; perhaps there's a kind of art in that.