"I know what's going on in my own mind"
1. I've Got These Feelings
LIVING IN A BOX
They say that the fox knows many things, and that the hedgehog knows one big thing. Everyone knows one big thing about Living in a Box, the late-80s pop group. They were called Living in a Box, and their biggest hit was a song also called Living in a Box, an unsettling, thrilling, paranoid pop-funk number that was precisely three minutes long. That is the thing that most people know about Living in a Box; that they were both a band, and a song. It goes deeper, however, for the band's debut album was also called Living in a Box. The trinity of Box. Jesus was a carpenter, and carpenters know one big thing, they know boxes. Conscious minds made these decisions. Nothing in the human world happens by chance. There is a master builder at work, a master box-maker, and we are living in his box, and what a box it is. It is fair to say that Living in a Box were not just a pop group; they were a total art concept, a gesamtkunstwerk. A manifestation of obsession and of the parallel and the linear. Then as now, we dismiss them as one-hit-wonders, and this is a fair appraisal, for they came and went. But we should not dismiss them. If an artist has only one concept to express, and he expresses that concept, how is he a failure? He is not.
There were three people in Living in a Box, three individual human beings who united to form a single entity; a trinity of one, a trinity which was, in accordance with Frederick W. Lanchester's N-Squared Law, more than three times the sum of their individual powers. Richard Darbyshire was the man who sang. He also played guitar. The group was actually built around his talents, as he had been offered a chance to have a solo career, a chance he turned down in order to participate in The Box, as the group's fans call them. A man called Marcus Vere played the keyboards, and a man called Anthony Critchlow played the drums. Individually, they were dreadnoughts. Together, they were as potent a symbol of naval power as Great Britain itself, a land-mass floating off the northern coast of Europe, an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Living in a Box could smash their enemies, if they so chose; Climie Fisher, Hue and Cry, Johnny Hates Jazz, Then Jerico, they did not last. As things turned out, their enemies smashed themselves. Like King Arthur, Living in a Box found themselves with no more lands to conquer, and drifted into a metaphorical haze of drink, drugs and television. Everyone was smashed. But they still have money. The group reformed in 2004, to play a nostalgia tour with Kim Wilde, Limahl, Nik Kershaw and Belinda Carlisle. One day she will discover whether it is true, what they say about heaven. But not today.
Let us consider their greatest hit, the most significant work. It is, as noted, exactly three minutes long. In itself, this tells us something; Living in a Box is a self-aware pop song. Every second of its running time is accounted for. Every sound effect, every note, every word, every production trick deliberate, intentional, intended. It was the first track on its parent album, and also the last track, for there was a remix added to the end of the album in order to fill it out to feature length. There were other remixes, which I shall cover in due course.
At the time, the song slipped into the charts and then slipped out again. It was played on the radio. It is still played on the radio. It appears frequently in the media as an example of the late-1980s pop music culture. The group themselves were entirely anonymous, moreso even than Pink Floyd. The song defied anyone to feel any kind of affection for it; being neither fish nor fowl, borrowing elements of rock, pop and contemporary dance music, but without the sexual magnetism, quirkiness or personality of INXS, the Fine Young Cannibals, Prefab Sprout, James and so forth. It was clearly more sophisticated than the explicit pop of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and indeed more sophisticated than the likes of the aforementioned Johnny Hates Jazz, Hue and Cry or Climie Fisher, especially given that there was a sense that Living in a Box were playing a joke on the world; were we not, also, living in a box? Even in 1987, the song seemed unusually meaningless. It was not about anything at all.
There was a Razormaid remix, but that was not itself a special guarantee of critical respectability; although the Razormaid production team were at the peak of their powers, they were also remixing Rick Astley, Mel and Kim, Bananarama and even Pia Zadora(!). I am not a DJ; the public image is of unapproachably fashionable people who play the most advanced music of the day, but I am sure that for every DJ who earns a crust this way, there must be a dozen, a hundred who play remixes of modern pop songs, in an un-ironic way, remixes of Aqua, Ace of Base, Roxette and other modern bands, European bands, and who also earn a crust. And, in 1987, there must have been DJs who made their way by playing remixes of Bronski Beat, the Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Duran Duran and so forth rather than, say, the offputting electronic squiggles of Baby Ford or Bam Bam. I am sure that, for everyone alive today who claims to have owned and loved Steve Poindexter's 'Work that Mutha Fucker' since the very day of its release, and who are sincere, there are a hundred people who have edited their record collection, edited their past, to present a more favourable face to the present, people who are insincere, phonies. Perhaps these people expect that their future selves will forget their self-editing, the editing which their past selves carried out. He who controls the present controls the presentation of the past; and he who controls the presentation of the past, can control the future, for the future is built on the foundations we lay. Shadows and dust, and mirrors, and magnetic lines beneath the soil from which we cannot deviate.
Looking back in 2005, I believe that Living in a Box - the total art concept - was and remains the finest work of popular art to come about in 1987. Admittedly, 1987 was a bleak year for pop; the few New Romantic survivors had become 'mature', whilst the acid house meteors and indie-Madchester-types which shone so brightly and so briefly in 1989 had not yet seized power.
2. Shattered Scarlet Ribbons (Inside)
The song's chorus is justly famous. However, the lyrics are a source of controversy. Although the song has an extremely clean, precise production style, the lyrics are quite hard to decipher. Various internet sources give the chorus as "Am I living in a box? Am I living in a cardboard box?". But to my ears, today and in 1987, the singer sounds absolutely confident; "I'm a-livin' in a box", he sings, "I'm a-livin' in a cardboard box". We can never know for sure. 1987 has been and gone. Many of the people who lived then are still alive today, but they are old, and the old forget, and they remember incorrectly too.
It is unclear as to whether the lyrics are "am I living in a box?" or "I'm a-livin' in a box"; but it is no matter, the concept is there. Two concepts, in fact; the chorus presents us with the idea that one can be living in a box, and clarifies this by stating the that box is transient, slipshod, made of cardboard (or, depending on your opinion, by merely suggesting that the box is made of cardboard; again, it is of no consequence). Can we break through? What is waiting for us, in our own world?
I hardly need elaborate on the symbolism, on the idea that we are living in a box, a container. Traditionally, the philosopher has imagined the box to be insubstantial, a prison of society or of our own minds, or alternatively a black sucking emptiness, as one might experience whilst trapped inside a fridge. As I have explained already, in my daylog of May 6, 2003, the human animal is processed meat, crushed into a metal container, furthermore enclosed in a refrigerator which is in turn locked into a kitchen, in a house, on the Earth, trapped in time and space. Living in a Box presents us with the notion that the box may be cardboard, that infinity may in fact be the shoddy habitat of the homeless, the last refuge of the desperate.
The rest of the song's text is a surreal, confused mass of paranoia and menace. "I sometimes wonder what's moving underground", asks the singer, adding that "life goes in circles" and that "someone's foolin'". The song only has two, extended verses, and several repetitions of the chorus; there is not much textual material to analyse.
3. Resistance: The Third Sense
But the production. The production. I have touched upon it. It is awesome. The late 1980s marked a peak of modernist record production, from which we have retreated. Even as late as 1987, it was possible to imagine audio production in terms of progress, of pushing back the frontiers of musical technology; the medium of the compact disc finally allowed for the life-like sound reproduction which had been the goal of audio engineers since Edison. And, more importantly, the compact disc allowed for the uniformity of sonic reproduction, for each compact disc was the same, each megabyte of audio data the same. Whilst audio purists might argue for one or another digital-to-analogue conversion equipment, the compact disc brought high-quality audio reproduction to the masses. A cheap compact disc player sounded infinitely better than a cheap vinyl player; moreover, a cheap compact disc player sounded, to any normal human being, just as good as an expensive vinyl player. Only the snobbish elites, or those unwilling to accept change, or the bearded, or the tantrum-prone, or the disgusting, only those people thought otherwise. The self-righteous control freaks, the sociopathic hippies, the big-handed vegetarians with their too-loud laughs, their love of Steely Dan, they sicken me. No longer was the listening public doomed to the hiss and crackle of vinyl records, the dirty dirty unclean filth of physical contact between spike and groove. No, the compact disc was read by a laser. There was no physical contact. Just as two human beings may only find love whilst wrapped from head to toe in rubber and latex, so the compact disc finally allowed music lovers to indulge in the purest acts of sweat-free aural carnage.
Living in a Box is the culmination of a decade of sonic progression. Unfortunately, it begins with a misstep, the song's only mistake; a supposedly impressive sonic sweep which appears to have been recorded in mono. Still, the song continues with sequenced handclaps and hi-hats, and a sample of someone screaming. There are the gentlest of guitar plucks. And then... the drums. Drums. Not quite the booming rock drums of Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight - a paradigm from a slightly earlier age - and not quite the controlled, electronic pulses of later electronic dance music; no, they exist in between the two extremes. The entrance of the drums is reminiscent of Wagner's entrance of the Gods to Valhalla. Of all the elements that date early electronic pop music, it is the sound of the snare drums which is the most prominent. Although the bass drum of the Linn and Simmons drum machines is distinctive, it is the snare drum which is most audible in a mix, it is the snare drum which sounds most out of place, on those records by the Human League and Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. The snare drum of Living in a Box was made for rock, and does not sound particularly old-fashioned nowadays; if it does, it is only because Living in a Box was itself such a popular hit, and is so ingrained in the popular consciousness. The drum is reminscent of the snare drum in Cameo's classic funk hit Word Up, from the previous year, but the sample in Living in a Box is deeper and more resonant.
After the short introduction, the song presents the two musical elements that most people remember, apart from the chorus; they are the horn part, and the bassline. The former is electronic, performed with some nameless late-80s digital synthesiser. The bassline is similarly impossible to pinpoint, although it is a deliberately synthetic sound, playing quite a complex rhythmic part. It is the bassline that, today, of all the song's musical riches, it fills me with the most awe, albeit that the rest of the song also fills me with awe. The bassline, however, fills me with the most awe, more awe than I can safely hold.
The rest is professional, performed and sequenced to the ultimate standard; Living in a Box, the group, was the British equivalent of Mr Mister or Toto, or alternatively a version of Level 42 with less personality. There is a guitar solo, a small quantity of piano, backing vocals, and what appears to be the opening sample played at a much lower pitch and, towards the end, the snare drums are periodically enhanced with extra reverb. The song is thoroughly sequenced. It ends three minutes after it began. You cannot take it all in, on first listen. Only after nine or ten hours of continuous play can you begin to understand the majesty of Living in a Box. Frocks.
After this high spot, pop music production seemed to stall in a morass of post-modernism. Musicians began to doubt themselves. Was Phil Collins really the epitome of musical sophistication? Why had Peter Gabriel forsaken the world? Who were these... children, with their samplers, and their techno-dance-pop chart hits? Record production seemed to stop, and has not really moved on since 1987. Indeed, it regressed; the sonic universe of the Spice Girls, S Club Seven or Steps seemed like an afterthought, the arrangements performed on cheap MIDI synthesisers by people more interested in writing pop songs than the important business of crafting the perfect snare drum.
Living in a Box is the ultimate evolution of electronic music. It is the goal towards which Stockhausen, Boulez and Schaffer were all working; it is the end of the line. Electronic music as popular cultural artefact, as music for the masses, produced in an ordinary pop music studio by talented but otherwise normal human beings. A piece of music which requires no special skill or talent to enjoy, one which persuaded several thousand people to purchase the 7" (the b-side was a dance remix of the a-side, so in a sense people bought the song twice over). The future was not random plinky-plonks on the piano, or the edited sounds of trains; the future was the bass, and the drums, the snare drum in particular - and it was also the horns. Yes, the horns.
4. Someone's Foolin': My Vision is Impaired
There is another incarnation of Living in a Box. It is not just a band, an album, and a song. It is also a short film, a promotional video. The video's key image is of a man, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, wearing a cardboard box on his head, in a high-ceilinged room, a white room, with a single door in one corner. He is joined by the band, the lead singer, a woman who wears jeans. Sometimes he is not there. Occasionally the video image is framed, sometimes literally in a classical picture frame, more often in a frame made of cardboard. We witness the band members walking down the street, and playing their instruments in a red room. The lead singer is shown playing a guitar, even in parts of the song which do not feature a guitar; the drummer is shown playing acoustic drums, even though the song features none. There is a burst of stop-motion animation. The video is shot as to obscure the fact that the band members are not playing their instruments, particularly during the guitar solo.
The lead singer resembles a stereotypical estate agent, and is dressed in the uniform of a young, up-and-coming professional; a yuppie. That word was all the rage is 1987. it was a time when mobile phones were the exclusive preserve of the young financier, a time when mobile phone users were generally despised. However, it was also a time when a substantial section of British society aspired to money, aspired to wearing a white shirt, a dark suit and a colourful tie; aspired to having floppy, centre-parted hair, to being slim but not muscular, to being clean-shaved, to being a professional. Wine bars. A time when young men aspired to "pull down" "thirty grand", a paltry sum nowadays, but in 1987 a substantial income.
There are roughly two ages of the suited pop star; no, three. In the early 1960s it was common for soul singers and balladeers to wear suits, in order to project an image of sophistication. The Beatles also wore suits, as did several other pop groups, because they wanted to project a wholesome image. The suit died a death, however, and was not really adopted again until the late 1970s, notwithstanding the oddball example of David Bowie, whose 'Thin White Duke' persona was defiantly dapper. No, it was not until the example of Joy Division that the shirt and tie became re-entrenched in the culture of pop music. The outfit symbolised a break from the scuzziness of punk, it symbolised the New Seriousness. Gary Numan topped the charts whilst wearing a black shirt, black trousers and a red tie; Ultravox refined the image by narrowing the ties, and in the case of Midge Ure adding a fine pencil moustache.
Nonetheless, despite this seemingly unassailable germination, the shirt and tie was soon replaced by the highwayman outfit of Adam Ant and the outlandish clothes of the New Romantics, and of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and later still by the sensible working-men's clothes of The Echo and the Bunnymen, The Dexys Midnight Runners, The Morrissey and so forth. It was not until the late 1980s that the shirt and tie made a comeback, this time without a great deal of political resonance or sociological impact; instead, the likes of Rick Astley, Living in a Box, Johnny Hates Jazz and their ilk wore smart clothes because they were smart people, living in a smart age. A presentable age of surfaces and money.
Only surfaces matter. They are impossible to fake. Until the human race develops telepathy, it does not matter what you are like on the inside; and actors have been faking personality for hundreds of years. It is however impossible to fake an exterior. You either look good, or you do not. You can pretend to be sensitive, to be intelligent, to be empathic, to have the same human emotions as a regular person like normal people, but you cannot pretend to look good. You either look good, or you do not. No amount of guile will improvise style. This is my message to you.
In the video we see Trafalgar Square. We see an image of Tony Blackburn, which is mocked. We see a traffic warden; a black. We see the group running around in circles, and briefly running backwards, in a visual echo of the video for New Order's True Faith. The colour scheme is black, white, grey and red. There are two female backing singers, who do not appear to be singing.
But they are there. It was common for arty, underground films in the 1960s and 1970s to end abruptly; this spilled over into the mainstream, with Easy Rider, Electra Glide in Blue, and