Liquid Liquid: Optimo
h, Camille Paglia, you so crazy! In a recent Salon article (nB: ads ahoy!) about the new Madonna album and her place in the popscape, she starts off with a few quick glances down the roads she'll explore in more depth later. She says that Madge isn't as relevant as she was in the '80s and '90s. Sounds about right. She takes a quick trip down memory lane, into then-nascent downtown NYC queer culture and disco. She claims Giorgio Moroder as the premier disco producer. No arguments from me on that. But then it gets curious. “I for one do not dance to dance music; disco for me is a lofty metaphysical mode that induces contemplation.” I—I'm sorry, what? OK, sure, Camille's idea of disco is a “a shamanistic vehicle of space-time travel,” which personal quirk has surely served her well in academia; while many of the rest of us feel abandon in our bodies, she feels it in her mind. But then she just gives it all away, and paraphrases Nora Ephron in calling herself a “wallflower at the orgy.” Oh dear, an academic talking about the sensual pleasures, while simultaneously refusing them in favor of analysis. I guess someone has to. Be glad it isn't you.
Liquid Liquid must have driven her batshit. I'm not sure if the post-disco punk-stew was on her radar or not; their three-year tenure was a touch too late for disco, but just in time for retro-cool last year. I've got no evidence, but I've got a pool going that she caught it on the rebound, and, in an attempt at academic jigsawing, gave up in a puddle of flop-sweat and cigarette butts. They never deigned to make one iota of sense, in a way that doesn't so much defy analysis as deflect it. Liquid Liquid understood something that all the serviceable disco producers knew instinctually, but their punkoid peers—your Blondies, your Talking Heads, your Gangs of Four—had to wrap their heads around and turn all smarty-pants; that is, that dancing is not a rational activity. At its fundamental level, all you need is a repetitive rhythm and the urge. And aside from a bass line and some nonsense vocalizing, that's all you got from Liquid Liquid. So their angular, mutant, tribal funk is mesmerizing and defiantly strange, but just as utilitarian as all the workmanlike disco and white-rage punk they were reacting against; and just like the aforementioned, they knew they didn't need to do much to make an impact.
They were also contrarians of the highest order, and as any attentive reader/stalker will know, I love me a good contrarian. You say you want some melody? Yeah, whatever. You want less? Here's a synth line. You want them to stop? No chance. Which is why my favorite moment from their just-long-enough oeuvre is the only thing in there that you can't dance to. “Optimo” was their first single, and if you've never heard it, it's just a circular drum pattern, with cowbells, then a strummed bass playing all of two notes, then some nasal nonsense vocals. That's it, for a little under three minutes. But after one cycle where the hi-hat comes in a little bit, the two drummers break into a drum roll. Nothing weird about the roll itself; dude from Foo Fighters intros with it all the time. But then it just goes. And goes. And goes. And goes. It's about a bar too long, and feels like your CD skipped to some other band for about twenty seconds. I shouldn't say you can't dance to it; you could pull, as I like to, some spazzy, stomping tantrum, but that's only dancing in the same way that spinning around in a circle until you get dizzy and fall over is dancing. It has the effect of throwing a stick into their own bicycle spokes, and ends whatever momentum they've built up without acting as any kind of release. It's equal parts trip-wire and head-fake.
It's also the only sensible thing they ever did. At just the time when beats and dancing became intellectually and academically acceptable, when fun was dissected and herded together in-between scare quotes, there was a single, wordless reaction. If the nostalgia is at all true, disco may have allowed the art-punks their “fun,” but those worlds never really seemed to coalesce; perhaps it was just everyday scene-politics, but it also seems as if the two worlds existed at cross-purposes. You had mindless pleasure on the one hand, and self-conscious performance art on the other. At least that's how it looks today, with the Paglias of the world wondering aloud how the original stuff made others feel, and the dance-punks of last week making sure you feel it, and ne'er the twain do meet. I like to think of Liquid Liquid standing on the wall between them, sending razzes at both sides. It seems fitting.
By: Jeff Siegel
Published on: 2005-12-21