Cars & Football

zinedine Zidane has probably taken an earful of racial abuse in every game he has played over his entire career. Although he was born in France, his name is Arabic, his parentage and heritage North African. The three countries he has plied his trade in (France, Italy, and Spain) are all infamous for being split with racial and regional tensions. He is (was, post retirement) the greatest player in the world, and no one who knows anything about football would dispute that. He has won nearly every honour in the game, from domestic leagues and cups in Italy and Spain to the Champions League, the European Championship and, lest we forget, the World Cup itself. And he didn’t just “win the World Cup”, he won the World Cup—it was he who scored the two goals in the 1998 final that secured victory over Brazil. His reputation and legacy are assured, he is a legend as well as a millionaire, and he will be talked about in the same breath as Pele, Maradona, Cruijff and Beckenbauer for years to come.

The World Cup Final this weekend was also his much-trumpeted last ever game. After years of beautiful football, of taking abuse like a gentlemen (bar a few minor retaliatory indiscretions), of enormous achievement, of hard work and sweat and defenders deliberately fouling him, of Italian and Spanish opponents calling him the “son of an Algerian whore,” and worse, of pent-up frustration… Why the hell not? Why the fuck not head-butt an idiot with a reputation for being a foul-mouthed cheat who's abusing you verbally? Why not seize everything that’s happened to you over the years and use it as fuel, why not fuck everything up, make one utterly mad gesture? Rumour has it that Materazzi abused Zidane by calling him a “motherfucking Muslim” and a “terrorist.” “Fuck the World Cup,” thought Zidane perhaps in that instant of existential explosion, “I’ve already won it and right now this matters more.”

Because what Zidane did, is do that thing that a billion downtrodden and bullied people around the world dream of doing almost every day—sticking it to someone who’d been trying to make your life a misery for years, on your last day at work when it doesn't matter anymore, and sticking it to them good and hard. Who hasn’t fantasised about trashing their office, or bad-mouthing their domineering boss, or lashing out at a bully?

What the hell’s this got to do with music? I hear you ask. Wait and see. We’re going off somewhere else first.

There’s been a classic car rally near where I live this weekend, streams of lovingly-maintained MGs and Minis and steam-driven tractors and vintage soft-top Mercedes Benzes and imported 70s Cadillacs and beautiful old Lotuses and Ferraris and Morris Minors and bizarre dune buggies and Bentleys and Triumphs and motorbikes all traversing the lanes and roads in South Devon for two days, on their way to and from the venue (Powderham Castle). It was seeing a 60s Aston Martin pass me on a country road that got me most excited and also got me thinking. Or, rather, further advanced some thoughts I’ve been gestating for a while.

During a motorway trip recently, it struck me that the politics of small differences seems to be an over-riding factor in the design of cars these days. Or, basically; modern cars are all the same shape.

Clearly this was bound to happen, almost, as we learn more and more about aerodynamics and R&D; teams draw the same conclusions regarding those findings and whatever demographic information they use when considering how new cars should look and feel. I used to laugh at my dad when he said “cars these days all look the same,” but when almost every mid-sized hatchback in European production uses the same floor plan and chassis (SEAT Ibiza, Audi A3, Skoda Fabia, VW Golf) or may as well given how similar they are (Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra), he has a point. And as for the superminis—Toyota, Peugeot, and Citroen have recently released new models (the Aygo, 107, and C1 respectively) that look almost identical to each other bar the badge. But no matter what size a modern car is or what floorplan it uses, they seem to have one thing in common; they all look as if they’ve been inflated a bit, as if they’ve stretched slightly and become bulbous.

But the distressing thing about modern cars isn’t just the homogeneity and bulbousness of their design; it’s the fact that they’re all so incredibly smooth to drive, with comfortable, elevated driving positions, air-con, sat-nav, pollen filters, reverse sensors, heated seats, sonic damping to isolate the passengers and driver from road, traffic, and engine noise. All these gadgets combine to divorce you from the process of driving, separate you from the car and from the road and from the environment outside. Driving a car isn’t driving a car anymore; it’s sitting in a chair and moving. The function is still the same—getting from A to B—but the process has changed. Has vanished. If you’re driving a modern Vectra or Mondeo or Primera, you may as well not be in a car at all.

Seeing all those vintage, classic cars, a huge array of shapes, low to the road, maintained lovingly by their owners from waxing and polishing exterior panels to tinkering with mechanical parts, made me feel a little pang of regret. It looks like so much fun to drive an old MG with the roof down, to feel every bump and corner of the road as an exhilaration rather than an anesthetic. The last car I drove regularly was a new(ish) SEAT Ibiza, and it was nice; spacious for a small car (if slightly swollen in shape) and smooth. But years ago I used to drive a Mini, and while it rattled my bones on some roads, looking back it just seemed so much more… like driving a real car on a real road, rather than playing a particularly dull computer game from an armchair. Sat-nav, air-con, reverse sensors, etcetera etcetera—each of these innovations seems to be about making you be able to pay less attention to driving, to the world around you. I’m reminded of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Robert M. Pirsig’s early observation that driving a car feels like looking at a painting of landscape, and riding a bike feels like being in that painting because you’re not sealed off from the elements by glass and steel.

This is the point where I witter on about compression again, aye? Modern cars divorce you from the process of driving and modern music divorces you from the process of listening. Well, yes, I do kind of feel that way. Modern cars are safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly, however, and the slightly homogenous, swollen design of them is a constituent part of these three important improvements. Music doesn’t need to be safe or efficient though, or environmentally friendly (although the packaging should be) (on a totally tangential note, how cool is corn starch, which is now used to make biodegradable packaging and “plastic” bags, amongst other things).

I was talking at the weekend with some musician friends about the relative merits of U2 and Jimi Hendrix, having vaguely watched Donnie Darko the night before, and being struck that in Kitty Farmer’s creepily reductive Fear / Love “lifeline” thingamabob, U2 would represent fear and Hendrix love. Hippy shit, I know, but… I sat next to a guy on the coach back from London the other week, and he had the same kind of sandwich as me, the same kind of bottle of water as me, the same type of fruit as me (banana), and the same headphones as me (Koss Portapros), except that he was wearing a suit. Then he got a laptop out and watched the whole of U2’s Vertigo Live DVD, and I felt betrayed. Because U2 are what youngish guys in suits (on a Sunday!) are supposed to listen to via their iRivers or watch on their Thinkpads when they’re on their way home from an important business meeting.

Because, you know, I think U2 have written a handful of really good songs and (aided by Brian Eno) made some great music, and I’m far from being a big Hendrix fan, but if asked to choose I’d pick Hendrix every single time. Because while U2’s songs might be quite good, heartfelt, “meaningful” (whatever that is), Hendrix’s music at its best is fucking exciting and shocking and awesome, is made for the sake of making music because music is great, to see what can be done with it. And maybe U2’s music was once, but the post-Zooropa “back behind the trenches, boys” mentality of churning out one album every five years that sounds just like the last (not that the pre-Zooropa albums were radically separate from one another), and spending the next two years touring it to death in disposable enormodomes from Paris to Buenos Aires so that it sells another 15 million copies, strikes me as being the product of fear rather than love. Fear of failure.

I still agree with most of what I wrote here a couple of years ago; I just don’t think that making music that people like, and like in numbers, necessarily precludes you from making that music with love and creativity and guts rather than with fear and conservatism. You don’t need to write songs and arrange them so that they sound like your last big hit; you don’t need to sequence your albums and design their sleeves so they sound and look alike; you don’t need to over-compress your mix because you think it’ll give you a better chance on radio. It’s not about “not selling out”; it’s about being true to yourself by doing the best you possibly can. The public, music fans, can and do like thing that are considerably more creative then the likes of U2 and Keane seem to give them credit for.

Which is why I admire what Zidane did the other night, why I think it’s relevant to music and how and why it is made and consumed. His actions, whether condonable or not, were not about winning or even about not losing—they were about pride and passion, about not taking shit and sitting back just because you’re expected to. That’s why none of the French media have blamed him for what he did; why, in fact, they’ve saluted him as a hero.

Fear of failure is what made the World Cup so dull for the most part, teams sitting five in midfield and trying desperately not to make a mistake, not to concede a goal, rather then attempting to score as many as possible. Teams scared of trying to win, in case they lose. Because if you play to not concede at the expense of scoring, the best you can hope for is a draw. Fear of failure is what makes music dull too. And no, I’m not sure where the classic cars come into it, but they sure did look good.

By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2006-07-13
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