THE SOUND OF JOHN SPITERI

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In 2002 artist John Spiteri produced a series of video works based on the vernacular of the pop video.  My first experience of these was in a show curated by Brian Griffith’s at the Bart Wells institute.  A giant video projection (at least in my memory) showed the artist running psychotically around a house in Malta to the accompaniment of a brief loop from the  Cher song ‘Believe’. ‘Can’t do that,  Can’t do that, Can’t do that, Can’t do that….”  I was struck by this piece and still am; it seemed to me the most evocative portrait that I had ever seen of what happens, when the mind nudges at the edges of its normal functions and the body can only follow.  Trapped within itself fevered, insane, high.

The works produced in a relatively short period, whilst John was living in London were made with the sparest of artifice. The songs obey the rudimentary song structure verse, chorus and bridge and are composed of such simple loops that they can barely be called samples.  Even though constructed using mini disc and digital software this sampling with a blade and sellotape.  In 2003 John and I put out a limited picture disc single, ‘Permanent Blue/Only the one’.  I should have stuck to the artwork because my need to make the construction (slightly) more complex removed something vital from the formula.

The songs that John chose as his base sampling material, deeply unfashionable at the time, are the kind of tracks that the Hypnagogic Pop Kids are making cool again.  Billy Idol, Cher, The Pet Shop Boys, Al Stewart. Songs that you don’t even notice. Bland, familiar or perhaps archetypal.  Much of the talk around Hypnagogic Pop discusses the edge of liminal space of half remembered songs, half heard through walls. John’s choices for sampling were the kind of songs you don’t remember actually having heard, especially by choice, but they are the songs, that strangely you know all of the words for. Somehow and somewhere these songs have been implanted in all of us.

Vocally the artists range is limited to subtle intonation. There is barely any contrast but instead a veneer which rises and falls with certain emphasis and accent. This tone is matched lyrically with often repeated refrain, familiar rhymes and generic imagery which sit comfortably upon the music.  There is a distinct sense of reverie, of  vacantly humming along to the radio, of not knowing the real words and approximating your own.

John kindly gave me a cd with the songs from the films and it’s been a favourite in the studio ever since.  It’s partly because I really think these are great songs and partly because it reminds me of John over  on the other side of the world.  There is something incredibly disconcerting about the simplicity of the songs, rather like a brain fixated on a detail of a song and caught in a loop.  There is one particular song called ‘What is it’ that I find genuinely disturbing and there are others that like ‘Knowing/Le Vous’ which defy the odds and are genuinely beautiful (and also pretty funny). The songs really belong with their accompanying videos but they have their own life too. Enjoy.

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