Friday, July 6, 2007

Chinese Takeaway (Hong Kong 1997)

John Cale has an interest in China. Not an obsession or preoccupation or anything sordid like that, but an interest. And in the interest of providing some thematic contour to this project, I'm going to explore it for a while.

For those who don't follow Asian politics, the title of this song refers to the completion of the lease the British had signed on the New Territories of Hong Kong back in 1898. In the late 1970s, the People's Republic of China became rather adamant that the British never had sovereignty anywhere in Hong Kong and that, upon completion of the lease, the British administration had better pack up and go home. But despite the evocative and utterly tasteless title, I don't really know how to connect "Chinese Takeaway (Hong Kong 1997)", from 1985's Artificial Intelligence, with that thematic thread.

This isn't a song, and whatever political intentions it has are rather, um, obfuscated. What this is is a drum machine track with some impromptu goofing around on the synthesizer. Cale:

  • quotes J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (for vampiric effect, I suppose)
  • plays a little melody that sounds improvised
  • quotes what sounds like a Bach chorale that I can't place
  • plays some gently swaying chords with spaghetti-western whistling (Morricone?!)
  • quotes from the Air in Bach's Third Orchestral Suite (aka Air on the G String)
  • plays a child-like melody and punctuates it with a sinister laugh
  • goes out with a few minor screams atop a scary version of Für Elise.
Between most of these piano bits there appears a gently rocking (as in a cradle, not as in Sabotage) arpeggiated chord that sounds rather Caribbean, played on a synthesized harpsichord or somesuch.

The piece sounds sinister, taken as a whole, but it doesn't sound cohesive. It doesn't sound like a piece of music, it sounds like screwing around in the studio. Which is fine - that's what Beatles Anthology-type or Dylan Bootleg Series-type projects are for. This didn't really have any business being a main track on an album. This is probably the most obvious case in which Cale's tendency towards in-studio composition, improvisation, and few-takes recording really backfired.

It's a shame Cale didn't write a real song about this subject. But hey, we'll always have "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie and the Banshees.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To complete the musical references: bits of "Milord", famous Edith Piaf chanson, are woven into "Für Elise". Which doesn't make the whole thing any better.