Tag Archives: the long goodbye

Shut Up And Play The Hits

I was going to suggest I write about Shut Up And Play The Hits, the documentary chronicling LCD Soundsystem‘s final days of existence, from a dispassionate perspective. Then, I realised that was an impossible task. Then, I realised that was a pointless exercise. I don’t know what it would be like to watch this film without even a shred of knowledge about this band, and its big greying human centre James Murphy, and I don’t want to know. You might be able to appreciate it for its cinematography, borne of several celebrated visual artists; you might admire the way it cuts between thrilling in-concert footage and a snarky, nasal interview between Murphy and the critic Chuck Klosterman. But you couldn’t feel the darling buds of tears form in your mind’s eye. At least, I doubt it. In any case, no-one deserves to not have LCD Soundsystem in their lives. If you learn of this film but know nothing about the band behind it, for goodness sake make amends.

Typically, in this age, films about bands and musicians are vanity projects or cash-cows. Shut Up… is not such a film. Its directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, came to Murphy with an idea and, together, they developed that idea into a better one.

So we get an incredibly human character-study of Murphy, the morning after the night before, trimming his inimitable beard and cleaning out his coffee machine. These subtly deflate the viewer’s perception of him: just as Murphy worshipped David Bowie as an alien from Mars who couldn’t possibly wake up with a pain in his foot, so do fans of LCD Soundsystem believe their hero to be superhuman in his accomplishments and traits.

And in lockstep with this touching portrait come exhilarating chunks of performance from their last ever concert, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The songs they play have never sounded better: they have the punkish energy fans loved, but are mixed retrospectively by Murphy, also a distinguished recording engineer, himself. The camera flits between overhead shots of fans partying like they know it’s the last time—one repeated, lingering close-up of a teenager, bawling his eyes out, elicited laughter from the audience—and extended shots of members of the extended live band, fiddling with synthesizers and scraping the guts of electric guitars. Pat Mahoney’s drumming, always metronomic, always spirited, is not foregrounded but plays a crucial role from the sidelines, keeping everyone else from freaking out and imploding. At certain moments, the visuals are so sympathetic to the lyrical content of Murphy’s songs, you realise what an obvious candidate for a film his band is. The clearest example is during “All My Friends”: when Murphy asks, “Where are your friends tonight?”, the camera responds by shifting its gaze from the stage to the adoring crowd, one seething mass of togetherness.

If you thought LCD Soundsystem were all about partying, you haven’t spent much time studying James Murphy. A self-confessed failure till he was thirty, he struggled through suburbia, punk bands, lucrative DJ sets, always yearning to step out from the shadows and do something memorable in his own right. The original incarnation of LCD Soundsystem took the form of “Losing My Edge”, a painfully tragic account of younger people being painfully hip. Soon after, Murphy assembled a band of friends to play his music at parties—the best LCD Soundsystem covers band, if you will.

His is a band that never set out to start somewhere, but which wrapped up in concrete the place they would end. In one of the more bearable fragments of the Chuck Klosterman interview, Murphy is pressed to suggest what will be remembered as his band’s defining failure. After a few false starts, he delivers his answer: ending the band—maybe. Murphy feared his own justification for drawing the curtains on LCD Soundsystem would objectively be deemed inadequate. After all, he had previously said a purpose of the band was to show young people how live music could still excite, and here he was, in 2011, still showing those upstarts who was boss. In making young listeners bow down to him, Murphy failed to inspire them to ape his own act. In this context, retirement might be seen as failing to take the greatest risks imaginable.

“I was 38 and I decided to make another record. I blinked, and I was 41…if I blink again, I’ll be 50.”

I wish I could remember more of the clever things Murphy says, whether to friends on the phone, or to Klosterman, sat in an Italian restaurant. Maybe this is Klosterman’s fault: he is the kind of pretentious critic who asks questions and then, as if grabbing the microphone from his interviewee, proceeds to answer them himself. This might make for good written interviews, but it makes for pretty aggravating cinema. However, I recognise that, on occasion, Klosterman’s questions prompt Murphy to make a perceptive, insightful remark that perfectly ushers in the next segment of the film. For example, near the end, Murphy says he  likes songs “that come from a particular place”—an ideal introduction to the haunting “Someone Great”, which ends with…no, I won’t spoil it.

Another theme close to Murphy’s heart which gets a fair airing during the film is that of family. We see Murphy addressing his brother, sister and nephews from on stage. We see him greet musical acolytes (Arcade Fire join the band to sing backing vocals on “North American Scum”; the comedian and a cappella musician Reggie Watts skits through “45:33 (II)”) like soulmates. During the many songs which are shown almost in entirety, there is much embracing and unity. It’s another sign Lovelace and Southern, who also made No Distance Left To Run, the film about Blur’s fleeting rebirth, have done their homework. In conception, the film’s strands seem irreconcilable—shoehorning a four-hour concert into a documentary about the end of a band. In execution, the way the film pulls back from the humdrum and then lurches us in media res works well.

Prior to watching Shut Up…, the only comparable film I had seen was Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which follows Talking Heads at their peak over a three-night residency of the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. There are numerous similarities, from the chiaroscuro shots of the bands’ frontmen, to the obsessive highlighting of complementary percussion and amp- and keyboard-fiddling. And, of course, Talking Heads are one of the clear antecedents to LCD Soundsystem.

But Shut Up… is its own kind of film, with its nonlinear narrative (the film starts amidst a sheet of gravelly white noise, which, any dedicated fan will know, is the ‘musical’ cover for the transition between two closing-stages songs, “Yeah” and “Someone Great”) and emphasis on the pedestrian parts of so-called rock stars’ lives (making coffee, taking the dog Petunia for walks). The best way of describing it is to say it is a very LCD Soundsystem film, so in keeping with the spirit of the band and the artist that, as I suggested earlier, watching it without having heard any of their music is pointless and indefensible. The fact the music in it is so impeccably mixed and really benefits from being blasted out of a cinema is significant, if only because you will want to get out of your seat and dance.


Shut Up And Play The Hits, by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is produced by Pulse Films and distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and will be released in the summer of 2012.

Picture credits: Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace.

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LCD Soundsystem – The Long Goodbye

UPDATE TO UPDATE: The recording of the concert mentioned below wove its way into the film Shut Up And Play The Hits, which I wrote about here.

UPDATE: According to this Facebook exchange, LCD Soundsystem have confirmed that a DVD release of the concert recording is on its way, once they have “mix[ed] the music” and “edit[ed] between all the cameras”. Great news!

So, as I was saying earlier, like a sleep-deprived fanboy, I spent the night of 2nd April sitting on the edge of my bed, watching Pitchfork’s live-stream of the final act in the LCD Soundsystem saga: a near-four-hour long concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Were it not for my comparatively sane flatmates, fast asleep, I probably would have been singing along at the top of my lungs—as it was, I was mouthing the lyrics under my breath most of the way through. I was giddy with excitement, and James Murphy did his best to assuage my distress at the realisation that, after tonight, his band would be no more. Finis.

LCD Soundsystem existed as both the archetype and the antidote to hipster culture. Murphy made no attempt to disguise his influences, many of whom are quoted liberally throughout the band’s œuvre—from the Iggy Pop cut-and-paste of “Somebody’s Calling Me”, to the deranged Fall-like madness of “Movement” and “Tired”. But throughout, it was a loving homage, not a pastiche. Murphy’s honesty set his music apart from the emptiness and façade-building of so much of the music which followed him.

The music of LCD Soundsystem was, in a word, generous. It welcomed you into its arms, even as it pointed out the tragic flaws at the heart of us all. On “I Can Change”, Murphy is unrepentantly a flawed romantic, putting himself down, putting others down, putting down the whole concept of a relationship. Through the simple channelling of his synth-pop heroes, the song is a triumph: you want to shed a tear alongside him, as well as for him. On “Yr City’s A Sucker”, a rambling 2004 B-side, he’s at once hyping up and deflating his adopted hometown, while a creepy/cheery synth line winds through a jumble of percussion and rock-solid bass. The effect is mesmerising; we await some kind of payoff which, when it arrives, not just embraces you, but practically swallows you up like an expanding star.

LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy – Flickr user Loren Wohl

The Long Goodbye, which was a wholly appropriate title, by the way, was a final act of generosity; the musical equivalent of a farewell hug before you depart for unknown shores. For one thing, there was the breadth and calibre of guests who showed up to help Murphy through this mammoth undertaking. Arcade Fire singing backup vocals on “North American Scum“. Reggie Watts scatting through the second part of “45:33”. Marcus Lambkin (a.k.a. Shit Robot) doing vocoderised battle with John MacLean (of The Juan MacLean and Six Finger Satellite) from opposing cardboard space-ships. A male choir which included the punk-rock-cum-music-critic band Mr. Dream. Quickly, I lost count of how many people were on stage.

My introduction to Talking Heads was, because I am a young person, listening to the 1984 live album Stop Making Sense. A year later or so, I unearthed the concert film of the same name, directed by Jonathan Demme. The concert in question, which took place at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, is the best point of comparison to The Long Goodbye (lots of guest musicians, stylised overarching narrative), but even it pales in comparison to LCD Soundsystem’s ordeal. The Madison Square Garden concert was the culmination of a week’s worth of “warm-up” gigs at Terminal 5, each of which had themselves lasted three hours. This climactic event was split into multiple themed movements, each with their own costume changes. By dint of being a conclusion, as well as an apotheosis, there was a palpable countdown going on, as the band neared the final song (inevitably, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”).

In one of the episodes of the video diary which charted the progress of recording LCD Soundsystem’s final album, Murphy himself waxed philosophical on the closing phase of the band. “This has to happen,” he said, “this has to happen now.” And this was before the album had even been christened. Evidently, throughout the recording of This Is Happening, Murphy and his acolytes were cognisant of the external pressures acting on them, building up the sense of event surrounding the album’s release. This was not the overbearing hype that precedes the début of a twenty-one-year old, nor was it the calculating PR mumbo-jumbo that swathes the rebirth of a fallen popstar. This was the love of a band’s adoring fans and critics, by some process of osmosis, bleeding into everyday life at the Manshun.

And then Murphy would pull the rug from under his own feet, punch himself in the nose, and insist that it was “just a record”.

This tension between preparing for some kind of messianic happening, and just trying to have a good time, manifested itself in glorious fashion on the album in question. And come 2nd April, the same beast reared its head: the timer was counting down to the inevitable, while the band just wanted everyone to have fun. Fortunately, the execution was every bit as good as the conception, because this performance was flawless.

Judging by the reactions of those who were there in person, this concert may go down in history as one of the most culturally significant events of the twenty-first century. Back at home, some of this drama failed to seep through the computer screen—LCD pixels cannot convey emotion in the same way, it would seem. But even this simulacrum of being there was thrilling and moving, and I’d like to think at least some of the on-stage ecstasy found its way into my room.

The balance between chart-pleasing hits (though, as Murphy has intimated, “Maybe we don’t do hits”) and fan-pleasing cuts was struck perfectly in the first and third sets, and so we had “All My Friends” followed by “Tired”, and “North American Scum” trailed by the first and last performance of “Bye Bye Bayou“, an Alan Vega cover. Everywhere, you could see the band’s mastery of interstitial transitions between songs, a carryover from DJ-ing, no doubt, as in the way “You Wanted A Hit” morphed into “Tribulations” via Pat Mahoney’s indefatigable drumming, or in the way Gavin Russom artfully transformed the white-noise blowout at the end of “Yeah” into the elegant squiggles of “Someone Great”.

LCD Soundsystem - Shit Robot
Marcus Lambkin a.k.a. Shit Robot – Flickr user veropie

The second set was a treat for LCD die-hards, no mistake. I had longed to see “45:33” being given an airing, and here it was! With a brass band in tin-foil spacesuits! While the other players got on with the job, you could see Murphy lurking around the back of the stage, tinkering with keyboards and amps and generally preparing himself for life post-LCD. It doesn’t suit him right now, but I’m sure in time it will.

It has been noted from both within and without the band that LCD Soundsystem were bulletproof from the start—that the mythos of the band proscribed criticism. I think that’s true, but I don’t say that in a curmudgeonly spirit. I read somewhere else that LCD was the band people had dared to dream about for a lifetime: with that kind of anticipation, who would begrudge them an iota of acclaim?

But even if you were the kind of person who winced at the plaudits they have attracted, The Long Goodbye was their night; their chance to go out with a bang at everyone’s expense. And, credit to them, they didn’t. Worthier champions than that, the gig felt inclusive and all-encompassing. More than that, it looked like an effort beyond the call of duty. As we approached the finale–three songs left… two songs left…–Murphy was visibly shattered; destroyed, even. A week of exertions had taken their toll on the man; nine years of a purported ‘side-project’ had almost claimed a victim. But he was determined to the end, which made for a wonderful night.

LCD Soundsystem - Madison Square Garden -  4.2.11
Balloons at the end – Flickr user skinnyboybalki

And so they departed, “like a sales-force into the night”, Murphy pausing only to tentatively stab a stray balloon which had worked its way onto the stage, before making a characteristically low-key exit.

How I will miss this band.♦