Archives for posts with tag: bicycle music

The promotional music video is a significant sub-genre of the bicycle film. As I’ve noted on this blog, there are many examples of music videos that use the bicycle as a central prop, spanning a range of musical styles from hip hop to punk. One reason for the association of bicycles and popular music may be that the music video has its roots partly in the musical comedies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), the films Richard Lester made with the Beatles. The earlier film has its aesthetic roots in the monochrome ‘kitchen-sink’ realism of the British new wave and TV dramas, but the colourful, surreal Help! introduces a playful stylistic template for the music video, and the scene in which the band are capering around on bicycles in the Bahamas (or on bizarre ski-bikes in the Austrian alps) perhaps introduces the association between bicycles and pop.

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In turn, this ensures that the opening credits to The Monkees TV series (1966-1968) the following year show those Beatles clones messing around on bikes, and this is cemented with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (Hickox, 1968), a short ‘swinging London’ pop musical that cites the colourful film musicals of Jacques Demy.

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IMCDb.org: 1967 Austin 1800 MkI [ADO17] in "Les ...

Perhaps, too, in so far as pop music has been made by and for young people since the 1960s, the bicycle epitomises the celebration of youth in post-war European and US culture (where the car has signified adulthood and maturity).

I was reminded of the association between bikes and pop music again reading an article in The Guardian newspaper a couple of weeks ago in which electro-punk musician Peaches (Merrill Nisker) reflects on how she came to form a band. The article includes a link to her first low-budget, DIY video for ‘Lovertits’ (2000), one of the first songs she wrote. It is a very simple film that cross-cuts between shots of Peaches singing, jumping and dancing energetically in front of a mirror, like any teenage music fan, and shots of a couple of women riding low-rider chopper bikes. It looks like an ageing VHS video, with scan lines, and ‘Auto tracking’ messages flashing on screen, and so the low-tech format matches the retro simplicity of the synth-and-drum-machine track that cites the music of New York band Suicide. In the cycling sequences the two women ride along an alley talking and laughing before pulling up alongside one another where they start to caress the frames and handlebars of their bikes suggestively while they stare at each other and pout. They run their lips, mouths and fingers over the chrome and the saddles before remounting their bikes, circling one another and then riding off laughing.

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The fuzzy low-resolution shots of the cyclists don’t bear any direct relation to the song, which is about a relationship breaking up – an anti-love song – but they are rich with meaning. The bicycle is a perfect analogy for the low-tech, obsolete medium of the VHS tape, and the low-tech sound of the music. However, the video is also a succinct commentary on the fetishistic, eroticised relationship we have with technology in general, and with bicycles in particular. This association has been a preoccupation of commentary on cycling since the late 19th century, and the voicing of concerns about the vitiating erotic potential of the bicycle has also been one of the ways in which anxieties about women’s social and political independence have been expressed.

Given that the genitals are a sensitive interface between body and bike, it is perhaps unsurprising that the auto-erotic pleasure of cycling was a focus of early discourses on women’s cycling, with Victorian medical studies warning that, as well as making women more manly and hindering their reproductive capacity, ‘[t]he bicycle teaches masturbation in women and girls’ (Garvey, 74). One consequence was the development of women’s saddles with a cut-out section to prevent contact with the vulva, but as cultural historian Ellen Gruber Garvey observes drily, ‘The issues metaphorized in the medical attacks on bicycle masturbation are obviously too deep and complex to be addressed by changing the bicycle saddle’ (Garvey, 78). Instead what was at issue was that ‘both the bicycling woman and the masturbating woman were out of male control’. It is appropriate, then, that the 2015 guide to women’s cycling published by feminist cycling activist Elly Blue is entitled Our Bodies, Our Bikes, borrowing its title from the classic, empowering publication, Our Bodies Ourselves.

Inevitably, there is a minor narrative tradition of film and literature addressing the fetishization of the bicycle extending from Flann O’Brien’s absurd fantasy novel The Third Policeman – whose protagonist rhapsodizes of his bike, ‘How desirable her seat was, how charming the invitation of her slim encircling handle-arms, how unaccountably competent and reassuring her pump resting warmly against her rear thigh!’ – through Rainer Ganahl’s art installation Etant Donné – Use a Bicycle (2011) – a reworking of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (1946-1966) that incorporates a 16mm film of a woman masturbating with a bicycle wheel in droll reference to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel ‘readymade’ (1913) – and on to the sex-positive, feminist and queer ‘Bike Smut’ film festival (2006-2017) that specializes in low-budget bicycle-related art films, pornography and performance. The video for ‘Lovertits’ belongs to this multi-media tradition, using the bicycle as the focus for a defiantly queer celebration of female sexuality, and a joyful declaration of independence that echoes the singer’s instruction to her jilted lover: ‘You’re gonna have to give it up.’

 

Reference

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women”, American Quarterly, no. 47 (1 March 1995): 66-101

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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While the bicycle has been a topic for song-writers and musicians since the 19th century, there is a rather more specialized history of music made with bicycles that encompasses avant-garde experimentation and novelty. This well-known clip of a young Frank Zappa appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1963 is a nice example of a performance that sits mid-way between comedy and glorious, atonal noise.

This rarely viewed YouTube video of somebody ‘performing’ John Cage’s 4’33” on a bicycle raises the question of what constitutes music perhaps more radically still than Zappa’s improvised performance.

What made me think about this was coming across a clip on late-night TV a couple of weeks ago of the British synth-pop group Depeche Mode playing the song ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ on Top of the Pops back in 1984. I know the song well, but it wasn’t until watching the clip that I realized the clattering noise in the song was produced by a drumstick held against a spinning bicycle wheel, a technique that Zappa also uses above. Depeche Mode were supposedly influenced by contemporary ‘industrial’ groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept., who built their own percussion instruments and incorporated found objects, motors, and pneumatic drills into their armoury of noise-making machinery. It’s unlikely that Depeche Mode had seen the Zappa clip in a pre-internet period; in any case, many young kids have taped pieces of card to their bicycle frames so that they flick against the spinning spokes, allowing them to pretend they are riding a motorbike. What is striking is not so much the parallels with Zappa’s music, but the fact that the instrument they are using seems to be an appropriation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture. Duchamp made the object as a soothing visual distraction to gaze at in his studio, but the band have found a different use for it as a jarring aural distraction, an interruption of the smooth surface of the synthesiser music that complements the song’s weighty themes – teenage suicide and a sadistic God. However, rather than a pretentious or naive dilution of avant-garde experimentation – an accusation that could be levelled at Zappa’s performance – it seems to me to be a technologically creative solution to a search for an expanded repertoire of noises, and it also demonstrates vividly the way that, however ephemeral, ‘modish’, or formally simple it may appear to be, popular culture is always embedded in complex cultural histories and aesthetic traditions.

iur.jpegMarcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951 – 3rd version)