Marcel Proust, punk rocker avant la lettre (… a post about, well, … language)
In some lucky, freezing parts of the world, this is a time for the licensed collective madness called winter carnivals. In German-speaking Switzerland, the prelude to Lent named Fasnacht or Fastnacht gives the famously orderly Swiss an excuse for escaping their usual selves in ritualised abandon and disciplined bacchanals – all dressed up in fantasy.
We suspect that it was in this state of mind that a Swiss correspondent of post-Gutenberg’s sent us a link to one of the most unlikely obituaries we have ever read. It might have been written specially for Fasnacht – in deepest sympathy with the spirit of this celebration – even if it is an actual encapsulation in a London newspaper of the life of a 1960s English rocker we confess we had never heard of.
What is it about the life of Reg Presley of the Troggs that makes us especially ashamed of our ignorance? These extracts (below) will explain, to anyone too busy to read the original — who will want to know that the Larry Page mentioned in our first clip was the group’s manager.
Two conclusions occurred to us when, frantic for oxygen, we reached the obituary’s end:
(i) It would seem that long before the villainous internet killed culture — if you believe some of our fulminating, fuddy-duddy, cultural guardians — our era’s counterpart for sumptuously graphic Chaucerian language, describing essential functions of the human body, entailed using a single word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet a lot. Okay, an awful lot — through mindless, spontaneous repetition.
(ii) It was not some ignorant online – Amazon! — reviewer but a professional dead-tree critic in faraway 1971 who pronounced rocker Reg the equal of the most venerated writer in the French literary canon.
Page dressed his protégés in loud striped suits and urged them to maintain an impeccable image offstage. Presley, a moderate drinker who smoked, by his own estimation, an average of 80 a day for most of his life, never took illegal drugs. But Page was also particularly insistent that the group refrain from swearing. With time, the musicians found this stricture more difficult to adhere to.
In the late 1960s, a studio engineer secretly kept the tape rolling while The Troggs were airing musical differences between takes. The recording begins on an optimistic note, with one member explaining that: “This is a f—— number one. It f—— is. This is a number f—— one, and if this bastard don’t go, I f—— retire. I f—— do. Bollocks. But it f—— well won’t be unless we spend a little bit of f—— thought and imagination to f—— make it a f—— number one. You’ve got to sprinkle a little bit of f—— fairy dust over the bastard.”
Later in the discussion (ironically the song in question, never released, was entitled Tranquillity) a note of disharmony begins to creep in. Presley offers some advice to Ronnie Bond, the band’s drummer. “You can say that,” Bond responds, “all f—— night. Just shut your f—— mouth for five minutes. Don’t keep f—— ranting down that f—— microphone. F— me, Reg. Just f— off and let me keep going f—— through it. I know it ain’t f—— right. I can f—— hear it ain’t right you —-. F— me. When I f—— hear it in my f—— head, that that’s what I’ve gotta f—— do, then I’ll do it. You big pranny.”
“The Troggs’ Tapes”, as the bootlegged session became known, became one of their most enduringly popular recordings. Parodied in a scene of Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy This is Spinal Tap, it was eventually issued legally, as a bonus CD in Archaeology, a 1992 boxed set of the group’s collected works. “I was a bit annoyed about the tape at the time,” Reg Presley said, “because it was a while before we knew it even existed. We found out in a pub, in west London. This bloke came up to us and said: ‘You’re the Troggs, aren’t you? Have a listen to this.’”
Presley was informed that pirated copies of the 11-minute tape, unpurged of its 114 expletives, had been eagerly purchased by his rivals in the music business, and that black market vendors were reporting a more satisfactory level of customer feedback than was usual with a Troggs recording.
This was unfair. For Wild Thing, With a Girl Like You and Any Way That You Want Me were outstanding singles which inspired a host of performers, including Iggy Pop. The late American writer Lester Bangs even went so far as to publish a 25,000 word eulogy to The Troggs, which hailed them as the godfathers of punk and called their music “holy”. At one point Bangs, whose critical instincts occasionally betrayed his prodigious consumption of narcotics, compared Reg Presley to Marcel Proust.
When discussing space travel, Presley tended to depart from the standard vernacular, referring to interstellar craft as “the bugger” or “the bastard”, and to interplanetary communications systems as “tackle”. In 1994 he claimed to have obtained footage of a metallic disc seen hovering over crops, an object which, he said, was “nosin’ around at corn height”, and “sniffin’ around the field”. This, he argued, was “one of the little fellers – the ones with the big cow eyes, which in UFO circles we call the greys. I’ve got a sneaking feeling that they are engineered by aliens who can see the future; if they know a woman is going to lose a baby they take it and they convert it. They put in a bit of extra brain. Maybe no vocal. But they can mind-read you.”
If an alien craft landed and offered to abduct him, Presley reflected in 2006, “I hope I would have the bottle to go. Because I’d like to ask them a lot of bloody questions. And they’ve probably got all the answers. These beings may be 20 million years in advance of us. What kind of technology must they have? You could come back to earth and not know a soul on the planet. But perhaps you would have seen something that would help save the whole human race. And maybe some people have done that.”