Monday, June 24, 2013

Incantations: Mike Oldfield, an Alternative Therapy Cult, a New Romantic Burlesque Group, and the Blairs.

This is no more than an interesting aside, linking the unlikely bedfellows of prog rock/New Age music, the burgeoning alternative therapy scene of the 70s, New Romantic synth-pop, and 10 Downing Street during the Blair era.

I've been listening quite a lot to an excellent italo cover of a Mike Oldfield piece called Incantations - a really hypnotic slow-burner that wouldn't be out of place on the score for Nicholas Refn's Drive:

Incantations was a minimalist piece of several movements released by Oldfield as a double album in 1978.  (Here's the part covered by G.A.N.G. as performed orchestrally by Oldfield in 1979.  I love the first minutes or so and the rest not so much.)  During the recording of Incantations, Oldfield became involved with a little-known alternative therapy programme called the Exegesis Group.  Exegesis, the brainchild of a former actor called Robert D'Aubigny, was established in 1976 as Infinity Training and designed to lead the participant into taking total responsibility for every aspect of their lives.  The 70s of course was a golden age and melting pot of radicalized psychiatry and alternative therapies, as the 60s counterculture masticated itself into the Me Generation and the New Age exploded into a myriad of quests and cons.  Naturally these new mental technologies and brisk fads of self-discovery were eagerly explored by the stars of music and film, who will always serve the sometimes enviable and sometimes tragic function of being our exalted guinea pigs in the vagaries of experience.  Earlier in the decade, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had become vocal proponents of Arthur Janov's controversial Primal Scream therapy; in 1964 Sean Connery apparently took LSD at the behest of anti-psychiatry icon RD Laing, resulting in a bad trip that consigned the otherwise robust Bond actor to his bed for a couple of days.

Exegesis therapy usually took the form of three-day seminars/workshops, in which participants were encouraged to strip in front of the group, and often subjected to humiliation and verbal abuse ("raising the confront") in order to shatter their defenses.  (Think of some of the exercises Joaquin Phoenix undergoes in in PT Anderson's surprisingly good cult drama/fable The Master).  The centerpiece of the programme was a "re-birthing" experience designed to uncover the birth traumas which had hitherto determined the nature of the participant's life.  The experience had a profound, transformative effect on Oldfield; the musician was said to have changed virtually overnight from "a painfully diffident recluse into a garrulous, overbearing extrovert."  He took flying lessons and briefly married D'Aubigny's sister.  But Exegesis's success with Oldfield was largely the source of its own downfall.  Due to the musician's ardent proselyting, the Group acquired a higher profile and immediately became mired in controversy.  The Exegesis Group became the subject of a television play and Scotland Yard investigation; Conservative Home Minister David Mellor blasted it as "puerile, dangerous, and profoundly wrong."  It faded quickly into obscurity, a last echo and artifact of the swinging postwar boom whose memory was vanishing in the total gloom of the Thatcher era.

Another former adherent of the Exegesis Group was Carole Caplin.  Caplin had appeared as a child actor in the Harold Pinter-scripted drama Accident in 1967.  In the early eighties she became a member of a trail-blazing New Romantic burlesque pop group called Shock.  Their video for Dynamo Beat is very comical, and somewhat reminiscent of the Mighty Boosh's much later parodies of the genre:

Bizarrely, Caplin re-emerged in the 90s as a lifestyle guru to Cherie Blair and fitness adviser to her insufferable husband, a relationship that later crashed and burned amid rumors of New Age crystal-gazing, accusations of "Svengali or Rasputin"-like power over the couple, and the eventual 'Cheriegate' scandal deriving from her association with Australian felon Peter Foster.  

Well, that's the yarn, or aside.  I'm sure the great Adam Curtis could probably weave these clips and associations into an epic story of idealistic intentions and paradoxical consequences that reveals the maudlin poverty of the New Labour era, but that's about all I can do with it.  I'm going to finish up with a clip of a post-Exegesis Mike Oldfield preforming one of the earliest songs he wrote after his '"re-birthing" transformation.  He's not transformed into Keith Richards or anything, but it's interesting to see the newly energized Oldfield playing in a funky, almost Talking Heads-like guitar style.  That is to say the clip is funky, but with a kind of antiseptic and unsexy undertow; its like The Good Life meets Stop Making Sense.  Like New Labour, in a way.

 A Very British Cult teaser trailer here

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