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09 December 2010

Cage Against the Machine

But let's start at the beginning.

The X Factor is a TV talent show franchise originating in the UK (2004) as a replacement for Pop Idol. It is a singing competition that pits contestants -- aspiring pop singers drawn from public auditions -- against each other. The programs are produced by British music executive, TV producer, and entrepreneur Simon Cowell and his company Syco TV, a subsidiary of his TV production and music publishing house Syco. The "X Factor" of the title refers to that certain, indefinable "something" that makes for star quality. The prize is public adulation and, usually, a recording contact.

A predictable fact in the UK, at least until quite recently, is that whoever wins The X Factor will assuredly release their winning song on a debut single that will go straight to No. 1 on the UK charts in time for Christmas. So when Joe McElderry won The X Factor in 2009 with the December 12 release of his terribly earnest ballad, "The Climb," he was confident he'd be celebrating the holidays in very celebrated style.

Ah, but it was not to be so. The 18-year old from South Shields was ousted by the California rock band Rage Against the Machine, and specifically for their re-release of the 1992 song, "Killing In The Name" (with the endearing iconic refrain, "Fuck you! I won't do what you tell me"). The upset was the result of a rather lofty Facebook campaign spearheaded by one Jon Morter, a 35-year old rock fan, part-time DJ, and logistics expert from Essex.

Morter had made a similar attempt in 2008 when he campaigned for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" against The X Factor starlet of that year, Alexandra Burke, and her song, "Hallelujah." He was not successful.

Unfazed, Morter decided to try again in 2009 with a campaign on behalf of Rage Against the Machine. But this time around he got a little help: On December 15, the comedian Peter Serafinowicz urged his 268,000+ Twitter followers to join in, and by the time Paul McCartney and former X Factor winner Steve Brookstein pledged their support, McElderry was already doomed.

Rage Against the Machine won the battle for Christmas top spot on the basis of +/- 500,000 downloads (a mere +/- 50,000 more than the runner-up). A pleasurable twist to the story was that Rage Against the Machine had gone in pledging that, should they win, 100% of the profits from their download would be given over to charities: specifically to the housing and homelessness organization Shelter, and Youth Music, the UK's largest children's music charity. True to their word, on June 6, 2010, Rage Against the Machine gave a concert in London's Finsbury Park to celebrate their success. During the set, which was attended by some 40,000 fans, the band presented the charities with a check for nearly $300,000.

Two months later, on August 12, 2010, a short piece by one Alun Palmer appeared in the Daily Mirror with the following headline: "Silence Isn't Golden for Simon Cowell and X Factor in Christmas No. Battle," wherein it was reported that a host of musicians would be gathering together to record experimental composer John Cage's classic work 4'33" as a viable contender against whomever (and whatever) Simon Cowell would ultimately throw into the 2010 ring.

"Cage Against the Machine" was started by the London-based artist Dave Hilliard in the summer of 2010 as a grassroots Facebook campaign to get Cage's 4'33" to No. 1 on the UK charts this Christmas. For him it may have simply been an amusement, or a petty war lodged against the tyranny of Simon Cowell, but, to date, it's garnered some 73,000 fans, infused over the past several months by the attention of Eddy Temple-Morris (Xfm presenter and CMU columnist), Joe Hutchinson (Ou Est Le Swimming Pool), and Mark Jones (Wall of Sound). Should 4'33" take the No. 1 spot, proceeds will again go to charities, this time five:

Interesting stuff, no?

But The X Factor may not be Cage's only contender, or, from another point of view, Cage may not be a contender at all. Since the power of an energetic grassroots Facebook campaign is obviously some measure, we might want to keep an eye on The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," that ubiquitous little ditty recorded in 1964 by the Minnesota-based surf rock band known as The Trashmen, which reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Facebook campaign on behalf of The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" has attracted, to date, an astonishing 600,000+ fans.

"Surfin' Bird" is actually a combination of two contemporary R & B hits by The Rivingtons: "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word." The earliest pressings of the single credit The Trashmen as composers, but with the threat of a lawsuit by The Rivington's legal counsel, the credit was changed to reflect the song's true origins.

Such shady beginnings matter very little, of course, and the song went on to be covered by an astonishing array of musicians over the years, including (but not limited to) The Deviants, The Ramones, The Cramps, The Boppers, Silverchair, Equipe, Sodom, The Hep Stars, The Iguanas, The Studio Sound Ensemble, Sha Na Na, The Psycho Surfers, The Queers, The Wipe Outs, and even Pee-Wee Herman. It's also sustained itself in the culture via television and film, with repeated references in Family Guy -- "I Dream of Jesus," "Big Man on Hippocampus" (launching the song to #8 on the iTunes Top 10 Rock Songs chart and #50 on the UK Singles Chart in 2009), "April in Quahog," and "Welcome Back, Carter" -- and in a single episode of the beloved Spongebob Squarepants -- "I Love Dancing." It's at work in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as well as in John Waters' Pink Flamingo, and it's a soundtrack option in the popular video game Battlefield Vietnam.

But back to John Cage.

Last Monday the recording of 4'33" finally happened, with a Who's Who-worthy line-up of largely Indie artists packed into Studio One of London's legendary Dean Street Studios in London.

The latest tally (drawn from conflicting reports) includes Adam F., Aeroplane, Alexander Wolfe, Alice Russell, Anne Pigalle, Barry Ashworth, Billy Bragg, Big Pink, Bishi, Bo Ningen, Chas Smash, Coldcut, Crystal Fighters, Dan Le Sac, Does It Offend You Yeah?, Dub Pistols, Enter Shikari, Fenech Soler, Fyfe Dangerfield, Gallows, Guillemots, Heaven 17, Imogen Heap, Infadels, Japanese Popsters, Jarra York, John Foxx, John McLure, Kilford the Music Painter, Kooks, Loose Cannons, Man Like Me, Rix Mc, Monarchy, Mr. Hudson, Napolean IIIrd, Olly Wride Orbital, Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, Penguin Prison, Scroobius Pip, South Central, Suggs, Teeth!!!, Tom Alison, Tom Milsom, Unkle, Venus in Furs, Whitey...

The producers were Paul Epworth (Friendly Fires/Florence & The Machine), Clive Langer (Madness's producer), and Charlie Rapino (That That, Kylie Minogue). The event was also apparently filmed for a documentary and promo release by music film legend Dick Curruthers (Oasis, Manics, Rolling Stones).


The press has been relentless. Check out this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this (which, curiously, also finally reveals what really happened between Cage & Batt...), and then search anew tomorrow morning over coffee. As different as Cage's 4'33" is from whatever song emerges as victorious from The X Factor this weekend, it can't possibly be any more different than The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird." Come what may (and be careful what you wish for), it's been pretty amazing to watch so many imaginations captured by Cage's work. What a world.

Laura Kuhn