Binging on Billions

I’m usually not one to judge, but binge watching TV shows is fucking sad, no matter how good they are. You automatically picture someone sitting at home, alone, in their underwear, lights dimmed, eating a takeaway or fattening snacks, watching episode after episode for hours on end.

Over the past week I’ve become a sad bastard. I’ve been power watching episodes of Billions like Shaun Ryder popped ecstacy and ket back in ‘89: several at a time, several times a day. Binge watching is very unlike me, and now I’m pondering whether this marks the extremely early onset of middle age, or if it’s due to the archetype of Billions’ thematic conceit.

The plot centres on an adversarial battle between Chuck Rhoades’ pious public prosecutor versus hedge fund Billionaire and serial insider trader Bobby Axelrod – think Gordon Gekko spliced with Einstein. But it’s the professional ménage á trois Axelrod, Wendy Rhoades and Chuck occupy that sows the terrain for best of Billions’ sumptuously unscrupulous Machiavellianism. Axe and Chuck manipulate Wendy’s trust as though it and she is a pawn in their personal duel. Wendy only finds herself in this ethical bind as she works as a motivational therapist for Axe Capital’s horde of sociopathic traders whilst being married to Chuck.

And, yes, if the above sounds outlandish, it probably is, and partly why Billions is so addictive – it isn’t demanding you take it seriously. It’s a realist abstraction, excessively infused with popular cultural memes, clichés and Easter eggs. Take the scene where Axe’s right hand man, the terrier like mid-life crisis suffering Wags’, who’s adopted the lifestyle excesses of Roy Schneider’s Joe Gideon from All That Jazz, shouts ‘It’s Showtime’ in the mirror. It’s a cool bit of reverence and doubly clever too, as the producing network for Billions is called Showtime. And what other reaction, other than wincing perhaps, is there but to guffaw at the Domination fetish that Wendy and Chuck share?

Recognising this, you can have few gripes, but I do bristle that a show full of very smart characters all use Apple (with its incredulous OS) laptops, desktops and phones (well, maybe they all have shares?). More likely, the network and showrunners have (suitably) taken the money for product placement.

The plot twists and scheming are entertaining but Billions’ magnetism is also procedural. Bobby Axelrod’s love of being ruthlessly right, ‘I love what I do’ he states after flirting with retirement, and Axe Capital’s culture, represent an idealised capitalist vision we can all believe in – where meritocracy reigns. Intelligence, drive and ambition are sacrosanct, and arbitrary measures, such as Axelrod’s gingerness, class, age, sex, race, sexual orientation and where you went to school, are deemed utterly irrelevant in lieu of your profitability. Of course in the real world this is fanciful bollocks, people continue to face superficial forms of discrimination. However, Billions’ cynicism, while selective, is also extended to Rhoades’ public service. Even within a system festooned with cronyism, self-interest, betrayal and lobbying, said realities become malleable to Chuck’s sense of duty synergising with his own ambitions. I’m a huge Paul Giamatti fan and his turn as Chuck, particularly his earnest speeches on the need to punish Axelrod for his ill-gotten gains, could inspire Robespierreist tendencies in even the most hardened Thatcherite.

There are a number of interesting character sub-plots; Chuck’s reluctance, often revulsion at being tethered to his father’s manipulations in helping maintain the family name. The successful manipulations of Axelrod’s wife, largely to protect her husband’s brand, shows she’s just as ruthless as Axe, but she struggles to be accepted as a legitimate business woman in her own right due to her husband’s considerable influence, and to reconcile living a lavish lifestyle with misguided nostalgia for her modest upbringing. The Axe Cap employees are more intriguing than Chuck’s underlings because their wealth allows them to behave in ways most of us cannot afford to. It reveals a ghastly revelation, the wealthier you are, the more liberty you’re afforded.

Bill ‘Dollar’ Stern is an interesting comic aside. He’s a pound shop Axelrod; a conglomeration of testosterone fuelled Trumpian court jesterism, luddite machismo and an admirable honesty that making money sustains him. This is counter-balanced by the stoic and measured Taylor, introduced in season two. Taylor’s a non-binary analyst (preferred pronouns; they, theirs and them. Jordan Peterson dislikes this!) who Axelrod sees as a potential protégé. An intellectual equal to Axelrod in his employ allows the show’s writers to move beyond formulaic insider trades ‘I am not uncertain’ and analyse the disreputable methods rival hedge funds use, directing the businesses they invest in, to trick their competitors into bad ‘shorts’. It shows us behind the curtain of how the world operates at a macro level. What this entails, and the consequences, is unfathomable for us normal folks when we’re preoccupied with managing our budgets, organising holidays, doing the weekly shopping, or going out for a meal.

Smartly, Billions’ places you in an echelon of society few people can inhabit. It’s like discovering what’s at the bottom of the Mariana Trench is what you suspected was there all along. Before the mystique of uncertainty allowed the imagination to run riot, post discovery projection is freed to be applied liberally to suit our confirmation biases. This is how we want Axelrod and Chuck to be, and in particular, Bill Stern – completely unapologetic. Such delineation frees us from ambiguity and hypocrisy at enjoying these characters, and alleviates any jealousy at being subject to them, particularly as most of us lack the stomach or capability to emulate their kind of ‘success’.

And so it’s no surprise my appetite for this show is voracious as Axe’s and Chuck’s motivation to finish on top. I’ll finish the third season off by the end of next week. The downside to binge watching? The episodes will run out and I’ll have to wait until 2019 for more. This is harmless hedonism, but let me say it, like me, once you start you won’t stop. You’ve been warned.

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Song Of The Day – The Sweetest Taboo by Sade

From the album ‘Promise’ (1985)

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Song Of The Day – Dead Flowers by Townes Van Zandt

From the compilation album ‘The Best Of Townes Van Zandt’ (2002)

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Essential Listening: Dance Hall Style – Horace Andy (1982)

Spending too much time on Boomkat can become a negative. It engenders the blasé materialism Chairman Mao so loathed in Revisionists. Just look at them new shiny vinyl records, the sharp edges of the sleeves, think of that intoxicating factory chemical smell when the cling film’s removed for the first time, and how having shelves full of them will impress yer mates. You know it’s true, because vinyl’s exceedingly sophisticated, isn’t it? I’m talking The Louvre, Tolstoy, Alice Coltrane, sub-titled movies and Japanese minimalist decor levels of sophistication here. And no wonder, vinyl boasts an irresistible combination: a timeless aesthetic and sharp but earthy acoustics. Sure, like anything that’s sophisticated it’s liable to be expensive, so it’s infinitely more sensible to collect vinyl casually, but owning a sizeable collection states, unequivocally, you’re an aficionado, committed not only to maintenance of the records and the turntable, but that you’re a more discerning listener too.

Sadly modernity has made vinyl a deeply impractical conduit for music. Skipping tracks requires getting out of your seat. There are no playlists for your favourite songs. All of the medium’s impracticalities and incompatibility with modern attitudes make it the ultimate test of a record’s worth. Are you prepared to listen to all of it?

But in this era of instantaneous hedonism and convenience adhering to an archaic discipline, or any kind of discipline for that matter, isn’t easy. Peruse Boomkat’s Classics or Future Classics pages and you can become overwhelmed. There are so many great records to choose from and not enough time to choose astutely. Knowledge married with self-control is required to avoid arbitrary excess. Without it, you end up ‘browsing’, which serves as a pre-emptive euphemism for being skint. In the worst case scenario this is a result of buying vinyl records you might not listen to enough – one of the few unforgivable forms of decadence.

However, this form of perilous tangential wandering is exactly how I came to learn that Dance Hall Style had been reissued. I was browsing for some Basic Channel dub stuff that I knew had been reissued, and because their work is influenced by Jamaican dub and roots, it made sense that Dance Hall Style would appear as a recommended or similar purchase.

Contextually, for many millennials (a deeply disparaging term which I’ve come to adore), the album title could be mis-leading. As part of the dub foundation canon Dance Hall Style, with its soundsystem staple of bass, strings, overdubs and organ, is true Dancehall, and is the antithesis of the ghastly (mainly) mainstream, sequencing by numbers, fraudulent autotune festooned shite that’s commandeered the Dancehall genre. There are exceptions found among this undesirable evolution, and while the influences of Dizzie Rascal’s gentrified grime and Deadmau5’s cynically commercial and KISS FM ready electronica are abysmally abortive in a vacuum, such influences have turned Dancehall into a broad church. Throw in some re-issues and this potentially increases the chances of more folk discovering, and better yet deciphering, what an authentic dub and riddum album is.

I suspect many will be familiar with Horace Andy’s work, given the distinctiveness of his voice, without knowing who he is. He has perforated the mainstream in collaborations, as a guest vocalist for Massive Attack, and has served as a cultural inspiration for many, including Basic Channel, and a slew of reggae artists.

It’s easy to see why he’s so revered by those at the cultural apex of the music industry. On Dance Hall Style themes of dysphoria, rejection, conflict and displacement contravene yet sit seamlessly alongside riddum’s psychedelic cornucopia. Andy’s falsetto voice entrances with a soothing Jamaican inflection, but towards the conclusion on ‘Lonely Woman’ it’s weaponised by fragmenting harmoniously alongside overdubs and bass reverbs to match the darker and cynical psyche of the subject. This congruence of voice and harmony eventually morphs into a faded distortion, as though an alien cyborg is singing in the bath in-between submerging its head under the water.

Speaking of being an alien, ‘Spying Glass’ is the album’s standout classic, not only for its seamless organ and string overlays, but its tale of paranoia at migrating from the anonymity offered by home, where Rastafarian culture is universally endemic, to a foreign land that’s curiously invasive, due to its obliviousness to Jamaican culture and mores. Living under scrutiny from an uninformed source is a parable we can all sympathise with even if we’ve never truly experienced it.

This reissue doesn’t have ‘Eating Mess’, which in retrospect would’ve been a more fitting thematic inclusion that ‘Let’s Live in Love’. Certain copies do carry it, and either way it’s well worth tracking down as a digital aside. While it’s still politicised, ‘Let’s Live in Love’ works as a Cliffian counterpoint to the iconoclastic ‘Cuss Cuss’ and lamenting the inconsistency of black spirituality and a lack of focus on continued forms of oppression and discrimination on ‘Stop The Fuss’.

Money, money, money is the root of all evil, is an understandable, but, given Dance Hall Style’s resuscitation, inaccurate musing. Sure, it’s true, money can’t buy you happiness and chasing it can trap you into a life you never intended to lead. Conversely, if used wisely, or in my case unwittingly, it can acquire knowledge, even taste. Remember, the repetitiveness of mediocrity is its own evil and reissues of quality material are the antidote. No chance of a vinyl record sitting idle here, this one’s a sound investment.

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Song Of The Day – Kin Tama by Tommy Mandel

From the compilation album/reissue ‘Mellow Magic’ (2018)

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