Monday, February 11, 2019

Mekons (1990)

Spin, 1990
(possibly unpublished, really cannot remember!)

by Simon Reynolds

"We're not a folk band or a C&W band", insists Tom Greenhalgh of The Mekons. "We hated getting shoved in the roots music category. So we called the last album 'Rock'N'Roll' to clear up the misconception."

Another reason, says guitarist Jon Langford, was that they wanted to reclaim the term from the rock aristocracy installed by Live Aid's public spectacle of philanthropy. "After Live Aid, it seemed like 'rock'n'roll' had much broader connotations than Elvis' quiff. Rock'n'roll started with a pelvic gyration, and ended up capitalism's bastard son."

"We wanted to talk about whether it's possible to carry on writing songs and playing guitars in these conditions," continues Greenhalgh. "And the answer is that it's almost impossible. But you have to try. Our original idea was to call the album "The Music Industry", with have songs titled "The Publisher", "The Distributor", "The Agent", "The Journalist". We wanted it to be like a Godard film: a horrible, brutal, boring deconstruction, with lots of statistics and naming of names."

The Mekons have been 'deconstructing' rock'n'roll for over 12 years now, during which time they've endured ordeals at the hands of record companies, but enjoyed the esteem of a posse of bigwig US critics. Lester Bangs once dubbed them "the most revolutionary band in the world", while Greil Marcus has celebrated them for following the most interesting trajectory out of the wreckage of punk's failed revolution. 

During the Eighties, The Mekons found - in the fatigue and fatalism of C&W and folk - a brilliant metaphor for the blighted dreams of the post-punk aftermath. The bleak, fractured lyrics of their songs described the predicament of a defeated generation, whose lives had disintegrated into a tangle of loose ends and aborted possibilities.

Despite their cheerless subject matter, The Mekons are one of the most rousing live experiences around. And their most recent release, the "F.U.N. 90" EP, actually saw them venturing into dance terrain. "Having A Party" (a cover of Kevin Coyne's blistering kiss-off to the music biz) even borrows the same syncopated, 'Funky Drummer' backbeat that has motored the UK's current indie/dance crossover explosion.

"We're not taking the piss out of the post-Manchester thing," says Greenhalgh. "It's more the case the indie/dance sound is the climate and it's kind of irresistible."

Although they insist that they're not party poopers, the lyrics of "Having A Party" and other songs on the EP do undercut and expose the vacuous positivism of the post-Manchester rave. 

Greenhalgh confirms that The Mekons project is one of negation. "Adorno said that making any affirmative gestures in the post-holocaust era, only affirms that culture. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fantasy land. And that's what most rock'n'roll is. If you are involved in rock you've got to be as dissonant as possible."

The most experimental track on the EP, "One Horse Town" is an eerie, ambient dancescape, featuring a sample of Lester Bangs. 

"We met him in New York in 1981," remembers Langford. "He liked our attitude, and invited us round to his East Village apartment. When we got there, he made me go out and get a nasal spray, which he promptly smashed with a toffee hammer and ate the contents, because it gives a kind of speed buzz. We got on really well, and played some songs together. So when we were recording "One Horse Town" we sampled his voice, as a kind of tribute. That's him going "burn the stars and stripes"."

 From punk, through "C&W noir", to their current forays into "bleak house", The Mekons make de(con)struction fun.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

writing about music #3

an interview with Paula Hearsum, from about six or seven years ago, for an academic study of music journalism and rock criticism she was writing, 

One of the pieces I mentioned with several other music academic friends, was using an old Barney Hoskyns piece for NME ‘Subbed Culture’ which he wrote in 1984 and he described music writing as a 'metamusic' and says there are four things a piece of writing about music should cover:

•Distinguish musical form
•Give explanation of production style
•Explore emotion


I remember it well -- read it at the time, cut it out (like I did most of Barney's stuff) and still have it somewhere. I thought it was very interesting and persuasive, but at the same time I'm not sure it actually influenced what I do, or even that it really describes what Barney was doing in his greatest writing. It's a bit too methodical. 

In practice most musical journalists, if they're anything like me, just come up with as many interesting thoughts as possible, and then try to organize it into as an attractive a shape as they can. Often it's a bit of a struggle -- trying to come up with the ideas first, then trying to make it flow. Probably more energy and worry goes into having a start and an end to a piece than it does to any one of those four tasks that Hoskyns describes. And you could have a fantastic piece of music writing that only attempted to do one or two of those four things, whereas something that conscientiously applied itself to all those tasks might not make the grade as a spectacular piece of rock writing (which wouldn't mean it was devoid of value, of course).

One of the insights in that piece, which he may have developed out of something Simon Frith said, is when Barney talks about showing off being part of rock writing. Self-preening I think is the word he uses. There is a performative aspect to rock criticism, or at least to the stuff that I think is central to the, ah, tradition.  The writer, who most likely in person is not terribly impressive or commanding a figure, manages to create a kind of charismatic effect through language and through the creation of a persona, a sort of super-self. I think of it very much as being in the same game as fronting a rock band, or better still, being a rapper.  There's a whole range of personae -- fabulously hip and in the know and "down with the scene", or an authority in terms of knowledge, or a prophet with a messianic line of patter, or the gonzo persona who's a little out of control and brutally honest (Lester Bangs to Everett True), or wry, ironic, or...

It's about rhetoric and the art of suasion. There's skill and tricks but there is also, as with a rapper, just confidence, the arrogance to make a categorical statement about an artist or genre's worth. To be a judge. 

The first person I got this buzz off was Julie Burchill in NME, the absolute certainty with which she decreed things, and the vehemence and viciousness, and also the way you were hypnotized by the cadence of the prose into believing she was right, at least for the duration of reading the piece. Years and years later, when I started to think critically about music journalism itself, I realized that a lot of this "truth" effect was achieved simply through her use of alliteration and other word tricks.  It was the music of her writing as much as its meaning.

I think of rock criticism as being different from both academic writing and from journalism in the conventional sense. It uses journalistic methods to an extent (interviews, observation etc) but rarely properly (certainly in the UK weekly press we never got secondary quotes or outside opinions, almost none of us had any training in reporting). And some music journalists have used riffs and ideas from academia, but again almost always in a fast-and-loose way that wouldn't be approved of within academia.

2. You're obviously known for threading theory into your writing, particularly theory pertinent to popular music studies (particularly around Western Marxism etc...) - you are obviously preaching to the converted here but can you reflect on the style you take - what do you think it adds to your reader's understanding?

In a way, I think the music actually substantiates and elucidates the theory rather than the other way around. Like I understood Deleuze & Guattari much better through the music of Can or early 90s jungle.

So in a funny sort of way when I put theory into articles, it's more like I'm selling the reader on theory and philosophy, than elevating and dignifying and legitimizing the music. If you apply Marxism to hip hop, it's not that hip hop suddenly seems more weighty and interesting, it's that Marxism seems to have more purchase on reality, because hip hop provides evidence to substantiate it. You can see the effects of money and reification and commodity fetishism on human relations.  But all this is writ large and clear in hip hop already, the Marxist gloss in a way is superfluous.

So why bring it into play, then? In truth I don't tend to think much about the reader when it comes to the theory stuff -- the compulsion to connect theory and music just comes from indulging my own interests, amusing myself to an extent. But also I do it when I think it's "true" --when a theoretical concept just seems to fit what's going on in the music or the subculture.

The other thing about theory is something I wrote about in this piece for Friezewhich is that you can get a real buzz off it. It's a kind of stimulant drug, your mind races, you get this sense of clarity and levitating above things and have a panoramic view that is also a diagrammatic view, like you can see the structures and the forces at play in the field of socioculture you're looking at.

 3. With the current state of both the music press (certainly in the UK although I am less certain of the States) what skills in music journalism are going to be the ones that should be focused on in order for survival?

I couldn't say what should be focused on, but I think I can see what kind of things are being fostered by the new climate, none of which I particularly like. Flexibility and generalism (finding the good in as wide a range of musics as possible. Which is obviously a good career move, expanding your range). Brevity. Coming up with a contrivedly inflammatory or polarizing angle, in order to increase your clicks through tweeter-isation. etc. I can do the last one well enough but I'm not cut out for brevity and my personality doesn’t suit generalism - I came up on that kind of rockwriting that was very polarized in its viewpoints, it's too ingrained for me to break with now, although a certain mellowing does creep in with age inevitably. What I find disconcerting is how many young writers are very reasonable and sane in their approach, and overly fair-minded. It's not what I want to read, at all. I'd much rather read a very fierce denunciation of something, even it was attacking something musically dear to my heart.

4. What makes a strong piece of music writing for you? What qualities if you can nail it? Who were you influenced by and currently?

I do read and enjoy pieces that are subtle and ambivalent-- they can have all kinds of insights and shrewd analysis in them. But as is probably clear by now, the kind of stuff I came up on and that means the most to me is the messianic mode of rock writing, where there is a sense of absolute conviction and urgency. If I find myself in the frame of mind about a band or a genre where I can produce that kind of prose, that is a glorious feeling.

This kind of writing is a specific genre of music journalism, strongest perhaps in the U.K. although you had your Lester Bangs and various fanzine writers in the US. And it is a vanishing genre, as far as I can see.

The people who influenced me when I was first reading the press would have been Julie Burchill, Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Barney Hoskyns, and they were very much in this writer-as-prophet mode. Then a little later, as a student, I started checking out the academic writing, so figures like Simon Frith, Dick Hebdige, and so forth, would have been an influence, in terms of ideas not style. I also would have been catching up with certain legendary figures like Nik Cohn. Then a year or two into working at Melody Maker I got hold of work by canonical Americans like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, although by this point I'd have been pretty set in my writing identity and not so capable of being formatively influenced. But there's loads of other people subsequent to this that I've got a lot of from reading, ideas-wise -- Joe Carducci, Brian Eno, Greg Tate, Fred and Judy Vermorel,  Camille Paglia, Kodwo Eshun, more recently figures like Mark Fisher. Tons more.

The messianic and highly intellectualized modes of music writing are not the only valid approaches, by a long shot. I get a lot out of reading academic studies, and conventional histories of music or biographies. And also from more conventional record reviews and reported pieces and star profiles. 

But in terms of the buzz that got me into this field in the first place, it's this disappearing mode of journalism that I most miss. The lead album review/ singles page/ cover story as a manifesto in disguise (often very thinly disguised, in the music press's heyday). I mentioned the performative aspect of it, and I think this is where music criticism comes closest to matching the music itself. I read pieces growing up that would actually make me tremble with excitement.  Or cheer at the end. Things that I read over and over again, cut out and kept, and know by heart (well patches of them, not the whole piece!).  Very much in the way that people in the 18th or 19th Century could recite long stretches of poetry.  The greatest of these pieces have had an effect very nearly as powerful as listening to the music they're about.  I don't come across music writing like that much anymore, that has that effect on me -- and this may partly be a result of not being as impressionable as I was as a teenager and a student / dole layabout in my early twenties. (For similar reasons I'm pretty much beyond being influenced these days, although I obviously get useful ideas from reading all kinds of sources). But mainly I think it's because people aren't writing this kind of stuff anymore, because they don't want to write like that anymore, for a number of reasons. Perhaps music culture simply can't sustain that particular kind or degree of seriousness, the sense that music is central in the culture and that it has this transformative or catalyzing power. 

6. What is the purpose of music journalism (add enjoyment, add knowledge, heighten experience of music, support sales for music itself…)?

All of those. Also hype, which I think of as meaning as much hype as in getting people hyped up, over-excited, as in shifting units. Music journalists, especially in the UK, have always been in the business of hype. It's nothing to be ashamed of, just so long as you actually believe in the hype yourself.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

writing about music #2

from about 10 years ago i think, an interview with Angelo Di Mambro for D News, covering topics like role of music press, the music critic, dancing, pitfalls and biases, etc

1)   Once there was the musical press, with an acknowledged role in forming opinions and a market in music. Then the web and digital devices arrived. And almost everything has changed: production, distribution, opinion making and marketing. And the role of the reviewer, of the criticism: has it changed? And how? The web and the proliferation of voices talking about music have eroded the monopoly of knowledge that supposed to belong to critics?

I don't think there was ever a monopoly as such, you had a thriving underground of fanzines, the letters pages of the music press were lively forums for discussion, and people debating music with great fervor and subtlety went on in bars, cafes, school yards, etc.

But certainly what's changed is the role of music criticism as gate-keeper, the music critic as someone who gets to hear the music before the general public and can influence its reception. Nowadays with MySpace allowing anybody to check out a new band as soon as the buzz starts, and leaks of albums onto the internet long before they are released, there is much of a decentralized nature to opinion-formation, a chaos of voices and positions being taken.  In these circumstances, the role of critic changes, to offer the more considered view, to make larger connections and map out the state of the music scene in much broader terms. Of course people who are non-professionals can do that kind of writing on blogs too, or have that kind of discussion on message boards and other online forums.  Some of the most interesting  "macro" writing is done by bloggers. But generally most blogs are part of the early  buzz process, it's very much about the quick reaction to things and then moving on fast to the next hot new band or genre.

2)      One of the blunders or rock criticism was to hide the role of producers and musicians to contribute to build an artist ideology: the music as a genius work rather than a collective work. Something has changed?

Rock critics do tend to focus on the singer and the songwriter, and in the process ignore the other people who contribute, where it's the other musicians or the producer or studio engineer.  For instance the person in Joy Division and New Order who had the hippest taste and some of the most interesting ideas about music was Steven Morris, the  drummer. I know that because I interviewed him for my postpunk book and also put the whole conversation in my new book of postpunk interviews, Totally Wired. He was probably the driving force in New Order's adoption of an electronic sound with programmed rhythms. He'd also once been a music journalist himself! But generally your typical music reporter would focus on Bernard Sumner, because he's the singer.

I think the role of the producer is something that music journalism has become more aware of, though, and that actually began in the postpunk era with people like Martin Hannett, Martin Rushent,  Dennis Bovell, Trevor Horn.  You would have profiles of Hannett and Bovell and Horn  in the New Musical Express.  At that time you also had people treating managers as auteurs, people like Malcolm McLaren, Bernie Rhodes the Clash's manager, as so forth. It's certainly improved from the early days of rock criticism which by and large focused on the person who wrote the lyrics.  But then it was the Seventies and the singer-songwriter era.  It had to improve because so much of the important music of the Nineties and onwards has been driven by producers: hip hop, R&B, rave, electronic music.

To an extent it's understandable that music journalists focus on the lyric-writer because they are likely to be a better talker, because their medium of expression is language. Most music journalists don't know much about music in the sense of how to play instruments, musicology,  or equipment, or recording techniques -- so they can't talk to musicians about what the latter actually spend 90 percent of their time thinking about!  Most music journalists are happier talking about what the songs are about, or the group's opinions about what's going on in politics or elsewhere in the music scene, or just gossipy stuff.

3)      Another historical bad habit: talking about English and American production as a worldwide production, a sort of ethnocentric prejudice. Yet the music grows with hybrid. Are those days past?

I don't quite understand the question, but certainly it's true that the Anglo-American pop culture has a bad history in terms of accepting pop music that isn't Anglophonic.  I wonder if that will change as the American Empire wanes, and as the UK gets more integrated into a larger Europe. [HISTORICAL IRONY ALERT]

4)      In “Rip it up and start again” you write that the scenes between 1978 and 1984 was so plentiful and fast that finding a record of a couple of years before was impossible. No past (and no future…) seemed to exist. Now the tribute and the homage are a real cliché, many Italian mainstream musicians have made cover albums (Carboni, Battiato, Irene Grandi, as Johnny Cash did, or Paul Anka playing swing some rock classics). Pop has stopped to eat itself and has began to put itself in a museum?

My next book is about this topic: retro culture.  There is what academics call a "musealisation" -- everything becoming like a museum -- of culture, in the West at any rate. It affects every level of culture, but it's particularly strong in music.  We have become archive crazy, documenting everything, digging over the past for lost treasure. New bands recycle ideas; old bands return as their own tribute acts. It's a historically unprecedented phenomenon, at times it almost seems to me a kind of crisis. Yet at the same time it is very enjoyable to explore all this old music, I could spend the rest of my life trawling through YouTube or digging in old vinyl record stores, or buying up vintage music magazines. And some great music has come out of this archival sensibility -- I'm particularly into this genre "hauntology", made by groups on the label Ghost Box and some other bands, it's a kind of archaeology of Britain's "cultural unconscious", all the ghosts that  inhabit the memory of any British person who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies.

5)      Music is a serious thing. In your opinion, what does it say to our lives (at the opposite of Morrissey’s “blessed dj”)?

Oh, that's a big question. It says all kind of things, and often it says nothing at all, and that is its point.  Some music is just about dancing, getting in the groove, the intoxication of rhythm; it's not that it is thoughtless, but it's almost getting your body to think, to function at a higher level.  Music can be serious or it can wonderfully non-serious:  I used to think that music and comedy couldn't or shouldn't co-exist, but I've changed my mind. There's too many examples of music that makes you laugh.

But I do take it seriously  and generally, speaking for myself, one of the main things that music has offered is a sense of something bigger outside of myself, something that I can connect with and become one with. That could be networks of ideas and energy, as with postpunk, or, it could be social forces, as with rave culture in the Nineties, where I found my tastes coming into alignment with "the people" for the first time, I joined "the crowd" at last and experienced the joy of collective energy. Or it could just be a sense of the cosmos, which is what I get from psychedelic music, from the German bands of the early Seventies, also from certain kinds of electronic music, the post-War avant-garde.  I think music allows us to be subsumed in the "trans-individual", we can leave behind the petty concerns of our everyday self.  In that sense, as a force that is transcendent and transfiguring and redemptive,  it could be that music provides for me the same role that religion would have done if I'd been born in an earlier century.  I don't believe in God (or at least in a God that takes a great interest in me and what I do). But I do believe in Music.