Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Cut in Uncut (The Slits, remembered, in 1997)

The Slits - Cut

Uncut, December 1997

by Simon Reynolds 

I remember very clearly the first time I heard Cut – it was the summer of '79, I was staying at my aunt's in the Yorkshire Dales, and I'd sneaked off to listen to The John Peel Show. The tracks – ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ and ‘Newtown’ – sounded incredibly eerie and ethereal, partly because of the tatty, trebly transistor radio through which I heard them, but mainly because it was my first exposure to dub-wise production.
A few weeks later, Cut became the second album I ever owned. As with other records from the days when my collection was in single figures (like PiL's Metal Box), Cut's every rhythm-guitar tic and punky-dread vocal inflection is engraved in my heart.
As a just-missed-punk 16-year-old, I'd first encountered The Slits' name in a Melody Maker profile of Malcolm McLaren. After losing control of the Pistols, McLaren was offered the chance to manage The Slits and briefly schemed to make a wildly exploitative movie in which the girl-band go to Mexico, find themselves effectively sold into slavery, and are turned into porno-disco stars. 



Thank God, The Slits slipped out of McLaren's clutches. He went off to make skin flicks in Paris, and The Slits made Cut – one of the greatest albums of the post-punk era, alongside Metal Box, Gang Of Four's Entertainment and The Raincoats' first two records.
One of rock criticism's minor dissensions is which version of The Slits is better – the untamed, untutored rumpus of their early live gigs versus the tidied up, punky-reggae studio-Slits with dub wizard Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell at the controls.
As exciting as the 1977-78 John Peel Sessions indisputably are, The Slits sound infinitely better after they fell in with Bovell, Budgie took over the drumming (following original sticks-woman Palmolive's departure for The Raincoats), and they acquired some basic chops. On the Strange Fruit CD of those Peel sessions, you can hear the embryonic glory of Cut, but the raw tumult is closer to heavy metal bludgeon than punky-reggae sway.

Compounding the taboo-busting frisson of the band's name, Cut's cover is a confrontational classic: mud-smeared and clad only in loincloths, The Slits strike bare-breasted Amazon poses and defiantly out-stare the camera's gaze. The backdrop is a picturesque, bramble-strewn English cottage – as if to say, ‘We're no delicate English roses’. The back-sleeve has Ari Up, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt daubed in warpaint, lurking in a bush. The music and lyrical stance is just as fierce, kicking off with two jibes at punk rock machismo, ‘Instant Hit’ and ‘So Tough’ (the latter namechecking a "Sid" and a "John"). Everything great about The Slits is instantly audible in these songs: Albertine's itchy-and-scratchy rhythm guitar, Pollitt's revved-up but rootsical basslines, Budgie's clackety rimshot drums, and, above all, the strange geometry of the clashing and overlapping girl-harmonies. Ari Up's harsh Teutonic accent makes her sound like a guttersnipe Nico, on sulphate rather than smack.



‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ is where Bovell's dub-wisdom makes its presence felt. It's desolate dirge-skank, all sidling bass and brittle drums. Ari's portrait of a shopaholic is truly poignant as she tries to "satisfy this empty feeling" with impulse-purchases. But if ‘Spend’ is woman-as-consumerist-dupe, ‘Shoplifting’ turns this on its head, imagining petty theft as proto-feminist insurrection: "We pay fuck-all!" Oil-meets-Riot-Grrrl backing vocals urge, "Do a runner! Do a runner!", and the music – surging, spasming dub-funk – does exactly that as Ari unleashes an exhilarating scream of glee-and-terror, then collapses in giggles with the admission: "I've pissed in my knickers!"
The sombre ‘FM’ critiques the mass media. Ari's protagonist wonders, "What's feeding my screams?", and describes radio transmissions as "frequent mutilation... serving for the purpose of those who want you to fear". ‘Newtown’ is an Irvine Welsh-like vision of a society based around addiction and surrogate-satisfactions, drawing a disconcerting parallel between the cathode-ray junkies "sniffing televisiono, taking foot-ballino" and The Slits' own bohemian milieu numbed-out on illegal narcotics. The jittery, scraping guitar mimics the fleshcrawling ache of cold turkey, while dub-FX of dropping spoons ram home the analogy.

‘Ping Pong Affair’ is about emotional withdrawal: Ari measures out the empty post-break-up evenings with cigarettes and masturbation ("Same old thing, yeah I know, everybody does it"). ‘Love Und Romance’, scorns the very lovey-dovey intimacy that ‘Ping Pong’ craved. It's a witheringly sardonic parody of smotherlove-as-braindeath, with Ari gloating to her boyfriend: "Oh my darling, who wants to be free?"
‘Typical Girls’ – the only single off Cut – was The Slits' manifesto, a mocking diatribe against the non-punkette ordinary girls who "Don't create/don't rebel" and whose heads are addled with women's-magazine-implanted anxieties about "Spots, fat, unnatural smells".

With its cut-and-dried, programmatic critique of conditioning, ‘Typical Girls’ is the closest The Slits got to the 1979 agit-funk bands. But unlike, say, The Au Pairs, The Slits sound riotous rather than righteous.

After Cut – 32 minutes of near-perfection that ends with the touching if slight ‘Adventures Close To Home’ – The Slits went all earth-mother feminist and tribal conscious. "In The Beginning There Was Rhythm", a 1980 split single with The Pop Group on the flipside, was terrific. But it took until 1981 before the sequel to Cut arrivedthe African music influenced Return Of The Giant Slits, whose off-kilter meters and cluttered soundscapes make it a poor cousin to The Raincoats' mistress-piece, Odyshape.


inspired by the Nic Roeg movie?
But, by '81, the post-punk zeitgeist had shifted to New Pop. String sections, suits and synths were de rigueur; anything that smacked of bohemian withdrawal from the mainstream was lambasted as punky-hippie defeatism. The Slits scattered: Ari Up became a fully-fledged Rasta, settled down and had babies; Viv Albertine eventually worked in TV; Tessa got into martial arts.

Although The Slits' attitude was clearly a crucial ancestor for Riot Grrrl and its UK chapter (Huggy Bear et al), the question of their musical legacy is more elusive. 1979-81 post-punk experimentalism – death-disco, agit-funk, ‘John Peel bands’ – is one of the great neglected eras of modem music.*
Maybe, when people tire of Britpop's Sixties new wave tunnel-vision, that period will be rediscovered. But so far I've only ever encountered one band who cite The Slits as an influence: New York's goddess-and-Gaia-obsessed pagan funkateers, Luscious Jackson. Singer Jill Cunniff declared: "There was a time when The Slits were the epitome, the ultimate, the coolest of the cool. They were everything I wanted from life."
I second that emotion.



Well, I hadn't realised I was already starting to think about postpunk as a neglected era as early as 1997. Seeds of Rip It Up and Start Again, ahoy!



actually come round to Return of the Giant Slits as a lost demi-classic, but still no match for Cut





Mark Fisher blurbs


“Ghosts of My Life confirms that Mark Fisher is our most penetrating explorer of the connections between pop culture, politics, and personal life under the affective regime of digital capitalism.  The most admirable qualities of Fisher’s work are its lucidity, reflecting the urgency of his commitment to communicating ideas;  his high expectations of popular art’s power to challenge, enlighten, and heal;  and his adamant refusal to settle for less“ -  blurb for Ghosts of My Life 

"As much as his actual ideas – which have been so influential, and certainly have influenced me – what I respond to in Mark’s work is the writing itself, being a writer myself. The sheer style of it, and the clarity. I admire the way he could  distil complex ideas into instantly graspable, punchy one or two-sentence statements. Or even just a phrase, which would then worked as a kind of concept-slogan, a meme: “capitalist realism”, “depressive hedonism”, “the secret sadness of the 21st Century”, so many more.

Although he was intensely serious, Mark could also be savagely funny – usually when he was tearing something to shreds. If he thought something was pernicious or reactionary, he gave no quarter, and ridicule was one of his most effective weapons. His strength as a thinker and writer came precisely from this polarized  love/hate, adore/abhor approach. So Mark could heroize certain figures like Burial with definitive takes on what their music represented, make them into almost mythic figures. But he would also “nihilate” – that’s a term he used, the power of nihilation -  the opposition: anything that didn’t come up to his exacting standards of what pop culture could and should be."
- director's cut version of a quote supplied to Mark Fisher tribute article by Adam Corner for Crack magazine




Monday, November 19, 2018

D-Generation - or, the dawn of K-Punk



Yes, that's the young Mark Fisher staring piercingly out of the picture!

As I discuss in the foreword to k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, I had a meeting of  minds with Mark  several years before I actually met him in person, or indeed even knew of his existence. In 1994 I wrote a mini-feature on  D-Generation, an ideas-packed groop whose press-release spiels caught my fancy. But I only ever spoke to Simon Biddell, identified here as the D-Generation's ideologue - and it, er, slipped my mind to ask the names of who else was in the groop!  Mark was certainly co-ideologue with Biddell - his mindprints are all over the group's self-framing, the titles, choice of samples etc etc. (I don't know who the third fellow involved was, or what his role entailed). Prefigurings and portents of k-punkian obsessions limn the D-Generation manifesto.

Below are two pieces on D-Generation from 1994





D-Generation
Melody Maker, 1994
by Simon Reynolds

D-Generation are highly influenced by '60s mod and freakbeat. This Manchester trio took their name from The Eyes' "My Degeneration", a parody of The Who's anthem. D-Generation love the psychedelic/psychotic intensity of freakbeat bands like The Eyes, John's Children, The Creation, but they don't want to recreate it. Psychedelia means abusing technology, they argue, and today that means fucking with samplers and sequencers, not guitars.

Unlike These Animal Men and Blur, D-Generation haven't forgotten that mod was short for modernist. The original mods wanted to fast-forward into the future, not replay lost
golden ages. So D-Generation's "psychedelic futurism" draws on ambient and jungle--music that's absolutely NOW, absolutely BRITISH. And instead of the usual iconography of swinging London or English whimsy, D-Generation pledge allegiance to a "dark, deviant tradition"
of Englishness that includes The Fall, Syd Barrett, Wyndham Lewis, Powell/Pressburger and Michael Moorcock.

D-Generation's atmospheric dance is like a twilight-zone Ultramarine--lots of English imagery, but instead of bucolic bliss, the vibe is urban decay, dread and disassociation. On
their EP "Entropy In the UK", "73/93" rails against the "Nostalgia Conspiracy", using Dr Who samples of "no future". D-Generation call their music "techno haunted by the ghost of
punk" and on 'The Condition Of Muzak' that's literally the case, as it samples Johnny Rotten's infamous taunt: 'ever get the feeling you've been cheated?". Originally, the target was
rave culture itself, but this has widened out, says band ideologue Simon Biddell, "to implicate the entire culture of cynical irony." Then there's "Rotting Hill", a stab at "a 'Ghost Town' for the '90s"; Elgar's patriotic triumphalism is offset by samples from the movie Lucky Jim--"Merrie England? England was never merry!".

D-Generation, says Biddell, are dismayed by the way "young people are content to embrace a rock canon handed down to them, and seem unable to embrace the present, let alone
posit a future." But they're optimistic about the emergence of "a counter-scene, bands like Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Pram, Insides, who are using ambient and techno ideas but
saying something about the 'real world', not withdrawing from it".

Add D-Generation to the list of this nation's saving graces.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The second piece about, or touching upon / deploying D-Generation, was a side-bar to a one-pager I contributed to  Melody Maker's "New Wave of New Wave" cover-story feature package, March 26th 1994. Now I think about it, this came out before the proper mini-feature on the group. Well, I think so anyway. This was the side panel to an interview with Jon Savage about the NWofNW, groups like SMASH, These Animal Men, and Fabulous. When this piece appeared, some of my colleagues at MM simply assumed that I had made up the group to fit my polemics of the time. 

TECHNOPHOBIA! 
The New Wave of New Wave versus d-generation

The great failing of the nouveau punk bands is their willful denial of the music of the last six years. The Sex Pistols had a relationship with both their era’s chartpop (glam’n’glitter like the Sweet) and its underground rock (The Stooges). Any band hoping to have the same impact today would have to take on board the innovations of sampler-based music, from rap and rave to ambient and avant-rock. A Nineties Pistols would be something like a cross between The Prodigy (this era’s Sweet), The Young Gods (this era’s Stooges) and Public Enemy (the black Clash).

Another big failing is that the NWONW’s refried Who riffs lack any kind of relationship with contemporary black music. Although the influence of roots reggae and dub really came through musically in 1979, punk had a spiritual kinship with reggae: both punk and Rasta were about exile and alienation. A Nineties punk should also have at least an awareness of - if not outright alliance with -  today’s black British subcultures. And that means ragga and jungle techno, music of pre-political rage and urban paranoia. If These Animal Men are really into speedfreak music, they should be making 160 bpm ardkore jungle, which is driven by a rage-to-live that’s pure punk. THIS is the sound of youth today, whereas These Animal Men’s “This is the Sound of Youth” is the sound of youth yesterday: 1966, or worse, that year’s dismal replay in 1979, with neo-mod bands like Secret Affair and Squire.

We need real modernism, not mod revivals. So let me introduce: d-generation. As the name suggests, their music is informed by, but also a swerve away from, the music of the E Generation: “the corrupt modernism” of dark techno, jungle, ambient and ragga.

“We would have been punks in ‘77”, admit d-generation, “but today we can’t see why anyone would ignore modern music.”

They call their sound “psychedelic futurism, techno haunted by the ghost of punk”. It sounds like Ultramarine gone noir: ambient drones, lonesome dub-reggae melodica, stealthy junglist breakbeats. Like Ultramarine, d-generation deploy imagery of “Englishness”, but instead of pastoral quirkiness, the vibe is urban wasteland, influenced by “the dark, expressionist, deviant tradition” of Wyndam Lewis, The Fall and Michael Moorcock.

On their yet-to-be-released EP Entropy in the UK, ghostly allusions to punk are omnipresent. “73/93” turns around the sampled phrases “eroding structure, generating entropy… no future”. “The Condition of Muzak” (the title is from a Michael Moorcock novel) goes even further, using Johnny Rotten as a stick to beat the rave generation. A sample from the Pistols’ last performance at Winterlands is turned into a techno riff: Rotten’s famous “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” and mirthless cackle “ha ha ha”. Perfect: if this was played at a rave, it would start a virus of disaffection that would undermine the whole subculture. So many ravers have a cheated look on their faces, sometimes cos they’ve been sold dodgy E, mostly cos they’re burned out and can never get as high as they used to.

Rave is full of submerged utopian longings (“living the dream” etc). But because they aren’t articulated, the culture ultimately functions as a safety valve, releasing frustration at the weekend then returning you to workaday drudgery.

It’s not a culture of refusal, but an anti-culture that defuses. d-generation suggest one way that a true successor to punk (rather than a mere replay) could operate: as spies in the house of the loved-up, sowing seeds of discontent, making a grim dance of our national decay.


Although I have two pre-release cassettes with D-Generation on the spine in my possession still, in the event I think they only put out just the one vinyl EP . That's because they were forced to change their name on account of the existence of a fairly dreadful NY trad-rebel-raunch'n'roll outfit of the same moniker - if I recall right, they got sent one of those cease-and-desist type letters from the management or the record company. But D-Generation did continue under a different name, The Lower Depths, and released at least a couple more EPs. Press releases below - again, spot the proto-K-punkian elements!