Saturday, November 2, 2019

Birthday Party / Nick Cave and the Bad Seed

[from a guidebook to alternative rock, 1995]

Emerging, like some hideous butterfly, from the Bowie-damaged New Wave chrysalis of The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party were the most abandoned, sensorily deranged Dionysian rock'n'rollers since The Stooges.  But although Nick Cave's self-confessed ur-Text was Funhouse, his grandiose delivery and baroque lyrics were actually closer to Iggy's own model, Jim Morrison.  Like Jimbo, Cave had poetic ambitions that eventually blossomed in his Southern Gothic novel And The Ass Saw The Angel.

The first B. Party LP (actually a compilation of single and EP material, later reissued as Heehaw) sees the band shaking off quirk-out influences like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and getting ever more primal. An  awesomely original sound'n'vison takes shape in macabre ditties like 'Happy Birthday', 'The Friend Catcher' and especially 'The Hair Shirt', where Cave's grotesque vocals are doused in Rowland S. Howard's brimstone gtr.  After this debut, The Birthday Party left Australia for London, pilgrims in search of infernal post-punk clamor.  But instead of kindred extremists, they found the irony-clad poseurs of early '80s New Pop (ABC, Human League etc) with their synths, suits and string sections.  Doubly exiled, The Birthday boys soon gathered around them a cult of those disenchanted by the new regime of health and positivity.  Against this squeaky-clean backdrop, their marauding music shone like a murky beacon of obsession, sickness and debauchery.

 Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence-- figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion.  On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of "King Ink".  Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on *It's Still Living* and *Drunk On The Pope's Blood*). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes. Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's.  Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of 'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'.  The patchier '*Mutiny* peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.

After Mutiny, the Party broke up. Rowland S. Howard joined Crime and the City Solution, swathing surrogate-Cave figure Simon Bonney's boomy baritone and moody lyrics with decidedly Doors-y atmospherics; later Howard formed These Immortal Souls, whose ghost-town dereliction paved the way for the country-blues despondency of Mazzy Star.  Nick Cave assembled the Bad Seeds (whose core remains Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on guitar and keyboardist Barry Adamson) for the splendid From Her To Eternity.  Framed in cinematic but still rough-hewn arrangements, Cave staked out some of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career: amorous murder (the title track, "Well Of Misery"), the Artist abandoned or misunderstood by his audience ("A Box For Black Paul", "Avalanche") and Elvis (a cover of "In The Ghetto").  The Firstborn Is Dead plunges deeper into Americana: the 'talking blues' Elvis-myth of "Tupelo", the murder ballad 'Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree', homages to Dylan and "Blind Lemon Jefferson", and so on. But Cave's hammy delivery and use of Old Testament lingo make this LP a bit hokey.  Still, the mock-ethnological sleevenotes are a hoot: "The Black Crow King" is the tale of "a king surrounded by followers who have learned to imitate him"--a sly dig at Cave's Goth cult.

1986's all-covers album Kicking Against The Pricks not only recharged Cave's aesthetic battery, it sets the terms of the remainder of his career. Subsequent albums merely juggle different ratios of the three styles on offer here: blues, C&W noir, and what Cave called "entertainment music, although some might call it corn".  A masterful feat of canon-formation and career-realignment, Kicking repositions Cave as showman not shaman. He convincingly brings out a latent dimension of tragic pathos in such '60s melodrama as Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and even The New Seekers' "The Carnival Is Over".  Later in '86, and clearly on a creative roll, Cave & Co came up with a terrific bunch of original songs in similarly epic vein for Your Funeral...  My Trial.  On the shimmering majesty of the title track, Cave rivals the ruined grandeur of the anti-hero persona patented by folk-blues singer Tim Rose (whose "Long Time Man" is covered here).  Only an acrid strain of misogny (the Biblical rape fantasy of "Hard On For Love", the inner sleeve's Madonna/Whore imagery) mars a masterpiece.

Tender Prey's 'The Mercy Seat' is Cave's last towering moment.  As in 'Long Time Man', he plays a wife-killing convict, his ruminations and no-regrets gusted along by a Velvets wall-of-noise. The rest of the LP is a grab-bag of mostly ill-conceived essays in genres like gospel, garage punk and '70s soul. Tender Prey sets the tone--bitty, dwindling-for what has so far proved to be Cave's artistic twilight.  The Good Son wanders into Neil Diamond terrain (the cover depicts Cave at the grand piano, surrounded by l'il red-headed girls). Some swear by the MOR balladry of "The Ship Song"; most find it a crock of schlock.  Henry's Dream is rawer, but a bore. Let Love In rallies musically (the Bad Seeds' arrangements are deft, humorous, almost poppy), but on the story-telling front it's Cave-by-rote, in-a-rut.  Back in '88, the singer declared: "lyrically, thematically, my work is still chained to the same bowl of vomit". But once upon at time, at least, that puke tasted fresh.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

forgive us our synths

[an essay on electropop - from the League and Depeche to Miss Kittin and Fischerspooner -  for a book]

Synthesisers in pop go back much further than you might think. Prog rockers loved ‘em: ELP’s Keith Emerson let rip many a Moog solo, Rick Wakeman from Yes performed behind a vast bank of keyboards, and German bands such as Tangerine Dream sketched the face of the cosmos with Mellotrons and Arps. At the other end of the spectrum, Stevie Wonder pioneered the use of electronics in R&B (with tech guidance from two white geeks who went by the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band). And the blurts of abstract noise from Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3  on those first two Roxy Music albums turned a generation onto the avant-pop potential of synths.   

Still, the synthpop era as commonly understood--the early Eighties Britwave of Human League, Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode--really started in 1977, with two epochal singles:  Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”  The missing link between Beethoven and Paul Van Dyk, “Trans Europe Express” conjured the spiritual dimension of technological progress--“all the dynamism of modern life” as K-werk commandant Ralf Hutter put it--with its arching Doppler synths and tireless machine beats. A massive worldwide hit, “I Feel Love” was the first disco record to be made entirely from synthetic sounds. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, the track's clockwork-precise sequenced bassline and coldly glittering electronics laid down the blueprint for Eighties synthpop.

For many young musicians who’d been mobilized by punk’s do-it-yourself rallying cry, the near-simultaneous impact of these two singles was revolutionary: suddenly the trad-rock format of guitars, bass, and drums seemed archaic,  exhausted. By happy coincidence, just at this moment, synths--hitherto the preserve of wealthy prog-rockers--got an awful lot more affordable, portable, and user-friendly. The new breed of synths like the Wasp resembled an orchestra in a box. Which is one reason synthpop was full of duos, partnerships that split the roles neatly between singer/lyricist and composer/machine-operator: Soft Cell, Eurythmics, DAF, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, et al.  Synths meant you simply didn’t need a whole band of instrumentalists. This became even more the case when programmable drum machines like the Linn started to come online at the end of the Seventies. That said, two notable exceptions to the duo norm also happen to be probably the most famous synthpop outfits of all time: The Human League and Depeche Mode.

From the North-of-England industrial city of Sheffield,  The Human League started out as a quartet consisting of two synth nerds (Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware), a singer with a striking lopsided hair style covering half his face (Phil Oakey), and a fellow who didn’t contribute anything musically but projected Pop Art-influenced slides behind the band (Adrian Wright). In 1979, David Bowie proclaimed The Human League to be the sound of the future. But after two modest-selling albums of almost-pop, the group split acrimoniously.

Everyone assumed the synth boffins, who’d formed a new group called Heaven 17, would make it, and that the vocalist and Director of Visuals were the talent-free rump doomed to obscurity. But in an inspired move, Oakey recruited two teenagers, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, as backing singers after spotting them at a Sheffield nightclub. With the “ordinary girl” charm of their fallible voices and amateurish dance moves, Catherall and Sulley humanized the League for the first time. Brunette and blonde respectively, the girls’ presence created an Abba-like visual chemistry while also banishing the group’s geeky science-student image, something further enhanced when Oakey stopped writing songs inspired by Philip K. Dick and black holes and started singing about L.O.V.E.

The second masterstroke in the reinvention of the League came when they found their own Giorgio Moroder in producer Martin Rushent, a bearded music-biz veteran who combined arrangement skills acquired through working for the likes of Shirley Bassey with a gear-head’s passion for the latest music technology. The result was a perfect sequence of timeless hits--“The Sound of the Crowd,” “Love Action,” “Open Your Heart,” “Don’t You Want Me”-- that forever demolished the synthesiser’s image as a cold and soul-less instrument. “Don’t You Want Me” reached Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, boosted by its classic promo clip, which, Jean-Luc Godard style, depicted the band making its own video.  

Compared to Human League’s postmodern wit, or to the kinky noir imagery of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode early on seemed like the lightweight option. Dinky ditties such as  “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” seemed like the very definition of disposably innocuous pop. When their main songwriter Vince Clarke quit to form Yazoo, people assumed Depeche would be forgotten within a year. But the group had originally signed to pioneering independent label Mute because they admired its roster of innovators like Fad Gadget and DAF. Depeche had their own aspirations to depth and edge. Stepping into Clarke’s shoes as chief writer, Martin Gore started to explore the dark and deviant precincts of human life. He split up with his prim Christian girlfriend and spent time in Berlin, checking out everything from sleazy bondage clubs to performances by metal-bashing avant-primitivists Einsturzende Neubauten.

Depeche Mode also admired Neubauten’s UK counterparts, Test Dept, a  gang of left-wing skinheads whose clangorous steel symphonies celebrated the collective strength and muscular might of the working class, even as their physical skills were being rendered obsolete by the decline of heavy industry. Borrowing Test Dept’s Constructivist  imagery, Depeche titled their 1983 album Construction Time Again and put a hammer on the front cover, a tribute to the Nobility of Labor that echoed the Soviet hammer-and-sickle.  “Everything Counts,” the first single off the album, featured a desolate woodwind-like refrain that sounded like a socialist wringing his hands upon learning that Thatcher and Reagan have been re-elected, while the lyrics critiqued Eighties enterprise culture: “the grabbing hands grab all they can… it’s a competitive world.”  

Full of metal-on-metal percussion and sampled noises, Depeche’s next hit singles “People Are People” and “Master and Servant” took Neubauten and Test Dept’s ideas into the pop mainstream. Lyrically informed by Gore’s forays through Berlin’s S&M underworld, “Master and Servant”  connected bedroom and boardroom to make a witty personal-is-political allegory about power games:“it’s a lot like life,” so “forget all about equality.” Proceeding through a check-list of Weighty Subjects with an almost methodical determination, Depeche then tackled religion on 1984’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” which impudently suggested that “God’s got a sick sense of humor.”

In the late Eighties, Depeche Mode’s music got ever more sophisticated and melodically haunting with albums like Black Celebration and Music For the Masses. They scored their first US hits with “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence” and established a reputation as a surprisingly formidable live act. Depeche’s arena tours of America took in larger and larger audiences, peaking with a 1988 show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl witnessed by seventy thousand ecstatic fans. 

By this point, Depeche Mode were virtually rock stars, second only to U2 as a big-in-America band from the British Isles. Depeche’s music got rockier too. As with other synth-pioneers such as Human League, Soft Cell, and Eurythmics (all of whom they’d outlasted commercially), at a certain point the only way forward for Depeche was to incorporate non-synthetic instrumental textures. All this culminated in the bluesy grind of 1993’s “I Feel You.”

Around this time, singer Dave Gahan underwent a bizarre transformation. Dumping his wife and kids, he moved to Los Angeles and got into deeply into tattoos, facial hair, and drugs. Suicide attempts and drug overdoses followed. For  Depeche’s original American following, all this rockist nonsense must have been deeply puzzling.  After all, for sensitive and maladjusted types, a huge part of the appeal of being into all that “faggy” music by eyeliner-wearing Anglo fops was that it served as a potent form of  dissidence: a way of defining yourself against the standard high-school fare of Motley Crue and Ozzy. But here was formerly fresh-faced Gahan mutating into… well, Dave Navarro, basically. The horror, the horror…

Grunge made guitars dominant during most of the Nineties. Eighties synthpop was either completely forgotten or recalled only as a joke--all those  preposterous New Romantic haircuts and fey eyeliner boys playing one-finger synth-melodies. Then, slowly, the contempt turned to amused affection, and by the eve of the new millennium, a full-blown early Eighties revival got rolling. It began as a retro-ironic fad within the techno world, with groups like Adult. and Les Rhythmes Digitales, whose "Hey You What's That Sound"  came with a video that parodied the charmingly clumsy graphic effects that seemed so futuristic in 1983. 

Soon scenes blossomed in the hipsterlands of Brooklyn, Berlin, and other major cities across America and Europe.  Clubbers dressed in a mish-mash of recycled Eighties New Wave style signifiers--asymetrical haircuts, ruffs, skinny ties worn over collar-less T-shirts, punky-looking studded belts and wristbands, little cloth caps. The soundtrack mixed classics and obscurities from the original era with new tracks by modern artists like Miss Kittin and Vitalic,  who studiously deployed vintage analog synth sounds, vocoderized cyborg-vocals, 16th-note basslines, and archly inflexible drum machine beats.  Known as “electroclash” or “nu-wave”, the revival was the big hype of 2002, but neither of the scene’s most touted bands, Fischerspooner and The Faint, managed to penetrate the mainstream, and soon hipsters moved on to pillaging another seam of retro (late Seventies postpunk). What few noticed was that Eighties synthpop had already resurfaced on the charts, in a seemingly most unlikely location--nu-metal. Multi-platinum selling  Linkin Park roar at the choruses, sure, but their verses drip with the wan and slightly wussy melancholy of prime-era Depeche Mode, suggesting that the band was born at precisely that moment in the early Nineties when MTV would play “Enjoy the Silence” back with ballads by Queensryche and Metallica.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music

Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music
Spin, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

So much of the fabric of modern pop originates in reggae.  Dub's
ganjadelic echo-effects anticipated the remix-mania of today's club
music, while the slurred gibberish of  DJ talkover is one of the
sources of rap.  Right now, dancehall's ragga chants and fidgety
production is influencing emergent British genres like Apache
Indian's bhangramuffin and jungle (a manic offshoot of techno).
And I have a farfetched theory that the yodelling falsetto of
Morrissey (who once declared "reggae is vile") has secret links with
the milky chirruping of Junior Byles and Barrington Levy.

"Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music" (Mango/Island)
traces the evolution of reggae from 1958 to the present. It starts
with the 78 rpm proto-ska of the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina" and
ends - four discs and 95 tracks later - with Shaggy's 1993 ragga-
remake of the same song.  Reggae's roots lie in American soul and
R&B, but as with most pop breakthroughs, mimicry led to mutation, as
Black American dance was subtly warped in synch with the Caribbean
vibe. Ska's jerky pulse and rocksteady's chugging grooves both have
the same monochrome sound and upful aura as Wilson Pickett or Booker
T & The MG's, but Jamaican musicians shifted emphasis from the
downbeat to the 'afterbeat', and thus created a New Thing.

As rocksteady evolved into roots reggae and dub, the Jamaican
elements became more defined: the bass became more pronounced and
melodic, while producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb to
heighten the music's spatiality.  In the '80's, reggae went digital,
just like US black pop from swingbeat to rap. But dancehall, argues
Linton Kwesi Johnson in the box set's hefty booklet, is at once
futuristic and primal: a cyber-pagan resurrection of the ritual beats
favoured by African cults like Etu and Kumina.

What Johnson and other commentators shy away from is the role of drugs.  Most crucial
shifts in pop history have occurred when drugs interface with
technology to make possible new forms of listening.  Just as
psychedelia coincided with the arrival of LSD and stereo/8 track
sound, similarly 70's dub had everything to do with marijuana's
heightening of sonic dimension and depth.

In the Eighties, Jamaica became a stop-over in the cocaine trade routes; this probably has something to do with ragga's jittery beats, apoplectic vocals and gangsta
vibe.  Throughout its history, reggae has oscillated between two
extremes, symbolised by the rude boy and the natty dread: between
macho swagger and mellow spirituality, ghetto survivalism and Rasta
dreams of escaping to a halcyon homeland (Zion).

Crammed with great songs, Disc 4 agitates against the notion
that reggae declined musically in the Eighties as the fire of
militant spirituality faded.

Nonetheless, Disc 3 surpasses the rest, covering reggae's commercial and aesthetic zenith from 1975-81, and ranging from the luscious pop of Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott to
the apocalyptic dread of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Max
Romeo's "War In A Babylon". While the bubbling rhythms of Black Uhuru
and Junior Delgado are dub-inflected, there's not enough pure dub
here for me. Why no Augustus Pablo, Prince Far I, King Tubby or Mad
Professor?  Then again, as Island supremo Chris Blackwell points out,
Jamaica has the highest per capita rate of musical output in the
world. Inevitably, as massive as it is, this compilation could only
scratch the surface.  Which it does quite superbly.