Friday, September 28, 2007

THE WHO, 30 Years Maximum R&B box set
Melody Maker, 1994

For a while there, it seemed that The Who had dipped out
of rock memory, become a band that virtually no one even
thought about. They seemed to have the same relation vis-a-
vis the eternally cool and current Beatles & Stones that,
say, Deep Purple have to Sabbath & Zep: massive then,
monstrously uninfluential thereafter. In recent years,
though, The Who have slowly seeped back as a reference point,
what with Urge Overkill's Live At Leeds sharp-dressed
rifferama and the mod iconography of groups at diverse as
Flowered Up, These Animal Men, Blur, D-Generation, and Primal
Scream (that ad for 'Rocks' featuring Keith Moon).

Personally, I find there's something resolutely
unloveable about The Who, although why I'm not sure. Pete
Townshend's mid-life crisis and endless maudlin' musings on
lost youth? Roger Daltrey's voice, face, and fish-farm?
Just the FACT (I haven't heard 'em) that John Entwhistle
released FIVE solo LP's? Perhaps the real reason is the boy-
of The Who cult (and of their legacy, The Jam, Secret
Affair etc). Somehow it's obvious that way fewer women cared
about The Who than The Stones, Beatles or even Led Zep.

Still, I love the mod-psych bands who never made it--The
Eyes, John's Children, The Creation--so I can't logically
refute the thrill of "I Can't Explain", "Anyway Anyhow
Anywhere", "Substitute". At their 1965/66 height, The Who's
white R&B is so amped-up and amphetamine-uptight it's coming
apart at the seams. "My Generation" remains as naffly
irresistible as Steppenwolf's equally naive "Born To Be
Wild"; Moon's ramshackle surf-drums, exploding everywhichway
like Mitch Mitchell of the Experience, Townshend's slash-and-
scald rhythm guitar, Entwhistle's bass-lunges and Daltrey's
speed-freak stutter, all add up to an immaculately chaotic
enactment of mod's "smashed, blocked" aggression, its rage-
to-live and hunger for action.

With the arrival of psychedelia, The Who toyed with the
era's fashionable tropes of androgyny ("I'm A Boy"'s Frank
Spencer scenario, where mummy won't admit he's not a girl),
and regression (the fey "creepy-crawly" terrors of "Boris The
Spider"). There were gems here (the effete all-wanked-out
vocals of the masturbation ode "Pictures Of Lily"), but
mostly The Who's acid-phase is unusually unappetising. "I
Can See For Miles" turns mod misogny into visionary paranoia,
and the swooping phased guitars of "Armenia" thrill, but the
pallid, fey vocals of this period are pretty pukey.

Then the bombast begins in earnest. Daltrey quickly
swells into the least likeable white R&B singer this side of
Joe Cocker, while Townshend's songs bloat up like houses with
too many extensions. The Who's progressive aspirations are
all on the level of structure rather than playing or texture
(which remained coarse R&B); the result is a horrid fusion of
prog-rock and pub rock. So, apart from "Tommy"'s one
genuinely hymnal aria ("See Me Feel Me") and the just-about-
takeable epic-ness of their post-counterculture allegory
"Won't Get Fooled Again", a long blank void ensues--one whose
continuance seemed increasingly mercenary as the Seventies
proceed. Even at their most haggard, The Stones could re-
ignite with the lubricious raunch of a "Start Me Up". The
Who's equivalent twilight hit is "You Better You Bet", a song
with only one fan in the entire world, Taylor Parkes, and
only then for the most perverse, "it's so bad, it's....
really MINDBOGGLINGLY bad" of reasons.

30 Years Maximum R & B
? Break that down, and it works
out at roughly 4 and a half years of adolescent intensity and
two and a half decades of graceless middle-age.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

THE DOORS, Perception (40th Anniversary Box)
Blender, 2006 [director's cut]

The Doors are the perfect band for when you’re seventeen, a time when you’re waking up to life’s possibilities, the future’s a wide-open frontier, and ten thousand volts of libido pulse through your flesh. In that highly impressionable and lusty state, a Doors classic like “The End”, with its Oedipal psychodrama and entrancing guitar-as-sitar aura of faux-Oriental mystery, sounds like the most profound and intense thing you’ll ever hear. Factor in the attractive shape of Jim Morrison’s life arc, its mythic surge through reckless hedonism to early death ensuring no embarrassingly twilight-of-the-idol comebacks or je-regrette-everything VH1 confessionals, and it’s easy to see why The Doors endure as the ultimate band for clever teenagers craving music that rocks hard but has some book-learnin’ under its belt.

Yet there are potent arguments in favour of the proposition that nobody much older than seventeen should really have an ounce of time for the man or his band. Wasn’t Morrison a real pig of a human being, a (literally) stinking drunk egomaniac who rampaged over most everybody he had any dealings with? Aren’t his poet-as-prophet pretensions insufferably clunky and self-aggrandising? When he goes into “erotic politician”/ counterculture-revolutionary mode (“Five To One”, “The Unknown Soldier”) doesn’t your skin just crawl off your bones and leave the room in embarrassment? Finally, the music itself--most of it’s kinda dated and overblown, surely? All those epic song-suites like “Celebration of the Lizard”, or worse, the dreary bleary blooze of “Backdoor Man” and “Maggie McGill”?

Yet Morrison is hardly short for company when it comes to rock’n’roll assholes who overdid the liquor, while his psychedelic doggerel is really no more cringe-worthy than John Lennon in LSD mode. People always forget Jimbo’s sense of humor, manifested in his surreal ad-libs-- “cobra to my left, leopard to my right” in “The Soft Parade”--and the sheer zest with which he threw himself into his shaman-as-buffoon persona. As for the music--most it still sounds pretty darn glorious.

It remains an unusual sound, not just because of the lead-instrument prominence of Ray Manzarek’s ornate keyboards but because of the way The Doors combined driving rhythm-and-blues with a cinematic clarity, thanks to spacious, glistening arrangements and production (more vivid than ever in this fabulously remastered incarnation). Robbie Krieger is an under-rated guitarist, his solos elegantly restrained, piercingly poignant, and mercifully succinct, while John Densmore’s drumming is deft enough to make a waltz rhythm swing on “Shaman’s Blues.”

The meat of the sound is hard-funking blues, but the Doors salted in all kinds of unlikely flavours: flamenco on “Spanish Caravan”, musique concrete on “Horse Latitudes”, Weimar-era cabaret with their cover of Brecht & Weill’’s “Alabama Song”, cocktail jazz with “Riders on the Storm”. They even bizarrely anticipate disco with one segment of the audacious song-suite “The Soft Parade”

Perception contains all six studio albums the Doors recorded before Morrison’s death, bolstered with the inevitable out-takes (a highlight of which is the demo prototype of “Celebration of the Lizard”) and partnered with DVDs of performance footage. You can retrace the band’s journey from the bold entrance of The Doors (their best album, if suffering slightly from over-exposure) through Strange Days (their darkest and most psychedelic album), onto Waiting For The Sun (their most confused and least satisfying), The Soft Parade (their funniest and most under-rated) and the alleged return-to-bluesy form of Morrison Hotel (their dreariest and most over-rated, while still containing plenty of gems) before winding up with LA Woman (their most accomplished and poignant). The latter’s title track, a freeway-rolling travelogue across Los Angeles with Morrison imagining their home city as a sad-eyed woman, is a last gasp of ragged glory that--and this is a rare example of the benefits of knowing your rock history--sounds all the more grand and moving because the singer wouldn’t be much longer for this world.

Morrison’s version of “the blues” owed as much to Frank Sinatra as Muddy Waters, and his sonorous majesty of tone and commanding cadences made him one of rock’s true originals as a vocalist. One measure of this eminence is how so many of the legion of Jim-itators are rock greats in their own right. Iggy Pop converted Morrison into the pure sexless monomania of punk rock, while Patti Smith adapted his persona to become the world’s first female rocker-as-shaman. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis translated the baritone-booming doomy side of The Doors into Goth, while Echo & The Bunnymen and Simple Minds conversely picked up on the music’s panoramic grandeur and wonderlust. And Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell updated Morrison’s excess-as-the-road-to-the-palace-of-wisdom shtick.

And is there any wisdom to be found at the end of that highway, or along the way? This is a more pinched era than the Sixties, its sense of adventure and entitlement often seeming impossibly remote. In hindsight, the freedom-chasing can look more like irresponsibility, the lust for “experience” weirdly close to a sort of spiritual greed. Yet in an era when seventeen year olds are confronted by a resurgent Puritanism that seeks to roll back the gains of the Sixties, forces of anti-life looking to constrain the scope for pleasure and adventure, there’s a certain imperishable truth and urgency to Morrison’s warning that “no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn”. In a strange way, he was a true American patriot, his spirit as large as the land itself.


PATTI SMITH, Horses Horses
Uncut,winter 2005

Some rock records from the ancient past can still cut through purely on their sonic properties, as blasts of time-defying and context-transcending energy. The three Stooges albums spring to mind, as do Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” and “Anarchy” (but not quite “God Save the Queen”). Other rock recordings release their riches only in tandem with a process of historicizing and contextualization. Dylan is a prime example (can anyone honestly argue that “Like A Rolling Stone” still makes it as just pure sound, without all the writing around it and reading into it?) Horses likewise fits this second category of epoch-defining but therefore epoch-bound classics, where you have to reconstruct the original context to get any sense of the record's momentous impact and import. A “naked” listen won’t quite do it. But equally, the more you learn about the artist and the work, the more interesting and audacious Horses seems.

A poet before she was a rocker, Patti Smith worshipped Rimbaud. Horses actually reminds me of a totally different kind of poetry, though--T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a work so limned with references to mythology you have to read its footnotes to extract its full meaning. Horses, similarly, is an exercise in rock mythography that depends on what preceded it, the whole Sixties adventure. It’s the product of a period of aftermath, pervaded with historical consciousness of the sort that doesn’t exist during the rush of a time when history is actually being made. Patti Smith has less in common with her New York comrades Television (whose music wasn’t about the Sixties so much as of it--an acid-rock flashback) than she does with Bowie and Springsteen, two artists who became stars by assimilating earlier stars. Similarly Smith studied Dylan and Keith Richards, absorbing their stances and mannerisms.

Horses teems with invocations, channelings, and honorings. It opens with “Gloria”, a gloriously surly, horny swagger of white R&B originally recorded by Van Morrison’s group Them, but achieving its largest fame as the song most widely covered by American garage punk bands. Smith added the immortal intro about Jesus Christ “dying for somebody’s sins but not mine,” making for an unsurpassably grand entrance to rock's world stage. Yet covering “Gloria” is best understood as an act of rock criticism (Smith and her guitarist Lenny Kaye both moonlighted as rock writers). It distils into a few minutes of rough-hewn excitement the entire “argument” of Nuggets, Kaye’s famed compilation of mid-Sixties garage punk. Nuggets itself paralleled the heretical re-reading of rock history then being vaunted by Lester Bangs, who hailed the garage bands for their primal teen spirit and pulp simplicity, a raw power lost in the post-Sgt Pepper’s turn towards sophistication. The studio Horses (this reissue’s first disc) now comes book-ended with cover versions. It closes with ‘My Generation,’ originally the B-side of Patti’s debut single “Hey Joe” (sensing a pattern here?). Another slice of ancestor-worship-cum-patricide, the song ends with Patti’s battle cry “we created it, let’s take it over.” The “it” being rock’n’roll, (in a Seventies coma, thanks to corporate bland-out and artistic burn-out, or so the Bangsian proto-punk narrative maintained), while the “we” lies somewhere between “the people” and “youth of today.”

Horses’ conceptual heart resides in three iconographic songs that together attempt to “work through” the legacy of the Sixties. Featuring Tom Verlaine’s aching peals of lead guitar, “Break It Up” is like a lustrous chip off the Marquee Moon block. Lyrically, it’s based on a Smith dream in which she saw Jim Morrison trapped in marble, literally petrified by having been turned into an icon. She exhorts him to smash through the stone and let his spirit fly free (presumably to irrigate and renew rock, like "The Wasteland"'s Fisher King). “Elegie,” the original album’s closer, is a straightforward lament for Hendrix. In between “Break” and “Elegie” comes the stunning song-suite “Land,” which is haunted by both dead Jimmys. “Horses,” the first section, nods to “Horse Latitudes”, The Doors’ pioneering exercise in rock-poetry-meets-studio-weirdness. “Land of A Thousand Dances” invokes rock’n’roll’s early dance crazes, implicitly connecting the teenage frenzy of the Watusi to the mystic delirium of voodoo trance-dancers, whirling dervishes and ecstastic Protestant cults like the Shakers. With its nebulous texture-waft and multi-tracked whispers, the suite’s final section “La Mer (de)” pays oblique tribute to to Hendrix’s oceanic “1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be”.

“Land” is the most radical piece of music on Horses. But the album’s emotional core deals not with Smith’s rock family tree of godstar ancestors but with her actual real-world folks. A slightly shaky take on reggae, “Redondo Beach” conveys the mounting despair of someone who’s literally lost their lover (on a crowded beach). The song’s real-world inspiration was the disappearance of Smiths’ sister Linda after the pair had a row. “Kimberley” is a tender recollection of her other sister, whom Smith cuddled as a newborn while watching a blazing barn. Most touching of all is “Free Money”, based in her experience of growing up poor in New Jersey and memories of her mother fantasising about winning the lottery. “Oh baby, it would mean so much to me,” yearns Smith, as visions of life without restriction or want dance before her eyes. Kaye’s frantic double-time rhythm chords escalate the urgency and Smith starts percussively incanting images of abundance and freedom, propelling the song in an irresistible rush towards climax. Horses’s most moving song (emotionally and physically), "Free Money" is also the most conventional. And its subject matter--New Jersey working stiffs dreaming of escape--helps explain Smith’s later convergence with Springsteen-style all-American populism, which reached fruition with the Bruce-penned smash “Because the Night”

And then there’s the Horses live remake… As much as one deplores the industry trend of repackaging everybody's favourites in order to induce you to purchase things you already own, it must be conceded that this re-rendition from last year’s Smith-curated Meltdown festival often surpasses in ferocity the somewhat clean-and-tidy sounding studio original. Strangely, the improvised guitarnoise plus freeform poetry epic “Birdland” is reproduced with disconcerting exactness. But the 17 minute take on “Land” clocks in at twice the original length and includes radically expanded and revised lyrics, although it does detour into an annoyingly redundant, if rampant-sounding, reprise of of “Gloria”. “My Generation” is also torched excitingly. At song’s end Smith doesn’t repeat the original “we created it” rallying call, but adapts it for a musical present that's way more bereft and rudderless than 1975 (whose denizens didn’t know they were born, honestly, did they?). “My generation, we had dreams, we had dreams, man… and we fucking created George Bush,” she roars--the logic shaky, the passion loud and clear. “New generations, rise up… take the streets. Make change. The world is yours. Change it, change it.”



Religion is a huge thread running through your work, figuring both as a source of imagery (the album Easter, for instance) and in the larger sense of rock itself as a belief system, a crusade.

“The artist Dan Graham made a film called Rock My Religion and I totally understand that impetus. For me rock’n’roll, all through the Sixties, was a true salvation. Growing up in rural South Jersey, I was estranged from culture. Rock gave voice to my problems, it gave voice to my political ideas, and it was a major source of identification and structure. By the time I moved to New York in the early Seventies, though, some of greatest voices were snuffed out. Dylan had retreated, Joan Baez disappeared somewhere, Hendrix and Morrison were dead. Rock wasn’t engaged in social communication anymore, it had become stadium-oriented, this showbiz lifestyle of limousines and cocaine and glitter. To me that wasn’t rock’n’roll. Rock was people-oriented, it wasn’t supposed to go Hollywood. As a citizen, I was very concerned about what was happening to my genre. I felt like the intimacy and the political voice--the revolutionary voice--of rock’n’roll was getting watered down. So Horses was meant be like Paul Revere riding through the American countryside, waking up the people, saying “the British are coming!” Like, “the revolution is on, don’t sleep through it!”

Alongside religion, your other favorite metaphor for rock’n’roll is war. Hence the Patti Smith Group’s affinity with Detroit rock’n’roll soldiers the MC5 and your self-description on Horses as “some misplaced Joan of Arc.”

“Joan was an inspiration in terms of being someone who fearlessly went after what she believed in, even with all the odds against her. She was poor, couldn’t read or write, and a female during the Middle Ages. She had nothing going for her in terms of her mission, yet she accomplished it. And it’s not just a legend, it’s actual historical fact.”

Despite being friends with William S. Burroughs and a fan of Arthur Rimbaud, you’ve never had much time for that side of rock’n’roll that involves druggy debauchery. Is this a puritanical streak, or part of the military discipline thing?

“I didn’t really drink, I didn’t smoke, and I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t even smoke pot until about 1977, when I got interested in Rastafarianism. My body chemistry has always been so speedy and so psychedelic anyway. My friend Robert Mapplethorpe always shuddered at the thought of me taking acid, because he thought I was such a naturally stoned person. But the other reason is that I just didn’t like the suburbanization of drugs. As a kid I romanticized them as something sacred and secret, reserved for Native American shamen or jazz musicians. Substances should be for spiritual experiences, I thought, not just recreation. I didn’t expect to arrive in New York and see all these suburban kids walking around wasted!”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Groove, 2001

From Basement Jaxx and the French filter-disco sound to the rediscovery of vocals by everyone from Herbert to Luomo to Photek, the last few years have seen a remarkable renaissance of interest in house music on the part of hipsters. And the primary drive behind this, I think, was a craving for pleasantness, for music that doesn't want to hurt the listener but makes you feel.... nice. With techno locked in grinding hairshirt minimalism and drum'n'bass becoming ever more oriented around distorted bass-riffs (to the point of sounding like headbanging heavy metal or old Killing Joke records), house's sensuousness beckoned hipsters like a quenching oasis.

But the glitterball dazzle of filter disco, the warm, organic musicality of Body 'N Soul and Nuphonic, these represent only one side of house music. In truth, house can be as mechanistic, punishing, and dehumanized as the hardest-core techno, the darkest drum 'n'bass. Right from the start, there's been a schism, or more accurately, a vital tension, within house culture: "songs" versus "tracks"; diva passion and gospel-descended uplift versus treadmill beats, trippy FX, and slimy blurts of inorganic synthesiser.

Called "tracky" or "trackhead" by cognoscenti, this side of house began with the mid-Eighties jack tracks (palsied vamps, stutter-afflicted vocal-riffs, mind-evacuating "jack your body" chants), then mutated into acid house in 1987. Acid contained its own micro-genre of vocal-based tracks, a world away from the melisma-drenched fabulousness of Ultra Nate and Robert Owens. On the flipside of Phuture's "Acid Tracks," the very first house tune to deploy the fractal wibbles of the Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the astonishing "Your Only Friend" personified cocaine as a robot-voiced tyrant: "I'll make you lie for me, I'll make you die for me/In the end, I'll be your only friend." Then there was Sleezy D's ""I've Lost Control," a Sabbath-inspired Marshall Jefferson track featuring an "Iron Man" vocal and padded-cell-as-dub-chamber screams. Other classics of this micro-genre include Adonis's "No Way Back", Bam Bam's "Where's Your Child?" and Pierre's Pfantasy Club's "Dream Girl", all themed around disorientation, mindwreck, abduction, and sexual paranoia.

Green Velvet's Curtis Jones singlehandedly brought the creepy monologue back to house in the mid-Nineties. This Berkeley drop-out founded two Chicago labels: Cajual, for effervescent disco cut-ups (including his own Cajmere releases), and Relief, for cranium-denting beats and drug-noise delirium. Jones first made an impact with 1995's "Flash". Over a battery of rivet-gun snares, Jones played a slurred-voiced guide escorting a tour group of worried parents armed with cameras through "Club Bad" and revealing all the decadent things their teenage kids get up to. Like sucking on balloons of nitrous oxide---"laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter". Slyly playing on the wired paranoia of ravers ("ohmigod, what if mom and dad really do arrive and see me all out of my head?!?!"), the chorus "cameras ready, prepare to flash" transforms the club's occult murk into a Panopticon space of exposed and documented delinquency.

"Flash" was apparently intended as an anti-drug song, Jones talking about some of the fucked-up freaky shit he saw going on in clubs where he was doing PAs. But the song is cunningly pitched so that it works just as well as an anthem for drug-fiends. (For a long while, until I listened to the lyrics closely, I thought the "prepare to flash" chorus was a drug exhortation, referencing the "flash" or total-body rush some amphetamine users experience, or "flash" as in an LSD flashback). "La La Land", a standout track on the new Green Velvet album Whatever, is similarly ambiguous. Reviving all those classic early rave metaphors that involve imagery of madness, brain damage, derangement, the pursuit of oblivion through concussive bliss, "La La Land" is sung by a hardcore hedonist who's always "looking for the after-party to begin." The chorus is brilliantly catchy--"something about those little pills/unreal/the thrills/they yield/until/they kill/a mill/ion brain cells" (the rhymes work better if you adopt a black American accent, with the 'd' in 'yield' left unpronounced). But if that chorus sounds like a "Just Say No" warning, the lines "la la land is the place I need to be/the place that sets me free" contradict them. Is this profoundly ambivalent, or just a cowardly refusal to adopt a consistent standpoint? Does Jones accept that drug-abusers are seeking things the real world can't offer, escaping an intolerable world into a chemical utopia? Or does he simply not want to alienate his primary market, drugged up ravers, by unreservedly condemning their self-destructive pleasures?

Up until now, Green Velvet's emphasis has been on black humour, like "Answering Machine" with its a litany of bad news deposited on some luckless fellow's incoming message cassette: a landlord's eviction notice, his fiancee announcing that the baby is not his, a "psychic" fortune teller advising him to "stay in your house today, tomorrrow, and FOREVER". Or "Abduction", a simultaneously hilarious and disturbing ditty about being molested by alien beings midway through washing the dishes: Jones delivers lines like "they touched a part of me that I didn't know existed" in the faded, faltering voice of a survivor's confessional, with a feel for conversational cadence that's method acting in excelsis. Then there's the tripped-out whimsy of songs like "Water Molecule" (off the 1999 debut album Constant Chaos), where a zonked-out Jones imagines being reincarnated as H2O. The appeal? Water's access-all-areas privileges: "I would be a part of all different types of people, 'cos I would travel around in my vapor state, and I would turn into my liquid state and enter their glass and they would swallow me and I'd be part of their bodies".

The new album, though, is surprisingly serious, even militant. "When?" is straightforward anti-racist protest, a "don't judge me" plea to purge from your mind the prejudices and ethnic stereotypes caused by media brainwashing. The only hint of comedy here is his anti-humanist quip "we're all inferior". Propelled by a harsh, scouring riff, "When?" is a bit like if Mad Mike let his anger come out through a vocal tirade rather than just song-titles and slogans etched into the vinyl. Elsewhere, the spirit is pure punk rock: the staccato, accusatory "Stop Lyin'", the "don't mess with my mind" aggression of "Dank", the searing instrumental "Minimum Rage" with its title punning on the bottom-level income earned by American 16 year olds at fast-food restaurants and similar dead end jobs. "GAT (The Great American Tragedy)" is an anthem for teenage freaks who start dressing weird and acting out, only to get the condescending "you're just going through a phase" treatment from parents and elders. Jones delivers the chorus-howl "THIS IS NOT A FUCKING PHASE!!" with the percussive phrasing of arly Eighties US hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Negative Approach. This is slamdancing techno, moshpit rave.

None of this would work so well if the backing tracks weren't so compulsive, deranging, and, well, tracky. Green Velvet's sound reactivates a forgotten branch of house's family tree: not the symphonic sashay of Philly and Salsoul, but post-Moroder artpunk--the panting, guttural vocals and kinky pulsations of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors), the soiled electronics of Throbbing Gristle, The Normal, and Suicide. Whatever's sound has a retro-Eighties feel, at times closer to industrial and EBM than even the most tracky of modern house. Songs like "Stop Lyin'" are clockwork mechanisms pulsating in strict time, all square-sounding, stiff beats and 16th note sequenced bassline patterns that chatter and pummel. "Gendefekt" is a rigid grid of quantized drums and eerily spiralling synth-noises that make you think of the DNA helix; Kraftwerk's Computer World lost in a ketamine void. Propelled by slinky bass-riffs that writhe and squirm through your ears like frantic mind-worms in a hurry to get to the chewy center of your brain, "Sleepwalking"--the new album's absolute killer tune--is like Cabaret Voltaire on amyl nitrate.

Jones has described what he does as "folk music for the rave scene". Like that other pioneer of story-telling techno The Horrorist a/k/a Oliver Chesler, he's adept at finding narratives that fit the abstract emotions and weird energies generated by electronic music but that don't detract from its posthuman intensity. Jones also stands out in a faceless scene as one of the few live performers in electronica whose physical presence really adds something to the records. His live show is not to be missed, involving costume changes, voice-warping FX, auto-destruction theatrics (he's wont to fake-smash an Eighties shoulder-strap synth as if it were an electric guitar), and loads of charisma. The guy's a star.

THE PRODIGY, The Fat of the Land
Village Voice, July 8th 1997

Some say the Prodigy have betrayed the bright promise of the "electronica revolution", resulting in a techno-rock hybrid that's not so much kick-ass as half-assed. But the Prodigy have always been a rave 'n' roll band rather than "proper" techno. The crucial distinction to grasp here is that techno and rave are not synonymous, and that in some respects rave has more in common with rock than with club culture.

In the USA, rave is regarded as the epitome of fashion-plate Europhile trendiness, but in Britain dance music is the mainstream of pop culture, and rave specifically has a decidedly lumpen, un-cool aura. "Raves were mass, teenage, one didn't go to them," is how a veteran of London's 1988 acid house club Shoom explained it to me recently. Purists, who believe the music is properly experienced in clubs, where DJs play long, varied, "educational" sets to an allegedly discriminating audience, see raves as alarming close to arena rock concerts. Ravers's rowdy rituals of abandon and joyous uniformity of attire suggest the very herd mentality that clubbers define themselves against.

By 1990, huge-scale one-off raves were transforming house and techno into bombastic spectacles full of lights and lasers, fun-fair attractions, and stellar DJ lineups. Where a club might have one or two DJs, raves featured ten DJs playing a bare hour each, sometimes less. To avoid being blown away by the other jocks, the DJs played crowd-pleasing anthems with their turntables cranked up to plus-8. Then DJ-producers started making music to fit this full-on tempest. Detroit techno was "debased", or so the official history goes, into the hyperkinetic drug-noise called 'ardkore (which was when my ears pricked up).

And by 1991, the UK had a massive circuit of commercial, fully licensed raves, with promoters booking rave bands as well as DJs. Alongside N-Joi, Bizarre Inc, and Shades of Rhythm, the Prodigy were the most popular hardcore rave act. Musically, the Prodigy fit techno's standard syndrome--the boffin (Liam Howlett) knob twiddling alone in his studio lab. But live and on video, the Prodigy were always a band, with three other members--MC Maxim Reality, and dancers Keith Flint and Leeroy--taking up the visual slack.

At the height of this golden age of rave, the Prodigy encapsulated the contradictions of 'ardkore: this music was simultaneously an underground phenomenon and solidly pop. Apart from their first, "Android", every Prodigy single released to date has made the top 15; their second, "Charley", got to Number Three in the summer of '91, while the follow-up, "Everybody in the Place", was kept off the Number One spot only by Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". All the more remarkable since these brilliant early singles offer an only slightly more polished version of breakbeat hardcore, the music that evolved into jungle. Techno purists sniffed, but I always saw it as the new garage punk: riffs, noise, amphetamine-frenzy freakbeats, a sort of aggressive euphoria – the spirit of 1966 and 1977 channeled through the body of hip hop. When the Prodigy stepped onstage at Irving Plaza a month ago, they were introduced as something "for all you punk rockers, hip hoppers, and pill poppers." No mention of techno headz or house bods; indeed, Liam Howlett has been proclaiming in interviews that he never liked Kraftwerk, the sacred source for Detroit techno.

Starting with 1994's sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy repositioned themselves as rock, partly by using electric guitar on a couple of tracks, and partly by the vague conceptual/protest angle to the album. The jilted generation, explained Howlett, was kids who'd grown up under Thatcher, had little to live for but drugs and dance music, and now found even their weekend utopia threatened as authorities targeted raves. The UK equivalent, in other words, of the American grunge audience: Generation E.

All that remained was to bring the noise to America. Step One: turning dancer Keith Flint into the video-genic vocalist on "Firestarter". OK, the promo is corny: Flint's Mohican and psycho-youth grimaces. But sonically, "Firestarter" is sampler-wielding cyber-Stooges, a Dionysian hymn to destruction. Appearing at the MTV Europe Awards to pick up a trophy for Best Dance Video, the Prodigy greeted EC youth with "Hold it down!" a vintage '92 rave rallying cry--as if to confirm 'ardkore's historical victory and vindication. No matter that out of the early rave bands only the Prodigy had survived the collapse of the 1990-92 circuit; the music had become what it had always secretly been – the new rock.

"Firestarter" looked like a dead cert as electronica's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but inexplicably stumbled at the threshold of the Billboard top 30. Maybe "Breathe"--a jungle-punk duet between Flint and Maxim--will bust down the door, what with its abjection-chic video à la Tool and Marilyn Manson. Enjoyably reminiscent of Oi! bands like Angelic Upstarts, the song was a highlight of the Prodigy's otherwise patchy performance at Irving Plaza. There's rock, and then there's rawk; too often the Prodge crossed the line. When they dragged onstage a "real" guitarist, nor only did he look like a ye olde punke relic from the King's Road, but the overall effect was a tad Rage Against the Machine. Sans politics, of course: the Prodigy's brand of vacant menace and quasi-insurrectionary mayhem slots into the illustrious plastic punk lineage that runs Alice Cooper/Sweet/Billy Idol/Adam and the Ants. (The Prodge even feature an insect in their logo.)

Talking of insects, Keith Flint has described the Prodigy as "buzz music." The song titles are mostly self-reflexive, referring only to the music's own sensations: "Hyperspeed", "Pandemonium", "G-Force", "Full Throttle", "The Heat (The Energy)". 'Ardkore always did belong to a burgeoning "rush culture" that includes video games, roller-blading, extreme sports like snow-boarding (a hobby of the band's), and bungee jumping (a popular sideshow at raves), as well as the obvious illegal stimulants.

The Fat of the Land is no departure: it's all teenage rampage, cheap thrills, and adrenalin OD. Fat kicks off well with the boom-bastic ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Shame about the obnoxious title/chorus--teenage boys hardly need any more excuses to strike pimp poses. In mitigation, it must be said that the Prodigy are not a group that repays close lyrical analysis; their forte isn't deep and meaningful, but the profoundly superficial (not a dis by any means). Howlett is a supreme organizer of dynamics, bridges, and breakdowns, tension and release. "Diesel Power", a pumping midtempo collaboration with rapper Kool Keith, nods to Howlett's pre-rave past as a British B-boy. "Funky Shit"--old-school 'ardkore, more or less--is one of the few non-vocal tracks.

Fat's use of "real" singers is an indication of the band's eagerness to meet post-grunge America halfway. But it means the Prodigy have to get around the fact that they have nothing much to say-– "this is dangerous/open up your head/feel the shellshock" is typical--which didn't matter when the music was just breakbeats, riffs, and samples.

Ironically, given their desire to be taken as a futuristic rock band, the Prodigy's taste in yer actual contemporary guitar bands is poor. "Serial Thrilla" samples Skunk Anansie; "Narayan", a nine-minute collaboration with Crispian Mills of the god-awful Kula Shaker, is a poor man's "Setting Sun" (the Chemical Brothers' Britpop/breakbeat merger). The L7 cover "Fuel My Fire" would normally count as more bad taste by my lights, but I must admit it's an exciting finale, with a heavily distorted Flint tirade and Republica's Saffron providing baleful backing sneers. The song fits perfectly into the Prodigy's shtick: depoliticized punk offering youth a sort of aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.

Fat packs enough big beats, bass-quake, and flechette-insidious hooks to do the required job (conquering America), but as an album-length experience it sags somewhat in the middle. In true punk tradition, the Prodigy are really a singles band, which is why the 1992 debut Experience (in effect a collection of greatest hits up to that point) remains their most consistently exciting album. But as opposed to "proper" techno, where there's no brand loyalty and artists are only as good as their latest 12-inch, I'll keep faith with the Prodigy. They're a rave 'n' roll band, and I'm a fan.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968
Spin, 1998

Whatever way you define the essence of rock'n'roll--sex or dance or drugs, rage to live or rage against the machine--the common denominator shared by all these body/mind states is intensity. Rock'n'roll doesn't have to be fast or loud, but it's gotta have that feeling of incandescent immersion in the here-and-now.

Perhaps there's never been rock music so consumed by a tense present as mid-Sixties garage punk--that shambolic movement of white American teen bands who bastardised the already crude caricature of black rhythm-and-blues perpetrated by Brit Invaders such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds. The result was a comically exaggerated hypermachismo whose barely concealed subtext was virginity blues. Hence the volcano-of-pent-up-sperm that is "Action Woman" by The Litter, whose singer threatens to trade in his current girl for a more compliant model who'll provide "satisfaction" (that highly-charged buzzword of the mid-Sixties). But although its motor is usually sex and/or sexism, the greatest music of the "punkadelic" era achieves a kind of abstract urgency; "content" spontaneously combusts in an energy-flash of lust without object or objective.

Rhino's four-CD Nuggets dramatically expands on the original 1972 anthology. Lenny Kaye's feat of creative archivalism simultaneously altered the contours of the rock canon (deposing the Beatles/Cream aristocracy in favor of the disregarded one-hit wonders of the pre-Sgt Pepper's era: Count Five, The Seeds, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Standells, Shadows of Knight) and shaped rock's no-future (Nuggets was a primary resource for proto-punkers such as Pere Ubu and Television). Kaye's original double elpee takes up the first
silver disc; the other three scoop up a legion of regional smashes and one-miss blunders.

Although there's a well-produced surfeit of bubblegum-psych and frat-party bop, and not nearly enough of the inspired lo-fi ineptitude you'll find on obscurantist garage comps like Pebbles and Mindrockers, this new Nuggets contains way too many gems to list here: the ear-dazzling flare of Nazz's "Open My Eyes", the lysergic oneupmanship of The Third Bardo's "I'm Five Years Ahead of My Time," the paranoid delirium tremens of The Music Machine's "Talk Talk," the louche swagger of Chocolate Watchband's saliva-drooling Stones pastiche "Sweet Young Thing." My absolute all-time fave spurt of G-punk , though, is We The People's "You Burn Me Up And Down", which you can also find on Sundazed's superb anthology of the band's output, Mirror Of Our Minds. A sensual inferno of turbid fuzztone and jagged riffs, "Burn Me Up" is a hormonally-crazed paean that shifts from the
eros-tormented gasp "baby, you're learnin'" to the era's ultimate
compliment: "you satisfier!"

But this is history, right? Well, no, actually. In "Burn Me Up," I
hear not just the ancestry for My Bloody Valentine's kissed-out "Slow" but the secret spiritual source for The Prodigy's "Firestarter", Big Beat monstertunes such as Fatboy's "Everybody Loves A Filter", and a thousand hardcore rave anthems . Punk to funk, garage bands to computer-in-the-bedroom junglists , you can trace a continuum of teenagers hopped up on stimulants (or fervently pretending to be)
and literally electrified by the latest noise-toys (wah-wah pedals
in '66, samplers in '92). If Nuggets is "educational", it's 'cos it's
an endlessly renewable refresher course in how to live like you're on fire. The guys responsible may now all be bank managers or professors of astronomy (like the singer in Chocolate Watchband!) but right here, right now, they're aliver than you or I will ever be.


VARIOUS ARTISTS, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire & Beyond
Uncut, 2001

Lenny Kaye's 1972 anthology Nuggets was a rock archivist's masterstroke, a feat of canon rewriting that deposed the post-Sgt Pepper's aristocracy and elevated the forgotten garage punks of the mid-Sixties, from The Seeds to Chocolate Watchband. Rhino's 1998 four-CD update of Nuggets dramatically expanded the original double LP. Now this latest instalment extends the Nuggets premise beyond the USA to encompass the one-hit-wonders and never-wozzers of mid-Sixties Britain: that all-too-brief golden age of amphetamine-cranked R&B and mod-on-LSD that's roughly bookended by "My Generation" and Cream's Disraeli Gears. Just the names of these long-lost groups--Dantalion's Chariot, Wimple Winch, Rupert's People, The Idle Race--induces a contact high, before you even play the discs.

Back then, singles made their point and left. This short'n'sweet succinctness allows the compilers to cram 109--that's one hundred and nine--tracks into four discs. Here's just a handful of gems. Tintern Abbey's "Vacuum Cleaner", with the saintly-sounding David MacTavish singing a proto-Spacemen 3 love-as-drug/drug-as-God lyric ("fix me up with your sweet dose/now I'm feeling like a ghost"), splashy cymbals, and a billowing solo of controlled feedback. Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything": Van in I'm-A-Man mode, awesomely surly and swaggering. The Sorrows's "Take A Heart": a Brit-Diddley locked groove of tumbling tribal toms and spaced-out-for-intensified-effect guitar-riffs. The Eyes's "When The Night Falls" takes that drastic use of silence and suspense even further: powerchords like Damocles Swords, caveman tub-thumping, tongues-of-flame harmonica, and an insolent you-done-me-wrong/go-my-own-way vocal. Fire's "Father's Name Was Dad," a classic misunderstood teen anthem: society gets the blame and the kid surveys Squaresville from a lofty vantage, cries "I laugh at it all!"

One group stands out as a "why?-why?!?-were-they-never-MASSIVE?" mystery. Not The Creation, and not The Action--both had terrific songs but were a little characterless. No, I'm talking about John's Children's. Their two offerings here are astoundingly deranged, the monstrously engorged fuzzbass like staring into a furnace, the drums flailing and scything like Keith Moon at his most smashed-blocked. "Desdemona" features the then shocking chorus "lift up your skirt and fly", daft lines about Toulouse-Lautrec painting "some chick in the rude" plus the stutter-bleat of a young Bolan on backing vox. "A Midnight Summer's Scene" captures mod sulphate-mania on the cusp of mutating into flower power acid-bliss: it's a febrile fantasy of Dionysian mayhem in an after-dark park, maenad hippy-chicks with faces "disfigured by love", strewing "petals and flowers," prancing the rites of Pan.

John's Children's merger of cissy and psychotic highlights the major difference between American garage punk and British "freakbeat" (as reissue label Bam Caruso dubbed it for their illustrious Rubble compilation series). The Limey stuff is way fey compared with the Yanks. You can hear a proto-glam androgyny, a "soft boy" continuum that takes in Barrett and Bolan, obviously, but also the queeny-dandy aristocrat persona of Robert Plant. At the same time, because these bands were schooled in R&B and played live constantly, the music has a rhythmic urgency and aggressive thrust that gradually faded over subsequent decades from the psychedelic tradition (think of Spiritualized's drum-phobic ethereality). This, though, was music for dancing as much as wigging out.

Nuggets II isn't solid gold. There's a slight surfeit of boppy shindig-type rave-ups and sub-Yardbirds blues that just ain't bastardized enough. Personally I crave more tunes with truly over-the-top guitar effects, aberrant bass-heavy mixes, phased cymbals, drastic stereo separation, and other psych-era cliches. The "British Empire" part of the subtitle allows in Australia's The Easybeats (godstars for the duration of "Friday On My Mind") while the "Beyond" pulls in groovy Latin American acid-rockers Os Mutantes. But to be honest, a lot of the Commonwealth-and-beyond stuff just ain't that hot. And inevitably one could compile another 2-CDs out of heinous ommissions. Forget the quibbles, though, this box is a treasure chest of vintage dementia.

THE DARLING BUDS, Fulham Greyhound, London
Melody Maker, 1988

Accusations of sexism* - from the people who tried to tell
us Patsy Kensit deserved more than a shudder and a soft, sad
shake of the head - are rich, but I'll rise to them, if only
to make a point or two. Women In Pop was never a carte
blanche to be asinine or uninteresting. There are women-in-
pop - Kristen Hersh, Mimi Goese, Sinead O'Connor, Jane
Siberry, Bjork - who are worked up, who have something to
work out of themselves. And there are those - the nouveau
power pop/xeroxide blonde axis - who faff around, hide behind
outmoded imagery drawn from obsolete pop models. If you want
a pat opposition, it's between dark depths and shiny surfaces
(although the surfaces of the new power pop really aren't
that lustrous, more like the dull gleam of some obsolescent
Sixties synthetic). Between a special kind of unease with
yourself and the world, and being easy-on-the-eye and eager-

When it comes to "identifying" it's never been a
question of gender, but of whether anything is going on in
there. Hersh et al, at their best, are so involving you're
laid low with a kind of traumatic empathy. But I could never
"identify" with an identity as small and sure as Andrea Bud's
(I'm talking about her stage persona - for all I know she may
be a kaleidoscope of contradictions. In which case I wish
she'd share them).

I mean, we're hardly talking glamour, are we? I'm all
for glamour as reinvention of the self (although eclipse of
the self is better), but it's got to be done with a sight
more verve and contrariness. The horror of The Darling Buds
is not that the "sweetness" is constructed, but that the
fabrication is of such a paltry and precedented nature. Some
come-ons are so obvious, they make you cringe. That a few
people find this simpering spectacle 'erotic' I can only
attribute to retarded libido.

Support group Avo 8 work up a nice head of bile in your
reporter, with their seventh hand reductionism, their ghastly
echo of The Tourists, their rewrite of "Crash" ("He'll Slip
Up One Day"), their punk riffola of the same wattage as the
second Pistols album. The hellish spawn of The Prims would
appear to be legion. Then everything is confetti and balloons
as The Darling Buds hit the stage. The band are artisans,
tight, even fierce, within their self-imposed limits, but
everything's over as soon as the girl opens her mouth.

Andrea's cooing, dulcet tones condemn her to trace the
tritest of melodic paths, which in turn demand the worn doggerel
of the lyrics, their lazy reshuffling of the lexicon of luv.
Unlike Kylie Minogue, however, this is a reduction the Buds
have inflicted upon themselves. Vanilla was never my
favourite flavour.

In truth, this was "unpretentious fun". Yeah, that
minisucle. It was un-sultry, and very provincial - which is
to say, neither urban nor pastoral (the two poles in rock
fantasy) but based in that dreary stetch of reality in
between that most of us have to inhabit but few actually want
to see celebrated in rock. My interest is divided equally
between the special agonies of those who have never lived,
and those who have lived to the limits of life. I have no
time for those who have lived a little.

Nonetheless, there are those who argue that we writers
should try to get inside the provincial mindset, rather than
lead it forward. Last week, we were grateful for the
revelation that the Fields Of The Nephilim are wonderful
because of "their paucity of imagination". That may be, but
what's un-wondrous about The Darling Buds is their paucity
full stop, their meagreness in every degree. To hallucinate
"transcendence" in something this stinting and stunted,
involves going through so many intellectual hoops, that
really, boys, you shame us theorists. But in truth, this
doublethink - "they're meant to be crap", "every platitude
contains a truth" etc - seems a rather convoluted route to

But oh, they love to imagine it's the grim grid of
theory that stands between me and the "simple pop thrill",
the "immediacy" of Darling Buds, Transvision Vamp, etc. Arse
about tit, again, chaps. First, comes the gut-level reaction:
a wave of nauseous indifference. Then comes speculation: what
is this deja vu weakness, this aural shandy, and why does it
recur? Then comes theory, and resolve. If the Arsequake
League were the Politburo of Pop, we'd treat The Darling
Buds, and their male equivalents like The Wonderstuff, like
Stalin dealt with the kulaks: uproot them from their dismal
allotments of jangle, and force them at bayonet point into
sampling factories, to forge futurist rock a la Front 242 and
Young Gods, as part of a Five Year Plan for the regeneration
of Britpop. But we're not, so we'll heckle on, and sometimes
stoop to state the bleedin' obvious, steamroller over grapes**.

The gig? Oh, it was crap.


* Champions of "Blonde" (copyright: Chris Roberts) had implied that the Arsequake League's opposition to The Primitives/Transvision Vamp/etc was rooted in masculinist chauvinism

** this reissue dedicated to the great Neil Kulkarni

Friday, September 21, 2007

Melody Maker, March 1994


Cheap Thrills (Gee St)

With their bonged-up, monged-out, slack mofo vibe, their
love of sphincter-palpitating low-end bass, and their
fondness for timewarping vocals a la Hendrix' "Third Stone
From the Sun", New Kingdom are something like hip hop's
Butthole Surfers. Bleary, bullfrog-deep and blunted to the
bone, "Cheap Thrills" has basso so profundo, so thick, it's
ambient, environmental, swimmable. The "100 % Mix" is
woozier by far than the crisp'n'spry version from the LP
Heavy Load (whic is also included on this EP), but the
"Over Proof Mix" is something else. Remixer The Underdog
expands the bass frequencies into an abyssal undertow over
which floats a thin film of treble; the song damn near
coagulates and comes to a halt.


Do You Remember the First Time (Island)

The kitschadelic, '70s aspects are all there, of course,
but in other ways Pulp are a throwback to the early '80s,
when Pop still allowed for flawed, shaky vocalists that
pushed past their limits to attain a gawky grandeur (think
Kevin Rowland, Marc Almond...). "Do You Remember The First
Time" is just great, with its Sparksy histrionic urgency,
frilly guitars and amusing virginity theme ("do you remember
the first time?...I can't remember the last time... I can
remember the worst time..." etc). But "Streetlights" is the
real enchantress. Jarvis Cocker flits between heavy breathing
spoken word passages, lovelorn/lust-stricken gasps, and a
giddy chorus, amidst a chintzy, ritzy, roxy swirl of el
Cheapo synths as scintillating as a disco glitterball, while
violins vie for elbow room. Texturally I'm reminded of the
very early, electro-tinged Band of Holy Joy, and of The
Specials' muzak-influenced second album; textually, Cocker
has invented his own distintive magic realism, unlocking
provincial England's humdrum epiphanies (neon lights
reflecting in lover's eyes etc) and seedy romanticism.
Marvellous stuff.


Thru the Vibe (94) (from 'Two On One, Issue Two', Moving

Through their enduring classics of last year, "Mystic
Stepper (Feel Better)" and "Renegade Snares", Omni Trio have
exerted a huge influence on the hardcore scene; they're one
of the key units who trailblazed jungle's current absorption
of all manner of soul, ambient, quiet storm and garage
influences. Now, with their track on the second in Moving
Shadow's series of experimental EP's, Omni Trio unleash
another tour de force of symphonic hardcore. With its
crystalline harp-ripples, tingly piano motif, orchestral
synths, exploding-soul gasps and Uzi-rattling breakbeats,
"Thru the Vibe" is a rush and a gush of euphoria. On the
flip, DJ Crystl's "King of The Beats" explores the spookier
side of ambient 'ardkore, with eerily modulated sample-tones
flickering and folding in on themselves as if in
a sonic hall-of-mirrors.


The Rumble (Production House)
Deep Inside of Me (Darklands)
Your Destiny (Dee Jay Recordings)

Critic and ambient musician David Toop noted recently
how so much of modern music evokes "the sensation of non-
specific dread that many people feel now when they think
about life, the world, the future", and how that dread is
related to, or even the same as, a sensation of non-specific
bliss. This uncanny bliss/dread is audible in the darker
kinds of ambient techno, and in ambient's close relative, the
isolationist/uneasy listening of Main & Co. But it's also
there in jungle, which is taking on ambient textures even as
its 150 b.p.m. breakbeats get ever more jaggedly jarring. The
resultant oxymoronic blend of mellow langour and febrile
tension has everything to do with long-term drug excess,
which loosens the tyrannical grip of the ego, but also opens
up the DARK SIDE, lets loose all the predatorial phantoms and
noxious paranoia of the id.

DJ Nut Nut & Pure Science's "The Rumble" actually starts
with the words "oh, dread"--a snatch of reggae DJ 'talkover'-
-and its bassline is as baleful as PiL circa Metal Box. But
there's bliss by the gallon here too, in the melting
female whimpers of "oh... oh, oh", in the sagging, sighing
ambient drones: a dangerous bliss, for the nameless soul-diva
sounds overwhelmed, like she's "drowning in love" (the chorus
of another jungle track). The B-side "Virtual Reality" is a
treacherous swamp of sub-bass ooze, like dancing over a pit
of writhing snakes.

Grooverider's "Deep Inside Of Me" has a harrowed,
heartbroken quality. The male soul-singer chorus, "I've got
so much love/deep inside of me", is a lamentation that
perfectly represents rave culture in '94: all luv'd up and
nowhere to go. The vocal sample languishes inside a desolate
dub-cavern of rippling and receding percussion, slow-and-low
bass and squelchamatic synth-blips.

DJ Crystl's "Your Destiny" is ambient hardcore at its most morbid, ghost-cries
veering up out of a pall of dank sound-vapour, and even a
cold fever of breakbeats can't shake the track out of its
gloom. Imagine the vibe in the Jurassic jungle when the Ice
Age was coming... On the flip, "Sweet Dreamz" is a sinister
lullaby: a female voice intones the chorus, while ambience
creeps up on you like a shroud of anaesthesing gas.
(Jungle tracks supplied by Remix Records, 247 Eversholt
Street, Camden NW1).

Threshold (Placebo)
Prison Sex (Zoo/BMG)

In these, perhaps the last days of guitar-rock, bands
have to pull some pretty bizarre shapes in order to do
anything even remotely new within an oversubscribed, long-in-
the-tooth medium. Hence the baroque'n'roll contortions of
Rollerskate Skinny and Tool, who have nothing in common
except the predicament above, and the lengths they go to
sidestep it. Rollerskate Skinny ply a wilfully oblique and
overloaded path somewhere between Mercury Rev and Papa
Sprain. On "Miss Leader", reedy guitar-trails meander across
the stereo-field, while the vocals are multi-tracked to cram
every cranny of the songscape with hysteria. With its
scrofulous, grotesque detail and spurts of Dadaist nonsense,
"Entropy" is positively Faust-like, while "Goodbye Balloon"
combines Mark E. Smith loudhailer vox with Kraut-rocky
guitar-shimmer. Never less than intriguing, Rollerskate
Skinny hit moments of real intensity amidst all the excess
and over-reach.

Tool, too, are pretentious as fuck, but their chosen
medium is metal. Imagine a lither, fey Soundgarden, with
fluttery androgynous vocals instead of the hi-testosterone
bombast. The singer performs torturous pirouettes while the
band twist'n'fold riffs like origami over supple, spasming
time signatures. Overwraught, distraught--let's call it
precious metal, but concede that it's intriguing if not
exactly satisfying.

Conquering Lion (X Project)

Makers of a wonderfully daft ragga-techno track that
sampled Aled Jones' "Walking In The Air" and turned that into drug
imagery, X Project return with another splendid example of
jungle's jollier side. As palsied as ska and as compulsive
as crack, "Conquering Lion" is all richotetting snares and
rimshots, spring-heeled bass, uproarious "jump up bwoy"
chants and dub-reggae sirens. At the heart of the track,
though, is this dislocated shard of female vocal, a little
"oh, oh" that introduces a bittersweet note of pathos and
fragility into an otherwise upful song. It's like a pang-in-
advance, anticipating the comedown after the manic high.

Switch (Ultimate)

All the congenital weaknesses of Brit-rap are present,
unfortunately: the soundscape is poor man's Bomb Squad,
looped squalls of dissonance a la "Bring The Noise", while
the rapping is blighted, or Blighty-d, with unfunky Angloid
emphases. On the "First Venom Remix", though, J. Saul Kane
from Depthcharge does dub-detonate some pretty interesting
craters in the soundscape. Lyrically, "Switch" is pretty par-
for-the-course millenarian paranoia: it's Grandmaster Flash's
"The Message" updated for UK '94, with "don't push me I'm
close to the edge" converted into the chorus "don't fall too
deep down". Which brings us back to that sense of non-
specific dread that's all-pervasive right now and how there
can be a perverse thrill in contemplating that abyss of
chaos, a sort of negative bliss in imagining your descent
into the maelstrom. This comes through in the B-side "Age of
Panic" (whose "Eat Static Saturated Slug Mix" sounds just
like its title--positively slimey with clammy apprehension).
For the original Greek meaning of 'panic' is a transport of
ecstasy-through-terror. Eve-of-apocalypse scenarios have
often made for great pop--"London Calling", "Welcome To The
Terrordome"--but not infallibly, as 'Switch' proves.

Hold On(Fire)

The A-side is the more winsome and negligible side of
the 'Blooms: post-MBV noise-pop with the emphasis overmuch on
syruppy choonfulness. One for the Boo Radley fans, then. But
the B-side has some of the perversity that flared up
previously in the wonderful ambient-idyll that was "Butterfly
Girl". Black Sabbath's heaviness has long been an acceptable
resource for rehabilitation, but it takes real courage, and
taste, to tackle a ballad like "Changes", and to do it
straight, with no figleaf of irony. Adding truly OTT blues
solos to the original's mellotron sweeps, and replacing
Ozzy's morose croon with Esther's dulcet vocals, The
Nightblooms salvage the song's poignancy for all those too
bigoted to take it from the Sabs themselves.

Peel Session (Internal)

This four-tracker offers yet another radically
different (per)version of "Lush", but it's real attraction is
"Semi detached". As usual, the Hartnoll Bros overlap and
interlock sequencer-strands and synth-spirals in the
en-trancing fashion of systems music composers like Glass,
Nyman, Reich and Riley, and construct a lattice of percussive
tics and clicks as intricate as a honeycomb. "Semi detached"
evolves, after eight minutes, into "Attached", brimming
brain-waves of electronic plasma, with a vague Neu!/Cluster
aura reminiscent of Spiritualized's gloriously Kraftwerkian
but cruelly ignored "Electric Mainline".

4 Ambient Tales (Apollo)

Ambient torch songs' sounds like a great idea, but this
is actually a bit of a mismatch, as Billy Ray's breathy,
over-demonstrative vocal jars rather with The Grid's softly-
glowing ambient decor and B.J. Cole's pearl-necklaces of
slide guitar. "Planet Of The Blue" chimes in with the non-
specific dread thesis, but the blues in
ambient/isolationist/jungle/Disco Inferno et al is present in
an implicit, non-literal, musicologically remote sort of way.
Similarly, ambient techno doesn't need a brightly burning
SOUL like Billy Ray Martin's; 'soul'--and this applies to all
forms of MODERN music, not just techno--is dispersed
polymorphously throughout the soundscape, taking up residence
in the bassline, the panoply of textures, even the drum
track. Instead of 'soul'--that one bombastic figure pouring
out a heartful of passion--there's a diffuse
spirituality/sensuality that spreads across the entire
surface, or skin, of a piece of music. Time to talk of music
in terms of its erogenous, or eroto-mystical zones, rather
than its 'soul'.

Megawatt Messiah (Blunted Vinyl)

Doyens of "intelligent hardcore", The Holy Ghost have
released some wonderfully daft and demented trax like
"Jihad", "Nice One Boy" and "Mad Monks On Zinc". But now
that they've signed to Island sub-label Blunted Vinyl, they've
dropped the "hardcore" and are just "intelligent", in a
yupwardly-mobile prog-house stylee. The titles--"Heavy
Water", "Ion Horse" and "Isotopia"--are still wacky, but the
music's cleanly produced, tasteful and smoothly grooving.
Squelchy bass, exotic samples (including ethno-techno pioneer
Jon Hassell if I'm not mistaken), trancey beats--but like
Fluke, it never quite amounts to the sum of its parts. Shame.

Merciless (Earache)

Cyber-thrash or digital metal seems to be a coming
thing, judging by the rise of sampler-wielding thrash units
like Old, and bands like Brutal Truth getting techno-remixes
by ardkores like Lunarci. Godflesh's new EP makes great play
of the fact that "all sounds are guitar samples, analogue to
digital", and that the songs are "biomechanical remixes". But
it's tricky, getting the balance between bio- and -mech right
when you're rewiring rock's nervous system into cyborg-rock.
Godflesh haven't quite got it yet. Removing the kinetic
energy that trad rock gets from the real-time interaction of
guitar/bass/drums is all very well so long as you use
sampling to create magickal, 5th dimensional effects. But
most of this EP sounds like Swans without the sense of
muscular, sinewy toil: slabs of grey noise over frigid dirge-
beats. Pretty fucking inclement stuff, although the near-
ambient "Flowers" (featuring Robert from Main) has a harsh
beauty. Godflesh might do well to remember that the first
sampler-delic rockers, Young Gods, deliberately kept a flesh-
and-blood drummer. Embrace the new tech too zealously,
extinguish the human element too rashly, and you just end up
with cold, dead sound.

Diggin' At the Dig In (Pop God)
Unsettled Life (Acid Jazz)

Praise Space Electric are rare groovey but with a 90's
non-retro sense of dub-space: jazzy nuances float mirage-like
down reverberant corridors between the beat, in a manner
redolent of Arthur Russell or Defunkt. Fusionoid in the best
"On The Corner"/Weather Report sense. Emperor's New Clothes
are on a similar tip, but with a bluesy, angsty aura
reminiscent of Yargo. Acid-jazz here signifies not
beret'n'goatee twats but the ailing, soul-stricken post-
'There's A Riot Going On' Miles Davis of "He Loved Him
Madly". Mixed by The Underdog (who worked on New Kingdom's
single), this is funk noir, but it sounded even more eerie
when I first played it, at an incorrect 33 r.p.m.
Melody Maker, February 1991

It's a strange trajectory that Sonic Youth have followed, from their early "Kill Yr Idols" iconoclasm to their present mode as rock mythomaniacs bringing up the rear for Neil Young (an idol of theirs). And as "Eric's Trip" blazes over the heads (in every sense) of the bovine arena hordes, one has to wonder whether your average cud-chewing US rocker can get his head around the rock-as-radiation/kaleid-ophrenic lyrics aesthetic. Like, where are the riffs, man?

Sonic Youth look awful small in this environment, but their music fares a lot better. The venue's scale and extra wattage bring a whole new volume (in the cubic, voluminous sense) to their sound. Even the songs from Goo, which seemed so trimmed and lame on vinyl, now rage in sparkling 5D, free of the album's dead-aired, dessicated production. I still marvel at how the people who wrote the lyrics for Daydream Nation (among the best rock poetry of the last decade) could also be responsible for twee conceits like "Tunic" or "Kool Thing". But live, the dumb words are swamped; "Kool Thing" is jagged and forbidding as a glacier, while "Tunic" gives way to a fissure of clustered harmonics hanging in the air like motes after a quarry explosion. For me, it's still Lee Ranaldo who's Sonic Youth's true textural/tectonic wizard, and Thurston & Gordon who are culpable for the Pop Art/postmodern fetish for 2D cartoon imagery of teen revolt and radical chic. But with the closing, awesome "Expressway To Yr Skull", such distinctions are obliterated. The sound is collective, amorphous, seemingly origin-less; at first a deadly mirage, then, in the Hendrixian feedback-sculpting coda, membrane after membrane of mummifying haze. Sonic Youth, as irritating individuals, disappear in their own wake.

Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" trails the arrival of Crazy Horse, and prompts a ghastly misunderstanding; most of the audience are oblivious to the agonised irony of Jimi's version (the sonic equivalent of burning the flag as a torch for the young dead in 'Nam) and respond with unmistakeably jingoistic fervour. But the misunderstanding originates in a crucial ambivalence in Neil Young's own attitude, externalised in the disparity between the peace flag unveiled behind the stage and the yellow ribbon for the troops tied to the giant mike stand upfront. Young's audience comprises both burnt-out hippy pacifists and blue collar patriots because he himself has followed a trajectory from the counter culture to born-agin Reaganism. And these contradictions turn on the ambiguity of the word "freedom" - whether it simply means a free market society or some grander, vaguer existensial liberty; whether the first might in fact be the enemy of the latter.

Neil Young's work is located in the slipstream of the two great American traumatic disillusionments: the closing of the frontier at the end of the 19th Century, and the closing of the psychological/existensial frontier opened up in the late 1960's. "After the goldrush", there's just stranded lives, stagnant ideals, a utopia gone awry. Today, in the midst of US industrialised rock, Neil Young and Crazy Horse have a mythical resonance similar to that vested by Sam Peckinpah in the aged outlaw gang of The Wild Bunch: they're incorrigible, cantakerous, battered yet heroic survivals of a grander age. But instead of the railroad companies, it's MTV and a rock biz integrated with Hollywood, advertising and merchandising, that's ushering in a lowlier future.

With his grizzled locks (clearly a stranger to conditioner), weatherbeaten countenance and stooped gait, Neil Young seems to contradict his own adage that "it's better to burn out than to fade away". Except that his music uniquely combines ragged stamina and tempestuous incandescence; at its peak it's like a decrepit inferno. What shocked me was the sheer NOISE of his playing. Young brings new meaning to worn-out terms like "powerchord" (even on sweet songs like "Cinnamon Girl", they're like breakers crashing over your head) and "catharsis". His solos aren't decorative, but volcanic, driven, purgative, like he's trying to untie an unyielding knot of anguish inside himself. Stomping grimly around the lip of the stage, lashing and gouging his instrument, Young churns up a sensurround maelstrom that's like the missing link between Jimi and Albini. "Break It Down" and "Fuckin Up" are sundered by a freefall of mangled wreckage and flaming debris.

Where Sonic Youth are avant-gardists dipping a toe in the populist mainstream, Neil Young's populist rock'n'roll breaks its own hokey bounds continually, spills into free noise. Like his politics, Young's music blurs the border between reactionary and revolutionary. If there's nostalgia here, it's not a wistful longing for home but for homelessness; an untamed wilderness unspoilt by settlements and sell-outs, a place "where I can leave myself behind". That foreclosed frontier of freedom rages still in the razing glory of Young's guitar.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

“Doing it For The Kids” Creation Records Alldayer, Town and Country, London August 7th 1988
Melody Maker, August 1988

As rock grows long in the tooth, as the possibility of it exceeding itself seems to dwindle further each day, so the temptation is to look back wistfully to the high points. For some the definitive Lost Moment is (still) punk’s Pyrhric rage and convulsive passage through the mass media. Others can’t see their way past the immaculate personal/political anguish of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. And the truly perverse can currently be heard “cheekily” espousing the likes of Wendy (James) and Patsy (Kensit), in homage to that Lost Moment when Paul Morley got Kim Wilde onto the cover of the NME (as if there were still “hippies” to be baited, as if we hadn’t all been through New Pop). In every case, though, the past pinnacles are venerated so utterly, the result can only be a neurotic endeavour to recapture the lost glory of those moments and extend it into eternity.

For Creation and its constituency--the sea of floppy fringes, black leather, suede and paisley gathered here today--rock is over, something that’s been and gone. Creation isn’t fixated on a particular Lost Moment, or a golden age with clearly defined boundaries, but it does have a canon of visionary outsiders, honoured tonight on the tapes played between acts. Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew”, Alex Chilton, The Seeds, Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel”, the Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby”, Lee Hazelwood, all pretty incontestable, really, and close to my own ideas about the past, not least in the implicit rejection of punk’s long-term effects (New Wave and New Pop). It’s a canon that should be remembered, privileged even. The trouble is that the sense of upholding a legacy through the dark ages of plastic pop has bred a servile and lily-livered deference to the sources. Rewriting is unavoidable at this late hour, sure, but what’s needed is an approach that can inflame these traces rather than preserve them in aspic. Otherwise you become a living, breathing archive of rock gesture. A mere footnote. The fate that’s befallen too many of the bands at this event.

HEIDI BERRY is an admirably eccentric gesture for Creation. She harks back to the islet of troubled AOR occupied in the early Seventies by Sandy Denny and John Martyn, and indeed looks gloriously unfashionable in this context--her thigh-length suede boots, puce velvet jacket and boob tube jarring conspicuously with the (admittedly ravishing) ideals of female indie-style visible all around…

The reputedly “quite good” JASMINE MINKS get people jigging from one foot to the other with their moderately radiant guitar interplay, but the singer sounds like he’s gargling a sock, and ultimately theirs is a thin-lipped and ill-fitting appropriation of “the Sixties”. I never saw a band leave the stage so lackadaisical and unemphatic a manner.

Then the gaunt, scarecrow figure of NIKKI SUDDEN shuffles on for a couple of rather scrappy blues numbers. “Death is Hanging Over Me” would be affecting in its abjection if not for the camp effect of Sudden’s weak R’s. “Crossroads” is introduced as a song about Robert Johnson: “And he’s ultimately the reason why we’re all here today… even though you probably don’t know his name.” Well, yeah, no doubt that’s true, in the strict archeological sense: but a hell of lot has happened in the interim. For a lot of the kids here, the Mary Chain’s riot gig is almost prehistory.

THE JAZZ BUTCHER gains a point for sounding comparatively robust, but loses several for his Jennings-and-Darbyshire/Robyn Hitchcock Englishness, and for his session-standard saxophonist. Unclassifiable, clever-clever indie-bop, somewhere between Monochrome Set, The Woodentops and Jimmy the Hooever. Packed, bustling and void.

PRIMAL SCREAM’s moment has long passed. The talk of feyness and innocence has evidently riled them into aping the Stones. They’ve abandoned the gossamer fragility of “Crystal Crescent” and “Gentle Tuesday” for a blues that sags but never approaches the ponderousness and tumescent turgidity attained by various visionary white bastardizations of R&B. Bobby Gillespie and the drummer are the main culprits, the dragging vestigial limbs. Gillespie’s voice just doesn’t have the grain for raunch, can only sing ba-ba-ba Bay City Rollers tunes. “Fire of Love” is rendered impossibly lukewarm and lackluster. Gillespie crouches low, wigs out in that boneless, rag-doll manner of his, a flailing cod-dementia, willing it to be as good as the old days.

I’ll venerate FELT until the end of time for “Primitive Painters” alone. Like Durutti Column’s “Missing Boy”, it’s a classic defeatist anthem, a shamefaced confession of an inability to cope with life’s most rudimentary demands (like eating vegetables). Live, even without the stratospheric powerhouse of Liz Frazer’s vocal, it’s an irresistible, cascading surge, a contradiction of the vocal and its morose words. Laurence’s listless whisp must be the ultimate voice of deficiency and unrealized selfhood: a one note range, and even then he doesn’t sound in full command of that note. And there’s plenty more of Felt’s halcyon dappled sunlight and gilded ripple tonight, a sound perfectly complemented by the trippy back projections, including one that looks like rays of light convering on a retina and its burnt-out pupil.

What else to say about THE HOUSE OF LOVE? Nobody has a bad word for them. In the nicest possible way they are the Consensus Band of 1988, unimpeachably wondrous. Tonight, an incredible piece, like a whale song reverberating through the recesses of the galaxy, turns out to be Terry Bickers messing about while the others tune up. There’s the godlike glow and gazelle grace of “Destroy the Heart”, the vast cathedral resonance of “Christine”, the luminous aftermath of a personal apocalypse that is “Man to Child”. “Shine On” is all baleful gravitas and cold smouldering ascent, while “Nothing To Me” is one of these great Guy Chadwick lyrical inversions, like “Blind”: the title’s a monstrous fib as the sound tells you the singer’s minds eye is ablaze with the memory of her. Burgeoning axe hero Terry introduces sounds and effects that just don’t belong in this kind of pop. “Real Animal” leads into “I Wanna Be Your Dog” from the first Stooges album, which--impossibly--manages to be both bestial and celestial. Drowned, I tell you.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE are about to release a fabulous and quite extraordinary five-track EP [You Made Me Realise]. But live, the delicate melodies and the fine-tuning of chaos get crushed in the melee. “Cigarette In your Bed”, a most peculiar, unplaceable song on record (a Sonic Youth lullaby?) is a shambles live, Belinda Jayne Butcher’s bloodless vocal almost completely lost. The stop-start paroxysms of “Drive It All Over Me” and “You Made Me Realise” thrive better under the thrash approach, churning up foaming noise in the Husker Du/Dinosaur style. But they disappoint me by not playing “Slow”, the sex song of the year (along with “Gigantic” by the Pixies). With its colossal “Sidewalking” bass, disorientating drones, and langorous, enervated vocals, it conjures up a honeyed, horny lassitude of desire to rival AR Kane. This raven-haired thrash-pop has a sight more edges and secrets to it than any of its “rivals.”

The event peters out with a bit of malarkey involving a cut-out Alan McGee and Joe Foster attempting to lead a singalong of “We Are the World”. The “no encore” rule (to ensure each act doesn’t over-run) is observed even at the end, leaving the crowd restive and frustrated. Overall impression: a sense of “now” being eclipsed, drained vampirically by the past and its stature; the loss of the present moment through being made to seem impoverished next to the history it was umbilically bound to. Only The House of Love and My Bloody Valentine know that you have to torch the whole heap of pop signs and totems, rather than shuffle them about a bit. Only those two bands brought back the sudden quickening of “NOW” that eluded us most of the time today.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

THE STRANGLERS, The Old Testament: The UA Studio Recordings(1977-1982)
Melody Maker, 1993 (?)

It's easy to why The Stranglers were the most critically
reviled and terminally unhip band to emerge in the punk era:
their extreme misogyny, Jean-Jacques Burnel's pathetic neo-
fascist ideas about "warrior masculinity", Hugh Cornwell's
arty pretentions, arch-muso Dave Greenfield's baroque'n'roll
organ, the fact that portly drummer Jet Black used to drive
an ice-cream van. And yet, and yet, The Stranglers had
something. They didn't sell a quarter million copies of each
of the first three albums for nothing.

What they had, and what I'm still a sucker for, is a
sort of bruised and brooding machismo, a sour and splenetic
misanthropy. A voluptuous, glowering melancholy pervades
songs like "Goodbye Toulouse", "La Folie", the anti-heroin
"Don't Bring Harry" (whose moroseness upset Dave Lee Travis
when The Stranglers released it as an Xmas single). These
warrior wannabes' grievance was that the modern world offered
scant scope for traditional heroic virtues. Hence the
insuperable weariness of "Who Wants The World", the scowling
rancour of "Dead Ringer" and "Bitchin'".

Along with their famous songs (sexist anthems like
"London Lady" still have an irrestible zip, I'm afraid, while
"Golden Brown" is as pretty a smack-hymn as you could wish
for), all manner of engaging oddities are tucked away in the
albums' cranniess. Like "Outside Tokyo" (off the third LP,
Black and White, when the Stranglers' dark vision turned
really morbid), an eerie waltz-time lament that regrets
the invention of Time. The whole of Black and White is a
remarkable feat of failed pretentiousness and pseudo-sinister
weirdness, ranging from the sub-Beefheart shlock of "Do You
Wanna?" to "Death and Night and Blood", Burnel's tribute to
dodgy Japanese proto-fascist writer Yukio Mishima. But when
it comes to art-rock farragos, their UFOs-are-coming concept
album The Meninblack is unbeatable. Like, atrocious, man!

With 83 tracks gathering up every last album track and
B-side they recorded for United Artists (even "Old Codger",
their George Melly collaboration!), this four CD package is
for die-hards only. But their first four albums can be found
dirt-cheap in your local Record and Tape Exchange. An
anomaly in the annals of Brit-rock (I defy you to name a
single group they influenced), The Stranglers had something,
I tell you.

ELASTICA, interview
Melody Maker, March 25th 1995

by Simon Reynolds

One man's Bright New Dawn for British guitar-pop is another's Last Gasp--the
morbid vitality of a genre flying in the face of its historical obsolesence.Have we really reached the point--the nadir, frankly--where all that's left to celebrate is "adrenalin", attitude and catchy choruses? Record-collection-rock is the name of the game for guitar-based songcraft in the '90s, to be sure, but
does the collection really have to be so constricted, so lame--the same tired old
litany of Beatles/Who/Stones/Pistols/Smiths, Brit-rock's equivalent of the Dead
White Males that make up the Canon of Literary Greats? From Dodgy to Supergrass,
Shed Seven to Gene, Oasis to These Animal Men, the plague of four-man guitar
combos are runnin' scared of all the things that make '90s pop life
interesting--technology, the multiracial reality of UK society, and women-in-rock.

And what about Elastica? Surely they're not just Noo Wave revivalists but
outright recyclists (having only just paid off Wire and Stranglers for borrowing
hefty chunks from the latter's songs). Why exempt them? Because, just by being
75 percent female they stand out in a field overcrowded with jack-the-lads and
pseudo-hooligans. Because their impeccable taste led them to the few morsels of
late '70's pop-punk minimalism worth scavenging, i.e. Buzzcocks and Wire.
Because they managed to make the Stranglers a hip reference point. And because
their hooks catch more cruelly in the listener's flesh than the rest of their peers.


Hungover the morning after the Brit Awards, Elastica--or at least 50 percent of
them, Annie being otherwise occupied and Donna comatose on a couch in the band's
press office--have decided that what their battered constitutions need is lunch
at the Camden caff they call School Dinners (on account of its hearty English
grub). It's a favourite Elastica haunt, frequented with "horrible regularity",
says Justin, because it's open 'til 2AM and handy for post-rehearsal nourishment.
Copious amounts of steaming stodge having arrived, and Justine having put in a
request for Horseradish and Brown Sauce to accompany her vegetarian fare, we kick
off by talking about the Old Wave of New Wave.

I used to be a bit of a Stranglers fan (a definite post-punk no-no), and
when their entire United Artists output was reissued as a CD box set, I seized
the opportunity to drag that particular skeleton out of the closet. Reviewing it
in MM, I claimed, plausibly, that the Stranglers were one of the most
uninfluential groups ever, a band without legacy. A few weeks later, I heard
"Line Up"--the nice'n'sleazy throb of Annie's J.J. Burnel bass, Justine's deadpan
Hugh Cornwell sneer--on Top Of the Pops. Ooops! One of the things that intrigues
me about Elastica is the idea of Justine, a young woman of the Nineties, looking
into her soul and deciding that her truest voice was Hugh Cornwell!

"Rattus Norvegicus was one of the records my brother left behind when he
moved out of home," remembers Justine. "He used to play Stranglers' records when
I was 12 or 13. I didn't really understand a lot of the language, and the image
went over my head, but the sheer pop-ness of it got me. That sort of thing sits
festering at the back of your collection for years. Then suddenly I found myself
getting it out again, about four years ago, and thinking it sounded fresh."

So you weren't bothered by the band's misogynist streak?

"I think it just went over my head, being young. But looking back, I think
they could probably have got away with it more today. In the late '70s everybody
was incredibly PC. There was a lot of humour in what they did, which is a
massive get-out clause.

"The Stranglers actually rehearse at the same studio as us, and we went out
for a drink with Jean-Jacques Burnel a couple of weeks ago. Annie's a massive
fan, and he told her she was a really good bassist, and later he showed her how
he gets certain sounds. She was dead chuffed."

So what does he look like now, is he still the punk heart-throb?

"He's quite stocky now, he does martial arts and kickboxing, and teaches,"
says Justin. "He goes round the world doing karate competitions."

"But he's still pretty handsome, basically," adds Justine.

So four years ago, when you were first rediscovering the Stranglers, Wire,
Buzzcocks, Blondie -- was part of the appeal that it was all so out-of-synch and
against the grain vis-a-vis what was then the indie state-of-art?

"Definitely. We were totally conscious that what we were doing didn't sound
like anyone else. Because of that I didn't really expect us to get any press or
get anywhere. Everything was pretty rocky, to do with 'feel'. There was Primal
Scream, which was all about getting high and having a good vibe, and then a bit
later there was Suede, which had a kind of self-indulgence to it, too, which
people really related to."

And Elastica are emphatically opposed to musical self-indulgence?

"To be honest, I'm not really against anything, I think that whole concept is
ridiculous. There's room for lots of different kinds of music. What the music
press write about is just a tiny area of music, and it's ridiculous to start
separating stuff within that area and get all tribal about things. I don't
understand why people feel the need to put other bands or styles of music down.
Being a musician is just a great thing to wanna be; you can't really blame anyone
for wanting to be a musician."

Actually, I tend to feel there's way too many bands on the planet, and that
people should really hesitate before picking up an instrument, have a long hard
think about whether they really have anything to contribute. 'Cos 97 per cent
frankly don't.

"Yeah, but every band thinks they're the best band in the world! What
frustrates me is when people constantly say it. Cos it's obvious--if you didn't
think your band was the best you wouldn't bother!"

Well, that kind of arrogance has become a highly marketable shtick. It was
refreshing when the Stone Roses started it, that whole 'we're the band the
world's been waiting for' thing. Then it became a cliche, what with the Manics
"You Love Us", then Suede and Adorable, and now Oasis and a legion of cocky,
mouthy gits. Oasis's whole raison d'etre is to be BIG, half their songs are about
how they're gonna be superstars.

"It works very well for Oasis, though, they do it in a very charming way,
almost cartoon. It's this sort of Northern lads thing, 'we're the best gang in
the world'".

I reckon it's actually a Northern mothers' thing, mums bringing up their
sons to think they're God's gift.

"More than anything, it basically springs from male adolescence, just a
school age mentality. I'm not having a go at them or anything, cos I think it
works, but that's where it comes from--having gangs at school, wanting to control
the playground."

You've said that you too really enjoy the gang element to being in a band,
that sense of Us Against the World.

"There's always going to be an element of that in any band. That's the primary
motive, going out and doing it and having a laugh. Being on tour is a bit like
going on a school skiing trip, messing about at the back of the coach. We don't
have a particularly professional relationship, it's more social. If I've got
nothing to do of an evening I'm very likely to go round and see Justin and Donna
and sit in and watch TV. They're just my mates, not people I'm trying to have a
career with."

The cover of Elastica has that gang aura down pat, a B/W shot of the band
as sullen, leather clad yoof, backs against the (brick) wall. The iconography is
pure 1978, positively oozes tower block chic and 'street cred'. Inside, the
music's just as stark and monochrome. One of the things I like about Elastica is
that far more than any of their Noo Wave of Noo Wave peers, their music has that
Wire/Buzzcocks angularity and geometry. And we haven't had that for the longest
while in guitar-pop, it's either been feedbacky'n'fuzzed up, or dreampop hazey,
or slack'n'grungey. Elastica songs are in-elastic, stiff but in a good way.

"It's logical music, it's got a logic to it," concurs Justine. "The others
always take the piss out of me, 'cos I think there's a bit of an Eastern
European, Germanic thing coming through there."

"In rehearsals, Justine'll always say 'keep it straight'", says Justin. "And
it always ends up like..."--he mimes strict-time, rigorous movements--"You start
marching round the room!".

"I prefer simple music," says Justine, primly. "Donna and Annie, they're
into 'feel'. Annie can jam away on the acoustic guitar, and people are amazed,
they didn't know she could do that. And Donna grew up surrounded by musicians
who played the blues."

Well, there's not a single trace of da blooze in Elastica, thank the Lord.

"It just doesn't do it for me. I think it's really lazy in the worst way,
playing blues riffs."

All Elastica's influences stem from that immediate post-punk era when
British rock had severed itself from the blues roots of rock'n'roll, but had yet
to discover funk. The point at which Bobby Gillespie thinks it all went wrong, in
other words: when bands ceased playing from the hips, drummers stopped
syncopating and white rock lost touch with black music. Revealingly, the only
black music that Justine likes is ska--the speediest, jerkiest, most un-swinging
form of black pop ever. On some Elastica songs, the beats actually seem closer to
disco than raunch'n'roll, or at least the metronomic European brand of disco
(more grid than groove).

"I don't think we are very disco," giggles Justine. "But we'd quite like to be."

"I'd like to be disco, satin trousers and all that," adds Justin.

One of my fave Elastica songs, "Connection", starts with this geometric,
processed, utterly artificial-sounding guitar riff that sounds like a techno riff.

"That was actually done on a keyboard," says Justine. "But the sound is
called 'distorted guitar', so there you go."

"It is quite drum machiney, that track," adds Justin. "There's quite a few
drum machine orientated, hard-on-the-beat tracks on the LP". And it turns out
he's actually done a techno remix of 'Connection' and is quite into messing
around with a sampler.

So presumably Elastica don't approve of where the likes of Stone Roses and
Primal Scream are at these days, i.e. retreating from rave in search of the
rockist's grail of 'feel', jamming 'til the cows come home.

"Well I try not to pitch battles with particular bands but it's definitely
not my cup of tea," admits Justine, sounding at her most well-brought-up and
tactful. "Backstage at an Oasis gig last year, Liam and Bobby Gillespie started
ganging up on Donna, saying 'our music's all to do with feel and roots, and
you're just shallow'. But for me, when you start relying on that traditional
bluesy thing you're actually being more shallow. You're just sticking to a
formula--a much stricter formula, in a way."

Apart from the odd jagged Beefheart-via-Cornwell guitar-fill, there's not a
single solo on the LP--which is doubtless why most Elastica songs clock in under
two-and-a-half minutes, and why the album's 16 songs are over within 41 minutes.
Elastica's is an anorexic aesthetic, purged of the flab of 'self-expression';
their music is as severe and self-constricting as a pair of drainpipes.

"Donna was in the studio trying to work out a guitar-line, and she just
started jamming and getting well f***ing muso, and we all looked at each other
and started giggling but kept on playing. And she looked up and went totally red,
'cos she realised she'd been Pink Floyding it. In a way, we've probably got an
odd perspective, in so far as any overt musicianship is totally frowned upon. At
the start, if I left the room I'd come back and find Donna and Annie jamming away
like two 80 year old black blind people from New Orleans--just the most
unbelievable blues jam going on!"

So you had to step in and put your foot down, reassert the Elastica
Aesthetic: this is NOT what we're about!

"See, I don't think they really want to play like that, it's just hard to get
out of that routine, once you've learned that way of playing. Annie's a diehard
punk, but she does love old stuff like the Stones and bluesy, 'feely' stuff.
That's why she decided to play the bass, cos she felt that what she'd learned on
the guitar was totally restricting her, she was so used to going into blues
scales. With Donna too, there was a massive process of unlearning, of trying to
play things that were really simple and angular."

So now you've got the less-is-more thing down tight, what next? How do you
evolve minimalism, without losing that streamlined haiku-like cogency? Album #3
proved a bit of stumbling block for the Buzzcocks...

"And with Wire too. One of the most brilliant things about Wire is the jump
between Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. But I can't get into 154--I don't get it, everything I love about them just isn't there anymore."

While we're still talking about late '70s post-punk, which phase of Adam and
the Ants are you into--when it was Ants with an 'S' or Antz with a 'Z'?

"It's circa Dirk Wears White Sox. As a kid, I did like the Kings of the
Wild Frontier
stuff at the time, then I moved onto Duran Duran. But quite
recently I discovered the early Peels Sessions they did, before Malcolm McLaren
nicked the Antz to form Bow Wow Wow. Brilliant. I really like the way Peel
Sessions sound; some of my favourite stuff of ours is Peel Session, cos there's
an energy that get captured in those BBC studios, you do live vocals and don't
have time to bland things out pursuing perfection."

Do you like early Adam's pervy obsessions, all those fetish songs like "Whip
In My Valise"?

"I like it a lot actually. Also, for a while, Adam was just the coolest
person on the planet. He epitomised the brilliantly elegant side of punk, using
all that Allan Jones type imagery"--Justine is referring to the Sixties artist,
readers, not Melody Maker's skipper--"like that table which was a woman on all fours with a glass top on her back. All his paintings were developed from Fifties porn--lots of airbrushed women in black leather. The Antz used a lot of that imagery. On one level, it's very titillating, but it's also very pop. So we're gonna make the next album S & M, with us all in black leather. Actually, I think Madonna's ruined that for everyone, ruined the concept of pervy sex forever."


It's pretty clear now that the Menfolk have precious little left to say, when it
comes to song-oriented, guitar-based music. The same old scenarios, personae and
obsessions are getting reiterated with diminishing returns. Personally,--given
the sonic mindscapes being studio-spun by the techno-fluent, from Tricky to
Dillinja to Paul Shutze--I'm only prepared to take such traditionalism when it
comes re-freshed with a female twist. And this is what the Womenfolk are up to:
they're not cooking up aural hallucino-genres in the sound-laboratory, they're
taking on played-out male traditions, tweaking and reinventing them. It's a form
of stylistic transvestism. Drag kings rule: Polly Jean Harvey with her hoary
blues-man posturings; Courtney Love as Henry Rollins if he'd only remove his
'Iron Man' emotional armature and let his 'feminine side' splurge'n'splatter; Liz
Phair and her feminised/feminist take on the geeky garage punk of Paul Westerberg
of the Replacements. And there's Justine Frischmann, who's somehow miraculously
found imaginative space for herself in the Stranglers' gruff, fake-prole
belligerence and 'who wants the world?' cynicism.

That said, Justine's pretty phazed when I ask if she ever feels like her
she's in drag onstage.

"Well, I sometimes feel like Meatloaf, when I've got hair all over my face
and I'm really sweaty. Which is a bit depressing. But no, I don't ever feel like
a woman in drag, to be honest".

So there's no sense in which you play-act a tough-guy?

"I think lots of women do that these days. And there's always been girly girls and non-girly girls. There's girls who have really high voices and like wearing dresses, and others who don't. I don't think I'm exceptional, it's just that most of my mates haven't been very girly. There's lots of young women in London who look and dress like I do."

As a kid, were you a tomboy?

"More so now than then, actually. When you're in your twenties you feel more
confident about what you are, you don't feel like you necessarily have to dress
up for boys. When I was a teenager I had really long hair and felt like I had to
wear make-up. But now I feel a lot more comfortable with short hair. It's
something I discovered with leaving home and going to college. In a way, it's
Nineties urban camoflage. It came about when I was coming back from college
really late, getting on the last tube. If you're wearing long hair and make-up,
you're gonna feel a lot more vulnerable than if you've got short hair and big
boots. That was definitely an undercurrent to dressing the way I do. I remember
at school we had self-defence lessons and the teacher said that anyone with long
hair should really wear a hat and cover it up, 'cos if someone wants to grab you,
you're incredibly vulnerable. There's nothing you can do if someone gets hold of
your hair."

So there's a sense that you sartorially avoid the things that signify
vulnerability or 'availability'?

"It's just expecting to be treated as one of the lads. You don't want to
deliberately remove yourself from being able to be a good bloke".

Justine's not an icon 'cos she's 'one of the lads', though; she's an indie
sex symbol 'cos there's a certain kind of British male who's really into the girl
who looks like a boy. It's almost a form of displaced homo-eroticism, I reckon.
Justine, though, thinks it's more "an anti-bimbo thing".

"The girl who looks a bit boyish, it's the intelligent boy's choice, in a
way. But there's loads of boys who love girls with long hair. Damon was so gutted
when I cut all my hair off, although he can get into it 'cos he knows it makes me
really happy. It's probably just a Nineties unisex thing, you know. I think women
probably do look more androgynous now than they ever have, 'cos even in the
Sixties when girls were very thin and short-haired, there was always loads of
really heavy make-up. It's genuinely a lot harder to tell boys from girls these
days. Just going into shops, I often get called 'sir', and so does Donna. It
tends to be older people, or in Asian shops, that get confused."

Do you like the idea of 'passing' as male?

"I actually get pissed off when people call me 'sir' in shops, and occasionally I
say 'what do you mean, 'sir'?'. And then they get really embarassed."

Another thing that makes me think of Elastica as drag kings is the sarky
tone and deadpan detachment of the lyrics; Justine's talked before of how she
doesn't like sentimentality in songs, but prefers a certain coldness and dryness.

"Things that are really gushy and open tend to lose their power," she argues.
"It's like how it's a lot sexier to see someone half-clothed than naked.
Lyrically, if you leave yourself really naked there's something quite
uninteresting about it. Whereas if you write something that's got a sort of
negligee on, it's more intriguing... I do tend to write about things around me,
observational stuff. Usually it's 'cos I'm frustrated about a situation but
can't say it to the person, so I end up writing a song about it. Donna's lyrics
are more abstract; on the lyric sheet, my stuff looked better laid out as
limericks, whereas hers were less punctuated, more a stream of consciousness."


After a platter of no-meat-and-three-veg, two mugs of coffee and several of my
Camels, Justine's right as rain; Justin, however, never went to bed after the
post-Brits shindig, clearly has yet to detoxify from the alchohol intake, and so
looks decidely green about the gills (the fried egg was an error). It seems that
at the Awards, all the New Wave of Brit-Pop bands' tables were clustered
together, almost as if to say: behold the Next Generation, let's see if they can
contribute as much to rectifying the Balance of Trade Deficit as Elton.

So do you actually feel like members of a New Brit-Pop aristocracy?

"We did last night, definitely. There was a gang of us there, and we were
all having conversations about America, about battle plans. Obviously Blur and
Suede, we know well; Pulp, we know very well. Oasis, we're very friendly."

Do you feel 'stellar' when you're surrounded by faces that you've seen in

"Not at all. It's all a bit surreal, you find yourself reading the music
papers almost as if it's a school mag or something. Obviously, at first it's an
amazing feeling. I used to think that if my face was ever in a magazine my life
would feel completley different. But of course you get used to it, it becomes
very normal to read your friends' reviews and see their pictures in the papers
and read the gossip. Even though what the music press writes is often so wildly
innacurate and quite tabloid really."

Have you been in the real tabloids?

"Yeah, 'cos Blur have got quite big this year, so Damon and I have had a fair
bit of tabloid action."

With you cast as Marianne Faithfull to his Jagger?

"Some wild innacuracies have been printed about the way we live, but you hope
that anyone with half a brain will realise they're not true. It's someone's
little fantasy world and if you make a fuss about it, you kind of justify it, so
it's better just to ignore it. Sometimes it can be quite invasive, but it just
goes with the territory. I had a strange day on Saturday, shopping for the tour
and buying things like Imac and knickers and stuff--not the kind of things you
want people to see you buy. And because we'd been on Top of the Pops, it was very
noticeable that people were giving me funny looks--grinning at me, or at each
other. Damon gets incredibly paranoid, he hates it. Sometimes it's really nice,
you feel really up for it, chatting to people you don't know. Other times you
feel like a total greaseball and you just wanna be totally anonymous. But to get
into a band, you have to want it, really."

We were talking of Adam Ant, and he's suffered probably the most intense
form of 'celebrity stalking' imaginable.

"Yes, he had this girl living in his air conditioning unit for nearly a year.
He kept having this feeling that he was being watched! She could scamper around
the air-conditioning system and watch him through the grilles, throughout the
house--bathroom, bedroom, everywhere! That's probably the most frightening thing
imaginable. And he kept finding sandwich wrappers, crisp packets and Coke cans
outside the vent at the back of the house. He kept phoning the police and they
said: 'we can't do anything until you have a flesh-wound'. It's like, 'oh,
great!' But Adam was seriously famous for a while, wasn't he?"

So far the worst Justine has suffered is the over-zealous attention of the
occasional pair of Japanese girl-fans, a few peculiar letters, and some pesky
phone calls.

"I've been getting loads of weird calls from people on the Continent.
Yesterday the phone rang about 15 times, and some prat started giggling, and I
got really pissed off, started yelling 'get a life'."

Do you own a wok?

Justine gives me a blank look.

If you put it next to the receiver, it's like a bell--hit it with, say, a rolling pin, and you can deafen someone temporarily.

"Well, I was thinking of getting a whistle, which is what you're supposed to
do with heavy breathers," she says, adding, absurdly, "but it's easier to just
change phone numbers."

So do you ever crave a return to anonymity?

"Well, we're not so far down the line we couldn't return to anonymity tomorrow, actually. I think it's probably premature to talk of it in those terms. I'd certainly like to be a quite a bit more famous than I am now."