Monday, March 31, 2008




FAUST
Seventy One Minutes Of....
Melody Maker, 1988?

by Simon Reynolds




FAUST
Faust
So Far

Melody Maker, November 1992

by Simon Reynolds



Krautrock wasn't a movement, but a moment, a final thrust of the psychedelic project to gobble up every kind of music, and every kind of non-musical noise too, in order to excrete the outermost sound conceivable. But there were as many differences as affinities between the principal Krautrock players. If Can were fusion, Faust were fission. Can were into total flow; they oozed a self-irrigating flux of forms that grooved. Faust were more assembled, a concotion of jutting angles, jolting jump-cuts between genres, and jarring juxtapositions. Put simply, Can rolled, Faust rocked.

Faust's aesthetic was one of rupture and randomness. They effected bizzare shifts in tone (from portentious gravity to zany goofing off, from placid poignancy to balls-out aggro) or made oxymoronic collisions of incompatible emotions that resonated like a strange chord. On So Far (1972), Faust proceed from the spartan velvet stomp of Rainy Day through the wistful folk-rock embroidery of "On The Way To Abamae" to the highly frictional funk of "No Harm", spitting out sparks like a rogue trash-compactor. "So Far" itself is a lush labyrinth of tangled tendrils, like Miles Davis jamming with the Velvet Underground while Tim Buckley handles the backing vocals.



Where So Far is at least nominally divided into nine 'songs', the earlier Faust (also known as "Clear" because of it's originally translucent polythene cover imprinted with an X-Rayed hand) consists of three long suites. Each is a quilt patched together from outbursts of acid-rock hoo-ha, zany chorale, found sounds, synnth-gibberish, freeform jazz, nonsense incantations, mock-muzak, animal noises (genuine and falsified), ad infinitum. The music doesn't connect vertically (incongruous noises are built up layer by layer) or horizontally (instead of narrative, it's a string on non-sequiturs). But somehow a wonderful dream-logic imposes itself. Pure Dada again.

Anyone who's loved the last half-decade's reinvention of the guitar--the strange sonorities hewn by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Mercury Rev, etc--will instantly recognise Faust as a prime ancestor of 'our music'. These first-time-on-CD re-issues are essential, not just as a history lesson, but as living legacy, and as a reproach to an underachieving age. There's still so far to go.

FAUST
Rien (Table of the Elements)
Mojo, 1995


by Simon Reynolds

Faust were born of the Dada-meets-Zen-meets-LSD turmoil of the late Sixties. Their music, created in communal conditions between bouts of nudism, primal-scream therapy and growing their own pot, echoed the spirit of yippie play-power and Situationist prankster politics. Drawing on inputs like the Velvet Underground, New York avant-gardists La Monte Young and Fluxus, and electro-acoustic composer Stockhausen, Faust created four peerless albums of post-psychedelic/proto-punk mayhem, jumpcutting between genres and montaging mangled noise and mystical melody. By 1974 they had disintegrated, but their legacy permeates the post-punk era, from industrial (This Heat, Nurse With Wound, Pere Ubu, Einsturzende) to lo-fi drone-rock (Main, Stereolab, Pavement, Dead C).

20 years from their last official release (the song-oriented Faust IV, their masterpiece according to me, Julian Cope and nobody else), Rien is the return of Faust in all their riotous, rule-defying glory. Constructed partly from live excerpts from their 1994 reunion tour of the USA, which were handed to experimentalist Jim O'Rourke to mess with in the studio, Rien is graced by no songs as eerily lovely as IV's Jennifer. Instead, your ears are greeted with a drone-fest of amp-hum and feedback-miasma, found-sounds and mad-scat vocal gibberish; a wall-of-noise as blank and metallurgical as the matt-grey CD booklet, whose 8 pages are devoid of any information (the credits are instead spoken at the end of the record!). The result is a blank canvas for the imagination; certain passages make me think of Siberia, of sub-zero winds rustling through telegraph wires, but each listener will direct their own mind's eye cinematography. The closest Faust get to rock dynamics is Track 5 (no titles!), where tense, prehensile rhythms instil a mantra-like intensity, and a woozy trumpet is processed so heavily it seems to buckle like wire in a furnance.

Rien is superior to rival Krautrockers Can's own patchy 1989 comeback Rite Time. But inevitably--given that Faust went so far, so every-which-way, the first time around--Rien never really startles. Because the unpredictable is their stock-in-trade, the unexpected precisely what we expect from them, the only way Faust could have really surprised us is by recording, say, a Michael Bolton-style collection of Motown covers. Fanatics will lap Rien up; novices should aquire Faust, So Far, The Faust Tapes and Faust IV first.







MEAT PUPPETS
Hammersmith Clarendon, London
Melody Maker 1987

by Simon Reynolds



The first ever UK appearance by the Meat Puppets finally gave me a glimpse at just who exactly it is that's been keeping the faith for so long. It's a motely, peculiar congregation assembled tonight--skatepunks in baseball caps; snakebite-quaffing tradpunks; cardigan-and-one-earring herbivore anarchists like the nice, caring bloke in EastEnders; bearded, more-or-less unreconstructed hippies; bespectacled nerds of the Albini/Santiago stripe; REM drummer lookalikes. And rock critics, of course. This heterogeneity reflects the schizo-eclectic nature of Meat Puppets music, suggests that each strand of their following trips on a different facet of the group--the acceleration; the virtuosity; the desolation and vulnerability; the free noise wig-out.

Over seven years and five albums, the Meat Puppets have created for themselves four distinct sounds, each one a perfect amalgam of country, free jazz, funk and acid rock, an alloy rather than a cocktail. Each of these sounds has been completely new, completely theirs.

Tonight, at first, it felt like something was missing. The mellower songs from Mirage don't led themselves to the straight slam approach, but this is what they got. The result--neither the billowing cobwebbed delicacy of vinyl, nor the mind-scattered total frenzy of live legend, but an inconsiderable bumptiousness, a speed-country tumult that was consistently impressive, but never left you agog. The audience brimmed o'er anyways, such were the pent-up expectations; Curt and Kris Kirkwood flipped their wigs (Kris's a tange of orange tortelloni, Curt's a Ma Bates mop)… but something was missing.

And then suddenly the air was sown with magic; there was an abrupt and unaccountable shift from merely "playing good" to "playing possessed", a sudden, seemingly arbitrary willingness to stretch the borders of the songs, cast loose their mooring in the downhome. Songs like "Out My Way" and "Up on the Sun" --frenetic speedfunk, a manic, flashing secateurs snip'n'clip--hurtle like rocket cars across mud-flats, then careen into prolonged and exhaustive supernovae whose final reverberations seem to take centuries to dissipate. Then there's the brutal plangency of "Hot Pink"--light so intense it's turned solid, a crystal canyon over whose jagged edges your synapses are dragged. "Love Our Children" is rendered straight, then strays into an echoplex meander (although that words suggests listlessness, not a foray this purposeful and driven); the three chord ending is impossibly elaborated, each chord becoming a Niagara of phosphorescent improvisation; the final note dilates into a giant dewdrop the size of a small universe. Finally, it's as though the members of the audience are just motes swirling up the cyclone spout of the Meat Puppets' halcyon chaos.

The Meat Puppets's MOST visionary moments have a blinding brilliance--but that's the definition of "vision": something that interferes with regular, regulated perception, ensures you will never see the world in the same light again.





MEAT PUPPETS
No Strings Attached
SST
Melody Maker, January 19th 1991

By Simon Reynolds


One of the last decade's best kept secrets, Meat Puppets were/are a trio of sunstruck visionaries from Phoenix, Arizona. Meat Puppets fell through the cracks that demarcated Eighties music: they didn't fit anywhere because they fitted too much into their sound. This compilation documents a decade of "forever changes".

With the debut EP In A Car and LP Meat Puppets 1, it's like peyote has gotten into the water table and spawned a lost tribe of brain-baked bumpkins with their own mutant band of acid-C&W-hardcore-jazz-fission. "Reward" is a Niagara of raving, electrified virtuosity. Their cover of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" is even more unraveled, the guitar as eerie as wind whistling through telegraph wires.





By Meat Puppets II, singer Curt Kirwood had ditched the foaming-at-the-mouth delivery in favour of a frayed country croon, while his guitar-picking shifted from freak-out to a hillbilly Tom Verlaine. Meat Puppets were now clearly "all about" the derangement induced by prolonged exposure to the unrelenting glare and denuded, undifferentiated dunescape of the Arizona desert: a state of grace caught in the line, "I can't see/the end of me/My own expanse/I cannot see". "Lake of Fire" is a shaman's blues after forty daze in the wilderness. "Split Myself in Two" maelstroms along like a tornado-in-reverse, a sandstorm flickering with fleeting, phantasmic, sculpted shapes that suddenly blossom into quicksilver peals worthy of Marquee Moon. And this was back when the only people playing acid rock were Husker Du.

By '85's Up On the Sun, Meat Puppets had added funk to their febrile fusion. Some folks reckon they got within spitting distance of Grateful Dead at this point, but I wouldn't know shit about that. But the title track exemplifies the brutal plangency of their sound: light so intense it's jagged, scraping all the encrusted grot off your senses. At its uttermost, this LP was as radical a rearrangement of rock syntax as "Eight Miles High". But just as this compilation ignores the peaks of the second LP ("We're Here", "Aurora Borealis", "Plateau"), so too it bypasses the high points of Up on the Sun ("Hot Pink", "Away", "Two Rivers") in favour of the more crowd-pleasing numbers: the gladfoot hurtle and rippling radiance of "Swimming Ground", the quirked-out speedfunk of "Buckethead".

Mirage, from 1987, auditioned a mellower, less expansive Meat Puppets, with one eye on the mainstream. But "Confusion Fog" reitereated their "bewilderment in the wilderness" mysticism. In an interview, Kirkwood told me that his visionary tendencies stemmed from a childhood bout of encephalitis; after awakening from the coma, he found that, "I daydream an awful lot. I don't need to take drugs".




After the dragonflies-in-your-stomach shimmer of Mirage, Meat Puppets went off the boil. Huevos saw them regressing to their teen apprenticeship in boogie bands--all done with exquisite inventiveness, but square-sounding after the solar flair of yore. And last year's Attacked By Monsters was even more metallic, albeit ferociously fluent and dazzlingly nuanced. But one track, "Like Being Alive", was a return to form, the slower pace allowing Kirwood to roam, billow, soar to Hendrix-ian heights.

"To flirt openly with vapour… making love to open windows." At their outermost, Meat Puppets were the pure distillation of the mystically intangible, awe-struck side that some of us liked in R.E.M. . At their peak, they were "heads" adrift without a counter culture to argue their case. But even now Meat Puppets' loss-of-self could be your gain.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

U2
All That You Can't Leave Behind
Uncut, 2000

by Simon Reynolds


U2's tenth album, says Bono, is where the group "reclaim who we are". It's always alarm-bells time when a band starts pining for an earlier sonic incarnation of itself, for a time when it all felt so fresh and for-the-first-time. Think of those other Eno-ites Talking Heads scaling down from Remain In Light's oceanic sprawl to the rootsy scrawn of "Road To Nowhere". In U2's case, though, they've scaled back up, to the panoramic swirl of Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree, the Eno/Lanois sound that made your ears gaze into the far distance.

That sound coincided with U2's megastardom, but I really don't think the band have got Uncle Brian and Danny Boy in the co-producers' chairs again purely and cynically in order to be Big once again. No, this album is a naive, heartfelt attempt to go back---back to when they sounded naive and heartfelt. "Reclaim who we are" means no more postmodern play with identity, no more sub-McLuhan/Baudrillard embracing of media hyperreality , no more Warhol-esque we-are-product malarky.

It's good timing, too, Zeitgeist-wise. The culture is shifting away from media-saturated referentiality and surface-oriented cynicism towards earnestness, activism, giving a fuck. Hence Bono's work with Jubilee 2000's Drop the Debt Campaign, and his heralding of this album with pre-postmodern phrases like "righteous anger" and "fire in the belly". Soon, very soon, the blank irony and mainstreamed camp that ruled the Nineties will be rejected as mere fin de millenium decadence (Seinfeld as our Oscar Wilde), and loss of nerve.

But isn't it simply too late for a U2 makeover? Here's Bono again: "Pop music often tells you everything is OK, while rock music tells you that it's not OK, but you can change it". Hang on a minute, wasn't the last U2 album actually called Pop? Didn't the first video off it have the boys camping up it under a giant discotheque glitterball? U2 seem to be suffering a bit from Orwell/1984-style doublethink: "Howie B? Who's that then? Dance music? Not us, mate!"

All That You Leave opens with "Beautiful Day," a song stunning enough to blast your hackles into oblivion: for four minutes you truly believe U2 can go back to 1987. Apparently almost abandoned at birth because it sounded too much like "quintessential U2", the song is like Boy's wide-eyed ardour filtered through Unforgettable Fire's tingly shimmerscape production: Bono struck by a bolt of joy, Edge's echoplex chimes cascading like a sun shaft through clouds, the rhythm boys shedding Achtung-style funk'n'grit for the chaste, chesty surge of old. The tune sounds deceptively simple, but the production teems with subtle flickers, dub-wise backwash whooshes, and vocal harmony embellishments.

"Stuck In A Moment" is gorgeous, too: a Philly soul-influenced midtempo ballad with a "tears are not enough" lyric to an emotionally paralysed friend. But lines like "if your way should falter on that stony path" point ahead to the album's slide into boggy Rattle N' Hum terrain: the sort of semi-balladic bombast and elemental widescreen imagery that have made U2 scorned by sophisticates for so long. "Walk On" and "Kite" resound with epic-sounding vagaries, as if Bono wanted to come back and show Richard Ashcroft how it's really done. In "Kite", Bono admits "I don't know which way the wind will blow". Most likely it'll be gusting in whatever direction your gob is pointed, Bono.

The Stax-flavored "In A Little While" and Caledonian soulful "Wild Honey" (featuring yet more wind and breeze imagery!) belong on that chest-beating Celtic continuum that spans Hothouse Flowers and (shudder!) The Commitments. "Peace On Earth," a song for the bereaved and their "sons underground", at least lets the Edge sound Edge-like, with radiant supersaturated overdubs. "When I Look At The World" likewise glimmers like a planetarium, all shooting stars and reeling constellations, but by this point the listener is suffering from grandeur fatigue, like spending one day too many at the Grand Canyon. It makes you want to listen to something modest, withdrawn, almost imperceptible--like, where did I put that Young Marble Giants album?

"New York" saves the day with its subdued "Streets Have No Name" twinkle-rush. It gets louder, though, and you start praying that it doesn't explode into passionate gesticulations, and of course it does. Even so, it's a fabulous showcase for Edge as cinematographer of the guitar. "Grace," lovely and low-key, ends things with a welcome whisper.

Book-ended with brilliance, All That You Can't Leave Behind's centre is hollow and overblown, and that's got everything to do with bad faith. You can't simply unlearn the lessons of postmodernity--it's like imagining you can become a virgin again. Removing the quote-marks and attempting to speak straight from the beating heart, U2 end up somewhere even worse than lame-ass Beck-style irony: corn without authenticity, its only saving grace.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

SIMPLE MINDS
Themes--Volume 1: March 79-April 82
Themes--Volume 2: August 82-April 85

(Virgin)
Melody Maker, September 1990


By Simon Reynolds

It's a trick of history. Just as it's difficult to listen U2's genuine peaks without looking for the seeds of the fatuous flatulence of Rattle N' Hum, so too is it night on impossible to remember that Simple Minds could often be inspirational, now that Jim Kerr is lost in the realm of platitudinous populism.

The first two volumes of Themes, a rather unnecessarily deluxe collection of their 12-inch singles (each colume contains five silver discs, where two would have sufficed), both invites and confounds speculation as to exactly whenabouts Simple Minds went astray. When did heroic vagueness degenerate into vague heroics?

The standard interpretation is that all went awry when Simple Minds exchanged fascination with Europe for the challenge of America's wide-open spaces (and markets). "I Travel" was doubtless inspired by the confusion of being on the road on the Continent, but nonetheless manages to render this tawdry experience as a form of spiritual nomadism: perpetual motion as an eternal exile from everyday life. Musically, the track sounds a bit dated: it's basically Eurodisco, a Moroder pulse-matrix and a chorus that sounds uncannily like Sparks's "Beat the Clock". The calvacade of "Celebrate" sounds far more alien and unsettled. It's not as schizo as side two of Empires and Dance, but it's still a celebration of travel not as a means of broadening the mind, but of breaching: the story of an "I" scattered and saturated by stimuli.

Simple Minds didn't exactly deflect all the prog rock accusations by choosing Steve Hillage to produce "The American", and despite the slap-bass and sequencers, there was no disguising the rockism of this dirge. But "Love Song" has real funk propulsion beneath its swirling vistas. It's a love song to geography ("America is my boyfriend"), a kind of reversal of Lyotard's idea of the lover's face as a landscape in which you lose yourself. "Sweat In Bullet" is another surge of panoramic, only slightly stiff-joined funk-rock: the line "rolling and tumbling/mission in motion" is valorously unspecific, there's a vague desire for some kind of crusade or Holy Grail, but Live Aid and Mandela Day are still a long way off. Thank God.

The glistening "Promised You A Miracle" was Simple Minds' breakthrough (into the charts and out of the fug of progressive rock production). Its brimming anticipation ("golden daybreak wondering/everything is possible") perfectly captured the feel of the moment, as the charts were engulfed by the accessible-but-weird New Pop of The Associates, Human League, Japan, etc. "Glittering Prize" is possibly even more ardent and awake. These two singles and the shimmering New Gold Dream were Simple Minds' moment of perfect equipoise. For a moment, they hovered in mid-air: between grandeur and grandiosity, nobility and pomp, abstraction and woffle. And then came the plunge…

Well, not quite. Sparkle in the Rain is supposed to be when the rot set in: a regressive step back from pop to stadium rock. But the ambient bombast of "Waterfront" is actually pretty magnificent in a Jim Morrison sort of way. And "Up On the Catwalk" is probably Simple Minds' s most underrated single, their last bout of topsy-turviness and abstracte euphoria, before the descent into facile transcendentalism and blunt, unwarranted affirmation ("Alive and Kicking", etc). But "Speed Your Love To Me" is as bad and boring as "Don't You Forget About Me".

Thereafter, Kerr & Co exchanged their glory daze for Springsteenesque glory days; the quest became concrete and coercive; finally, they abandoned wonderlust/wanderlust for roots, responsibility and homecoming to the heartwarming hearth. From outlandish alienation to "a big country" and "the little people". Pah!
SCRITTI POLITTI, interview
Melody Maker, March 3rd 1988

By Simon Reynolds


I can map out the last 10 years around the eternal returns of Scritti--the lengthy absences (they seem to have average out at about two and a half years), the disowning, in fairly scathing terms, of the previous work, and the reappearance each time with material ever closer to the hyper-real phantasm of "perfect pop" Green pursues, perhaps despite himself.

I've followed the trajectory avidly, because from the start it was clear that here was that rare thing, a pop intellect able, at least half of the time, to evade itself, to steer unclear of the customary pitfalls of intelligence in rock--archness, over-determination, manifesto-mongering. And rarer still, a pop intellect endowed, arbitrarily, with the facility for melodies of almost murderous elegance and poignancy--apparent even in the mannered, self-consciously fractured early DIY songs like "PAs", "Confidence" and "Bibbly-O-Tek". I've watched this ease grow, through the asphyxiating sweetness of "The 'Sweetest Girl'" (like "The Word Girl", a love song about the implausibility of love, that seduces as it unravels(, the grandeur of "faithless" (a song about the impossibility of faith
couched in the deep testifying of gospel), the somehow lethal slickness of "Wood Beez", "Absolute", Hypnotize", all eerie spaces and opaque, dazzling surfaces like a hall of mirrors, literally brilliant pop. Green understand and distrusts our need for the immaculate, the mythic. He knows that beauty can be terrorising.

Now he's back, with a new single, "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)", and what promises to be a cracking album to follow [Provision, and it wasn't]. But for the first time, there's been no major leap, he's still working with David Gamson and Fred Maher, the new stuff takes the hyperactive synthetic-funk and hard gloss of Cupid & Psyche only marginally further into the mainstream. And, although it may just be his manner, you get the impression that Green is a little sure about his own doubt, smugly settled in uncertainty. Nineteen eighty eight's "Oh Patti" does pretty much reiterate the perplexities of 1981's "Faithless": "I got so tired of concluding there's nothing for us to conclude...we tried together to discover why we failed the test of our time...I've gone where a lost cause can be found".

"Well, yes, there are abiding concerns...the fact that lessons learnt' politically or philosophically, can't be gone back on or be forgotten. They just become part of the way you think about the world, they aren't problems which become solved or superceded. I haven't found a faith to replace the faithlessness."

Does this give you grief, on the level of everyday living?

"It is difficult to live with what I see as an endless indeterminacy of meaning, an interminable equivocality, a lack of any higher authority to sort out the lack of founding principles..." (ie God, or some kind of science of history like Marxism which would enable you to predict the imminence of revolution)..."I consider them all to be irreversibly revealed to be metaphysical" (ie nonsense). "Which is not to say that you can live without some idea of truth, history, prescience...but these are never to be relied on. It means living in a world that's never to be trusted. And, as the single says, you should certainly never trust yourself. So you do live propelled by these nightmare anxieties, in a little daydream of a world. It's not grief, exactly, it's just weird."

He certainly looks as though the groundless existence agrees with him, ruddy-cheeked and slimmer than we remember. But why deal with this perplexity in uptempo, coherent, joyous pop?

"Because on one level, doubt is a liberating thing, engenders an anarchic freeplay of meaning. but also I just happen to like those kind of pop sounds at the moment, not that this aesthetic preference is at all fixed."

This refusal to be pinned down, to close off any bolt-hole, is typical of Green's slippery, elusive discourse.

"And again, maybe the idea of assembling a piece of music when all around you is chaotic and falling apart, is the appeal -- you're able to build, perhaps, because music is, in a sense, outside meaning."

The lyrics, I tend to find a bit opaque...

"They're opaque in the sense that I don't think language can be transparent and clearly revealing, either of something within yourself or outside in the world. Language is oblique, opaque, ambiguous, and the thing to do is court that a bit...and try to maintain a little diligence...the fact that I don't believe that someone's intentions count for anything in how a piece of writing will be read, doesn't lead me to give up on any idea of purposiveness in my writing..."

You seem to like to run together statements that are in contradiction -- on the new track "Lovesick": "come back baby I know it's over" -- or surgically bare the impossible aspirations that are generated in the lover's long, unheard monologue with the loved object: "I've gonna get that girl/and give her a present that never arrives...a future that's hard to believe in...the time of my life"...

"There arise fairly unforcedly...from the way I think...it is nice to unsettle and undo...and it doesn't seem incongruous to do this from within uptempo music rather than atonal, dirge-like music. One is no more truthful, or ultimately radical or interesting than the other. But it's not so much that I'm fascinated by the bizarre pieces of language that people generate when 'in love', but that I think all language is nonsense...and that love is just an effect of nonsense. I think someone once said that all our problems are the result of our bewitchment by language."

The irony, of course, is that Green talks with eloquence about the futility and poverty of words, soberly and sensibly about nonsense. He speaks sotto voce and with the fastidious emphasis of a schoolteacher. Where the rest of us sluggish, vernacular souls are impeded by the torpid resistance of language, he moves through it as though immune to gravity. 'E talks like a boooook.

"But, arguably, my preoccupations are ultimately irrelevant to how the record is consumed...the meaning of a record is determined by a whole bunch of other parameters and elements..."

Does this worry you?

"No!"

Amuse you?

"It's something that I'd like to see understood more widely, that the hearing of a record is where its meaning(s) or lack of meaning is determined. And that you should be wary of anything that causes the closure of those meanings. If you think you know what something's about, you should be decidedly suspicious of yourself."

(Of course, here Green sounds at his most supercilious and invincible. In fact, I've just twigged who he reminds me of: a tutor I once had, a very clever man unfortunately handicapped by an insufferable manner, in which he sounded both pedantic and at the same time immensely weary, almost extinguished, by the laboriousness of having to go over ground immensely obvious and familiar to himself.)

There are those who would say that if you want to do anything in this world, have any kind of political agency, then you have to make some kind of mental closure...

"Yes, yes, I'd agree with that...and in as much as conservative pragmatist accept that the best you hope for is a provisional morality, I'd certainly urge for a provisional immorality."

Sorry?

"I'd seek to undo and unsettle a provisional morality...because to accept it would be unthinkable."

Is this the idea that wherever power, or the "normative" is, you should resist it, simply for the sake of resistance?

"Well, it's difficult. It's easy to end up in a kind of infantile anarchism, if you're not watchful...although it's arguably difficult to point a way out of that...that anarchic 'fuck it' completely attitude...But I think it's such an arid, sterile place to end up! There's a half-assed, ill-thought-out proclivity to drift romantically towards the margins, in a juvenile, narcissistic way, which you find in some quarters of the indie scene..."

Here, readers, Green is talking about everything you and I hold most dear, from The Butthole Surfers and Big Black to The Smith and the Mary Chain...

"And having been on these margins of convention myself, I can testify that is no greater power or truth or radicalism there...which is not to say I won't revisit them, or that history might put me back there. But to seek them out and install yourself on them, amass some sort or armament of difference for yourself, mark out an identity by choosing from the catalogue of stylistic and theoretical positions with attendant aesthetic preferences..., well, it's just a trip...I couldn't make any claims for it...does that answer your question, in a roundabout way? Eight vodka and orange, you know!"

I should cocoa. Norralf. The above could pass for a scathing portrait of me, and all my friends. Complete coincidence, I'm sure. So what were the revelatory intellectual moments when you realised everything you'd done previously was rubbish?

"Oh, I always think what I do is rubbish...or at least I'm never comfortable with it...or anything else. But to answer the question...Marx, Freud, Nietzche, art college, drugs, rock'n'roll, Derrida, Jamaica, certain seminal indie figures like Mark E. Smith, hip hop..."

Now hip hop, to me, corresponds to the juvenile, anti-nomian narcissism you were disparaging just now, more than soul (which is why I like it)...

"Yes, it's certainly shot through with that...but I find it crushingly interesting for all that, in the same way I find patchouli smelling Goths...rather crushingly sad."

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

I credit Green with a lot of influence for the pivotal shift away from rock towards funk-and-soul, that took place in the early years of this decade. He was doing a lot of interviews, and in them he presented his switch from cerebral, introverted, self-consciously "different" rock to black pop, as a king of paradigm of a return to health. Post-punk, squatting and speed had nearly killed him; he withdrew to Wales to recuperate for nearly a year, and emerged a bush-tailed blue-eyed Soul Man. But doesn't he think the idea of health especially where it connects to the hegemony of soul today, has subsequently proven to be rather an oppressive apparatus?

"At the time, things had gotten unhealthy, I had gotten unhealthy. A sluggishness had set in around the early Eighties, and I would point to PiL as representing the other way things were going to go, a reversion to a white rock ghettoisation. There was a certain frisson then of talking self-consciously about a cathartic transition to clear-eyed pop, but really, I'd like to think I have an 'unhealthy' attitude to black music."

What do you think of those people who throw themselves wilfully into "unhealth", that Nick Cave syndrome...

"Oh, I'm still a bit of sucker for that...Everything abut Cave I have a lot of sympathy for...until it comes down to making the actual records! Same with The Smiths...fabulous song titles, but the music...I think that in a world of nothing but provisional morality and unwarrantable assertions, a self-destructive bent is a perfectly understandable and excusable movement. The crisis of the Subject, of the belief in the individual's consciousness, which is what I'm engaged in, is a kind of self-destructiveness that seems inescapable to me, and for me...although maybe that seems anomalous alongside the records. But beyond this microscopic, factional approach to pop where you argue that such-and-such record is more disruptive than another record, you should look more broadly at how all pop is disruptive of meaning. When I met Derrida he said that what I was doing was part of the same project of undoing and unsettling that he's engaged in. He's written that what sets the musician apart is the possibility of meaninglessness. That unsettling has always been my experience of pop, from the earliest moments -- pop is about the abuse of language, the assertion of rhythm. And that element is there in my music, no matter how saccharine it appears."

Can you think of some kinds of pop you'd claim a disruptive effect for, that we in the rock press would be surprised by?

"A lot of the Beatles records...I remember buying them, having great reverence for them, and being greatly disturbed by them. But it's more difficult to think of something so anodyne there was no tension in it, for some reader."

My pleasure in music is very much bound up with what you describe, jouissance, a mindblowing incapacity of language to contain the experience. But many people would argue this was a very middle class, elitist, solipsistic version of pop. Pat Kane, for instance, argues that people use pop to make sense of the world, give them a narrative.

"It's not true in my case -- except in the sense that my way of making sense of the world is to make nonsense of it. This deconstructive movement is the movement of our epoch. And when the last refuge of homogeneity (which is, even after Freud, the human Subject, when that is finally pulled apart, then a whole new sense of the world emerges. And it's just puerile to think of pop as providing people with narratives to their lives."

But the people you've influenced, the new, white Brit-Soul, do see soul as therapeutic, a stable ground, a return to sanity, roots, "real" expression. (Wet Wet Wet even get their name from a Scritti song ['Getting Havin' Holdin'--the line "wet wet wet with tears".]

"Yes, you're right, there's this wholesomeness, earnest expressiveness, honesty...and yes, that's garbage. I would say that soul and funk are the most WRECKING experiences, you can feel it when a really NASTY groove hits you, there's much more a sense of falling apart, in an affirming way, than of its..." [really sneering now] "...its honesty."

Hasn't soul become over-written and over-determined in much the same way that you used to complain rock was in 1980? It's got so I can't listen to Aretha Franklin's voice without horrid words like "pride and dignity" popping into my head.

"I think you're right and it's something we should, um, band together and fight against! No, if that is the story that maintains then it needs to be contradicted and undone, and another story needs to be told about it, because that sure as hell wasn't what appealed to me about black music, even though the 'health' factor was salient at the time, strategically. It's a question of tactics without teleology , of slipping around."

Do you follow what happens in the world of rock? I mean, what do you think about the validity of "noise" as an option?

"There is no point at which music stops and noise begins...that's elementary. I've always considered music as noise and noise as music...these are obviously the arcane squabblings that persist in the airless, closeted confines of the music papers." (Here, I have to think of how unlikely this notion of the interchangeability of noise and pop would be to deflect those rock carnivores The Stud Brothers from their jeering Green-is-a-nance Oporto stance.) "I don't make any noisy noise right now, but I'd be quite happy to make it in the future. There's every reason to expect as bold departures in the future as I've made in the past. Five years ago it would have been inconceivable to me that I'd have a song on a Madonna album, or be working with Miles Davis."

Having covered "Perfect Way" on Tutu, "we've become good friends" and Miles guests on the "Oh Patti" single. Another celeb collaborator is Roger Troutman, the genius funkateer behind Zapp, and Top 3 in the States recently with his solo single "I Want To Be Your Man". His unique vocoderised meta-ecstasy appears on a couple of album tracks and there are plans for a more involved project.

"Roger's firmly entrenched in the Seventies P-Funk groove syndrome that's so scarce these days...it was fabulous working with him, he really suffers from the funk, every twitch of his body is syncopated."

From your own, punk generation, do you feel you have any peers?

"No, not really."

Anyone you appreciate?

"Lots, lots. I like Bros. I like The Proclaimers."

I'm stupefied twice, especially about The Proclaimers. Why?

"I don't know why, I just think they're good. I allowed myself not to think too hard about that."

Having started from an interest in politics, do you have any ideas about the viable forms of political agency? Do you see any kinds of activity of resistance that encourage you?

"My ideas on that are as abstruse and difficult as ever...I couldn't point to any particular text or group with a handle on the right way...I can do nothing more than be hopeful for the Labour Party...a statement which rings in hollow silence...and is unlikely to incite much comment or fervour from me or anyone...A lot of undoing needs doing in the Labour party, and there's no one about to do it...I just have this negative theology...which is to deny privilege wherever I find it."

(Here, he doesn't mean toffee-nosed twerps in stately homes, but the privileging of ideas and theories. I reckon he could afford to undo his own privileging of black music as a source of extra-linguistic force and as a cue for jouissance--but then I would, I'm a ROCK FAN.)

"Beyond this denial of privilege, though, I can't be prescriptive, or teleological, or...oh!...I'm so sorry..." (a supremely hollow note of apology) "...I'm disappearing, disappearing...it's been a long day..."

Disappearing into the labyrinthine recesses of his own colon. And good for him. Someone's got to do it.


******************

FRAGMENT FROM THE FINAL PART OF AN INTERVIEW WITH GREEN FOR UNCUT, 2005

GREEN: ... I must admit I’m beginning to flag a little here. Just a bit knackered. I’ve been singing all morning and stuff. But please feel free to ring me again tomorrow if there’s anything else. Have you and I never met?

SR: Around Provision, for Melody Maker.

G: Wow. That was a low point, I think. Where was I?

SR: In London. One thing that surprised me--although it makes sense now given your love of folk music--is I asked what you liked of current music and you said ‘I like the Proclaimers’ and that really threw me for a loop! I remember you seemed a bit worn out that day. You’d been on the treadmill of interviews around that record.

G: I didn’t enjoy that record at all, and I enjoyed promoting it even less.

SR: That was going to be my final question, actually. What went wrong with Provision? Was the process of recording just too protracted?

G: I don’t know. I didn’t take the necessary time out to figure out what I was doing. After Cupid and Psyche, we did a very big world promotional tour, because we wouldn’t play live. So they said ‘go round all around the world and do every little TV and radio station that there is. And then go back in the studio’. Which we were keen to do.

SR: So have you really never played live since that Brighton gig supporting Gang of Four?

G: No. Which is quite extraordinary. I did the Mojo Awards and I went along with Carl from the Libertines to present an award to Geoff Travis, last year, and I was most shocked to be approached by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And they said ‘we just wanted to say what enormous fans we are of your early music’. They knew all that ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ stuff. They were playing it on their tour bus. They were so polite and so knowledgeable about it.

SR: I knew they were big fans of Gang of Four but I didn’t know they liked Scritti too.

G: They knew it all. It was amazing. I think they were surprised that A/ I was there and B/ that I was alive and C/ basically that I’d made a living out of music for 20 odd years and had only made four albums and didn’t play live.

SR: Did Cupid’s success make you quite well off then?

G: I think it must have. I don’t know how, but it’s kept me afloat for years and years.

SR: The Miles Davis cover version of “Perfect Way” must have helped. But you were saying about Provision

G: I think with Provision, I was possibly holed up in White Plains living in a hotel, for a very long time--going probably quite barmy and losing a little bit of critical distance. HAHAHAHA!!! So I made sure I had plenty of that in the following years.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


"

VARIOUS ARTISTS
A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box (Rhino)
director's cut, Blender 2006

by Simon Reynolds


That maniacal cackling is the gleeful sound of a genre having the last laugh. Mocked by most the minute it crawled from its crypt at the dawn of the Eighties, Goth has proved to be one of the wilder success stories of postpunk culture. In its purest form, the scene thrives as a globe-spanning underground. But more remarkable than its sheer subcultural staying power is the extent to which Goth’s tentacles have wormed their way into the mainstream. You can see and hear its imprint on modern metal, from the campy horror romps of Avenged Sevenfold to the wintry worldview of AFI (who who named their fan club The Despair Faction and appear on this four-disc box set covering the Cure’s “Hanging Garden”). Goth’s genes are equally discernible in emo’s eyeliner misery boys such as My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco, with their “any color so long as it’s black” clothing and vocal echoes of mope-rocker supreme Robert Smith. But the genre’s impact has spread far beyond music, touching everything from film (Tim Burton’s entire oeuvre, practically) to fiction, fashion, and art.

What is the secret of Goth’s persistence? Maybe it’s the way the Goth look fuses glamour and being an outsider, just as the scene’s tribalism reconciles the desire to be apart with the longing for community. Goth’s perennial allure also has a lot to do with the way the epic music and tortured lyrics give majesty to moroseness, elevating and ennobling adolescent angst. Above all, Goth is dead sexy, something this box set foregrounds with its kinky leather-and-laces packaging, modeled on a Gothette’s black bodice or thigh-length boot. Raven-haired and pallid, Goth’s ideal of erotic beauty is different to the mainstream’s (blonde, glowingly healthy, vivacious) and offers an empowering alternative for girls into being enigmatic and unapproachable while ooking to keep all the fun aspects of self-beautification and adornment.

That scary-seductive she-Goth look was invented by Siouxsie Sioux (with a little help from Morticia Adams). Siouxsie & the Banshees 1981 album Juju, represented on this box by its tumultuous single “Spellbound”, set the sonic template for the Goth explosion that followed two years later. But one thing A Life Less Lived makes abundantly clear is that the most adventurous Goth music was made in the genre’s emergent phase, before it became a codified style--before it was even called Goth in fact. It’s startling to hear how wide-open this proto-Goth sound actually was, from the doom-funk stampede of Killing Joke’s “Tomorrow’s World” to the dub reggae infused clangour and cavernous hollows of Bauhuaus’ 1979 debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which appears here in video form on the set’s DVD disc. Even the later “She’s In Parties” has a discernible loping skank feel amid its metallic noise, then enters a full-on dub coda of ambushing volleys of studio-warped noise and deep rumbling bass

What united the Goth bands was a common ancestry in glam rock. Bauhaus and the Banshees covered T. Rex tunes and you can hear blatant traces of David Bowie’s mannered delivery in Bauhaus’ singer Peter Murphy and in Gavin Friday, frontman of Virgin Prunes (represented here by “Pagan Lovesong”). More than Bowie or Bolan, though, it was Alice Cooper who was the true ungodly godfather of Goth, his grisly theatrics and black humor blazing the trail for the likes of Christian Death and Specimen. A more highbrow, selfconsciously poetic take on the blasphemy/debauchery combo came from The Birthday Party, whose “Mutiny In Heaven” is a grotesquely gripping sound-painting daubed with guitars that sound like they’re covered in sores and boils, the garishly vivid illustration to singer Nick Cave’s imagery of junkie squalor and “rats in paradise”.

Like many of the groups who inspired Goth, the Birthday Party fiercely resisted being tarred with its brush. Then and now, the problem with Goth is that a lot of it was simply defective as rock music, or, if not actively bad, then desperately ordinary beneath its glad rags of otherworldly mystery and underworldly menace. The most glaring deficiencies typically lay in the vocal department (singers tending toward operatic portentousness or cadaverous dirge-droning) and the rhythm section (the drummers either mustering a stiff plod or attempting a “tribal” feel by overdoing the tom-tom rolls). Some groups, like Sisters of Mercy and Alien Sex Fiend, dispensed with human-powered beats altogether in favour of drum machines. Others were so lacking in rhythmic feel or flair--the null trudge of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, the numb trance of Danse Society’s disco-Goth--they might as well have been using mechanical beats.

A Life Less Lived is undone by its own conscientious attempt to be fully representative of its genre. What would normally be a virtue becomes a liability, because Goth has always generated as much sonic evidence for the prosecution as for the defence. Perhaps that’s why the selection is bolstered by some unlikely inclusions, like Echo & the Bunnymen’s “All My Colours” (doomily intoned but hardly Goth) and Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Fall” (which seemingly qualifies because it’s from an album entitled Darklands). When three of the best tracks—by Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Skinny Puppy—come from a genre, industrial, that’s adjacent to Goth but very much a separate entity…. well, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that there’s simply not enough good-to-great Goth out there to fill up four CDs.


"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

JOSEF K
The Only Fun in Town/Sorry For Laughing
Young and Stupid
(Les Tempes Modernes)
Melody Maker, October 20th 1990


By Simon Reynolds


A decade on, it's hard to think yourself back within the Zeitgeist, the aesthetic worldview, that once enshrined Josef K on the cutting edge. If Josef K were poised on that edge, it was because (like so many of their turn-of-decade contemporaries) they were high on anxiety. Existensial doubt was taken as the exhilarating price of existensial freedom. Songs like 'Crazy To Exist' and 'Sorry for Laughing' ("there's too much happening) strove to strike the correct, flattering posture in the face of absurdity. Where the bewilderment rock of today is about surrendering to the chaos within you or the sensory overload without, Josef K was about the heroic Outsider (Paul Haig) suavely surfing across the fraught surface of their albino funk fracas.

When the Young and Stupid material was first exhumed a few years ago, Steve Sutherland pegged Josef K as prime participants in an age where groups were "instruments of discourse" rather than purely musical initiatives. It's true: Josef K was music to talk about, music engendered by talk, music as talk (a meta-music commentary on the role and reason of pop). Postcard labelmates [error! didn't have Wikipedia in them days!] The Fire Engines performed 15 minute sets as a gesture against hippy indulgence, and released Lubricate Your Living Room as "background music for active people". Animation and speculation were the only artificial stimulants on the agenda.

So it might be difficult for all you whippersnappers who weren't around at the time to take this cerebral, palsied sound as "pleasure" or even music. Josef K's relationship with funk, for instance, was purely notional. But their monochrome austerity/asperity, their uptight, un-baggy grooviness, and even Haig's existentialist croon, sound surprisingly good in 1990. In retrospect, their early aborted attempt at a debut album (Sorry For Laughing) feels much superior to what was finally released in July 1981 (The Only Fun in Town). What Josef K saw then as a fault (Sorry was "too clinical and well-produced") now seems preferable to the trebly, tinned sound of The Only Fun (which was intended as a "punk" record). The earlier versions of the songs sound superbly coiled and keen, whereas some of that barbed and wired edginess is lost in the lo-fi murk of the official debut album. Stand-outs include the hair-trigger panic of "Sense of Guilt", "Art of Things" with Malcolm Ross's sunzoom-spark guitar (Chic meets Captain Beefheart), and the sublime poise of "Endless Soul", Josef K's truly timeless blaze of glory.

The Young and Stupid package is strictly for anal retentive completists, consisting as it does of early singles, B-sides, demo versions, Peel session tracks and sundry bits and bobs. There's two version of the brilliant "Radio Drill Time", two of their first single "Chance Meeting", and two of "The Angle" (already featured on The Only Fun). There's the oddity of an Alice Cooper cover ("Applebush"). The closing "Torn Mentor" and "Night Ritual" see Josef K opening up some awry space in their agit-funk (that's "agitation" as in having a restless soul, rather than the stern placards and stern tracts of Gang of Four et al).

After the K split, Paul Haig went off to make debonair disco records (his work this year with the likes of Lil Louis and Mantronix is his most convincing yet), Ross plied his wares with Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, and the other ones dedicated themselves to even more inconspicuous activities. Having virtually no ancestors (bar a trace of Television and the VU), Josef K fittingly left no progeny (unless you count the June Brides). But these reissues will ensure that JK will "forever drone".

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

PREFAB SPROUT, interview
Melody Maker, summer 1990

by Simon Reynolds



Exquisite. Sumptuous. Marvellously intricate, angelically forceful. That's Jordan The Comeback, Prefab's first album for two years, and their best since Steve McQueen. Possibly better. No record has sung inside me more insidiously, more irrepressibly this year, apart from Ultra Vivid Scene's Joy.

Paddy McAloon thinks it's better than Steve McQueen anyway, that touchstone album that's become something of an albatross around his neck. Produced by Thomas Dolby once more, Jordan was more of an equal affair. "Steve McQueen was Thomas' record in a way. I gave him a huge collection of songs, and almost all the ones he picked were written in 1979, long before Swoon". Paddy was 19 then, only just out of the Catholic seminary he'd been educated at
from the age of 11. That means he wrote all those songs about love and loss, having had only the most fleeting acquaintance with womankind. Incredible.

Paddy McAloon is a wonderfully animated, vivacious, and charming interviewee, stressing words left, right and centre in his silvertongued Geordie brogue, and erupting into manic outbursts of laughter. In a Newcastle tavern packed with businessman, I lay the old chestnut on Paddy: his work is something you either adore or abhor. Critics and punters alike either rate him as one of the best songwriters around, or lambast him with all those unkind phrases like "precious", "prissy", peddler of crossword puzzle romance, doyen of egghead MOR, Paddy McNancy.

This is all water off a duck's back and supremely irrelevant to Paddy these days. "Whenever I do interviews I always try to avoid being dragged into whatever world you lot want to make for me to be in. I try to remember that however much you might be a fan, or you might think we're irrelevant to whatever scene you've got going, it really... doesn't... matter. Cos we're not that big. We're in that
middle ground now where we're neither on the cusp of credibility nor are we massive in the mainstream."

The animosity towards Prefab seems to stem from the fact that they're not red-blooded, carnivorous, hell-for-leather rock'n'roll. For Paddy, that's like comparing football and racing driving, or saying why isn't Marilyn Monroe like Liza Minnelli: they're incommensurable, not in the same league.

"I find it strange that people who don't like us beat us over the head with the fact that we don't use three chords and distortion, when there's a record called West Side Story, and it would be much easier to hurt me by saying 'that's fabulous
songwriting, why aren't you as good as that?'"

Nonetheless, McAloon did used to come over as though he was on something of an anti-rockist crusade, offering a (pretty acute) critique of rock's vague bluster about passion and mystery (in particular the mystic ilk of The Bunnymen/U2/ Minds) and pledging allegiance to "superior" influences like Sondheim, Bacharach and David, Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc. But such partisanship is something that's behind him now.

"See, I actually like rock music. I've got loads of records that people would be really surprised to find out that I loved. But part of the deal for me has always been that you didn't rely on being overtly sexual. When I was 19, I decided that was the easy way out. It's not to do with being perverse or obscure, it's just me trying to do things that haven't been done. That's what I was into when we
did Swoon. Now I've mellowed a little, in that I'd rather do something that lasted a long time and was just plain beautiful, rather than worry about whether it was radically different to what everyone else does.

"But believe me, I could do the most brilliantly obscure noise records you've ever heard. I used to like Stockhausen when I was a kid. But when I got older I realised I actually spent more time listening to Abba than Stockhausen. I used to like the Velvet Underground when I was 20, but then I realised there was an awful lot of the Outsider that goes with the image. But in terms of playability, of records you put on to console yourself, I sort of gave up on rock. A while ago I gave up a bit on credibility, in the belief that I'd always be kinda hip simply through not caring about it. I went away and I thought: 'what is it you really like, what do
you love to do?' I love melody, and at that time I was very much enthralled by the Broadway album by Barbara Streisand. And I thought I wanna write songs where the melodies aren't caged in by the pop format of little stanzas. Most pop melodies are really crabbed, they don't flow, they don't go on for eight bars. I wanted to something as if Trevor Horn was doing a Walt Disney soundtrack. Wandering, extravagant melodies, rather than the pop thing of hooks."

McAloon seems to have floated outside the ideological to-and-fro of the music press, is now in his own little world where all the categories of 'hip' and 'uncool' don't apply: a separate timestream, from which he hopes to do timeless work.

"Yes! I'm in my own little world, that's the problem. I got the New Order 'England' record for my birthday and the Mark Moore remix of Prince's "The Future", but that's as close as I've got the pulse of 1990. And that's quite up to date for me, normally it's something that came out five years ago that I didn't like at the time, but now I've come round to it. I'm not in the vanguard of listeners."

But if he no longer feels that rockism is his great bugbear,it's still the case that he has no truck with rock romanticism. Partly that's a matter of physiological necessity ("I have a certain kind of a voice and it doesn't extend very far at that kind of 'waugghhh' level. The palate of my voice and Wendy's voice doesn't
include Iggy Pop."), mostly it's to do with temperament. The Rock's Romantic tradition is about the Dionysiac poet of Sex And Death (Jim Morrison,Iggy, Cave), "whose music is an emodiment of their physical presence. Whereas I like being able to write about something that maybe doesn't accord with your own viewpoint, but it makes for a good song. I believe in the distancing effect, where you write from a viewpoint that you don't necessarily believe, but it's valuable. It's like being a screenwriter. You may not believe what the Rod Steiger's racist character is saying in In The Heat Of The Night, but you have to make it ring true.

"And this goes very against the rock grain. The identification of the song with the singer is central, as is the identification between the star and the fan. And I find that childish, really: it's like pond life level. You get fat and you take loads of drugs, and that makes all your songs about drugs valid."

Jordan The Comeback was originally intended as a double album, and three of the sides are suites of thematically linked songs. One suite addresses the "bad boy" myth, using Jesse James as archetype of the spoilt mothers boys, who goes on the run from domesticity. But, grins Paddy, they're all really about Elvis.

"The title track is Elvis as Howard Hughes on the top floor of his hotel in Vegas. I wanted to get an Elvis imitator to sing it, but then decided it was bit gimmicky. It's an Elvis monologue, him looking back at his life and saying 'I didn't do it right, but if I come back it'll be gospel music all the way and sod this 'Wooden Heart' crap. 'Jesse James Symphony' and 'Jesse James Bolero" came about when I was trying to kickstart my writing again, and I thought: 'what if I was writing something for someone like Streisand or Presley?'. I decided to write something that would have appealed to Elvis' own self-image. He liked to identify with mythic
things, you can see that in his 'American Trilogy'. So I wrote something that dealt with him in those mythic proportions: the image of the outlaw, and all the sentimentality that allows the singer. The idea of his mother looking at him in the cradle, and then he ends up as this big fat guy onstage in Vegas that half the world
wants to go to bed with. He's gone from from wearing your nappy, to wearing a nappy again, cos he's incontinent in your bed, which he was at the end. Finally, "Moondog" is about... if he came back, where would the Colonel have him playing?. There's only one place big enough, the moon. A satellite link-up."

Another suite on the album is, says Paddy, "all about the appeal on the young imagination of Agnetha Faltskog. The image of the "Ice Maiden". I like Abba, I like the fact that their use of the English language has that once-removed quality, partly because they're Swedish and partly because the American rock'n'roll experience doesn't come naturally to them. But they have an image of glamour that is peculiarly European. And they're aren't that many great European rock groups. And "Ice Maiden" is all about the appeal of that image, and it's me saying 'you've met your match', I know exactly what you're about. It's all very abstract, there's no
reason anyone should pick up on it. And it's a medley of songs, which is very uncool and un-rock, but I like that. I've got a sweet tooth, you know!"

He may not care for rock's romanticism, its creed of impulse and instinct, but he loves romance. That said, Prefab songs display a vacillation or equivocation about the language of love. "Looking For Atlantis" chides someone for having too high expectations of love and life, for looking for the Holy Grail when all the while 'you should be loving me', who's flawed but real, here and now. But
'All The World Loves Lovers' seems to mock those modern couples who strive to have a very pragmatic, realistic idea of relationships, who aim not to make the foolish promises that other lovers do.

Paddy seem to be drawn to the intoxicating nonsense of lover's babble, the delicious folly of "forever" and "you belong to me" and "only for you", but sceptical of its superstitious nature. We're in Green land here: the Scritti idea of making pop that celebrates the lover's discourse as the same time as it unravels it, pop that both succumbs to and resists the malady and madness of love. It's standard terrain for songwriters with a brain, but McAloon spins out the contradictions as well as ever - the schizo-split between knowing intellectually that faith (amorous and existenstial) is impossible, but longing emotionally for those long-lost absolutes (God, true love).

The final suite of "death songs" touch on this tangentially, by suggesting music is how we satisfy our yearning for the absolute. Paddy sings "if there ain't a heaven that holds you tonight/they never sang Doowop in Harlem". Is this the idea that melody is a false promise of heaven: music's beauty mendaciously suggests that
the universe is harmonious, that everything will ultimately be resolved?

"I like the idea of heaven as being related to music. I like the paradox in 'One Of The Broken' of having God saying 'if you want to worship me, don't do it with sweet melodies', at the same time as you're doing it with sweet melodies. No one knows why a melody works, and I love that. I love that beyond-the-verbal aspect."

Any mystical feelings McAloon has stem from awe at the mysterious origins of melody. "Any idea of believing in God I have is as much to do with the presence and effect of melody as it is to do with other human beings. Which sounds awful: you're supposed to believe in God becuase you care about people. But I sometimes think
melody is a more instant, and less wearing apprehension of the divine, than people. Other people, you're blind to the God in them because of their faults.

"With those songs, I thought that I was gonna deal with the Big Subjects of human existence, it would be nice to get a bit of irreverence in there. On "One Of The Broken", to have God's speaking voice sound a bit like Glen Campbell. And "Michael" is the Devil talking, he's languishing in hell and he sneaks this message to Michael the Archangel asking him to put in a good word for him with the Lord. The way I envisaged at first it was Prince as the Devil and Michael Jackson as the Good Angel. But in the end, I couldn't write it as a duet. I liked the idea of Lucifer arguing for forgiveness by saying "I'm only there to prove free will exists... I'm the the Night to your Day."

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

One song on the album, "Paris Smith" contains the line "any music worth its salt is good for dancing". But this isn't a dig at acid house, or the new indie/dance orthodoxy.

"It's just that sometimes I think I'd like to write a song where I didn't have to answer a whole load of questions. Say if I was Nile Rodgers instead of me. Cos how do you write about something like 'Good Times' that slips down a treat, that's so perfect it doesn't to be validated or dissected. Sometimes I'd like to be capable of
that, but then I wouldn't be me. So the song goes "I'd rather be the Fred Astaire of words", which people can either machine gun me to death over, or think 'that's a nice thing to say'".

Me, I think that's pretty nice. Paddy McAloon remains the hippest "hip to be square" cat on the block.


* this reissue dedicated to Prefab and Scritti mega-fan Wolfgang Voigt

Saturday, March 15, 2008

RADIO BIRDMAN, The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978)(Sub Pop)
Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds


Send in the clones. Because originators are relatively scarce, and "secondary talents" often perform a useful function, filling in gaps left by the innovator's erratic, all-too-brief trajectory. That's my case-for-the-defense regarding the deeply derivative Radio Birdman. Formed in Sydney, Australia by Michigan native/exile Deniz Tek, the band were based with uncanny fidelity on the Stooges/MC5 proto-punk model. The name Radio Birdman comes from a line in the Stooges' "1970" and the songs teem with Detroit-specific references to Woodward Avenue and Strohs (Iggy & Co's favorite beer). "I-94," from the second album Living Eyes, is named after the highway that cuts through Michigan's industrial heartland, and songs like "Murder City Nights' take the Detroit shtick to the brink of schlock.

So what makes Birdman stand-out from the legion of Stooges-imitators cherished by Frenchmen in leather jeans? Singer Rob Younger's hoarse grunt was merely adequately Iggy-esque, and the rhythm section's rolling thunder is potent but never approaches the loose 'n' lethal swing of Funhouse. So really Radio Birdman's enduring cult is mostly down to Tek: his guitar's spare, stinging lead/rhythm hybrid, and his overall band-vision, which worked up the latent militarism in Stooges songs like "Search and Destroy" into fullblown deathwish rock, sorta Jim Morrison-meets-Sam-Peckinpah. Listen to this anthology--the first time Birdman's music's been properly released domestically--and you'll find song after song about self-immolation ("gonna burn alive", vows Iggy-tribute "Do the Pop") and going out in a blaze of glory. "Alone in the Endzone," for instance, is about a bomber pilot hurtling over "burning desert sands" on a mission that's turned kamikaze: his crew's dead, there's not enough fuel to make it back home, but he's deadset on dropping his payload.

Like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Birdman inhabit a male-only world of camaraderie in the face of death. Warrior-wannabes just looking to explode and vent all that pent-up masculine emotion, they regarded the fairer sex as an energy-sucking distraction: "Non-Stop Girls" declares "can't use non-stop girls/cos all my love has gone/To another world", while the suicidal "Smith & Wesson Blues" reckons you're never alone with a warm gun. There was a dodgy side to all this sado-machismo: Birdman named their tours things like Blitzkrieg and Aural Rape, and wore black shirts adorned with the band's Germanic-looking logo, prompting accusations of flirtation-with-fascism from some quarters. But combat rocks, and Deniz Tek's insane clone posse tapped into masculinity's dark heart, appealing to the part of you that watches Apocalypse Now for the ninth time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

THE YOUNG GODS, The Young Gods (Product Inc)
Melody Maker, 1987

by Simon Reynolds


One of the little myths about Pop 1987 is that "there's nothing happening, is there?" For me, 1987 has consisted of a deluge of brilliance which I've been barely able to take in, let alone digest. Outstanding releases by Butthole Surfers, Skinny Puppy, LL Cool J, Arthur Russell, Throwing Muses, Public Enemy, Happy Mondays… I'm only scratching the surface here… and sure, none of it ever hits, but I thought we'd washed those old notions of infiltrate-and-subvert out of our blood long ago.

For those who are interested in being interested, 1987 offers an improbably surfeit and diversity of options. The Young Gods are right at the front, with what looks like the most creative record released this year.

They call their music New Sonic Architecture, and it involves taking sampling beyond the dance functionalism which limits hip hop. Where most pop is linear, horizontal, The Young Gods open up space along the vertical--trapdoors open up between the beat; suddenly, the ceiling rises vertiginously; corridors branch out, down which sounds recede and loom. If this is architecture, then it's designed in the spirit of Escher--trompe l'oeil effects, nightmare perspectives, echo and shadow.

Even more disorientating is that the substances out which this architecture is constructed are unfamiliar, rendered unrecognizable and alien by the drastic sampling process. You can't play the cosy reference game because a lot of the material is stolen from classical music--strings on "Fais La Mouette" that churn nauseously like a trapped moth; on "Percussione", abrupt flares and blares of sound that come at you like an ambush.

On "Jusqu'au Bout", it sounds like an orchestra has been transformed into the sort of jackhammer powerchord riffing you'd find on the plastic punk the Pistols made after Rotten left. Indeed, it's important to make the point that a lot of the music on this record is fantastic rock music, even if made entirely on machines. "Jimmy" is furious punk, "Fais La Mouette" is a brutal stomp that reminds me of the genuine menace and savagery that lay beneath the camp surface of Glitter and The Sweet.

Franz Treichler's voice is a haemorrhage, at times a plane of abraided texture the even-ness of which surpasses even Luc Van Acker. But he can also sound sonorous, as on the beautiful, low shudder of melody on "Jusqu'au Bout". It's the voice of a singer who knows that where he wants to be is not the human at all.

There's too much being proposed and shaken up here for me to absorb in a handful of listens, so I'll just say that The Young Gods know what time it is. Their music is where Mantronix meets Diamanda Galas, Skinny Boys meets Stockhausen. Stop whinging and immerse yourself in this record.

The future starts here.




THE YOUNG GODS, Only Heaven
Melody Maker, 1995

by Simon Reynolds


Believe it or not, kids, but there was a time when Britain was not the epicentre of the pop universe, when hipsters looked to America, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada, anywhere but Blighty. Christ, even Switzerland was more happenin' than a Little England plagued by indie voles, simply 'cos Zurich had somehow spawned untouchable Futurist power trio The Young Gods. Oh, we garlanded ye Gods with our most deliriously imagistic praise, but, oh! their self-titled debut (MM's Album of 1987) and 1989 sequel L'Eau Rouge warranted such histrionics a thousandfold. I, for one, would not retract a single spume-flecked metaphor.

If it weren't such a corny, used-up term, 'cyberpunk' would be perfect for The Young Gods, 'cos that's literally what they are: The Stooges rewired for the digital aeon, the ultimate cyborg mesh of the visceral (Franz Treichler's pagan soul, drummer Use's tribal thunder) and the machinic (metal riffs and classical fanfares vivisected and recombined via the sampler). Amazingly, shamefully, nearly a decade after Mantronix, Def Jam and acid house, the Young Gods have
yet to be dethroned as exponents non pareil of sampladelic rock. That's
not to say that no rock bands have got to grips with digital technology. But whereas post-rock units like Disco Inferno or Main use guitars in non-rockin' ways, The Young Gods do almost the opposite: sans guitars, they create the ultimate rockist sturm und drang, a pyrotechnic yet plectrum-free fantasia for fretboard-freaks.

After 1992's TV Sky, the Gods' first tentative, toned-down
bid for crossover (Treichler abandoned his mother tongue French for fluent American),
Only Heaven is at once a return to form and a concerted lunge for the mainstream's jugular (in the US, the band's finally plighted its troth
to major label Interscope). Three years on, the Gods could have gone in at least three directions--thrash-metal, industrial (shudder!) or techno. The latter would probably have been the most fertile (given the aesthetic affinities between the Gods' streamlined furore and Beltram tracks like "Energy Flash" and "Mentasm", or indeed the last Prodigy LP), but the only gesture Treichler & Co have made in techno's direction is an increased quotient of ambience: middle-eights like reeling and whirling firmaments, tactile texture-swirls, etc. Generally, they continue to plough their own lonely furrow, keeping both thrash's feckless palsy and
industrial's blethering bombast at arm's length, while simultaneously shunning
the dancefloor (moshing and the dubiously upraised fist are still the only appropriate physical responses to the Gods).

That said, "Speed Of Night", the album's highpoint, does sound like Motorhead remixed by Richie 'Plastikman' Hawtin; sheer kinesthetic thrills, as
electrifying as mainlining a cocktail of adrenalin, steroids and crystal meth. Another triumph is the 17 minute song-cycle "Moon Revolutions", which comprises
the speed-blur and mercurial vapour-trails of "the eagle song" (featuring a solo that could be from Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold"), the ambient hinterland
of "the dreamscape" (a sort of cyberdelic take on the mid-section of Zep's "Whole Lotta Love", spun from reprocessed feedback), and the tribal tempest of "the arrow song".

Only Heaven is not all full-throttle kineticism; "Donnez les Esprits"
and "The Dreamhouse' both stalk and glower at an ominous, predatory mid-tempo,
and proceedings close with a ballad, "Child In The Tree", Franz's lush croon framed by what sounds like real acoustic strumming (Treichler was conservatory-trained
in classical guitar). But mostly Only Heaven is about speed, ascension,
exultation, "Kissing the Sun", crashing the Pearly Gates. So c'mon, feel the rush.



THE YOUNG GODS, Only Heaven
Spin, 1995

by Simon Reynolds


Sampler-wielding cyber-Stooges, The Young Gods have been the world's first 21st Century rock band for nearly a decade now. But being ahead of your time can be lonesome, since you have to wait for everybody else to catch up. Despite cult status in Europe and especially England (where they've influenced everyone from art-metal units like Godflesh to post-rockers like Disco Inferno), this Swiss power trio has made few inroads into American alt-rock consciousness. Mike Patton of Faith No More wore the Gods' spiral T-shirt in so many photo-shoots he became a walking billboard; agit-pop guerrillas Cop Shoot Cop copped a few of their sampler-rock licks. But that's about it. All this may be about to change, though. At last, the Young Gods have hitched up with a US major (Interscope, home of Cop Shoot Cop). And Only Heaven is at once a return to late '80s form and perhaps their most accessible album to date. Either way, it's a distinct improvement on their first, tentative attempt to parler fluent American, 1992's TV Sky.

Despite slight affinities with thrash (velocity, density, hygiene), despite the mistaken pigeonholing of the band as 'industrial', the Young Gods are really just about the closest thing to a 'pure rock' band you can get in the age of market fragmentation. 'Pure', in so far as they transcend genre and instead home/hone in on the primal matrix of rock'n'roll energies that connect the Stooges, Sex Pistols, Radio Birdman, Birthday Party, Killing Joke and Metallica. And 'pure' in terms of their methodology, whereby they literally distil rock's essence. Using the sampler to vivisect punk and metal songs for paroxysmic riffs, climactic powerchords, feedback detonations etc, the Gods recombine and resequence them into a monstrous uber-rock. As with Futurist art, rock's bloody physicality is sublimated into an elemental passion-play of abstract dynamic forces.

So "Speed Of Night" is Motorhead cleansed of greaser grit and biker stink, a silvered machine hurtling into a radiant nowhere, while "Kissing The Sun" is a Hendrix-meets-Icarus hymn to ascension and dazzlement. The extended highpoint of "Only Heaven" is "Moon Revolutions", a 17 minute triptych that runs from the after-image-trailing rush of "the eagle song" through "the dreamscape"'s vaporous canyon of ambience to the neo-pagan thunder of "the arrow song".

As ever, singer/bandleader Franz Treichler's delivery is tres Jim Morrison,
and his lyrics a reeling mind's eye panorama of Nietzchean imagery: glacial altitudes, rarified remoteness, vast solitudes, inclement realms where
only the gigantic of spirit roam. If Nietzche's 1872 opus The Birth Of Tragedy was, as some claim, the first rock critical text, then Only Heaven is Friedrich's theory fleshed, or flashed, out. "Count the stars... that's what/we are/fighting for": the Young God are militant mystics, hungry to be consumed in the blaze of glory. The Gods' penchant for grandeur may still prove too much for Sebadoh-fans to stomach, but anyone who digs Led Zep IV, Electric Ladyland or Ritual de Lo Habitual, should get ready to swoon.
IGGY POP, The Hummingbird, Birmingham
Melody Maker, winter 1988

By Simon Reynolds


I bring a whole lotta baggage to my first live Iggy. This month I've found myself listening to the first Stooges album more than any contemporary record. I don't go along with the idea that musics are all inevitably outmoded by technical or critical advances: there are some statements, charged with the aura of a moment, that transcend the limits imposed by their era. So at the close of 1988, it doesn't feel strange to be razed still by Asheton's wah wah flames, or recognize an eternal eloquence in Iggy's dumb poetry. "She wants somethin'/But I'm/Not right/Nooooo/And it's always this way". But even more than anthems of disaffection like "Not Right" and "Real Cool Time", it's the morose mire of "Ann" that drags me under again and again, "Ann" with its vision of love as narcosis, love as capitulation: "You took my arm/And you broke my will… I floated in your swimming pools/I felt so weak/I felt so blue."

So my head is spinning in a confusion of anticipation and resignation as I prepare to set eyes on one of the six or seven people I've really worshipped in my life. "Now I'm ready to close my eyes/Now I'm ready to close my mind." But can Iggy do it for me, lay me low, finish me off? Not really. Where the Iggy of '69 can still incapacitate and galvanise me like almost no one else, 88's Iggy is sabotaged by his own influence. It's the Iggy-without-whom factor. On the one hand, rock has caught up with him, did so a long time back in fact, and the dullards have banalised a lot of what The Stooges proposed, turning the the "world's forgotten boy/seeking only to destroy" posture into an orthodoxy: a certain American idea of "punk", whether exemplified by Pussy Galore or Guns N'Roses. On the other hand, more extreme aspects of The Stooges have been raised several powers by Loop, World Domination Enterprises, Sonic Youth, Young Gods even.

Iggy can't be blamed for wanting to capitalize on all this stature and indebtedness. I just wish the legend was better served than by this revue.

His band are stonyfaced artisans, either clichés (a baldie in shades on rhythm guitar, a lead guitarist in a big black hat) or nonentities. All they're capable of is a precision-chiselled mayhem. It's reliably raucous, but never heavy. A "good time", which is to say, not that greaet. Not as undignified as I'd feared, but far from the sensual inferno I'd half-hoped for.

"1969" gets typical treatment: the original's ominous sense of the USA as one giant powderkeg is lost in the revved-up proficiency. "TV Eye" is similarly too uptempo, slammed out rather than strung-out, and the original's sublime climax--where the riff suddenly congeals and Iggy subsides into strangled moans and electrifying sucking sounds--is left out altogether. "High On You" is prefaced by a speech disowning his drug-taking past: the song's aerobic intensity showcases the new Iggy, who's into being alert, who can't afford to get wasted, burn up or pass out. Iggy the survivor, who leaves the stage in one piece, ready to fight another day. Fair enough, but because of this, the music can't be allowed to brood or malinger, let alone self-destruct, but is all at the same relentless go-for-it, hell-for-leather pace.

Iggy-as-spectacle is great. As a star, he cuts a more peculiar figure than ever, a beanpole halfpint with not an inch to pinch on his twitching and flailing body. But, while he acts and looks like the 16 year old brat, he also seems conscious of now having an avuncular/forefather role, making invocatory gestures to the audience, desperate to involve and incite. He knows that "kids" are still caged by the same impasses, still bored out of their skulls. But he's torn between advocating getting smart (he taps the side of his head) and proposing a willful regression into infantilism and idiocy (he picks his nose, sniffs his cock, sucks his thumb and sticks his microscopic arse at the audience). And how can rock'n'roll grow old?

"I wish I could reach out and fuck you all." Iggy Pop doesn't get quite that far (beyond being a show). The encores, "1970", "I Wanna Be Your Dog", "Gotta Right", get closest, the music finally getting ragged and approaching flashover, and like everyone else I have no choice but to raise adoring arms. Best of all, though, is when the music's over but Iggy keeps writhing on, with the spastic grace that says "I'm an idiot, so love me". He's still trying to leap out of his skin, still wants to be out of this world and have unimaginably total congress with it, penetrate to the core. You could do a lot worse than pay a respectful visit to Iggy Pop's sweating, strutting archive of himself.


THE STOOGES, The Stooges and Funhouse
Melody Maker, 1994

by Simon Reynolds



Funhouse is, no contest, the greatest rock'n'roll album of all time. And its prequel, The Stooges, is the tremor before the full quake.

From the 1969 debut, "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "No Fun" are the justly famous anthems, but if anything "Real Cool Time" and "Not Right" are even more incendiary. Ron Asheton's wah-wah tongues-of-flame, Dave Alexander's sidling stealth-bass, Scott Asheton's seething drums, all conjure up an organic, monstrous, marauding prescence. The Stooges never break loose, thrash or flail--what so many idiots today confuse with intensity--but instead hold all their deadly energy in reserve, brood and simmer.

The Stooges is awesome, but even the best songs sound like sketches for 1970's Funhouse, when the band break loose from John Cale's slightly dessicated production and rock out. Right from the start, with "Down On The Streets", it's also clear that the band have learned how to play, and leapt from the stilted Troggs-like stomp of "No Fun" to a punk-funk jive'n'roll so supple, serpentile and swinging you just gotta dance. Funhouse is proto-punk and proto-metal, but it's also, in some weird unanalysable way, jazz, even when Steve McKay isn't blowing freeform sax.

"Loose" raises penetration to a sort of existensial principle. Iggy boasts "I stuck it deep inside/cuz I'm loose"; he's unleashed, a smart bomb gone truant. "TV Eye" kickstarts with possibly the most apocalyptic riff ever, then descends to another plane of prime-evil, the song uncoiling like a cobra as Iggy lets rip a cyclone-sucking snarl and gutteral, winded gasps. Side One mirrors the male sexual dynamic (arousal, penetration, climax), with "Dirt" as post-coital aftermath: a marrow-chilling dirge-beat over which Asheton downpours silvered chords as harrowing and cleansing as "Gimme Shelter". Iggy's a glowing ember of his former inferno, belch-crooning Sinatra-style his philosophy of education-through-abjection: "I've been
dirt, but I don't care, cos I'm learning".

The songs on Funhouse aren't fast, but they sound full-tilt, all out, like a body trying to surge through a viscous, resistant medium. Which is exactly what Iggy is: Everykid struggling to cut loose from his suffocating enviroment, and, like Marlon Brando's biker in The Wild One, "just go". It doesn't matter where. In The Stooges, a certain kind of male energy finds its ultimate form of expression. Long before he started using military imagery on Raw Power, Iggy Pop was all about ballistics--about ignition, blast off and explosive impact. Iggy was on the warrior male trip, with all its attendant dangers of lapsing from Romanticism into fascism. The stance is midway between Nietzche and Beavis & Butthead: 'I'm bored/let's burn', teen deliquency conflagrating
into a war against the world, combat rock without enemies or objectives. Iggy wanted to become pure intransitive speed, go out in a blaze of abstract glory, burn alive. And sometimes burn-out, as in the downered-out entropy of "We Will Fall" (with its mantra-chants and raga drones, like ten seconds from the Doors' "The End"
looped for eternity), or the lagoon of lassitude that's "Ann" (where Iggy's drowning in his lover's eyes).

I could unfurl the rollcall of the illustrious indebted--the Pistols,
Birthday Party, Radio Birdman, Black Flag, Young Gods, Loop/Spacemen 3,
even Nirvana--but The Stooges don't merit your respect as a monument in our collective heritage, they warrant full immersion. This is a NOW thing--it's 1969/1970 and Iggy & co are liver than you or I'll ever be.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Introduction to Beijar O Céu [Kiss the Sky] anthology, published in Brazil by Loja Conrad, 2006.

by Simon Reynolds



I’m the child of a peculiar institution, a cultural space that no longer exists and that in hindsight seems highly improbable: the British music press.

I started reading the UK weekly music papers--New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror--when I was sixteen, back in 1979; that was the context in which I first encountered rock criticism and first got the idea that writing about popular music was cool, exciting, something worth dedicating one’s life to. The British press was then--late Seventies and early Eighties--at the absolute height of its power. New Musical Express, or as it’s better known, NME, sold about a quarter of a million copies every week; the other three sold another 350 thousand or so between them; the actual readership for the papers was much bigger, because every copy was on average read by three or four people. To my mind, during this period the British papers were also at the peak of their quality as critical writing (others disagree, locating the golden age earlier, in the mid-Seventies). The journalists, especially those on NME, were taking all kinds of risks, experimenting with form, and generally shooting for the stars.

A few years later, in my early twenties, I participated in what is generally considered the last “golden” phase of the Uk weekly music press, which ran from the late Eighties into the early Nineties, and was largely concentrated in Melody Maker. By this point the music papers were already deep into a long-term sales decline; different kinds of media, from glossy pop papers like Smash Hits to monthly rock magazines like Q to “style bibles” like The Face had weakened the cultural centrality of the weekly papers (nicknamed the “inkies” because they were black-and-white newsprint publications that left ink on your fingers), and there was much more coverage of pop music on TV than there’d been in the 1970s. Still, even with their prestige and authority weakened, the weekly music press continued to serve as an arena for ideas and mischief-making, they were a glorious playground for pretentious young hotheads like myself.

All through this period, from 1974 onwards, NME was the Big One, the paper whose verdict really counted, the weekly with most of the best writers. Melody Maker had once been the top paper; back the late Sixties and early Seventies it was the voice of the UK’s “progressive” underground, but it had been damaged by punk and, when I joined, it was still looking for a new identity, and trailing third in sales after Sounds and NME. However, me and some like-minded comrades were able to turn around Melody Maker’s reputation with surprising speed, stealing from NME the status it held as the thinking person’s music paper, and establishing Melody Maker as both the intellectual’s favourite and the magazine that discovered new bands first. We never managed to catch up with NME’s circulation figures, but soon overtook the other two, Sounds and Record Mirror (both of whom eventually went out of business).

The rivalry between Melody Maker and NME is a curious thing, because they were both owned by the same media conglomerate, IPC. During the golden period for the music press, IPC and EMAP (the company that owned Sounds) didn’t interfere in the daily operations of the music papers, because they sold well and, being cheap to maintain, were highly profitable. The music press had a captive market both in terms of advertisers (the record industry had hardly any other ways of reaching the record-buying and concert-going audience with their adverts for albums or tours) and in terms of readership (there were very few alternative sources of information about rock--this is an era before the internet, before widespread TV coverage of pop music, before the massive explosion of rock books and rock specialist magazines). So IPC and EMAP, not really understanding rock culture anyway, let the papers do their own thing. Why mess with a winning formula? Besides, this was an era long before market research became an integral part of the steering of magazines’ editorial direction.

Thanks to this policy of benign neglect, the UK music press evolved into a curious space of cultural autonomy divorced from the pressures of the market. In terms of their structural ownership and distribution (which was nationwide and omnipresent), the papers were corporate and mainstream; in terms of their content and attitude, the vibe that oozed from every headline and picture caption, they were underground. Indeed, many of the early 70s writers came from the Sixties underground press, hippie magazines like International Times and Oz; later, they tended to come from the punk and postpunk fanzines. As a result of all these factors--being left alone by their owners, the record industry being dependent on them for advertising and for actual editorial coverage in terms of reviews and interviews, the sheer vastness of their readership--the music papers developed a feeling of invincibility and entitlement. They felt like they could do anything they wanted, so they did. The papers became a forum for all kinds of adventurous writing--experiments with form, poetical self-indulgence, stuff that was highly political, or that drew on cutting-edge critical theory and philosophy. They would routinely run confrontational interviews with stars and hilariously abusive reviews of albums, yet the record companies would have to accept it with a forced smile, and continue paying for adverts.

In those days, because of the amount of advertising pages from the record industry, the papers had a lot of space, and so word-counts were long. Features with iconic figures like David Bowie might be so protracted and in-depth they’d be split into two parts running on successive weeks; a lead album review might be longer than a feature is today, running to a couple of thousand words. Even an ordinary down-page record review could be 1000 words long (today 150 words is considered a handsome amount, with some mags expecting reviewers to describe a record in 60 words). All this largesse gave writers space in which to speculate, write around the subject, get word-drunk or use the album review format as an excuse to write a mini-manifesto. In addition to the regular kind of things you’d expect from a music paper, there would be thinkpieces and overviews, and historical pieces rescuing certain artists from obscurity (this was a time before the explosion of retro culture, so a lot of information was impossible to find, and you certainly couldn’t go on the web). Back then, the music papers also covered a lot of stuff that wasn’t strictly music--articles on politics or wider cultural trends, pieces on film and literature (usually if they had some kind of “rock” vibe, as with certain authors--William Burrough, JG Ballard--who had some kind of affinity to music culture). But everything was filtered through the prism of music, which (as in the 1960s) was the centre of youth culture, the glue that connected everything together.

Now, not everyone who read the papers was into this kind of intensely wide-ranging and far-fetched rock writing. The majority of the readership probably bought the papers for the news pages, the gig guide, the interviews with well-known artists, the gossip column. But a substantial minority of the readership was into the ultra-serious analysis, the theoretical speculations, the febrile prose-poem paeans to favored records, and the meta-meta talk about the future of rock/the value of music/the point of criticism itself. This sort of writing could frequently be off-putting to casual readers, as it had a tendency to be over-heated and over-written, full of insider terms to the point of almost being in code, and ridiculously polarized in its opinions (artists or artifacts tended to be either GOD or utterly lamentable/pernicious/deplorable). But, if you were into this sort of rock criticism, it was a massive rush to read, almost as intoxicating as the music itself. I belonged to that core minority of music press fiends when I was a teenager, and as a writer I would go on to feed that inner hardcore, in the process helping to breed the next generation of addicts (most of whom now do their work through blogs--basically online fanzines--rather than in music papers, of which there is only one now, NME, a pale shadow of what it used to be.).

Some of the pieces in this collection come from my years, roughly 1986 to 1994, at the fevered heart of the UK music press--an example is the Morrissey interview, which was split across two successive weeks in Melody Maker. Others, clearer and calmer in tone, were written for more mainstream magazines, either during that time or after, when I’d settled in New York and was freelancing for a much wider range of magazines with different expectations in terms of lucidity and how much the writer should explain things to a layperson. There are also a series of selections from The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock’n’Roll, a book co-written with my wife Joy Press, and in America published on an academic press. This stuff showcases my more theory-driven side, although the taste for French post-structuralist thought and feminist psychoanalysis was actually something I originally acquired not through a stint in academia but through reading NME, where writers like Ian Penman, Barney Hoskyns and Paul Morley would bolster their rhetoric with quotations from Barthes, Bataille, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Nietzche, etc.

Apart from the sheer excitement of the writing in NME back then, what hooked me into thinking of rock criticism as my vocation in life was--if I’m honest--the messianic and megalomaniac tone of the writers (Morley and Hoskyns being prime examples and the two biggest formative influences on what I do). I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous quotation, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Well, these critics carried themselves as though they were laying down the law for the rock world, they had the prose swagger of guys who thought they alone had the vision and they alone had the balls to perceive and dictate the righteous path for music to follow. They acted as if they had a lot of power, and they actually appeared to have it too, in the sense of influencing bands, by creating a climate of sensibility in which certain ideas/values/attitudes/sounds became “sexy”. That was something that appealed to me, someone who loved music but had no musical ability as such--the impact these writers had showed me that a rock critic could actually make a contribution to the scene. Perhaps the greatest example of rock writer as prophet is someone I didn’t read until much latter, after I was fully formed: Lester Bangs, who basically changed the course of rock history, by formulating the aesthetic and ethos of punk rock years before punk actually came into being. The writers I grabbed onto as a teenage NME reader were the British equivalents of Bangs in the sense that they were partisan, they championed certain sounds and promoted certain ideas of what music should be and where it should go. You can get this syndrome in other forms of criticism--Clement Greenberg with abstract expressionism in painting, Pauline Kael in film writing--but nothing like to the same extent as in rock writing.

The fact that fiery young egos could thrive in this media environment owes a lot to the structural nature of the UK music press at that time: the fact that they were weekly papers with a lot of space to fill each week encouraged a rapid turnover of trends and discoveries of new bands, and the competition between the four weeklies for readers made that turnover even more frantic. The result was a hothouse atmosphere of trend-spotting and scene building, hype and premature exaltations. But there were also real ideological schisms and aesthetic disputes at this time. The papers would be identified with particular sounds (postpunk in the case of NME, Oi! punk and metal with Sounds) or even particular philosophies of music. In my era, there was rivalry between Melody Maker (or rather a faction within MM) and NME (or rather a particular bunch of writers who dominated that paper). Me and my crew were hailing the return of rock, inspired by largely American indie bands like Husker Du, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr and a few UK equivalents like My Bloody Valentine. Loop and Spacemen 3; the faction on NME were soul boys who believed that rock was dead, passé, an embarrassment, and that only black music was valid. So there was a war of words across the great gulf between NME and Melody Maker (in physical terms the divide consisted of a single floor in IPC’s gigantic King’s Reach Tower in South London!). My piece on rap, Sick or Sweet, is connected to that argument, in so far as it claims that hip hop has more in common attitude-wise with punk and sonically with the underground noise rock of the late 80s, than it does with soul. As well as verbal warfare between different music papers, there were also rivalries internal to each paper: the NME soul boys were attempting to crush the indie-rock fans on that paper who liked groups such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Wedding Present, while on Melody Maker my “return of rock” gang squabbled with another group of writers who had a more pop sensiblity. Today, all these disagreements and diatribes seem amusing to me, but at the time they were intensely serious; it really felt like something was at stake.

From the early Nineties onwards, I started to grow away from the UK music press, geographically (I’d moved to America) and professionally (writing for lots of different kinds of magazines) but also emotionally (I’d begun to grow up). Over the years, some of that adolescent urgency and argumentativeness has gone, replaced by more measured and sober critique (I’ve also developed some actual journalistic skills--one of the odd things about the UK music papers was that they let people write features who had no training in reporting whatsoever!). But, deep in my heart of hearts, I still think rock writing should be how it was when I was a youth. It ought to be zealous, ardent, ridiculously polarized in its judgements; it must risk absurdity by taking things too seriously; it should be drunk with its own power (for how else can it hope to intoxicate the reader?). When I am reading a piece of rock writing today, no matter how admirably written or insightful or wise it is, there remains a part of me, disappointed, that is still looking for the sensations I got as a teenage reader--blood boiling with excitement, body trembling with a sense of the article’s momentousness. Oh, the writing itself doesn’t necessarily have to be wild and raving, to froth at the mouth like a rabid dog; it can be precise, controlled, severe even. But its effect should be like Truth punching you in the mouth. It should shake with the vibration that Nietzche (who wrote the first masterpiece of rock criticism, The Birth of Tragedy a century before rock even existed) called “the world-will”. What Iggy Pop called “raw power”.