Tuesday, October 21, 2008


THE SAN FRANCISCO TAPE MUSIC CENTER: 1960s COUNTERCULTURE AND THE AVANT-GARDE by David W. Bernstein (editor)
(University of California Press/Rensselaer Polytecynic Institute)
director's cut, The Wire, October 2008

by Simon Reynolds


For most of its existence, the San Francisco Tape Music Center was based at 321 Divisadero Street, a building shared with avant-garde choreographer Ann Halprin and the progressive radio station KPFA. In the next door building, adjacent to the Center's performance space, was an apartment where Grace Slick's first band The Great Society rehearsed--sometimes at such volume they could be heard more clearly than the Center's own performers. As related by the Center's studio technician William Maginnis, this anecdotal sliver about one Bay Area vanguard drowning out another conveys a larger eclipse: the Haight-Ashbury contingent's domination of the history of 1960s San Francisco music. Every conceivable data-morsel pertaining to the acid-rock bands who played the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom , to the Human Be-In and LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III and triptastic poster artists Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse, has been dredged up and deposited across a hundred books, memoirs, documentaries and websites. Yet until now the Tape Center has been lucky to get a chapter in one of the more inclusive histories of electronic music, despite the fact that composers as legendary and influential as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnik and Pauline Oliveros passed through its portals. The disparity of attention is all the more puzzling given that the longhair guitar freaks and the electronic renegades not only drank from the same water table of Fifties-into-Sixties anarcho-mystical thought and sensibility as each other, but often crossed paths during this period (most notably at the 1966 Trips Festival). Hell, Reich even shared a tape-recorder with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, an academically trained musique concrete fan.

Aimed as a corrective to this dearth of documentation, The San Francisco Tape Music Center almost goes too far the other direction. The disparate array of texts gathered by editor David Bernstein-- which includes statements written during the Center's 1961-66 incarnation as a fully independent entity, oral history-style interviews with the key figures, retrospective essays written by some of the same, plus Bernstein's own overviews--makes for a wonderfully rich read, but does sometimes seems more like the raw ingredients for a history rather than the properly integrated thing itself. Because the Q/A's with each individual cover more or less the same events, which also get chronicled in a more detached, "official" tone in the essays, there's a fair amount of repetitiousness and redundancy. Still, each account does offer a different perspective, the various viewpoints and memory-sets overlapping to create a story thickly encrusted with anecdotal detail. Including such not-strictly-germane but nonetheless delicious digressions as the tale of how experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage lived in Subotnik's garage for an extended period, along with his wife and two small children, whom the Brakhages, on point of Beatnik principle, refused to diaper!

This book is also an attractive object, from the cover (a still from a light-show created by the Center's visual director Tony Martin) through the lavish illustrations (ranging from posters and programmes, to a pull-out of the cartographic diagram score for City Scale, a happening that used the urban space of San Francisco, to more color plates from Martin). There's also a DVD containing performances from 2003's Wow & Flutter event, where many of the Center's most famous pieces, like Oliveros's "Apple Box Double" and Ramon Sender's "Desert Ambulance," were reenacted.

Although members of the Center shy away from acknowledging a direct influence, strong parallels with the ideas of John Cage and Fluxus spring immediately to mind when reading about their feats of what could be called "concept sound". (Although in fact the Center's synaesthetes rarely limited themselves to sound alone, their pieces typically involving elements of theater or dance, and almost always involving the globular, polychromatic projections of "light composer" Martin). As with Cage, some seem like they'd be more fun to conceptualize in advance or read about after wards rather than actually sit through as performer or listener. Ramon Sender's 1962piece "Tropical Fish Opera" is a beautiful idea: a fish tank with sheet music-style staves daubed on all four sides, each of which had an acoustic instrumentalist (Oliveros, Subtonick, Sender, Loren Rush) playing the notes "composed" by the fish as they darted to and fro. Listening to its restaging on the DVD, I'd say it's… pleasant enough. Sadly there's no re-enactment of Sender's "I Laid Mr. Clean for the FBI", in which he played "the bath tub as an instrument" using his submerged body. Ahead rather than merely of-its-time, the Center's work involving tape-editing and primitive sound-synthesis seems more compelling and enduring to me. There's still a chilly alien thrill to be gleaned from Sender's dankly glistening electronic cavern "Worldfood XII" or Oliveros' "Bye Bye Butterfly, " which collides high-frequency whinnies generated on a synth invented by Center associate Don Buchla with "samples" from a Puccini aria (thereby beating Malcolm McLaren's "Madame Butterfly" to the punch by almost 20 years).

Two thing comes across loud 'n' clear (like the Great Society) from this book's interwoven accounts. The first is the collegial camaraderie between the principals ("we bounced off of each other's work with glee," writes Oliveros in her "Memoir of a Community Enterprise"). The second is the sheer ingenuity required to get results with the extremely limited means to hand. Oliveros relates how she used a bathroom tub as a reverb chamber and cardboard tubes as filters, how she achieved varispeed effects by manually rewinding her Sears Silvertone tape machine while in "record" mode. When the Center finally acquired decent funding, in the form of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it had a paradoxically dampening effect on their collective engine of creativity. This was partly because the money was made conditional on the Center affiliating itself to an established institution, Mills College in Oakland--something that almost everyone involved realized, too late, they didn't really want to happen. But also one suspects it was because the challenge of overcoming technical obstacles and getting around rudimentary resources not only sparked creativity but was part of the fun. In 1966 the core figures of the Center began to disperse: Oliveros stuck it out for a year at Mills but quit for a better job at the University of California in San Diego; Subotnik moved to New York and became a kind of electronic music star; Sender, in many ways the most charismatic and engaging figure in these pages, a romantic who threw himself whole-souled into the Sixties adventure, joined the Morning Star Ranch commune. Today he runs a foundation to assist people looking to "exit experimental social groups" (and we're not talking about the LMC here).

The San Francisco Tape Music Center leaves the reader with a poignant sense of the fragile mystery that is creative synergy: the way that "vibe" settles in a place (a neighbourhood, a nightclub, an institution, even a magazine) and flourishes as a milieu of like-minds meshed in relations of mutual respect, loving cooperation and friendly rivalry, only to inevitably disintegrate in response to internal frictions and external pressures (and attractions). Dissipating, it leaves behind just the work, and the romance of its legend.

Sunday, October 5, 2008



TOWARDS TOMORROW: THE BBC RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP
director's cut, The Guardian Saturday Review, September 20th 2008

By Simon Reynolds


This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Radiophonic Workshop, the BBC's experimental unit for electronic sound. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of its death. It came after a long period of decline during which the Workshop's output and public profile gradually withered away. But almost as soon as through the outfit finally whimpered out of existence in March 1998, the early stirrings of a cult resurgence were detectable.

A Radiophonic ghost began to stalk the peripheries of pop culture, audible initially as an influence on "retrofuturist" groups like Boards of Canada, Broadcast and Add N To X. In the past five years especially, interest in the Workshop has escalated. There's been a steady flow of Radiophonic-related reissues from labels like Mute, Rephlex, Glo-Spot and Trunk; a BBC 4 documentary, Alchemists of Sound; events such as the South Bank symposium organized by Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley. There's even been two plays about the Workshop, focused on the life of its most celebrated and outlandish member, the late Delia Derbyshire: Standing Wave, staged at Glasgow's Tron Theatre, and the BBC radio play Blue Veils and Golden Sands. In 2005, the Workshop's most famous client, Doctor Who, was relaunched, which inevitably encouraged unfavorable comparisons between the Radiophonic team's electronic incidental music and signature tune and the orchestrated flatus of Murray Gold's updated version. 2007 saw the release of Oramics, an anthology of work by Radiophonic founder Daphne Oram and the reissue of 1969's An Electric Storm by Derbyshire's "psychedelic pop" project White Noise. And still the wave of interest has yet to crest: 2008 kicked off with January's Radiophonia Event in Newcastle and this summer there's been an Oram symposium-cum-concert at the South Bank Centre, news stories about the discovery of a massive cache of unreleased Derbyshire material, and reissues of two CDs of archival treasure by her Radiophonic colleague John Baker. In November Mute caps it all off with a 50th Anniverary Retrospective double CD including a host of of hitherto unreleased material.



Outside its cult following, the Workshop is still largely known for Doctor Who--not just the hair-raising theme tune but the array of sound effects that made the show so creepy, from spooky winds evoking the poisonous atmospheres of alien planets to the grotesque squelchy sounds of a glowing- green slime monster crawling up Sarah Jane Smith's leg. But Doctor Who represented just a fraction of the outfit's output, which included effects and ambiences for radio plays, TV series and educational programming, countless jingles and theme tunes, and a large number of large-scale productions initiated by the Radiophonic Workshop itself.

Especially through its contributions to schools programmes, the Radiophonic Workshop filtered into the collective unconscious of young Britons during the Sixties and Seventies. "We were part of your life," agrees Brian Hodgson, who created "special sound" for Doctor Who for its first eleven years--including "classics" such as the Tardis taking off and the voice of the Daleks--and later took over as manager of the Workshop after its original co-founder Desmond Briscoe retired. "It probably opened the ears of a whole generation of youngsters, exciting their imaginations and making them want to do the sort of things we were doing. " Indeed the Workshop's subliminal influence could well be one reason why the U.K. has played such a vanguard role in the rise of electronic music from Eighties synthpop to Nineties techno-rave.

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Located in a couple of rooms in the BBC's Maida Vale complex, The Workshop opened for business on April 1st 1958. For several years previously, Daphne Oram had been pushing for the BBC to start its own equivalent to French national radio's audio research unit GRM, where founder Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry pioneered the tape-editing techniques of musique concrete. Unlike their Paris counterpart, the Workshop began with a miniscule budget and meagre equipment. "It was mainly second hand, stuff that the BBC had thrown out, peculiar devices that were useless until the Workshop's original engineer Dickie Bird managed to get them working again," says Hodgson. Although the project was Oram's brainchild, she soon left, the victim of BBC bureaucratic regulations. Concerned that working with experimental sound could result in brain disturbances or madness, the powers that be decreed that people could only work there for three months. "It was pure superstition," says Hodgson. The rules were soon changed, but too late for Oram, who resigned from the BBC and built her own independent studio to pursue her pipe dream of an "Oramics" system that could enable the composer to "draw" sound.



Support for the creation of the Workshop had not come from the BBC's Music Department, which was suspicious verging on hostile, on the grounds that "we've got three hundred musicians on staff already, why do we need this newfangled nonsense?". The push came from the Drama Department. The Workshop "was much more part of the Fifties "theater revolution than the music revolution," says Hodgson, who'd had trained as an actor prior to joining the BBC. "Other people called my stuff 'music' but I didn't--I saw it as part of the 'theatre of sound'. " The very term "Workshop' came from the radical end of British theater, he says. "It was a trendy term in the late Fifties, but if the unit had been started a decade later, during the era of arts labs, it'd probably have been called the Radiophonic Laboratory."



All through the Fifties and into the Sixties, the BBC Drama Department encouraged new writers and formal experiments of all kinds. Part of this entailed mood-enhancing incidental sounds and special effects. Producers started to mess around with the newly available reel-to-reel tape machines that were gradually replacing the 78 rpm platters onto which studio managers had hitherto recorded sound effects. "If you accidentally left the fader open on a tape machine, you'd get this dreadful howl-round sound," recalls Dick Mills, chief engineer at the Workshop and the longest running effects creator for Doctor Who. "But if you could control it, you got peculiar echo effects that created a kind of disembodied voice, which could be used to portray a character in a radio drama thinking aloud, or undergoing mental distress." In an increasingly chaotic environment of studio managers borrowing tape machines and forgetting to return them, the decision was made to create a special unit dedicated to providing incidental music and sounds for anybody within the BBC who required them.



One of the unearthed gems on The John Baker Tapes CDs is when Baker appeared on an early Sixties edition of Woman's Hour to explain how he made the whimsically futuristic jingle for the BBC radio show's "Reading Your Letters" segment. In an earnest, quavery-with-nerves voice, Baker describes how he recorded the source sounds: a single glug from water poured out of a cider bottle supplied the timbre for the main melody, the dry pop of a cork being pulled out another bottle served as percussion. Altering the speed of the tape varied the pitch and created a couple of octaves' worth of notes; each individual note, equivalent to roughly one quarter of an inch of tape, was then sliced and spliced into a sequence. Hours and hours of migraine-inducingly intricate work resulted in a eight-second jingle arresting enough to get readers writing intrigued letters about the tune . Unlike Hodgson, who describes his musical background as "zilch", Baker was an accomplished jazz pianist; he got so skilled at tape-editing he could create the feel of swing and syncopation. "He cut the tape slightly off the beat, so his music had a very good fluid feel," says Mills.




On the Continent, state-run radio stations like Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, and Radio Italia funded their own sound laboratories dedicated to exploring the new tape-editing techniques and grappling with primitive devices for generating pure electronic sound like ring oscillators. But whereas Bernard Parmegiani in Paris or Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne were allowed to engage in pure research and embark on ambitious artistic creations (grandiose musique concrete symphonies about the cosmos or Time), the Radiophonic Workshop's activities were always tethered to the practical. They had to earn their keep with Space-Age-but-sprightly jingles and wacky noises.

"We weren't composers flying our own kites," says Mills. "We were never brought into action until somebody within one of the BBC departments wanted our services. There was no time when Desmond would say 'here's three months, lock yourself in a room, see what you can come up'. Any experimenting we did was always within the context of someone's program." Although the term 'Workshop' actually drifted across from the theatre world, it does convey nonetheless something of the craft-not-art vibe of Radiophonic output, an aura redolent of the amateur inventor cobbling together Heath Robinson-like contraptions in the garden shed. According to Mills, the Workshop's kindly, indulgent manager Desmond Briscoe often recited his pet maxim: "because we're not experts, we don't know what we shouldn't be able to do".



Alongside its bodged-together quality, early Radiophonic output is often suffused with that peculiarly gentle brand of English surrealist humour. There was a comedy connection: the Goons Show was one of the Workshop's early clients, with Mills creating such famous effects as "Major Bloodnok's Stomach", an absurdist eruption of gastric turbulence that signaled the entrance of "an Indian officer gentleman with a passion for hot curries and loose women". According to Workshop composer Paddy Kingland, "Spike Milligan virtually wanted to take the place over. Desmond Briscoe used to talk about having to fight him off!."

Another huge difference between the Radiophonic milieu and their peers in Europe was the prominent role of women, from co-founder Oram, through early composers like Derbyshire and Maddalena Fagandini, to later figures like Glynis Jones and Elizabeth Parker. Derbyshire had originally sought employment at Decca Records only to be rebuffed with "we don’t women in engineering or technical roles, thank you." By contrast, the BBC had a remarkably progressive policy in terms of equal employment opportunities that went back at least as far as the Second World War, says Hodgson, when "the BBC was virtually run by women, because the men were off fighting."



Derbyshire is easily the most famous alumni of the Workshop. Her striking looks ("tall, with beautiful auburn hair", recalls her close friend Hodgson) and erratic life arc (heavy drinking, bouts of depression, eccentricity) certainly contribute to the mystique. Mostly, though, it's about the remarkable music. A gifted mathematician, she plotted out her pieces in advance with a scientist's precision. "Blue Veils and Golden Sands", music for a documentary about the Tuaregs of the Sahara and her most celebrated piece after the Doctor Who theme (actually written by Ron Grainer but drastically transformed by Derbyshire's electronic realization) involved analyzing a real-world sound-source into "all of its partials and frequencies", then reconstructing it using the Workshop's battery of oscillators. But the original sound was almost comically prosaic: a standard-issue," tatty green BBC lampshade", she recalled in one interview, which gave off a sublimely ethereal bell-like sound when struck. The piece also involved Derbyshire's treated and chopped up voice and "slowed-down camel groans that were looped and filtered," says Workshop archivist Mark Ayres, who has listened to the original tape-reel which includes not just the finished piece but all its constituent elements.



Ayres has been slowly cataloguing and digitizing the 4000 reels (which contain approximately 3000 hours and eight thousand separate projects) in the Workshop's chaotically disorganised library, which once occupied three rooms but was shunted into a single room in Maida Vale during the unit's twilight years. Unreleased nuggets are included on the Mute 50th Anniversary set he compiled. Only a diehard fan would take on the Herculean labor of love of curating the Workshop's legacy, which involves painstakingly restoring tapes that have dried up or gone sticky because of their myriad edits. Ayres is that fanboy: he was a regular visitor to the Workshop as a music student, applied for a job but didn't get it, then later got to contribute to Doctor Who as a freelance composer.



Thanks to Doctor Who's popularity from the early Sixties onwards, the Radiophonic crew started to get a reputation and a certain mystique. Intrigued pop musicians started to pay visits to the Maida Vale studio: Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. "Delia really liked Brian enormously, he was a very sweet guy," recalls Hodgson. Paul McCartney approached Derbyshire with a view to her providing electronic backing for "Yesterday". It never happened, but later she did the music for one of Yoko Ono's experimental movies, Wrapping Piece. By this time the prim-voiced and "impeccably dressed" Derbyshire of the early Radiophonic days had thrown herself fully into the Swinging Sixties, adopting what Hodgson fondly calls her "gypsy grandmother mode" of clothing and going through a period of "funny colored tobacco, and snuff, and cider", says Dick Mills. She and Hodgson formed an electronic research-and-performance entity called Unit Delta Plus, in collaboration with the wealthy, blue-blooded Peter Zinovieff, who set up a studio that was far better equipped than the Workshop. After working all day at the Beeb they'd head down to Putney to work all evening there.



Unit Delta Plus organized a pioneering multimedia festival at a watermill in Newbury, featuring electronic music, psychedelic lightshows, and electromagnetic sculptures by Paul Takis. They also participated in a chaotic psychedelic happening at the Roundhouse, the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, where McCartney's legendary but never-released electronic opus "Carnival of Light" was debuted. During this exciting period Hodgson and Derbyshire met a young American music student and technology fiend called David Vorhaus and formed the pop group White Noise, whose An Electric Storm, released on Island in 1969, became a cult classic of synth-daubed and musique concrete-laced psychedelia.

The neophiliac mania that had buoyed the Sixties was crashing hard by 1970, and the creative core of the Radiophonic Workshop weren't immune to the bummer vibe. Derbyshire's chronic perfectionism--what Hodgson calls "reverse adrenalin, she'd slow down as the deadline approached"--reduced her productivity to zero. She'd also begun to hit the bottle, as had John Baker, who eventually "had to leave the BBC under a bit of a cloud", says Mills. Hodgson says one reason he quit the Workshop in the early Seventies was to avoid becoming an alcoholic: "Delia was drinking quite a lot and I was joining her. I had to cut it out, get my head together."







By the end of the Sixties, the Workshop was also entering its second phase: the new synthesizers, including models developed by Peter Zinovieff, had superceded tape-editing. The balance within the Workshop had also shifted from "soundsmiths" (people like Hodgson and Mills) to "tunesmiths", such new or recent recruits as Paddy Kingsland and David Cain who had played in rock, folk or jazz bands. The Workshop' services were more in demand than ever. "Local radio stations were starting up all over the country and they all needed jingles." Mills recalls David Cain doing one for Radio Sheffield using the sounds of stainless steel cutlery, "because every regional station liked to reflect the local industry". Television's hours and channels were also expanding: Kingsland did the music and weird noises for the chilling children's TV series The Changes, set in a Luddite near-future when people turn against technology, and later scored both the radio and TV versions of The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.






A third phase came in the Eighties when the Radiophonic Workshop embraced the new digital technology of sequencers, samplers and MIDI (the machine that enables musicians to synch up all kinds of electronic devices). When Hodgson returned to the Workshop to take over from Briscoe, his first priority was to modernize and re-equip. By the mid-Eighties, the Workshop had "become, as Yamaha put it, the most sophisticated MIDI environment in Europe. We had a lot of contact with the manufacturers and we were very much at this hard edge of MIDI and computerization. It became a powerhouse of research as well as production." In addition to the huge demand from television, the Workshop was initiating large-scale productions of its own, like Peter Howell's Inferno Revisited, a reinterpretation of Dante.



Yet while the Eighties was in many ways a triumphant period for the Workshop, the music that Radiophonic cultists cherish tends to be from the early, makeshift days, when people like Derbyshire and Baker achieved magical results with the most rudimentary means: tape, razor blades, found sounds. By the mid-Eighties synthesized tonalities permeated pop culture, while electronic music gear, as Mills puts it, "could be found in any Dixons". The function and future of the Radiophonic Workshop had become cloudy. "In a way, our success created the seeds of our destruction," says Hodgson. "We'd got people used to electronic music and we'd pushed the technology that made the whole do-it-yourself thing possible. Nowadays a kid in his bedroom has more technological resources than we ever had for the entire first 25 years of the Workshop. It's the democratization of music. A great deal of what has resulted from that is crap---but does that matter? A great deal of everything is crap."

The fourth and final phase of the Radiophonic Workshop came in the Nineties, when John Birt introduced reforms of the BBC designed to create a kind of internal market. "Producer choice" was the slogan of the day. "Up until then, the Workshop was free to anybody in the BBC who wanted to use it," explains Hodgson. "There was an internal costing system, but our contributions were put down as a below-the-line cost. That meant if somebody in the regions was doing a little program for kids on an almost non-existent budget, she could ring us up and we would give her the same attention and care that we would have given Horizon or a similar prestige program. She'd get a really fabulous music job which would give a wonderful gloss to a seemingly unimportant programme. That didn't happen anymore because the small programmes didn't have the money to pay us, while 'producer choice' meant the big programmes, the Horizons, could hire anybody they liked from outside. " There was also a swarm of freelance composers with home-studios and no overheads offering their sound-wares for cheap or free, in order get credits to put on their CVs. As a result of all these changes, the Workshop "sort of collapsed--we had people sitting around doing nothing, when they could have been working on Schools and Further Education programmes. "

In its diminuendo phase, the once bustling Maida Vale studio became a depressing place. The original Doctor Who had reached its end and Dick Mills, proud owner of the longest surviving credit on that show, had been given a dreary new job at the Workshop: digitally removing sonic blemishes from archival recordings. "My life had gone in a complete circle. In the late Fifties I'd joined the Workshop to produce noises and here I was 35 years later being employed to eliminate them!"

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When it comes to assessing the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop, two words are key: "service" and "public". Service applies first in the sense that the bulk of the unit's output was designed for a functional, ancillary, essentially subservient role in other people's creations. For the soundsmiths Hodgson and Mills, this means that it doesn't work outside its original commissioned context: they simply don't understand how the Radiophonic cultists of today can sit happily listening to albums full of atmospheric interludes and 15 second effects. But this very functionalism, with all its constraints and limitations, also meant that the Workshop's music reached a much bigger audience than the "pure", unshackled electronic experimentalists of Europe, who operated within the high culture realm of concert halls and art spaces, and even then appealed only to a minority within that minority.

"Public" relates to ideas of "the public interest" and specifically the Reithian conception of what a publically owned national broadcaster should be about: expanding the cultural horizons of the general public. Among the many contemporary outfits influenced by the Radiophonic Workshop, the London-based Ghost Box label is particularly interesting in this regard. Julian House, who co-founded the label and records under the name The Focus Group, is equally inspired by the eldritch atmospheres of Doctor Who episodes like The Sea Devils and by the brightly optimistic technocratic utopianism of tunes like "Towards Tomorrow". He sees the Workshop as aligned with the postwar spirit of planning and building for a better future that encompassed the modernist vanguard of architecture and urban planning, polytechnics and the Open University, and Penguin and Pelican paperbacks with their stark design and ethos of edifying the common man. "The Radiophonic Workshop belongs to a period of British cultural activity which I caught growing up, when strange things existed on their own terms, outside the dictates of marketing, " House argues. "It's now unthinkable that a public body could produce for the masses such avant garde, forward thinking, sometimes difficult music. And that it was well received." For Ghost Box and other Workshop fans, the Radiophonic project has a particular resonance as we approach the thirtieth year of post-socialist politics in Britain: the romance, pathos and honour of a lost future.

Speaking down the phone from his home in Norfolk, where he nowadays runs a restaurant, Brian Hodgson thinks the most important public service the Workshop provided was "its schools work " for radio and television. He cites a program that taught geography by using the idea of whizzing across the globe on a magic carpet. "If you're a kid and you're hearing the sound of a magic carpet taking off, your imagination is being stimulated. It's all part of the development of the brain--growing up and expanding your mind and making new connections." He pauses to apologise for the disconcerting "special sound" that's thrumming in the background: his dog's snoring. "Yes, that's probably the biggest thing the Workshop ever did--the childrens' work."

FURTHER READING

My review of White Noise's An Electric Storm

my review of the Mute reissues and compilation A Retrospective

LINKS

Delia Derbyshire website with music clips

Peter Howell's Inferno Revisited online

The John Baker Tapes at Trunk Records

A Pebble Mill spot on Radiophonic Workshop from 1979







Thursday, October 2, 2008

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Heehaw
Prayers On Fire
Junkyard
Mutiny/The Bad Seed

(4AD CD reissues)
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds





typo alert: "uninspiring self-portraits of the artist" should be "unsparing self-portraits of the artist"






NICK CAVE, interview
National Student Magazine, 1987

by Simon Reynolds



Talking to Nick Cave is a bit of a trial. He’s not really a proper person. Like many artists, what makes him a genius also makes him difficult to get on with, to get to. He’s afflicted and empowered by a certain, crucial deficiency of humanity. Or perhaps more accurately, he's drastically, wilfully, estranged from the confining notion of the "human'" that's been installed by the post-Live Aid popular culture – extroversion, civic engagement, the benign totalitarianism of caring/sharing/opening up, the cult of health and efficiency.

Morbidly inward, unforgiving, creating art that is perhaps best seen as a kind of metaphorical automutilation, Cave goes against the grain of the times by being sick but refusing to be healed. His obsessions are wounds he deliberately keeps open, returns to again and again. The reason is simple: as he remarked elsewhere – "my periods of pessimism are far more individual than my feelings of joy, which are fairly commonplace, if few and far between."

Like The Band of Holy Joy, Mark E. Smith and other poets of the abject imagination, he sees the mark of the "real", what makes a person unique, as vested in flaws and scars – any kind of disproportion (obsessions, grudges, neuroses, bigotries, deformity), anything that warps or blinkers a clear vision, and endows the person with a visionary perspective. Beauty or virtue – always tending towards the ideal, the anonymity of the absolute – aren't interesting at all, suggest the bland perfection of innocence rather than the damage of experience. Really, Cave and his ilk are 'agitating' for a broader definition of the human, one that incorporates lapses into the inhuman, incompleteness, a certain delapidation and impoverishment of the soul. They're harking back to an older, more religious notion, one where it's not a question of wholeness of being, but of holes.

Nick Cave surfaced at a time when post-punk's handle on the workings of desire was diagrammatic and programmatic. Punk had bequeathed the idea that demystification was the route to enlightenment. "Personal politics" was the buzzword: the acknowledgement of the "dark side" was always grounded in progressive humanism, the belief that what was twisted could be straightened out, that the shadows could be banished. The ideal was that through deconditioning, unblocking, a ventilation of the soul, some kind of frank and freeflowing exchange was possible. Against this contractarian view of love (negotiation, commutativity, support), Cave, in the Birthday Party, was almost alone in reinvoking love as malady, monologue, abject dependence, a compulsion to devour and be devoured.

For Cave, love was nothing if not the doomed fantasy of possession, and its supreme expression could only be violence. In a post-punk climate of positivism, he dwelt on the tragic and insoluble, was the first to revive the use of Biblical imagery (sin, retribution, curses, blight, bad seed) and to express an interest in country and western's imagery of destitution and betrayal (both of which were subsequently imitated by groups as diverse as the Triffids, Lloyd Cole and the Weather Prophets).

Consciousness-raising post-punk became self-conscious New Pop; "personal politics" developed into ABC and Scritti's seductive deconstructions of the lexicon of love. For some, The Birthday Party were solitary heroes of literate oblivion. As New Pop regressed into a dismal impasse based around a combination of wistful vintage retrospection and a therapeutic revision of soul, Cave looked back even further, over the course of four solo records, to c&w and blues, in search of a more troubled, troubling kind of "authenticity".

The fireball became an ember. Kicking Against The Pricks, an album of cover versions, marked the key shift from poet-visionary of Sex and Death to balladeer, from torched singer to a croon the colour of cinders, from Dionysiac excess to a ruined classicism. On the LP that followed sharply on the heels of Kicking, Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds were to be found staging their own delapidated equivalents to the epic melodrama of 'Wichita Lineman' and 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart' – the gently obliterating slowly gathering morose grandeur of 'Sad Waters', 'Your Funeral... My Trial', ‘Stranger Than Kindness' ...

Despite having been consistently and almost exclusively serenaded by sycophantic epiphanies the length and breadth of his career, Cave loathes journalists. The slightest slight is nurtured as a festering grievance. Today, I make a grievous strategic error. When Cave enquires if I have a copy of Melody Maker on me, I say: "Yes." Cave spends about 20 minutes reading my colleague Chris Roberts' cover feature on him, his countenance growing steadily darker, more furrowed and nauseous. Quite why I'm still not sure. But we embark upon the interview with his loathing and distrust given an unusually fresh and pronounced edge.

He's not in the best of states anyway, having just emerged from four 18-hour days in the studio working on the new album. Deep gashes of black under the eyes, skin the colour of ashes, stooped by fatigue. Eloquent body language (what the French describe as coincé). Cave's exasperation is exasperating, his weariness wearisome. There's a sardonic tang behind his civil and fastidious replies, his small, grave, gnarled voice, while all the while his face bears a look as though each question was a plate of your excrement offered under his nose. Often, he starts his replies by repeating the question, like a poor O-Level candidate, as if there's a slight relish in parrotting your own crassness back at you. Then again, if you do think of an unprecedented question, he's likely to answer: "I don't know how to answer that question" – closer to a boast than an apology, because Cave doesn't like the idea of being seen as an intellectual, would rather deny the complexity of his work. There seems to be a grim pleasure in finding the most terse answer, the one that closes off any elaboration most decisively. Still, one bastard genius is worth a thousand affable craftsmen any day. So they say.

Cave is poised for another key shift right now, the transition to other media for expression, acting and writing, that are surrounded by such minefields for the restless rock performer anxious to inflame a settled career. Music can arbitrarily endow with force words that on the naked page might seem forced or gauche or mannered; equally there's no guarantee that the stars aura and presence can survive on film, in music absence.

Was writing always the prime motivation, and music only a vehicle, the most convenient one at the time?

"No, no... the idea to take up writing literature seriously is only a recent thing..."

There was a need to perform, to be an exhibitionist?

"The reason I got involved in music was that I was thrown out of art school... I happened to be in a band at the time (The Boys Next Door, a reputedly execrable power pop combo that mutated into The Birthday Party)... and the band happened to take off. And it hasn't stopped since. There was never any big decision to be a rock star."

Presumably, though, you feel that music imparts a dimension to the written word...

"The writing of lyrics is quite a different thing to writing a novel. I have very strong ideas about how they can be put across in a live situation... "

Do you ever suffer from writer's block?

"It's the general condition. One has to push oneself out of it. It's a state where your mind is always tricking itself... I constantly think that I'm unable to do anymore, that I've given all I've got... this isn't a new thing ... it's been like this for years ... but I always find at the end of the day I'm able to put something out."

Do you find the same imagery recurring over and over? Or is that a strength, your signature?

"The themes I deal with... are not easily summed up, and can be approached again and again."

How long is it before something you've written disgusts you? Is it immediate, as though the page was smeared with your own excreta? Does it get easier to live with the more distant you get from it?

"After the period of disgust, it doesn't have much effect on me, I find it pretty impossible to discuss or have much feeling about it." (This reminds me of his famous statement about the Birthday Party being a slug, nomadic, its slime being its art, "and we are barely conscious of its issue.")

Your first book, though (coming out around now) is a collection of all your writing –lyrics, prose, poetry – all over the seven years. How can you bear all that being aired again?

"That book, King Ink, is more a product of the publisher than myself... I suggested the publisher (Black Spring Press) do it as something to go on... because the novel, which he suggested, has taken almost three years to write, and it was supposed to have been finished two years ago. But it is not so much the writing of the lyrics as the way they are put across that I don’t like. It’s the records I find embarrassing now, not the lyrics."

Do you own the records?

"No, I don't actually. I'm not really in a situation where I'm able to hoard things. I'm too mobile."

The novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, is it febrile and disordered, or is there a narrative?

"There's a narrative. It's set in a small valley in a remote region somewhere in the world – a sugarcane-growing valley. It's the story about the people who live there, based on a series of ironies that bring about a fairly suspenseful conclusion."

Why are you fascinated by closed communities, limited lives?

"They breed a certain ignorance, can be a breeding ground for very extreme emotional releases. Very absurd emotional releases."

One of the things that interests me is your oft-professed indifference to your audience, your lack of interest in how they respond to what you do...

"Yeah."

As simple as that?

"It used to be like that... the relationship I have with my audience is probably quite different now... as the audience begin to have a more honest relationship with my work, I actually do respond to the way they respond to me..."

Are you ever intrigued by what it is they get out of it?

"I don't know if it’s necessarily interesting to me... I just try to put as much into it as I possibly can... and that's more for myself than for me... I would hope they would glean something from that..."

Do you worry that they might misrecognise what you're about, respond on a superficial level?

"I've given up worrying about that ... it used to worry me a lot ... I went through some kind of crisis about the way the audience was responding to my performances... "

Do you need to have an audience at all, or would you create even if no one saw it? Is it like a biological need?

"Yes, I think so."

You seem to see yourself as an Artist on High... rather than a participant in a (sub)culture. For instance, you clearly see the interview as an appallingly irksome chore done only for reasons of marketing – rather than an exercise in accountability towards audience who relate to you. Is it just a monologue?

"When I get any real feeling about my audience is in a live situation. Otherwise it's a fairly one-sided thing."

One level of interest that must annoy you is that Goth voyeuristic thing of being into the dark and the uncanny...

"Yes. But I don't think any mass of people are going to understand what I do properly anyway."

Are you in touch with the culture in general... does pop impinge at all?

"To a degree... I follow my instincts... my instincts tell me that there's not much to be involved in."

Was there a time?

"Some years ago the music scene was healthier, it was possible to find some inspiration in that."

Your music's become steadily more structured, stately even... do you have sympathy anymore for the self-immolation school of rock Bacchanalia? If there was a band doing now what the Birthday Party did then, would you think it was redundant, played-out?

"Not necessarily... I would need to know what the music was like..."

Your songs are more like torch songs now than torched songs.

"I respond to that sort of thing now, rather than the other. I listen to the kind of things on Kicking Against The Pricks. Country and western. Blues music. I'm also interested in 'entertainment' music, what some people see as corn. Tom Jones, Gene Pitney, and so forth."

What do you see in them?

"I just find them exciting, I find Tom Jones's voice exciting [with immense, sepia weariness]. I haven't really thought of the reasons why."

Do you prefer not to have a critical consciousness, this parallel layer of awareness?

"Yeah. Or rather... I just don't have it. I find it more healthy to be able to respond to things on a more immediate level."

Healthy is a strange word from someone with such morbid preoccupations.

"I'm not trying to put across the idea that they're a favourable way of being. They just interest me."

Do you ever feel angry about things that aren't concerned with yourself and your immediate environment?

"I don't feel quite so numb about social issues, these days."

Cave makes two forays into celluloid this year. The first is a cameo in Wim Wenders latest film. The Bad Seeds appear at the end, playing in a nightclub.

"Wenders approached me one day, and asked us if we wanted to be in his next movie... . an SF movie... set in 13 different countries. We were to represent Australia, musically. But it would have taken a long time, there were delays, and he embarked on another film in the meantime and gave us this small role."

Cave has a slightly more substantial involvement in the other film, tentatively titled Ghosts of the Civil Dead.

"I have a not very big part, and was initially involved in writing the first two drafts. But by the sixth draft, there weren't many of my ideas left. The character I play is a kind of known provocateur. The character is brought into the prison, one of the new hi-tech ones, in order to disrupt the equilibrium of maximum security life... he's a psychotic with some kind of death wish... spends his entire time screaming abuse... he's a racist."

You've been represented, and have represented yourself, as a misogynist.

"I think I've been stitched up in respect of that."

Women do seem to get it in the neck in your songs, though...

"Yes, but I think men are subjected to the abuse of life as much as the women are. I just find there's something essentially more exciting about seeing women being abused. Possibly because it is usually men you see in films subjected to violence. There's a violence for women and a violence for men, and when you see a woman subjected to a man-size violence it's usually quite shocking."

So women, being repositories for the sacred, are inviolate, and therefore it's a more powerful effect, artistically, when they're violated?

"Yeah, something like that."

After punk's demystifying, secularising influence, you were the first to start using imagery of the sacred and desecration, the Biblical language of revenge and guilt. Is that because you think that language is truer, more primal, what all of us, in our hearts, still believe in?

"I'm not really sure I'm interested in whether people believe in it, or whether it's true to today's standards."

Is it true to how you felt? Have you ever wanted to exact revenge?

"I think the worlds I create are kind of mythological... I don't know if they have much relevance to today."

And is that today's loss? Is contemporaneity impoverished for losing touch with what you're about?

"I think there's a certain numbness in the world today... that accepts certain kinds of violence, but is against other kinds of violence."

So you have a kind of ethics of violence?

"Yes, I do."

Once again I think of River's Edge, the dialogue between Feck the reclusive fugitive from justice, the girl-killer who despises but above all pities the teenage killer because he had no reason to kill his girlfriend. Where Feck killed because of an excessive love (like a Nick Cave character), out of a deluded dream of possession, the teenager killed only to get a stronger grip on his diminished sense of his own being, depleted by media hyper-reality. A dialogue between two different ethics of murder.

Do you worry about your own mortality?

"I have periods where the thought of it is quite frightening. The only consolation is seeing that old people come to terms with it in some way. But I'm no way ready for my death myself."

(A heavily loaded question:) Do you think you're doing the best you can to avoid dying?

There's the slightest of gasps, a tiny glimmer of semi-amusement, and for a moment we're almost communicating.

"Yes... I think I'm doing the best I can."



Pretentious, moi alert: Coincé? Coincé ?!?!1


THE BIRTHDAY PARTY / NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
Heehaw (1980; 4AD 1989)
Prayers On Fire (4AD 1981)
Drunk On The Pope's Blood EP (4AD 1982)
Junkyard (4AD 1982)
The Bad Seed EP (4AD 1983)
Mutiny! EP (4AD 1983)
It's Still Living (Missing Link 1985)
A Collection... (Missing Link 1985)
The Birthday Party: The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit 1987)
The Birthday Party II: The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit 1988)
Mutiny/The Bad Seed EP (rec. 1983; 4AD/Mute 1989)
Peel Session Album (Strange Fruit/Dutch East India, 1991)
Hits (4AD/Warner Bros 1992)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
From Her To Eternity (Mute 1984)
The Firstborn Is Dead (Mute/Homestead 1985)
Kicking Against The Pricks (Homestead 1986)
Your Funeral... My Trial (Mute/Homestead 1986)
Tender Prey (Mute/Enigma 1988)
The Good Son (Mute/Elektra 1990)
Henry's Dream (Mute/Elektra 1992)
Live Seeds (Mute/Elektra 1993)
Let Love In (Mute/Elektra 1994)

director's cut, Spin Alternative Guide to Rock, 1995

by Simon Reynolds


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

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

Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence--figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion. On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's
itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of
"King Ink". Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on It's Still Living and Drunk On The Pope's Blood). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a
rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-
spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes.

Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's. Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of
'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'. The patchier Mutiny peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.

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

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

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