Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FIRST PAST THE 'POST': in praise of "in-between" periods in pop history
director's cut, written early 2008; published Slate, May 29, 2009

by Simon Reynolds


Pop music history is biased towards "the right place and the right time". Just like its respectable elder relative with its decisive battles and seismic elections, pop history fixates on origins and breakthroughs, magical years of transformation and turmoil, and cusp points when undergrounds go overground. It gives far less attention to those stretches of time in between the upheavals-- years of drift and diaspora, periods without an easily discernible "vibe", Zeits devoid of Geist. Geographically, too, pop historians favor major metropolises over activity out in the provinces and suburbs. Time and again they locate the motor of pop change in small cliques operating out of the capital cities (albeit cultural capitals in the case of, say, New York or Berlin) along with cities like Manchester or or Seattle or San Francisco that briefly assert themselves as the place to be.

I've been an obsessive music fan for thirty years, a "professional fan" a.k.a. critic for twenty-two of them, yet I've only ever managed to be in "the right place at the right time" once, maybe twice. Pretty poor going for someone living first in London and then in New York. But partly because of this recurrent feeling of belatedness and partly because I spent my teenage years in a suburban commuter town far from the action, I've long had the rock historical equivalent of sympathy for the underdog. But in my case it's less to do with geography (supporting regionalism) and more to do with a special interest in those expanses of pop time that gets skipped over quickly by pop chroniclers.

Makers of rockumentary series for TV are the worst offenders. It rankles a bit the way that the late Eighties (when I started to write for the UK music press) is now treated as a mere prequel to grunge. The recently aired Seven Ages of Rock series was a marked improvement on earlier TV histories of rock, which tended to jump straight from Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But its episode on US alternative rock nonetheless still presented groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jnr, and Sonic Youth as just preparing the ground for grunge. Respected precursors and vital influences, maybe, but ultimately--as if time's flow was somehow reversed--advance echoes of the truly epochal Nirvana. That's not how it felt at the time: Sonic Youth and the rest seemed to us full-formed significances in their own right, creative forces of monstrous power, even time-defining in their own way (albeit through their refusal of the mainstream). My Melody Maker comrade David Stubbs wrote an end-of-year oration proclaiming 1988--annum of Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything… to be the greatest year for rock music… ever! We actually believed this and our fervor was infectious, striking an inspirational, Obama-like chord with young readers heartily sick of the idea that rock's capacity for renewal had been exhausted in the Sixties or the punk mid-Seventies. Yet that period will never truly be written into conventional history (despite efforts like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life) because it's not got a name. It's too diverse and it's not easily characterized--for instance, the groups were "underground", except that by 1988 most of them--Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers-- had already signed, or soon were to sign, to majors. Finally, it'll never get fairly written into history because, dammit, grunge did happen, retrospectively recasting this period forevermore as build-up to the main event.

Being turned into a prequel isn't the only indignity that can befall one of those inbetweeny phases of rock history. The other humiliating fate is to be deemed an aftermath. Reclaiming one such period of "fall-out" was the polemical drive behind my postpunk history Rip It Up and Start Again, an attempt to challenge the perennial fixation on punk as the Big Bang and the corresponding tendency to see what came next as a scattered diminuendo, an entropic dissipation of focus and energy. Instead I wanted to recover my own lived sense of the period as not a dwindle into disparateness but as the true fruition of punk's ideas and ideals. The after-zones of rock history are hard to grasp precisely because they're so various. This rich muddle demands identifying labels that are umbrella-broad and open-ended. Hence postpunk: not a genre so much as a space of possibility, out of which new genres formed like Goth, industrial, synthpop, mutant disco, and many more.

I can think of at least a couple more "post+hyphen" terms that could usefully redraw the map of pop music history:

Post-disco. Disco is often said to have died in 1979. That's when the "disco sucks" backlash peaked with the infamous July 12th 1979 'Disco Demolition' night rally at Comiskey Park in Chicago, when thousands of disco records were blown up on the field midway between a double-header; it's the year that radio dropped the disco format en masse as opportunistically as it had jumped on the bandwagon in the first place, the year that record sales for the genre began to slide precipitously. Casablanca, disco's leading label, started to get into financial difficulties, while Studio 54, its most famous club, closed in February 1980. But people didn't stop dancing and disco music didn't vanish from the Earth. Instead, the genre mutated while the movement itself fragmented into a panoply of subscenes that appealed to specific tribes of the once united disco nation, styles like Hi-NRG (a tautly sequenced, butt-bumping sound big in the hardcore gay clubs), Freestyle (beloved by Hispanic youth in New York and Miami), Italodisco (the bastard bambini of Giorgio Moroder) and so forth. With these and other post-disco offshoots, the classic sonic signifiers of heyday mid-Seventies disco--the shuffling hi-hat driven beat, walking basslines, tempestuous string-swept orchestrations--faded away as the music became increasingly electronic, based around drum machines, sequenced basslines and synth-licks. But the torrid diva vocals endured as did disco's raison d'etre (igniting the dancefloor, providing release at the weekend) along with much of the infrastructure of a clubbing industry that disco had built during the Seventies.

Bridging the so-called death of disco and the birth of house, all this early-to-mid-Eighties music lacks a name beyond drably functional and neutral terms like 'dance' or 'club music'. Post-disco is better because this was music created by and for people--in New York, Miami, Montreal, and, if truth be known, most of the UK and Europe--who refused to accept the official decree of disco's demise. But they didn't just stick with the classic disco sound frozen forever as golden oldies; their restless demand for "fresh" forced the music to keep moving forward. It's not even that disco went completely underground. In some places, it did--Chicago, where the gay black scene would eventually hatch house music. But elsewhere post-disco sounds regular ventured into the mainstream. Take the style sometimes known at the time as electrofunk, a post-disco sound of juicy-fruit synths and nubile programmed grooves associated with New York labels like West End and Prelude, artists like Peech Boys and Sharon Redd, and producers like Arthur Baker and Francois Kevorkian. D-Train's "You're The One for Me" and the Arthur Baker-produced Rocker's Revenge tune "Walking On Sunshine" topped Billboard's Hot Dance Music chart in 1981 and 1982 respectively, while in the UK "Sunshine" was a Number 4 hit on the pop charts. Shannon's brash, crashing "Let The Music Play"--sometimes identified as the birth of Freestyle--was a top Ten US pop hit in 1983. So we're not exactly talking about some arcane crevice of pop history here, the esoteric lore of record-collectors. Moreover, the careers of Madonna, New Order and the Pet Shop Boys were largely launched off the back of ideas spawned in the post-disco era. New Order cheered themselves up after Ian Curtis's death by listening to tapes of Italodisco, further banishing the gloom on trips to New York where they checked out the clubs and holed up in their hotel rooms listening to Shep Pettibone's then-groundbreaking extended mix shows on Kiss FM. After their first real club smash, the Hi-NRGized "Blue Monday", New Order recorded "Confusion" with Arthur Baker, got DJ (and Madonna boyfriend) Jellybean Benitez to test the prototype version at the Funhouse, and, for the video, documented the Freestyle-loving Latin kids who clustered around that club.

Post-psychedelic. The reigning view of psychedelia, at least in America, is as a slightly embarrassing fad that was served notice early in 1968 when Bob Dylan released the recorded-in-two-days simplicity of John Wesley Harding. Dylan acolytes swiftly followed suit, from The Band with their equally steeped in rootsy Americana Music From Big Pink to The Byrds with their country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The sharp critical view to take on Sgt. Pepper's has long been that it's a pretentious mess compared to its predecessor Revolver; sharper still is the claim that Rubber Soul is better than the already-getting-quite-psychedelic Revolver. The stance is strengthened by the Beatles's own rapid retreat circa 1968 from studio-as-instrument frippery with the Chuck Berry-styled “Back In the USSR,” twelve-bar bluesy “Revolution” and gritty "Get Back". Likewise The Stones followed Their Satanic Majesties Request, their debacle attempt to match Sgt. Pepper’s, with the stripped-bare virility of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man”, while The Doors recovered their mojo with the hard bluesy Morrison Hotel. In the final year of the decade that had once hurtled full-tilt into the future and out into the cosmos, Creedence Clearwater Revival's faux-Southern rock'n'roll dominated American airwaves, while the UK was over-run with blues bores.

But just as disco never died in a lot of hearts, there were plenty of people active at the end of the Sixties and into the early Seventies who kept faith with the visions of 1967. They kept on making music that while not always blatantly trippy nonetheless took its bearings from landmark psychedelic records like Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, The Incredible String Band's the Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Traffic's Dear Mr. Fantasy, Donovan's A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, Soft Machine's self-titled debut. I'm not just talking about the obviously out-there kosmische rock and space rock of the era (Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust, Hawkwind, Gong) but some of the maverick singer-songwriters of the early Seventies: John Martyn with his rippling after-trails of echoplex guitar, Robert Wyatt's astral scat song and tape-as-canvas daubing, Tim Buckley's zero-gravity vocal acrobatics on Starsailor. Ex-Soft Machine singer Kevin Ayers's solo career flitted between Donovan-like ditties full of quaint English charm to transcendental tapestries of guitar-flicker such as his Nico-paean "Decadence". Even certain artists we normally file under 'glam' were indelibly marked by psychedelia: Roxy Music's personnel included Brian Eno, a Syd Barrett admirer and believer in using the recording studio to create sonic phantasms, and the obviously Hendrix-damaged Phil Manzanera.

Like the after-disco and after-punk phases, this is a rich, diffuse era that suffers for the lack of a name. It's not exactly 'progressive' although at various points it overlaps the terrain we generally think of as 'prog rock', while at its other boundaries it intersects with 'folk' and 'singer-songwriter'. What unifies it more than style or sound is a shared infrastructure (the artists were mostly clustered around certain key labels--Harvest, Island, Charisma, Virgin, UA, Elektra) along with a common set of preoccupations, values and approaches: the classic 1967-style fascination for the bucolic and the child-like, a spirit of gentle and sometimes genteel experimentalism, a whimsical sense of humour tinged with melancholy. At the time people often talked of "the underground"--a nebulous concept at best, based around sensibility more than anything, but again speaking to these artists having a common departure point circa 1966-67. This underground blurred into the overground: most of the groups were on 'head'-oriented boutique imprints of major labels (Harvest for instance being a sub-label of EMI) or on large independents labels like Island that, while aesthetically autonomous and highly adventurous, relied on major label distribution. Moreover some key figures from this quasi-underground--Kevin Ayers' s former sideman Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd--would eventually release some of the biggest selling albums of the era, while never totally losing their links to their old comrades.

Post-punk, post-disco, post-psychedelic: ungainly as they are, these terms seem necessary to me, providing a handle on elusive but fertile regions of music history. Fuzzy at both temporal ends (they slow-fade into indistinction while never totally going away), they're hard to perceive as distinct eras in their own right. Their richness challenges History's fixation on the Event, the Turning Point, the Revolutionary Moment. And their diversity challenges the historian: how to locate and convey the "feel" of an era, the communality of consciousness shared by all those belated souls who lived and created under the sign of the "post-".

Afternote:

There are some other post+hyphen genres out there but to my mind they describe something quite different to the above. Take 'post-rock', a term that mysteriously emerged in the early 90s to describe experimental guitar-bands that increasingly abandoned guitars altogether (oh okay, it was me that came up with that one). But post-rock doesn't have the same temporal aspect that post-disco or post-punk have, it's not about the ripples set in motion by a galvanising Event. Rather it evokes a sense of 'going beyond' the strictures of a genre of music without completely abandoning its legacy of attitudes and assumptions. For similar reasons, the term 'post-metal' seems increasingly useful to describe the vast and variegated swathe of genres (the thousand flavors of doom/ black/death/grind/drone/sludge/ etc, ad infinitum) that emerged from the early 90s onwards. Sometimes beat-free and ambient, increasingly the work of home-studio loners rather than performing bands, post-metal of the kind released by labels like Hydra Head often seems to have barely any connection to metal as commonly understood by, say, VH1-Classic doc-makers. The continuity is less sonic but attitudinal: a penchant for morbidity and darkness taken to a sometimes hokey degree, the somber clothing and the long hair, the harrowed, indecipherably growled vocals , the bombastically verbose lyrics/song titles/ band names. It's that rather than a way of riffing or a palette of guitar sounds that ties post-metal back to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.

Monday, November 16, 2009



MANTRONIX, Music Madness (10 Records)
Melody Maker, December 6th 1986.

by Simon Reynolds


Mantronix don’t quite fit. Hip hop is getting to be more and more of an assault, more and more hyper-compressed and minimal in its search for harder and higher hits. But Mantronix are loosening up their music, bringing in a suppleness
and textural luxury. Hip hop daily exceeds new levels of megalomaniac viciousness. But Mantronix are gradually squeezing the SELF out of their music, letting the music stand on its own madness.

Compare what Mantronix are doing with a track that represents some kind of zenith in current hip hop trends--“The Manipulator” by Mixmaster Gee and The Turntable Orchestra (off Electro 14). Here skill on the turntables becomes a
twisted, bloated metaphor for omnipotence. The voice shoves itself RIGHT IN YOUR FACE--you can practically feel the spittle, smell the breath. It’s a voice intoxicated with power, quaking with rage. MC Tee from Mantronix, in comparison, has a refreshingly adolescent voice, almost sweet--words are slurred, there’s the
tiniest suggestion of a lisp. “Manipulator” style hip hop is given its impetus by being focused on the tyrannical charisma of the rapper, but with Mantronix the
raps seem almost superfluous. There are several instrumentals. With most
hip hop the very sound of the music is a MASSIVE COCK waving about in your face. Mantronix erase every trace of the pelvis, every last ditch of humanism in hip hop. Their music isn’t weighted down by the heaviness of masculinity, but glides, skips, even frisks at times, rather than thuggishly stomping us weaklings underfoot. Mantronix sound disembodied, dislocated, out-of-it.

They are far out, a long way from firm ground. Mantronik marshals a host of uprooted fragments and abducted ghosts into a dance. He thieves indiscriminately, without prejudice, enlisting anything from Benny Goodman to The Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune. On “We Control the Dice” they even indulge in self-kleptomania (or perhaps simple thrift is at work), re-using the bass motif from “Bassline”. Their greatest influence, though, is European electropop--the scrubbed, spruce, pristine textures and metronomic precision of Kraftwerk and Martin Rushent’s Human League. While the brainy British bands of the day dedicate themselves to noisy guitars, it’s up to Mantronix (and House music) to uphold the spirit of 1981, to cherish the bass sound and the electronic percussion of “Sound of the Crowd” as a lost future of pop.

They have moments close to wildness-“Big Band B-Boy” commandeers a jungle of percussion--but I prefer it when Mantronix sound stealthy. “Scream,” with its curiously muted delivery of a party-up lyric (the word “scream” is almost whispered) is as eerie as Suicide lullabies like “I Remember” or “Cheree”. The title track has a roaming, furtive sense of space, the phrase “music madness” sampled, stretched and
melted into a series of beautiful belches. Best of all is the closing “Megamix”, in which everything you’ve been listening to for the last half-hour is regurgitated inside out and upside down, flashing before your ears like a drowned, garbled life. Sublime pandemonium.

Music Madness is the kind of music you’d hoped The Art of Noise would go on to make after “Close (to the Edit)”. Fleshless, soulless, faceless and fantastic.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

DFA and LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: label and band profile
Groove, 2005

by Simon Reynolds



For the last three years, DFA has been on a mission to make New York City live up to its own legend--"to be what it should be," as the label's co-founder James Murphy puts it. DFA's spiritual ancestors are early Eighties Manhattan labels like ZE, 99 and Sleeping Bag, pioneers of sounds like "punk-funk" and "mutant disco" that mixed dance culture's groove power with absurdist wit, dark humor and rock'n'roll aggression. The DFA sound flashes back to times and places when NYC's party-hard hedonism seemed to have both an edge and a point--Mudd Club, Hurrah's, Danceteria, Paradise Garage--but it rarely feels like a mere exercise in retro-pastiche.

The label's initial batch of vinyl-only singles in 2002--most famously "House of Jealous Lovers" by The Rapture and "Losing My Edge" by LCD Soundsystem--resurrected the idea of dance music spiked with punk attitude. Before long everybody was clamoring for a dose of DFA cool. Murphy, 34, and his English-born partner Tim Goldsworthy, 32, were touted as Superproducers, indieland's equivalent to the Neptunes. "Yeah I was the punk-funk Pharrell Williams," laughs Murphy. "Which makes me Chad, I guess" adds Goldsworthy.

Janet Jackson phoned DFA and suggested collaborating, saying she wanted to do something "raw and funky" like "Losing My Edge." Amazingly, DFA sorta kinda forgot to follow up the call. Duran Duran were also interested in getting DFA's magic touch. Most surreally, Goldsworthy and Murphy spent an afternoon in the studio with Britney Spears. "That was weird," says Goldsworthy. "Won't do that again. No offence to her--she's lovely. Got a foul mouth, though!" The brief session came to nothing, through lack of common musical ground. "When we work with people, we hang out, listen to records, share stuff," says Murphy. "But with Britney we soon discovered we had absolutely no way of communicating. She didn't know anything that we
knew. I was excited when the idea was first broached, because I thought maybe there's something Britney wants to do, and it's fucking burning a hole in her, and we can find out what it is. And the collaboration could be embarrassing, a failure, but that's fine. But I think she's someone that's very divorced from what she wants to do, there's been a set of performance requirements on her for such a long time, such that how would she even know what she wanted to do? And we never had time to found out anyway, because it
was like, 'she's available for four hours on Wednesday, write a song'. There's no way you can kid yourself you can make something real in those circumstances."

After these lost encounters with "the big time", DFA consciously backed away from the opportunities being thrust their way. "You stop returning phone calls, people get bored of you real quickly!" laughs Murphy. Instead, they concentrated on building up their own operation. The stance is bearing fruit now, with a freshly-inked global distribution deal between DFA and EMI. The first release under this new arrangement was the recent and highly impressive three-CD collection of DFA works so far, Compilation #2. It’s now followed by the brilliant debut album from LCD Soundsystem, which is James Murphy's own group.

Murphy and Goldsworthy originally met in inauspicious circumstances, as hired help for Irish deejay/producer/soundtrack composer David Holmes, who
was making his Bow Down To The Exit Sign album in Manhattan. Murphy did the engineering, Goldsworthy did the programming. The location was Murphy's West Village of Manhattan recording studio (now DFA's basement sound-lab). It didn't take long for the two technicians to suspect they were making most of the creative decisions. "Tim and I were forced to create a dialogue about how to
make sounds, because there was just this vague cloud of ideas coming from Holmes," says Murphy, gesturing to the back of the studio, where Holmes sat during the recording process. "Tim and I found we could talk about the most
subtle sonic things. Say, with Suicide, we could talk about the space between the two different organ sounds, or the lag between the organ playing and the drum machine beat, the way the two instruments don't lock together. Or we could talk about how earnest Alan Vega's Elvis-like vocal performance is, and how could we get that same quality out of the bass--a feeling that's earnest and embarrassing but saved by being actually totally for real."

Taking breaks from the recording grind, Goldsworthy and Murphy bonded further during Saturday night missions of full-on clubbing. Which is when Murphy, hitherto a typical indie-rock guy, had his dance music E-piphany. "Yeah, it's an unheard of story, isn't it?" he laughs. "A person who only
listens to rock goes off, does a mountain of Ecstasy, and gets converted to dance music".

The same thing had happened to Goldsworthy over a decade earlier, as an indiepop fan who got swept up in the UK's Ecstasy-fueled acid house revolution circa 1988. "I went from wearing an anorak and National Health spectacles into shaving my head and dancing in a field for eight hours!" In
the Nineties, Goldsworthy, like a lot of people, followed a vibe shift towards more chilled-out drugs (heavy weed) and moody, downtempo sounds, picking up especially on the music coming out of the early Nineties Bristol scene (very near where he grew up in the West of England). With his
schoolfriend James Lavelle, Goldsworthy co-founded the trip hop label Mo Wax, whose whole aesthetic owed a huge amount to Massive Attack's epochal 1991 album Blue Lines. Goldsworthy and Lavelle also made atmospheric and
increasingly over-ambitious music as the pivotal core of
UNKLE, a sort of post-trip hop supergroup that called upon diverse array of collaborators (ranging from DJ Shadow to Radiohead's Thom Yorke) on albums like Psyence Fiction. It's this background in "soundtrack for a non-existent
movie" music that led to Goldsworthy becoming the programming foil for David Holmes. Which ultimately led to him coming to Manhattan and meeting Murphy.

Goldsworthy had been through the whole dance culture experience and, like a lot of people, grown sick and tired of it. Murphy, a die-hard indie-rock/punk-rock guy, had always "loathed dance music. I thought it was all disco or C& C Music Factory. I didn't know anything about it and didn't
want to know anything about it. I'd really come up through the Pixies, the Fall, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and all the Chicago noise punk stuff like Big Black." And in truth, when the two of them went out clubbing in New York while working on the Holmes record, there wasn't much going on in dance culture to counter either Goldsworthy's disillusion or Murphy's prejudice. The Manhattan scene was moribund. Goldsworthy had come to New York, a city that loomed large in his imagination because of hip hop and house, with high
expectations and was very disappointed. "I was shocked, it was so bad. You couldn't dance anywhere," he says, referring to Mayor Bloomberg's crackdown
on bars that had DJs spinning but didn't have the expensive "cabaret license" that nightclubs need to get to make it permissible for their patrons to wiggle their butts in time to the music. "It was fucking awful."

Beyond the specific malaise of Manhattan clubland, dance music at the close of the Nineties was going through a not very compelling phase. It was neither pushing fearlessly forward into the future with huge leaps of innovation like it had done for most of the Nineties, nor did it have that
edge-of-anarchy madness that characterized the rave scene in its early days. The superclubs were slick and soul-less. And technique-obsessed and genre-purist DJs had squeezed out an awful lot of vibe. By the start of
the new millennium, the new generation of hipster youth in New York and London had little interest in club culture, which seemed safe, passe and altogether lacking in cutting-edge glamour. These young cool kids were looking to guitar bands again, groups with stage moves and charismatic hair,
from the Strokes to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Murphy and Goldsworthy decided to rescue dance music from "McDepth--that McDonald's version of 'deep', where there's nothing there", Murphy explains. The duo cite everything from glitchy laptop musicians to Tortoise-style
post-rock to post-Blue Lines Massive Attack as examples of bogus profundity, chin-stroking pretentiousness, and terminal boredom. Revealingly, Murphy's MDMA revelation didn't occur listening to whatever passed for an Ecstasy
anthem in those days (Rolando's "Jaguar," say). No, the DJ dropped The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"--one of his all-time favorite tunes--at exactly the point "when the drug was peaking" in his nervous system. And that gave Murphy the idea of "throwing parties and playing better music--like "Loose" by the Stooges--than what dance culture was offering at that time". Taking the name DFA--short for Death From Above, and originally the tag under which Murphy did infamously loud sound mixing for rock bands--they started throwing irregular parties in New York, based around the notion of bridging the considerable gap between Donna Summer and The Stooges. Soon, tired of endlessly playing their staple fare like Can and Liquid Liquid, the duo decided to make their own "dance-punk" tracks to spin.

"House Of Jealous Lovers" was their first stab. Dance distributors picked up the single purely for the house remix by Morgan Geist from cognoscenti-approved outfit Metro Area. "We'd heard his track 'Atmosphreak' and thought it was amazing," recalls Murphy. "One of the Rapture's friends,
Dan, was room mates with Morgan, and so we asked if he'd do a remix and he very kindly did one really cheap. It was only because of Morgan's remix that anyone took it--the dance distributors would often identify it in their orders as being by Morgan Geist." Ironically, and fatefully, it was DFA's original discopunk version that eventually took off.

"House of Jealous Lovers" arrived with perfect timing to catch the breaking wave of dancefloor taste shift towards edgy angularity--not just the rediscovery of Eighties groups like ESG and A Certain Ratio, but the emergence of neo-postpunk bands like !!!, Liars, Erase Errata, and Radio
Four (whom DFA also produced). But while The Rapture's slashing guitar and slightly-constipated, white-boys-getting-down funk bass flash you back to 1979 and UK agit-funk outfits like Gang of Four and Delta 5, Murphy &
Goldsworthy's production supplied the kind of pumping, monolithic regularity that made the track fully contemporary. "There were indie bands already
coming through doing that kind of rickety, Delta 5-style punk-funk, but we wanted to make records that house DJs would actually play," says Murphy. "We had a big talk with The Rapture about that Mr Oizo track 'Flat Beat', the
bassline in that tune. In 2000, when we were making 'House of Jealous Lovers', 'Flat Beat' was just about the only dance track around that was memorable. It was a tune you could remember, it fucked killed on the dancefloor, and it had incredible low end. So our attitude was, 'Jealous
Lovers' has to compete in that context. So we filtered the bass a lot, did a couple of layers of hi-hats and reversed them, took the drummer's playing and chopped it up." The drummer himself came up with the cowbell, which
eventually became a kind of DFA trademark. "House of Jealous Lovers" became a huge success on all kinds of different dancefloors. Some commentators regard it as the best single of the decade so far. It's certainly one of the most significant.

DFA's signature sound mixes Goldsworthy's computer wizardry and Murphy's background of engineering and playing in rock bands (DFA's remixes typically
feature his drumming, bass, and sometimes guitar). Two different kinds of knowledge mesh perfectly: Murphy's expertise at getting great drum sounds and capturing live "feel", Goldsworthy's digital editing skills and vast
sample-hound's knowledge of recorded music acquired during his Mo Wax days. Both guys look their respective parts. Slender, softspoken, and diffidently English in a way that often, he says, gets him mistaken for gay, Goldsworthy
seems like someone at home with delicate, intricate work--a century ago, you might have assumed from his intent, bespectacled gaze and fastidious manner that he was an engraver or watch-maker. Wearing a Taos ski resort T-shirt
and brown corduroy pants, the slightly pudgy and much more boisterous Murphy looks like your archetypal American indie-rock studio rat.

After a low-key spell in late 2003/early 2004--a steady flow of fine but not exactly throat-grabbing releases, from The Juan Maclean, Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom, and Black Dice--DFA came back strong in the last few months of 2004 with two of their most exciting singles yet. Pixeltan's "Get Up/Say What" is classic DFA discopunk, simultaneously raw and slick, while "Sunplus" by J.O.Y.--a Japanese outfit helmed by K.U.D.O, Goldsworthy's Tim 's former partner in UNKLE, and featuring guest vocals from Yoshimi P-We of the Boredoms--beautifully updates the thorny, fractured postpunk funk of LiLiPUT and The Slits. Like most DFA releases, these tracks came out as vinyl 12 inches. But don't fret if you've got no turntable--you can also find them on Compilation #2. Attractively packaged with the label’s trademark minimal design, the box set pulls together everything that wasn't on their first, not wholly satisfactory compilation, throws in a terrific bonus mix CD executed by Tim Goldsworthy and Tim Sweeney, and altogether
showcases a formidable body of work. Two highlights are Liquid Liquid's "Bellhead," a brand-new DFA recording of an old song by one of their Eighties postpunk heroes, formerly on the legendary 99 Records label, and the 15 minute disco-delic journey-into-sound that is "Casual Friday" by
Black Leotard Front (an alter ego for Gonzalez and Russom).

And now there’s the second release under the global distribution deal with EMI, the debut album from LCD Soundsystem, which people are already talking about as a contender for best album of 2005. In the studio, LCD is basically a James Murphy solo project with occasional help from friends who drop by, and some spiritual guidance from Goldsworthy. Live, though, LCD swells into a proper band, and a surprisingly powerful one, its sheer rock-funk force bringing to mind at various points Happy Mondays, the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, and The Stooges gone disco.

Released not long after “House Of Jealous Lovers”, LCD’s debut single “Losing My Edge” was the first indication that DFA weren’t just a pair of capable remixers, but that there was in fact a whole sensibility, aesthetic, and ethos behind the label, as well as a groovy retro-nuevo sound. Sung by Murphy, the song is the plaint of a cool hunter type--a musician, or DJ, or record store clerk, or possibly all three--who’s agonizingly aware that he’s slipping, as younger kids outdo his esoteric knowledge with even more obscure reference points. “I'm losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978,” the character whines. “To the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties”. The aging hipster’s claims of priority and having been first-on-the-block get more and more absurd: “I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City/I was working on the organ sounds with much patience… I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids/I played it at CBGB's… I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan/I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes/I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988.”

As well as being a hilarious auto-critique of hipsterism, “Losing My Edge” obliquely captured something of the pathos of the modern era. All this massive ever-accumulating knowledge about music history, the huge array of arcane influences and sources available thanks to the reissue industry and peer-to-peer filesharing, all the advantages we have today in terms of technology and how to get good sounds, have resulted in a kind of a kind of crisis of “well made” music, where producers are scholars of production, know how to get a great period feel, yet it seems harder and harder to make music that actually matters, in the way that the music that inspired them mattered in its own day. “Record collection rock” is my term for this syndrome, although the malaise is just as prevalent in dance culture (look at the perennial return of the 303 acid bass, each time sounding more exhausted and unsurprising).

“Losing My Edge” was very funny, but also poignant. Murphy agrees. “It’s incredibly sad. It took people a while to pick up on that. At first they were like, ‘ha! You got ‘em’, like it was just a satire on hipsters. What’s truly sad, though, is that the initial inspiration for it was from my deejaying in the early days of DFA, playing postpunk and an eclectic mix of dance and rock. And suddenly everybody started playing that kind of mixture, and I thought ‘fuck, now it’s a genre and I’m fucked, I’m not going to get hired’. My response was, “I was doing this first,” and then I realized that was pathetic, that I was this 31 year old hipster douchebag. So at the end of “Losing My Edge,” that’s why there’s the long list of bands-- Pere Ubu, Todd Terry, PIL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, Heldon, Gentle Giant, the Human League, Roy Harper, Sun Ra, on and on--‘cos in the end that’s what my attitude reduced to, just running around trying to yell the names of cool bands before anybody else!”. He says that a big part of DFA’s attitude is that “we definitely try to shoot holes in our own cool as fast as we can, because being cool is one of the worst things for music.” He cites DFA’s disco-flavored remix of Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” as an example, its softness representing a deliberate swerve from the obvious punk-funk sound that DFA were known for.

“Beat Connection”, the even more impressive flipside to “Losing,” was also a meta-music statement, with Murphy accusing everyone on the dancefloor of colluding in lameness. “Everybody here needs a shove/Everybody here is afraid of fun/It’s the saddest night out in the USA/Nobody’s coming undone.” He explains that this was inspired by his and Goldsworthy’s experience of the “really uptight” New York club scene at the tail-end of the Nineties. When Murphy compares his lyrical approach to The Stooges--“really simple, repetitive, quite stupid”--he hits it on the nail. “Beat Connection” is dance culture’s counterpart to The Stooges 1969 classic “No Fun.” Which was probably the very first punk song--indeed the Sex Pistols did a brilliant cover version of it.

When people talk about LCD Soundsystem and DFA, though, the word that comes up isn’t punk rock so much as postpunk--Public Image Ltd (the band John Lydon formed after the Pistols broke up), Gang of Four, Liquid Liquid, etc. Murphy originally got into this era of music when he was working as sound engineer and live sound mixer for Six Finger Satellite, an abrasive mid-Nineties band who were precocious--indeed premature--in referencing the postpunk period well before it became hip again circa 2001. In a 1995 interview with me, Six Finger Satellite were already namedropping late Seventies outfits like Chrome and This Heat. They also recorded an all-synth and heavily Devo-influenced mini-album, Machine Cuisine, as a sideline from their more guitar-oriented, Big Black-like albums. “Going on tour with Six Finger Satellite was one of those super fertile times in my life in terms of finding out about music,” recalls Murphy. “They were like ‘do you know about Deutsche Amerikanishce Freundschaft? Do you know about Suicide?’, and they dumped all this knowledge on me while we were driving around the country from gig to gig. This was a few years before I met Tim, which was itself another very fertile and immersive period in terms of new music.” The Six Finger Satellite connection endures. DFA act The Juan Maclean is actually Six Finger guitarist John Maclean, making Kraftwerk-like electronica.

“Losing My Edge” b/w “Beat Connection” was followed by two more excellent LCD singles, “Give It Up” b/w “Tired” and “Yeah” (which came in a “Crass version” and a “Pretentious Version” and managed to make the 303 acid-bass sound quite exciting, against all the odds). These six early single tracks are collected on the bonus disc that comes with the debut LCD Soundsystem album. Running through a lot of the CD--particularly songs like “Movement” and “On Repeat”-- is that same meta-musical rage you heard in “Losing” and “Beat”: a poisoned blend of a desire for music to be revolutionary and dangerous, along with a defeatist, crippled-by-irony awareness that the age of musical revolution may be long past. “Movement,” the single, fuses the sentiments of “Losing My Edge” and “Beat Connection”, with Murphy surveying the music scene and pointing the finger--“it’s like a culture, without the effort, of all the culture/it’s like a movement, without the bother, of all of the meaning”--and then confessing to being “tapped”, meaning exhausted, sapped of energy and inspiration. Although the sentiment could apply just as equally to dance culture, Murphy says the song is specifically a reaction to all the talk of guitar rock making a comeback, “all the inanity that gets bandied about as rock journalism. It’s a complete rip of fashion journalism--‘the high waisted pant is BACK’. Like that's supposed to mean something. I mean, I hope you don't go around hearing ‘abstract expressionism is BACK! and HOTTER than EVER!’ in art mags.”

“On Repeat” is yet another LCD song about the ennui that comes when you’re been into music for a long time: the awareness of the cycles repeating, the eternal return of the same personae and poses, archetypes and attitudes, reshuffled with slight variations. “That attitude is where I’m coming from all of the time,” says Murphy. “The lyric referring to ‘the new stylish creep’--that’s me! The song is about hating what you are, and that giving you strength to hate everything else. It's weird. I love music so much that I want to drown it forever. Destroy everything.”

You can hear these conflicted emotions in Murphy’s singing voice. It has a weird tetchy texture that evokes a mixture of exasperation and fatigue, sounds at once spirited and dispirited. Murphy says that’s an accurate reflection of how he feels when he’s recording vocals. “It murders me. I hate hearing my own stupid voice in the headphones, with all the singerly bits and false poses. I sometimes have to sing things over and over until I hate the song, until there's no posy vocal bits in there that make me cringe. That song, ‘On Repeat,’ in particular was hell to do. But in the end I like it. Or at least I feel like I can stand behind it”. In terms of that frayed, worn-out quality to LCD vocals, Murphy says “I usually compress the shit out of the vocal with a VCA
compressor, which is really brutal. And I try to mix them so that the frequencies are like "Mother of Pearl" by Roxy Music or "Poptones" by PiL”.

Yet for all the lyrical and vocal notes of disillusionment and frustration running through LCD Soundsystem, the music itself is full of exuberance and playfulness, a delight in the sheer pleasures and possibilities of sound. “Too Much Love,” which seems to be a song about drug burn-out and excessive nocturnal socializing, features an awesome grating synth-whine that makes me think of a serotonin-depleted brain whimpering on the Tuesday after a wild weekend. Another standout track, “Disco Infiltrator” nods to Kraftwerk with its imitation of the eerie synth-riff from 1980’s “Home Computer.” It’s not a sample but a recreation, says Murphy. “It just an ascending chromatic scale, really. It's not rocket science!” The track also features some sweet semi-falsetto singing from Murphy that sounds like David Byrne circa Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. “It's just my shitty soul voice,” laughs Murphy. “Al Green has a beautiful soul, so that's what you hear coming through in his voice. My soul is absolute rubbish, so that's what comes out!”

The closing “Great Release” seems like a homage to Brian Eno’s song-based albums like Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and Another Green World. “Actually, it’s Here Comes the Warm Jets-era Eno,” laughs Murphy. “It’s not a homage, though--I hate that word. No, I just like the type of energy that some Eno/Bowie stuff got, and some of the space of Lou Reed stuff, like ’Satellite of Love’. Some journalist got kind of stroppy with me about that song, and all I could think was, ‘is there seriously some problem with there being too many songs that use sonic spaces similar to early Eno solo work? I mean, is this really something we
need to talk about before it gets out of control?!?’”. I WISH I had that problem. Or is the problem just me--that I'm not being original enough? Because if it is, then let's just dump rock in the fucking ocean and call it a day, because I'm doing the best I can for the moment!”

Best of all is “Thrills,” in which Murphy comes off like Iggy Pop singing over a track that fuses The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” with Suicide’s “Dance,” over a fat bassline not a million miles from Timo Maas. Actually, Murphy says, the inspiration for the bass-and-percussion groove is Missy Elliott's “Get Yr Freak On”. “I made the original version of ‘Thrills’ right when that came out. I loved that era of mainstream hip hop, it was a free-for-all. And just the bass of it.”

Of course, all these comparisons and reference points only underscore the point I earlier made in reference to “Losing My Edge”: the poignancy of living in a “late” era of culture, the insurmountable-seeming challenge of competing with the accumulated brilliance of the past and creating any kind of sensation of new-ness. “Yeah, that is kind of tattooed on my stomach,” says Murphy, referring to this pained awareness of belatedness. He acknowledges that “great influences do not a great record make”. And yet despite all the odds, the LCD album is a great record.

When I mention the American literary critic Harold Bloom’s concept of “anxiety of influence”--which argues that “strong” artists suffer from an acute sense of anguish that everything has been done before, and that makes them struggle against their predecessors in a desperate Oedipal attempt to achieve originality--Murphy flips out. “It's hilarious that you say this--I mention Bloom's anxiety theory pretty regularly in interviews! This is the shit I've been screaming about for years. Learning and progress has always been based on learning from the past. Real originality never comes from trying to defeat the past right out of the gate. It's a spark of an individual idea caused by the love/hate relationship between a "listener" and the "sound". I love music, and it inspired me at first to copy it, then to be ashamed of copying it, then to make music in "modes" (genres) while trying to pretend they were original, then finally making music with a purpose--which for me was dance music. It made people dance. It was no longer just music to make you look cool and feel like you were part of something you admire.

“I don't feel like I'm in any danger of making ‘retro’ music, but at the same time, there are things about the ways various people who've come before me did things
that I prefer greatly to the way ‘modern’ things are done. I use a computer. I edit and do all sorts of modern shit, but there are things I consciously do that were done in songs I love from before me.”

As much as love, though, it’s hate that inspires LCD Soundsystem in equal measure. “I hate the way bands stand on stage, the gear they use, the crew they hire to tune their tedious guitars, the love they have for their special ‘guitar amp, the belief in their fragile, phoney little singer who's a fucking sham. They are not and will never be Iggy Pop. Neither will I, or my band, but we know it, and we're trying our fucking best to be the LCD Soundsystem. Complete with its laundry list of influences, failures and idiocies. At least you go onstage knowing that, good or bad, no one is like you.”

* * * * *

Many labels never survive the initial hype storm of being hip. Murphy recalls a peculiar, uncomfortable phase when "we kept seeing magazines with profiles of DFA, but we weren't really releasing anything at the time." Now,
though, he's thankful that "we're not ascendant anymore. At this point we're kind of cruising along. And it's nice. It doesn't feel like it's out of our control anymore."

And what about New York, the city whose mythos is so central to DFA? Is it living up to its own reputation at the moment? "It's a great city, but people get lazy here," says Murphy. "So we and a few other people we think
of as allies, we go into phases of trying to punch the city into being interesting, Then we go home for a couple of months and hang out with our wives and cook. And then it's like, 'okay, time to go out punching again'. And it's getting to be about that time again. For a while, we were like 'oh fuck them, let them live in their filth of terrible parties, shitty DJs, just doing the same thing'. See I can't go to these parties where people play records that are sent to them by promoters 'cos they're genre djs, part of a genre. I've always loathed that. And then I found myself in that situation again," Murphy sighs, referring to the way DFA gets lumped together with Black Strobe and Trevor Jackson of Playgroup/Output, the way genre-crossing becomes its own kind of genre. "That's not what I signed up
for, you know? I didn't leave indie rock to end up back in indie rock!"

Monday, November 2, 2009

TRICKY's MAXINQUAYE in SPIN'S BEST ALBUMS OF THE NINETIES
Spin, 1999
by Simon Reynolds

TRICKY, Maxinquaye (Island, 1995)


Although all but one of its tracks were recorded in London, Maxinquaye has everything to do with Tricky's home town Bristol, the west of England port whose
bohemian milieu of Brit B-boys and post-punk radicals spawned Massive Attack,
Portishead, and the Reprazent clan. "In Bristol, all the different ghettos were mixing in the early Eighties," says Mark Stewart, ex-frontman of legendary avant-funk outfit The Pop Group. "We'd go to reggae 'blues' parties, industrial punk events, and hip hop jams at this crucial club called The Dugout."

Through his friendship with The Wild Bunch (the DJ collective that evolved into
Massive Attack) Stewart became a mentor to Tricky. It was Stewart who first pushed
Tricky onstage and who encouraged him to start a career outside Massive. "He's my
chaos," says Tricky. "When people say I'm weird, I say 'you've got to hang around Mark'. He lives out of a suitcase which contains, like, a jar of mayonnaise, cassettes, and articles clipped out of magazines. He lived with me for two months and got me chucked out of my flat!" It was while they were rooming together that Stewart persuaded Tricky to "blag" money off Massive Attack's management for solo recording. "His idea was to spend half of it on drink!", laughs Tricky. The remaining 300 pounds paid for studio time for "Aftermath", a downtempo drift of "hip hop blues" that eventually became Tricky's debut single.

With Stewart operating as "executive producer" (as Tricky puts it), "Aftermath" came together haphazardly. Stewart remembers the session as "just me and Tricks
messing about on an 8 track," looping beats and weaving in samples that Tricky plucked from "some guy's pile of records". Outside his house, Tricky met Martina Topley-Bird--a schoolgirl in uniform, waiting for a bus--and on impulse invited her to sing. "I laid down a guide vocal for her, but we decided to keep my voice in, 'cos it sounded haunting." This slightly out-of-synch pairing of Martina's dulcet croon and Tricky's bleary rapping became the model for much of Maxinquaye. There was a fourth collaborator on "Aftermath",claims Tricky--he believes the post-apocalyptic scenario lyrics were channeled from his mother, who died when he was four. "I found out later that she used to write words, poetry, but never showed them to anybody."

Tricky offered "Aftermath" to Massive, who were still pulling together their 1991
debut Blue Lines. But, chuckles Tricky, the band's 3D "told me 'it's shit, you're never going to make it as a producer". "Aftermath" stayed on cassette for three years,unreleased; Tricky fell out of touch with Topley-Bird. After Blue Lines's release, Tricky was in limbo, idling on a retainer wage from Massive. "All I did was smoke weed, drink in bars, and go to clubs from Wednesday to Sunday." He sank into a slough of despond, complete with marijuana-induced paranoid hallucinations of demons in his living room.

This dark period inspired Tricky's next recording, "Ponderosa" and its lyrics about
an alcohol-and-spliff induced descent through "different levels of the Devil's company". Underpinned by a clanking, lurching percussion influenced by Indian bhangra,"Ponderosa" was one of several tracks demoed in London with engineering wizard Howard Bernstein (a/k/a Howie B), courtesy of Island Records. "Tricky was living with me and my girlfriend Harriet for a while," remembers Bernstein. "Kippers for breakfast, and Tricky kipping on a couch in the front room." Hospitable Howie believed he was all set to be a partner in the album project, should Island decide to sign Tricky. But management conflicts resulted in a "a legal nightmare" and left almost an album's worth of tunes stranded on the shelf. Although "Ponderosa" did clinch the Island deal, Bernstein was not included and "walked away with a sour taste in my mouth."

Tricky, meanwhile, bought a home studio and started work on the album in a grim
area of London called Harlesden, where he and Topley-Bird were ensconced as house
mates, although they barely knew each other. Aggravating his desolate surroundings and the alienation caused by moving from his hometown Bristol to a city where he had no friends, Tricky was listening to a relentlessly glum soundtrack-- The Geto Boys, Billie Holliday, and The Specials. The "concrete bleak sound" of Specials classics such as "Ghost Town" is just one thread in the Maxinquaye tapestry. Alongside the obvious hip hop ancestry (Eric B & Rakim's cinematic rap noir; Public Enemy--Tricky hailed Chuck D as "my Shakespeare"), the album is steeped in the influence of English art-rock weirdness ---Bowie, Numan, Japan, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush ("I think she's in the same league as John Lennon," Tricky gushes). Even more unlikely, Tricky claims that the gorgeous aural malaise of "Abbaon Fat Tracks" got its curious title because "it reminded me of Abba--but fucked up, and with phat beats."

An enigmatic tribute to his mother Maxine Quaye, the album's title was originally
intended as Tricky and Martina's collective bandname until the rapper capitulated to
Island's pressure and agreed to record under his nom de mic'. Released in 1995 to massive acclaim, Maxinquaye works simultaneously as an autobiographical account of one man's struggles and as a wider allegory. Evoking the orphanned drift, sociocultural deadlock, and pre-millenial tension of the Nineties just as Sly Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On had expressed the caged rage and curdled idealism of the early Seventies, Maxinquaye seemed to be partly about the inability of Tricky's generation to imagine utopia, let alone build it.

"We're all fucking lost!", Tricky declared. "I can't see how things are gonna get better. I think we have to destroy everything and start again. But I can't pretend I've got the answers. Bob Marley, he could write songs about freedom and love. I'm just telling the truth that I'm confused, I'm paranoid, I'm scared, I'm vicious."
Yet for all its despondency and dread, Maxinquaye is ultimately a redemptive experience.