Friday, December 31, 2010

The Wire, 2010

by Simon Reynolds

At some point in the middle of the last decade, a series of mysterious CDs began popping up on the "New Releases" lists of certain left-field music distributors. Sometimes they'd materialize directly on the shelves of a handful of esoterica-oriented record shops (surprising the owners, who couldn't recall having ordered them). These discs were packaged neither in plastic hard shells nor thick cardboard cases, but with thin card sleeves covered by a protective sheath of shrink wrap: they looked like five inch vinyl records, basically, rather than CDs. This effect was further intensified by the Deutsche Grammophon-style gold seals that each release sported. The legend proclaimed the series's name, its mission, and its means of production: CREEL PONE -- Unheralded Classics of Electronic Music - 1952-1984 -- 100 - Hand Assembled.

Eye-catching and intrigue-piquing, the covers were immaculate replicas of the sleeves of musique concrete and electronic records from that post-WW2 surge into the sonic unknown. They reproduced in miniature not just the original artwork but also--to take just one example, Andre Almuro's Musiques Experimentales--the six differently sized circles cut out of the front cover as spy-holes to a garishly psychotropic inner sleeve. Any liner note booklets or textual matter accompanying the original LP was likewise meticulously reproduced, and each CD-R was printed with the label of its source recording in vivid color. Great pains had clearly been taken to provide the purchaser with as close as possible to the sensation of having 'n' holding an original vinyl copy. But the retail price these avant-bootlegs went for--around ten dollars-- suggested a labour of love rather than an exploitative exercise in niche marketing. These were gifts for fans, made by fans.

Creel Pone's catchment stretched from the output of lesser-known state-funded or university-sponsored sound laboratories (60s and 70s compilations like From Czech Electronic Music Studios, the Flemish Elektronische Produktie Van IP.E.M, Musica Electroacustica Mexicana, New Zealand Electronic Music, Anthology of Dutch Electronic Tape Music, and, most mindblowing of all in a fiercely competitive field, Hungarian Electronic Music) to works by individual composers (Denis Smalley, Herbert Eimert, Phillippe Arthuys, Luis De Pablo, Ruth White, etc). The catalogue also encompassed "outsider electronics" self-released by synth-wielding mavericks unattached to any institution (Edward M. Zajda, Nik Pascal, Pythagoron Inc), along with one-off forays into sound by visual artists (kinetic sculptor Nicolas Schöffer, abstract expressionist painter Karel Appel), musique concrete made by animators like Norman McClaren (Music of the N.F.B.) and library music releases and movie scores by the likes of Tod Dockstader, Zanagoria, and Gil Melle (the splendidly hair-raising Andromeda Strain O/S/T.).

As the buzz about the quality, fetish appeal and sheer obscurity of Creel Pone output grew among electronic music fiends, so too did curiosity about the cryptic perpetrators of these exquisitely executed but wholly unofficial and unsanctioned reissues. Distributor advertorial for Creel releases alluded to a Mr. P.C.C.P. , a/k/a Pieter Christophssen. But suspicion mounted that this gentleman collector, who allegedly operated out of Iceland, was in fact a fiction: a Karen Eliot-style alias smokescreening the activity of a loose collective of crate-diggers and technicians. At the hub of this curatorial cabal, it transpired, lurked the experimental musician Keith Fullerton Whitman, who also runs the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based weird-music distributor Mimaroglu Music Sales.

The Creel Pone project came to a halt in the late summer of 2009 with the 99th instalment, Reinhold Weber's Elektronische und phonetische Kompositione (the "100" in the gold seal referred both to the plan to put out one hundred immaculate releases and to the approximate number of copies of each reissue made). Creel Pone may reactivate at some point, but, according to Whitman, it has most likely reached its "natural end".

Surveying the Creel catalogue as a curated body of work, two things emerge. One is that, as much as it was an idealistic international movement dedicated to opening up a new frontier of sound for humankind, the post-War electronic surge was also a craze that convulsed composers across the globe. Every developed nation (and quite a few developing ones) simply had to have its own electronic music research centre. Even the Catholic University of America had a resident concrete composer, Professor Emerson Meyers, whose 1970 LP Provocative Electronics was resurrected as Creel Pone #77.

Whitman compares the runaway evolution of the music and the faddish excitement of its makers to the techno and jungle scenes he was immersed in during the Nineties: empowered by new technology, a swarm of second-division producers pick up on the breakthroughs of a few innovator- producers, ripping them off but in the process intensifying and mutating the innovations. "You'll hear a technique that's invented in 1954 in Japan going out to Berlin, then to Spain... trademark sounds that become part of this general lexicon of transformation, individual composer's tricks that enter this grand pool of ideas." Early electronic music, then, was about scenius as much as genius; Creel Pone revels in the generic-ness as much as the singularity of the sounds generated.

The other aspect relates to the "1952-1984" time-span Creel Pone marks off as its Golden Age. (Some of the Creel Pone seals varied the dates slightly: 1947-1983 was one variant, as above). Whitman argues that this was the most concentrated period of innovation in human history--not just in music but across the entire spectrum of culture and society. In terms of electronic music specifically, though, the cut-off point of 1984indicates the eclipse of analogue by digital. "From the early Eighties onwards you had digital synthesiers and samplers like the Synclavier, you had computers," says Whitman. Citing the deterioration of outfits like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, he argues that "the early music made using digital audio technology has dated very badly." He believes that the approach encouraged by sequencers and computers is "'I'll fuck around and see what happens'" whereas tape-based music required so much planning and time investment it led to superior results. ”For someone like Herbert Eimert, a two minute piece took a month of 18 hour days to achieve. It involved sitting down with a piece of paper and scoring out your sounds, making a chart of all the different combinations. And then actually doing it. You get music that's really thought-through." The Herculean effort, the heroic spirit of risk-taking, imbues the music with an intangible but undeniable aura. "Also analogue sounds are just better."

C86: 20 years on
Time Out, Monday October 23 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Ours is a culture gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Anniversaries and Greatest Ever lists, remakes and reissues, albums played onstage in their original sequence and festivals like this year’s Folk Britannia… all our yesterdays swarm forth to crowd out the present. What’s freaky, though, is when it’s stuff that you’ve lived through that gets revived or revisited, as with this month’s
20th anniversary of C86 shows at the ICA.

As a rock writer starting out in 1986, this stuff was my journalistic beat. In Melody Maker I wrote a sort of manifesto (albeit uninvited, and not welcomed) for the new wave of indie-pop, titled “Younger Than Yesterday”, which I followed a few months later with a subcultural studies-style analysis of the scene’s fashion codes. C86 has become the tag for this brief moment in British pop history, on account of the cassette compiled by New Musical Express. But back then the talk was of “shambling bands,” a John Peel coinage that celebrated the self-conscious amateurism of the music, or of “cutie,” a nod to the child-like imagery favored by the groups, from their band-names (the Pastels, Talulah Gosh, 14 Iced Bears) and record artwork to the clothing (pigtails and plimsoles for girls, buttoned-up birthday-boy shirts and little caps for the lads).

The style element was the most fascinating thing for me: “anoraksia nervosa,” I dubbed it, because most cuties seemed to be skinny and small, and the scene’s signature garment was an anorak of the sort a child might have worn in 1961. Cutie fashion was so stridently virginal, it had to be some kind of statement. Noting how love songs on the scene were romantic rather than carnal, and that the white-only sources for shambling music (Velvets, Byrds, Buzzocks, the scratchy-racket postpunkers like Swell Maps) suggested an aversion to the earthy sexuality of funk and soul, I concluded that these kids were staging a revolt against Eighties values. Rejecting hypersexual chartpop and aspirational adulthood alike, the cutie shamblers harked back to both their own lost innocence and to pop’s childhood (the Sixties), creating a new bohemia based around purity rather than debauchery.

Fine and dandy, except that the music, by and large, was a wee bit flimsy. The scene leaders seemed to average one great song each--the Shop Assistants’ “Somewhere in China”, The Bodines’ “Therese,” Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl” (the last two you’ll find on the ICA event affiliated Cd86: 48 Tracks from the Birth of Indie Pop compilation). Mostly what you got was a spindly, scrawny rehash of ideas done first and best by the Postcard label: past-its-sell-by-date Orange Juice, Josef K sans literary panache, early Aztec Camera without the excuse Roddy Frame had of actually being 16 (some of these would-be-kids turned out to be in their late twenties!). The C86 tape paled next to its predecessor, C81, a cassette compiled by Rough Trade and NME that documented the far more diverse and adventurous postpunk culture of the early Eighties. I recall going to the original ICA event organized around C86’s release, and feeling dismayed by how inbred and insular-sounding British independent music had become.

Yet C86 did go on to have more of legacy than doubters like myself imagined. Galvanised by Ecstasy culture and genius producer Andy Weatherall, Primal Scream shook off the malaise of Sixties retro and made Screamadelica. Shambling-era zine writer Bob Stanley formed Saint Etienne, who merged the holding-hands chasteness of C86 with house, dub and Northern Soul to create some of the most enduringly enchanting music of our time. The American branch of cutie clustered around K Records and Beat Happening would influence Kurt Cobain (a big fan of the Pastels and the Vaselines) and spawn the Riot Grrl movement. You can track C86genes in bands as diverse as Stereolab, Teenage Fan Club, My Bloody Valentine, and Belle & Sebastian... So it was a significant period, but more in terms of what spun out of it than the actual recorded legacy. Even the scene itself was more about creating a lovely sense of community in defiance of prevailing Eighties values, than of earth-shattering music.

C86 was in some ways the actualisation of a Jesus and Mary Chain song title, "My Little Underground". A tightly-knit intimacy verging on incestousness was almost the point of the scene, which was based around a small circuit of cramped pub venues and hang-outs like the Chalk Farm ice cream bar. The most crucial thing about C86 was that it involved a resurgence of the do-it-yourself ideal--young people shoving aside inhibiting notions of professionalism and gleefully making their own culture, with seemingly every fanzine editor in a band or starting their own label. If this amateur ethos often crossed into a wilful amateurism, if the lo-fi spirit sometimes turned into Luddite intransigence (one zine proposed that music should only be heard on flexi-discs and Dansettes!), the upside was a spirit of egalitarianism and autonomy. Women especially came into their own. The cutie image reconciled girlish glamour with tomboy androgyny, and Talulah Gosh would be regarded as honored ancestors by the more overtly feminist grrrl-bands of the '90s like Bratmobile and Huggy Bear. So if we must have a culture of rampant retro-mania, maybe this is a UK pop moment worthy of commemoration.

The ICA present two nights of C86-themed gigs this week: Friday’s bill features The Magic Numbers, GoKart Mozart, Vic Godard & The Subway Sect, plus a DJ set from Saint Etienne; Saturday’s bill has Roddy Frame from Aztec Camera, Phil Wilson from The June Brides, The Wolfhounds and a DJ set from The Pastels. The compilation album ‘CD86: 48 Tracks From The Birth Of Indie Pop’ is out this Monday on Castle Records.