Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Spring Heel Jack

SPRING HEEL JACK
Melody Maker, late 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Spring Heel Jack have been turning lots of heads with
their marvellous avant-jungle track, "The Sea Lettuce", which
layers dreamy atmospherics over rippling breakbeats.  Based
in Hackney, Sping Heel are a duo, Ash Wates and John Coxon,
and their music is a soundclash of their seemingly
incompatible influences--hardcore and modern classical music.



36 year old Ash's musical background is strictly avant-
garde: 20th Century classical, jazz and avant-funk. Today,
Ash can trace a lineage through his taste from Miles and Can
through dub, PiL, On U Sound to jungle. But for the longest
while, he never cared for club music. Eventually he was
turned onto early hardcore by his workmates (he was a
landscape gardener) who would return still buzzing after mad
weekends.  "Back then," says Ash, referring to late '91, "the
rave scene was more integrated, you'd get the Ragga Twins
played back to back with Human Resource's 'Dominator'.  Now
you'd get 8 hours pure jungle, 8 hours pure trance,  8 hours
pure garage.  Everything's splintered."

Unlike Ash, 30 year old John is as big a fan of soul as
of modern classical.  And compared to Ash, his addiction to
jungle was acquired quite recently. "All these great tunes
started coming out around Christmas.  Then I'd hear the
metronomic, linear beat of techno and I'd think 'naaah, this
doesn't cut it anymore'." As such, John's part of a influx of
new converts that may prefigure the reintegration of jungle
and techno.  Now everybody from Orbital and Bandulu to Junior
Boys Own and Bjork are turning onto breakbeat-science.

"Well, the music's just got undeniable," says Ash.  "But
I've been telling people for years, this stuff is really
sophisticated." Spring Heel particularly rate Hyper-On-
Experience (and the rest of the Moving Shadow roster),
Ronnie Size, and the great LTJ Bukem.  They freely admit that
Bukem's sublime "Atlantis (I Need You)" is the model for the
the urgent-but-serene, oceanic-beat of "The Sea Lettuce".



Ash and John detect all kinds of parallels between avant-
classical and jungle. On their mix-tape, they blend Berio's
"Visage" with A-Zone's "Callin' The People".  Apart from the
way Berio's tape treaments of avant-diva Cathy Berberian's
voice anticipate the 'timestretch' sorcery of sampling, what
are the links between avant-classical and jungle?

"It's all about abstraction," declares John grandly, then
immediately concedes: "Then again, all music is abstract,
non-figurative. But there's different kinds.  In classical
music, you get linear abstraction, the repetition of simple
themes, as with Arvo Part or systems music. A lot of techno
is like that, very horizontal.  But jungle is
vertical, multi-tiered, so it doesn't lull you.  There's so
much going on in the best tracks that you have to play them
at 33 r.p.m just to hear the complexity."

Jungle's overlapping hyper-syncopations simultaneously
sustain a relentless flow and constantly rupture it (the
music's literally composed of breaks). It's like the unstable
ground of modern life, the urban minefield through which we
all stealthily tip-toe.

"Absolutely. It's like, if we lived in mansions, we'd be
writing pastoral symphonies. Jungle reflects its
environment, it could only have come from London." John goes
on to argue that ambient jungle is a sort of successor to dub
reggae: "In dub, all the spacey, reverbed and delayed sounds
surround the dangerous beats and heavy bass, and act like a
narcotic, comforting and wombing you. I like that polarity
between savage and soothing, that ambivalence".




Instead of releasing "Sea Lettuce" as a white label
through the 'ardkore scene, Spring Heel have signed to Rough
Trade (John will also be doing a little junglism talent-
scouting for the label).  Ash reckons this link-up is cool
'cos of RT's "tradition of Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire etc"--
bands he sees as ancestors for dark jungle.  Actually,
"Sea Lettuce" is more reminiscent of Rough Trade obscurity
Arthur Russell, a New York avant-gardist who turned onto
disco and made some classic aqua-funk/proto-garage trax like
"Bang Go Bang", "Let's Go Swimming" and "Indian Ocean".
Despite its samples of waves and ship-ropes creaking, "The
Sea Lettuce" doesn't actually carry a heavy oceanic concept
(it's titled after the nickname of their friend Mary).



The Rough Trade link-up is significant in so far as
Spring Heel are the first in a soon-come series of indie
appropriations of jungle (Bark Psychosis recently played a
breakbeat set, Laika have a jungle track in the can, etc)
"Sea Lettuce" even incorporates rock noise--John's "open-
tuned guitar which I bowed with a slide and held up against
the amp, so that there's a gush of feedback." John admires
reinventors of the guitar like Hendrix and The Stooges' James
Williamson, but he's far more interested in the sampler.
"It's the greatest instrument on the planet. Anyone could do
something interesting in the studio with a sampler, although
not necessarily something great."



What about the future of jungle? The duo sees the genre
splitting off in at least three different directions: the
ragga-influenced stuff, the hardcore drum & bass, and the
ambient/intelligent sound associated with Moving Shadow.  The
latter is where Spring Heel fit best: "music that works at
home as well as in clubs," says Ash "and doesn't need drugs."
John, though, thinks the 'intelligent' label is problematic.
"There's a danger that the music press will focus on the
mellower music, and ignore the ruffer jungle--basically the
black stuff".



As for Spring Heel Jack's own future, next up is the
second single 'Where Do You Fit In' b/w 'Fast and Sad',
followed by an LP early next year.  "Some of it's very odd.
We call it use-less jungle--no beats, you can't dance to it!"











Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Black Moth Super Rainbow

Black Moth Super Rainbow
Dandelion Gum
(Graveface)
Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds



The story goes that Dandelion Gum is a concept album about forest-dwelling, candy-making witches thatwas recorded in a Pennsylvania backwoods cabin by five musicians who hide behind aliases like Father Hummingbird. Mystique cultivation? Maybe, but that’s okay, because the set-up suits perfectly Black Moth’s blend of idyllic, macabre, and kooky. Vintage synths whinny and dapple over crisply funky drum machine beats, while singer Tobacco feeds his voice through a vocoder, an effect that ought to be cheesy but is here ecstatic and otherwordly.



The missing link between Daft Punk’s cosmic kitsch and the wistful bliss of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Black Moth’s sound triggers the same elegiac sensation as light-bleached family vacation photos or Super 8 home movies with their sun streaks and saturated colors. The song titles and lyrics fixatedly refer to summer and sunshine, and the music itself seems to ripple its way to our ears through the sonic equivalent of heat-haze.  Dandelion Gum is the sublime surprise of the season.




                                                                                                

Monday, October 12, 2015

Van Der Graaf Generator

VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR
The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other
H to He Who am the Only One
Pawn Hearts
Charisma/Virgin/EMI
Blender, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Earlier this year Van Der Graaf Generator reformed and released their first album in decades. The timing was perfect: groups like Mars Volta have been busily rehabilitating and renovating the “prog” concept by giving it an aggressive, noisy edge. Punk-prog was always VDGG’s game, though. Check out these reissues and you’ll see why Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten admired VDGG frontman Peter Hammill’s piercing vocals and macabre lyrical imagination. Now and then you’ll even hear  uncanny advance glimpses of Rotten's snarl-sneer in Hammill’s aristocratic and dramatic tones. On 1970's The Least We Can Do, though, the singer sounds more like Arthur Brown of "Fire" fame, while the music has yet to shed the glad-rags of late psychedelia. On H To He, from later in 1970, VDGG blossom into a mighty monster with hard-riffing tunes like "Killer," powered by the rasping raunch of David Jackson's twin saxophones and the murky churn of Hugh Banton's keyboards. " 1971’s Pawn Hearts climaxes with the ten-part song-cycle "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers," which took up entire second side of the original album and moves through trudging bombast, woodwind-laced ambience, musique concrete outbursts, and more. Yes, it's portentous, and sure, it's pretentious. It's also visceral, and surprisingly swingin', thanks to the lithe drumming of Guy Evans. These reissues are expanded with splendid bonus material like the 15-minute triptych "Squid 1/Squid 2/Octopus."  

Young Marble Giants

YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS
Liner notes by Simon Reynolds

Postpunk and “perfection” rarely went together. This was an era of experimental over-reach, of bands catalysed by the punk do-it-yourself principle attempting to expand the music by embracing genres (funk, reggae, jazz) that in their original context relied on virtuosity and slickness. Artistic ambition and anyone-can-do-it amateurism make for uneasy bedfellows, and many of the key groups of the period made records that were closer to sketches towards an ideal of a new music than the fully-realised deal. Even some of the accredited classics that defined the era—Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Gang of Four’s Entertainment—have the odd moment or several that are substandard, botched, or simply misconceived. And really, that’s okay, because perfection wasn’t the point of postpunk. What was? Throwing out ideas, setting challenges for band and audience alike, keeping the collective conversation moving. That’s why groups like Cabaret Voltaire, the Pop Group, Scritti Politti, Throbbing Gristle, were heroic figures, true catalysts.

What this does mean, though, is that there are really just a handful of long-form recordings from the entire 1978-84 period that are immaculate from conception to construction. The Slits’ Cut, Slates by the Fall, Pere Ubu’s first two albums… and Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth. The Cardiff trio’s one-and-only album contains not a wasted note, barely a blemish. The individual songs have something of the “rightness” of things found in nature—leaves, snowflakes, pebbles, sea-shells—that are at once miraculous yet commonplace, marvelous and unassuming. Together the tunes add up to a perfectly sequenced whole, a cohesive experience. Colossal Youth became the independent scene equivalent of a blockbuster smash on its release in early 1980, and clearly the punters were partly responding to the sheer quality and aesthetic integrity of the record, which arrived without fanfare, seemingly from nowhere. But they were also spellbound by the originality and unusual-ness of the sound—there was nothing else like Young Marble Giants around at the time—and by its quiet radicalism. Colossal Youth was followed by a couple of EPs, and then the group split up, to everyone’s surprise and dismay. Frustrating as this disintegration was for fans, it had the beneficial side-effect of ensuring that the group left a small, perfectly-formed body of work—compact enough to fit on a compact disc.

*          *          *

The story of Young Marble Giants starts with two brothers, Stuart and Philip Moxham. They grew up in Cardiff, but were half-English, their father's side of the family hailing from Gloucestershire farming stock. And there are actually four Moxham brothers. The eldest, Richard, was an adventurous spirit and returned from travels in the Far East with a fantastic record collection and a great stereo. Stuart, the principal songwriter and driving force in Young Marble Giants, fondly recalls his adolescent initiation, via Richard’s “top-of-the range headphones”, into the pleasures of immersive listening. At this point--the early Seventies--the sounds he lost himself in consisted of progressive rock and folky singer-songwriters such as Neil Young, Ralph McTell, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.

Stuart had some of his older brother’s restlessness and signed on for a see-the-world stint in the Royal Navy. Returning to Cardiff, he took up music-making at the relatively late-starter age of twenty and was soon playing guitar in a band called True Wheel (the name came from the title of the Brian Eno song on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), the very same ditty whose lyrics supplied A Certain Ratio with their name). In another fit of restlessness, Stuart jumped on his motorbike and drove to Norwich, where he lived for a period, working on a farm. When he came back to Cardiff, True Wheel had recruited his brother Philip as bassist, and a teenage girl called Alison Statton had joined as a backing singer. Stuart shifted roles to become the band’s frontman; Philip and Alison, meanwhile, started dating.

True Wheel was a covers band and Stuart, looking for a vehicle for his songwriting, decided to start his own band. He invited Philip to join. Philip agreed--but only on condition that Alison was involved. Stuart wasn’t keen on this idea at all: he had envisaged singing his own songs. But he really wanted to work with his brother, on account of their “telepathic” musical bond. “We were very close, and when it came to playing, we had a phenomenal communication… we could jam and change key at exactly the same time, stop at the same time.” So Stuart agreed to Alison being the vocalist, but with “a tiny seed of resentment” lodged in his heart right from the start.

Formed in November 1978, Young Marble Giants found their name in a book about classical sculpture. Later they would put the text in question on the back sleeve of the Final Day EP: "...Young marble giants greeted the sailor as he entered the home stretch to Athens. Two basic intuitions of Greek art -- tensed vitality and geometric structuring -- are as yet disunited; the sculptor partly carves, partly maps an abstract concept of human form onto the rectangular block." Something of this quality of geometric starkness and clarity of form infused the group’s sound, very much a consciously chosen and conceptualized-in-advance style, as opposed to something evolved haphazardly. Hating what Stuart described in one interview as “this business of Phil Spectorism, this whole idea of masses of strings and layers of sound,” the brothers rejected its modern equivalent, the punk rock “wall of noise” built from thickly layered guitars and fuzzed-out distortion. Instead, like an old fashioned pocket watch with its casing open to reveal the moving parts, the Young Marble Giants sound would be pared and bare, its meshwork of cogs and spindles exposed in all its intricate distinctness. As Philip would later express it, "You write the gaps as much as you write the music."

Crucial to the band’s crisp and dry sound was Stuart’s Rickenbacker, “a very trebly guitar” which he played using “an extremely hard plectrum, called a shark fin, with a serrated edge.” Throughout the YMG songbook, Stuart eschews lead-guitar flourishes and soloistic playing in favour of  a signature style of scurrying rhythm guitar, its characteristic choppy quality reliant upon on a technique called “muting”, where “you’re basically resting the hand that you strum with on the strings.” The result was a feel that was dynamic and propulsive yet curiously suppressed, subdued, even furtive. Philip played his bass high, such that it was frequently mistaken by listeners for another guitar; indeed, with Stuart’s playing so intensely rhythmic and stripped-down, the bassline was often the melodic thread in YMG songs. The brothers’ instruments wound around each other like fibres twining into yarn. “We became immensely tight,” says Stuart. He attributes their supernatural synchrony not just to fraternal closeness but to their use of machine rhythm. Instead of a human drummer, YMG twitched to the precision pulse of a very basic drum machine. “We were playing to what was effectively an electronic metronome”, akin to the click-track used by sessions musicians in recording studios.

Stuart compares the interplay between himself and Philip to “knitting”--a strikingly un-rock’n’roll and non-macho metaphor that speaks volumes about the low-key radicalism of YMG music. Alison Statton’s voice meshed perfectly with this androgynous sound. Seventeen years old when the band started, a trainee dental nurse at the University Hospital of Wales, Statton sang with a plaintive simplicity and cool pallor of tone that bypassed all the mannered drama of the singerly arts. Statton arrived at this unadorned naturalism without much conscious stylization. “I admire a trained voice or 'real singer', someone who can belt it out and you never doubt they can hit any note they want to, but I have always loved the exposure of a naked human voice and all its frailties and the individual-ness that comes with that exposure, that honesty,” she muses. “It adds a tension yet it also makes me feel more connected to the person singing.” Alison’s intriguingly motley music taste does help to explain her avoidance of straight-ahead rock raunch and soul-blues emoting: “Hymns, disco, the Residents, nursery rhymes,” is the list of favored listening she gave in one 1980 interview, while another journalist noted the presence of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Tom Waits and Ultravox in her record collection. “I did like the raw energy of punk rock at live gigs,” Alison says now, “but I was more inspired by less urgent, quieter music--less 'masculine' sounds if you like. I can remember being mesmerised by the church organ in the Scottish Presbyterian church on a Sunday and can still hear the detail of a dropped hymn book echoing or a stifled cough when it stopped and silence fell once again. Then there's the music one’s parents listen to, in my case Orkney fiddle and accordion music, swing bands and crooners with the likes of the original 'My Way'. It all somehow settles itself into your musical psyche whether you want it to or not! It's always been the points of sound in silence that get my attention most of all--the ticking of the clock and crackle of the fire in Mr. Morgan's parlour, the rain on a window pane or an owl at night. Those are the sounds that have an exquisite intensity for me.”

There was a shadowy “fourth member” of Young Marble Giants, a non-musician who nonetheless played a vital technical role. The Moxham brothers’ cousin Pete Joyce was a telephone engineer by trade and a dab hand at cobbling together electronic gizmos; he was also a fan of avant-garde rock bands like Pere Ubu and Can. Joyce built YMG’s drum machine from a diagram in Practical Wireless, and he also made them a ring modulator. “It had two inputs and one output, so you’d put two things in and it would blend them together,” recalls Stuart. “You could put the drum machine and the electric organ in and you would be able to play the drum machine. It was like an early sampler in a way, the pitch of it would go up and down.” The ring modulator and other gizmos (including the non-kiddy version of the Stylophone, a very rudimentary synthesizer) embellished the basic YMG sound with wisps of electronic sound and subliminal drone-tones.

“We had a very limited palette–electric guitar, electric organ, drum machine and ring modulator… Oh, and voice, of course,” says Stuart. On first hearing, this was the most striking aspect of Young Marble Giants: the sheer emaciation of the sound, the miniaturization of detail. Rather than blaring in your face or grabbing the lapels of your attention, this was music that drew you into its withdrawn and chilly stillness, rapt you with its moods of stealth and solitude. Not exactly rock’n’roll, then, and as such primed to chime with the ideals of 1979, a year in which the postpunk vanguard of PiL and Cabaret Voltaire were loudly insisting on the utter obsolescence of rock and looking for music’s future in the studio-based innovations of disco and dub.

PiL and the Cabs were just two of countless bands who loudly lambasted The Clash and (bizarrely) Chuck Berry as representing the definition of arriéré-garde, everything that modernist music should be renouncing and leaving for dead. YMG also went in for this kind of rhetoric a little bit. In one interview, Stuart recalled an early gig they played in Cardiff--an industrial town oriented around heavy rock bands and twelve-bar blues--during which an audience member shouted out “play rock and roll!” “So I kind of went into this Chuck Berry riff, and then stopped and said ‘look, anyone can do that. They're doing it all over town. But we want to do this. If you want that, go somewhere else’.” Yet weirdly there was a subliminal rock’n’roll element in YMG music.  Stuart loved both the twangy instrumental rock of Duane Eddy and the crisp rhythm-and-blues playing of Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs; on certain YMG tunes, like “Include Me Out”, there’s a dashing rock’n’roll feel redolent of Eddie Cochran or Bo Diddley, while “Brand-New-Life” sounds a bit like The Police’s “Message in A Bottle”. “In a lot of ways, I was a frustrated rocker. A lot of those riffs would sound great on loud, distorted guitars in a conventional band. There’s something a bit repressed about Young Marble Giants music.” Yet the restraint, the leashing, of that impulse to rock-out, is crucial to YMG’s sound. This was rock’n’roll Anglicised, the urge to cut loose checked by a native reserve and inhibition. In another sense, it’s the authentic sonic depiction of mental unrest and emotional disquiet; the way the music moves suggests someone physically immobile but internally agitated. “Music for Evenings”, for instance, simmers with damped-down rage, jitters with imploded violence.

Cardiff being such a rock town, YMG struggled to have any impact, playing a handful of local gigs (as few as four, by some reckonings) and selling cassettes of early tape-reel recordings via the local Virgin record store, where Stuart worked. What New Wave/postpunk scene there was clustered around the coffee bar Grassroots, a social advice center run by Cardiff City Council. The place had a practice room for bands and hosted the occasional performance. YMG’s debut at Grassroots wasn’t especially auspicious: legend has it they played to an audience of exactly one. Generally, crowds tended to be perplexed by the sight of a band without a drummer. YMG didn’t even have a drum machine onstage, just a Casio cassette machine playing a “tatty old mono cassette,” recalls Stuart. “Phil would play the bass and at the end of the track he’d turn off the tape recorder with his knee. And it worked fine.”

YMG did become friendly, though, with the prime movers of the Grassroots scene, Reptile Ranch, a group who were far more plugged into the postpunk scene across the UK. Specifically, they aligned themselves with the do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself sector pioneered by the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti. A key aspect to postpunk’s ethos of democratizing music-making was the idea of resisting the centralization of the music industry in London. Hence the late Seventies upsurge of independent labels and musicians collectives in the provinces. One manifestation of this defiant regionalism was a spate of city-based compilations aiming to showcase local talent, albums like Hicks From the Sticks, Bouquet of Steel, Avon Calling, Norwich, A Fine City, Street To Street: A Liverpool Album, and many more.

In the spirit of the time, Reptile Ranch assembled a Cardiff compilation titled Is The War Over? and released it via their label Z Block. The initial spur to action came when the band saw a South Bank Show documentary about Rough Trade. As well as a shop and label, Rough Trade was also a distribution company. Working in tandem with similar companies across the country, Rough Trade had been the driving force behind the establishment of a nationwide independent distribution network. As historian Dave Cavanagh noted in his book My Magpie Eyes Have Seen the Prize, “in the context of post-punk Britain” Rough Trade’s efforts ““were as beneficial and as provident as if they had been building the first roads.” Lacking effective distribution, independent labels outside London had hitherto relied on mail-order and the hospitality of whatever record stores they could physically reach. But the system developed by Rough Trade and the other members of the Cartel (as the alliance of regional distributors came to be known) meant that all kinds of remote and far-flung musical eccentrics could reach a national audience. Or even an international one, as Rough Trade’s tentacles began to extend overseas and form alliances with similar companies in America and Europe

YMG contributed two tracks to Is The War Over?, “Ode to Booker T" and "Searching for Mr. Right," recorded in a rough-and-ready studio upstairs at Grassroots. When Reptile Ranch went up to London to talk to Rough Trade about getting distribution for the compilation, Geoff Travis--the label’s co-founder and A&R visionary--immediately noticed there was something special about the YMG songs, despite their demo-like  recording quality. “Reptile Ranch went up to London to peddle our wares and came back with the glad tidings,” recalls Alison. “I was gobsmacked!” Suddenly, says Stuart, “we were in London and Geoff Travis was asking, ‘what do you want to do next?’. Rather than the obvious first step of recording a debut single, Stuart wanted to gamble on the bigger impact of coming out of nowhere with a full album. Eventually he swayed his band-mates to the risky notion and Rough Trade dispatched the group to Foel Studios, a converted farmhouse in the rolling hills around Llanfair Caereinion in mid-Wales.  Foel’s owner Dave Anderson was a veteran of longhair kosmic rockers Amon Duul II and Hawkwind and had already engineered the debut album by another Rough Trade act, Essential Logic. YMG recorded Colossal Youth in just five days, spending a mere twenty minutes per track each when it came to mixing the album. “When we were finished doing all the mixes, we turned all the lights out and listened to it really loud. It was all I could do to stop crying," Stuart recalled in a 1981 interview. At the end, Anderson asked if he could be credited as producer, as opposed to just engineer, and YMG, with some reluctance, assented. In hindsight, Stuart Moxham thinks the credit was thoroughly deserved, capturing their sound in all its delicacy and nakedness being no small achievement.

Listening to Colossal Youth, the word “naked” seems quite apt, as it often feels like you’re eavesdropping on someone’s private thoughts: you don’t catch all the references, the meaning is often cloudy, but the aura of intimacy and inwardness is unmistakable. “It’s that cliché, artists as people who can’t communicate in normal ways,” says Stuart. “They don’t go to the pub, they sit in a room and agonize. For me, writing the songs was a cathartic exercise. When I came to do sleevenotes for the first re-release some years ago, that was the first time I’d seen all the lyrics in one place. I hadn’t even thought about them for 15 years and suddenly I was looking at myself at the age of 25. There was all this wisdom in the lyrics I hadn’t seen. Almost like I was wiser than I could’ve dreamt and was writing advice to myself–and not being able to take it, of course.” The songs on Colossal Youth, he explained in a 1980 interview, “are all based on things that happened to me with my girlfriend. That's the most important thing that's happened to me in years, meeting this particular girl and what we've been through.  We broke up and now we're back together again. It's been a really stormy relationship." 

Not that this was really confessional songwriting in the blatantly open-souled, “dear diary” sense. “N.I.T.A.” veers from anguished clarity (“it’s nice to hear you’re having a good time/but it still hurts 'cos you used to be mine/This doesn't mean that I possessed you/You're haunting me because I let you”) to dream-logic opacity (“shape up your body "Let's be a tree"”) before signposting its own coded obliqueness with the cryptic line “Nature intended the abstract for you and me”. The abstraction got heightened by the distancing effect of Stuart’s words being ventriloquised through Alison. “It’s really weird … when I sing it, it tends to be emotional because the lyrics are mine,” Stuart noted in one interview. “Alison on the other hand is really laid back and unemotional sounding.  It's a strange paradox, a disinterested voice singing about something emotional."

Not all of Stuart’s songs were torn from his troubled love life. Others were more existential musings or simply involved the joys of mucking about with language. “It was that Devo/Bowie cut-up arty approach to lyric-writing really. Something like ‘Choci Loni, it was almost like Edward Lear. The words are obscure and deeply personal. That whole language in that song is my family’s baby talk –which even we don’t talk about. But nobody would ever suss that!”

Although Stuart was the main creative force, Philip and Alison together wrote one of Colossal Youth’s stand-out songs, “Eating Noddemix”. Alison’s lyric is a kind of split-screen movie, juxtaposing a girl going through her daily routines (munching the Swiss cereal bar of the title, adjusting her make-up) with horrific accidents (a collapsed apartment building, a train crash) that are going on simultaneously. “Just one of those moments when you realise we're all preoccupied with the mindlessness of the everyday routine, not realising how precious every moment of this existence is,” muses Alison today. “Meanwhile, elsewhere, people are meeting an abrupt end to it all. Death comes without warning.”  The song ends with a slightly comical voice-over, Alison impersonating an “official”-sounding, hard-bitten voice--a police officer or ambulance worker perhaps, or maybe a news reporter--who switches from talking about the tragedy to their TV-viewing plans for that evening without missing a beat. “I hate that voiceover bit at the end but basically it's looking at how people who face these realities on a daily basis adopt a matter of fact, hardened distance to it all. We can't stay in that vital space for long without anaesthetising ourselves in some way.”

Certain songs glisten with a particular intensity, but Colossal Youth really takes effect as a whole. It’s an album of great songs, but also, in a way, an ambient record. Stuart mentions the headphone listening that was such an important part of his youth--“That’s the ultimate way of getting inside the music and cutting off the world: you’re not available, you’re inside the headphones, dedicated to listening”--adding that in his opinion “all truly great music has two elements: atmosphere, and detail. So it works on the micro and the macro.” Abundantly endowed with both, Colossal Youth is almost the postpunk counterpart to Dark Side of the Moon.  Although maybe the Brian Eno of Another Green World and the second, slower and more tranquil half of Before and After Science is more apt: all those songs about castaways and  daydreamers, washed-up and washed-out characters who’ve hemorrhaged all their will power. “I remember saying in one interview that what I wanted the album to do was to sound like a radio that’s between stations, and you’re listening to it under the bed-clothes at 4-AM, and you’re getting  these fantastic short wave sounds and snatches of modulated sounds,” recalls Stuart.  Colossal Youth seems “real” in the sense that it evokes, through its textures as much as the songs, those large portions of our lives that are interstitial and event-less: the nullity of waiting or killing time; the long stretches of lethargy and languor, low-level anxiety or pensive reverie. 

When Colossal Youth arrived in record stores in February 1980, it looked as striking as it sounded. The cover was a black-and-white portrait of the group taken by Patrick Graham, with the trio’s heads catching the light so that one half of each face glowed palely while the other side disappeared into inky blackness. The image had a sort of timeless classicism faintly redolent of an early Beatles album cover, but also made the YMG look statuesque, their impassive expressions perfectly indicative of the subdued aura of the music. Colossal Youth was instantly successful, as if people had been waiting for exactly this sound: music by introverts, for introverts. In the independent scene context, the album was a best-seller, peaking at #3 in the indie charts and shifting some 27 thousand copies in the immediate year of its release. Because Rough Trade operated its famously non-exploitative 50/50 deals, which split profits (after costs had been made back) evenly between label and band, YMG actually saw some dough. “Enough to wish I hadn't frittered it away,” laughs Alison. “I seem to remember a phase of eating out all the time! But I lived in a squat at the time and certainly wasn't going on expensive holidays and investing in offshore banking. Let's just say it earned a meagre living.” Stuart did better than the others, having written the bulk of the songs and also getting a publishing deal off the back of Colossal Youth.

Doing their first round of music paper interviews, Young Marble Giants left many journalists enchanted. Typically they presented the group as small-town naifs, often fixating on Alison’s fresh-faced aura, her plimsoles and print dresses and ankle socks. . Dave McCullough from Sounds, a big YMG supporter, described Alison as “wide-eyed and straight out of a Girl's Own story, as the heroine, of course.  You get the impression she's going to fall over any minute in the big-city smog, and that she's been brought up on fresh cow's milk and healthy Girl Guide rambles through the Welsh valleys.  She looks frighteningly innocent.” Yet Alison was a smoker in those days, and Cardiff, an industrial city, was hardly a remote haven from the hurly-burly of modernity.
That said, Young Marble Giants did stick out somewhat in the Rough Trade milieu, where they were warmly welcomed but never quite fitted with the bohemian/radical vibe that surrounded the label, which hostile outsiders tended to describe with derogatory terms like “brown rice” or “hippie”. “It was quite a different world,” says Alison, adding that that although “we met some incredibly kind people there, in another sense it was a bit overwhelming for me. I felt naive and lacked confidence.”  In 1979-80, Rough Trade was at its zenith of power and influence, with a roster that included many of the leading post-punk bands of the day: Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, The Fall, The Raincoats, The Pop Group, Essential Logic, This Heat, Red Crayola, Kleenex, and Pere Ubu. The Raincoats--an all-female feminist band based in Westbourne Grove, a short walk from Rough Trade’s headquarters just off Portobello Road--virtually adopted the wide-eyed provincials. “They took us under their wing like feisty aunties or something,” recalls Stuart. “On one level they were kind of frighteningly feminist and that was new to us. They didn’t shave their legs, for instance. On another level, they were very kind to us”. Young Marble Giants played their debut London gig with the Raincoats in Deptford, bringing Stuart’s dog Nixon to the venue. They also became close to This Heat, a ferociously intense trio of proggers-turned-postpunkers who resembled the Soft Machine stripped of English whimsy and jacked-up on Cold War paranoia. But more important than anyone else was Geoff Travis, who became something of a father figure to Stuart, especially after he moved up to London. “Geoff actually said ’I‘ll always have faith in anything you do,’ which is such a fantastic thing to say.” Alison recalls Travis as “a very quiet and gentle guy with a knack for picking out potential other people missed. I remember him playing me a Smiths demo he'd just got hold of when I was at the Rough Trade offices and to be honest I couldn't jump up and down with excitement on my brief listening, but Geoff was very animated about it.”

The gambit/gamble of releasing their debut album first, rather than a single had paid off: Young Marble Giants had made a major statement and blown everybody away just as Stuart had hoped. Now, reversing the normal sequence of things, YMG recorded their debut single, “Final Day”. Actually, it was a four-track EP, but the title track eclipsed the other tunes so utterly it tends to be remembered as a single. On its June 1980 release, it became a night-time Radio One hit, played heavily on John Peel’s show at first and then getting picked up by the early evening DJs.

“Final Day” captures the feeling of 1980, a year of mounting dread that nuclear Armageddon was nigh. The Cold War, which had briefly thawed in the mid-Seventies with détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, had abruptly plunged back below freezing point, the election of saber-rattling conservative leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the West being matched by a renewed hard line from the Soviet Politburo. The geopolitical backdrop to this terrible re-polarisation was turmoil in the Middle East: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (to prop up a socialist government threatened by fundamentalist rebels), the Iranian Revolution and the seizing of US hostages by Ayatollah Khomeini’s government. In response to the escalating tension between the superpowers, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, dormant since its early Sixties heyday, reactivated. In 1980 CND organised massive anti-nuclear rallies in the UK to protest the deployment of American Trident missiles in the UK--a move, its critics argued, that would turn Britain into a client state cum launching pad for America and Target #1 for Soviet warheads in any full-blown nuclear exchange.

“Final Day” wasn’t the only pop song to register the mood of apprehension. UB40’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” and Kate Bush’s “Breathing” actually made the charts, while on the postpunk underground YMG’s buddies This Heat recorded Deceit, virtually a concept album about the balance of terror and the quiescent complicity of ordinary people in the insanity of mutual assured destruction. But “Final Day” was the most effectively chilling evocation, from the subliminal keyboard drone running through the whole track (“I put a matchstick in one the keys to get that tone,” chuckles Stuart”) to Alison’s forlorn fatalism as she intones the lines “As the light goes out on the final day/For the people who never had a say,” to the sheer startling brevity of the statement (the song lasts just one minute and 39 seconds). “It was the easiest song to write, it just came out perfectly formed, and it took as long to write as it does to listen to,” says Stuart, explaining that the lines “when the rich die last/Like the rabbits” is a fusion of “an Ian Fleming short story about how rich people will die last because that’s the privilege of wealth, and the fact that apparently in a nuclear war rabbits will survive longest, along with beetles.”

*          *          *

Having arrived with a double debut more auspicious and immaculate than even Joy Division’s (who emerged from the coarse chrysalis of Warsaw) Young Marble Giants seemed poised for greatness. The only problem was translating what they did to the stage:  music so un-rock was hardly likely to rock a crowd. The band became (in)famous for its lack of onstage presence, the static presentation owing to stage nerves as much as the nature of their music. “We used to smoke a hell of a lot, that was it,” says Stuart. “I used to line up my cigarettes on the electric organ at sound-check and virtually chain smoke our way through the set.” Alison recalls Stuart being “the most animated out of all of us, the one with the best rapport with the audience--but even that was limited.”  But this was all part of what she calls the music’s “human factor”. “We were all exposed and stripped back to the bare bones both in an audio and visual sense. I'm sure sometimes people held their breath from start to finish at a concert. You could sometimes hear a pin drop between songs.”  None of this went down well with your average punk audience, so it’s hardly any wonder that the group sometimes fantasized in interviews about finding alternative venues more genial to their music. They told Sounds they’d prefer to “play chamber- music places… places where people can just sit down,  relax and listen,” like churches with their reverberant acoustics or even “rural places”.

Despite these problems with live performance, Young Marble Giants embarked on a tour of North America late in 1980, although it could be more truthfully be called an East Coast/West Coast tour, the group understandably shying away from
venturing into the rock’n’roll heartland. In Los Angeles, they played a gig at a Czechoslovakian community center. There was a batch of shows in the Bay Area,  San Francisco being the bohemian capital of the West Coast and America’s #2 postpunk city after New York(Rough Trade even had a branch of its record store in Frisco at that point). “We stayed in a converted fire station loft owned by two artists, with a cool veggie restaurant/bar downstairs called The Right Spot,” recalls Alison. There was a show at the Berkeley Keystone, an outdoor concert with the Flaming Groovies (a real chalk and cheese pairing, that one), and a show in Palo Alto, 35 miles to the South of San Francisco, at a club run by Hells Angels. After playing a gig in Vancouver, they switched to the Eastern seaboard, playing several shows in New York and New Jersey: two nights at Hurrah’s, a New Wave club that was a haven both for visiting Anglo bands and for NYC Anglophiles, plus a gig in Hoboken, NJ, a short ride on the Path train from Manhattan. “New York I found more depressing than San Francisco, but then I was ill at the time,” says Alison.  Severe tensions had also developed within the band during the American traipse: between Stuart and Alison, between Stuart and his brother, and, fatally, between Alison and Philip, who actually split up midway through the tour. 

The amorous discord didn’t result in Young Marble Giants’ equivalent to Rumours, however. The next release was low-key: Testcard, a six track EP of “instrumentals in praise and celebration of mid-morning television music”.  In those days, there were extended periods during the day when British TV ceased programming and instead broadcast just the Testcard--an intricately coloured and geometrically patterned diagram designed so that TV repair men could adjust the definition and color. This static image was accompanied by a peculiar sort of lite-jazzy Muzak whose crisp definition and detailed arrangements lent itself to similar fine-tuning of the TV’s sound reproduction. Stuart had absorbed this music as a child hanging out chez his grandmother, who kept the TV on constantly as a sort of hearth-warming ambient presence. Outlining the concept of the EP (the work of the Moxham brothers, Alison being sidelined still by illness) to NME, Stuart argued that “any kind of ambient music just isn't listened to seriously but it has a lot of merits. We've been influenced by testcard music, by nursery rhymes, by popular classical music--all that light, fringe stuff. The sound of those great big cinema organs, fairground music… I don't listen to it as much as, say, Radio One but I enjoy it a lot more."

A couple of months before the EP’s release, though, and just as they were being anointed one of 1980’s best new groups in the NME’s reader poll, in January 1981 Young Marble Giants announced they were splitting up. While Alison and Philip’s break-up was clearly problematic, the main problem was Stuart’s feeling that, since he was writing 80 percent of the material and handling the band’s business affairs, he should be the group’s frontman. The attention paid to Alison as the singer aggravated him, and burst out in an NME interview when the subject of her having being voted one of 1980’s best female singers came up: “But Alison’s not a singer! She’s someone who sings. Alison sings as if she was at the bus-stop or something. A real singer sings with more control”. The comment inadvertently pinpointed precisely what was special and even innovative about her vocals: a naturalistic style of under-singing later picked up by Barney Sumner in New Order, among many others over the years. In a late 1980 interview conducted during the American tour, Stuart had confessed, “it is frustrating not to sing the things. I'm not writing songs 'cos I want to be a musician, I'm writing them 'cos that's the only way I've got to express myself." Finally, the “seed of resentment” that had lodged in his heart at the very formation of the group blossomed, and Stuart announced that he was starting a sideline group, The Gist, in which he would be the singer.

Although officially presented as a sideline to Young Marble Giants, the announcement precipitated the break-up. Especially as it had been preceded by various attempts by Stuart to kick Alison out of the band. From the start, admits Stuart, he “didn’t really want to have Alison in the band, I wanted Phil but I took Alison on as well because it was a fait accompli. I thought nothing’s going to happen anyway, but when it did happen it did matter. I wasn’t mature enough to deal with it. I made Alison suffer and I’m really sorry for it.”  It was a messy moment made worse by the split-up between Philip and Alison and Stuart’s final break-up with Wendy Smith, and the obvious solution was to scatter. So ended the short and bittersweet existence of Young Marble Giants, just two years, evenly divided between obscurity and fame.

With hindsight, “it was the best thing for all of us,” Alison concludes philosophically. “The good thing is I'm really fond of Stuart now but that might not have occurred had we not had that space and distance to grow up in.”  The brothers too reconciled reasonably swiftly, with Philip helping out on some of the Gist recordings. Inevitably, there’s a temptation to wonder what might have happened if they’d resolved their differences and reformed after a brief furlough. What if Stuart could have relaxed his creative control enough to allow more space for the budding songwriting talent evidenced by Alison and Philip’s “Eating Noddemix” and Philip/Stuart co-authored pearls like “Choci Loni”? Could they have translated YMG’s magic into pop music, or something close enough, and endured as a Cocteau Twins-level group, or even achieved the mainstream success of Everything But the Girl, contemporaries of theirs?  Je ne regrette rien, says Alison. “We might have all gone doolally!” It’s also hard to imagine something as fragile as YMG’s music surviving the grind and graft required to really make it in the music business.

As Rough Trade’s top-selling band after Stiff Little Fingers, the ex-Giants were encouraged by Geoff Travis to pursue any musical impulses they had. In 1982, Stuart released a flurry of records as The Gist, including three singles and an album, Embrace the Herd; after this, his musical activity became more sporadic, spurts of solo work alternating with periods working as an animator and a driving instructor.  Philip Moxham briefly joined Pere Ubu singer David Thomas’ solo sideline outfit the Pedestrians and also played with Everything But the Girl. Alison formed Weekend with Spike from Reptile Ranch and another Cardiffian, Simon Booth, who had been a key member of the Camden squatland collective/think-tank that surrounded Scritti Politti. On singles like "The View From Her Room" and on the album La Variete, Weekend embraced an idea of “jazz” then circulating through the post-postpunk hipsterland: melodic and Latin-tinged, as opposed to fiery and freeform, as purveyed by the likes of Carmel, the Style Council (in their Café Bleu, left-Bank Parisian beatnik mode), and Everything But the Girl, who covered Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” in the style of Astrid Gilberto and got played on Radio 2 for their pains. When Weekend split up, Booth formed the jazzier Working Week and Alison embarked upon a musical partnership with Ian Devine (formerly the accomplice of confrontational postpunk chanteuse Linder Sterling in the band Ludus). Later Alison would join up with Spike again to record a couple of albums. Nowadays she she’s a chiropractor. “As far as music goes, there are a couple of 'quiet' projects in the pipeline and quite a lot of interest in YMG stuff. But with work and two children there's no sense of urgency. Que sera.”

And the legacy of Young Marble Giants? The sound is close to inimitable, but over the decades there have been audible echoes, whether conscious borrowings or simply a group discovering for themselves the same principles. In the late Eighties, drumless outfit Hugo Largo played their tranquil, glinting songs to New York audiences sitting on the floor. In the Nineties, you could detect the YMG imprint in some of the more melodious post-rock groups like Pram and Insides, as well as the idyllictronic toy-music of Mouse on Mars and Mum. And then there’s the fact that Kurt Cobain was a massive YMG fan and had planned for Nirvana to cover Colossal Youth’s “Credit in the Straight World”, perhaps seeing this oblique opt-out anthem as the perfect protest rock for a passive-aggressive, narcoleptic generation. As it happened, he never got around to doing it, but his widow Courtney Love recorded a version on Hole’s grunge-goes-glossy blockbuster Live Through This.

Mostly, though, the legacy is the music itself, that slender and virtually flawless body of work that has proved impervious to the eroding attrition of time. Although the members carried on making music fitfully after going their separate ways, the name Young Marble Giants itself retains a kind of immaculateness—there’s no after-trail of legend-disgracing lesser material, precious little in the way of demos, basement tapes, out-takes, and the like. For once, the Collected Works = the Best of. You hold it in your hands, or hear it in your ears, as you read these words.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

garage rap footnotes (2003)

Footnotes from Blissblog to the Garage Rap Village Voice piece
Blissblog March 2003


1/ there was even hybrid rave-rap, with performers like Rebel MC, Ragga Twins, and Demon Boyz.

Plus the ones I didn’t have space to mention: Unique 3 (most reknowned for pioneering bleep’n’bass tekno, but on various B-sides and on the album Jus Unique they did a few rather shaky-sounding rap-rave tracks and were basically a B-boy crew who got tripped out by acieeed) and most heinous omission Shut Up and Dance. Who started out as the Britrap outfit Private Party ("My Tennants", way ahead of Roots Manuva, and a pisstake on Run DMC for sponsorship tune "My Adidas), then as SUAD did tunes like “Rap’s My Occupation” and “Here Comes A Different Type of Rap Track not the Usual 4 Bar Loop Crap”. Their conflicted relationship with hip hop (they wanted to be a UK Public Enemy, but thought the latter were sonically staid) was surpassed only by their conflicted relationship with rave (they deplored drug culture and declared “we’re not a rave group, we’re a fast hip hop group”). But despite doing socially concerned tunes raps “This Town Needs A Sheriff” most of their big anthems were sample-collages that updated slightly the DJ record style of Bomb the Bass/Coldcut/MARRS. Still, SUAD’s comeback of the last few years is all too appropriate, with killer tunes like “Moving Up” (not a fully-fledged rap track with verses, but with enough of a MC vocal lick thing to fit the current moment). Ragga Twins, who I did mention, were on the SUAD label and now seem especially ahead-of-their-time, with the Belgian h-core uproar of their “Mixed Truth” prophesying the gabba-garridge sound.

But let’s not bring MC Tunes into this, eh?

2/ a strictly supporting role, exalting the DJ and hyping the crowd

The MC's role in hardcore/jungle/earlygarage was paradoxically crucial-yet-menial: he (invariably a he) functioned as a membrane between the expressive/social and the rhythmic/technological, vocalizing the intensities of machine-rhythm and in the process more or less transforming himself into a supplement to “the drum kit”. Another key part of the job description: the rewind, in which the MC relays the will-of-the-massive to the DJ. A ritual aknowledgement, at least on the symbolic level, of the idea that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

From ’92 onwards, though, you could sense a latent expressive potential in rave Mcing -- especially on the pirates, when MCs like Don FM’s OC or Trace and Ed Rush’s sparring partner Ryme Tyme would go off on one, get real imagistic and panoramic (“North South East and West, we got you locked”), as if surveying their domain from a lofty vantage point. Never quite getting to the point of storytelling, but still, you could tell that there was an artform in waiting, something that could bloom if given the opportunity.


3/ there were star MCs

You had name MCs from quite early on in rave--mentioned in the pirate ads, obviously considered part of the draw. But the real character MCs arrived with jungle, when rave's aerobics instructor/cockney street vendor style of hoarse hollered rabble-rousing was replaced by something more relaxed (even as the music got more frenetic), warmer, magnanimous, full of authority. These guys--GQ, Dett, Moose, 5-0, Navigator, et al--were almost MCs in the old showbiz sense, hosting the  event, stroking the egos of all present, from the selecta in the booth to the massive on the floor. And now and then you’d get the first hints of the MC’s role as truth-teller and vibe-articulator, someone expressing the values of the scene. Overwhelmingly, these were black voices. While the DJ and production sides of hardcore/jungle/UK garage seem close to racial parity, MC-ing, from jungle onwards, seems like it's a 98 percent black thing. Does this monopoly of the role of host/articulator/spokesman have a symbolic role, expressing the dominance of black musical/cultural priorities in a subculture that in terms of population composition is actually pretty mixed? A sense that the public face of the scene ought to be black (the MC is generally actually more visible than the DJ, out there with his mic). Or is it just something about the grain of the voice, suiting the flow of MC-ing?


4/ but their careers were largely based around a few trademark catchphrases or signature vocal licks 

Which could wear real thin real quick. Somewhere I have this eight-cassette pack, the looks-like-a-video sort you could buy back in the day as a memento of megaraves like Raindance or Dreamscape, but this was for a Pure Silk garage event in ‘98. Eight cassettes, eight top DJs, and all playing the same hot-that-week tracks as each other: talk about “changing same”. Worse still, there was two or three top MCs hosting the night, and so you get to hear the same trademark vocal gimmicks and human-beatbox tricks over and over and over again.


5/ Gradually, MCs started to write actual verses

Some key transitional records here:

----DJ Luck and MC Neat, “A Little Bit of Luck”. Not many words by comparison with today’s norms, but the beginnings of MC tunes that actually said something (in this case, I-and-I survive, “with a little bit of luck we can make it through the night” doubling as a big up to his DJ, who takes first billing despite contributing a really rather perfunctory groove over which Neat croons the most naggingly catchy and rootically haunting lick). Big BIG tune this: I remember someone telling me they heard a pirate station play this tune over and over again for half an hour. For a month or so in 98 this tune WAS the scene.

----Corrupted Crew, “G.A.R.A.G.E.” Again, not saying a lot really, but awesomely hooky and the MC (Neat?)’s baritone is wonderfully commanding. Also probably the first letters-for-words spelling anthem (“E’s for the Energy etc”), a routine that still gets re-used.

--- N&G feat. Rose Windross and MC Creed, "Liferide” . A classic plinky xylo-bass tune, with Creed spinning out some dizzyingly assonance-thick rhymes in his trademark clipped’n’prim style (weird how something so compressed and inhibited sounding is so cool).

---Middle Row's The Warm Up EP. Are these the first real narrative tunes? I’m talking about “Millenium Twist": Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinventing the Englishness of canonical literature and costume drama with this hilarious slice of Dickensian dancehall, starring an updated Fagin from Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. And "K.O.", with its bizarre boxing-ring MC narrative (Neat again, accompanied by Shy Cookie and Spee).

Should also mention perhaps the “singjay” tunes, half way between chat and song, by the likes of Richie Dan (on the M-Dubs tune “Over Here”) and Glamma Kid ("Sweetest Taboo", yes a Sade cover), not forgetting the various 2step hook-ups with dancehall dons and don-ettes such as Lady Saw (underlining the point that UK garage’s return to the vocal, after the vocal-free desert that was techstep drum’n’bass, wasn’t just about diva vocals but about ragga chat, e.g. Gant’s “Sound Bwoy Burial”).


6/ they refused second billing status (DJ/Producer X featuring MC Y)

As in Scott Garcia feat MC Styles “It’s A London thing.” From ’97, which might very well make it the first garage rap tune of all.


7/ Suddenly the scene was swarming with MC collectives

There was a predecessor to So Solid Crew, a group no one cares to remember, because they weren’t much cop. I’m talking about Da Click of “Good Rhymes” infamy. A seriously naff record (Chic’s “Good Times” reworked) but it made the pop charts and was “important”, just like “Planet Rock” (surely the most over-rated dance record of all time? I always thought it wooden and dreary, but I bought it anyway: you just knew it was important). Same applies to “Good Rhymes”, had to have it, if only for the sleeve with its pix of 70 players on the UKG scene. Da Click was basically the scene’s premier MCs teaming up to make a record with the explicit intent of bigging up the role of the MC in UKG. They were inspired in a major way by Puff Daddy and the whole Bad Boy thing of flash thugs riding/rolling with this collective swagger. One of the record’s instigators, Unknown MC, used to be in Hijack, a Brit-rap group signed to Ice T's Rhyme Syndicate label. In late 2000, quite some time after the group’s profile had waned (the follow-up single was even worse), he told me “in London right now, there's a thing happening where true MCing is coming back to the floor. You have these clubs with 2000 people where the MC really is interfaced between the DJ and the crowd. And he's whipping the crowds up into mad frenzies, getting them involved in the party. Which I imagine is what it must have been like in the Bronx in the 70s, you know what I'm saying?”


8/ American rap's clan-as-corporation structure

Crews and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, but it’s fair to say that until the late Nineties rap's dominant lyrical mode had always been been first person singular. But with the rise of Ruff Ryders and Cash Money (both based around real families) and with the likes of Roc-A-Fella’s styling themselves as Cosa Nostra-like syndicates ("You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other), there’s been a dramatic first person pluralisation of rap; ego eclipsed by what might be called "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". Likewise in UKG you’ve got Kartels (PAUG) and Famos (K2) galore.

It would be incorrect to suggest, though, that this vogue for presenting what are clearly economic organisations as quasi-families is just ideological window-dressing for business realpolitik. Hip hop’s family values represent a kind of privatized socialism, based around ideals like sharing, altruism, co-operation, and self-sacrifice. In the war of clan against clan, loyalty is paramount, not just because teamwork is more effective, but because cameraderie provides refuge and respite from what would otherwise be a grim dog-eat-dog struggle. Effectively, the rap clan offers a haven from the rapacious cut-throat competition of the hip hop industry/capitalism, and on some level offers solace and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. This is also why the Ruff Ryders/So Solid style emphasis on unity resonates with their fans--the idea of the clan on the warpath magically reconciles the contradictory impulses to be a winner but also to belong.

Of course, there’s a tension between business realities and these quasi-familial relationships: rappers like The Lox and Snoop Doggy are flexible in their fealty, shifting allegiances as deftly as sportsmen changing teams at the drop of a cheque. Still, for many, the "thick like blood" rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-individualistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". Lyrically DMX is fixated almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. Then there’s his curious obsession with dogs. Strikingly different from the lecherous hound persona adopted by George Clinton ("Atomic Dog" etc) DMX's use of "dog" seems to draw on the idea of canine fidelity--to the pack in the wild, to its owner (hence Fido). In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". Then there’s the way he reinvokes what Foucault called “the Medieval symbolics of blood": Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, his new label Bloodline. All seem to relate to atatvistic notions of blood-brotherhood and the loopy fantasy of DMX and his dawgs as some sort of pedigreed aristocracy of the streets ("My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine"). So it’s interesting that in UK garage slang “bruv” has been displaced by “blood” as a salutation or bonding term--“ya get me blood?”

“Dog”, “blood”, “nigga”: all these terms have superceded the old racially encoded but more universalizing greetings like “brother”, which one associates with the civil rights era. The idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap and in UKG, group affiliation contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and one usually one tied to a place---a project, a council estate, a borough, a postal district (More Fire Crew shout out to the E4 and E11 crew on the sleevenotes to their debut album), or at the very most, a city (from “it’s a London thing” to “Millenium Twist”’s "L.O.N.D.O.N, London/That's where we're coming from"). As opportunities for feelings of solidarity and communality shrivel and retreat all over the social landscape, the withering especially pronounced in the very places where people once found them (trade unions, electoral politics, organized religion), it makes sense that this basic human need for a sense of belonging would find other points of focus, albeit on more diminished terms. In the neo-Medieval scenario of unchecked capitalism and holy war, it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a resurgent atavism in the form of these Mafia-inspired clan structures (“amoral familialism”, Italian sociologists call it, diagnosing their persistence as caused by the relative weakness of nationalism in Italy--as a political entity, Italy is a relatively recent creation). Musical mobs indeed.


9/ torrential wordiness

Never ceases to amaze me, this. In UKG at the moment there's almost like a battle between the words and the music for dominance, the MC's almost seem to trying to drown out the DJ. Are there even name DJs anymore? Who gets top billing on the flyers these days? Recently playing Pied Piper's 'Do You Really Like It', which can only be two years old, I was struck by 1/ how as MCing it just wouldn't cut it now, it sounds so wack, and 2/ there must be about 25 words in the whole song. That said, the first true examples of rampant logorrhea I can think of date from shortly before ‘Do You Really Like It?’: Sparks & Kie on Teebone’s “Fly Bi” (wrong Matthew, sorry this tune is the B.O.M.B. and what's wrong with the spelling thing anyway) and Skibadee on Teebone’s “Super S”, mad-hectic tongue-twisty sinous sibilant biznis.


10/ with its raucousness and Englishness

One of my favorite bits ever on a garage rap record, can’t remember the tune or artist right this minute, occurs when, after a series of grisly threats, the MC’s killer verbal blow to his adversary is the instruction: “Behave!”. It’s like some eerie transcultural morphing effect: Bounty Killer turns into Frankie Howerd. That’ll be lost on non-Brits, I’m afraid, as is the next reference: the way Horra Squad’s Mr Guns’s has this bizarre tic-like mannerism of going “just like that”--an immaculate imitation of Tommy Cooper--right in the middle of the most bloodcurdling eruptions of “thugsy-ugsy” threats and “messy-essy” slackness.


11/dainty crispness of diction

Actually, it’s all about the tension between the impulse towards criss precision and the “drag” of the uncouth grain-of-the-voice that resists and impedes that impulse. But, and this is crucial (what some Americans, no offence, don’t get), the refinement doesn’t equate with whiteness and gentility (Masterpiece Theater, your daft ideas that the U.K is all castles and cucumber sandwiches), and the ruffness doesn’t equate with black/Caribbean. The uncouth element isn’t so much the patois as the Cockney gutternsipe factor, and the slick diction is more about a Black British elegance-smoothness aspirational thing. So you have this really semiotically rich and overdetermined criss-cross collision of class/race factors, a tug-of-war between assimilation and recalcitrance, “this is where we came from" and "this is where we're going" . But most of all it just sounds wicked.


12/expressing its rage-to-live through individualistic fantasies of stardom or crime

The art of Mcing doesn’t really entail opening up virgin zones of unexplored content. “Originality” means finding fresh twists on a stock set of themes. Like that literary critic who broke down the entirety of western drama and fiction to seven basic narrative structures (I.A. Richards?), here's my stab at isolating UKG’s core thematics (which are also stances, outlooks, dispositions, states of mind, ways of walking through the world).

i/ “I will not lose/we’re gonna make it/ain’t know stopping us/we are coming through”
more on this below

ii/ “know we/they don’t know/people dun know/if you don’t know, get to know”.
Probably the most interesting and unique to UKG theme (despite my Notorious BIG quote just now). Interesting, because the scenario it implies is that the MC is actually unknown---it evokes an imminence, a star status or stature that is being suppressed, thwarted, or is simply latent. The MC is an unknown on the brink of breaking out massively, a "supernova" (to quote Neutrino) microseconds before ignition. They don’t know but they should know and they will know. It’s hard to imagine an American rapper writing from this position: regal triumphalism, Jay-Z style, or even ennui (that standard face of blase derision you get in all the videos) seems to be more appropriate for a music that has won and is basking in its victory. Because “they don’t know” also suggests a collective demand for recognition, which US hip hop enjoys but UKG hasn’t; the theme seems to convey something of the marginality and underdog status of UKG-rap as a whole. “They” could be mainstream UK culture (which only acknowledges UKG when it is scapegoating it for street violence), or it could even be American hip hop. Alternatively, "They don't know" sometimes carries a suggestion of (see Black Ops cru) of secrecy, subterfuge, assassins with deadly powers moving unnoticed through society.

iii/ making paper/chasing cheddar/we floss the biggest whips etc

Wish fulfillment, one assumes, or hope: there can’t be that much money to be made on this scene, surely. (So Solid sold 400,000 of their album but when you divide the royalties by 30…). Nice UK-specific touches to the conspicuous consumption/status games, e.g. A-reg and K-reg license plate disputes.

iv/ biters/why you want to imitate me

yeah right, if you're so unique how come you sound just like everybody else?

v/“haters
—yeah yeah they're all sick to their guts on account of your wealth/fame/success with the ladies, well why not desist from rubbing it in their faces every chance you get then?
Biters and haters are essential accoutrements, status symbols, on a par with the flash phones and cars. Mo money mo problems etc.

vi/ alpha male biznis (is that your chick/steal your wifey/kiss her on the lips you’re tasting my semen).
Char-ming.

vii/ “wego-mania” (ride with us/imagine, you’re with a crew like this, etc)

Viii/ “revenge/retribution/ultraviolence”.
the scenarios seem to get more vivid and colorful and cruelly creative every month


13/ Laid Blak .

From Bristol, and not just a UKG outfit, their spokesman tells me, but a proper band that can do all sorts. I await their next release keenly and with real curiosity.


14/ equal parts Cockney Rejects and "Cockney Translation"

The cover of that More Fire Crew single is a beautiful thing. Not because it’s especially attractive or remarkable-looking (it’s quite plain and nondescript actually) but simply because it has these three black lads and the word “Oi!’ on the sleeve. And the last time the word “Oi!” appeared prominently on record sleeves, these were early Eighties Oi! compilations and the young men on the sleeves would have been cropheaded and pasty-faced hooligans with dubious political allegiances and jingoistic leanings. In one infamous case, Strength Through Oi! (a supremely tasteless and inflammatory title), the chap stomping his 18 hole DMs at the camera (almost as if to suggest if the photographer was the victim of a racial attack) turned out to be an ex-member of the British Movement or NF or some similar neo-Nazi outfit. So the More Fire Crew sleeve is an encouraging sign, in some weird way, of a degree of cultural miscegenation that's taken place in the last twenty years: a once noxious word being defused and reclaimed. (“Oi, oi!” was always a big MC chant on the hardcore scene, come to think of it).

As much as electro or the proto-ragga Casio-riddim ‘Sleng Teng”, I like to think of Smiley Culture’s "Cockney Translation" as the Eighties Origin for “Oi!” and for MC garage as a whole. At least it makes for an appropriately fertile fiction, as Mythic Origin. Released on the Fashion label (worth rediscovery I reckon, it captured a phase-shift in the Caribbean-British story), this is the tune where Smiley translates back and forth between patois and patter, West Indies and East Enders. “Say Cockney say Old Bill/We say dutty Babylon”, “we say bleach. Cockney knackered”, “Cockney say triffic. We say waaacked…. sweet as nut. just level vibes. Seen?”

It pointed ahead to the future hybrid argot of multiracial London, the hardcore/jungle/garage mix’n’blend of rhyming slang and rhymes-and-slang.

And talking about the More Fire Crew song, here’s a particularly apt line from Smiley’s song:

“We bawl out YOW! While cockneys say Oi!”

“Cockney Translation” is an ancestor for garage rap in more than a symbolic/mythic way, though. The tune was an example of the UK fast-style reggae sound, which Dick Hebdige describes as “reggae’s answer to rap”, as spearheaded by the Saxon International Sound System and its MCs like Tipper Irie, Asher Senator, Lady Di, and Philip Levi. Fast-style chatter is, if not ‘the roots’ then one key root for everything from Ragga Twins and SUAD to jungle/UKG MCs like Skibadee.

More Fire’s debut album is good BTW.


15/ a Warnerdance U.K. compilation you might find in Tower or Virgin.

At one point I was thinking about framing this piece as a ‘world music’ story. Because that’s what this music is at this point—impossibly exotic and hard to get hold of outside the UK. In America, it’s easier to buy records of Madagascan guitarpop or Javanese court gamelan than it is to acquire UKG.


16/ "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"

Been really struck by the recurrence in UKG Mc-ing of expressions of uncontainability: “we’re coming through, whether you like it or not” (Black Ops), “this style be original/we can’t be stopped” (GK Allstars). Or a sense of destiny and determination that would seem pie-in-the-sky if it wasn’t marked by such hunger--the scrawny ardor animating lines like: “always believing/follow my heart, keep up the dreaming/behind the cloud, there is a shining….I know my time is coming.” (GK Allstars  again). Talk of dedication, hard work, all of my energy going into this. Again and again, this almost-American insistence, not that anyone can make it, but I’m gonna make it (I’ve got to make it; there is no alternative). Flying in the face of statistical reality.

Here’s Peter York (an under-rated analyst of UK socioculture) on what happens in a tightly class-stratified country like Britain where talent is “blocked off from conventional embourgeoisment”. “If you have a whole lot of people who are blocked, then the steam is much more intense. And where it finds a crack it rises more violently.”