Sunday, June 28, 2020

thinking about music

A dialogue between me and Ezequiel Fanego of Caja Negra  (my publisher in Argentina) for the Chilean music webzine Grieta Mag, on the subject of  the role of writing about music.  (Spanish language version here.). 

Grieta editor Laura Estévez kicks things off with the initial question:   

How to think music? 

Simon Reynolds: 

The first thought I had in response to this question is another question: do we need public thinking about music?  What function does it serve? Especially at the present moment, but generally as well – it would seem to be an inessential activity. I have long thought the relief of human suffering, whether physical or mental, is the highest calling, and that belief has a new sharpness in the current crisis. Writing about music would seem to occupy a fairly low status on the hierarchy of human needs.

Then again, you might say that the inessentials are what actually gives life flavor and elevates it beyond the grind of everyday survival and getting by.  These things are luxuries, but ones we feel we can’t live without. 

But even then, many  people – perhaps most people on the planet – enjoy music in a fairly thoughtless way. And are no worse off for it, at least in terms of enjoyment. Patterned sound provides an unreflective pleasure that might affect them intensely, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a larger significance – it’s on the same plane perhaps as food, or sports, or clothes, which are all things that people feel passionate about.  But they don’t look for criticism or theory to make sense of it. What are they missing? Is there a surplus value that can be created through public thinking about music that deepens the experience of it, or helps to sustain a community around the music -  a community of disagreement as much as consensus?

The second thought I had stirred by this question is to do with how much of the pleasure of music –  what makes a piece of music “good” or what makes it work – actually bypasses thought.  The challenge for me as a critic from very early on was to do with wanting to register in prose all these thoughtless elements – the insistence of rhythm,  the sensuality of sound, in a sense the violence of music as it floods your body. These elements are where the power of music largely lies, as opposed to the cultures around music or the expressed intent of the artists. But they’re very hard to verbalise, and accordingly, have largely been written around, in a circuitous dance of avoidance, by music critics. 

This aspiration comes across in my writing more for a native English speaker, where the prosody of the language, the kind of tricks I use (“cheap tricks” like alliteration, subtler ones like assonance, rhythmic effects and cadence) are things I do instinctively and viscerally – and likewise affect English speakers in a largely unconscious way. Some of that necessarily gets lost in translation, as it’s do with the musical properties of the English language; if you reading the original text as a second language, you can’t access the playfulness or “dance of words’ that is going on.  But this kind of instinctively deployed word-magic, this musication of language itself – this is actually me “thinking music” – allowing the music into my thought, rather than describing it from a distance.

What about scholarly music critics who know about keys and structures? Technical musical language can describe these intensities in a very narrow sense, like a diagram of an electrical circuit, but it doesn’t  convey what an electric shock feels like.  When critics use that kind of specialist terminology,  the main effect for the layperson reader is an aura of authority: you feel “this person knows what they’re talking about”, and that might give you confidence in their pronouncements. But you don’t understand what they’re offering as “proofs”. Indeed a synesthetic metaphor or a ripe piece of imagery that someone like me might come up with is probably more effective as a way of conveying to listeners – who like me don’t know the technical terms -  what they might experience when they listen to the music.

I am interested in the huge gulf between how musicians think about music and how critics and fans who lack musical training think about it.  At least 90 percent of what the musician is concerned with is what I call “nonsignifying craft” – how to structure a piece of music in terms of intros, outros, bridges,  key changes; how to technically achieve certain sounds; how to construct feel or groove. Composition, arrangement, engineering, production – this effort results in about 90 percent of our pleasure and sensation in music. We are caught up in the way tension builds and releases, the surprising twists,  the juxtaposition of textures across a vertical organization of sound. And yet it’s something that’s very hard to write about in anything but the vaguest terms when it comes to a specific song or track.  Critics tend to approach music as if is primarily about communication – the transmission of a lyrical statement, or of an emotional state. But much of the pleasure and excitement of listening to music is about structure – the structuring of an emotion, a construction that moves through time and is built in four dimensions rather than just three.  And it’s about sensations.  Again, it’s very hard to think this stuff and put it into words. But it’s the pressure of those sensations and movements against the mind that produces the most interesting thinking about music for me.

My final thought on “thinking music” is that it’s not something you can be prescriptive about. As a writer, you are trying to get people to think the way you do about something.  But as a reader, what I am looking for is thoughts I could never have had myself. So often the most excitingly disorienting thing is when I encounter a new writer whose mind moves in a completely different way. I think, “how on Earth did you think of that?. Where do those images – that particular sensual response to sound – spring from?” To the extent, that I’ve managed to get people to think the way I do about music and use a similar kind of language in their writing  – it’s self-defeating.  You don’t want to read something and think “I could have thought that”. You want to be startled by completely alien perceptions.

Ezequiel Fanego:

 First, I would say that as publishers we were always interested not precisely in thinking music but thinking through music. Music can be a life changing experience: a record or a song can change the way you feel about politics, friendship, your own life, etc. And not only through the lyrics but also through the perceptual world that it triggered. So we like when the writing doesn’t impose it´s own concepts to the music, but when it´s rather affected by it, and express how it was enriched or impoverished by the aural experience. Music has its way of thinking, it´s has it´s own concepts expressed as perceptual configurations. And if you let it affect you it become your own perceptual reality, and you may accept that or refuse it.

Yesterday for example I was listening to this chopped and screwed hip hop mixtape. You know, chopped and crewed is a technique of remixing hip hop music which developed in the Houston scene in the early 1990s and it consists in marely dramatically reducing the pitch of the original compositions to give them an hypnotic, heavy sound. It´s supposed to recreate the experience of being under the influence of the purple drank, a street narcotic made from the prescription opiod Codeine that treats mild pain and acts as a cough suppressant. One doesn’t has to use purple drank to fully understand it effects because the music itself slows your brain down,   you enter in a purple hazed environment and your perfection is complete transfigured. So you can write about this music as if you very transfigured by it.

Another idea about musical writing that influenced as a lot as publisher was this notion that Simon shared with us,  I think it was in an interview he did with Pablo Schanton when we published Después del rock. It´s that musical writing can not only reflect the aural experience but also to catalyze it, to intensify the listening experience. It happens to me a lot that I read one of Simon´s pieces, or David Toop´s or Kodwo Eshun´s, and I desperately need to listen to the music again because I know that the record won’t be the same. I will even hear thinks that I didn’t knew they were there!! So writing can also chance your experience of music by injecting those alien perfections that Simon mentioned before into your mind

Simon Reynolds:

I am intrigued by the idea that there are people for whom listening to music is unaccompanied by thought – because it’s so foreign to me. But there was a time when I just listened to music in a completely unreflective way, totally without preconceptions, or a desire to understand, purely swept up by its flooding sensations. When I was a child, hearing my parents’s records – the soundtracks to musicals like West Side Story, Frank Sinatra’s Songs For Swinging Lovers, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Holst’s The Planets. Or hearing things on the radio, the Beatles, Bowie’s “A Space Oddity”, one hit wonders like Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”. One of the reasons I was drawn to glam as the subject of my last book was that it was among the first music I could remember, from a time when I still had a primal response to pop –  particularly the really kids-oriented teenage rampage stuff . I have a kind of primal scene with T.Rex on TV, a memory that I referred to in the intro to my first book Blissed Out and then again in the introduction to Glam book. A sort of personal creation-myth based on the audio-visual impact of hearing and seeing Marc Bolan, a mixture of excitement and astonishment mingled with disturbance and even fear. An encounter with the pop sublime.

But then as teenager I got into punk and very soon after discovered the music press, and all that changed for me – listening to music became inextricable from thinking about it. At its wildest, the writing about the music could be as exhilarating as the music. But the two were so intertwined that you couldn’t separate them – they propelled each other forward. Since that time – 1979 onwards – the listening to music has almost always been generative of ideas and images. Only in states of great intoxication have I returned to that primal, thoughtless, purely sensual response that I had as a child. 

So yes from the age of 16 or so I was a trainee critic, already forming sentences and judgements in my head, for years before I became one. I don’t know any other way to be. I think it intensifies my enjoyment of music; I’ve never felt that criticism or theory is something that makes you have a colder, detached relationship with music (or with anything – film, books, TV), it actually takes you deeper, it heightens everything. But I would admit that there’s a way in which being a writer-thinker has given me a warped relationship with music.  I’m locked into this search for newness, in part because of the sonic rush of the new, but also because it generates new ideas. I’m always looking for, and I’m hooked on, the way music can spur fresh arrangements of words in your mind, tropes and images that don’t feel stale. And this will push me on, because at a certain point, even a supremely fertile and fast-moving genre like, say, jungle in the 90s, will eventually slow down and fall into settled patterns. As a commentator, I’ll start repeating myself and that’s a sensation I don’t like - the feeling of self-predictability, a sluggishness in the troping mechanism of the mind. The genre might still be producing quality material, but I’ll be ready to move on, as a writer even more so than as a listener.

I happened to get into music seriously during postpunk, which was a high fever time for both the music and the discourse around it. That is a potent drug to taste when you are so impressionable and susceptible – 16, 17, 18 – and seething with idealism and impatience. The combined effect of the rapid mutation of postpunk music, and the way writers at the NME in particular, but also Sounds and Melody Maker,  tried not just to keep up with all the changes but to make things go even faster -  the combination of that is what I’ve called the quickening. That’s an old-fashioned word that no one uses nowadays (“quick” used to mean “living” as in “the quick and the dead”).  But the quickening feels like the right word to describe the effect of that combined sonic and literary stimulus on a young mind: it’s a power surge of cultural electricity, a galvanic rush.

I’ve been chasing that feeling for the rest of my life.  If you happen to get into music during one of these !UP! phases, you might get locked into a bipolar rhythm, like I did. A period of sustained acceleration is followed by a crash, a terrible slowing down, the scene gets torpid and disparate. That’s what happened in the mid-Eighties, what I call the Bad Music Era. Then things picked up again and became insanely exciting. That bipolar rhythm of rush and crash -  ultra-intense excitement and emotional over-investment, followed by disappointment and despair – can actually be unhealthy, if you happen to have manic-depressive tendencies, as did my poor friend and comrade Mark Fisher. But for someone like me who is naturally stolid, the combination of the music and the writing (by others, by myself) has worked as a jolt, shocking me alive again and again. 

Ezequiel Fanego:

There is a crucial aspect that we have not mentioned yet and that is as fundamental as the intimate experience that your body or mind can have of a piece of music. I mean the social, relational aspect. When I think of the impact that music had in my life I can hardly reduce it to a private listening experience. Of course, like all of us, I have had several  epiphanic moments in which the discovery of some  track  or some artist resulted in an expansion of the doors of my perception: the revelation of some aesthetic possibilities totally unthinkable so far. But above all music always involved, at the same time as a sensitive experience, an access to a world of cultural exchanges, the possibility of making new friends, embarking on new projects, enriching your networks. 

During my teenage years I used to go to a park near my house where a book and record fair took place. When I started going I was looking mostly for hardcore bands, things like Minor  Threat,  Dead   Kennedys, D.O.A., etc. Soon, just as a result of the exchange with the record sellers or local friends, my musical horizon expanded considerably: I discovered dub, garage, postpunk. For some reason music mobilizes that curiosity (one always needs more) and also the need to share with others our discoveries. It may have to do with that ineffitable aspect of music: the emotions they generate are sometimes so difficult to understand, so irrational, that we need to share them with others to somehow verify that there is something objective in that experience. We soom become preachers of our musical passions. 

Which brings me to Simon's first reflection about the need of public thinking about music. Do we need this public thinking to give social meaning to our most intimate emotions? I remember when music download blogs started to emerge in the early 2000s.  At full speed there were countless blogs about the most diverse, super-documented micro-scenes, from where you could download the most esoteric records around the world. Faced with this overload of information andi nevitable one wondered about what drives this cyberculture heroes to take the effort to upload all those records with their corresponding covers and brief historical reviews. There was probably something to do with reputation, but most of those blogs were anonymous, besides that only a few achieved some kind of notoriety. So the right answer seemed to be that they took that effort simply because of the need to share the music that passionate them, to cultivate a determinate subculture. Of course, one could say the same about literature, film or even sports. But I think music's tendency to generate such an urge to share your personal experience and to built an identity around a certain cultural consumption is somehow superior to any other form of art.  

Simon Reynolds:

Yes Ezequiel is right, there is much more to music and to thinking about music than just this individualized experience of rapture or the rush of ideas in one’s head. It’s not just this solipsistic drug-like thing. Simply to write about music at all presupposes people reading it, the existence of some kind of audience – and not just as a recipient of the ideas, but as an audience that critically engages with them, building on them or disagreeing with them. Even the loneliest blogger is engaged in an act of communication that relies to some degree on the notion of a  community out there.

One of the attractions of the British music press as a place to work was the idea that if I managed to get into it, I would find people I could talk to – that I would be entering a space of argument and shared enthusiasm. And also of antagonism – an environment that to some extent was fueled by the sparks that came from friction, the clash of ideas. The music press worked as a  space in which competition (all these young egos looking to make their mark and distinguish themselves in some way, to define their own path) and collaboration were finely balanced.

If I look back at the times when I’ve been happiest in my working life, it’s been periods when I was part of a team engaged in a collective project. In my early twenties, my friends and I operated our own magazine, Monitor. We were ex-students living on unemployment benefit but the magazine was very much like creating a job for ourselves, a purpose. There was a tremendous collective energy of us all pulling together to finish an issue and then get it out into the world. And a ferment of ideas between us -  an article by one would spark a reply or an expansion from another in the next issue.  

Then a few years later, I had the experience of working at Melody Maker, one of the weekly music papers, and being involved in giving it a new direction, a reborn sense of intellectual energy, an escalating excitement about underground bands and emerging directions in music.  In those days, before email, writers had to physically bring in their copy to the office and so there was a hub of socializing and face-to-face discussion – drinking and thinking aloud. This  institutional vibe is something I have seen gradually disappear from magazines during the Nineties as  the writers increasingly sent in their work remotely and never met each other or the magazine staff. After around 2000, you might go into a music magazine office and it would be like a ghost ship in there – a few editorial staff, often no music or music playing very quietly.

And then the third time I had that feeling of being part of a community of thinking about music – with that balance of frictional competition versus reciprocal influence – was the early days of the blogs. Not the music download blogs that Ezequiel referred to, but the circuit that included K-punk, Woebot, and many others. Once again there was that feeling of a common purpose, even if undefined – that electric sensation I referred to before as the quickening. Which I realized is actually an old fashioned term for the moment when the mother can first feel the unborn baby moving.   But that makes it even better because it describes the way that the music scene, which is always a combination of musical creativity and the critical discourse around music, can go through these phases of entropy, when everything feels disparate and scattered – a terrible sluggishness that can feel like a kind of death. And then suddenly it all lurches into vibrant life again. Things start moving. And this quickening is a collective feeling as much something in your own nervous system.

As an individual writer you can have a feeling like that – of surge and focus - on your own, when you launch into a large project like a book or some kind of really energizing thinkpiece or feature that involves a lot of research and discovery.  But it’s much more fun if there are a bunch of you engaged in a shared mobilization of energy, synchronized to the same accelerated and propulsive rhythm.

So one thing I still look out for hopefully with music magazines is when they seem to be a hub of energy –  a publication becomes an attractor for a bunch of lively and peculiar minds, and they all inspire each other in that collaborative-competitive way. Publishers can work in the same way, as we see for instance with Repeater in the UK, which in fact was an attempt to build on the energy of the blog scene in the first decade of the 21st Century and siphon it into larger, long-lasting projects.

I don’t see it very often with magazines in recent times – probably one of the last ones, in terms of music,  was Tiny Mix Tapes, which has now gone into some kind of indefinite hibernation, but definitely had a collective identity for a long while.

It’s harder to create and maintain a hub of vibe and intellectual synergy in the internet age, when people aren’t meeting in person so much. But perhaps the current crisis and the enforced isolation of people is speeding up the process by which we find inventive ways to create virtual communities of ideas.    

The original dialogue was done about six weeks, when crisis meant covid-19 and lockdown - before the other crisis blew up in this country. Subsequent to that, Ezequiel added a final comment, which went straight to Spanish. You can probably work out what he's saying. 


Mientras terminamos con esta conversación llegan las noticias del brutal asesinato de George Floyd a manos de la policía de Minneapolis. Casualmente me entero que Big Floyd, como lo llamaban sus amigos, era parte de la Screwed Up Click, la familia musical de Dj Screw. No puedo dejar de pensar en sus últimas palabras, “I can´t breath” y en la relación que hay entre la respiración, la poesía y el ritmo. Y en cómo la música puede ser de alguna manera un ejercicio para respirar con los otros, crear comunidad, habitar los barrios y las calles de un modo estrictamente no-policial. No sé si será cierto, pero hay algo de poético en eso que cuentan de que ayer Anonymous hackeo las radios policiales de Minneapolis para que suene ininterrumpidamente “Fuck the police”.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Brazilian Nao Wave and Postpunk

Nao Wave: Brazilian Post Punk 1982-1988
(Man Recordings)
The Sexual Life of the Savages: Underground Post-Punk from Sao Paulo, Brasil
(Soul Jazz)

Village Voice, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Postpunk's seam has gotten severely depleted these last few years. So it makes sense that genre-mining bands and arcana-excavating archivists are now moving into the non-Anglophone world. The smart hipster money would surely have been on Germany (in the early '80s, a Sprockets-y wonderland of art-into-pop) as the next gold-rush zone, or maybe Belgium and Holland (both rife with Factory-fixated aesthetes).  Few would have imagined Brazil as a contender. But that's precisely what's happened, with the bizarrely synchronized arrival of two compilations documenting Sao Paulo's postpunk scene. It's tempting to imagine a cargo cult scenario: a handful of Liliput and Flying Lizards import singles arriving to catalyse a mutant subculture, the local bands filling in the huge aesthetic gaps using their imagination. But given that Sao Paulo, for all its sub-tropical location, resembles a European city somehow drifted loose from Continental moorings, far more likely the megalopolis' hip youth (many descended from German or Italian immigrants) were just totally plugged into every last thing going down on Ladbroke Grove or the Lower East Side. 

Nao Wave kicks off with Agenttss' "Agenttss."  Released in 1982, it's a historic single not just for its mélange of then-modish but still thrilling elements (flanged guitar, synth-bloops) but for being Brazil's very own Spiral Scratch--a pioneering example of release-it-yourself autonomy. Throughout both compilations, the foreign influences are obvious but seldom to a slavish degree, and coordinates get pleasingly jumbled up. Akira S & As Garotas Que Erraram's "O Futebol' (on Nao Wave) and "Sobre As Pernas" (on both) respectively resemble Birthday Party crossed with Martha & the Muffins and a tropicalized Joy Division, balmy and sweat-stippled rather than cold as the grave. Sexual Life includes a fetching pair from Fellini, "Rock Europeu" (flinty drone-rock chipped from the same quarry as Josef K) and "Zum Zum Zazoeira"  (garage punk gone languid in the humidity).  

Inevitably, what captivates the Anglo-American ear is the exotic Brazilian tinge that creeps in every so often, whether intentional or not, as with  Chance's sultry "Samba Do Morro" (another track on both comps) and Black Future's "Eu Sou O Rio", whose bassline doesn't so much walk disco-style as sashay carnival-style.  Approaching the end of its 1982-88 time-span, Nao Wave sags somewhat (the UK's Bad Music Era kicking in, with horrors like The Bolshoi becoming reference points?). And Sexual Life is marred by occasional outbreaks of "quirky," like Patife's Camper Vannish "Teu Bem." But overall, language difference notwithstanding, you can easily imagine most of these tracks getting play-listed by John Peel or working the dancefloor at Hurrah's.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Ex

The Ex, interviewed, Melody Maker, early 1988

Friday, May 22, 2020

Trunk - Now We Are Ten compilation review + profile of Jonny Trunk

Various, Now We Are Ten
The Observer ReviewJuly 14 2007
by Simon Reynolds

For more than a decade, 38-year-old Brit Jonny Trunk has trawled charity shops, bargain basements and jumble sales, sifting the dreck for bygone oddities and queer delectables. Chasing down obscure objects of collector desire or stumbling serendipitously on unknown treasures, Trunk has then tracked down the music's elderly creators (invariably languishing in penury) and prised the right-to-reissue from their bony mitts.

Jonny Boy specialises in genres of marginal reputation: never-before-available soundtracks from horror movies such as The Wicker Man, incidental music from kids' TV programmes such as The Tomorrow People, fey folk-pop, library music. His sensibility lies at the exact intersection of Stereolab, Saint Etienne and el Records, but if that sounds too tasteful, you've got to factor in Trunk's penchant for period pornography. Not only did he reissue Mary Millington's spoken-word records, he made a brand new one, Dirty Fan Male, which involved an actor friend, Wisbey, reading out lewd letters sent to Trunk's sister, a soft-porn starlet, and her colleagues. One appears as a hidden track at the end of this excellent compilation: 'I think that my tongue would have to be surgically removed from your mouth-watering botty ...'

There's a serious core behind all this dotty whimsy: Trunk's most crucial excavations have been works by maverick composers such as Basil Kirchin, Delia Derbyshire and Desmond Leslie, pioneers of a peculiarly English form of musique concrete and analogue electronica that often sounds like it was cobbled together in a garden shed. The late Kirchin features with the uncharacteristically wispy femme-pop of 'I Start Counting', while the even later Derbyshire briefly appears with a 37-second synth-interlude. But overall, Now We Are Ten downplays electronics in favour of acoustic instrument-based soundtracks and light-on-the-ear Brit-jazz, resulting in an unusually coherent compilation.

Highlights include the pastel-toned poignancy of 'Dark World' and 'Nature Waltz' by Sven Libaek, the fragrant waft 'n' flutter of Paul Lewis's 'Waiting For Nina' and Trunk's own 'O Zeus' (meta-library music woven out of samples from that incidental music genre typically churned out of Soho studios by moonlighting composers). If the cloying flute of John Cameron's theme from Kes requires the sour bleakness of the movie to offset its sweetness, Vernon Elliott's Clangers music has a stand-alone magic.

Rescuing such figures as Elliott and Kirchin from history's rubbish tip is a valuable feat of cultural archaeology, and Now We Are Ten is the sweet sound of someone giving their own trumpet a well-deserved blow. Fnarr fnarr.

Trunk Records
for an art magazine whose name I cannot remember, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The record business may not have much of a future, but it’s got one hell of a past: sales are plummeting, sending the industry into a state of panicked paralysis, but one of the few growth zones is ‘salvage’. That’s writer John Carney’s term for the modus operandi of labels like LTM, Soul Jazz and Anthology, who comb the back catalogues of defunct record companies in search of out-of-print nuggets. Then there’s Trunk, currently celebrating a decade of quirky excavations with the compilation Now We Are Ten.

The label is not just one man’s vision, it’s one man (38-year-old Jonny Trunk, nee Jonathan Benton-Hughes) finding an ingenious way of making his unhealthy obsessions-- specifically, the compulsion to dig in the dusty crates for vintage vinyl--work for him. “Records have been good to me,” he notes wryly but with a note of genuine gratitude. In addition to running his much-admired label, he also writes about music and deejays frequently, in clubs and on his regular show for Resonance FM.

In recent years, the word “curate” has become a slightly annoying buzzword in the hipster music scene, with people pompously describing functions hitherto designated more prosaically as  “pulling together a compilation,”  “running a record label,” or “booking bands for a festival” in terms of curating. Still, if anybody deserves to be thought of in these terms, it’s Trunk. Along with likeminded operatives such as Saint Etienne, Broadcast, and The Focus Group, Trunk explores music’s archives in search of lost futures and alternate presents. As much a historian as an entrepreneur, he remaps the past, finding the paths-not-taken and the peculiar but fertile backwaters adjacent to pop’s official narrative.   

Trunk got into the creative curatorship game with its very first release, The Super Sounds of Bosworth (1996), which was also the world’s first compilation of library music. Bosworth is the company that pioneered the library concept: incidental music for use in radio, cinema advertisements, industrial films, and other non-glamorous contexts, sold by subscription not in shops, and issued in institutional-looking sleeves with helpful track descriptions ( ‘neutral underscore’, ‘pathetic, grotesque’). By the early 1990s, library records from the Sixties and Seventies had become highly prized by hip hop producers for their  sample-ready cornucopia of crisply-recorded and session musician-played beats, fanfares, and refrains. 

In addition to lushly orchestrated soundtrack-style themes and hot snippets of funk and jazz, the library companies generated plenty of wacked-out experimental sounds, often using analogue synthesizers. That’s what snagged Trunk’s attention. As a child, the first melody he ever sang was the Doctor Who theme, whose electronic rendition by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop sent shudders of anticipatory fear through millions of kids’ bodies every week.  Later, as a teenager, Trunk became obsessed with the weird electronica “played on Open University programs, like when there was a sequence about microbes”.  But he could never find out who made it. Then “someone played me a Bosworth album and I thought, ‘that’s it, the Open University sound!”. Spotting the company’s address on the back of the record, he “just walked around the corner” to their Central London office and “knocked on the door”, finding inside a “Hammer House of Horror scene” of decades-old dust and teetering piles of sheet music.

The name Trunk actually comes from friends teasing him about being “nosy”. “There’s a part of me that wants to be a detective. I like digging about.” His sleuth work tracked down maverick composers like Basil Kirchin and  Desmond Leslie. The latter’s Music Of The Future (1955 – ’59), homespun musique concrete recorded in the late 1950s, is one of the label’s great discoveries. An ex-Spitfire pilot and UFO expert, Leslie was a non-musician who fancied sparring with Pierres Schaeffer and Henry. “A member of the landed gentry,” says Trunk, “he could afford to throw rotating fans and buckets of sand into pianos”.

Another recently reissued gem is the library album made by Delia Derbyshire (moonlighting from her Beeb dayjob under the alias Russe) and later used to soundtrack the children’s TV science fiction series The Tomorrow People (1973). The library obsession culminated with an attractive compendium of library sleeves Trunk pulled together for the design book publisher Fuel. Ranging from stark modernist grids to surreal photocollages, from kitschadelic Op Art to bizarrely clumsy drawings that exert a macabre compulsion akin to outsider art, the artwork collected in The Music Library (2005) show how library covers could be as inadvertently avant-garde as the music it packaged. Which isn’t so surprising, given that both were produced in factory conditions where utilitarian practicality and experimental impulses coexisted on a tight budget.

On Trunk’s website there’s the slogan: ‘music, sex, and nostalgia’. For as long as he can remember, Trunk has been susceptible to a bittersweet attraction to bygone things: while his friends followed the latest pop fashions, as a child he was into “Henry Mancini’s The Party soundtrack…  I don’t feel the new market as much as the old one.  I’m drawn to old things.”

As for sex, that comes into it through his interest in vintage porn, which he claims is all about the period aesthetics rather than any prurient use-value. “You can’t beat a good Mayfair”, Trunk chuckles, before explaining that true connoisseurs hunt for late 1960s periodical Zeta, with its stylish, cutting-edge photography (women in scrapyards). 

ZETA magazine The all-color photo fantasy Vol. 1 No. 6 | Etsy

As with record collector culture, there are fashions on the vintage skin mag scene: “1980s rude mags, that’s the new hot zone -- all DayGlo knickers and shoulder pads.” Trunk put out Flexi Sex (2003), a collection of the ultra-lewd spoken word flexi-singles porn mags once stuck between their soon-to-be-stuck-together pages. Porn informed one of the label’s few non-reissue releases, Dirty Fan Male (2004),  which involved an actor known as Wisbey reading out the filthy fan letters sent to British softcore pornstars, in an assortment of comedic voices. The CD gradually became a cult item, inspiring Trunk to turn it into a stage show, which played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004 and won the Guardian’s Best Concept award.

To ‘music, sex, nostalgia’, three other Trunk keywords could be added.

Humour: a good-natured whimsy pervades the whole project.

Britishness: nearly everything on the label was made in the UK and there’s an affectionate fascination for all aspects of this country’s post-War popular culture (the label’s website is packed with Anglo curios  Trunk has stumbled upon, from an album by Stanley Unwin, the comedian who spoke in an invented gobbledygook language, to a record by the show jumper Harvey Smith).

Keyword #3 is “melancholy”: Now We Are Ten teems with softly sad film music by composers like John Cameron and Sven Libaek.

Cheesy sleaze and sepia-toned melancholy seem unlikely bedfellows at first glance. But in his 1935 travel book Journey Without Maps, Graham Greene put his finger on or near the place where musty and lust meet. He wrote about how "seediness has a very deep appeal ... It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back"  

With their aura of wistful reverie and faded decay, the sounds exhumed by Trunk offer a portal into this nation’s cultural unconscious.

see also this very interesting recent chat with Mr Trunk on the story of how he tracked down The Wicker Man soundtrack 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Xmas 1988 commentaries

these first three album-of-year blurbs are by me

the overview essays are me and Paul Oldfield

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Annie Anxiety

Annie Anxiety, The Hellfire Club, Melody Maker, 1988
by Simon Reynolds

Monday, May 4, 2020

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Taking a Barthes (the voice in pop music)

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Thinking about the Voice in Pop
Melody Maker November 20th 1993
(part of a Melody Maker multi-author feature package/cover story about Vocal Heroes)

by Simon Reynolds

Most rock-crit doesn't have much to do with rock as music. Usually it's amateur sociology, or Eng-Lit analysis of lyrics, or biography/gossip. But even those who do grapple with music-as-music seldom get much purchase on the Voice, beyond saying a particular voice is 'great' or 'original', or gushing superlatives.  And that's because the Voice is a mystery, defying analysis.  It's hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove.

The few who have attempted to "explain" their preferences often fasten on Roland Barthes concept of"the grain of the voice".  The French critic argued that what got you about a much-loved voice wasn't what the singer did expressively, it was the stuff of the voice itself: its texture, its carnal thickness. In instrumentation, the equivalent of 'grain' is timbre, i.e. not the way Hendrix bluesily bent his notes to express emotion, but the "colour" and consistency of his fuzz-tone and feedback.  For Barthes, an accomplished vocalist who's adept at manipulating the conventional mannerisms of 'good singing' in order to emote, can actually be less moving than a stiff, unwieldy singer. The proficient vocalist suppresses "the grain of the voice" by being too eloquent, too fluent in the language of singing.  For "grain" is the body's resistance to the singer's breath, resulting in "language lined with flesh": the listener is always reminded, blissfully, that this voice isn't pure soul, but comes from deep inside a specific human body.

But critics often misconstrue 'grain' as synonomous with 'grit'. Aretha Franklin is often acclaimed as a grain-rich singer, but to my ears she's all bombastic virtuosity and pyrotechnic passion. Certainly, the octave-spanning acrobatics and mannered idiosyncracies of consummate singers like Tim Buckley can astound and enthrall, fill you with awe.  But often, a weak or limited voice can be more heart-quaking: Barney Sumner, Alex Ayuli from A.R. Kane, even a one-note droner like Lawrence of Felt. Neil Young is a case in point, not just for his torn-and-frayed drawl-whine, but for his guitar 'voice' too: his wracked, wrenching one-chord solo on "Southern Man" communicates more grainy anguish than a century of Clapton's addle-daddle nuances.

Barney Hoskyns' book From A Whisper To A Scream is a rare attempt to elucidate the Mystery of The Voice. Hoskyns also cites Barthes' 'grain', but he's a bit biased  towards technically superb and Black voices. If the greatest singers combine virtuosity and grain - Al Green, Van Morrison - I'd like to redress the balance and state the case for the deficient, unfluent singer.  Like early Morrissey: what struck a deep, carnal chord with miserabilist youth like myself was the lachrymose, mucus-like quality of his voice, so vividly evocative of drowning in self-pity.  There's a similarly clotted, inconsolable but luscious, almost edible thickness in Stevie Nicks' singing on Rumours and Tusk, and in Kristin Hersh's voice on the first three Throwing Muses albums: again, it's the viscosity of the voice, the way it resists the singer's expressive range, that's so blissful. But as Morrissey got "better" as a vocalist, he became merely plummy in his plaintiveness.

Iggy Pop's voice also declined as it got more singerly.  On the Bowie-fied solo albums, Iggy sounds like a cadaverous supperclub crooner, Jim Morrison's corpse. For the real animal you have to turn to The Stooges first two albums: the Sinatra-on-barbiturates of "Ann" and "Dirt", the feral, masticated vowels of "Loose", and above all, the breath-sucking, beyond/beneath-human gasps at the climax of "TV Eye" (which get my vote for Greatest Vocal Moment of All Time). Johnny Rotten seldom gets his rightful acclaim as a vocalist, although Dave Laing has pinpointed the gratuitous way he rolled his "r's" and over-emphasised his consonants: a grotesque, thrilling parody of rock aggression.  But it's on "Bodies" that Rotten truly plumbed Iggy-esque nether limits, gargling lines like "gurgling bloody mess" to bring home the abject horror of human biology. In recent years, only Kurt Cobain (who's gotta a lotta grain) has reached, or retched, such extremity.

Along with a critical language for the mystery of the individual voice, we also lack a history of vocal trends.  Why, for instance, has the early 70's blues rock voice resurged in the last couple of years? Why does it resonate with grunge youth?  I'd also like to understand what happened to the black mainstream voice. As soul evolved into 'urban contemporary', rural grit got replaced by jazzily urbane, slimy smoothness. Swingbeat groups like SWV, Bell Biv Devoe, Jade etc have eerily futuristic production and kicking beats, but the singing's putrid and pukey (aren't Boys II Men the absolute pits?!).

While swingbeat singing is all elegance and over-expressiveness, rap is a haven for 'grain', in so far as it's vocal but non-melodic. Rhymin' finesse counts for a lot, but for me it's the stuff of the voice that grabs. My current fave is Snoop Doggy Dogg, sidekick of Dr Dre and currently taking off as a solo mega-star despite being charged with murder.  Like a lot of black people in Los Angeles, Dogg has a Southern accent, giving his voice a sidling, serpentile quality that's seductive in its menace.  Ragga's rasping, patois insolence is also full of grain, harking back to the gruff-but-luscious 'talk-over' voices of early Seventies reggae (mainstream reggae singing has gone slick and oily like US soul).

But ultimately you can't legislate about the voice: one person's 'grain' may be another's bland white bread of the soul. When it come to the voice, preferences are idiosyncratic and unjustifiable. Something in the singer's body resonates inside your body, reopens wounds and triggers pleasure-centres, and who can really say why?


interesting to reread this in light of -

my relatively recent (last 16 years or so) interest in "extremes of the human voice" / mouth music / vocal manipulation, extended vocal techniques 

my ardour for Auto-Tune, which Barthes probably would not have liked at all since it enforces a new kind of grainlessness - puts a blatant layer of digi-mediation between the listener and "the cantor's body", and which also enables / encourages extremes of legato and hyper-melisma.... all those wobbly jellyfish like ornaments and slip-and-slides in R&B singing  - which would seem to intensify all the singerly dramatic artistry that he dislikes in Fisker-Diskau

then again AutoTune misused creates a new vocabulary of digital distortions, which perhaps offers a kind of post-carnal or dis-emboded surrogate for "grain" - glitches in the transmission medium itself

Friday, April 17, 2020

Pixies, live, 1988

Pixies,  live
Melody Maker, March 26, 1988

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Dancing on the Edge: from avant-funk and mutant disco to the postpunk revival

director's cut, Index  magazine, 2001
by Simon Reynolds

Centro Fly, Manhattan, Winter 2001. Tonight the club's mainfloor hosts a night called GBH--shorthand for Great British House. If the night was actually based in the U.K., the name would be mildly amusing--it's the abbreviation for "grievous bodily harm," an indictment roughly equivalent to "assault". There's also a faintly amusing echo of the veteran punk band GBH. 

This club, though, couldn't be more harmless, less punk. The music chugs along efficiently, a cautious composite defined mostly be what it's not (not too deep, too druggy, too gay, too hard, too organic, too anthemic). Groove Armada's "Superstylin'" comes on, and the residual tang of "vibe" in the dancehall vocal only serves to emphasize how deracinated and over-processed the rest of the track is. As for the crowd, they're smartly dressed but not flamboyantly styled, and impossible to gauge in terms of subcultural affiliation;  their celebration never reaches the level of abandon, let alone frenzy. 

I'm actually here for what's going on in the basement, the 2step night Drive By (where UK rave veterans Shut Up and Dance are spinning) but on a strange impulse I climbed the stairs to monitor the vital signs of house culture. And I'm ambushed by an unexpected fury of disgust, unable to understand why I find GBH's sub-Dionysian bustle so snugly smug, such a personal affront. And from there it's a short step to wondering: how come I ever got the idea that dance culture was meant to be an arena for danger in the first place? Right now, none of the styles of postrave floor fodder that rule the clubs--"progressive," trance, filter house, tech-house, hard house--substantiate the notion of dance-with-edge. 

Flash back, ooh, 23 years.  Disco is still at its height, and although discophobes are calling for its death, it actually seems, in 1978/79, that rock is the one that's ready for last rites. Out of those mobilized by punk, the smartest minds are arguing that traditional rock'n'roll is exhausted and the way forward involves embracing  the rhythms and studio  techniques of  disco and dub.  This "anti-rockist" vanguard--Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, James Chance, Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, to name just a few--share David Byrne's belief that "black dance production is a bigger revolution than punk."
But they don't want to simply copy black dance music as closely as possible, in that time-honored, over-reverential white bluesman/blue-eyed soul/wigga tradition; they want to mutate it, warp it, infect its upfulness with angst, militancy, and political despair. 

Two songs from this punk-funk moment seem especially emblematic, and could be said to have changed my life. PiL's "Death Disco" was actually a UK Top 20 hit in the summer of 1979, and I can vividly recall the pained expression on the presenter's face as he announced the group's appearance on Top of the Pops (England's equivalent to American Bandstand).  "Death Disco" shattered the show's merry light entertainment atmosphere: over Keith Levene's soul-flaying guitar and Jah Wobble's dark-surging  disco-style "walking bassline", ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon howled muezzin-style as he anatomized the horror of  looking into his mother's eyes as she lay on her deathbed.

The other funk noir tune is "Dance of the Screamers" by Ian Dury & the Blockheads, who weren't generally thought of as part of the post-punk vanguard. Indeed by 1979's Do It Yourself they'd crossed over as massively popular entertainers in the UK: the once-menacing Dury clasped to the British public's bosom as the chirpy Cockney king of comedy-rock.  "Dance of the Screamers," that album's stand-out song, is no barrel of laughs though. The sound is slick disco (the Blockheads were shit-hot, session-quality funkateers) but the lyric devastates the party vibe, reimagining the dancefloor as a killing field for social cripples and lost 'n' lonely losers desperate for love. Eventually Dury abandons words altogether, his hoarse howls of agony sparring with Davey Payne's freeform sax-blasts.

Dancing in the dark (figuratively and literally) to "Death Disco" and "Screamers"--this was my introduction to dance music. Later I fell for the punk-funk paroxysms of Delta 5 and Gang of Four, the  polyrhythmic panoramas of Talking Heads' Remain In Light, the dark absurdist "mutant disco" of Was (Not Was), the Chic-for-sociopaths of Defunkt. The latter, hailed at the time as funk's very own Sex Pistols but now almost totally forgotten, was formed by James Chance's  estranged horn section (New York between 1979-82 was a hotbed of groups based around the notion of dance-with-edge). Leader Joe Bowie defined the group as a revolt against the sedative culture of disco: "We've got to wake up again and Defunkt are part of that resurgence of thought."

By 1983, though, the notion of avant-funk or punk-funk had run out of steam, trapped itself within its own cliches: sub-Miles trumpet-heard-through-fog, neurotic slap-bass, guttural pseudo-sinister vocals,  Ballard and Burroughs references. The leading edge of white alternative music recoiled from the dancefloor. Groups as diverse as The Smiths, Husker Du, REM, Jesus & Mary Chain, restricted their influence-intake to the whitest regions of rock's past: The Byrds folk-rock, Velvet Underground, rockabilly. Still, the core contention of the punk-funk project--that rock's hopes of  enjoying a future beyond mere antiquarianism (the Cramps, the White Stripes) depends on assimilating the latest rhythmic innovations from black dance music--never entirely disappeared.

What happened was that the next-wave of postpunk groups, like Scritti Politti and New Order, fully embraced the latest black dance styles (electro, synthfunk) and their tools (drum machines, sequencers, Fairlight samplers), infiltrating their doubt or dread into the mix via the lyrics and vocal approach, but not tampering with the music to any great degree.  Other ex-punks (Paul Weller's Style Council, Simply Red) just took on blackness wholesale: the music, the lyrical language, the soul style of vocalisation. And for quite a long period in the Eighties, this was the consensus: that the best white artists could do with black music was try not to fuck with it, for fearing of fucking it up. Emulate, not mutate.

This "soulboy" consensus was rudely shocked by the arrival of acid house in 1987. Gospel-influenced song-based house was highly palatable (Weller even made a deep house record) but the harsh futuristic attack of the Roland 303 acid bass was greeted with appalled incomprehension: "it's so cold, so mechanistic---where's the soul?!?!". To which my response, was "exactly, exactly, and who cares?", Hearing the early Chicago acid tunes was like the totally unscheduled resurrection of avant-funk, half-a-decade after its demise, and half-a-world away from its birthplace in Britain and Germany. In songs like Phuture's "Your Only Friend" and Sleezy D's "I've Lost Control", you could hear uncanny echoes of PiL, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo: the inhibited and coercive treadmill rhythms, the constipated basslines, the desolate dub-space. Even the  imagery evoked by the track titles or stripped-down vocal chants--trance-dance as control, a sinister subjugating form of hypnosis; scenarios of mindwreck, abduction, paranoia---was just totally 1981.  And as it happened, some of the acid house pioneers were influenced by the early avant-funk and synth experimentalists, from Throbbing Gristle to German outfits like DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors).

It was only right and proper, then, that the pan-European subcultural upsurge triggered by acid house allowed many original avant-funkers to resurface. Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk formed Sweet Exorcist and made some of era's classic "bleep techno";  Graham Massey, 808 State's musical genius and future Bjork collaborator, was formerly of minor avant-funk outfit Biting Tongues. Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV's Genesis P.Orridge, Soft Cell's Dave Ball, Youth from Killing Joke, 400 Blows's Tony Thorpe, Torch Song's William Orbit, Quando Quango's Mick Pickering.... there's an endless list of avant-funk veterans whose dormant careers were instantly revitalized by the new context created by the synergy of house and Ecstasy. The concept of "rave" itself, with its multiple connotations of madness, fury, and deranging euphoria, seemed to me like pure punk-funk in spirit: the ultimate merger of aggression and celebration. 

Between 1991 and 1993, as rave turned to hardcore, hardcore to  jungle, it really did seem like the reactivation of the avant-funk project, except on a mass scale. This was a populist vanguard, a lumpen bohemia that weirdly mashed together the bad-trippy sounds of art school funk-mutation with a plebeian pill-gobbling rapacity that recalled the vital vulgarity of Oi! (In the early Eighties, your 23 Skidoo art students and your Oi!-punk proles would have been deadly class enemies). In particular, the transitional sound of "darkside"--febrile hyperspeed percussion, ominous basslines, dizzy sensations of harrowing bliss, a haunted/hunted vibe of spooked-out paranoia---was uncannily redolent of  the soundtrack of my youth: Death Disco, Pt 2.  Indeed "darkside"'s  reflected a moment circa 1992-93 when Ecstasy abuse was starting to exact its heavy toll, transforming many into braindead zombies and a few into actual real-deal corpses.   

*                  *                           *                           *

To be a participant in the underground rave scene of the early Nineties was electrifying, like being plugged into currents of revolutionary energy. The sensation was explosive: energy exploding into public space (with illegal raves and warehouse parties), energy exploding across the airwaves (with pirate radio), energy exploding through the music itself, which felt like it was propelled pell-mell by a mutational momentum that was uncontainable.

And then a strange thing happened--all that unruly, turbulent energy, and all that borderline-criminal activity, started to get orderly and organized. Clubs and labels became business-minded, looking towards steady long-term profits rather than quick killings, and thinking like corporations rather than buccaneers. Raves in the "darkside" era  became too edgy for all but a diehardcore of headstrong nutters, and alienated by the moody, paranoid vibes, many ravers returned to the clubs, with their safer atmospheres and  predictable satisfactions. Gradually, the punk principles that informed the original rave scene ( the crowd-as-star, the anonymity of producers and DJs, "faceless techno bollocks") faded with the emergence of a global circuit of superclubs and a hierarchy of superstar DJs: pseudo-personalities like Paul Oakenfold, Bad Boy Bill,  Lottie, Paul Van Dyk, Dave Ralph, who travel the world earning fat fees and racking up the Air Miles. 

The music changed too, the fever and fervor of hardcore rave gradually tempered into something milder. On the global quasi-underground of superclubs, the dancefloor is dominated by the whiter-than-white sounds of trance and its mature cousin "progressive" (the sound made famous by Sasha & Digweed at the late unlamented Manhattan superclub Twilo, among other places). Anthemic and sentimental, trance has a certain cheese-tastic anti-snob allure: in some sense, it is still music for ravers. Punkless and funkless, "progressive" is definitely a post-rave style.  Musically, it's somewhere between a de-anthemized trance and a house music utterly purged of blackness, gayness, sexuality, humor. What's left is a faint aura of ersatz futurity, spirituality, cosmic-ness. Sleek, abstract artist names like Evolution, Breeder, Hybrid, Moonface, Quivver, Lustral, and vapidly big-sounding track titles like "Force 51", "Syncronized Knowledge",  "Gyromancer", "Enhanced", "Carnival XIII", "Descender", "Supertransonic" seem almost subconsciously designed to to avoid conjuring real-world evocations or resonances.

 Purging all the aspects of rave that harked back to earlier youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive has achieved a blank purity, sterile and non-referential. It's the nullifying soundtrack for experiences sealed off from everyday life--the sanitized debauchery that superclubs are in the business of  catering for, despite their front of co-operation with the authorities against drug use. Beyond "edge" in the subcultural sense, the very sound of the music lacks edges --your typical progressive track is a featureless miasma of samey-sounding texture and mid-tempo surge-pulses,  blurring indistinguishably into the next track as DJs compete to perfect the craft of the seamless, pointlessly prolonged mix. It's music that doesn't explode with crescendoes and climaxes, but slow-burns, simmers. And this  implosive aesthetic mirrors the way the club industry has successfully corraled and contained the once anarchic energies of rave.

Part of progressive's selling point is its image as streamlined pleasure-tech. The tracks are mere components for the mixscapes assembled by the ultra-skilled technicians who travel the global superclub circuit. Temples of  too-easy hedonism like Gatecrasher, Cream, Ministry of Sound, actually use their very leisure industry corporate-ness as part of their image and sales pitch: the logos, the slogans like Gatecrasher's "Market Leaders In Having-It-Right-Off Leisure Ware," the merchandising and spin-off compilations, all communicate the sense of quality guaranteed, a reassuring predictability. You get what you pay for, the superclubs and superjocks seem to be saying; your precious leisure time is safe in  professional hands. But Progressive  embodies the ultimate vacuousness of pleasure as its own justification. For without difficulty (the physical commitment of actually journeying to a remote rave, or a shady club, say), you get what you pay for and nothing more. The "surplus value" that came with participating in the rave underground--with its possibility of either wild adventures or a total bust--has disappeared as an option.  The superclubs are like department stores or shopping malls, the dancers like consumers or spectators. Factor in the Ibiza-isation of dance culture, and the Spring Break-isation of Ecstasy, and you have a depressing picture: the transition from rave as counterculture to clubland as a mere supplement or adjunct to affluent, aspirational, enjoyment-oriented lifestyles. A dance "culture" without even the transcendent escapist frisson of the original disco. Because with lives so well-adjusted and abundant, why would you even need to escape at all?

I have this far-fetched theory that Daft Punk's album of last year, Discovery--with its titillating infusions of late Seventies AOR, soft-rock, and lite-metal, its evocations of Frampton, 10CC, Van Halen, ELO, Buggles, and the actual recognisable Supertramp keyboard lick on "Digital Love"---was trying to make a point: that dance music right now has a lot in common with American rock at its most toothless, radio-programmer-castrated, emollient (all those groups ruled the radio roost during the punk-never-arrived-here FM void of 1976-80). Almost as if, by making this unhappy resemblance blatantly obvious, Daft Punk could somehow prompt a real Dance-Punk into existence. Well, I said it was far-fetched theory.

Another abreactive symptom of this dawning sense of dance culture as a dead end, as a new decadance, is the resurgence of interest in the original dance-with-edge: avant-funk, mutant disco, early Eighties proto-house. Compilations like In The Beginning There Was Rhythm: The Birth Of Dance Music After Punk,  Disco Not Disco, and  Nine O'Clock Drop (complete with compiler Andrew Weatherall's sleevenote railing against the way dance music has become "the soundtrack to complete an easily assembled life(less) style.... the soundtrack for ad agency pick and mix culture snitches"). Reissues of 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire, ESG.  Clubs like Mutants and Transmission. Then there's the plethora of contemporary groups who are taking cues from the early Eighties: Playgroup, with their loving pastiches of New York mutant disco and synth-funk, their Pigbag and Specials homages; the  Kraftwerk circa Computer World meets Todd Haynes circa Safe anomie & modernity of Adult; the art school bop and Sprockets-funk of Berlin's Chicks On Speed; Le Tigre's lo-tech agit-funk, all spiky riffs and rad-feminist sloganeering.

Angular, scrawny, not-quite-fluid, early Eighties postpunk dance is a world away from the plumply pumping satisfactions of modern dance music, the supple repleteness of its production. What seems appealing to contemporary ears about that period of punk-funk is its very failure to be funky in a fully-realised fashion.  And that brings us back to the original question of what the white boys and girls can bring to the party? Precisely their alienation, their awkwardness and unrelaxedness, their neurosis, their inability to swing (think David Byrne's persona: the geeky consumer-commuter burb-dweller straining to "stop making sense," trance-out). It was this very Euro-WASP stiltedness and coldness that was so inspiring to the original Detroit techno people (a paradox that Carl Craig crystallized with the insight: "Kraftwerk were so stiff, they were funky"). Rave culture once offered a transgressive ecstasy, but after ten years of professionalisation and technical refinement, rapture has become routizined, bliss banal. No wonder that a new generation is rejecting the very notion of trance-dance as narcotic, lulling, null, and grasping instead for some kind of edge. Rather than the ease of release offered by house music in its many forms, tension and unease seem desirable again, for their own sake.

bonus beats

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Skinny Puppy

Skinny Puppy, VIVIsectVIMelody Maker, October 29 1988

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Alice Cooper

When Alice Cooper Predicted Donald Trump, September 16, 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Forty-four years ago, Alice Cooper ran for President.

Okay, not really – but the singer and his group did release the single “Elected” in September 1972, timed for the final stretch of the Nixon versus McGovern race for the White House.  A bombastic blast of proto-punk fury, “Elected” proposed Cooper as the leader of “a new party, a third party, a WILD party” that would “take the country by storm”. The single was accompanied with an uproarious promo video, in which Cooper drives around in a Rolls-Royce glad-handing the voters and revels in the barrow full of donor cash wheeled in by his campaign manager,  a roller-skating chimpanzee.

The idea for “Elected” actually dated back to the previous Presidential contest in 1968, which inspired Alice Cooper to write a song titled “You Shall Be Elected”. That lyrical concept fell by the wayside but the tune survived as “Reflected”, a track on the group’s 1969 debut album Pretties For You. Flash forward to ’72 and Alice Cooper were now the most infamous band in America, thanks to their shock-rock concerts involving the dismemberment of baby-dolls and faked but hair-raisingly realistic executions of the singer by gallows and guillotine. Following the chart success of “School’s Out,” the group were on the brink of the superstardom they’d been chasing for four grueling years.  So they decided to jump on the election-year bandwagon and drastically remodeled “Reflected” with the original lyric restored and intensified. Instead of “You Shall Be Elected”, the hook line became “I wanna be elected”: a messianic power trip for a singer who justifiably saw himself as a leader of youth.  

Bob Ezrin, the group’s producer, came up with a shrewd ruse to generate the declamatory demagogue vocal that “Elected” needed. “To get the performance I had a full-length mirror placed in front of Alice on an angle,” Ezrin told an interviewer. “That way he could see his entire body in reflection.” Gesticulating like an orator, Cooper rasped out lines about how the “kids want a savior, don’t want a fake” and vowed that very soon “we’re all gonna rock to the rules that I make.” Ezrin added horns suggestive of statesman-like pomp and distorted bursts of TV newscaster voice-over in the style of Walter Winchell. After $10,000 of studio time and eighty hours of obsessive mixing, the result was one of the hard rock classics of the first half of the Seventies.

From its whiplash opening riff through Cooper’s abyss-plunging scream to the portentous descending bassline in the outro, “Elected” can also stake a claim to be punk rock four years ahead of historical schedule. The tone of apocalyptic glee mingled with megalomania anticipates “Anarchy in the U.K.” (Johnny Rotten was a huge Alice fan and his audition for the Sex Pistols involved miming to “I’m Eighteen” on a jukebox). There’s a lyrical preview of punk too: during the fade, Cooper reels off a list of U.S. cities that have “problems,” then whispers “and personally... I don’t care” – a glimpse ahead to the taunting nihilism of “and we don’t care” in “Pretty Vacant.”

Listening to “Elected” recently while working on my new glam rock history Shock and Awe, I heard another element of prophecy:  Cooper’s drunk-with-the-promise-of-power performance reminded me of nobody so much as Donald Trump. Like Cooper, Trump is an entertainer moving into politics, using showbiz techniques that bypass reasoned analysis and policy proposals and instead conjure a baseless aura of authority. When Cooper rants about how “you and me together / young and strong,” it sounds like Trump’s blasts of hot-air about America being great again, how “we’ll win so much”. There’s Trump Tower-like bling too when Cooper brags about being “a dandy in a gold Rolls-Royce”.

Long before Trump ever featured in its pages, Alice Cooper made the front cover of Forbes. In the financial magazine’s April 15th 1973 issue, the band were held up as exemplars of “a new breed of tycoon” that had emerged thanks to the Seventies rock business’s bonanza of platinum albums and mega-grossing tours.  Beneath the headline “the rockers are rolling in it”, an interview with Cooper saw the singer describe himself as a true patriot: “I’m the most American rock act. I have American ideals. I love money!”  In another interview - with Bob Greene, a political journalist who followed his Nixon/McGovern campaign chronicle Running with a book documenting an Alice Cooper tour– the singer talked about his success in Trump-like terms as the result of a pure will to dominance: “It was nothing but positive thinking. I’m very competitive....  That’s my main life drive – being better than everyone else.”

 “Elected” was the taster for Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that propelled Alice Cooper to mainstream megafame.  A brazen celebration of money-making, the album stomped on the last vestiges of hippie idealism still lingering on from the Sixties: instead of sticking it to the Man, why not become the Man?  Billion Dollar Babies’s packaging was styled as a snakeskin wallet bulging with cash; inside, fans found a facsimile of a billion dollar bill. The accompanying tour was the most spectacular and lucrative (raking in a then astronomical $4,000,000 for 64 concerts) that rock had yet seen. The group travelled between cities in a private jet with a dollar symbol on the plane’s tail.
In interviews Cooper described the album and the show as a celebration of decadence – then an in-vogue concept  because of the movie Cabaret. “It’s happening in the States now, all that German thing of the Thirties,” Cooper told Circus magazine’s Steve Demorest. “There is so much money in the U.S., and everyone has as much sex as they want. All we’re doing is reflecting it. I like the idea of the American Seventies producing a cabaret of over-opulence.... I’m a nationalist. I know the States is the best place in the world to live in.” Indeed Billion Dollar Babies concerts ended with the band unfurling the Stars and Stripes to the sound of “God Bless America”.

Dismayed pundits at the time took the commercial success of Alice Cooper’s sick-humor and cynical worldview as proof that the assumed link between rock and progressive politics had proved illusory. All those benefit concerts for McGovern played by rock bands had done nothing to forestall a landslide reelection for Nixon, self-proclaimed champion of the silent majority. Some critics outright identified Alice Cooper as Nixonian rock.  In truth, the singer had not even voted in ’72 – something he professed to feel ashamed about. But Cooper did say that “I wouldn’t have voted for McGovern”, mainly because the candidate was too wishy-washy and changed his mind so often. 
Generally, Cooper professed to find politics “so boring”, quipping that “if elected, I would impeach myself”. But while the finale to the Billion Dollar Babies concerts involved a Nixon lookalike bounding onstage only to be roughed up and bundled off by the band, in interviews Cooper expressed sympathy for the President,   embroiled in the Watergate scandal shortly after his reelection triumph. 

“I think Nixon’s got a rough job,” Cooper told Greene. “And if he’s guilty of anything, I don’t think it’s anything new. He’s just the first one to get caught. I think Nixon’s a star... He’ll go down as one of the biggest personalities ever to come out of the United States, just by being so notorious.... I would love to spend some time with him. I’d probably sit down and talk about golf.” That never happened but Cooper did get to play golf alongside Nixon’s VP and successor Gerald Ford in a celebrity tournament. In further bizarreness, one of the singer’s four homes was right next door to the Phoenix, Arizona residence of Barry Goldwater, hero of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and a failed Presidential candidate in his own right.   

Like the acting profession, rock has continued to lean left and liberal for the most part.  But the existence of right-wing rockers – Ted Nugent, Johnny Ramone, Kid Rock, Gene Simmons, Avenged Sevenfold, and Alice Cooper himself, who’s been described as a “quiet” supporter of George W. Bush but whose intentions in 2016 are undeclared– shows that there is no innate and irrevocable link between rock  and progressive politics. Indeed rock’s combination of populism and individualism arguably inclines more logically with a libertarian agenda than with socialism. 

When you look at the “rock star” version of rock - the model for misbehavior and excess that’s recently been so influential in rap – it becomes obvious that it has far more in common with Trump’s worldview than, say, Portlandia values.  “Rock star” rock runs on ideological-emotional fuel like vanity, wasteful splendor, and alpha-male display. There’s a reason why Trump soundtracks his stadium-concert-like rallies with songs like “We Are the Champions” and “I Won’t Back Down”, and why he could plausibly  add “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” to the playlist too.  Magical thinking, vacuous self-aggrandizement, an appeal to gut feeling and irrational uplift, us-versus-them postures: if not the rock candidate, Trump is at least the hair metal candidate.

Although a Top 5 smash in the U.K., “Elected” did not repeat the success of “School’s Out” in America, stalling at Number 26. Let’s hope this is an augury for November.

postscript: but I didn't know that Alice had "run for office" on another occasion:

(via Rebekah Gonzalez column at I Heart 80s Radio)

"I represent the Wild Party and I even have a campaign slogan: Alice Cooper - A troubled man for troubled times."

That's how Alice Cooper made headlines on February 24th, 1988. Announcing that he would be running for governor in his home state of Arizona as a write-in candidate. But anyone who had been around in the early '70s knew that this wasn't Cooper's first time in the political ring. Well, at least a WWE-like, shock-rock version of the political ring.

When Richard Nixon and George McGovern went head to head back in September of 1972, Alice Cooper ran for president with maybe one of the most powerful, low maintenance campaigns of all time. Everything he had to say was in the band's song "Elected" ....

.... Cooper performed "Elected" again in April of 2016, announcing another gag-run for presidency. There was no need to change the words of a song written in the '70s for a presidential election happening in 2016...."

Alice Cooper
The Guardian, June 12th 2014
by Simon Reynolds

Alice Cooper is reminiscing about the days when he killed himself for a living. “Any time you have moving parts onstage, you are asking for Spinal Tap,” he says of the gallows and the guillotine that were climactic fixtures  of his tours of the early 1970s.  “And when it doesn’t work, you have to play it for comedy. “  But that time the gallows broke in England was no laughing matter. “There was a wire connected to my back, it stopped the noose from hitting my neck, and we’d done the trick one hundred times, never thinking ‘maybe that wire is getting brittle’. And then it snapped and the noose grabbed me for real.” Cooper was quick-witted enough to tilt his chin up and slip through the noose.  He was lucky to escape with a nasty rope burn down his throat.

41 years after this close shave, Cooper sits placidly in a downtown LA hotel suite directly opposite the Grammy Museum, where the previous night Super Duper Alice Cooper, a rockdoc about his life and exploits, made its West Coast debut.  Amongst the invitation-only audience were legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres (a friend of the Alice Cooper band during their phase of living in LA as Frank Zappa protégés) and sundry Cooper-influenced metal performers such as Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider.

Wearing white jeans with an excess of zips, a plain black T-Shirt, and a vaguely sepulchral medallion nestled in a thicket of chest hair, Alice looks much the same as he did in his Seventies heyday, give or take a few  wrinkles  and some paunch. But then when you watch the old footage spliced into Super Duper, it’s striking that he never really seemed like a young man.  From his swarthy, crow-like countenance to his scrawny body, Cooper was never going to become a rock star through sexual magnetism, nor from the strength and beauty of his voice. 

Instead he became one of the best “bad” singers rock’n’roll has ever known, his haggard rasp equally suited to the proto-grunge snarl of “I’m Eighteen” (his break-through US hit) and the megalomaniacal bombast  of “Elected”. Abandoning “erotic politics” as a faded relic of the idealistic 1960s, Cooper based his act around death, with LPs like Killer and Love It to Death, and the necrophilia anthem “I Love the Dead”.  The band’s hard-riffing tunes and grand guignol theatrics drew a vast following of “sick things”: young kids looking for something definitively Seventies, a nihilistic new sensibility as repellent to older rock fans as to their parent’s generation. 

For a while Cooper was even huger in Britain than in America.  His infamy was boosted by a campaign to ban his concerts launched by the Labour MP Leo Abse, and by Mary Whitehouse’s efforts to stop the BBC showing the group’s #1’s single “School’s Out”.   

“Boy, we could not have bought that publicity,” laughs Cooper. “They couldn’t  figure  out why we were sending him cigars and her flowers.  But every time they spent an extra hour trying to ban us in England, they helped us so much. “ Abse and Whitehouse formed an unlikely alliance, given that the Pontypool MP had been an architect of the permissive society, by pushing for legalization of homosexuality. But at a time of anxiety about rising levels of youth crime, Cooper’s disturbing image and gory theatrics were easily connected in the popular imagination with A Clockwork Orange and the copycat ultra-violence that Kubrick’s movie had allegedly inspired. “When I saw the film, I thought, there’s an awful lot of Alice in Alex,” Cooper says of Malcolm McDowell’s delinquent anti-hero. “Like me, he’s got a snake, he’s wearing eye make-up.  And later McDowell actually told me, ‘there’s a few Alice references in there’.  So I totally related to A Clockwork Orange – not the mindless violence, but the fact that violence has its place in theatrics.”

British rock always was more theatrical than its American precursor, and often this involved destruction or apocalyptic gimmickry:  The Move smashing TV sets, Arthur Brown and his flaming helmet, Screamin’ Lord Sutch making a grand entrance from inside a coffin.  “That’s why most people thought we were British at first,” says Cooper.  Another affinity with U.K. rock was the art school genesis of the band. “Me and Dennis Dunaway, our bassist, were both art majors and probably the two strongest forces as far as the image and the staging. We were Salvador Dali fans.”

As Super Duper Alice Cooper relates via its well-executed interweaving of photographs and voice-overs, the group started out in Phoenix, Arizona as a high school Beatles parody act the Earwigs, before evolving into the more serious punkadelic garage band The Spiders. By 1969, they had moved to LA and hooked up with manager Shep Gordon, a young man with no music industry experience but an instinctive grasp of the Andrew Loog Oldham Principle: not only is there no such thing as bad publicity, but the manager’s job is to engineer outrage, propagate rumours, incite hysteria.

It was Gordon who blagged the band a prime spot at 1969’s Toronto  Rock and Roll Revival festival, playing just before the headlining John Lennon, and who most likely arranged for a chicken to find its way onstage mid-set.  Thrown by Alice into the audience, the poor fowl was torn to shreds.  “It seemed to upset the whole world,” recalls Alice. “That’s when I realised rock was looking for a villain, somebody that would have done that on purpose.  That spurred me to create the Alice character to be darker.”  It was Gordon also who conceived a stunt that ratcheted up Alice Cooper’s notoriety in Britain.  A flatbed truck carried a giant billboard of Alice, nude except for his pet snake, through London, only to mysteriously break down in Piccadilly Circus, where a bevy of reporters and photographers just happened to be waiting to document the ensuing traffic jam and police fracas.

Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that spawned two of Alice’s biggest UK hits (“Elected” and “Hello Hooray”) was the band’s peak. The massive tour of America raked in so much money Alice made the cover of Forbes as emblem of a new breed of rock tycoon. But in reality, the band were funneling most of the proceeds back into their increasingly spectacular stage production. Frustration with this situation, says Cooper, is one reason the group split up. 

Alice Cooper went solo with Welcome To My Nightmare. The 1975 album/tour/TV special was his most extravagant production yet,  the consummation of his driving intuition that ultimately rock was just another branch of showbiz.  A fan of Hollywood and Broadway who was influenced as much by West Side Story and Hellzapoppin’ as by The Who and The Doors, Cooper thought of himself as “the Busby Berkeley of rock”.

In the second half of the Seventies, he became an increasingly mainstream figure: palling around with the likes of George Burns and Groucho Marx, appearing on TV shows such as Hollywood Squares and The Muppets, even playing golf with President Gerald Ford.  Privately, he battled alcoholism. Alice drank Budweiser from breakfast to bedtime, sustaining what he calls “a golden buzz. I was the most functional alcoholic there ever was. “ But when he graduated from beer to whiskey and “started throwing up blood in the morning”, Cooper realised, “I’m really killing myself.” 

Drained and distracted, Cooper was poorly placed to maintain his relevance in a changing rock scene.  As so often happens, the very people who idolized and emulated Cooper now eclipsed  him.  Punk made his exploits seem tame by comparison, even though Johnny Rotten was a huge fan, auditioning for the Sex Pistols by miming to “I’m Eighteen” and decades later penning gushing sleevenotes for an Alice Cooper box set. In the Eighties, Goth, industrial and extreme metal took death-tripping even further.  Cooper also influenced hair metal outfits like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister. In Super Duper, Dee Snider pays tribute: “We came from this man’s loins. He ejaculated - and glam metal was born”

After overcoming his addictions and renewing his Christian faith (both his father and grandfather were Protestant pastors), Cooper returned in the late Eighties as a revered elder of metal in much the same way as Ozzy Osbourne. But in the process, he says, he underwent a persona shift.  The original, alcohol-era Alice was a victim as much as a violator. “He was always in a straitjacket, getting his head cut off.  He represented kids that were bullied, the artistic kind of outcasts.” The post-comeback, sober Alice, who’s sold millions of records and continues to play large concerts worldwide, is more like a cartoon bad guy. “Alice had to be reborn as an arrogant villain. Now he wasn’t the one who was beaten, he was the one who was going to beat.  He was the dominatrix, he wasn’t the trick”.