Sunday, July 29, 2007


riffs on riffs for The Wire's Greatest Riffs feature The Wire, 2004 by Simon Reynolds

KING SUNNY ADE -- “Eje Nlo Gba Ara Mi”, “365 Is My Number/The Message” (from Juju Music, Mango, 1982), “Synchro System” (Synchro System, Mango, 1983)

 The riff so good they used it thrice. Actually, that’s an underestimate. This twangy, twinkly rhythm guitar figure, mostly likely played by Ade himself, is all over The Best of The Classic Years compilation of 1967-74 material (notably “Sunny Ti De” and “Ibanujde Mon Iwon”), and I’m told it recurs throughout the man’s vast discography. Whether it’s creative thrift or a Zen-like exploration of the infinite inflectional possibilities within a few chords, who knows? In any given track, this crisp crinkle of scintillating Afro-funk serves a double function, operating as both audio-logo (this is KING SUNNY ADE you’re listening to) and intensifier, its flecked flicker tightening the surface of the music until it’s as taut as a drum skin.

NASTY HABITS--“Shadow Boxing” (31 Records, 1996)

Nasty Habits is the alter-ego of deejay/producer Doc Scott, one of jungle’s under-sung pioneers, and “Shadow Boxing” contains the most gloriously doom-laden and ponderous synth-riff in that genre’s history. Scott’s from Coventry, so it’s tempting to think he must have accessed the heaviness of this sluggish, scowling riff from the harsh West Midlands environment in the same way Sabbath did with “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” and the rest. More likely, though, is that in the early Nineties Scott had his head rearranged at Coventry’s Eclipse raves and ever since then he’s been chasing down his own ultimate version of the miasmic “Mentasm” noise-riff, as heard on Joey Beltram’s early R&S tracks and Belgian hardcore anthems beyond counting. Beautiful and ominous like a cloud of poison gas looming on the horizon, “Shadow Boxing” is the culmination of a life’s work. Something drum’n’bass as genre most likely will never surpass.

RESILIENT--"1.2" (Chain Reaction, 1996) There’s probably any number of fabulous riffs strewn across the discographies of the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction label-cluster (Maurizio’s “M6” and Monolake’s “Index” spring immediately to mind). But “1.2” by the enigmatic Resilient takes the BC/CR approach of miniaturising the riff to the limit. Riffs exist at the intersection of melody and rhythm, the mnemonic and the physical, and the Chain Reaction aesthetic in part involved seeing just how reduced (in terms of notes) you could make a pulse before it became purely percussive, just another beat. I’m not even sure there’s notes as such in “1.2”, it’s more like this spasming ripple of texture. It’s as if Resilient has conducted an archaeology of house music in order to uncover the primordial geocosmic vamp at the genre’s core. The first half of “1.2” consists of a tectonic shudder, a tidal current, that’s so contourless it’s at the very threshold of memorability. Then roughly six minutes in (you do tend to lose track of time) it abruptly shifts gear to a more rapid flicker of amorphous radiance. At which point, the sensation of spongy amniotic suspension quickens to a flooding bliss, overwhelming enough to get your eyes rolling back in your head. You start to see why some wag* dubbed this genre “heroin house”.

KRAFTWERK--“Ruckzuck” (Kraftwerk 1, Philips, 1971) Given all the other choices available in the Kraftwerk oeuvre--the regular-as-carburetor pulse of “Autobahn”, the poignant heart-flutter vamps of “Neon Lights” and “Computer Love”, the eerie synth-shivers midway through "Home Computer"--it probably seems slightly perverse to pick the very first song on the very first album. Especially as the killer riff is played on a flute, not a synth. But the whole essence of Kraftwerk’s sound/feeling/Geist--serene urgency, Zen as the art of motorik maintenance--is distilled into Florian Schneider’s rasping flute lick. Or flute licks--at various points, it’s double-tracked so that Schneider is jamming with himself, the staccato patterns dovetailing to funky perfection. Flutes are usually a ghastly idea outside classical music, but here the instrument rocks--indeed, it’s hard to think of another instance of a woodwind being used to such percussive and propulsive effect. “Ruckzuck” is the missing link between Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Area Code 615’s “Stone Fox Chase”--i.e. that harmonica-driven theme tune for The Old Grey Whistle Test. * "some wag"--Not sure but I think it was actually Kevin Martin who coined the term "heroin house". Nuff respeck.

unpublished piece for Village Voice, 1991


During the last decade, Kraftwerk have been absent but omnipresent. You can hear their ghostly presence in house and techno, in the lovelorn electro of New Order and the inorganic sound-palatte of industrial disco. Rap groups don't cite or sample them so much these days, but in the early Eighties Kraftwerk were as crucial as James Brown. Long before Afrika Bambatta's JB collaboration "Unity", the affinity between "Sex Machine" and "Man Machine" was obvious (the arid, arduous pursuit of bliss-through-monotony). More outlandishly, Kraftwerk were a huge influence on the hymnal mantras of Spacemen 3's Playing With Fire.
Then again, Kraftwerk always namechecked the Stooges/MC5/Suicide/Velvets axis as their taste in rock).

But for a group whose image is of a sound-factory manned by technocrats who devoutly believe arbeit macht frei, Kraftwerk themselves have been curiously unproductive. Since 1981's Computer World, all that's come off the Kling Klang assembly line has been the "Tour de France" 12 inch and 1986's not-major Electric Cafe LP. A few months ago, a "new" Kraftwerk album
was released in the States, with little fanfare. The Mix (Elektra)
was a retrospective, but it didn't embalm its 11 "classic tracks" in their original period charm, and it didn't come complete with a hefty,hagiographical booklet (c.f. James Brown's Star Time box). This was Kraftwerk as living legacy. The songs have been drastically overhauled, the melodic arrangements stripped down and welded to contemporary rhythmic chassis (emphasising both the present's debt to Kraftwerk's futurism, and the group's right to compete in today's
b.p.m. marketplace). "Durability is a central concept in art," K-werk leader Ralf Hutter has proclaimed. "Our sounds and programmes are immortal. Thanks to the computer someone else will be able to continue what we are doing."

Soon Kraftwerk will be here in (impersonal)person, playing their first NYC show in ten years at the Beacon Theatre on September 20.* I caught them in London a few months back, and it was a strange experience. The crowd was a weird mix of fashion-conscious, post-acid house ravers plus Kraftwerk's original nerdish constituency, traditionally known by the shorthand epithet "physics student". Weirder still was the fervour and affection with which the Teutonic technocrats were receieved, like homecoming heroes. Live, Kraftwerk compensate for their static sobriety and the inherent unphysicality of computer-based music, with a spectacular stage set. Their banks of consoles are fronted by fluorescent light-tubes,like the bars of an electric fire; there are back-projected films (b/w footage of cyclists for "Tour de France", freeways for "Autobahn" -literal rather than lateral stuff, you dig); as the piece de resistance , automated doppelgangers of the band are unveiled for "The Robots", to perform a rather stilted ballet.

Immaculately groomed, dispassionate and perspiration-free, Kraftwerk still transgress most of the precepts of rock'n'roll. But the boys do crack a grin or two during "Pocket Calculator", and even "jam" together, improvising on hand-held mini-synths whose keys each cue a different motif or synth-riff. Sweat-less they may be, but soul-less? No way. Just check the sweeping poignancy of those arrangments (midway between systems music and Brian Wilson, one of their major influences).
Swoon to the obliterating pathos of "Computer Love", with its heart-murmur bassline, swirling synth-constellations and lachrymose lines about looking for "a data date".

Still, anonymity and monumentalism are what Kraftwerk are all about, and personally I welcome a dose of that, as a blessed reprieve from the surfeit of "real music" and "true grit" showered upon us from every corner (from the indie scene to VH1, there's too many human beings round here). "Trans Europe Express" remains their tour de force. With its girder beats and indefatigible pace, its arching synths that
rush over your head in simulation of the Doppler Effect, this track really does evoke the spiritual dimension of industrialism. Kraftwerk stir up nostalgia for the days when we thought technology would liberate us, when we beleived the city of the future would be planned and pristine. Nowadays, we know the city of the future is Mexico City or Bombay). Live, and on The Mix, the track develops into the astonishing "Metal On Metal", a funky iron foundry that puts Einsturzende Neubauten
on the good foot. As Britcrit David Stubbs wrote of Faust, Kraftwerk are just specks on their own landscape. Faceless, flesh-less,and fantastic.

*the US tour was cancelled, which is probably why this piece never ran. When they did finally tour America in 1998, I caught one of their New York dates--truly one of the most amazing shows I've seen.


"The dynamism of the machines, the 'soul' of the machines, has always been a part of our music. Trance always belongs to repetition, and everybody is looking for trance in life--in sex, in the emotional, in pleasure, in parties... So, the machines produce an absolutely perfect trance"--Ralf Hutter

"The mechanical universe of Kraftwerk has been cloned or copied in Detroit, Brussels, Milan, Manchester, and even psychedelicized by the delirium of
house music. You can define it as you want: sci-fi music, techno-disco, cybernetic rock. But the term I prefer even so is robot pop. It fits in with our objective--which consists of working without a respite toward the construction of the perfect pop song for the tribes of the global village"-- Ralf Hutter

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Alan Warner, The Sopranos (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
Washington Post Book World, 1999

What is it about Alan Warner and the lassies? Morvern Callar, his first novel, was written from the point-of-view of a 21 year old supermarket girl from a remote Scottish port, and followed her pleasure-principled journey through the Meditteranean rave scene. His latest, The Sopranos, goes five better, recounting 24 hours in the life of a gang of convent schoolgirls from the same sea town--a more eventful day-and-night than normal, for the girls are travelling to the Scottish capital to participate in a national choir contest. But instead of the honor of the school, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the main concern of these 17 year old miscreants is losing--to ensure that they won't have to stay in Edinburgh for the next round of the competition, but can return home in time to visit the local Mantrap nightclub, where sailors on shore leave are hotly anticipated. The trip to the big city does have its attractions, though, allowing the girls to indulge their passions for alcohol, clothes shopping, flirting--opportunities they seize with such lusty ferocity that catastrophe, albeit of a richly comic sort, is inevitable.

34 year old Warner dotes on these girls. There's something blatantly vicarious about the way he revels in their salty repartee and bawdy imaginations, something close to envy in the way he admires their cameraderie, quick wit, and impulsiveness. Fionnula the Cooler, the most charismatic and self-aware of the gang, expresses their philosophy: "any opportunity we get in life, you should just GO for it. Grab ah it' . Occassionally Warner pauses the narrative for full-on exaltation: "They've youth; they'll walk it out like a favorite pair trainers. It's a poem this youth ... We should get shoved aside cause they have it now, in glow of skin and liquid clarity of deep eye on coming June nights and cause it will go... After all what do we amount to but a load of old worn-out shoes?" .

The Sopranos reminds me of the key lyric from "Common People" by the British pop group Pulp, a song that deals with the middle class's voyeuristic fascination for working class vitality: "they burn so bright and you can only wonder why." With the Sopranos, you don't have to ponder too hard about the whys and wherefores of their incandescence. Sparks fly from the friction between these girls's boundless hormonal energy and the multiple obstacles they face--oppressions of age, class, gender, and region (they live in a provincial backwater of a country, Scotland, that is itself subordinated within the UK). Early in the book, the sopranos run into a former classmate, Michelle, who quit school pregnant after a one-night stand with a sailor. Warner writes poignantly about the awkwardness of the encounter, as the girls sense their old friend now dwells on the other side of a definite boundary: her life is effectively over, "she'd devoured the few opportunities for the wee bit sparkle that was ever going to come her way."

Rather less subtly, Warner positions the girls as renegades against the gerontocratic, eros-denying regime of the convent school: they are pure instinct and raw sensuality struggling to express itself through the only avenues left by the frigid, dessicated nuns--secretly shortening the length of their regulation tartan skirts, wearing colorful shoelaces. This theme of Catholic girls as volcanoes of pent-up libido (27-and-counting girls at the school get pregnant that year) is hackneyed, but it doesn't stop Warner from overplaying it. It's one of a handful of false notes in The Sopranos--the implausibly hip music taste of one the girls, Kylah (although it's nowhere near as suspiciously male-thirtysomething-Wire-reader-like as >Morvern Callar's), and a lesbian love sub-plot that reads as a distinctly masculine fantasy.

Quibbles aside, the overpowering feeling this reader gets from The Sopranos is verimisimilitude. Warner has the sharpest ear for dialogue this side of his compatriot Irvine Welsh. The way he captures the rhythms of girl-talk--the ping-pong rallies, swerves, nonsequiturs and explosions of mirth--suggest he's spent a lot of time eavesdropping in McDonalds or hanging around school playgrounds. As with Welsh's novels, The Sopranos is rich both in pungent slang ("beastie" = penis, "pissed mortal" = very drunk, " "dinnae scum us out" is roughly equivalent to the Valley girl's "gag me with a spoon") and in regional dialect ("greeting" means crying, "ceilidh" is a chat, "oxters" are armpits), which are almost always cleverly deployed so the reader can work out the meaning from the context. Like Morvern Callar, the whole book is written in vernacular Scottish, with phonetic spellings. The difference is that the first novel was all from Morvern's point of view, whereas The Sopranos has an omniscent narrator who speaks like the girls, only more self-consciously poetic. Although this creates vivid language--"there was a bit of silentness," neologisms like "gigglestifled"--it can also come across forced. The incessant spelling of "and" as "an" and "of" as "o" can be irritating, and Warner's impulse to simulate the non-grammatical shorthand of how real people really speak (dropping of definite articles and prepositions) makes some descriptive paragraphs feel stilted; the prose freezes up, the eye glides over them.

Ultimately, The Sopranos is neither social realism (it's not hum-drum or uneventful enough) nor magic realism (despite some heavy-handed symbolism involving an escaped Venuezalan parrot), but something in between. It's about the strangeness of ordinary people and the absurdist poetry of everyday life. In some ways, it's less a narrative than a concatenation of great anecdotes, the sort of embellished and exaggerated stories you might pick up in a pub and pass on, the tale growing in the telling: mad things such-and-such a person did when drunk, bizarre incidents that befell a friend-of-a-friend. In Morvern Callar, the heroine notes how the middle-class publishing people she meets in London never tell stories, they discuss ideas. Like the other inhabitants of their town, the sopranos love telling tales; you sense that the mischief and mayhem they get up to in this action-packed, alcohol-soaked 24 hours is entering their collective mythology even as it happens. Compared with the oddly bleak hedonism of Morvern Callar, The Sopranos is remarkably upbeat. Despite the ever present sense of youth's transience and the looming shadow of the socio-economic odds stacked against the girls, the book ends on a high note. Unlike Trainspotting, it won't need to have its ambivalences ironed out to be transformed into the feel-good youth movie it's clearly destined to be.

ARCTIC MONKEYS, Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino)
Uncut, 2007

Once upon a time, a band from the North came with a sound so fresh and vigorous it took the nation by storm. The sound was rock (the bog-standard indie-schmindie format of guitars/ bass/ drums) but crucially it was pop too: concise, punchy, murderously melodic, shiny without being “plastic”. The singer was a true original, delivering a mixture of sensitivity and strength, defiance and tenderness, via a regionally-inflected voice that stood out amid the fake-American accents of the era. The young man’s lips spilled forth words that were realistic without being dour, full of sly, salty humour and beautifully observed detail, plangent with poignancy. Oh, the debut faced quibbles from some who felt the earlier versions--those that had incited the monster buzz in the first place--were definitive and superior. But most recognized the album as a landmark, an instant classic. And then came the doubt: how can they possibly follow it?

I’m talking about the Smiths, of course. But the narrative totally fits a more recent group from the other side of the Pennines. Okay, it was Radio One evening show sessions rather than Myspace that built the Mozz buzz, but otherwise the parallels are striking, right down to the mad flurry of non-album singles and EPs and brill B-sides, scattered with heedless generosity as if to say “aren’t we the fecund fuckers, eh?” The similarity extends to my initial encounter with Favourite Worst Nightmare, which gave me an eerie flashback to the disappointment of first hearing Meat Is Murder (hardly a song from which made Uncut’s recent Best of the Smiths poll). Nightmare’s sound is bright, brash, brimming with vim, but hardly any of the tunes hit the bulls-eye, either melodically or emotionally. As for the words, they felt like “Rusholme Ruffians” and “Nowhere Fast” all over again--that same impression of a writer who shot his wad--a lifetime’s worth of feeling and watching--copiously the first time around and was now coming up empty.

A couple more plays put paid to any worries on the songfulness front: these tunes will dog your every waking hour. Stronger still is the sheer √©lan and force of the playing. Even with the loss of their original bassist, Arctic Monkeys still possess the most dynamic and supple UK rhythm section since Stone Roses. The band’s power and agility at times resembles an Oasis fixated on Led Zeppelin rather Beatles. “Indie” is an inadequate and misleading term for this band, probably the only one of their peer group(s) capable of making a decent fist of “Black Dog.” Sometimes you even get the slight sense that these twisty-turny, multi-segmented songs, full of stop-and-starts and lane-switches, are actually designed to show off their musicianship. They are also showcases for Alex Turner’s voice, as instrument as nimble, verve-full and blastingly potent as the guitar, bass and drums. What comes across even clearer on Nightmare than the debut is the sheer groove power of this band--the lithe swagger of “Teddy Picker”, the swinging hi-hats and low-rider bass of “D Is For Dangerous”-- which goes back to the funk outfit Judan Suki that Turner and drummer Matt Helders operated in parallel with the fledgling Arctics.

Four plays convinced me that Favourite Worst Nightmare was a near-triumph, a far superior Album #2 than Meat Is Murder, The Libertines, or Second Coming. Yet doubts nagged. The songs are often hard to connect with emotionally, partly because the lyrics are more oblique and clotted with Costello-like cleverness than last time but partly because of the subject matter. There’s a slight suspicion that a fair few of the tunes are inspired by the (yaaaaawn) travails of instant megafame. Take opener “Brianstorm”: over riffs that whir like the rotating blades of an abbatoir, Turner fires off glib and flashy (if funny) lines taking the piss out of some cooler-than-thou rockstar type they’ve evidently rubbed shoulders with these last 18 months--“top marks for not trying”, “bless us with your effortlessness” “we can’t take our eyes/off your T-shirts and ties/ combination”, climaxing with the terrific kiss-off “see you later, innovator”. Next up is “Teddy Picker”, mining a similar grinding bluesy feel to “Fake Tales of San Francisco” and a similar tone of derision, except this time round the butt seems to be rock journalists: “Dya reckon they mek ‘em tek an oath that says ‘we are defenders/of any poseurs or professional pretenders around’?”, ponders Turner before letting rip with another deliciously snarled killer-blow, “already thick and yer getting thicker.” I’m not totally sure who or what is the “dirty little herbert” in song #3 “D Is For Dangerous” but after this third-song-in-a-row delivered at the same pitch of scorn and sarcasm, it’s hard to care. On the album’s “second side” “If You Were There, Beware” provokes similar ennui: a chip off the same block as “Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong,” it lambasts “ambitiously vicious” muck-raking hacks grubbing for a kiss-and-tell story and harassing the star’s old sweethearts (“can’t you sense she was never meant to fill column inches?”). But here at least your interest is sustained by the inventive song-structure, which runs through around half-a-dozen distinct sections and twice as many guitar timbres, and again recalls “Vampires” with its heavy-rock feel.

Other songs suffer from being opaque. It’s hard to grasp the scenario in “Balaclava,” which might be about a rapist or someone pretending to be a rapist as part of a kinky sex-game. The tune does flit nicely however between bittersweet-Smiths and big-and-bashy Zep modes. “Fluorescent Adolescent” tells of that “very common crisis,” the spice going out of your sex life (“the Bloody Mary’s lacking the Tabasco”, as Turner puts it), which in this case causes the frustrated girl to pine for some hit-and-run lover from her past (“the boy’s a slag… the best you ever had”) as an escape from drab coupledom/dreary coupling. The Smiths are overwhelming present here (the melody-pang of the line “you took a left off Last Laugh lane” is virtually a sample from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”) and on the next song “Only One Who Knows,” whose luminous guitar-tone recalls “Back to the Old House,” while Turner’s pre-rock’n’roll croon is only inches from Tommy Steele smarm.

The best things on Nightmare are the most lyrically direct. Like “Do Me A Favour,” a break-up song set--as with the first album’s best tune, “Red Light…”--in a car, Turner’s eye for vivid detail (“tears on the steering wheel, dripping on the seat”) in full effect. “This House Is A Circus” switches from the thrilling assonance of “this house is a circus/berserk as fuck” to the yearning chorus “we’re forever unfulfilled/and can’t think why”. Finally the home stretch sees Nightmare open up with the emotional clarity of “The Bad Thing”, “Old Yellow Bricks” and “505”. The first is a song about infidelity riding a galloping sound of Beatles-like ebullience, with Turner as the sorely tempted lad struggling to resist offers from a girl who promises that her boyfriend’s “not the jealous type”. “Old Yellow Bricks” bounces on a marvelously stubby and stompy funk riff and depicts a slacker type who’s wasting his life, a “fugitive” who doesn’t know what he’s “running away from”. It’s a scathing yet sympathetic portrait, especially at the plangent chorus “he wants to sleep in a city that never wakes up/blinded by nostalgia”. “505” is about Turner’s own homesickness, the number referring perhaps to a post code or a street address, an internal summons to hearth and sweetheart that must be heeded whether “it’s a seven hour flight or a 45 minute drive” away.

Expertly executed and supremely assured, albeit tinged here and there with a hint of hollow, Favourite Worst Nightmare isn’t going to make Arctic Monkeys any smaller in the scheme of things. They remain the best ensemble of guitar-toting tunesmiths to emerge from the UK this decade. While I’d be surprised if anyone, five years on, cared about this record as much as the first one, I await their Queen Is Dead keenly.

THOM YORKE, The Eraser (XL)
Uncut, 2006

The Solo Album is a peculiar pop institution. Making one makes perfect sense for band members who are attention-starved in terms of the stage/media spotlight and who don’t get enough creative input. You can see why John Entwhistle, for instance, recorded four solo LPs between 1971 and ’75. But what about the Pete Townsend types, the de facto band leaders whose aesthetic vision dominates? Why do they feel the need to strike out on their own? Trailed with a press statement terse and low-key almost to the point of being cagey, The Eraser offers scant indication as to Thom Yorke’s motivations for this solitary excursion. It’s not like the album represents a detour from the Radiohead path into vastly unfamiliar territory. Essentially, it’s an extension to the Radiohead house of sound: less majestic, perhaps, with a half-finished and rough-around-the-edges demo-like feel. But you could easily hear it as seventh Radiohead album, even though only Yorke and longstanding producer Nigel Godrich are involved.

Solo albums emerged as a phenomenon in the dying days of the 1960s, mirroring the fractured feel of the times: bands splitting up or losing focus in a welter of side projects. Arriving at a similarly entropic moment in rock history, The Eraser’s downbeat mood flashes back to that same era of self-absorbed singer-songwriters and troubled troubadours. Sonically it collides a certain style of post-psychedelic soft-rock with textures and rhythms drawn from across the span of Nineties electronica. So the ghosts of Roy Harper, Shawn Philips, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, jostle with glitchy clicks and blippy blurts straight out of the Aphex Twin/Autechre/Boards of Canada vocabulary.

Out of all those minstrels, Harper is the closest analogy, because for much of The Eraser Yorke plays the part of jeremiah, scowlingly surveying a world fucked up beyond all repair. Throughout the album there’s moments when a Yorke moan-tone uncannily resembles Harper’s folk-blues cadences; the layered wordless harmonies of “Cymbal Rush” recall the multitracked vocal lattices on Stormcock’s’ “The Same Old Rock” while the glistening blistered guitar riff on “Black Swan” could be straight off that album’s “One Man Rock and Roll Band”. The most instantly powerful song on the album, “Black Swan” kicks off its panorama of political-is-deeply-personal despair with a vague gesture at escape (“do yourself a favour and pack your bags/buy a ticket and get on a train”), proceeds through imagery of powerlessness (“people get crushed like biscuit crumbs) and pointlessness (“you cannot kickstart a dead horse/you just crush yourself and walk away”), before going out on a ringing note of non-catharsis with the chorus “this is fucked up/fucked up/we are black swans/ and for spare parts, we’ll be broken up.” Likewise sounding a note of ecological and geopolitical doom, “The Clock” entreats the world to wake up because “time is running out.” Propelled by a tripping-over-itself beat partially built out of fingerclicks, gasps, and vocal noises, “The Clock” isn’t really a protest song, though. It’s too disempowered, too prone, to actually claw its way up onto the soapbox of denunciation.

“Analyse” conjures a mood of washed-up/washed-out dejection and pastel-toned passivity that recalls a little-known early Pink Floyd B-side called “Paintbox.” With its imagery of anomie and mental disarray--“sentences that do not rhyme… fences that you cannot climb”--and its mewling chorus of “its gets you down,” the song would slump into a marshmallow slough of supine numbness altogether if not for its kickin’ beat (not so much jungle as privet hedge). The title track, opening the album, is fey and faint to the point of fading away altogether. Imagine Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” fused with The Cure’s “All Cats Are Grey” and remixed by Royskopp (a subdued, miniaturized version of a classic rave riff, staccato and Morse Code-like, materialises towards the end). The lyric seems to bear an inverted relationship to “How to Disappear Completely” off Kid A: “the more you try to erase me/the more, the more, the more that I appear.”

What makes The Eraser great is Yorke’s singing--for all the well-executed electronics and tasty guitar-work, his voice is by far the most arresting instrument on the record (and occasionally the most avant-garde too), proving yet again that he’s the Miles Davis of mope-rock, the maestro of a thousand exquisitely subtle shades of blue. What makes the album grate, though, are Yorke’s lyrics, not because they’re bad but because they’re so unrelievedly monotone and monochrome. There’s a single moment of pure joy: “Atoms for Peace”, a love-alone-can-banish-the-shadows song, Yorke’s voice all hovering tenderness and grace as he vows “no more going to the darkside” and pleads “peel off all your layers/I want to eat your artichoke heart… take me in your arms.”

After this Vespertine-like epiphany of intimacy, it’s straight back into the black with “And It Rained All Night”: musically impressive (it practically invents a new genre, electro-blues), but otherwise oppressive in its gloom (rain here figures not as a cleansing, redemptive force, but a pitiless elemental battering, ““relentless” and “indefatigable”). The wilting, eroded synth on “Harrowdown Hill” recalls Joy Division’s “Decades”, the closing track on Closer, the one about the young men with the weight of the world on their shoulder. Yorke’s imagery is Curtis-like too, alluding to pressure beyond withstanding and “slippery, slippery slopes”. “Cymbal Rush” is a song sonically divided against itself, the superfast bassline (which resembles a just-held-in-check panic attack) opposed by glutinous washes of gloomy synth teleported from Side Two of Bowie’s Low. The last song on The Eraser, it seemingly represents a low point of absolute existential prostration, Yorke barely managing to enunciate his imagery of retreat ( “try to build a wall that is high enough”) and futility. Finally the song picks up energy (the cymbals of the title appear) as if trying to make a break(beat) for it, only to sputter out abruptly.

So, The Eraser: a great slab of experimental misery, a document of quiet desperation and uncomfortable numbness. Strangely, it’s a record that’s easy to love, but hard to admire.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Stooges, self-titled debut + Fun House / Ron Asheton interview

The Stooges (Deluxe Edition) 
Fun House (Deluxe Edition) 
Uncut, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

 There’s no point in revisiting The Stooges’ first two albums as monuments in rock’s heritage landscape. This music demands to be taken purely as a now-thing: a dynamo coiled with electric essence, something you can use to recharge your existence today, tomorrow, forever. So let’s bypass history and context as much as possible and instead get under the skin of the Stooges music. Let’s skip the facts and aim for truth--what this sound feels like as a drama of energy.

Which means talking about cocks. You hear an awful lot about “rockism” these days, but The Stooges aren’t just rockist, they’re cockist. Like their obvious forebears, The Stones and The Doors, the Stooges surge and swing with a particular phallic energy. Iggy spells it out in later songs like “Penetration” and “Cock In My Pocket”, but you catch the drift early on, with the debut’s “Real Cool Time” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, anthems of penile delinquency. Side One of Fun House is actually structured to mirror the male sexual trajectory, from the predatorial gaze of “Down On the Streets” (Iggy the man-missile cruising for action), through penetration and orgasm (“Loose” and “TV Eye,” the latter climaxing with Iggy’s holler “now ram it”) to the tingling, tristesse-tinged afterglow of “Dirt”. Throughout Iggy wields it like a weapon, but the “it” is less a prong of gristle between his legs than his whole being, engorged with will and burning with lack. One side of The Stooges music incarnates the dream of being perpetually on fire. But there’s a contradictory impulse too, a quest for absolute satiation, the grail of Norman Mailer’s “Apocalyptic Orgasm,” the bliss-blast that will snuff the flames of desire and achieve a deathly serenity.

 Side one of The Stooges starts with unrest and restlessness (“1969” contrasts “war across the USA” with the boredom of Iggy as suburban Everykid faced by “another year of nothin’ to do”) but ends with the nirvana trance of “We Will Fall.” Oft-maligned as John Cale-damaged raga-wank, its ten minutes of “Venus In Furs” drones and Buddhist chanting is soporific, true, but that’s the point: Iggy links love with surrender (“I won’t fight… I’ll be weak”), conflates happiness and sleep, and equates sleep with death. Usually Ron Asheton’s wah-wah guitar ejaculates napalm, but on “We Will Fall” it glistens wetly, inky-black ripples in a viscous, slow-motion whirlpool. The same narcotic shimmer reappears on “Ann”, an equally under-celebrated ballad that starts where “End of The Night” by The Doors left off. In a Quaalude-foggy Sinatra-croon, Iggy sings again of love as a detumescence of the spirit: “you took my arm and you broke my will”. Entranced, he’s floating in the amniotic “swimming pools” of his lover’s eyes: “I felt so weak, I felt so blue”. But at the chorus, Iggy’s agonized, somehow humiliated “I looooove you” is unexpectedly completed with the war-cry “RIGHT NOW!!!!”. Amorous lassitude abruptly shifts to aggressive lust; Asheton’s limpid guitar instantly hardens into a rampaging riff. An evil humming rises up from the depths of the mix, and it’s a shock to realize that it’s actually Iggy, a low moan-drone of gaseous malevolence that seems to emanate not from his mouth but from every pore in his body.

The debut, great as it is, feels a little leashed in its energy initially. Towards the end, though, with “Not Right” and “Little Doll,” The Stooges loosen up rhythmically, Scott Asheton’s drums resembling The Troggs-as-free-jazz, Dave Alexander’s bass sidling like a rattlesnake about to strike. It’s as though the band gradually find their groove in preparation for Fun House. If The Stooges is a teenager--randy-fit-to-explode, but still awkward-- there’s a cocksure swagger to Fun House, as though the music’s got conquests under its belt now.

The taut on-the-beat drums of “Down on the Street” stomp, as Lester Bangs put it, like a gang clicking its heels on the sidewalk. They’re on the prowl for sweet young thang. Iggy hits the ignition on “Loose” with war-whoops and the warning “LOOK OUT!!,” then gloats “I stuck it/Deep inside”. Later in the song, this chorus sounds closer to “I’m stoopid/Deep inside”--a pretty-vacant boast, perhaps, referencing the Stooges’ ideal of the O-Mind, a paradoxical state of hyper-alert oblivion reached through drugs and noise. “TV Eye” is The Stooges’ “Whole Lotta Love”. Structurally the songs are almost identical, with a bulldozing prime-evil riff giving way to an eerie ambient-abstract mid-section (where Percy shrieks, Iggy emits subhuman gnashings and whooshing gusts of flamethrower breath). In both songs, there’s a pause of appalled silence before the riff magically re-erects and goes on the warpath once more. Led Zeppelin always came across as overlords, though (which is why they’re heavy metal), whereas the Stooges were obviously underdogs (and therefore punk). You can’t really imagine Zep doing a song like “Dirt,” on which Iggy preaches spiritual education through abasement (“oooh I been hurt… oooh I been dirt/But I don’t care/Cos I’m learning/Inside”), while Asheton rains down silverflicker guitar from the same pained-but-ecstastic place as the intro to “Gimme Shelter”.

Zep were also hippie-boys, but Fun House the album and “Funhouse” the song turn Sixties dreams of generational unity and pleasure-as-insurrection inside out. “We’ve been separated, baby, far too long… Living in division/In the shifting sands,” intones Iggy, beckoning the “baby girls” and “baby boys” into the funhouse. But this “come together” anthem is closer to National Lampoon’s Lemmings than Woodstock, liberation through regression rather than higher states. “Funhouse” is an orgy of debased sound, an electric mudbath mixing primal soup and primal scream (the acrid honk of Steve Mackay’s sax). On this and the preceding “1970”, Iggy keeps screaming “I feel all right” but he doesn’t sound it; he seems wracked by the pleasure grind. The final “LA Blues” reaches the howling void at the heart of hedonism. It’s a spasm of writhing feedback, freeform sax, and Iggy throat-noise, a glimpse ahead to Metal Machine Music and “Radio Ethiopia,” as well as 1000 long-hair retro-bands in the late Eighties lamely leaning guitars against amps and exiting the stage to a wall of screech.

 I almost forgot: each of these glorious-sounding reissues comes with a bonus CD (“Deluxe” isn’t exactly a Stooges word, is it?) of alternate takes. The Fun House disc sifts the “cream” from that absurd, fan-fleecing seven-CD Fun House sessions box, but The Stooges disc is all hitherto unreleased, the peach being an “Ann” twice as long as the album version. Everything is worth hearing if only to note just how tight the Stooges were, how honed their on-the-surface sloppy frenzy actually was (in other words, the takes don’t vary that much). In the end, though, they’re superfluous because without exception the definitive version is the one that made the final cut.


  SR: The Stooges sold spectacularly small amounts compared to the MegaBands of their day. But it’s hard to imagine Blood, Sweat & Tears, say, being able to reform and tour the world, like The Stooges have done. Do you feel vindicated?

 RA: I don’t feel a revenge, I just feel grateful. My brother Scott and I always hoped the band would get it together again. We weren’t commercially successful at the time, but I guess over the years other groups would mention us an influence, and people would pick up on that, and it just built. I turned on a “classic rock” radio station recently and the voiceover said, “next we’ll be playing Led Zeppelin and Stooges”. It wasn’t like that back in the day! With reforming, I’m really just enjoying hanging with my friends. It’s great touring now, because it’s like a family vacation. We’re not scrambling looking for women or a party. We go sightseeing, check out the aquarium in Lisbon!

lthough Sixties garage bands like Count Five may have the prior claim, The Stooges are generally regarded as the dawn of punk rock. Historians often talk about how you guys hated “love beads” and flower power. Were you really anti-hippie or did you participate a bit in the Summer of Love?

 Some of it was kinda corny. But we didn’t have any great animosity towards hippies. We certainly had a lot of sex with hippie women! And we listened to the San Francisco bands. It could get a little too earthy and pious. But there was a great divide in America and we were on the same side as the hippies. You don’t shit on an ally! The difference was, some hippies were so anti-war they were anti-soldiers, calling them baby-killers. We hated the Vietnam war but we supported the soldiers. We said, ‘they’re your age and our age; they’re us’.

Indeed Detroit rock has this cult of the military, from MC5 and their whole White Panther/ “guitar army” shtick to the running thread of ballistic imagery in Iggy’s lyrics.

I wrote a song with Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman called “Rock’n’Roll Soldiers”. I always felt that being in a band was a military operation. You get your transport to the area and you carry out the mission. I’m like the medic on our tour, I’ve got all the vitamins, the sinutis pills, the anti-diarrhoea medicine! When we play London this year I’m looking forward to visiting the Imperial War Museum. I used to go there all the time when we lived there, recording Raw Power. There’s all these things that aren’t on display that you can only see on appointment--like Herman Goering’s uniform. I’d put my name down but never managed to see them. Maybe this time.

Monday, July 9, 2007

VARIOUS, Glam Rock 2 (Virgin Music Video)
Melody Maker, 1989

LIKE its predecessor, Glam Rock 2 is a pretty accurate encapsulation
of the Seventies glam spectrum: 50 per cent visionary, 50 per cent tawdry.
In the latter camp, there's the grotesque Wizzard and their ghastly
'flower power' meets 'pub rock' amalgam, there's the indelibly
seedy Teddy Boy revivalism of Mud, and there's Suzi Quatro's
amiable but neglibible tomboy raunch. As for the rest - "visionary" really
is the only word for music much of which still sounds astonishingly futuristic.

There's the divine Bolan, with rough-and-ready tumbles through "Metal Guru" and "Telegram Sam", plus the corrugated, cosmic boogie of "Children Of
The Revolution". There's The Sweet, a band over-ripe for rehabilitation.
Glam Rock 2 includes two hits from their twilight days,
after their they'd ditched their songwriting mentors Chinn and Chapman,
and started recording their own material in a bid to lose the 'tennybop puppet' image. "Fox On The Run" is crammed with hooks, but a little tame
compared with the bubblegum apocalypse of "Teenage Rampage" and
"Ballroom Blitz". But "Action" is awesome. Released over a year before
punk, it anticipates the insurgency of '76 with its sneered, accusatory
vocals and streamlined riffs that The Young Gods should be tripping over
themselves to sample. Johnny Rotten apparently liked The Sweet
and it may be more than mere fancy to suggest that the chant of
"liar liar liar" in the background of "Action" seeped into his
unconscious, to reappear in the form of "Liar" on "Never Mind The Bollocks".

Even more uncannily pre-emptive of punk is Alice Cooper's
anthem of anti-Messianic megalomania, "Elected". The opening
whiplash riff and Alice's soul-shattering scream remain one
of the bloodcurdling intros of all time, and if you listen
closely during the fade you can hear the boast "and we don't care",
a full six years before "Pretty Vacant". The accompanying video
of Alice's presidential campaign (the only non-TV studio footage
here) is impressively apocalyptic.

The other mindblowing clip is "This Town Ain't Big Enough
For The Both Of Us", by Sparks: their fiercest slice of
purple hysteria, bar the possible exception of the
later, Moroder-ised "Beat The Clock". Listening to its
swashbuckling dash and falsetto frenzy again, you can see
where Billy McKenzie got 50 per cent of his torrid aesthetic
from. There's something beyond wacky, truly perverse, about the
Mael brothers: the strange chemistry between the fascistic,
constipated Ron and the foppish Russell (looking here
like a cross between Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten).

All this and the chance to gawp at Gary Glitter's
ill- advised, swansong attempt to revive his career,
by switching from stomp rock to Philadelphian orchestral soul
("A Little Boogie Woogie"). Roll on Vol. 3...


Monday, July 2, 2007

Insides - liner note to Euphoria reissue (2019) plus the 1993 interview

Liner note to the 2019 reissue of Euphoria by Beacon Sound

I first got to know Insides as the precursor group Earwig and through its parallel print-form entity Rapture, an ideas-explosion of a zine that served as the theory to Earwig’s practice. Released in 1992, Under My Skin I Am Laughing, the group’s one-and-only album, struck me as full of gawky promise. So I made the reviewer’s gamble (second-nature to the Brit-crit in those days, admittedly) of  hyping it as “one of the debuts of the year”. That bet paid off and then some: a year later, the reconfigured and renamed group delivered a second debut in the form of Euphoria, a pristine dream of a record that surpassed my wildest anticipations.

The interview with Kirsty and Julian below took place on Monday 27th September 1993, at the Stockpot Restaurant on King’s Road,  London. I can be that precise because a few years ago I found a sheaf of old Filofax pages in a box: the very next day I interviewed Aphex Twin and later that week made contact with the ambient jungle labels Moving Shadow and Reinforced –making for almost a clean sweep of future-minded early Nineties U.K. pop! 

The feature appeared about six weeks later in Melody Maker and seems to be the very first time I used the term “post-rock”, although no one noticed. Seven months later, I would include Insides in the first dedicated overview of post-rock,  alongside outfits like Seefeel, Disco Inferno, Main, and Techno Animal. That was in The Wire magazine and this time people did notice.

Those two years 1993-94 were an incredibly exciting time in British left-field music. All kinds of new directions seemed to be opening up, with the more experimentally-minded guitar-centric groups in the independent sector starting to grapple with the possibilities of sampling, sequencers, programmed rhythm and digital audio workstations like Cubase, in many cases as a result of having their ears piqued by the texturology and groove science of the more advanced units in hip hop and techno (in particular that man Aphex Twin again).  This emerging landscape of new ideas and approaches was really too diverse to be  shepherded into a movement, but - being a journalist and all - I felt that marshalling things under a single banner was a good strategic move: strength in numbers that would commandeer space and focus attention where it needed to go. Hence “post-rock” – always intended as an open-ended category, a space of possibility rather than a codified genre. So much for that, eh?

Of all the reluctantly rounded-up suspects, Insides fit the term the least. Their bearings were way more  pop than rock. And that’s how to hear Euphoria: as an askew pop record,  one that really belongs in the same universe as a Dido rather than a Mogwai.  As with some of their fellow travelers of that time – Disco Inferno would probably be the closest counterpart, with their shared attachment to song form and legible emotions, their nervous delicacy – Insides’s music shimmers and  tingles with the tantalizing promise of a different direction that U.K. pop  could have gone: future-facing and fresh, rather than the nostalgic regurgitation and stale retrogressions of Britpop that actually ensued.  Those who heard the record back in ’93 may not be able to escape their own wistful hankerings for the early Nineties and its lost promise, it’s true. But if you’re listening to Euphoria for the first time, I think you will be surprised how modern it still sounds in 2019, an astonishing twenty-six years after it came out.       

    Simon Reynolds, Xmas, 2018. 

INSIDES interview
Melody Maker, late 1993

Kirsty Yates and Julian Tardo used to be 2/3 of Earwig, whose '92
LP Under My Skin I Am Laughing was correctly hailed (by me) as
"one of the debuts of the year" . Now the pair are 100% of Insides
(they changed the name 'cos they got sick of people harping on about
how silly and diminuitive 'Earwig' was). Having signed to 4AD,
they're about to release their second 'debut', entitled Euphoria,
and this time I correctly hail it as one of the albums of the year.

Where Under My Skin was lo-budget and homespun, Euphoria
has 4AD's customary gloss: it's easy glistening music, somewhere
between Prefab Sprout's oblique elegance and the mosaic intricacy of
Papa Sprain. But if Insides have any real peers, they belong in that
lo-fi but non-Luddite zone of post-rock/post-techno experimentalism
that encompasses Disco Inferno, Seefeel, Aphex et al. Basically,
Insides make delectable non-retro pop (as opposed to the delectable
retro pop of, say, Teenage Fanclub). But all that should really
concern you is the word 'delectable'.

Julian (his official nomenclature on the sleeve is J. Serge
Tardo, but fuck that) and Kirsty aren't just a duo, they're a
couple too. For a while last year, they weren't: Euphoria is in
part the document of the emotional carnage, placing it in the
illustrious tradition of inter-band heartbreak albums that includes
Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out
The Lights
. The pair met at university in Brighton, where they
currently subsist on the dole. They lead a hermit-like existence,
having little reason to venture outside their flat/arts-lab, where
they make music and films. All their "gizmos" are at one end of the
room, and the TV is at the other: they're creative all day, then,
says Kirsty, "come 6 o'clock it's television lockdown".

Although Brighton is a veritable rock'n'roll city (inhabitants
include Primal Scream, some of Huggy Bear, Coco Steel & Lovebomb,
and, erm, Norman Cook), Insides say they have little in the way of a
supportive milieu of arty-minded kindred spirits, apart from some
friends who are loosely connected to the Riot Grrrl thang. Then
again, Insides aren't exactly rock'n'roll. Like the post-rock/post-
rave ambient units, Insides' music is built up through layers rather
than jamming: it's a 'musaic' of sequenced motifs, over which Kirsty
whispers her unsettling lyrics. Most of their sound-web is sampled
(from self-generated noises as opposed to other people's records)
then played on a keyboard.

"There's nothing intrinsically wrong with guitars," Kirsty says
of their non-rock methodology. "It's guitar players that are the

As it happens, Julian is a very able guitarist: his tantalising
Vini Reilly-esque filigree is one of the most exquisitely poignant
threads in the Insides tapestry. I reckon Mary Margaret O'Hara
should give Michael Brooks the heave-ho and hire Julian to play on
her bloody-long-time a'comin' sequel to Miss America. Julian is
available for session work, but interested parties beware, he says
the greatest influence on his playing is Kraftwerk!

Another non-rock aspect to Insides is their lack of a driving
backbeat: their programmed drums are more like decorative threads,
embroidery that stitches all the layers together. Are they never
tempted to ditch the beat completely, go totally vaporous?

"We're working on something now that hasn't got a beat," says
Julian. "Almost a classical composition. But it takes a while to
disentangle yourself from the old way of doing things. Earwig had
all these askew, off-centre rhythms, but I quite like doing
something obvious every so often, like this new song that's got a
fat disco beat. We're really influenced by disco, Sister Sledge and
Chic. With Cubase, the progamme we write songs on, I can just stick
a weird beat like 7/8 in really easily, so it loses its novelty.
It's not really that avant-garde cos it's within anyone's reach."

"Anyway, we're not interested in being experimental or
difficult," says Kirsty with some emphasis. "I see 'Euphoria' as
this Astrid Gilberto thing, or even like the Bjork album: something
pleasant, something nice."

That said, Insides could never be soothing mood-muzak, because
Kirsty's tenterhook singing and barbed words are too edgy (it's also
why they don't really fit with the ambient thing). "Darling Effect"
has a real sit-up-and-listen opening: "I hate lovers", declares
Kirsty, "I hate the way they go to the bathroom in shifts after they
fuck". It's the lonely lament of someone whose flatmates have
become a couple, consigning him/her to perpetual gooseberry status.

Insides make 'nervous systems music': while their techniques
and textures parallel the lulling hypno-loops of systems composers
like Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, their aura is agitated, and
that's very much down to Kirsty, a rather nervous character.

"I suppose I am," she admits. "Although sometimes my voice
shakes in the studio cos I'm really hungry! But sometimes I can't
believe that we get onstage, without drinking. After playing at the
ICA, I was sick the next morning - delayed nerves. I don't think
I'm chronically nervous, I do confront it. We're not reclusive cos
we're afraid of people, although I don't like walking past crowds. I
don't fear living or anything like that."

I tell her how the imagery in "Bent Double" of close friends
rubbing her back reminded of how angst-queen PJ Harvey has to take a
stress-management therapist on tour.

"We could do with a stress-therapist. Julian's got this lump on
his neck, where the muscles are knotted with trapped tension."

The self-consciousness of Kirsty's vinyl persona seems vaguely
connected to Insides' intellectual self-consciousness. Julian used
to put out the excellent, hyper-theoretical fanzine Rapture,
before deciding to concentrate on making music rather than
complaining about the state-of-rock.

"Although we talk about ideas a lot, it doesn't affect the
music," he says. "We're not one of those bands who consciously
assemble themselves or who have policy decisions like 'we want to
get into dub'. We don't talk about what we want to sound like, it's
more a checklist of what we DON'T want to sound like."

I used to believe that the best music was made by instinct-
driven, non-reflective types; that British hyper-awareness was a
curse. But right now, the most interesting music is coming from
veritable brainboxes, like Stereolab - bands who have bags of ideas,
but don't inevitably make premeditated, stillborn music. The main
effect of Insides' cerebral tendencies seems to have been that it's
allowed them to think their way through the NOISE = INTENSITY mind-
fix ("noise is so white male middle class - go work in a factory and
you'll find out there's nothing radical about noise", argues Kirsty)
and embrace the idea that quiet, gentle music can be even more
unnerving. Not only are they unabashed Prefab fans, they also give
their songs working titles like "Don Henley" (the song in question,
"Darling Effect" reminded them of the classic "Boys Of Summer") and
"Chris Rea". One song's official title on the album is actually
"Carly Simon"! So are Insides making futuristic soft-rock?

"We have this theory," says Julian. "that if you work on a song
too long, it'll either turn 'brown' (the colour, like a recipe gone
wrong) or turn into Fleetwood Mac. All roads lead to Fleetwood Mac,
so you should step off just before you get there!"

So you don't actually want to have a totally emollient effect
on the listener?

"I'd like them to swoon first, and then throw up! Or feel that
rising, heady sensation you get when they give you anaesthetic at
the dentists, and then the next minute you realise you're covered in

Insides, Kirsty says, want to rescue songcraft from "bands like
Suede and Radiohead who believe that 70's style songwriting is what
it's all about". They're avant-tunesmiths. They're not interested
in extremism, because too many full-on noise records are initially
impressive but somehow you never return to them.

"That's what I look for in music," says Julian. "That it draws
you back to it again and again."

That Don Henley factor!

"Not exactly, but it should make you gag to hear it again and
again, but never get any closer to understanding why you like it".