Saturday, August 11, 2007

unpublished interview for Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

A few years ago, Comrade Stubbs and I decreed: "to hell with the good talkers". We argued that the bane of late Eighties pop were the masterplanners and manifesto-mongerers, with their overly-premeditated scams and subterfuges, and
their nice line in sales patter. The idea was that 'good copy' doesn't equal 'good music'. We went further, insisting that only those who were incapable of articulating what they were about, who operated semi-consciously, were capable of
chancing on the sublime, music that left you lost for words.

But after years of enduring bands who are lost for words, let me recant. Come back "good talkers", come back please: all is forgiven. And so Julian Cope, whose erudition, animation, eloquence and wit, make for a blessed reprieve
from the tongue-tied norm (all those bands who say "we don't think too much about what we do, we just let it happen" - jesus wept, this is YOUR LIFE you're pissing away thoughtlessly!). It helps that Cope has just made the best music of his career in Peggy Suicide. Hitherto, Cope had always been a paradigm, for me, of the brilliant mind with an unrivalled insight into what makes great rock'n'roll tick, but who just couldn't cut it. He didn't have "it", wasn't a natural. But now, by dint of sheer mental vivacity and will-to-greatness, he's made a 50 per cent fab record. From the towering acid-blues mantra of "Safesurfer" to the eerie Sly Stone-influenced wah-wah funk of "Uptight", "Not Raving But Drowning", "Hung Up and Hanging Out To Dry" (beating the baggies at their own game), Cope has made me eat my words, and boy do they taste good.

* * * * * *
As the Studs have already documented, Peggy Suicide is Cope saying bye bye to hallucinogens, bidding farewell to his image as acid-fried buffoon, above all wishing a fond but firm adieu to the "white male fuck-up"/rock'n'roll outsider lineage that had sustained him for so long. After a decade as a self-obsessed, garrulous-gobbed eccentric (modelled on Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison and Roky Erikson), Cope has made the crucial transition that many tragically never reach: he's gone from celebrating his own unique individuality to affirming something bigger than himself: Mother Nature.
"Wild, isn't it?," Cope gushes, wide-eyed and breathless. "I always used to write autobiographically, about how fucked up I was and how important that was. I think I just had some weird awakening. I had always associated those kind of awakenings with becoming "born again": turning into one of those people you don't want in the room, the kind that have a unnerving gleam in their eyes, cos they're off their head in a smiley sort of way. I always thought that being caring meant that you had to be like Sting - sanctimonious, earnest, an arsehole.

"But I really did kinda fall in love with everybody. And that made me realise that there is a way forward that is very caring, but it's really hard, really meant, and FULL ON. I don't want to push anything now other than 'yeah, life is really boring for most people, so I'm going to be so completely unboring'. I don't have some high-falutin' notion of what's going on, but I do have a FULL ON love for the world. I knew from the start Peggy had to be a double, because it had to be sprawling, diverse, epic, FULL ON."

In a way, Cope's got religion: he's become a Nature-worshipping, Green pagan. Peggy Suicide is a lament for our sorely abused biosphere. But isn't there an argument for saying that rock'n'roll is intrinsically anti-ecological? Isn't it all about delinquency, getting wasted, burning the candle at both ends, living like there's no tomorrow? Can rock incorporate compassion and caution, and still rock? Doesn't rock'n'roll depend on electricity, on abused and abusive technology?

"I disagree, I think if you took the VU's electricity away, they'd be grunging away as mad mountain people. There's an intuitive trip underneath that's makes the music amazing. If you listen to the greatest rock'n'roll, and take away the least important things, a lot of the time the least important thing is the volume. So when people say to me that in my ecological sound paradise there's be no electric guitars, I don't think that matters. I think rock'n'roll is massively primitive."

Cope has renounced a lot of the staple elements that many think of as essential and intrinsic to rock. Forinstance, the idea of the artist being driven by demons.

"I was always scared that the artist that didn't have a devil in him, wasn't going to have a real muse. What I've discovered is that artist who has demons can never have a true muse, becaus the devil in him throws whim into the machinery. It plays devil's advocate, says why don't you get into some weirdness. But a year or so before 'Peggy' I realised that having a devil in me wasn't productive. And
suddenly I found I had this amazing freedom, a George Clinton/Funkadelic freedom; true freedom is being free of the need to be free all the time. Freedom is accepting discipline. Within that prison, you can stretch out and take the piss. So now I can accept being part of the industry, and having singles out, and all the stuff that used to bug me."

Cope has shaken off the ghosts of his role models (Jim Morrison, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson) whose reproaches used to goad him to feats of caprice and folly.

"When I did madcap, perverse things, or put out Droolian just to piss off the record company, I was thinking 'what would my heroes do?' The idea was that the accumulation of my heroes would add up to one hell of a god to be! So for a long while I resisted the idea of caring about the world because none of my heroes had done that. But then I realised that I didn't have to have a role model anymore, because I'd got me as a role model. I'm in this weird area now where there isn't an obvious role mode. Which is good, cos I've always been too much of a conglomerate. But now I've accumlated all my heroes, dug 'em, and moved on to admiring different people. Like psychologists. It's a great thing to go from idolising poets to psychologists, because psychologists are the classic case of scientists who are frustrated artists. Like Jung. I paraphrase his stuff all the time, he's incredible."

Cope's also grown out of the idea that there's anything romantic about "life on the edge".

"I'm now living in the center. I always used to think that living on the edge is where it all happened. But then I realised that where I wanted to be was absolutely right in the middle. I always thought that meant 'middle of the road', But actually, rather than teetering on the edge, you're right there pouring it all out, and you're actually more open and exposed than on the edge. You're open in a first 13th floor Elevators album way: absolutely FULL ON, travelling towards greater beauty and greater truth.

"The 13th Floor Elevators album is something to aspire to. In the 21st Century, people will be flipping out that they didn't realise how amazing that album was at the time. I'd connect it with Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. Last year, I realised that Tommy Hall, the guy who was writing all the songs and making all the weird jug noises, was actually not on any drug trip but was on a heavy
Gurdjieff and Jung trip. And he was beating the hell out of himself, working the band and himself to the point of insanity. He wanted to turn them all into visionaries. He was doing an hour and half a night of breathing into a jug, so that he was hyperventilating and going into a trance. When I realised that I knew why ever since I first heard that album in 1977 I've played it endlessly. And I'm still ripping it off. That record is inexhaustible. It's wild to think of rock'n'roll in those terms, but I'd say that record is a religious document. When I say that sort of thing, it sounds preposterous, which is why I make a point of doing a lot of research and being well-read: so that I can back up the weird shit with something that has a bit of credibility, like a Robert Graves' quote."

Finally, Cope has renounced the idea of "systematic derangement of the sense", of frying your head with "edge substances". "Not Raving But Drowning" is a cautionary tale, about an E-blitzed teen who tumbles off a ferry.

"Nowhere do I actually say that it's bad to take drugs, all I'm saying is that when I took drugs I risked my life many times. I don't think people should fry their brains, but I do agree with the New York Commisioner of Hygiene who says that it has been proven that a certain amount of brain damage can prove beneficial! But personally, I've gone into a completely different area now. I'm on a FULL ON trip, that's nothing to do with being fucked up. I just wanna get people's attention by being really fucking interesting. I just want to turn people on. I reckon my peers, like Mark E. Smith and Ian McCulloch are all really lazy. To be allowed to do this as a job, you almost have a duty to be wildly interesting and FULL ON and ablaze. So that even if people think I'm shit, they can say to themselves 'well, I enjoy hating Julian Cope'."

Ironically, the music Cope's making now is wiggier and wilder than anything he did in his acid-baked daze: "Safesurfer" is ample proof of that.

"With that track, I wanted to do something that was just so monumental, that it could take the subject matter (AIDS and casual sex). It was a case of not copping out, otherwise it would be just disgusting. And the track is close to being disgustingly overblown. But it is transcendental. Hitherto I'd always followed the advice of Harley Earl (a hero of mine, who designed all the cars for General Motors) which was 'go all the way, and then back off'. But on Peggy Suicide I realised that it was even better to go all the way and don't back off!"

Cope might have shed some of the egocentricity and studious eccentricity that many found so annoying, but he still maintains a lively interest in his own existence. It's quite clear that he constantly amazes himself.

"I wrote an autobiography called Head On," he explains, with nary a blush. "And then I started to write another one, and I thought this is a bit presumptuous, but I decided to be the king of presumption. So I wrote a 150 pages of another autobiography. And then I had an idea for an autobiographical fantasy called Let Me Speak To The Driver. I have different journals, I check out different sides of my mind, different symptoms every six months. See, the only way I can really learn about everybody else, is to really understand me."

But unlike all those vapidly narcissistic bands who've copped the Ian Brown "wanna be adored" attitude (Blur, Ocean Colour Scene), Cope is also ravenously interested in the outside world, insatiably curious. He reads constantly, carries a notebook and dictaphone wherever he goes, and generates theories and weird ideas non-stop. Peggy Suicide comes decked with copious, T.S. Eliot-style footnotes explaining exactly what each track is about and what books have influenced it. Currently, one of Cope's major trains of thought concerns penetration: male sexuality as both metaphor and explanation for why the world is fucked. "Safesurfer", like the anti-automobile song "East Easy Rider", is about men
feeling "I cannot deny myself this luxury", refusing to change their predatorial nature. "It's a real dick feeling". Peggy Suicide takes its cue from a line in George Clinton's "Maggot Brain": "Mother Earth is pregnant... for y'all have knocked her up." Can men change their ways?

"Man is about to be reborn as a New Man, but he's so reluctant to be born. Cos this way of life is okay. But it's a fucked way of living, and it's terminal. We live with a kind of weird freedom because it's been offered us, but if we lived with the other kind of freedom, we might like it better if we tried it."

JULIAN COPE, Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide To The Great Kosmiche Musik - 1968 Onwards (Head Heritage)
Mojo, December 1995

Since it deals with that most fetishised of genres, Krautrocksampler is appropriately enough an intensely fetishisable object. Purportedly the first of a whole line of Head Heritage Cosmic Field Guides, this pocket-sized volume is wittily styled to resemble the Observer’s Book of… series. And it’s jam-packed with colour plates of album sleeves, over whose tripped-out imagery Joolz drools almost as copiously as he does the music.

It’s the music that counts, though, and in his crusade to convey just how much Can, Faust, Cluster, New!, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Duuls I and II, Guru Guru, early Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultze et al, should matter to you, Copey ain’t stingy with the superlatives and fulsomely imagistic metaphors. Just clock his description of Ash Ra Temple/Timothy Leary’s collaboration 7 up as "a cosmic Cresta Run". And how about this purple passage on Amon Duul II’s Yeti: "Dalekvoiced No-men call and sneer, riffs fused from Orc-punks and Sci-Fi priests ensnare you… Rogner’s vacuum-cleaner organ [is] like a dissenter left to go crazy on the edge of a new space colony." The book’s long appendix, wherein Cope reviews each of his All Time Top 50 Krautrock LPs, is full of this gloriously unreconstructed hippiespeak.

In the main body of the text, Cope loosely defined German Kosmiche Musik as the collision of proto-punk attitude with acid-rock’s mindblown grandiosity. Especially with Can and Neu!, it’s this ‘ur-punk’ ethos of self-restriction (derived from the Velvets and the Stooges) that curtailed any tendencies towards the flash muso masturbation exhibited by contemporary prog and fusion.

Krautrocksampler is intensely subjective (what else could one expect from JC, a man who’s already published his autobiography?), and while this gives the prose its brio it occasionally makes the book a tad lopsided. I must take issue with Cope’s curt dismissal of Can after Ege Bamyasi and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s departure; how can he possibly fail to rate the astounding funkadelia of Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma? Generally, Cope doesn’t quite grasp how James Brown was as important to Czukay and Liebezeit as Velvets mantras like ‘European Son’. I also wouldn’t have minDed an extra chapter tracking Krautrock’s myriad legacy, from the avant-funk of Talking Heads and PiL, to more recent trance-rockers like Loop and Stereolab.

Still, them’s just quibbles. Brilliantly researched, Krautrocksampler abounds with revelations (like the story of key Kosmiche activist RU Kaiser and his Cosmic Jokers supergroup). And Cope’s enthusiasm is contagious verging on lethal (at least vis-à-vis the reader’s financial health, given the amount of rare records and over-priced reissues he convinces you warrant immediate purchase). By the end, you’re left feeling that Cope missed his true vocation – a sort of lysergic Lester Bangs. Roll on the next Head Heritage Cosmic Field Guide


Wednesday, August 8, 2007

JOE CARDUCCI, Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church.
Artforum, February 1996

by Simon Reynolds

When Rock and the Pop Narcotic was first published in 1990, it incited a fair bit of controversy, startling many by the sheer aggression with which Joe Carducci lambasted America's rock-critical establishment and lashed its sacred cows. The book's vitriolic tone stemmed from the persecution complex the author acquired at the helm of SST, the hardcore punk record label founded by Black Flag that made bands like the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Husker Du, and Sonic Youth underground legends but failed to win them commercial success. Completed well before Seattle grunge took the punk-metal esthetic into the mainstream, Rock and the Pop Narcotic was an attempt to write '80s underground rock into history. Now Carducci has published a revised edition of his magnum (and I mean whopping) opus, and, post-Nirvana, it has a different tone - a tweak toward told-you-so triumphalism. But the book remains vastly contentious.

Carducci's beef is that rock critics have foisted their postcounterculture, left/liberal agenda onto their subject matter. Blinkered by ideological projections, and lacking a rigorous formalist definition of rock as music, they're unable to distinguish between rock and pop (a pejorative in Carducci's universe); they appraise music as though its essence resided in songs, storytelling, and emotional and social resonance. Carducci relocates music's meaning in sound, specifically the real-time interaction between "the players of a guitar, a bass and a drum kit." For Carducci, rock's sparks fly only via the combustion engine that is a band. Temporary configurations (the singer/songwriter plus backing musicians, or the producer plus session hirelings or machines) are tainted because pop's producer-led esthetic can have no access to the rock epiphany: "multidimensional simultaneity," a.k.a. "the jam," that "superheated nexus in performance where each musician, while playing his part in the material, hears and feels and anticipates the greater whole as it is being reincarnated."

But why are the people, as well as the players, moved? Carducci discounts as peripheral almost everything on which rock crits expend 95 percent of their wordage, i.e., "rebellion," "attitude," the singer's charisma and/or neurosis, etc. For Carducci, both the "politics" and the "spirituality" of rock happen through the music's kinesthetics. It's the frictional interaction of riff and rhythm, tension and release, that signifies. This is spelled out in "The Lowdown on Heavy," a section celebrating the lineage that runs from Muddy Waters through Blacks Sabbath and Flag to today's grunge-metal units like Soundgarden and Kyuss. Carducci analyzes the musical devices these musicians deploy to create abstract yet visceral sonic allegories of struggle and perseverance in the face of a "negative or trying context." Heavy rockers, he argues, "produce powerfully articulated and textured tonal sensations of impact and motion, triggering hefty (nondance) motor impulses in the listener."

Carducci is equally as good at defining what's not rock. It's not the "light rousing high" of pop metal (he's mordant on Van Halen's "meringue" of "liquid, insensate fret math"). It's not Velvet Underground and family, either, because VU had nothing going on in the rhythm section. Insisting that rock is "not identifiable . . . by sound (say, fuzzed-out guitars), volume or speed," Carducci also eliminates most thrash metal and virtually all British guitar-based music since the Jesus & Mary Chain, whose classicist rock 'n' roll imagery and feedback sheathed the most rudimentary, metronomic drumming. Generally, Carducci is quite the Anglophobe: his introduction lets loose the stinging aphorism, "Rock is dead in America about as often as it lives in England." After heavyweights like Sabbath and Zep, he claims, Brit rock lost touch with the blues source; Limey bands reverted to their innate state of rhythmic ignorance, resulting in postpunk guitar outfits that sounded more like "electric busking" than rock, and in synth-pop units with drum machines. Programmed rhythms are a definite no-no for Carducci; the barely perceptible inconsistencies and the deliberate inflections supplied by a hands-on drummer instill a tension that engages the listener's survival mechanism, whereas the repetitive beats of rap or rave let the listener trance out. Underlying this disco-sucks/rap-bites attitude lurks, I suspect, a white-U.S.-male fear of loss of self through dance. This in turn seems connected with the homophobic remarks that litter Carducci's text: abuse of England's "pink stampede" of Bowie-damaged synth-pop gender-benders is one of his milder outbursts.

Carducci's real bugbear, though, is America's bleeding-heart rock-crit establishment. In "Narcorockcritocracy!," a rambling 100-page-plus rant, he blasts the crits' cherished illusions about rock's innate political sympathies. Carducci's own allegiance is unclear, though his jibes at "Big Mother" (the welfare state) suggest his politics lie somewhere between libertarian right and punk anarchist. Yet he is a strikingly class-conscious theorist, and the social stratum with which he aligns himself is the one he deems most productive rock-wise - i.e., working-class/lower-middle-class males. Rock and the Pop Narcotic contains a caustic vein of antibohemian contempt for arty eggheads, middle-class ideologues, and other "mind groupies" who siphon off rock ideas and put them in the service of "assorted perceived solidarities: generational, cultural, political, social, class." Insofar as they appraise bands according to nonformalist criteria, these people are enemies of rock.

Carducci's sexual politics are more explicit, appearing to lie somewhere on a continuum embracing Sam Peckinpah, Robert Bly, and Henry Rollins: the same belief in rugged frontier masculinity, the same fervent work ethic. Compare Sam's and Hank's fear that if they stop working they'll dissipate with Carducci's attack on early-'80s Brit-pop's "anti-American, anti-macho, anti-work aesthete[s]," for whom "the very strength of the rock esthetic had become something to debase." Read between the lines and Carducci comes close to diagnosing rock as the prime symptom of a late-20th-century crisis of American masculinity: music as the agonistics of young men looking for somewhere to direct their surplus energy, now that it's not needed for manual labor or warfare.

Carducci's achievement is as impressive as it is unlikely: he has managed to write a thoroughly plausible explication of rock's power from an illiberal, populist perspective. Reading, you often recoil, but you have to work damn hard to outthink the rigor and surgical finesse with which his points are argued.

JOE CARDUCCI, interview
The Wire, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Originally published in 1991, now re-issued in a dramatically expanded
'remix', Rock and the Pop Narcotic is arguably the most penetrating book about rock music ever written. That's because Joe Carducci's subject is rock MUSIC, as opposed to the hot-air haze of myth, pseudo-sociology and biographical gossip
that most rock books purvey.

What enabled Carducci to cut through the crap and get to the meat of the
matter is his double status as both outsider (conservative with a small 'c', he
goes against the grain of rock's left-leaning sympathies) and insider (he was one
of the gang-of-four who ran legendary hardcore label SST). Initially invited to
manage the label while its founders Black Flag were on the road, Carducci's
involvement lasted half-a-decade, before he departed in 1986 to return to his
original vocation--script-writing for the movies. But in another career swerve,
he decided to write a book about rock, impelled by the "persecution complex" he'd
acquired at SST--the feeling that the US critical establishment had wilfully
ignored the most significant rock of the '70s and '80s. Amongst many other
things, Rock and the Pop Narcotic traces and canonises the lineage that
Carducci believes is the true path: Sabbath/Ramones/Motorhead/Black Flag/Husker
Du/Nirvana. Grunge--the fusion of punk and metal into an all-American hard
rock--happened after he finished the book; in the revamp, it provides the
punchline, the absolute vindication of Carducci's creed.

"When I wrote the book", Carducci says, on the phone from his home in
Wisconsin, "quite a few underground bands had signed to majors, but nobody had
sold any records. If it had stayed at that level, if Nirvana had never happened,
the people who write the history of rock--and in America, that's a coterie of
critics who used to work at Rolling Stone--would still have ignored it."

In order to explain why bands like Black Flag and Meat Puppets were the true
'80s exemplars (and why the artists that were critically revered--Springsteen,
U2, REM, Prince--were "non-rock" frauds), Carducci was obliged to formulate a
rock aesthetic. For Carducci, rock's essence does not reside, as most crits on
both sides of the Atlantic maintain, in "songs" and story-telling, but in riffs
and rhythm. In his book, Carducci shifts attention from all the places that
rockcrit situates meaning (lyrics, attitude, rebellion, the singer's
charisma/neurosis, the collective ideals and anxieties of the rock community), to
the materiality of the music itself. Historically, rock is "rock'n'roll made
conscious of itself as small band music"; rock signifies through its kinetics,
the way that a performance embodies an abstract-yet-visceral drama of conflict,
struggle and perseverance, in the face of a hostile environment. Rock's unique
epiphany is when four or five players come together on the One, creating
"multidimensional simultaneity" a.k.a "the jam": transcendence through collective
toil, a perfect mesh of individual expression and unitary discipline.

"I wanted to figure out what at essence made rock a musical tradition
separate from neighbouring genres like R&B and folk. Rock has something of the
playing orientation of jazz, but it takes what, in an open-ended jazz format,
might have been a free-swinging energy, and pens it into a folk-ballad structure.
That threatens to contain the energy, and it's in the resistance to that
constraint that you get rock's special tension-and-release. Jeff Beck described
Beck, Bogart and Appice as 'musical thuggery'. Of course, that's not the only
flavour you can have: there's artists like Robin Trower or the guitarist in Mazzy
Star, who are refined and light in their touch."

In Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Carducci stresses the importance of rock's
"physical but non-dance energy". While the disco-sucks subtext is striking,
Carducci says he was really trying to distinguish his heavier-than-thou rock
aesthetic from guitar-based but non-rock traditions like Beatles-esque songcraft
or producer-oriented AOR (Boston, Def Leppard). Although he surprisingly admits
to liking electro, he doesn't think much of dance music, regarding it as "service
music" that rarely escapes its social function. "Hip hop never got away from the
dance imperative, and indeed it's gotten more seductive, with the slower and
smoother gangsta rap. But there was a time when Public Enemy was pushing the
genre, and doing something aurally related to rock music, with the attack of the
high-end frequencies."

Carducci's real objection to rap and rave music, and to post-rock bands that
borrow their ideas, is the supercession of the band format by the producer, who
uses hireling session musicians or machines. He mourns the disappearance of
real-time recording in favour of the un-real time of studio-based music, and the
replacement of 'hot' hands-on drumming by 'frigid' programmed rhythm.

"There's something missing [from dance music] that a programmer can't supply.
In rock, there are so many mediocre drummers you might as well have a drum
machine as some of these guys. But when you have a good drummer, it's a living
system: he's playing with the wrist, responding to what he's hearing in a million
different ways, and that's something that very hard for a computer to duplicate."

Carducci's Luddite defence of rock's manly, manual skills is a response to
the dis-embodied, white-collar nature of digitalized pop; in this respect, heavy
rock is as embattled as any heavy industry. Carducci doesn't just believe in the
work ethic, his is a work aesthetic. Which is why musclebound sweatpig Henry
Rollins is such a totemic figure in his book, and why Rollins' has returned the
compliment by re-releasing Rock and the Pop via his publishing imprint 2-13-61. Hank's first band Black Flag, with their strenuous post-Sabbath dirges and
tireless gigging, remain Carducci's model rock unit.

Carducci actually dubs SST's ethos "new redneck". Throughout his book,
there's a vein of anti-bohemianism, a contempt for egghead dilettantes who borrow
elements of rock but whose "cool", brain-oriented music doesn't pack the "heat"
emitted by lumpen, less critically-esteemed bands (a prime example being his
teen-fave, the greaser band Steppenwolf). Joe remains suspicious of hipster
towns like New York and San Francisco; he believes that the most powerful rock
comes from less over-acculturated areas, like the light-industrial, blue collar
zones of Los Angeles, from where Black Flag and Minutemen originated.

One of the most remarkable things about Rock and the Pop Narcotic is that
it offers a thoroughly plausible explication of rock's appeal, written from a
right-of-centre perspective. Breaking with the Left/liberal values that have
dominated rock discourse since the late '60s, Carducci describes himself as "part
of the puritan reaction against '70s decadence". A self-confessed "sociophobe",
his politics are somewhere in the blurry zone between anarchism and libertarian
right. As for his sexual politics, he's a bit like a grunge Robert Bly: rock is
where male biologically-programmed energies are sublimated, now that they're no
longer expended through hunting, heavy labour or warfare. The dark side of
Carducci's masculinist aesthetic emerges in the homophobic slurs which litter the
text, like his jibes at the "limey fagwave" of "Bowie-damaged" art-rockers that
he blames for destroying Britain's virile blues-based rock tradition.

Carducci's illiberal bent carries through to his next project, Stone Male:
Requiem For A Style
, a history of Westerns and other genre movies, in which he
celebrates the granite-jawed hero who uses few words and under-emotes (Wayne,
Eastwood, Bronson), as opposed to neurotic "blowhards" like Brando, Dean and the
rest of the method pack. Stone Male promises to be as controversial as Rock and the Pop: "A lot of the acting profession is very connnected with theatre's homosexual culture. I'm writing about actors who are non-theatrical: in the early Westerns, they'd often worked their way up from handling horses. The
heroic image affects you more if the actor's non-professional. That interests me
'cos I don't like over-acting".

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

BRIAN ENO, A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno's Diary (Faber and Faber, 1996)
Artforum, November 1996

What a charmed life Brian Eno leads! Since his wife, Anthea, doubles as his manager, he doesn't have to deal with any of the ordinary hassles of a three-tier career like his - record producer, musician, visual artist. Freed of the burdens of scrutinizing contracts and paying bills, he can devote his energies to creativity, cooking, playing with his two small daughters, shooting the breeze with other artists, and taking short vacations (usually sans family, and in exotic places) to recharge his batteries.

Not that Eno is a slacker, mind - most weekdays he's up and working before dawn. This is just one of the fascinating facts we learn in A Year (With Swollen Appendices), which is basically Eno's 1995 diary, unedited and uncensored save for some intimate marital stuff). Also included are numerous E-mails to buddy Stewart Brand, which are added on a day-by-day basis, plus a hundred and twenty pages of appendices on the pet theories, obsessions, and projects of Eno's that crop up unelucidated in the journal - axis thinking, for example, or the excellence of screen-savers versus the crappiness of CD-ROMs, or Eno's koan system for generative music (music that "grows" itself as fractal variations within certain adjustable parameters), or culture defined as everything humans do that we don't really need to do.

Cobbled together, Eno frankly admits, to fulfill a book contract several years overdue, A Year really ought to be irritating. Yet it's an oddly riveting read, not only for its behind-the-scenes glimpses into the various big deal projects that took up much of Eno's busy 1995 (producing albums by David Bowie and James, working with U2, organizing a record/concert and a fashion show as charity work for Bosnia, directing art installations), but also for its healthy portion of quotidian trivia. In fact it's the trivia that best displays Eno's keen descriptive powers (at a children's party he's startled by an "astonishingly greedy little boy who hardly played but compulsively sat determinedly jamming food into his mouth"). Also engaging is Eno's candor: one night, he lets us know, "I pissed into an empty wine bottle so I could continue watching Monty Python, and suddenly thought 'I've never tasted my own piss,' so I drank a little. It looked just like Orvieto Classico and tasted of nearly nothing." We also learn that Brian rarely gets erections in Ireland, and that some of his sexual fantasies involve plump women ("on the beach watching topless French ladies with huge wobbling sousaphones of bum-fat, wishing I could hear them fart").

Rigidity of mind is for Eno the least likable thing in the world. The closest thing to bitchiness in an entire year's secret thoughts occurs after a meeting with The Cranberries, who firmly reject Eno's oblique strategies and flexible approaches (the reasons any band wants to be produced by him in the first place): "Dolores has a rather startling clarity of intention about how she wants to record," he notes dryly of the band's obnoxious lead singer. Fanaticism, in pop or in politics, baffles Eno, and struggle and conflict are curiously absent from both his work and his world-view. He mocks the notion of "the glorious struggle of the artist," and remarks of painters like Francis Bacon, "I sort of admire... their obvious agony of effort, but it doesn't move me." Politically, Eno seems to align himself with a socially progressive, "kinder" capitalism (long-term planning, improved design) insofar as he participates in the Global Business Network, a future-scenarios development group founded by Brand and Peter Schwartz. His only comment on the life ninety percent of humanity are obliged to lead is uncharacteristically thoughtless: "In New York you often look at people working for an honest minimum wage in mind-numbingly awful jobs and think, 'They are the suckers, the poor suckers.'... Why on earth don't they turn to crime?"

Rejecting as adolescent the twin passions - romantic desire, underclass resentment -that fuel rock rebellion, Eno favors mind-states at once more mature and more childlike: fascination, reverie, awe, sensuous delectation. His great musical innovation, ambient, is closer in spirit to his other interests - food, wine, decor, perfume, gardening, screen-savers - than to rock's expressionistic urgency. Clearly representing some kind of model-for-living to Eno are the delighted, open-hearted responses of his daughters, Irial and Darla, to the world. When five-year-old Irial imagines digging through to the other side of the universe and finding a new world there, Eno asks what would be in that world: "God would be there! And bears. Just bears and God."


Friday, August 3, 2007

ROYAL TRUX, Thank You (Virgin)
LAUGHING HYENAS, Hard Times (Touch & Go)
Spin, 1995

Where could US underground rock 'go', after Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation reached the outer-limits of 'reinvention of the guitar'? Why, back to 'the source', of course--black R&B (and the late '60s/early 70s white appropriations thereof), in a quest to relearn the lost fundamentals of 'groove' and 'feel'. Hence the backwards journey taken by a new breed of blues fundamentalists like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Come and Mule (formed, coincidentally, by two refugees from Laughing Hyenas). I can only marvel at the timelag syndrome that bedevils Amerindie's relationship with black music: unlike British bands, US rockers only seem comfortable venerating African-American pop when it's dead and buried, e.g. Big Chief vis-a-vis early Funkadelic. Doubtless, we'll have to wait twenty years before the US underground wakes up to the booty-coercing futurism of SWV, Craig Mack and Underground Resistance.

Just to make sure we know exactly where they're coming from, Laughing Hyenas namecheck Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker in interviews, and insert the word 'blues' into not one but TWO songs on their new LP--'Hard Time Blues', with
its risible "I bin down since I could crawl" line, and the maudlin, country-inflected "Home of the Blues". The Hyenas used to be a noise-core outfit, whose sole distinguishing feature was the flamethrower vocals of John Brannon (who used
to sear ears in the ultra-taut hardcore unit Negative Approach). Despite their blues affectations, the Hyenas purvey what used to be called 'high-octane rock'n'roll', firmly rooted in the late '60s sound of their native Detroit;
Brennon now sounds like Iggy if he'd been fixated on Jagger rather than Jim Morrison.

While the band can't swing for toffee, they do rumble effectively. But Brannon's slurred roar ('take me fo' a ride', 'reach out yo' han'', ad nauseam) has less to do with Robert Johnson than with The Stooges of "I'm Sick Of You" and "Not Right". If heavily-amplified, fuzzed-to-fuck self-pity is your particular cup of poison, drink deep. Me, I'll take my blooze bastardisation from those who take Ozzy rather than Muddy as blues-print, i.e. Alice In Chains (who could really make something of Hyena titles like 'Slump' and 'Each Dawn I Die').

Like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (that other offshoot of garage-skronk pioneers Pussy Galore), Royal Trux have at least earned the right to go atavistic. Having proved they can push the envelope (with the drug-damaged lo-fi chaos theorems of Twin Infinitives and the Exile on Main Street filtered through Daydream Nation of Cats and Dogs), it's only fair that Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema should be allowed to contract their raunch'n'roll to fit the contours of Black Crowes-style retro. On their major label debut Thank You, Trux retain the supple boogie glide of "Thorn In My Pride", the baleful thrust of "Remedy", but purge the hokey Humble Pie over-emoting that makes Crowes stick in craw. Thank You is Sticky-Fingeredto the max, its sinewy riffs, grinding bass and seething percussion harking back to 'Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?". What sets Trux leages above and beyond Laughing Hyenas is that they funk, in that fierce white-boy fashion that early '70s rock had down pat, but which punk extinguished when it replaced syncopation with thud-thud-thud.

Song-wise, Royal Trux don't really write tunes so much as riffs; Hagerty & Herrema's elegantly wasted unison drawl functions as a vocal equivalent to rhythm guitar, just another twist'n'tug factor in the all-important groove. Herrema's haggard croon (you can practically hear the nodes forming on her distressed larynx) is at its vicious best on "You're Gonna Lose"--offset by Hagerty's gloating backing
chorus, she expectorates the venomous put-downs, and proves herself one of the best "bad" singers since Alice Cooper circa "Elected". Overall, though, what with lyrics that are as incomprehensibly Philip K. Dick-like as ever, Thank You isn't about songs and singing, but grooves and guitar. The album was produced by David Briggs (who worked on many of Neil Young's '70s albums), and appropriately Hagerty's short solo on "Map Of The City" has a jalapeno-sting redolent of
'Southern Man'. Generally, Hagerty avoids the gaseous, mirage-like soloing that made 'Cats and Dogs' such a gloriously narcotic haze, and concentrates on a rhythm/lead hybrid that's tres Keef.

Best comes last with the aformentioned 'You're Gonna Lose' and the snakehipped, sultry 'Shadow of the Wasp'. The highest praise you can offer Thank You is that it's like time travel. While this ultimately underlines the inadequacy of the Amerindie state-of-art (basically antiquarianism, or at best, lo-fi's retro-eclecticism), it also indicates that Royal Trux have made a muthafunkin' fine record.