Friday, December 14, 2007

The Grauniad, October 34th, 20?7

by Simon Reynolds

“I could hardly recognise him at first,” says Kevin Ayers. ”But there, under that great beard, was Robert and he hadn't changed a bit.” The singer is recalling his reunion after over thirty years separation, with Robert Wyatt, his former band mate in The Soft Machine. “As wonderful as it was odd”, the meeting took place in the summer of 2006 while Ayers was recording his comeback album, The Unfairground, his first record since 1992. In odd, wonderful synchrony. it came out last month only weeks before Wyatt’s own Comicopera.

Intense friendships always seem like they’ll last forever, but time and the way of the world wears them away. Suddenly, decades have passed since you last saw that inseparable soul-mate. Wyatt and Ayers were co-founders of The Soft Machine, in their heyday second only to Pink Floyd as a psychedelic trip band at the swirling kaleidoscopic heart of Swinging’ London. But after their debut album and a gruelling tour of America supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers went off to start a solo career. Many thought he was set to be a big star, his tousled blonde mane and debonair charm making him the missing link between Syd Barrett and Bryan Ferry. “I think Kevin got waylaid by us nutters,” says Wyatt, meaning The Soft Machine and its anarcho-surrealist mish-mash of jazz and acid rock. “There was a window there, a moment when Kevin, with his songs, could have been up there in the charts, as a Donovan type figure.” Ayers is bemused by this notion that he was diverted from his true destiny. “Donovan? Good heavens. I am glad that I ended up as Kevin Ayers! And the people from Soft Machine were a big part of that.”

Wyatt and Ayers originally met in 1961. “Someone had told Kevin, ‘oh there’s one other bloke in East Kent with long hair,” says Wyatt. “You’d get on.” They did. “Robert is an incredibly important figure in my life,” says Ayers. “He got me started. I liked him and he was doing music so I wanted to do music too. Robert was extraordinary, full of ideas and able to talk about art and books. I had never been in that sort of atmosphere.” Daevid Allen, a wandering Australian beatnik, was lodging with Robert’s mother--the infinitely tolerant and artistically supportive Honor Wyatt, a journalist. He befriended the teenagers, precociously turning them on the hippie values of drugs, sex and free spirited nomadism. He whisked Ayers off to Balearic bohemian paradise of Ibiza, where “one could get by with absolutely no money.” Recalls Ayers, “we hitchhiked down there and lived off fruit from the trees and fish we would catch.”

Allen, Ayers, and Wyatt formed The Soft Machine with Mike Ratledge, a keyboard-playing prefect Wyatt had known at school in Canterbury. One of the great myths of The Soft Machine is that they were the product of a progressive school favored by Canterbury’s artists and intellectuals. “Actually, the Simon Langton School is a totally respectable, conservative grammar school,” says Wyatt, who remembers struggling academically and getting regular canings. He left at sixteen with no qualifications, having swallowed a whole bottle of his father’s multiple sclerosis pills because he was “terrified of having to go back to school”. Still it is true that the Soft Machine came from highbrow, arty backgrounds. “Robert was very lucky to have had parents who were interested in ideas and very open, you could talk with them about anything and they would listen,” recalls Ayers, describing the Wyatt household in Lydden as “an absolute refuge.”. Later, after Wyatt’s father died, his mother bought a small semi-detached house in West Dulwich and the entire band--plus girlfriends--lived there. “It was when the group were starting out,” recalls Wyatt. “I don’t how we all fitted in there. But we did and we made our racket and my mum was fine about it.” Says Ayers, “There were plenty of dishes piling up in the sinks and unmade beds. But everyone was being creative in one way or another, or being intellectual or questioning and this came out in various forms such as poetry or art, but most of all music. Soft Machine was the only family I felt I ever had. We were a group of middle class boys from literate backgrounds, into jazz and beat writers, and we went off together on this incredible ride.”

The Soft Machine weren’t the first scions of the haute bourgeoisie to enter the rock world. But crucially, they were the first not to conceal their education or their accents. Indeed, alongside the equally well brought up Syd Barrett, Ayers was the first English rock vocalist not to sing in an American accent. Wyatt, who sang as well as drummed, followed suit on the group’s second album. “At first I was all, “waaugh, bab-eee,” he says, mimicking a standard American rock voice. But then Wyatt developed his own idiosyncratic style of falsetto singing, a wondrous blend of frailty and agility, melancholy and whimsy. “It sounded like me talking, only with notes.”

The Soft Machine immediately became central figures on the London psychedelic scene. Yet in many ways their orientation was always jazz rather than rock. Wyatt even describes himself as a Fifties person who felt “bemused because the ‘rich flowering of culture’ in the Sixties was really just the mainstreaming of all these things that had been underground in the Fifties, like drugs.” Beyond specific ideas to do with harmony, rhythm and improvisation, what they derived from jazz was “a kind of recklessness”, a spirit of discovery captured in Miles Davis’s instruction to his musicians: “play beyond what you know”. This freeform approach, combined with rock-derived but unheard-of-in-proper-jazz techniques like distortion and effects, made The Soft Machine ideal for the sensory overload aesthetic of clubs like UFO, where they played seemingly every other week in 1966-67.

But Ayers’s pop sensibility was increasingly at odds with where The Soft Machine’s music was going, which was long, abstract pieces. ““Kevin had bravely soldiered on as bass guitarist in what had become really an instrumental band,” says Wyatt. “He’d accumulated this stash of songs, but there really wasn’t room for them in the band anymore.” The tour of America with Hendrix divided the band further: Wyatt enjoyed going on the piss and the pull with Mitch and Noel of the Experience, Ayers found the whole rampage of buses, booze and birds a gruelling affront to his sensibilities. The group split up on its return. When they reformed, they invited Hugh Hopper, another alumnus of Simon Langton, to be the bass player. Wyatt enjoyed drumming in a wild, freeform style unsuitable for backing pop songs and happily went along with the jazz-rock direction. But after three more albums, he too was squeezed out as the Soft Machine became an increasingly uptight fusion outfit with little room for playfulness.

As important as The Soft Machine was to their development, few would disagree that Wyatt and Ayers came into their own as solo artists. Initially, Wyatt formed his own Softs in the form of Matching Mole, but after a drunken tumble from a high window left him paralysed below the waist, he had to give up drumming and the gang mindset of the performing band, and reinvent himself as a studio-bound artist. Started before the accident but finished and informed by that shattering trauma, 1973’s Rock Bottom is Wyatt’s masterpiece. From “Sea Song” (an oblique portrait of his new love and lifelong partner-to-be Alfreda Benge, a.k.a Alfie ) to “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” (which exorcised his post-paralysis anguish via bathos-laden turns of phrase like “oh dearie me”), the album combines experimentation, emotion and melody with an exquisite delicacy.

Meanwhile, starting with 1969’s Joy of A Toy, Ayers launched an equally enthralling career, his output ranging from light-hearted ditties like “Clarence In Wonderland” to nihilistic noise-scapes like “Song from the Bottom of A Well”. Another highpoint was “Decadence”, a rippling, rhapsodic paean to his friend and fellow-traveler in hedonism, Nico, an ice queen “suffering from wear and tear” who perpetually slips back into “liquid night” despite the out-stretched arms of her lovers. “I never kiss and tell,” he says tartly when asked if he and Nico were ever involved.

Ayers and Wyatt belonged to a milieu of English mavericks who recorded for “progressive” labels like Harvest, Island, Charisma, and Virgin. Sharing a similar sensibility of gentle humour and genteel experimentalism, this was an incestuous scene, the musicians frequently collaborating or guesting on each other’s albums. The labels, similarly, exuded a longhaired, we’re-only-playing-at-being-a-record-company vibe. Virgin seemed more like an arts council for weirdos than the Industry. “It wasn’t really that idealistic,” says Wyatt. It’s just that “the Railway Enthusiast”--his nickname for Branson--“had noticed there was a market for bands who could sell albums without hit singles, based around the college gig circuit.” Ironically, Virgin would later maneuver Wyatt into recording a single--a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”--which actually did become a hit and got the wheelchair-bound singer onto Top of the Pops.

Ayers, who’d left the laidback Harvest, was facing similar pressures. His new label Island were convinced they could turn him into a big star. “It really messed me up and I lost complete confidence in what I was doing.” It was the start of an unhappy period of desultory recordings and feeling disconnected from the music scene, with Ayers alternating between his houseboat in Maida Vale and long sojourns abroad.

When punk arrived, the progressive scene was deemed the domain of “boring old farts”. The new dogma declared that rock had been enfeebled by its attempts at maturity and sophistication. It was time for a rejuvenating jolt of teenage proletarian energy. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith singled out the Canterbury Scene--The Soft Machine and all the welter of bands and solo artists it spawned--when he declared “rock was ruined when the students took it over”. Wyatt sympathizes with this attitude, which with typical kindliness he interprets as “a sincere attempt to reassert that rock music was a music whose vitality came from the bottom up in terms of social power structures”. Still, there was a moment there in 1976-77 when the mellow meandering of a whole generation of artists--everyone from Brian Eno to John Martyn--was deemed irrelevant.

A few years later, the middle class cadres within punk stopped worrying so much about maintaining their fake-prole accents and hiding their Hatfield and the North albums. Punk turned into postpunk and the students took over again (had they ever really been dislodged?). Many of the new bands looked back to the music they’d been listening to before The Ramones and “Anarchy in the UK”. These groups, such as Scritti Politti (whose vocalist Green was hugely indebted to Wyatt’s “English soul”), wanted to move beyond straightahead punk, beyond rock itself, and the Canterbury Sound was a suggestive example of a concerted attempt to un-rock rock. Wyatt was coaxed back into recording by Geoff Travis, the boss of Rough Trade (home to Scritti). “Virgin were cross and said I couldn’t do albums for another label, so we decided to do a series of singles, cover versions.”

During his period of disengagement from music, Wyatt had become politically engaged: he started tuning into foreign radio stations, including Radio Moscow, and reading the Morning Star. Eventually he joined the Communist Party because its internationalism fit his own “xenophilia”. He explains, “if anybody starts to build up a heat against Johnny Foreigner, sort that chap out, my instincts are to take sides with Johnny Foreigner. They used to call it being a traitor but actually I’m just a xenophile.” The Rough Trade singles included versions of Latin American revolutionary songs, a pro-Stalin ditty from 1940s America, a tune called “Trade Union” by a Bengali group based in Brick Lane, and most famously, Elvis Costello and Clive Langer’s anti-Falklands War ballad “Shipbuilding”.

Ayers is a xenophile if anybody is. He spent his early childhood in Malaysia, “running around a beach and completely lost in my own world “. When his family returned to Herne Bay, the twin culture shock of England’s grey-skied, grey-faced repression and being plunged into boarding school aged 12 was a massive trauma. Ironically, for an artist who is regarded as quintessentially English, Ayers has spent most of his life since that “homecoming” trying to escape England, traveling all over the world and eventually settling in France. “Sunnier climes have always been more compatible to me--people there are so much more relaxed and have time for the good things in life like good food and wine.”

* * *

In 1992 Ayers declared, “Between the ages of 17 and 40 I had a great time, no grounds for complaint whatsoever. My problem is just that I don't know what to do with the rest of my life." For both of the ex-Softs, the Eighties and Nineties were…. variable. Wyatt alternated between sporadic recording and periods of depression, partly induced by “the political weather… you can get a very cold draught sometimes.” Both artists have had struggles with alcohol, culminating this year with Wyatt going sober and quitting the potions he’d always seen as essential to loosening his creativity. Comicopera’s first “act” partly concerns the deleterious effects of his drinking on his relationship with Alfie (who wrote a lot of lyrics on the album), a syndrome she has described as “bereavement within a marriage.”

Both Comicopera and The Unfairground deal with aging, that sense of twilight memorably captured by Dylan a few years ago with the lines “it’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there.” Serenity and wisdom have eluded both artists. In one song, Wyatt sings, at once wry and deadly earnest, of envying Christians and Moslems for their certainty, their confidence that God has got their back. After the first act dealing with personal relationships, and a second moving out into the real world of politics and war, the final section sees Wyatt casting around for “solutions” via a series of cover versions that touch on spirituality, revolution, surrealism, and free improvisation. The Unfairground, meanwhile, exudes a worldweary confusion distilled in the line “I don’t understand anything as I grow older/Nothing seems to be any clearer”.

“When you get to a certain age the inevitable crumbling becomes very real,” Ayers admits. “It’s how you deal with that is the challenge. Robert said to me a very long time ago that I was the sort of person who would end up an old man on a park bench feeding ducks and wondering why people weren't nicer to each other!” Yet for all its bleakness, The Unfairground sounds sprightly and springheeled: falling in love was a major catalyst for Ayers even making a record again. And Comicopera’s sheer delight in strange and marvellous combinations of sounds is a tonic. In the end, there aren’t answers but there are consolations, the highest (and healthiest) being music and friendship. Both The Unfairground and Comicopera involved a company of musician pals: Ayers called on 26talents, among them folk singer Bridget St. John and Hugh Hopper, while Wyatt’s “imaginary gang” contained such seeming incompatibles as Brian Eno and Paul Weller. “I say imaginary cos they were never in the same room at the same time,” he chuckles. “I do believe in doing that, but I’ve found that often grumpiness ensues.”

Parts of The Unfairground were recorded at the same studio, owned by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, where Wyatt recorded Comicopera. Hence the reunion last summer. “It was really great to see him again,” says Wyatt. “He’s gone through a lot of problems, battling the demons. And he’s looking battered, but he’s survived. And it was nice because I had the opportunity to say ‘Look, Kevin thanks very much for your tunes at the beginning’. Without his natural ability to write proper songs, The Soft Machine would have been hard pressed to cobble together much convincing original material of our own.”

Wyatt actually appears briefly on his old friend’s record, albeit as a disembodied vocal texture, sampled and listed in the credits as The Wyattron. “It’s not Robert, but it is a memory of Robert,” says Ayers. “And that makes a lot of sense to me, as that is what I have.”
THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN, The Good, the Bad & The Queen
Observer Music Monthly #1 Album of the Year, December 9 2007

by Simon Reynolds

In recent years, Damon Albarn has been cutting something of a David Byrne-like figure. From his Luaka Bop-like label Honest Jon’s and its excavation of worthy world-y musics to his score to Chen Shi-Zheng’s “circus opera” Monkey: Journey to the West (recalling Byrne's collaboration with Twyla Tharp), Blur's frontman has matured into one of those honorable elder types, the sort that plugs away at mildly ambitious projects long after their moment in the pop sun has passed.

On the face of it, then, the news that he’d formed a supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, was not especially pulse-quickening. The opaque, clunky name wasn’t enticing, and nor was the motley line-up of ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen. Yet when it arrived in cold, grey January, the self-titled debut turned out be--provided you gave it time to sink in, let yourself sink into its diffuse melancholy--absolutely brilliant. As you’d expect given Albarn’s previous melodic form, there’s echoes of The Kinks and the more fragile, yearning side of the Clash (“Lost in the Supermarket”). But TGTB&TQ’s sound was Britpop “corrected”. The insularity of that movement’s version of musical Englishness was opened wide to incorporate Allen’s subtly unsettled Afro-beats (skittering most brilliantly on the extraordinary “Three Changes,” a moment of genuine something-new-under-the-sun wonder) and Simonon’s reggae-inflected bass. Indeed like other good 2007 things--Burial and Pinch's dubstep, the cruelly ignored Lady Sovereign album, the North's bassline sound--TGTG&TQ’s “Waterloo Sunset”-in-dub sound showed how reggae has become part of our native pop birthright, a living legacy any Briton can draw on.

With its lyrical references to Goldhawk Road and Lord Hills Bridge, TGTB&TQ was "the record Peter Ackroyd might have made," as Simonon put it. But London here stood for the country as a whole, a “stroppy little island of mixed up people”. Albarn’s imagery of flood-water and derelicts evoked the rudderless malaise that grips the UK (and much of the West). Where Britpop celebrated the invincibility of youth (Oasis’s “Live Forever”, Supergrass’s “Alright”), the mood of TGTG&TQ was… vincible. The contrast between then and now is dramatized by the shift from Albarn’s demeanour and posture circa “Parklife” (the chipper, fresh-faced, perky-spined lad of the video) to the slumped, stubbly, mumble-voiced character of today. The desolate, shaming backdrop of Iraq was crucial to the album's despondent vibe, but just as key was the time of life Albarn has reached. This was adult music, made by and for people who’ve been battered by life a bit.
THE BLACK DOG, The Book of Dogma
emusic, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

A legend in techno circles, The Black Dog’s music is like the missing link between Coil’s eldritch electronica and Carl Craig’s exquisitely-textured elegance. Although the British group--originally the trio of Ken Downie, Ed Handley, and Andy Turner--became widely heard as part of Warp Records’ “electronic listening music” initiative of the early 90s, the bedrock of their cult is their hard-to-find first three EPs, Did I say hard? Damn near impossible actually, when it comes to The Virtual EP, Age of Slack EP, and The Black Dog EP, vinyl-only 1989-90 releases long out-of-print and each worth a small fortune. Now at long overdue last they are available in their entirety as the first disc of this double-CD retrospective. Tracks like “Virtual,” “The Weight” and “Tactile” distil the essence of Detroit techno into an etherealized machine-funk so translucent and refined it feels like you should store it in crystal vials rather than a lowly CD case or hard drive. "Age of Slack” and “Ambience with Teeth” use hip hop breakbeats in ways that parallel early jungle, but there’s a balletic poise and delicacy to the way Black Dog deploy their crisp and rattling drum loops. This is rave sublimated into a mind-dance, the shimmying-and-sashaying thought-shapes of some advanced alien species who get together and party via telepathy. This set’s second disc, consisting of tracks from three EPS recorded for the GPR label in the early 90s, is also excellent, looking ahead to the Warp-era albums Bytes and Spanners. But it’s disc one that captures The Black Dog at their magickal and mysterious best.
Observer Music Monthly, July 15 2007

by Simon Reynolds

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

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

There’s a serious core behind all this dotty whimsy: Trunk’s most crucial excavations have been works by maverick composers like Basil Kirchin, Delia Derbyshire and Desmond Leslie, pioneers of a peculiarly English form of musique concrete and analogue electronica that often sounds like it was cobbled together in a garden shed. The late Kirchin features with the uncharacteristically wispy femme-pop of “I Start Counting,” while the even later Derbyshire briefly appears with a 37 second synth-interlude. But overall Now We Are Ten downplays electronics in favor of acoustic instrument-based soundtracks and light-on-the-ear Briz-jazz. It’s a shrewd move, resulting in an unusually coherent, all-the-way-through listenable compiliation, unlike the ragbags of out-takes and “famous guest remixes” labels usually put out to celebrate their anniversaries.

Highlights include the pastel-toned poignancy of “Dark World” and “Nature Waltz” by Sven Libaek, the fragrant waft ‘n’ flutter of Paul Lewis’s “Waiting For Nina”, and Trunk’s own “O Zeus” (meta-library music woven out of samples from that incidental music genre typically churned out of Wardour Street studios by session-men and moonlighting composers). If the cloying flute of John Cameron’s theme from Kes really requires the sour bleakness of the movie to offset its sweetness, Vernon Elliott’s “Clangers--Music” has a stand-alone magic, although if you’re of a certain age the tinkling harps and tootling woodwinds will inevitably flash you back to the charm and wonderment of watching all those Postgate Films. Rescuing figures like Elliott, Kirchin and the rest from history’s rubbish tip is a valuable feat of cultural archaeology, and Now We Are Ten is the sweet and softly sad sound of someone giving their own trumpet a well-deserved blow. Fnarr fnaar.
NEIL LANDSTRUMM, Restaurant of the Assassins
director's cut, eMusic, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

An odd thing happened to electronic dance music this decade: it stopped moving. Once so fixated on the Future, the culture became mesmerized by its own past. The Nineties, one long blur of relentless innovation, had piled up such an accumulation of brilliant ideas that it became tempting for producers to go back rather than keep pushing forward. At its laziest, that has meant mere recycling. But it can also entail the creative reinvestigation of styles passed over too quickly during those hectic, head-long Nineties. This is what veteran Scottish deejay/producer Neil Landstrumm is up to on Restaurant of the Assassins: revisiting early UK rave and reactivating its dormant potentials. It’s as if all that mental music churned out on white labels had been given a chance to mature, but without losing its energy or insanity. The result is a bewitching blend of brutalism and sophistication.

At the album’s core is the North East sound known as bleep: outfits like LFO and Unique 3 who created a uniquely British mutation of house that owed as much to electro's pocket-calculator melodies and dub reggae's floorquaking sub-bass as it did to Chicago. The title of “Big In Chapeltown” is a cute nod to the Caribbean district of Leeds with its sound systems and shebeens, while “Yorkshire Steel Cybernetics” has the characteristic Warp-circa-1990 blend of ominous stalking bass and skippy drum machine beats whose syncopation looks ahead to jungle rather than back to house. Restaurant isn’t one long bleep homage, though. Landstrumm plucks ideas from all across the 20 year span of UK rave, acid house to dubstep. Proto-jungle legends the Ragga Twins drop patois chat on “Reverse Rebel,” while “Assassin Master” recalls the dark, febrile strain of 2step garage purveyed by Groove Chronicles. Sometimes Landstrumm’s sound gets slightly congested with writhing detail, suggesting there’s a downside to today’s much-advanced technology (it encourages producers to tweak and twiddle, crowding the mix with clutter and clatter). But Restaurant gets emptier and more potent as it proceeds. “Lung Dub” sounds like the drum program was finished and then partially dismantled, its beats so spaced out they’re like blows coming out of nowhere. “The Underground King” is similarly stark, just bass-boom and percussion-simmer, until the jittery bustle of a section from The House Crew’s rave classic “Euphoria” takes over the song like a demonic spirit possessing a body.

With sample-ghosts like this flitting in and out the music, Restaurant of Assassins offers a form of time travel. Except it’s less a case of going back to some long-lost golden age of rave and more about bring the past into the present. What's really disorienting, though, is the fact that this music still sounds like the future.

LIARS, Liars
Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Easily the most impressive of the recent swarm of postpunk-inspired groups, Liars have always strived to make music in that era’s adventurous spirit, rather than simply replicating the sound of vintage futurism from 25 years ago. Unfortunately that made their last two albums easier to admire than enjoy. Now the Brooklyn-exiled-to-Berlin band have dropped their (avant) guard a bit and conquered their own retrophobia with an album that risks reminding you of things from rock history you already like. So the big bashy drums and war-whoops of “Plaster Casts of Everything” recall Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” while the Gothtronica of “Houseclouds” resemble Love and Rockets remodeled for Generation Ecstasy. “Pure Unevil” even doubles the retro effect, harking back to Jesus and Mary Chain’s circa 1985’s Psychocandy ploy of submerging perfect Sixties melody in a murky crypt of dank reverb. Liars’s trademark experimental touches--the crunchily processed beats and glass-splinter textures--are still present, but they’re now put in service of songs and grooves. The result is their most straight-up entertaining record, riddled with moody hooks that lodge in your memory like brain-worms.

THE KLAXONS, Myths of the Near Future
Observer Music Monthly, January 21, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

If you find all the hype ‘n’ hoopla about Nu-Rave mystifying and can’t understand why anyone would hark back to the days of glowsticks and gurning, just visit the site Hardcore Will Never Die and check out the archived rave footage. Not only was rave the last blast of full-tilt futurism in mainstream UK music, it was also a full-blown movement, the complete youth culture package with its own style, slang, dance-moves, and rituals. An eruption of madness on a mass scale, rave’s Dionysian daftness is infinitely preferable to the pall of cool that has ruled UK music since at least The Strokes. No wonder, then, that new bands looking for nourishment have turned to the early ‘90s, especially now that postpunk’s been tapped to exhaustion.

So there’s no mystery to the Klaxons’s invocations of rave, which stretch from their name (a nod to air-horns tooted by E monsters) to their covers of Kicks Like A Mule’s “The Bouncer” and Perfecto All-Stars’ “It’s Not Over” to naming their prettiest tune “Golden Skans” after a spectacular lighting fixture boasted about on rave flyers back in the day. What does mystify is why the Klaxons draw so little on rave’s sonic principles. Rather than samples, synth-stabs, and programmed beats, they use indie’s standard-format of guitar/bass/drums, occasionally chucking in a noise that sounds like a “rave alert” siren-riff from some ancient Belgian techno anthem, but mostly sounding like a rowdier take on Franz Ferdinand’s dance-punk. Or like Panic At The Disco! actually trying to play disco.

It’s this emo-like quality of feverish melodrama that really connects the Klaxons to rave’s E-motional hysteria. That, plus the fantastical lyrics, with their imagery of treasure, grandeur, adventure, and vision-quest, which come across like Baby D’s “Let Me Be Your Fantasy” meets Frank Herbert’s Dune. “Forgotten Works” declares “light the bridges with the lanterns… we’ll meet at the mirrored statue”, “Two Receivers” urges “run through the glow,” and “As Above So Below” oscillates between the trippy abstraction of “galloping beams faster/joining together and still faster” and the boggling bizarritude of “whippoorwill in flight turns west to East Failure.”

What’s endearing about The Klaxons is their lack of cool, and their confusion. You get the sense they don’t know quite what they’re aiming for, and the resulting mish-mash of crude energy and epic ambition leaves the listener gloriously befuddled Sometimes you suspect that this enjoyably queasy sensation comes from the band simply using the wrong tools for the job--trying to make their slightly shaky voices soar like house divas, or build a non-rock music using bog-standard rock instrumentation. The best thing on Myths of the Near Future is the most wrong-sounding: “Isle of Her”, a wheezing ‘n’ clanking song with Greek mythology-inspired lyrics about sea-farers rowing in search of an Mediterranean paradise: “seven more miles today… we’ll find peacocks there… just keep on going.” “Isle of Her” sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, and in that sense if no other is truer to spirit of ‘92 than a meticulously accurate reproduction of a rave anthem.
JULIAN COPE, Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds On Rock’n’Roll
Observer Music Monthly, August 12th 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Twelve years ago Julian Cope published his celebrated celebration of 1970s German cosmic rock. Passionate, pithy, and portable, Krautrocksampler was wittily styled as a pocket-sized field guide along the lines of the Observer Books of Birds. It quickly became a cult item and was widely credited for kick-starting the Nineties boom of interest in Krautrock (something of an over-estimation, given that groups like Stereolab had long been citing Neu! et al). Now here comes Copey with a sort-of-sequel, this time exploring and exalting the even more esoteric world of Japanese freak rock.

Krautrocksampler and Japrocksampler are decidedly different, however. Although it contained lots of little-known information, the earlier book didn’t belabor the back story but focused on Cope’s rabid enthusiasm for the music, His ultra-vivid and hilariously over-the-top descriptions of a legion of German post-psychedelic records suggested that this prolific musician (he’s just released his umpteenth solo album, You Gotta Problem With Me) might have missed his true vocation as a Lester Bangs-style advocate. Japrocksampler is a far more substantial work, for better and for worse. It’s a heavier book (more than twice the page count of Krautrocksampler) and heavier-going too. Especially early on, there’s a self-conscious air of scholarship. Context-setting is just dandy, but was it really necessary to start with the 1853 arrival of US vessels on Japanese shores, thereby ending centuries of cultural isolationism? (The Krautrocksampler equivalent would be kicking off with the Franco-Prussian War!).

Was Cope maybe piqued into overcompensation by that smatter of niggardly experts who complained that Krautrocksampler wasn’t comprehensive or authoritative enough? Or did he just develop a taste for research while working on his highly-regarded “stone circle” histories The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European? Either way, a certain windy ponderousness of phrase and tone creeps into the prose now and then, suggestive less of long hair and loon pants than of donnish tweed and leather-patched-elbows. In the introduction, the word “study” crops up repeatedly, including the assertion that a “detailed study of this book will have you rethinking your attitudes to music, art, time… indeed life itself”. Presumptuous, moi?

Fortunately, the story itself is sufficiently fascinating and untold to keep the reader gripped. Japrocksampler divides into two parts. The first, really a prequel to the book proper, deals with the 1960s, with chapters examining Japanese experimental music (a scene hugely impacted by musique concrete, with Yoko Ono and her erstwhile composer-hubby Toshi Ichiyanagi prominent among the cast of characters), the “Eleki” craze for Shadows-style twangy instrumental rock, and the “Group Sounds” movement (suit-wearing Japbands modeled on the British Beat boom). Part Two plunges us into the era of freaks, a.k.a. futen, with chapters on Flower Travellin’ Band, Taj Mahal Travelers, and Speed, Glue & Shinki, among others. All have become prized by Western record collector fiends this last decade, especially now the Kraut kosmiche seam has been mined beyond exhaustion.

Les Rallizes Denudes are the biggest cults of the lot, and my inner cynic can’t help wondering if that’s because they never made a studio album (an abortive attempt saw leader/guitarist Takeshi Mizutani mortified by his feeble vocals) but instead left an endless spoor of live bootlegs (hard-to-find being a huge turn-on for the collector scum community). Paralleling the way Amon Duul were involved in Germany’s commune-dwelling counterculture and allegedly had ties to Baadher-Meinhof, one member of Les Rallizes Denudes participated in the Japanese Red Army’s 1970 hi-jacking of a Boeing 721. Strangely, though, Cope doesn’t make much of the parallels between Krautrock and Japrock: two Axis powers whose post-War youth revolted against their nations’ tarnished pasts and embraced Anglo-American pop culture in its most undisciplined and “decadently” anti-fascist form. One larger idea he does grapple with is the Japanese talent for mimesis. Most of the individual bands Cope writes about have a specific Western precursor/model. Often it’s a distinctly unpromising-seeming one, like those proto-metal one-trick ponies Blue Cheer (with Les Rallizes Denudes) or the bleedin’ Moody Blues (with the Far East Family Band). Cope argues that the West-to-East translation process creates “a peculiar copy of the original,” a wrongness that in some instances allows the Japanese version to surpass its inspiration.

If Cope’s exaltation of Les Rallizes Denudes seems like mystique-building covering up simple underachievement (he hails the hermetic, retired Mizutani as “this great nihilistic spirit, this sonic executioner”), elsewhere his evocations of all this authentically inauthentic music are enticing and convincing. He raves about the “fascinating and wildly eventful” multi-generic pastiches created by theater score composer J.A. Caesar (mostly only released as cassettes sold at stalls in the theatres) or the bizarre jazz-rock tangents spawned out of the Japanese cast of Hair!. Shedding the “proper historian, me” persona, his true voice breaks loose with the closing section, his all-time Top 50 Japrock LPs. This consumer advice is the fruit of much labor and expense, Cope reveals, the sifting process being “an arduously hit-and-miss affair… I’ve spent a fortune buying Japanese stuff because it has a great jacket”. There’s also a brief addendum on must-to-avoid Clunkers, Cope astutely noting how collectors gull themselves to feel better about having shelled out so much dough, starting an inflationary cycle whereby “deadly rare foreign albums often become classed as classics merely because no one outside an elite few has even heard [them]”. There are moments in Japrocksampler that’ll make more skeptical readers wonder if that very syndrome isn’t going on in Cope’s own text. But for the most part, the book persuades you there’s reams and realms of triptastic Japanese music that deserve the wider world’s ear.
ENTER SHIKARI, Take To the Skies
Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Already big in Britain, Enter Shikari bring a fresh twist to the frequently botched dream of rocktronica. Where The Prodigy merged rave dynamics with cartoon punk tantrums, Shikari mesh hardcore’s hacking guitar riffs with trance’s serenely celestial synth-ripples. On songs like “Return to Energiser,” Rou Reynolds's snarled verses give way to choruses that are literally choral--unison vocals whose soaring sustained notes and purity of tone uplift the spirit like sunlight pouring through stained glass. As fervent about dance culture’s hands-in-the-air rituals as punk and metal’s moshing and stage-diving, Shikari have sequenced the album to resemble a deejay mix-CD, with a seamlessness that occasionally feels samey but overall sustains the feeling of altitude and elation. Shikari are all about release achieved through constructive aggression, a credo symbolized at gigs when the singer instructs the crowd to take a break from their balletic mayhem and build a human pyramid. Too bad this domestic release lacks the UK version’s bonus live DVD to convey Shikari’s full audio-visual impact.


Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The story goes that Dandelion Gum is a concept album about forest-dwelling, candy-making witches thatwas recorded in a Pennsylvania backwoods cabin by five musicians who hide behind aliases like Father Hummingbird. Mystique cultivation? Maybe, but that’s okay, because the set-up suits perfectly Black Moth’s blend of idyllic, macabre, and kooky. Vintage synths whinny and dapple over crisply funky drum machine beats, while singer Tobacco feeds his voice through a vocoder, an effect that ought to be cheesy but is here ecstatic and otherwordly. The missing link between Daft Punk’s cosmic kitsch and the wistful bliss of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Black Moth’s sound triggers the same elegiac sensation as light-bleached family vacation photos or Super 8 home movies with their sun streaks and saturated colors. The song titles and lyrics fixatedly refer to summer and sunshine, and the music itself seems to ripple its way to our ears through the sonic equivalent of heat-haze. Dandelion Gum is the sublime surprise of the season.


AVENGED SEVENFOLD, Avenged Sevenfold
Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Avenged Sevenfold caught ears and eyes beyond the headbanger heartland with 2005’s heavy-rotation video “Bat Country”. Its mixture of campy Goth and Eighties Sunset Strip-style debauchery was matched with a refreshing postmodern metal sound that fused Synyster Gates’ florid Slash-wannabe solos with the nail-gun frenzy of The Reverend’s almost-industrial drumming, while vocalist M. Shadows shifted effortlessly between an Axl Rose snarl and a Thom Yorke croon. True metalheads scorned A7X as mere pop (the singer sings rather than screams!). But as far as nonbelievers are concerned, metal is improved when it goes pop.

On A7X’s self-titled follow-up to the million-selling City of Evil, “Scream” is the closest thing to a “Bat Country”-style breakout. From the sexual predator lyric with its video-friendly werewolf imagery to the snakehipped groove, the song showcases the Huntington Beach, CA band’s charms (a sense of fun rare in metal these days) and strengths (considerable chops, especially in the rhythm section). Unfortunately, A7X believe in the Album as Artwork. Producing themselves for the first time, they indulge their Danny Elfman fan side with movie-score style embellishments: cellos, choral singing, woodwinds, even steel guitar (on the maudlin homesick road song “Dear God”). Such pretensions to majesty and variety make much of the album more Bat Out of Hell than “Bat Country”. But even Meatloaf (over-)producer Jim Steinman would flinch from perpetrating a ghastly farrago of polka, ska, and 1920s jazz like “A Little Piece of Heaven.”

Ultimately, A7X’s real problem isn’t risky stylistic over-reach, it’s their tame idea of wildness. This brand of tattooed loveboy metal has been a highly conventionalized form of pseudo-rebellion since Motley Crue. A7X are conservative in another sense too. On the opener “Critical Acclaim,” they come across like some ungodly hybrid of Ann Coulter and Sebastian Bach, spouting incoherent rage that conflates limp-wristed liberalism, lack of patriotism, and deviant lifestyles: “how does it feel to know that somebody’s kid in the heart of the America has blood on his hands fighting to defend your rights so you can maintain the lifestyle that insults his family’s existence.” It’s the album’s fiercest tune, perhaps because it’s the most heart-felt (the band sell Stars and Stripes T-shirts that read “America: Love It Or Die”). In A7X’s muddled worldview, guns, God and groupies are what make America great, and family values is when your dad (in Shadows’ case) gave you the cassette of Appetite For Destruction the week it came out.


BATTLES, Mirrored
Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

On first listen, Mirrored is a befuddling experience. A supergroup of veterans from hardcore punk and left-field rock, Battles have devised a sound that merges metal at its most clinical and chromium-shiny with the sort of frantic, fluttery orchestral soundtrack music composed by Michael Nyman. Seemingly plotted on graph paper, the twisting riffs, inverted drum patterns and origami-intricate song structures can seem flashy at times--like maybe these guys have spent too long poring over musicians’ technical mags and want to impress with their agility and precision. But the earnest virtuoso vibe is dispelled by the outfit’s joyous sense of absurdism. The album begins with Seven Dwarfs “off to work we go” style whistling and stand-out tune “Atlas” is one of several tracks featuring gloriously daft munchkin vocals, like singer Tyondai Braxton’s been huffing on a big bag of helium. Bemusement turns to amusement, then the sneaking suspicion that Mirrored might just be a work of lunatic genius.


Friday, December 7, 2007

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Mute Audio Documents
The Wire, summer 2007

by Simon Reynolds

“Label mystique” is a strange business. Compare their respective ledgers and it’s clear that Mute’s output of great music easily surpasses Factory’s. Furthermore, the latter sputtered into oblivion many years ago, whereas Mute prospers to this day (technically-speaking no longer as an independent, having plighted its troth to EMI in 2002, but very much still a creatively autonomous operation). There’s no doubt, though, which of the two labels has the higher profile in terms of rock historiography and cult appeal. Factory mystique and Anthony H. Wilson’s charisma sustained the movie 24 Hour Party People, but you can’t imagine a director embarking on the Mute Story. Daniel Miller has always maintained a low profile and the label he founded in 1978--initially as a DIY outlet for his music as The Normal--still has the aura of a stealth operation.

The company has maintained a steady course over its nearly three decades, latching onto trends only where they’ve had an organic affinity with its founding principles (basically anti-rock’n’roll and Europhile), as when the label started its own techno imprint Novamute in the early Nineties. Mute still takes its bearings from postpunk’s ethos of wide-open experiment and its aesthetic of stern modernist austerity: its very name is stark and sleek, paralleling the four-letter economy and blank impersonality of Wire (one of Miller’s fave groups and in their Eighties reincarnation a Mute act). Miller continues to support elder statesmen of that vintage like Throbbing Gristle and Nick Cave. Moreover, the label started curating, via its Grey Area division, the oeuvres of Cabaret Voltaire, Swell Maps, TG, et al, well over a decade before postpunk became a fashionable and profitable region for the retro industry.

Twinned concerns with futurism and history inform Mute Audio Documents, a gargantuan box set containing every single and EP released by the label from its inception through to 1984. Like most boxes, it’s a curious object, not so much an entity to be listened to in its entirety as a resource, a reference work (as the matter-of-fact title Audio Documents hints). Although it’s not sequenced in absolutely strict chronological order, each double-disc (there are five altogether) is indexed to a particular year (exceptions being the first, running from 1978 to 1981, and the last, which corrals various rarities). This preserves some of the haphazardness of a fledging label’s output, imparting a sense of nonsequitur to the listening experience: early Depeche at their most jejeune and jingly collide with Boyd Rice, Yazoo rub up against Liaison Dangereuses, and, most incongruously of all, the Birthday Party’s fetid and febrile swan-song EP Mutiny is preceded by the palate-cloying appetizer of The Assembly (a mercifully short-lived collaboration between Vince Clarke and ex-Undertone Feargal Sharkey).

Committed to comprehensiveness, Audio Documents presents lesser outfits (I Start Counting, anybody?) on an equal footing with visionaries like Einsturzende Neubauten. But this dispassionate, non-judgemental approach has its advantages, salvaging many skewed gems and charming oddities. Did you know that Smegma put a single out via Mute, the “Mother Sky”-homaging “Flashcards”? Miller has been relentless in his support of Wire and Bruce Gilbert appears here solo with the rattling metallic sound-contraption “‘U, Mu, U” and also, alongside Graham Lewis and Miller himself, in Duet Emmo, whose synth-psalm “Or So It Seems” is almost nine minutes of exquisite sorrow. The fifth rarities set is variable, the considerable plus factor of that hard-to-find The Normal and Robert Rental EP Live At West Runton Pavilion out-weighed by the cosmic inessential-ness of the five live Yazoo tracks.

In some ways the archetypal Mute artist was Fad Gadget (real name, Frank Tovey), a performance artist turned electro-popster spawned, like Mark Almond, out of the art department of Leeds Polytechnic. Miller possibly saw Fad as a one-man Soft Cell: glittering synths entwined around a heart of darkness. Copiously represented across all five double-discs, the Fad Gadget material reveals Tovey as an under-rated electronic musician, ranging from the baleful “Back to Nature” (with its imagery of “burning bodies in the sun… just like lemmings, everyone”) to the out-right Gothtronica of “Ricky’s Hand” (Tovey sounding like an exact hybrid of Gary Numan and Peter Murphy) and its clanky, skeletal dubversion “Hand Shake”. “Back to Nature” was Mute’s second release back in September 1979 and Tovey remained Mute’s mascot artist to the end, Miller putting out his music right up until his death (which in freaky symbolism coincided almost exactly with Mute’s selling itself to EMI).

As much as Mute is a home for artistic extremists (verging on an arts council subsidised by the global sales of Depeche and, shudder, Erasure), the label also warrants admiration for the way it has elegantly walked the line between mainstream and vanguard, pop and unpop. DAF exemplify that spirit, although here they are caught at a transitional moment with 1980’s “Tanz Mit Mir” (slashing punk-funk guitar over writhing proto-techno synthbass) and its perverted nursery rhyme flipside “Der Rauber Unde Der Prinz”, tracks that look ahead to the stripped-down , hard-body Eurodisko of their Virgin albums, which made them pop stars (well, in Germany). DAF offshoot Liasons Dangereuses feature with the slinky ‘n’ sinister “Mystere dans le Bouillard” and “Los Ninos Del Parque,” a real hallucination of a dance track with its Doppler effect synth-smears and pixie-like yelps gleefully darting out of crannies in the mix.

Mute’s greatest art-into-pop group, though, were Depeche Mode. When Vince Clarke quit, most assumed that without the musical brains of the outfit, the Basildon boys would fade fast like the rump of Bronski Beat did when their frontman split. Instead Clarke became a culture criminal perpetrating inanity on a vast scale and it was the left-behind Depeche who grew as artists, evolving from the tremulous poignancy of “Leave in Silence” and mature moroseness of “Get the Balance Right” to the Gang-of-Four-with-synths “Everything Counts” and “Love In Itself.” The metal-bashing “Master and Servant” was Neubauten-goes-pop, while “Blasphemous Rumours” is just an achingly beautiful, exquisitely intricate piece of electronica.

Mute’s knack of bridging out-there experiment and in-here pop attraction was present right from the start, with Miller flitting between two alter egos: The Normal, for the Ballard-inspired and Cronenburg-anticipating “Warm Leatherette”/”T.V.O.D”, and the Silicons Teens, for shiny synthesized covers of rock’n’roll classics like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”. Mute’s current roster, stretching from Goldfrapp to Grinderman, shows that this agility endures. Get the balance right indeed.
PANDA BEAR, Person Pitch
Observer Music Monthly, March 18th 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The artwork of Panda Bear’s third solo album is full of clues. The front sleeve is a paddling pool fantastically packed with children and animals (tiger, seal, gorilla, leopard, koala, and yes, panda). Inside the booklet, there’s further brightly colored photographs: kids on stilts facing a sky mad with fruit bats and flying foxes, a boy in a kilt and a crocodile head-dress dancing a jig, a pigtailed girl riding a gondola through a sky swirling with feathers. These images set you up for music that’s tribal, ecstatic-yet-eerie, brimming with child-like wonder. And that’s exactly what Person Pitch delivers.

In Animal Collective, Panda Bear--real name, Noah Lennox-- plays drums and sings. Here, he builds a unique and refreshing sound almost entirely out of percussion and his own multitracked voice, influenced by teenage years singing in a high school choir. Opener “Comfy in Nautica” sounds like the Beach Boys if they’d joined Hari Krishna. A billowing vocal roundelay interwoven with looped bell-chimes, “Bros” starts as a mellow canter, then plunges into a spangled surge of acoustic guitars. The song sustains its rhapsodic pitch for twelve and half minutes that leave the listener drained and dizzy. “Good Girl/Carrots,” another 12 minute tour de force, kicks off with bubbling tablas and baby-talk, moves into a section where Lennox gently upbraids some uptight, know-it-all adversary, then skanks out under cascades of glistening sonic confetti. “I’m Not”, a skyscape of sighs and shivers, and “Search For Delicious”, braided from wobbled vocals and found sounds, both merge experimentalism and euphony. Like Animal Collective, Lennox pulls off the difficult trick of being simultaneously poppy and abstract, winsome and deranging.

Lennox’s previous album Young Prayer was a eulogy to his father,
a literally glowing tribute recorded in the room where Lennox Snr passed away. It doesn’t take much of a leap of insight to twig that Person Pitch is inspired by love and (re)birth: Lennox married a Portuguese woman, moved to that country (“a European California,” he says, laidback and sun-kissed) and had a daughter. It’s actually quite hard to imagine Lennox as a dad, though, because he looks and sounds so young. There’s a boyish buoyancy to the sound of Person Pitch, a pure-hearted nobility. The album’s core emotions--awe, curiosity, rejoicing, tenderness--are precisely the things that age and experience tends to erode. At once Sixties-redolent (specifically Dylan’s “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now” and “he not busy being born is busy dying”) yet timeless and perennially applicable, the album’s open-hearted spirit is crystallized in the chorus to “Ponytail”. Lennox sings: “when my soul starts growing, it gets so hungry/I wish it never would, never would, never would stop growing.”

Panda Bear sleeve

and its pre-photoshopped source image

from National Geographic August 1969

NICO: The Inner Scar
director's cut, The Guardian, March 16th 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Nico is famous as a face--a tragic beauty, the junkie Dietrich--and as singer of three of of the Velvet Underground’s most beautiful songs, “Femme Fatale”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Far less widely known is Nico the songwriter, the serious artist who created--in partnership with ex-Velvet John Cale—
two of the most extreme musical statements of the rock era. Now those albums,
The Marble Index and Desertshore, are being re-released as The Frozen Borderline: 1968-1970, a double-CD filled out with the inevitable—but, for once, revelatory---slew of alternate versions and unreleased songs.

Hearing The Marble Index for the first time after knowing the singer through those three lovely tunes on The Velvet Underground and Nico is disorientating–where on Earth did this harrowed, umheimlich sound come from? The style invented by Nico and Cale had nothing to do with everything else going on in Sixties music. Centered around Nico’s piercing plaint and the melancholy wheeze of her harmonium playing, it’s a completely un-American sound, severed from rhythm-and-blues. Nico’s debut album, Chelsea Girl, was fetching folk-tinged pop. Marble Index is less folk, than volk. The sonic mise en scene of tracks like “No One Is There” and “Lawn of Dawns” conjures a dank, draughty castle in Bavaria or Bohemia, with shadows, cast from guttering candles, flickering against the walls. You might picture cowled figures chanting canticles, or a pale noblewoman cloistered in her chamber, black-clad and grieving, a falcon her only companion. It’s Gothick, not in the corny white-face-and-eyeliner sense, but harking back to something pre-Christian and atavistic. “Niebelungen”, one of the most haunting songs on Marble Index (albeit left off the original 1968 release, astonishingly), took its name from the Niebelungenlied, an 11th Century German epic poem, a heroic and tragic saga full of drowned monks and decapitations, rape and revenge.

If the sound of Marble Index evokes Mittel Europa, there’s a hint of the Middle East too. Nico sometimes claimed she was part-Turkish on her father’s side. But then her origins are shrouded in mystery. We think of her as German, but although she spent much of her childhood in that country, her parents were Spanish and Yugoslav. Depending on the account, her birthplace and birth date were either Cologne in 1938 or Budapest in 1943, while her father is variously said to have died in a concentration camp or faded away after suffering shellshock during the war. Nico herself experienced WW2 as a primal trauma, spending her earliest years sheltering from British bombing raids and witnessing the leveling of Germany by Soviet troops. She grew up as a rootless cosmopolitan (her passport read “ohne festen Wohnsitz”, no fixed address), receiving education in France and Italy as well as Germany, and eventually becoming fluent in seven languages. From the age of fifteen, she flitted across Europe (and soon between Europe and America), never staying any place for long,and pursuing multiple careers as fashion model, actress, singer. One minute she was in a Fellini movie, the next recording a single under the guidance of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Along the way she became the mistress of French movie star Alain Delon and had a baby son, Ari. Although Delon would not publically acknowledge the child’s existence, Ari ended up being brought up by his parents, an arrangement that was endlessly painful for Nico.

The list of Nico’s famous lovers and admirers is staggering: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan,
Jackson Browne, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison. While several of these troubadours provided Nico with the tunes for Chelsea Girl, it was the Doors singer who encouraged her to become a songwriter in her own right. “He was my soul brother,” Nico once said of Morrison. “He taught me to write songs. I never thought that I could, because when you come out of the fashion business… I mean, I did a flimsy sort of writing ... He really inspired me a lot. It was like looking in a mirror then.”

Often regarded as the West Coast counterpart to Velvet Underground, The Doors defied the flower-power spirit of the age with their songs of sex and death, re-imagining psychedelia as existential estrangement rather than a return to childlike innocence. But Nico eclipsed the Doors’s darkness on Marble Index, an album that replaces the summer of love with the winter of despair. The title comes from a passage in a Wordsworth poem inspired by a statue of Isaac Newton: “Newton with his prism and silent face/ The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” The significance for Nico of the lines most likely lay in the word “alone”. The album is a portrait of isolation, or even ice-olation: these are the psychic landscapes, glittering in their immaculate, lifeless majesty, of someone cut off from the thawing warmth of human contact and fellowship.

Nico’s words do occasionally resemble Morrison’s more cinema student (as opposed to blues stud) lyrics. The style is at once hieroglyphic and hieratic: “Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié)” is all pillars and stone altars, water lily fields and doves, while “Frozen Warnings” depicts a “friar hermit” stumbling over “the cloudy borderline”. With its imagery of “midnight winds… landing at the end of time”, “Evenings of Light” could be a portentous Teutonic rendering of Emily Dickinson’s “There’s A Certain Slant of Light”, a poem that glimpses the face of Death in a winter landscape as dusk approaches.

Along with Morrison’s encouragement, a key breakthrough for Nico was her discovery of the harmonium. She liked this small instrument of Indian origin, also known as the pump organ, because it sounded “like the wind”, and developed a unique style of singing over the simple repetitive patterns she played on it. “ She only had a limited command of the instrument,” recalls Richard Williams, who as A&R at Island would sign Nico to record The End, effectively the final instalment of a trilogy that started with The Marble Index. “Because she played less notes, it restricted her singing and it became literally monotonous, but not in a pejorative way.” Cale was then able “to hang interesting sounds around it”-- an outlandish palette that included electric viola, glockenspiel, bells, and that maritime instrument the bosun’s pipe. Another aspect that made The Marble Index sound so European was that unlike with rock or funk, where the singer is embedded in the groove, Nico’s voice runs in parallel with Cale’s accompaniment rather than interlocking with it. Her voice and harmonium were recorded first, separately; Cale would then build up layers of texturess, going through dozens of combinations. “’I was pretty much left alone for two days,” Cale once commented of the album’s recording, which incongruously took place in Los Angeles. “I let her in at the end… and she burst into tears. ‘Oh! It’s so beautiful!’….”

This wintry sound demanded an image change. Nico switched from dyed blonde to dark henna and started wearing black, heavy fabrics and boots. Danny Fields, her close friend and the man who got her signed to Elektra, believes it was “almost a burden to be so beautiful… She was a very serious person and seriously wanted to be thought of a poet, a songwriter.” The album did earn a measure of critical respect and has been a cult favourite for decades, but sold poorly. It’s easy to see why, given how out-on-a-limb it was even in the freakadelic context of the late Sixties. In truth, Marble Index sounds like nothing before or since. If anything matches it in mood terms, it’s Joy Division’s Closer. The latter is taken, rightly or wrongly, as a sonic suicide note. Marble Index, likewise tends to get seen in terms of an aestheticized death-wish. Referencing the record’s commercial failure, Cale said “you can’t sell suicide”, while Frazier Mohawk (the album’s official producer) described it as not “a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.” Yet, smack addict and gloomy sod that she may have been, Nico appears to have been in no hurry to shuffle off this mortal coil. Indeed she clung on to life, dying in 1988 in bizarrely bathetic circumstances after tumbling off a bicycle in Ibiza.

Still, there’s no doubt she had some serious inner turbulence and a genuine dark side. When Danny Fields describes her as “Nazi-esque”, it turns out he’s not affectionately referring to her regal, demanding personality, but to racism. “Every once in a while there’d be something about Jews and I’d be “but Nico, I’m Jewish’ and she was like ’yes yes, I don’t mean you’. She had a definite Nordic Aryan streak, [the belief] that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior.” Worse, on one occasion, she acted those beliefs out, explosively, in what Fields calls “the most infamous incident”. In the restaurant at the Chelsea Hotel sometime in the very early Seventies, Nico sat with a bunch of musicians, among them a beautiful mix-race singer--half-black, half-white--who’d worked with Jimi Hendrix. According to Fields, “Nico was, I dunno, feeling neglected, or drunk, but suddenly she said ‘I hate black people” and smashed a wineglass on the table and stuck it in the girl’s eye. There was lots of blood and screaming. Fortunately she just twisted it around her eye socket, so the glass never reached [the eye] but… it’s not like she was being cautious!” Fields claims that the Warhol crowd spirited Nico off on an airplane and out of the country the next morning, while somehow managing to placate the victim and hush up the whole affair. Nico later alluded cryptically to this appalling incident in a late Eighties interview with an Australian radio station, explaining her quitting America in the early Seventies in terms of the US being a “dangerous place”. This, she added, could make oneself “increasingly dangerous. You might just wind up in jail… I just had to go because something happened…”

Exiled to Paris, Nico shacked up with avant-garde film maker Philippe Garrel and made a series of arty flicks with him, acting and providing songs for the soundtracks. Most notably there was La Cicatrice Interieure, which translates as The Inner Scar, shot in a series of Nico-esque desolate landscapes (Iceland, Egypt, Death Valley). Stills from Cicatrice adorned her next album, 1970’s Desertshore. Setting the pattern for the rest of her career, it was recorded on a different label than its predecessor. Joe Boyd, the man who discovered and produced Nick Drake, was a Marble Index fan and secured her a deal with Warner/Reprise through his production company Witchseason. Cale produced again, but possibly influenced by the presence of co-producer Boyd (whose recording hallmark is restraint and naturalism) the album is less cluttered, a sparer and purer Nico statement in some ways, giving her voice and harmonium the spotlight. Like Marble Index, the music works on your mind’s eye. Indeed Nico described herself as “a frustrated movie director… I always have to see a sound, I can't listen to it only. I've actually to see a film or, or when I don't see a film I rather see the music than I hear it.” Lyrically, the gnomic imagery of songs like “Janitor of Lunacy” and “Afraid” is as bleak as before, but there are glimpses of tenderness in “My Only Child” and “Mutterlein”, while “The Falconer” is an oblique paean to a lover able to “erase my empty pages”. But the overwhelming impression is, again, of someone grappling with a terrible inner void. “Being around Nico was kinda depressing,” recalls Boyd. “She was a very tortured character. I mean, you can see the romance of Warhol, the Factory, and the Velvets, but when you get up close up to it, you think ‘Jesus, this is pretty gloomy, boring stuff’.”

Like Marble Index, Desertshore sold badly and Nico drifted off again, recording no music for four years. In 1794, she was coaxed back into the studio by Richard Williams, who signed her and Cale to Island, overcoming the reluctance of Chris Blackwell thanks to the warm enthusiasm of Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera. These two (Roxy) musicians played on The End. With Cale at the mixing desk, the concept was The Marble Index, Part 3. That summer she, Cale, Eno and Kevin Ayers (a close friend who wrote the marvellous paean "Decadence" about her on his album Bananamour) appeared at London’s Rainbow Theater as a sort of supergroup (the press nicknamed it ACNE), with the one-off show recorded and released as June 1, 1974. Of Nico’s live rendition of The End’s title track, Creem’s Richard Cromelin memorably wrote: “If Morrison sang it as a lizard, Nico is a sightless bird, lost but ever-so-calm, somehow knowing the right direction. She is the pure, dead marble of a ruined Acropolis, a crumbling column on the subterranean bank of Morrison's River Styx.”

Minus Ayers, the event was recreated at a Berlin music festival later that year. Nico triggered an audience riot by performing the German national anthem “Das Lied der Deutschen” (also covered on The End) complete with verses that had been banned after 1945 on account of their Nazi-era associations (they referred to territories ceded at Versailles and eventually seized back by Hitler). This incensed the crowd of young left-wing students and hippies and they starting hurling “plastic seat cushions at the stage,” recalls Williams. “Eno making air-raid noises on his synth, Cale pounding his piano, Nico intoning ‘Deutschland, uber alles”, cushions flying– it was really quite something!”

After her third flop in a row, Nico faded from the public eye again and would in fact only record two more albums before her death, neither of them anywhere near as distinctive and remarkable as the Marble/Desertshore/End triology. Religious music for the god-forsaken and orphaned drifters of this world, Nico’s nihilist psalms are as enduringly enigmatic as their creator. Fields remembers her alternately as “deep”, “girlish” and “bratty”. “We’d be walking in New York at night and she’d have to pee,, so she’d squat down between two parked cars. One time a passing cop came by and said, ‘hey, that’s not very lady-like’. See, she didn’t have the neuroses of babybooymer people. She didn’t bother with neurosis, she went straight to psychotic! Everything was turbulent about her, starting with the bombs during her childhood. You can hear it in the words of her songs. It’s a mythical thing that I think we are going to be trying to explain for a long time.”
TOMBSTONE BLUES: The Music Documentary Boom
director's cut, Sight & Sound, May 2007

by Simon Reynolds

There’s something about music documentaries. Rarely inspired and often less than
enthralling, they have this curious quality of watchability. Low key verging on ambient, they seem made for TV: you can slip into their flow easily, if you switch channels and find yourself in the middle of one, because there’s rarely a narrative as such, rock careers generally consisting of a series of disconnected events leavened with lots of numbing repetition (interminable touring, recording, debauching). The rock doc genre nicely combines mild edification (you’re bound to learn something) with the vicariously thrilling spectacle of misbehaviour and dysfunction. Yet there’s also something compelling mundane about rockumentaries, or at least those that take the fly-on-the-wall approach. The effect--demystification tinged with schadenfreude—is similar to celebreality TV. All the studio sessions and rehearsals, the tour bus tedium and backstage banality allow us to see the stars at their least stellar, cut down to human size.

Right now is a great time for rockumentary addicts. This decade has seen a boom for the genre--definitely in quantity, and arguably in quality too. “In the 1990s”, opines the the BFI reference work Pop Music In British Cinema, “there were less in the way of rockumentaries,” and although the reason for this is unclear, the contention feels correct. Only 1991: The Year That Punk Broke (Dave Markey’s movie about grunge on the cusp of invading the mainstream) and Nick Broomfield’s equally grunge-centric Kurt and Courtney really stand out as memorable additions to the genre inaugurated by late Sixties landmarks like Don’t Look Back and Woodstock.

This on-going resurgence of the rock doc can be dated back to the year 2000 and Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols film The Filth and the Fury. It picked up speed with 2002-03 efforts like I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (about Wilco), Live Forever (Britpop), and Mayor of Sunset Strip (about perennial LA scenester Rodney Bingenheimer). By mid-decade the floodgates were wide open. DiG! (Ondi Timoner’s remarkably absorbing doc about two remarkably minor bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre) won a Sundance Grand Prize, while Metallica: Some Kind of Monster pulled in the supersize popcorn crowd at cineplexes across America. Other notable docs from 2004-06 include The Nomi Song (about little-known Manhattan clubland oddball Klaus Nomi), If I Should Fall from Grace With God: The Shane McGowan Story, Festival Express (based on footage from a 1970 tour of Canada by Grateful Dead, Janis Jopin and The Band), The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the Flaming Lips doc The Fearless Freaks, and We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen. Last year the idea of rock musicians as lightning rods for conservative rage and government anxiety informed Shut Up and Sing (about controversially anti--Bush country stars the Dixie Chicks) and The U.S. vs. John Lennon. And the boom shows no sign of subsiding with high-profile docs on Scott Walker and Joe Strummer coming out early in 2007.

Why? One reason is surely economics. With their small crews and low budgets (no scripts, actors, costumes, props, effects) these films are cheap to make. While unlikely to gross massively, rock docs offer less risks in terms of recouping, given that most subjects for the rockumentary treatment bring in tow a built-in niche market of fans who’ll buy the DVD. As well as music documentaries getting on the big screen more frequently (Dig, Some Kind of Monster and this year’s Air Guitar Nation have been general released to movie theaters) there are also ever increasing opportunities for rock docs to get shown on TV, thanks to the expansion of cable and digital. Although they often serve as a form of cheap schedule filler, rock docs also provide channels on both sides of the Atlantic—Ovation and VH1-Classic in the USA, BBC Four and Channel 4 in the UK—a way of attracting both the youth audience and baby-boomers, who enjoy seeing the classic rock era they lived through endlessly chewed over.

That last point offers another clue to the boom in the music documentaries, the Law of Retro whereby the vitality of a music genre bears an inverse ratio to the amount of historical knowledge built up around it. Rock docs are just one sector of a malignantly metastisizing retro industry that encompasses band reformations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and out-take crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, live performances of classic albums in their original sequence, rock histories and biographies galore, retro-oriented magazines finding endless new angles on the same old history with feature packages on the making of landmark albums or famous fans talking about their favourite Beatles/Smiths/etc songs, and, not least, new bands recycling old styles. The music doc slots into one sub-folder of this vast retro-mania industry, in between DVDs of back-in-the-day concerts and biopics.

There is a feeling abroad that rock—maybe even the “music thing” in its entirety—is essentially over; that, if not quite dead, then certainly its best years are well past. And that all that’s left in this circumstance is to pore over the past, either to marvel yet again at the mythic exploits of the pantheon giants or to find little nooks and crannies, stuff that aren’t totally worn out through repetition. Rock docs do both: some take yet another pass at thrice-told tales like punk rock (Temple’s Strummer doc), others fasten on obscure scenes or neglected genres with the aim of saving them from History’s wastepaper basket. Today is the era of the archivist, the curator, the documentarian—experts at sifting through the detritus churned up during rock’s surge years, that period when people made history rather than chronicled it, lived it in real-time rather than watched it long after the fact. It’s a moot question whether retro culture arose as a symptomatic response to rock’s slowing down (prompting people to hark back, understandably, to when it was all forward-thrust and change-full dynamism) or whether the drastic growth of retro culture as a result of technological changes (the CD, the web, mp3s, YouTube etc) is actively distracting us from living in the pop present. But either way, the music doc field is a major element of the necrophile banquet that is contemporary retro-rock.

Not that all music docs are retro-spective by any means. Some capture a band at a particular moment in its existence (Meeting People Is Easy caught Radiohead’s disorientation and fatigue during the OK Computer world-tour, the very disillusion that led them to the radical self-reinvention of Kid A). Others attempt to document a scene or subculture as it happens. But the sector that is driving the current boom is the retro-doc, whether it’s the career biography of the maverick auteur (Scott Walker: 30th Century Man) or the genre/scene based doc like recent efforts on Detroit techno and British postpunk. These all follow the format that could be dubbed “talking heads plus”—the plus factor ranging from rudimentary (stills of album covers and concert photographs) to an artful weave of vintage footage (TV appearances, early stabs at promo clips, etc) and non-kinetic archival matter such as posters, flyers, magazine covers, and so forth. Either way, the talking heads element tends to involve a series of weathered-looking middle aged musicians and record business people dredging up their memories, often in what appears to be the kitchen area of a maisonette or on the living room sofa.

Eve Wood’s Made In Sheffield (2004) looks at the city that produced Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC and Pulp, while James Nice’s Shadowplayers (2006) concerns Factory Records and the Manchester postpunk scene. Both contain plenty of fascinating data for the hardcore fans, but there is a strong sense that either would have worked almost as well as an illustrated oral history in a magazine or as very detailed sleevenotes (like the ones Nice writes for his reissue label LTM). It’s cool to hear the voices of the key players, but it doesn’t add that much. Made In Sheffield and Shadowplayers are both superior to the Detroit techno doc High Tech Soul, which contains virtually nothing informationally that even a semi-afficianado wouldn’t already have read a dozen times before. All the clichés about Detroit techno as the origin and apogee of electronic dance music get recycled. Aggrandizement (self and collective) from the prime movers alternates with accolades from the acolytes, punctuated here and there by the inevitable shots of Detroit’s decayed post-industrial inner city and some disappointingly non-vibey footage of the deejays spinning records. But you don’t get much sense of why the music was so special or why it’s been so globally influential.

Living Inside the Speaker is no less an exercise in city boosterism than High Tech Soul, but this film on Bristol’s dubstep scene at least deals with something fresh and far from done-to-death. The unpretentious enthusiasm of the scene’s prime movers, who have built a regional outpost of a subculture that started and remains centred in London, is engaging, and the doc makers Mike Thomas and Mark Walker do better in one signal respect than High Tech Soul’s Gary Bredow, simply by capturing their interviewees in their natural environment: clubs, record stores, a pressing plant for dubplates (one-off pre-release tracks exclusive to a particular DJ). Dubstep’s birthplace—the featureless region of South London between Tulse Hill and Croydon—has actually been compared to Detroit, but not to be out-done on the urban bleakness front, Living Inside the Speaker makes a fair argument for Bristol as a grim and grimy place. Instead of genteel Georgian crescents, we’re shown the areas of this major port that were bombed flat during WW2then rebuilt at speed, an any-colour-so-long-as-it’s-grey kaleidoscope of brutalist housing blocks, CCTV cameras, and graffiti-daubed underpasses.

Dedicated to another post-rave underground sound, Feiern: Don’t Forget to Go Home is a wonderfully vivid glimpse into the Berlin techno scene, capturing the curious ability of German clubbers to stay elegant even at their most wasted. Nothing can rival the 30 second rave sequence in Morvern Callar, but director Maja Classen comes close with her strobe-blitzed footage in which the dancers become zombie-silhouettes that keep getting re-absorbed into the sinister blue murk. Then there’s the scenes that catch the human wreckage in the unforgiving dawn light, prone on floors or couches, haggard with bliss.

Feiern uses a lot of “talking head” material, from deejays, journalists, and other scenesters. But--being Germans--the backdrops for their chat are as stylishly minimal as the music--typically a white-walled bedroom with a futon and a dainty ceramic platter to hold the ashtray or wineglass. There’s none of that lumpen aspect UK rave had, still discernible in dubstep with the downward-slippage of accents and mangled grammar of the Bristol interviewees. Evoking the attractions and pitfalls of the hardcore clubbing-and-drugging lifestyle, Classen’s cast are precise and sometimes poetic, unafraid to slip into a phenomenological or spiritual register. Just about the first words in Feiern comes from an unidentified voice-over declaring “it was the wordless time…it was our poem of bliss,” while Inga, a label owner, talks about how Ecstasy-plus-techno makes “time feels like a space that’s expanding and finally disappearing.”

Feiern avoids the trainspottery side of dance culture (the minute subgenric distinctions, the technical nitty-gritty of how tracks are made) in favour of what the music makes possible: certain sorts of spaces and relations, a loss of self that can feel like finding your true self, an intense if ephemeral sensation of contact and communion in a crowd of “intimate strangers”. The deejay Ricardo Villabos, remarkably eloquent given that this Chilean expatriate here speaks English as a second-language, talks about society’s failure to provide avenues for experiences of collectivity and how clubbers become “addicted to that closeness.” Like all addictions, this can be damaging. Another exiled-to-Berlin deejay, Ewan Pearson notes how German clubs “don’t stop until the last person has fallen over… some gigs I’ve played for six hours when I was booked for three” and admits he prefers the British thing of “having a definite end to the night, a Last Record” as opposed to the Berlin ethos of not stopping “until there’s just a few, very disturbed people left who would carry on if you were banging a spoon on a saucepan, so long as you did it in time.” His concluding remark provides the doc with its subtitle: “party hard, but don’t forget to go home at some point”.

* * * * *

Documentaries about scenes or sounds are far out-numbered by ones about individual creative units (a singer, musician, band…), presumably because they’re easier to make and easier to sell. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man and Joe Strummer: the Future Is Unwritten are superior examples of the rock doc as heroic biography. Both cleave to the “talking heads plus” formula but bring plenty of imaginative flair to the plus aspect.

In 30th Century Man, director Stephen Kijak frames the hermetic and hermit-like Walker as a mystery man prone to disappearing for decades at a time. Right at the start, David Bowie—the film’s executive producer and a Walker fan ever since he dated an ex-girlfriend of the singer and was forced to hear the former heart-throb crooner’s astonishing avant-MOR solo albums—asks rhetorically “who knows anything about Scott Walker?”. The doc then proceeds to shed a fair amount of light without truly penetrating the inner core of darkness that motivates this driven and uncompromising artist. Inclined to avoid media attention, Walker obliges with a rare on-camera interview, and comes over accommodating and articulate yet ultimately elusive. (He’s also remarkably ageless, at 63 looking uncannily like Beck’s elder brother). Associates and admirers (including Johnny Marr, Brian Eno, and Jarvis Cocker) generate a steady flow of recollections and insights, and we witness scenes from the sessions for 2006’s The Drift, Walker’s third comeback album, including the bizarre spectacle of a side of meat being used as percussion. The archival material is top-notch, ranging from Arnie Potts, a Walker memorabilia collector, guiding us through his treasure, to vintage TV appearances, to an open letter printed in a pop magazine and written by 14 fans disappointed by the avant-garde turn in the singer’s post-Walker Bros work: “don’t underestimate our force… the end is nigh, you’re way off course… your reign is over--goodbye Scott.”

One effective Kijak device is filming the famous fans listening to key songs, catching their facial reactions and off-the-cuff thoughts. Alison Goldfrapp, of all people, nails the quality of Walker’s voice circa his second comeback album Tilt-- “it’s beautiful and unpleasant at the same time...” . And you gotta love Marc Almond for bravely admitting to loathing that 1995 album: “ I went to the playback and everyone was sitting silent and reverent and I thought ‘is it just me or is this awful?’ The solitary blunder on Kijak’s part is using cheesy abstract computer animations to backdrop some of Walker’s most sublime songs, like “Boy Child” and “The Electrician”. 30th Century Man is genuinely informative, with plenty of revelations about Scott’s working methods, but in the end you don’t really understand what impelled his journey from Righteous Brothers-style stardom to a solo career whose ambition was seemingly to fuse Nelson Riddle and Ingmar Bergman. There’s a passing reference to a lifetime of suffering nightmares, and a palpable sense--transmitted in just the delivery of the song “Rosary” on Later with Jools-- of a profound sense of human abjection (something strengthened by one commentator’s comparison of Walker’s work with Francis Bacon’s). But in the end Scott remains an enigma, which is perhaps how it should be.

The Future Is Unwritten, Julien Temple’s latest contribution to the hegemonic stranglehold punk maintains over rock history, takes a more expansive approach than 30th Century Man, treating Joe Strummer as both an exceptional individual and a product of his times. The narrative arc is conventional (close to the rise/fall/resurrection formula of VH1’s Behind the Music band biographies), depicting Strummer as someone who invents himself (literally changing his name, not once but twice), surfs the breaking wave of pop history by joining the Clash at the exact right moment, loses his way in rudderless meander for at least a decade, only to find himself again in his later years. Familiar stuff, but Temple’s approach is exuberant, alternating between playfulness and poignancy, burnishing the myth and acknowledging the man’s several flaws. As with The Filth and the Fury, Temple adds a third element to the vintage footage and talking head material, weaving in cultural ephemera that sets the period or ironically frames the events in Strummer’s life: when father Ronald, a diplomat, is stationed in Turkey, we see an ancient TV commercial for Fry’s Turkish Delight; when little Joe gets sent to boarding school, there’s scenes from If……

This is fun, but cleverer still is Temple’s ploy for getting around the essential static and expository nature of talking head material. The spine of the film is a series of camp-fire gatherings in various cities—London, New York, San Francisco--attended by Strummer friends and comrades. Flames flicker across their time-ravaged faces as they sit and reminisce, listening all the while to Strummer’s London Calling music shows for the BBC World Service. After going to the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, Strummer became obsessed with the notion of the camp fire as a primordial human experience, a place for song and story; he convened campfire parties regularly right up until his death. So Temple’s device honors the spirit of the man while providing an attractive visual thread through the movie.

Through Glastonbury and rave culture, Strummer rediscovered the hippy soul he had before he morphed into a punk. The most revelatory part of The Future Is Unwritten deals with the long period between Strummer’s “coming of age’ in 1968and his becoming the Clash’s frontman. Most of these eight years were spent in the bohemian squatland of Ladbroke Groove, the UK equivalent to Haight-Ashbury. Strummer’s first band the 101-ers formed out of this milieu, but although their ragged, rootsy sound was opposed to hippiedom’s musical values they were a long way from virulence of punk rock. The latter’s emergence is dramatized by intercutting footage from early punk gigs with Anti-Nazi versus National Front street riots and scenes from the black-and-white 1954 BBC television version of 1984 (the morning hate sessions in which Party members shout at TV images of the traitor Goldman, Big Brother’s arch-enemy). The rabid “hate, hate” chant blends with the thuggish pogo pulse of punk rock, highlighting the ambivalent nature of punk energies. For all their anti-authoritarianism (the Sex Pistols rhyming Queen with “fascist regime”), punks also poured contempt on liberals for their weakness and exhibited an inhumane and anti-humanist streak ripe with fascist potential. There’s an echo of 1984 too in the double-think swiftness with which Strummer ditched his friends in the 101-ers and enrolled in the Clash. “We were almost Stalinist,” Strummer recalls of this “all change” moment in 1976.

Fast forward to the mid-90s, and after a decade of drift and funk, Strummer has embraced his hippie roots again and reconciled with the Grove ‘n’ Gate friends who once stopped speaking to him after his defection to punk. The Future Is Unwritten notes the singer’s faults and contradictions, the most intriguing perhaps being the way this anti-war minstrel, who wept when he saw on TV circa the first Gulf War that a US bomber crew had written ‘Rock the Casbah’ on a missile destined for Iraq, was patriotically obsessed with the Second World War and said his grave stone should read “punk rock warlord”. But The Future Is Unwritten is essentially a heroic saga, ending on an upbeat, affirmative note, with Strummer exalting life, change, humanity, people power. The title itself, a Strummer saying, reiterates the Clash’s stance, a rejection of the Sex Pistols’ “No Future”.

Entertaining and heartwarming, Temple’s documentary is in some ways a far less interesting film than the original Clash movie, 1980’s Rude Boy, which is generally considered botched and boring. An ungainly but innovative hybrid of documentary, concert movie, cinema verite drama and social realist tone-poem, Rude Boy was disowned by the band, whose management at one point contemplated legal action against its makers, David Mingay and Jack Hazan. It’s easy to see why: Rude Boy demystifies The Clash, exposing as naïve and wishful the band’s romantic vision of working class youth. The film not only conveys the alienation that spawned punk but is also full of Brecht-style alienation effects. The fictionalized elements are very close to reality (Hazan got the performers, including the Clash, to re-enact scenes that had happened in their lives perhaps only a few days before, or to improvise dialogue) while the ostensibly real-est element in Rude Boy, the famously thrilling concert footage, is doctored and artificial (the musical element of the band’s performances were re-recorded in a studio because the sound quality from the gigs was too poor to use).

The lead character Ray Gange was played by a real person called Ray Gange, whose contribution to the dialogue and story-line earned him a screenplay co-writing credit. In real life, he was a friend of Strummer but in the film “Ray Gange” becomes a repellent character, a hanger-on who roadies for the band on their major tours of 1978 until ineptitude and drunken-ness get him booted off mid-tour. He’s a genuinely passionate if confused fan of the Clash, responding to the prole sentimentality of Mick Jones songs like “Stay Free” but not connecting with the band’s politics and possessing an unsightly racist streak. There are two key scenes between Gange and Strummer. In a Brixton pub, they talk about rich and poor and the class system: Gange says his only goal is to become “one of the few”, with “money, a country mansion, and servants”; Strummer tries to persuade him “there’s nothing at the end of that road, no human life”. Later, an inebriated Gange upbraids Strummer in a rehearsal room, “I don't think you should mix your music with politics--it annoys me"; Strummer pounds out “Let the Good Times Roll” on the piano, whether in irony or genuine longing it’s hard to say. The movie ends with shots of Margaret Thatcher waving victorious on the steps of 10 Downing Street in May 1979 and the strong implication that Gange, along with many other punk fellow travelers, either voted for her or couldn’t be bothered to vote against her.

Rude Boy’s most enduring value lies in its documentary footage of crisis-torn Britain, the context for Gange’s muddled politics. National Front protestors rail outside a secondary school about Trotskyites in the classroom promoting same-sex love and interracial breeding; there’s imagery of Anti-Nazi League marchers facing off with the ranks of bobbies in riot gear, and footage of the massive Rock Against Racism festival in Victoria Park. Most of all, the movie throughout is a time capsule of the sheer drabness and crapness of the UK in those stagnant, deadlocked years of Jim Callaghan and Grunwick… the color-bleached streets, the pre-style culture shop fronts and advertising hoardings, the almost Eastern Bloc look of people’s clothing… There’s a strange little sub-plot about Jamaican youths getting arrested for snatching hand-bags, which troubled the Clash, who thought it racist stereotyping, but was probably Mingay & Hazan implying that punks, for all their clamoring for “a white riot” of their own, had no inkling of what real oppression was.

Rude Boy also seems to argue that the Clash, their following, maybe punk as a whole, was a half-measure, a movement of puerile malcontents venting their frustrations through exciting aggro but flinching from the hard work, rigour-of-thought and self-sacrifice required for real revolutionary struggle. At Victoria Park, the kids spurn the pamphlets proffered by the Socialist Worker Party activists behind the Anti-Nazi League. A later scene, showing Strummer washing out his Brigade Rossi T-shirt in the hotel hand-basin, invites derision. More than just an expose of punk posturing, though, what Rude Boy hints at is the secret shame of rock itself: at best, it’s about living within capitalism while remaining opposed to it.

It’s easy to see why The Clash distanced themselves from Rude Boy: everything anthemic and uplifting about their music is deflated, by both the overtly hope-less message of the story and the unsettling flatness of the movie’s feel, its longeurs, lacunae, and loose ends. While some of this effect is inadvertent, a matter of deficiency, it seems clear to me that Mingay and Hazan aimed to deglamorize. But then, no matter how iconographic their intention, rockumentary makers always end up demystifying their subjects to some extent: every increase in factual knowledge takes us further from the Truth, which in rock music is always myth.