Friday, March 25, 2011

The Legendary Pink Box
Melody Maker, 1991

By Simon Reynolds

The Legendary Pink Dots were once briefly championed by comrades Stubbs and Oldfield, as "pretentious psychedelia" (a compliment) and "baroque and outlandish... the first whale among 1987' pop minnows". That was about as close as The Legendary Pink Dots got to being known over here, and they dipped back into obscurity. (In Europe, they're a cult band, and have spent most of the decade in exile in Amsterdam.)

The reason isn't hard to fathom. Even now, with late Sixties gross-out thoroughly rehabilitated (to the point of orthodoxy) the LPD's orbit of reference points is at the furthest fringe of the "acceptable". LPD's temerity has been to: a) cite not just Pink Floyd but prog rockers Amon Duul, Mafma and Soft Machine as their influences; b) attempt a rehabilitation of the concept album, compose 21 minute pieces (like "premonition 13", included here). British post-punk pigheadness can't
tolerate such "indulgence", oh no -- not when the pruned concision and blunt urgency of the likes of Snuff and Mega City Four is so much more "topical".

"The Legendary Pink Box" is a triple-disc set of rare and unreleased stuff (or so I presume: it comes with no information). And it's as far-fetched and bound-less
...I could have hoped for. The overall impression is of the fey whimsy of Syd Barrett enveloped in the indiscriminate eclecticism of Faust... (everything can be
music). Nursery rhyme vocals sit primly amid gargoyle-grotesque sound-shapes like dank leakage from the unconscious. Their sound is admirably overcrowded with influences: electronics, chamber music, sampling,punkadelia, dub, Skinny Puppy industrial, muzak, the micro-tonality of composers like Ligeti and Stickhausen, early DAF, and more, are all in there. But the effect is never of clotted versatility or ostentatious virtuosity, but rather of expanse, of deranging space.

Edward ka-Spel's lyrcs suggest melancholia, withdrawl, delirium (one song is called "Thursday Night Fever"). More often they're a liquefaction of language: like
Wire, all assonance, alliteration, dotty thymes andpurple puns. A lexical labyrinth. Psychedelia as being lost in the derelict mansion of your own mind.
Ignore your better judgment, and investigate.

Melody Maker, 1991?

by Simon Reynolds

In an Indian restaurant in west Berlin, The Legendary Pink Dots celebrate another
successful date on their latest tour of Europe. On the Continent, The Legendary Pink Dots play to rapturous crowds ranging from healthy-sized to huge. In the past decade, they've released 11 albums through Play it Again Sam, and established themselves as a cult band in Europe and North America.

But, in their native Britain, The Legendary Pink Dots remain neglected. Unjustly, maybe, but not without reason. The Dots' music--a gaudy and avant-garde music-- is too rich a diet to be stomached by the anorexic sensibilites of the British
"alternative" scene. Even the most unleashed exponents of far-out noise overload-- Spacemen 3, Loop- remain hidebound by a hidden agenda of sonic strictures.

It's this climate (where bands still adhere to the post-punk edict that "less is more", kowtow to a knee-jerk dread of the word hippy) that originally drove The Legendary Pink Dots into exile in Amsterdam some five years ago. Despite all the
loosening up of the past three years, the Brits flinch from the sheer expanse of the Pink Dots and their ilk.

Lead Dot, Edward Ka-Spel neglects his chicken tikka to expound upon the whys and wherefores of his band. His phrase for the Legendary Pink DOts's sound-and-vision is the "terminal kaleidoscope".

"If you look at history, the one thing that's certian is that events are accelerating. Things are changing faster and faster, like a ball rolling down a mountain. Our idea is that if things continue to accelerate at this rate, eventually we'll reach overload, cataclysm. We want to provide the relevant soundtrack to this process. Our sound is like this immense cocktail, saturated with all these elements of past music jumbled up with the absolutely modern, like sampling and synthetics.

"But we aren't pessimistic about this impending cataclysm. We belive that we're living through the most significant time in the history of the planet, and we should cherish the things we see and feel in these most exciting times. That's why our
catchphrase is "Sing while you may!" And that's why our new album's called "The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse". Apocalypse can mean simply change. Its like the death card in the Tarot: it doesn't mean death, it means drastic change.

"I don't know if these changes are gonna be for the good or the bad. I don't pretend to be any kind of seer or visionary. I just know that all kinds of philosophies,like Nostradamus, are pointing to the 30 years up to the year 2000 as being a time of great transition. Some point towards a Golden Age after it.

"But there's beauty even in the darkest things. The reason why sunsets are so beautiful these days is because of all the pollution. If you look at a river
that's been chocked with oil, it "is" beautiful. It's the strange twist in the tale. And I try to take all these things that are happening today, and take them to
their ultimate. I don't believe in the annihilation of mankind, but I do believe in mutation."

Through 10 years, 11 albums and a continually fluctuating line-up, the creative core of the Pink Dots has remained Ka-Spel and Phil Knight. The pair found each other in the mid-Seventies, through a shared love of Krautrock groups like Can and Faust. If the Pink Dots are "psychedelia" then it's more in terms of this European tradition of boundary-dissolving expansionism,than the Barrett/Ayers school of Anglo whimsy or American wig-out.

"In Britain, psychedelia is totally linked with nostalgia, and it shouldn't be. Psychedelia's about exploration,discovering new colours. It is not about looking back 20 years. That's as irrelevant as cabaret bands playing Elvis covers. Psychedelis's always got to go "further".

"I never like to talk of influences, cos they tend to be subliminal rather than overt. But to be honest, those German groups are what I still listen to the most,
because they just went so "far". So few bands go that far. A band like Nurse With Wound, who I really like, maybe go that far out. But I can't think of too many
modern bands that try something like that, that actually deranges.

"The beauty of those groups is that Can sounded nothing like Faust, who sounded nothing like Amon Duul, who sounded nothing like Ashra Temple... THe diversity
really puts you in all these different "worlds". It's something else! And that's why, with our music, I can't really say where it's going to go next, because there
are no boundaries. The one thing I can assure you is that it will never be rock'n'roll. I can't stand rock'n'roll.I'm allergic to it.

"If you take the German bands as having no traditional roots in rock'n'roll or R&B, as having roots more in Stockhausen than in Chuck Berry, than we follow on from
that, and are even more free-floating and rootless. I listen to stuff like Stockhausen, Penderecki, Xenakis, Ligeti, Pierre Henry, all that "avant-garde" stuff. But not from an intellectual point of view, but just to bathe in all the sounds and noises. It's totally exciting.

"We always dedicate albums to deviants, and I tend to like deviant music. Anyone who's a character, does something completely wilful and doesn't give a damn about
what other people think. There are a lot of people out there who do that, but they tend to get buried under the carpet."

Edward Ka-Spel is obsessive. He lives for music: in the first year of squatting in Amsterdam he went without food in order to plough all his slim resources into the Dots,and even his girlfriend has difficulty preventing him from spending his food money on obscure albums of experimental music. And Ka-Spel attracts obsessives. Fanzine writers pen lengthy treatises interpreting the densely woven tapestry of his lyrics (whose themes criss-cross from album to album to form an ongoing myth-world). Others engage with the music in a rather more negative fashion.

"There's a lot of humour in the music, but a lot of people home in on the disturbing side. It's got really disturbing on this tour. People have come to hate me. A guy in Oslo kept trying to assault me. I got a letter from another guy who basically blamed me for all his problems. He'd bought all the records, and he was basically accusing me of sending him over the edge."

A lot of Pink Dot's music does deal with madness and schizophrenia. One album, "Asylum"--so titled because it's "a place to escape to, and a place to escape from", plays with the idea of madness as a refuge from an intolerable world. Ka-Spel himself went through a period of psychiatric treatment as a child.

"I was a kind of guinea pig. They discovered that I had an IQ of 160 when I was three. This made me interesting to the people at Great Ormond Street hospital. They made me draw all these pictures. I used to have horrendous nightmares up
till I was 10. It caused a certain isolation for me as a child. It was particularly difficult cos I grew up in East London, which is not the best place to be when your're different."

Does it annoy you that Britain is one of the few places to be indifferent to the Legendary Dots?

"It hurts a lot. More than any coast-to-coast American tours, or playing to huge crowds in Pairs-- both of which we've done--what I'd really like to do is play in England,and prove something. It's like I've always had a bad deal in England. Right through my school years I had a really hard time. Then I started doing what I really wanted and believed in, and once again England gave me the cold shoulder. We do have a real drive to go back there, and say "See what you've been missing!"

The Loft, Berlin
Melody Maker, 1991?

by Simon Reynolds

The Legendary Pink Dots have dwelt in self-imposed exile in Holland for the past six years. In Europe, they're a cult, able to make a living through frequent touring
and prodigious vinyl output. In Britain, they remain almost completely unknown, their musical premises too sprawling for the narrow sights of the British "alternative" scene. The LPD are committed to English and European psychedelia as an ongoing realm of sonic expansionism, whereas current British acid rock revisionism
conceives of psychedelia as; A) primarily American; B) wholly guitar-based; and C) firmly fixed in a long-lost glorious past. Add to this singer Edward Ka-Spel's
art-rock influenced sense of shamanic theater, and his penchant for fabulism, and you have a near insurmountable set of reasons why the British won't be clasping the Dots to their collective bosom in the immediate future.

Onstage, Ka-Spel has something of the hunched, obsessive air of a 19th century inventor. In Europe, he is regarded by many as a seer, and not without reason. The title of the latest, brilliant Dots LP "The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse" evokes his vision that the end of the world is gonna be pretty darn colourful and we're fortunate to be living through it. Several LPD songs are garishly vivid sound-
pictures of a future world rendered unnaturally beautiful by pollution, Ka-Spel's lyrics teeming with images of "menstrual lakes/Rainbow rivers and crippled dandelions".Tracks like "Hellsville" and "Helloween" lie somewhere between Skinny Puppy and Nick Cave of "Mutiny In Heaven" and "Saint Huck".

The legendary Pink Dots are "maximalists", on a quest for new colours. Barrett is often cited, but a more relevant reference point is Krautrock expansionism of Can and Faust. The LPS use sampling to update/facilitate those groups techniques (incorporation of found or "real" sound, noise-mutation, etc.). At times their music can be like an animated Bosch or Durer painting of Armageddon; elsewhere
(as with "Green Gang", which dares to employ sitar, tabla, treated woodwind instruments, and WINS), they create a gorgeously serene Taj Mahal of sound. The single,"Princess Coldheart", is Soft Cell meets Brothers Grimm; its B-side, "The Pleasure Palace", a circus of death, all greasepaint and grotesquerie.

German youth haul The Legendary Pink Dots on for four encores. Blighty's loss is Europe's gain. But homecoming dates are tentatively planned for late spring. Cast your blinkers aside, and investigate.

this reish is for Carl the mighty Impostume

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wire, February 1992

by Simon Reynolds

"Maybe to relate to this album you need to have been whacked around by life a bit," says Lou Reed. "This record won't mean that much to an eight-year-old, except you can just luxuriate in the sound, it's so thick and defined and dimensional. But an eight-year-old won't have the faintest idea what I'm talking about. And I'm not trying to offend eight-year-olds," he adds, the faintest of smiles flickering across his impassive features. "Maybe there's a very sophisticated one out there somewhere."

Where New York railed against the here-and-now specifics of Manhattan's disintegrating social fabric, Magic And Loss is Lou Reed raging against the limits of existence, the absolutes of life and death; it's also a glowing tribute (literally glowing, since the playing is luminous) to two friends who died recently. One was Doc Pomus, a songwriter friend from Reed's pre-Velvet Underground days as a salaried songsmith. The other, "Rita", was "just a friend. Not a celebrity, put it that way."

New York was socially engaged and street-real: Magic And Loss is a spiritual document. ‘Power And Glory’, for instance, trembles with a palpable feeling of revelation: "I was captured by a larger moment/I was seized by divinity's heart breath — gorged like a lion of experience... I wanted all of it, not some of it". The song teems with mystical imagery of metamorphosis, rooted in the paradoxes of terminal illness ("I saw a great man turn into a little child") and of radiation therapy ("The same power that burned Hiroshima/Causing three legged babies and death /Shrunk to the size of a nickel/To help him regain his breath").

"I came to understand that the album was about transformation," explains Reed. "Alchemy. The purpose of alchemy wasn't to transform lead into gold, that was just one example of the process, to be used later to transform yourself. I call the album Magic And Loss because that experience can be taken two ways. That's why the song ‘Power And Glory’ occurs twice, in different forms. A whole different tempo, a whole different way of looking at the exact same thing. The way they faced illness and death was very inspirational. In the end, it was a magical experience. A positive experience. Positive to have known them, positive to have watched them go through this. When, to quote myself, 'you loved the life others throw away nightly'. I thought they were giants."

Magic And Loss says Reed, is "an extension of the Songs For Drella album which was an extension of New York —.the idea of a thematically whole album. Right now, I'm not interested in the idea of twelve or so disparate songs." Each song has a subtitle, "like a novel, at the head of each chapter, a little phrase explaining what it is".

The album conducts you methodically through each stage of terminal illness and bereavement. There's the morbid, unbidden reveries of ‘Dreamin’ ’, perhaps the most lovely song on the record, with its braid of wavering guitar-synth and tremulous, plangent, pure Velvets guitar. ‘Goodbye Mass’ vividly evokes the awkward discomfort of the funeral service, Reed bemoaning the disparity between its dour gravity and the feisty, irrepressible good humour of the dearly departed. "You, you would have made a joke/ Isn't this something you'd say/ Tommorrow I'm smoke".


"Both of them made jokes straight the way through," recollects Reed. "It's unbelievable. I had said there's this great widescreen colour TV I could get for you, and I'll hook up all the wiring for you. And they said, Lou, this is not the time for long-term investments. Joking. I think that's magnificent. I just think some people are giants. You may never hear of them, but they just have this thing. They're like the sun, they're just glowing all the time. They stay that way. When they get hurt, they don't suddenly turn into this other thing. It would be totally understandable. If I get a flu, I start whining!"

Then there's ‘Warrior King’, which documents the most confusing and ostensibly illogical symptom of mourning, a desire for bloody revenge that can't be slaked because it's intransitive.

"The character singing is very mad at the elements that have attacked and killed his friends. But there's no person to aim it at, with terminal illness. It's like, if you could take a physical, malleable form, I'd take you in an alley and do this, and this, and this. It's if I could, if I could... but with death, you can't. So it's that anger that causes the song afterwards, ‘Harry's Circumcision’, because you can't walk around with that anger in your heart. It causes these very negative thoughts, which is what ‘Harry's Circumcision’ is all about, taken to its natural conclusion (attempted suicide)." According to Lou's theory, you can't just stay in that mental state, you've got to go beyond that. Which is what happens on the album.

"The songs are in a particular order for a purpose, it's supposed to take you to a certain place. And that's a really positive state. This is not a negative, down album. I'm not the only person in the world who's experienced loss. Everybody has a brother or sister or father or friend somewhere that died and that means they can understand. You just have to have been alive for a little while to experience it. It's not a mystery. It's real life giving you a real hello, welcome to the club."
That "certain place" is reached on the final track, ‘Magic And Loss’, a spectral sleepwalk of mystic jazz-metal whose lyrics suggest reconciliation. It hints that Reed's even come to believe in some kind of afterlife: there's a door up ahead, not a wall.

"You can call it a spiritual awakening, or whatever you like. Things look a certain way, like you're driving directly into a wall. There's nothing you can do about it. But no, it's a door. You just didn't see it. And a door, obviously, can be opened. It depends how you look at things. The song ‘Magic And Loss’ I find very uplifting It's resolving the whole album. You don't wanna come to the end of that experience still feeling splintered. You have to reconcile yourself to it. But hopefully, it's a reconciliation with a lot of positive aspects to it. It's an inspiring thing, what I witnessed. I want to be as good as them. These were the people who were inspiring to me right the way through the last minute. It's really sad not being able to call Doc Pomus up right to this day, because he was like the sun. He was just one of those people that you feel good when you're around them. You could be feeling bad, and you visit them and they say two words and you feel good. But then, it would have been even worse not to have known him at all. That's part of the whole magic and loss deal."


Lofty speculations and spiritual quandaries withal, Lou Reed spends the bulk of his time grappling with the nitty-gritty technicalities of making records. It the truth be known, he's a bit of a muso. Way back in his decadent days, Reed could drive Lester Bangs up the wall by discoursing interminably about how George Benson invented a totally clean, totally pure amplifier. Even the unendurable din of Metal Machine Music was informed by audiophile obsessions. The interview has hardly begun before Reed launches into a diatribe about rock critics' cloth-eared ignorance about sound.

"It always amazes me — and this not meant to be offensive — how little you people hear, on a tonal level. I find the sound on the new album awe-inspiring. There is a radiance to it, an enormous tonal range. It's like a stereo image. It's very 3D-ish. You can actually walk around it. It has the sonic depth to match its subject matter. This time, I've got the tones I haven't quite been able to before. On the sleeve of New York I wrote about the equipment we used, and I was trying to let the people know there's a lot going into the choices that are there. It's not as spontaneous as it seems."

Reed explains, at considerable length, about the "incalculable hours" he and co-producer, second guitarist Mike Rathke, spent on research, refinement, and modification of equipment. He describes how the kind of tape you use, the pick-ups, even the wood in the guitar can all make a difference.* It's all very incongruous.

The reality of Lou Reed-as-technical-boffin jars discordantly with the image of Lou-Reed-as-icon-of-street- romanticism. In the post-punk scheme, technique and technology are generally deemed to be enemies of the gritty authenticity that's allegedly the heart of rock 'n' roll: Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, for all the arty input, are generally taken to represent the epitome of this raw expression. Because they tend to come from a Litcrit or humanities background, rock critics find the nuts-and-bolts side of music-making demystifying. But for Lou Reed, it's where the mystery is painstakingly constructed. It's a sort of science of magic.

"No one knows that better than me because I know how much magic disappears when the technical stuff is wrong. At the end of the whole process, when you listen to your finished CD, you realise that you've got a cassette from the very beginning that sounds 100 times better. So what happened? Why is it so cold sounding? There's no dimension. That guitar hurts my ears. Where's the bass? Why is it muddy? If you get into the why of it, it's fascinating. And it's a real thrill if you finally get it to sound right. The only way to learn is to make records. But most people aren't really interested, they think the magic is all over there, and the technical stuff is another matter, and if you have a good producer that's all taken care of. The writing and performance are one thing, but if the production and technical side aren't there... and I've got the records to prove it. A lot of my records, 'till I could get a handle on it, aren't even produced, except in the sense that I wouldn't let the producers do anything, rather than let them do it wrong. And the records are completely dry, 'cos I didn't know how it worked, but I knew they'd fuck it up so I wouldn't let 'em do anything. It takes a long time to learn, when you're making a record every couple of years. It's fascinating, but it's like this onion with all these skins, endless."


Far more congruent with Lou Reed's received image is the fact that Penguin are soon to publish Between Thought And Expression, a selection of lyrics that he felt could stand up on their own without music. It's strange that it took him so long to get between book covers, considering that back in 1979 he declared "my expectations are very high... to be the greatest writer that ever lived on God's earth. In other words I'm talking about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky..."

"That was just me shooting my mouth off, but it is a real dream. To do something that's not disposable, that could really hold its own for ever. It sounds kind of glib and pretentious, to say you want to be up there with Dostoievsky, but I would. I wanna create art that will live forever, whether it's on record or on the printed page. That's why I avoid slang, any expression that will date, like 'dig it' or 'freaked out'."

Despite his aversion to transient argot, Reed's lyrics exude a great sense of demotic, everyday speech, rather than the ornately poeticised. The same love of ‘conversational tone’, the faltering rhythm of thoughts taking shape as they're spoken, informed his interviews with novelist Hubert Selby (Last Exit To Brooklyn ), and Czechoslovakian playwright turned President, Vaclav Havel, both of which are included in Between Thought And Expression.

"I don't like it when the interview's so cleaned up that both interviewer and subject sound like the same person. I like to keep the real rhythm of the way the person talks. With Selby, hopefully from the interview I did with him, you can hear him think. The way he puts things together I found really fascinating. Hearing a writer think like that, you can see why he's a great writer."

The most interesting thing to emerge in the Havel encounter was the Velvet Underground's indirect effect on history. First there was a Czech avant-rock band called Plastic People Of The Universe who covered Velvet Underground songs, and then they got sent to prison, and then the campaign to get them released evolved into Charter 77, which in turn led to Czechoslovakia's ‘Velvet Revolution’. That's a coincidence (the "Velvet" means soft, bloodless) but a beautiful one, and it highlights the way a band like the Velvet Underground, by symbolising absolute possibility, can be ‘political’ without being politicised, can change things without being explicitly consciousness-raising. Most touching of all for Reed is the fact that the Charter 77 activists recited his lyrics to themselves as a source of spiritual fortitude.

"I have the handprinted book of my lyrics, in Czechoslovakian, that Havel gave me, and it's an astonishing thing. It meant so much to them. Music was a real expression to them of social change. We walked over this beautiful bridge in Prague and they told me that a few years ago you wouldn't have seen a guitarist on that bridge with kids singing. It was considered dangerous. Where people get together is where ideas are generated, and that's a problem for totalitarian governments. It's hard for us to even conceive of living under such constraints."

When he goes about his daily life, or looks in the mirror, does he feel mythic, an icon?

"I don't even relate to that. It doesn't even cross my mind. What I'm really interested in is stuff like analogue to digital converter shoot-outs. I don't even conceive of that other stuff at all. It's like, they must mean someone else. It doesn't compute with me, simply because I know how hard I have to work with the limitations that I have, just to get to where I am."

Nonetheless, Lou Reed is one of those artists that people of a certain generation tell the time by. Like Neil Young, Reed is one of the few figures from his era to survive with credibility intact and muse in working order. But Reed denies feeling any responsibility to the people who look to him for the next big statement. "It wouldn't even dawn on me," he shrugs. He also claims to be oblivious to the legions of copyist who have turned ‘Lou Reed’ into a genre.

"I always thought of it as a situation where some really obvious ideas were sitting there, and I happened to be one of the guys who happened to hit the dirt first. It's like, hey, look at that, there's a whole continent over there. It seemed really obvious. Then you start listening to Brecht or Weill, and you realise quite a few people have been running around there."


"I spend a lot of time researching. You could call it studying. I ask, Why does digital do that? What's the analog-to-digital conversion process? Are the filters better now? It goes back to the wood in the guitar, which pickups to use. Everything I have has been modified, tinkered with, to make it work for me." Reed and his co-producer, second guitarist Mike Rathke, spend "incalculable hours" in research and refinement. "I practically studied with some technical people who really helped me out. Because there's millions of choices out there and even if you had a zillion dollars and bought all these to try them, it’d take forever. So you really need someone knowledgeable and talented to guide you. Even down to the kind of tape you record on."

Reed takes similar pains when it comes to selecting compatible musicians, preferring to work with people he knows personally. He's quick to demolish the idea that tension heightens creativity, and is particularly scathing about what he calls "the Lou Reed/John Cale myth" (that the duo's prickly relationship is the font of their collective genius). "Things would be 1,000 times better without that tension." When you recall that he and Cale disagreed about such minutiae as the amount of time between tracks on Drella, it's easy to believe.

Reed's team on Magic and Loss is almost the same as for New York: Mike Rathke as second guitarist, Rob Wasserman on bass, with frequent Tom Waits and Elvis Costello accomplice Michael Blair replacing Fred Maher on drums. "We have the interaction of a real band. The music's based on ebb and flow. A song should give the impression of being a living thing. It's always going to be assembled; that's how recording works. But our stuff is about as live as we could get it and still satisfy my requirements for sound."

According to Rathke, the approach to Magic and Loss was, with New York, a fusion of vintage and state-of-the-art. "We try to blend the old with the new. Lou and I spend a lot of time on pre-production. It goes down to the kind of wood, strings, pick-ups, wirings, speaker cabinets you use. Neither vintage nor state-of-the-art does it all. If I was a painter, I'd want the colors to harmonize. And sounds are like colors in a way; they have to match."

With his perfectionism ("compromise makes me ill"), it's not surprising that Reed has only ever produced one other artist, Reuben Blades. "It's too much work. You'd have to love what they did, to spend that much time with their material. Plus I want things my way. I could imagine producing one song, maybe, and only if I got alone with the person. But I couldn't be brought along to produce a group – that's too many factors I couldn't control. I want as much control as possible."


Lou Reed is legendary for his antipathy to being interviewed. During our encounter, he had to cadge a couple of soothing cigarettes off me, even though he's quit smoking, because, he says, "I get nervous about interviews." He was even more uptight about being on the other side of the tape recorder.

"With Hubert Selby, I came in with typed questions, because I was sure I’d be nervewracked and I didn't want to forget anything. Same with Havel. The only reason I did it was that these were people I really wanted to meet, that I really admired, and here was a chance to meet them and ask them things that I was really interested in. I'm sure there are a few others I could think of, but it's just really hard work. I'd much rather go out for a drink with them. I found with someone like me it was really good to have notes, in order of asking, so that I didn't glaze out. And later kick myself 'cause I forgot to ask them the most important question. I had loads of spare batteries, and a microphone that I knew worked."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude
Year Zero
The Wire, February 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Punk must be the most over-determined event in rock history. The decade leading up to it is so crowded with antecedents that it's hard to see how it could possibly not have happened. Dirty Water runs to two discs but it doesn't come close to exhausting the prehistory of 1976-and-all-that. Indeed part of the fun of Kris Needs's expertly selected compilation is thinking of things that ought to have been included. So the righteous presence of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band's clangorous "The Hot City Symphony" makes one wonder why not The Sweet, whose 1976 hit "Action" simply is punk with a lick of gloss. If the serrated choogle of "Roxette" by Dr Feelgood and the football terrace stomp of "Oo Oo Rudi" by Jook make the cut, why not the Mockney rockabilly of Kilburn and the High Roads's "Upminster Kid"?

These aren't quibbles, though, just the listener's natural response to the compilation's premise. In this respect, Dirty Water recalls Chuck Eddy's heterodox heavy metal guide, Stairway To Hell: there's a similar mixture of what-you'd-expect and stuff straining the genre's definition to bursting point. So you get lashings of what Seventies rock writers called "high-octane" hard rock (MC5, Pink Fairies, Dictators, etc ) but also regular jolts of the aberrant: the multi-voiced babble of Sun Ra's "Rocket Number Nine," the psychotic mandolin busking of Silver Apples's "Confusion".

Proto-punk is inherently amorphous, since roots can stretch back as far and as wide as you care to trace them. The Silhouettes's "Get A Job" and Gene Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop" might be a stretch too far. Closer to Year Zero, there's Peter Hammill's "Nadir's Big Chance", title track to a 1975 album on which the prog rocker took on the alter-ego Rikki Nadir, a "loud aggressive perpetual sixteen year old" playing "beefy punk songs". It's a reminder that "punk" was common rock parlance for years before it signified a safety pin through the nose, from critics describing the young Springsteen as a "street punk" to boogie band Brownsville Station's 1974 LP School Punks.

Named after the Standells's Sixties garage ode to their hometown Boston's river and the "buggers lovers and thieves" clustered on its seedy banks, Dirty Water is a real blast of rock-historical edutainment. But its accumulation of precursors and pre-echoes has one less salutary effect, which is to further erode the sense of punk as out-of-the-blue, a shocking surprise. Archaeological investigations into the prehistory of revolutionary moments do tend to make them seem less of a break with the past than they felt at the time. Ideally, the Dirty Water listener will come away not with the belief that Seventies rock fans really ought to have seen punk coming long way off, but with an enhanced awareness of History's contingent nature. For this anthology points to the possibility that punk might have happened earlier, and differently. Equally, if it could have happened earlier, yet didn't, it's just remotely conceivable that in 1976 it might not taken off at all.