Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bits on Bass for The Wire's Low End Theories issue (July 2012)

by Simon Reynolds

John Entwistle / The Who, “My Generation” (Brunswick single, 1965)

Rock ‘n’ roll had triggered violence before, but up until The Who it had never really represented violence musically or enacted it onstage.  Think of words like “mayhem” and “destruction” in connection with that band and the first things that spring to mind are Keith Moon’s free-flailing drums and Pete Townshend’s scything powerchords.  (Not forgetting those climactic orgies of instrument-smashing).  But on “My Generation” John Entwistle supplies more than his fair share of the savagery. Often described as lead bassist to Townshend’s  rhythm guitarist, on this late 1965 single, his is the loudest instrument (with the possible exception of Moon’s cymbals). 

For the first minute “Thunderfingers”, as his bandmates nicknamed him,  churns and grinds as relentlessly and remorselessly as a gigantic tunnel-boring drill. Then, outrageously, he takes the solo and slashes a rent in the song’s fabric with a down-diving flurry of notes at once fluidly elegant and brutishly in-your-face.  This is generally regarded as the first bass solo in recorded rock, and as such, it’s a mixed portent.  Entwistle would immediately attempt to reprise the shock effect on the Who’s debut album with the bass-dominated instrumental “The Ox” and over the years he became an increasingly ostentatious player, peaking with the verging-on-Pastorius floridity of Quadrophenia’s “The Real Me” (much admired in the technical guitar magazines). 

But in the immediate aftermath of “My Generation”, young bands like The Eyes, The Creation and John’s Children picked up not on the sophistication (beyond their capabilities, anyway) but the loudness, distortion, and menace.  Amping up the jagged, edge-of-chaos frenzy, they recorded a series of 1966-67 singles that fans and collectors today know as “freakbeat”.  Mod, as a musical form as opposed to a subcultural style, represented a uniquely English contribution to rock: the sound of frustration and neurosis, tension and explosive release.  In their own way, for a moment there in the mid-Sixties the Who were as radical as the Velvet Underground. Certainly, as far as Britain is concerned, punk starts here. Entwistle can even be seen as a forefather of postpunk’s  “lead bassists”, or at least the  aggressive hard-rocking sort, such as Jean-Jacques Burnel and Peter Hook. Indeed Hooky actually bought some of the Ox’s bass guitars in the estate sale after his 2002 death.

Tina Weymouth / Talking Heads’s “Found a Job” (from More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978)

So dominant was David Byrne as the front-and-center figure in Talking Heads – voice, wordsmith,  mesmerizingly awkward physical presence—that it’s  always been too easy to underplay the vital contributions of the instrumentalists. (Including Byrne’s own instrumental role as marvelously inventive guitarist).  Props due to drummer Chris Frantz and to Jerry Harrison for his keyboard colorations, but DB’s only serious rival as charismatic focus was always Tina Weymouth.  Her bass is often the primary melodic voice in the songs, while the unfettered joy of her playing provides a vital counter to the singer’s neurotic unease. 

Talking Heads’s classic first four albums hold an embarrassment of four-string riches.  The nimble pretzel-funk of “Cities”. The rubbery ache of “Heaven”.  The languid lope of “Warning Sign”. The lurching anti-groove “Drugs”. The virtually iconic unchanging bassline of “Once In A Lifetime” (whose composition Weymouth generously credits to her husband Frantz but which has her fingerprints all over it in terms of the use of space and silence). The quirky quiver of “Mind”. The uncharacteristic hypno-drone of “The Overload.”

In sheer desperation, I plump here for the first B-line of Weymouth’s, and possibly of anybody’s, that caught my young (16 years old) ear: the corkscrewing earworm that is “Found A Job,” a bass-riff that sings in your head like pure pop and pummels you in the gut like the toughest funk or hardest rock.   During postpunk, I never played air guitar (too phallic, too masculinist and metal). But I did play air bass.  And Tina Weymouth got as much mime time out of me as that other great bass hero of the era, Jah Wobble.   

Unique 3, "Weight For the Bass (Original Soundyard Dubplate Mix)" (Ten Records, 1990)

In the beginning, U.K. rave was fueled by imports from Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Homegrown efforts paled next to the real thing. But towards the end of 1989, a distinctively British sound  emerged.  Associated with artists like LFO, Rhythmatic, Nightmares on Wax, and Original Clique, and with fledgling labels like Chill, Network, and Warp, this phase has gone down to history as bleep. But at the time synonyms like bleep-and-bass or Northern bass got bandied around too. And that’s because the tracks mostly came out of Yorkshire and the West Midlands and what they brought to the house template was something that hadn’t been particularly prominent before: low end. Most of the bleep-makers were former B-boys who’d come up through the UK’s mid-Eighties “street beats” culture—breakdancing to Man Parrish and Mantronix, daubing graffiti on railway bridges and after-dark shopping center walls. Then their heads got flipped out by acid house in 1988. But instead of mimicking Chicago’s Roland 303 acid-bass, they stuck with electro’s 808-bassed boom. They were also influenced heavily by the imported-from-Jamaica sound system culture that was thoroughly established in mixed-race Northern cities like Leeds by the late Eighties. 

That three-way collision of hip hop, reggae, and house is all across the bleep sound of 1989-1991, but nowhere more thrillingly than in the output of Bradford’s Unique 3.  “The Theme” b/w “7-AM’, their debut, is officially regarded as the Birth of Bleep. But “Weight for the Bass”, their third single, packs more sub-lo heft.  The tectonic-plate-shaking  bass and eerily cavernous space are offset and lightened by  skippy electro-descended beats and an Italo-house piano vamp that chatters with the bright-eyed inanity of an E’d up raver. Spelling out the Jamaican connection, the “Original Soundyard Dubplate Mix” also nods to the Soundyard, the Bradford club founded by  Unique 3's Edzy. The group’s L Double would go on to be a valuable player in jungle, a scene organized around dubplates and bass-drops. And the title “Weight for the Bass” pre-echoes the dubstep fetish-term  “bass weight”. Indeed the way that the track stretches out a tremor into a trauma-scape of ecstatic dread anticipates such classics of the last decade as Pinch’s “Qawwali” and Loefah’s “Bombay Squad.”

                                                       [NB below is not the right mix but gives you a flavour at least]

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Thé  Au Harem D’Archimede
Blender, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

Villalobos’s Alcachofa was 2003's most exquisitely detailed and endlessly listenable techno album. Now the Chilean-born deejay/producer returns with a record even more riddled with eerie intricacies.

The title Thé Au Harem D’archimede  is a saucy (if  painful) pun on Archimedes's Theorem. That’s the “Eureka!” one about water displacement the philosopher came up with when getting into his bath tub.  It suits an album that’s all about moisture and immersion.  Paralleling his own migration from Latin America to Germany, Villalobos imports a languid, balmy sensuality to the often rather dry Teutonic electronic style known as micro-house. He irrigates the genre’s itchy rhythms with voluptuously textured percussion and humid atmospherics that seem to leave your skin stippled with beads of condensation.  Standout track “Hello Halo” is like a malaria victim’s fever-dream--oppressively vivid, a delirium of disassociated sensations. At times, the electronic tone-colors are so thickly daubed, so pendulously gloopy, they almost overpower the music’s forward thrust, dragging it (drugging it?) to a standstill. To hear this album at its utmost, you really need to get inside the music. That means headphones, or playing the album LOUD in a darkened room. Not so much a dance record as commonly understood as a potent dose of fully modern psychedelia, Harem D’Archimede is all about eyelid movies.

Run With Me
(BPitch Control)
Blender, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

Dance music today suffers from too much emphasis on subtlety. Producers riddle their tracks with exquisite nuances but forget to come up with gloriously crass riffs of the sort that smack you upside the head and burn inside your brain.  Finnish-born Kiki brings the remedy. His unique brand of  Eighties-flavored house is all about bold strokes and dark drama. At times, Kiki’s sound verges on Goth-techno--“The End of the World,”for instance, sees him intoning the lyrics in a doomy baritone, midway between croon and belch, that’s a dead ringer for Sisters of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch. Propelled by beats like bullet ricochets and a riff built from breathy gasps, “Intimacy” drips with eerie emotion, while “Run With Me” is slick 'n' sleazy like a tight-fitting pair of black PVC pants. Best of all is the closing “Luv Sikk Again,” on which tempestuous tympani and stirring strings conjure a swoony mood of flushed, feverish romance. Proof, if it’s needed, that faceless techno instrumentals can be as glamorous as any rock dandy or pop diva you care to name.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


text for the Mark Leckey retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

There are a number of angles from which you could watch Mark Leckey's extraordinary Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. There's the anthropological view, which would see the footage of U.K. dance scenes as not so much subcultures as cults:  upsurges of the sacred within an otherwise brutally disenchanted and secularized post-industrial Britain, mystical youth tribes each organized around an array of fetishes, totems and rites. Such an analysis might zoom in on the parallels between Sufi whirling dervishes and the twirling dancers at Northern Soul temple Wigan Casino: the same defiance of gravity and weightless levitation above the mundane. Or it might note the messianic fervour of sayings like Northern Soul's "Keep the Faith" or rave's "Hardcore Will Never Die".   

Another potential prism for Fiorucci is subcultural theory, the Marxism-influenced school of "resistance through rituals" research that emerged in Britain during the 1970s. Here the focus would less be on transcendence than on what was being transcended:  the alchemical synergy of style, music and drugs  as a "solution" to the impasses of the class system, a jamming of symbolic codes that achieved a kind of victory over the fate otherwise laid out for  these working class youths, while at the same time diverting them from pursuing a real and permanent solution to their problems through political activity.

Other readings could draw draw on more recent and trendier theories.  For instance, a 
Lacan/Kristeva/Bataille analysis that would be more, well, analytic, in the Freudian sense, drawing on  on notions like "drive" and the "acephalic" in order to draw out the elements of repetition and regression in these drugs-and-dance cults, with their fixated trances and autistic-seeming bodily movements of rocking, shaking and twitching.   Or perhaps a cybernetic approach, influenced equally by Deleuze & Guattari, Brian Eno, and Kodwo Eshun,  and examining these subcultures in terms of machinic energy, the feedback loops of "scenius", the generation of posthuman intensities, and so forth. 

All these angles have their strengths and virtues;  all make visible certain aspects of Northern Soul, the Casuals, and Hardcore Rave (the three separate but linked subcultures that Fiorucci works with) while inevitably obscuring others.    My own reading would probably touch on all of these already mentioned at various points but would betray a pronounced slant towards paradox,   looking at the way these cults are dedicated to beauty and elegance yet so often produce grotesquerie and indignity, or at how these movements based around perpetual motion seem to find their truest essence in moments of stasis, frozen poses, tableaux. I expect that I would find myself drawn irresistibly towards oxymoronic formulations:  the dance subculture as an exit that becomes a dead end,  offering transcendence that turns into a trap, achieving a triumph that is simultaneously a form of defeat. And so forth...

But there's something a little too neat and tidy about these formulations...  a faint taint of smugness, which may well be unavoidable but still feels inadequate.  All these different ways of dissecting/contextualizing/ historicizing the strange subcultural blooms of a Britain that has disappeared never to return....   all of them, however well-intended,  serve ultimately to explain away and  domesticate these unassimilable phenomena. In so far as they successfully translate these cults into other terms (the jargons of particular discourses and disciplines) such readings deflect you from the singular power of Leckey's artwork: its reality, the fact that it is made almost entirely of salvaged documentary footage.  Now obviously the material has been processed: it's  been selected out of a much larger mass, it's been juxtaposed and sequenced  and altered in various ways (mostly within the domain of time and speed--slowing down, freeze-framing). The footage fragments have also been severed from whatever original audio track they possessed and given a new one (a remarkable piece of sound art in its own right).  But despite this working up of the material, in a certain crucial way the ultimate effect is of an artist who doesn't get in the way of the raw material, out of respect.  What comes across, overwhelmingly, is the palpable reality of what you are looking at, in all its absurdity, monstrosity and glory.  There is an opacity to the found material, an insistent but mute materiality:  limb-dislocating contortions, foetus-pale flesh, eyes vacant in trance or stiletto-sharp with vigilant pride,  maniacal smiles that split apart the dead grey mask of  English "mustn't grumble" mundanity, faces disfigured with bliss... 

At times, the sensation of watching Fiorucci borders on invasive: obscene not in the porno sense (staged, graphic, every detail exposed by the bright light) but obscene as in the more murky and partial view of the peeping tom or eavesdropper.  It can feel, at times, a little like what looking at videos covertly taken of people masturbating might look like: their expressions and sounds and fantasy murmurings.  You sometimes think: this should really never have been filmed, these moments should really never have been captured, these are secrets that should really never have been shown. 

Because all this really happened. This is how some  young people actually spent their time, this is the thing to which they devoted  all their energy and money and passion and life-force.  Mark Leckey has pieced together a kind of shrine made up of sacred relics, fragments of nights that the participants may barely remember.   Image debris from a time in their lives that they might conceivably regret, for any number of reasons, or, perhaps worse, might regret because that time is long gone, is passed and past. 

What you are witnessing--what Mark Leckey is re-presenting here almost without comment-- is a collection of what may have been the best moments from a number of young British lives in the last three decades of the 20th Century.  Their finest hour.