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.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Melody Maker, June 15th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

This four-CD mega-anthology reveals that there are actually two James Browns. The first is JB the patrician and patriarch: the disciplinarian who fined his musicians for the most miniscule misdemeanors; the black Statesman whose august presence could quell a ghetto riot; the black capitalist who monitored every last minutiae of his business affairs; the righteous role model with his anti-drug, pro-education songs ('King Heroin', 'Don't Be A Drop-Out'). This "hardest working man in showbiz"/"Say it Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud" JB is possibly the single biggest factor behind that particularly white/male version of soul that sees it as the music of spiritual fortitude. I recall one NME soulboy scribe declaring (having just slagged off some 'decadent' Goth group) that if he ever got to be Prime Minister, he'd make it compulsory for schoolkids to listen to JB for 3 hours a day, so that they could learn all about pride, passion and dignity. Totalitarian of passion, or what?!

But there's another JB that's worth digging through the R&B Reaganisms to recover: the JB that wasn't about being a control freak, but about freaked-out loss-of-control, voodoo possession, delirium, enslavement by the rhythm. The first disc, Mr. Dynamite, is unsalvageably antiquated, all huff'n'puff, horn vamps, hoary old showbiz dynamics. But from about 1966's "Bring It Up" onwards, Brown's music gets progressively more African and 'avant-garde': songs devolve into closed grooves, minimal, mantric, mind-exterminating and interminable. 'Cold Sweat' remains the definitive JB title, capturing the frigid feverishness of the sound. Tracks like 'I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)' and 'Ain't It Funky Now' are coition-combustion engines, "desiring machines", offering a stern, oppressive, exhausting brand of bliss.

On Seventies trax like 'Funky Drummer', 'Sex Machine', 'Superbad', 'I Got Ants In My Pants', 'Doing It To Death' and 'Hot' (the basis of Bowie's 'Fame'), almost every other guitar tic, bass palpitation and drum lick sounds déjà vu. But that's because they've been sampled by a thousand rap groups. If JB and Kraftwerk were the twin godfathers of hip hop, it's because there's an affinity between the coldblooded Teutonic technocrats and the fiery human volcano that would scandalize many a soulboy: a certain arid, clinical, maniacal precision of sound. Afrika Bambaata understood the 'Man Machine'/'Sex Machine' connection; that's why the Pharoah Of Electro persuaded the King Of Soul to collaborate on the 1984 single 'Unity'.

Madness, machismo, magnificent monotony: get up, get into it, and get involved.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An Audience of Art Deco Eyes
(The Wire, 2007)

 by Simon Reynolds

It's always a tricky moment when a genre achieves definition--its constellation of reference points mapped out, its repertoire of tricks codified. For that's when being "generic" becomes a possibility. Then again, if a genre's got a lot going for it, what exactly is the problem?  The bustle of new recruits just adds to the excitement, as everyone from doom metal fiends to free folk freaks can attest. The more, the merrier.

Or in the case of Moon Wiring Club, "the more, the spookier"--the genre in question being hauntology. Ian Hodgson, the figure behind MWC, is no bandwagon-hopping neophyte, however. Despite the uncanny parallels with Ghost Box--not just shared preoccupations with  horror, children's television,  wyrd pastoralism, maverick electronics, but the creatin of a Belbury-like imaginary town called Clinkskell--Hodgson has been exploring this area for several years. An Audience of Deco Eyes, MWC's debut, evolved out of what was originally intended to be "a peculiar children's book," Strange Reports from a Northern Village.

Like Ghost Box and Mordant Music, MWC utilizes a lot of library music and pulp soundtrack motifs. But the music's construction and feel is more beat-driven and loop-based:. Certain tracks suggest trip hop if its sample-palette didn't draw on jazz but the incidental music in The Prisoner.  "Mademoiselle Marionette" could almost rock a dancefloor, while the reverbed-bass pulse of "Roger's Ghost" recalls 23 Skidoo's blend of dank industrial and hot funk. Alongside these kinetic tracks, there's midtempo contraptions-gone-awry like "The Edwardians Begin to Enjoy Themselves" and gaseous ambience like "Ghost Radio" and "Underground Library". Crusty English voices limn the album, warning about "the treacherous elm" or offering the decimalization-era apology "I've only got… old money". But rather than mere quirky quaintness, the atmosphere conjured is a morbid malaise redolent of Peeping Tom or The Servant, the sense of something grotesque and corrupt lurking within the shrubbery, behind the curtained French windows. With its fidgety intricacy and slow-panning stereophony, Hodgson's audio-montage and sound-design is immaculate throughout, making Art Deco Eyes a bewitching and genuinely disquieting listen.

The Guardian, Nov 24, 2010

by Simon Reynolds 


"One thing I've always wanted for my music is for it to appeal to children," says Ian Hodgson of Moon Wiring Club.  "An ideal listening situation would be a family car journey. I think children would like all the voices and oddness.  If you present kids with fun spooky electronic music, then they might grow up wanting to make it themselves, like I did with Radiophonic Workshop." Hodgson's friend and collaborator Jon Brooks, a/k/a The Advisory Circle, goes one better with the debut release for his label Café Kaput, which consists of spooky electronic music actually made by schoolchildren in the 1970s. 

Brooks and Hodgson originally met through MySpace.  They  discovered that they were "variations of the same person," according to Hodgson, with a shared passion for vintage Seventies and Eighties TV, not just programmes but the musical soundtracks. Sticking with the scaring kids theme, one particular obsession they share is the Public Information Film--those well-meant but disturbing short films shown on TV in the 1970s to warn children of the dangers of electrical substations or playing on farms. On The Advisory Circle's 2008 album Other Channels, Brooks even created some fake ones, "Frozen Ponds PIF" and "Civil Defense Is Common Sense".

The friendship quickly became an alliance. Brooks has done the mastering for all four of the Moon Wiring Club albums, including the brand-new one A Spare Tabby at The Cat's Wedding, probably Hodgson's best yet. Hodgson, in turn, is doing all the artwork for Café Kaput and designed the label's logo. A full-blown collaboration between Moon Wiring Club and The Advisory Circle is in the pipeline.

The pair are chalk and cheese, though, when it comes to the way they operate musically.  A skilled multi-instrumentalist whose music is "98% hand-played", Brooks makes little use of sampling or computer software. Other Channels and his earlier Advisory Circle release Mind How You Go (reissued this year in expanded, vinyl-only form) revealed Brooks to be one of the contemporary scene's great melodists, with a gift for plush, detailed arrangements.  Hodgson's approach, in contrast, is much more hip hop raw.  Entirely sample-based, Moon Wiring Club is put together using astonishingly rudimentary technology:  Playstation 2  and "a second-hand copy of MTV Music Generator 2 from 2001". 

Hodgson turned to this crude set-up after struggling with the software typically used to make electronic dance music. Because he's a long-time games fiend, Hodgson found using a joypad to make music "much faster and more enjoyable" than clicking a mouse.  But it took him a while to work out how to get good results out of Playstation 2. "After months of tinkering, I discovered that it's very good at sequencing short repeated phrases." Instead of looping breakbeats, Hodgson builds up rhythm patterns from single drum hits. Through these wonky beats he then weaves intricate, often heavily echoed basslines. "I'll place the bass melody around the rhythm in a very 'stereo' way. I tend to see it all in my head as a 'cat's cradle'. Then if you add delay to the bass and time it right you get extra little melodies inside this structure...  They sort of bounce and react with each other. Add melody/atmospheres to it and you get another interlocking structure--slightly organic, soggy, bouncy and knackered."  

The Moon Wiring Club sound is a bit like trip hop if its "vibe" was sourced not in obscure funk and jazz-fusion records but from the incidental music to The Prisoner, Doctor Who, and The Flumps.  Vocal samples are a huge part of Moon Wiring Club. Always spoken not sung,  always English in origin, they're derived largely from videos and DVDs of long-lost U.K. television shows like Casting the Runes, Raffles, and Ace of Wands. A scholar of "vintage telly", Hodgson can discourse at persuasive length about the superiority of  British theatrical-turned-TV thespians like Julian Glover and Jan Francis over American actors like Harrison Fords or Mary Louise Parkers. He recently dedicated a podcast mix to Seventies voice-over deity and Quiller star Michael Jayston. 

Moon Wiring Club originally evolved out of what was intended to be "a peculiar children's book, Strange Reports from a Northern Village." That project stalled but it did spawn the Blank Workshop website, centered around an imaginary town called Clinksell, which has its own brand of confectionery (Scrumptyton Sweets) and line of fantasy fiction (Moontime Books) .  It lives on also in the distinctive graphic look that Hodgson, a former Fine Art student, wraps around the Moon Wiring Club releases, drawing on influences like Biba's 1920s-into-1970s glamour and the strange exquisiteness of Arthur Rackham's illustrations and Victorian Fairy painters such as Richard Dadd. Moon Wiring Club and Blank Workshop is where all Hodgson's enthusiasms and obsessions converge: "electronic music, Art Deco, and the England of teashops, stately homes, ruined buildings and weird magic." And computer games music. "There is something about the  forced repetition that makes you remember the tunes in a unique way," Hodgson says, adding that in a certain way "Moon Wiring Club is meant to be Edwardian computer game music." 

"Still a kid in lots of ways" is how Jon Brooks describes himself. His own journey through music  began "at pre-school age", thanks to his jazz session-musician father.  "Fellow jazzers would come round to record demos or share ideas, and there were always instruments and tape recorders lying about. " Brooks was proficient on a half-size drum kit his dad bought before he even went to infant school. Soon the child prodigy was grappling with guitar, glockenspiel, and keyboards, and messing with tape recorders.  Although his father died when Brooks was only nine, he continued to pursue music, avoiding any formal training but studying music technology and also helping out with the teaching of an A-level class in music0tech.

Perhaps  his early start with music, along with his  later involvement in musical pedagogy, accounts for  why Brooks was so intrigued by Electronic Music in the Classroom,  an ultra-rare recording that was the byproduct of a course implemented at several Home Counties schools in 1975/76 and which he has reissued through his just-launched downloads-only label Café Kaput. Originally released in a miniscule edition of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes for the parents of the children involved, the record is credited to D.D. Denham, the peripatetic teacher who devised and implemented the course.  But the contents are actually the crème de la crème of the work created by participating children. Now retired, Denham stresses  that "the concepts were always those of the child. I would help quite a bit with technical realisation, in terms of connecting that concept to a sound. But I always explained to them the steps taken in order to achieve the sound.  The children soon picked up various techniques and developed them on their own. So, a little bit of collaboration, but it was more guidance than anything."

Many of the pieces on Electronic Music in the Classroom are disorienting and disquieting, reflecting children's under-acknowledged appetite for the sinister. "Some children would get very spooked by each other's compositions, or sounds," Denham recalls. "Sometimes an oscillator would emit a loud wailing sound and lots of the other children would gather round the instrument like a magnet, rather than run away. Kids actually love being scared and sound, although harmless in this case, can be scary and thrilling!" The reissue comes with the original liner notes, in which Denham recounts some of the quirky inspirations and back stories that the children came up with, from a recurring nightmare about nuns, to the unsettling smell of the air expelled from the church organ, to the ghostly flitting figures of poachers seen from afar after  dusk . 

Then there's "The Way The Vicar Smiles", a delirium of drastically warped,  vaguely ecclesiastical sounds (what could be church bells, a choir singing psalms, and so forth).  In the liner notes, "Vicar Smiles" is accurately described its young creators Robert and Luke as "a bit creepy".  "With the benefit of hindsight, the LEA thought we were probably skating a little too close to the middle with that one," recalls Denham. "You couldn't get away with it now. However, the vicar in question disappeared from his work a couple of years later, without so much as a whisper. Make of that what you will."