Friday, November 22, 2013

director's cut, Time Out, 2006
  by Simon Reynolds

White Bicycles, Joe Boyd’s riveting memoir of his life as record producer and manager in the 1960s, is perfectly timed. British folk rock is freakily fashionable at the moment, with Boyd protégés like The Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention revered as sacred ancestors by the new breed of beardy American minstrels such as Devendra Banhardt. But the New Jersey-born Boyd’s involvement in music extends way beyond gently-plucked acoustic guitars and dulcet-toned troubadours.
He was the production manager at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 (it was Boyd who plugged in Dylan’s electric guitar that fateful night), he co-founded the legendary London psychedelic club UF0, and he produced Pink Floyd’s debut single “Arnold Layne”. Boyd appears across the pages of White Bicycles as an almost Zelig-like figure, popping up alongside legend after legend: Muddy Waters, Roland Kirk, Eric Clapton, Duke Ellington, Nico, and--most unlikely of all-- the pre-ABBA Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida, with whom he spent an evening wassailing in Sweden. He shared a house in Laurel Canyon with John Cale and even dated lovely Linda Peters, the future Mrs Richard Thompson.

Unlike Zelig, though, Boyd was no bystander, but a crucial backroom catalyst and enabler, or as he prefers, “an eminence grise”.  His career really took off when he arrived in London in late 1965. Swept up in the “incredible energy of 1966,” he neglected his day job (setting up the UK branch of Elektra Records) and became a prime mover on the city’s psychedelic underground. With partner John Hopkins, he started UFO. “There were a lot more freaks in London than we’d realized,” he recalls of the club’s wildfire success. “The great golden period of UFO was from December 1966, when it opened, to April 1967, when “Arnold Layne” came out. Then Hoppy and some of his pals at International Times threw the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream rave at Alexandra Palace, the one Hendrix and Lennon turned up too, and there were a lot of cameras there. Almost instantly, UFO was swamped by the curious.” Hard on the heel of these “tourists” came the media and the law, resulting in tabloid horror stories about naked 15 year old girls tripping out of their minds, police raids, and a drug bust for Hoppy.

The idea for UFO evolved as an offshoot of the London Free School, an idealistic “education for the people” venture operated out of a basement in Ladbroke Grove. Renting a nearby church hall, Boyd and Hoppy staged a series of precociously triptastic Pink Floyd sound-and-light shows to raise money for the LFS. “Then, we thought ‘why not raise some money for ourselves?’” chuckles Boyd. “We were both broke--I’d lost the Elektra job, while Hoppy had been a photographer but had given it up for ‘the revolution’. So starting UFO seemed like an obvious way to make a bit of bread”

Among the more anarcho-yippie “heads” of the time, like Grove hairy Mick Farren, the organizationally-skilled Boyd was regarded as suspiciously bourgeois and business-savvy. But in this respect he exemplified a breed of aesthete-entrepreneur who flourished in the Sixties--characters like Chris Blackwell of Island Records (with whom Boyd’s  production company Witchseason forged an alliance), Chris Stamp & Kit Lambert (the team behind The Who and the Track label), Peter Jenner, Giorgio Gomelsky, et al. All of these cats managed to walk the line between art and commerce, the underground and the mainstream. Equally driven by a passion for rock and a love of the hustle, record biz mavericks such as Denny Cordell and Tony Secunda (the producer and manager behind the Move) are as vividly drawn in Boyd’s memoir as far more widely known figures like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny.  Although Boyd similarly managed to balance the demands of music and the bottom line, he says he wasn’t nearly as tough or shrewd as the true players of the era. After recording “Arnold Layne”, for instance, he was maneuvred out of any stake in Pink Floyd’s future.

Ironically, for someone at the swirling kaleidoscopic center of London’s freak scene, Boyd’s own approach to producing records shunned all the trippy tricks that got slathered over music in the late Sixties, opting instead for a warm and luminous naturalism. “I had a horror of making the hand of the producer visible, so all those overdone studio effects like phasing and panning never appealed,” he explains. “I felt it would date the music, whereas I always wanted my things to be listened to in 50 years. For me the task of a producer is to create the illusion of a band in a room playing together live in a real acoustic space.” You can hear the timeless fruits of Boyd’s sensitive approach on the White Bicycles double-CD of Witchseason productions that’s coming out in tandem with the book.

And the title of the memoir? It’s an emblem, explains Boyd, for all those “lovely ideas of the Sixties” that didn’t work out.  It specifically refers to the Dutch Provos scheme of distributing white bicycles around Amsterdam for people to use for free—a utopian plan that worked fine for a while, “until by the end of 1967 people started stealing the bikes and repainting them”. Boyd explains that in his increasingly desperate search for a title, he recalled that in the book he identifies the moment when UFO faves Tomorrow performed their Brit-psych classic “White Bicycle” as the absolute zenith of the Sixties, the peak before the crash into disillusion and disintegration. The pinnacle occurred at “just before dawn on Saturday, 1 July 1967.” If his sense of recall sounds suspiciously precise for someone who surely ought to have been blitzed out of his gourd at the time, Boyd anticipates any objections, confessing “I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.”

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s is published by Serpent’s Tail on May 27th. The White Bicycles anthology of Boyd productions is released by Fledgling.

written for Italian Vogue, 2006 ?

by Simon Reynolds

Punk stalks the culture again. You can see this in the success of Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, in which the director stars as a bad mother whose combination of punk, stripper and junkie bears more than a slight resemblance to Courtney Love. Then there’s the return of the Stooges, the group who defined the punk sound and attitude with songs like “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” a good half-decade before the movement actually began, and who are about to release The Weirdness, their first album in thirty years.  There’s Lady Sovereign, the UK’s rising rapper, who has recorded a version of the Sex Pistols “Pretty Vacant” for an episode of America’s most popular teenage TV drama, The OC. And there’s also official commemoration of punk’s thirtieth anniversary in the form of exhibitions like Panic Attack! Art In the Punk Years (showing at London’s Barbican Art Gallery this June) and The Secret Public: the Last Days of the British Underground 1978-88, on tour now following its launch in Munich last year.

Punk’s back, then. But when was it ever away? In truth, there has barely been a single year since 1977 when some aspect of punk rock or punk fashion has not been rediscovered or reworked. Punk’s ghost is a perennial presence, serving as both inspiration and reproach to every new generation of musicians, artists, and cultural radicals. Since its near-simultaneous detonation in mid-Seventies New York and London, punk’s shockwaves have reverberated through every corner of the arts and popular culture. It gave us pop icons like Kurt Cobain, Beastie Boys, Morrissey, Green Day, and Bjork (her first band, formed when she was fourteen, was the Icelandic punk group Spit and Snot). But punk also indelibly shaped artists from outside popular music: film-makers like Jim Jarmusch, novelists like Irvine Welsh and Isabella Santacroce, artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst, fashion designers like Vivien Westwood and Alexander McQueen. Through the Nineties and into this decade, punk’s legacy has cropped up in the oddest places, from the gritty, stripped-down approach of the Dogme movement in Scandinavian movie-making to the way designers like Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui rifle through the wardrobe of New Wave and Goth styles. John Richmond called one of his lines of clothing “Destroy”, after the last word of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”--the same place Santacroce got the title of her second novel.

What’s so good about destruction? The idea of clearing away the detritus of tradition and rebooting culture at Year Zero is always attractive to the young, appealing both to their sense of iconoclasm and to their ambition (one way to speed up your career is to discredit your established elders who’ve clawed their way up the establishment hierarchy). Punk’s who-gives-a-fuck attitude of snarling defiance and solipstic self-love is galvanizing (“Anger is an energy”, as Sex Pistol singer Johnny Rotten put it). Like a snort of cheap amphetamine, it gives the insecure-but-ambitious the necessary boost of will-to-power to kick down the door.

Beyond the attitude, there’s two main reasons why punk endures as a reference point:  the unsurpassable extremism of its style, and the contagious potency of its guiding concept of do-it-yourself. As invented by couturiers like Westwood but also, crucially, by the punk kids themselves, punk fashion consisted of  ripped-and-torn clothes held together with safety pins, hair slashed into spiky shapes and dyed inorganic shades of green or pink, and a Marcel Duchamp-style repurposing of lowly readymades like plastic garbage bags into garments. Punks also exploited the shock impact of tweaking taboos, wearing fetish wear associated with sado-masochism (the famous bondage trousers, where a strap connecting the two legs constrained one’s movement), and even using forbidden and offensive symbols like the swastika. The ice queen of this version of style as a kick-in-the-eye to straight society was Siouxsie Sioux, one of the original London punks. Punk’s most abiding fashion legacy is the Gothic culture spawned from the sepulchral sound and visuals she created with her band the Banshees. Goth has been a fixture of popular culture ever since, from movies like Donnie Darko to TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the black eyeliner-wearing misery boys of  emo (short for emotional punk) such as My Chemical Romance, currently riding high in pop charts across the world.

Punk’s do-it-yourself ideal arose out of disgust with the early Seventies emergence of a remote rock star aristocracy, who played stadium shows where they pranced onstage looking like distant ant-like figures to the bulk of the audience and showed off their virtuosity with interminable self-indulgent solos. Aiming to democratize music and open it back up to teenagers, punk was deliberately primitive music, rock stripped down to rudimentary three-chord-or-less riffs crudely bashed out on cheap electric guitars. “ This is a chord, this is another, this is a third -  Now form a band" was the famous cover line of the punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue (and zines themselves were a prime expression of the do-it-yourself principle). The ultimate manifestation of this ethos of anyone-can-do-it and irreverent non-professionalism was the cassette underground, where bands sold tapes of their work for dirt-cheap prices via mail order, or even gave the music away for free if you mailed them a blank cassette. But more influential on the wider culture was the explosion of independent labels in the postpunk period. Some were owned and operated by a single band, others by socialistic musicians collectives, and others still by aesthete-entrepreneurs who wanted to support innovative music but also saw a market for experimental and edgy sounds. Almost all of the original punk independents have long since perished, but a handful grew to become enduring forces in contemporary music, such as Mute (home to Depeche Mode and Nick Cave) and Rough Trade (the Libertines and the Strokes).

The independent label concept has proliferated far beyond rock, giving rise to indie publishers, indie movie-makers, every kind of autonomous cultural production you can imagine. But where the do-it-yourself ethos lives largest is on the internet. Today’s blogs and livejournals are the modern equivalent of the photocopied, hand-scrawled, cut-and-paste fanzines of the punk era--sometimes collaborative ventures, but far more often, lone voices yelling out their angry and excited opinions and finding a niche audience of like-minds. And then there’s Myspace, which fuses the independent micro-label with the fanzine to create the ultimate expression of the do-it-yourself impulse: bands uploading their own music to circulate for free. Do-it-yourself is the empowering lesson that every generation, bored and alienated by what the mainstream offers, has to rediscover for itself. In that sense, punk will never die.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

This Heat
The Wire 1992 (?)

by Simon Reynolds

These reissues are mementoes of an unimaginably different
Brit-rock era than ours. Today's indie bliss-rock aims to engulf us
in 'dreamtime', simulates the effects of drugs; back then (1979-81)
the goal was to wake us from our mass culture sleep, rouse us from
addiction to TV and pop. Demystification was the goal; alienation
was both aesthetic strategy and subject matter.

Along with Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, Pop Group,
Throbbing Gristle et al, This Heat forged the syntax of the
post-punk avant-garde: synth-drones and squelches; hissing,
programmed percussion; tape-loops and found sounds; effects-ridden
guitar; creepy vocals. Rhythms had a ciphered relation to reggae or
disco rather than rock'n'roll, vocals recalled the lugubrious
Englishness of Robert Wyatt; American rockism was stoutly resisted.
Both "This Heat" and "Deceit" are haunted by the standard-issue
spectres of the 1979 worldview: fear and disgust at the amnesiac,
anaesthetic comfort of domesticity; anti-consumerism; dread of
nuclear annihilation. What This Heat and co feared most was sleep:
every element of their music was designed to put you on edge.

Groove was mostly foregone in favour of brittle, fractured tempos;
when it did appear, funk had a foreboding compulsion. Elsewhere,
This Heat made ambient music, but without the flow, without the
repose. "Horizontal Hold" cuts from blistering feedback to arid,
timebomb tick-tock dub to an abrasive funk-scrabble. "Not Waving"
sounds like Robert Wyatt languishing in a dungeon while mice scamper
over Ivor Cutler's harmonium. "Independence" is a mirage of
Oriental reggae, gorgeous and deadly like a jewelled cobra.

In 1979, this music was meant to be the dawning of a brave,
all-new frontier. In truth, the post-punk avant-garde was really a
resumption of the techniques of the pre-1977 experimental fringe
(Henry Cow, Art Bears, Faust, Can, Soft Machine, Residents etc) with
a different agenda and more apprehensive aura. With the world scene
getting more apocalyptic by the day, This Heat's unsettled and
unsettling music seems more timely than it has for a long while.

review of This Heat's debut album reissued for

This Heat
This Heat
emusic 2006 

by Simon Reynolds

This Heat are regarded as one of the archetypal post-punk vanguard outfits. Which they were, but the fact is that this South London trio were just as much a post-psychedelic band, with audible roots in the UK's progressive underground of the early '70s. In 1975, even as Patti Smith and the Ramones released their debuts, This Heat's drummer/vocalist Charles Hayward was playing in Quiet Sun, a jazz-rock combo led by Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera. This Heat's slogan was "All possible processes. All channels open. 24 hours alert," and those first two sentiments could easily have been endorsed by proggy weirdos like Van Der Graaf Generator, Gong, or Can. But the third plank of that mini-manifesto marked This Heat as true contemporaries of Scritti Politti and the Pop Group, its totally-wired tone of paranoid vigilance tapping into the atmosphere of tension and dread that suffused the late '70s.

Political anguish — fears of nuclear armageddon, of a right-wing backlash reversing the gains of the '60s, of an emerging police state — suffused This Heat's music, creating a vibe a world away from the whimsical meander of pre-punk noodlers like Soft Machine. Nonetheless, you can still hear This Heat's proggy past come through on their self-titled 1979 debut in the Robert Wyatt-like plaintiveness and Englishness of Hayward's vocals and the undisguised virtuosity of his drumming, as well as in the group's tell-tale penchant for disjointed structures. More post-punk DIY-noisy in spirit and sound are the contributions of Gareth Williams, a non-musican who supplied jarring blurts and abstract smears using broken-down instruments, effects-pedals, and a primitive form of sampling involving tape loops.

This Heat could be propulsively, even convulsively rhythmic: the eerie percussive timbres and frenetic beats of "24 Track Loop" offers an astonishing audio-prophecy of '90s drum 'n' bass, while "Horizontal Hold" cuts from blistering feedback, to a time-bomb tick-tock of Cold War skank, to an abrasive funk-scrabble, But the group were equally effective making a kind of ambient music, albeit of a decidedly non-tranquilizing sort. "Not Waving" sounds like Wyatt languishing in a dungeon where the rats scuttle morosely over the keys of a decrepit harmonium. "Late-prog," "post-punk" — either way you slice it, This Heat is a category-collapsing classic.

transcript of interview with Charles Hayward -- an out-take from Totally Wired - as published at the Quietus 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


The Glasgow School
Uncut, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Summer 1980: the sombre pall of postpunk hangs over the nation.  Overpowered by the dark visions of Metal Box and Unknown Pleasures, the new bands coming through all devoutly follow the Gospel According to John or the Gospel According to Ian (preached, on Closer, from beyond the grave). But, wait, heresy’s brewing north of Hadrian’s Wall. A bunch of Scottish bands, foremost among them Orange Juice, are bringing the sunshine. Affiliated to Alan Horne’s ludicrously ambitious Postcard label, the Glasgow group herald the demise of postpunk, proposing a new life-affirming mindset in which “pop” isn’t a dirty word and it’s cool to sing love songs. 

The closest Joy Division ever got to the latter was the harrowing “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” while Lydon was still sneering “this is not a love song” as late as 1983 (despite being a happily married man!).  Orange Juice’s debut single “Falling and Laughing” was both a love song and a meta-pop manifesto in defence of romance. Crushed by his latest crush, the humiliated and heartbroken Edwyn Collins concludes “what can I do but learn to laugh at myself?” “Love Sick,” the B-side of  OJ’s second single “Blue Boy,” could almost be a riposte to Gang of Four’s “Love Like Anthrax”. It describes the same symptoms (“my head is pounding/my mind is confused”) as Go4 (“feel like a beetle on its back… thoughts like piss down the drain”). But unlike the agonized Jon King, Collins’ lump-in-throat croon and his band’s spangled jangle make maladie d’amour seem like a delicious delirium.

Just about the only thing Orange Juice shared with PiL and Go4 was a passion for the dance music of their day. “Falling” is an endearingly shaky take on disco. Drummer Steven Daly does his level best to execute the requisite bustling hi-hat and cymbal patterns, David McClymont makes a fair stab at a funk bassline, and Collins and James Kirk supply Nile Rodgers-style double-time rhythm guitar. But the end result is closer to Swell Maps sloppy than Chic superslick, while Collins doesn’t sound so much like he’s singing in the bath as singing through a mouthful of bathwater.

Disco flirtations aside, OJ’s sound mostly came direct from The Velvet Underground, especially the warm, golden guitars of Loaded songs like “Rock’n’Roll”. But in a manoevure that pretty much invented “indie,” OJ took that sound and divorced it from New York cool. They replaced the VU’s bohemian worldliness with an early-Byrds-like  innocence. “You must think me very naïve” goes the first line of “Falling and Laughing”, while “Simply Thrilled Honey” vows “worldiness must keep apart from me”.  As much as they worshipped Lou Reed and his Gretsch guitar, there was no room for heroin or methedrine in OJ’s world; they barely even touched alcohol. Sounds’ resident Postcard champion Dave McCullough dubbed OJ, Josef K, and Aztec Camera “New Puritans”. When OJ gleefully chanted “no more rock’n’roll for you” on “Poor Old Soul (Part Two)”, they meant it: it was high time to jettison all that decadent sex ‘n’ drugs ’n’ r & r nonsense.  In this respect, Orange Juice were heirs to the cleancut straightness of Jonathan Richman and  Talking Heads. 

After the jejeune shambles of “Falling”, OJ’s second single “Blue Boy” was disconcertingly robust-sounding: a boisterous gallop that adds a touch of Dylan and Neil Young to the Live 1969 Velvets, with discreet swells of keyboard and a verging-on-psychedelic guitar solo. The American sound of “Blue Boy” inaugurated a whole tradition of Scottish outfits, from Lloyd Cole & The Commotions to Teenage Fanclub, who looked admiringly across the Atlantic (their gaze, ironically, often falling on Anglophiles like Big Star).  After this almost manly rocker, “Simply Thrilled Honey” is gorgeously fey. Which suits the lyric’s scenario: Collins as frail waif fending off unwanted advances from a female predator. (Four years later Morrissey would replicate the scenario--“she’s too rough and I’m too delicate”--in “Pretty Girls Make Graves”). Wondrously eccentric-in-structure, “Simply Thrilled” climbs a hill at the end just to rush down it in a breathless tumble.  “Poor Old Soul,” the fourth single, reverts to the discopunk of “Falling and Laughing,” all flustered rhythm guitar and a walking bassline, but it’s far better produced. This was Orange Juice’s most concerted lunge for a mainstream hit, but while it topped the independent chart effortlessly, “Poor” stopped short at #80 in the real chart.

The group’s sound was still too ramshackle for daytime radio, while Postcard lacked the muscle to get the hits Horne craved. So OJ signed to Polydor. The rest of The Glasgow School consists of all 12 tracks from Ostrich Churchyard, their first attempt at recording an album, plus a few bonus obscurities. Ostrich bears the same relation to You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever (the debut LP Polydor actually released) that Hatful Of Hollow has to The Smiths, i.e. these are the underproduced but zestier prototypes of the songs in question.  There’s a scintillating freshness to the versions of “In A Nutshell” and “Dying Day.” But I  prefer the You Can’t Hide take of “Consolation Prize,” the most poignant tune in OJ’s entire songbook. The Ostrich version features an incongruous Glitterband-like “HEY!” chant from the group during the first chorus, while the song’s home stretch of soaring glory doesn’t achieve quite the same giddy angle of ascent as it does on You Can’t Hide. 

In the song, Collins croons to yet another object of unrequited adoration: “I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn’s/I wore it hoping to impress/So frightfully camp, it made you laugh/Tomorrow I’ll buy myself a dress”. Probably more than anything else by Orange Juice, “Consolation Prize” is the blueprint for the C86 shambling band movement. “I’ll never be man enough for you,” sings Collins at the end, but the tone is triumphant not lamenting. Minor cutie-pop band One Thousand Violins took their name from the song’s first line, and a thousand more mid-Eighties indie groups modeled themselves on Collins & Co’s androgyny. Perhaps, on reflection, that’s not much of a legacy. But this music is its own testament. I honestly don’t understand why Alan Horne would weep after playing each hot-from-the-pressing-plant OJ single back to back with “Pale Blue Eyes” and finding it lacking. OJ might actually be that almost-unknown thing: the derivative band who are better than the thing they’re indebted to. They’re certainly more loveable than the Velvets.

Get well soon Edwyn.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

GREEN VELVET - Hardcore Jollies
Village Voice April 25 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Last year's renaissance of interest in house was based largely on a craving for pleasantness in dance music. With techno and drum'n'bass both locked in grinding hair-shirt minimalism, house's sensuousness beckoned hipsters like a quenching oasis. But in truth, house can be as punishing and dehumanized as the hardest-core techno. Right from the start, there's been a vital tension within house culture: "songs" versus "tracks"; diva passion and gospel-descended uplift versus treadmill beats, trippy FX, and blurts of inorganic synth-slime.

Called "tracky" or "trackhead" by cognoscenti, this mechanistic side of house began with the mid-'80s jack tracks (palsied vamps, stutter-afflicted vocal riffs, mind-evacuating "jack your body" chants), then mutated into acid house in 1987. Acid contained its own microgenre of vocal-based tracks, a world away from the melisma-drenched fabulosity of Ultra Nate and Robert Owens. On the flipside of Phuture's "Acid Tracks," the very first house tune to deploy the fractal wibbles of the Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the astonishing "Your Only Friend" personified cocaine as a robot-voiced tyrant: "I'll make you lie for me, I'll make you die for me." Other classics of this ilk include Adonis's "No Way Back," Bam Bam's "Where's Your Child?" and Sleazy D's "I've Lost Control," all themed around disorientation, mindwreck, abduction, and sexual dread.

Green Velvet's Curtis Jones single-handedly brought the creepy monologue back to house in the mid '90s. This Berkeley dropout founded two Chicago labels: Cajual, for effervescent disco cutups (including his own Cajmere releases), and Relief, for cranium-denting beats and drug-noise delirium. Jones first made an impact with 1995's "Flash," now the opening track of a Green Velvet anthology just released via the Warners-affiliated dance subsidiary F-111. Over a battery of rivet-gun snares, Jones plays a mushmouthed guide escorting a tour group of worried parents armed with cameras through "Club Bad" and revealing all the decadent things their teenage kids get up to. Like sucking on balloons of nitrous oxide—"laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter." Slyly playing on the wired paranoia of ravers ("Ohmigod, what if Mom and Dad really do arrive and see me all fucked up?!?!"), the chorus "cameras ready, prepare to flash" transforms the club's occult murk into a panopticon space of exposed and documented delinquency.

Green Velvet songs are so funny, the temptation is just to reprint the lyrics and be done with it. "Answering Machine" is a litany of bad news deposited on some luckless chump's incoming message cassette: a landlord's eviction notice, his fiancée announcing that the baby's not his, a Psychic Friend advising, "Stay in your house today, tomorrow, and FOREVER." "Water Molecule," originally from Green Velvet's 1999 debut album, Constant Chaos, is a fantasy about being reincarnated as H2O—the appeal being the access-all-areas (including human bodies) privileges. Mind you, deadpans Jones, entering the sewage system would be a drag: "Not that I've got anything against rats, I just don't want to hang out with them." Most darkly hilarious of all is "Abduction," an unnerving ditty about being molested by aliens midway through doing the dishes. Jones delivers lines like "They touched a part of me that I didn't know existed" in the faded, faltering voice of a survivor's confessional, with a feel for conversational cadence that's Method acting in excelsis.

Of course, none of this would work so well if the backing tracks weren't so compulsive, deranging, and, well, tracky. Green Velvet's sound reactivates a forgotten branch of house's family tree: not the symphonic sashay of Philly and Salsoul, but post-Moroder artpunk—the heavy breathing, guttural vocals, and pervy pulsations of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early-'80s dance floors), the soiled electronics of Throbbing Gristle, the Normal, and Suicide. Built around a kinky, rubberwear-glossy analog synth bassline that lodges in your brain like a tapeworm, "The Stalker" is Cabaret Voltaire if they'd been drag queens. What saves Green Velvet from Les Rhythmes Digitales/DMX Crew retro-kitsch, though, is the production, which incorporates '90s house's advances in programming and texturizing beats. Back in 1982, they didn't know how to make kick drums so thick and wide and voluptuously concussive.

Jones has described what he does as "folk music for the rave scene." Like the Horrorist, he's adept at finding narratives that fit the abstract emotions and weird energies generated by techno but don't detract from its posthuman intensity. He is also a star in a faceless scene, and one of the few live performers in electronica whose physical presence really adds something to the records. Playing live with two synth-wielding minions in Twilo's Y2K Lounge a few weeks ago, Jones showed off his trademark luminous green plastic scalp nodules, changed his buff-chest-hugging outfits a couple of times, deployed a panoply of voice-warping devices, and generally palpated the audience in the palm of his hand. What came across as unexpectedly forceful was Green Velvet's electro-punk attitude. Jones even indulged in some autodestruction theatrics, fake-smashing aNew Romantic-style guitar-shaped shoulder-strap synth. One new track pivots around a chorus ("They say, 'It's just a phase'/IT'S NOT A FUCKING PHASE!!") that Jones delivers with the defiant staccato phrasing of Negative Approach or Bad Brains. Which brought a whole nonrave spin to the crowd's cries of "HARDCORE!!!!" at the end.


Groove, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

From Basement Jaxx and the French filter-disco sound to the rediscovery of vocals by everyone from Herbert to Luomo to Photek, the last few years have seen a remarkable renaissance of interest in house music on the part of hipsters. And the primary drive behind this, I think, was a craving for pleasantness, for music that doesn't want to hurt the listener but makes you feel....  nice.  With techno locked in grinding hairshirt minimalism and drum'n'bass becoming ever more oriented around distorted bass-riffs (to the point of sounding like headbanging heavy metal or old Killing Joke records), house's sensuousness beckoned hipsters like a quenching oasis.

But the glitterball dazzle of filter disco, the warm, organic musicality of Body 'N Soul and Nuphonic, these represent only one side of house music. In truth, house can be as mechanistic, punishing, and dehumanized as the hardest-core techno, the darkest drum 'n'bass. Right from the start, there's been a schism, or more accurately, a vital tension, within house culture: "songs" versus "tracks"; diva passion and gospel-descended uplift versus treadmill beats, trippy FX, and slimy blurts of inorganic synthesiser.

Called "tracky" or "trackhead" by cognoscenti, this side of house began with the mid-Eighties jack tracks (palsied vamps, stutter-afflicted vocal-riffs, mind-evacuating "jack your body" chants), then mutated into acid house in 1987. Acid contained its own micro-genre of vocal-based tracks, a world away from the melisma-drenched fabulousness of Ultra Nate and Robert Owens. On the flipside of Phuture's "Acid Tracks," the very first house tune to deploy the fractal wibbles of the Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the astonishing "Your Only Friend" personified cocaine as a robot-voiced tyrant: "I'll make you lie for me, I'll make you die for me/In the end, I'll be your only friend." Then there was Sleezy D's ""I've Lost Control," a Sabbath-inspired Marshall Jefferson track featuring an "Iron Man" vocal and padded-cell-as-dub-chamber screams. Other classics of this micro-genre include Adonis's "No Way Back", Bam Bam's "Where's Your Child?" and Pierre's Pfantasy Club's "Dream Girl", all themed around disorientation, mindwreck, abduction, and sexual paranoia.

Green Velvet's Curtis Jones singlehandedly brought the creepy monologue back to house in the mid-Nineties. This Berkeley drop-out founded two Chicago labels: Cajual, for effervescent disco cut-ups (including his own Cajmere releases), and Relief, for cranium-denting beats and drug-noise delirium. Jones first made an impact with 1995's "Flash". Over a battery of rivet-gun snares, Jones played a slurred-voiced guide escorting a tour group of worried parents armed with cameras through "Club Bad" and revealing all the decadent things their teenage kids get up to. Like sucking on balloons of nitrous oxide---"laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter". Slyly playing on the wired paranoia of ravers ("ohmigod, what if mom and dad really do arrive and see me all out of my head?!?!"), the chorus "cameras ready, prepare to flash" transforms the club's occult murk into a Panopticon space of exposed and documented delinquency.

"Flash" was apparently intended as an anti-drug song, Jones talking about some of the fucked-up freaky shit he saw going on in clubs where he was doing PAs. But the song is cunningly pitched so that it works just as well as an anthem for drug-fiends. (For a long while, until I listened to the lyrics closely, I thought the "prepare to flash" chorus was a drug exhortation, referencing the "flash" or total-body rush some amphetamine users experience, or "flash" as in an LSD flashback). "La La Land", a standout track on the new Green Velvet album Whatever, is similarly ambiguous. Reviving all those classic early rave metaphors that involve imagery of madness, brain damage, derangement, the pursuit of oblivion through concussive bliss, "La La Land" is sung by a hardcore hedonist who's always "looking for the after-party to begin." The chorus is brilliantly catchy--"something about those little pills/unreal/the thrills/they yield/until/they kill/a mill/ion brain cells" (the rhymes work better if you adopt a black American accent, with the 'd' in 'yield' left unpronounced).  But if that chorus sounds like a "Just Say No" warning, the lines "la la land is the place I need to be/the place that sets me free" contradict them. Is this profoundly ambivalent, or just a cowardly refusal to adopt a consistent standpoint? Does Jones accept that drug-abusers are seeking things the real world can't offer, escaping an intolerable world into a chemical utopia?  Or does he simply not want to alienate his primary market, drugged up ravers, by unreservedly condemning their self-destructive pleasures?

Up until now, Green Velvet's emphasis has been on black humour, like "Answering Machine" with its a litany of bad news deposited on some luckless fellow's incoming message cassette: a landlord's eviction notice, his fiancee announcing that the baby is not his, a "psychic" fortune teller advising him to "stay in your house today, tomorrow, and FOREVER". Or "Abduction", a simultaneously hilarious and disturbing ditty about being molested by alien beings midway through washing the dishes: Jones delivers lines like "they touched a part of me that I didn't know existed" in the faded, faltering voice of a survivor's confessional, with a feel for conversational cadence that's method acting in excelsis.  Then there's the tripped-out whimsy of songs like "Water Molecule" (off the 1999 debut album Constant Chaos), where a zonked-out Jones imagines being reincarnated as H2O. The appeal? Water's access-all-areas privileges: "I would be a part of all different types of people, 'cos I would travel around in my vapor state, and I would turn into my liquid state and enter their glass and they would swallow me and I'd be part of their bodies". 

The new album, though, is surprisingly serious, even militant. "When?" is straightforward anti-racist protest, a "don't judge me" plea to purge from your mind the prejudices and ethnic stereotypes caused by media brainwashing. The only hint of  comedy here is his anti-humanist quip "we're all inferior".  Propelled by a harsh, scouring riff, "When?" is a bit like if Mad Mike let his  anger come out through a vocal tirade rather than just song-titles and slogans etched into the vinyl.  Elsewhere, the spirit is pure punk rock: the staccato, accusatory "Stop Lyin'", the "don't mess with my mind" aggression of "Dank", the searing instrumental "Minimum Rage" with its title punning on the bottom-level income earned by American 16 year olds at fast-food restaurants and similar dead end jobs.  "GAT (The Great American Tragedy)" is an anthem for teenage freaks who start dressing weird and acting out, only to get the condescending "you're just going through a phase" treatment from parents and elders. Jones delivers the chorus-howl "THIS IS NOT A FUCKING PHASE!!"  with the percussive phrasing of  arly Eighties US hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Negative Approach. This is slamdancing techno, moshpit rave.

None of this would work so well if the backing tracks weren't so compulsive, deranging, and, well, tracky. Green Velvet's sound reactivates a forgotten branch of house's family tree: not the symphonic sashay of Philly and Salsoul, but post-Moroder artpunk--the panting, guttural vocals and kinky pulsations of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors), the soiled electronics of Throbbing Gristle, The Normal, and Suicide.  Whatever's sound has a retro-Eighties feel,  at times closer to industrial and EBM than even the most tracky of modern house. Songs like "Stop Lyin'" are clockwork mechanisms pulsating in strict time, all square-sounding, stiff beats and 16th note sequenced bassline patterns that chatter and pummel. "Gendefekt" is a rigid grid of quantized drums and eerily spiralling synth-noises that make you think of the DNA helix; Kraftwerk's Computer World lost in a ketamine void.  Propelled by slinky bass-riffs that writhe and squirm through your ears like frantic mind-worms in a hurry to get to the chewy center of your brain, "Sleepwalking"--the new album's absolute killer tune--is like Cabaret Voltaire on amyl nitrate.

Jones has described what he does as "folk music for the rave scene". Like that other pioneer of story-telling techno The Horrorist a/k/a Oliver Chesler, he's adept at finding narratives that fit the abstract emotions and weird energies generated by electronic music but that don't detract from its posthuman intensity. Jones also stands out in a faceless scene as one of the few live performers in electronica whose physical presence really adds something to the records. His live show is not to be missed, involving costume changes, voice-warping FX, auto-destruction theatrics (he's wont to fake-smash an Eighties shoulder-strap synth as if it were an electric guitar), and loads of charisma. The guy's a star.