Monday, October 13, 2014

RIP Mark Bell

LFO, Details, October 1991

                                                      LFO, Melody Maker, June 1994

director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, September 21st 2003

It’s a tough time for dance music believers. Mainstream house culture has imploded, with superclubs closing, dance magazines folding, and average sales for 12 inch singles on a steady downward arc. The more cerebral end of home-listening electronica suffers from stylistic fragmentation, overproduction (there’s just too many "pretty good" records being made), and the absence of a truly startling new sound (even a Next Medium-Sized Thing would be a blessing at this point). Trendy young hipsters think dance culture’s passe and really rather naff: these days they’re into bands with riffs, hooky choruses, foxy singers, and good hair, from neo-garage groups like The White Stripes to post-punk revivalists like The Rapture. Little wonder, then, that the leading lights of leftfield electronica have been looking back to the early Nineties, when their scene was at the peak of its creativity, cultural preeminence, and popularity. 

There’s been a spate of retro-rave flavoured releases from the aging Anglo vanguard--a reinvocation (conscious or unconscious, it’s hard to say) of the era when this music was simultaneously the cutting edge and in the pop charts.
LFO’s Mark Bell is a case in point. Today he’s better known for his production work with Bjork and Depeche Mode, but back in 1990, he was one half of a duo who reached #12 in the UK singles charts with their self-titled debut "LFO". This Leeds group pioneered a style called "bleep", the first truly British mutation of the house and techno streaming over from Chicago and Detroit. In 1991 they released Frequencies, the first really great techno album released anywhere (unless you count ancestors Kraftwerk, alongside whose godlike genius LFO’s best work ranks, if you ask me). 

Just about the only bad thing about Sheath, LFO’s third album and first release for seven years, is its title, which I fear is being used in its antedeluvian meaning of "condom" (only "rubber johnny" could have been worse). Really, this record should be called Frequencies: the Return.

Deliberately lo-fi opener "Blown" instantly transports you back to the era of landmark records like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 1985-91. All muddy heart-tremor bass, creaky hissing beats and tinkling, tingling rivulets of synth, it has the enchanted, misty-eyed quality of those childhood mornings when you wake to look through frost-embroidered bedroom windows. "Mokeylips" teems with fluorescent pulses and those classic LFO textures that seem to stick to your skin like Velcro. As bracing as snorting a line of Ajax, "Mum-Man" is industrial-strength hardcore of the kind that mashed-up the more mental ravefloors in ’92. With its robot-voice dancemaster commands and videogame zaps, "Freak" harks back further still to LFO’s Eighties "roots" as teenage electro fans bodypopping and spinning on their heads in deserted shopping centres. "Moistly" shimmers and surges with that odd mixture of nervousness and serenity that infused the classic Detroit techno of Derrick May and Carl Craig. And the beat-less tone-poem "Premacy" pierces your heart with its plangent poignancy.

Electronic music may be suffering from the cruel cycles of cool at the moment, but Sheath (ugh, I really don’t like that title) shows that music of quality and distinction is still coming from that quarter. Yet more proof (if any were still needed) that all-instrumental machine-music can be as emotionally evocative, as sensuously exquisite, as heart-tenderising and soul-nourishing as any rock group you care to mention. (Like for instance Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke, as it happens, was a huge fan of the Northern "bleep" tracks released by Warp in the early Nineties). One can only hope this album finds the audience it deserves.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"can you (heb)dig(e) it?" - 1986 report on / reading of cutie fashion and indie's cult of the anorak

Ladybirds & Start-Rite Kids

Melody Maker, 27 September 1986

by Simon Reynolds 

Go to a gig by any shambling band like The Soup Dragons or Talulah Gosh or The Hobgoblins, go to the Timebox in Kentish Town or the Entreprise in Chalk Farm, and you'll notice, among the audience, a number of girls and boys in strangely childlike garb. There'll be pairs of girls in floral or polka-dot frocks, with dainty white ankle socks and little plimsoles. Sometimes they wear bows or ribbons in their hair, and some of them will have pigtails or ponytails. You won't see much make-up about, and you won't see any high heels (who wants to look taller than they are?).
There'll be boys in outsize jumpers and washed-out pullovers and cardigans, or birthday-boy' shirts with the top button done-up, or short jackets and slacks. They wear their hair short at the back and sides, tousled on top, or flopping over the eyes in a bashful fringe. You'll see plenty of anoraks on both boys and girls, the kind of anorak worn by children in the Fifties and Sixties *— bright, optimistic patterns that make you think of curtain material.

 Some hardcore activists go all the way, and sport a satchel or a quaint duffle bag — and then they really look like a Start-Rite Kid. You might see a girl in shorts and a bottle green top that makes you think of school uniform, who looks like she's stepped right out of Swallows And Amazons or a lacrosse match. Or you might see a boy in a dufflecoat that makes you think of both Paddington Bear and a Fifties student on a CND Aldermaston march.
These people are the style leaders, but their influence is everywhere — people pick up on one or two of the elements, the Tintin caps or the anoraks, to express their allegiance. The crucial thing to note about this current indie-style (a mixture of pre-permissive, virtually pre-youth culture clothes and children's garments) is that it doesn't accentuate the shape of the figure: it conceals the signs of sexual difference and of adulthood. Just as indie-pop defines itself against chartpop, so indie-style defines itself against High Street fashion: music and style are a revolt against the sophistication and hypersexuality of mainstream pop culture, a revolt into innocence.
Innocence contains multiple desires — the desire to stay free of grown-up responsibilities and grown-up guilt for the way the world is; the desire to evade the strictures of conventional sexual differentiation, to retain something of childish androgyny and, above all, the desire to be liberated from sexuality, the sexual norms and quotas that our culture installs by saturation of the media.
It's women who suffer most from these definitions, for whom the question of liberation from sexuality is most pressing: for many intelligent women, dressing like a child is a compromise between retaining the fun and self-expression of dressing-up and evading the sexual definitions of conventional glamour (with all the attendant dangers of unwanted attention, harassment, rape).
Women are caught in the doublebind of being told they must dress in a certain way to be feminine (high heels, make-up, tight clothing), but also reprimanded because that femininity is taken as invitation, even incitement, to men. Behind the innocent look lies a feminist impulse for autonomy — if you're not convinced read the testimony of Marigold from Talulah Gosh (below) or consider that this style is very similar to what lesbian feminists were wearing five years ago. But this impulse for autonomy is only partially successful, because the style is still prey to fetishism, open to the paedophiliac gaze.
Real little girls, of course, have no desire to look like children; they aspire to sophistication, want to have their ears pierced and wear make-up and have complicated hair-dos. Real little girls want to look modern — alternative girls are drawn to a quaint, literary conception of how children looked and were, that's decades out of time.
The indie scene's physical ideal (thin, slight of figure, pale of skin) is in marked contrast to the mainstream image of a desirable body — vigorous, healthy, bronzed, muscles for men, curves for women. You'd be hardpressed to find a suntan at a Primal Scream gig. The possibility of a high incidence of anorexia amongst indie boys and girls is intriguing (anorexia is on the rise, among both sexes, all the time) because anorexia is believed to be a subconscious rejection of the growing-up process, of sexual maturity. It's commonest among people from academic, high-stress backgrounds — and a lot of indie types are students or sixth formers. It may not be fanciful to suggest some sort of physique-related determinism underlying subcultural identification: in the indie scene it helps to be slender and petite whereas, in the psychobilly subculture (which is based on a return to a different pop innocence, rooted in the Fifties not Sixties), you'll find men that are strapping, muscled and well-built, and girls that are curvaceous.
Just as the indie scene's ideal body is a dissent against the yuppie ideal of fitness and sexual vigour, so too there's a struggle against yuppie definitions of sexuality. Mainstream chartluv grows ever more secular and progressive, but indieluv is either consuming passion or absolute devotion, unbalanced obsession (there's increasing recourse to religious imagery) or Mills & Boon romantic.
This return to tradition is just another example of how the indie scene has set its back against the modern world. The symbol of this modernity is America — America represents a future of hi-tech leisure, of video and over-produced pop, of therapy and personal growth. Those modern figures — the yuppie, the soul boy and the B-boy are all infatuated with the American vision of the future, and so indie-style is about looking unlike those figures. So we get the following paradox: What's conventional, what's most British today is the aspiration to be like the Americans; what's marginal, dissident, unpatriotic even, is the indie scene's defensive Englishness — a patriotism located in the past, a nostalgia for a never-never England compounded from films like A Taste Of Honey and Billy Liar and the golden period of British pop in the Sixties. (But America can also provide anti-modern imagery — think of the vogue for country, traditional musics, the Deep South.)
What's interesting is the way the indie scene doesn't revive, but weaves elements from different eras to create fresh meanings. This is because the future is No Future, the death of the idea of the future: there'll be no more Next Big Things, just an ever-after of pick 'n' mix plundering from the past. No more major waves in fashion, no uniforms to be conformed to exactly — instead, on each of us descends the freedom (or burden?) of being the author of our own identity, making stylistic choices to express not so much our inner selves as our allegiances and our fantasies about who we'd rather be.
Indie-style weaves elements chosen from a host of repertoires — Fifties and Sixties children's clothes, pre-permissive adult clothing, Sixties beat and early psychedelic styles, the American beatnik look (this fits because American bohemianism is a kind of indigenous anti-Americanism), punk and Gothic wardrobes.
Similarly, indie-pop is seldom straightforwardly revivalist, but fuses idioms like folk, country, soft Velvets, hard Velvets, Dylan, Byrds, English psychedelia, Television, Spector, Buzzcocks, Postcard and the Mersey groups of the early Eighties. What all this adds up to is an elaborate and stylised authenticity, an innocence that isn't natural but put on, worked at. Indie-pop's fantasies of innocence are actually a sophisticated response to current reality and to pop history.
Here it may be useful to take a longer perspective. I must thank Angela McRobbie, the youth culture sociologist, for letting me read her essay on the history of second-hand style, which will appear in her forthcoming book. If you're used to buying your clothes at jumble sales, outdoor markets and charity shops, you tend to forget the extent to which this is still not quite respectable. Parents can be perplexed, remembering the stigma of poverty once attached to wearing outsize, wash-faded clothing. Buying second-hand clothing is about more than cheapness, there's an ethos of anti-materialism at work too. Buying second-hand seems ecological, a recycling; it feels like you're one move from the process of production, exploitation, advertising and high-pressure retail; there's also the idea that it's people's clothing, although few working class people buy hand-me-downs if they can avoid it.

From the original beatniks to the present day, white middle-class bohemia has worn secondhand clothing not just for its exotic quaintness, but to indicate its exile from the world of work and of getting on in the world; the clothes testify that the wearer has his/her mind on higher things. Indie-style avoids looking like either workwear or leisurewear, but breaches the division between work and leisure, sobriety and vacuous fun, and speaks of a realm of creativity that lies beyond.
This idea of purity, of opting out of the material and sexual rat race, reaches its ultimate expression in our indie scene's cult of innocence. And remember the double meaning of innocence — not just unworldly, but guiltless — prior to blame for the way the world is.

Nick and Jo from Anoraks & Ice Cream
JO: "We call it the Cutie scene, but some people talk about the Candy scene. And someone thought of the name 'Start-Rite Kids'… What's it all about? Well, I'm fed up with getting old, I don't want to grow up. I do things like eat ice cream in winter!"
NICK: "When there are gigs at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm everyone goes to this ice cream bar round the corner and eats ice cream together. We're starting a fanzine called 'Anoraks And Ice Cream'. Either that or 'Anoraks And Chocolate'.
JO: "To be a Cutie it helps to be small. The real mark of a cutie is to be asked if you're over 18 in a pub. David Trout Fishing got asked if he was a half-fare on the bus the other day! But if you are small you ought to buy kids' clothes anyway, just to avoid paying VAT."

Who should join us but David, editor of Trout Fishing In Leytonstone. Where do the anoraks come from?
NICK: "From jumble sales or fleamarkets or second-hand clothes shops. This one's from Camden Market."
DAVID: "Camden Market! Buying an anorak from Camden Market is like buying a Buzzcocks LP from Virgin!"
Progenitors of the style seem to be figures like Bobby Gillespie and Stephen Pastel, although Edwyn Collins was the original shy fringe.
JO: "I was listening to Pelican West the other day, and it's brilliant! Real Cutie music."
There does seem to be a real Haircut 100 influence creeping into the scene, with bands like Mighty Mighty and The Chesterfields. What next, Altered Images?
Next we have Jon and Jo, who claim they're 14. I shall have to be wary. Jo models the Rita Tushingham A Taste Of Honey look. The pair make only a few, shy and enigmatic statements: "There's nothing more depressing than fun", "It all began with The Famous FiveWinnie The Pooh is important, and so are Thunderbirds."
  (Talulah Gosh photo taken by yours truly as used on back cover of one of their singles - I was around at                                   their place  interviewing them for MM and they needed a pic in an emergency so got enlisted - sole                                       qualification  was having a pair of eyes and two hands and being there!)

All these people agree that Talulah Gosh are a key group in the crystallization of Cutie. Talulah Gosh are at the fore of a second wave of shambling bands, fans who are inspired as much by the C86 bands as the original influences.
For many, Talulah Gosh are the point where they draw the line — they've put a lot of people's backs up with what some regard as the twee and cosy inter-referentiality of songs like 'The Day I Lost My Pastels Badge'. But others, like the Legend!, see the group as the freshest distillation of shambling naivety. Whatever, they're hardcore, and Marigold, one of their two lead singers, is very forthcoming about the choices involved in her style.
"I started dressing this way because I wanted to look like a boy. I used to dress in a normal, feminine way and I got wolf whistles, which I didn't like. So I decided I was going to look like a boy. I don't wear make-up and I've got a boy's haircut, and I wear scruffy clothes. I wanted to look like the sort of girl that only a certain sort of boy would find attractive, the kind of boy who wouldn't dream of wolf whistling."
What's the attraction of the childlike image?
"Well, it's about wanting to look as though you don't have any responsibilities, as if you're carefree. The trouble is that it's not instinctive anymore. The London set are starting to catch on. People latch on to elements of the style to try and get in on the scene. They try to conform to the style so as to be desirable to hip people.
"And then it's going to spread to the High Street, inevitably. You can get designer anoraks in the Kings Road for £35 (even more at Demob). There's nothing childlike about that!
"An original fan would do something like what Pebbles does — get these old granny suits from Save The Children and chop them down into mini-skirts."
The two girls, Marigold and Pebbles, are the core of Talulah Gosh and see the group as the continuation of the Shangri-Las rather than Bob Dylan. "Talulah Gosh are going to go very girl group — kind of like Shangri-La's meets The Ramones."
The people I spoke to are hardcore activists on the scene, so maybe their extremism is atypical. All I can say is that they seemed a sweet bunch, and at times I felt a bit turdy poking around in their fun.

* Many years later I realised the true semiological significance of the Anorak  - it deliberately evokes "clothes your mum bought for you". In other words, it references that period before the child takes an interest in style, youth culture, rock / adultpop, hipness, cool. For some that might be the whole period of their life prior to leaving home and having to fend for themselves sartorially, but certainly there's an age at which most people discover rock/adult-pop, and simultaneously start to define themselves through clothes, hair, shoes, etc. (And often in overtly sexualized or sophistication-aspiring ways, too).  
That probably explains the other meaning of anorak as nerd, trainspotter, etc -- another sort of teenager who hasn't got into cool yet or bothers much with their appearance, doesn't dress for sexual attention because they're out of the game. So carry on wearing clothes bought for them by their parents long after their peers have stopped. Hence playground jeers of the "wheredyaget them trainers?! didyer mum buy em for yer or what?" sort...