Monday, December 14, 2015

Off White (Infinite Zero/American)
Lost Chance (ROIR)

Mojo, 1995?

by Simon Reynolds

     After the nihilism and noise of  No Wave came the era of mulatto mutant disco. For one short moment, England and New York were in sync.On both sides of the Atlantic the sharpest ex-punks were cooking up piquant hybrids of funk, punk, freeform jazz and dub. A Certain Ratio, Pop Group, Gang of Four, Bush Tetras, Defunkt, ESG--all briefly belonged to an international
avant-funk movement.

Sick muthafunker James White was a key player in all this miscegenated mayhem.  Swiftly following up the 1979 debut Buy, White changed his band's name from the Contortions to the Blacks, and released Off White on the ultra-hip Ze label.  The opener Contort Yourself encapsulates White's sonic and lyrical shtick. Over brittle funk guitar, neurotic bass and a hissing hi-hat disco beat, James spurted the infantile squall of his bebop sax and rapped nihilistic nursery rhymes: "now is the time/to lose all control/distort your body/and twist your soul".  Next came the vile misogny of Stained Sheets, a duet juxtaposing Stella Rico's needy, orgasmic whimpers with White's sadistic contempt. A blankly ironic cover of Irving Berlin's (Tropical) Heatwave segues into Almost Black, the most dubious homage to blackness-as-primitivism since Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro.  That said, Off White's febrile funk remains queerly compelling, even if you're left feeling so soiled you have to take a bath afterwards.

Lost Chance was recorded two years later, when White had changed his name to Chance and hooked up with a brand new bunch of sidemen. Live and lo-fi, this 1981 set showcases Jimbo's unhealthy James Brown fixation, with covers of I Got You (I Feel Good) and King Heroin, alongside Contort Yourself rehashes like Melt      
Yourself Down.  As with ACR, Pop Group et al, funk figured in Chance's white bohemian imagination as voodoo possession, a cold-fever compulsion, which in turn made it the ideal vehicle for the avant-funksters themes of addiction, obsession and control.  

Of course, nobody noticed that Michael Jackson was at that exact same moment working the fascist groove thang in far more convulsively thrilling and spooky fashion, with Off The Wall, Triumph and Thriller, and in a million-selling pop context to boot. Now, that's really sick...

[2015 note: some errors here - he was Chance before he was White; Buy and Off White were simultaneously released, if I recall right, same say - to make some kind of statement]

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fred Vermorel, Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity and the Sixties Laid Bare
contribution to Bookforum "lost classics" feature, 2013

by Simon Reynolds

Fred Vermorel achieved both renown and notoriety for his unorthodox approach to pop biography and as a theorist of fame and fandom. But 1996’s Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity and the Sixties Laid Bare was his most eccentric statement yet.  

For a start, the book was as much about Westwood’s partner Malcolm McLaren as the legendary designer herself.  Her story was ably chronicled in an imaginary interview weaved together from magazine quotes and half-remembered ancedotes stemming from Vermorel’s long association with the punk couture duo and the Sex Pistols milieu. 

But the book really came alive with the central section: Vermorel’s memoir of Sixties London, when he and McLaren were art-school accomplices. The longest and most vivid part of the book, it’s packed with fascinating digressions on topics such as the semiotics of cigarette smoking and the atmosphere of all-night art cinema houses. Among Vermorel’s several provocative assertions is the claim that pop music back then simply wasn’t as important as made out by subsequent false memorials to the Sixties, but was regarded as unserious, a mere backdrop to other bohemian or artistic activities.  

Posing as a profile of a fashion icon, Vivienne Westwood presents the reader with an outlandish blend of cultural etiology (it doubles as an autopsy on the Sixties’s impossible dreams and analysis of its perverse psychology) and  triangular love story. Vermorel and Westwood emerge as both still besotted with the incorrigible McLaren, despite having each “broken up” with him long ago.    


Saturday, November 28, 2015

2step garage

2step Garage
Vibe, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Step into a London club like Cream of Da Crop, and it's like entering a BET wonderland. Everywhere you look there's Beyonces from Bethnal Green and Myas from Mile End. Dressed to impress, the crowd bump and flex to music that sounds like R&B but with a mutant UK twist. Called 2-step, it's a mash-up of Timbaland-style jerky beats and house music's synth-pulsations, laced with raucous dancehall chat, sultry diva vocals, and speaker-rattling bass.

2step has been bubbling on the London underground for several years, but recently it's conquered the British pop mainstream, with artists like Artful Dodger and Truesteppers virtually annexing the Top 10 for most of the Y2K. As well as hot singles by the score, the scene has generated a bona fide superstar in Craig David, who's been the prize in a fierce bidding war between American record companies. For a while Virgin had it sewn up, until David gave them the slip at the last minute. Def Jam and  Bad Boy were also keen. "Puffy phoned me while he was in England for the L'il Kim tour, " says David via cellie from Berlin, the latest stop in his massive European tour. "I was really flattered." Finally Atlantic grabbed him.

 "There's only been a few UK urban artists--Soul II Soul, Loose Ends--who've impacted America in a huge way," says Craig Kallman, the Atlantic A&R executive who signed David, and whose past exploits including hooking Aaliyah up with Timbaland, and Brandy up with Rodney Jerkins. "But Craig is really poised to break here with that kind of hugeness. By the time his album come out in America, he'll have already sold three to four million worldwide." Still, Kallman concedes that nothing's a shoe-in in the record business. "In the UK, Craig benefited from the club vibe creating the groundswell of his buzz---there's this tremendous underground culture of white label releases. But in America, that doesn't exist and 2step is still an unknown genre."

 Craig David is at the forefront of a lost generation of black British vocalists who, facing insurmountable obstacles as homegrown R&B artists, broke through via 2step and the club scene. British R&B has long been perceived as a redundant concept. R&B fans in the UK regard the homegrown stuff as a poor relation when it comes to production values. "People think 'there's already fantastic music coming from America, why should we bother with the local stuff?'" says Ras Kwame of 2step outfit M-Dubs.

It took a little while, though, for the vocal talent--singers like Shola Ama, Elizabeth Troy, Nana, Lifford, Kallaghan, and more--to connect with the 2step producers. Instead, the early days of 2-step saw producers slaking their thirst for quality vocals by going straight to the source--American R&B's creme de la creme--and doing illegal remixes of hits by Dru Hill, Jodeci, Aaliyah, and so forth. Sampling the a capella versions on US import 12 inches, 2steppers dissected the divas and reworked the vocal shards into catchy percussive riffs. Or they kept the songs intact and built brand-new grooves around them.
The most famous of these bootleg remixes was Architechs's make-over of Brandy & Monica's "The Boy Is Mine." Using a digital technique called "timestretching" to speed up the vocals so that they fit 2step's brisker tempo, Architechs made the duetting divas sound like ghosts of themselves, wavery and mirage-like. They also added crowd noises "to make it feel like a contest between Brandy and Monica," says Architechs's City, a veteran of the UK's stillborn R&B scene. "We wanted it to sound like a real soundclash with the crowd dividing its support between the two girls." Having failed to interest Brandy's UK record company EastWest in the idea of releasing the remix officially, Architechs put it out as a white label bootleg. Played incessantly on London's illegal pirate radio stations, "B&M Remix" eventually sold 20 thousand copies--a staggering feat, given that regular record stores won't stock bootlegs and the record was only available via London's specialist 2step stores.

 Close behind "The Boy Is Mine" in popularity was an even more unlikely London street anthem: Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right But It's Okay." At one point, there were ten different bootleg remixes of this tune in circulation. One perpetrator was Wookie, in-house producer for Soul II Soul's label and a man thoroughly familiar with the frustrations of making R&B in the UK. Hooking up with a DJ pal under the alias X-Men, Wookie sneaked out a Whitney bootleg and swiftly followed it with a lovely but utterly illegal reworking of Brandy's "Angel". Although many bootleggers do the remixes to make some quick cash, Wookie conceived them as calling cards to the record industry. And it worked: "Angel" led to him being commissioned to do an official remix of Brit-diva Gabrielle's "Sunshine." Soon he was putting out his own tracks like the Top Ten hit "Battle". Similarly, Architechs got signed and scored a Number 3 pop hit with their own song "Bodygroove".


2step is the product of British youth's longstanding infatuation with all things Black and American, a passion that goes back to the mods in the 1960s. The biggest influence from American R&B on 2step isn't the singing stars, though. It's the futuristic sound and jagged beat-science of producers like Timbaland and She'kspere, and the ghetto fabulous video imagery popularized by Puff Daddy and Hype Williams. 2step is all about flossin', or in UK parlance, "larging it" . Clubbers sport gold bracelets and ice-encrusted chokers, and they fiend for designer labels. At clubs like Pure Silk and Cookies & Cream, you'll see guys wearing "Dolce & Gabbana Is Life" T-shirts, or sashaying around with the neck label of their undershirt pulled out so that the word Versace is visible." "The whole Puff Daddy jiggy thing was a major catalyst," says Ras Kwame. "For a while there, England was Puffed out to the max".

That said, 2step is far from being merely a British imitation of an American sound and style. True, the stop-start beats in Aaliyah and Destiny's Child tracks caught the ears of UK youth big-time. But most of them figured that Timbaland & Co got the idea from drum and bass, which is where 2step producers generally learned their repertoire of rhythm tricks. Another warp factor that makes 2step more than just the new Brit-soul is the influence from dancehall reggae. Black British youth may look to America, but most of them have Jamaican ancestry. Craig David, for instance, comes from a mix-race background, with reggae influences on his father's side. Starting out as DJ playing a mix of R&B, hip hop and ragga, his gimmick was "spinning records and MC-ing at the same time". These tangled influences from rap, dancehall and drum'n'bass shaped David's distinctive vocal style, which moves fluently between melody and stuttering chat in the fashion of Bone Thugs 'N Harmony, Sisquo, and dancehall "singjays" like Mr. Vegas.

MCs are a crucial part of 2step culture, with chatters like PSG, Sparks & Kie, and Creed as famous as the leading DJs. Many come from a UK dancehall or homegrown hip hop background--fields of endeavour just as blocked and fruitless as British R&B. "Rappers and ragga MC's had a hard time in this country," says Kwame. "But now thanks to 2step, 'nuff man get a chance to come through and express themselves 'pon the 'mic." 2step is full of Jamaican slang, like the MC chant "we're bubbling criss": "bubbling" means "grooving," "criss" means slick, sharp-looking, crisp. Then there's the "rewind", in which the crowd shout "Bo!" when they love a record and the MC instructs the DJ to spin it back to the start. Borrowed from dancehall, this audience participation ritual is so crucial in 2step that Craig David and Artful Dodger harnessed it for their smash hit "Rewind (When the Crowd Say 'Bo! Selector!')".

2-step's paradox is that everything it's made of comes from elsewhere--New York's house scene, Jamaican dancehall, American R&B--but the resulting composite could only have happened in London. "You have this clash of cultures here---European, Indian, African, Caribbean," says Ras Kwame. "Everyone brings something different to the table." Kwame's own story is a prime example. Raised in Ghana, he played in reggae bands at high school, and met singers like Dennis Brown and Bob Marley through his father's sound system. Later, as a DJ and aspiring producer in London, he criss-crossed the R&B, hip hop, and drum'n'bass scenes. With his partner in M-Dubs, Kwame opened the record store Sugarshack and operated a little studio in back. Using the store as a way of keeping in touch with street-level tastes, M-Dubs produced massive tunes like "Over Here," featuring the nasal raggamuffin drawl of MC Richie Dan, and "Bump N' Grind", which layered a raunchy vocal lick sampled from Jamaica's queen of slackness Lady Saw ("put me on your face, ninja boy") over a beat stolen from Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire." With a fully-fledged collaboration lined up with dancehall don Mr. Vegas, Kwame is pushing 2step as the 21st Century "rudeboy shuffle." "It's bassline music, like all London music really," he says. "It goes back to when the sound-system culture got brought over from Jamaica, thirty years ago. "


For 2-step, the million dollar question is whether its mix'n'blend of far-flung influences, so perfect attuned to the U.K's audio-erogenous zones, can make any impression on this side of the Atlantic, where urban audiences are even more insular than the rock market. If Phase One of 2step was the bootleg fad and Phase Two was producers writing their own songs, Phase 3, says Wookie, "is recording albums and seeing if this stuff can appeal to people who aren't out in the clubs." If 2-step can make sense outside its subcultural context, then it stands a chance in America.

One rainy Sunday in December, MJ Cole--like Wookie, one of the first 2step producers to release an album--makes his New York debut as DJ support to Def Soul artiste Muziq Soulchild. Just like a garage club in London, the audience at the Bowery Ballroom is 80 percent black, but that's where the similarity ends. The crowd's smart but not flashy; in terms of music taste, you'd align them with Common/Erykah Badu/Montell Jordan, as opposed to Sisquo/Destiny's Child. When Cole takes over the decks from an R&B DJ playing slow jams, the 50 beats-per-minute tempo increase gets most of the guys scowling and looking round like someone's cut the cheese. You can almost see the thought-bubbles: "what IS this shit, house music or something?!". Gradually, the women are seduced by 2step's frisky beats and effervescent, joystruck vocals. And when Cole drops some fiercer bass-driven tunes, like his own remix of Glamma Kid & Shola Ama's "Sweetest Taboo," even the men start busting moves instead of looking bemused.

A few days later, hanging out at the West Village art gallery Alleged, Cole confesses to having been "quite scared actually. I was like, 'shit!, this is a real R&B crowd'. Danny Vicious, my MC, just totally lost his nerve, that's why he was so quiet on the mic'. See, he's a UK hip hop man, and suddenly being right there in the city where it all started.... " Cole frankly admits he has no idea how to break his music in the USA. 2step is already developing a small following as an offshoot of the American drum'n'bass scene, and the more "musical" style purveyed by Wookie and MJ Cole is likely to do well with the acid jazz crowd. But this is strictly cult success, small potatoes compared with the tyrannical thrall over the pop mainstream 2step enjoys in the UK. So the real question is whether BET and Hot 97 will take a chance on this music. And the problem is that, with R&B and street rap showing no signs of flagging commercially, these urban culture gatekeepers have no real incentive to take a risk on some weird shit from the UK.

Then again, the last year has seen American R&B and rap sounding ever closer to electronica and house music, possibly as a side effect of the rising popularity of Ecstasy in hip hop culture. From Timbaland using an acid bassline in Aaliyah's "Try Again", to the L'il Kim tracks based on old house classics, from OutKast's drum'n'bass dabblings to the eerie techno flavor of cuts from Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek, it could be that R&B/rap will meet 2-step halfway (given that 2-step is coming out of rave culture and heading towards American urban music). Digital technology and the near-instantaneous way that musical ideas migrate these days means that the borders between all the different street musics are increasingly meaningless. From Brixton in South London to the Bronx to Kingston, Jamaica, it's getting to be a single unified bass-beats-bleeps culture, a transAtlantic confederacy of booty-shaking sounds. Right now, the UK has a one-way alliance with American R&B, an unreciprocated love affair. But listen to 2-step, and it's hard to imagine this sound not booming out of cars from Atlanta to Los Angeles some time in the near future. I mean, how can you guys resist?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

trance versus jungle

The Wire, late 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Tastemakers are unanimous: when it comes to the scattered tribes
of the post-aciiied diaspora, trance is where it's at.  And 'ardkore
is held in universal disdain: junglist breakbeats and squeaky vocal
samples are regarded as risible signs of rave's degeneration into
'nuttercore', 150 b.p.m. kiddy-kartoon nonsense for E'd up hooligans.
For trance purists, programmed beats and all-electronic textures
indicate pure-blooded ancestry, rooted in the 'golden age' of
Detroit, as passed down through illustrious scions like Warp.  But in
music as in genealogy/genetics, purity is over-rated: it engenders
inbred enfeeblement. Miscegenation, mongrelisation and mutation are
the very stuff of evolution. So I'm here to hail rave's wayward,
RUFF-ian son, jungalistic hardcore, and direct some overdue
scepticism towards trance.

By any reckoning 'Trance Europe Express', Volume's double CD of
state-of-art techno, is a superb compilation: 24 tracks including
offerings by most of the prime movers in the field.  Nonetheless, the
comp has something of the air of epitaph about it: this is a genre
that's reached a dead end, etiolated by its own oppressive
tastefulness.  Trance's critical hegemony goes hand in hand with
textural homogeneity: the 'infinite possibilities' fanfared by
technophile critics too often boil down to a rather uniform and
impoverished array of 'cosmic' synth-timbres. While the best
exponents here (Orbital, Aphex, Bandulu) are opening up a new genre
of electronic composition, the lesser units (Psychick Warriors Ov
Gaia, The Source, Cosmic Baby) are little more than Tangerine Dream
or Vangelis with a modern beat: funkless, Aryan mood-muzak.

The alleged superiority of trance over jungle relies on the
questionable desirability of such an entity as 'armchair/intelligent
techno'. Is sedentary and contemplative somehow intrinsically a
higher, truer response than sweaty and mental?  This is simply
prog-rock snobbery.  Like the earnest conceptualists of the
Seventies, trance signifies its 'progressive' intentions by taking
its bleedin' time: at best (say, Orbital), this is an aesthetic of
sensuous ebb-and-flow (rather than ardkore's blipvert blitz).  Too
often, it means longeurs galore.

In fact, listening to trance can be a bit like going to church.
The genre does give itself pseudo-spiritual airs (hence the angelic
choral samples on Scubadevil's "Celestial Symphony", or the fact that
the top London club for trance is called 'The Knowledge').  Whereas
jungle is more pagan and voodoo. Its vulgar, indiscriminate approach
to sampling makes me think of cargo cults - hallucinating the sublime
and otherworldly in all manner of trash and pop-cultural jetsam.

Where trance's sampling is tasteful, discreet, a fusion-puree, jungle
is fissile: you can see the joins and that's so much more postmodern
and exciting. A typical jungle track is an epileptic/eclectic mish-
mash of incongrous textures (spooky ectoplasm rubs up against
gimmicky cartoon gibberish) and incompatible moods (mystic, manic,
macabre).  Jungle's cut'n'mix aesthetic owes as much to hip hop as to
techno; tracks have a machinic/organic, cyborg quality that recalls
the days before rap's slide into plausible, 'realistic' grooviness.

If you think 'ardkore means The Prodigy (who's great, anyway, The
Sweet of the 90's), you should really check out 'The Joint'. Label
compilations tend to be patchy, but this one excels because it's a
collaboration between two of ardkore's most innovative labels,
Suburban Base and Moving Shadow.  Most of the tracks have a schizoid
quality, flitting back and forth between jungle's two current modes:
happy'n'hyper and dark'n'demonic. Foul Play's "Open Your Mind"
oscillates between clammy synth-tones and billowing soul-chanteuse
harmonies.  Omni Trio's "Mystic Stepper" also has an unnerving
oxymoronic vibe, a sort of mournful euphoria: the "feel good" chorus
aches with a strange desolation. DJ Hype's "The Chopper" starts as a
pure rush (ricochetting hi-hat and Uzi-rattling snare, faecal-squirts
of bass-flatulence), then forlorn soul-diva ether wafts into the mix,
introducing an incongrous note of poignancy. DJ Krome & Mr Time's
"The Slammer", by comparison, is pure 'happy hardcore', a gorgeous,
fuzzily-reverbed piano figure entwined with a chorus that gushes
'dancing we dancing we losing control'.

The looped breakbeats + recognisable samples method initially
resulted in a deluge of white label mediocrity, provoking
proclamations of rave's death.  But Reinforced's recent sampler-EP
"Enforcers 4" shows that this aesthetic has matured; jungle has
thrived on media neglect.  Like the Moving Shadow & Suburban Base
crews, Reinforced's roster pile on the rollin' breaks to form a
sophisticated mesh of polyrhythms; beats are treated, reverbed,
'timestretched', even run backwards (on Manix' 'The X Factor'),
inducing a eerie feel of in-the-pocket funk and out-of-body delirium.
Over this roiling syncopation, ecstastic vocal plasma is molded and
modulated, an inner-body choir of sighs and whimpers that simulates
E's 'arrested orgasm' sensation.  Meanwhile, instead of basslines,
jungle's low-end has devolved into a radioactive ooze that impacts
you viscerally rather than aurally.

Ultimately, it is all down to a gut-level response, whether you
prefer trance's clockwork-regular Kraftwerk/Moroder pulse-grooves or
jungle's staccato, thrash-funk judder-quake.  It's whatever gets in
your pants, works your booty and your imagination.  But putting on my
critic's cap, I'd say that jungle's uproarious schizo-eclecticism is
paying greater dividends than trance's solemn purism. At its best,
jungle is like a gutternsnipe Can (same James Brownian rotorvation,
similar 'flow motion' ethos). Jungle is the bastard child of the John
Cage/Byrne & Eno/23 Skidoo avant-disco tradition, shunned and scorned
where the supposedly rightful inheritor of that tradition,
trance/ambient, is feted. But illegitimate heirs tend to lead more
interesting lives.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lady Sovereign

Lady Sovereign
Public Warning

director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, December 10th 2006.

by Simon Reynolds

Public Warning is a paradox: a great album, but a botched debut. It’s everything the fan could have hoped for, yet it’s palpably tarnished by its tardiness. This record, you can’t help feeling, really should have come out 18 months ago, when it would have spearheaded the onslaught of grime-goes-pop bids (Kano, Roll Deep, Lethal B) and when Lady Sovereign was surfing a high tide of media buzz. By now “the multitalented munchkin” ought to be a one-woman Spice Girls phenomenon, with Sov World already in production. Arriving in the early months of 2007 Public Warning unavoidably has a last year’s thing--hell, the year before last’s thing--aura. And why the heinous, mystifying decision to release it in the UK three months after its American release? Were Sov's minders thinking they should wait until grime's profile sank to zero and then re-launch her as a US-anointed star? The press release  for Warning trumpets its #48  Billboard Chart entry and 20 thousand first week sales, but what that really means is that hardcore British fans will have bought the import or, more likely, downloaded it illegally months before the record even comes out in Sov’s homeland. 

But enough about hype and strategy, what about the would-be pop artifact itself? From production to persona, rhymes to flow, Public Warning is almost flawless. Three years since she first stung ours ears with “Ch Ching,” it’s still pure delight to hear Louise Harman mangle language as she shifts back and forth her two modes of tautly-drawled nasal insolence and slack ‘n’ gravelly ragga menace. So deft is her flair for alliteration she can't help signposting it with an interpolation of “Peter Piper picked a pickled pepper"  in one song and “she sells sea-shells by the sea shore” in another. And she subjects vowel sounds to Abu Ghraib-degrees of contortion--just check the stretched “u”'s in the “9 to 5” verse that rhymes “huge”, “rude”, “food”, “Red Bull” and “Channel U”. 

So deliriously pleasurable is the sound of Sov that you often glaze out on the sense of her words, which--when they’re not bigging herself up on tunes like “A Little Bit of Shhh” or the Prodigy-goes-2-Tone title track--are as keenly observed as Mike Skinner’s. “Gatheration” sketches an impromptu house party at Sov’s “yard”, while the hilarious “My England” skewers American Anglophile illusions about this country: “we don’t all have bowler hats and hire servants/More like 24 hour surveillance and dogshit on the pavements”, declares Sov, before spurning croquet for Playstation and scones for “someone’s fresh homegrown.” There’s more local colour in the obligatory US hip hop-style reminiscence “Those Were The Days”, Sov recalling youthful larks--“racing down the hill in Safeway trolleys”--on the Chalk Hill estate in North London. 

Sov’s signature blend of vivacious and vicious sometimes brings to mind that old Monty Python sketch inspired by the Kray Twins, in which the most fearsome sibling isn’t the brother who wields ultraviolence but the ones who uses sarcasm. She may be tiny and intensely charming, but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her. “Tango Man” reminds you of teenage girls’ capacity for verbal cruelty, taunting an ex-friend who overdid the fake tan (she gets compares to baked beans in an English breakfast at one point) while the growly thunder of Sov’s vocal on “A Little Bit of Shhh” gives teeth to the aside “don’t joke with us small folk.” The bass-booming “Fiddle With the Volume” is an incitement to ASBO--“abuse your speakers, lose your manners/disturb the neighbours, this one’s a banger”--and makes you briefly envisage this rude girl as an icon for our contemporary culture of incivility and public disorder. But then there’s “Hoodie”--not, as you’d expect from the title, a defiant anthem for UK’s new folk devil, the hood-wearing, mall-stalking chav, but actually a celebration of Sov’s own brand of grrl power, in which the unisex hip hop clothes of trainers and hooded sweatshirt is simply more practical for active pursuits like dancing than the sexed-up club babe look. Riding a lithe beat so swinging and innocently exuberant it’s almost Sixties in feel, the gorgeous chorus  “fling on an Adidas hoodie and just boogie-woogie with me” reminds you that young people haven’t really changed. They still want to “get loose,” as Sov sings it, dance their way out of their constrictions.


Friday, November 6, 2015

dance 98

Dance acts at CMJ  1998 alternative music seminar  
Village Voice November 17th, 1998 

by Simon Reynolds

It's been a year of musical agnosticism, with no single zone of sonic activity compelling enough to warrant monomania. Indie-rock hipsters are now as likely to check out dance music, while club-music mags, responding to the ennui engendered by a decade of dance-and-drug culture, are broadening their coverage to include rock: usually instrumentalists such as Tortoise and Fridge, but sometimes proper bands, like The Verve or Spiritualized, who have some kind of narco-spiritual kinship with rave. Given this backdrop of confusion, perhaps it's not surprising that this year's CMJ featured almost as much top DJ talent as the Miami Winter Dance conference.

At Bowery Ballroom Wednesday, Lo-Fidelity Allstars made a brave but clumsy stab at incorporating the science of dance music into the attack of rock'n'roll. The band's debut, How To Operate With a Blown Mind, is an oxymoronic masterpiece of "darkside big beat," documenting the normalized malaise of British polydrug culture, where clubbers boast about getting "messy" on a cocktail of diverse chemicals. Onstage, unfortunately, the band's rave'n'roll hybrid offers neither the machinelike precision of a DJ nor the charismatic spectacle of a band. Still, the vandalized disco of "Blisters on My Brain" dazzled the ears like the Gallic glitterball house of Stardust and Daft Punk.

That same night, Speeed's four-floor, 24-DJ extravaganza promised big fun, but actually delivered (thanks to oddly sparse attendance) a disappointingly vibeless experience. In the cavernous, almost deserted basement, U.S. house gods Deep Dish wove an alternately honeydewed and harsh web of textured rhythm; later, "surprise guests" Sasha & Digweed, accustomed to audiences of several thousand, attempted to please a crowd that was simply absent. 

Elsewhere, old-skool nostalgia seemed to be the ruling flavor: Monkey Mafia's Jon Carter played a very peculiar remix of Prince's "When Doves Cry," Les Rhythmes Digitales's Jacques Lu Cont offered a pitched-up, helium-squeaky version of A Guy Called Gerald's "Voodoo Ray," and Glasgow's DJ Q dropped a crisp and spangly selection of disco cut-ups and filtered house. Just about the only breath of techno futurism came from Moby, who climaxed his set with a searingly celestial trance track, origin unknown.

Some of the week's best action was at parties not listed in the official program, but loosely affiliated to the schmooze fest and free to badge holders. On Thursday, New York hardcore techno label Industrial Strength brought gabba to the Sapphire Lounge. Lenny Dee resurrected the bombastic Belgian techno vibe of Brooklyn warehouse parties circa 1991; Parisian DJ Manu Le Malin stressed gabba's claims on the phuture with punishing yet atmospheric gloomcore. Later that night, Paul Oakenfold and sidekick Dave Ralph pleasured a packed Irving Plaza with sets of epic house and melodic trance that alternately tugged at the heartstrings (twinkly, plangent riffs) and insulted the intelligence (schlocky grand piano chords, Enya-esque Celt-diva vocals).

Like the Lo-fi's mishmash on Wednesday, the lineup at Irving Plaza on Saturday exposed the fallibility of live techno. Instead of transcendently tweaked-out turntablizm, Josh Wink opted for fitful, real-time performance of his own music. Then industrial dance veterans Meat Beat Manifesto churned out one torpid-tempo'd, quasi-funky track after another, making you wonder why main man Jack Dangers bothers hiring a live drummer if he just sounds like a state-of-the-art-circa-1990 breakbeat loop. With the post-MBM set from Wink never materializing, the night ultimately confirmed a stubborn truth about dance music: with scant few exceptions, it's a DJ thing. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Various Artists
Troubled Waters
Offshore Recordings
Village Voice, September 7th 2004

by Simon Reynolds

Drum ‘n’ bass always prided itself on being vanguard music, perpetually moving forward. Six years ago, though, the music reached a frenetic standstill, a treadmill churn of jacknifing beats and bass-riffs like endless anagrams of the same doom-blare notes. When lapsed believers (such as me) squabble with still-believers, it's like Led Zep fans arguing with Iron Maiden supporters: no, no, can't you see, it's not the same thing AT ALL! 

Built entirely from tracks on his label Offshore, New York deejay Clever's mix-CD is so refreshing because it makes like the last six years never happened. The Offshore sound takes off from the genre's moment of supreme musical ripeness, when beats were densely micro-edited but still swinging: the hyper-syncopated drum talk and lush 'n' eerie textures of Source Direct and 4 Hero. New output from veterans of that time (Deep Blue and Justice, associated with once peerless label Moving Shadow) appears on Troubled Waters alongside tracks by brilliant younger producers like Paradox and Sileni (whose "Twitchy Droid Leg" is title of the year). 

Seamlessly mixed (quite a feat given that almost everything Clever's young label has released is on this CD) Troubled Waters propels you on DJ culture’s proverbial “journey”--in this case, a thrilling ride across dark and light, frenzy and serenity. And Clever will be doing it live on Friday September 17 at Spill (196 Orchard Street), sharing the bill with Chris Walton of Inperspective Records--Offshore's London ally in the resurgence of breakbeats that actually break and basslines that move inside the groove. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Spring Heel Jack

Melody Maker, late 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Spring Heel Jack have been turning lots of heads with
their marvellous avant-jungle track, "The Sea Lettuce", which
layers dreamy atmospherics over rippling breakbeats.  Based
in Hackney, Sping Heel are a duo, Ash Wates and John Coxon,
and their music is a soundclash of their seemingly
incompatible influences--hardcore and modern classical music.

36 year old Ash's musical background is strictly avant-
garde: 20th Century classical, jazz and avant-funk. Today,
Ash can trace a lineage through his taste from Miles and Can
through dub, PiL, On U Sound to jungle. But for the longest
while, he never cared for club music. Eventually he was
turned onto early hardcore by his workmates (he was a
landscape gardener) who would return still buzzing after mad
weekends.  "Back then," says Ash, referring to late '91, "the
rave scene was more integrated, you'd get the Ragga Twins
played back to back with Human Resource's 'Dominator'.  Now
you'd get 8 hours pure jungle, 8 hours pure trance,  8 hours
pure garage.  Everything's splintered."

Unlike Ash, 30 year old John is as big a fan of soul as
of modern classical.  And compared to Ash, his addiction to
jungle was acquired quite recently. "All these great tunes
started coming out around Christmas.  Then I'd hear the
metronomic, linear beat of techno and I'd think 'naaah, this
doesn't cut it anymore'." As such, John's part of a influx of
new converts that may prefigure the reintegration of jungle
and techno.  Now everybody from Orbital and Bandulu to Junior
Boys Own and Bjork are turning onto breakbeat-science.

"Well, the music's just got undeniable," says Ash.  "But
I've been telling people for years, this stuff is really
sophisticated." Spring Heel particularly rate Hyper-On-
Experience (and the rest of the Moving Shadow roster),
Ronnie Size, and the great LTJ Bukem.  They freely admit that
Bukem's sublime "Atlantis (I Need You)" is the model for the
the urgent-but-serene, oceanic-beat of "The Sea Lettuce".

Ash and John detect all kinds of parallels between avant-
classical and jungle. On their mix-tape, they blend Berio's
"Visage" with A-Zone's "Callin' The People".  Apart from the
way Berio's tape treaments of avant-diva Cathy Berberian's
voice anticipate the 'timestretch' sorcery of sampling, what
are the links between avant-classical and jungle?

"It's all about abstraction," declares John grandly, then
immediately concedes: "Then again, all music is abstract,
non-figurative. But there's different kinds.  In classical
music, you get linear abstraction, the repetition of simple
themes, as with Arvo Part or systems music. A lot of techno
is like that, very horizontal.  But jungle is
vertical, multi-tiered, so it doesn't lull you.  There's so
much going on in the best tracks that you have to play them
at 33 r.p.m just to hear the complexity."

Jungle's overlapping hyper-syncopations simultaneously
sustain a relentless flow and constantly rupture it (the
music's literally composed of breaks). It's like the unstable
ground of modern life, the urban minefield through which we
all stealthily tip-toe.

"Absolutely. It's like, if we lived in mansions, we'd be
writing pastoral symphonies. Jungle reflects its
environment, it could only have come from London." John goes
on to argue that ambient jungle is a sort of successor to dub
reggae: "In dub, all the spacey, reverbed and delayed sounds
surround the dangerous beats and heavy bass, and act like a
narcotic, comforting and wombing you. I like that polarity
between savage and soothing, that ambivalence".

Instead of releasing "Sea Lettuce" as a white label
through the 'ardkore scene, Spring Heel have signed to Rough
Trade (John will also be doing a little junglism talent-
scouting for the label).  Ash reckons this link-up is cool
'cos of RT's "tradition of Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire etc"--
bands he sees as ancestors for dark jungle.  Actually,
"Sea Lettuce" is more reminiscent of Rough Trade obscurity
Arthur Russell, a New York avant-gardist who turned onto
disco and made some classic aqua-funk/proto-garage trax like
"Bang Go Bang", "Let's Go Swimming" and "Indian Ocean".
Despite its samples of waves and ship-ropes creaking, "The
Sea Lettuce" doesn't actually carry a heavy oceanic concept
(it's titled after the nickname of their friend Mary).

The Rough Trade link-up is significant in so far as
Spring Heel are the first in a soon-come series of indie
appropriations of jungle (Bark Psychosis recently played a
breakbeat set, Laika have a jungle track in the can, etc)
"Sea Lettuce" even incorporates rock noise--John's "open-
tuned guitar which I bowed with a slide and held up against
the amp, so that there's a gush of feedback." John admires
reinventors of the guitar like Hendrix and The Stooges' James
Williamson, but he's far more interested in the sampler.
"It's the greatest instrument on the planet. Anyone could do
something interesting in the studio with a sampler, although
not necessarily something great."

What about the future of jungle? The duo sees the genre
splitting off in at least three different directions: the
ragga-influenced stuff, the hardcore drum & bass, and the
ambient/intelligent sound associated with Moving Shadow.  The
latter is where Spring Heel fit best: "music that works at
home as well as in clubs," says Ash "and doesn't need drugs."
John, though, thinks the 'intelligent' label is problematic.
"There's a danger that the music press will focus on the
mellower music, and ignore the ruffer jungle--basically the
black stuff".

As for Spring Heel Jack's own future, next up is the
second single 'Where Do You Fit In' b/w 'Fast and Sad',
followed by an LP early next year.  "Some of it's very odd.
We call it use-less jungle--no beats, you can't dance to it!"

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Black Moth Super Rainbow

Black Moth Super Rainbow
Dandelion Gum
Blender, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

The story goes that Dandelion Gum is a concept album about forest-dwelling, candy-making witches thatwas recorded in a Pennsylvania backwoods cabin by five musicians who hide behind aliases like Father Hummingbird. Mystique cultivation? Maybe, but that’s okay, because the set-up suits perfectly Black Moth’s blend of idyllic, macabre, and kooky. Vintage synths whinny and dapple over crisply funky drum machine beats, while singer Tobacco feeds his voice through a vocoder, an effect that ought to be cheesy but is here ecstatic and otherwordly.

The missing link between Daft Punk’s cosmic kitsch and the wistful bliss of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Black Moth’s sound triggers the same elegiac sensation as light-bleached family vacation photos or Super 8 home movies with their sun streaks and saturated colors. The song titles and lyrics fixatedly refer to summer and sunshine, and the music itself seems to ripple its way to our ears through the sonic equivalent of heat-haze.  Dandelion Gum is the sublime surprise of the season.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Young Marble Giants

Liner notes by Simon Reynolds

Postpunk and “perfection” rarely went together. This was an era of experimental over-reach, of bands catalysed by the punk do-it-yourself principle attempting to expand the music by embracing genres (funk, reggae, jazz) that in their original context relied on virtuosity and slickness. Artistic ambition and anyone-can-do-it amateurism make for uneasy bedfellows, and many of the key groups of the period made records that were closer to sketches towards an ideal of a new music than the fully-realised deal. Even some of the accredited classics that defined the era—Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Gang of Four’s Entertainment—have the odd moment or several that are substandard, botched, or simply misconceived. And really, that’s okay, because perfection wasn’t the point of postpunk. What was? Throwing out ideas, setting challenges for band and audience alike, keeping the collective conversation moving. That’s why groups like Cabaret Voltaire, the Pop Group, Scritti Politti, Throbbing Gristle, were heroic figures, true catalysts.

What this does mean, though, is that there are really just a handful of long-form recordings from the entire 1978-84 period that are immaculate from conception to construction. The Slits’ Cut, Slates by the Fall, Pere Ubu’s first two albums… and Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth. The Cardiff trio’s one-and-only album contains not a wasted note, barely a blemish. The individual songs have something of the “rightness” of things found in nature—leaves, snowflakes, pebbles, sea-shells—that are at once miraculous yet commonplace, marvelous and unassuming. Together the tunes add up to a perfectly sequenced whole, a cohesive experience. Colossal Youth became the independent scene equivalent of a blockbuster smash on its release in early 1980, and clearly the punters were partly responding to the sheer quality and aesthetic integrity of the record, which arrived without fanfare, seemingly from nowhere. But they were also spellbound by the originality and unusual-ness of the sound—there was nothing else like Young Marble Giants around at the time—and by its quiet radicalism. Colossal Youth was followed by a couple of EPs, and then the group split up, to everyone’s surprise and dismay. Frustrating as this disintegration was for fans, it had the beneficial side-effect of ensuring that the group left a small, perfectly-formed body of work—compact enough to fit on a compact disc.

*          *          *

The story of Young Marble Giants starts with two brothers, Stuart and Philip Moxham. They grew up in Cardiff, but were half-English, their father's side of the family hailing from Gloucestershire farming stock. And there are actually four Moxham brothers. The eldest, Richard, was an adventurous spirit and returned from travels in the Far East with a fantastic record collection and a great stereo. Stuart, the principal songwriter and driving force in Young Marble Giants, fondly recalls his adolescent initiation, via Richard’s “top-of-the range headphones”, into the pleasures of immersive listening. At this point--the early Seventies--the sounds he lost himself in consisted of progressive rock and folky singer-songwriters such as Neil Young, Ralph McTell, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.

Stuart had some of his older brother’s restlessness and signed on for a see-the-world stint in the Royal Navy. Returning to Cardiff, he took up music-making at the relatively late-starter age of twenty and was soon playing guitar in a band called True Wheel (the name came from the title of the Brian Eno song on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), the very same ditty whose lyrics supplied A Certain Ratio with their name). In another fit of restlessness, Stuart jumped on his motorbike and drove to Norwich, where he lived for a period, working on a farm. When he came back to Cardiff, True Wheel had recruited his brother Philip as bassist, and a teenage girl called Alison Statton had joined as a backing singer. Stuart shifted roles to become the band’s frontman; Philip and Alison, meanwhile, started dating.

True Wheel was a covers band and Stuart, looking for a vehicle for his songwriting, decided to start his own band. He invited Philip to join. Philip agreed--but only on condition that Alison was involved. Stuart wasn’t keen on this idea at all: he had envisaged singing his own songs. But he really wanted to work with his brother, on account of their “telepathic” musical bond. “We were very close, and when it came to playing, we had a phenomenal communication… we could jam and change key at exactly the same time, stop at the same time.” So Stuart agreed to Alison being the vocalist, but with “a tiny seed of resentment” lodged in his heart right from the start.

Formed in November 1978, Young Marble Giants found their name in a book about classical sculpture. Later they would put the text in question on the back sleeve of the Final Day EP: "...Young marble giants greeted the sailor as he entered the home stretch to Athens. Two basic intuitions of Greek art -- tensed vitality and geometric structuring -- are as yet disunited; the sculptor partly carves, partly maps an abstract concept of human form onto the rectangular block." Something of this quality of geometric starkness and clarity of form infused the group’s sound, very much a consciously chosen and conceptualized-in-advance style, as opposed to something evolved haphazardly. Hating what Stuart described in one interview as “this business of Phil Spectorism, this whole idea of masses of strings and layers of sound,” the brothers rejected its modern equivalent, the punk rock “wall of noise” built from thickly layered guitars and fuzzed-out distortion. Instead, like an old fashioned pocket watch with its casing open to reveal the moving parts, the Young Marble Giants sound would be pared and bare, its meshwork of cogs and spindles exposed in all its intricate distinctness. As Philip would later express it, "You write the gaps as much as you write the music."

Crucial to the band’s crisp and dry sound was Stuart’s Rickenbacker, “a very trebly guitar” which he played using “an extremely hard plectrum, called a shark fin, with a serrated edge.” Throughout the YMG songbook, Stuart eschews lead-guitar flourishes and soloistic playing in favour of  a signature style of scurrying rhythm guitar, its characteristic choppy quality reliant upon on a technique called “muting”, where “you’re basically resting the hand that you strum with on the strings.” The result was a feel that was dynamic and propulsive yet curiously suppressed, subdued, even furtive. Philip played his bass high, such that it was frequently mistaken by listeners for another guitar; indeed, with Stuart’s playing so intensely rhythmic and stripped-down, the bassline was often the melodic thread in YMG songs. The brothers’ instruments wound around each other like fibres twining into yarn. “We became immensely tight,” says Stuart. He attributes their supernatural synchrony not just to fraternal closeness but to their use of machine rhythm. Instead of a human drummer, YMG twitched to the precision pulse of a very basic drum machine. “We were playing to what was effectively an electronic metronome”, akin to the click-track used by sessions musicians in recording studios.

Stuart compares the interplay between himself and Philip to “knitting”--a strikingly un-rock’n’roll and non-macho metaphor that speaks volumes about the low-key radicalism of YMG music. Alison Statton’s voice meshed perfectly with this androgynous sound. Seventeen years old when the band started, a trainee dental nurse at the University Hospital of Wales, Statton sang with a plaintive simplicity and cool pallor of tone that bypassed all the mannered drama of the singerly arts. Statton arrived at this unadorned naturalism without much conscious stylization. “I admire a trained voice or 'real singer', someone who can belt it out and you never doubt they can hit any note they want to, but I have always loved the exposure of a naked human voice and all its frailties and the individual-ness that comes with that exposure, that honesty,” she muses. “It adds a tension yet it also makes me feel more connected to the person singing.” Alison’s intriguingly motley music taste does help to explain her avoidance of straight-ahead rock raunch and soul-blues emoting: “Hymns, disco, the Residents, nursery rhymes,” is the list of favored listening she gave in one 1980 interview, while another journalist noted the presence of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Tom Waits and Ultravox in her record collection. “I did like the raw energy of punk rock at live gigs,” Alison says now, “but I was more inspired by less urgent, quieter music--less 'masculine' sounds if you like. I can remember being mesmerised by the church organ in the Scottish Presbyterian church on a Sunday and can still hear the detail of a dropped hymn book echoing or a stifled cough when it stopped and silence fell once again. Then there's the music one’s parents listen to, in my case Orkney fiddle and accordion music, swing bands and crooners with the likes of the original 'My Way'. It all somehow settles itself into your musical psyche whether you want it to or not! It's always been the points of sound in silence that get my attention most of all--the ticking of the clock and crackle of the fire in Mr. Morgan's parlour, the rain on a window pane or an owl at night. Those are the sounds that have an exquisite intensity for me.”

There was a shadowy “fourth member” of Young Marble Giants, a non-musician who nonetheless played a vital technical role. The Moxham brothers’ cousin Pete Joyce was a telephone engineer by trade and a dab hand at cobbling together electronic gizmos; he was also a fan of avant-garde rock bands like Pere Ubu and Can. Joyce built YMG’s drum machine from a diagram in Practical Wireless, and he also made them a ring modulator. “It had two inputs and one output, so you’d put two things in and it would blend them together,” recalls Stuart. “You could put the drum machine and the electric organ in and you would be able to play the drum machine. It was like an early sampler in a way, the pitch of it would go up and down.” The ring modulator and other gizmos (including the non-kiddy version of the Stylophone, a very rudimentary synthesizer) embellished the basic YMG sound with wisps of electronic sound and subliminal drone-tones.

“We had a very limited palette–electric guitar, electric organ, drum machine and ring modulator… Oh, and voice, of course,” says Stuart. On first hearing, this was the most striking aspect of Young Marble Giants: the sheer emaciation of the sound, the miniaturization of detail. Rather than blaring in your face or grabbing the lapels of your attention, this was music that drew you into its withdrawn and chilly stillness, rapt you with its moods of stealth and solitude. Not exactly rock’n’roll, then, and as such primed to chime with the ideals of 1979, a year in which the postpunk vanguard of PiL and Cabaret Voltaire were loudly insisting on the utter obsolescence of rock and looking for music’s future in the studio-based innovations of disco and dub.

PiL and the Cabs were just two of countless bands who loudly lambasted The Clash and (bizarrely) Chuck Berry as representing the definition of arriéré-garde, everything that modernist music should be renouncing and leaving for dead. YMG also went in for this kind of rhetoric a little bit. In one interview, Stuart recalled an early gig they played in Cardiff--an industrial town oriented around heavy rock bands and twelve-bar blues--during which an audience member shouted out “play rock and roll!” “So I kind of went into this Chuck Berry riff, and then stopped and said ‘look, anyone can do that. They're doing it all over town. But we want to do this. If you want that, go somewhere else’.” Yet weirdly there was a subliminal rock’n’roll element in YMG music.  Stuart loved both the twangy instrumental rock of Duane Eddy and the crisp rhythm-and-blues playing of Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs; on certain YMG tunes, like “Include Me Out”, there’s a dashing rock’n’roll feel redolent of Eddie Cochran or Bo Diddley, while “Brand-New-Life” sounds a bit like The Police’s “Message in A Bottle”. “In a lot of ways, I was a frustrated rocker. A lot of those riffs would sound great on loud, distorted guitars in a conventional band. There’s something a bit repressed about Young Marble Giants music.” Yet the restraint, the leashing, of that impulse to rock-out, is crucial to YMG’s sound. This was rock’n’roll Anglicised, the urge to cut loose checked by a native reserve and inhibition. In another sense, it’s the authentic sonic depiction of mental unrest and emotional disquiet; the way the music moves suggests someone physically immobile but internally agitated. “Music for Evenings”, for instance, simmers with damped-down rage, jitters with imploded violence.

Cardiff being such a rock town, YMG struggled to have any impact, playing a handful of local gigs (as few as four, by some reckonings) and selling cassettes of early tape-reel recordings via the local Virgin record store, where Stuart worked. What New Wave/postpunk scene there was clustered around the coffee bar Grassroots, a social advice center run by Cardiff City Council. The place had a practice room for bands and hosted the occasional performance. YMG’s debut at Grassroots wasn’t especially auspicious: legend has it they played to an audience of exactly one. Generally, crowds tended to be perplexed by the sight of a band without a drummer. YMG didn’t even have a drum machine onstage, just a Casio cassette machine playing a “tatty old mono cassette,” recalls Stuart. “Phil would play the bass and at the end of the track he’d turn off the tape recorder with his knee. And it worked fine.”

YMG did become friendly, though, with the prime movers of the Grassroots scene, Reptile Ranch, a group who were far more plugged into the postpunk scene across the UK. Specifically, they aligned themselves with the do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself sector pioneered by the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti. A key aspect to postpunk’s ethos of democratizing music-making was the idea of resisting the centralization of the music industry in London. Hence the late Seventies upsurge of independent labels and musicians collectives in the provinces. One manifestation of this defiant regionalism was a spate of city-based compilations aiming to showcase local talent, albums like Hicks From the Sticks, Bouquet of Steel, Avon Calling, Norwich, A Fine City, Street To Street: A Liverpool Album, and many more.

In the spirit of the time, Reptile Ranch assembled a Cardiff compilation titled Is The War Over? and released it via their label Z Block. The initial spur to action came when the band saw a South Bank Show documentary about Rough Trade. As well as a shop and label, Rough Trade was also a distribution company. Working in tandem with similar companies across the country, Rough Trade had been the driving force behind the establishment of a nationwide independent distribution network. As historian Dave Cavanagh noted in his book My Magpie Eyes Have Seen the Prize, “in the context of post-punk Britain” Rough Trade’s efforts ““were as beneficial and as provident as if they had been building the first roads.” Lacking effective distribution, independent labels outside London had hitherto relied on mail-order and the hospitality of whatever record stores they could physically reach. But the system developed by Rough Trade and the other members of the Cartel (as the alliance of regional distributors came to be known) meant that all kinds of remote and far-flung musical eccentrics could reach a national audience. Or even an international one, as Rough Trade’s tentacles began to extend overseas and form alliances with similar companies in America and Europe

YMG contributed two tracks to Is The War Over?, “Ode to Booker T" and "Searching for Mr. Right," recorded in a rough-and-ready studio upstairs at Grassroots. When Reptile Ranch went up to London to talk to Rough Trade about getting distribution for the compilation, Geoff Travis--the label’s co-founder and A&R visionary--immediately noticed there was something special about the YMG songs, despite their demo-like  recording quality. “Reptile Ranch went up to London to peddle our wares and came back with the glad tidings,” recalls Alison. “I was gobsmacked!” Suddenly, says Stuart, “we were in London and Geoff Travis was asking, ‘what do you want to do next?’. Rather than the obvious first step of recording a debut single, Stuart wanted to gamble on the bigger impact of coming out of nowhere with a full album. Eventually he swayed his band-mates to the risky notion and Rough Trade dispatched the group to Foel Studios, a converted farmhouse in the rolling hills around Llanfair Caereinion in mid-Wales.  Foel’s owner Dave Anderson was a veteran of longhair kosmic rockers Amon Duul II and Hawkwind and had already engineered the debut album by another Rough Trade act, Essential Logic. YMG recorded Colossal Youth in just five days, spending a mere twenty minutes per track each when it came to mixing the album. “When we were finished doing all the mixes, we turned all the lights out and listened to it really loud. It was all I could do to stop crying," Stuart recalled in a 1981 interview. At the end, Anderson asked if he could be credited as producer, as opposed to just engineer, and YMG, with some reluctance, assented. In hindsight, Stuart Moxham thinks the credit was thoroughly deserved, capturing their sound in all its delicacy and nakedness being no small achievement.

Listening to Colossal Youth, the word “naked” seems quite apt, as it often feels like you’re eavesdropping on someone’s private thoughts: you don’t catch all the references, the meaning is often cloudy, but the aura of intimacy and inwardness is unmistakable. “It’s that cliché, artists as people who can’t communicate in normal ways,” says Stuart. “They don’t go to the pub, they sit in a room and agonize. For me, writing the songs was a cathartic exercise. When I came to do sleevenotes for the first re-release some years ago, that was the first time I’d seen all the lyrics in one place. I hadn’t even thought about them for 15 years and suddenly I was looking at myself at the age of 25. There was all this wisdom in the lyrics I hadn’t seen. Almost like I was wiser than I could’ve dreamt and was writing advice to myself–and not being able to take it, of course.” The songs on Colossal Youth, he explained in a 1980 interview, “are all based on things that happened to me with my girlfriend. That's the most important thing that's happened to me in years, meeting this particular girl and what we've been through.  We broke up and now we're back together again. It's been a really stormy relationship." 

Not that this was really confessional songwriting in the blatantly open-souled, “dear diary” sense. “N.I.T.A.” veers from anguished clarity (“it’s nice to hear you’re having a good time/but it still hurts 'cos you used to be mine/This doesn't mean that I possessed you/You're haunting me because I let you”) to dream-logic opacity (“shape up your body "Let's be a tree"”) before signposting its own coded obliqueness with the cryptic line “Nature intended the abstract for you and me”. The abstraction got heightened by the distancing effect of Stuart’s words being ventriloquised through Alison. “It’s really weird … when I sing it, it tends to be emotional because the lyrics are mine,” Stuart noted in one interview. “Alison on the other hand is really laid back and unemotional sounding.  It's a strange paradox, a disinterested voice singing about something emotional."

Not all of Stuart’s songs were torn from his troubled love life. Others were more existential musings or simply involved the joys of mucking about with language. “It was that Devo/Bowie cut-up arty approach to lyric-writing really. Something like ‘Choci Loni, it was almost like Edward Lear. The words are obscure and deeply personal. That whole language in that song is my family’s baby talk –which even we don’t talk about. But nobody would ever suss that!”

Although Stuart was the main creative force, Philip and Alison together wrote one of Colossal Youth’s stand-out songs, “Eating Noddemix”. Alison’s lyric is a kind of split-screen movie, juxtaposing a girl going through her daily routines (munching the Swiss cereal bar of the title, adjusting her make-up) with horrific accidents (a collapsed apartment building, a train crash) that are going on simultaneously. “Just one of those moments when you realise we're all preoccupied with the mindlessness of the everyday routine, not realising how precious every moment of this existence is,” muses Alison today. “Meanwhile, elsewhere, people are meeting an abrupt end to it all. Death comes without warning.”  The song ends with a slightly comical voice-over, Alison impersonating an “official”-sounding, hard-bitten voice--a police officer or ambulance worker perhaps, or maybe a news reporter--who switches from talking about the tragedy to their TV-viewing plans for that evening without missing a beat. “I hate that voiceover bit at the end but basically it's looking at how people who face these realities on a daily basis adopt a matter of fact, hardened distance to it all. We can't stay in that vital space for long without anaesthetising ourselves in some way.”

Certain songs glisten with a particular intensity, but Colossal Youth really takes effect as a whole. It’s an album of great songs, but also, in a way, an ambient record. Stuart mentions the headphone listening that was such an important part of his youth--“That’s the ultimate way of getting inside the music and cutting off the world: you’re not available, you’re inside the headphones, dedicated to listening”--adding that in his opinion “all truly great music has two elements: atmosphere, and detail. So it works on the micro and the macro.” Abundantly endowed with both, Colossal Youth is almost the postpunk counterpart to Dark Side of the Moon.  Although maybe the Brian Eno of Another Green World and the second, slower and more tranquil half of Before and After Science is more apt: all those songs about castaways and  daydreamers, washed-up and washed-out characters who’ve hemorrhaged all their will power. “I remember saying in one interview that what I wanted the album to do was to sound like a radio that’s between stations, and you’re listening to it under the bed-clothes at 4-AM, and you’re getting  these fantastic short wave sounds and snatches of modulated sounds,” recalls Stuart.  Colossal Youth seems “real” in the sense that it evokes, through its textures as much as the songs, those large portions of our lives that are interstitial and event-less: the nullity of waiting or killing time; the long stretches of lethargy and languor, low-level anxiety or pensive reverie. 

When Colossal Youth arrived in record stores in February 1980, it looked as striking as it sounded. The cover was a black-and-white portrait of the group taken by Patrick Graham, with the trio’s heads catching the light so that one half of each face glowed palely while the other side disappeared into inky blackness. The image had a sort of timeless classicism faintly redolent of an early Beatles album cover, but also made the YMG look statuesque, their impassive expressions perfectly indicative of the subdued aura of the music. Colossal Youth was instantly successful, as if people had been waiting for exactly this sound: music by introverts, for introverts. In the independent scene context, the album was a best-seller, peaking at #3 in the indie charts and shifting some 27 thousand copies in the immediate year of its release. Because Rough Trade operated its famously non-exploitative 50/50 deals, which split profits (after costs had been made back) evenly between label and band, YMG actually saw some dough. “Enough to wish I hadn't frittered it away,” laughs Alison. “I seem to remember a phase of eating out all the time! But I lived in a squat at the time and certainly wasn't going on expensive holidays and investing in offshore banking. Let's just say it earned a meagre living.” Stuart did better than the others, having written the bulk of the songs and also getting a publishing deal off the back of Colossal Youth.

Doing their first round of music paper interviews, Young Marble Giants left many journalists enchanted. Typically they presented the group as small-town naifs, often fixating on Alison’s fresh-faced aura, her plimsoles and print dresses and ankle socks. . Dave McCullough from Sounds, a big YMG supporter, described Alison as “wide-eyed and straight out of a Girl's Own story, as the heroine, of course.  You get the impression she's going to fall over any minute in the big-city smog, and that she's been brought up on fresh cow's milk and healthy Girl Guide rambles through the Welsh valleys.  She looks frighteningly innocent.” Yet Alison was a smoker in those days, and Cardiff, an industrial city, was hardly a remote haven from the hurly-burly of modernity.
That said, Young Marble Giants did stick out somewhat in the Rough Trade milieu, where they were warmly welcomed but never quite fitted with the bohemian/radical vibe that surrounded the label, which hostile outsiders tended to describe with derogatory terms like “brown rice” or “hippie”. “It was quite a different world,” says Alison, adding that that although “we met some incredibly kind people there, in another sense it was a bit overwhelming for me. I felt naive and lacked confidence.”  In 1979-80, Rough Trade was at its zenith of power and influence, with a roster that included many of the leading post-punk bands of the day: Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, The Fall, The Raincoats, The Pop Group, Essential Logic, This Heat, Red Crayola, Kleenex, and Pere Ubu. The Raincoats--an all-female feminist band based in Westbourne Grove, a short walk from Rough Trade’s headquarters just off Portobello Road--virtually adopted the wide-eyed provincials. “They took us under their wing like feisty aunties or something,” recalls Stuart. “On one level they were kind of frighteningly feminist and that was new to us. They didn’t shave their legs, for instance. On another level, they were very kind to us”. Young Marble Giants played their debut London gig with the Raincoats in Deptford, bringing Stuart’s dog Nixon to the venue. They also became close to This Heat, a ferociously intense trio of proggers-turned-postpunkers who resembled the Soft Machine stripped of English whimsy and jacked-up on Cold War paranoia. But more important than anyone else was Geoff Travis, who became something of a father figure to Stuart, especially after he moved up to London. “Geoff actually said ’I‘ll always have faith in anything you do,’ which is such a fantastic thing to say.” Alison recalls Travis as “a very quiet and gentle guy with a knack for picking out potential other people missed. I remember him playing me a Smiths demo he'd just got hold of when I was at the Rough Trade offices and to be honest I couldn't jump up and down with excitement on my brief listening, but Geoff was very animated about it.”

The gambit/gamble of releasing their debut album first, rather than a single had paid off: Young Marble Giants had made a major statement and blown everybody away just as Stuart had hoped. Now, reversing the normal sequence of things, YMG recorded their debut single, “Final Day”. Actually, it was a four-track EP, but the title track eclipsed the other tunes so utterly it tends to be remembered as a single. On its June 1980 release, it became a night-time Radio One hit, played heavily on John Peel’s show at first and then getting picked up by the early evening DJs.

“Final Day” captures the feeling of 1980, a year of mounting dread that nuclear Armageddon was nigh. The Cold War, which had briefly thawed in the mid-Seventies with détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, had abruptly plunged back below freezing point, the election of saber-rattling conservative leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the West being matched by a renewed hard line from the Soviet Politburo. The geopolitical backdrop to this terrible re-polarisation was turmoil in the Middle East: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (to prop up a socialist government threatened by fundamentalist rebels), the Iranian Revolution and the seizing of US hostages by Ayatollah Khomeini’s government. In response to the escalating tension between the superpowers, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, dormant since its early Sixties heyday, reactivated. In 1980 CND organised massive anti-nuclear rallies in the UK to protest the deployment of American Trident missiles in the UK--a move, its critics argued, that would turn Britain into a client state cum launching pad for America and Target #1 for Soviet warheads in any full-blown nuclear exchange.

“Final Day” wasn’t the only pop song to register the mood of apprehension. UB40’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” and Kate Bush’s “Breathing” actually made the charts, while on the postpunk underground YMG’s buddies This Heat recorded Deceit, virtually a concept album about the balance of terror and the quiescent complicity of ordinary people in the insanity of mutual assured destruction. But “Final Day” was the most effectively chilling evocation, from the subliminal keyboard drone running through the whole track (“I put a matchstick in one the keys to get that tone,” chuckles Stuart”) to Alison’s forlorn fatalism as she intones the lines “As the light goes out on the final day/For the people who never had a say,” to the sheer startling brevity of the statement (the song lasts just one minute and 39 seconds). “It was the easiest song to write, it just came out perfectly formed, and it took as long to write as it does to listen to,” says Stuart, explaining that the lines “when the rich die last/Like the rabbits” is a fusion of “an Ian Fleming short story about how rich people will die last because that’s the privilege of wealth, and the fact that apparently in a nuclear war rabbits will survive longest, along with beetles.”

*          *          *

Having arrived with a double debut more auspicious and immaculate than even Joy Division’s (who emerged from the coarse chrysalis of Warsaw) Young Marble Giants seemed poised for greatness. The only problem was translating what they did to the stage:  music so un-rock was hardly likely to rock a crowd. The band became (in)famous for its lack of onstage presence, the static presentation owing to stage nerves as much as the nature of their music. “We used to smoke a hell of a lot, that was it,” says Stuart. “I used to line up my cigarettes on the electric organ at sound-check and virtually chain smoke our way through the set.” Alison recalls Stuart being “the most animated out of all of us, the one with the best rapport with the audience--but even that was limited.”  But this was all part of what she calls the music’s “human factor”. “We were all exposed and stripped back to the bare bones both in an audio and visual sense. I'm sure sometimes people held their breath from start to finish at a concert. You could sometimes hear a pin drop between songs.”  None of this went down well with your average punk audience, so it’s hardly any wonder that the group sometimes fantasized in interviews about finding alternative venues more genial to their music. They told Sounds they’d prefer to “play chamber- music places… places where people can just sit down,  relax and listen,” like churches with their reverberant acoustics or even “rural places”.

Despite these problems with live performance, Young Marble Giants embarked on a tour of North America late in 1980, although it could be more truthfully be called an East Coast/West Coast tour, the group understandably shying away from
venturing into the rock’n’roll heartland. In Los Angeles, they played a gig at a Czechoslovakian community center. There was a batch of shows in the Bay Area,  San Francisco being the bohemian capital of the West Coast and America’s #2 postpunk city after New York(Rough Trade even had a branch of its record store in Frisco at that point). “We stayed in a converted fire station loft owned by two artists, with a cool veggie restaurant/bar downstairs called The Right Spot,” recalls Alison. There was a show at the Berkeley Keystone, an outdoor concert with the Flaming Groovies (a real chalk and cheese pairing, that one), and a show in Palo Alto, 35 miles to the South of San Francisco, at a club run by Hells Angels. After playing a gig in Vancouver, they switched to the Eastern seaboard, playing several shows in New York and New Jersey: two nights at Hurrah’s, a New Wave club that was a haven both for visiting Anglo bands and for NYC Anglophiles, plus a gig in Hoboken, NJ, a short ride on the Path train from Manhattan. “New York I found more depressing than San Francisco, but then I was ill at the time,” says Alison.  Severe tensions had also developed within the band during the American traipse: between Stuart and Alison, between Stuart and his brother, and, fatally, between Alison and Philip, who actually split up midway through the tour. 

The amorous discord didn’t result in Young Marble Giants’ equivalent to Rumours, however. The next release was low-key: Testcard, a six track EP of “instrumentals in praise and celebration of mid-morning television music”.  In those days, there were extended periods during the day when British TV ceased programming and instead broadcast just the Testcard--an intricately coloured and geometrically patterned diagram designed so that TV repair men could adjust the definition and color. This static image was accompanied by a peculiar sort of lite-jazzy Muzak whose crisp definition and detailed arrangements lent itself to similar fine-tuning of the TV’s sound reproduction. Stuart had absorbed this music as a child hanging out chez his grandmother, who kept the TV on constantly as a sort of hearth-warming ambient presence. Outlining the concept of the EP (the work of the Moxham brothers, Alison being sidelined still by illness) to NME, Stuart argued that “any kind of ambient music just isn't listened to seriously but it has a lot of merits. We've been influenced by testcard music, by nursery rhymes, by popular classical music--all that light, fringe stuff. The sound of those great big cinema organs, fairground music… I don't listen to it as much as, say, Radio One but I enjoy it a lot more."

A couple of months before the EP’s release, though, and just as they were being anointed one of 1980’s best new groups in the NME’s reader poll, in January 1981 Young Marble Giants announced they were splitting up. While Alison and Philip’s break-up was clearly problematic, the main problem was Stuart’s feeling that, since he was writing 80 percent of the material and handling the band’s business affairs, he should be the group’s frontman. The attention paid to Alison as the singer aggravated him, and burst out in an NME interview when the subject of her having being voted one of 1980’s best female singers came up: “But Alison’s not a singer! She’s someone who sings. Alison sings as if she was at the bus-stop or something. A real singer sings with more control”. The comment inadvertently pinpointed precisely what was special and even innovative about her vocals: a naturalistic style of under-singing later picked up by Barney Sumner in New Order, among many others over the years. In a late 1980 interview conducted during the American tour, Stuart had confessed, “it is frustrating not to sing the things. I'm not writing songs 'cos I want to be a musician, I'm writing them 'cos that's the only way I've got to express myself." Finally, the “seed of resentment” that had lodged in his heart at the very formation of the group blossomed, and Stuart announced that he was starting a sideline group, The Gist, in which he would be the singer.

Although officially presented as a sideline to Young Marble Giants, the announcement precipitated the break-up. Especially as it had been preceded by various attempts by Stuart to kick Alison out of the band. From the start, admits Stuart, he “didn’t really want to have Alison in the band, I wanted Phil but I took Alison on as well because it was a fait accompli. I thought nothing’s going to happen anyway, but when it did happen it did matter. I wasn’t mature enough to deal with it. I made Alison suffer and I’m really sorry for it.”  It was a messy moment made worse by the split-up between Philip and Alison and Stuart’s final break-up with Wendy Smith, and the obvious solution was to scatter. So ended the short and bittersweet existence of Young Marble Giants, just two years, evenly divided between obscurity and fame.

With hindsight, “it was the best thing for all of us,” Alison concludes philosophically. “The good thing is I'm really fond of Stuart now but that might not have occurred had we not had that space and distance to grow up in.”  The brothers too reconciled reasonably swiftly, with Philip helping out on some of the Gist recordings. Inevitably, there’s a temptation to wonder what might have happened if they’d resolved their differences and reformed after a brief furlough. What if Stuart could have relaxed his creative control enough to allow more space for the budding songwriting talent evidenced by Alison and Philip’s “Eating Noddemix” and Philip/Stuart co-authored pearls like “Choci Loni”? Could they have translated YMG’s magic into pop music, or something close enough, and endured as a Cocteau Twins-level group, or even achieved the mainstream success of Everything But the Girl, contemporaries of theirs?  Je ne regrette rien, says Alison. “We might have all gone doolally!” It’s also hard to imagine something as fragile as YMG’s music surviving the grind and graft required to really make it in the music business.

As Rough Trade’s top-selling band after Stiff Little Fingers, the ex-Giants were encouraged by Geoff Travis to pursue any musical impulses they had. In 1982, Stuart released a flurry of records as The Gist, including three singles and an album, Embrace the Herd; after this, his musical activity became more sporadic, spurts of solo work alternating with periods working as an animator and a driving instructor.  Philip Moxham briefly joined Pere Ubu singer David Thomas’ solo sideline outfit the Pedestrians and also played with Everything But the Girl. Alison formed Weekend with Spike from Reptile Ranch and another Cardiffian, Simon Booth, who had been a key member of the Camden squatland collective/think-tank that surrounded Scritti Politti. On singles like "The View From Her Room" and on the album La Variete, Weekend embraced an idea of “jazz” then circulating through the post-postpunk hipsterland: melodic and Latin-tinged, as opposed to fiery and freeform, as purveyed by the likes of Carmel, the Style Council (in their Café Bleu, left-Bank Parisian beatnik mode), and Everything But the Girl, who covered Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” in the style of Astrid Gilberto and got played on Radio 2 for their pains. When Weekend split up, Booth formed the jazzier Working Week and Alison embarked upon a musical partnership with Ian Devine (formerly the accomplice of confrontational postpunk chanteuse Linder Sterling in the band Ludus). Later Alison would join up with Spike again to record a couple of albums. Nowadays she she’s a chiropractor. “As far as music goes, there are a couple of 'quiet' projects in the pipeline and quite a lot of interest in YMG stuff. But with work and two children there's no sense of urgency. Que sera.”

And the legacy of Young Marble Giants? The sound is close to inimitable, but over the decades there have been audible echoes, whether conscious borrowings or simply a group discovering for themselves the same principles. In the late Eighties, drumless outfit Hugo Largo played their tranquil, glinting songs to New York audiences sitting on the floor. In the Nineties, you could detect the YMG imprint in some of the more melodious post-rock groups like Pram and Insides, as well as the idyllictronic toy-music of Mouse on Mars and Mum. And then there’s the fact that Kurt Cobain was a massive YMG fan and had planned for Nirvana to cover Colossal Youth’s “Credit in the Straight World”, perhaps seeing this oblique opt-out anthem as the perfect protest rock for a passive-aggressive, narcoleptic generation. As it happened, he never got around to doing it, but his widow Courtney Love recorded a version on Hole’s grunge-goes-glossy blockbuster Live Through This.

Mostly, though, the legacy is the music itself, that slender and virtually flawless body of work that has proved impervious to the eroding attrition of time. Although the members carried on making music fitfully after going their separate ways, the name Young Marble Giants itself retains a kind of immaculateness—there’s no after-trail of legend-disgracing lesser material, precious little in the way of demos, basement tapes, out-takes, and the like. For once, the Collected Works = the Best of. You hold it in your hands, or hear it in your ears, as you read these words.