Friday, December 29, 2017

Heathers versus Mystery Train

Melody Maker, 1989

Papa Sprain


The Wire, summer 1993

by Simon Reynolds

      Last time round,  'fusion' seemed to be a good reference point for Bandulu. At its best, their debut LP 'Guidance' was jazz-trance, as if Joe Zawinul had ended up band-leader of Tangerine Dream instead of Weather Report. Tracks like "Tribal Reign" offered supple rhythms and musky, aromatic synth-swirls that opened up your senses like a night in a rainforest. This time, though, dub reggae seems to be the watchword. Thankfully, Bandulu avoid the crass, sterile replication perpetrated by most ambient dub bands, and approach a genuine dub-house merger. On "Agent Jah", the groove-scape wavers and warps like a horizon through a heat-haze. "Shutdown" is even more minimal: it's little more than a beat in a reverb-chamber, the drums kicking up a slipstream of whispery particles and after-images. It's strangely, pleasurably reminiscent of early house classics like  Royal House's 'Party People' or Nitro Deluxe's 'This Brutal House'.

      What's cool about Bandulu is that their production isn't crisp and dry, like most techno, but the aural equivalent of vaseline-on-the-lens. In "High Rise Heaven", a synth-figure billows, buckles and bulges; it's as woozy and unfocussed as My Bloody Valentine's "All I Need". "Phase In Remix" is even more Op Arty, making you squint your ears and hallucinate patterns where none exist. Devoid of a beat, the track atomises melody and rhythm into a myriad motes of sound, a sussurrating and scintillating spangle-scape. It's like being swathed and swaddled in the Milky Way.

      "Antimatters" has its fair share of non-events, like the train-kept-a'rollin' trance of 'Presence'. The best of the rest are those tracks which verge closest on outright dub. "Original Scientist" has echoey piano-chords, squelchifarious water-pumping percussion and a rootical synth-figure, but tempo-wise is still house music. "Run Run", though, could almost be a time capsule from the mid-Seventies--sonically, it has the slow'n'low sway and mirage-like, gilded glory-haze of  King Tubby or Joe Gibbs, while the sampled chorus warns that Babylon's days are numbered, 'cos "revolution will come". Evidently the Bandulu boys feel that being  dedicated herbalists makes them honorary Ras Tafari.
Like "Guidance", "Antimatters" is intermittently brilliant. As a CD, it's just begging to be re-programmed into a sublime six track sequence of edited highlights. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

lo fi + postrock

misc weirdshit [not title they used]
Mojo column, early 1994

by Simon Reynolds                                                                                               

An idle glance at the weekly music papers, and you might
think that the only thing happening in rock is the likes of
Oasis (refried Sixties-isms + lippy Northern arrogance = a
band whose sole raison d'etre is to be BIG). Beyond the
hype-odrome, however, there's still a host of groups who are
committed to pushing the envelope. On both sides of the
Atlantic, the weird shit is still hitting the fans.

In the US--where rave has had little impact on rock and
hip hop is considered the cultural property of African-
Americans--weirdo bands shy away from hi-tech like samplers
and sequencers.  Inevitably, this means they must turn to the
past for sources to pillage: acid-rock, Krautrock, post-punk
extremists and eccentrics like Pere Ubu and The Fall...
Avant-rock bands in America tend to be schizo-eclectic: they
join the dots between past pinnacles of extremity, try to
find and fill the gaps in their record collection.  Reviewing
this music inevitably obliges you to drop a 1000 names.  And
so Mercury Rev's excellent EP "Everlasting Arm" (Beggars
Banquet) comes with liner notes by David Fricke that, quite
appropriately, reference Brian Wilson's 'Smile', Syd Barrett,
Gil Evans, Van Dyke Parks and Sly Stone--all to describe the
5 minute title track.  The 34 minute "Deadman" is itself pure
homage, roping in Alan Vega from Suicide to deliver a psycho-
monologue amid a noir-ish, Tom Waits/Bernard Herrman
backdrop. (Shit, I'm doing it now).

Another sector of adventurous eclecticism in America is
lo-fi--bands like Pavement, Truman's Water, The Grifters,
and Sebadoh. The latter's latest "Bakesale" (Domino) retains
the genre's trademarks (fuzzed-up guitars, sloppy, sprawling
drums, fallible slacker vox) but beefs up the sound until it
verges on grunge. I wish mainman Lou Barlow would go back to
the ghostly tape-loop experiments of his earliest days.  For
that kind of homespun weirdness, you have to turn to
LaBradford and their remarkable "Prazision" LP (Kranky, P.O.
Box 578743, Chicago, Ill 60657). What to call the spectral
drone-haze oozed by this drumless duo via tape-loops, moogs
and treated guitars: lo-fi ambient?  Krautrock, without the
'rock'?  kosmic balladry?

Back in Blighty, Flying Saucer Attack operate on a
similarly brilliant but baffling wavelength to LaBradford.
Their second album "Distance" (Domino) is where lo-fi
Krautrock worship (FSA especially venerate Popol Vuh) meets
ambient. The title track is Aphex-with-guitars, while
"Oceans" is an idyllic expanse of serene chaos, conjured from
tribal rhythms, amp-hiss and found sounds.  Other songs offer
fuzzed-up '60s psych midway between Mary Chain and Hawkwind--
entertaining, but nowhere near as interesting as FSA's more
entropic pieces.

Stereolab and Pram are often lumped in with
the lo-fi bands, because of their fetish for deliberately
antiquated synths.  On their recent, chartbusting LP "Mars
Audiac Quintet" (Duophonic), the Lab's blend of muzak
harmonies, moog squelches, Marxist lyrics, minimalist 2 chord
mantras and motorik beats, is as mesmerising as ever.  I love
the way they've triangulated a bizarre aesthetic universe for
themselves out of Marx, Neu!  and Francois Hardy-style Gallic
girl-pop.  Pram use clapped-out analog synths, home-made
theremin, brittle rhythms and dolorous fiddle to create a
magical sound midway between Aphex, Art Ensemble of Chicago
and The Raincoats. Where Pulp's use of cheesy keyboards is
kitsch, Pram sound genuinely cosmic, closer to Sun Ran than
'Magic Fly'.  Appropriately, Pram's big theme is dreams of
transcendence in the face of drab provincial mundanity. And
so on 'Dancing On Star' from the new LP "Helium" (Too Pure),
Rosie trills: "one of these days I'll be up in the heavens".

Other UK bands--what I call the post-rock vanguard--have
eagerly embraced the latest technology, adding samplers,
sequencers and MIDI to the trad rock gtr/bs/dms line-up.
Laika are typical and exemplary. On their debut LP "Silver
Apples Of the Moon" (Too Pure), they sound like the missing
link between the avant-funk of Can circa 'Soon Over Babaluma'
and the 'ambient jungle' you hear on London's pirate
stations: weird samples over urgent drum-and-bass grooves,
peppered with itchy rhythm guitar and serpentine synth-
twirls, and topped with Margaret Fiedler's breathy semi-rap
vocals.  Laika's music is totally anti-Luddite, yet
wonderfully organic and warm sounding.

Other UK experimental bands are forging a more frigid, anti-humanist interface with
with technology.  "Isolationism", the fourth in Virgin's
best-selling series of ambient compilations, features 23
artists ranging from post-rock (Main, Ice, Scorn, Disco
Inferno) to ambient noir (Aphex, Seefeel) to avant-garde (Jim
O'Rourke, Thomas Koner, Zoviet France).  What this disparate
bunch share in common is a yen for creating desolate,
forbidding soundscapes, using warped samples, effects-
processed guitars and environmental noises.  With its
amorphous drone-clouds and dank sound-grottos, "Isolationism"
is a challenging but utterly compelling compendium of one the
eeriest strands of weird shit today.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Metal Box for Christmas 1979

Public Image Ltd's Metal Box remembered

Frieze, November 2007

by Simon Reynolds

My most vivid memory of Metal Box dates to a week before Christmas Day 1979. My parents were out, so I sneaked Public Image Ltd's (PiL) album out of the airing cupboard, where they stashed the presents, and for the first time prised off the tin's lid, then gingerly extracted the three discs tightly crammed inside. Aged 16, I just couldn't wait to play the record that was being universally acclaimed as a giant step into a brave new world beyond rock's confines. As a result I crossed a line myself, between innocence and adulthood.
Demystification was the whole point of Metal Box's packaging, a metallic canister of the type that ordinarily contains movie reels. Like the band-as-corporation name Public Image Ltd, the matt-grey tin was an attempt to strip away mystique, all the 'bollocks' of rock romanticism. But Metal Box, of course, just added to the mystique around PiL, the group John Lydon formed after splitting with the Sex Pistols. Drab yet imposing, standing out in record shop racks or on the shelves of a collection, the can instantly became a fetish object. And although its aura was utilitarian, the packaging was actually less functional than a normal album jacket. Instead of slipping the disc out of its sleeve, you had carefully to ease out the three 45 rpm 12-inches, which were separated only by paper circles of the same size as the platters. Removing the vinyl without scratching it was a challenge. Almost 30 years later my three discs look in remarkably good nick, considering I must have played them hundreds of times. But then I was precious about my possessions: an avid post-Punk fan hamstrung by weak finances, I owned about six albums in toto, and Metal Box's hefty £7.45 price tag was the reason I'd requested it for Christmas, despite the delay this would mean in hearing it.
All this heightened the experience of playing Metal Box, giving it an almost ritualistic quality. PiL's own motivations were partly malicious pranksterism and partly a serious attempt to deconstruct 'the album'. In interviews bassist Jah Wobble was adamant that you should definitely not play Metal Box in sequence but listen to one side of a disc (two or three tracks at most) at a time. Spreading over an hour's worth of music across three records encouraged listeners to reshuffle the running order as they saw fit; as a result the record became a set of resources rather than a unitary art work. 'Useful' was a big PiL buzzword (that's what they liked about disco – it was danceable). It was a term that allowed Lydon to carry on opposing himself to all things arty and pretentious, even as he perpetrated a supreme feat of artiness with Metal Box.
Like Peter Saville's exquisitely designed releases for Factory Records, Metal Box simultaneously extended the art rock tradition of extravagant packaging (Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, from 1975, for instance) while subverting it through its stark plainness (which ironically, cost a bleedin' fortune). The only precedent I can think of is Alice Cooper's 1973 album Muscle of Love, which came in a brown cardboard carton (Lydon, as it happens, was a huge Alice fan). The concept for Metal Box originated with PiL's design-conscious friend Dennis Morris, the court photographer at Lydon's house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, and also a member of the all-black, PiL-esque band Basement 5. Where the sleeve of the début album Public Image (1978) lampooned rock's cult of personality (Morris photographed the band in Vogue-style make-up and suits), Metal Box went one step further to a blank impersonality, the absence of any kind of image at all. Flowers of Romance (1981), the third album, took a step too far with its desultory Polaroid of band associate Jeanette Lee, but that was long after Morris had been ousted from the PiL milieu.
Morris' crucial contribution to PiL is something that comes through loud and clear in the new book Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon's Public Image Limited (2007). If author Phil Strongman is savvy enough to name his book after PiL's totemic masterpiece, he's less shrewd in doggedly pursuing the story long after the band ceased to be a creative force. As Mark Fisher has noted, every pop story, followed through to its narrative (in)conclusion, ends in ignominy or disappointment. So it is with the brand-disgracing travesties Lydon released immediately after Wobble (the group's heart and soul) and then guitarist Keith Levene (its musical brains) were ejected. More disheartening still, in a way, was the mediocre competence of the PiL albums of the late 1980s and early '90s. Still, Strongman's account of the 'good years' is rich in new data, from deliciously incongruous trivia (Ted Nugent was Levene's choice to produce the first album! Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant was mad keen to take on PiL as clients!) to more compelling revelations (the book settles the mystery of whether 'Poptones', Metal Box's stand-out track, is sung by a murdered corpse or an abduction survivor abandoned and shivering in the woods).
As so often with rock biographies, though, much of the information tends to tarnish the reputations of the protagonists. Ironically, given their fervent anti-rock stance (Lydon derided rock as a 'disease', something to be 'cancelled'), PiL's productivity was disabled by a thoroughly rock'n'roll set of failings: paranoia, egomania, money disputes, mismanagement (PiL actually had no manager, on account of Lydon's bad experiences with Malcolm McLaren; the role was portioned between Jeanette Lee and another Lydon crony, and the band's finances were kept in a box – cardboard, this time – under a bed). Equally lamentably rock'n'roll is the Spinal Tap-like procession of drummers: five in the first two years (one of whom, ex-drummer for The Fall, Karl Burns, stayed in the band for just a few days, quitting after being the victim of a dangerous prank involving fire).
All the main players (and numerous extremely minor ones) are interviewed, with the glaring exception of Lydon himself. But that's no surprise, because he's consciously distanced himself from PiL over the years. At some point he clearly grasped that his place in rock history (and future income) depended on the Sex Pistols adventure and subsequently threw all his energies into burnishing the Johnny Rotten legend. But I wonder whether another factor behind Lydon's silence is that the PiL years are painful to contemplate – not just because of bad blood (Wobble was one of his best friends) but because the music of Metal Box, rooted in his true loves (Can, Captain Beefheart, Peter Hammill, dub), meant so much to him. He really believed all that 'rock is dead' rhetoric, and was sincere when he dismissed the Sex Pistols as way too traditional. And for a moment rock's intelligentsia concurred. Metal Box's stature in 1979–80 was so immense that many commentators invoked Miles Davis' early-1970s' music as a reference point. Lester Bangs declared that he'd stake a lifetime's writing on Metal Box and Miles' Get Up With It (1974). When his apartment caught fire, the first and only thing Bangs grabbed as he fled to the street below in his pyjamas was that grey tin can.
It's the music inside that counts, though, isn't it? My other vivid memory of Metal Box is bringing it to school after our music teacher asked each member of the class to bring in a favourite record and talk about it. I played 'Death Disco' and 'Poptones', then regurgitated stuff I'd read in NME about how PiL were radical for absorbing the influence of funk and reggae. I wasn't able to articulate what made their mutational approach different from and superior to contemporaries such as The Police or indeed Old Wave rock gods such as The Stones when they disco-rocked it in 1978 with 'Miss You'. But the lasting proof of PiL's innovatory power is their music's ever-widening ripples of influence, which encompass Massive Attack, Primal Scream (they hired Wobble for 1991's 'Higher Than The Sun'), Tortoise, Radiohead and many more. You can trace a line from PiL via On U Sound (whose Adrian Sherwood had dealings – musical and, it's rumoured, otherwise – with Lydon, Levene and Wobble back then) to today's dubstep, which, like Metal Box, is Jamaican music with the sunshine extracted – roots reggae without Rasta's consoling dream of Zion.
PiL's biggest influence though, may be their rhetoric. The idea that 'rock is obsolete' (as Wobble put it in 1978) became a self-replicating meme that inoculated an entire generation against the retro-virus by directing them away from rock's back pages and towards the cutting-edges of contemporary black music. In the age of downloading and dematerialized sound-data Metal Box has a fresh resonance for me as a powerful argument in favour of the necessity for music to be physically embodied. The record was significantly diminished in its subsequent incarnation as Second Edition (the gatefold-sleeved double album it became when the 50,000 limited edition Metal Box sold out). The CD reissue, housed in a miniature metal canister, is almost risible to behold, while its digitized sound lacks the warmth and weight of the original deep-grooved 45 rpm 12 inches. Most crucially, you simply weren't meant to listen to Metal Box as one long, uninterrupted 70-minute sequence. A 1979 pressing fetches $200 through Internet sites such as Gemm; the reproduction antique vinyl reissue of Metal Box from a few years back isn't cheap either. But this is one record you simply must have, hold and hear in its original format.  

More on Metal Box

Public Image Ltd
Metal Box
director's cut version, Pitchfork, November 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Public Image Ltd
Metal Box

Out of all the fascinating alternate takes, B-sides, rare compilation-only tracks and never-before-released sketches that comprise this expanded reissue of Public Image Ltd’s postpunk landmark, it’s a live version of “Public Image”  that is the real revelation. Part of an impromptu June 1979 concert in Manchester, the song keep collapsing and restarting.  “Shut up!” snaps John Lydon, responding  to audience jeers.  “I told you it’s a fucking rehearsal.”  Another PiL member explains that the drummer, Richard Dudanski, only joined three days ago. PiL relaunch the song only for Lydon to halt it with “miles too fast!” The jeers erupt again and the singer offers a sort of defiant apology:  if the crowd really want to “see mega light displays and all that shit”, he advises them to go see properly professional bands who put on a slick show. “But we ain’t like that... We’re extremely honest: sorry about that... We admit our mistakes”.

This performance – an inadvertent deconstruction of performance itself – takes us to the heart of the PiL project as well as the postpunk movement for which the group served as figureheads.  At its core was a belief in radical honesty: faith in the expressive power of words, singing and sound as vehicles for urgent communication. After the Sex Pistols’s implosion, Lydon was trying to find a way to be a public figure again without masks, barriers, routines, or constraining expectations.  So it’s especially apt that “Public Image” –   PiL’s debut single, Lydon’s post-Pistols mission-statement –  is the song that  fell apart at Manchester’s Factory Club.   “Public Image” is about the way a stage persona can become a lie that a performer is forced to live out in perpetuity.  Lydon sings about “Johnny Rotten” as a theatrical role that trapped him and which he’s now casting off. Starting all over with his given name and a new set of musical accomplices, Lydon was determined to stay true to himself.  The group’s name came  from Muriel Sparks’s novel The Public Image,  about a movie actress whose career is ruined but who, the ending hints, is freed to embark on an authentic post-fame existence.  Lydon added the “limited” to signify both the idea of the rock group as a corporation (in the business of image-construction) and the idea of keeping egos on a tight leash.

A comparison for Lydon’s search for a new true music – and a truly new music – that would leave behind rock’s calcified conventions is Berlin-era Bowie’s quest for a “new music night and day” (the working title of Low). Indeed it was Virgin Records’s belief that Lydon was the most significant British rock artist since Bowie that caused them to extend PiL such extraordinary license and largesse when it came to recording in expensive studios.  That indulgence enabled the recording of three of the most out-there albums ever released by a major label: First Edition, Metal Box, Flowers of Romance. But it’s the middle panel of the triptych that is the colossal achievement:  a near-perfect record that reinvents and renews rock in a manner that fulfilled postpunk’s promise(s) to a degree rivalled only by Joy Division on Closer.

The key word, though, is reinvention. Lydon talked grandly of abandoning rock altogether,  arguing that killing off the genre had been the true point of punk. But unlike the absolutely experimental (and as with most experiments,  largely unsuccessful) Flowers of Romance,  Metal Box doesn’t go beyond rock so much as stretch it to its furthest extent, in the manner of the Stooges’s Fun House or Can’s Tago Mago.  It’s a forbidding listen, for sure, but only because of its intensity, not because it’s abstract or structurally convoluted. The format is classic: guitar-bass-drums-voice (augmented intermittently by keyboards and electronics).  The rhythm section (Jah Wobble and a succession of drummers) is hypnotically steady and physically potent. The guitarist (Keith Levene) is a veritable axe-hero, as schooled and as spectacular as any of the pre-punk greats. And the singer, while unorthodox and edging off-key, pours it all out in a searing catharsis that recalls nothing so much as solo John Lennon and the intersection he found between the deeply personal and the politically universal. Also, there’s even some tunes here!

But yes, it’s a bracing listen, Metal Box, and nowhere more so than on the opening dirge “Albatross”. 11 minutes-long, leaden in tempo, the song is clearly designed as a test for the listener (get through this and it’s plain sailing!) just like the protracted assault of “Theme” that launched First Edition had been.  Absolutely pitiless music (Levene hacking at his axe like an abattoir worker,  Wobble rolling out a looped tremor of a bassline) is matched with utterly piteous singing: Lydon intones accusations about an oppressive figure from his past, perhaps the master-manipulator McLaren, possibly his dead friend Vicious, conceivably “Johnny Rotten” himself as a burden he can’t shake.  “Memories”, the single that preceded Metal Box’s November ’79 release, is more sprightly: brisk funk over which Levene’s cracked-kaleidoscope guitar scatters glassy splinters.  Like “Albatross,” though, the song is an embittered exorcism: Lydon could almost be commenting on his own nagging vocal and fixated lyrics with the line “dragging on and on and on and on and on and on and ON,”  then spits out  “this person’s had enough of useless memories” over a breath-taking disco-style breakdown.

With “Swan Lake”, a retitled remix of the single “Death Disco,” Lydon is possessed by an unbearable memory that he doesn’t want to forget: the sight of his mother dying in slow agony from cancer.  If the wretched grief of the lyric - “silence in her eyes”, “final in a fade”, “choking on a bed / flowers rotting dead” – recalls Lennon’s “Mother”, the retching anguish of Lydon’s vocal resembles Yoko Ono at her most abrasively unleashed.  On the original vinyl, the song locks into an endless loop on the phrase “words cannot express.” But “Swan Lake” - named after the Tchaikovsky melody that Levene intermittently mutilates - is nothing if not a 20th Century expressionist masterpiece: the missing link between Munch’s “The Scream” and Black Flag’s “Damaged I”.

Just as placing “death” in front of “disco” was an attempt to subvert the idea of dancefloor escapism, the title “Poptones” drips with acrid irony.  A real-life news story of abduction, rape and escape inspired the lyric, with one detail in particular triggering Lydon’s imagination: the victim’s memory of the bouncy music streaming out of the car’s cassette player. This juxtaposition of  manufactured happiness and absolute horror is a typically postpunk move, exposing  pop as a prettified lie that masks reality’s raw awfulness: for some postpunk groups,  an existential condition (dread, doubt) and for others,  a political matter (exploitation, control).  On “Poptones” this truth-telling impulse produces one of Lydon’s most vivid lyrics (“I don’t like hiding in this foliage and peat/It’s wet and I’m losing my body heat” ), supported and surrounded by music that’s surprisingly pretty, in an eerie, insidious sort of way. Wobble’s sinuously winding bass weaves through Levene’s cascading sparks as well as the cymbal-smash spray he also supplies (PiL being temporarily drummerless during this stage of the album’s spasmodic recording).

With PiL still between drummers, on “Careering” it’s Wobble’s who doubles-up roles, pummeling your ribcage with his bass and bashing the kit like a metalworker  pounding flat a sheet of steel. Levene swaps  guitar for swooping smears of synth, while Lydon’s helicopter-eye vision scans the border zone between Ulster and the Irish Republic: a terrorscape of “blown into breeze” bomb victims and paramilitary paranoia. “Careering” sounds like nothing else in rock and nothing else in PiL’s work – as with several other songs on Metal Box, it could have spawned a whole identity, an entire career, for any other band.

“No Birds Do Sing”, unbelievably, surpasses the preceding five songs.  Levene cloaks the murderous Wobble-Dudanksi groove with a toxic cloud of guitar texture.  Lydon surveys an English suburban scene whose placidity could not be further from troubled Northern Ireland, noting in sardonic approval its “bland planned idle luxury” and “well intentioned rules” (rolling the ‘r’ there in a delicious throwback to classic Rotten-style singing).  For “a layered mass of subtle props” and “a caviar of silent dignity” alone, Lydon ought to have the 2026 Nobel locked down.

After the greatest six-song run in all of postpunk,  Metal Box’s remainder is merely (and mostly) excellent, moving from the juddery instrumental “Graveyard” (oddly redolent of Johnny Kidd’s early British rock’n’roll classic “Shakin’ All Over”) through the rubbery-bassline waddle of “The Suit” to the stampeding threat of “Chant”, a savage snapshot of 1979’s tribal street violence.  The album winds down with the unexpected respite and repose of “Radio Four”, a tranquil instrumental entirely played by Levene: just a tremulously poignant and agile bassline overlaid with reedy keyboards that swell and subside like surges of emotion. The title comes from the U.K.’s national public radio station, a civilized and calming source of news, views, drama and light comedy beamed out to the British middle classes. As with “Poptones,” the irony is astringent.  

Listening to (and reviewing) Metal Box in a linear sequence goes against PiL’s original intent, of course. As the flatly descriptive, deliberately demystified title indicates, Metal Box initially came in the form of a circular canister containing three 45 r.p.m  12-inches – for better sound, but also to encourage listeners to play the record in any order they chose,  ideally listening to it in short bursts rather than in a single sitting.  But what once seemed radically anti-rockist (“deconstruct the Album!”) is now a historical footnote, because anyone listening to a CD or other digital format can rearrange the contents however they wish.  And if you do doggedly listen to Metal Box in accordance with its given running order, what comes across strongly now is its sheer accumulative power as an album. That in turn accentuates the feeling that this is a record that can be understood fairly easily by a fan of, say, Led Zep. It works on the same terms as Zozo:  a thematically coherent suite of physically imposing rhythm, virtuoso guitar violence, and impassioned singing. Lydon would soon enough ‘fess up to his latent rockism on 1986’s hard-riffing Album (also reissued as a deluxe box set at this time) on which he collaborated with Old Wave musos like ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker. That incarnation of PiL even performed Zep’s “Kashmir” in concert.

Listening to Metal Box today, the studio-processing – informed by PiL’s love of disco and dub – that felt so striking at the time seems subtle and relatively bare-bones, compared to today’s norms.  As the Manchester concert and some wonderfully vivid live-in-the-studio versions from the BBC rock program The Old Grey Whistle Test prove, PiL could recreate this music onstage (despite that fumbled “Public Image”).  Levene, especially, was surprisingly exact when it came to reproducing the guitar parts and textures captured in the studio.  Even the band’s debts to reggae and funk can be seen now as a continuation of the passion for black music that underpinned the British rock achievement of the  Sixties and first-half of the Seventies – that  perennial impulse to embrace the formal advances made by R&B and complicate them further while adding Brit-bohemian concerns as subject matter.  If PiL’s immediate neighbors are The Pop Group and The Slits, you could also slot them alongside The Police:  great drummer(s), roots-feel bass, inventively textured guitar, a secret prog element (Levene loved Yes,  Lydon adored Peter Hammill) and an emotional basis in reggae’s yearnings and spiritual aches.

Metal Box is a landmark, for sure. But like Devil’s Tower, the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s an oddly isolated one. In marked contrast to Joy Division, PiL’s spawn was neither legion nor particularly impressive (apart from San Francisco’s wonderful Flipper).  Nor would  PiL’s core three ever come close to matching the album’s heights in their subsequent careering (Wobble being the most productive, in both copiousness and quality).  I was apprehensive about listening to this album again, fearing that it had faded or dated. But this music still sounds new and still sounds true to me:  as adventurous and as harrowingly heart-bare as it did when I danced in the dark to it, an unhappy 16-year-old.  Metal Box stands up. It stands for all time. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Head On
Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Head On is a twisted, tripped-out  brother to Les Rhythmes Digitales Eighties-influenced Darkdancer. But  where Jacques LeCont's fond exhumations of Shannon and Nik Kershaw are typical French retro-kitsch, Super_Collider  treat Eighties electro-funk as
a prematurely curtailed modernism. This English duo (producer Cristian Vogel and singer Jamie Lidell) pick up where Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce", George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," and Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis's "Nasty" left off.  This era of  dance music just before sampling totally took over fascinates because of its crush collision between trad musicianship and futurism:  you can hear the players struggling to extract funk from unwieldy and unyielding drum machines, sequencers and synths.  Hence the apparent
paradox whereby  the best Eighties dancepop still sounds amazingly modern  while much contemporary dance music sounds retro--because today's producers get their funk by proxy, through sampling Seventies sources like vintage disco loops or jazz-funk licks.

Head On gets me flashing on the boogie wonderland of the post-disco, pre-house interregnum--the bulbous synth-bass and juicy-fruit keyboard licks of Gap Band, Steve Arrington, Man Parrish, D-Train, SOS Band. But as you'd expect from someone who records solo for avant-techno labels Mille Plateaux and Tresor, Vogel's version of bodymusic is decidedly mangled and alienated-sounding, while Lidell croons a kind of cyborg hypersoul--grotesquely mannered,  FX-warped, yet queerly compelling. Head On's highlight  "Darn (Cold Way O' Lovin')"  has a groove that bucks and writhes like a rutting hippotamus. "Take Me Home"  is robo-Cameo, featuring a digitized equivalent of slap-bass and Lidell's most blackface  warbling (imagine a bionic Steve Winwood). And "Alchemical Confession" is the kind of black rock I always hoped Tackhead or Material would deliver, all acrid guitar squalls and Lidell flailing like Jamiroquai in a meatgrinder (now that's something I'd pay to see). 

      A few years ago, Vogel  released  an EP called "We Equate Machines With Funkiness". Funk has always existed in the biomechanical zone between James Brown aspiring to be a sex-machine and Kraftwerk finding the libidinous pulse within the strict-time rhythms of automobiles and trains. When a band's playing has too much fluency and human feel, you don't get the  tensile friction that defines da  funk (which is why an excess of jazz influence sounds the death-knell for any dance genre's ass-grind appeal).  Super_Collider,though, have a perfect grasp on funk's uncanny merger of supple and stiff, loose and tight.                                          

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Routes from the Jungle (Kodwo komp)

Melody Maker 1995

by Simon Reynolds

What we have here  is a damn-dear definitive history of the genre '91-'95,  ardkore to art-core. Taking in happy, dark-side, ambient and drum & bass, this two-disc set only shortchanges us vis-a-vis ruffneck ragga. And it gets round the problem of being comprehensive yet avoiding redundancy (given the excessive number of jungle compilations in existence), by A/ including unusual mixes of key tracks that have appeared elsewhere on CD, and B/ dredging up some lost classics never before CD-anthologised.

Lost classics like Lennie D Ice's "We Are E", which cheekily turned an African chant into an anthem for the Luv'd Up Nation. And like the sultry smooch-core of "Waking Up" by Nicolette (now of Massive, then of the Shut Up and Dance stable), and of Manix's unbearably tender "You Held My Hand". Lost-est and classic-est of the lot, and my absolute favourite hardcore track of all time, is Foul Play's remix of their own "Open Your Mind". With its angel-host harmonies and diaphonous ripple of succulent synth, this track is as goosepimply as the entire works of My Bloody Valentine liquidised in a blender and injected into your spine. Midway, the track veers into the twilight-zone, then turns vicious with a veritable St Valentine's Day Massacre of rapid-fire snares.            

Other gems on Disc One include the febrile avant-funk of DJ Edrush's dark-core classic "Bludclot Artattack", as flesh-crawlingly foreboding as stumbling into a voodoo ceremony; the gloriously garbled "Secret Summer Fantasy" by the undeservingly forgotten Body Snatch (somebody anthologise their awesome "Just For U London", pu-leeze!!); plus A Guy Called Gerald's cyber-tribal "Nazinji-Zaka", making good its mysterious omission from the "Black Secret Technology" LP. Drawing mostly on late '94 and early '95, Disc Two is a handy survey of the state of the art-core. The old skool's rushin'-and-gushin' euphoria has given way to a more measured passion; fusion and Detroit techno influences are entering the junglist gene-pool. The result is a sort of ferocious elegance, best exemplified here by the delicate, deliquescent melancholia of Dillinja's "Deeper Love", the clockwork-gone-crazy convolutions of 4 Hero's Wrinkles In Time", and Droppin' Science's "Volume 2", with its radioactive synth-glow and grotesquely elasticated breakbeats.

All this, plus excellent sleevenotes from compiler Kodwo Eshun, makes "Routes From The Jungle" the most essential jungle-primer for the uninitiated since last year's "Drum & Bass, Selection 1". It's a history of the phuture. Buy, buy.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty


Every Song Ever - Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty

New York TimesFeb 17, 2016 

by Simon Reynolds

Few things scream “first world problem” more loudly than the notion that there’s too much good art and entertainment being made at the moment. Yet it’s undeniable that there is something curiously oppressive about the current bounty, something paralyzing about our ease of access to it. TV is one field where what ought to be a boon feels increasingly like a bane: once there were only dozens of new shows per season, now there are hundreds, such that keeping up with the quality output gets to seem like a chore.  If anything, the music overload feels even more unmanageable. 

New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s new book is a remedial intervention for our predicament of being able to “hear nearly everything, almost whenever, almost wherever, basically for free”.  Every Song Ever is framed as a set of  strategies to counter the confusion and appetite-loss that can afflict music fans as they attempt to navigate what feels like a cross between a maze and a banquet - the overflowing riches offered by  streaming services like Spotify,  unofficial archives like YouTube, music-sharing blogs, and other instant-access sources of sound.  Rather than rely on traditional signposts such as genre borders or artist biography, Mr. Ratliff proposes new routes across the teeming landscape: modes of attentive listening based around concepts or musical properties. Some, such as slowness, speed, stillness, and density, are fairly easy to grasp; others, like discrepancy and transmission, are more elusive. 

Close listening is Mr. Ratcliff’s forte. When he gets right inside what a musician is doing in a particular recording or performance, and how that affects your body or perceptions, the results are usually lovely and illuminating. His studies of James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky,” Sleep’s Dopesmoker, and the work of João Gilberto and Curtis Mayfield, are precise but never clinical.  The chapter “Getting Clear,” dealing with “audio space” as conjured on records by producers and engineers as well as by players, is particularly vivid, encompassing  artists as various as Grateful Dead, Roy Haynes, Pink Floyd, Stockhausen and Miley Cyrus. Mr. Ratcliff fulfils the injunction of Manfred Eicher, the founder and in-house producer of the ECM label, to “think of your ears as your eyes.”    

Another absorbing chapter deals with participatory discrepancies, a concept coined by the musicologist Charles Keil to describe the minute imprecisions in a performance that create a group’s unique feel.  Mr. Ratliff advises that the best way to hear a classic rumba album by Totico Arango and Patato Valdés is “through headphones, at night, walking through heavy crowds in Times Square, smelling street food, visually processing the lights.” That’s because the music in your ears will mirror the external environment: “nothing happens in perfect synch or in a straight line”; instead there’s a mesh of “flickering, jostling particulars.” 

 Mr. Ratliff leans towards non-technical terms and unshowy language, which he then nudges towards the profound or revealing. Sometimes that works brilliantly:  a passage on the Allman Brothers and the glory of bands with two drummers likens the role of Jaimoe to “a housepainter doing touch-ups, not on the second day of work but as the first coat is applied.”  Other times the effect falls somewhere between cute and clever, like when attempting to account for why virtuosi are so often religious:  “Perhaps they can’t contain their own pride and gratitude, or they can’t house the gigantic battery needed to power it.  They need an external storage space for it, and they call it God”.
A larger problem with Every Song Ever is that its premise starts to fade from view – starts to seem like a pretext, in fact, for a fragmented miscellany of meditations on music Mr. Ratliff likes. That’s fine as far as it goes, and readers will often find themselves propelled to YouTube or Spotify to hear what he’s writing about. But I wasn’t convinced that the nomadic modes of engagement with music he advocates would necessarily help anyone grapple with the quandaries of listening in an overloaded era. The categories are so open-ended they might even increase one’s sense of disorientating plenitude. They seem more like exercises one might do after having listened to a hugely varied amount of music over the course of a lifetime. 

Mr. Ratliff is both wary and weary of genre, which, near the start of the book, he asserts is “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less”. Actually, genre terms mostly emerge organically out of communities of musicians and fans.  Although Mr. Ratliff announces early on that he’ll refrain from using genre language wherever possible, in practice he nearly always identifies music using those tags: as bebop, happy hardcore, flamenco, dark ambient, nyabinghi.  Genre terms are useful, perhaps indispensable; they tell you something. The self-consciously genre-crossing critic – just like the self-consciously genre-blending musician – depends on style boundaries precisely to transgress them and achieve desired sensations of liberation, discovery, an airy cosmopolitan feeling of rising above the rooted and local.     

Mr. Ratliff uses terms like “comfort zone” as negative concepts, implying that listening widely is virtuous, or at least good for you, promoting a suppleness of sensibility.  But fanatical relationships with a particular sound or scene can be just as engaged, just as rewarding. Metal fiends, for instance, find an infinite array of subtle shades in what seems like undifferentiated monotony to non-initiates.  This sort of patriotic adherence to genre is something that Mr. Ratliff believes is on the way out, historically.  Which may be true, but is that a good thing?  The roaming listener who samples across the genrescape is more often than not harvesting musical fruits that were generated by narrowly focused and dedicated purists. 

In the end, it remains debatable whether there is a right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy way to listen to music. Being an omnivore doesn’t even guarantee increased enjoyment. There are people who derive endless delight just listening to one kind of music, or even a single artist, as Mr. Ratliff acknowledges in a section about individuals he’s encountered who have all-consuming obsessions with Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead’s live recordings.  Conversely, one of the downsides of the age of plenty is that the more widely you listen outside your well-worn grooves, the more frequently you’ll experience disappointment, distaste, or just indifference.  More is less. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Moon Wiring Club / Jon Brooks - Cafe Kaput - DD Denham

Moon Wiring Club and DD Denham: music for children, by children

The Guardian, 24 November 2010 

by Simon Reynolds

"One thing I've always wanted for my music is for it to appeal to children," says Ian Hodgson of Moon Wiring Club. "An ideal listening situation would be a family car journey. I think children would like all the voices and oddness. If you present kids with fun, spooky electronic music, then they might grow up wanting to make it themselves, like I did with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop." Hodgson's friend and collaborator Jon Brooks, aka the Advisory Circle, goes one better with the debut release for his label Café Kaput, which consists of spooky electronic music made by schoolchildren in the 70s.

Brooks and Hodgson originally met through MySpace. They rapidly discovered that they were "probably variations of the same person", according to Hodgson, with a shared passion for vintage 70s and 80s TV (not just the programmes but their incidental music and theme tunes). The friendship soon became an alliance. Brooks has done the mastering for all four Moon Wiring Club albums, including the brand new and brilliant A Spare Tabby at the Cat's Wedding. Hodgson, in turn, has done the artwork for Café Kaput. A full-blown collaboration between Moon Wiring Club and the Advisory Circle is in the pipeline.

The pair are chalk and cheese, though, when it comes to the way they operate musically. A skilled multi-instrumentalist whose music is "98% hand-played", Brooks makes little use of sampling or computer software. The Advisory Circle's 2006 debut EP Mind How You Go (reissued this year by Ghost Box in expanded, vinyl-only form) and 2008's much-acclaimed Other Channels reveals Brooks to be one of the contemporary scene's great melodists, with a gift for plush, intricate arrangements. Hodgson's approach, in contrast, is much more hip-hop raw. Entirely sample-based, Moon Wiring Club is assembled using astonishingly rudimentary technology: a PlayStation 2 and "a second-hand copy of MTV Music Generator 2 from 2001".

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

Moon Wiring Club often resembles trip-hop if its "vibe" was sourced not in obscure funk and jazz-fusion records but from the incidental music to The Prisoner, Doctor Who and The Flumps. Vocal samples are a huge part of Moon Wiring Club. Always spoken not sung, and always British in origin, they're derived largely from videos and DVDs of bygone UK television series such as Casting the Runes, Raffles and Ace of Wands. A scholar of "vintage telly", Hodgson can discourse at persuasive length about the superiority of British theatrical-turned-TV thesps such as Julian Glover and Jan Francis over American actors like Harrison Ford. He recently dedicated a podcast mix to 70s voiceover deity and Quiller star Michael Jayston.

Moon Wiring Club originally evolved out of what was intended to be "a peculiar children's book", Strange Reports from a Northern Village." That project got stalled but it did spawn the Blank Workshop website, based on an imaginary town called Clinksell, which has its own brand of confectionery, Scrumptyton Sweets, and a line of fantasy fiction, Moontime Books. The children's book project lives on also in the distinctive graphic look that Hodgson, a former fine art student, wraps around the Moon Wiring releases, drawing on influences including Biba's 20s-into-70s glamour, the strange exquisiteness of Arthur Rackham's illustrations, and Victorian fairy painters such as Richard Dadd. Blank Workshop and Moon Wiring Club is where all of Hodgson's enthusiasms and obsessions converge: "Electronic music, Art Deco, and the England of teashops, stately homes, ruined buildings and weird magic." Not forgetting computer-games music, a massive influence. "There is something about the forced repetition that makes you remember the tunes in a unique way," Hodgson says, adding that in some ways "Moon Wiring Club is meant to be Edwardian computer-game music."

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

Perhaps his early start with music, along with his later involvement in musical pedagogy, accounts for why Brooks was so intrigued by Electronic Music in the Classroom, an ultra-rare recording that was the byproduct of a course implemented at several home counties schools in 75-76 and which he has reissued through his just-launched downloads-only label Café Kaput. Originally released in a miniscule edition of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes for the parents of the children involved, this remarkable record is credited to DD Denham, the peripatetic teacher who devised and implemented the course. But the contents are actually the creme de la creme of the work created by participating children. Now retired, Denham stresses that "the concepts were always those of the child. I would help quite a bit with technical realisation, in terms of connecting that concept to a sound. But I always explained to them the steps taken in order to achieve the sound. The children soon picked up various techniques and developed them on their own. So, a little bit of collaboration, but it was more guidance than anything."

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

RIP Malcolm Young

 High Voltage / Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap / Highway To Hell/ Back In Black / For Those About To Rock We Salute You 
Mojo, 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Beats me why AC/DC aren't rated alongside The Ramones as seminal mid-'70s
minimalists. Both have built a career out of flogging a formula. Musically,
AC/DC's rock'n'roll fundamentalism takes the form of stop-start raunch-riffs and
lewd sub-blues rasp, as opposed to the Blitzkrieg Boppers' buzzsaw ramalama and
gabba-gabba-hey. Lyrically, AC/DC's fuckin', fightin' and hellraisin' yarns, like
the Ramones' gonzo shtick, is 50 percent tongue-in-cheek rock'n'roll parody, 50
percent genuine thick-as-pigshit moronicism.

AC/DC and the Ramones both debuted pre-punk, and hit their creative stride
in '76. But one's hip and the other's not. The reason is that AC/DC have no
progeny, whereas The Ramones blueprinted punk. Flattening the syncopation and the
sex out of rock'n'roll, the Ramones inadvertantly created a whole new rock
aesthetic. Whereas what makes AC/DC trad is precisely their strongest point, the
supple rhythm section and hip-grinding riffage: they're a reversion to the pre-
punk, pre-metal days when rock was dance music. AC/DC funk, which is why the Beasties sampled them to def (jam). In fact, "TNT", from 1976's High Voltage, is rap megalomania a decade ahead of its time, with Bon Scott boasting he's gonna "explode" just like LL Cool J in Mama Said Knock You Out, then nominating himself "Public Enemy Number One"!

The RIFF is one of those things that rock-critical thought has no purchase
on. As with the grain of the voice in soul, or the bassline in funk, it's
something you can't really talk about, or explain why one grabs you where
another doesn't. The RIFF is rock's base element, and AC/DC's absolute essence;
it's not Angus Young's solos, but his and brother Malcolm Young's dual rhythm guitars
that are the lure on "Rock'n'Roll Singer", "Live Wire", "Problem Child", "Highway
To Hell". AC/DC also have a great way with a teasin' intro, e.g. "For Those About
To Rock We Salute You."

Other aspects to AC/DC are pretty peripheral next to the meat-and-potatoes
of the boogie. Juvenile is the keynote: this is the band that put the 'base' in
back-to-basics. The bawdy misogny and puerile innuendo can get mighty tiresome:
the VD metaphors of "The Jack", the drooling lechery of "Love At First Feel",
"Beating Around The Bush", ad nauseam.

Then again (returning to the punk analogy), "Rock'n'Roll Singer" (from High Voltage) parallels "Career Opportunities" as Bon rants "you can stick your 9-to-5 living ...and all the other
shit they teach the kids at school". And "Problem Child" (from Dirty Deeds) is as psychotic as "No Feelings". AC/DC's ethos is nothing if not "the truth is only known by guttersnipes". But truthfully, their petty delinquency is closer to Oi! than Class of '77. Imagine Cockney Rejects, but with 'feel' and 'groove'.

An anthology of singles (AC/DC are one of the great singles band) and best
album tracks is way overdue, but until then these digitally remastered reissues
offer an opportunity to reappraise the aged Aussie reprobates. High Voltage is a stone classic, and the rest all have their moments.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Carol Clerk remembered

reminiscence of a Melody Maker colleague, part of a memorial package that The Quietus organised in April 2010 in celebration of Carol

Carol Clerk is a vivid and indelible presence in my memories of my time at Melody Maker. The same surely goes for anybody who passed through the portals of that paper (and the public houses adjacent to it). I remember the impish twinkle in her eye, the cadence of her voice, the tininess of her frame (often brought into relief by the size of the pint glass in her hand). She was one of the most approachable people in the Melody Maker office but also probably the most formidable. I think I escaped getting a tongue-lashing from her at any point during my time at the Maker (even after "helping" out on the news desk one week with typing in information about new releases and inserting some made-up stuff about a couple of bands I detested). No doubt I would remember such a well-deserved telling-off if it had happened.

Actually I'm surprised I was let off, because in my mind's eye I picture Carol as this newspaperwoman of the old school, a real professional, still chasing stories hard on a Friday afternoon, when most everybody else in the office was slacking off down the pub. The British music press was unique in that you could prosper there and get right to the top, without any journalistic training or being the slightest bit versed in traditional reporting or editing skills. Carol was an anomaly in that respect, in that she actually did have that training. If I remember correctly, she had worked at a newspaper or two on her way to ending up at the Maker. One thing that really amazed me was when I learned that she did her interviews without a tape recorder, just using a notepad, scribbling down the conversation in short hand.

Carol was an anomaly in another sense, a woman in what was (especially when she started out) a male-dominated field. ("Dominated" always strikes me as a bit of an overstatement: I think most people in the music press really wanted more women to be involved… but at the same time it's true there could be a laddish aura about the Maker). Carol thrived despite this in part because she could out-drink, out-smoke and out-joke any of the men, but at the same time she managed to retain through it all an aspect that was…. motherly.

Another admirable thing about Carol was the way she stuck with the music she was into, which was basically hard rock. There was no keeping up with what was au courant (she must have found so much of what got covered in the Maker--and the way it was covered-- to be ridiculous). Carol liked what she liked and with characteristic tenacity and loyalty she stayed with it.

Image result for carol clerk

Friday, November 17, 2017


end-of-year essay for Melody Maker, unpublished i think

by Simon Reynolds

There were "slackers" long before anyone gave them a name. For
decades, every college town and major city in the Western world has
had its bohemian sector of n'er do wells and time-wasters busily
engaged in trying to stave off the Real World for as long as
possible.  Rejecting the career ladder, these drop-outs prolong
adolescence and mess about - for a few years, for decades, sometimes
forever.  Financial insecurity seems a fair trade for more time to
devote to creativity, questioning and self-discovery. It was this
bohemian milieu that birthed the hippy and punk movements, and it
remains the perennial breeding ground for indie bands.

     The UK equivalent of slackerdom used to be "dole culture",
before signing on became an increasingly untenable lifestyle after
Thatcher's assault on the Welfare State.  In the USA, middle class
kids try to drag out their college education as long as possible;
after college, some live off private incomes (as with the notorious
"Grandma's trust fund" that subsidises every Lower East Side
hardcore band's recording costs and drug habits), others eke out a
living with temporary jobs (waiting, working in record stores, etc).

     But in the late Eighties, a particular rock aesthetic and
worldview emerged that was eventually christened "slacker".  It
combined elements from earlier boho-movements: slacker = the stoned
dreaminess of hippy + the faithless vacancy of punk. But perhaps
more significant was what it left out of the fusion: slackers were
hippies without the world-changing idealism, punks without the
speed-fuelled uptightness and will-to-power. The defining quality of
slacker is limp: as Mercury Rev put it on their second album,
"Boces" - "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up".  The
slacker is apolitical, a Rebel against Causes, against Movements
(and movement).

    Perhaps the archetypal slacker in rock is J.  Mascis. On the
early Dinosaur Jr's albums "You're Living All Over Me" and "Bug"
(1987/88), he came over as a pampered, housebound, spiritual
invertebrate. Mascis' ragged, frazzled guitar-sound, torn-and-frayed
drawl-whine of a voice, and fatigued lyrics, all aspired to that
early Seventies Neil Young feeling of burn-out, that stemmed from
the bitter comedown after the late Sixties high.  Another early
classic of slacker rock was Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" (1988),
which imagined New York as a psychedelic labyrinth, "a wondertown"
for the dazed-and-confused wanderer.  Songs like "The Sprawl",
"Eric's Trip" and "Hyperstation" took unmoored drifting to the brink
of psychosis.  Then there was the nouveau acid rock of the Butthole
Surfers, whose Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary chucked in careers in
accountancy for a life of making mess (on stage, on record) and
getting wasted.

     In the US, there's another strand of maladjusted, unmotivated
youth, who have less choice about wasting their lives: they don't
have any opportunities to squander in the first place. These kids,
known as "burn-outs" or "stoners", drop out while still at school.
Despised by their teachers and by their more aspirational peers,
burn-outs wear long-hair, smoke pot by the bike shed, and listen to
heavy metal (classics like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath,
contemporary thrash like Metallica and Slayer).  They hang out in
car lots and abandoned buildings, get harassed by the cops,
sometimes graduate to harder drugs like heroin.  The British
equivalent of burn-outs are probably the kind of delinquents that
made up Happy Mondays or todays' hardcore techno youth. But rave
culture hasn't impacted suburban America yet, so burn-outs don't get
hyper and happy, they numb the pain as best they can.

     In her book "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids",
Donna Gaines pinpoints the predicament that faces the burn-outs.
With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only
options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid
of union protection or prospects for advancement.  Hence their low
self-esteem, the feeling that there's no future, and the commonly
expressed sentiment: "no job is worth cutting your hair for".  The
gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of
Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is
huge.  The escape routes from this dead end include the
anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa
here" of suicide. The more optimistic imagine joining the army or
forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and
learning a trade.  Even after Clinton, the outlook is still bleak
for American youth: paying off the deficit will depress the US
economy for years. There's literally "No Future": the babyboom
generation have already spent it.

     In the late Eighties, after years of "lite-metal" (all those
poodle-perm groups like Bon Jovi), metal got heavier again,
musically and thematically. Bands like Metallica took on punk's
attitude, cutting down the musical flab and addressing grim reality
in their lyrics.  Meanwhile, the post-hardcore bands were getting
heavier, fusing the turgid ponderousness of early Seventies blues
rock with the belligerence of punk. And so grunge was born. And out
of its birthplace, Seattle, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream
with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a record that briefly forged
middle-class slackers and blue-collar burn-outs into a unity of
disaffected youth. Only Nirvana could do this, because of their
unique combination of intelligence (Cobain and Novoselic are
art-school drop outs, politically sussed) and raw, simplistic
aggression. Today, the grunge spectrum extends from arty absurdism
to bludgeoning, brain-dead bombast. At the slackerdaisical end of
the spectrum, there's Pavement, with their surreal wit and mild
disillusionment: at the other end, pure burn-out, you'll find Alice
In Chain, who are devoid of irony and totally mired in despondency.

     Pavement exemplify the brighter side of the slacker condition:
namely, that all that freedom from responsiblity gives you time to
bliss out on the weirdness and wondrousness of everyday life, time
to acquire an obsessive knowlege of music. But there's a downside
even here: you can tell that Steven Malkmus' inordinately large
record collection hasn't made him happy, that in fact he feels
dwarfed and unworthy when faced by the achievements of previous rock
eras. And like true slackers, Pavement disguise this by terminal
irony.  The dark side of slackerdom comes through more plainly with
bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Rollins Band, Nirvana:
feelings of impotence, entropy, entrapment.  I reckon grunge is
'castration blues', and if you think that's fanciful, consider the
fact that Alice In Chains actually have a song called "Slow
Castration", that there's a line in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" about
being "neutered and spayed".

     In that one song, Nirvana captured all the anguish and the
cruel irony of the slacker condition.  Nirvana want to rebel, they
want to believe that music can change the world, but their
insurrectionary spirit is crippled in advance because they know that
resistance is futile: the music industry routinely turns rebellion
into money. Teen spirit is bottled, shrinkwrapped and sold over the
counter.  And so Cobain's rage chokes in his throat, festers and
turns to bitter bile.

     *         *         *         *         *

    As well as Nirvana's breakthrough, 1991 also saw the cult
success of the movie "Slacker". Directed by 28 year old Richard
Linklater, it was a low-budget snapshot of the shiftless, decentred
life of the twentysomething hangers-on who inhabit the fringes of
the University of Austin, Texas.  Drifting through Austin's summer
streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do-
wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates
(usually concerning conspiracy theory or elaborate validations of
their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites. Funny,
touching, but implicitly sad, "Slacker" steadfastly refuses to judge
the slackers. For Linklater the film was neither diatribe nor
celebration, just a document.

    One of the things "Slacker" captured so well was the way that
slackers, while passive and weak-willed, envy those capable of
action. They have a voyeuristic, vicarious fascination with
assassins and mass murderers, perhaps because they offer a mesmering
spectacle of pure will.  "Slackers spend their whole lives in their
own heads," says Linklater.  "Making that leap of faith into action
is hard.  So when they hear of one person who did make a difference,
they're impressed, even if it's a mass murderer."

     Slacker's main activities (or passivities, more accurately) are
"daydreaming as productive activity" and trawling the detritus of
decades of pop culture.  The result is a slacker aesthetic, a weird
mix of kitsch and mysticism, that has obvious parallels in music
(Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Bongwater) but also in modern art.
Artforum magazine identified a slacker school of artists, whose
installations involve random accretions of found objects, trashy
knick-nacks and personal souvenirs. In slackerdom, wrote Jack
Bankowsky, "everyone worships at their own jerry-built altar".

     1991 also saw the publication of Doug Coupland's 'novel'
"Generation X", an amusing but lightweight dissection of the
twentysomething malaise. Seeing no hope for advancement on the
career ladder, Coupland's X-ers are into "lateral mobility", moving
from one unsatisfactory "McJob" to another.  After the success of
their debut efforts, both Linklater and Coupland turned their
attention to teenagers: Coupland wrote "Shampoo Planet" (about
today's global teens) and Linklater filmed "Dazed and Confused"
(about Seventies high school burn-outs). Meanwhile, Hollywood
detected a market in the twentysomething demographic, and started
churning out slacker-sploitation pics, like Cameron Crowe's cute but
slight "Singles" and Michael Steinberg's stylish but pseudo-profound
"Bodies, Rest and Motion".

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     Since the Zeitgeist-defining moment that was "Smells Like Teen
Spirit", the precarious alliance between slackers and burn-outs has
disintegrated, in much the same way that punk dispersed into a
myriad fragments after the Sex Pistols auto-destructed. The slacker
contingent has gone off into the rarerified realm of noise-for-
noise's sake. In the wake of Pavement, a burgeoning movement of
lo-fi avant-garage bands has emerged: Unrest, Ween, Sebadoh, Mercury
Rev, Flaming Lips, Truman's Water, Royal Trux, God Is My Co-Pilot,
Timber, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Smog, etc.  Like Pavement,
these bands favour cryptic song-titles, surreal lyrics, arcane
influences (The Fall, Krautrockers like Can, Faust, Neu), and
a mess-thetic of loose ends and wilful dishevelment.  Meanwhile, the
bulk of the audience that Nirvana created has stuck with the simpler
fare of pure grunge: the brawn and bombast of punk-metal bands like
Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Flotsam and Jetsam, who all plough the
narrow strip of terrain between Black Sabbath and Black Flag.  It's
seems unlikely that this split between arty elitism (the slackers)
and artless populism (the grungers) will be repaired.

     And what of Nirvana, the band who made the Slacker a public
figure? Judging by the sequel to "Nevermind", with its ultra-grunge
Steve Albini production, Cobain & Co seem deadset on alienating
their audience and shortcircuiting their success. You only have to
read the sleevenotes to "Incesticide", with Cobain's angst-wracked
writhing about integrity and his almost pathetic namedrops of
obscure bands, to realise that Nirvana want to go back to the indie
womb. A slacker who's somehow landed himself with a millionaire
career, Cobain is knocking on the underground's door, begging for
readmission.  And ain't that pure slack?