Tuesday, May 9, 2017

letter from NYC - outlook for '93: grim

LETTER FROM NYC: outlook for '93: grim
Melody Maker, December 1992

by Simon Reynolds

     Since it's that time of year when everyone's looking to the
future, let me weigh in with my two cents worth: not predictions, so
much as patterns for '93 in American rock.  This much is obvious:
the major labels are still fixated on that delusory figment, "the
next Nirvana".  Having signed most of Nirvana's grunge peers, and
scraped the bottom of that barrel, they're currently harvesting the
next crop: bands whose development has been (mis)shaped
by the success of "Nevermind".

   So if you thought the first, "authentic" wave was dire enough,
gird thy lug-holes for the likes of Kyuss, Stone Temple Pilots, and
Wool.  These neo-grungers occupy a constricted triangle of terrain
whose points are Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and Helmet.  Their
vocalists all bellow in that godawful Soundgarden/Alice In Chains
pseudo-blues style, like Joe Cocker being crushed between two slabs
of conrete.  Kyuss' "Blues For The Red Sun" LP, for instance, is
a dismal slog of down-tuned guitars and sluggish tempos.  The video
for the single "Thong Song" is set in some kind of sallow-lit
dungeon, while the song itself oscillates between a stop-start,
crippled riff and ineffectual blasts of rage, like a prisoner in
solitary trying to escape by using his head as a battering ram.

     If Kyuss are singing the modern blues, as the LP title seems to
claim, this is the blues as sung by Ozzy Osbourne and filtered
through Henry Rollins.  Rollins' agonised throes of failed, flailing
masculinity, as first and best heard on Black Flag's "Damaged", were
a seminal influence on Nirvana.  And Rollins' recent song "Low Self
Esteem" captures the (dis)spirit of grunge perfectly.  Musclebound
but impotent, grunge is masculine, but never macho in a flamboyant
Jagger/Plant/Axl way.  Grunge isn't the new cock rock, it's the
castration blues.

    And so bands like Kyuss don't swagger, they strain: their
riffage sounds strenuous, like it's perpetually on the verge of
sprouting a hernia. In a recent issue of Details, Rollins writes
eloquently about his almost mystical attitude to working out. He
sees "The Iron" as his only true friend: submitting to its regime,
he learns to channel his aggression and confront his own limits.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rollins is a survivalist, a One
Man Army, at war with himself.  If Rollins is parted from his
weights for any prolonged period, he sinks into a morass of
despondency, like a career soldier who's been demobilised against
his will.  With Rollins, Kyuss, et al, rock is a kind of spiritual
work-out, a fortification of the self in order to face the minefield
of everyday life.

    There's another strain of US rock activity, bands who don't
fight abjection but succumb to it: Come, Swell, Codeine, Toiling
Midgets, and other inhabitants of the abyss.  Where the turgid toil
of Rollins-rock is eventually numbing, this music is plain numb:
Come should really call themselves Coma. Again, "the blues" are
waved around by some as a reference point, but I can't hear it,
except in so far as this music is black-and-blue with emotional
bruises, blue like the rigor mortis of an overdose victim.

     If there's a gleam of brightness on the bleak horizon of US
rock, it takes the form not of positivity but peculiarity: the
absurdist rock of lo-fi art-punks like Royal Trux, Thinking Fellers
Union Local 282, Cul de Sac, Sun City Girls, Fantastic Palace, Wall
Drug, and others.  Operating somewhere to the left of Pavement and
Mercury Rev, these bands are heavily influenced by the warped and
wired fractures of The Fall, the fissile soundscapes of Faust and
Can, and Sonic Youth's oldstyle guitar-reinvention. Although they
have a similar experimental approach to the British avant-rock
fringe (Moonshake, Earwig, Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, Papa
Sprain etc), the US weirdos are still somewhat restricted by their
guitar-fetishism.  US rock has yet to embrace the psychedelic
possibilites of sampling: it still thinks disco sucks.  The two
Brit-rock pinnacles of the Nineties-Primal Scream's "Higher Than The
Sun" and MBV's "To Here Knows When"-could never have happened
without rave culture.  But even with their lo-fi Luddite tendencies,
these art-punks know how to marvel, rather than wallow in the mire
of moroseness.

[footnote: now i would much rather listen to the mire-of-morose bands of that era - Alice of Chains above all, but probably Kyuss and possibly even Wool whoever the fuck they were - than any of them lo-fi record-clerk collector/zine-ed type bands]

Sunday, May 7, 2017

three favorite music books

[written for somebody as part of an interview i did, bonus side-bar thing or something, can't remember who, can't remember when - the concept was "three music books you love that aren't that well known or are forgotten"

Starlust (1985) by Fred and Judy Vermorel has been out of print for years, but is just about to get reissued by my publisher as part of its Faber Finds imprint. Here’s how I blurbed it: “This fascinating and groundbreaking expose . . . lifts the lid on fan culture to reveal—and revel in—its literally idolatrous delirium. Yet, far from manipulated dupes of a cynical record industry, fans are shown to be subversive fantasists who use the objects of their worship as a means to access the bliss and glory they cannot find in their everyday lives and social surroundings. A lost classic of pop-culture critique that’s woven almost entirely out of the testimonials and confessions of the fans themselves, Starlust is above all a celebration of the power of human imagination.”
Big Noises (1991) is a really enjoyable book about guitarists by the novelist Geoff Nicholson. It consists of 36 short “appreciations” of axemen (and they’re all men; indeed, it’s quite a male book but quite unembarrassed about that). These range from obvious greats/grates like Clapton/Beck/Page/Knopfler to quirkier choices like Adrian Belew, Henry Kaiser, and Derek Bailey. Nicholson writes in a breezy, deceptively down-to-earth style that nonetheless packs in a goodly number of penetrating insights. I just dug this out of my storage unit in London a couple of months ago and have been really enjoying dipping into it.
The Boy Looked At Johnny (1978) by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons is a curious thing: proof that a music book can be almost entirely wrong and yet remain a bona fide rockwrite classic. Allegedly written in a few days during an amphetamine bender, it’s subtitled “The Obituary of Rock and Roll,” but is really a requiem for the then-married authors’ broken-hearted belief in punk-as-revolution. Bitter and bitchy, strident and stylish, it had a huge impact on me at the time, as it did on loads of other impressionable youths; I was surprised to find out later that many people at the time of its release disapproved/deplored/dismissed it altogether. A big deal at the time, The Boy Looked At Johnny really has been forgotten. Few today even remember that perennially infamous newspaper opionator Burchill was once a music journalist—indeed, for a few years, the U.K.’s most famous rock writer.

Monday, May 1, 2017

beard rock 1992 / beard rock 2009

Notes On the Noughties column, Guardian, winter 2009

by Simon Reynolds

Standing on a subway platform waiting for the L train to Brooklyn recently, I saw a group of young men with that slightly scruffy, indeterminately hip look that screams "Williamsburg" and was struck by the fact that all three of them had beards.  Later that same week, walking down a single block in the East Village, I passed around a dozen men in the 18 to 35 age range who were bearded.  A few days after that, watching New York Noise, an alternative rock cable TV show,  I saw several videos in a row in which most members of the group sported one form or other of facial fuzz, climaxing with Fleet Foxes's  hairier-than-thou "He Doesn't Know Why".

It was then that it struck me that beardedness had gradually become one of the crucial, era-defining signifiers for Noughties non-mainstream rock.

That's particularly the case in the United States, where whiskers have an obvious fit with alt-country and free folk. But things have gotten pretty hirsute this past decade in the U.K. too.  Take a look at this TV commercial, part of British Airways "face-to-face" campaign to "promote entrepreneurship in tough times" and focusing in this case on the U.K. music industry.  It's meant to be a sort of slideshow of today's hot, hip 'n' happening  Brit-rock scene. But the panorama of long straggly hair, peasant skirts, acoustic guitars and beards feels more like you've gone through a time tunnel to 1972. Until recently there was even a Scottish music zine called Beard whose cover stars tended to be mutton-chopped minstrels such as Alasdair Roberts and Robert Wyatt. 

The magazine's founders Stewart Smith and Neil Jacques developed "an admiration for beards" at the start of this decade through listening to a ton of Wyatt, Dennis Wilson, and Will Oldham.
Formerly of Palace Brothers and also known as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Oldham pioneered the new beardedness.   He actually looks like a pioneer, an early American homesteader or beaver-trapper. Just check the sepia-toned photograph on the cover of his 2003 album Master and Everyone, which has the old-timey aura of a Daguerrotype or Calotype portrait circa the American Civil War. The bald dome only accentuates the dense thickets of bristles engulfing the lower half of his head.

Sharing reference points like Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music and John Fahey, Oldham is a fellow- traveler to the free folk scene, an entire region of  U.S. underground music that's virtually Gilette-free.  When it comes to untamed brush, Matt Valentine of the duo MV & EE is something of a vanguard figure.  He and his partner Erika Elder live out in the woodlands near Brattleboro, Vermont, an area that's been a magnet for East Coast bohemians since hippie days.  For glimpses of Valentine's magnificent bracken, check out this footage of MV & EE performing with the Canada Goose Band (a combo who took their name from a brand of rolling papers) 

 and also this short interview where the duo discuss their political and spiritual beliefs  
(note how  Elder describes the output of their record label Child Of Microtones as a "harvest").

Valentine is sniffy about the more "commercial" end of freak folk (performers like Joanna Newsom, who spiritually at least is a bearded lady) for being too sonically groomed. But there's no deny that Devendra  Banhard has contributed massively to setting back the cause of cleancut-ness this decade. Other notable Noughties hairies who've put the willies up the Wilkinson shareholdership include Bon Iver, Band of Bees, Destroyer's Daniel Bejar, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Band of Horses, and  Broken Social Scene  (roughly 80 percent of whose sprawling line-up go unshaven, with most of the remainder being female).  Strangely, Grizzly Bear favour the razor, while Animal Collective is only one thirds furry.

"What about Wayne Coyne?" I hear you cry.  True, he has one of the most pleasing countenances in all of modern rock, a look that is somehow consonant with the Flaming Lips sound.  But I think Wayne's salt-and-pepper beard has a slightly different inflection to the Noughties nu-folkies.  It's evocative more of Laurel Canyon and soft-rock Los Angeles circa 1976:  Andrew Gold, even Michael McDonald when he was in the Doobie Brothers. Typically wearing a nice-looking jacket, Coyne seems urbane and contemporary, as opposed to rustic and bygone.

 As it happens, the neatly-trimmed (and well-washed) Seventies soft rock style beard has been cropping up in electronic music circles all through the decade,  from one half of Air to Norwegian "space disco" producer Lindstrom.

Earlier I suggested that face-fuzz had become an epoch-defining signifier in left-field rock. But what does it actually signify?  Let's look again at Fleet Foxes's "He Doesn't Know Why", where the group sound like angels but look like satyrs.

 Here beardedness becomes tantamount to a visual rhetoric, a form of authentication, as though the band are wearing their music on their faces.  The video is a symphony of brown hues; there's even livestock mingling with the band as they play, goats whose tufty throats accentuate the band's bewhiskeredness.   The promo's earthy colour-palette and the group's straggly and somewhat greasy beards make for a blatant example of image following the music's lead in echoing an era of rock history: 1968-1969, the very first time that rock grew a beard.   On "He Doesn't Know Why", the sound and visuals are equal parts Crosby Stills Nash & Young and The Band.  With Fleet Foxes's debut album featuring ditties about red squirrels and meadowlarks and song titles like "Ragged Wood" and "Blue Ridge Mountains," it hardly takes Roland Barthes to decode the beards as the physiognomic expression of that perennial American yearning for wilderness (a longing  seemingly felt most fiercely by young Americans who didn't grow up anywhere near remote rural areas).  In this symbolic scheme, facial fur = fir (and pine, spruce, maple, et al), while  Gillete = the timber industry, or "mountaintop removal" mining.

In a silent but eloquent protest against modernity, Fleet Foxes have turned their chins into miniature Appalachian forests.

Blissblog follow-up post on changing attitudes to facial hair and cycles of fashion / grooming through rock history

It wasn't like that in my day, let me tell you. Beards, in the postpunk late Seventies and early Eighties, weren't admirable, they were aberrant.  Postpunk's angst squad were pallid and wintry, the New Pop outfits like Orange Juice were fresh-faced and boyish.

If you saw a furry face in the NME it would be either a roots reggae band (the semiotics of beards have a completely different valence in black music in general) or it'd be someone like John Martyn or Richard Thompson, i.e. a throwback to another era, folk-rock.  Beards strangely doubled as signifiers of hippiedom and authority (they were what policemen had--just check the cover of David Peace's GB84 with its throng of coppers holding back a mass picket).

At my college the only beard-wearers were a bunch of hippies, the same age as me but utterly dedicated to living in 1968 (they listened to The Hangman's Incredible Daughter).  Apart from these strident anachronists, the only other occurrences of  facial hair were rare and fell into particular categories.  It could be a guy who was short and slight and therefore sick of being offered half-price on public transport.  It could be the expression of radical self-neglect (often accompanied by body-odour or scurvy).  It could be the sign of an evangelical Christian (the beard expressing both Jesus-identification and a lack of vanity). Finally, the stereotype went, a beard was the insignia of the geology student.

By the late Eighties and on into the Nineties, beards started to become hip. You had the vaguely-Satanic, "R-U-ready-to-rock?" beard, as worn ironically by Zodiac Mindwarp and then in deadly earnest by Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden.  There were soul-patches and goatees and what you might call the "hemp beard" (Cypress Hill).

There was weirdy-beardy electronica (Richard D. James, Luke Vibert).

Somewhere in the middle of this you also got the I-am-above-such-trifling-things-as-image beard,e.g.  the brambles that over-ran the face of Elvis Costello circa 1990, seemingly an act of pique at the fact that he wasn't getting hits anymore.

(Paddy MacAloon's current image might be a variant of this kind of ex-popstar beard).

Facial hair of ever-increasingly complexity became a staple of metal both on the underground (thrash, black, doom, etc) and mainstream (nu-metal) , perhaps signifying the resurgence of "real" metal bringing to an end the Eighties hair metal era (when pretty-boy rockers's faces were as smooth as their long locks were silky).