Saturday, September 30, 2017

Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, by Tim Lawrence

Tim Lawrence

 Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983

(Duke University Press)

director's cut version, Bookforum, Sept / Oct / Nov 2016 issue

by Simon Reynolds

The title of the new book by disco scholar Tim Lawrence has taken on an unintended ominous overtone following the massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. Of course, the grim reaper alluded to in Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor is not a homophobic terrorist, but a disease: AIDS, which ultimately scythed a deadly swathe across the cast of characters in this absorbing history of early Eighties Manhattan: performers, artists and promoters such as Klaus Nomi, Keith Haring and Bruce Mailman, to name only a few casualties.  Less literally, Lawrence identifies club culture with a vitalist spirit of Eros, celebrating the ways in which desire, communality and improvisation dissolves boundaries. Conversely, the opposed puritanical and purist principles - segregation, regulation, etc - are implicitly marked down as forces of Thanatos.

Life and Death is the sequel to Lawrence’s 2004 book Love Saves the Day, which chronicled disco’s emergence in the 1970s. But the British academic has already taken a first pass across Eighties New  York with 2009’s Hold On To Your Dreams, albeit using a single, if widely networked, artist – Arthur Russell - as a prism.  Originally a minimalist composer in the 1970s “New Music” mold, Russell explored a dizzying range of absurdist disco directions via numerous artistic aliases. For Lawrence, this flux and mutability made Russell (another AIDS casualty) an exemplar of the fully deterritorialized artistic life. This new  book looks at the larger subcultural landscape through which Russell moved and finds many other figures informed by that same spirit of flux and mutability. Operators like Michael Zilkha, whose ZE label was the home of “mutant disco”: genre-bending collisions of rock, funk, jazz and Latin music perpetrated by outfits like Was (Not Was), Material, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

One of the valuable things about Lawrence’s book is the way it focuses attention on a period that’s usually considered an intermediary phase, a mere gap between the classic disco era and the house explosion. For want of a better term, some have come to call it post-disco; at the time, people just talked about club music. Disco’s official demise in terms of its mainstream profile occurred circa 1979, the year of the “disco sucks” backlash, radio stations dropping the format as swiftly as they’d embraced it, and major labels closing down their disco departments. But dancing as a leisure activity did not fade away, obviously, and nor did music made purely for dancing.  Its consumption and production became more concentrated in certain cities – New York paramount among them – and it became the preserve of independent labels like West End, Prelude, and Sleeping Bag (co-founded by Russell).

The clubbing industry that had emerged during the disco boom didn’t wither away either: it adapted and in some instances even escalated in ambition.   One of the most interesting barely-told stories here concerns the lavishly designed gay club The Saint, with its planetarium-style ceiling. Owner Bruce Mailman engineered a total environmental experience for dancers, using disorienting lighting and engulfing sound to create sensations of transcendence and absolute removal from reality.

 “Post-disco” also fits what happened to the music, which mutated and fragmented into substyles: the slower, blacker grooves of what some DJs nowadays call “boogie”; the bouncy, diva-dominated Hi-NRG that eventually took over gay clubs like the Saint; a brash, crashing style known as freestyle that was particularly popular with Latino kids.  In all these subgenres, electronic textures and programmed elements  – thick synth bass, sequencer pulses, drum machine beats, early sampling effects – gradually took over,  as heard on classic tracks like Peech Boys’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” and Man Parrish’s “Hip Hop Be Bop.”

There are other  terms featuring “post-“  as prefix that apply to the four year period Lawrence examines here.  Postpunk, for instance, fits the way that No Wave groups like the Contortions strove to be more extreme than  the CBGBs bands like Ramones, only for their assaultive approach to be itself eclipsed by more groovy sounds from outfits like Liquid Liquid.  “Postfunk” pinpoints  the way that hip hop isolated the percussive quintessence (the breakbeats, the half-spoken half-sung chants) of James Brown style R&B.  And then there’s that old reliable “postmodern”: the early Eighties was when  retro first became a term in hip parlance, with revivalisms galore and camp parody infusing nightspots like the Mudd Club and Club 57. Staging themed parties based around concepts like  blacksploitation movies or dead rock stars, these clubs were more like arts laboratories than discos – Lawrence terms them “envirotheques”- although deejays remained key and dancing was always a fixture.

Life and Death provides the most intensive mapping of this relatively brief era of New York subculture we’ve yet seen. The book’s strength is its depth of research, drawing on the real-time journalism of the era and a huge number of new interviews. The detail is fascinating, Lawrence salvaging from the fog of faded memory such ephemeral brilliances as the deejay Anita Sarko’s Cold War themed party at Danceteria, during which she played  Soviet-banned music such as ABBA alongside state-sanctioned music like socialist men’s choirs, while the club’s co-founder Rudolf Piper, dressed as a commandant, periodically entered the room and pretended to arrest dancers. But strengths can become weaknesses, and Life and Death sometimes gets too list-y: there’s rather too many passages where, say, 21 bands are lined up to indicate a venue’s booking policy without anything much substantive conveyed.  Part of the art of a book of this nature is knowing what to leave out.

Writing about an era so roiling with overlapping and simultaneous action presents formidable structural challenges.  Dividing by theme or genre loses the narrative dimension. Focusing chapters on individual artists, labels, or clubs means that you keep the sense of storyline, but have to double-back to the era’s start for each new narrative. Lawrence opts for chronology, dividing his book up into year-long sections: 1980, 1982, 1982, 1983. That has its own downside, though:  the reader feels like the story is constantly flitting across to another figure or scene, to catch up with where they’ve gotten to by this point. The same places and persons crop up repeatedly: clubs like Better Days, Pyramid, Hurrah, Negril, Funhouse, Paradise Garage....  movers-and-shakers like Anya Philips, Ann Magnuson, Steve Maas, Jim Fourratt, Diego Cortez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ruza Blue....  There simply isn’t a perfect solution to this tricky task – writing the collective biography of an epoch – and Lawrence’s approach does at least retain the sense of forward propulsion through time.

By the end of 1982, the processes that Lawrence valorizes – cross-fertilisation, eclecticism, hybridity – are peaking. “The melting pot city was entering its hyper-whisk phase”, he writes. Ideas travel back and forth between disco, rap, postpunk, avant-garde composition, and more.  Nor was the border-crossing limited to music: this was an era of polymath dilettantes, a time when most people in bands were also poets, actors, film-makers or visual artists, while a club maven might found a Lower East Side gallery as readily as organize a themed party.   

The book’s last section, covering 1983, is titled “The Genesis of Division”. That begs the question: if “the drive to integration and synthesis” was so potent – and by ’82, so febrile and fecund - what went wrong?  Like an ecosystem, the polymorphous jungle of New York bohemia flourished thanks to biodiversity – the frictional intermingling of different ethnic groups, different sexualities, different character typologies, different artistic traditions, different income levels. But every tendency produces its counter-reaction. In some sense the sheer variedness of downtown culture encouraged a kind of re-tribalization, the emergence of music-based identity politics. By the mid-Eighties concepts like punk-funk and mutant disco had gone out of fashion:  rock became un-danceable noise with the rise of Swans and Sonic Youth; purist strands of club culture emerged; hip hop increasingly defined itself as its own movement and extended nationwide. 

Club culture has always evolved through a dialectic of open-ness and exclusivity. Its rhetoric leans towards inclusive populism, but in practice, when the Bridge and Tunnel types arrive, hip early adopters move on.  Achieving a “mixed crowd” is usually what promoters and DJs exalt as their ideal, but such a balance is hard to maintain. In Life Against Death, The Saint provides an example of a dynamic that goes against the boundary-crossing ethos that Lawrence prizes and praises. Both the owner and the membership decreed that the club’s peak night, Saturday, should be restricted to 98 percent male attendance.  According to deejay Robbie Leslie, owner Mailman believed “that gay men danced well together... had this body chemistry where they moved on the dance floor as a tribe, as one entity” and that furthermore   “women’s body movements were contradictory to this flow.... He didn’t even want gay women there.” This admission policy fed into an increasing uniformity of appearance (what one attendee described as “pectoral fascism”) and a taste conservatism that kept the deejays on a tight leash. But the whole point of the Saint was that it provided a sanctuary for a segment within the city’s population, a stronghold for a certain vibe.  And vibe, as a vernacular concept, could be defined as “collective singlemindedness”. 

Alongside the centrifugal force of self-segregation, other factors brought to an end the belle epoque. Far more than AIDs, the killer was finance capital and real-estate speculation.  In his conclusion, Lawrence ponders whether  downtown artists and musicians were not just on the cutting edge of their particular forms of expression but an unwitting vanguard serving the purposes of realtors, enabling them to rebrand run-down areas as cool-rich neighbourhoods.  Bohemia priced itself out of its own habitat. That raises a further question that Lawrence toys with but leaves unresolved.  Why are these culturally potent ferments so weak in the face of money and power? The Stonewall riots provide one example where an embattled site of pleasure, creativity and identity gives birth to forms of activism. But generally speaking the politics of partying are too diffuse and motile to translate into anything as permanent and disciplined as a political party.

Writing about club culture in Interview in the early Eighties, New York scenester Glenn O’Brien argued that dancing is the ideal form of cultural resistance against fascism, because its rhythmic fluidity worked to dissolve the rigidities of what Wilhelm Reich called character-armor.  A more skeptical take on dancefloor utopianism can be found in a 1993 Greil Marcus column for Artforum.  Discussing  Design After Dark, a history of UK dancefloor style, Marcus praised the book for capturing the vibrant, ever-changing creativity of  these “tribes of black and white Britons”, but ultimately found the book  “a little depressing. So much flair, so much energy, so many ideas, so many good smiles, and, finally, no power. Style changed but not society; no-future didn’t move an inch from where it stood in 1977”.  When I first read those words in ’93, as a convert to rave culture, I resented this dismissive verdict. But in 2016, with political darkness roiling turbidly on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder about the Eros-aligned liberating energies of music and dance, their ability to withstand the forces of division and death.  The dance club as micro-utopia seems terribly circumscribed, terrifyingly defenseless.  How do you get the fascists to dance?

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis 
by Norman O. Brown
University Of California Press

Village Voice, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

 Jim Morrison dug him. Camille Paglia rates him as far superior to the French pomo pantheon of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault et al. Susan Sontag thought he was cool for putting "the eschatology of immanence" back on the intellectual agenda. Who is he? He's Norman O. Brown, the classical scholar whose mind was blown by psychoanalytical theory and whose 1957 masterwork "Life Against Death"  was a radical, disorientating re-interpretation of Freud. Brown took issue with the degraded version of Freud perpetrated by American psychoanalysis, and attempted to return to the heart of the Freudian problematic: how can human beings be healed and whole when human culture itself is neurotic?

 Brown's obsessions - polymorphous perversity, Dionysian madness, androgyny, the replacement of the work ethic by play - prefigured those of the counter culture and Sixties utopian sects like the Situationists. But, perhaps because of his age or his scholarly temperament, Brown's quest for an end to alienation led him neither to armed revolution nor drug-induced oblivion, but to mysticism. Freud showed that regression to animalism, the beasts' blissful ease with their own sexuality and mortality, was not an option. So Brown's search for "the way out" led him to an idiosyncratic creed of mystical materialism, a spirituality which revelled in the flesh instead of denying it. At the close of "Life Against Death", Brown called for "the resurrection of the body" - a perfect, polymorphous, androgynous body, as imagined in pagan beliefs and certain apocalyptic Christian heresies. "Love's Body" (1967) was a collection of aphorisms whose goal was to end the opposition "between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence". Brown's renunciation of politics and conclusion that "there is only poetry" , prefigure post-structuralism's post-1968 retreat to the text.

  Nearly 25 years later, "Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis" is the final volume in Brown's trilogy. A motley collection of essays and speeches,  "Apocalypse" can't be said to complete Brown's life work so much as fine-tune and fill gaps. Many of these pieces are purely of academic interest, in both senses of the word. "Daphne, or Metamorphosis", "My Georgics: A Palinode In Praise Of Work", and "Metamorphoses II: Actaeon" find Brown entertaining himself, and quite possibly only himself, in elaborate, arcane games with etymology and mythology. The aphoristic style of "Love's Body" disintegrates into the barely written condition of lecture notes (which, in some cases, is exactly what the essays are). Brown's intellectual shorthand (lots of sentences without verbs) and punning mental shortcuts often seem like an overloaded brain shortcircuiting.

 "Revisioning Historical Identities" is Brown's "intertextual autobiography", the account of "a life made out of books" : a trajectory that takes him from Marxism and modernist poets like Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky in the Thirties, through the political disillusionment of Henry Wallace's failed Presidential campaign of 1948, to his discovery, via Freud, that the arid science of Marxism needed irrigating by the Power Of Love. Again, one suspects that, despite Brown's elegant, elliptical style, this tale of intellectual wanderings has a rather limited resonance;  Brown himself describes the essay as a "hermetic game of hide and seek with esoteric erudition". In the opening piece, "Apocalypse: The Place Of Mystery In The Life Of The Mind", Brown calls for a reinvention of the academy, imagining it transformed from the hidey-hole of bookish refugees from life into a forum for scholars drunk on the wisdom of antiquity, infused with enthusiasm (in its root meaning, "god-in-us"). But the atmosphere of too much of the writing in this volume is dusty rather than Dionysian.

  The other, redeeming side to Brown's learning is his fervent syncretism: he's continually on the look-out for kindred spirits in unlikely places. "The Apocalypse Of Islam" celebrates a mystical strain within Islam comparable to the utopian offshoots of that other monotheistic, repressive religion, Christianity. Brown compares the bewildering maze of interruptions, collisions, lapses in tone and ejaculations that is the Koran's "Sura 18" to "Finnegan's Wake": both are examples of human language shattering under the force of the Divine Word. Spinoza is hailed as the prototype for all those thinkers (Freud, Nietzche, Marx, and by implication, Brown) who tried to fuse the roles of philosopher and prophet. For Brown, Spinoza's proto-communist, mystical dream of world unity anticipates his own own ideas about "Love's Body," (a body politic without a head, a polymorphously perverse society).

 Brown is often eager to make out that all the revolutionary thought of the ages culminates in his own work. But he's also gracious enough to admit when he's been pre-empted. He ruefully hails "El Divino Narciso", a mystery play by the 17th Century Mexcian mystic Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, as a masterpiece that renders "my encyclopaedic scholarship superfluous" . He's also a recent convert to Bataille. In his closing essay, "Dionysus in 1990", Brown uses Bataille's theory of a fundamental human lust for excess and ruinous waste as the missing piece in his intellectual jigsaw. In a final fit of ragged, syncretic exuberance, Brown links Gerard Manley Hopkins, Goethe and the 14th Century Sufi master Hafiz of Shiraz as participants in a  continuum: mystics who longed to be consumed in the fire of Dionysian excess. His closing, distinctly woolly contention - that the 1990 revolutions in Eastern Europe were an upsurge of Dionysian consciousness, because the masses were demanding the right to consume as recklessly and extravagantly as the West - is silly but endearing. At the very least, it shows that Norman O. Brown is still capable of being carried away by his enthusiasm for new ideas.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017


Parts and Labor 
(Rift Records)
Melody Maker, 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Ain't it peculiar the way that so much of the trendy lo-
fi weirdness that's coming out of the US underground - prime
examples being Truman's Water and God Is My Co-Pilot -
actually sounds a helluva lot like the shambles of Bogshed
and The Shrubs? Once again, there's that funny feeling of
being back in 1986.  But I'm not complaining so long as
there's bands as excellent as Timber. Like Thinkin' Fellers
Union and Cul de Sac, Timber offer the listener a dose of
eclectic shock therapy, an epileptic mish-mash of Fall,
Beefheart, Ubu, and other avant-garage avatars.

What's cool about Timber is that they rarely get so
quirked-out they forfeit "feel" or groove.  Rhythmically
adroit, they can shift from supple to jagged in a trice.
"There's Always 1 & 9", for instance, boogies like ZZ Top
covering "Trout Mask Replica", while samples whizz about
overhead for added mayhem. "At The Same Time" has a happy-go-
lucky, bucolic vibe reminiscent of Meat Puppets' circa "Up On
The Sun": pretty remarkable since the band are from the grimy
Lower East Side of New York, not Arizona.

Timber are pretty fucking versatile. They can do total
noise avalanche Faust-style ("I'm 30, I'm Having a Heart
Attack"), ambient drone-scapes ("The Evidence Is Shifting"),
and dismembered blues ("The Real N.Y."). They add stately
horns to The Blue Orchids' "A Bad Education" (drummer Rick
Brown's previous band Fish & Roses also covered BO's "A Year
With No Head"). I guess the line in "Bad Education" about
"the law of dissipation" was slacker-delia 10 years before
the fact. "Belay That" reminds me that Stump actually had
their moments, believe it or not. The sheer truckin' glory of
"Stupid Reasons" and the mellifluous, manna-from-heavens
blues of "A Passage From Pakistan" are kind of what I always
hoped Grateful Dead would sound like. And Timber have a whole
bunch of "songs" like "Deerslayer" which suffer from a bad
case of Sun (Ra) stroke.

Timber show that instrumental virtuosity and a bit of
learnin' really do help if you want to throw weird shapes,
rather than merely "reinvent the wheel". The UK's inept-and-
proud-of-it nouveau shamblers could afford to take note.  Not
so much pushing the envelope, as putting it through the
shredder and pasting the pieces into a mosaic collage, Timber
turn the avant-garde into a playpen.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Timble bimbles


Tim's Bio – Life from da Bassment

Spin, January 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Maybe you've heard of the Jamaican tradition of "version" albums: a dozen or so tracks all built on top of the same bass-and-drum undercarriage. Different songs, different dubs, same riddim. Timbaland isn't quite so frugal with his creativity, but Tim's Bio does pretty much consist of 18 variations on that beat. For the last 18 months, Timbaland's convulsive kinesthetic — double-time kicks, crisp snares, spasmodic flurries of hi-hat — has dominated the R&B soundscape. So what's immediately striking about Bio is its failure to probe a fresh new direction.
But perhaps this complaint misses the point. Ever since it lost the "-'n'roll," rock has had a problem with repetition: Albums and shows are supposed to have dynamics, pacing, contrast, demonstrations of versatility; at a certain point more is always less. But in dance music, more is...more; repetition accumulates intensity, creates and sustains that crucial intangible known as "vibe." Black dance scenes (and their white mutations) work according to the principle Amiri Baraka dubbed "changing same": minute variations on the same building blocks (jungle's "Amen" breakbeat, Miami bass's sub-woofer-quaking 808 boom, dancehall's "pepper-seed" rhythm, and so forth). Mercenary copyists and opportunistic cloners play their part, too. For when a certain sound is doin' it the audience can't get enough of the good stuff. If you're in it, the slight tweaks and twists to the reigning formula have enormous impact whereas the uninvolved outsider hears only monolithic monotony.
That said, Timbaland really does need to come up with a new cyberfunk matrix. His frequent complaints about "beat-biters" are rich when Tim's Bio verges so frequently on self-plagiarism. Likewise the lyrics: Where last year's album with Magoo was thematically impoverished, this one's destitute, reaching its self-reflexive nadir with 'Here We Come' — a song based around the Spider Man theme. What does catch the ear is all the stuff interwoven around the basic grid-groove: the scurrying infestation of percussive detail, the digitally warped goblin vocals, the Afro-Dada grotesquerie of keyboard licks and sample squiggles, the onomatopoeic bass-talk.
The viral spread of ideas in dance culture works to erode the auteur theory, our ingrained impulse to fixate on originators. Timbaland's twitchy hypersyncopation was widely attributed to a drum'n'bass influence, something steadfastly denied by Tim and Missy. Now you can hear that imagined compliment being repaid by the children of jungle, in the form of the two-step garage style that currently rules London. Dropping the four-to-the-floor house pulse and "versioning" Timbaland's falter-funk kick, producers like Ramsey & Fen, KMA, and Dreem Teem are basically making smoov R&B filtered through a post-Ecstasy sensorium. Call it lover's jungle, strictly for the ladies' massive: midtempop bump'n'-grind, sped-up and succulent cyborg-diva vocals, a playa-pleasing patina of deluxe production. With the next phase of beat science being researched and developed in England, the "bumpy pressure" is really on for Timbaland, if he doesn't want to go the way of ex-pioneers like Jam & Lewis. The dance floor has no brand loyalty.

KING AND QUEEN OF THE BEATS: Timbaland and Missy Elliott

published as "Partners in the Engine Room of Rap"

director's cut, New York Times, August 1st 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Although history tends to focus on glamorous vocalists and visionary songwriters with something to say,  black  pop's evolution is as much about changes in rhythm and production. From the house sounds of  Motown and Philadelphia International to the Chic Organisation's streamlined disco style and George Clinton's mini-empire of funk bands, it's a history  made not by sacred cow artists but by session musicians and backroom technicians: musicians, producers, engineers, and, not least, their machines. 

            Typically, an up and coming  producer taps some unforeseen potential in the latest technology and, for a couple of years,  rewrites the rules of  rhythm. In the mid-Eighties, Janet Jackson's producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis drafted a new blueprint for dance pop, using drum machine beats and synthesized basslines to build  angular, abrasive grooves. By the end of that decade, producer Teddy Riley installed a new paradigm, marrying R&B's mellifluous melodies with hip hop's aggressive beats and sampled loops to create the style known variously as new jack swing or swingbeat.

            In the last two years, Timbaland and Missy Elliott have reigned as unchallenged king and queen of the beats.  Producing and writing for a stable of proteges that includes Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Nicole, Total, and Playa, they have scored a  run of  hugely successful smash singles on both the R&B and pop charts. Ms Elliott has also written hits for artists like Brandy, Mariah Carey, SWV, and Whitney Houston, and can reportedly demand $100, 000 per song. Ruling producers have hitherto tended to remain behind the scenes (Jam & Lewis) or subsume themselves in a band identity  (Teddy Riley now operates as part of the harmony group Blackstreet). But Timbaland and Missy Elliott have pushed themselves forward as stars. Timbaland released a collaboration with rapper Magoo called Welcome To Our World in 1997 and a solo album proper late last year; Ms Elliott has just released her second album Da Real World, the sequel to 1997's platinum selling, Grammy-nominated Supa Dupa Fly.

            The real testament to Timbaland and Elliott's hegemony, though, is the massive influence they've had on other R&B and rap artists. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the duo ought to be feeling pretty good about themselves. Instead, they  seem rather  embattled. Only a few minutes into Da Real World, Elliott is lambasting all the producers who have copied Timbaland's distinctive jittery beats and stop-start grooves: "beat biter, dope style taker... you just an imitator, stealing our beats like you're the one who made them." That style really came together on Aaliyah's  late 1996 hit "One In A Million,"  which was written by Elliott, produced by Timbaland, and typifies their collaborations  in the way the beat is as hooky as the melody. .  A ballad built around a push-me-pull-you groove, the song introduced many of Timbaland's trademark tricks:  syncopated bass drums stuttering in triple time spasms, irregular flurries of hi-hats, and skittery snares. As with earlier rhythmic innovations, from Seventies funk to Nineties jungle, the Timbaland sound practically enforces a new kind of dancing, full of twitches, jerks and tics. You can see it in Missy Elliott's videos like "Beep Me 911" and the current "She's A Bitch," where the choregraphy resembles a kind of geometrically precise epilepsy and sometimes recalls the body-popping style of Eighties breakdancing. 

            Alongside their massive influence on American R&B, Timbaland's twitchy beats have caught the ear of British electronica artists. On their new album Surrender, The Chemical Brothers sampled a vocal hook from Nicole & Missy Elliott's's "Make It Hot" for their track "Music: Reponse", transforming the sexual come-on of "I got whatcha want/I got whatcha need" into a DJ's boast. In London, a whole scene and sound has emerged called two-step, based around the merger of Timbaland's hyper-syncopated drums with jungle's booming bass and house's succulent synth licks. The respect that Timbaland and Missy Elliott have received in the electronica field shows that although the duo are classified as R&B, their skills at digitally manipulating rhythms and creating eerie sounds make them among the most accomplished and innovative electronic artists on the planet. Indeed, critics have long suggested that Timbaland's assymetrical grooves owe something to jungle; Timbaland has denied this, but does give the nod to electronic artists like Prodigy, Tricky, and Bjork, whom he's sampled a couple of times.

            Like techno artists, Timbaland and Elliott are obsessed with the future. They are determined that their records sound avant-garde and  futuristic, and they're infatuated with special effects laden science fiction movies like The Matrix. The title of Ms Elliott's new album comes from a pivotal line of dialogue in The Matrix: "welcome to the real world".

Both Missy's music and her Hype Williams produced videos have a hallucinatory quality. Supa Dupa Fly is a shapeshifting phantasmagoria of sampled sound, where unlikely sources (baby's gurgles, birdsong, insect-like chitters, horse whinnies, and dog barks) are transformed into polyrhythmic devices. Listen closely, and beats turn out to be made from  gasps or giggles, and a bassline is molded from the human voice.  It's headphone R&B, and like electronica, it's most inventive on the level of rhythm and texture, rather than songcraft. "Hook on songs are more major than verses. People hardly remember verses,"  Elliot told rap magazine The Source. For the most part, Elliott's vocal hooks are delivered in a style midway between singing and rapping, and generally work percussively as much as melodically. She specialises in devising complex vocal arrangements which interlock with the rhythm tracks like cogs. Timbaland and Elliott also pepper their tracks with tiny, almost subliminal vocal riffs--onomatopeic noises and nonsense chants,  half-spoken ad libs--which add to the rhythmic density of the music.

            Da Real World arrives at a critical moment for the Elliot/Timbaland dynasty, when the duo's influence remains endemic but their own momentum shows signs of flagging. They've maintained their profile in 1999 with Elliot penning the R&B smash "Where My Girls At?" for diva trio 702 and Timbaland producing Ginuwine's second album and the hit track "Jigga What?" for rapper Jay-Z.  But Timbaland's solo album was generally received as a disappointment, and some wonder if his production skills peaked with last year's astonishing Aaliyah hit "Are You That Somebody?."  It's an abiding dilemma for pop innovators. Do you repeat what was so successful before at the risk of adding your own self-plagiarism to the melee of clones and copyists? Or do you struggle for self-reinvention at the risk of alienating your audience? This quandary has undone many artists in the past. Synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk, for instance, became paralysed by the enormity of their own influence and the challenge of staying ahead of the state-of-art.
Da Real World sees  Elliott and Timbaland struggling to come up with fresh twists to their formula.  Sonically, Da Real World marks a shift to a harsher sound that Timbaland has called "real dark, real ghetto". The new style includes bombastic quasi-orchestral riffs, booming sub-bass, and stiff, angular beats and booming sub-bass, all of which sometimes recall  Curtis Mantronik's late Eighties productions for T. La Rock and  Mantronix in the late Eighties, but is more likely a nod to the current popularity of  New Orleans bounce, an electro-influenced style of rap.  Persona-wise, Elliot has swapped  the playfulness of Supa Dupa Fly  for a pugnacious "street" attitude and a dramatically increased level of profanity.  Abandoning Supa's kooky surrealism and free associational lyrics,  Elliott has penned a series of tough-talking songs: "You Don't Know" threatens a girl who's trying to steal her man, "All 'N My Grill" reprimands a deadbeat live-in lover who won't pay  his way, and "Hot Boyz" is a hormone-crazed paean to sexy roughnecks who tote machine guns, flex Platinum Visa cards and drive expensive jeeps. The harder, ghettocentric sound and lyrics smack somewhat of a calculated attempt at repositioning Elliot in a market where "real-ness" is back in favor thanks to rappers like DMX and Jay-Z.

            Coming from a debut artist, Da Real World would be garlanded with acclaim. But given the expectation that Missy and Timbaland would rewrite the rules of R&B again, the album is anti-climactic. Da Real World peaked at #10 on the pop charts and rapidly slid to #22. Furthermore, Missy Elliot's audience seem unconvinced or, worse, alienated by her image tweak. The first single off the album, "She's A Bitch"--a strained and tuneless attempt to project bad attitude, with a baleful monochrome video markedlly different to the polychromatic psychedelia of the earlier promos--only reached  #30 on the R&B charts. For an artist of Missy Elliott's stature and track record, that's a flop.

            But then the rap and R&B marketplace is cruel even by pop standards; brand loyalty barely exists, artists are only as hot as their latest track. So are Missy and Timbaland going to go the way of other ex-pioneers, like Jam & Lewis? Elliott has her own major label funded imprint Gold Mind and a long line of proteges waiting in the wings. Timbaland might want to consider a strategic retreat from the spotlight in order to concentrate on crafting tunes for his proven hitmakers Ginuwine and Aaliyah, and to R&D some new gimmicks (he's talked about creating beats built from the sound of a stylus skipping on a scratched record). Perhaps the greatest solace for the duo is that there's no powerhouse producer threatening to usurp their throne. (Although there might have been a hint of anxiety when Timbaland recently gave his seal of approval to a young pretender: Swizz Beats, who's crafted beats for Jay-Z and for his own outfit Ruff Ryders).   At the moment, there's an interregnum in R&B--everyone's waiting for the new king of the beats to take over.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP GRANT HART / HUSKER DU 1987 interview (the glam versus antiglam dialectic) + reviews of Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories


Melody Maker, June 27th 1987

by Simon Reynolds 

In Atlanta, Georgia, the Replacements play me a tape of Husker Du’s live appearance on The Joan Rivers Show. It’s more than a little mind-blowing. The band unleash the great grey gust that is ‘Could You Be The One’, then troop over for a ‘chat’ with the lady herself.

It’s one of the most embarrassing pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Rivers is clearly terrified of the band, doesn’t know how to place or approach them, stammers out something to the effect that they used to be kind of radical and underground, but now aren’t quite so radical and underground, isn’t that so?
What’s unnerving her is that the band aren’t selling themselves on any level, either as outrage or as light entertainment, aren’t making anything of this opportunity to project themselves. They’re polite, awkward, somehow not-there. It’s not so much that they’re deliberately aloof as that they’re irretrievably apart. Rivers asks a question and I think she’s saying: "Which one of you is the wild member of the group and which is the commie one?" – turns out she said "calming". Then they traipse off again, to play ‘She’s A Woman’, having left an irreparable crease in the sleek fabric of the show.
It made me wonder whether a group like Husker Du can interact with this thing Pop. The Smiths, at least, make a drama of their exile – their anti-glamour can be consumed as glamour.
But Husker Du refuse to act up – the ‘outrage’ they perpetrated on Joan Rivers was of an altogether quieter, less ostentatious order – they didn’t play up to the role of Misfit, they just failed to connect, to communicate on Pop’s terms at all – an eloquent incoherence. How, then, do they cope with things like videos?
Grant Hart: "The videos are of straight performances of the songs. Seeing as none of our songs are particularly etched in fantasy, they’re best portrayed naturalistically."
Like the other American thinking rock bands I’ve encountered (Throwing Muses and The Replacements) Husker Du loathe the exigencies of presentation and marketing, have a chronic fear of anything that suggests contrivance. American rock has never seen image and packaging as a means of expression in the way that much British rock has.
Perhaps this is because American daily life is more heavily saturated with showbiz glitz and advertising pizazz than British life, and so it seems more urgent to escape the all-pervasive environment of kitsch, escape from the escapist, into the authentic, the Real. Probably, it has a lot to do with the absence in America of the artschool/artrock interface that’s has been so hugely important in British pop history.
Either way, American rock (outside New York) has no notion of glamour as something you can radicalise: Throwing Muses will turn up for photo sessions in their tattiest, most everyday clothes, The Replacements will refuse to throw shapes for the camera and Husker Du will resist anything in the way of video presentation that’s redolent of advertising and its manipulation of the consumer.
Bob Mould: "The problem with videos is that, before they existed, you’d make up your own story, your own mental pictures, to go with a song. That’s what music’s for – attaching your own meanings to."
Somewhere along the way, pop ceased to be something that gave people a heightened sense of their own agency, and became something that programmed desires. What Husker Du hate above all is when things get fixed – they like to leave things open, in a flux. Maybe they’d get on better if they did give people one easy handle, if they weren’t so keen to leave things up to people’s imagination. Maybe the only way to get a hit is to work from the premise that most people’s imaginations are enfeebled, through under-use. As it is, they’re not even let near those kind of people.
Bob: "Our videos don’t get heavy rotation. Our records get played on college radio and on the progressive commercial radio stations. Whereas all the people in here - " (gestures at Billboard) "- get played several times a day on every radio station in America."
Ah, Billboard – whenever I look at magazines like Billboard or Music Week, it does my head in: I think of all the things that music means to me – dissension, speculation, complex pleasures, never-never dreams, the criss-cross currents of making sacred and sacrilege – and then look at how these people discuss pop – crossover between different radio sectors, aggressive marketing, instore promotion... Who knows which kind of talk is more out of touch with the ‘reality’ of pop.
"Well, yes, it all depends on whether your conception of success is related to the outside world or to your own mind. With us, it ‘s the latter, so every song is a ‘hit’."
Quite. What is a ‘hit’ these days? Something that wreaks havoc in the private lives of a few people, or something that resounds widely and weakly across the surfaces of the globe? We’re back with Stubbs’ dichotomy between the small and significant and "huge insignificances" like Alison Moyet or Curiosity Killed The Cat. Two rival definitions of impact – purity of vision or breadth of effect.
All I know is that Husker Du hit me – this feels like the elusive ‘perfect pop’, the swoon and the surge. In one sense (sales) Husker Du are a ‘small’ band – in every other sense they are massive – in the scale and reach of their music, in the way they give a grandeur to mundane tribulations and quandaries – a musical equivalent of the pathetic fallacy (thunder and lightning as the dramatic externalisation of inner turmoil).
What is it about this ‘perfect pop’ that dooms it to be as distant from real Eighties Pop as the moon? That the music is too imposing, while the band, as individuals are too self-effacing, hiding behind the noise? That the music’s too violent, while the feelings that inspire it are too sensitive. That the songs deal with the loose ends of life but refuse to tie things up satisfactorily, instead confronting the listener again and again with the insoluble?
All these things distance Husker Du from today’s secular pop, with its twin poles of levity and sentimentality. But there are more material reasons why they don’t belong. The very fabric of their sound has no place in pop ’87, a blizzard that makes no appeal to the dancing body, but dances in the head.
Move in close and you see activity too furious for pop – flurry-hurry chords, febrile drumming – step back ten paces and you can take in the sweep and curve of the cloud shapes stirred up by the  frenzy. Only AR Kane come close as sublime choreographers of harmonic haze. The stricken voices, the almost unbearable candour of their bewilderment and desolation, jar with Pop’s soul-derived universal voice of self-possession and narcissism.
‘Ice Cold Ice’, the fabulous new single off the Warehouse double, says it all – the chill of awe instead of the fire of passion, frost instead of flesh, the ghost of folk instead of the residue of R&B. Pop ’87’s aerobic humanism can’t take on this kind of enchantment.
But what do they think is the most unique thing they offer?
Grant: "The outlook, I guess... we’re creating music for human beings, not pop idols."
Bob: "I don’t see many people trying to be as honest as we are... I think the lyrics are enlightening without being too philosophical... I don’t think you associate a clothing style or a lifestyle with what we do... in that sense we’re not exclusive to anyone, we don’t exclude."
Do you agree that part of the appeal of being a band is the chance to prolong adolescence, to leave things open a little longer, to avoid the closures of adulthood?
Grant: "Well, there’s growing up and there’s growing boring, and the two are not necessarily inseparable. Generally, though, as a person gets established in their life, and the things that surround them are theirs rather than their parents’, they start to settle down. I see friends that are worrying about their bank overdrafts – all the things I worry about too, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And the next step is that you start playing the game, kissing up to the boss, all to ensure the security you’re afraid to lose. But what you do lose is the ability to live for the moment, because life gets so bound up with planning and providence. People get conservative as they look to preserving their life investment."
One of the first things to go when this settling down sets in, is music, or at least rock of the Husker Du ilk. People cease to be able to take on such music. It’s too demanding – literally, in terms of investment of energy and attention; but also in the sense that rock is like a reproach, can get to be an unwelcome nagging reminder of dreams that have been foregone. It becomes unbearable to listen to music, after a while.
Bob: "Well, almost everyone does give up music, sooner or later – it’s a matter of when..."

Grant: "But there are those who give everything up all the time and right from the start. So even to hold out for a while is not so bad."

Who do they feel are their kindred spirits in rock?
Bob: "Who’s at Number 186 in the Billboard Chart this week, ha ha ha ha! No, there are some like-minded groups about, groups that have abandoned the idea of pop stardom – we’ve even been accused of triggering that off... bands like R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Black Flag... bands who can be widely successful in their own minds because of the psychic rewards of what they do. A band like R.E.M. that has a very internally run programme – they’ve got a manager that’s been with them since day one, they’re very homebase-oriented, having refused to move to New York or L.A. Similarly, we decided to stay in Minneapolis right from the start. Now things are turned around so that a friend of a friend knows a musician who moved from Hollywood to Minneapolis, in order to be discovered!
"I like the fact that we’re self-sufficient, that we look after our own finances, that we don’t have a set regimen dictated by a corporation or anybody. One of the results of the life we lead is that we don’t divide work and play. When I’m not working on music or doing specific administrative tasks, I’m writing or reading or drawing, but all these things have an input into the music."
How do you want people to be affected by the music?
Grant: "This may sound a little overwhelming, but I’d like them to come out a better person than when they came in, as a result of an effort by both audience and the performers. We’re appreciated by a different enough range of people – rednecks, hippies, punks, 50-year-old jazz buffs – that I personally am really satisfied that there’s so much love going down. I’m also proud of the pride we take in what we do... I wish they made drums like that!"
Is there a kind of politics in Husker Du, in that you deal with the discrepancy between the promise of America and most people’s lived reality of deadlock and impasse?
"There’s politics in the sense of people trying to gain control of their own destiny. Life is too short to worry about who’s on top at any given time – politics is like advertising, the basic products beneath the different wrappers are much the same – it’s more important to avoid being stepped on, to find a life that doesn’t involve a giant foot hovering over your head perpetually. The golden rule is: be neither a foot over someone’s head, nor a head under someone’s foot."
And are there ‘spiritual’ concerns, too?
Bob: "I’m a questioning person. I’d like to find out why certain things are the way they are and, if that’s spiritual, then I’m a spiritual person. Things like time interest me. I overheard a guy on the airplane saying that the Japanese are 25 years ahead of us. Now which 25 years did he mean – 1780 to 1805, or 1962 to 1987? How do you qualify time? Is time the same for a guy aged 25 who’s never eaten meat and for a guy of the same age who’s taken speed for the last 10 years..."
Grant: "In hamburgers!"
Bob: "A good question is so much better than a bad answer. If you had all the answers, why go on? There goes all your spirit, your reason for living."

Husker Du

Candy Apple Grey
Melody Maker, March 22nd 1986
by Simon Reynolds 
Listening to this vast, volatile music, swept up in its power and space, I suddenly realised that these attributes are the precise opposite of the experiences Husker Du actually sing about — the lived reality of inertia, claustrophobia, isolation. The paradox of transfiguration — Husker Du's music wrenches numbness into fury and exultation. Only the Smiths make an equivalent alchemy of the grey areas of existence.

The Byrdsy harmonies, the desolate purity of Hart and Mould's voices, a discreet trippiness, these are further clues. Husker Du (like the Smiths) use traces of folk, a roots music, to write songs about rootlessness. Both groups look to the ‘60s only to reinvoke what's most positive about the time — doubt about the costs of living a normal life, yearning for an indefinable more.

Husker Du's music trembles with all the nameless longings that ache beneath the skin. Sometimes they remind me of the Jimi Hendrix Experience — another power trio of virtuoso ability who created a rock noise that was spiritual. And I wonder if Husker Du's 'Somewhere' was our lost 'I Don't Live Today'.

But Husker Du have an ascetic quality that contrasts with Hendrix's febrile sensuality — their music rises above the body, refuses to solicit it (says don't dance, flip your wig). Their love songs are chaste devotionals, almost hymnal. Husker Du approach the world, and their loves, with a mixture of pained bewilderment and awe. Their flight from the flesh is the only response to pop's soulless, sweaty sextravaganza.

I think also of another ‘60s-obsessed group. Where the Jesus And Mary Chain make pop fresh again by juxtaposing its sweetness with noise, Husker Du turn pop into noise — flaying these songs into a haze, smudging voice into guitar.

The feared corporate bland-out has not happened. There's a touch more clarity, a few more ballads. But this was coming anyway — Husker Du had taken velocity and noise as far as they could. The only way forward for them is to become gentler. Husker Du's achievement is a musical violence untainted with machismo: a violence that, paradoxically, heals. All they've done is to bring out more clearly the grace and compassion that always did rage at the heart of their ravaged sound.

Besides, these soft songs are the cruellest. No music mangles my heart so completely. The intimacy of 'Hardly Getting Over It' almost destroys. 'Eiffel Tower High' features a sublime loop of melody that will crush the breath out of you.

There's never been anything cultish or difficult about Husker Du — please don't deny yourself this beauty any longer. For I don't know how much longer it can last — already Husker Du repeat themselves, musically and lyrically.

For the moment, though, I live for this pain.

Warehouse: Songs and Stories (WEA)
Melody Maker July 1987

by Simon Reynolds

This is ROCK. Not rock’n’roll, not swingin’, groovy, lean and compact. Not even raunch. this is ROCK -- powerchords that would crack apart the sky. Husker Du don’t belong with the new authentics, bar bands sweating out a closeknit clinch with their fans. Unlike Springsteen (who by sheer presence can shrink stadiums back to the dimensions of the primal R&B joint), there’s no intimacy, no sweat, nothing earthy. Husker Du are making a monument, a mountain, a glacier, out of rock again, rather than burrowing along at grass roots.

Oblivion. “Nothing changes fast enough/Your hurry worry days/It makes you want to give it up/And drift into a haze”--“These Important Years.” Rock noise is the uptight white adolescent’s release, emptying the mind, then filling it with nothing but its own dancing frenzy. Noise as metaphor for inner turmoil and  its transfiguration. Over five LPs (and this is their second double) Husker Du have turned over and over the details of drift and bewilderment, yet still manage to wrest an improbably grandeur from the small squalor of everyday inertia. Fuck the chirpy, unforgiveable “Road to Nowhere”-- this is the true, hurting sound of the spirit chafing against the rut of existence, chafing at the intractable. The “violence” of this music is an attempt to flay past numbness, through dulled senses, to reawaken feeling.

“Think with your hips” has been the message of rock’n’roll, of pop. But this rock says: rise above, kiss the sky. Like U2/REM/J&MC, this music is psychedelia without drugs, a rock that has left behind loins, juice, even heat, and found a new, frosty kind of intensity. A celestial impulse.

This is a new sound. Heavy metal is bastardized R&B, R&B sexuality coarsened and stiffened and blunt. But Husker Du “bastardize” or metallize folk. They strip folk of roots and soil, blast it to the heavens. Imagine the Jimi Hendrix Experience playing The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday.

Better than ever. Voices midway between scar and balm, savaging as they soothe. Harmonies that swell, soar, then bleed into the horizon. Divine lullabies like “Up in the Air,” cracked apart by blocks of noise. “No Reservation,” “She’s A Woman,” “You Can Live At Home,” “Friend,” “You’re A Soldier,” “Ice Cold Ice”…classic pop structures, almost borne under by the foaming weight of noise brought to bear. 

My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in rock noise. A soulboy’s bad dream. Style, rhetoric, tassled loafers, import 12-inches, blown, scattered to the winds. A million heads, lost in music, in worship. The return of ROCK.