Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Cut in Uncut (The Slits, remembered, in 1997)

The Slits - Cut

Uncut, December 1997

by Simon Reynolds 

I remember very clearly the first time I heard Cut – it was the summer of '79, I was staying at my aunt's in the Yorkshire Dales, and I'd sneaked off to listen to The John Peel Show. The tracks – ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ and ‘Newtown’ – sounded incredibly eerie and ethereal, partly because of the tatty, trebly transistor radio through which I heard them, but mainly because it was my first exposure to dub-wise production.
A few weeks later, Cut became the second album I ever owned. As with other records from the days when my collection was in single figures (like PiL's Metal Box), Cut's every rhythm-guitar tic and punky-dread vocal inflection is engraved in my heart.
As a just-missed-punk 16-year-old, I'd first encountered The Slits' name in a Melody Maker profile of Malcolm McLaren. After losing control of the Pistols, McLaren was offered the chance to manage The Slits and briefly schemed to make a wildly exploitative movie in which the girl-band go to Mexico, find themselves effectively sold into slavery, and are turned into porno-disco stars. 



Thank God, The Slits slipped out of McLaren's clutches. He went off to make skin flicks in Paris, and The Slits made Cut – one of the greatest albums of the post-punk era, alongside Metal Box, Gang Of Four's Entertainment and The Raincoats' first two records.
One of rock criticism's minor dissensions is which version of The Slits is better – the untamed, untutored rumpus of their early live gigs versus the tidied up, punky-reggae studio-Slits with dub wizard Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell at the controls.
As exciting as the 1977-78 John Peel Sessions indisputably are, The Slits sound infinitely better after they fell in with Bovell, Budgie took over the drumming (following original sticks-woman Palmolive's departure for The Raincoats), and they acquired some basic chops. On the Strange Fruit CD of those Peel sessions, you can hear the embryonic glory of Cut, but the raw tumult is closer to heavy metal bludgeon than punky-reggae sway.

Compounding the taboo-busting frisson of the band's name, Cut's cover is a confrontational classic: mud-smeared and clad only in loincloths, The Slits strike bare-breasted Amazon poses and defiantly out-stare the camera's gaze. The backdrop is a picturesque, bramble-strewn English cottage – as if to say, ‘We're no delicate English roses’. The back-sleeve has Ari Up, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt daubed in warpaint, lurking in a bush. The music and lyrical stance is just as fierce, kicking off with two jibes at punk rock machismo, ‘Instant Hit’ and ‘So Tough’ (the latter namechecking a "Sid" and a "John"). Everything great about The Slits is instantly audible in these songs: Albertine's itchy-and-scratchy rhythm guitar, Pollitt's revved-up but rootsical basslines, Budgie's clackety rimshot drums, and, above all, the strange geometry of the clashing and overlapping girl-harmonies. Ari Up's harsh Teutonic accent makes her sound like a guttersnipe Nico, on sulphate rather than smack.



‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ is where Bovell's dub-wisdom makes its presence felt. It's desolate dirge-skank, all sidling bass and brittle drums. Ari's portrait of a shopaholic is truly poignant as she tries to "satisfy this empty feeling" with impulse-purchases. But if ‘Spend’ is woman-as-consumerist-dupe, ‘Shoplifting’ turns this on its head, imagining petty theft as proto-feminist insurrection: "We pay fuck-all!" Oi!-meets-Riot-Grrrl backing vocals urge, "Do a runner! Do a runner!", and the music – surging, spasming dub-funk – does exactly that as Ari unleashes an exhilarating scream of glee-and-terror, then collapses in giggles with the admission: "I've pissed in my knickers!"
The sombre ‘FM’ critiques the mass media. Ari's protagonist wonders, "What's feeding my screams?", and describes radio transmissions as "frequent mutilation... serving for the purpose of those who want you to fear". ‘Newtown’ is an Irvine Welsh-like vision of a society based around addiction and surrogate-satisfactions, drawing a disconcerting parallel between the cathode-ray junkies "sniffing televisiono, taking foot-ballino" and The Slits' own bohemian milieu numbed-out on illegal narcotics. The jittery, scraping guitar mimics the fleshcrawling ache of cold turkey, while dub-FX of dropping spoons ram home the analogy.

‘Ping Pong Affair’ is about emotional withdrawal: Ari measures out the empty post-break-up evenings with cigarettes and masturbation ("Same old thing, yeah I know, everybody does it"). ‘Love Und Romance’, scorns the very lovey-dovey intimacy that ‘Ping Pong’ craved. It's a witheringly sardonic parody of smotherlove-as-braindeath, with Ari gloating to her boyfriend: "Oh my darling, who wants to be free?"
‘Typical Girls’ – the only single off Cut – was The Slits' manifesto, a mocking diatribe against the non-punkette ordinary girls who "Don't create/don't rebel" and whose heads are addled with women's-magazine-implanted anxieties about "Spots, fat, unnatural smells".

With its cut-and-dried, programmatic critique of conditioning, ‘Typical Girls’ is the closest The Slits got to the 1979 agit-funk bands. But unlike, say, The Au Pairs, The Slits sound riotous rather than righteous.

After Cut – 32 minutes of near-perfection that ends with the touching if slight ‘Adventures Close To Home’ – The Slits went all earth-mother feminist and tribal conscious. "In The Beginning There Was Rhythm", a 1980 split single with The Pop Group on the flipside, was terrific. But it took until 1981 before the sequel to Cut arrivedthe African music influenced Return Of The Giant Slits, whose off-kilter meters and cluttered soundscapes make it a poor cousin to The Raincoats' mistress-piece, Odyshape.


inspired by the Nic Roeg movie?
But, by '81, the post-punk zeitgeist had shifted to New Pop. String sections, suits and synths were de rigueur; anything that smacked of bohemian withdrawal from the mainstream was lambasted as punky-hippie defeatism. The Slits scattered: Ari Up became a fully-fledged Rasta, settled down and had babies; Viv Albertine eventually worked in TV; Tessa got into martial arts.

Although The Slits' attitude was clearly a crucial ancestor for Riot Grrrl and its UK chapter (Huggy Bear et al), the question of their musical legacy is more elusive. 1979-81 post-punk experimentalism – death-disco, agit-funk, ‘John Peel bands’ – is one of the great neglected eras of modem music.*
Maybe, when people tire of Britpop's Sixties / New Wave tunnel-vision, that period will be rediscovered. But so far I've only ever encountered one band who cite The Slits as an influence: New York's goddess-and-Gaia-obsessed pagan funkateers, Luscious Jackson. Singer Jill Cunniff declared: "There was a time when The Slits were the epitome, the ultimate, the coolest of the cool. They were everything I wanted from life."
I second that emotion.



Well, I hadn't realised I was already starting to think about postpunk as a neglected era as early as 1997. Seeds of Rip It Up and Start Again, ahoy!



actually come round to Return of the Giant Slits as a lost demi-classic, but still no match for Cut





Mark Fisher blurbs


“Ghosts of My Life confirms that Mark Fisher is our most penetrating explorer of the connections between pop culture, politics, and personal life under the affective regime of digital capitalism.  The most admirable qualities of Fisher’s work are its lucidity, reflecting the urgency of his commitment to communicating ideas;  his high expectations of popular art’s power to challenge, enlighten, and heal;  and his adamant refusal to settle for less“ -  blurb for Ghosts of My Life 

"As much as his actual ideas – which have been so influential, and certainly have influenced me – what I respond to in Mark’s work is the writing itself, being a writer myself. The sheer style of it, and the clarity. I admire the way he could  distil complex ideas into instantly graspable, punchy one or two-sentence statements. Or even just a phrase, which would then worked as a kind of concept-slogan, a meme: “capitalist realism”, “depressive hedonism”, “the secret sadness of the 21st Century”, so many more.

Although he was intensely serious, Mark could also be savagely funny – usually when he was tearing something to shreds. If he thought something was pernicious or reactionary, he gave no quarter, and ridicule was one of his most effective weapons. His strength as a thinker and writer came precisely from this polarized  love/hate, adore/abhor approach. So Mark could heroize certain figures like Burial with definitive takes on what their music represented, make them into almost mythic figures. But he would also “nihilate” – that’s a term he used, the power of nihilation -  the opposition: anything that didn’t come up to his exacting standards of what pop culture could and should be."
- director's cut version of a quote supplied to Mark Fisher tribute article by Adam Corner for Crack magazine




Monday, November 19, 2018

D-Generation - or, the dawn of K-Punk



Yes, that's the young Mark Fisher staring piercingly out of the picture!




As I discuss in the foreword to k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, I had a meeting of  minds with Mark  several years before I actually met him in person, or indeed even knew of his existence. In 1994 I wrote a mini-feature on  D-Generation, an ideas-packed groop whose press-release spiels caught my fancy. They sent me a press release / letter and a demo tape for an EP titled Entropy in the UK.








































 I tried the three numbers listed and got through to one of them, Simon Biddell. And it was he who I interviewed. In the piece (below) he is identified as the D-Generation's ideologue. It never occurred to ask about the other members of the group - it was a total ideas-oriented, polemic-oriented discussion. Zero factual information! Not untypical for me in those days....   

But Mark was certainly co-ideologue with Biddell - his mindprints are all over the group's self-framing, the titles, choice of samples etc etc. (I don't know what the role of Lee Thompson, the third member of D-Generation was). Prefigurings and portents of K-punkian obsessions limn the D-Generation manifesto.

Below are two pieces on D-Generation from 1994


D-Generation
Melody Maker, 1994
by Simon Reynolds

D-Generation are highly influenced by '60s mod and freakbeat. This Manchester trio took their name from The Eyes' "My Degeneration", a parody of The Who's anthem. D-Generation love the psychedelic/psychotic intensity of freakbeat bands like The Eyes, John's Children, The Creation, but they don't want to recreate it. Psychedelia means abusing technology, they argue, and today that means fucking with samplers and sequencers, not guitars.

Unlike These Animal Men and Blur, D-Generation haven't forgotten that mod was short for modernist. The original mods wanted to fast-forward into the future, not replay lost
golden ages. So D-Generation's "psychedelic futurism" draws on ambient and jungle--music that's absolutely NOW, absolutely BRITISH. And instead of the usual iconography of swinging London or English whimsy, D-Generation pledge allegiance to a "dark, deviant tradition"
of Englishness that includes The Fall, Syd Barrett, Wyndham Lewis, Powell/Pressburger and Michael Moorcock.

D-Generation's atmospheric dance is like a twilight-zone Ultramarine--lots of English imagery, but instead of bucolic bliss, the vibe is urban decay, dread and disassociation. On
their EP "Entropy In the UK", "73/93" rails against the "Nostalgia Conspiracy", using Dr Who samples of "no future". D-Generation call their music "techno haunted by the ghost of
punk" and on 'The Condition Of Muzak' that's literally the case, as it samples Johnny Rotten's infamous taunt: 'ever get the feeling you've been cheated?". Originally, the target was
rave culture itself, but this has widened out, says band ideologue Simon Biddell, "to implicate the entire culture of cynical irony." Then there's "Rotting Hill", a stab at "a 'Ghost Town' for the '90s"; Elgar's patriotic triumphalism is offset by samples from the movie Lucky Jim--"Merrie England? England was never merry!".

D-Generation, says Biddell, are dismayed by the way "young people are content to embrace a rock canon handed down to them, and seem unable to embrace the present, let alone
posit a future." But they're optimistic about the emergence of "a counter-scene, bands like Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Pram, Insides, who are using ambient and techno ideas but
saying something about the 'real world', not withdrawing from it".

Add D-Generation to the list of this nation's saving graces.





^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The second piece about, or touching upon / deploying D-Generation, was a side-bar to a one-pager I contributed to  Melody Maker's "New Wave of New Wave" cover-story feature package, March 26th 1994. This was the side panel to an interview with Jon Savage about the NWofNW, groups like SMASH, These Animal Men, and Fabulous. 

Actually, now I think about it, this came out before the proper mini-feature on the group above. When this side bar to Savage piece appeared, some of my colleagues at MM simply assumed that I had made up the group to fit my polemics of the time. So the 'new band of the week' in the Advance section of MM was a kind of rejoinder, maybe - "see, they are real!".

TECHNOPHOBIA! 
The New Wave of New Wave versus d-generation

The great failing of the nouveau punk bands is their willful denial of the music of the last six years. The Sex Pistols had a relationship with both their era’s chartpop (glam’n’glitter like the Sweet) and its underground rock (The Stooges). Any band hoping to have the same impact today would have to take on board the innovations of sampler-based music, from rap and rave to ambient and avant-rock. A Nineties Pistols would be something like a cross between The Prodigy (this era’s Sweet), The Young Gods (this era’s Stooges) and Public Enemy (the black Clash).

Another big failing is that the NWONW’s refried Who riffs lack any kind of relationship with contemporary black music. Although the influence of roots reggae and dub really came through musically in 1979, punk had a spiritual kinship with reggae: both punk and Rasta were about exile and alienation. A Nineties punk should also have at least an awareness of - if not outright alliance with -  today’s black British subcultures. And that means ragga and jungle techno, music of pre-political rage and urban paranoia. If These Animal Men are really into speedfreak music, they should be making 160 bpm ardkore jungle, which is driven by a rage-to-live that’s pure punk. THIS is the sound of youth today, whereas These Animal Men’s “This is the Sound of Youth” is the sound of youth yesterday: 1966, or worse, that year’s dismal replay in 1979, with neo-mod bands like Secret Affair and Squire.

We need real modernism, not mod revivals. So let me introduce: d-generation. As the name suggests, their music is informed by, but also a swerve away from, the music of the E Generation: “the corrupt modernism” of dark techno, jungle, ambient and ragga.

“We would have been punks in ‘77”, admit d-generation, “but today we can’t see why anyone would ignore modern music.”

They call their sound “psychedelic futurism, techno haunted by the ghost of punk”. It sounds like Ultramarine gone noir: ambient drones, lonesome dub-reggae melodica, stealthy junglist breakbeats. Like Ultramarine, d-generation deploy imagery of “Englishness”, but instead of pastoral quirkiness, the vibe is urban wasteland, influenced by “the dark, expressionist, deviant tradition” of Wyndam Lewis, The Fall and Michael Moorcock.

On their yet-to-be-released EP Entropy in the UK, ghostly allusions to punk are omnipresent. “73/93” turns around the sampled phrases “eroding structure, generating entropy… no future”. “The Condition of Muzak” (the title is from a Michael Moorcock novel) goes even further, using Johnny Rotten as a stick to beat the rave generation. A sample from the Pistols’ last performance at Winterlands is turned into a techno riff: Rotten’s famous “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” and mirthless cackle “ha ha ha”. Perfect: if this was played at a rave, it would start a virus of disaffection that would undermine the whole subculture. So many ravers have a cheated look on their faces, sometimes cos they’ve been sold dodgy E, mostly cos they’re burned out and can never get as high as they used to.

Rave is full of submerged utopian longings (“living the dream” etc). But because they aren’t articulated, the culture ultimately functions as a safety valve, releasing frustration at the weekend then returning you to workaday drudgery.

It’s not a culture of refusal, but an anti-culture that defuses. d-generation suggest one way that a true successor to punk (rather than a mere replay) could operate: as spies in the house of the loved-up, sowing seeds of discontent, making a grim dance of our national decay.




















The second - but unreleased -  EP from D-Generation - Concrete Island


Although I have two pre-release cassettes with D-Generation on the spine in my possession still, in the event they only put out just the one vinyl EP . That's because they were forced to change their name on account of the existence of a fairly dreadful NY trad-rebel-raunch'n'roll outfit of the same moniker - if I recall right, they got sent one of those cease-and-desist type letters from the management or the record company. But D-Generation did continue under a different name, The Lower Depths, and released at least a couple more EPs. One of the Concrete Island tunes appears on the first Lower Depths EP. Press releases below - again, spot the proto-K-punkian elements!







Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Jim Jarmusch movies - and their soundtracks


In the Key of Jim Jarmusch: the movies and the soundtracks
Film Focus, May 2009
director's cut version (snigger)

by Simon Reynolds



STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984)

During the late Seventies and early Eighties, New York City was a cauldron of experimentation and hybrid creativity.  Artists moved back and forth across the suddenly porous boundaries between postpunk rock, the visual arts, the worlds of underground cinema and theater, and the emerging hip hop scene.  If anything was central, though, it was rock, which became the cultural hot spot with the arrival of punk and flourished further with the confrontational No Wave movement and then the more colorful, playful genre known as mutant disco. There was a time when almost every artist was also in a band:  painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and future actor/director Vincent Gallo, for instance, were both in the weird noise outfit Gray, while Jim Jarmusch sang and played keyboards in The Del-Byzanteens.  "At that time everyone in New York had a band," Jarmusch recalled in 1984. "The idea was that you didn't have to be a virtuoso musician to have a band. The spirit was more important than having technical expertise."

It was while he was moving through the incestuous downtown Manhattan scene that Jarmusch became friends with John Lurie, who would not only star in Stranger Than Paradise but score the film and help the director come up with the idea for the story's first part.  Lurie fronted The Lounge Lizards, whose scrawny mutant take on bebop he described as "fake jazz" in an unguarded interview moment.  The quip became a millstone but actually fits the Lounge Lizards musically and sartorially: their retro-tinged sound and suave suits harked back to some bygone pre-rock era but subtly warped it.  

Much the same could be said for Stranger Than Paradise, which seems to be set in some indefinable era that's neither present nor past. Being shot in black-and-white contributes to this effect, as do the old-fashioned clothes worn by Lurie's character Willy and his buddy Eddie (pork pie hats, suspenders and jackets that seem to come straight out of The Hustler), the quaint household appliances , the vintage TV and movies on the portable black-and-white television,  and the one non-Lurie composition on the soundtrack, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's ghoulish R&B classic "I Put A Spell On You".  

The movie is suffused in Americana (at one point Willy tries to explain the football on TV to Eva, his visiting Hungarian cousin, only to give up) and in some sense is about America as a mythic wonderland that somehow eludes the grasp even of those born in the USA.  Lurie's score, though, avoids jazz or R&B for a faux-European vibe: a neurotic chamber music of cello and violins that sometimes sounds agitated and highly-strung, sometimes subdued and achingly melodic.  It's perfect for the uncanny way Jarmusch's movie makes middle America (a snow-covered and shadowy Cleveland, a blizzard-shrouded  Lake Erie) look like Mittel Europa. Even Florida, which Willy, Eddy and Eva visit on a disastrous vacation, is made to feel chilly, bleached of color and cheer by cinematographer Tom DiCillo.


DOWN BY LAW (1986)

Jarmusch's second movie to feature Lurie's on-screen charisma and atmospheric score, Down by Law was actually born of the director's musical obsession with New Orleans, the city in and around which the film is set.   Jarmusch had never been there, but felt that he had gleaned "a very strong sense---maybe abstract, maybe inaccurate--of New Orleans from its music culture." By this he didn't mean jazz so much as the city's 1950s and '60s rhythm-and-blues and early funk, figures like Professor Longhair, The Meters, Irma Thomas, Dr John,  Allen Toussaint, Ernie K. Doe, and  Irma Thomas (whose "It's Raining" appears as a jukebox tune at one point).  This music, along with the Louisiana port city's historical associations with voodoo and pirates, and its unique architecture and food, gave New Orleans a pungent mystique for Jarmusch. 

Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law has a curious time-out-of-joint, twilight zone atmosphere, the sense of a present almost oppressively haunted by the past's ghosts.  Lurie plays Jack, a pimp who ends up sharing a jail cell with a deejay called Zack and Bob, a mysterious Italian buffoon.   Zack was played by Lurie and Jarmusch's friend Tom Waits, recently relocated to New York after a long period in Los Angeles where he'd become a cult singer-songwriter with his beatnik -barfly image and huskily drawled vignettes.  Probably influenced by the New York postpunk scene that the Lounge Lizards belonged to, Waits music shifted in an experimental direction with the albums  Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. The latter album contributed two tunes to Down by Law's soundtrack, the  blues-tinged but dissonant "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore."   

Lurie's own compositions come from a similar place-- a mongrel sound midway between the art house and the burlesque hall--and use some of the same musicians who played on Rain Dogs.  The style is a gumbo of American bohemian and lowlife musics, all clanking percussion,  low blares of lugubriously sleazy trumpet,  cold-turkey scrapes of guitar, and plinky sounds that recall the invented instruments of hobo composer Harry Partch.  Defective yet affecting,  moodily atmospheric yet somehow audibly in quotation marks, it's the perfect soundtrack for a movie that deliberately skips the narrative's most dramatic moment (the escape from prison) and cuts to the Louisiana swampland, where Bob announces "we have escaped, like in the American movies".

DEAD MAN (1995)

Neil Young and his backing band Crazy Horse are the Wild Bunch of rock, haggard but heroic survivors of a grander, free-spirited musical era.  One of Neil Young's most famous albums, After the Goldrush, echoes that elegiac sense of the frontier having closed a long time ago, the ache left by the loss of American wilderness and wildness.  The name Crazy Horse itself comes from the Lakota warrior chief who rebelled against the Federal government in the hopes of preserving traditional Native American folkways. 

All these associations made Young the ideal candidate to score Dead Man, a sort of postmodern Western that in typical Jarmusch style manages to be poignant and playful at the same time.  The story concerns a city slicker by name of William Blake (Johnny Depp) who migrates from Cleveland to the very end of the railroad line in pursuit of a promised job only to find himself stranded out West,  an incongruously clean-shaven and smart suit-wearing figure in a land of rugged, hairy trappers and prospectors. Yet the Industrial Revolution has already reached this wilderness: the town is called Machine and Blake's job was supposed to be working at a metal-works firm.  

For the score, rather than write fully-fledged songs, Young improvised in a recording studio while watching the film. Minimally titled on the soundtrack CD as "Guitar Solo, No. 1", "Guitar Solo, No. 2" and so forth, the result was a sequence of guitar miniatures: flickering micro-riffs full of tension and strangeness,  glistening golden trails of melody that cut abruptly to a single crunching powerchord like the report of a rifle.  The music gestures towards the epic grandeur of Young in his full-bore, Crazy Horse-assisted mode but its fragmentary form withholds the full ragged glory the listener craves, just as Jarmusch's movie alludes to the Hollywood Wild West but slyly frustrates one's expectations with absurdist twists.

GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999)

Yet another Jarmusch movie that involved the creative input of a musician from an early stage, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is described by the director as a three-way collaboration between himself, lead actor Forest Whitaker and legendary hip hop producer The RZA.  All are fans of martial arts culture. As soon as they arrived in American theaters in the early Seventies, martial arts movies struck a chord with inner-city audiences: the notion of violence contained by discipline and given spiritual meaning by a code of honor resonated with youth from the ghetto, where gangs functioned as surrogate clans and often thought of themselves as a kind of nobility of the streets.  The RZA's rap ensemble the Wu Tang Clan named itself after a renegade sect of Shaolin monks in China and titled their 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang in homage to the Bruce Lee classic. 

By the late Nineties the RZA was exploring modern polished production styles but Jarmusch was keen to get the "poetically beautiful, slightly damaged sound of early Wu Tang".  Right from the start the RZA's style was praised by critics for its "cinematic" qualities, while the producer himself argues that  "all my music is pitched to the pictorial."  Weaving mood-manipulative snippets of orchestration over looped breakbeats , the RZA has often been playing games with ideas of "the soundtrack" in the same way that Jarmusch's movies have fun with movie genre by--in Ghost Dog's case--mixing up elements from the mob movie, blacksploitation films, and the samurai epic.  

Like a worn-out through over-playing bootleg video of a kung-fu film, the RZA's samples  have a  corroded, wavering out-of-focus quality, while the rhythms manage to be both disjointed and funky. It's very much a digital-era update of the archetypal Black American interest in the blue note and the off beat.  One of the main Ghost Dog themes is a faltering loop of a faded-sounded electric  piano lick that almost focuses you to sharpen your perceptions,  placing you in the mindset of Whitaker's character, a professional assassin. Another theme made out of flutters of vaguely Oriental orchestration and pugnacious breakbeats perfectly choregraphs the great swordfight practice scene on the rooftop. There's also some nice hip hop savvy uses of music within the film's action. A gang of B-boys rapping  the tune "Ice Cream" by Wu Tang clansman Raekwon sets up the first appearance of Ghost Dog's only friend, a Haitian man who sells cones from a truck called Ice Cream Palace. And in a cute scene the evil Mafia boss is seen grooving, absurdly, to Public Enemy's Flavor Flav in his deluxe bathroom suite, dressed in a Hugh Hefner-style dressing gown.

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

Like Ghost Dog, the protagonist of Jarmusch's latest movie is a black killer-for-hire. Played by Isaach De Bankole, the Lone Man (as he's identified in the credits) is an inscrutable,  immaculately dressed, hyper-alert (he seems to hardly ever blink) perfectionist who is excessively, almost ludicrously fastidious in all his actions. When he eats a pear he cuts it up so exquisitely it looks like a still life; when he visits a cafĂ© he insists on getting two single espressos in separate cups rather than a double espresso.  

In one of his most interesting deployments of music yet,  Jarmusch calls on the Japanese heavy rock band  Boris for sounds that contradict the film's repressed emotional atmosphere and  crisp camerawork. Inspired by acid rock and doom-laden metal  of the late  Sixties and early Seventies, Boris's blissfully amorphous  waves of guitar distortion seem to spill across the screen, evoking all the limitlessness and uncontrol that the Lone Man has banished from his existence.  (When a  gorgeous secret agent with an unexplained penchant for wearing no clothes tries to seduce him, Lone Man explains he never has sex while on a mission).  The tingling ambient horizons of Boris's "Farewell", which recurs at several key points in the movie, initially conjure a mood of swoony reverie, before the tune erupts into pummeling bombast, as if to promise the violence to come later in the movie-- an orgiastic spilling of blood to release the tension built up by Lone Man's self-discipline.  

Intriguingly, Boris's sound is the polar opposite of the music listened to for pleasure within the movie's action by Lone Man: refined and courtly classical by Schubert. Somewhere between the two  extremes lies the flamenco performed in another scene,  which  fuses the catharsis of extreme emotion with the poise of the staccato dance style.  In a black-humorous joke, the flamenco performance prefigures the assassin's use of a guitar string as a lethal weapon. It's yet another example of the centrality of music to Jim Jarmusch's warped and witty imagination.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Mark E. Smith at Xmas

Mark E. Smith

(mini-interview as part of The Observer's package feature on the kind of Christmas being enjoyed by famous people with the name of Smith)

The Observer, December 23, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Given his curmudgeonly image, you might expect Mark E. Smith to regard Christmas as a time to endure rather than enjoy.

"I don't mind it," he says. "I'd like it more if it was just for a couple of days. But when the whole country shuts down for two weeks, I find it gets on me nerves a bit. Christmas in this country just drags on and on. Apart from that, it's okay. You can't knock it, can you?"
Mark E. Smith's group, The Fall, are something of a post-punk institution. But, unlike most institutions, The Fall don't stand for anything.
In the 14 years of their existence, they have recorded a gargantuan body of work as demanding, wayward and cryptic as Dylan's, while Smith has been a perennial and voluble presence in the music press.
His Northern bloody-mindedness and bracing inflexibility of character has been reflected in The Fall's coruscating sound — and his views on the so-called festive season.
"Usually, I try to get away altogether. I try to avoid the claustrophobia of being cooped up with the family, and all the arguments," he says.
"This year, though, I'm spending it with my mum, 'cos she's on her own."
And how about the grisly business of giving? "I do all the present buying the day before Christmas. I'm not much of a shopper. I go by instinct. On Christmas Eve, the shops are clear.
"Overall, I enjoy New Year much more than Christmas. I used to live in Edinburgh until recently, and I like the Scottish attitude to New Year. I have a lot of friends up there — real friends, who don't know who I am, if you know what I mean."
Smith migrated to Scotland from his native Manchester after splitting up with his American wife, Brix, last year. During Brix's stint in the band, The Fall shifted somewhat in the direction of pop, and even enjoyed some chart success.
Now 32, Mark E. Smith says he's enjoyed the return to the single life. "It's fantastic, and I need space to work in anyway." Meanwhile, Brix is pursuing a solo pop career and has been romantically linked with violinist Nigel Kennedy.
Smith has his own connections with high culture. The Fall have collaborated with Michael Clark, most notably in a genre-trashing ballet, called I am Curious, Orange, in 1988.
Currently Smith is working on a musical, the details of which he prefers to keep under wraps. It's indicative of the singer's contrary nature that if anybody else in rock had dared to make similar dalliances with high art, they would have been lashed with his most scathing derision.
Smith has often fulminated about how rock 'n' roll was ruined when the students and art-college kids got hold of it. And he's long been the music press's token anti-liberal.
His out-of-kilter notions and pet bigotries are relished as an antidote to the right-on pieties of the alternative scene. In interviews he's typically to be found ranting about how wholemeal bread tastes like dust, or why nuclear weapons are preferable to conscription.
"I think aloud when I'm doing interviews," says Smith. "Sometimes the things I say are just a wind-up, but they get taken seriously. But if you're looking for an illiberal quote, then I can tell you that I believe we should be at war with Iraq right now."
If Smith has a creed, it's probably a kind of brass-tacks scepticism, a thoroughly old-school British distaste for humbug and cant.
"There's two things wrong with Britain nowadays," he says. "There's too much media, TV is too much in charge. And everybody's starting to take politics seriously again, now that Thatcher's gone.
"I was always brought up to think that politicians were all as bad as each other, that they were all idiots. I always thought that the good thing about Britain was that everybody thought politics didn't matter, whereas in Europe they think it does."
With his cut-the-crap nature, does he find Christmas nauseatingly twee? Or does he have a secret sentimental streak?
"Well, I'm actually a very nice bloke, I'll have you know. I tend to get written up in a particular way. Of course I have a sentimental side, perhaps overly so. I have a family and all that. I'm just about the only man left among 80 women. All the menfolk are dropping off like flies."
This Christmas, it seems, "our Mark" will be smothered firmly in the ample bosom of his family.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
directors' cut, Village Voice, 2017

by Simon Reynolds


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s wondrous new album The Kid was hatched in a sound-garden  attached to her home in Glendale, CA.  A compact chamber that appears to be a converted garage, the studio is crammed with vintage analogue synthesizers. There’s a Prophet 5 and a Eurorack, but the pride of place goes to a Buchla, the modular synth that first sparked her passion for electronic sounds.

Alongside technology, the room teems with vegetation. Smith has often talked about how her creative process requires the presence of “a plant nearby”. Look closer, though, and the tendrils of ivy strewn everywhere turn out to be plastic. So are the plants in little hanging pots.” I’ve tried to put real plants in here,” sighs Smith. “I even tried pretending I have this ‘pet plant’ that goes everywhere with me and I’d bring it in here from outside. But plants just don’t like it in here.”  Her other artistic prerequisite, natural light, is also poorly supplied by the near- windowless space. So Smith came up with ersatz solutions: fairy lights pulse through a translucent sheet tacked to the ceiling, while foot-level bulbs flicker, creating an effect like light reflecting off water. 

Look in the Dictionary and the opposite of “synthetic” is “of natural origin”. All plastic and wires, synthesizers seem about as far as you can get from the organic.  But Smith has a different view, preferring to see synths as just as Gaia-given as a redwood or a pond full of terrapins.   Using a machine like the Buchla, she’s always felt “like I’m getting this rare opportunity to sculpt electricity”. And electricity, she points out, is a natural phenomenon, from the messages flickering through our nervous systems to the lightning sparked by the colliding of clouds. Waxing a little mystical, Smith enthuses about the way her synths run on alternating current: “With A/C, there already is that breathing feeling – you feel that there’s life in there.”  She returns to this idea when specifically exalting the Buchla’s operational mode, which lets the user “set up all these environments for unpredictability and movement... It makes things have a lot of life.”

Surrounded by living things is how Smith grew up. She was raised on Orcas, one of the San Juan islands in the Puget Sound.  The place sounds like an ecotopian idyll. Thanks to the rainy Pacific North West climate there’s moss everywhere and the place teems with livestock and wild critters. Every year the main village of Eastsound elects an animal as Mayor. The current officeholder is an actual orca, a killer whale called Granny. Usually it’s a dog, like a blind golden retriever who previously held the position.  That all sounds a teensy bit hippie, but that word makes Smith frown slightly. She prefers to characterize the  inhabitants of Orcas as “people with a deep appreciation for Nature.”

Her music as much a form of cultivation as an intervention in culture, Smith is rather like a hybrid blend of the two main professions on Orcas: agrarians and artists.  “I grew up working on a farm. I also worked at a raw goat dairy. And there were always horses around.  Living in LA is the first time I’ve not had that thing of there being a connection at all times to a living thing.“ As a young adult, Smith became involved in homesteading, a hardcore form of do-it-yourself in which you hand-make everything  you  need in life.  “I was learning how to hunt and how to tan the hides. Learning how to store my food for the winter.” Smith even went as far trying to make her own pencils.  “You get a stick and melt lead and pour it down – it’s so time-consuming!” Smith also abandoned money, relying instead on barter. “I would go to the doctor and say ‘I’ll give you this round of cheese I’ve made in exchange for a check-up”, she recalls. “The work/trade thing worked for a whole year. And that’s one of my happiest memories, that time – I was learning so many new things I just felt overwhelmed with joy. I was in love with that existence”. 

The homesteading phase coincided precisely with the period when she was introduced by an Orcas neighbor to the Buchla.  That opened up a different kind of do-it-yourself  - electronic daubs and sound-molding – which bore fruit with early Bandcamp releases like Cows Will Eat The Weeds and Useful Trees. As the titles indicate,  these were direct responses to her surroundings, what she could see out of her windows.  Then came Tides, Euclid and last year’s EARS, by which point she was getting some serious critical acclaim.  Partly picking up on the prompts of titles like “Wetlands”, “Rare Things Grow” and “Existence in the Unfurling” and partly responding to the succulent panoply of her textures, the reviews  have tended to be be profuse with imagery of flora and foliage. Even if you’re unaware of her backstory, by themselves Smith’s sounds suggest real-world analogues such as bird-song, bubbling springs, undergrowth rustling with small creatures.  

In interviews, Smith has talked about how she has no interest in making the kind of forbiddingly abstract electronic music that fills the mind’s eye with images of cold inhospitable regions of outer space.  Her music is terrestrial; these electronics are fully Earthed.  So instead of stark  angularity, Smith emulates Nature’s undulating ornamentalism,  its baroque splendor of curlicues and folds.  “It’s what just  comes out,” she says, attributing it partly to a near-synesthetic sensitivity to sound. “Music and sounds can change your whole mood, your environment, the atmosphere in your house – I feel very sensitive to that and I want to make music that makes someone else’s environment feel alive and enjoyable to be in.”

Along with the lush fecundity and spongey intricacy of natural ecosystems like marshlands, Smith’s music can also make the listener imagine a children’s play environment: an inflatable bouncy castle, or a kindergarten flooded with iridescent bubble-bath foam. These two tendencies – the enchantment of all things that flourish and that frolic - converge on The Kid. It’s a concept album that tracks an individual life across four stages from birth to death. On the vinyl version, each phase corresponds to one side of the double LP. There’s a faintly New Age aura to the project. Profuse with “I”’s, many of the titles resembles  affirmations or  promises-to-self  (“I Am Curious, I Care” , “I Will Make Room For You”, “ I Am Learning”)  while others suggest abundance-consciousness or present-mindedness (“Who I Am And Why I Am Where I Am”). Actually, says Smith, the titles are meant to be read downwards, “like a poem”.  And as well as a celebration of life in general, the album is a celebration of a particular, and particularly dear, life now lost.

“Through growing up farming and being close to the life cycle,” explains Smith, an awareness of life and mortality “has always been on my mind.  But when I lost this person, it was a big slap of that, and it kind of burst with this really intense urgency in me to not waste a moment. Since then there’s been  a constant reorganizing and figuring out of what I want to do with my time. Every night I try and reflect on how I spent the day – how much on things I enjoy and how much on obligations and commitments.” The overall message of The Kid – communicated as much by the inventive buoyancy of the music as by the words, which are mostly indistinct on account of Smith’s love of processing her own vocals to sound like a multitude – is the importance of never losing your spirit of play, the child spark within. “The biggest thing I learned from all of this is realizing that I want to play – that’s a really big part of who I am, and it was also a real big part of the person I lost. So I really wanted to just encapsulate that playful energy and put it in other people’s environments, if they want it.”

As well as the up-close brush with mortality and transience, another influence on The Kid was reading the composer Henry Cowell’s 1930 book New Musical Resources, which tracks the history of human hearing in terms of our evolving ability to cope with dissonance.  “It’s kind of mildly boring,” laughs Smith, “because it was written such a long time ago in this somewhat clinical style. But the content is fascinating and it really turned my wheels in terms of thinking about where are we at now, in terms of the evolution of our hearing. We’re totally fine now with atonality, there isn’t really a shocking interval anymore of the kind that once caused riots in audiences, like with Stravinsky.”

Thinking about what the new cutting edge might be in terms of what  would be viscerally upsetting to the average listener, Smith decided it might involve simultaneity and stereophony: the audio equivalent of Bowie’s alien character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who is so advanced he can watch a dozen TV channels at the same time.  “One of my favorite things  to play with when I’m in a group of people is listening to multiple conversations at once and really trying to hold onto each one.  So on The Kid I’m really playing with the left and right channels. Because so many people listen to music on headphones now.  I had to keep rewriting the music so many times in the beginning because it just sounded annoying!”

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has zero interest in annoying the listener, of course, or otherwise subjecting them to an extreme and testing experience. The term “avant-garde” came from the military originally and still retains an aura of ruthlessness, envisioning artistic innovation in terms of ambushes on middlebrow sensibility and daring maneuvers that outflank bourgeois complacency.  Smith’s approach could not be more different. She uses the phrase “comfort and novelty” to describe the inspiration she gleaned from her discovery of minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich: the way their rippling patterns gently propel the listener ever forward,  as opposed to the terrifying leaps into the abstract unknown proposed by other forms of experimental music. 


Smith’s project in fact is all about naturalising the unfamiliar (electronic sounds) while also bending the known a little out of shape.  Another fresh development with The Kid is that where she has in the past made synths sound “organic”, much of the new record involves her taking so-called natural instruments like bassoon and cello and making them sound like synths. One focus of these experiments was the trumpet, a sound she’s always found grating. Smith decided to conquer that aversion, which required making the trumpet sound unlike itself:  softening its stabbing attack, muting its vaguely military, bugel-like peal. “There was a lot of blending. Sending it through the synth and breaking up the harmonics to slightly delay them, so that the trumpet sound has a softer onset.” Smith adds, “Whatever I’m frightened of or I’m bad at, I love stepping closer to that to see what’s there.”

Adamski

Adamski

The ObserverSeptember  231990
by Simon Reynolds


Chaos is a word with special resonance for Adam Tinley, better known as Adamski. He even named his canine companion Dis after Discordia, the goddess of chaos.
"Music and madness" entered Adam's life when, as a precocious nine-year-old, he was freaked out by the spectacle of the Sex Pistols playing 'Pretty Vacant' on Top Of The Pops. By the time he was 11, he had his own "kiddy punk band", the Stupid Babies.
Throughout the ’80s, Adam nurtured an admiration for the former Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren, with his scams and subterfuges, and his slogan "cash from chaos". By 1986, Adam had formed Diskord Datkord, a Dadaist pop group, whose live performances frequently ended with the band performing entirely naked.
"Johnny Slut was ultra-camp and manic, a cross between Cilla Black and Robocop," recalls Adam. "My brother's role was sampling bits of what we were singing and hurling it back at us. The rest of the music was on tape. Our show was an extravaganza of visual and aural chaos. Most of our gigs culminated with the promoter pulling the plug, and us trashing the venue as a reprisal."
Chaos continues to be the guiding principle behind Adam's bewildering career trajectory. Last year, Adam was in demand on the rave scene as a live performer of acid house, which is usually a studio-based genre, and quickly garnered the tag of "keyboard wizard", a term which Adam himself finds nauseating.
But after the chart success of his instrumental single 'N-R-G' and the album Live and Direct, Adam confounded his image as a "Nineties Rick Wakeman", by releasing 'Killer'. A brilliant slice of futuristic blues, 'Killer' occupied the Number One spot for a month, thanks in no small measure to the harrowing, deep soul vocals of Adam's friend and collaborator Seal.
Now Adamski has confounded expectations again, by following the "heavy" statement of 'Killer', with the whimsical, deliberately throwaway 'The Space Jungle', a house track over which Adam sings Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up' in a reedy tenor, and which is currently in the Top 10. 'The Space Jungle' is further evidence of Adam's desire to confuse. "I don't use formulas, and I do change every time I come up with a record," says Adam. "There's no method or masterplan."
But there is one element of continuity in Adam's career: his technophile attitude. He's constantly exhilarated by "all the great new machines for making music the Japanese come up with", while his videos are littered with sci-fi imagery.
The video for 'Killer' presented Adam as a Nineties alchemist. "When I was messing about with all the test tubes and buttons it was meant to look like I'd somehow made Seal's head." Like Betty Boo and S'Express, Adam takes a camp delight in off-beam ideas from previous eras of what the future would be like. The video for 'The Space Jungle' imagines an Elvis look-alike contest in outer space.
Adam also identifies with Saint-Exupery's hero the Little Prince and his castaway existence on a tiny asteroid. Adam's fragile, little-boy-lost demeanour (reminiscent of early Gary Numan), is probably the reason why he's the first teenybopper pin-up to emerge from the rave scene.
Not that Adam's exactly happy about this state of affairs.
"When I used to play raves, I never appeared onstage with lights, I was more like a DJ. When the album came out, it didn't even have my picture on it." But now certain, seminal acid-house producers like Frankie Bones have singled out Adamski as an opportunist, someone who used the rave scene as a stepping stone. Adam is adamant that the accusation is unfair.
"I started playing on the scene simply because I was going to raves a lot. I wanted to contribute something. It's true that I've always wanted to be a pop star, but I also just chanced to get into the scene, like a lot of others. A lot of pop stars have emerged from it."

Lou Reed, John Cale, Andy Warhol

Lou Reed and John Cale, Songs for Drella live in Brooklyn 

The Observer, 22nd April 1990

by Simon Reynolds

A frisson of excitement traversed the rock world last year when it was announced that Lou Reed and John Cale were working together for the first time since their days with Velvet Underground in the Sixties. Since then, Reed has gone on to refine the Velvets' New York street romanticism in an acclaimed solo career and Cale, a Welsh-born academy-trained musician, to production and composition.
What reunited these different characters after 20 years of musical estrangement was the idea of writing an elegy for Andy Warhol, their former mentor and friend. The result is Songs For Drella, a suite of 15 songs, which the two performed for four nights last December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Luckily, Channel 4 had the presence of mind to jet over to New York to film it.
Shot without an audience, but accompanied by Jerome Serlin's sombre back-projections of Warhol and his acolytes, Songs For Drella will be broadcast on Friday, while WEA Records has just released the album. With Reed on guitar, Cale on piano and violin, and both on vocals, the songs chart Warhol's life.
'Smalltown' is about his Pittsburgh background ("When you're growing up in a small town/You say no one famous ever came from here"). 'Images' and 'Style It Takes' describe Warhol's Sixties heyday as manager of the Factory, patron of the arts, and collector of bohemians and freaks, while 'It Wasn't Me' sees Warhol refusing to take the rap for the premature death of some of his creatures, like Edie Sedgwick.
Most of the songs are voiced in the first person singular, and attempt to see events through Warhol's eyes. Others are deeply personal expressions of Reed's feelings about the man/myth. 'I Believe', for instance, concerns Valerie Solanas's attempt to assassinate Warhol and sees Reed howling for retribution ("being sick is no excuse/I would have pulled the switch on her myself"). And the closing 'Hello It's Me' is both a poignant adieu to Warhol, and an expression of regret for not having talked while they could. It ends with an acknowledgement of unresolved bitterness: "There are resentments that can be never unmade... Your Diaries are not a worthy epitaph."
Songs For Drella, says Reed, is an attempt to create a fitting epitaph. "Andy was an extraordinary individual. After he died there was a spate of very negative, gossipy articles about him. The idea on this project was to do him justice. Andy was wonderful to get ideas from. Average ideas are always readily available, but extraordinary ideas you can only get from someone like Andy Warhol. John and I saw this as an opportunity to try to let people know about the real Warhol."
'Drella' was a nickname (a cross between Dracula and Cinderella) that Warhol himself disliked. But Reed is quick to quash the idea that there's anything double-edged in their use of the name. "It was a name that everyone in his intimate circle used and was purely affectionate."
The most moving song, 'A Dream', is an imaginary Warhol soliloquy that wryly incorporates reproaches against both Cale and Reed for giving him the cold shoulder during his twilight years: "I hate Lou, I really do... He won't even hire us for his videos... He got married and didn't invite me." Musically, the song sees Cale and Reed rekindling the magic of their turbulent partnership in Velvet Underground. Does Reed have any plans to work with Cale again soon?
"Every 20 years," smiles Lou Reed, then adds: "Please write down that 'he smiled'."

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

six songs related to Rip It Up and Start Again

originally written for Largehearted Boy website, 2006

1/ Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)

Well, without punk, there’d be no postpunk, right? And it was the Sex Pistols (specifically this song and “Anarchy in the UK”) that first snagged me off whatever path I was on aged fourteen and into the world of taking-music-too-seriously. Mainly, because I’d never heard anything that sounded so deadly serious before. Not so much anti-abortion as a protest against life, “Bodies” is a song that reminds you that a big part of punk’s appeal was its pure wanton evil--destruction for destruction’s sake. Almost orchestral in its grandeur (those huge backing vocal chants), “Bodies” sounds appalling and glorious. In Rip It Up and Start Again, part of my rhetorical pitch is challenging punk’s inflated historical status and bigging up “the aftermath”. This involved criticizing punk rock as a backward step, a return to basic rock’n’roll. Which is true for much of it, but the best punk was actually the distillation of rock into something that hadn’t, actually, been heard before. You go back a few years before Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex, and really there’s nothing that has that monolithic blam-blam-blam-blam feel, even the heaviest metal or hardest-pounding Stooges had more swing to it. Still, there was a sense in which, once punk had staged this reductionist process, it couldn’t be taken anywhere, it could only be repeated with diminishing returns. Hence postpunk’s drive to expand and experiment.

2/ Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)

A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.

3/ Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light, 1980)

I got PiL’s Metal Box for Christmas 1979, and Remain In Light for Xmas the following year. I remember spending Christmas morning lying on the carpet in our living room as close to the speakers as I could get, lost in its jungle of glittering texture-rhythm. “Seen and Not Seen,” the least groove-oriented track, is actually my favorite song on the record, though. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, it’s one that bears a really heavy Eno imprint in terms of its near-ambient atmosphere, the way the synths glint and waver like heat-haze rising over a sun-baked highway. It’s similar to the “4th World” music Eno was making around this time with Jon Hassell. I love the lyric--the story of a man who learns how to change his facial appearance by gradual exercise of will, only to realise that he’s made a terrible mistake halfway through the metamorphosis--and the hesitant cadences of Byrne’s spoken delivery. People typically have a fairly limited idea of what postpunk was about--angular, stark, punk-funk, angsty--but there was a whole other side to the music that was ethereal, dreamy-drifty, and gorgeously textured, and “Seen and Not Seen” is an exquisite example. I wanted to get the track for the Rip It Up compilation, which is coming out this spring and showcases the atmospheric, blissy-eerie side of postpunk, but we couldn’t get the rights.

4/ Scritti Politti, “PAs” (from 4 A Sides EP, 1979)

There was just something really mysterious and intriguing about Scritti Politti. Somehow I’d got wind of the idea of them as this fabulously uncompromising outfit skulking in the margins of the UK postpunk scene and operating at some outer limit of politics-in-pop. I guess that was their reputation, their image, their glamour in a way, and it made them both attractive and vaguely intimidating, like a challenge that you ought to put yourself through. And then when I actually heard Scritti for the first time--it would have been “Bibbly-O-Tek,” also from 4 A Sides, on John Peel’s radio show--I was struck both by how unusual it was (the fractured song-structures, the odd chord-changes) but also how instantly beguiling the song was (the sweetness of Green’s voice, the sheer melodic beauty--which came, I realized many years later, from his childhood love of the Beatles). There was a loveliness that I completely had not expected. And when I got 4 A Sides, and the two other early EPs, I gradually became convinced Green was a pop genius. All this was well before he’d made his big turnabout and decided to go “pop” with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”. I was such a fan that I nearly wrote him a letter telling him that he should just forget all the Scritti ideology about avoiding musical conventions and just go for it, that pop stardom was his destiny. It was “PAs,” this fantastic funk groove with a gorgeously insinuating and serpentile melody, that really sold me on this idea. This would have been the summer of 1980, when Green actually was holed up in a Welsh cottage ruminating over his musical future. But as much as it was great when he did go pop, first with the lover’s rock reggae of “Sweetest Girl” and then with the electrofunk hits like “Wood Beez,” “Absolute” and “Perfect Way”, part of me wishes he stuck with his original band and just kept on making things like “PAs” for ever.

5/ Tenor Saw, “Ring the Alarm”, 1985

I wanted to include something to register the extent to which postpunk depended for its very being on the amazing black music of the late Seventies and early Eighties--funk and disco, reggae and electro. This tune is from just outside the period Rip It Up covers, but, well, I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, and it seems as good an emblem as any for the massive effect Jamaican music had on UK postpunk. I played it yesterday and had one of those moments. It’s a midtempo skank, sweetly sung, but it hit me with the impact of The Stooges; the tension in the rhythm suddenly had this quality of tectonic violence. The line in this song that always slays me, makes my head spin, is “sweet reggae music ‘pon the attack”. If you think about what the song is actually about, it’s grim--the market struggle of sound system against sound system (“ring the alarm, another sound is dying”). It’s pitiless, Hobbesian, and yet there is such exultation in the song, same as in “War in A Babylon” by Max Romeo, another tune I’ve been playing recently.

6/ La Dusseldorf, “Dusseldorf” (La Dusseldorf, 1976)

Not strictly postpunk; indeed this album--the brainchild of Klaus Dinger of Neu!-- was recorded in 1975, making it pre-punk. But I’m including it A/ because I’ve been listening to it incessantly, and B/ David Bowie cited this album, along with Neu 75, as a huge influence on Low, which in turn was a massive LP for the postpunk bands. La Dusseldorf could therefore be seen as the Source in terms of the Neu Europa vibe that swept through so much postpunk, from Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance to The Associates (“White Car in Germany,” etc). There’s this clear-headed atmosphere of nobility and splendor to “Dusseldorf”, panoramic vistas reeling by as you head at speed into a world that’s cleansed and newborn. You get a tiny foretaste too of the glisten and uplift of early U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen, the postpunk breed of bands I call “glory boys” in Rip It Up. In Neu!, Dinger was one of the great rock drummers, he invented the motorik beat, this amazing combination of caveman primitivism and ever-shifting subtlety, a white version of Amiri Baraka’s “changing same.” One of the cool things about La Dusseldorf is that, in what seems like an act of supreme perversity, Dinger handed over the drum kit to his brother Thomas, who then proved to be just as good as Klaus. The latter, meanwhile, took up guitar and almost out-dazzled Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. I think he was trying to prove a point, that he was the real mastermind in Neu! Lyrically, “Dusseldorf” is wonderfully inane, just a chant of the city’s name, a one-word anthem of civic patriotism; sonically it’s 13 minutes of rolling motorik majesty, something I could happily listen to for fives times that length.