Monday, July 9, 2018

Position Normal and the dawn of hauntology

looking back at this 1999 review of Position Normal's Stop Your Nonsense  I can see both the wistful-for-postpunk feelings that led to Rip It Up and Start Again and a preview of hauntology as a critical perspective

Stop Your Nonsense
Places to Visit
Village Voice, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

The bursting of  Britpop bubble's has left the UK's (non-dance)
music scene in the terminal doldrums. A&R's and hacks alike
twiddle their thumbs and wonder why nothing's happening.  One
reason is that Britpop's make-it-big-nothing-else-counts
triumphalism has withered the left-field and virtually obliterated
the concept of independent music. Another is that all the purely
musical intellect around  has entered the dance arena, leaving
rock to  those whose only virtuosity is auto-hype, e.g. Gay Dad,
with their former pop journalist frontman and reheated Suede homo-erotic-rhetoric.

Position Normal's enchanting Stop Your Nonsense (Mind
Horizon) is a flashback to the infinitely more robust UK music
culture of  1979-81---the postpunk ferment which spawned genuinely
independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely
musical  bands like Pop Group, This Heat and The Associates, and
the countless one-shot flashes of DIY inspiration  aired nightly
on John Peel's radio show. It was an era when bands still operated
in the modernist conviction that absolute novelty was absolutely

Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based,  its homespun
imprecision feels closer to hand-made tape loops than digital
seamlessness; collage-wise, it's somewhere between Nurse With
Wound and De La Soul's debut.  Only Nonsense's stoned-to-say-the-
least aura locates the album in the post-rave Nineties.  Chris
Bailiff, the man behind Position Normal, is as fastidiously
attuned to the timbral colors of sound-in-itself as Aphex Twin or
Wagon Christ.  His favorite production trick is a combination of
reverb and filtering that make sounds glint like they've been
irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight pouring into a gloomy

He EQ's the Lotte Lenya soundalike on "German" until her
voice crumbles into a billowing gold-dust rush, makes a pizzicato
mandolin refrain glisten uncannily in "Jimmy Had Jane,"  and
reverbs the stark  piano chords of "Rabies" so they sound as
poignant as Erik Satie marooned in Keith Hudson's dub-chamber. On 
"Bedside Manners," a lustrous mirage of  echoplexed guitar
backdrops a  surreal medical monologue,  with guest-vocalist
Cushway perfectly capturing the  condescending cadences and smarmy
solicitousness of a English doctor.

In its semi-conscious way, Stop Your Nonsense is an essay
about Englishness and its inevitable evanescence. The album's
dream-drift haze is peopled with spectral traces of all those
eccentric relatives (The Fall, Ivor Cutler, Viv Stanshall, Ian
Dury, John Cooper Clark, Vini Reilly) written out of  the will
when Britpop pruned its family tree down to the straight-and-
narrow lineage:  Beatles>Pistols>Stone Roses>Oasis. 

Never overtly nostalgic, Position Normal's music triggers plangent sensations of
nostalgia,  at least for this expatriate. Perhaps because its
samples are pulled off crackly vinyl platters and reel-to-reel
tape spools foraged from thrift stores and garage sales, Nonsense
evokes the bygone, parochial crapness of Olde England--the quaint,
musty provincialism banished by the New Labour government's
modernising policies and by the twin attrition of

 Some of Nonsense's most magical
tracks  aren't really music, but melodious mosaics of  speech
expertly tiled from disparate, sepia-tinted sources.  "Lightbulbs" 
sets a cheeky little rascal against a 1970s hi-fi buff  droning on
about "my main gain fader". On "Hop Sa Sa"  Bailiff  varispeeds a
kiddies' choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle-aged
man's  quizzical "why not for donkeys?," and then, for a
inexplicably heart-tugging coda, transforms the title's nonsense
phrase into an ostinato hanging in an echoey void.

Position Normal's fondness for  "found sound" (the patter 
of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market; creaky-voiced
Aunty Betty leaving a phone message for  Doreen)
reminds me of  Saint Etienne's penchant for  punctuating their
early albums with snatches of movie dialogue and cafeteria chat
eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. Like Bailiff,  Saint Etienne are
sampladelic poets whose subject is a lost Englishness. The trio--
singer Sarah Cracknell,  soundboy Pete Wiggs, and Melody Maker
journalist turned Spector wannabe Bob Stanley--started out as part
of  that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of
Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of the later
Britpop's loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod-stylist--
proudly English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-
pop, Nineties Italo-house,  and A.R. Kane's halcyon dub-noise as
it was to Motown and Dusty Springfield.  Trouble was, the trio's
futile fixation on scoring a UK Top Ten hit persuaded them to
gradually iron out all their experimentalist excresences,
including the "found sound" interludes. Reconvening in 1998 after
a four year sabbatical, Saint Etienne got sleeker and slicker
still on Good Humour,  abandoning sampling altogether for  Swedish
session-musicianship and a clean, crisp sound inspired equally by
The Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz  Charlie Brown music. 

A a pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne's
six-track EP  Places To Visit (SubPop) is an unexpected reversion
to...  everything that was ever any good about them.  "Ivyhouse"
is angel's breath ethereal  like they've not been since Foxbase
Alpha's dubtastic "London Belongs To Me."  Produced by Sean
O'Hagan of avant-MOR outfit The High Llamas,  "52 Pilot" features
sparkling vibes, an elastic heart-string bassline out of "Wichita
Lineman", and radical stereo separation (don't try this one on
headphones). "We're In the City" is cold 'n' bouncy dancepop in
the vein of So Tough's "Clock Milk," with deliciously itchy
percussion.  And "Artieripp" is a tantalizing tone-and-texture
poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars. 
      Recorded in four different studios and drawing on diverse
talents like  O'Hagan and avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O'Rourke,
Places shows that Saint Etienne belong among the ranks of the
sound-sculptors. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration
with To Rococo Rot). Saint Etienne are aesthetes who love the Pop
Song not for its expressive power but for the sheerly formal
contours of its loveliness. Hopefully, Places To Visit  will work
like Music For The Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab:
as a rejuvenating sideline, a detour that parodoxically sets them
back on a truer course. 

Another take on Stop Your Nonsense, for Uncut


Stop Your Nonsense
Mind Horizon Recordings
Uncut, 1999

Sampladelic nutter debuts with the missing link between The Residents' *Commercial Album* and Saint Etienne's *Foxbase Alpha*.

Chris Bailiff, the 27 year old eccentric responsible for *Stop Your Nonsense*, used to perform under the name Bugger Sod. It's a moniker that captures the spirit of amiably insubordinate Anglo-Dada  he's now perpetrating as Position Normal. If you wanted to get pop historically precise, you'd place *Nonsense* at the intersection of three genealogies. There's the bygone John Peel realm of post-punk DIY weirdness 1979-81
---Native Hipsters's "There Goes Concorde Again", Furious Pig, Virgin Prunes. Then there's the more recent lineage of Krautrock-influenced lo-fi that includes Stereolab and Beta Band. And because *Nonsense* is all done with samples (plus some guitar and the occasional "real" vocal), you'd also have to mention  Saint Etienne's eerie "found sound" interludes on their first two albums, Wagon Christ, and Bentley Rhythm Ace (if they abandoned Big Beat boisterousness for ambient chill-out).

      The Bentleys, who scavenge carboot sales for ultra-cheesy vinyl, and Wagon Christ, a sampladelic wizard who specialises in alchemising cheddar into gold,  may be the most apt contemporary parallels. Position Normal's sample sources sound like they've been plucked from charity shops and skips--warped spoken-word albums and crackly E-Z listening platters; faded BetaMax videos,  ancient reel-to-reel tapes, and worn out answer-machine cassettes. Accessing the dusty, disavowed memories purged from a nation's attics and cellars, Bailiff has reanimated all the fusty English quaintness that Blair-ite modernisation and cappucino culture have allegedly banished. Maybe it's just where my head is at right now, but  *Nonsense* triggers sepia-tinted  flashbacks to  *temps perdu*: chalk-dust motes irradiated in the shaft of light streaming from a classroom window; a paper bag of boiled sweets from the row of jars behind the counter; butcher shops with bloody sawdust on the floor.

      *Nonsense* contains too many highlights. "The Blank" rubs clangorous Fall circa "Rowche Rumble" guitars up against quiz-show samples ("what is the blank?"). "Jimmy Had Jane" is like Ian Dury meets The Faust Tapes: a baleful Cockney voice crooning about a sordid sexual encounter perpetrated by a bloke with "pickled egg eyes," offset by the eerie glint of a filtered 'n' reverbed ukelele. "German" is Lotte Lenya marooned in King Tubby's dub chamber. "Bucket Wipe" sounds like the carefree whistling of a Martian postman. "Nostril and Eyes" could be fragments of *Under Milkwood* reassembled into surrealist sound-poetry: "is there any *any*? Rank, dimpled, drooping... Smudge, crust, smell--*tasty* lust." 

 "Rabies" shifts from a helium-addled Frank Sidebottom ditty to shatteringly poignant Satie-esque piano chords drenched in cavernous reverb. "Lightbulbs" and "Hop Sa Sa" expertly crosshatch shards of speech (a chirpy schoolboy praising "a lovely bit of string", a hi-fi buff boasting about "my main gain fader", a kindergarten choir singing a song about monkeys) into melodious mosaics.

      The many samples of children's voices, the cover picture of a little lad utterly absorbed with his Scalectrix, and the title *Stop Your Nonsense* (a cross grown-up telling off an incorrigible brat) all suggest that if Position Normal is "about" anything, it's regression as a refusal of the state of dreamlessness commonly known as "adulthood".  As such, *Nonsense* plugs into that British absurdist comedy tradition of  cracked whimsy and renegade daftness that includes Spike Milligan, Ivor Cutler, and Reeves & Mortimer . Above all,  *Nonsense* has charm--not in its degraded modern sense (Robbie Williams's cheeky-chappy grin) but  "charm" as casting a spell on the listener, charm as enchantment. My favourite record of 1999, so far, by far. 

And from Retromania....

Another proto-hauntological outfit that emerged in the late Nineties, Position Normal--the London-based duo of Chris Bailiff and John Cushway--went further towards creating a singularly British equivalent to hip hop, albeit generally avoiding drum loops or anything resembling a groove. Main-man Bailiff's earliest stabs at music-making as a teenager involved a primitive ersatz form of sampling: he used the family's Amstrad music center to do tape-to-tape multi-tracking, layering it over beats from a cheapo drum machine. "I wanted to be like Mantronix," he told one interviewer. "It was terrible, but I still use the same process today, only with a big sampler keyboard.” 

 Apart from the occasional ethereal guitar part and trippy vocal from Cushway, Position Normal music is woven almost entirely out of samples, which have a musty quality redolent of things stowed-away in attics and forgotten for decades. This is B-boy crate-digging adapted to the English landscape of jumble sales and Oxfam.  Many of the found voices on the group's 1999 album Stop Your Nonsense sound like they come from ancient reel-to-reel tapes or worn-out answer-machine cassettes. This analogue bias was emblazoned in the group's name: "position normal" was the standard, non-chrome, mediocre quality format for blank tapes. When the group made their 2009 comeback, it was with a cassette-only release. 

Many of the vocal samples had a private hauntological resonace for Bailiff: they were "ghosts of his life", to misquote the Japan song.  His father had been an avid vinyl collector, with a particular bent for spoken word records, documentaries and nursery rhyme collections. "Ultra-well spoken kids reciting stuff like 'catch a fox, stick it in a box'," recalled Bailiff in one interview. "That made no sense to me then, doesn't now.  It was the absurdity I grew up with." When he left the family house, he emptied the attic of the records. "I was really archiving my own history," Bailiff told The Wire. 

But the fate that befell his father-- Alzheimer's, starting at the early age of 58, turning him into a ghost of his former self --adds a further spectral aura to Position Normal: the music is sourced from records that his dad collected but would no longer be able to recollect.  Other raw material included voices from the 1960s documentary series 7 Up (which looked at the British class system from the child's point of view) and "found speech" like the borderline incomprehensible patter of Cockney fruit 'n' veg stallholders at Walthamstow Market (Bailiff hiding his microphone under his giant parka, a surreptitious ethnologist of vanishing English folkways.) 

On Stop Your Nonsense, Bailiff expertly tiled together all these shards of speech into melodious mosaics.  "Lightbulbs" juxtaposes a chirpy schoolboy praising "a lovely bit of string" with a hi-fi buff droning on about "my main gain faders".  "Nostril and Eyes" could be smithereens of Under Milkwood reassembled into surrealist sound-poetry: "is there any any? Rank, dimpled, drooping... Smudge, crust, smell: tasty lust."  Much of Stop Your Nonsense is steeped in a mildly menacing Anglo-Dada atmosphere that's redolent of the British comedy tradition of cracked whimsy: writer/performers like Spike Milligan, Ivor Cutler, Viv Stanshall,  Reeves & Mortimer, and Chris Morris.  Other tracks bring to mind the cabinet of curiosities, Joseph Cornell's boxes of found objects, and Kurt Schwitter's Merz collages and sculptural assemblages made of consumer detritus. 

Listening to Nonsense obsessively through the summer of 1999 (it ended up as my favourite album of that year), I had ultra-vivid flashbacks similar to those induced by Music Has The Right To Children:  chalk-dust motes irradiated in the shaft of light streaming from a classroom window….  a paper bag of boiled sweets from the row of jars behind the counter….  butcher shops with bloody sawdust on the floor…  bus conductors with comb-overs…  all the bygone crapness of an England banished thanks to the New Labour's modernizing gloss and the twin pressures of Americanisation and Europeanism.  

Strangely, at the time I never saw the connection between Nonsense and Music Has The Right To Children, even though both featured children on their covers. Nor did I see the link between the effect they had on me and the fact that I had turned 36 and was about to become a father, which is to say, I would soon be bidding farewell to unnaturally prolonged adolescence and tipping decisively into middle age.  It was also five years since I'd moved to America, settling into what looked like a permanent exile from my homeland, with a child (Kieran, born September 1999) who would grow up completely American, unaware of nearly everything that makes me who I am.  A time of change then.  And loss.  

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