Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Hexmas - M.E.S. on the festive season


(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.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Joe Boyd interview

Time Out, May 2006

by Simon Reynolds

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s - Joe Boyd’s riveting memoir of his life as record producer and manager - is perfectly timed. British folk rock is freakily fashionable at the moment, with Boyd protégés like The Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention revered as sacred ancestors by the new breed of beardy American minstrels such as Devendra Banhardt. But the New Jersey-born Boyd’s involvement in music extends way beyond gently-plucked acoustic guitars and dulcet-toned troubadours.

He was the production manager at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 (it was Boyd who plugged in Dylan’s electric guitar that fateful night), he co-founded the legendary London psychedelic club UF0, and he produced Pink Floyd’s debut single “Arnold Layne”. Boyd appears across the pages of White Bicycles as an almost Zelig-like figure, popping up alongside legend after legend: Muddy Waters, Roland Kirk, Eric Clapton, Duke Ellington, Nico, and--most unlikely of all-- the pre-ABBA Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida, with whom he spent an evening wassailing in Sweden. He shared a house in Laurel Canyon with John Cale and even dated lovely Linda Peters, the future Mrs Richard Thompson.

Unlike Zelig, though, Boyd was no bystander, but a crucial backroom catalyst and enabler, or as he prefers, “an eminence grise”.  His career really took off when he arrived in London in late 1965. Swept up in the “incredible energy of 1966,” he neglected his day job (setting up the UK branch of Elektra Records) and became a prime mover on the city’s psychedelic underground. With partner John Hopkins, he started UFO. “There were a lot more freaks in London than we’d realized,” he recalls of the club’s wildfire success. “The great golden period of UFO was from December 1966, when it opened, to April 1967, when “Arnold Layne” came out. Then Hoppy and some of his pals at International Times threw the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream rave at Alexandra Palace, the one Hendrix and Lennon turned up too, and there were a lot of cameras there. Almost instantly, UFO was swamped by the curious.” Hard on the heel of these “tourists” came the media and the law, resulting in tabloid horror stories about naked 15 year old girls tripping out of their minds, police raids, and a drug bust for Hoppy.

The idea for UFO evolved as an offshoot of the London Free School, an idealistic “education for the people” venture operated out of a basement in Ladbroke Grove. Renting a nearby church hall, Boyd and Hoppy staged a series of precociously triptastic Pink Floyd sound-and-light shows to raise money for the LFS. “Then, we thought ‘why not raise some money for ourselves?’” chuckles Boyd. “We were both broke--I’d lost the Elektra job, while Hoppy had been a photographer but had given it up for ‘the revolution’. So starting UFO seemed like an obvious way to make a bit of bread”

Among the more anarcho-yippie “heads” of the time, like Grove hairy Mick Farren, the organizationally-skilled Boyd was regarded as suspiciously bourgeois and business-savvy. But in this respect he exemplified a breed of aesthete-entrepreneur who flourished in the Sixties--characters like Chris Blackwell of Island Records (with whom Boyd’s  production company Witchseason forged an alliance), Chris Stamp & Kit Lambert (the team behind The Who and the Track label), Peter Jenner, Giorgio Gomelsky, et al. All of these cats managed to walk the line between art and commerce, the underground and the mainstream. Equally driven by a passion for rock and a love of the hustle, record biz mavericks such as Denny Cordell and Tony Secunda (the producer and manager behind the Move) are as vividly drawn in Boyd’s memoir as far more widely known figures like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny.  Although Boyd similarly managed to balance the demands of music and the bottom line, he says he wasn’t nearly as tough or shrewd as the true players of the era. After recording “Arnold Layne”, for instance, he was maneuvred out of any stake in Pink Floyd’s future.

Ironically, for someone at the swirling kaleidoscopic center of London’s freak scene, Boyd’s own approach to producing records shunned all the trippy tricks that got slathered over music in the late Sixties, opting instead for a warm and luminous naturalism. “I had a horror of making the hand of the producer visible, so all those overdone studio effects like phasing and panning never appealed,” he explains. “I felt it would date the music, whereas I always wanted my things to be listened to in 50 years. For me the task of a producer is to create the illusion of a band in a room playing together live in a real acoustic space.” You can hear the timeless fruits of Boyd’s sensitive approach on the White Bicycles double-CD of Witchseason productions that’s coming out in tandem with the book.

And the title of the memoir? It’s an emblem, explains Boyd, for all those “lovely ideas of the Sixties” that didn’t work out.  It specifically refers to the Dutch Provos scheme of distributing white bicycles around Amsterdam for people to use for free—a utopian plan that worked fine for a while, “until by the end of 1967 people started stealing the bikes and repainting them”. Boyd explains that in his increasingly desperate search for a title, he recalled that in the book he identifies the moment when UFO faves Tomorrow performed their Brit-psych classic “White Bicycle” as the absolute zenith of the Sixties, the peak before the crash into disillusion and disintegration. The pinnacle occurred at “just before dawn on Saturday, 1 July 1967.” If his sense of recall sounds suspiciously precise for someone who surely ought to have been blitzed out of his gourd at the time, Boyd anticipates any objections, confessing “I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.”

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Maas production

Timo Maas
Village Voice, 2001
by Simon Reynolds

If you’ve entered a Manhattan dance store recently, you’ll have noticed swaths of wall space swallowed up by something called “progressive.” Trance without cheese, house purged of disco, techno stripped of black feel, progressive is defined almost by its in-between-ness. The genre’s tantric ideal is the long set sustained at the brink of climax. DJs like John Digweed deliberately select characterless tracks rather than orgasmic anthems, because they work better as mixscape components. Progressive therefore tends to be a rather level, peakless experience—mild and middling.

It’s certainly the last genre I thought would generate anything exciting, until a chubby-cheeked German called Timo Maas came along. At his least, he’s Sasha with balls; at his best, he makes progressive’s indistinctness seem like the promise of a new genre. “Big room,” a term DJs often drop when reviewing records, might be a good name. Site-specific rather than musically defined, it refers to colossal-sounding tracks that exploit the surround-sound systems at Twilo-style superclubs. Maas’s music is sculpted in four dimensions: huge blocks of sound-in-motion, glittering tracer-trails of filtered noise panning overhead. Sound becomes spectacular. Size counts, not just in quadraphonic dimensions but along the frequency spectrum: A sudden kick-drum will open up a hidden plateau of sub-bass below what you believed was the nether threshold.

With his Twilo residency shifted to Saturdays (warming up for Junior Vasquez), Maas now has twice as much time on the decks. Unfortunately, a six-hour set means he can slow-build, Digweed-style. After much gritless throb and sub-euphoric pummel, Maas finally reached full throttle around 4 a.m. on February 10, sending the crowd apeshit with his re-remix of “Dooms Night,” his scene-crossing smash of 2000. 

Still, a curious blankness lingers. Eliminating the aspects of rave that harked back to youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive achieves a kind of purity. There’s no humor or sexuality, just a vague urgency, semi-articulated through the occasional vocal sample: “It’s in your reach . . . concentrate . . . find the space inside.” Even in the hands of such a consummate pyrotechnician, the “big room” sound shows how rave’s explosive energies have been corralled by the superclub industry. Sound becomes spectacle. And that’s not progressive in any sense of the word. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

PiLhead's Progress (happy 40th Metal Box)

Public Image: First Issue (Virgin 1978)
Metal Box (Virgin 1979)
Second Edition (Island 1980)
Paris Au Printemps (Virgin 1980)
Flowers Of Romance (Warner Bros 1981)
Live In Tokyo (Elektra 1983)
This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get (Elektra 1984)
Album (Elektra 1986)
Happy? (Virgin 1987)
9 (Virgin 1989)
The Greatest Hits, So Far (Virgin 1990)
That What Is Not (Virgin 1992)

[from Spin Guide to Alternative Rock, 1995]

If Johnny Rotten had gotten his way, the Sex Pistols would never have made the thuggish but populist hard rock that make them such a world-historical force. Instead of mod, glam and proto-punk (The Stooges, New York Dolls), the Pistols would have been informed by his favored listening: Captain Beefheart's fractured avant-boogie, Peter Hammill's art-rock exorcism, the space and stealth of Can and dub reggae.  Of course, if Johnny had prevailed, the Pistols wouldn't have revolutionised rock, merely exempted themselves from it. Which is precisely what Rotten did with Public Image Ltd, the studio-based experimental unit he formed after he turned his back on punk rock godhood in 1978.

Making a sharp left away from the 'heavy-metal production' of Never Mind The Bollocks, Rotten (who'd now reverted to his given name, Lydon) made bass the centre of PiL's sound. He brought in his dub-freak pal Jah Wobble, a self-taught but instinctively spiritual bassist who worshipped Can's Holger Czukay. That said, PiL would have been nothing without the ferociously unorthodox guitar-work of Keith Levene.  Furthermore, for all the 'anti-rockist' ideology the group spouted (much hot-air about branching out into other media like film, never touring, not being a 'band'), the debut album rocks surprisingly hard.  "Public Image" is a searing statement of intent: the glorious minimalism of Wobble's chiming bassline and Levene's ringing chords mirrors Lydon's thrust for purity, as he sheds the Rotten persona and declares "I will not be treated as property".  "Lowlife" puts further distance between Lydon and his Pistol-packin' past, lambasting the "egomaniac trainer" and "bourgeoisie anarchist" Malcolm McLaren. Other tracks--the brutalist funk of "Annalisa", the dessicated dub-disco of "Fodderstompf"--look ahead to Metal Box.

Initially released as three 12 inches in a tin canister (an attempt to deconstruct the 'album', that actually succeeded in making you approach records in a new way), subsequently repackaged as the double LP Second Edition, Metal Box is where PiL's anti-rockism ceases to be a pipe-dream and starts looking like the future, your future. From the soul-flaying savagery of "Chant" to the appalling grace of "Poptones", Levene's guitarwork makes him post-punk's very own Hendrix; he's equally stunning with synths on the apocalyptic "Careering" and Satiesque "Radio 4".  Lydon's scalpel-sharp words--dissecting suburbia's "layered mass of subtle props" on "No Birds", anatomising the abject horror of his mum's death on "Swan Lake"--are matched by his most untethered singing. But it's Wobble who is PiL's heart-and-soul: his deep-strata bass is what drags you through the terror-ride, but it's also the hand-rail that keeps you hanging in there.

After Paris Au Printemps (live-and-inferior-sounding), Wobble left PiL acrimoniously; after a decade in the wilderness, he resurfaced in the '90s with his ethnodelic dance ensemble Invaders of The Heart, peddling a distinctly New Age creed of 'healing rhythms'.  Without Wobble's vital pulse, PiL's next effort Flowers Of Romance was decentered and sterile.  Levene & Lydon's methodology was to generate a heap of raw sonic material using motley acoustic instruments, from which they constructed 'songs' using the mixing desk as compositional tool.  Flowers was touted by PiL, and received by critics, as a revolution in music; in retrospect, the LP can be seen as a half-assed reprise of pre-punk avant-garde ideas, betrayed by its creators' inveterate laziness. Only the demonic strings and spectral voices of the violin-scented title track, and the tribal tumult of "Under The House" (inspired by a real-life ghost story) establish any kind of compelling atmosphere. The rest is lifeless dirge-beats and random smears of texture, topped by Lydon's now self-parodic muezzin-howl and sour subject matter (the misognyist sexual reminescence of 'Track 8', the anti-nostalgia rant 'Go Back').

Then Levene left too.  For This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get, Lydon hired a bunch of anonymous session musicians to lay down a shockingly thin-sounding New Wave/muzak hybrid, complete with asthmatic sax-honks.  "This Is Not A Love Song" is catchy enough, with its disco walking bassline and multi-tracked vocal bedlam; Lydon's avaricious intentions are shamelessly proclaimed with lines like "I'm crossing over into enterprise". If This Is What is money-for-nothing cynicism at its most audience-contemptuous, the four PiL albums that follow at least offer solid, professional product in return for your hard-earned dollar. In '86, Album (a.k.a. Cassette, Compact Disc--geddit?) seemed refreshing, with its Led Zep riffs (Lydon was now a rockist) and crisp Bill Laswell production. Now, it exudes the stale airless reek of a superstar-plus-session-players career-makeover bid, a la Robert Palmer or Stevie Winwood. Still, "Rise"--with its radiant guitar-peals, undulant bass and Irish-folk chorus--is Lydon's last gasp of brilliance.

Happy? continues the stadium-wannabe drift, with John McGeoch's rippling chords straying into U2 territory or--on "Rules and Regulations"--glossing up Killing Joke for FM-radio. Lydon's lyrics dramatise himself as the Last Individual, but his imagery is standard-issue Noo Wave ("cows now join the herd", "a mass of mindless ants", "like lemmings to the cliff"), and his music utterly depersonalised. Only "Fat Chance Hotel"--a fine whine about a rotten holiday, with lines like "the dinner gave me the splattery botty" and a weird horn-sample like a mariachi band going down a whirlpool--sounds remotely distinctive.

The slick, glib 9 and the litely metallic That What Is Not failed to fulfil their manifestly mercenary motives, and PiL was unceremoniously ditched by Virgin.  Since then, the only peep we've heard from Lydon is a one-off single with house outfit Leftfield (this despite his oft-proclaimed contempt for rave culture), plus some talk about reforming the Pistols, if the price is right. Don't bother with Greatest Hits (it's half-shit). Go straight to Metal Box, when there was "meaning in the moaning".

Public Image Ltd
Metal Box (deluxe expanded reissue)
Pitchfork, November 1st 2016

by Simon Reynolds

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

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

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

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

But yes, it’s a bracing listen, Metal Box, and nowhere more so than on the opening dirge “Albatross.” 11 minutes-long, leaden in tempo, the song is clearly designed as a test for the listener just like the protracted assault of “Theme” that launched First Issue had been. Absolutely pitiless music—Levene hacking at his axe like an abattoir worker, Wobble rolling out a looped tremor of a bassline—is matched with utterly piteous singing: Lydon intones accusations about an oppressive figure from his past, perhaps the master-manipulator McLaren, possibly his dead friend Vicious, conceivably “Johnny Rotten” himself as a burden he can’t shake.

“Memories,” the single that preceded Metal Box’s November ’79 release, is more sprightly. Like “Albatross,” though, the song is an embittered exorcism: Lydon could almost be commenting on his own nagging vocal and fixated lyrics with the line “dragging on and on and on and on and on and on and ON,” then spits out “This person’s had enough of useless memories” over a breath-taking disco-style breakdown.

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to (and reviewing) Metal Box in a linear sequence goes against PiL’s original intent, of course. As the flatly descriptive, deliberately demystified title indicates, Metal Box initially came in the form of a circular canister containing three 45 r.p.m  12-inches—for better sound, but also to encourage listeners to play the record in any order they chose,  ideally listening to it in short bursts rather than in a single sitting.  But what once seemed radically anti-rockist (“deconstruct the Album!”) is now a historical footnote, because anyone listening to a CD or other digital format can rearrange the contents however they wish.

And if you do doggedly listen to Metal Box in accordance with its given running order, what comes across strongly now is its sheer accumulative power as an album. That in turn accentuates the feeling that this is a record that can be understood fairly easily by a fan of, say, Led Zeppelin. It works on the same terms as Zoso:  a thematically coherent suite of physically imposing rhythm, virtuoso guitar violence, and impassioned singing. Lydon would soon enough ‘fess up to his latent rockism on 1986’s hard-riffing Album (also reissued as a deluxe box set at this time) on which he collaborated with Old Wave musos like ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker. That incarnation of PiL even performed Zep’s “Kashmir” in concert.

Listening to Metal Box today, the studio processing—informed by PiL’s love of disco and dub—that felt so striking at the time seems subtle and relatively bare-bones compared to today. As the Manchester concert and some wonderfully vivid live-in-the-studio versions from the BBC rock program “The Old Grey Whistle Test” prove, PiL could recreate this music onstage (despite that fumbled “Public Image”).  Levene, especially, was surprisingly exact when it came to reproducing the guitar parts and textures captured in the studio. Even the band’s debts to reggae and funk can be seen now as a continuation of the passion for black music that underpinned the British rock achievement of the ’60s and first-half of the ’70s—that perennial impulse to embrace the formal advances made by R&B and complicate them further while adding Brit-bohemian concerns as subject matter. If PiL’s immediate neighbors are the Pop Group and the Slits, you could also slot them alongside the Police: great drummer(s), roots-feel bass, inventively textured guitar, a secret prog element (Levene loved Yes, Lydon adored Peter Hammill) and an emotional basis in reggae’s yearnings and spiritual aches.

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

Metal Box remembered
Frieze, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

My most vivid memory of Metal Box is a week before Christmas Day, 1979. My parents went out, so I sneaked PiL’s album out of the airing cupboard where they stashed the presents and for the first time prised off the tin’s lid , then gingerly extracted the three discs tightly crammed inside. Aged sixteen, I just couldn’t wait to play the record that was universally acclaimed as a giant step into a brave new world beyond rock’s confines, and as a result I crossed a line myself, between innocence and adulthood.

Demystification was the whole point of Metal Box’s packaging, a metallic canister of the type that hold movie reels. Like the band-as-corporation name Public Image Ltd, the matt-gray box was an attempt to strip away mystique, all the “bollocks” of rock romanticism, But Metal Box, of course, just added to the mystique around PiL, the group John Lydon formed after splitting with the Sex Pistols. Drab yet imposing, standing out in record shop racks or on the shelves of a collection, the can instantly became a fetish object. And although its aura was utilitarian, the packaging was actually less functional than a normal album jacket. Instead of slipping the disc out of its sleeve, you had to carefully ease out the records, separated only by paper circles the same size as the platters, from the container. Removing the 45rpm 12 inches without scratching them was a challenge. Almost thirty years later, my three discs look in remarkably good nick, but then I was precious about my possessions, owning approximately six albums in toto then. I was an avid postpunk fan hamstrung by weak finances, and Metal Box’s  hefty 7 pounds 45 pence price was the reason I requested it for Xmas, despite the delay in listening to its contents that would result.

All this user-unfriendly palaver did have the effect of heightening the experience of playing Metal Box, giving it an almost- ritualistic quality.

PiL’s own motivations were partly malicious pranksterism and partly a serious attempt to deconstruct the Album. In interviews, bassist Jah Wobble insisted that you should definitely NOT play Metal Box in sequence, but listen to one side of a disc (two or three tracks at most) at a time. Spreading an hour or so’s music across three records encouraged listeners to reshuffle the running order as they saw fit; as a result, each track stood out more. The record became a set of resources rather than a unitary artwork. “Useful” was a big PiL buzzword (that’s what they liked about disco, that it was danceable). 
It was a term that allowed Lydon to carry on opposing himself to all things arty and pretentiousness, even as he perpetrated a supreme feat of artiness with Metal Box.  

Like Factory Records exquisitely framed releases of the same era, Metal Box simultaneously extended the art rock tradition of extravagant packaging (Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, for instance) while subverting it through its apparent plainness (which ironically, cost a bleedin’ fortune). The only precedent I can think of is Alice Cooper’s 1974 album Muscle of Love, which came in a brown cardboard carton (Lydon, as it happens, was a huge Alice fan). The concept for Metal Box originated with PiL’s design-conscious friend Dennis Morris, the court photographer at Lydon’s  home in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, and also a member of the all-black PiL-like band Basement 5. Where the first album Public Image lampooned rock’s cult of personality (Morris photographed the band in Vogue-style make-up and suits) Metal Box went one step further to blank impersonality, the absence of any kind of image at all. Flowers of Romance, the third album, took a step too far towards not-giving-a-toss with its desultory Polaroid of band associate Jeanette Lee, but by that point Morris had been ousted from the PiL milieu.

Morris’s crucial contribution to PiL is something that comes through loud and clear in the new PiL book,  Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon’s Public Image Limited [sic]. If
Phil Strongman is savvy enough to name his book after PiL’s totemic masterpiece, he’s
less shrewd in doggedly pursuing the story long after PiL ceased to be a creative force. As Mark Fisher has noted, every pop story, followed through to its narrative (in)conclusion, ends in ignominy or disappointment. So it is with the PiL brand-disgracing travesties Lydon  released immediately after first Wobble (PiL’s heart and soul) and then guitarist Keith Levene (its musical brains) were ejected. More disheartening still, in a way, was the mediocre competence of the PiL albums of the late Eighties and early Nineties. Still, Strongman’s account of the “good years” is rich in new data, from deliciously bizarre trivia (Ted Nugent was Levene’s choice to produce the first album! Led Zep manager Peter Grant was mad keen to take on PiL as clients!) to more compelling revelations (the mystery of whether “Poptones”, the stand-out track on Metal Box, is sung by a murdered corpse or an abduction survivor abandoned and shivering in the woods, is settled).

As so often with rock biographies, though, quite a lot of the information tends to tarnish the reputations of the protagonists. Ironically. given their fervent anti-rock stance (Lydon derided rock as a “disease”, something to be “cancelled”), PiL’s productivity was disabled by a thoroughly rock’n’roll set of failings: drug addiction and paranoia, egomania, money disputes, mismanagement. (PiL actually had no manager, on account of Lydon’s bad experiences with Malcolm McLaren;  tasks were portioned out to various cronies and the band finances were kept in a box--cardboard, this time--under a bed). Equally lamentably rock’n’roll is the Spinal Tap-like procession of drummers, five in the first two years (one of whom, ex-Fall drummer, Karl Burns, stayed in the band for just a few days, exiting after being the victim of a dangerous prank involving fire).

All the main players (and numerous extremely minor ones) are interviewed, with the
glaring exception of Lydon himself. But that’s not surprising, because he’s conscientiously distanced himself from PiL over the years. At some point he must have grasped that his place in Rock History (and future income) depends on the Sex Pistols adventure and then threw all his energies into burnishing the Johnny Rotten legend. But I wonder if it’s not also because the PiL years are painful, not just because of bad blood (Wobble was one of his best friends) but because the music of Metal Box, rooted in his true loves ( Can, Beefheart, Peter Hammill, dub)  meant so much to him. He really believed all that “rock is dead” rhetoric, meant it when he dismissed the Sex Pistols as way too trad. And for a moment there, rock’s intelligentsia agreed with him. Metal Box’s stature in 1979-80 was so immense that many commentators invoked Miles Davis’s 1970s music as a reference point. Lester Bangs declared that that he’d stake a lifetime’s writing on Metal Box and Miles’s Get Up With It. When his apartment caught fire, the first and only thing Bangs grabbed as he fled to the street below in his jim-jams was that gray tin can.

It’s the music inside that counts, though, doesn’t it?  I guess so. My other vivid memory of Metal Box is bringing it to school after our music teacher asked each member of the class to bring in a favourite record and talk about it. I played “Death Disco” and “Poptones,” then regurgitated stuff I’d read in NME about how PiL were radical for absorbing the influence of funk and reggae. I wasn’t able to articulate what made their  mutational approach different and superior to contemporaries like The Police or indeed Old Wave rock gods like The Stones when they disco-rocked it with “Miss You”. But the lasting proof of PiL’s innovations is the music’s ever-widening ripples of influence, which encompass Massive Attack, Primal Scream (they hired Wobble for 1991’s “Higher than the Sun”), Tortoise, Radiohead, and many more. You can trace a line from PiL via On U Sound (whose Adrian Sherwood had dealings--musical, and it’s rumored, otherwise--with Lydon, Levene and Wobble back then) to today’s dubstep, which, like Metal Box, is Jamaican music with the sunshine extracted, roots reggae without Rasta’s consoling dream of Zion .

PiL’s biggest influence though, might be their rhetoric. The idea that “rock is obsolete” (as Wobble put it in 1978) became a kind of self-replicating meme that inoculated an entire generation against the idea of retro. A perfect alignment of packaging form and sonic/lyrical content, Metal Box gave substance to PiL’s tall talk and pointed to a post-rock future. In the age of downloading and dematerialized sound-data, Metal Box has a fresh resonance for me as a powerful argument in favor of the necessity for music to be physically embodied. The record was significantly diminished in its subsequent incarnation as Second Edition (the gatefold-sleeved double album it became when the 50 thousand limited edition Metal Box sold out). The CD reissue, housed in a miniature metal canister, is almost risible to behold, while its digitized sound lacks the warmth and weight of the original deep-grooved 45 rpm 12 inch format. Most crucially, you simply weren’t meant to listen to Metal Box as one long uninterrupted 70 minute sequence. A 1979 pressing fetches 200 dollars on Gemm; while the reproduction antique vinyl reissue of Metal Box from a few years back isn’t cheap either. But this is one record you simply must have, hold and hear in its original format. 


bonus beat - a Brexit-boosted bit of Lydon-bashing

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Birthday Party / Nick Cave and the Bad Seed

[from a guidebook to alternative rock, 1995]

Emerging, like some hideous butterfly, from the Bowie-damaged New Wave chrysalis of The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party were the most abandoned, sensorily deranged Dionysian rock'n'rollers since The Stooges.  But although Nick Cave's self-confessed ur-Text was Funhouse, his grandiose delivery and baroque lyrics were actually closer to Iggy's own model, Jim Morrison.  Like Jimbo, Cave had poetic ambitions that eventually blossomed in his Southern Gothic novel And The Ass Saw The Angel.

The first B. Party LP (actually a compilation of single and EP material, later reissued as Heehaw) sees the band shaking off quirk-out influences like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and getting ever more primal. An  awesomely original sound'n'vison takes shape in macabre ditties like 'Happy Birthday', 'The Friend Catcher' and especially 'The Hair Shirt', where Cave's grotesque vocals are doused in Rowland S. Howard's brimstone gtr.  After this debut, The Birthday Party left Australia for London, pilgrims in search of infernal post-punk clamor.  But instead of kindred extremists, they found the irony-clad poseurs of early '80s New Pop (ABC, Human League etc) with their synths, suits and string sections.  Doubly exiled, The Birthday boys soon gathered around them a cult of those disenchanted by the new regime of health and positivity.  Against this squeaky-clean backdrop, their marauding music shone like a murky beacon of obsession, sickness and debauchery.

 Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence-- figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion.  On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of "King Ink".  Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on *It's Still Living* and *Drunk On The Pope's Blood*). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes. Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's.  Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of 'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'.  The patchier '*Mutiny* peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.

After Mutiny, the Party broke up. Rowland S. Howard joined Crime and the City Solution, swathing surrogate-Cave figure Simon Bonney's boomy baritone and moody lyrics with decidedly Doors-y atmospherics; later Howard formed These Immortal Souls, whose ghost-town dereliction paved the way for the country-blues despondency of Mazzy Star.  Nick Cave assembled the Bad Seeds (whose core remains Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on guitar and keyboardist Barry Adamson) for the splendid From Her To Eternity.  Framed in cinematic but still rough-hewn arrangements, Cave staked out some of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career: amorous murder (the title track, "Well Of Misery"), the Artist abandoned or misunderstood by his audience ("A Box For Black Paul", "Avalanche") and Elvis (a cover of "In The Ghetto").  The Firstborn Is Dead plunges deeper into Americana: the 'talking blues' Elvis-myth of "Tupelo", the murder ballad 'Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree', homages to Dylan and "Blind Lemon Jefferson", and so on. But Cave's hammy delivery and use of Old Testament lingo make this LP a bit hokey.  Still, the mock-ethnological sleevenotes are a hoot: "The Black Crow King" is the tale of "a king surrounded by followers who have learned to imitate him"--a sly dig at Cave's Goth cult.

1986's all-covers album Kicking Against The Pricks not only recharged Cave's aesthetic battery, it sets the terms of the remainder of his career. Subsequent albums merely juggle different ratios of the three styles on offer here: blues, C&W noir, and what Cave called "entertainment music, although some might call it corn".  A masterful feat of canon-formation and career-realignment, Kicking repositions Cave as showman not shaman. He convincingly brings out a latent dimension of tragic pathos in such '60s melodrama as Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and even The New Seekers' "The Carnival Is Over".  Later in '86, and clearly on a creative roll, Cave & Co came up with a terrific bunch of original songs in similarly epic vein for Your Funeral...  My Trial.  On the shimmering majesty of the title track, Cave rivals the ruined grandeur of the anti-hero persona patented by folk-blues singer Tim Rose (whose "Long Time Man" is covered here).  Only an acrid strain of misogny (the Biblical rape fantasy of "Hard On For Love", the inner sleeve's Madonna/Whore imagery) mars a masterpiece.

Tender Prey's 'The Mercy Seat' is Cave's last towering moment.  As in 'Long Time Man', he plays a wife-killing convict, his ruminations and no-regrets gusted along by a Velvets wall-of-noise. The rest of the LP is a grab-bag of mostly ill-conceived essays in genres like gospel, garage punk and '70s soul. Tender Prey sets the tone--bitty, dwindling-for what has so far proved to be Cave's artistic twilight.  The Good Son wanders into Neil Diamond terrain (the cover depicts Cave at the grand piano, surrounded by l'il red-headed girls). Some swear by the MOR balladry of "The Ship Song"; most find it a crock of schlock.  Henry's Dream is rawer, but a bore. Let Love In rallies musically (the Bad Seeds' arrangements are deft, humorous, almost poppy), but on the story-telling front it's Cave-by-rote, in-a-rut.  Back in '88, the singer declared: "lyrically, thematically, my work is still chained to the same bowl of vomit". But once upon at time, at least, that puke tasted fresh.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

forgive us our synths

[an essay on electropop - from the League and Depeche to Miss Kittin and Fischerspooner -  for a book]

Synthesisers in pop go back much further than you might think. Prog rockers loved ‘em: ELP’s Keith Emerson let rip many a Moog solo, Rick Wakeman from Yes performed behind a vast bank of keyboards, and German bands such as Tangerine Dream sketched the face of the cosmos with Mellotrons and Arps. At the other end of the spectrum, Stevie Wonder pioneered the use of electronics in R&B (with tech guidance from two white geeks who went by the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band). And the blurts of abstract noise from Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3  on those first two Roxy Music albums turned a generation onto the avant-pop potential of synths.   

Still, the synthpop era as commonly understood--the early Eighties Britwave of Human League, Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode--really started in 1977, with two epochal singles:  Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”  The missing link between Beethoven and Paul Van Dyk, “Trans Europe Express” conjured the spiritual dimension of technological progress--“all the dynamism of modern life” as K-werk commandant Ralf Hutter put it--with its arching Doppler synths and tireless machine beats. A massive worldwide hit, “I Feel Love” was the first disco record to be made entirely from synthetic sounds. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, the track's clockwork-precise sequenced bassline and coldly glittering electronics laid down the blueprint for Eighties synthpop.

For many young musicians who’d been mobilized by punk’s do-it-yourself rallying cry, the near-simultaneous impact of these two singles was revolutionary: suddenly the trad-rock format of guitars, bass, and drums seemed archaic,  exhausted. By happy coincidence, just at this moment, synths--hitherto the preserve of wealthy prog-rockers--got an awful lot more affordable, portable, and user-friendly. The new breed of synths like the Wasp resembled an orchestra in a box. Which is one reason synthpop was full of duos, partnerships that split the roles neatly between singer/lyricist and composer/machine-operator: Soft Cell, Eurythmics, DAF, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, et al.  Synths meant you simply didn’t need a whole band of instrumentalists. This became even more the case when programmable drum machines like the Linn started to come online at the end of the Seventies. That said, two notable exceptions to the duo norm also happen to be probably the most famous synthpop outfits of all time: The Human League and Depeche Mode.

From the North-of-England industrial city of Sheffield,  The Human League started out as a quartet consisting of two synth nerds (Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware), a singer with a striking lopsided hair style covering half his face (Phil Oakey), and a fellow who didn’t contribute anything musically but projected Pop Art-influenced slides behind the band (Adrian Wright). In 1979, David Bowie proclaimed The Human League to be the sound of the future. But after two modest-selling albums of almost-pop, the group split acrimoniously.

Everyone assumed the synth boffins, who’d formed a new group called Heaven 17, would make it, and that the vocalist and Director of Visuals were the talent-free rump doomed to obscurity. But in an inspired move, Oakey recruited two teenagers, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, as backing singers after spotting them at a Sheffield nightclub. With the “ordinary girl” charm of their fallible voices and amateurish dance moves, Catherall and Sulley humanized the League for the first time. Brunette and blonde respectively, the girls’ presence created an Abba-like visual chemistry while also banishing the group’s geeky science-student image, something further enhanced when Oakey stopped writing songs inspired by Philip K. Dick and black holes and started singing about L.O.V.E.

The second masterstroke in the reinvention of the League came when they found their own Giorgio Moroder in producer Martin Rushent, a bearded music-biz veteran who combined arrangement skills acquired through working for the likes of Shirley Bassey with a gear-head’s passion for the latest music technology. The result was a perfect sequence of timeless hits--“The Sound of the Crowd,” “Love Action,” “Open Your Heart,” “Don’t You Want Me”-- that forever demolished the synthesiser’s image as a cold and soul-less instrument. “Don’t You Want Me” reached Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, boosted by its classic promo clip, which, Jean-Luc Godard style, depicted the band making its own video.  

Compared to Human League’s postmodern wit, or to the kinky noir imagery of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode early on seemed like the lightweight option. Dinky ditties such as  “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” seemed like the very definition of disposably innocuous pop. When their main songwriter Vince Clarke quit to form Yazoo, people assumed Depeche would be forgotten within a year. But the group had originally signed to pioneering independent label Mute because they admired its roster of innovators like Fad Gadget and DAF. Depeche had their own aspirations to depth and edge. Stepping into Clarke’s shoes as chief writer, Martin Gore started to explore the dark and deviant precincts of human life. He split up with his prim Christian girlfriend and spent time in Berlin, checking out everything from sleazy bondage clubs to performances by metal-bashing avant-primitivists Einsturzende Neubauten.

Depeche Mode also admired Neubauten’s UK counterparts, Test Dept, a  gang of left-wing skinheads whose clangorous steel symphonies celebrated the collective strength and muscular might of the working class, even as their physical skills were being rendered obsolete by the decline of heavy industry. Borrowing Test Dept’s Constructivist  imagery, Depeche titled their 1983 album Construction Time Again and put a hammer on the front cover, a tribute to the Nobility of Labor that echoed the Soviet hammer-and-sickle.  “Everything Counts,” the first single off the album, featured a desolate woodwind-like refrain that sounded like a socialist wringing his hands upon learning that Thatcher and Reagan have been re-elected, while the lyrics critiqued Eighties enterprise culture: “the grabbing hands grab all they can… it’s a competitive world.”  

Full of metal-on-metal percussion and sampled noises, Depeche’s next hit singles “People Are People” and “Master and Servant” took Neubauten and Test Dept’s ideas into the pop mainstream. Lyrically informed by Gore’s forays through Berlin’s S&M underworld, “Master and Servant”  connected bedroom and boardroom to make a witty personal-is-political allegory about power games:“it’s a lot like life,” so “forget all about equality.” Proceeding through a check-list of Weighty Subjects with an almost methodical determination, Depeche then tackled religion on 1984’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” which impudently suggested that “God’s got a sick sense of humor.”

In the late Eighties, Depeche Mode’s music got ever more sophisticated and melodically haunting with albums like Black Celebration and Music For the Masses. They scored their first US hits with “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence” and established a reputation as a surprisingly formidable live act. Depeche’s arena tours of America took in larger and larger audiences, peaking with a 1988 show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl witnessed by seventy thousand ecstatic fans. 

By this point, Depeche Mode were virtually rock stars, second only to U2 as a big-in-America band from the British Isles. Depeche’s music got rockier too. As with other synth-pioneers such as Human League, Soft Cell, and Eurythmics (all of whom they’d outlasted commercially), at a certain point the only way forward for Depeche was to incorporate non-synthetic instrumental textures. All this culminated in the bluesy grind of 1993’s “I Feel You.”

Around this time, singer Dave Gahan underwent a bizarre transformation. Dumping his wife and kids, he moved to Los Angeles and got into deeply into tattoos, facial hair, and drugs. Suicide attempts and drug overdoses followed. For  Depeche’s original American following, all this rockist nonsense must have been deeply puzzling.  After all, for sensitive and maladjusted types, a huge part of the appeal of being into all that “faggy” music by eyeliner-wearing Anglo fops was that it served as a potent form of  dissidence: a way of defining yourself against the standard high-school fare of Motley Crue and Ozzy. But here was formerly fresh-faced Gahan mutating into… well, Dave Navarro, basically. The horror, the horror…

Grunge made guitars dominant during most of the Nineties. Eighties synthpop was either completely forgotten or recalled only as a joke--all those  preposterous New Romantic haircuts and fey eyeliner boys playing one-finger synth-melodies. Then, slowly, the contempt turned to amused affection, and by the eve of the new millennium, a full-blown early Eighties revival got rolling. It began as a retro-ironic fad within the techno world, with groups like Adult. and Les Rhythmes Digitales, whose "Hey You What's That Sound"  came with a video that parodied the charmingly clumsy graphic effects that seemed so futuristic in 1983. 

Soon scenes blossomed in the hipsterlands of Brooklyn, Berlin, and other major cities across America and Europe.  Clubbers dressed in a mish-mash of recycled Eighties New Wave style signifiers--asymetrical haircuts, ruffs, skinny ties worn over collar-less T-shirts, punky-looking studded belts and wristbands, little cloth caps. The soundtrack mixed classics and obscurities from the original era with new tracks by modern artists like Miss Kittin and Vitalic,  who studiously deployed vintage analog synth sounds, vocoderized cyborg-vocals, 16th-note basslines, and archly inflexible drum machine beats.  Known as “electroclash” or “nu-wave”, the revival was the big hype of 2002, but neither of the scene’s most touted bands, Fischerspooner and The Faint, managed to penetrate the mainstream, and soon hipsters moved on to pillaging another seam of retro (late Seventies postpunk). What few noticed was that Eighties synthpop had already resurfaced on the charts, in a seemingly most unlikely location--nu-metal. Multi-platinum selling  Linkin Park roar at the choruses, sure, but their verses drip with the wan and slightly wussy melancholy of prime-era Depeche Mode, suggesting that the band was born at precisely that moment in the early Nineties when MTV would play “Enjoy the Silence” back with ballads by Queensryche and Metallica.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music

Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music
Spin, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

So much of the fabric of modern pop originates in reggae.  Dub's
ganjadelic echo-effects anticipated the remix-mania of today's club
music, while the slurred gibberish of  DJ talkover is one of the
sources of rap.  Right now, dancehall's ragga chants and fidgety
production is influencing emergent British genres like Apache
Indian's bhangramuffin and jungle (a manic offshoot of techno).
And I have a farfetched theory that the yodelling falsetto of
Morrissey (who once declared "reggae is vile") has secret links with
the milky chirruping of Junior Byles and Barrington Levy.

"Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music" (Mango/Island)
traces the evolution of reggae from 1958 to the present. It starts
with the 78 rpm proto-ska of the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina" and
ends - four discs and 95 tracks later - with Shaggy's 1993 ragga-
remake of the same song.  Reggae's roots lie in American soul and
R&B, but as with most pop breakthroughs, mimicry led to mutation, as
Black American dance was subtly warped in synch with the Caribbean
vibe. Ska's jerky pulse and rocksteady's chugging grooves both have
the same monochrome sound and upful aura as Wilson Pickett or Booker
T & The MG's, but Jamaican musicians shifted emphasis from the
downbeat to the 'afterbeat', and thus created a New Thing.

As rocksteady evolved into roots reggae and dub, the Jamaican
elements became more defined: the bass became more pronounced and
melodic, while producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb to
heighten the music's spatiality.  In the '80's, reggae went digital,
just like US black pop from swingbeat to rap. But dancehall, argues
Linton Kwesi Johnson in the box set's hefty booklet, is at once
futuristic and primal: a cyber-pagan resurrection of the ritual beats
favoured by African cults like Etu and Kumina.

What Johnson and other commentators shy away from is the role of drugs.  Most crucial
shifts in pop history have occurred when drugs interface with
technology to make possible new forms of listening.  Just as
psychedelia coincided with the arrival of LSD and stereo/8 track
sound, similarly 70's dub had everything to do with marijuana's
heightening of sonic dimension and depth.

In the Eighties, Jamaica became a stop-over in the cocaine trade routes; this probably has something to do with ragga's jittery beats, apoplectic vocals and gangsta
vibe.  Throughout its history, reggae has oscillated between two
extremes, symbolised by the rude boy and the natty dread: between
macho swagger and mellow spirituality, ghetto survivalism and Rasta
dreams of escaping to a halcyon homeland (Zion).

Crammed with great songs, Disc 4 agitates against the notion
that reggae declined musically in the Eighties as the fire of
militant spirituality faded.

Nonetheless, Disc 3 surpasses the rest, covering reggae's commercial and aesthetic zenith from 1975-81, and ranging from the luscious pop of Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott to
the apocalyptic dread of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Max
Romeo's "War In A Babylon". While the bubbling rhythms of Black Uhuru
and Junior Delgado are dub-inflected, there's not enough pure dub
here for me. Why no Augustus Pablo, Prince Far I, King Tubby or Mad
Professor?  Then again, as Island supremo Chris Blackwell points out,
Jamaica has the highest per capita rate of musical output in the
world. Inevitably, as massive as it is, this compilation could only
scratch the surface.  Which it does quite superbly.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Terror Danjah - interview + liner note

concerned by the alarming news that grime legend Terror Danjah is in a coma - wishing him a swift and complete recovery

below  is the liner note tribute I wrote for the Terror compilation Gremlinz that Planet Mu did in 2008, plus a Q and A that appeared on Gremlinz in shorter form, but here takes the expanded form published by FACT magazine and timed for the comp's release

but here is his new album


By Simon Reynolds

Ninety-five percent of grime beats are strictly functional: they're designed as launching pads for an MC's skills rather than as showcases for the producer's virtuosity.  These tracks don't tend to go through a lot of shifts and changes but instead loop a drum pattern and a refrain (typically evoking an atmosphere that mingles menace and majesty, with melody and "orchestration" pitched somewhere between a straight-to-video movie score and a ring-tone).  And that's fine, you know: it's a perfectly valid and valuable craft making this kind of basic MC tool.  It's okay if the tune doesn't go anywhere, because the pirate deejay's only likely to drop a minute-and-a-half before cutting to the next track.  It's alright if it's  thinly textured, a bit 2-D and cheapo-sounding, because  it's going to be largely drowned out by MCs jostling for their turn to spit sixteen bars.  But it stands to reason that few of these tracks are going to be things you'd want to buy and listen to at home.   They're just not built for that purpose.

Out of the handful of grime producers who've made some beats that work as stand-alone aesthetic objects--Wiley, Target, Wonder, Rapid from Ruff Sqwad--the undoubted ruler is Terror Danjah.  But this 29 year old from East London is not just grime's most accomplished and inventive producer.  He's one of the great electronic musicians to emerge in the first decade of the 21st Century, a figure as crucial and influential as Ricardo Villalobos or Digital Mystikz. Someone who's kept on flying the flag for futurism at a time when recombinant pastiche and retro-eclecticism have taken over post-rave music just like what happened with alternative rock a couple of decades before.

Like earlier artcore heroes such as 4 Hero and Foul Play (in jungle) or Dem 2 and Groove Chronicles (in 2step garage), Terror Danjah knows how to walk that perfect diagonal between function and form, how to maintain a tightrope balance between rocking the crowd and pushing the envelope.  He has made plenty of MC tools, tracks like his "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline" or "Cock Back" that have become standard beats of the season on the grime scene, enabling MCs he's never met, on pirate shows he's never heard, to show off and sharpen their skills. Terror has also crafted beats tailor-made to a specific MC's talents, like "Haunted" (the instrumental for Trim's classic "Boogeyman") or "Reloadz", whose speeding-up and slowing-down-again rhythm is a perfect vehicle for Durrty Goodz's quick-time style.  (That track is also a kind of living history lesson, cutting back forth between grime's stomping swagger and jungle's breakneck breakbeat sprint, between 2008 and 1994.)

But on this all-instrumental anthology, with the pungent charisma of MCs like Bruza or D Double E removed from the picture, you can really hear all the work that Terror Danjah puts into his tunes.  On tracks like "Code Morse" and "Radar," the intricate syncopations and hyper-spatialised production, the feel for textural contrast and attention to detail, are comparable to German minimal techno producers like Isolee.  But all this sound-sculpting finesse is marshaled in service of a gloweringly intense mood--foreboding and feral-- that is pure grime.   This is artcore: a stunning blend of intellect and intimidation, subtlety and savagery.  Street modernism, in full effect.

Gremlinz is named after Terror Danjah's trademark:  the grotesquely distorted, gloating laughter that makes an appearance in all his tracks, a poisonous  giggle that makes you think of a golem, some horrid little homunculus that  Terror's hatched to do his bidding.  The gremlin audio-logo crystallizes the essence of Terror Danjah's work and of the London hardcore continuum of which he's such an illustrious scion. It's at once technical (the product of skilful sonic processing) and visceral,  funny and creepy.  Like the catchphrases and vocal-noise gimmicks that MCs drop into their sets or tracks (think D Double E's famous "it's mwee mwee" signal), the cackling gremlin announces that this here is a TERROR DANJAH  production you're listening to.  When a pirate deejay drops one of his tunes, when a crowd in a club hollers for a reload, that slimy little goblin is Terror marking his sonic territory like the top dog, the alpha producer, he is.

Q/A with Terror Danjah

You started out in the late Nineties with Reckless Crew, an East London jungle/drum'n'bass collective of deejays and MCs. How did that come about?
I formed Reckless in 1998. The other members were D Double E, Bruza, Hyper, Funsta, Triple Threat, DJ Interlude and Mayhem. We came to fame from being on Rinse Fm and playing at local clubs and raves including One Nation, Telepathy, World Dance, Garage Nation, and Slammin' Vinyl.

What did you learn, as a producer, from those drum and bass days? Who did you rate at that time and would consider an influence?
I wasn't much of a producer back in them days. I was absorbing the musical sounds from Roni Size, Dillinja, Shy FX, Krust, DJ Die, Bad Company, Andy C and DJ SS. I learned a lot from listening to their music. Jungle was the first British music we could say was ours. I'd grown upon on reggae, R&B, soul. And also house music, on account of having an older brother. I was deejaying on the pirates and I got into producing drum and bass, because I wasn't getting a lot of tunes from producers. They'd be giving me one or two dubplates, but they had the big DJs like Brockie to service first. So I started making my own  "specials" and did loads of tracks. But I didn't put them out, just played them on the radio. My own personal sound.  But DJ Zinc and a few others cut my tunes as dubplates.

When did you make the transition to UK garage and that MC-fronted 2step sound that was the prototype for grime?

 I did two garage tunes and they blew up so I decided to stick with that. In 2002 I did "Firecracker" b/w "Highly Inflammable" on Solid City, Teebone's label.  For a while I was part of N.A.S.T.Y. Crew,  because I'd been at St. Bonaventures [a  Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Forest Gate, London E7] with a couple of members of N.A.S.T.Y.  But all the time I was doing my own thing and eventually just branched off. 

Then in 2003 I formed Aftershock with this guy called Flash, who I'd met at Music House where everyone goes to cut dubplates.  The first two Aftershock releases were Crazy Titch's "I Can C  U, U Can C Me" and N.A.S.T.Y.'s  "Cock Back".  That got the label off to a flying start--everyone was buzzing after those two releases.  Then it was Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and then in 2004 I put out the Industry Standard EP. That’s the one where people thought "this label is serious".

Industry Standard is where you can really hear your three-dimensional "headphone grime" sound coming through, on tunes like "Juggling" and "Sneak Attack".  With those tracks and all through your  music, the placement of the beats, the way sounds move around each other in the mix--it's very spatial.

Some of that comes from listening to a lot of Roni Size and Andy C and producers like that. Lots of abstracty sounds rushing about, coming out of nowhere.  There's a sense of more life in the music.  That’s what I do in my tunes. Drum and bass gave me ideas about layering sounds and placing sounds. But it also comes from studying music engineering at college, doing a sound recording course.  I learned about mic'ing a drum kit and panning.  You've got the pan positions in the middle of your mixing desk, and the crash should be left or right, the snares should be slightly panned off centre, the kick should be in the center. So you've got a panoramic view of your drum structure.

Obviously I went beyond that, started experimenting more.  The bass stays central but the sounds always drift. So each time you listen you’re not just bobbing your head, you’re thinking  "I heard something new in Terror Danjah’s tune". So it always lasts longer.

Industry Standard was the breakthrough release, in terms of people realizing that here was a producer to reckon with. What came next?

Payback was the biggest.  That EP of remixes was one of Aftershock's top sellers. It was getting caned the most, especially my "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline".   That cemented it for us.

Basically you took Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and merged it with your own "Creep Crawler" from Industry Standard.  It's got a really unusual synth sound, harmonically rich, with this sour, edge-of-dissonance tonality. It makes you  feel like you're on the verge of a stress-induced migraine. A sound like veins in your temple throbbing.

It's a normal synth, but where many people would just use it straight out of the module without any processing or texture,  I’ve learned some techniques to give it more.  I add that to it. I can’t tell you how, though. Certain producers might go "ah!"

Those sort of wincing tonalities are a Terror Danjah hallmark.  Another are the bombastic mid-frequency riffs you use that sound a bit like horn fanfares, and that sort of pummel the listener in the gut. They've got  this distorted, smeared quality that makes them sound muffled and suppressed, like their full force is held back. But that just makes them more menacing, a shadowy presence lurking in the mix.  Like a pitbull on a leash, growling and snarling.

That's like an orchestral riff.  Again, it's all about the effects I put on it. If you heard it dry you’d think "Is that it?"  It’s the same techniques I use for the giggle.

Ah, your famous hallmark:  the jeering death-goblin laughter.  How did you come up with the Gremlin?

I had a lot of drum and bass sample CDs back in the day and I had that sound from time.  I used it a couple of time in tracks, just to see how it sounds.  Then I stopped using it and everyone was like, "Where is it?!?". I was like, "I don’t want to use it no more".  But everyone was going like "That’s nang! Use it!".  So I switched it up, pitched it down, did all sorts of madness with it.

But Terror Danjah music is not all dread and darkness. You do exquisite, heart-tugging things like "So Sure," your R&G (rhythm-and-grime) classic. Or "Crowbar 2," a really poignant, yearning production draped in what sound like dulcimer chimes,  a lattice of teardrops. That one reminds me of ambient jungle artists like Omni Trio and LTJ Bukem.

I used to listen to Omni Trio and all that, when I was 14 or 15. That R&G style is more me.   Everything you hear is different sides to me, but that sound, I can do that in my sleep.  One day I can be pissed off and make a tune for deejays to do reloads with. And another day I'll do one where you can sit down and listen and relax, or listen with your girl and smooch her.

Do you see anyone else in grime operating at the same level of sophistication, in terms of producers?

I don’t think none of them really. [Aftershock producer] D.O.K. is the closest in terms of subtle changes, and DaVinChe. You've also got  P-Jam.   But I don't really look at anyone and think they’re amazing. Wiley at one point was the guy whose level was what I wanted to get to.  But I don’t think there’s anyone now who’s doing anything different. They’re being sheep.

After the very active 2003/2004/2005 phase, Aftershock went pretty quiet. There were just a few more vinyl releases and then a couple of full-length things.   What happened?  And what have you been up to in recent years?

The label went quiet due to the change of the climate--the introduction of CDs in the underground market place. Because we were so successful with the vinyl format, but it was time to move with the times.  So I released a CD called Hardrive Vol 1, which had ten vocals and ten instrumentals and featured artists like Chipmunk, Griminal, Wiley,  Mz Bratt, Wretch 32, D Double E, Scorcher, Shola Ama.  I also put out an instrumental CD called Zip Files Vol. 1. And I've been working on Mz Bratt's album.

I'm told this compilation was selected out of some 80 instrumentals. Which means 62 weren't used! Does this mean you are sitting on a vast personal archive of unreleased Terror Danjah material?
Definitely. I got billions of tunes stacked on a few Terra Bytes hard drive.

You have Industry Standard Vol 4 on Planet Mu soon, and you recently returned to deejaying with the Night Slugs appearance -- does this mean you are back in the game full force? Do you feel like grime is still an area you want to work within or are you being drawn to other areas, like funky, or the more experimental end of dubstep?
I've always made music what I like, and most of the tracks on 'Gremlinz' were made before there was a genre called  'Grime' or 'Dubstep'.  I started off in Jungle, so I'm not afraid of change! 

Talking of the wacked-out end of dubstep, I can see a lot of your influence with the nu skool producers like Joker, Rustie, Guido, and so forth. Can you hear it yourself and what do you think of this sound people are calling things like "purple" and "wonky"?
 It doesn't bother me, but I personally think a producer/artist should just make the music and let the record/marketing company name it whatever!